2019 was a dissapointing season for the Jacksonville Jaguars. No matter which way you cut it, a 6-10 record and a 2-4 record against AFC South teams is an unmitigated failure for a team who was hoping to rebound from 2018.
Despite the failures of last season though, there were a few positives to glean from the year. Among those were the emergence and flashes of several younger players on the roster on both sides of the ball.
For 2020 to be an improvement, and for head coach Doug Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell to keep their jobs secured, it would be prudent for Jacksonville to give these players larger roles ad more opportunities to impact games next year. Here are a few who have earned such roles:
RB Ryquell Armstead
Jacksonville made it clear week in and week out that the entire offense ran through third-year running back Leonard Fournette. In 15 games, Fournette touched the ball 341 times and played a staggering 83% of the Jaguars’ offensive snaps for the season. Because of the dependency on Fournette, rookie running back Ryquell Armstead became an afterthought. Armstead, a fifth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, played more than 10 snaps only four times while Fournette was active, and only had 35 carries, the least a Jaguars’ backup running back has ever had in a season.
But when Armstead was given chances in 2019, he impressed. He scored only one less touchdown (two) than Fournette (three), and flashed the ability to spell Fournette without the offense losing a beat, showing good burst and ability to break tackles. He impressed the most as a pass-catcher, though. He caught 14 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns, a 10.3 yard per catch average. For context, Fournette averaged 6.9 yards per reception.
Fournette will be a centerpiece for Jacksonville as long as he is healthy and on the roster, but Armstead deserves to get more touches in 2019.
DL Dawuane Smoot
Playing 38% of the Jaguars’ defensive snaps in 2019, versatile defensive lineman Dawuane Smoot had a breakout season. Entering the year with zero career sacks through two seasons, Smoot recorded six in a rotational role this past season, earning the praise, and trust, of his teammates and coaches.
Smoot mostly played defensive tackle on passing downs, giving the Jaguars an interior push with Calais Campbell and Taven Bryan. Smoot was purely a rotational player in 2019, but he was able to produce on third downs at a high rate thanks to improved block shedding ability. He deserves to see more snaps in 2020, especially in the base defense. Entering a contract season, now is the time to see if he can handle an expanded role.
DE Josh Allen
Unlike the previously listed players, rookie defensive end Josh Allen played a good bit for Jacksonville in 2019. But even with Allen playing a key role on the Jaguars’ defense, there is always room for this role to grow. Allen started only four games in 2019 and played 60% or more of the defensive snaps in only five games — the first five games of the season.
Despite playing only 60% of the defense’s snaps on a whole in 2019, Allen led the team in sacks with 10.5, and also recorded two forced fumbles, 11 tackles for loss and 22 quarterback hits. Allen deserves to have more responsibilities in 2020, ideally becoming an every-down player like he should have been toward the end of 2019.
LB Donald Payne
Third-year linebacker Donald Payne only played three defensive snaps in the first two seasons of his career, each with Jacksonville. After the Jaguars cut him before the 2019 season started, he was brought back in Week 8 to once again serve in a special-teams only role. That changed when starting middle linebacker Myles Jack was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury, opening the door for Payne to start the final five games of the season.
In those starts, Payne showed massive improvement from week to week and produced at a much higher level than Najee Goode, Austin Calitro, and Quincy Williams. Whether he should start in 2020 is a different question, but he should at least be given increased reps in training camp and see some looks on Sundays.
QB Gardner Minshew
Gardner Minshew started 12 games for Jacksonville in 2019, and ultimately played in 14 games. So how should his role increase in 2020? For starters, he should be declared the starting quarterback before training camp and given the keys to start the next 16 games as he tries to prove if he can be a franchise passer or not.
In Minshew’s first eight starts, the return of Nick Foles was always an elephant in the room, as was the fact that Minshew was playing in an offense designed specifically for Foles instead of himself. In 2020, Minshew shouldn’t have to worry about either of these things. As long as the Jaguars do not add another big name to the quarterback room, they should build the 2020 offense around Minshew and let him lead them for the entirety of the season.