Jags and Trevor Lawrence might be on their way to something big

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Hannah Lucca)

In time, a divisional round playoff loss will crush the Jacksonville Jaguars. That wasn’t really the case last season.

The Jaguars weren’t happy to lose, but after battling the Kansas City Chiefs and falling short, it didn’t take long for them to put their season in perspective. You could tell the Jaguars realized that 2022 was the start of something big.

“We’re going to be back, this is the new standard,” quarterback Trevor Lawrence said after the playoff loss, via Jacksonville.com. “We set that, this is the bar and we’ll be back.”

Maybe it was easier to be optimistic because the Jaguars knew what rock bottom felt like. A season before they had suffered through the worst coach in modern NFL history, Urban Meyer. For the Jaguars, that miserable 2021 season was the 10th time in 11 years they had lost double-digit games.

To go from barely being a professional team with Meyer to competing with the Chiefs in a playoff game over a little more than a year speaks to the transformation. Not all improvement is linear and maybe the Jaguars aren’t going to take off as they want, at least not right away, but there are reasons for hope.

“I mean, you feel like your window of opportunity is now, strike while the iron is hot, so to speak,” Jaguars coach Doug Pederson said, via Jacksonville.com. “And we’ve got to take advantage of that.”

The hope, of course, starts with Lawrence. True generational prospects like Lawrence rarely are busts, but through half of last season Jacksonville had rarely seen him be special. Then it clicked. Lawrence was great in the second half. His four-touchdown game against a great Dallas Cowboys defense was a star turn. The Jaguars were 3-7 at one point and trailed the Tennessee Titans by four games with seven to go, but they rallied to win the AFC South behind Lawrence. Then he shook off a miserable start in a wild-card game against the Los Angeles Chargers to lead a comeback victory from a 27-0 deficit.

After a year and a half of ups and downs, Lawrence suddenly looked like one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.

“He is just going to get better,” Pederson said, via Jacksonville.com.

Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars took a big step forward last season. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars took a big step forward last season. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

The Jaguars have to navigate the sweet spot between now and when Lawrence graduates from his rookie deal to a record-setting contract extension. They weren’t overly aggressive this offseason, having made some expensive signings a year ago, though their big move came at the trade deadline last season when they added suspended receiver Calvin Ridley. They’re hoping for some natural progression from mostly the same roster, including their third-year quarterback.

This is what the start of something big looks like. An exciting quarterback taking a massive leap early in his career. A run to a division title and then a memorable, improbable playoff win. A playoff loss that can be used as a learning experience, and then an offseason of optimism.

Maybe the Jaguars won’t become Super Bowl champions in the next few years. But it will be fun to watch what happens next.

Offseason grade

Calvin Ridley should be included here, because the Jaguars sent a 2023 fifth-round pick and conditional 2024 pick that can be as high as a second-rounder to the Atlanta Falcons knowing Ridley wouldn’t be contributing until this season. He was suspended last season for violating the league’s gambling policy. Ridley has barely played the past two seasons and maybe he has lost something, but he’s a 28-year-old who looked like a star his first three seasons with the Falcons. Jacksonville didn’t have a great free agency. Offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor left on a four-year, $80 million deal with the Chiefs and edge defender Arden Key got $21 million over three years from the Tennessee Titans. The biggest addition the Jaguars made, in terms of money, was kicker Brandon McManus on a one-year deal worth $2 million. Jacksonville’s big move was giving tight end Evan Engram a three-year, $41.25 million deal with $24 million guaranteed after a productive season. The draft wasn’t widely praised, with offensive tackle Anton Harrison, tight end Brenton Strange and running back Tank Bigsby as the team’s top-100 picks.

Grade: C

Quarterback report

Over the last nine games of the regular season, here were Trevor Lawrence’s stats: 2,273 yards, 69.7 completion percentage, 15 TD, 2 INT, 104.6 passer rating. The light turned on, to say the least. It makes sense that it took Lawrence a little while to take off, considering most of his rookie season was spent being coached by Urban Meyer. And that carried into his second season.

“Last year I had a stretch of four or five games where I really didn’t play well at all,” Lawrence said, via the team’s site. “So, there were definitely times where it was harder to see through to the other side. But I’ve always had that faith and that belief deep down that I knew what was going to happen.

“I knew we were going come out on the other side of it. I didn’t know exactly when, and you’re just hoping it’s sooner rather than later.”

The next step for Lawrence will be avoiding the bad games and becoming more consistent. Given his prospect pedigree and the way his 2022 season ended, it seems like a good bet that this season will be much better than his first two.

BetMGM odds breakdown

No Jaguars player has ever received an NFL MVP vote. That’s going to change due to Lawrence, and I think it happens this season. One of my favorite bets this season is Trevor Lawrence to win MVP at +1600. Here’s what we know based on decades of MVP voting: It’s going to be a quarterback on a playoff team. Maybe an outlier happens, but it’s not worth betting against history. The Jaguars are tied with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers for shortest odds at BetMGM to win a division title, at -165. Lawrence has been a big deal since he stepped on the Clemson campus, so it wouldn’t take voters any time to warm up to the idea of him being an MVP candidate. He already put up MVP-worthy stats over half of a season. I’m not sure if I’ll pick Lawrence to win MVP (it does seem like a “it’s Jalen Hurts’ turn to win the award” season), but I think his odds present the best value.

