We're going to talk about the Jaguars' defensive front in 2020.
Let's start with vacated snaps. The Jaguars are set to lose 833 snaps from Calais Campbell, who was traded for a fifth-round selection to the Ravens early in the offseason. Campbell's position was always a bit unique; he can play anywhere, but he was primarily a defensive tackle. The departure of Marcell Dareus, who was injured for half of the 2019 campaign anyway, weakens the position as well. He vacates 210 snaps as does veteran free agent Akeem Spence, who took 174 snaps last year.
If we expand this conversation to include permanent EDGEs, Yannick Ngakoue's 803 snaps in serious jeopardy as well. Ngakoue has made it clear that he doesn't want to play in Jacksonville under the franchise tag — let alone play in Jacksonville at all; a holdout or a trade would knock the Jaguars' lost defensive line snaps up to about 2,000.
The good news is that the Jaguars' front office anticipated and prepared for these problems. In three consecutive drafts, general manager Dave Caldwell has selected a player for the Jaguars' defensive front. This past year, it was EDGE K'Lavon Chaisson, who figures Ngakoue’s replacement for whenever that moment comes. In 2019, the Jaguars ended the mini-fall of Kentucky EDGE Josh Allen, who was a quality JACK player in rotational snaps as a rookie. And in 2018, it was defensive tackle Taven Bryan.
When Bryan was drafted, the Jaguars were coming off of a dominant 2017 season. They had won the AFC South on the backs of an aggressive defense powered by that defensive line. Campbell (14.5) and Ngakoue (12) both had double-digit sacks, defensive tackle Malik Jackson and EDGE Dante Fowler each threw in eight and Dareus — a midseason trade acquisition — anchored the run defense. Jacksonville didn't need a defensive tackle at the time, but Bryan was a mouthwatering developmental prospect with a killer first step, positional flexibility on the defensive front and had a promising final season in Florida.
Bryan was insurance for what eventually happened: Jackson was cut for cap relief in 2018, having never reached the dominant peak he flashed with the Broncos; Dareus lost a step due to age and injury and was released; Campbell was traded for cap relief, not for any deterioration of play, but simply because the Jaguars went all-in on a window and came up short.
The problem is Bryan hasn't been able to deliver, even as a rotational player. Yet to take more than 50% of the snaps in a season, Bryan was primarily fielded as a 3-technique on early downs in 2019, catching the bench on clear pass-rushing situations. Bryan's game remains predicated on his wicked first step; when he lines up in a gap and springs upfield, he's an absolute homewrecker. His only successful pass-rush is predicated on a steamrolling bullrush, which translates into pressures and sacks for other players before showing up on a stat sheet.
In my offseason review of the Jaguars' roster in The Draft Network’s 2020 NFL Draft team guides, available with TDN Premium, here's what I had to say about Bryan's play across his increased usage following the Dareus injury:
“He’s a developing player who is still settling into a permanent role between the tackles. He is still highly inconsistent getting off the ball with leverage and body control and, accordingly, gets buried early. Bryan showed better hand usage late in the season to stack and shed and generate impact plays against the run; pass rush remains predicated on a first-step win.”
After focusing on Bryan's film specifically, my opinion remains largely unchanged, though his ability to rush with power through contact is better than I initially estimated.
The concern for Bryan is, with all of these snaps vacated, he will be a permanent fixture on the defensive line in 2020. But that defensive line won't just look different in terms of the faces on it; it will also look different in its organization, as the Jaguars have made it clear they intend to sprinkle more odd-man fronts (3-4 defense) in with their traditional even front approach.
This is terrible news for Bryan. While he is improving as a stack-and-shed player who can win with length and strength, he remains poor at diagnosing plays as they come to him and is especially susceptible to getting absolutely waxed by double-teams working toward him. A 3-4 defensive end, which is where Bryan will play in those odd fronts, is head-up over a tackle and must remain strong and stout against pressure, including double teams and combo blocks that work through him. This is Bryan's great weakness; he's an explosive, upfield, gap-shooting defender. He can't play head-up and win.
Bryan is now entering 2020 with increased responsibility and a larger role, but the defense is moving away from him. It will still have its even fronts and gap responsibilities, and when Bryan is head-up in the B-gap as a 3-technique, watch out. He can do some damage there.
But Bryan is an imperfect, developing player just at that spot alone. Adding more alignments and responsibilities to his plate is a concerning notion, especially when the new work goes completely against his skillset.
Bryan is a decent candidate to break out in 2020 — staying on the field for pass-rush snaps will certainly improve his statistical profile — but he's just as good of a candidate to float on the trade block come October, as teams with penetrating fronts view him as a miscast reclamation project in Jacksonville's shifting defense.
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