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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Sunday’s uncharacteristic meltdown doesn’t change the fact that the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense is one of the league’s best.

It’s not on the same historical pace it was for much of the season, but the Jaguars still lead the NFL in sacks (52) and pass defense (173.5 yards per game), are second in scoring (16.9 points per game) and third in total defense (289.7 YPG).

The unit has come a long way in only two years.

The Jaguars ranked 20th or worst in those same statistical categories, including 31st in scoring (28.0 points per game), in 2015, which was one of the main reasons quarterback Blake Bortles set franchise records in attempts, completions, passing yards and passing touchdowns. The Jaguars were always trailing … by a lot.

The journey from the bottom of the defensive rankings to the top might have happened quickly, but it wasn’t easy. The Jaguars (10-5) had to hit big time in the draft and nail free agency by targeting the right players and having enough salary-cap space to afford them.

General manager Dave Caldwell did both, and here’s a look at how it all came together:

The draft

Caldwell gets plenty of criticism for his first draft in 2013 and his selection of Bortles third overall in 2014, but he absolutely nailed his first three picks of the 2016 draft: cornerback Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Myles Jack and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.

Ramsey made the Pro Bowl in 2017 and has established himself as one of the best man-coverage corners in the NFL. He takes the opponent’s top receiver each week, and this season has locked down T.Y. Hilton, A.J. Green, Sammy Watkins, Larry Fitzgerald, and Doug Baldwin.

Ramsey led all rookies with 14 pass breakups, and intercepted two passes and forced a fumble in 2016.

Jack had a nondescript rookie season because he wasn’t able to settle at one spot. He started working behind Paul Posluszny in the middle, moved to weakside linebacker behind Telvin Smith, and eventually settled in at strongside linebacker. He played only 230 snaps.

The Jaguars moved him to middle linebacker in the offseason and slid Posluszny to the strong side. Jack has started every game and has a fumble return for a touchdown.

Ngakoue has been fantastic in his two seasons. The third-round pick ranks ninth overall in sacks (20) and first in forced fumbles (10) since the start of the 2016 season. He has been the second-best pass-rusher from the 2016 draft, behind only Joey Bosa (22 sacks), and has outperformed first-round picks Leonard Floyd (12.5 sacks), DeForest Buckner (nine), and Shaq Lawson (six) and second-round picks Noah Spence (6.5) and Emmanuel Ogbah (9.5).
The Jaguars’ investment in Calais Campbell has paid off big, with the defensive end notching 14.5 sacks in his first 15 games with Jacksonville. Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports
Three other starters or key contributors on the defense also were Caldwell draft picks: Linebacker Smith (fifth round, 2014), defensive end Dante Fowler (first round, 2015) and nickelback Aaron Colvin (fourth round, 2014).

Smith has become the Jaguars’ emotional leader and one of their most consistent playmakers, with a team-high 93 tackles (11 for loss), three interceptions, two fumble recoveries (one for a TD) and five pass breakups. Fowler missed his first season because of a torn ACL but developed into a solid complementary pass-rusher (11.5 sacks, including 7.5 in 2017) over the past two seasons.

The Jaguars drafted Colvin despite the fact that he suffered a torn ACL three months before the draft during Senior Bowl practices. He missed the first 10 games of his rookie season but has developed into the team’s top nickelback.

Free agency

The Jaguars spent big in free agency in 2015 on tight end Julius Thomas and defensive end Jared Odrick, but structured those deals so that the combined $46.5 million in guaranteed money was paid out in the first two years. They were both cut after 2016 with no dead money and that — along with not having to sign any of the 2013 draft picks to an extension — left Caldwell with plenty of cap space to go big last March.

And he did.

Caldwell added defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and safety Barry Church on the first day of free agency, giving out a combined $68 million in guaranteed money to the trio. It was definitely money well spent, because that group is already the best free-agent class in franchise history.

Two of those three signees are Pro Bowlers and one is a serious candidate for defensive player of the year.

Campbell (four years, $60 million, $30 million guaranteed) has enjoyed a career year in 2017, with a franchise-record 14.5 sacks and team highs with 30 quarterback hits and 12 tackles for loss. He was voted to his third Pro Bowl and trails NFL leader Chandler Jones by just half a sack.

Bouye (five years, $67.5 million, $26 million guaranteed) leads the Jaguars with a career-high six interceptions and 18 pass breakups, which ranks fourth in the NFL. Per Pro Football Focus, Bouye has allowed only 37 catches for 430 yards and no touchdowns, and opposing quarterbacks have a 31.6 rating — lowest in the league — when throwing in his direction.

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Bouye, who also was voted to the Pro Bowl, combines with Ramsey to give the Jaguars the best cornerback duo in the NFL.

