JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Coach Doug Pederson’s first step in rebuilding the woeful Jacksonville Jaguars is clear: Get immediate help for franchise quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
It’s why Pederson and general manager Trent Baalke added four offensive starters in free agency. Five-time Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff, tight end Evan Engram and receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones signed contracts totaling $154.5 million that included $89.25 million guaranteed.
There’s more to come, too.
No one would be shocked to see Pederson and Baalke take a similar, offense-heavy approach to next week’s NFL draft, where the Jaguars have the No. 1 pick for the second consecutive year. Alabama left tackle Evan Neal or North Carolina State’s Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu would seemingly make as much sense for Jacksonville with the top choice as Michigan standout pass rusher and betting favorite Aidan Hutchinson, especially considering the Jags believe Lawrence has a chance to make a big leap in his second season and with a mostly new offensive staff.
“Absolutely,” Pederson said. “You have to be honest with yourself, right? You know, when you have the quarterback element in place, what is around him?”
Not enough, clearly.
Lawrence completed 59.6% of his passes for 3,641 yards, with 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions as a rookie last season. He was tied for 30th in the league in QB rating (71.9), a number reflective of dropped passes and not much of a downfield passing game.
The biggest issue? Lawrence, the slam-dunk top pick a year ago, was sacked 32 times and harassed way more often. He finished tied for sixth in the league in most times pressured, according to the NFL’s Next Gen stats.
Pederson and Baalke responded by beginning an O-line makeover that seems far from complete. They let starting guards Andrew Norwell and A.J. Cann walk in free agency and were prepared to cut veteran center Brandon Linder when he retired.
They used the team’s franchise tag on left tackle Cam Robinson, guaranteeing him $16.7 million in 2022, and signed Scherff to a three-year, $49.5 million deal that included $30 million guaranteed. But holes remain.
Although Robinson still could sign a long-term deal, he also could be entering his sixth and final season in Jacksonville. Backups Tyler Shatley and Ben Bartch are penciled in as starters right now, and right tackle Jawaan Taylor, the 35th overall pick in the 2019 draft, has been more disappointing than dominant through three seasons.
“We like our room right now,” Baalke said.
He’d surely like it better with one of college football’s top blockers in the mix, potentially a guy Jacksonville could count on to grow alongside Lawrence for a decade or more. Still, Baalke and Pederson believe a more modern blocking scheme led by assistant coach Phil Rauscher has a chance to benefit the entire line, especially Taylor.
“Do we feel comfortable at right tackle?” Baalke quipped. “Is that a serious question? We feel very comfortable. … I’m not going to sit and debate with you on whether (Taylor is) a good football player or not. But we feel very comfortable with him.
“Is there growth that’s got to take place? Is there more consistency? I think we can say that about every player.”
But are the Jaguars willing to gamble Lawrence’s development — and maybe his health — on so many unknowns protecting him? After all, Robinson and Taylor have been nowhere close to impenetrable bookends. Scherff hasn’t played a full season since 2016, missing 24 games over the past five seasons.
Despite starting 33 games, Shatley is a career backup entering his ninth season. And there’s little experience between Bartch, backup Will Richardson and second-year pro Walker Little.
Neal or Ekwonu have to be under consideration at No. 1, especially given the draft’s pass-rushing depth. Either could work at guard for a year before replacing Robinson for the foreseeable future.
But if the Jaguars go with defense to open the April 28 draft, they still are likely to spend several picks — and at least one in the first three rounds — to address Lawrence’s all-important line.
“Obviously, you kind of have your thoughts on which direction it may go,” Lawrence said. “Obviously it’s usually a quarterback that’s probably going to be the first pick and a team needs a quarterback, whatever. And this year is just a different year.
“I’ll be just as interested as all you guys and everybody else watching who we’re going to pick. It’s exciting.”