- Covered University of Florida for 13 seasons for ESPN.com and Florida Times-Union
- Graduate of Jacksonville University
- Multiple APSE award winner
A little more than three years ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Philadelphia Eagles were two of the top four franchises in the NFL.
The Eagles and quarterback Nick Foles outdueled the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady to win Super Bowl LII. The Jaguars, behind one the league’s best defenses in 2017, nearly upset the Patriots in Foxborough, Massachusetts, in the AFC Championship Game.
Now they’re the only teams without a player in ESPN’s NFL Rank, a listing of the league’s top 100 players for the 2021 season.
Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
It’s not like the Eagles and Jaguars don’t have any good players — defensive end Brandon Graham, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and cornerback Darius Slay in Philadelphia, and center Brandon Linder, defensive end Josh Allen and cornerback Shaquill Griffin in Jacksonville, for example — but the exodus of elite players from those 2017 teams, the teams’ lack of success during the 2020 regular season (a combined five victories) and a reliance on young, unproven quarterbacks in 2021 certainly were major factors in their exclusion from the top 100.
This year’s NFL Rank features the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers leading the way with eight players making the top 100, with the Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers trailing behind with seven apiece.
For context, last year’s ESPN NFL Rank had four teams — the Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Washington Football Team — without one player represented. This year, the Eagles and Jaguars stand alone.
Eagles reporter Tim McManus and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco take a deeper look at why each team failed to have a player rated among the top 100, which Eagles and Jaguars players were close, and which of these teams’ players are most likely to find themselves on next year’s list.
2020 standing: 4-11-1; last place in NFC East
Eagles’ standing in ESPN’s 2021 NFL Power Rankings preseason poll: 27th
Eagles on ESPN’s NFL Rank list in 2020: Carson Wentz, QB (No. 39); Zach Ertz, TE (No. 48); Fletcher Cox, DT (No. 49); Darius Slay, CB (No. 61); Lane Johnson, OT (No. 71)
Why the Eagles didn’t have a player on ESPN’s 2021 NFL Rank: The Eagles deserve zero accolades, individual or otherwise, coming off last season. Did you watch them play? Their four-win campaign was so bad it ended with the only Super Bowl-winning coach in franchise history, Doug Pederson, getting fired, and one-time franchise quarterback Carson Wentz being shipped out.
The offensive line was so banged up, it set an NFL record with 13 iterations in the first 14 weeks. Eagles quarterbacks were sacked 65 times. Their leading wide receiver, Travis Fulgham, finished with 539 yards. The defense managed eight interceptions, third worst in the NFL. Do I need to go on? The Eagles were terrible, and it dragged everyone’s individual value down in the voting process.
Who had the best shot of making this year’s top 100? Graham, Cox and Slay came the closest to making the top 100, according to the results from ESPN’s expert panel. Graham deserved the most consideration of the three after posting eight sacks and making his first Pro Bowl in 2020.
Age could be factoring into the projections of Graham (33 years old), Cox (30) and Slay (30). The same might be said for center Jason Kelce (33), but he deserves more respect. He has quietly built a career worthy of Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration, has started 16 games each of the past six seasons despite a litany of injuries, was the one constant on an ever-changing offensive front in 2020, and continues to play at a high level.
Who is the most likely to crack the list in 2022? Slay, Cox, Johnson and guard Brandon Brooks all have a decent shot if their health allows. And, Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Justin Jefferson came in way up at No. 37 overall on the 2021 NFL Rank after one great season, so it’s possible reigning Heisman Trophy winner and 2021 Eagles first-round draft pick DeVonta Smith could vault into the top 100 in 2022. Third-year running back Miles Sanders is showing signs he could be on the verge of a breakout season if he can be more consistent as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
Johnson on the Eagles’ offseason changes and their future: “Anytime you have a season like that, there’s going to be a lot of new faces, a lot of change of scenery, a new agenda, new leadership. As I’ve gotten older, as Kelce, Brooks, Fletcher [Cox], BG [Brandon Graham], as all these guys are getting older, I see a sense of urgency to milk every last drop you’ve got out of yourself, to be the best you can for as long as you can. Now I’m just trying to pass the torch on to these younger guys because that’s going to be the face of the Eagles in the future.”
