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Better, worse or the same? Jaguars' defense faces growing pains

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Why Yannick Ngakoue needs a trade more than any other NFL player (0:48)

Field Yates explains why the Jaguars need to find a trade partner for DE Yannick Ngakoue and the challenges Jacksonville faces in pulling off a deal. (0:48)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Just three seasons ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars had one of the best defenses in the NFL. The unit was stocked with good, young players at key spots and was expected to stay among the league’s elite for a while.

By the end of last season, however, the Jaguars' defense hovered near the bottom of the league and set some dubious franchise firsts, such as allowing 200 or more yards rushing four times and allowing more than 500 total yards twice.

There has been significant turnover since 2017. Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye were traded away, Telvin Smith stepped away from football, Marcell Dareus was released and Yannick Ngakoue has pledged to never play for the franchise again despite the fact that the Jaguars used the franchise tag on him.

The Jaguars made several key additions to the defense for 2020, using both their first-round picks on that side of the ball and signing middle linebacker Joe Schobert so Myles Jack could slide to weakside linebacker. So is the Jaguars' defense going to be better, worse or the same as it was in 2019?

Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the defense:

Defensive line

Additions: Cassius Marsh (free agent), Aaron Lynch (free agent), Doug Costin (undrafted free agent), Rodney Gunter (free agent), Davon Hamilton (draft pick), Brian Price (free agent), Al Woods (free agent), K’Lavon Chaisson (draft)

Losses: Calais Campbell, Carl Davis, Marcell Dareus

Returners: Josh Allen, Taven Bryan, Dawuane Smoot, Abry Jones, Dontavius Russell.

Better, worse or the same? Slightly better

The biggest question along the defensive front is whether Ngakoue will play for the Jaguars in 2020. The team received no offers before the draft and general manager Dave Caldwell said Ngakoue has few options if no team tries to trade for him. He could play for the Jaguars on the franchise tag at $17.8 million or sit out the year. The front is significantly better with him, especially since coordinator Todd Wash is going to use more 3-4 concepts that will have Ngakoue, Allen, Chaisson and Marsh playing up on the line of scrimmage in a two-point stance at times as well as dropping into coverage.

The interior of the line was a major issue last season after Dareus went down with a sports hernia, but Woods is a mammoth (330 pounds) run-stuffer who should improve a run defense that gave up 139 yards per game.

Gunter is an underrated player who can play tackle or end. He’ll fill the role that Campbell used to have and while he’s not expected to have the kind of major impact Campbell did in his three seasons in Jacksonville, Gunter is a reliable player who has missed just three games in five seasons.

Linebacker

Additions: Joe Schobert (free agent), Nate Evans (undrafted free agent), Shaquille Quarterman (draft)

Losses: Donald Payne, Austin Calitro, Jake Ryan, James Onwualu, D.J. Alexander

Returners: Dakota Allen, Joe Giles-Harris, Leon Jacobs, Quincy Williams, Myles Jack, Lerentee McCray

Better, worse or the same? Better

Schobert will call the defensive plays and get everyone lined up correctly, a job that Jack had for the past two seasons. Jack will move outside, and taking that responsibility away will allow him to be more reactive and play more freely. There’s better depth at the position than there has been the past several seasons, especially since Marsh and Chaisson can line up at strongside linebacker at times, too. It looks like it’s going to be hard for Williams, a third-round pick last year, to carve out a role. He was overwhelmed last season and was benched twice, but to be fair he had not played outside linebacker before last season (he was safety/rover at Murray State).

Cornerback

Additions: Luq Barcoo (undrafted free agent), Amari Henderson (undrafted free agent), C.J. Henderson (draft), Rashaan Melvin (free agent), Josiah Scott (draft), Kobe Williams (undrafted free agent), Chris Claybrooks (draft)

Losses: A.J. Bouye

Returners: Tre Herndon, Parry Nickerson, Brandon Watson, D.J. Hayden

Better, worse or the same? Worse

Last year’s starting corners in the season opener were Bouye and Jalen Ramsey. Herndon stepped in as the starter when Ramsey was traded in October and played solid football, but he’s not anywhere close to Ramsey’s level. Regardless of how talented first-round pick C.J. Henderson is, he’s a rookie who doesn’t have the benefit of a normal offseason program, so expectations should be tempered. Hayden has been very good as the Jaguars’ nickelback the past two seasons and might be pressed into moving back outside. Melvin has just four interceptions in six seasons.

Safety

Additions: Daniel Thomas (draft)

Losses: Cody Davis

Returners: Ronnie Harrison, Jarrod Wilson, Doug Middleton, Andrew Wingard, Josh Jones

Better, worse or the same? Same

Jones, who was acquired via waivers on Dec. 31, has played in 35 games, which makes him the most experienced safety on the roster. It’s unclear just how much he’ll push Wilson at free safety, but he does give the Jaguars at least some better depth. Still, the five experienced players have only combined for six interceptions and three forced fumbles.