The portion of the NFL offseason dedicated to roster improvement is nearly upon us. In three weeks, NFL teams will begin signing free agents. Free agency officially opens on March 17th, but teams will be formally allowed to talk with players once the legal tampering period starts on March 15th.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have the most salary-cap space in football, which makes a lot of sense when you consider how many needs the team has. In a year where the salary cap is set to range between $180-188 million, the Jaguars will have a minimum of $82 million in cap space to work with, more than any other team in the NFL. Because they're flush with cash, and so many teams around the league are cash strapped, the Jaguars should be able to take advantage of the market and sign some of their top targets. I believe Urban Meyer and Trent Baalke will be aggressive with the players they want in Duval.
When you talk about NFL free agency, it's all about finding value where you can and plugging holes in your roster. The draft is all about adding the most talented players possible, and free agency should inform that. Generally speaking, teams should do their best to fill all their roster needs in some form or fashion prior to the draft.
Now, the Jaguars need a quarterback, but with Trevor Lawrence coming to town, they don't have to address that need before the draft. Having the number one pick this year makes filling the QB need via the draft an exception to the rule.
But with many other positions, the Jaguars will need to spend in free agency to get some quality pieces. Their biggest need? It's certainly debatable. But I'd say the top two needs are, without question, cornerback and left tackle. Because I've already written quite a bit about the left tackle spot, I'll start this series at cornerback and work my way through the rest of the roster needs in the coming days and weeks.
So, currently on the Jaguars' roster at cornerback, we've got CJ Henderson, Rashaan Melvin, Josiah Scott, Brandon Rusnak, Luq Barcoo, Chris Claybrooks, Nate Meadors, and Josh Nurse. Their unrestricted free agents at the position are Sidney Jones, DJ Hayden, and Tre Herndon, all of whom have played a major role for the Jaguars at one time or another.
Among the cornerbacks currently under contract, only CJ Henderson inspires any level of confidence. Henderson will start on the outside for the Jaguars. Rashaan Melvin could have a role, but coming off a season in which he opted out due to COVID, there's no telling where he's at mentally or physically. Josiah Scott, Luq Barcoo, and Chris Claybrooks all saw the field as rookies in 2020, but they look like they still need development to become legit contributors at the position. The rest of the guys in the room are just that: guys.
So, the Jaguars need at least one starting outside cornerback and a quality nickel cornerback to be comfortable with the group heading into the draft.
We'll start with their key unrestricted free agents. DJ Hayden has proven to be one of the best nickel cornerbacks in football when healthy. But he's oft-injured and now on the wrong side of 30. Sidney Jones has also shown excellent ability during his brief time in Jacksonville. He's a quality young outside cornerback, but like Hayden, injuries are a major concern. Tre Herndon has shown promise at times, but his 2020 campaign was an unmitigated disaster.
I'd be more than open to bringing DJ Hayden back on a deal worth $5 million per year over 2-3 years. He might not be a model of health, but with him in the room, you've at least got a strong veteran presence and a guy that can ball out at the nickel spot when healthy. Hayden is not a must-sign, but I'd feel comfortable with him leading the nickel cornerback group with Josiah Scott and Chris Claybrooks learning behind him. You could also likely add another talented developmental nickel in the draft.
As long as the team's training staff feels Sidney Jones will be healthy enough to play come training camp, I'd absolutely pound the table for bringing him back. With his well-documented battle with his achilles, Jones won't likely command much money on the open market, which should allow the Jaguars to retain him on a team-friendly deal. If the Jaguars could sign Jones for around $5 million per year (or less) over 2-3 years, he'd be worth the risk. If Jones continues to deal with injuries, you're not paying him too much, but if he's able to finally stay healthy for an entire season, you could be getting a massive value. Still, you can't fully rely on Jones, so adding another quality veteran to play on the outside is necessary.
Herndon has failed to develop the way many believed he would. I'd cut bait with the former undrafted free agent, who hasn't established himself on the outside or in the slot.
Now, we'll look at some potential external free-agent signings. The Jaguars have got to find someone who has the ability to start on the outside. And depending on how they handle DJ Hayden, they might need a starter at nickel as well.
There are several former elite veteran cornerbacks set to hit the open market. It's, of course, important to realize that some of the names we look at will be retained by their current teams. Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, AJ Bouye, Josh Norman, and Jason McCourty headline the senior tour. But while the Jaguars need veterans, I'd wager they'll try to find players with a few more good years ahead of them.
Bashaud Breeland just turned 29 and hasn't allowed a completion percentage of over 58.9% since 2016. He's not a top-level outside cornerback, but if he and Sidney Jones are competing for the second outside cornerback spot opposite CJ Henderson, you could do much worse.
William Jackson from Cincinnati could be an option. He's coming off a season in which he allowed a completion percentage in coverage of just 52% and has the size and speed to compete on the outside. He's 28 years old and should be able to compete at a high level opposite CJ Henderson. According to Spotrac, Jackson's market value is $6.3 million, which would be easily palatable.
But if the Jaguars want to get the best blend of talent and age on the outside in free agency this year, they need look no further than Ronald Darby. Darby is 27, has allowed a career completion percentage of 57, has broken up 59 passes and picked off eight more. He's athletic and plays with fire, and could still have his best football ahead of him. Darby is valued at $9.2 million, according to Spotrac, another yearly number that would be easy for the Jaguars to afford.
At nickel, there appears to be a plethora of options. Mike Hilton, Brian Poole, and Mackensie Alexander top the list. All three have youth and talent on their side. Mike Hilton, who was an undrafted free agent by the Jaguars back in 2016, might be the best of the bunch.
There are plenty of cornerbacks set to hit free agency, but the Jaguars will need to find the ones that make the most sense for them from a scheme and culture standpoint.
From the outside looking in, I'd re-sign Sidney Jones and attempt to sign one of Bashaud Breeland, Ronald Darby, or William Jackson, and also look to add one of Mike Hilton, DJ Hayden, Brian Poole, or Mackensie Alexander. That would give the Jaguars two quality outside cornerbacks that can play opposite CJ Henderson and someone to man the slot in 2021.
Making these moves gives the Jaguars enough talent to compete at a higher level on the backend than they did in 2020. And if a talented young cornerback falls to the right spot in the draft, the Jaguars should pounce.
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