Tuesday, April 16

Baalke: Jags hope to rely less on FA in future

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Jacksonville Jaguars were big spenders in free agency again — and general manager Trent Baalke hopes it’s the last time.

The Jaguars signed seven players this week to contracts totaling $259.5 million with $155.25 million in guarantees. A better use of that money would be on players the team has drafted instead of trying to bring in outsiders to make up for the numerous draft mistakes the franchise has continually made over the past decade.

That’s where Baalke and coach Doug Pederson hope to be within the next several years, but for now it’s a giant open checkbook.

“We’re trying to fix this thing long term, have a vision for the future as we build this thing out, and right now it’s a combination of free agency and the draft,” Baalke said Wednesday. “We hope to get this organization to the point where we’re not relying on free agency as much. We’re relying on our drafts and giving second contracts to those guys.”

Of the seven players signed this week, receiver Christian Kirk had the highest guaranteed money ($37 million) followed by guard Brandon Scherff ($30 million), linebacker Foyesade Oluokun ($28 million), defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi ($20 million), cornerback Darious Williams ($18 million), receiver Zay Jones ($14 million) and tight end Evan Engram ($8.25 million). All of those players will be 29 or younger when the 2022 season begins except for Scherff, who will be 30.

The Jaguars still have to find another edge rusher to pair with Josh Allen and Dawuane Smoot, another receiver, at least one more linebacker, and figure out who will start at left guard, but the roster is in better shape now than it was Monday morning. They also have 12 draft picks and could address some of those issues (possibly edge rusher with Aidan Hutchinson at the No. 1 overall pick) next month.

Spending big money in free agency has worked before for the Jaguars, though it was only a short fix. They gave out a then-franchise-record $157 million ($69 million guaranteed) in contracts in 2017 to defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye, safety Barry Church and linebacker/special teamer Lerentee McCray, and that group played a big part in the team’s surprising run to the AFC Championship Game.

However, the group wasn’t as impactful after that season. Campbell had 10.5 sacks in 2018 after having 14.5 in 2017, but Bouye and Church didn’t play at the same high level in 2018. Church was benched in Week 12 and never played a down in the NFL again.

Other than that group, spending in free agency hasn’t done much for the Jaguars. From 2014 to ’16, they spent more money in free agency than any other team in the NFL ($488.4M, $187.6M guaranteed), and that earned them just 11 victories.

The Jaguars had to be big spenders, though, because of their lack of draft success. Only nine of the 59 draft picks from 2012 to ’19 have signed second contracts with the team, including offensive tackle Cam Robinson playing on the franchise tag in 2021 and 2022. Only one — quarterback Blake Bortles — was taken in the first round. The other players who signed second deals: receiver Marqise Lee (second round in 2014), center Brandon Linder (third round in 2014), linebacker Telvin Smith (fifth round in 2014), guard A.J. Cann (third round in 2015), linebacker Myles Jack (second round in 2016), Smoot (third round in 2017) and guard/tackle Will Richardson (fourth round in 2018).

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Allen was the team’s first-round pick in 2019 and is eligible to sign an extension this offseason.

Those numbers, especially when it comes to first-rounders, have to change, Baalke said.

“It’s very important for everyone to understand that that [the draft] has to be the focus,” Baalke said at the NFL scouting combine. “If we’re not drafting well and developing well and getting guys into their second contract with the Jaguars, then it’s going to be tough to turn this thing around.”

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