Jacksonville Jaguars get positive review in ESPN's NFL contenders ranking

• The Jaguars took a step back last year but have a realistic chance of bouncing back in 2024.

Jan 14, 2023; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16)
Jan 14, 2023; Jacksonville, Florida, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Jacksonville Jaguars aren't probably where they wanted to be in Year 3 of the Doug Pederson era. After winning the AFC South and making the playoffs in 2022, they suddenly find themselves playing second fiddle to the Houston Texans. On the bright side, they're in a position to return to the playoffs and compete for the division title in 2024. And while they took a step back last season, Jeremy Fowler of ESPN thinks the Jags are trending in the right direction.

Fowler just ranked NFL teams by tiers, from rebuilding projects to contenders. He placed Jacksonville somewhere in between, noting that they're "headed in the right direction." Among the things Fowler took into consideration when sorting out all 32 clubs were the average age of the roster, salary cap, and star power. Regarding the Jaguars, he says their offseason will revolve around keeping wide receiver Calvin Ridley and outside pass rusher Josh Allen.

While general manager Trent Baalke has publicly stated that Allen will be in Jacksonville in 2024, Fowler believes keeping Ridley will be a bit more complicated.

Per terms of the 2022 trade with Atlanta to acquire Ridley, Jacksonville's third-round pick due to Atlanta turns into a second-rounder if Jacksonville extends Ridley's contract.

That's why Jacksonville would need to wait until after the new league year begins to avoid giving up a second, because at that point any deal would be a free agency signing and not an extension. But that gives Ridley time to talk with other teams during the negotiating window, unless he and Jacksonville can work out a loose agreement and wait."

With wide receiver Tee Higgins expected to get the franchise tag, re-signing Ridley is the Jaguars' best course of action this offseason. Although he struggled with drops at times, and his communication with Trevor Lawrence wasn't always great in 2023, he was routinely their best offensive player. If the Jaguars were to let him walk, wide receiver would then become one of their top needs.

There will tentatively be a few intriguing options in the open market, but none of them are nearly as talented as Ridley. Another route would be to turn to the draft, but as promising as Keon Coleman or Rome Odunze could be, they're unknown commodities.

It's also worth noting that Zay Jones could be a cap casualty. If the Jaguars move on from him, they won't be in a position to lose Ridley. Once the Jaguars figure out how to keep Ridley and Allen, they'll need to focus on making upgrades to the defensive trenches, the cornerback room, and the interior offensive line.

The Jaguars are in a position to re-claim the AFC South in 2024

The Jaguars regressed last year but they could bounce back if they make the necessary moves in the offseason. They have several building blocks in place, they just need to revamp their roster and fix things that held them back. So far, they're off to a good start. Tackling and effort were an issue for the defense last year. To remedy that, Jacksonville moved on from Mike Caldwell and hired Ryan Nielsen as their defensive coordinator.

Under Nielsen, Josh Allen and Travon Walker should continue to thrive, and players such as linebacker Devin Lloyd and Antonio Johnson are poised to take their game to the next level. And while the Jaguars chose to keep offensive coordinator Press Taylor around, they should also experience an improvement on offense if they make the appropriate upgrades up front.

More importantly, Trevor Lawrence will be healthy. He dealt with a myriad of injuries in the second half of the 2023 season that hindered his performance. As long as he's 100 percent, the Jaguars will have a chance week in and week out.

Other teams in the AFC South are getting ready to take the next step in 2024. If the Jacksonville Jaguars don't want to stay behind, they'll need to be aggressive in the offseason. Fortunately for them, they don't have to start from scratch. Heck, you could say they're headed in the right direction.

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