By all accounts, 2017 was an incredible step forward for the long-suffering Jacksonville Jaguars. They reached the AFC Championship game for the first time since 1999, and held a 10-point lead over Tom Brady & Bill Belichick with 10 minutes remaining. They won the AFC South. Jalen Ramsey, a man who is now a full-blown superstar and one of the best cornerbacks in the league, leads their top-rated defense.
Jacksonville also succeeded at signing numerous big-ticket free agents who have actually panned out, a process that fails more often than not. Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, AJ Bouye and more have all been incredible pieces for the Jags. Not to mention their homegrown talent… Jacksonville’s last few draft classes are littered with early-round success stories such as Leonard Fournette, Yannick Ngakoue, Allen Robinson, Telvin Smith and Myles Jack.
If the Jaguars can keep the band together, their squad is poised to become a legitimate championship contender for years…
So why does the future seem so uncertain in Jacksonville?
Quarterback Blake Bortles has taken a hefty share of criticism over the course of his four-year career. Players take shots at him when they won’t even be facing him that week. A popular Twitter account devoted to mocking his “achievements” exploded to even further heights during the Jaguars’ recent playoff success. Bortles’ talents were present coming out of college in 2014, but they were extremely raw, and they haven’t ripened during those four seasons.
As many memes have illustrated, Bortles’ most successful season (2015) was based around “garbage time,” and was plagued by pick-sixes. Blake’s 35 touchdowns primarily came while the team was trailing in the third and fourth quarters, after his poor play in quarters 1 & 2 had put them in a hole in the first place. Some people anticipated a step forward in 2016 and were sorely disappointed by the results. The Jags crumbled to 3-13 and Bortles’ TD passes went from 35 to 23, accompanied by a paltry 6.2 YPA.
So, with an elite defense and solid offensive pieces in place, Jacksonville’s front office finds itself at a crossroads. Do they stick with Bortles, who clearly has limitations? Or do they roll the dice and try to better themselves with a new signal caller? Personally I’d say they’d be crazy to not look for a new QB with more upside, but there are arguments to be made for both sides.
THE CASE TO KEEP BORTLES
For too long, people have confused “franchise QB” with “elite QB.” Calling a player a franchise QB simply means that he is a usable starter ranging from great to merely average. Not a ringing endorsement, granted, but it’s all about relativity. With QBs like Brock Osweiler, Matt Cassell and Brett Hundley seeing snaps in 2017, the lack of premium QB talent in the NFL has never been more apparent. “Average” is quite the compliment in that context. So while Ryan Tannehill and Joe Flacco are not “elite” like Aaron Rodgers, they are far enough above the median that they can be considered “franchise” quarterbacks.
Crazy as it may seem, Blake Bortles could be classified under that semi-competent but not flat-out horrendous umbrella that is the sad reality NFL general managers must work with. If you’re not Scott Tolzien, you have value in this league based on pure supply & demand.
Bortles also made some strides this season (at least compared to his ugly 2016 season). From the beginning of December on through the playoffs (8 games), Bortles’ line wasn’t eye-popping, but it was respectable:
161/260 (61.9% completions), 12 TD, 5 INT, 255 yards/game, 7.83 YPA
The Jaguars have already picked up Bortles’ one-year, $19 million option for 2018, but that money doesn’t become guaranteed until the start of the 2018 league year on March 14th. This means they have some wiggle room. That $19 million is a modest salary for a QB these days… the going rate for competent/above-average QBs is around $25-27 million, as set by the contracts of Derek Carr and Matthew Stafford.
With Bortles inked for only one more year, the Jaguars could hope that his modest steps forward are signs of things to come and save some of their cash for re-signing other key pieces. On the other hand…
THE CASE TO DITCH BORTLES
…The Jags could tear up that 2018 option and try to better themselves, instead of foolishly believing Bortles will somehow become a gamer before next season. His steps forward this year amount to moving forward from “awful” to “pretty okay.” As we’ve covered, competency is a commodity in the NFL, but this team has a Super Bowl window NOW… they need to go find a QB who won’t keep one hand tied behind the offense’s back.
Even in that December/January stretch where Bortles was playing better, he had a dreadful showing in the Wild Card round versus Buffalo. Bortles threw for just 87 yards on 23 attempts (3.78 YPA) and completed 52% of his passes. He was missing receivers badly, a trend that has been present with him for years now.
Bortles played well for most of the AFC Championship game, but when the Jags needed a score in crunch time, his offense stalled in the biggest of spots. Stats are useful for illustrating what a player can do, but the eye test is useful as well… sometimes you have to ask yourself, “If I give this guy the ball in the 4th quarter and ask him to go score, can he get me those points?” The answer with Bortles is an unequivocal no, and that is likely to never change.
Leonard Fournette is a casualty of all this too. Facing stacked boxes of 7 or 8 defenders on a regular basis, Fournette still managed over 1,000 yards as a rookie despite missing games. The man is phenomenally talented and can carry an offense on his legs. Imagine the damage he could do if Jacksonville parted ways with Bortles and found a QB whom the defense would need to respect and fear. Not to mention the wealth of pass catchers (Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee, Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole, Allen Hurns) that are being wasted as coach Doug Marrone tries to camouflage Bortles.
The evidence is there that Marrone made a conscious effort to hide his QB. In 2016, the Jaguars ran 660 passing plays to 392 rushing plays, a 63/37 split. Under Marrone in 2017, that went to 551/527, a 51/49 split. That is a drastic change that speaks volumes.
It’s an unspoken consensus that Kansas City’s Alex Smith will be available via trade this offseason, as the team shifts to youngster Patrick Mahomes. Smith would offer the Jaguars a mobile, experienced and accurate passer who protects the football. Kirk Cousins may also be on the free agent market, and he has demonstrated that he is an excellent QB whilst dealing with an ever-changing offensive line and varying legion of pass catchers. Cousins would spin magic with the embarrassment of riches Jacksonville has at wide receiver. Sure, he would cost an arm and a leg, but when you have a chance at a ring you need to throw all of your money at it.
Even drafting a quarterback in April could be an option. This is a QB-heavy class with Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and more coming out. The 2nd and 3rd round QBs are sure to have more promise than usual due to the amount of blue-chip talent that will be selected ahead of them.
Season after season, we see blurbs about players who will finally make the leap in the coming season. After four years, we have enough of a sample size to determine who Blake Bortles is. Jacksonville is bursting at the seams with talent, and the AFC has weakened this year. They won 10 games and nearly secured the AFC Championship trophy in Foxboro… by cutting ties with Bortles, they could make that 14 wins and Super Bowl trophy.
Rich probably loves the NFL too much, the NHL too little, and the NBA/MLB just the right amount.