The NFL’s worst team, preparing to make the No. 1 overall selection again with another new coach, was the biggest story of free agency last March. Over the first two days of free agency, Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke splurged on seven new players and spent nearly $260 million with more than $150 million guaranteed. The reaction around the league ranged from eyebrows raised to laughter. Like, oh really?
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Thanks in part to a highly productive free-agent class — plus an improved culture, tremendous coaching and the play of Trevor Lawrence — Jacksonville is still alive to play the Chiefs in a Divisional Round game. According to those involved, it was a collective effort that involved sound physical and cultural fits.
Owner Shad Khan listened to the plan from Baalke and coach Doug Pederson, and as long as they were in lockstep on the players, he was all in. So the team went all in.
They spent. Some may say overspent. They don’t care, because of the players they got.
As one person involved recounted, there was a plan in place, and people can criticize how much it cost. The bottom-line in free agency — you’re always going to spend more than you want. But as long as you get good players, who cares?
The attributes of the players signed were simple: Mostly young players coming off their first contracts who enjoyed practicing and could grow together. On offense, it was all about getting Lawrence rolling, aiming for players who were a bit undervalued and those Pederson, offensive coordinator Press Taylor and others could visualize in their system.
For the players with less quantifiable attributes, it was about leadership, youth and fit.
There were splash players everywhere, from guard Brandon Scherff to ball-hawking cornerback Darious Williams to speedy linebacker Foye Oluokun. All have come in this season and thrived, with Williams fourth in the NFL with 16 passes deflected and Oluokun leading the NFL with 184 tackles.
But really, it was the pass catchers who have garnered the headlines.
The Jaguars’ top three receivers — Christian Kirk (84 catches for 1,108 yards and eight touchdowns), Zay Jones (82 catches for 823 yards and five TDs) and Evan Engram (73 catches for 766 yards and four TDs) — all arrived via free agency.
And as one coach described, they all share a trait.
A big part of the reason the team targeted this trio, the coach explained, was that they loved to practice and were almost always available to do so. Young, hungry players who liked to practice. Very simple.
When Baalke called around before free agency to do background work on this group, he heard the same refrain: “They work their tails off.”
Increased reps has led to familiarity and comfort. And Lawrence has become the QB they had hoped he would be.
The pass catchers have been involved in some of the season’s biggest plays. The defenders have been as disruptive as one could hope.
In part, that goes back to the homework. Talking to trainers, coaches, scouts, strength coaches, equipment managers — everyone.
As Baalke has told people close to him, the team essentially got everyone it wanted. There isn’t really one that got away. The result was that 19 players started in the wild-card game against the Chargers that weren’t on the team two years ago. Worst to first in the division. And a team that thinks it can win.
As Baalke has told people about Khan, he realizes it was a lot of money spent, but he also realizes the best is yet to come.
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