Heading toward training camp, football fiends thirst for breakout potential. Who or what is the next big thing in football? In Around The NFL's "Making the Leap" series, Gregg Rosenthal spotlights emerging units to keep an eye on in 2017.
The Jacksonville Jaguars know what you're thinking. As the writer of this offseason's Jags hype piece, I know what you're thinking:
Haven't we been down this road before?
The Jaguars, ever the preseason darlings, have burned so many overzealous media members that everyone except those at the team's facility has given up.
That said, this Jacksonville defense is different.
None of those previous Jaguars groups had a transcendent young cornerback like Jalen Ramsey, ready to be the position's next great superstar. None of those teams had a cornerback duo that could be the tops in football. None of those defenses had difference makers at every level, with one of the sport's most underrated players (Calais Campbell) completing a deep line.
A 22-year-old shall lead them
Ramsey travels far distances in a league dominated by zone coverages and cornerbacks who stay on one side of the field. His speed and fluidity was on full display in Week 17, when he lined up across from Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton for most of the game, whether Hilton was in the slot or on the outside. More importantly, Ramsey's size and toughness allowed him to swallow up Hilton (whose 95 receiving yards came mainly against zone looks) for long stretches.
That versatility showed up against the Denver Broncos in Week 13, when Ramsey looked equally comfortable checking the speedy Emmanuel Sanders or the physical Demaryius Thomas. Ramsey allowed two catches on eight targets, often showing an uncanny ability to recover and make plays on the ball after allowing separation.
The 6-foot-1 corner oozes athletic arrogance. He baited Marcus Mariota into a near-pick in Week 16, knowing he could close on a Mariota pass thrown across the quarterback's body. Later in the game, Ramsey appears to keep one eye on the receiver and one on the quarterback, breaking on the ball before Titans receiver Rishard Matthews to snag a game-clinching pick six.
There are only a few cornerbacks alive who combine all these traits with a gleeful desire to lay out ball carriers like we see from Ramsey. His presence is one reason why Jacksonville's five-year, $67.5 million contract with former Houston Texans breakout player A.J. Bouye wasn't much of a gamble. Ramsey can take pressure off the Jags' new corner by handling the opponent's top receiver, while a solid safety duo (Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson) has the talent to clean up behind them both. Bouye and Ramsey can also play to their ball-hawking instincts with confidence because they know opposing quarterbacks can't hold the ball for long ...
The defensive line has depth
Abry Jones is a real problem for offensive coordinators. If the final four games of the Jaguars' 2016 season were the only games you watched all year, you might have mistaken the massive 6-4, 318-pound defender for an All-Pro. And yet, he might not even be one of the four most talented Jaguars defensive linemen. Abry Jones is an even bigger problem lined up next to Malik Jackson.
Campbell, who Around the NFL writer Conor Orr recently wrote was the Jaguars' best player, is the ultimate NFL outlier. He's a 6-8 behemoth who can line up on the edge and who practically invented his own position in Arizona. Jackson and Campbell are prototype modern linemen who can excel in nearly any formation from any spot. They are a vision of the future NFL, similar to the modern NBA, where position labels become increasingly irrelevent.
All the damage done on the interior will allow young pass rushers Dante Fowler Jr. and Yannick Ngakoue to wreak havoc from the edge. After combining for 12 sacks last year, both youngsters need to lift their level of play to make this line truly dominant. Still, the Jaguars have built safety in numbers, able to attack opponents in waves with valuable role players like Michael Bennett (not that one) and Sheldon Day also in the mix. The group was so deep that the front office was able to cut three old standbys (Sen'Derrick Marks, Tyson Alualu, and Roy Miller) this offseason, which is yet another reminder this is not the same Jaguars defense that has been pumped up in the past.
Playmakers at every level
The players know. Telvin Smith was a surprise entrant at No. 83 in the "Top 100 Players of 2016" list, an honor for the swift linebacker that looked prescient by last December. Smith pushed this group's Making the Leap candidacy over the top. If the NFL Scouting Combine could measure "play recognition to 10 yards downfield" speed, Smith would rank among the game's best. He diagnoses screens out of the huddle. Some of his best tackles prevent big plays down the field, covering his teammates' mistakes with the range of Willie Mays.
Smith inspires. He makes me want to grab co-workers like a wannabe Jon Gruden and tell them, "Just watch this Telvin Smith guy. He's unreal!"
Smith, who lines up on the weak side, will play next to a new middle linebacker this season, as Myles Jack is expected to become a starter in his second season. Turning 22 in September, Jack didn't see the field much as a highly touted rookie coming off major injury. In the past, Jack's ascension would be seen as a prime reason for this Jaguars defense to emerge. But that's expecting too much, too early as a pro -- much like how too much was expected of this still-coalescing Jaguars defense in the past.
On thisJaguars defense, Jack only needs to play his role. The star power comes from the sizzling cornerback duo, the destructive defensive tackle tandem, the big free-agent pickups and the former fifth-round pick at linebacker (Smith) who is fully ready to emerge.