By Hays Carlyon
Upside is exciting.
How much better can a player become?
It’s a fascinating aspect in all sports, including the NFL.
Upside is also dangerous because it can be unfulfilled.
This season will be The Year of Upside for the Jaguars as they try to prove that a 2017 AFC Championship Game appearance is closer to their identity under third-year personnel chief Tom Coughlin and coach Doug Marrone than last season’s 5-11 failure.
The range of results is wide but that highlights the volatility of upside. These Jaguars are impossible to predict because of the vast upside on the team.
Upside is most concentrated in second-year players. They’ve gone through their rookie seasons, learned their team and the NFL. They are most prepared to make a big jump. That is true with the Jaguars, but there is upside all over this roster even for seasoned veterans.
Here is my Upside Rankings. These 10 players have the best chance to elevate their games to stardom this season from what we have seen so far either in the NFL or, in the case of rookies, in college.
If the majority of these 10 fulfill their upside, the Jaguars will be a playoff team. If the majority stall, they won’t.
- WR Dede Westbrook
Quick bio: The 25-year-old Westbrook enters his third season in the NFL with 93 career catches and six TDs.
2018 stats: Westbrook had 66 receptions for 717 yards and five TDs in 805 offensive snaps (77.4 percent of all offensive snaps).
Why he’s here: I’m confident Westbrook is going to have a breakout season. I would set the over/under on 80 catches for 1,100 yards and seven scores. Westbrook is entering the critical third-year for receivers where traditionally we see a major jump. He’s also got a significant quarterback upgrade in Nick Foles who will utilize him in the slot, giving him passes on time that can maximize yards after the catch.
- SS Ronnie Harrison
Quick bio: The 22-year-old Harrison enters his second season as the unquestioned starting strong safety.
2018 stats: Harrison had 32 tackles (three for a loss) with a sack and interception in 328 defensive snaps (eight starts).
Why he’s here: Harrison is going to excel in both the run and pass game. He showed glimpses of play-making ability as a third-round rookie after he took over for benched (and later cut) Barry Church, but only played 32 percent of the defensive snaps. By the time we get to end of this season, Harrison will be considered a top-five defender on the team and a future Pro Bowler. Harrison was active around the ball in OTAs and defensive coordinator Todd Wash praised his ability to know and execute his assignment in the run game.
- WR DJ Chark
Quick bio: The 22-year-old Chark enters his second season as the team’s best hope for a dominant perimeter threat.
2018 stats: Chark caught 14 passes for 174 yards and no touchdowns in 11 games after being selected in the second round.
Why he’s here: Chark was impressive on special teams as a rookie, so his athleticism will allow him to be a quality receiver. The question is can Chark’s game evolve into that? The Jaguars billed him as a prospect that would need development when they selected him in the second round. He missed five games with a quadriceps injury as a rookie and only played 291 offensive snaps (28 percent).
The offense was atrocious for a variety of reasons. Like Westbrook, Chark should benefit from Foles’ arrival. Chark looked more polished as a route runner and a more reliable pass catcher in OTAs. If that trend continues, he should push for a 50-catch, 800-yard season with four touchdowns. Chark is probably a year away from a massive breakthrough, but strong signs should be there this fall.
- DE Josh Allen
Quick bio: The 21-year-old Allen was selected seventh-overall in April’s draft and is expected to compliment Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell as outside edge rushers.
2018 stats: At Kentucky, Allen recorded 88 tackles (21 ½ for a loss) with 17 sacks, five forced fumbles and four passes defended.
Why he’s here: Allen physically looks like he’s a 27-year-old phenom in the prime of his career. A bruised knee kept him out of all of OTAs. His raw upside would top this list, but we are looking at upside that will be realized this season. Allen is a rookie and even elite edge rushers rarely post huge sack numbers in their first year. Allen will likely be first on this list next season.
- MLB Myles Jack
Quick bio: The 23-year-old Jack enters his fourth season and second as the starting middle linebacker.
