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The 2021 offseason completely revamped the Jacksonville Jaguars. The maligned franchise had every aspect of its organization inspected, weighed, measured and often found wanting. A new head coach and fresh set of standards were the first steps. Then through the draft, free agency and ultimatums to current players, the staff put together what is essentially a brand new roster.
After a season in which the Jags finished 1-15 (an unenviable feat but one that beget Trevor Lawrence), the club really has nowhere to go but up in the first season featuring 17 regular season games.
Head Coach Urban Meyer and players have said consistently this offseason that they’re working to win now. As admirable and understandable as that goal is, the reality is, this team is in a massive rebuilding process. When in the midst of a rebuilding process, every single piece counts and it’s ok to take time making sure each is perfect to do the job. This is especially true when rebuilding a team. Each player contributing will be of the utmost importance; but some will have the onus put on them more than others.
As we move closer to the 2021 schedule, we take a look at the 10 most important Jaguars for the coming season.
No. 10: Jamal Agnew
Special teams win ball games. It’s an old adage that often proves true. It’s one of the few reasons the Jaguars have even been able to hang around in games the past couple of years. But while they had the best kicker and punter combo in the league, the Jags lacked a dynamic returner.
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It was supposed to be DeDe Westbrook, but the former Heisman Trophy finalist plateaued then underperformed. He was not on the gameday roster for the first six weeks of the 2020 season. Once finally activated, he tore his ACL. Now he’s a free agent.
Chris Claybrooks was drafted out of Memphis to be an instant impact returner like he was in college. But throughout his rookie 2020 season, he was pulled for Keelan Cole and made a bigger impact on defense at corner.
Speaking of Cole, he was a welcome surprise as a returner in 2020, even notching the longest punt return in the NFL last year—a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers. But it was a role he was shoe-horned in to, more so than intended to play. Then as a free agent this offseason, he signed with the New York Jets.
Head Coach Urban Meyer has put an emphasis on special teams at every stop he’s had in his career. That’s only been amplified since making the move to the NFL, something he’s made clear to special teams coordinator Nick Sorensen.
“It’s a huge priority. Like I said, the players have been working hard, they’re all in,” Sorensen explained to local media at the end of the Jaguars mini-camp. “Everyone has been practicing and contributing on special teams and it’s just great when what you’re pushing, the coach is backing up and he’s all for guys getting out there, contributing in any way they can, and special teams is definitely a part of that.”
Whether starters or rookies, everyone contributing in any way they can is helpful. But there needed to be a centerpiece; an explosive returner to build around. Through free agency this offseason, the Jaguars were finally able to find that piece in Jamal Agnew.
Said Sorensen of Agnew, “Oh he’s a special guy. I mean, he has speed, he’s got contact balance, he’s explosive, he’s tough. He’s everything you want in a returner. He’s secure with the ball and he can do a lot of things.”
The former defensive back turned receiver has really made his mark on the game as a returner on special teams, officially becoming a valuable piece in every phase. He spent his first four seasons in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, where he averaged 25.8 yards on kick returns and 11.6 yards on punt returns, scoring five touchdowns total as a specialist. Now getting to play not only under his former offensive coordinator again, Darrell Bevell, but also a head coach that prioritizes special teams is an idyllic situation for Agnew.
“It definitely means a lot to me just to know my skill set is being valued as it is. I feel like special teams is a very important aspect of the game and you don’t really realize that until something catastrophic happens. But I want to come in and be that spark. I want to bring the juice. I want to create energy plays, spark plays. I love doing that, that stuff’s fun to me,” he said back in March, after being signed as a free agent.
Since he was drafted in 2017, Agnew has the most punt return touchdowns (four) over that time, as well as the four most punt return yards (857) and fourth-highest punt return average (11.6). Over the past four years, he’s the only player to record five special teams touchdowns.
During the 2020 season, Agnew posted 783 returns yards on kick-offs, third most in the NFL. He was fourth in the league, averaging 28 yards per kick-off return.
His teammate at both Detroit and now the Jaguars, receiver Marvin Jones Jr., has been in awe.
“The guy is dynamic,” said Jones of Agnew. “He’s one of the best return men that I’ve seen, but people don’t understand how smart this guy is. You’re talking about a guy who was on defense and made a change and seamlessly fit into our offense and what we had to do and provided us a big spark. So, you’re going to get a guy that’s going to come, and he has home run ability.”
The Jaguar’s “home runs” have been few and far between in recent years. Furthermore, the only notable one to happen was eerie, as Keelan Cole returned that touchdown in an empty stadium, and then did a Lambeau Leap to no one, as COVID-19 kept fans out of stands. With the Jacksonville Jaguars—and most NFL teams—planning on having 100% capacity again this fall, Jamal Agnew is already preparing to show fans just how special the Jags can be on special teams.
“It was kind of weird last year without fans. I’m running a big return back and it’s kind of quiet so it’s just like what’s going on? But I’m here, we’re going to have 100 percent capacity, so I can’t wait to house call that first one in this stadium.”