Church has played a key role in the Jaguars’ defense even though he doesn’t have outstanding stats. The eight-year veteran is the calming voice in a secondary full of egos and trash talk, and he’s the player coach Doug Marrone goes to when he sees a problem with anyone in the group.

His teammates have nicknamed him Uncle Church, and he’s been a valuable buffer and pipeline between the secondary and the coaching staff. He also has set career highs in interceptions (four) and pass breakups (eight).

Defensive tackle Malik Jackson was the cornerstone of Caldwell’s 2016 free-agent class. He signed a six-year, $86.1 million contract with a franchise-record $46 million guaranteed. After posting a career-high 6.5 sacks in 2016, he has bettered that in 2017 (8.0) and earned his first Pro Bowl nod.

Safety Tashaun Gipson came over in 2016 on a five-year, $36 million deal with $12 million guaranteed. After tying his career low with one interception his first season in Jacksonville, he has rebounded with four this season as his role has expanded.

The coordinator

Good players are important, but so is someone who is able to put them together in a scheme in which they can thrive. That’s what Todd Wash has done in only his second season as a defensive coordinator.

Marrone retained Wash from Gus Bradley’s staff, but Wash is not running the same defense he ran in his inaugural season as a coordinator under Bradley. That was Bradley’s defense, which he brought with him from Seattle when he was hired as Jaguars head coach in 2013. The 4-3 alignment — with a big end and rush end (called a Leo) — featured a box safety and single-high safety, and Bradley rarely deviated from that approach.

Wash, who came with Bradley from Seattle, called the defense that way.

However, he scrapped the Leo, modified the duties of the strongside linebacker and was more flexible in his coverages. He was obviously helped by the free-agent additions, but that’s particularly true with Church because he gave Wash the ability to have interchangeable safeties.

Church is much better in coverage than Johnathan Cyprien, so Wash was able to move around Church and Gipson. The Jaguars are no longer playing almost exclusively a single-high safety. When they do, it might be Church, and not Gipson, who’s deep.

The Jaguars are playing more quarters coverage, and there have been times when Ramsey has played safety, too. There’s just more variety in what Jacksonville does in the secondary, which the players really like.

It took a bit to figure that out, though, because the Jaguars weren’t able to put their starting secondary on the field until the season opener, because each player in the group dealt with injuries at one point or another throughout camp and the preseason.

What you need to know in the NFL

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• Standings
It all came together for Wash, though, in the Jaguars’ Week 5 game at Pittsburgh. The Jaguars intercepted Ben Roethlisberger five times and won 30-9. That’s when Wash realized the defense could be special.

“The Pittsburgh game was big for us,” Wash said. “You go and you play against a really good quarterback and you play well. I think that’s really how you really look at your defense: How well do they play against really good quarterbacks?

“We thought we were going to be solid from that point.”

They’ve been better than solid, and it all came together in two years.

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CLEVELAND — The Jacksonville Jaguars beat the Cleveland Browns 19-7 on Sunday to take a one-game lead in the AFC South. And while it was a jubilant locker room, head coach Doug Marrone and several players all said the same thing: Winning ugly is great, but it’s not sustainable.

The second half of the season is when teams are supposed to gather momentum for the playoff push, but dumb mistakes and injuries to key players on the offensive line have had the Jaguars (7-3) stuck in survival mode the past two games. They won both games — which is something multiple players have said wouldn’t have happened last season — but they know they have to start playing better.

“I talked to them afterwards, [and I told them] I think we’ve got to clean some things up to be able to push forward, to start going in that direction,” Marrone said. “I told the players, ‘I hate to be Debbie Downer, but we’ve got to clean some things up if we want to move forward in the direction that we want to move in.’”
Leonard Fournette worked through an ankle injury to gain 111 yards against the Browns, but he lacked his usual burst. AP Photo/Ron Schwane
That would be winning the AFC South and making the playoffs for the first time since 2007 — and doing some damage once they get there. For now, though, the Jaguars will take ugly victories because it obviously beats the alternative.

On offense, quarterback Blake Bortles threw the ball pretty well against the Browns, considering the chilly conditions — and the fact that he didn’t have No. 2 receiver Allen Hurns — but he lost a fumble, which has been an issue throughout his career. The offense had 284 yards, but 206 of them came in the first half. The unit sputtered in the second half when the run game couldn’t get going. The offensive line struggled to create much room, and the Jaguars felt the loss of Hurns in the pass game.

Special teams were a mess in the first half, too. The Jaguars gave up a 53-yard return on the opening kickoff, committed an illegal-formation penalty on a punt, got a 21-yard punt from Brad Nortman and had an offside penalty on Donald Payne that wiped out an onside kick that Josh Lambo had recovered.

