JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jaguars coach Doug Pederson can see the difference.
The quarterback who walked into Pederson’s first team meeting in spring 2022 is different from the one who has been flinging footballs all over the practice field the past six weeks. It’s the way Trevor Lawrence talks about the offense in conversations with Pederson and offensive coordinator Press Taylor. Lawrence’s interactions with receivers, especially after plays that didn’t work. The sureness with which he speaks in meeting rooms and the huddle.
“The biggest thing that I’ve seen with Trevor from where we had him a year ago in the offseason to today, just his confidence is incredible,” Pederson said. “It’s off the charts. He’s put the past behind him, he’s focused on the future and really embraced this opportunity with this football team.”
And really, why shouldn’t he?
Lawrence is playing for a quarterback-friendly coach. He’s comfortable with the offense in his second season with Pederson, who turned former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz into an MVP candidate in their second season together in 2017. All the Jaguars’ playmakers from last season’s 10th-ranked offense — receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, tight end Evan Engram and running back Travis Etienne Jr. — are back. They’ve also added former 1,300-yard receiver Calvin Ridley, who was the highlight of training camp and preseason in his return from a nearly two-year absence after stepping away for mental health reasons in 2021 and a gambling suspension in 2022.
Can Lawrence put up big numbers with this offense in 2023? Could he break the franchise’s single-season passing records, direct the most productive offense in Jaguars history and even surpass 5,000 yards through the air?
In other words, could he be headed for a huge Year 3?
“It feels that way,” Taylor said. “Obviously you’ve got to prove it every down in this league, but it certainly seems like he’s kind of picked up where he left off at the end of the season and carried that through the entire offseason.”
THE BEST SEASON by a quarterback in Jaguars franchise history belongs to Blake Bortles in 2015. The No. 3 overall pick threw for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns in his second season, breaking the previous marks of 4,367 yards (Mark Brunell in 1996) and 23 touchdowns (David Garrard in 2010).
For Lawrence to break Bortles’ marks — which came in a 16-game regular season — he’d have to average 260.5 yards and 2.12 touchdowns per game. Lawrence averaged 241.9 yards per game last season, so another completion or two per outing could get him there.
The addition of Ridley, who says he’s mentally and physically healthy and eager to return as one of the NFL’s top receivers, makes that possible. He showcased his playmaking ability in the Jaguars’ final preseason game when he made a back-shoulder catch while getting both feet in bounds along the sideline. He gives the Jaguars a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and it’s expected opposing defenses will make limiting him a top priority, which should loosen things up for everyone else.
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All of Lawrence’s other receiving options are coming off career seasons. Kirk (84 catches for 1,108 yards), Jones (82 for 823) and Engram (73 for 766) set personal highs in catches and receiving yards — and Engram’s season was the best by a tight end in Jaguars history. Etienne ran for 1,125 yards and had 1,441 yards of total offense after missing his rookie season because of a Lisfranc injury to his left foot.
“I feel really confident in our group [of playmakers going] up against anyone,” Lawrence said. “We don’t play against the other skill groups, so it doesn’t really matter as much, but I do think we are evenly matched if not above [other groups of playmakers].”
If we look back at Pederson’s days as the Eagles’ coach, there’s precedent for quarterback growth in the second year of his offensive system. Wentz threw for 3,782 yards and 16 touchdowns with 14 interceptions and had a Total QBR of 46.7 as a rookie in 2016, Pederson’s first season with the Eagles.
In 2017, Wentz led the NFL with a 78.6 Total QBR and threw for 33 touchdowns with seven interceptions in 13 games before his season ended because of a torn left ACL. He was on pace to throw for 4,056 yards and finished third in the MVP voting. Lawrence already made an impressive jump from his rookie year to last season, so can he make another one similar to Wentz in his second year with Pederson?
Lawrence’s rookie season was a challenge on and off the field. He tied the NFL lead with 17 interceptions and threw 12 touchdown passes, and only fellow rookies Justin Fields and Zach Wilson had a worse completion percentages than Lawrence’s 59.6%. Lawrence also dealt with the dysfunction that was Urban Meyer’s 11-month tenure as Jaguars head coach in 2021. There were questionable coaching decisions, alleged yelling at assistant coaches, the demeaning of players and an atmosphere of distrust inside the building. After Meyer was fired, Lawrence had to welcome a new coach (Pederson) with a new system that offseason.
It took a while for him to get rolling, but by midseason of Year 2 he started feeling comfortable in Pederson’s offense. The Jaguars were recycling plays and executing more efficiently. Lawrence was getting through his progressions quicker and was able to recognize defensive looks quicker and change plays if needed.
Pederson said he’s seeing even more growth in that area from Lawrence.
