2020 NFL Preview: How a seemingly routine decision on Blake Bortles led to the destruction of the Jaguars

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2020 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 5. 

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Paul Rosales)

Fortunes change fast in the NFL. Young, surging teams can look like long-term contenders, then vanish immediately. 

Even with that in mind, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ sudden fall is shocking. 

Near the end of the 2017 season, the Jaguars were on the verge of beating the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game. They blew it in the fourth quarter. Jaguars fans will rightfully complain about a quick whistle that ruined what might have been a long fumble return by Myles Jack. No matter. The Jaguars lost. Still, they were young, talented and seemingly on the rise. 

Two losing seasons later, they look like the worst team in football. 

How did this happen? The missteps are numerous and astonishing. A lot of it can be blamed on poor management, particularly by since-fired executive vice president Tom Coughlin

The start of the destruction actually seemed like an innocuous decision: Picking up Blake Bortles’ fifth-year option. 

• Bortles was the third pick of the 2014 NFL draft but clearly had faults. The Jaguars talked themselves into why it was wise to pick up Bortles’ fifth-year option. They did so despite knowing the fifth-year option was guaranteed due to injury, and Bortles had a wrist injury that might eventually require surgery. (The team decided to try cortisone and PRP shots first.)

When they picked up Bortles’ option, the Jaguars passed on quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes in the 2017 draft to take running back Leonard Fournette, a big back who fit Coughlin’s old-school ideals but not the current NFL. Fournette has been just an average back at best. 

Instead of admitting a mistake on Bortles and grabbing Watson or Mahomes, the Jaguars drafted a running back long after the rest of the NFL had figured out that was a bad idea. Then they doubled down on Bortles. 

After the playoff run, Bortles had wrist surgery. Since they were coming off the playoff run and his option was likely to be guaranteed anyway, the Jaguars gave Bortles a three-year, $54 million extension. A year later he was cut. 

Imagine if the Jaguars had been more decisive on Bortles when it came time to figure out his fifth-year option. History might have been a lot different. 

• The Jaguars' gamble on Bortles didn't work, so last year they signed Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million deal. There were no other serious bidders, but reports said the Jaguars overpaid Foles because they wanted the locker room to respect him. Really, that happened. 

Foles got hurt, struggled upon his return and was traded to the Chicago Bears this offseason. The Jaguars have $37.1 million in dead salary-cap money, second-most in the NFL. Foles, at $18.75 million, accounts for the largest part of it. 

• Coughlin completely turned off players, most notably star cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The talented cornerback requested a trade after an early season disagreement with someone in the Jaguars’ front office, presumed to be Coughlin. The NFLPA said more than 25 percent of grievances filed by players since 2017 were against the Jaguars. Ramsey, one of the best players in the NFL, was traded. Nobody else who was left seemed happy. 

• There were other missteps. Guard Andrew Norwell was signed to a huge deal, and he hasn’t played like the All-Pro he was with the Carolina Panthers. The Jaguars couldn’t get edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue signed to a long-term deal, and he requested a trade when he got the franchise tag. That deal never happened, leaving Jacksonville with an unhappy star.

Fournette was on the trade block but the Jaguars apparently couldn’t find a suitor. Cap issues were part of the reason the team traded edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. in 2018 and cut defensive tackle Malik Jackson last year. And Bortles’ extension, which might not happen without the fifth-year option decision, was a big part of the cap problems. Linebacker Telvin Smith suddenly retired in 2019. The Jaguars were suddenly stuck in a rebuild and traded Foles, cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive end Calais Campbell this offseason. 

The Jaguars’ once-exciting defense is a shell of what it was three years ago. The offense could have looked a lot different, but now plods along with Fournette carrying the load. General manager Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone still have jobs somehow, but at least Coughlin was fired. It’s a roster that has practically no depth and few blue-chip players.

Picking up Bortles’ option led to the drafting of Fournette and then to Bortles’ extension, which contributed to major salary-cap problems compounded by the signing of Foles to replace Bortles, which led to the start of a talent drain including some white-flag trades this offseason. That’s how the Jaguars went from a small step away from the Super Bowl to a total rebuild in the blink of an eye.  

It will be a long season in Jacksonville. The only good news is fortunes can change quickly in the NFL, something the Jaguars know too well. 

Gardner Minshew II will try to turn the Jaguars back around. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

The Jaguars traded defensive lineman Calais Campbell to the Baltimore Ravens for just a fifth-round pick even though Campbell is still good. A.J. Bouye was sent to the Denver Broncos. The Jaguars traded Nick Foles and are going to roll with Gardner Minshew II at quarterback. The big addition of the offseason was signing linebacker Joe Schobert to a five-year, $53.75 million deal, making the Jaguars heavily invested in a position the rest of the NFL has devalued. The draft looks solid, highlighted by first-round picks of cornerback C.J. Henderson and edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson. The Jaguars’ once-promising roster is in a full rebuild. 

