For those of you inclined to have the Jaguars find a better option at quarterback in 2018 than Blake Bortles, I have one question: who outside the almost non-existent possibility of free agent Drew Brees leaving the New Orleans Saints for Jacksonville do you think represents a significant upgrade?

 

But let’s come back to the Jaguars’ potential offseason quarterback options later and focus on No. 5. After all, Bortles is the one the Jaguars hold a $19.1 million option on for next season, which becomes fully guaranteed if he’s still on the team when the new league year starts on March 14.

Honestly, nobody knows with anywhere close to 100 percent certainty whether Bortles is the long-term answer for the Jaguars. He’s so much a work in progress, though his performance since December began has undoubtedly elevated him in the eyes of his employer and teammates.

Bortles’ overall resume — especially his lukewarm 59 percent career completion percentage and continuing struggle to lead his team on a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter — suggests he still has a lot of room for improvement.

Even after taking his team within a play or two of reaching the Super Bowl last week against the New England Patriots and Tom Brady, there’s no way to know if that means this is the start of Bortles’ ascension into becoming possibly a top-10 NFL quarterback. Or if his three-game, turnover-free postseason on the biggest stage he’s ever competed is an adequate sample size to feel good about his career trajectory.

At this point, it’s hard to fathom why a franchise that made Bortles the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2014 wouldn’t stick with him a little while longer. Unless Brees stuns everybody by leaving New Orleans — where he’s been a matinee idol for 12 years and won a Super Bowl — to chase a ring in Jacksonville, the price tag for the remaining quarterback options make them just as risky as rolling the dice with Bortles.

Let’s start with the Washington Redskins’ Kirk Cousins, who will command a monster contract as a free agent, lost his only playoff game at home, and has a 24-23-1 record since becoming a full-time starter at age 26. Yes, his 65.5 career completion percentage and touchdown-interception ratio of 99-55 is superior to Bortles, but does that mean the 29-year-old Cousins is a better fit for the Jaguars than a quarterback who has started to establish himself in Jacksonville and is four years younger?

Another compelling option is the Kansas City Chiefs’ Alex Smith. He’s coming off a career year (TD-interception ratio of 26-5, NFL-high QB rating of 104.7), but the 33-year-old Smith can only be obtained via trade and would require the Jaguars to likely spend a couple draft picks they may not want to part with.

Plus, any huge QB investment outside of Bortles, must take into consideration the salary cap impact as the Jaguars will also be spending big for contract extensions on core players like Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue after the 2018 season.

Other potential cheaper free-agent options, such as the Minnesota Vikings’ QB trio of Case Keenum, Sam Bradford or Teddy Bridgewater, might be worth kicking the tires, but two of them have injury issues. Great season aside as a replacement starter, Keenum, who turns 30 in three weeks, has been with four different teams in the last four years. Like Bortles, he never showed much promise until 2017.

Point being, Brees is the one game-changer on the market. If he wanted to be part of the Jaguars’ organization with their killer defense, front-office czar Tom Coughlin would be crazy to pass him up. Cousins and Smith are certainly intriguing, but the upside over Bortles is much more iffy.

Remember, and this factor can’t be discounted, the maligned Bortles broke through some barriers this season. He was benched in preseason and never pouted. He just kept working to keep the job many people thought he had lost permanently to unproven veteran Chad Henne, as absurd as that notion still seemed in August and certainly now.

For the first time in four years, Bortles not only won games, he genuinely won over a locker room. Teammates respected the mental tenacity he showed in the face of so much criticism at home and from around the country, especially the way he didn’t let it get under his skin when ripped publicly by opposing players.

“We believe in Blake,” said defensive end Dante Fowler. “If we wanted a quarterback, it would be him. If people really know football, these are the moments when you really see how good players are. He stepped up in the playoffs, point blank.

“Whether he made it to the Super Bowl or not, people at one time thought we weren’t even going to make it to the playoffs. Blake shut a lot of people up and beat a lot of odds. It’s the NFL. You got to give him props.”

Now without the Jaguars’ playoff run, Bortles’ future here is unquestionably on much shakier ground. Winning a shootout with Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh and taking the Patriots’ dynasty to the wire in Foxborough has to make Coughlin, GM Dave Caldwell and coach Doug Marrone a lot more reluctant to move on from Bortles.

Besides, who parts ways with a young quarterback who just brought a team within one step of a Super Bowl? In 25 years since the NFL salary-cap era began, only two of 100 AFC/NFC Championship game starting QBs — the Baltimore Ravens’ Trent Dilfer in 2000 and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Neil O’Donnell in 1995 — went to a different team the following year.

As the NFL quarterback picture begins to clear up in 45 days, the Jaguars must also decide what to do about Bortles’ contract if they do keep him. He hasn’t done enough to earn a $100 million-plus extension, and it’s doubtful his agent would settle for a two-year deal, even if it was loaded with a lot of guaranteed money. At this point, the best thing is just let Bortles play another year for $19.1 million and see if he does enough to justify the huge payday.

It looks like the big investment the Jaguars made in Bortles four years ago is finally starting to pay off. He’s only 25-years-old. As much as the Patriots’ loss still stings, how much worse would it be if you replaced Bortles and he gave somebody else the quarterback you were looking for all along?

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