So, Uh, What Exactly Are the Jaguars Doing?

Trevor Lawrence can’t do it all by himself. If we learned one thing about the 2021 first-overall pick during his rough debut campaign, it’s that. The Jaguars gave the rookie little to work with—including at head coach—and the results were, well, shitty.

Lawrence completed just 59.6 percent of his assists last season and threw 17 interceptions compared to 12 touchdowns. His 33.5 QBR ranked 28th among qualified passers, ahead of only Sam Darnold, Zach Wilson, and Justin Fields. And his more advanced metrics don’t paint a prettier picture: Lawrence finished 26th in EPA per play and 32nd in Pro Football Focus’s grading. It was the type of rookie season that could have caused a team to panic, if Lawrence weren’t such a generational, can’t-miss prospect.

But even so, there is clearly a sense of urgency in Jacksonville to do something, anything to bolster Lawrence’s supporting cast and see what he can really do. On the first day of legal tampering alone, the Jaguars handed out over $150 million in free-agent contracts. They made Christian Kirk the ninth-highest-paid receiver in the NFL (based on average annual salary) with a four-year, $72 million pact; reset the market for guards by giving Brandon Scherff a three-year, $49.5 million deal; signed linebacker Foyesade Oluokun to a three-year, $45 million contract and cornerback Darious Williams to a three-year, $30 million deal; and supplemented those moves by more modest contracts given out to tight end Evan Engram (one year, $9 million) and receiver Zay Jones (three years, $24 million).

If the primary goal of free agency is to add talent to the roster, the Jaguars have had a successful first week. The offensive depth chart has been upgraded significantly, which should help Lawrence in year two. But adding talent isn’t the only goal of free agency. Doing so while spending your cap dollars efficiently is the ideal outcome, and in that regard, this week has been something of a mess for Jacksonville. The Jags had to overpay to get most of these guys to sign, which continues a worrying trend for a franchise that’s coming off a coaching search where at least one veteran candidate declined an interview, and another up-and-coming coach pulled his name from consideration. Now, neither of those things is uncommon in the NFL, but this was a team with loads of cap space, a legitimate quarterback prospect, and the no. 1 pick in the upcoming draft, and it still struggled.

Some of the blame for that can be, and has been, attributed to last year’s disastrous Urban Meyer experiment. But to really get to the root of the problem, you have to look at the track record of general manager Trent Baalke.

Meyer was the fifth head coach to lose his job under Baalke in his last five seasons as an acting general manager. Like Jim Harbaugh, Jim Tomsula, Chip Kelly, and Doug Marrone before him, Meyer gave the team plenty of reasons to want to move on, but there was a common denominator in all of their demises: the rosters they were coaching.

There’s a reason why coaches who know their way around the league steered clear of Jacksonville. And the early days of free agency have seemingly done nothing to improve the reputation of the Jags front office within NFL circles.

It’s still too early to declare that Lawrence is being failed by the Jaguars. Sure, it’s bad that this franchise has to pay a premium to get solid players and coaches into the building. And as long as Baalke is in charge, Jaguars fans will probably always have their clown costumes at the ready. But the good news is that Lawrence might be too good for any of this to matter. And now that he’s playing for a real NFL head coach in Doug Pederson, and with receivers who can, at the very least, actually catch the football, this team has a very real shot at turning things around.

I realize it might be hard to convince you of that fact after the season Lawrence had. As we’ve already covered, his numbers were pretty bleak. But there are plenty of other numbers that confirm what should have already been obvious: The Jaguars receivers were really freaking bad last season, and that raised Lawrence’s degree of difficulty to impossibly high levels. Per Sports Info Solutions, Jacksonville led the NFL in drop rate on passes chartered as “catchable.” And while that doesn’t fully explain Lawrence’s poor statistical output in 2021, PFF’s Arjun Menon found that there is a very strong correlation between a team’s drop rate and the QB’s EPA per play. So that has to be factored into any analysis of Lawrence’s rookie season. If the Jaguars receivers had mustered even a league-average catch rate, we’re probably having a different discussion—and the Jaguars might have a different upcoming draft pick.

