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Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles agreed to a three-year extension.(Photo: David Butler II, USA TODAY Sports)
The Jacksonville Jaguars removed themselves from the quarterback free-agent market Saturday evening when they inked their own Blake Bortles to a three-year contract extension
The deal’s reported worth: $54 million with an average annual salary of $18 million, $26.5 million in guaranteed money and incentives that could increase the total earnings to $66.5 million.
This comes on the heels of a 2017 season in which Bortles helped the Jaguars reach the AFC Championship game. Bortles’ new deal also came two days after the Jaguars extended the contracts of vice president Tom Coughlin, general manager Dave Caldwell and head coach Doug Marrone.
Essentially, the Jaguars are banking on continuity as they aim to build on last season’s success rather than seeking an upgrade at the quarterback position.
Bortles had a decent 2017 season as he threw for 3,687 yards (11th in the NFL) and 21 touchdowns (16th). But he also had his limitations as his 13 interceptions (tied for seventh-most), his completion percentage of 60.2 (24th), average of 7.05 yards per attempt (17th) and passer rating of 84.7 (20th) will attest. Five times last season, Bortles failed to top the 200-yard passing mark, including in the wild-card round of the playoffs where he mustered just 87 yards in a 10-3 snoozer over the Bills.
Bortles, while backed again by a strong defense, made some big-time throws to help Jacksonville upset Pittsburgh in the divisional round the following week. But in the AFC Championship game, that defense wasn’t enough to help offset the conservative game plan designed to help mask Bortles’ deficiencies. The Jaguars blew a 14-10 halftime lead and lost 24-20 to the Patriots.
Following the game, many league insiders believed that with a better quarterback – one possessing greater accuracy, a quicker delivery and better decision-making skills and instincts – the Jaguars would have upset New England and reached the Super Bowl.
The popular belief was that Jacksonville would look to upgrade at quarterback this offseason so its offense and team as a whole could take the next step. In May 2017, the team picked up the $19 million, fifth-year option on Bortles’ contract. However, that fifth year was only guaranteed for injury, so Jacksonville could have cut Bortles with no salary cap penalty this offseason and pursued the likes of potential free agents Kirk Cousins, Case Keenum, Drew Brees or Sam Bradford.
But ultimately, the Jaguars surveyed that potential quarterback market and deemed it too rich for their taste. Cousins – viewed as the top passer to hit the market – likely will land a deal that will top the contract San Francisco just gave Jimmy Garoppolo (a five-year, $137.0 million contract, which features $74.1 million in guaranteed money and an average annual salary of $27.5 million). Other potential upgrades like Keenum (if Minnesota opts not to re-sign him), Brees (although he seems intent on returning to New Orleans) or Bradford likely would have commanded handsome deals as well.
The Jaguars already had opted against pursuing a trade for a veteran like Alex Smith, whom Kansas City shipped to Washington.
So instead, over spending big, Jaguars brass opted to stick with Bortles, hoping the soon-to-be 26-year-old can continue to advance while earning a salary that gives the team greater flexibility to meet other needs.
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“Blake’s growth and development last season was a key to the success we had as a team,” Coughlin said in a statement. “Blake has proven, with toughness and dependability, that he can be the leader this team needs going forward. Along with this contract come high expectations that he will continue to improve and help our team accomplish its ultimate goal.”
It’s difficult for us on the outside to envision Bortles leading Jacksonville toward that “ultimate goal.” His production has hovered around the same mediocre level the last three years. A bolstered defense and improved rushing attack and game-planning, which relied on Bortles primarily as a game-manager rather than savior, helped lead Jacksonville to last season’s success.
However, because of last year’s team success and now that Bortles has received an extension, expectations change, as Coughlin said.
Bortles took baby steps last year (slight improvements in completion percentage and quarterback rating), but now he must make full-on strides. He must become more accurate. He must get better on third downs. He must cut down on turnovers.
And because they have opted to ride with Bortles, the Jaguars must surround him with more talent. Bortles’ targets dropped a total of 26 passes last season (fifth-most in the NFL). Re-signing wide receiver Allen Robinson, who missed the bulk of last season with a torn ACL, ranks among the top priorities. Adding an effective pass-catching tight end should make the to-do list, as should upgrades at both guard positions.
If Bortles can reward the team with the needed improvements, Jacksonville could wind up looking smart. If his growth doesn’t follow their desired trajectory, the good thing is the guaranteed portion of his new deal isn’t massive, so he could essentially serve as a bridge to their next option.
The drawback is that his potential struggles could derail immediate progress in a league where windows of opportunity open and close quickly.
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