Other than the time the Baltimore Ravens actually infiltrated the AFC’s historic three-quarterback power rotation that has been in place for nearly the entire century, the Jacksonville Jaguars came closest to shaking up the conference’s hierarchy.
The Jaguars announced their arrival with authority by beating Ben Roethlisberger’s team in its house and nearly upending Tom Brady in New England. Jacksonville’s defensive foundation provides reasonable assurance last season’s work wasn’t a fluke.
As the championship windows of the Patriots and Steelers steadily close, the Jags represent one of the most interesting candidates to seize power.
Yet it’s arguable the Patriots were able to sneak away with another AFC title because of Blake Bortles‘ status as the Jaguars’ starting quarterback. (Well, that and officials insisting Myles Jack not be allowed to advance his suddenly not-so-seminal forced fumble.) The Bortles-led offense ground to a halt after an impressive first half against a defense Nick Foles eviscerated throughout Super Bowl LII.
The Jags’ dominant defense created an opening for 2018, but management authorizing a Bortles extension clouds the team’s near-future outlook.
While this wasn’t a ringing-endorsement extension and doesn’t lock Bortles into much money beyond the 2019 season, he is still probably going to be the quarterback for the 2018 Jaguars. That, and the two first-place-schedule games on the ’18 Jags’ docket, could represent an impediment for a team that’s extraordinarily well-constructed on one side of the ball.
This deal also opens the door for Jacksonville to consider second-tier quarterback options in this draft in hopes of finding a better player at a much lower draft slot than the one it used to select Bortles. That might matter more than the cap space, but again, for 2018 — and probably ’19 — going with Bortles could restrain a juggernaut.
It’s arguable there wasn’t a better option for Jags beyond Kirk Cousins, and Cousins will make far more in 2018 than Bortles will. But the Jags took themselves out of the running before that unique derby even started. They delayed a Bortles wrist surgery that could have taken place in 2017 and put his fifth-year option in position to vest by setting up the procedure for late January. That feels like a disservice to their 2018 chances.
The other options — Case Keenum, A.J. McCarron, Sam Bradford, maybe Tyrod Taylor — aren’t definitively better for the Jaguars than Bortles, although all but McCarron have provided superior work samples. It’s understandable the franchise would want someone already ingrained in its offense, but this was the team that Cousins — who said all along he wants to land with a winner — could have chosen.
Armed with Cousins, the Vikings would be even stronger contenders next season. But they have a lot of core free agents to pay in 2019. The Broncos could conceivably rocket back into striking distance of the Patriots or Steelers with Cousins, but their Super Bowl core is on the verge of the “aging” label. Jacksonville should have this defensive nucleus intact for multiple years, with cornerstone talents Jack, Jalen Ramsey and Telvin Smith likely in place for the long haul.
If the Jags were comfortable enough with Bortles, his raging inconsistency, and (thus far) low ceiling compared to the rest of the lot, they are paying for their decision from the 2014 draft. Unless they’re ready to draft a better answer this year or next with without the luxury of a high pick, they’re stuck.
Their better chance at landing a long-term answer came last year, after Bortles’ brutal 2016, when they held the No. 4 pick and Deshaun Watson was on the board. A slight trade-down for Watson or Patrick Mahomes may be too far into the what-if zone, but the Jaguars’ chances of hitting on someone better have now decreased thanks to last season’s defense-fueled ride. Bortles is now an odd passenger.
While fringe contenders or basement teams not having quarterback solutions isn’t abnormal, the Jaguars coming within four points of a Super Bowl magnifies their extension decision more than their usual (mediocre) finish would.
Jacksonville’s defense played unbelievably well in 2017, and it wasn’t enough. Instructively, that defense stayed almost entirely injury-free. Nearly the Jags’ entire starting defense turned in 16-game seasons. It wasn’t enough to beat maybe the sixth-best Patriots team this decade. An AFC with more depth will make similar Jaguar journeys more difficult, and although the Eagles showed a championship is possible with a below-average starting quarterback (albeit one who played like a Hall of Famer for much of Philadelphia’s postseason run), that’s the exception.
Great quarterbacks are obviously the best start for a champion’s roster construction. Good quarterbacks with balanced teams (Eli Manning’s Giants come to mind) have shown this works as well. The Jaguars are going for the iconic-defense-rules-all method the 2013 Seahawks and 2015 Broncos utilized.
Bortles is really going to test this blueprint, which is why images of Manning or Cousins Photoshopped in Jaguar gear popped up frequently last season.
It’s possible Cousins wasn’t going to pick the Jaguars anyway. They don’t have a winning tradition and play a game a year in London. He now wants to take visits, and moving on from Bortles and failing to secure one of those meetings — like the 2012 Chiefs in the Peyton Manning pursuit — would have left the contending team looking dumb. Yet, how much of a downgrade would Keenum or McCarron really have been from Bortles?
Arranging this surgery and preemptively removing themselves from the running makes one feel the Jags settled, Bortles’ new cap percentage notwithstanding.
Equipped with this extra cap space, a No. 1 defense almost entirely due back, and a possible Allen Robinson re-up, the Jaguars may have a better team around Bortles next season. But he had Robinson healthy in 2016 and bombed. As the Broncos learned the past two years, a defense-powered foundation can crack easily with bad quarterback play.
Even if this is relatively temporary and a medium-cost solution, Bortles will still have the biggest say about the Jaguars’ chances for the next two seasons. Those seasons could feature loaded rosters with the same hole at QB, and teams’ title windows generally aren’t open long without franchise quarterbacks.
The Jags are not in a great position to take advantage of this opportunity.