The Jacksonville Jaguars must make upgrades to the offensive trenches if they want to bounce back in 2024. Last year, they couldn't give Trevor Lawrence adequate protection or open lanes in the running game. One spot, in particular, that is in need of an upgrade is center. Yet, general manager Trent Baalke believes incumbent Luke Fortner has what it takes to play the position at a high level.
During his end-of-the-year press conference, Baalke told the media that his trust in Fortner hasn't wavered, noting that his issues in 2023 were "systematic" and not due to a lack of talent.
"I truly believe in Luke as a guy that has what it takes to play the position and play it well," Baalke said. "He's showing signs of doing that. This was not necessarily one player's issue. This was a systematic issue. When you look at across the board, the things I talked about going back to the basics, getting in a three-point stance, coming off the ball, forming an identity, all of those things. We've got to do better, right?"
Baalke continued, "But we also got to look to how do we make this a more competitive situation. Guys get nervous when the guy behind them is pushing them every day for the starting role. Our iron sharpens iron. You got to make these rooms as competitive as you can. Whether it's through the draft or free agency, we've got to attack that to make these rooms as competitive as they can be, so the guy that's starting is always feeling the pressure of the guy behind him."
Fortner, a third-round pick in the 2022 draft, was a Day 1 starter for the Jaguars. While he struggled at times as a rookie, the expectation was that he was going to make strides in his sophomore campaign. Unfortunately, the former Kentucky Wildcat regressed. Out of all qualifying centers last year, he ranked 33rd with an 87.2 percent pass block win rate. For context, there are 32 starting centers in the NFL, so there was at least one backup who was better than him.
Ricky Ballou of 1010 XL, for one, wasn't impressed with Baalke's defense of Fortner, arguing that his failure wasn't on the coaching staff. Simply, he's not good enough to play center in the NFL, "he's weak, he's not strong."
Center is one of the Jaguars most pressing needs in 2024
As much as Baalke wants to defend Luke Fortner, the performance isn't there. He was without a doubt Jacksonville's weakest link in the trenches and the only reason they didn't replace him was because they didn't have any other better options. Also, giving up on Fortner would signify the Jags dropped the ball when they drafted him, so it's easy to see why Baalke would speak highly of him.
In his defense, Baakle said that they'll add competition to the center spot but he stopped short of saying it was one of the team's most glaring needs. Working in the Jaguars' favor is that there are several paths to make upgrades to the position. If they dip their toes in free agency, there will be no shortage of options. Connor Williams, Andre James, Lloyd Cushenberry, and Aaron Brewer will be some of the best players available and none of them will probably command top-market money.
If they opt for the draft route, they could target Sedrick Van Pran, Jackson Powers-Johnson, Zach Frazier, or Christian Haynes. At least a couple of them should be available in the second round, so the Jaguars can easily afford to address another position in the first round.
Regardless of the route they take, Trent Baalke cannot continue to bury his head in the sand. If he wants his seat to get cooler in 2024, he'll need to restock the roster, and there is no position in bigger need of a makeover than center. Upgrading it should be one of his top priorities.