There’s only so much offseason time the Jaguars’ front office and coaching staff can spend on regret.

 

Sure, the players may allow Sunday’s 24-20 AFC Championship loss to the New England Patriots to linger like a bad hangover for a little while. Whether it’s allowing Tom Brady to convert a third-and-18 on a 21-yard pass over the middle, the careless delay-of-game penalty that stalled momentum when the Jaguars led 14-3, or abandoning speedy running back Corey Grant after he moved the chains three times on first-half pass receptions, there’s plenty to second-guess.

But as an organization, the Jaguars best move on to 2018 quickly. Now remember, the Jaguars don’t have the benefit of a last-place schedule next season. Improving on a 10-6 record, or even matching it, is no given with matchups against the Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles.

Over the next three months, in honor of quarterback Blake Bortles’ number, here are five things they should do to make sure the 2018 season is as fulfilling as this one:

1. Keep Bortles around. The future at quarterback has been a non-stop topic all season, mainly because Bortles waited until December to provide any compelling evidence that he might be worth that $19 million fifth-year option in 2018. His body of work in the postseason, especially the last two weeks against Pittsburgh and New England, has given him a lot of cachet in the locker room and likely with the powers-that-be in front-office czar Tom Coughlin and GM Dave Caldwell, who drafted him in 2014. Moving on from Bortles is a tougher option now because he’s earned the trust of teammates during this playoff run. He went turnover-free in the postseason, marking the first time since 2002 (Coughlin’s last season as head coach) the Jaguars as a team went three consecutive games without any turnovers. That’s an important part of coach Doug Marrone’s formula for winning games. Other than free agent Kirk Cousins, who will be a minimum $25 million per year, Case Keenum or possibly the Kansas City Chiefs’ Alex Smith via trade, there are a scarce number of realistically available veteran options who represent a significant upgrade. And remember that if you replace No. 5, it means losing a QB who would be in his third year working with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. It’d be a bold move at this point to disconnect from Bortles. But if the right QB (not necessarily first round) with high value is available in the draft, I’d strongly consider grooming one to push Bortles and likely take over for Chad Henne.

2. Strengthen the offensive line. Do not get fooled by the Jaguars finishing as the league’s top rushing attack (141.4 yards per game) — and tying for third among the fewest sacks allowed (24) this season — into thinking the O-line is all set. While those numbers are positive, remember the regular-season rushing totals are padded by Corey Grant running for 109 yards on two fake punts and Bortles being the second-leading rusher (322 yards, 5.6 per carry). It was telling in the second half against New England that the Jaguars, while playing with the lead, could only get 36 yards off 13 Fournette carries. Coach Doug Marrone kept hoping Fournette could “pop one” and it never happened. The Jaguars must create greater competition at the guard spots for A.J. Cann and Patrick Omameh, as well as right tackle Jermey Parnell, by drafting reinforcements. A huge goal for next season is getting Fournette to be more of a home-run hitter and that starts with fortifying the line.

3. Find an impact pass-catching tight end. It’s no coincidence the most productive NFL players at this position in terms of yards and touchdown catches – Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, New England’s Rob Gronkowski and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Zach Ertz – all made the playoffs, with two of them Super Bowl-bound. While Marcedes Lewis is still a dependable blocker at age 34 and a big target, imagine how much more effective Bortles could be if he had a tight end defenses were forced to game-plan for. Since it’s slim pickings in free agency, the Jaguars should break from tradition and invest at least a second-day draft pick on a tight end. Among the intriguing prospects are South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst (Bolles School product), Oklahoma’s Mark Andrews and Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli.

4. Tap the brakes in free agency. Coughlin and Caldwell shouldn’t be opening up the vault for anything other than a franchise QB, and that’s under the highly unlikely notion of chasing after Cousins. This is a year to be bargain basement shopping, possibly for a veteran interested in chasing a ring more than money. The Jaguars have done plenty of spending the past couple years, so show some restraint, especially with core players like Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler and Allen Robinson being contract extension targets over the next two years.

5. Find the right receiver rotation. With Marqise Lee a free agent and a postseason non-factor, the Jaguars should let him walk and see if Allen Hurns is willing to take a pay cut from his $7 million salary or just release him. Staying healthy has been an issue for both of them. Young receivers Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook have the upside to become fixtures behind A-Rob, who is still recovering from a torn ACL in the season opener against Houston. The impending free agent is a must sign for the Jaguars, even if they have to franchise-tag him. Given the possible attrition at receiver and injuries there last season, drafting one might not be a bad idea.

Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540