Making sense of the Jaguars' flurry of free agent signings

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Landing defensive lineman Arik Armstead on Thursday afternoon didn't soothe the sting of losing receiver Calvin Ridley the day before for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but it might turn out to be a more impactful move in 2024.

The interior of the defensive line was one of the Jaguars' biggest weaknesses -- especially against the run -- in the second half of the 2023 season, when they allowed 131.8 yards per game over Weeks 13-18. And while the 6-foot-7, 290-pound Armstead doesn't completely fix the issue, he does make the Jaguars significantly better there.

Armstead, who joins the Jaguars on a three-year, $51 million contract, is one of the NFL's best defensive linemen when healthy -- he had 20 QB pressures and five sacks last season. He provides an interior pass-rush presence that will ease the burden off edge rushers Josh Allen and Travon Walker. With Armstead, DaVon Hamilton and Roy Robertson-Harris, the Jaguars have three-fourths of their first- and second-team tackle rotation in place. The spot still needs to be addressed, but adding Armstead means it isn't as high of a priority as it was on Thursday morning.

Plus the Jaguars don't have to take a defensive lineman with the No. 17 overall pick in the 2024 draft now if there's a player at another major area of need -- such as cornerback -- available.

The Armstead acquisition capped off a solid week of free agency for the Jaguars, who filled holes with experienced players and boosted the leadership in the locker room. Those areas were lacking last season and showed in the latter part of the year during a 1-5 stretch that saw them miss the playoffs; Allen said after the season that everyone was waiting for a spark to break up the slump, but it never came. So the Jags added several players from teams that made deep playoff runs.

Here's a look at the key additions from this week, how they factor into the Jaguars' plans and what could come next.

Losing Ridley hurts, but ...

Ridley's departure to the Tennessee Titans on a four-year, $92 million contract ($50 million guaranteed) on Wednesday evening was a blow to the Jaguars' offense, but according to a league source, Jacksonville was not willing to pay Ridley more than $20 million annually. Not having to spend on Ridley allowed the Jaguars to use that money to sign a top free agent in Armstead, whom Jaguars GM Trent Baalke drafted in the first round in 2015 while he was San Francisco's general manager.

And consider this: The Jaguars' offense in 2022 finished 10th in scoring (23.7 PPG), passing (232.9 YPG) and yards per game (357.4) without Ridley. Three of the top four pass-catchers from that unit return in receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones and tight end Evan Engram. Receivers Marvin Jones Jr. (46 catches) and Jamal Agnew (23 catches) are gone, but the Jaguars signed upgrades this week in Gabe Davis and Devin Duvernay.

Davis, who signed a three-year contract worth $39 million, caught 93 passes for 1,582 yards and 14 touchdowns and averaged 17 yards per catch over the past two seasons in Buffalo. And while Duvernay was signed mainly as a returner, he also had 94 catches for 898 yards and five touchdowns in four seasons in Baltimore. He's a much more accomplished receiver than Agnew, who was the Jaguars' punt and kick returner last season and was at times forced into a bigger role on offense because of injuries.

Getting better in the middle

It was no secret the Jaguars needed an upgrade at center; Luke Fortner ranked 31st among centers in pass block win rate (87.9%) in 2023. They addressed that by signing Mitch Morse to a two-year contract worth $10.5 million.

Morse spent nine seasons as a starter in Kansas City and Buffalo, and his pass block win rate of 94.4% ranks 10th among all centers since he entered the league in 2015.

What impact does that have on QB Trevor Lawrence? Well, Lawrence was pressured on 29.3% of his dropbacks (third-lowest rate in the NFL) yet was sacked a career-high 35 times last season. Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Fortner allowed 4.5 sacks while Morse didn't allow any in 2023. Morse's pass block win rate in 2023 also ranked 14th (93%), significantly higher than Fortner. So this move should help take the pressure off the Jaguars' franchise QB.

The Jaguars also re-signed left guard Ezra Cleveland, whom they acquired in a midseason trade with Minnesota, to a three-year contract and restructured right guard Brandon Scherff's contract for salary cap relief before the new league year began at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday. Cleveland suffered a foot injury two weeks before he was traded, but prior to the injury, he was among the best left guards in the league; he had given up only 10 pressures and one sack. Cleveland suffered a knee injury in his first game with the Jaguars but fought through it -- even starting a game at left tackle because of an injury to Walker Little. The Jaguars believe Cleveland will return to the level at which he was playing earlier in 2023 if he stays healthy.

The Jaguars also traded for extra quarterback insurance by acquiring Mac Jones from the Patriots for a sixth-round pick. Jones, the 2021 No. 15 overall pick, is going to compete with 30-year-old C.J. Beathard to be Lawrence's backup this season. Jones will be in his fourth and final year of his rookie contract.

