Injuries, QB issues turn Jaguars' promising season into a mess

The Jacksonville Jaguars ended the season a with a 20-3 loss to the Houston Texans to finish 5-11. Here's a recap of the season and what's next:

Season grade: Below-average -- It's hard to believe the Jaguars were 10 minutes away from the Super Bowl last season. Nineteen starters returned, and yet the Jaguars finished with a losing record -- and double-digit losses -- for the seventh time in the past eight seasons. Injuries decimated the offensive line and tight end positions, Leonard Fournette missed six games with a hamstring injury, quarterback Blake Bortles regressed and got benched, and the defense, while still a top-10 unit statistically, didn't pressure the quarterback and force turnovers at the rate it did in 2017.

Season in review: September was pretty good (3-1 record) and in Week 2 the Jaguars avenged their AFC championship loss to New England, but things fell apart after a Week 4 victory against the New York Jets. Seven consecutive losses followed as injuries mounted, Fournette was out of the lineup and Bortles regressed to his 2016 form. The supposedly elite defense faltered as multiple coverage busts and breakdowns resulted in big plays, including a disastrous first half against the Colts when tight ends caught three TD passes. And the offense became too one-dimensional with Fournette ailing. Coach Doug Marrone fired offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and benched Bortles on Nov. 26 -- one day after an embarrassing loss in Buffalo in which Fournette left the bench and got into a fight, earning a one-game suspension. The change didn't seem to help; backup QB Cody Kessler threw only one touchdown in his first three starts and the Jaguars only scored two offensive touchdowns in their final five games. The team also had a discipline problem this season. In addition to Fournette's fight, teammates Dante Fowler Jr. and Yannick Ngakoue got into a post-practice training camp fight in front of reporters, and Jalen Ramsey was suspended for a week for threatening a reporter. (Fowler was suspended, too.) And several players were arrested after failing to pay a bar tab while the team was in London for its annual home game. The Jaguars also led the NFL in personal foul penalties for much of the season. It was, in short, a mess.

He said it: "We're not playing well as a team. I don't want to get into individual players or what side of the ball. Right now as a team, when you talk about takeaways, turnovers and field position, those are the three things we need to focus on, which are all three things our team can do a better job of. That's what we need to focus on first. Once we can get that corrected, then I think you can go to the next thing of the individual or things of that nature. We just have to get that corrected first. Maybe I'm just so close-minded on that aspect of it. Meaning if you don't do these things well the rest of it doesn't matter. That's how I truly feel and that is how I want to get this team right and back on track." -- Jaguars coach Doug Marrone

Offseason questions

Tom Coughlin, Dave Caldwell and Marrone are returning for a third season together. Now what? Following up the franchise's first division title since 1999 and first playoff appearance since 2007 with a disaster like this season certainly puts a lot of pressure on the three to turn things around in 2019. They did have a legitimate excuse for why the season went off the rails: The team was ravaged by injuries, especially at the offensive line and tight end positions. During the final three games of the season, nine of the 11 offensive starters were either backups (and in one case a fourth-teamer) or not with the team until mid-October. That’s over now, and no one cares any longer. Coughlin and Caldwell must re-stock tight end, receiver and running back in free agency and the draft and hit on whichever quarterback they choose. The defense will still be very good, but the offense has to be significantly better or the Jaguars won’t have a chance. The AFC South is one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, so that makes nailing their evaluations even more critical.

What do the Jaguars do at quarterback? They're almost certainly going to draft one with their first pick, but expect the team to also explore the free-agent market to bring in a veteran as a bridge player to give the rookie time to develop if he's not ready. It's not a great group of free-agent quarterbacks, though. Tyrod Taylor, Josh McCown, Teddy Bridgewater and Ryan Fitzpatrick top the list. There might be some high profile starters available if they're cut by their teams such as Joe Flacco, Jameis Winston, Eli Manning and Nick Foles. Economics might rule those players out because they'll be in demand, and the Jaguars really can't get into a bidding war. Oregon's Justin Herbert and Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins were generally regarded as the best quarterbacks in the 2019 draft class, but Herbert announced he will return to school.

How do they fix their cap issues? Per ESPN's Roster Management system, the Jaguars are $12.2 million over the projected salary cap in 2019. Also looming is a potential $16.5 million dead cap hit if they cut Bortles before June 1. Still, the situation isn't as troublesome as it appears. The Jaguars can easily find $26.3 million in cap savings by cutting Bortles, defensive tackle Malik Jackson, right tackle Jermey Parnell and running back Carlos Hyde. That number gets even bigger if they decide to part ways with defensive end Calais Campbell, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus and safety Tashaun Gipson (a total of $27.6 million in cap savings), though the Jaguars aren't likely to release all three. Campbell and Dareus are still productive and have had very good seasons, and Gipson played pretty well in 2017. The bottom line is the team can make a significant amount of cap space and be able to sign Ngakoue or linebacker Myles Jack to an extension if they choose. This likely means the Jaguars won't be major players in free agency, though, which would take them out of the running for any of the expensive QB options.