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3 lessons the Jaguars can learn from the Browns and Dolphins on the art of tanking

Now that the Jaguars are tearing up their roster to start over, it’d be wise to look at past examples to learn how to do it the right way.

Former Browns QB DeShone Kizer, Jaguars QB Gardner Minshew, and Dolphins QB Josh Rosen superimposed on a black and white background.
The Jaguars’ 2020 season is shaping up to be a rough year.

It sure looks like the Jacksonville Jaguars are tanking in 2020.

They haven’t said it, of course. No team ever would. But it’s not hard to tell when a roster is being stripped for parts instead of being bolstered in free agency.

So far this offseason, the Jaguars have:

It’s possible defensive end Yannick Ngakoue could be traded soon, as well. He was franchise tagged by the team, but has made it abundantly clear that he hopes to play elsewhere soon. Regardless of whether Ngakoue is in Jacksonville or not for the 2020 season, the Jaguars’ roster will look nothing like it did when the team was in the AFC Championship Game two years ago.

The rebuild was buoyed when the Jaguars traded Jalen Ramsey in the middle of the 2019 season — even if the motivations for that deal weren’t tank-oriented. Jacksonville was still attempting to field a competitive roster and battle for a spot in the playoffs when it shipped the disgruntled star cornerback to the Rams for first-round picks in 2020 and 2021.

The Jaguars didn’t come close to the postseason, though. They finished the 2019 season with a 6-10 record and a second consecutive last-place finish in the AFC South. The teardown started shortly thereafter.

As the Jaguars begin their tanking endeavor, now is a good time for the team to look to two other notable tankers of the recent past: the Browns and Dolphins.

Cleveland won one game in two seasons to set the stage for a rebuild that stocked the roster with enough talent that it should be yielding more results. Miami ripped its roster to shreds and somehow still managed to win five games in 2019.

Here are three lessons the Jaguars can take from those two teams.

1. Draft picks are more important than cap space

Purging bad contracts is crucial during a rebuild. The Jaguars cleared plenty of cap space by parting with Bouye, Campbell, Dareus, and Foles. But it’s fine to spend money too.

While the Dolphins traded away Ryan Tannehill, Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Robert Quinn, they also dished out a huge extension to cornerback Xavien Howard.

When the Jaguars signed Joe Schobert to a five-year, $53.75 million deal in free agency, it didn’t nullify the team’s tanking efforts. He’s a 26-year-old linebacker who could be a building block, just like Howard is in Miami.

If the Jaguars identify players who can be cornerstones of the future, it’s still a good idea to secure them to a long-term deal. It’s important to ensure they are well set up to add those players when the opportunity presents itself.

Freeing up cap space is part of that formula, but acquiring a bevy of draft picks is the real pathway to find talent.

The Browns had five first-round picks in the 2017 and 2018 drafts. They used a few of those selections to take a quarterback (Baker Mayfield) and two foundational pieces on defense (pass rusher Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward). The Dolphins are currently set to pick three times in the first round this April and twice more in 2021. They’re well positioned to take a franchise quarterback of their own.

Thanks to the Ramsey trade, the Jaguars are on a similar course, with two first-rounders each in 2020 and 2021.

2. It’s OK to win a few games

Miami’s five wins in 2019 were surprising. The team started the year 0-7 and lost its first four games by a combined 137 points.

But it’s not a bad thing that the Dolphins somehow rallied to go 5-4 in November and December. They still landed a top-five draft pick and own five of the top 56 selections.

If anything, the fact that first-year Dolphins head coach Brian Flores was able to do well with such a talent-deficient roster bodes well for the team’s future.

Jacksonville’s roster isn’t likely to earn many wins in 2020. The Jaguars will find out if Gardner Minshew really has what it takes to be a franchise quarterback, but his supporting cast is lackluster. More importantly, the team’s defense has taken a significant step backward so far in the 2020 offseason.

The likely scenario is the Jaguars are in for another rough season. However, if Jacksonville does manage to notch a few victories, that probably won’t keep the team from picking in the top 10 in 2021 and landing a potential high-impact player.

3. Find a long-term vision

The Dolphins are the new model for a successful tank.

Miami hired Flores with a fully guaranteed five-year contract. It was a sign that the Dolphins intended to stick by the coach even if the team predictably struggled early in his tenure. The front office knew it had a tough road ahead and clearly established who would be leading the way, even if that meant retaining GM Chris Grier, who was hired in 2016.

Meanwhile, the Browns have continued to cycle through coaches and executives. In 2016, Cleveland made Sashi Brown the de facto general manager and hired head coach Hue Jackson to lead the team through a rebuild. Brown was fired near the end of the 2017 season and replaced by John Dorsey. In October 2018, Jackson was fired too.

After two seasons with Dorsey calling the shots and one season with Freddie Kitchens as head coach, the Browns started over again. Now Kevin Stefanski is the team’s coach and Andrew Berry is the general manager.

Some of those moves were perfectly justifiable. Jackson had the worst coaching tenure in NFL history, and Kitchens looked to be in over his head in 2019. But Cleveland hasn’t done well at deciding who should shape its roster and allowing that person to do so.

It’s hard to figure what exactly the Jaguars envision for their future. While Tom Coughlin was fired in December, the changes stopped there. Rather than clean house and hire new personnel for the upcoming transition, Jacksonville still employs Dave Caldwell as general manager and Doug Marrone as head coach.

Caldwell has been the Jaguars’ GM since 2013, a seven-season span during which the team has a 30-76 record. Both he and Marrone — who has been the head coach since Gus Bradley was fired in 2016 — will probably have short leashes in 2020. And in the likely event that the team struggles, both could get fired.

Expecting different results out of the same people doesn’t make much sense. But it’s not quite as simple as hiring a winner and letting them work. The Browns’ problem is more that they keep hiring the wrong people.

Still, it’d be wise for the Jaguars to follow in the Dolphins’ footsteps and establish a vision for 2020 and beyond, whether that means keeping or dumping their current leadership.