On a day where one of the classiest Jaguars in history announced his retirement, the franchise made a strong statement about the future direction of its run-centric offense with three stunning developments: making a huge financial commitment in free agency that didn’t include money being funneled to Allen Robinson’s account, yet also brought back the team's less-heralded free agent receiver.
Raise your hand if you saw this coming a month ago — per several reports, expecting to sign Carolina Panthers All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell to a five-year, $66.5 million contract, saying goodbye to A-Rob, who was shown the love and dollars he desired by the Chicago Bears, and re-signing receiver Marquise Lee to a four-year, $38 million deal?
Well, so much for a tepid opening to the 2018 NFL tampering/free agency period. And all of this happened as the not-totally-unexpected announcement from linebacker Paul Posluszny came down that he was retiring after 11 NFL seasons, the last seven in Jacksonville.
But the far bigger implication for the Jaguars and their offensive attack is the strategy they chose in dealing with nearly $30 million available in cap space. Not paying a 24-year-old playmaking receiver in A-Rob to stick around as a major weapon for quarterback Blake Bortles, yet more than doubling the offer for Norwell than they were likely willing to give Robinson.
The Jaguars had three options: (a) either franchise tag A-Rob or give him a compromise deal in the neighborhood of the Bears’ three-year, $42 million contract ($25 million guarantee), then wait until the NFL draft to address the interior line; (b) commit big money to both their All-Pro receiver coming off a torn ACL and Norwell; or (c) break the bank for the best available interior lineman in free agency and let Robinson walk.
Surprisingly, the Jaguars chose the latter option, then mitigated the damage to the receiving corps by enticing Lee to stay on board with a reported $18 million guarantee just as he was about to hit free agency. In addition, the Jaguars are expected to sign the Indianapolis Colts' Donte Moncrief, 24, a viable red-zone weapon who had 13 TDs in 2015-16. Now Lee is not as close to a No. 1 receiver as Robinson and he also had his share of health problems, but at least the front office retained a veteran Bortles knows and is comfortable in Nathaniel Hackett's offense. The addition of Moncrief brings in a potential starter that would minimize any depth issues.
Still, Tuesday's developments send an unmistakable message to the league that the original plan when Tom Coughlin came aboard as the front-office czar — to put a greater emphasis on the running game with Leonard Fournette as the bell cow — has been reinforced.
What isn’t surprising is that Coughlin, as big a proponent as anybody of football games being won in the trenches, would commit big money to upgrading the offensive line. While the Jaguars led the NFL in rushing last season and set a franchise record with fewest sacks (24), you know Coughlin was seething when his team couldn’t run the ball in the fourth quarter to close out the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots.
So Jaguars’ GM Dave Caldwell and team capologist Tim Walsh made the numbers work to acquire Norwell and re-sign Lee, while not jeopardizing future big-money deals to re-sign Jalen Ramsey, Yannick Ngakoue and Myles Jack in the next 16 months or so.
Norwell should also fill another big need for the Jaguars, and that’s give them a defined vocal leader, a role that all-too-quiet center Brandon Linder or anybody else never fully embraced. The truth is the 2017 O-line was pretty decent, but it lacked an enforcer-type that the 6-foot-6, 315-pound Norwell should aptly provide.
As for Robinson, letting him go and re-signing Lee, who has only 8 touchdowns in four seasons, was every bit the calculated gamble as making Norwell the NFL’s highest-paid guard. The Jaguars have some decent young receivers in Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook, as well as a respectable piece in Allen Hurns, who may be expendable with Moncrief arriving. The bigger point is, there’s no guarantee anybody on the roster or whoever might be drafted will become what A-Rob was in 2015 when he accounted for 1,400 yards and 14 TDs.
It’s too bad the Jaguars and Robinson couldn’t get on the same contract page because there’s risk in allowing a weapon with the hands and vertical jump of Robinson, at only 24, to maybe flourish somewhere else. The Jaguars could well supplement that position in the draft. Just remember, the only receiver they ever selected before A-Rob to have such a quick impact was Justin Blackmon and off-the-field issues sabotaged his career.
The Jaguars were a 50-50 offense last year (527 runs, 527 passes), the only team besides the Buffalo Bills running the ball as often or more than passing. The Jaguars did that with just an okay offensive line and Fournette sidelined for three games.
So by backing up the Brinks truck for a guard, and parting ways with A-Rob, the Jaguars have decided the best path to reaching the Super Bowl is by spending to beef up the run game and hope a reconfigured receiving corps will make the passing attack better.
Every NFL team has to prioritize where it wants to spend its money. For the next couple years anyway, the Jaguars have decided winning the trenches is the route to winning a Lombardi trophy.
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