JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville Jaguars have assembled the most expensive defense in NFL history. They believe it’s among the most talented, too.
The group will cost more than $110 million (nearly $90 million to starters) in 2018 and includes eight guys with at least one Pro Bowl appearance. It’s loaded front to back, a mix of youth and experience, budding stars and wily veterans, huge egos and team players.
Together, they make the Jaguars a trendy pick to reach the Super Bowl for the first time.
Getting Jacksonville to this point was no easy endeavor, considering the team lost 63 of 80 games before breaking through and making the playoffs in 2017. General manager Dave Caldwell (with some recent help from Tom Coughlin ) built most of the stacked defense over the last three years, benefiting from the best draft class in franchise history, one of the top free-agent hauls in NFL lore and a midseason trade that made a difference.
Here’s a look at how Jacksonville pieced together its high-priced and highly touted D, which returns 12 of its top 14 players from 2017:
Linebacker Telvin Smith turned out to be a steal in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft. The former Florida State standout has 447 tackles — more than any other player over the last four seasons — seven interceptions and 6 1/2 sacks while missing just four games. He signed a four-year, $45 million extension in October that included $20 million guaranteed.
Bigger contracts are likely in store for Jacksonville’s 2016 class, which included All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey (first round), linebacker Myles Jack (second) and Pro Bowl defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (third). The trio is a rare find in the same draft and a major part of the team’s core.
Ramsey is a lock-down defender, quite possibly the best at his position. Jack makes plays all over the field as part of one of the fastest linebacker corps in the league. Ngakoue has 20 sacks and 10 forced fumbles in two seasons.
“Not everyone hits on their draft picks,” defensive coordinator Todd Wash said. “We are lucky that happened, but it is also a credit to the three individuals that come in every day and they work and strive to be the best that they can be.”
After pinching pennies and rolling over salary-cap space for several years, the Jaguars spent big in 2016 and ’17. They signed five defensive starters to contracts totaling $275 million, including $122.5 million guaranteed. Here’s the unique part: The team has no regrets about a dime spent because they hit on all five.
They gave defensive tackle Malik Jackson a six-year, $85.5 million contract in 2016 and signed safety Tashaun Gipson to a five-year, $36 million deal. Jackson made his first Pro Bowl last season, and coach Doug Marrone was adamant that Gipson should have been there, too.
As good as that duo performed, Jacksonville’s 2017 class was even better. All-Pro defensive end Calais Campbell, Pro Bowl cornerback A.J. Bouye and hard-hitting safety Barry Church exceeded expectations, no easy task in free agency.
Campbell had a career year, finishing with 14 1/2 sacks in his 10th NFL season, after signing a four-year, $60 million contract. Bouye, who inked a five-year, $67.5 million deal, tied for third in the league with six interceptions and didn’t allow a touchdown in the regular season. Church notched a career-high eight pass breakups to go along with four interceptions and 1 1/2 sacks.
None of the five has missed a game or even a start since joining Jacksonville, either.
“We just have too many athletes on defense,” Bouye said. “We have to capitalize on this opportunity while it is here.”
Needing to shore up a shaky run defense in late October, Jacksonville traded a conditional, sixth-round draft pick (it ended up becoming a fifth-rounder) to Buffalo for two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. The Jags ranked 30th in the league against the run without Dareus and eighth with him down the stretch. Dareus and his $10.175 million salary will be in the starting lineup in 2018.
“We think it all starts up front,” Wash said. “It’s a situation where we are very fortunate.”
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