It’s week 1 of the NFL season and the 0-0 Washington Commanders will be facing a 0-0 Jaguars team at home in FedExField. The Jaguars have a new head coach in Doug Pederson, with their previous one, Urban Meyer, fired after one year in the position. Second year QB, Trevor Lawrence came into the league with huge expectations last year and failed to deliver, but there’s hope in Jacksonville that he’ll live up to the hype in 2022. Top running back prospect Travis Etienne returns from a foot injury that kept him off the field all of 2021.
Jacksonville added several defensive talents in the 2022 draft, including two first rounders, one of which was the top pick in the draft. Number one overall pick Travon Walker out of Georgia looks to be a potential pass rushing menace, while Utah’s Devin Lloyd should help helm the Jaguars’ linebacking corps for years to come.
To learn more about these and other issues, I asked Ryan O’Bleness six questions about the state of the Jaguars and what to look for in this game.
1) How much do you think that Urban Meyer held back the development of Jaguars players last year, and what sort of improvement are you expecting with the addition of Doug Pederson?
To put it bluntly, Urban Meyer was disastrous to the development of Jacksonville’s players, especially quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the younger guys, and to the team’s culture as a whole. I don’t think owner Shad Khan should be faulted for the Meyer hiring — he was the hottest name in the coaching search at the time. However, he quickly revealed his incompetence, with questionable decisions both on and off the field. It was clear fairly early on that Meyer had no idea how to run an NFL organization, and his failures probably put an already rebuilding Jacksonville franchise back a couple more years.
Fast forward to 2022, and I think Doug Pederson has already shown himself throughout the offseason to be a calming presence, steady hand and the right person to lead this young team. Pederson is a Super-Bowl winning head coach. He has already proven he can do it at the highest level. Perhaps Pederson said it best himself — Jacksonville’s returning players needed “healing” after what transpired last year with Meyer.
While perhaps somebody like Byron Leftwich would have been a “high upside” hire or more exciting hire as head coach, Pederson has a much safer floor and obviously has much more experience. He seems to be the only guy for this particular job. I don’t necessarily think the Jaguars are all of a sudden going to threaten for a playoff spot, but I do expect to see serious progress under Pederson’s tutelage. Of course, anything more than three wins in 2022 will be considered “progress,” and I don’t expect more than six or seven wins this season, but I think the Jaguars will look a lot more competitive in nearly every game, and will show resilience.
2) Do you think that Trevor Lawrence will make the jump to a top-end NFL QB this season? Where do you expect him to finish in the end of year QB rankings?
I suppose that depends on how somebody defines “top-end.” I certainly expect Lawrence to be much, much better than he was as a rookie in 2021 under Meyer. Lawrence’s numbers were abysmal as a rookie (59.6 percent completion percentage, 3,641 yards, 12 passing touchdowns, 17 interceptions), but it is really hard to judge him given the situation he was in with the coaching staff and lack of talent around him. However, Lawrence is still every bit as talented as he was coming out of Clemson if not more, and he has all of the physical tools, football IQ and other traits he needs to succeed. I would like to see his processing and decision-making improve this season, and I believe it will.
Pairing Lawrence with Pederson seems like the perfect match, and he also has offensive coordinator Press Taylor, passing game coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and quarterbacks coach Mike McCoy at his disposal. The Jaguars also upgraded Lawrence’s pass-catchers, bringing in free agent wide receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, as well as tight end Evan Engram. Jacksonville also brings back wide receivers Marvin Jones Jr. and Jamal Agnew, as well as tight end Dan Arnold. The running back duo of James Robinson and Travis Etienne Jr. should take a lot of pressure off Lawrence’s shoulders as well.
So, I don’t necessarily expect Lawrence to finish in the top-10 in the league in categories like passing yards, touchdowns, etc., but I do think he will be in the top-half of the league in terms of overall quarterback play and I think he’ll have a much more efficient campaign. Personally, I am excited to watch him play in 2022.
3) What do you expect the utilization of Travis Etienne and James Robinson to look like this season? I was surprised to hear that Robinson was returning so quickly from his late season Achilles injury.
The backfield will be interesting to watch shake out in the season opener. Both Robinson (Achilles) and Etienne (Lisfranc) are coming off major injuries. After missing his entire rookie year, Etienne has been healthy throughout training camp and the preseason, and should be in line for plenty of work on Sunday. Robinson avoided the physically unable to perform list, but did not play in the preseason and was limited throughout training camp as he continues to recover from his injury.
