Stuck with an expensive Blake Bortles contract, the underperforming Jaguars are staring at a murky offseason.
With the news that the Jaguars have officially benched quarterback Blake Bortles for backup Cody Kessler, conversation naturally returns to the the three-year contract Jacksonville handed to Bortles in February. The deal looks disastrous in hindsight.
The Jags gambled on Bortles as their starting quarterback of the future, locking him in for three years and an $18 million average salary. Jacksonville seemed aware of the risks at the time —it stacked guaranteed money at the front of the deal and opened the door for renegotiation after 2019, at which point Bortles will theoretically have had two years to prove himself. They bet on their much-maligned quarterback and trusted him as, basically, the confirmed 2019 starter.
Bortles’ generous contract comes on the heels of last year’s magic. General manager David Caldwell watched his Jaguars ride Leonard Fournette and a dominant defense to a 10-6 division crown and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game. Their success in a weak AFC and with a remarkably healthy defense motivated Caldwell to bank on Bortles.
Bortles had some good games late in the year and did just enough to not ruin the Jags’ good vibes, so Caldwell neglected other signal-callers on the market and committed at least the next two years to the UCF product.
A 45-42 shootout win over the second-seed Pittsburgh Steelers in the Divisional round seemed to be a deciding factor. The win, which saw Bortles beat an anemic Steelers secondary to the tune of 214 yards on 14-of-26 passing and one touchdown (a quintessential Bortles statline), asserted his relative potential.
Never has Bortles truly risen above that divisional playoff game in Pittsburgh. Good Bortles and Bad Bortles is the stuff of legend at this point. Jacksonville decided mediocrity and the chance of Bortles surviving big contests as a game manager outweighed the uncertainty and difficulty of searching for a new quarterback.
The Jags’ status as a talented contender edged them toward conservatism. They were so blinded by that magical 2017 run that they missed out on one of the most fruitful offseason quarterback markets in recent memory. In exchange for a now-destructive Bortles contract, they sat on the sidelines while other teams saw major change at the most important position.
They could have traded for Alex Smith, dumped millions on Kirk Cousins, or settled for a cheaper Case Keenum. They could have drafted Lamar Jackson, though that would have sacrificed short-term success for long-term security. Teddy Bridgewater and Colin Kaepernick were available. If they had Andy Reid’s foresight, they could have been drafted and redshirted a Patrick Mahomes-type to eventually replace Bortles.
Rebuilding on the fly with a roster that carried a mediocre signal-caller within a drive of the Super Bowl is a tricky proposition, especially when determining the sustainability of the previous year’s success. The Jags bet on themselves — that they could continue riding the ground game and the defense without having to move on from Bortles. They’re now 3-8, and look to have lost that bet in ugly fashion.
Blaming Bortles completely for the Jaguars’ issues is misguided; injuries and natural decline sunk the defense, and they’ve struggled on the ground without Fournette for large portions of the season. Bortles is merely the player tasked with solving those issues. He has proven incapable.
The defense has still been a top 10 unit. They’re eighth in DVOA, faring well enough in pass defense and rush defense. The elite members of the secondary are still there. Jalen Ramsey, AJ Bouye, Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church remain defensive leaders, and of those four, only Bouye has missed time.
Injuries to Fournette, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Marquise Lee hurt Bortles’s skill position weapons. His sack rate is also the highest it’s been since 2015.
But inconsistency at the quarterback position is bad enough to have forced Doug Marrone’s hand in benching Bortles. The Jaguars are 26th in the league in net yards gained per pass attempt. Bortles’ interception rate is roughly the same as his career average, but Jacksonville turns the ball over at the third-highest rate in the NFL. In a golden year for passing stats, they rank 29th in QB rating.
Cutting Bortles at any point before June 1 would cost Jacksonville unprecedented amounts of dead money on next year’s salary cap.
Thus, the Jags have left themselves in an unenviable predicament. They’d sacrifice cap space in both scenarios: Rolling with him again or cutting bait.
With a $21 million hit in 2019, the Jaguars would save $4.5 million by cutting him while eating $16.5 million in dead money. However, a post June 1 designation splits that dead cap between 2019 and ’20.
Bortles will not get much better than his current level, and given Jacksonville’s sudden, steep decline this year, he’s not solving its myriad problems anytime soon. For next season, it’s a lose-lose.
They’ll have to start considering replacements. The talent on this team could be enough to square its focus on maintaining contention. Either with their presumably early first-round pick (they’d draft sixth if the season ended today) or with a later selection, the Jaguars could take a chance on a rookie. Unfortunately for the Jags, the quarterback draft class will not be as strong at the top as it was last year, when five were legitimate first-rounders.
Recent trends indicate that starting rookie quarterbacks are advantageous. Whether they will feel that confident in Justin Herbert, Drew Lock or Dwayne Haskins remains to be seen. Given the few teams looking to grab franchise passers in round 1, the Jags might also wait to choose a Bortles replacement. West Virginia’s Will Grier or N.C. State’s Ryan Finlay could pop up in the second or third rounds.
The free-agent market will be scarce, adding fuel to the possibility of Jacksonville looking to the draft. Unless they decide Bridgewater is worth a shot, or that they want a 30-year-old Tyrod Taylor as a stopgap, they likely won’t be scouring the market.
Jameis Winston, a possible offseason cut out of Tampa, could emerge as a free agent. He would be a hard sell to Jaguars fans that will certainly be familiar with Winston’s Florida-based antics over the years.
Eli Manning could end up available, but given his performance in New York this season, he should only be signed as a holdover until a rookie is ready, regardless of the Tom Coughlin connection.
The most intriguing option is Derek Carr, who appears to have fallen out of favor with the Jon Gruden regime in Oakland. The Raiders would save cap room by cutting him this offseason, allowing Jacksonville to potentially snap him up. Carr has had a rough couple of seasons, but his MVP-caliber 2016 shouldn’t be too far from memory.
Whatever they do to replace Bortles, they will remain saddled with cap hits originating from that ill-fated deal they gave him last offseason. Uncertainty surrounding the core of this team, and whether it can return to 2017 levels, will linger.
Tough questions are coming for the Jaguars.