The Legacy of the Position: Jaguars, Cornerback
While the needs vary each year, the NFL Draft brings hope and optimism to every single franchise. Many view this hope as being for the fortunes of the franchise and in a lot of ways they are correct. New faces to the organization can spark championship dreams. But there is another kind of hope that needs to be discussed. The hope is that that player lives up to the standards set before him by those who once stood in his shoes for the franchise. According to numerous reports, including Pro Football Focus, the Jacksonville Jaguars need help at cornerback. Let's take a look at their history of the position.
From the very beginning, the Jaguars have enjoyed some fine moments from their cornerbacks. In the middle of their inaugural season of 1995, they played a game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium, a venue both daunting and haunting in its archaic features and palacial field. The Browns had high hopes for that year and looked the part too with an all-star coaching staff led by Bill Belichick. Late in the first quarter, cornerback Mickey Washington intercepted Vinny Testaverde and rushed 48 yards down the field and into the endzone, at once bringing his sideline to life and sucking the life out of Cleveland. The Jaguars rode that momentum to victory that day, but the rest of the year was not nearly as fruitful.
Like many expansion teams before them, the Jaguars stumbled that first season to a 4-12 finish. Despite both being veterans, neither of Jacksonville's cornerbacks picked off more than one pass for the year.
Not much changed for the Jaguars in Year Two except victory. That year, they shocked the NFL and made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. But this was a team that rode the coattails of two dynamic receivers in Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith, not one predicated on great play from their defensive backs. As a result, they found a way to win games in spite of their cornerbacks who again combined to produce two interceptions.
After two years in Jacksonville, Mickey Washington's two interceptions proved to be too little for the franchise and he was released after the year, leaving Aaron Beasley as the last corner standing. He started less than half of the games in 1997 and was helpless against the Broncos' terrific ground attack in the playoffs.
Beasley became a full-time starter in 1998 and blossomed into a star, picking off nine passes over the next two years. He even led the league in 1999 with 200 return yards and two touchdowns off of those interceptions. The franchise added to its cornerback depth in 1999, taking Fernando Bryant out of Alabama in the NFL Draft. While he was never much for interceptions, Bryant was exceptional as a tackler, recording 70 takedowns in his rookie year alone. However, he would never record more than that amount at any point in his career.
By 2003, the franchise had grown weary of cornerbacks that lacked the ability to turn games around with interceptions and found a solution in that year's draft. Rashean Mathis was known as something of a ballhawk while playing at little-known Bethune-Cookman, having set NCAA records for single-season and career interceptions. As a rookie, he intercepted twice and tackled 81 times. His statistics only grew from there as he recorded 10 interceptions over the next two years.
By all accounts, 2006 was his best year as he recorded eight interceptions and collected 63 tackles while earning First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. From there, his career began to slide. Sure he enjoyed good years in 2008 and 2009, intercepting seven passes between those years and twice returning them for touchdowns in 2008. But that all-world ability was never going to last forever. By 2012, the organization sought to go in another direction and released him. Thus starting a long period of transition for the franchise.
Ever since the 2007 playoffs, the Jaguars slowly became one of the worst teams in the league, bottoming out in 2013 with just two wins. As the franchise went from Will Blackmon and Alan Ball in 2013 to Demetrius McCray and Dwayne Gratz in 2014 to Davon House and Aaron Colvin in 2015, it continued to tumble further and further in the standings.
Their answer arrived in 2016. First, they signed free agent Prince Amukamara, a Super Bowl champion with the Giants in 2011. Then the Jaguars drafted Jalen Ramsey, an All-American national championship-winning cornerback from Florida State. Amukamara never panned out on the field, but within the locker room, he proved to be a vital voice in a locker room void. During that season, the players noted his work ethic and how he prepared himself for battle each and every week. Here was a Super Bowl champion in the flesh. If he could win one, why couldn't they?
Still, Amukamara's zero interceptions proved to be his downfall with the organization and he left for free agency at the close of his lone season in Jacksonville. But what he left behind in the locker room proved to be more important than his performance on the field. That offseason, the team filled his spot by signing free agent A.J. Bouye. In Bouye, the Jaguars saw a man who was growing as a player. Having recorded six interceptions in four years as a Houston Texan and making 63 tackles in 2016, A.J. Bouye's career was on the upswing. The Jaguars could only imagine how well he and Jalen Ramsey would jell.
The 2017 season was a magical year in Jacksonville. For the first time in a decade, the team started to really win, making it all the way to the AFC Championship Game where they lost to the Patriots. Working behind that terrific pass rush, Jalen Ramsey grew into a top performer as well as the team's loudest voice. He earned it though, having picked off four passes and earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors. His backfield mate Bouye proved to be quite a pickup as well, picking off six passes and being invited to the Pro Bowl. Everything looked good in Jacksonville, but then the calendar turned and a new season began.
The Jaguars crashed back to Earth the following year and Ramsey's voice began to sound hollow. Still, he earned another Pro Bowl invitation after picking off three passes. Early in 2019, with the team continuing to slide down the standings, he asked for a trade and was granted his request. When A.J. Bouye was traded to the Broncos that offseason, the Jaguars were suddenly in cornerback limbo.
Over the next couple of years, the Jaguars featured forgettable duos such as Sidney Jones and C.J. Henderson in 2020 and Shaquill Griffin and Tyson Campbell in 2021. the constant losing only soured the organization's mood even more toward their defensive backfield. Year after year, they tried and failed to come up with the right combination. In 2022, they made a surprise trip to the playoffs, but it was in spite of their defensive backs, not because of their competence. The Jaguars had a chance to defeat the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs when their star quarterback Patrick Mahomes went down wit ha significant ankle injury. But their defense faltered when it should have seized control and the Chiefs prevailed, leaving the Jaguars confident but concerned, knowing that they wasted a tremendous opportunity.
So here they stand. On the precipice of a fresh, new era, the Jaguars seem to be just a couple of good, quality cornerbacks from really being contenders in the AFC. Who will they select? Will they draft Alabama's Brian Branch, a versatile safety-slot corner combo? Or will they go with a more traditional cornerback such as Georgia's Keelee Ringo? We shall see this weekend.