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State of the Franchise: Will Gardner Minshew save Doug Marrone?

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Jacksonville Jaguars organization, Jags fans around the world and those who just came here to scream Duuuuuuuuval:

And since that fateful -- grossly premature -- whistle in the 2017 AFC Championship Game, we've seen a devastating butterfly effect on the Jaguars where anything that possibly could go wrong has gone wrong. Two straight seasons of double-digit losses, with the offense falling off a cliff in 2018 and the defense following suit in '19. Crippling injuries, costly suspensions, player unrest ... That's all been part of the dispiriting stew in Jacksonville over the past two-and-a-half years. It's been a jarring plunge, from the Super Bowl's doorstep back into the AFC South's cellar.

Yet still, with some promising young talent on this roster, the fine football fans in Duval County can still be hopeful for the future.

How the Jaguars got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Minshew Mania! Mustaches and jorts became a thing in Jacksonville. Well, they became a bigger thing. We'll talk more about the quarterback in a few moments, but Gardner Minshew created far more excitement than you'd typically expect from a rookie sixth-rounder.
  • Rallying for comeback wins in Denver and Oakland. The Jaguars trailed the Broncos 17-3 in Week 4. They trailed the Raiders 16-3 in Week 15. And yet, these road warriors stormed back and won both contests, with Minshew engineering a game-winning drive late in each fourth quarter.

The lows:

  • The beginning/end of the Nick Foles era in Jacksonville. The Jags signed the Super Bowl-winning quarterback to a four-year, $88 million deal. On the second drive of the season opener, Foles lofted a beautiful 35-yard touchdown strike to D.J. Chark. Unfortunately, Foles was driven into the ground after delivering the throw, breaking his left clavicle. He returned to action later in the season, but played poorly, finishing the year with an 0-4 record. And then Jacksonville shipped Foles to Chicago in March for a fourth-round pick. Tough for anyone who invested in the new quarterback's jersey around this time last year.
  • Jalen Ramsey forcing his way outta town. Ramsey got into a heated sideline argument with head coach Doug Marrone during the second game of the season. Shortly thereafter, news broke of a trade request. Then, after the star cornerback sat out multiple games with a purported back injury, Jacksonville traded him to the Rams for a pair of first-rounders and a fourth-round selection. Nice pick haul, no doubt, but it's tough drafting one of the best cornerbacks in football and then not being able to keep him even through his rookie contract.
  • Losing five straight to bury the season. Jacksonville sat at 4-4 at the midway point of the season, putting the Jaguars in position to make a run at the division down the stretch. A month-and-a-half later, they were 4-9, limping toward the offseason.
  • Ranking 28th in big plays allowed. A crushing blow for a team that had been known for its defense. In 2017, Jacksonville ranked second in total defense. In 2018? Fifth. But in 2019, the Jags dropped all the way down to No. 24.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Doug Marrone. This is a make-or-break-it season for Doug Marrone. I wrote that last year. Then Foles got hurt in the first game of the season, Ramsey had a back injury that seemed as legitimate as Bob Orton's broken arm back in the day, and the team finished 6-10 -- marking the eighth time in nine years that Jacksonville posted 10-plus losses. But owner Shad Khan wasted little time in announcing Marrone and GM David Caldwell would return for 2020. Tom Coughlin was not so lucky. In fact, the executive vice president of football operations was fired in mid-December.

Khan called the 2019 season "unacceptable," particularly spotlighting the five-game losing streak in which Jacksonville lost by a combined score of 174-57. In the last of those five losses -- a 45-10 snoozer against the Chargers -- Philip Rivers was mic'd up and talking (stuff) out on the field like he was Chris Jericho. So, yeah, Khan wasn't happy with what transpired down the stretch in 2019. Thus, there is an expectation for substantial improvement in 2020. If you know me, you know I love when coaches get one more chance to prove themselves. (Well, I haven't written the Jets installment of this series yet, so maybe I should be careful about making such a blanket statement ...) Marrone has experienced a pretty interesting career since he opted out of his contract with the Bills. I would imagine it hasn't gone the way that he's wanted it to. And here he is, at another potential crossroads. But he has a young quarterback, some raw talent on defense and two new assistants of note (Jay Gruden and Ben McAdoo). Let's ride!

Quarterback: Gardner Minshew. If you didn't dress as Gardner for Halloween, you know somebody who did. Heck, one of our social media managers took it a step further and dressed as Flint Minshew, Gardner's dad. I'm trying to think of another time when a relative unknown to those outside of the hardcore fans suddenly took over the sport. I mean, Flint's kind of the Orange Cassidy of the NFL. And if you don't know Orange Cassidy, he's the greatest wrestler of all time. (Sorry, Rock.) People also dress like Orange Cassidy all the time, too.