Lawrence dealt with knee, ankle and shoulder injuries as well as a concussion in 2023, and Jones provides another option if Lawrence has to miss time.

"My goal was to get the train back on the track," Jones said at his introductory press conference. "I think I can do that here and the coaches here have talked to me about that, just how I can help the room and how I can learn from Trevor and everybody here. Obviously, he's playing great football and he's done a great job here in Jacksonville. I'm excited to get back with him and C.J. and just learn from them."

Secondary concerns

The team released cornerback Darious Williams and safety Rayshawn Jenkins in early March but signed their replacements in Ronald Darby and Darnell Savage.

Darby, who signed a two year deal, is a nine-year veteran who has fought through ankle, hamstring and hip injuries as well as two torn ACLs (2018 and 2022) in his career. He had the best season of his career in 2023, giving up just 31 catches for 353 yards and a touchdown. He's a man-to-man cover corner, and new coordinator Ryan Nielsen's defense thrives in man coverage. The Falcons (Nielsen's old team) were in man coverage 41.7% of the time last season, the third-highest rate in the NFL behind only the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.

Darby, as of now, is the starter opposite Tyson Campbell.

Second-year defensive back Antonio Johnson likely will have the big nickel role, and Savage (302 tackles, 30 pass breakups and nine interceptions in five seasons in Green Bay) will replace Jenkins at strong safety after signing a three-year deal. Free safety Andre Cisco is entering the final year of his rookie deal, and Savage has played free safety with the Packers, so he could slide over with Johnson taking over as the strong safety in 2025.

Where things stand now

The Jaguars still have a major need at cornerback and -- without Ridley -- at receiver. The good news is the 2024 draft class is regarded as strong at both positions, and the Jaguars could target both spots with the first two of their five picks in the top 115 of the draft.

Campbell's contract expires after 2024, and a down season in 2023 hasn't made him a lock for an extension. Even if Campbell does earn a new deal, 30-year-old Darby is not a long-term answer on the other side, so picking a corner with the 17th overall pick may be the Jaguars' plan. In fact, ESPN NFL draft analyst Jordan Reid has the Jaguars taking Toledo CB Quinyon Mitchell there in his latest mock draft.

The Jaguars also don't have a young, developmental receiver on the roster outside of 2023 sixth-rounder Parker Washington in the slot. And they are lacking a big receiver -- at 6-foot-2, Davis is the tallest on the roster. The draft class is loaded with receivers with size: Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr. (6-foot-4), Washington's Rome Odunze (6-3), LSU's Brian Thomas Jr. (6-4), Florida State's Keon Coleman (6-4) and South Carolina's Xavier Legette (6-3) all fit the bill. Harrison almost certainly will be a top-five pick, but the Jaguars could have a shot at the other receivers either by trading up, staying at No. 17 or maybe even checking the box in the second round.

The Jaguars had $4.6 million in salary cap space before doing Armstead's deal, per ESPN's Roster Management System, so that number will decrease when Armstead's contract is factored in. With the team needing approximately $4 million in space for their draft class, that leaves things a little tight.

However, there are some restructure candidates (Robinson and linebacker Foyesade Oluokun), and getting a long-term deal done with Allen (who was given the franchise tag last month) would provide some relief. The Jaguars may still pursue some low-level free agents, but their big spending in free agency is likely over.

Ideally the Jaguars wouldn't have had to be this active in free agency, but it was needed to keep up in the AFC South, which looks like it may be one of the most competitive divisions in the league.

The Houston Texans added pass-rushers Danielle Hunter and Denico Autry, cornerback Jeff Okudah and running back Joe Mixon, while the Indianapolis Colts signed defensive tackle Raekwon Davis and brought back receiver Michael Pittman Jr. The Tennessee Titans, which knocked the Jaguars out of the playoffs in Week 18, arguably made the biggest improvements, adding Ridley, running back Tony Pollard, center Lloyd Cushenberry and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie.

The Jaguars' work this past week was a solid start in an offseason that is all about putting themselves in position to ensure that last season's late slump that kept them out of the playoffs after an 8-3 start doesn't happen again in 2024.

"It was a disappointment. I don't think anybody you talk to in our organization would argue differently," Baalke said at the combine. "We have a clear understanding of what we need to do and from an organizational standpoint, it's never one thing. You can't just point to one thing and say, 'That's why we finished the way we finished.'

"We all have to own it and no one better to own it than me. When I look at this thing, extremely disappointed where we were at and where we finished, but motivated to fix it."