“He knows football and he’s smart about football, but he still wants to keep things simple,” Pederson said. “He doesn’t want to complicate things. … We feel comfortable enough to really allow him, and probably more so even this year, to have a little more say, a little more input, in game planning just because of how well he sees and processes the game.”
THE JAGUARS HAVE not historically lit up the scoreboard. From the franchise’s first season in 1995 through the 2020 season (the last season of 16 regular-season games), they’ve scored 400 or more points twice (2007 and 2017), which is tied with five other teams for the fewest in the NFL over that span.
The highest-scoring offense in franchise history came in 2007, when the Jaguars averaged 23.9 offensive points per game (not including points scored by the defense).
The 2022 Jaguars averaged 22.2 offensive points per game. Pederson said in the spring he wants to average seven more points per game in 2023, which would put them in contention to be the highest-scoring team in the NFL. The Kansas City Chiefs led the NFL last season with 28.2 offensive points per game.
“Think that’s the goal,” Kirk said. “We step on this field to be the best offense in the league, and that’s our mindset.”
Adding a touchdown more per game isn’t an outrageous ask. According to ESPN Stats & Information, 98 teams in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) have increased their scoring average from the previous season by seven or more points — a list that includes the 2022 Jaguars, who averaged 8.4 offensive points more per game than they did in 2021.
“We have the pieces collectively,” Jones said. “If we just execute the way that we know how … the sky’s the limit for us. We’re potent on the outside. I think we’re very, very strong on the inside as far as receiving is concerned. Our run game, our tight ends …
“We have the pieces. We just have to put it together.”
That, obviously, begins with Lawrence. And the team believes it will get the Lawrence it saw the second half of the 2022 season — from Week 9 on he was second in the NFL in completion percentage (69.7%) and eighth in Total QBR (65.4), up from 62.5% (27th) and 45.9 (21st), respectively, in Weeks 1-8 — for a full season in 2023.
“It’s just the light switch is on,” Kirk said. “Everything is so quick, the way he’s able to go through his reads and developing that.
“He’s working through a lot of the things the defense is showing him. … He’s doing a great job leading as a vocal leader, but most importantly, his progression and how he’s able to get through each read.”
There are concerns about the offensive line, though, that could certainly have an impact on Lawrence’s production. Left tackle Cam Robinson is suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, which means Walker Little moves into that spot — but Little is dealing with a groin injury. Left guard Ben Bartch spent most of camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list as he returned from a left knee injury he suffered last season.
Backup center/guard Tyler Shatley, who took over as the starter at left guard for Bartch, had an atrial fibrillation incident after a practice this summer and missed three weeks. Right tackle Anton Harrison, the team’s No. 27 overall pick, is dealing with shoulder soreness.
It’s safe to say the Jaguars’ line might be ailing to start the season.
The line had its issues last season, too. In addition to Bartch’s injury, right guard Brandon Scherff dealt with a groin injury almost all season, and Jacksonville was forced to start a third-round rookie (Luke Fortner) at center. The Jaguars ranked second to last in the league in pass block win rate (48.9%), behind the Indianapolis Colts.
But still, Lawrence was able to make up for those issues by having the third-fastest time to throw in the NFL (2.59 seconds). Can the offense overcome an uncertain offensive line? Time will tell.
WHAT IF EVERYTHING comes together perfectly?
If the offense’s production jumps in the second year under Pederson the way it did in Philadelphia in 2017 …
If Lawrence performs at the level he did in the second half of 2022 …
If Ridley is the player he was in 2020 …
If Kirk, Jones and Engram are as effective as they were last season and post similar numbers …
If Etienne rushes for close to 1,000 yards …
If Bigsby and Strange add significant production as rookies …
If the offensive line gets healthy and protects Lawrence …
Well, then there’s a chance Lawrence could become the 10th player in NFL history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season.
“I’m not sure who’s on that list,” he said. “Probably not a super long list, huh?”
Nope, but it is full of some of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game: Drew Brees (who did it five times), Patrick Mahomes (twice), Tom Brady (twice and the only player to do with different teams), Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Jameis Winston, Dan Marino, Matthew Stafford and Justin Herbert.
“I mean, that would be great [to join that list],” Lawrence said. “I’m honestly not a huge stats guy. I think it tells part of the story, but if we were to do that, that means we had a really good year offensively.”
Which usually means a trip to the playoffs. The nine quarterbacks who have thrown for 5,000 yards did it a combined 15 times, and their teams made the playoffs nine times. Four made the Super Bowl, and one (Mahomes in 2022) won it.
“Usually you’re going to have good stats [as a team if the quarterback throws for 5,000 yards],” Lawrence said. “… but really the focus is on winning.
“But if that [5,000 yards] comes with it, that’d be cool.”