Yahoo’s fantasy take

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Travis Etienne assembled a highlight tape during four years at Clemson, ultimately pushing him into the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. But it’s possible he’s going to be a good-not-great back in the pros, and someone who could be a mild fantasy disappointment.

“The touchdowns came in bunches for Etienne as a collegian, 78 spikes over 55 games. But he scored just five times in his NFL debut last year (remember, his initial season was wiped out by injury), a low total for someone who had 255 touches. Among players with 230 or more touches, only Alvin Kamara (four touchdowns) spiked less last season; Dameon Pierce finished with five touchdowns, tying Etienne. Perhaps the Jaguars don’t favor Etienne, at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, as a pile mover around the goal line. And Jacksonville’s offensive line could be a problem, generally rated among the lowest quarter of the league.

“Etienne’s receiving metrics were solid, but the Jaguars targeted him a scant 45 times; when the Jaguars opt to throw, they’re looking for downfield chunks. Head coach Doug Pederson usually likes a platoon approach in the backfield, and Jacksonville added Tank Bigsby (third-round pick) and D’Ernest Johnson (free agent) during the offseason. Etienne’s early Yahoo ADP slots him as the RB12, a tier too optimistic for me.”

Stat to remember

The last time Calvin Ridley played a full season was 2020, and he had 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns with the Falcons. He has played only five games since, and missed all last season due a violation of the NFL’s gambling policy. It has been a long time since Ridley was one of the NFL’s top receivers, but he has shown himself to be just that. It would be enormous for the Jaguars if he recaptures that level. Travis Etienne is a very good back. Christian Kirk is a good, albeit overpaid, receiver. Evan Engram took to a change in scenery from the New York Giants and was a dangerous weapon at tight end. There was a solid core around Lawrence already in place. But one sure way to unlock a new level in an offense, as we saw with A.J. Brown and the Philadelphia Eagles and Tyreek Hill and the Miami Dolphins last season, is to add a true No. 1 receiver. If Ridley is an alpha for the Jaguars this season, it could be a really fun season in Jacksonville.

Burning question

Can the Jaguars’ defense be good enough?

When you have Trevor Lawrence, you dream of him hitting his ceiling and your franchise winning multiple Super Bowls. To win championships you need to have a competent defense, and the Jaguars aren’t there yet. The Jaguars’ defense finished No. 26 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA last season and didn’t make a significant offseason addition to it. They’ll need some improvement from within. That starts with 2022 No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker, who did flash as a rookie but finished with just 3.5 sacks. He’ll need to be better, especially after No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson had such a good rookie season. The Jaguars got a fantastic season from 2021 second-round pick Tyson Campbell (No. 7 in Pro Football Focus’ cornerback grades) and can feel like they have a legit No. 1 cornerback going forward. There are other promising or established players like pass rusher Josh Allen, 2022 first-round pick linebacker Devin Lloyd, linebacker Foyesade Oluokun and safety Andre Cisco. The Jaguars need many of the aforementioned players to have big seasons if they want to have the look of a future championship defense.

Best-case scenario

I don’t want to get too crazy about the 2023 Jaguars. However … when you have a quarterback who has the ability to win MVP as soon as this season, you can dream. The Jaguars have a lot of good skill-position players around Trevor Lawrence, who had the look of a future superstar by the end of last season. The offensive line has issues and the defense is a work in progress to put it kindly, but a great quarterback can cover up a lot of problems. I don’t want to say the Jaguars’ peak this season is as a Super Bowl contender, because that seems a little too much. But if Lawrence continues on his path and the Jaguars keep adding to the roster, it won’t seem so weird in a year or two.

Nightmare scenario

I don’t think Trevor Lawrence will regress much, but it would be a disappointment if he falls back to the inconsistent quarterback we saw his first season and a half. The idea of the Jaguars being an ascending team falls apart if Lawrence isn’t a top-10 quarterback going forward. The defense isn’t good enough and the offensive line could be a problem. The Jaguars are clear favorites in the division but they’re not a lock, and losing the AFC South to a team like the Indianapolis Colts would be disheartening.

The crystal ball says …

I wasn’t totally sold on Trevor Lawrence early last season. There were too many mistakes for a player who was supposed to be the next John Elway. Then he became one of the must-watch players over the last two months of last season, and I don’t think there’s any stopping that train. I think Lawrence is in the MVP conversation this season and will be for many years to come. Many of the Jaguars’ offensive players, particularly Calvin Ridley, are going to have big seasons. The Jaguars will win the AFC South by multiple games, and while I don’t think the defense is ready to help the team to a long playoff run, the optimism about the Jaguars now will multiply by next offseason.

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