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Monday, December 11, 2023

Jaguars are set to be a force in the AFC South for 2023 and beyond


The Jacksonville Jaguars looked like contenders for as long as a blink of the eye. 

After a 2-1 start featuring consecutive wins of 20-plus points under the tutelage of new coach Doug Pederson, it was easy to buy in and regard them as an ascending team. But then the Jaguars started losing. Amid their inability to finish games, they were labeled the “same old Jags.” Other familiar realities in the AFC South — the Titans looking like the best team; the Colts disappointing after another offseason filled with hype — started to take shape as well. Tennessee is on the fast track to a third straight division title, with a 5-3 record that features a 3-0 record in AFC South, including a sweep of Indianapolis

But while the Titans remain in control of a weak AFC South for 2022, the Jaguars are positioned to be their primary challengers for years to come. For longer than the cameo we saw in September. Why? Jacksonville has the most promising offensive talent to build on for 2023 and beyond. 

In the Jaguars’ stunning comeback victory over the Raiders, when they went on a 27-3 run after a 17-0 deficit to beat Las Vegas and snap their five-game skid, we saw, again, a glimpse of what Trevor Lawrence can be when he puts it all together. 

At one point in the second half, he completed 12 straight passes. He went 11-of-19 for 111 yards and a touchdown on throws made less than 2.5 seconds after the snap, according to Next Gen Stats. He was 4-of-6 on third-down passes, with the four completions securing first downs. For the game, he completed 80.6% of his passes for 235 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. He’s the only quarterback this season to have completed at least 80% of his passes in at least three games. 

Lawrence has been inconsistent all season — and his biggest challenge to date will be carrying momentum from the Raiders game into matchups with the AFC-contending Chiefs and Ravens in back-to-back games — but he is far and away the closest thing to a franchise quarterback in the AFC South. Ryan Tannehill has been solid for the Titans, but his days are numbered — it appears unlikely he’ll be in Nashville beyond 2023, when his contract expires — and Malik Willis is more upside and potential than a sure-fire starter at this point. 

The Texans‘ Davis Mills is a below-average starting quarterback, and Houston could draft his replacement in 2023. The Colts arguably have the worst quarterback situation in the division, without a clear starter for the rest of this season and having concerns they may not be bad enough to get one of the top signal-callers in the upcoming draft. 

And in a division filled with star running backs who serve as the engines of offenses, the Jaguars’ Travis Etienne has one of the most promising long-term outlooks. 

Derrick Henry, the King, is the best of the group, but at 28, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. The Colts’ Jonathan Taylor was an All-Pro force as a second-year pro last season, but a nagging ankle injury — and bad offensive-line play — has made him less appealing this season and potentially beyond. 

At least for now, the Texans’ Dameon Pierce, a leading candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year, is the only running back in the division on a similar track with Etienne for the long term. 

“I wouldn’t say he’s anywhere close to where he’s going to be,” Jaguars offensive coordinator Press Taylor said of Etienne last week. “As he continues to learn what defenses are doing, why we’re calling runs for certain fronts, the tracks on runs, how people are going to try to take us off, combinations and pullers and different things like that. I think as he matures, just in his football knowledge and understanding offenses with schemes and how we’re trying to attack, I wouldn’t put a ceiling on him. 

There’s no questioning that Calvin Ridley projects to be the best No. 1 receiver in the division for 2023 and beyond. The Titans don’t have a true WR1 (though Treylon Burks could develop into one eventually). Michael Pittman Jr. has been good but not great for the Colts. Brandin Cooks‘ future with the Texans is unclear, after he reportedly wanted out of Houston by the trade deadline. 

Nick reacts to Jaguars trading for suspended Falcons WR Calvin Ridley

Nick Wright reacts to the Jaguars acquiring Calvin Ridley from the Falcons in one of the most shocking moves of the NFL trade deadline.

Of course, Ridley must be reinstated (he can’t petition to do so until February) and assuming that happens, he’ll have to knock the rust off, as he hasn’t played since week 6 of the 2021 season. But at full strength, he’s a great route runner and one of football’s elite receivers. He had 90 catches for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020. No receiver on any of the other AFC South teams has eclipsed 1,300 receiving yards in a season. 

In every season Ridley has played at least 13 games, he’s pulled in at least seven receiving touchdowns. 

“He’s a great player, so obviously that’s exciting moving forward and next season having a guy like that here,” Lawrence said of Ridley last week. “I’ve heard he loves the game, and obviously if you watch his tape it speaks for itself.”

The Jaguars also have the best pass-protecting offensive line in the division. They’ve given up just 12 sacks this season, tied for second-fewest in the NFL, and have an adjusted sack rate of 4.8%, fourth best in the league. Four of their five starters — left tackle Cam Robinson, right guard Tyler Shatley, center Luke Fortner and right guard Brndon Scherff — are under contract through at least 2023. 

If Jacksonville re-signs right tackle Jawaan Taylor, who will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, that would be huge. Of the 32 offensive tackles who’ve played at least 300 pass-block snaps this season, Taylor has given up the third-fewest pressures (7), per Pro Football Focus. 

The Titan could be on the brink of turnover this offseason, with many key veterans coming out of their prime and the franchise having outs in their contracts. But for as long as coach Mike Vrabel and general manager Jon Robinson are with the Titans, the team is positioned for success. It has put together six straight winning seasons. Vrabel, the reigning AP Coach of the Year, has a track record of maximizing the performance of his players, regardless of the quality of talent he’s working with. They’re not going away in the AFC South.

In the coming years, though, the Jaguars are set to be knocking on the door. 

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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