In a few short weeks, the wait will be over. The 2021 NFL Draft will be here and the Jacksonville Jaguars will kick off the spectacle for the first time in franchise history.
Following the worst season in franchise history and 15 consecutive losses, the Jaguars are looking to make a splash to turn around one of the NFL's more stagnant franchises. The Jaguars are equipped with 10 draft picks to fuel that turnaround, including the No. 1 overall pick.
But where do the Jaguars need to improve? Who needs to be replaced? To answer these questions and more, we are taking a look at what each Jaguars position group looks like entering the final month before the draft.
In this edition, we look at Jacksonville's guard positions. The Jaguars are returning two veteran starters at each guard position, along with each of their top backups, but could more be done?
Only three Jaguars players have started 40 games or more since the 2018 season began: linebacker Myles Jack (41) and then right guard A.J. Cann (46) and left guard Andrew Norwell (40). Cann started 15 games last season while Norwell started 13, and each is well-liked inside TIAA Bank Field. Head coach Urban Meyer called Norwell one of his favorite players he has ever coached (coached him at Ohio State), while Cann is coming off a solid season under offensive line coach George Warhop.
Cann and Norwell are both coming off their best seasons with the Jaguars. Cann had the lowest amount of "blown blocks" of his career via Sports Info Solutions, while Norwell cut down on his penalties, decreasing them from seven in 2019 to two in 2020.
Then there are the two depth options. Tyler Shatley has played most of his snaps at center, though he did start a few games for the Jaguars at guard last season. He is the team's top depth option on the interior line, though it would be reasonable to see Ben Bartch step in first if the Jaguars need a new guard on the field.
Bartch is coming off a rookie year in which he started one game and played 220 snaps on offense. He rotated in at both guard positions at different points of the season, though his lone start came at left guard. He faced some serious lows, but that was expected for a fourth-round pick (No. 116 overall) out of Saint John's of Minnesota. He should be better in his second season, but it would be surprising if he pushed for a starting job.
The Jaguars liked their offensive line entering the offseason and didn't add any of the big-name guards on the market in March, even though there were several available. Meyer said on more than one occasion before free agency that he believed the team was strong along its offensive line, and it could be reasonable to believe the team is especially confident in their interior offensive line.
"Offensive line, especially the interior line, I feel really good about them, Norwell, Linder, and A.J.," Meyer said on March 9.
"Those guys are good and our right tackle, I feel like his future’s ahead of him too. So, the offensive line, they should be better than a year [ago]. The expectation is that the offensive line will be much better next year.”
The only player who was even potentially on their way out at the guard position was Andrew Norwell, but he is in Jacksonville to stay -- for 2021 at least. The remaining two years on his contract were restructured in March into a one-year deal and Norwell remained on the roster through numerous rumors before free agency that he could be available in trade.
It helped Norwell's case that Meyer is the man in charge in Jacksonville. Meyer coached Norwell for two seasons at Ohio State, seasons in which Norwell played a big part in Ohio State building a dominant rushing attack. Meyer has since given Norwell a vote of confidence.
"He’s one of my favorite players I’ve ever coached. He’s a guy that was the underdog when we got there at Ohio State. The offensive line at Ohio State was one of the worst in the Big 10, it became the best in the Big 10. He was a big part of it," Meyer said on March 9.
"I was not surprised to see him get a high free agency contract because he’s a grinder, he’s a worker, he’s a team guy, he’s a locker room guy. I see him being part of the Jaguars and I want him to be part of the Jaguars. For me personally, I love the guy because I know him better than most.”
While the Jaguars like their current set up along the interior offensive line, the Jaguars do have to consider the fact that both Norwell and Cann are on expiring contracts. Each is scheduled to be a free agent in 2022, so there is a very real scenario in which the Jaguars enter next offseason having to replace both guards, along with potentially left tackle.
As a result, the biggest question facing the position before the draft is whether the Jaguars will use a pick to stock up at the position moving into 2021 and beyond. They have Ben Bartch in the wings, but they could also look to add a guard with a top-100 pick to ensure they have a starter prepared to take over in 2022 when the Jaguars are no longer having to block for a rookie quarterback.
Draft prospects who fit: Alijah Vera-Tucker, Alex Leatherwood, Ben Cleveland, Wyatt Davis, Aaron Banks, Trey Smith
It will likely require a first-round pick to draft USC's Alijah Vera-Tucker, who I believe is the best guard in the draft. He has the flexibility to play tackle but his ability to dominate at the second level would shine inside.
Alex Leatherwood would potentially be seen as a tackle in Jacksonville considering offensive line coach George Warhop likes tackles with power and length. He is a high-level athlete but his skill set would also likely be better utilized at guard, though he has the flexibility to play either spot.
Wyatt Davis was signed to Ohio State by Meyer (and recruited to Alabama by Jaguars defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi), so there are natural connections to make between him and the Jaguars. With that said, he is more of a Day 2 option than a justifiable pick at No. 25.