Way back on March 10 in the Jaguars’ team meeting room, players entered one by one to discuss the decision to switch teams and the belief their new defense could be dominant to spearhead a quick turnaround.
Turns out cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive end Calais Campbell and strong safety Barry Church were correct in their vision.
The Jaguars went 3-of-3 in their big-money additions, a rare achievement for any team in any professional sport. Each player had their best season, a perfect defensive storm of sorts.
Campbell and Bouye were first- and second-team All Pro, respectively, and Church brought a new and improved dimension to the Jaguars’ defense, which finished second in fewest points allowed.
Signed at a cost (combined $68 million), the trio has been worth the investment. Campbell set a franchise record with 14 1/2 sacks, Bouye led the Jaguars with six interceptions and Church was third on the team with 72 tackles.
They played and started in all 16 regular season games. They led in their different ways. And they were ultra-productive.
“When they made those moves, we knew it was about winning right now,” tight end Marcedes Lewis said.
Right now is a rematch Sunday at Pittsburgh in the AFC Divisional round playoffs. This kind of game – playoffs, vs. elite offense, on the road – is why the Jaguars opened up the coffers in March. They need Campbell to harass Ben Roethlisberger, need Bouye to lock up Pittsburgh’s swift receivers and need Church to hem in Le’Veon Bell.
“We’ve got experience with this,” Church said. “We’ve all played in cold weather. Calais has played in the Super Bowl. This is what they signed us for and hopefully we can keep it rolling.”
Church: Surprise interest
Wearing a new Jaguars cap, Church was the first of the three to meet with the media. He signed a four-year, $26 million contract ($12 million guaranteed) after spending seven years with the Dallas Cowboys.
The Jaguars decided to move on from strong safety Johnathan Cyprien (signed with Tennessee), feeling they wanted a safety that could play equally well and in the middle of the field to alternate with free safety Tashaun Gipson.
General manager Dave Caldwell was familiar with Church – as an Atlanta executive in 2010, he tried to sign Church after he exited Toledo without being drafted. Church didn’t expect much interest right away in free agency. Plus, Church shared an agent with quarterback Blake Bortles (Rep 1 Sports) so the Jaguars had a good relationship with the firm.
“I didn’t really expect to be that sought after – I thought, ‘I may have a team or two coming after me,’ ” Church said. “But I ended up with a lot of suitors. And I didn’t think it would be the first day [of free agency]. I thought I would be one of those guys who would sign a couple weeks down the line.
“I was pretty surprised by the turnout.”
It is believed the Jaguars beat out Carolina to sign Church. The Cowboys dropped out of the bidding early.
Church faced adversity with the Jaguars shortly after signing when he underwent back surgery that cost him the team’s organized team activity schedule.
“I had a little bit of a swollen disc and it was putting pressure on a nerve and it was shooting pain down my leg,” he said. “The procedure took 15 minutes – they got in there, took the swollen piece out and sewed it back up.”
Church was ready for the start of camp and played all 16 games for the third time in his eight-year career. Church had four interceptions (he had five in his first 90 NFL games) and showed equally able to tackle (although his 11 misses were second on the team) and play near the line of scrimmage (7 1/ 2 “stuffs” – gains of two or fewer yards). He played 989 of 1,040 snaps. In last week’s playoff win over Buffalo, he had five tackles and a quarterback pressure.
“When I first got here, I was coming off a 13-3 season in Dallas and there were all types of accolades for the dudes there,” Church said. “I came here and said, ‘We could have a great defense so we’ll see what happens.’ After the first couple games, I figured we had a pretty decent team.”
Bouye: Stolen from division rival
Bouye’s press conference that day was next up. This appeared to be splurge move for the Jaguars – they had Jalen Ramsey as the no-doubt No. 1 and Aaron Colvin had experience playing outside before moving to the slot last year. Plus, signing Bouye would hurt division rival Houston.
Bouye signed a five-year, $67.5 million contract ($26 million) and fell in line with Caldwell’s philosophy from 2013-16 – sign players coming off their rookie deal so they had a chance to play for the life of their new deal.
The Jaguars thought Bouye would be interested because he makes his off-season home in Atlanta, a short flight from Jacksonville.
Bouye had two postseason interceptions for the Texans so his stock was sky-high.
“Honestly, I was hoping to go back to Houston,” Bouye said. “I wanted that bad, but it didn’t work out. Chicago and Tennessee were the main ones and then the Jaguars [offered]. The way we thought was, ‘Two corners that were going to make plays.’ ”
The cornerback market was rather thin in terms of who the Jaguars were attracted to so they acted quickly on Bouye realizing that all it would take to lose him was an out-of-nowhere offer.
Bouye was great this year. He played 1,013 snaps (third-most), had 56 tackles (eighth) and led the Jaguars with six interceptions and 18 pass break-ups. Per the Times-Union’s game charting, quarterbacks had a dismal 22.5 passer rating when challenging Bouye in man coverage.
Bouye has flown below the radar, but is universally respected in the Jaguars’ locker room and for good reason.
“I’m a big football fan and I like following guys who make plays so I saw him on the highlights,” Campbell said. “Not only is he gifted physically, he’s smart and a student of the game.”
Campbell: Final one to commit
Campbell was the last to be introduced to the media. The Jaguars signed him to four-year, $60 million contract ($30 million), beating out Campbell’s hometown Denver Broncos.
Because he played his entire nine-year career in Arizona, the Jaguars’ decision-makers had to educate themselves with Campbell’s talents. Once they watched the tape, he became an easy player to target. Like Church, the Jaguars had a good working relationship with Campbell’s agent — Tom Condon was the agent for former first-round picks Blaine Gabbert and Luke Joeckel.
Campbell had taken note of the additions of Church and Bouye when making his decision.
“I was the last one to commit and that was part of it – I knew those guys would make a big difference with the guys already here and with me,” Campbell said. “I felt like, together, we would be able to make a huge difference.”
Campbell, like Church and Bouye, chose his first year with the Jaguars to have his best NFL season. Campbell debuted with four sacks at Houston and exceeded his previous career high by 6 1/2. He played all 16 games for the seventh time (805 of 1,040 snaps).
Against Buffalo last week, Campbell was a dominant player – 70 snaps, six tackles, four quarterback hits and three quarterback pressures.
Bouye and Church are quiet behind the scenes, but Campbell quickly reached out to players offensively and defensively during the off-season workouts. By the beginning of June, young players were talking about him in a reverential form.
It all started on March 10. The trio transitioned to their new locker room seamlessly.
“Those three players came in here and the first thing they did was really get to know their teammates and become part of the team,” coach Doug Marrone said. “They did it quickly and everyone came together on that side of the ball and that’s why we’ve had the success we’ve had.”