The 2020 NFL season is especially crucial for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are only three years removed from an AFC Championship Game appearance but also happen to be squarely in the middle of a rebuild. Is Gardner Minshew actually a franchise quarterback? Does Doug Marrone have what it takes to transition one of the NFL's youngest rosters? Are the Jags rightfully the odds-on favorites to land the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft? The questions abound.
With the season right around the corner, the answers will come soon enough. But if you just can't wait, well, we decided to do some forecasting anyway. Here are three bold predictions regarding the Jaguars' 2020 season:
1. D.J. Chark will challenge Jimmy Smith's receiving record
After an anonymous rookie season, Chark exploded in 2019 as Minshew's favorite target, hauling in 73 passes for 1,008 yards and eight touchdowns. Now imagine him playing a full 16 games, not swapping between Minshew and Nick Foles multiple times throughout the year, and benefiting from a retooled offense. New faces like Chris Thompson, an accomplished receiver out of the backfield; and Laviska Shenault, a rough-and-tumble play-maker, should siphon at least some attention off Chark, and coordinator Jay Gruden's high-efficiency approach should enable Minshew to look his way even more than before.
Jimmy Smith holds Jacksonville's all-time single-season receiving mark of 1,636 yards, set in 1999. Allen Robinson is the most recent Jag to come close to that record, hitting 1,400 yards in 2015. It would obviously take a monster season from Chark to approach similar totals, but after seeing how he clicked with Minshew down the stretch in 2019, why would anyone rule it out? If we assume Jacksonville will be playing catch-up for much of 2020 (and the predictions that follow hint at our opinion there), that simply means more targets for Chark.
2. Yannick Ngakoue won't play a single snap for the Jaguars
This isn't necessarily bold if you just listen to what Ngakoue has said this offseason. The ascending pass rusher wants no part of a long-term deal in Jacksonville, and he's repeatedly talked up a departure from the team that drafted him back in 2016. Heck, the guy even got into a Twitter scuffle with the team's co-owner while demanding a trade. And yet the Jags have reportedly been insistent on keeping Ngakoue, who got the club's franchise tag in February, or at least until an incredibly lucrative trade proposal comes their way.
What's next? Well, since Ngakoue has refused to sign the tag, he's not technically under contract for 2020. That means, as the Jaguars' own website has speculated, the defensive end might not play at all this season. In other words, he could pull a Le'Veon Bell, sitting out in order to force the team's hand -- and presumably get his wish, of a new team and new contract -- next offseason. If that doesn't happen, then the Jags may very well just deal him before the in-season trade deadline, especially if they're off to a slow start and want to rid themselves of their final Jalen Ramsey-level distraction. One way or another, the thinking here is that Ngakoue -- arguably one of the top players on the entire roster -- has already played his last game in Jacksonville.
3. The Jaguars will win only two games
Sorry if this just keeps getting worse, Jags fans. This prediction has the biggest chance of looking foolish, because while Jacksonville is definitely rebuilding, there's enough young upside at some key spots -- Minshew at QB, Leonard Fournette at RB, Chark and Shenault at WR, Tyler Eifert at TE, K'Lavon Chaisson at DE, C.J. Henderson at CB -- for Doug Marrone's squad to surprise and put up a fight in the always-wide-open AFC South.
It's just really hard to see them cracking the playoff picture with some of the holes in their lineup, and if things bottom out, they're probably going to bottom out hard. Who's protecting Minshew up front? (And that's if he protects himself outside of the pocket.) What version of Fournette are they getting? Who in the world is defending the pass if Henderson isn't up to speed?
This team lost six of its last eight games in 2019, when the Jags finished 6-10, and the 2020 schedule doesn't look particularly forgiving. Jacksonville will get three divisional matchups in its first six weeks of this season, with the Bengals, Lions and Dolphins serving as the other three opponents. But take a look at their last 10 games, which follow their bye:
Yikes. Let's assume, just for the heck of it, the Jags beat both the Colts and Texans in their first six weeks. Are we really counting on a sweep of those two series? And then you've got the Bears, Browns, Chargers, Packers, Ravens, Steelers and Vikings -- seven different teams that all figure to boast a.) an elite defense, b.) legitimate playoff hopes, or c.) both. Barring some kind of miraculous ascent from Minshew and his entire supporting cast on both sides of the ball, it seems unreasonable to expect the Jags to win any more than a couple of those matchups, if that.