On top of the bad receiving corps, Lawrence also had to overcome a bad coaching staff and underwhelming offensive line—all while playing from behind in most games. That last season wasn’t an even bigger statistical disaster is kind of impressive on its own.

If you want to feel better about Lawrence’s future, just turn on the tape. There were so many plays last season where he didn’t have any viable path to success; a quarterback can do only so much if his receivers aren’t getting open and his line isn’t providing him with a working pocket. Just take a look at the following video, which shows every incompletion Lawrence threw during the team’s 30-10 loss to the 49ers in Week 11:

Outside of levitating over the field to avoid pressure and placing the ball in the hands of his intended receiver, I’m not sure what Lawrence could have done. And when he was afforded time in the pocket and his targets were actually catching the football, Lawrence looked pretty damn good! Those opportunities just didn’t pop up very often.

As consistently as his supporting cast let him down, though, Lawrence was still able to produce flashes of brilliance a few times per week. Whether it was accuracy on tight-window throws, next-level pocket management, or ridiculous displays of arm talent, the rookie passer consistently provided Jaguars fans with glimpses of what could/should be a bright future. I’d put his highlight reel up against any other quarterback not named Mahomes, Herbert, Rodgers, or Allen.

All of this Lawrence optimism isn’t solely film-based, either. There are some numbers that suggest the rookie did a decent job navigating his perilous surroundings. For instance, only five quarterbacks had a lower sack rate when under pressure, per Pro Football Focus. And on those pressured dropbacks, Lawrence ranked 12th in PFF’s big-time throw rate metric (which credits quarterbacks for highly difficult throws) and 19th in turnover-worthy throw rate. Those aren’t amazing results, but they are just fine—and considering the environment Lawrence was playing in, “just fine” is pretty impressive.

Now, after Jacksonville’s week of big spending, Lawrence’s play may actually be elevated by his teammates. Paying nearly $20 million a year for Kirk feels rich based on our perceptions of him as a player, but it’s not like the Cardinals ever got the most out of him. He was miscast as an outside receiver early on in his career and was moved to the slot only last year. The position change coincided with a career year that could have been even better if not for the late-season injuries to Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. Even still, Kirk was quite good! He and 40 other receivers were targeted at least 100 times last season, per Sports Info Solutions, and here’s a list of guys who produced more EPA per target than Kirk:

n / A

None!

Kirk’s 0.46/target average led the entire NFL—above Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, Stefon Diggs, and Tyreek Hill. What I’m saying is that Kirk is a very good football player who could break out in an offense better suited to his skill set. Instead of running a dozen 5-yard hitch routes every week, as he did in Kliff Kingsbury’s scheme, he might be able to put that quick, efficient route running to good use.

Kirk will also provide Lawrence with something the QB didn’t have a year ago: a target he can trust to catch the ball. The former Cardinal did drop a career-high six passes in 2021, but that nearly doubled his career total, which now sits at 14 drops over four full seasons. Some context: Jaguars receivers dropped 37 passes last season alone.

Jones and Engram aren’t sure-handed pass-catchers, by any means, but they can get open. The former carved out a nice role as a field stretcher late last season in Las Vegas. And Engram has never had a problem earning targets when healthy. If the Jags can hit on a receiver in the draft, they have the makings of a nice little receiving corps—even if they did pay too much to build it. It’s hard to exaggerate how much of a difference that should make for Lawrence’s sophomore season.

This is progress, and investing in their QB was certainly the right move for the Jaguars overall. But what happens when the money spent now prevents the team from bringing in reinforcements in the future? And what happens when Lawrence inevitably signs a monster extension that puts serious constraints on the salary cap? We’ve seen great quarterbacks overcome inept management and still come out looking good, but the quarterbacks we call elite invariably have the backing of a strong organization.

After the expedited firing of Meyer—which honestly could have come even sooner—there was some reason for hope for a bright future led by Lawrence. That dissipated a bit after Baalke’s ensuing power grab tainted the coaching search, and this rapid, wild decision-making in free agency isn’t exactly bringing it back.

Lawrence might be too good to fail. But I don’t know if anyone is good enough to clean up the mess that’s still being made by Jacksonville’s front office.

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