The Jacksonville Jaguars made headlines Thursday night as news broke — E Dilla had it first — that the team had traded starting middle linebacker Joe Schobert to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for a late-round pick.
The Jaguars' coaching staff has regularly praised Schobert's effort and ability this offseason. But Damien Wilson — an under-the-radar free-agent signing this offseason — stole the show (wink, wink) during training camp. Both players had performed at a high level on the practice field in a Joe Cullen defense designed to be linebacker-friendly.
Let's take a step back. Joe Schobert himself signed with the Jaguars as a free agent less than 18 months ago. The Jaguars inked him to a five-year, $53.75 million dollar deal. He immediately became the team's starting middle linebacker in their 4-3 defense, allowing Myles Jack to shift over to the weakside. Schobert performed reasonably well for the Jaguars, showing off his playmaking ability and penchant for racking up tackles. It took him some time to get comfortable in 2020, primarily due to the impact of the global pandemic. Still, Schobert played well and seemingly figured into the Jaguars' long-term plans after the new regime led by Urban Meyer took over this past Winter.
"Yesterday Joe came by to see me for the first time," assistant head coach and inside linebackers coach Charlie Strong told the media in February. "We sat down and talked a long time, and it's the same thing with Joe. You're looking at two backers that are kind of in the prime of their career because the length of time that they have been in the NFL, but guys that can make plays and guys that will become the staple of our defense. If you're not good at linebacker, then you really don't have much of a chance to play really good defense. I'm really, really looking forward to coaching both of them because they want to learn. You can tell they're learners, they want to learn, and they want to get better. It's all about creating value and those guys want to create value for themselves and they want to become the best."
Needless to say, when the new coaching staff and management got here, it seemed they were fond of Schobert. But that didn't stop them from signing former Chiefs' linebacker — and Super Bowl Champion — Damien Wilson. Being a starter on a team that made it to two straight Super Bowls certainly pads the ol' resume. Wilson has never been named a Pro Bowler or received any individual honors in the NFL. He's been an average pro linebacker.
So why are the Jaguars betting on Wilson being their guy in the middle next to Myles Jack?
You could certainly point to the money. Schobert was an expensive asset on this team, and from a cap perspective, if you think you can get similar production out of a cheaper player, it's probably the right move to make rolling with the more affordable option. Wilson is on a one-year, $2 million deal.
But the Jaguars aren't strapped for cash; in fact, they have the most cap space in football and are set up to be able to afford some bulky contracts.
And it's not as if this is purely a salary dump. Urban Meyer has repeatedly said his goal is to win this year. He's not going for a long-term rebuild.
To me, it looks like the Jaguars are betting on Wilson because they think he fits what they want to do. And based on what I've seen in training camp, I can't wholly blame them. Joe Schobert's best attributes are being a steady tackler, a good zone coverage backer, and someone who makes plays on the ball. But that skill set is a bit redundant when you have Myles Jack, who can do everything at a high level. Jack can blitz, play the run, cover in man or zone, and take the ball away from the offense. So what does Wilson do differently than Schobert? He plays more violently and is more of an enforcer against the run. In addition, he plays with more explosiveness downhill and should be a quality blitzer in the Jaguars' new hybrid, blitz-heavy defense.
Still, this is a huge gamble. First, the Jaguars are losing depth by getting rid of one of their top three backers. Now, every linebacker on the depth chart moves up a peg. Instead of having three capable and experienced linebackers to fill two spots on this defense (there are usually only two backers on the field at a time), they now only have two guys that have been there and done that. So, if one of the top two linebackers goes down, a younger, greener player will need to fill in. Shaq Quarterman and Dakota Allen will likely be the top depth players. They're also assuming that Wilson will be as good of a communicator as Schobert, who was excellent with the pre-snap duties of a middle linebacker. And with Wilson only under contract through 2021, the team doesn't appear to have a long term plan. They certainly could re-sign Wilson at some point. Or perhaps there's internal confidence in Shaq Quarterman or Dakota Allen.
Wilson has never really performed at a higher level than Joe Schobert throughout their respective careers. But the Jaguars are betting on their evaluation of him and how he'll fit into their new defense in 2021.
Did they make the right bet? Time will tell.
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