ORLANDO — Once the Jacksonville Jaguars told Calais Campbell he would be back in 2019, the 12th-year defensive end in turn told the team he would be happy to work the phones over the next couple months.
Just give him the names of potential free agents and he would happily spend time trying to convince them to join the Jaguars. His sales pitch?
The 2018 season was an aberration. There’s still plenty of talent — especially on defense — for the Jaguars to make a deep playoff run again this season.
“You have to sell the free agents on coming here and being a part of this,” Campbell said. “Hopefully we can get this done. Because it’s not just pursuing a guy; the guy has to want to come here, too, even if I have to help and try to call guys.
“I feel like we have a good thing going and we can definitely get this going back right.”
• Inside the hostility between Bell, Steelers
• Cowboys: DeMarcus Lawrence is a priority
• Matt Ryan: Winning a SB is my No. 1 goal
• Cost for a QB could be steep for Giants
• Ravens’ offense more flexible with Jackson
• NFL draft: Mock drafts, prospects and more
A lot went wrong for Jaguars to end up with a 5-11 record in 2018, mostly on the offensive side of the ball. Injuries decimated the tight ends and offensive line, quarterback Blake Bortles played poorly and running back Leonard Fournette was a massive disappointment in his second season because of injuries and lack of commitment and work ethic.
The defense didn’t force turnovers or sack the quarterback at the same rate it did in 2017, but it still ranked in the top five in total defense (No. 5), pass defense (No. 2) and scoring defense (No. 4). Though the team is expected to release defensive tackle Malik Jackson and possibly safety Tashaun Gipson and nose tackle Marcell Dareus, the unit will largely return intact.
Finding a new starting quarterback — whether that’s Nick Foles, another veteran or a rookie — and adding more playmakers on offense (specifically at tight end and running back) should be the Jaguars’ top offseason priorities. Some of that could be done via free agency, and that’s where Campbell wants to help.
“Free agency is definitely a great way to pick up guys, but you have to get the right kind of guys because sometimes it can be ups and downs,” Campbell said. “I think our front office has a good eye for talent — I mean, they brought me in here — but honestly I do believe they have a good eye for talent and we’re going to try to recruit the best players that are going to help us be successful.”
Campbell was joking around with the reference to himself, but he’s correct. He’ll likely go down as the best free-agent signing in franchise history. He’s the only Jaguars player to record double-digit sacks in back-to-back seasons and has 25 sacks in the 32 regular-season games he’s played with Jacksonville. He’s made the Pro Bowl both years.
He had 14.5 sacks, 30 quarterback hits and 14 tackles for loss in 2017 and was a first-team All-Pro and a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. What he did last season, however, might have been even more impressive. He played in all 16 games despite dealing with injuries to his knees, ankles, hand and lower back — sometimes multiple problems at the same time — and led the team in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (20) and had 22 quarterback hits.
Coach Doug Marrone said Campbell was even better against the run, calling him the most dominant run defender in the NFL.
That’s why it was imperative for the Jaguars to bring Campbell back even though he has a $12 million salary and $14.5 million cap figure in 2019. The Jaguars were $12.2 million over the projected 2019 salary cap at the end of last season, per ESPN’s Roster Management system, and the team could have saved a lot of money by making Campbell one of its cuts.
Campbell said he would be open to restructuring his contract, but even if that doesn’t happen, the Jaguars would have been foolish to not bring him back.
The team told him pretty quickly after the season that he was part of their plans in 2019, and Campbell said that energized him after a disappointing season in which the Jaguars finished with double-digit losses for the seventh time in the past eight seasons.
“Honestly, I always felt like I was coming back,” Campbell said. “There was never a doubt in my mind, really, but in talking and having that conversation, it’s like OK, we’re trying to put together a plan to allow us to be successful and I’m happy I’m a part of that. I feel like I’ve got a lot to offer to this team and this organization.
“What we can do this next year — 2019 can be a special year but we have a lot of work to do. I’m ready to roll my sleeves up and get involved and do whatever I have to do for us to be successful.”
Starting with getting on the phone.