Can Jacksonville Succeed With Gardner Minshew Under Center?

So ... are the Jaguars toast without Nick Foles under center? They experienced the worst-case scenario on the 11th snap of the season when Foles found himself between the TIAA Bank Field grass and Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones’s 310-pound body. Foles fractured his left clavicle in the crash, sending the eighth-year veteran into surgery and to the injured reserve.

Now Jacksonville must go to battle with sixth-round rookie Gardner Minshew (the team also traded for Josh Dobbs, who will slot in as the backup). Youthful sixth-round QBs have come out of nowhere and prospered before—the Patriots had one do it a few decades ago—though history says the inexperienced passer is far more likely to struggle. Minshew was a revered leader at Washington State, but he was selected on Day 3 of the draft for a reason. His was a mix of sub-standard arm strength, limited height (6' 1") and minimal mobility.

But let’s remember: Foles is also devoid of spectacular attributes. DeFilippo worked with the quarterback in Philadelphia and, being a proactive schemer, almost certainly entered their Jacksonville partnership with no illusions about what he had. DeFilippo knows Foles can obviously be more than serviceable, but you still can’t just put everything on his back and say giddee-up. Foles in recent years has consistently been a tick or two better than expected (even as expectations have risen), but he’s dependent on his supporting cast and scheme.

The QB’s veteran experience afforded Jacksonville’s scheme far-reaching parameters, which they won’t have with Minshew. But DeFilippo doesn’t need to rewrite the playbook for Minshew—rather, he’ll just reduce it. And the reductions might be smaller than anticipated. Against Kansas City, Minshew played with an uncommon, even eerie, calm from the pocket. Almost every young QB, especially when unexpectedly thrust into NFL action, plays too fast. Minshew has the opposite problem, at times playing with too much patience.

Against the Chiefs he never overreacted to the pass rush or anticipated phantom pressure. His movement never got frenetic. And, for the most part (until garbage time), Minshew did not hastily fall back on his checkdowns. His best completions came later in the down, within the timing of his progressions.

The play-caller seemed to notice. On Minshew’s first series, DeFilippo dialed up basic pass designs, with mostly either-or reads on both sides of the field. Minshew responded by marching the Jaguars downfield for a field goal. As the game progressed, so did the play designs’ complexity. Jacksonville’s scheme didn’t exactly resemble that of Kansas City’s, but it also didn’t resemble the vanilla one this team employed down the stretch last year.

The concern with Minshew is he can be slow early in his progressions. At times he stayed on bad reads too long and did not show an innate feel for relating the defensive presnap look to Jacksonville’s design. But young quarterbacks are often like this through their first few seasons. Now afforded a full week to prepare with the young QB, DeFilippo can help accelerate Minshew’s initial reads through formation wrinkles that reveal the coverage presnap, followed by plays that point Minshew towards one set of route combinations if it’s one coverage and different set if it’s another. That keeps Minshew still reading just half the field while also giving the Jaguars a layer of complexity.

Your scheme, however, is only as good as the players executing it, and the jury is out on Jacksonville’s offensive line. Guard A.J. Cann struggled early in pass pro last week (including on the play that resulted in Foles getting hurt). Left tackle Will Richardson, a fourth-rounder in 2018 who is filling in for an injured Cam Robinson, survived but looked subtly less attractive as the game progressed. Second-round rookie right tackle Jawaan Taylor showed very intriguing strength in pass protection, but let’s see that against J.J. Watt this Sunday. Jacksonville’s O-line MUST flourish because, being devoid of mismatch-making tight ends and collectively mediocre at wide receiver, this passing game is dependent on winning through design. Those designs now start with Minshew.

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