Long story short: Minshew Mania was one of the best things in the NFL last year. Gardner was a cultural revelation who just made things around him more fun. Like that friend of yours who takes a house party from "Oh yeah, we had a delightful evening" to "Holy smokes, I don't remember much of what happened last night, but I sure did have the best time ever!" In Minshew's starts, the Jaguars were 6-6 -- that's more wins than Offensive Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray netted (5-10-1). Minshew also had more touchdown passes (21 to 20) and far fewer interceptions (6 to 12) than Murray.

Now, one knock on Minshew is that a lot of his production came in garbage time -- or at least when his team was trailing. He attempted the majority of his passes when Jacksonville was behind (because the defense fell part) and 16 of those 21 touchdown strikes occurred when the Jags were losing. But why is that a bad thing? One of the biggest knocks on Blake Bortles was that he never threw touchdown passes when the Jags were trailing. And when those Jags teams were down by more than seven points, they never had a chance to rally. Gardner is the opposite. It's like if you broke up with your partner because they never showed up for important events, but now you're upset with your current bae because all they ever do is show up for you.

Projected 2020 MVP: Josh Allen, defensive end. Since that magical 2017 season, Jacksonville's defense has seen plenty of turnover -- with more changes likely to come. But the Jaguars' rebuilding effort is brimming with young talent -- young talent led by Allen. Despite only playing in 60 percent of the team's defensive snaps as a rookie, Allen racked up 10.5 sacks and 39 quarterback pressures. In 2020, he will be counted on to lead defensive coordinator Todd Wash's unit.

2020 breakout star: Ronnie Harrison, safety. Yeah, I had him in this slot last year, too. But this time I mean it! The third-year pro from Alabama is ready to make the BIG leap this season for the Jaguars -- and they kind of need it, given all of the personnel changes. Harrison was a third-round pick and showed inconstancies during his rookie season, but he flashed last year, ranking second on the team in tackles (71) and passes defensed (9). And the 23-year-old's best football is still ahead of him.

New face to know: Tyler Eifert, tight end. Would you believe me if I told you Eifert played 16 games last year? Given his extensive injury history, the tight end's full participation in the 2019 season was a minor miracle. But you likely missed it because the Bengals were dealing with some offensive issues. I love this landing spot for Eifert in Jacksonville, though, with new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Gruden, who was in Cincy for Eifert's rookie year back in 2013, has always heavily incorporated his tight ends into the offense. This was a sneaky-good signing in free agency. Josh Oliver is in the mix, too. Washington ran 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) 18 percent of the time in Gruden's last full season in D.C.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: ELEVATED. Marrone, who's 22-28 as Jacksonville's head coach, has to win some football games. The Jags traded away so many stud defenders, but there's young talent on that side of the ball. And Jacksonville has a quarterback, with Minshew returning as the unquestioned starter. Another season with double-digit losses could definitely be the end of Marrone and Caldwell.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 vs. Colts. You going to let Philip Rivers shout in your ear again? Here's your chance for revenge. The Jaguars open the season at home against the Colts and then go on the road to face the Titans. At least you'll kinda know where you stand in the division after two weeks.
  • Week 6 vs. Lions. Apparently, this was going to be one of Jacksonville's two London games this season, before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the entire international schedule. No more neutral field. So go out and win this home game before the Week 7 bye.
  • Week 14 vs. Titans. Wait a minute: This game isn't in prime time this season? What. The. Heck??? I'm very disappointed with the NFL schedule makers. The annual Titans-Jaguars Thursday nighter became a huge tradition for me, like the Lions and Cowboys playing on Thanksgiving. More people should be outraged by this.

Will the Jaguars be able to ...

Count on Jay Gruden to turn the offense around? If you ever watch Bar Rescue, you know there are points where Jon Taffer becomes so exasperated with the situation, he has to call in one of his friends to come help him out with a massive rebuild. It seems like that is what is happening down in Duval, with Gruden coming on board as the offensive coordinator. The Jaguars have struggled offensively for much of their existence. But Gruden is coming in to work with a young quarterback, similar to what he did in other spots like Cincinnati (Andy Dalton) and Washington (Kirk Cousins). Gruden brings the West Coast offense with him. Don't get it twisted: You still need to run the football with the West Coast offense. But Gruden will ask Minshew to execute more quick reads, play-action passes and downfield heaves. It is worth pointing out that Minshew had a passer rating of 139.0 with a 77 percent competition percentage off play-action last year. That passer rating trailed only Ryan Tannehill (144.5) and Drew Brees (141.0). Which I think is pretty good.

