JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell said the plan for 2020 was to purge high salaries, to get the salary cap under control and to fix a locker room culture that had soured because of -- among other things -- selfishness, contract issues and personal agendas.
But in trying to do that, the Jaguars are left with a team that is one of the youngest in the league and has little proven talent. In the wake of Monday's release of running back Leonard Fournette and Sunday's trade of defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, it's hard to look at everything that has happened in the past several months and not think the franchise is, well, tanking.
Intentional or not, that's the perception of the Jaguars in 2020.
A team can't trade its best defensive player and cut its second-best offensive player (arguably behind receiver DJ Chark) on consecutive days and not have it read that way. Especially considering the other moves the team has made since the 2019 season ended.
Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone will vehemently deny it. Both are in jeopardy of not being back in 2021 if the team posts a third consecutive losing season after the surprising run to the AFC title game in 2017. They believe they have a roster that will allow them to be competitive in the AFC South -- and possibly compete for the final playoff spot if second-year quarterback Gardner Minshew thrives in Jay Gruden's West Coast-style offense.
Who knows? Maybe they're right. Maybe the Jaguars will go worst to first the way they did in 2017.
That team, however, was loaded with defensive talent. Six players went to the Pro Bowl and another, nose tackle Marcell Dareus, was a former Pro Bowler. The 2020 Jaguars are nowhere close to that, talent-wise.
Not after trading Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye in March. Not after their marquee free-agent signing was middle linebacker Joe Schobert (who does fill a significant need) and their No. 2 signing was defensive lineman Rodney Gunter, who retired earlier this month because of a heart problem.
Not after trading Ngakoue to Minnesota for a second-round pick in 2021 and a conditional pick in 2022.
The Campbell and Bouye trades were salary-driven, as was the trade of quarterback Nick Foles, so those moves were understandable as part of fixing the bloated cap situation. The Jaguars might not have had Ngakoue on the field this year anyway because he was angry with the team. He publicly said he wasn't going to play for them again and had yet to sign his franchise-tag tender, but the Jaguars could have forced him to choose to either play for them or sit out and leave $17.8 million on the table. He was their best defensive player and arguably their best overall player.
You can make the argument that Fournette isn't a great fit for Gruden's spread offense, but he has been a productive player when healthy. The Jaguars had already declined his fifth-year option, so they could have run him hard in 2020 and moved on after the season. Instead, they're going to rely on eight-year veteran Chris Thompson (who has played more than 10 games in a season just twice since he was drafted in 2013) and second-year backs Devine Ozigbo and Ryquell Armstead, who have a combined 44 career carries.
There are some good, young players on the roster. Chark and Josh Allen, who set the franchise's rookie sacks record with 10.5 last season, made the Pro Bowl in 2019. The Jaguars are excited about C.J. Henderson, Laviska Shenault and K'Lavon Chaisson ... but they're rookies. Relying on multiple rookies to make significant contributions is risky.
So, yeah, even though Caldwell or Marrone could argue to the contrary, it's easy to see why it looks as if the Jaguars are tanking.
And if they are? The prize could be Trevor Lawrence, who is regarded as the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck in 2012. Of course, Lawrence could opt to return to Clemson for his senior season, but he's expected to declare for the NFL draft.
He would be a transformative player for a franchise that really hasn't had one. The Jaguars would instantly become relevant and, with another good draft or two, be in position to become an annual contender in the AFC, as Indianapolis did after drafting Luck.
There's nothing worse in the NFL than being irrelevant. Muddling around in the five-, six-, seven-win range and realistically being out of playoff contention before Halloween year after year is awful. That's what happened with the Miami Dolphins. From 2009 to 2018, they had only one winning season (10-6 in 2016). Interest waned, and the Dolphins didn't have a star in a town that thrives on and embraces stars.
Then came 2019, when new general manager Chris Grier and new coach Brian Flores started trading good players for extra draft picks to turn around a franchise that was stuck in mediocrity. They were tagged with tanking, too, and they vehemently denied it, though they did acknowledge there would be some hard times as the team went through a rebuild.
The Jaguars insist they aren't tanking, either ... but it sure looks that way.