2018 stats: Jack played all 1,024 defensive snaps, making a career-best 107 tackles with 2 ½ sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery.
Why he’s here: Does a fourth-year veteran still have upside? In Jack’s case, absolutely. Jack’s playmaking was lacking last season and he adjusted to the demands of being a three-down middle linebacker. His instincts will take over more this season.
Jack has largely played well so he has reached a portion of his upside. But he isn’t a star yet and he has that potential. Jack will make himself a bunch of money this season as he turns in his best one yet in a contract year.
- QB Nick Foles
Quick bio: The 30-year-old Foles enters his eighth season in the NFL hoping to provide the magic he did in Philadelphia (Super Bowl MVP honors) in his first season with the Jaguars.
2018 stats: Foles completed 72.3 percent of his passes throwing for 1,413 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions in the regular season.
Why he’s here: Can a 30-year-old possibly have upside? Oh yeah.
Foles finally has a team that’s his for the first time since 2015 in St. Louis. Foles grew as a backup, culminating by winning four playoff games for the Eagles over the last two seasons combined in relief of injured starter Carson Wentz. Foles is reunited with his former quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia in new Jaguars offensive coordinator John DeFilippo.
Foles isn’t going to morph into an elite quarterback, but he will move up from being considered a subpar-to-average starting quarterback in many observer’s minds to a quality one this fall.
- LT Cam Robinson
Quick bio: The 23-year-old Robinson enters his third season as the starting left tackle.
2018 stats: Robinson started two games playing 119 offensive snaps (11.4 percent) before suffering a season-ending knee injury in a Week 2 win over New England.
Why he’s here: Counting the playoffs, Robinson has started 20 games in this league. The former second-round pick still has considerable upside. Robinson is coming off an ACL tear but is expected to be close to 100 percent for the start of training camp. He looks like he’s developed his upper body well during his recovery. I’m concerned about how Robinson’s second year was progressing prior to his injury, but I still believe he showed enough as a rookie to expect he’ll become a steady left tackle.
- TE Josh Oliver
Quick bio: The 22-year-old Oliver was selected in the third round of April’s draft and has a chance to become the team’s top pass-catching tight end immediately.
2018 stats: At San Jose State, Oliver caught 56 passes for 709 yards and four touchdowns despite the Spartans having three different quarterbacks start multiple games.
Why he’s here: Oliver looked consistent in OTAs and that’s the key. Oliver did something to catch your eye in nearly every OTAs practice. He’s the No. 1 “We’ll see when the pads come on” guy on the roster, but if Oliver can deliver like this in the preseason his stock will soar. I love what I see so far, but it’s too early to put him any higher than this right now.
Rookie tight ends usually have a substantial learning curve that’s too steep to fully conquer right away. He could be second on this list next year.
- DT Taven Bryan
Quick bio: The 23-year-old Bryan enters his second season in a battle to win the starting position at the three technique.
2018 stats: Bryan was credited with 20 tackles and one sack in 301 defensive snaps (29.3 percent).
Why he’s here: Yes, it’s a concern that the former first-rounder isn’t higher. Bryan’s athleticism brings massive upside, but I can’t put him higher because I didn’t see enough production last season to warrant it. The Jaguars tried Bryan at the strongside end spot last season and got little in return. I’m surprised Wash is still considering playing Bryan there at times. He seems to be a natural three technique and should have ample opportunities with former standout Malik Jackson released this offseason.
- RT Jawaan Taylor
Quick bio: The 21-year-old Taylor comes to the Jaguars as a second-round pick expected to be the Week 1 starting right tackle.
2018 stats: Taylor started 12 games (played in 13) at right tackle for Florida.
Why he’s here: It’s unfair to expect Taylor to unlock much of his potential in his rookie season. Still, I saw enough athletically in OTAs and from his collegiate days to think Taylor can become a decent starting right tackle immediately. If he can adequately replace former starter Jermey Parnell, that would be a big win for the offense.
(You can email Hays at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @HaysCarlyon)