2020 standing: 1-15; last place in AFC South
Jaguars’ standing in ESPN’s 2021 NFL Power Rankings preseason poll: 29th
Jaguars who were on ESPN’s NFL Rank list in 2020: Josh Allen, OLB (No. 91)
Why the Jaguars didn’t have a player on ESPN’s 2021 NFL Rank: The franchise has been bleeding talent for years, but particularly from that 2017 team that had a 10-point fourth-quarter lead in the AFC title game. Jacksonville’s Pro Bowlers that season (defensive end Calais Campbell, linebacker Telvin Smith, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive tackle Malik Jackson and cornerback Jalen Ramsey) are either out of the league or with other teams.
The Jaguars have not been able to replace that level of talent despite drafting in the top five the past three years. The team didn’t pick up the fifth-year option on 2018 first-round pick defensive tackle Taven Bryan. Then, 2019 first-round pick Allen followed a 10.5-sack season as a rookie with an injury-filled sophomore year and finished with 2.5 sacks. Jacksonville’s two 2020 first-round picks — cornerback C.J. Henderson (who is potentially on the trade block) and defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson — both had disappointing rookie seasons.
The Jaguars’ free-agency pickups since then, other than left guard Andrew Norwell, have been lackluster, and the 2019 addition of Foles — to whom the Jaguars guaranteed $50 million — will go down as the worst free-agent signing in franchise history.
Who had the best shot of making this year’s top 100? Brandon Linder is regarded as one of the league’s better centers, but he has had an issue with injuries. He has played 16 games in a season once (in 2019) since entering the league as the Jaguars’ 2014 third-round draft pick. Griffin played through some nagging injuries for Seattle last season. He gave up seven touchdowns and had a 64.8 coverage grade (per Pro Football Focus), which is why he missed this year’s list. The Jaguars hope Griffin is able to return to his 2019 form, when he was one of PFF’s five highest-graded outside cornerbacks.
Had Allen not dealt with a knee injury that cost him eight games last season, he likely would have at least approached double-digit sacks and had a decent chance to make ESPN’s top 100. Running back James Robinson was one of the league’s biggest surprises in 2020. The undrafted rookie ran for 1,070 yards, caught 49 passes for 344 yards and had 10 total touchdowns, but how much of a difference did he make since the Jaguars won one game?
Who is most likely to crack the list in 2022? Jaguars coordinator Joe Cullen is switching to a 3-4 defensive scheme and Allen is moving to outside linebacker, the position at which he thrived at Kentucky (17 sacks as a senior). If he is able to hit double-digit sacks again, he’ll be the top contender defensively to make the list. Linebacker Myles Jack had the best season of his career in 2020 after moving to the weak side. Following that up with a similar performance in 2021 gives him a solid chance.
Rookie Trevor Lawrence is regarded as a generational prospect; ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. included him among the four best quarterbacks he has rated (John Elway, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck were the others), so the expectations for the former Clemson standout are sky high. A rookie of the year season, especially if Lawrence tops 4,000 yards passing, likely would get him on the list.
Jaguars coach Urban Meyer on this season’s outlook: “I don’t think it’s going to be any different from the first years at the other places. We’ve always taken the approach that we’re going to try to win. Every decision, everything associated with the organization is going to try to win and that includes training, practice, draft, free agency, etc.”
What comes next
There is hope on the horizon for Philadelphia and Jacksonville.
The Eagles will have as many as three first-round draft picks in 2022, which can be used to acquire a quarterback or to support projected starter Jalen Hurts, should he emerge this coming season. It’s largely about the quarterback, and the Jaguars have an incredibly talented one in Lawrence. As he ascends, the Jaguars’ offense should ascend with him, and that’s good news for the supporting cast.
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