It’s hard to believe if you were looking from the vantage point of any time before 2016, but the Seattle Seahawks must be wildly jealous of the Jacksonville Jaguars right now. The tide has turned. Thankfully, the Jaguars are not even close to being a rival of the Seahawks, though the seeds in Jacksonville were certainly planted by one of those bald/goateed/defensive Pete Carroll disciples.
As it stands, the Jaguars or Philadelphia Eagles have the best defensive line in football. Maybe a different team emerges by season’s middle, but as of June, the talent at the top and back-end of a defensive line is rivaled by nobody else outside of those two franchises. It’s hard to believe — but not undeniable — that the Jags may fall second in that category. Because their line could be historically good.
And that’s why there’s pretty much no chance that they can keep it together beyond one more season.
As it currently stands, Jacksonville is set to be around $17.8 million over the cap (thanks overthecap) for 2019. That’ll change — considerably — as time goes on, but they’re starting from the bottom of the hole. Much of that has to do with the $40 million combined cap hit of three defensive linemen: Malik Jackson ($15 million), Calais Campbell ($14.5 million) and Marcell Dareus ($10.5 million).
How will they start to get under the cap without touching the contracts of those three players, if that’s how they want to proceed? Tashaun Gipson ($7.4 million saved, if released), Barry Church ($6.2m), Jermey Parnell ($6m), and Abry Jones ($4m) are the ones who immediately stand out. Though that’s both of their starting safeties, starting right tackle, and starting nose tackle. Will they have four starter replacements ready to go?
The next question revolves not around getting under the cap, but keeping some current pieces happy and in the building. For one, Dante Fowler, Jr., the third overall pick in 2015 who didn’t have his fifth-year option picked up, will become an unrestricted free agent if he doesn’t get the franchise tag; I can’t imagine how they could afford the franchise tag, which for a defensive end will be at least $18 million.
Who knows what will become of Fowler in season four?
He missed all of his rookie season and then returned, only to lose out the starting spot to rookie Yannick Ngakoue in 2016. He seemed completely buried when the team added Campbell in 2017, but Fowler made a role for himself last season, tying with Jackson for third in team sacks with eight. (Yes, four players with at least eight sacks, how nice does that feel?) He also had two forced fumbles. PFF has described him as inconsistent when healthy, but he’ll hit free agency when he’s 24 and teams may ascribe “opportunity” with greater consistency for Fowler in the future.
Truthfully, if Fowler plays well and hits free agency, I do not expect the Seahawks to even make a run at him. They have shown almost no interest in high-priced defensive linemen, with the closest exception being the trade acquisition of Sheldon Richardson in 2017. No Campbell, no Jackson, no Olivier Vernon, no Jason Pierre-Paul. Instead, Seattle aims to find under-valued pass rushers that are looking for that additional opportunity to succeed, like the versions of Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril prior to 2013.
Instead, the most likely thing that would bring Fowler to the Seahawks would be if he faded into further obscurity and left question marks for teams to answer during his 2019 free agency. Much like his former teammate Luke Joeckel on the other side of the line. I don’t see Seattle getting involved in any bidding wars, as they are not in denial about their reluctance to pick up the phone during the first wave of free agency.
The other thing Jacksonville has to do is figure out the future of Ngakoue, who I would think is the second-most important player on their defensive line behind Campbell, if not first. Ngakoue had 12 sacks last season, giving him 20 over a two-year career. He’s already racked up 10 forced fumbles since being taken 69th overall out of Maryland — one pick after the San Francisco 49ers took Will Redmond, a cornerback yet to play in the league. (Summertime in Seattle means we gotta have shade.) Ngakoue will be entering the final year of his rookie contract in 2019, and given that he’ll make just $3.48 million over the life of that deal, it would be nice of the Jags to extend him next summer as a fitting reward for his unbelievably-valuable services.
That could further push them into a life post-some of their current defensive line stars.
Even as he approaches 32, Campbell doesn’t seem like an early-release candidate next year. He was a dominant force in 2017 and really brings the whole defense together as an elite unit. If anything did happen to Campbell, Jacksonville would save $9.5 million by releasing him. Again, I don’t expect that.
The team would save $11 million by releasing Jackson, which would be after three years of a six-year, $85.5 million contract. But Jackson, only 28, just made the Pro Bowl for the first time. I can’t imagine that the team is at all unhappy with the deal, which is substantial given how much risk it may have carried for a guy who was riding high off of a Super Bowl win with the Denver Broncos the year before.
The most obvious savings would come from Dareus, whose entire $10.5 million cap hit could be wiped off the books, if released. Dareus was acquired midseason from the Buffalo Bills to be reunited with former Buffalo coach Doug Marrone, then played the final nine games with the Jaguars. His impact doesn’t quite show up on the stats sheet (20 tackles, one sack) but he’s 28 and he was an elite draft pick (third overall) for good reason. Six games into the season, Jacksonville had allowed the second-most rushing yards in the NFL, with 5.2 YPC, highest in the league.
Games 7-16, they had allowed the 22nd-most rushing yards and 3.78 YPC. That was all with Dareus. In the playoffs against the likes of LeSean McCoy and Le’Veon Bell in the first two rounds, the Jags contained the rush and advanced to the AFC Championship game. There, they held the Patriots to 46 yards on the ground. How easily do you let go of a player who may have significant responsibility for that result?
Not easily, but Jacksonville knows what they are preparing for next year.
That’s why they selected defensive linemen Taven Bryan with the 29th overall pick in the draft, a guy they see as a backup next season all along the unit; from Campbell to Jackson to being a pass rushing defensive tackle on third down. If all goes to plan, Bryan has an elevated position in 2019, because there seems to be little chance of them keeping the unit together for longer than the next 16 regular season games and change.
Who goes first and where do they go? There’s much left to be decided until we can even start to answer those questions, but it’s not too soon to see that those questions are coming.