Pederson confirmed that Robinson will play against Washington, but his workload remains to be seen. I would expect Etienne to pace the backfield and get more touches early in the season, and I would expect Robinson to be on a bit of a “pitch count” in the early going, but eventually take over early-down work as the season progresses. Robinson can be the between-the-tackles runner, among other things, while Etienne is a bigger threat on outside runs and in the passing game. Against the Commanders, I expect the pair to combine for about 150 yards or so from scrimmage and score a touchdown, but I don’t see either having an individual 100-yard rushing performance.
For the season as a whole, I expect Robinson to be around a 1,000-yard rusher and around eight or so touchdowns again, assuming he plays at least somewhat in every game. For Etienne, I could see him gaining over 500 rushing yards and over 500 receiving yards, while scoring double-digit total touchdowns. If they both remain healthy, Robinson and Etienne should form a two-headed monster in the backfield in 2022.
4) Carson Wentz’s last loss as a Colt came to the Jaguars last year. How much of that loss would you lay at Wentz’s feet, versus the rest of the Colts’ team?
Wentz really struggled in the game, completing just 17 out of his 29 pass attempts for a mere 185 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also had a fumble. His offensive line let him down as well, as he was sacked six times. Wentz’s performance certainly played a crucial role in the Colts’ loss that day.
However, something strange seems to happen whenever Indianapolis travels to Jacksonville. The Jaguars haven’t lost to the Colts at home since 2014. I have no idea why, but traveling to TIAA Bank Field is Indianapolis’ kryptonite, no matter who is at quarterback. So I don’t think it’s completely on Wentz, but he certainly didn’t do much to help the Colts win.
This was arguably Lawrence’s best game of the season as well, as he carved up the Colts by completing about 72 percent of his passes for 223 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
5) There was a huge fan movement to try to get rid of GM Trent Baalke last year. Despite getting a lot of attention, that seems to have diminished in the offseason. Do you expect that to pick back up if the Jags struggle this season?
Baalke still isn’t super-well liked, but I think at this point, Jaguars fans are aware that Baalke isn’t going anywhere this season and have accepted that. Baalke actually put together a fairly strong (at least on paper) offseason, adding in a talented rookie draft class with outside linebacker/edge Travon Walker, inside linebacker Devin Lloyd and center Luke Fortner all set to start on Sunday, while a few other rookies will provide depth.
As mentioned earlier, Baalke brought in pass-catchers Evan Engram, Christian Kirk and Zay Jones through free agency, but also added longtime Washington offensive lineman Brandon Scherff, cornerback Darious Williams, inside linebacker Foye Oluokun, defensive lineman Foley Fatukasi and defensive end/outside linebacker Arden Key. All of those players will start or play a big role this season, and the depth on this team from top to bottom appears to be much stronger than it was last year. The defense should be vastly improved. Baalke, for the moment, appears to be at least competent.
However, yes, if the Jaguars don’t show serious progress this season — and again, Jacksonville isn’t a true playoff competitor, but needs to win more games — I would expect fans to start calling for Baalke’s job again. I don’t think Khan wants to make yet another change to the leadership structure, but I would expect that he makes a move there if the team finishes toward the bottom of the NFL again. He would have no choice.
6) What do you expect the final score of this game to be?
It is hard to have much confidence in Jacksonville given the past few years, but I think the Jaguars are going to catch the Commanders off guard on Sunday. Weird things tend to happen in season openers, and I think Walker, Josh Allen and the rest of Jacksonville’s pass rush is going to tee off on Wentz and sack him five or six times. I expect it to be a close, grind-it-out game with the defenses controlling most of the action, but the Jaguars ultimately prevailing.
Jaguars 23, Commanders 20
A big thank you to Ryan O’Bleness for providing thorough thoughts and analysis into the Commanders. For more coverage on Jacksonville, follow Ryan on Twitter, and of course, follow Big Cat Country as well.
If you are interested in reading my responses to Big Cat Country’s questions, please read our Q&A exchange here.
As of right now, Vegas has Washington as 2.5 point favorites over Jacksonville. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Washington wins by 3 point or more
Washington wins by 1 or 2 points, or it’s a tie
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 43.5 points. Which would you bet?
This poll is closed
44 or more total points are scored.
Fewer than 44 total points are scored