Never in the Jaguars’ history, and possibly a long time before it ever happens again, will they have an opportunity to seize a bright future like they do in 2021.
You can’t ask for any offseason to line up so ideally in the coming months: $80 million-plus in salary cap space to play with, five draft picks in the top 65 (11 overall), and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence – the golden-boy quarterback straight out of central casting – right there for the taking with the No. 1 pick.
All that coinciding with the Jaguars in the midst of hiring a head coach and general manager, it’s a perfect scenario for owner Shad Khan to hit the reset button. If the Jaguars make good decisions in the next 112 days, it can easily set the stage into becoming an NFL playoff contender no later than 2022. Who knows, possibly sooner.
With fans eagerly anticipating what could be the most impactful offseason in franchise history, here’s some do’s and don’ts for the Jaguars as they navigate through the GM/coach search, free agency and the NFL draft:
Do give every prospect a real opportunity – The worst thing any NFL team can do going into an interview process is enter it with preconceived notions about a pecking order among job candidates. Think of this as a competitive football game. Let each GM or coach candidate lay out their vision for the organization, and if it fits what Khan thinks is best for the Jaguars, then he ought to give that prospect serious consideration. Why should this be any different than a game? Only instead of two teams competing head-to-head, the Jaguars have a half-dozen or so candidates vying for two of the NFL’s most coveted positions. So let the candidates’ presentations, their vibe, their philosophy and, above all, their ability to lead and work in lockstep as coach/GM dictate who gets hired. Just keep an open mind.
Don’t lock on to offense-oriented coaches – One of the biggest myths going about major college or NFL hires is that stronger head coaching candidates are ones who ply their trade on the offensive side of the ball. This is utter nonsense. Quality head coaches, like good players, come from everywhere. There’s no cookie-cutter formula to finding the best coach. Otherwise, if teams with vacancies thought offense was the best breeding ground for a future head coach, then only NFL offensive coordinators, play-callers, former college head coaches or former NFL head coaches with an offense background would get the plum jobs. The best ones come from everywhere. Look at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where 104 of the 297 players hail from small schools and non-Power 5 programs. Three of the best NFL head coaches right now – Bill Belichick, Pete Carroll and Mike Tomlin – cut their teeth on defense. Whether the Jaguars decide on an offensive coaching candidate (Kansas City Chiefs coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Tennessee Titans coordinator Arthur Smith, Meyer) or a candidate with a defensive background (Atlanta Falcons interim head coach Raheem Morris, San Francisco 49ers coordinator Robert Saleh), it should have no bearing on who gets the job. The truth is, Trevor Lawrence is just as liable to blossom under one as another because who the head coach hires as his offensive coordinator will likely have a greater impact on how a QB develops.
Do value Mark Lamping as a wing man – During nine years as an NFL owner, Khan has come to lean on the Jaguars’ president for more than just running the business side of the football operation. Lamping, who is Khan’s point man on the Lot J proposal, is sitting in on the coach/GM interviews because Khan wants him providing significant input. It’s not like Lamping is a novice on such matters. When the St. Louis native was president of the MLB Cardinals (1994-2008), one of the biggest brands in baseball, he was a major decision-maker alongside then general manager Walt Jocketty. A huge franchise-turning call was firing manager Joe Torre, who would go on to win four World Series titles with the New York Yankees, and hiring Tony LaRussa, who led St. Louis to two world championships. That decision restored the Cardinals to baseball prominence. When Lamping left to become president of the New Meadowlands Stadium Company, he led the charge to develop a $1.6 billion stadium for the New York Giants and Jets. Those are monumental, stressful tasks to navigate through. While Lamping has absorbed his share of criticism during the Lot J negotiations, he does have a reputation for getting things done and fostering loyalty. Many of the key business-side employees he hired in Khan’s early years as owner – Hussain Naqi, Kelly Flanagan, Chad Johnson, Scott Massey, Megha Parekh, among others – have stayed on through a lot of losing seasons. Lamping might come across to some as a bit too strong-willed, maybe even arrogant, but he’s a team player. It can’t be overstated how critical this GM/coach hire is to the Jaguars’ future. Lamping has earned Khan’s trust and him playing a bigger role in these hires might well help the Jaguars arrive at a clearer, more thoughtful decision.
Do not rush the hires – Despite some media speculation that Meyer might be announced as the Jaguars’ head coach this weekend, and there's no question the former Florida/Ohio State coach is the frontrunner, there’s no need for them to get an itchy trigger finger. Unlike the past two times Khan made decisions on a head coach or GM, the Jaguars have a lot more leverage. Even the best candidate should be willing to wait a few extra days if necessary. Truthfully, the only other job out there with as much appeal as Jacksonville is the Los Angeles Chargers because of quarterback Justin Herbert, the likely Rookie of the Year. The Jaguars shouldn’t worry about losing any candidate because they have several good ones in the mix. It’s the candidates who should be concerned about the Jaguars moving on from them. Take advantage of being in a position of strength. This isn’t like shopping for a car, where you might get enchanted with a vehicle and make the purchase immediately. In the interview process, refrain from making an emotional buy. Step back, let the candidate’s presentation sink in, sleep on it and then you’ll be more prepared to make a good decision.
Do be aggressive in free agency – What good is it to have a massive amount of salary cap space and not go on a shopping spree? Even with 11 draft picks, the Jaguars can’t expect to get a significant upgrade at all their positions of need. But with money to spend and the prospect of Lawrence revitalizing the franchise, that should at least intrigue quality free agents like defensive tackle Leonard Williams, safety Justin Simmons, tight end Hunter Henry, offensive tackle Trent Williams and others. It’s not unreasonable to think the Jaguars could snag a couple of big-ticket items at need positions, thus easing the burden on draft day.
Do not take focus off best available player – Once the card is turned in for No. 1 overall pick Lawrence, forget about getting too caught up in needs. The Jaguars have plenty of positions to upgrade, so put a priority on identifying the player with the best chance to be a difference-maker at the time of your selection. Now if the Jaguars are tempted to move up the draft board with that second first-round pick from the Los Angeles Rams for, say, a tight end like Florida’s Kyle Pitts, the price tag could be awfully steep. Well, go ahead, Lawrence certainly isn’t going to put up a stop sign.
Do enjoy the 2021 journey – Under Khan’s watch, the Jaguars’ fan base has endured 2-14, Luke Joeckel, 4-12, Justin Blackmon’s decline, 3-13, merciless national media ridicule, 5-11, Dante Fowler’s torn ACL/immaturity, 3-13 again, Myles Jack not down, 5-11 again, Jalen Ramsey petulance, 6-10, star player exits, 1-15, and three epic quarterback disasters. Is that enough lowlights? So by all means, black-and-teal supporters should treasure, or should I say Trevor, the start of what should be a franchise turnaround.