The Jaguars' deepest position group lost Malik Jackson and added promising rookie Josh Allen, which sets them up to terrorize the league like it did in 2017.
It was almost noon on Tuesday, and all but two Jaguars’ players had left the practice field. The rest were back inside the air-conditioned TIAA Bank Field facility.
As the heat index was hitting triple digits outside, class remained in session in stifling humidity for the team’s longest-tenured NFL player and its most promising rookie.
Calais Campbell, the 32-year-old football professor, had stayed behind for a tutoring session, giving pass-rushing tips and other pointers to defensive end Josh Allen.
“He’s just showing me a couple more moves I can have in my toolbox,” said Allen, the team’s first-round draft pick. “I thank him for that because he doesn’t have to do it.”
“Like in school, just staying after to earn some extra credit,” Campbell added as the pair walked off the field.
Don’t dismiss that as a token gesture. It not only uplifts Jaguars’ coaches to see the way a veteran like Campbell tries to make teammates better, but it’s a small glimpse as to why this defensive line has the potential to be the NFL’s best in 2019.
The talent is self-explanatory. What also matters is this group, some of whom rested in Thursday’s preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles, feels connected and supremely motivated.
Frankly, there’s plenty of reason to believe this Jaguars’ defense can return to 2017 form when it was a league-wide terror, starting with a D-line that has its own regrets about how last year’s 5-11 record went down.
Things were hashed out the first day the team reported back for offseason workouts in mid-April. Defensive tackle Abry Jones and Campbell got their position group assembled for a heart-to-heart, clear-the-air session about not letting 2018 carry over into this year.
“Calais asked if there was anything we needed to get better at, and we just all gave our input,” Jones said. “Last year ate at us because we all knew our talent, but we really underachieved.
“This year, we’re all OK with keeping each other accountable. No one takes criticism personally. We sat down as a D-line and talked about things we’re going to change and communication was one of the biggest things.”
Campbell, who led the Jaguars with 10.5 sacks last year and made a second consecutive Pro Bowl, doesn’t absolve himself from blame for the Jaguars’ regression.
“One of the biggest things, to be honest, was we got a little too aggressive in trying to just get sacks and we didn’t play the run as well as we could have at times,” said Campbell. “I was a big culprit early in the season.”
Specifically, Campbell cited a first down play late in the Week 3 home loss to the Tennessee Titans when he thought quarterback Marcus Mariota was running a bootleg, only to see him hand off to Derrick Henry for a 5-yard gain. That fourth quarter play was part of the Titans’ game-winning drive that led to Ryan Succop’s 28-year field goal in a 9-6 Jaguars’ defeat.
Looking back on it, Campbell said his mistake was “I got to trust my keys. The general rule when you’re taking a chance and you read something is to make sure the ball doesn’t hit your gap.”
Undoubtedly, those kind of little mistakes that sabotaged the 2018 season do provide motivational fuel. But what really sets up the D-line for a bounce-back year is the group’s makeup and some planet-aligning circumstances.
While it lost tackle Malik Jackson to free agency, an unexpected boost came when a promising edge rusher in Allen became available with the No. 7 draft pick. Plus, the belief is that tackle Taven Bryan will take a significant jump after a disappointing rookie season.
Keeping veteran nose tackle Marcell Dareus was critical because the Jaguars need his nastiness and disruptive presence. All he cares about is clearing the way for playmakers Yannick Ngakoue, Campbell and others to be on a highlight reel.
“I know [head coach Doug] Marrone and what he’s looking for,” said Dareus. “I love this game and I leave it all out there. It’s not about me. I just want to help these guys reach their goal, and watch them smile and jump around for a sack or tackle for a loss. If I feel I helped them, that’s my whole deal. I just want to f—— s—— up and go have fun.”
You don’t need expletives to understand this is easily the team’s deepest, and hungriest, position group. If the Jaguars’ defense is going to approach the 55 sacks and 33 turnovers it had in 2017, the front line will have to be the trigger mechanism. It certainly has the ingredients.
Entering his 12th season, Campbell feels as energized as when he was in his mid-20s. He’s focused on both a third consecutive double-digit sack season and returning to the playoffs.
Ngakoue, embroiled in a contract dispute with the front office, is clearly driven to prove his worth for a long-term extension or the chance to cash in as a possible free agent next year.
“Contract years are big motivators,” said Campbell. “Even if you don’t care about the money or act like you don’t care, it’s just natural. I think [Ngakoue] is going to have a monster year.
“Honestly, we could be special. You can see it. You get our four rush guys in there together, you can just feel the quality energy on the line.”
Nobody could be a bigger beneficiary than Allen, who felt the moment the Jaguars took the University of Kentucky product that he was walking into an ideal situation.
“I was coming into a group where I knew I didn’t have to be the guy,” said Allen. “They just want me to do my job and pick up the slack. You got two dominant edge guys, and I’m looking to be one of those, and Calais inside, you’re looking at a scary group.
“Once we get our D-line group going, I don’t feel like anybody is going to stop us.”
Jones, who always watches the first round of the NFL draft, remembers how energized he felt when Allen was selected.
“In this league, you can never have too many pass-rushers,” said Jones. “There was definitely a ‘hell, yeah’ [feeling] when he got drafted. He’s come in and outdone my expectations.”
Campbell adds Allen is further along than most rookies, saying: “The talent is great, but it’s his understanding of what we’re trying to do. We’ve actually put a lot on his plate because he’s shown he can handle it.”
Beyond the teacher-student connection of Campbell and Allen, or being in its fourth season in coordinator Todd Wash’s system, plenty of things are lining up almost perfectly for this defensive line in 2019.
This is the one place where the Jaguars could be better than anybody else in the NFL.
firstname.lastname@example.org: (904) 359-4540