Over a ten year span (2008-2017), the Jacksonville Jaguars picked in the top ten of the draft. From 2012-17 they picked in the top five. But after a season in which they made it to the AFC championship game the Jags are in uncharted, yet unusually welcoming territory as they sit at 29th overall in the first round of the NFL draft.
The Jags also don’t have any glaring, definitive, holes on the roster which gives them a plethora of options with their first round pick. The team has secondary needs at linebacker, nickelback, safety, wide receiver, guard, tackle, and depending on who you talk to, quarterback. This leaves them in a luxurious position to take a best player available type of approach. However, there are several players in this year’s draft who would be intriguing picks. Let’s take a look at a five of them:
1. Guard – Will Hernandez, UTEP
Hernandez would be an absolute best-case-scenario, home run pick. If Hernandez is available 29th, the Jags should definitely take him, and would be extremely ill advised to pass up the former FCS stand out. He has the size, instincts, and skill set to be a impact starter from day one. An absolute bully in the trenches, Hernandez excels at creating space in the run game, which fits the Jaguars run-first philosophy perfectly. He would allow Jacksonville to continuously beat up defenses, while giving quarterback Blake Bortles more time to throw on passing downs. While much of the buzz at guard is around Notre Dame’s Quentin Nelson, Hernandez is a underrated player who would be an immediate upgrade over AJ Cann (who is in the last year of his contract) at one of the team’s most vital positions.
While Hernandez, would undoubtedly be a great pick for the Jags, he remains a wild card for several reasons.
First, it’s growing increasingly unlikely that he’ll be available by the time the Jags pick 29th, especially with the number of teams ahead of them that could use a plug-and-play prospect at guard. It also seems likely that the Jags would want to invest in other positions – even along the offensive line – especially after doling out fat contracts to Andrew Norwell and center/guard Brandon Linder. Jacksonville might not want to invest their top draft choice in a position they’ve put some much money into.
It also appears that the front office is looking for a worthy successor to right tackle Jermey Parnell. Parnell, will turn 32 before the season starts, and is set to make $5 million and $6 million in 2018 and 2019, respectively (per spotrac). With the amount of money the Jaguars have tied up in their offensive line and the number of young players coming up for contract, it’s time for them to look at a cheaper, younger option at the position. This may led to the Jags selecting a versatile offensive lineman like former Texas Longhorn Connor Williams who can compete for playing time at guard in 2018, before filling in at right tackle in 2019. The front office has also hosted a number of pre draft visits with tackles ranging from Oregon’s Tyrell Crosby to Oklahoma’s Orlando Brown, indicating that they’re more focused on filling a vacancy at tackle than guard. Despite the obstacles preventing the team from drafting Hernandez, I think he is by far their best bet in terms of need and production if available when they pick.
2. Inside Linebacker – Rashaan Evans, Alabama
Evans is a big, well built, fast player who can play at several linebacker positions. With the retirement of Paul Pauluszky and Myles Jack in the final year of his contract, his versatility could be extremely useful. The Jaguars will almost certainly need to draft a linebacker at some point, so why not try to get a big time difference maker? Even with the surprising emergence of 2017 fifth round pick Blair Brown late last season, Evans could compete for playing time immediately.
The addition of Evans would also add incredible depth and talent to arguable one of the better positions on the depth chart. Evans has the ability to pressure quarterbacks on a blitz, serve as a extra man in the box on running downs, and play sticky man coverage. He is a true hybrid at the position, that could be groomed by seasoned defensive coordinator – and future head coaching candidate – Todd Wash to eventually play in the spot that fits him best. Overall, Evans is another outstanding option at the pick, and could be a player who makes Jags fans happy for years to come.
For similar reasons to Evans, I think Leighton Vander Esch out of Boise State would be a equally good – if not better – pick, but I think there’s a even smaller likelihood of him being available which is why he isn’t listed.
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3. Tight End – Hayden Hurst, South Carolina
Hurst is a guy who could fill yet another secondary need on the team at Tight End. Tight End is arguably their biggest subordinate need as recently signed Austin Seferian Jenkins is unproven, expensive, and on a two year rental – with an opt out clause. The Jags also need more pass catching options for Bortles. Set to turn 25 in August, Hurst has the developed body and maturity to make an impact on a NFL roster. He’s also a proven receiving threat in the talent ridden SEC, where he did an excellent job gaining separation all over the field, and gaining yards after contact.
The former Gamecock is arguably the best dual-skilled tight end in this year’s class. He fares almost as well as a blocker as he does as a receiver. This would allow him to be a true three down, durable tight end at the next level. The downside to Hurst is his age. He will likely have a shorter overall career than his contemporaries. However, he still can be an impact player for many years to come, so this shouldn’t stop teams from drafting him.
While Hurst is undoubtedly a good option with the 29th pick, and could be an instant difference maker, I just feel like there’s more value to be had with a first round pick. Maybe this is me putting on my GM cherry picking hat with less than a week to the draft, but with so many skilled pass catching tight ends available, I just feel they can get a more talented player at a more integral position. I especially feel this way considering that one of Mike Gesicki, Mark Andrews, or Dallas Goedert is almost certain to be available when the Jags pick in the second round (56th overall). Either way, I think Hurst is a solid, respectable, safe, option at the pick and wouldn’t be disappointed or surprised if the front office chose him.
4. Safety – Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
Before I go any further, let me just say that Harrison would be best in the event that the Jags decide to trade back into the second round. While he is a excellent prospect, most scouts and front office personnel don’t have a first round grade on him. I also don’t think that he’s necessarily a plug-and-play guy, and see him as more of a question mark than some of these other guys. This is specifically why I’d have trouble justifying taking him so early.
However, the former Alabama standout definitely has the traits to be an impact player at the next level. He is a athletic, hard hitting punisher who excels in the box when stopping the run. Due to his stature, skills, and past trouble covering wide receivers, he seems best suited to play strong safety in the NFL. In Jacksonville, Harrison could give DC Wash the luxury of using three safeties in certain packages.
He can also be groomed to replace Barry Church who’s set to make $5 million and $6.25 million, respectively, the next two seasons. It’s no secret that the Jags are going to need to penny pinch the next few years – especially in the secondary – and I’d be wise to start as early as possible. With so many remedial needs, and a tradeback looking increasingly likely, this could be an intriguing option at the top of the second round.
A trade back would likely give the Jags another pick to work with in 2018. This would allow them to address several of their backseat positional needs with rotational players, while potentially getting a impact starter at one or two of them.
5. Quarterback – Lamar Jackson, Louisville
In light of Tom Coughlin’s recent comments in which he complimented Lamar Jackson, I just had to look at him as a option. Smokescreen or not, it seems like those within the Jags front office were impressed with the dual-threat signal caller in private visits. It’s no secret that Jackson would add legitimate talent and firepower to a quarterback room that’s lacking it. While the team has been able to win with Blake Bortles, why not up the ante and try to improve the most important position on the field? It’s no secret that Jackson adds a dual threat element that Bortles is lacking. Recently acquired Cody Kessler is a large unknown – having played only briefly with the Browns over two seasons – and won’t push Bortles if he starts to struggle.
Assuming Jackson is available, this would be a very respectable pick that shows Jacksonville is all in on trying to win long term. If the Jags truly feel Jackson can be an special type of elite quarterback, there’s no reason they shouldn’t make this pick. Quarterbacks can make (or break) an team’s season and Jackson should be no different. However, the need to upgrade other positions with instant impact complimentary pieces in an attempt to win now may prevent the Jags from pulling the trigger.