JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars led the NFL in rushing in 2017, but the production dropped off significantly in the second half of the season. Coach Doug Marrone even partially blamed the running game's inefficiency as part of the reason the Jaguars weren't able to hold on to a fourth-quarter lead in the AFC Championship Game.
That clearly made the offensive line a priority in free agency, and the Jaguars' decision to give Andrew Norwell a five-year deal worth $66.5 million with $30 million guaranteed reflects that. One year after general manager Dave Caldwell said they shied away from signing guard Kevin Zeitler because of the price tag (Zeitler ended up getting $12 million annually from Cleveland), the Jaguars will pay Norwell $13.3 million annually, which makes him the highest-paid guard in the league.
It will be money well spent. Norwell was the No. 1 offensive lineman available in free agency, a first-team All-Pro who did not allow a sack or a quarterback hit (per Pro Football Focus) in 2017. He has started 45 of a possible 48 games over the past three seasons in Carolina and helped the Panthers finish fourth, 10th, and second in the NFL in rushing in those three seasons.
Norwell will slide into the starting spot at left guard next to second-year left tackle Cam Robinson, and that instantly makes the left side of the line the offense’s strength. Expect to see Leonard Fournette running to the left side late in games as the Jaguars try to secure victories. That was hit-or-miss last season.
The Jaguars averaged 141.4 yards per game, but their production dropped off significantly over the final six games. The Jaguars averaged 51.3 fewer rushing yards per game in Weeks 12-17 than they did in the first 11 weeks.
The Jaguars ran for at least 135 yards nine times in their first 10 games and failed to crack 100 yards just once (99 yards in Week 2). But in the final six games, the Jaguars surpassed 100 yards just twice. They needed to upgrade the interior of the offensive line, and by early Tuesday morning it was clear they had Norwell as a much higher priority over re-signing receiver Allen Robinson.
The Jaguars declined to use the franchise tag on Robinson, which would have paid him $15.982 million in 2018; they apparently weren’t willing to get close to that number. The Bears are willing: They'll be paying him $14 million annually over three years, per ESPN’s Josina Anderson.
The move to not re-sign Robinson, however, has considerably ramped up the pressure on second-year receivers Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole. The Jaguars expect them to make a leap anyway, but it’s now imperative that one of them become the downfield threat the passing game didn’t have last season.
Westbrook and Cole had solid rookie seasons considering the circumstances each faced. Cole made the team as an undrafted player out of Kentucky Wesleyan and was settled into the No. 4 receiver role until Robinson’s torn left ACL in the opener thrust him into a role for which he clearly wasn’t ready.
He struggled early but became more productive as he grew more comfortable, though he had several instances in which he short-armed a pass to avoid contact over the middle. Cole finished with 42 catches for 748 yards and three touchdowns.
Westbrook missed the first nine games while recovering from sports hernia surgery in early September. He still caught 27 passes for 339 yards and one touchdown in the final seven games.
But the two players were not as productive in the playoffs, combining to catch just 10 passes for 167 yards in the three games. Most of that yardage came on Cole’s 45-yard catch against Pittsburgh, a critical play in the Jaguars' 45-42 victory.
Even if the Jaguars bring back Marqise Lee, who led them with 56 catches in 2017, they don’t have an established downfield threat. Allen Hurns (39 catches in 2017) has missed 11 games over the past two seasons after missing just one in his first two, and his production has dropped off considerably since he averaged 16.1 yards per catch in 2015.
The run game took priority over Robinson in the first day of the legal tampering period. The next step needs to be adding a veteran receiver.