Jaguars 2023 NFL Draft: The case for Taking an Edge Rusher in Round 1
The top concerns for the Jacksonville Jaguars are arguably pass rush, offensive tackle, and depth at tight end. I’m going to discuss each position within the current roster and what possible options for improvement exist within the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
Some pundits may say cornerback is among the team's top needs. Last year’s tandem of Tyson Campbell and Darius Williams (after he moved outside from the slot) performed quite well, especially considering the lack of production from the pass rush. If improving the pass rush is made a priority, then finding a nickel corner in the later rounds should be sufficient.
I'll start with the second most important position on an NFL roster, just behind quarterback, and that is the “edge” position, which encompasses both 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker. Getting after opposing quarterbacks has been a consistent struggle ever since the team’s 2017 run to the AFC Championship game and with the current state of the Jaguars salary cap, free agent help is not on the way.
Outside of his rookie season in 2019, Josh Allen has logged 7.5 sacks in a season just once. As a top-ten draft pick, more is expected out of him and he’s not getting any younger as he enters his fifth season, the last of his rookie contract.
Travon Walker, the first overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, logged just 3.5 sacks in 14 starts last season. Although he seemed to perform better when moved inside late in the year, everyone in Jacksonville is hoping for a big second year jump regardless of where he lines up.
Yet another first-round draft pick pass rusher, K’Lavon Chaisson has notched only three sacks in three seasons with the Jaguars. It's hard to tell why things haven’t worked out for him thus far, but expecting him to have a breakout season in 2023 might be too much to ask. He currently holds little trade value, so he might not be going anywhere.
What are the pass-rush options for the Jacksonville Jaguars in Round 1?
In my opinion, options are pretty limited in the first round, with Jacksonville holding the 24th overall pick. Calijah Kancey, the undersized defensive tackle out of Pitt might still be around, but he is a gamble. Some analysts want to compare him to All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald, but that doesn’t work for two reasons: first, despite similar height and weight, they carry it much differently, with Donald having a much thicker lower half and Kancey’s weight being more evenly distributed.
And second, this year’s prospect was far less productive, registering 16 sacks in three seasons versus Donald’s 27.5 in his final three seasons at Pitt. This doesn’t mean Kancey isn’t talented or that he will not be an impactful player, but there are just very few examples of players with that body type, in that role, being successful in the NFL.
Another possibility with the Jaguars' first-round pick is Lukas Van Ness out of Iowa. At 6’5” and 272 pounds he has incredible power that he used to his benefit in both rushing the passer and defending against the run. The concern scouts see in his game is the lack of pass-rush tools; he mostly uses pure power to create pressure and generally nothing else.
However, with his physical gifts, it is certainly reasonable to think that Van Ness can develop additional moves to get after opposing quarterbacks even more effectively at the next level. Having said that, there’s a better chance than not that he will not be around at No. 24. But if he is, he must then be a strong candidate to join the Jaguars.
The final prospect I want to highlight is a bit of a sleeper or at least a lesser-known name, especially when discussing first-round prospects, and that is Drew Sanders out of Arkansas. He started his collegiate career as a defensive end at Alabama but did not see the field much in two seasons as a rotational player.
Sanders later transferred to Arkansas, where he moved to an off-the-ball linebacker role and racked up 9.5 sacks, 13.5 tackles for loss, forced four turnovers, and deflected five passes. Most draftniks have him listed as an inside linebacker, but at 6’4”, 235 pounds he has the size and skill set to be a very effective rush linebacker from the edge.
As we've discussed, the Jaguars are in dire need of improvement at the pass rush position. While there may be a few intriguing prospects available in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft, the team will need to evaluate all options carefully to ensure they make the right choice.