The NFL free agency period is just days away. And before that, the legal tampering window will open on Monday at noon. We've just received official word that the new collective bargaining agreement passed. The CBAs approval gives the Jaguars, and the rest of the teams around the league, clarity on how much cap space will be at their disposal and the ability to use signing bonuses to limit first-year salary cap hits for new signings. This is a tool the Jaguars have used extensively in the Dave Caldwell era.
With the Jaguars placing the non-exclusive franchise tag on Yannick Ngakoue, he's taking up around $18-19 million against the cap. It's unclear whether the Jaguars will attempt to trade Ngakoue or try to convince him to play in Jacksonville in 2020. Until Ngakoue is traded, the Jaguars will have to assume his 2020 cap hit. With Ngakoue under the franchise tag, the Jaguars currently have around $15.5 million in cap space, but more players are likely to be released by the team before the start of free agency.
The Jaguars should be in line to sign at least 2-3 potential starters in free agency, if not more. With a bevy of gaping wholes on the roster, including cornerback, defensive tackle, and linebacker, the Jaguars need all the veteran help they can get. Jacksonville could also stand to upgrade their safety group, their offensive line (primarily right guard and potentially left tackle), their tight ends, and receivers.
As we prepare to embark on this free agency journey, here are the five players that I've prioritized as the most important for the Jaguars to target and sign in the coming days. I think it's possible for the Jaguars to sign all five of these players, even with Ngakoue still under the franchise tag.
But to do so, the Jaguars would need to part ways with several projected backups for the 2020 season. The Jags should cut Marqise Lee (saving $5.25 million), Geoff Swaim (saving just over $4 million), Abry Jones (saving $4 million), clearing up a total of $13 million, getting the team close to $30 million in cap space. After each player profile, I'll show my estimate for what their 2020 cap hit could look like if the Jaguars use substantial signing bonuses.
He's not the sexiest defensive tackle name on the open market, and that's a good thing for the Jaguars. Coming off a season cut short due to a core muscle injury, Dareus could be the key to the Jaguars' run defense returning to respectability in 2020. Without the big defensive tackle, the Jaguars have been atrocious when it comes to stopping the run over the last two-plus seasons. With him? They've been able to hold opponents rushing attacks in check in the vast majority of games. Dareus doesn't bring too much to the table as an interior penetrator, and he's now 30 years old. He's a fan of Doug Marrone and loves living in Jacksonville, so it would be easy to see Dareus coming back on a reasonable deal. This would completely eliminate the second-biggest hole on the roster.
2020 Cap Hit: $3 million
The Jaguars' most significant need is for an outside number one cornerback. Tre Herndon is likely locked in as the number two cornerback, and DJ Hayden is a stud in his role as the nickel cornerback. After that, the cupboard is fairly bare, with no other players with legitimate starting experience. Enter Byron Jones (27), the best free-agent cornerback set to hit the market. He'll have one of the most competitive markets of any player this offseason, so to land him, the Jaguars will need to pay up. Why would they spend so much? Jones is an ultra-athletic cornerback that can take a roster weakness and turn it to a major strength. The Jaguars will be able to convert well over half his 2020 salary into a signing bonus, which would give them more than enough room to sign him. If the Jaguars do lock in on Byron Jones, he'd be by far their most expensive signing of the offseason.
2020 Cap Hit: $8 million
The Jaguars' linebacker struggled to fill rushing lanes and make tackles in 2019. The addition of Kwiatkoski in the middle would help in a big way. He's a strong run defender, tackler, and is better in coverage than you think. He'll turn 27 this year. He hasn't been a full-time starter during his career, but over the last three seasons, he's made a name for himself in Chicago, and he should have a healthy market. But there are several bigger names at the linebacker position that could help make Kwiatkoski more affordable. His presence would allow the Jaguars to move Myles Jack outside — where he's much more natural — on base downs.
2020 Cap Hit: $3 million
Jones is 32 and coming off an injury-riddled 2020 campaign. Recently released by the Dolphins, Jones would bring much needed veteran leadership to the safety room and the defensive backfield as a whole. Jones has been able to stay relatively healthy for the majority of his career, so I'm not concerned with his injury woes from last season. If the Jaguars could land Jones on a 2-3 year deal, he could potentially help the secondary return to glory for a season or two and aid in the development of Ronnie Harrison.
2020 Cap Hit: $2.5 million
McGovern had a bit of a breakout in his third year with the Broncos in 2019. He allowed just 15 total pressures and one sack for Denver last season. He played center for the Broncos in 2019 but has experience all over the interior of the offensive line. Adding an ascending versatile interior lineman should give the Jaguars a boost up front, improving the passing protection and the run game. Fortunately for the Jaguars, there are three to five interior lineman that will cost more than McGovern on the open market.
2020 Cap Hit: $4 million
There are many different directions the Jaguars could turn as free agency is set to begin. Some believe they will be far less active than I do. But for a coach and general manager that need to win now, standing pat with a roster that's been ravaged over the last year-plus, would be shocking.
Don't be surprised if the Jaguars also target a tight end. James O'Shaugnessy was playing at a high level in 2019 before his injury, and Josh Oliver is expected to make a leap in year two, but the Jaguars could still use a tight end with starting experience to bolster the group.
Final thought: Trading Nick Foles would be optimal, saving the Jaguars just a bit more cap space.
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