The Jaguars — despite a disastrous 2021 season in more ways than I'd like to remember — appear to have found at least four foundational pieces in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Trevor Lawrence fell into Trent Baalke's lap at number one overall. 99.9% of the football world would have made the same decision. But Baalke and the Jaguars DID make the pick. While it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for Lawrence during his rookie year, he consistently showed flashes of brilliance throughout the campaign, kept his head held high, and organically grew into the leader of the team and face of the franchise. He handled drama and controversy like a seasoned vet, and after a big-time performance against the Colts in Week 18, he heads into his first full NFL offseason on a high note. Trevor Lawrence is the unquestioned leader of the Jaguars moving forward.
The Jaguars' second first-round pick, running back Travis Etienne, injured his foot during the preseason and lost his entire rookie year. His NFL career was put on hold, but if he returns fully healthy, I'd expect him to make a positive impact on the team as well. Etienne has a rare combination of size and home-run ability. Still, we'll have to wait until 2022 to see if Etienne will develop into a long-term fixture.
The Jaguars' next pick — a selection that I was highly skeptical of — cornerback Tyson Campbell, developed into a legitimate starter on the outside. He had his struggles locating the ball in man coverage early on, but as defensive coordinator Joe Cullen adjusted the scheme to run more zone looks, Campbell found his footing and showed improvement as a man and zone defender. He's one tough cookie in run defense as well. Campbell should be a starting outside cornerback in Duval for the foreseeable future.
The Jaguars' fourth draft pick came at 45 overall, where they selected offensive tackle Walker Little. It was another intriguing selection, to say the least. Little hadn't played football in nearly two years, but there was no denying his size and god-given ability. Little failed to crack the starting lineup in 2021, that is until injuries and COVID took over. He replaced Cam Robinson (COVID) over the last two weeks of the season and looked the part of a starting left tackle. Against two tough defensive fronts, Little allowed just one total quarterback pressure in 71 pass-rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He's still got plenty to work on — including sustaining blocks and the second level — but the Jaguars appear to have found a quality starting left tackle for the future.
Up next, safety Andre Cisco was the top pick of the third round. Cisco was coming off a torn-ACL and wasn't fully healthy until the start of training camp. But he immediately stood out in practice and on the field during the preseason. The coaches opted to keep veterans in the starting lineup over the more talented Cisco, but once injuries struck the safety room, the rook got his chance. And boy, did he take advantage of it. His ball-hawking ways carried over from college to the NFL, as he nearly made a highlight-reel interception during his first drive as a starter and forced a fumble in the season finale. Cisco is a good run defender with insane range and a nose for the ball. He'll be a key cog on the defensive side of the ball for some time.
After round three, the Jaguars didn't get much production. But Jay Tufele remains a talented young interior defensive lineman, while defensive end Jordan Smith and tight end Luke Farrell remain TBD. WR Jalen Camp didn't make the final roster.
Call it what you will — lightning in a bottle or dumb luck — but Trent Baalke and the Jaguars' front office landed what appears to be an excellent draft class. This group of young players will help lead the Jaguars into — what we can only hope will be — a bold new era.
PS — For those that would suggest that this draft class merits Baalke sticking around, I couldn't disagree more. Beyond his track record of failed hires and poor relationships, the bottom line is that many potential coaching candidates have zero desire to work with a man whose best ability is holding on for dear life and outlasting his coaching hires. Shad Khan needs to show Trent Baalke the door.
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