Jaguars HC Doug Pederson inadvertently throws C Luke Fortner under the bus

• Jaguars HC Doug Pederson clumsily admits Luke Fortner was a liability last year

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) is helped up by center Luke Fortner (79) after
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) is helped up by center Luke Fortner (79) after / Corey Perrine/Florida Times-Union / USA

The Jacksonville Jaguars struggled in the offensive trenches last year. One big reason was center Luke Fortner, who was expected to improve but instead regressed. To remedy the issue, the Jags brought in veteran Mitch Morse, and head coach Doug Pederson admitted as much at the NFL owners' meeting.

Pederson told reporters at the NFL owners' meeting that Jacksonville signed Morse to bolster the center position. He also made a clumsy effort to show support for Fortner but it didn't go particularly well.

"I was in Kansas City when we drafted him, so obviously liked him and now that he became available, Pederson said in regards to signing Morse. "Listen, this is not it's not a knock on Luke at all. It's just a matter of getting better at a position, getting better as a group and I think Mitch brings a veteran presence. He's done it for several years now."

"It's really somebody that Luke can invest some time learning from and understanding. Mitch's strengths can be Luke's weaknesses and vice versa. Luke's strengths, Mitch, his weaknesses and they can really work together and have that competition that you want. So having a guy like Mitch, a veteran backup, come in, much like when we signed Brandon a couple of years ago helps us better as an offense," Pederson said.

Fortner, a third-round pick in 2022, made 34 consecutive starts in the past two years. However, he ranked 31st in pass block win rate among centers last year. He didn't fare much better in the running game, posting a Pro Football Focus grade of 44.0. Realizing they need to get much better up front, the Jags gave Morse a two-year, $10.5 million contract before the start of free agency.

A second-round pick in 2015, Morse was released by the Buffalo Bills as a cap-saving move before the start of free agency. He played for Pederson when he was the offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. He's never made the Pro Bowl but he's routinely played at a high level.

On top of that, the former Mizzou Tiger stayed relatively healthy the past three years, sitting out just four games in that span. While he's expected to compete for the starting job, he should have no trouble beating Fortner.

The Jaguars will stand behind Luke Fortner but Mitch Morse is the starter

Head coach Doug Pederson will never throw a player under the bus. That's why he tried to look for a way to say that the Mitch Morse signing wasn't a reflection of Fortner's play last year. Having said that, the Jacksonville Jaguars wouldn't have brought him in if Fortner hadn't struggled last year. Moreover, Morse's salary shows that he's getting paid to start. Unless the Jags want to have an expensive backup, it's hard to see Fornter in the starting lineup next season.

This isn't the end of the road for Fortner, though. He could benefit from spending the next two years on the bench. He was thrust into action because the Jaguars didn't have anyone else. He'll now get the chance to learn and hone his craft behind Morse.

Morse, for his part, will give the offensive line a big boost. Last year, they couldn't run the ball and lead the league in carries for no gain. Similarly, Trevor Lawrence was pressured at a high rate in throws of more than 3 seconds. Having Morse in the mix, along with Brandon Scherff and Ezra Cleveland should help.

The Jacksonville Jaguars should have a strong chance to compete for the AFC South in 2024 if their offensive line improves. Having Morse around should help.

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