GRADE: D-

The Jaguars reportedly had interest in Andy Dalton, likely due to the connection with new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, and it’s good for the Jaguars that Dalton chose the Dallas Cowboys. Jacksonville can figure out what it has with Gardner Minshew II. If he’s good, Jacksonville has its guy. If he’s not, the Jags are probably drafting Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence in April. Minshew was good for a rookie and fantastic for a sixth-round pick. He is athletic and was one of the best deep throwers in the league. His 129 passer rating on throws of 20 or more yards was best in the NFL, with Patrick Mahomes at 122.9 in second place, according to Pro Football Focus. Minshew holds the ball too long, fumbles too much and had a troubling trend of his passes being less accurate the shorter he threw, but he showed enough to get a fair shot this season.

The Jaguars, bursting with young talent just a few years ago, somehow have very few blue-chip players. At least they got a breakout from receiver D.J. Chark last season. Chark was a raw size/speed receiver out of LSU and didn’t do much as a rookie second-round pick in 2018, but posted 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He’s clearly the Jaguars’ No. 1 receiver and their best offensive player. His future looks bright. 

The Jaguars’ over/under win total at BetMGM is 5, with under the heavy favorite at -195 (bet $195 to win $100). Obviously with Jacksonville being No. 32 on the list, the under is the only way I’d go there. But what might be worth a look is taking the Jaguars at +400 to finish with the most regular-season losses, also known as the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. If you think they’ll be under 5 wins, they’ll be a contender for the worst record in the NFL.

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “I agree that Jacksonville is the NFL’s worst team on paper. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun with the passing game. Gardner Minshew was surprisingly frisky as a rookie, and now he gets to work with new OC Jay Gruden; I’m always intrigued when a team can reverse-promote a former head coach back into a coordinator gig. Maybe Gruden is ready for some Wade Phillips/Norv Turner rejuvenation seasons. 

“The Jaguars defense might not stop anyone this year, and that could lead to Minshew and the passing game forced to play up-tempo in the third and fourth quarter most weeks. Don’t forget how much fun the Buccaneers were last year, largely because of the volume. Minshew’s pass-catchers aren’t in Tampa’s league, but D.J. Chark looks like a legitimate star and the support guys aren’t bad. More importantly, I don’t trust Leonard Fournette at all. Minshew makes sense as a best ball or superflex pick right now, and could be a final-round pick [or Week 1 waiver gem] in more standard leagues. The 2020 Jaguars might put the fun in dysfunctional.”

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The Jaguars defense finished second in points and yards allowed in 2017, and fourth and fifth in those categories in 2018. In 2019, the Jaguars defense fell to 21st in points allowed, 24th in yards allowed, 27th in yards per pass play allowed, 31st in yards per run play allowed and 29th overall in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric. The defense got worse trading Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye, and we don't know what will happen with Yannick Ngakoue. Three years ago, this was considered perhaps the best defense in football. It’s nowhere near that anymore.

What will happen with Yannick Ngakoue? 

One of the few blue-chip players the Jaguars still have is Ngakoue (along with receiver D.J. Chark, defensive end Josh Allen and … where’s that shrug emoji?). Ngakoue wanted out after getting the franchise tag and got in a fight with co-owner Tony Khan on Twitter, but ultimately wasn't traded. Once the draft passed without a deal, the chances of a deal became slimmer.

“I think his options are very limited at this point in time,” GM Dave Caldwell said after the first round of the draft, according to the Jaguars’ site.

“We weren't able to get a trade. We actually weren't even really able to get an offer.”

Caldwell is right; Ngakoue doesn’t have many options. He’ll probably play if there’s no late trade, because it’s a lot of money (about $19.3 million) to pass up for a player who came into the league as a third-round pick. But it doesn’t mean he’ll be happy. 

Trevor Lawrence is one of the best prospects at quarterback in many years. Would Jaguars fans trade a horrible year for a decade or more of Lawrence? Probably. The Jaguars’ ceiling this year isn’t very good. It’s impossible to see Jacksonville being a playoff team, even if everything went right. At this point it’s best to hit rock bottom and grab Lawrence. 

It’s hard to say a team’s best-case scenario is 2-14 and the nightmare is 6-10, but that is where the Jaguars are. What if Gardner Minshew is just good enough to help knock the Jaguars out of the top-five picks, but not good enough to get excited about? What if the Jaguars win just enough games to keep team owner Shad Khan from firing Doug Marrone again? It’s never fun to be the worst team in football, but being the sixth- or seventh-worst team would be a lot worse. 

The Jaguars have posted double-digit losses eight of the past nine seasons, and it seems like they’re headed there again. This is a talent-poor roster in a suddenly tough division. They’ll be the worst team in the NFL, get the No. 1 pick and Trevor Lawrence, and at least there will be hope of permanently digging out of this never-ending hole. 

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32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. 
Washington Redskins
30. 
Cincinnati Bengals
29. 
Carolina Panthers
28. 
New York Giants
27. 
Detroit Lions
26. 
New York Jets
25. 
Atlanta Falcons
24. 
Miami Dolphins
23.
Las Vegas Raiders
22.
Los Angeles Chargers
21.
Houston Texans