That’s not all. Jaydon Mickens also dropped a punt (which he recovered), and Lambo missed a 41-yard field goal after he had gone 8-for-8 since signing with the team on Oct. 17.

Those kinds of mistakes on special teams didn’t hurt the Jaguars against the Browns, but they will against better competition — and in the playoffs, when every mistake is magnified.

What you need to know in the NFL

• Statistics
• Scoreboard
• 2017 schedule, results
• Standings
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to figure something out, because these type of wins, they’re not just going to continue to just roll,” safety Tashaun Gipson said. “Every team in this league is capable of winning, but we’re going to start playing these good teams, like Seattle, so at the end of the day … all phases of our game got to be firing, whether it’s special teams, offense and defense.

“It’s a blessing to be able to get an ugly win like this, but right now, we’ve got to go back to the drawing board. We’ve got to figure something out for sure.”
Getting healthy at key spots will help, especially on the offensive line. Right tackle Jermey Parnell (knee) missed his second consecutive game. Left guard Patrick Omameh (quad) left the victory over the Los Angeles Chargers early and didn’t play against the Browns. Bortles was harassed in the pocket all day and was sacked twice.

Running back Leonard Fournette played after he was listed as questionable with a right-ankle injury. While he did rush for 111 yards, he didn’t look as good on Sunday as he did during the season’s first six games. He said after the game that the injury was something he was going to have to manage the rest of the season.

The Jaguars are winning ugly, which teams have to do sometimes, but that can’t continue if they’re going to make a deep run in the playoffs.

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It’s time for another Jacksonville Jaguars mailbag. Each Saturday morning I’ll answer a representative question, hitting a topic that drew the most interest. Submit your questions via Twitter to @ESPNdirocco. Please use the hashtag #jagsmail.

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Replying to @ESPNdirocco
Which player from the Jaguars 2014 draft class do you envision Coughlin/Caldwell will decide to let hit the open market next year? #jagsmail
2:47 AM – Oct 27, 2017
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@ESPNdirocco: The Jaguars have already locked up center Brandon Linder (five years, $57.1 million) and linebacker Telvin Smith (four years, up to $50 million) and picked up the fifth-year option on quarterback Blake Bortles. That leaves only three players from the 2014 draft class that don’t have a contract beyond this season: receivers Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee and cornerback Aaron Colvin.

Unless Bortles has a phenomenal second half of the season, his time in Jacksonville is likely over after this season. That’s not anything new so I’ll skip that so we don’t waste time. So let’s deal with Robinson, Lee and Colvin in order from least likely to be back to most likely:
Unless Aaron Colvin is willing to stay in Jacksonville for below market value, he probably won’t be back. Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire
Colvin: Though he has the talent to play outside, Colvin has been the Jaguars’ nickel back this season. That’s not a surprise considering the starters on the outside are Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, the top corner tandem in the NFL. That’s an issue for Colvin because he wants to play outside, which won’t happen here unless there’s an injury. Colvin also wants to be paid outside corner money, which is significantly higher than nickel back money, and that’s not going to happen here.

Colvin has played well this season (22 tackles, one fumble recovery) but nickel backs are not hard to find, so unless Colvin is willing to stay here for below market value — and he will be a player other teams will pursue — he won’t be back.

Lee: He hasn’t developed into the big-play receiver the Jaguars envisioned but he’s been solid after he proved he could stay healthy following his first two years. He won’t command a big-money contract so he could be an affordable option for the Jaguars at around $6-8 million per year. Lee did tell me he wants to be back but he may be willing to test the open market first.
It’ll be interesting to see what the Jaguars do with receiver Allen Hurns because that may play a role in what they do with Lee. Hurns — who joined the team in 2014 as an undrafted free agent — signed a four-year, $40 million contract extension last June after catching 115 passes in his first two seasons, including 64 for 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. Since he signed the deal, though, he’s caught 61 passes and missed five games with injury. He’s scheduled to earn $6.9 million in 2018, though only $4 million of that is guaranteed for injury only. The Jaguars can cut him before the third day of the 2018 league year and owe him nothing and have no dead money on the cap.

The Jaguars could opt to cut Hurns, keep Lee to play on the outside, and use 2017 rookie Dede Westbrook in the slot in 2018.

Robinson: It would be surprising if the Jaguars didn’t bring back Robinson. They’ve had the beginnings of extension talks and now that the team has finished Smith’s deal Robinson would figure to be their top priority. He may be hurt a bit by the fact that he’s sitting out this season because of a torn left ACL, but Robinson could still command a contract in the $14-$16 million range annually. If the Jaguars cannot work out a long-term deal, then expect them to use the franchise tag. The 2017 franchise tag value for a receiver is $15.7 million, so that wouldn’t be an outrageous option.