JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (10-9)
EXPECTATIONS: Second-year Jags coach Doug Pederson returns 21 of 22 starters from last year’s team that won six consecutive games before losing at eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City in the divisional round of the playoffs. Pederson and general manager Trent Baalke feel good about the progress they made in their first year together and believe continuity and carryover will result in another AFC South title and a deeper postseason run. QB Trevor Lawrence expects growth in his second year in the system and should benefit from the addition of dynamic WR Calvin Ridley, who joins a receiving corps that includes WRs Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, TE Evan Engram and RB Travis Etienne. Jacksonville used its top three draft picks on the offensive side of the ball, bringing in RT Anton Harrison, TE Brenton Strange and RB Tank Bigsby — newcomers who should help bolster a unit that is looking for better results in short-yardage and goal-line situations. The Jaguars’ defense has more question marks, starting with a lackluster pass rush that’s counting on 2022 No. 1 pick Travon Walker making huge strides and fellow first-round picks Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson showing up in contract years.
NEW FACES: Ridley, Harrison, Strange, Bigsby, PK Brandon McManus, RB D’Ernest Johnson, LB Ventrell Miller, DL Tyler Lacy, OLB Yasir Abdullah, S Antonio Johnson, WR Parker Washington.
KEY LOSSES: RT Jawaan Taylor, DE Arden Key, WR Marvin Jones, TE Chris Manhertz.
STRENGTHS: Playmakers galore. The Jaguars have perhaps their best collection of offensive talent since Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell and Fred Taylor starred for Jacksonville beginning in the late 1990s. Ridley, Kirk, Engram, Jones and Etienne consider themselves an elite group of playmakers, able to stack up with any team in the league, and no one would be surprised to see Lawrence throw for 5,000 yards in the regular season.
WEAKNESSES: Pass rush. The Jaguars, who finished tied for 26th in the NFL with 35 sacks in 2022, were disappointed when Key signed with Tennessee in free agency and won’t have Dawuane Smoot (Achilles tendon) back until at least October. They hosted veterans Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and Jadeveon Clowney on visits in the spring and summer but ultimately opted to stick with their trio of former first-rounders: Walker, Allen and Chaisson. They added Abdullah in the draft, but expectations are tempered for the fifth-round pick from Louisville.
CAMP DEVELOPMENT: Second-year CB Gregory Junior, the only player in the league from tiny Ouachita Baptist, has emerged as a key contributor in nickel situations and could supplant veteran Tre Herndon in the rotation.
FANTASY PLAYER TO WATCH: Despite being away from football for nearly two years, Ridley looks like the same guy who tallied more than 3,000 yards receiving in his first three seasons. He caught 90 passes for 1,374 yards and nine touchdowns in 2020 despite playing through a foot injury. Now fully healthy and enjoying a change of scenery in a contract year, Ridley could be poised for huge numbers as Lawrence’s go-to guy.
FANDUEL SPORTSBOOK SAYS: Win Super Bowl: 28-1. Over/under wins: 9 1/2.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/nfl
The Associated Press