National Football League
While Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence gets headlines, defensive line to lead team
National Football League

While Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence gets headlines, defensive line to lead team

Published Jun. 27, 2024 1:36 p.m. ET

The latest quarterback to join the $50 million per year club, Trevor Lawrence bears the brunt of expectations that face the Jaguars in 2024. But it's actually the other side of the ball that will lead Jacksonville this season. 

The defensive line is the team's biggest strength. Its play will be a major factor in whether the Jags can reclaim the AFC South, won by the Houston Texans last year. 

Led by Pro Bowl outside linebacker Josh Allen — whose five-year, $141.25 million extension earlier this offseason was the richest contract in franchise history before Lawrence topped it this month — and former No. 1 pick Travon Walker, Jacksonville should have one of the league's top pass-rushing units. Allen and Walker led all NFL duos last season with 27.5 sacks. 

New defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen has discussed moving the tandem around, presenting different looks to opposing offenses.  


"We're going to put the player in a position that he can have success first, over the scheme," Nielsen said of his philosophy. "We'll manipulate the front, covers and things that we're doing to put our guys in the best matchups for them and then ultimately play our best defense and win games."

In free agency, the Jags added veteran defensive lineman Arik Armstead, who has 33.5 career sacks, 43 tackles for loss and 88 quarterback hits. The 6-foot-7, 290-pound Armstead gives the team a third top-end defensive lineman, one whose interior rushing ability complements Allen and Walker on the edge. 

Jacksonville has strong depth behind the Allen-Walker-Armstead trio, too. 

Coach Doug Pederson said during the offseason program that nose tackle DaVon Hamilton, who played just two games last season after battling a non-football related back issue, looks like his 2022 version, which earned him a three-year, $34.5 million deal in April 2023. 

The Jaguars also bolstered their depth up front, using three of their nine 2024 draft picks on the defensive line: ex-LSU defensive tackles Maason Smith (second round) and Jordan Jefferson (fourth round), and former Texas Tech edge rusher Myles Cole (seventh round). A former five-star recruit and top-20 overall prospect nationally coming out of high school, Smith missed extended time in college due to injury but has as much upside as any defensive lineman in the draft. 

Not to mention, Nielsen is a noted defensive line specialist. 

Before joining Jacksonville, Nielsen was a defensive line coach at full or partial capacity for 19 consecutive years, including the last seven in the NFL. During his time with the New Orleans Saints, he helped mold defensive line stars such as Cam Jordan and Trey Hendrickson. In 2023, Nielsen's lone season as the Falcons' defensive coordinator, Atlanta registered 42 sacks, double its total from the previous season. 

"He's a defensive line coach at heart," Smith told The Florida Times-Union. "He expects us to be, if not the best, one of the best units on the team, on the field. We do a lot of things on defense that allow the defensive line to make a lot of big plays, [and] he puts us in the right position. 

"He's detailed, but he wants it done right. Holding your players and holding your defensive line and everybody like that to the highest standard, it can do nothing but make us great."

The Jaguars defensive line should be a strength as the secondary finds its identity. 

Jacksonville released starting safety Rayshawn Jenkins and cornerback Darious Williams as cap casualties, and let nickelback Tre Herndon walk this offseason. The Jags revamped the back end by signing former Ravens cornerback Ronald Darby and ex-Packers safety Darnell Savage Jr. to one- and three-year deals, respectively, in free agency. 

They also selected two cornerbacks in the draft: Jarrian Jones (third round) and Deantre Prince (fifth round). Jones impressed during the offseason program, positioning himself as a potential starter in the slot or at outside corner. How it all shapes out remains to be seen, though. 

The Jaguars offense carries uncertainty as well. 

After inking a five-year, $275 million extension, Lawrence will face more pressure than ever to show he can be a consistent, elite quarterback. Jacksonville will also be without two of its top wide receivers from last season, as Calvin Ridley (free agency) and Zay Jones (cap casualty) are gone. In their place are Gabe Davis, who signed a three-year deal worth $39 million in free agency, and first-round pick Brian Thomas Jr., who faces pressure to be a hit in Year 1.

[ARTHUR: Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence is the latest $50M per year QB. Will he live up to it?]

Jacksonville's defensive line has proven players, though. Pro Bowl talent, too. Can't forget the depth either, or the right coaching. 

It's the unit the Jags will lean on as everything else sorts itself out.

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 for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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