Jaguars’ tough free-agent calls; J.J. Watt endorses DeMeco Ryans for HC job

Inside GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium, Evan Engram stood in front of his locker in the visiting team’s locker room. Reporters surrounded him. 

It was Saturday night, after the Jaguars‘ season-ending, divisional-round playoff loss to the Chiefs, and emotion crept into the veteran tight end’s voice and facial expression when discussing the impact Jacksonville has had on him. 

He bet on himself with a one-year deal and had the best season of his career following a rollercoaster first five years with the Giants

“God showed up big time in my life this year,” Engram said. “I don’t think it happens anywhere else.”

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But will the Jaguars be able to bring him back, as he’ll be one of the most expensive tight ends in the 2023 market? 

Engram highlights a long list of key starters and contributors Jacksonville must make decisions on this free agency, which begins with the legal tampering window March 13. The list includes veteran wide receiver Marvin Jones, right tackle Jawaan Taylor, defensive linemen Dawuane Smoot and Arden Key, safety Andrew Wingard and cornerback Tre Herndon in addition to Engram. 

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The Jaguars’ challenge this offseason is to bring back many of those players who keyed their surprising run in 2022 while still improving a roster that has limited financial flexibility. Jacksonville is currently $13.9 million over the 2023 salary cap, which ranks 23rd in the league, according to Over The Cap. The team must be under next season’s salary cap by March 15. 

Of course, the Jaguars could restructure some of their largest contracts to reach cap compliance. Edge rusher Josh Allen, who’s scheduled to play under the fifth-year option in 2023, could be extended to soften his $10.8 cap hit for next season. But Jacksonville doesn’t have any slam-dunk cap casualty candidates outside of cornerback Shaquill Griffin, who played just five games in 2022 due to injury. The team could release him to create more than $13.1 million in cap savings this offseason. Darious Williams‘ emergence as an outside cornerback to pair with Tyson Campbell makes Griffin especially expendable. 

It would make sense for Engram and Taylor to be at the top of the Jaguars’ list to re-sign. Both played massive roles in the Year 2 leap made by QB Trevor Lawrence, who said he’ll “100 percent” be vocal with the front office to bring them (and others) back. Engram’s 766 receiving yards broke the franchise’s single-season record for tight ends, while Taylor had arguably his best season at right tackle. 

In his end-of-season press conference Monday, coach Doug Pederson said he believes the Jaguars’ window of opportunity is now. 

“Strike while the iron is hot, so to speak,” Pederson said. 

How they attack free agency will have a significant impact on whether they successfully take advantage of it. 

Here are other thoughts across the AFC South: 

Does J.J. Watt‘s endorsement of 49ers DC DeMeco Ryans help his case for Texans HC?

The Texans, who’ve interviewed eight candidates for their head coach vacancy, are reportedly doing second interviews with at least two of them this week: Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero and Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka. But Houston should hold off on its decision until it can do a second interview with 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans on Jan. 30 (thanks to San Francisco still being in the playoffs, set to play the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game this weekend). 

Of course, Ryans has coordinated one of the best defenses in the NFL the past two seasons, a unit that’s coming off holding an elite Cowboys‘ offense to 12 points in the divisional round. But he’s also received a glowing recommendation from the now retired J.J. Watt, arguably the best player in franchise history. Watt’s words should be held in high regard with the organization. 

Watt and Ryans, 38, were teammates with the Texans in 2011. 

“As a rookie in Houston, I bought my first house across the street from DeMeco because if Meco thought it was the right place to live, it was the right place to live for me,” Watt wrote on Twitter last week, in response to news that Ryans interviewed with Houston. “Captain, leader, smart, tough, personable, crushed it as [defensive coordinator]. … He will be a great head coach.”

Titans GM Ran Carthon’s intro presser reaffirms Mike Vrabel’s power 

If Mike Vrabel’s power with the Titans wasn’t obvious, it was made crystal clear in the introductory press conference last Friday for new GM Ran Carthon.

Asked what his top priority in fixing the team is, Carthon said building a relationship with Vrabel was at the head of his to-do list. Carthon steered further questions seeking clarification about his view of roster-building to the importance of collaboration and being in lockstep with Vrabel.

Carthon may have just been focused on saying all the right things. He’s the newbie, with Vrabel already an established head coach. And there’s obvious legitimacy, and a need, for the general manager and head coach to sharing a vision. But Carthon’s words could be construed as affirming Vrabel is the one in charge. 

“My No. 1 priority is spending more time with Mike Vrabel and learning the systems that are here in place and how I can help improve upon them and which will help us build a championship team,” Carthon said, in part. “I can be the greatest talent evaluator of all time, but if I can’t bring Mike the players that he needs to fit his system, then it’s not going to work.”

The appeal in Carthon’s hiring is that he’s a fresh voice from outside the organization and played a key role in constructing the 49ers‘ impressive roster. Only time will tell if he actually has the power to impart that experience and be an equal to Vrabel and not just play second-fiddle to him.

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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