Find a consistent WR2 threat to complement D.J. Chark? Can we all agree Chark broke out last year? He's an emerging stud. All of you who were super-bummed when Allen Robinson left a couple offseasons ago can rest easy with Chark getting to that level. Of course, you could sit back and think about a receiving tandem of A-Rob and D.J., but why would you do that to yourself? The thing is, you need another receiving threat. I've always been a fan of Dede Westbrook. He plays in the slot, and if you remember the success Gruden had with Jamison Crowder in Washington, you can't help but be excited for him. But the player I'm really looking forward to seeing is rookie Laviska Shenault Jr. Supremely athletic. Does a lot of things great. He's not going to be a player who is a traditional WR2 -- to start, at least. But he is the kind of player Gruden can design some plays for. Maybe run some jet-sweeps or send him deep on some play-action passes, and you have a legitimate threat right here.

Fantasy tip: You know to draft D.J. in regular leagues. But if you haven't tried "best-ball" leagues, you must. And Shenault will be a steal in that format.

Settle the feud with Yannick Ngakoue? Back in the day, when Scott Hall and Kevin Nash jumped ship from the WWF to WCW, it became the hottest promotion. Shawn Michaels begged Vince McMahon to let him go, but no dice. Yannick must feel a lot like HBK right now, after watching the Jags trade away Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell. Things even got contentious between Yannick and senior vice president of football administration and technology Tony Kahn (who is also running the hottest wrestling company in the world, AEW). Kahn put his foot down and told the talented defensive end that airing grievances on Twitter isn't going to get a deal done any faster. The thing is, will there be a deal? Yannick was hit with the franchise tag for this season, but he has yet to sign the tender. The Jaguars have until July 15 to reach a long-term deal with Ngakoue, but that doesn't seem to interest Ngakoue in the slightest. He could sit out the year, but theoretically, the Jaguars could just tag him again in 2021. At age 25, Ngakoue is one of the best defensive ends in the game. You think about a defense with him, Allen and first-round pick K'Lavon Chaisson, and that looks like a new D-Generation X -- D-Generation Z? -- ready to terrorize opposing QBs for years to come. (Sorry, last wrestling reference. I swear.)

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: Leonard Fournette can catch. A little wrinkle Fournette added to his game last season: The ability to catch the football out of the backfield. Always viewed as an old-school power back, Fournette had 76 receptions last year. That's right, 76! That was fifth among running backs, behind Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, Alvin Kamara and Tarik Cohen. You wouldn't normally put him in the category with those backs, but here we are. It should be noted the Jaguars signed RB Chris Thompson this offseason, but the pass-catching specialist hasn't played a full season since 2016. And if you think this might be reading like a sneaky fantasy note imploring you to target Fournette in the third round, well, you're correct.

... people are overthinking: Leonard Fournette can't score. Fournette, who is advertised as a 228-pound banger, ended up with just three rushing touchdowns in 2019. I mean, who would have believed me last offseason had I said he was going to catch damn-near 80 passes but run for just three scores? Still, as a fantasy tip, look for positive regression in this category.

ANOTHER storyline people are overlooking: The Jags drafted quite well. You hate to trade away a big-name star like Jalen Ramsey, but if you get a chance to replace him with a talent like CJ Henderson, that's not a terrible option. Ramsey is a fantastic player, no doubt, but Henderson has the ability to be very special in his own right. I mentioned Chaisson and Shenault above -- both should be impact players in Year 1. But don't sleep on DaVon Hamilton, who could become a nice rotational piece on the defensive line. And Ben Bartch could end up being a stud on the O-line, though he doesn't figure to play much this season.

ONE LAST storyline people are overlooking: Jay Gruden's potential promotion. You know I'm a wrestling mark. (OK, this is the last wresting riff.) And maybe I'm dreaming this up as some kind of wacky AEW subplot or something. But work with me here. If the Jaguars are great on offense, but don't win many games, could Gruden be the next head coach in Jacksonville? I'm not saying this is as obvious as Cody turning on The Elite or anything like that. Just spit-balling here.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Jaguars MUST:

  • Not have a losing record. Shad Khan has already said the team needs to win games. Moral victories and moving in the right direction might not be enough for Marrone and Caldwell to get another year.
  • Figure out if Gardner Minshew is a quarterback to build around. The Jags have a wide variance in terms of where they could end up this season. They could surprise people and sneak into the playoffs. They could end up with the first pick in the draft. What you want is an answer to your quarterback situation, one way or another. The Jags have two more first-round picks in the 2021 draft -- how they use 'em will obviously be contingent on where they stand at the game's most important position.

In closing

It's hard not to think back to that thrilling run to the AFC Championship Game. A young quarterback still playing on his rookie deal. One of the best defenses in the league. I really thought the Jags were on the cusp of being an AFC South dynasty. And while things have not been great since, I do believe in the general direction of this organization at the moment. There is a lot of young talent on this team. The key is if Marrone and Minshew can take everyone to the next level.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

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