After a nightmare season in 2021, the Duval boys are suddenly in the playoff conversation. Let’s talk about how they did it and how sustainable it could be.
When Brett Maher’s 53-yard field goal split the uprights with 5:21 left in the third quarter to give the Dallas Cowboys a 27-10 lead over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Jags were a +1400 betting long shot to win Sunday’s game, per FanDuel Sportsbook. ESPN, meanwhile, put Dallas’ win probability at 96.7%.
But ultimately, the momentum the Jaguars organization has afforded itself — thanks in no small part to some intriguing roster construction — was not and to be denied.
Trevor Lawrence threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns; Zay Jones caught one each in the second, third, and fourth quarters. A Riley Peterson field goal tied the game at 34 as time expired in regulation, and with the Cowboys creeping into Jacksonville territory in OT, Rayshawn Jenkins picked off a Dak Prescott pass intended for Noah Brown and returned 52 yards for the walk-off touchdown, sealing an improbable 40-34 win.
“That’s a play you dream about ever since you’re eight years old, ever since I started playing this game,” Jenkins, who also picked off Prescott once already on the day, said after the game. “That was pretty cool to do.”
So, was this moment of cool simply a stroke of incredible luck in a weekend uncommonly full of milestone NFL comebacks, or are much more deliberate and traceable forces at play in around the front office in Duval?
After a 2-6 start, the Jaguars have won four of six to improve to 6-8, just a game behind the Tennessee Titans for the AFC South lead and one game back of the New England Patriots and New York Jets in the AFC Wild Card race heading into Thursday’s suddenly pivotal matchup against the latter in East Rutherford. The improvement under Super Bowl-winning head coach Doug Pederson has been pronounced after the 3-14 dumpster fire season under Urban Meyer and interim boss Darrell Bevell in 2021, to say the very least.
While Jacksonville has more than $232 million in total salary cap spending on the books this year as noted by Spotrac — by far the highest figure in the league — no player on the 2022 Jaguars active roster has an effective cap hit of $10 million or more, making them the only team in the league without an active eight-figure player against the cap. Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, New Orleans, San Francisco, and Seattle are the only other NFL teams without a player with a $15 million cap hit this season.
In terms of modern roster construction orthodoxy around the NFL, the Jaguars’ positioning is an oddity. But taken along with a few other key details, it’s a sign that they’re building a sneakily strong foundation.
With an average age of 25.89 — tied for the fourth-youngest roster in the league — Jacksonville is poised to make noise with the group it has here and now. The 28-year-old Jenkins is the team’s highest-paid active player with a cap hit of just $9.91 million, his value underscored not just by his game-winning pick-six in Week 15, but the fact that he leads them in interceptions and is No. 3 in tackles. (Cornerback Shaquil Griffin was due for a $16.4 million cap hit, but is out for the season with a back injury.)
This defense may be more bend-don’t-break than it is strictly stingy, but the bang for Shahid Khan’s buck is not insignificant given how modest the expectations were on the banks of the St. John’s heading into the year.
After trading starting running back James Robinson to the Jets prior to the deadline, Travis Etienne has more than taken on the RB1 role with 917 yards rushing on five yards per carry, including 103 on Sunday. Lawrence, Etienne’s Clemson teammate and likewise on a tidy rookie scale contract, has quietly put on a superb second season after being drafted No. 1 overall in 2021, sporting a 66% completion rate, 24 touchdowns, and just seven interceptions to go along with 3,520 yards.
Lawrence is quietly:
- Tied for No. 5 in the league in pass TDs
- No. 5 best in percentage of dropbacks in which he’s sacked (4.58%)
- No. 6 with a 1.4% interception rate per attempt
- No. 7 in both attempted and completed passes, 330 for 500
- No. 9 in passing yards
- No. 10 with a 96.6 passer rating
Not bad for a player that ranks just 21st in the league among quarterback cap hits ($8,362,156) and 42nd by total cash compensation ($2,332,431) among QBs. He actually makes less this year than Kyle Allen of the cellar-dwelling AFC South rival Houston Texans, who started just two games this season before getting benched.
Curiously, even as the 2022 Jags gel down the stretch, the team may not have a ton of much wiggle room to improve markedly next year. Jacksonville as currently constituted will have 12 players with eight-figure cap hits next season and is a projected $16.9 million over the league’s salary cap as things currently stand, the third-largest total on the books around the league.
That means GM Trent Baalke will have some roster optimizing to do in the spring and summer whether or not a playoff run is in the cards. Looking up and down the ledger:
- Offensive linemen Cam Robinson and Brandon Scherff will make $22.2 million and $20 million respectively in 2023
- Wide receivers Christian Kirk and trade deadline acquisition Calvin Ridley (who is sidelined for a yearlong gambling suspension) will combine for a nearly $33 million hit
- Top-performing linebackers Foyesade Oluokun and Josh Allen will make nearly $30 million total
- Shaquil Griffin and fellow cornerback Darious Williams combine for an even $30 million
- Foley Fatukasi and Roy Robertson-Harris combining for about $23 million on the defensive line
- Jenkins is on the hook for $10.2 million, while Lawrence jumps up above $10 million
With all this in mind, expect an offseason featuring a solid combination of cap relief primarily through (1) salary restructuring (2) releasing higher-paid players with manageable dead money numbers in order to save the difference against the cap.
But for now, with the offense rolling behind Lawrence, the Jaguars are roaring to life as one of the most improved teams in 2022, and one that opponents will be less and less interested in taking on going forward.
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