Bortles entered this season with just 11 wins in three seasons as a starter — the same number of pick-sixes he has thrown in his career. But he flipped the script this season, cutting down on his turnovers as the Jaguars shifted the focus to rookie Leonard Fournette and their running game, which was the best in the NFL. That, along with one of the NFL’s best defenses, fueled them to a 10-6 record and their first playoff appearance since the 2007 season. Bortles capped it off with a brilliant first half against the Patriots until Tom Brady did his Tom Brady thing and brought New England back.
The Jaguars picked up the fifth-year option on Bortles’ contract, and his salary for 2018 will be approximately $19.1 million (the average of the top 10 highest-paid quarterbacks). The deal is guaranteed for injury only until the first day of the 2018 league year in March, when it becomes fully guaranteed.
Will it be Bortles or someone else under center for the Jaguars in 2018? And which team would be the best fit for Bortles? We asked our panel of ESPN NFL insiders to weigh in.
Who will be the Jaguars’ primary starting QB in 2018?
Mike Clay, NFL analyst: Bortles. The Jaguars were super aggressive while loading up on defensive stars during the past two free-agency periods. The strategy worked, but it’s also likely to stop them from making a strong push for a top-end free-agent quarterback like Kirk Cousins or even Case Keenum. Instead, expect Jacksonville to bring in competition for Bortles, whether it’s a rookie or a veteran along the lines of Sam Bradford, Josh McCown or Ryan Fitzpatrick. Don’t be surprised if the Jaguars attempt to mimic the 2017 Texans and Chiefs by trading up for a quarterback during the first round of April’s draft.
Michael DiRocco, NFL Nation Jaguars reporter: Bortles. This was Bortles’ best season — he completed 60 percent of his passes for the first time, threw for 21 TDs and trimmed his interceptions to 13 — and he did it without his No. 1 receiver (Allen Robinson) and had to rely on two rookies because of other injuries. He still wasn’t as consistent as he needed to be, but he had a fantastic stretch in early December. That just didn’t seem to be enough for the Jaguars to bring him back in 2018 — and then he won a pair of playoff games. He had more yards rushing (88) than passing (87) in a victory over the Bills, but he won the game with his legs and throwing a fourth-down TD pass. He led a pair of critical fourth-quarter drives against Pittsburgh and he hit key throws on each drive. He followed that up with a 293-yard game with a touchdown pass and no interceptions against the Patriots. He’s earned a return trip to Jacksonville in 2018.
Mina Kimes, senior writer: Alex Smith. While Bortles performed well in the AFC Championship Game, he’s still extremely inconsistent — which is why the Jaguars should look to upgrade. Given the strength of their defense and run game, the Jaguars don’t need a gunslinger; they just need a quarterback who can move the chains alongside Fournette without turning the ball over. Given those parameters, Smith seems like a good fit.
Mike Sando, senior NFL writer: Alex Smith, Tyrod Taylor or another veteran who protects the football. I see the Jaguars drafting a quarterback as well. Paying $1.1 million per week to Bortles under his current deal seems unlikely. How much less would he take?
Field Yates, NFL Insider: It will still be Bortles. He’s come so far this season compared to the downtrodden 2016 campaign that led to questions about his future. While he is not a build-your-franchise-around-him quarterback, the Jaguars don’t need that right now — the defense and remaining portions of the roster are truly that good. Those types of quarterbacks are rarely readily available, but the improved Bortles gives the team another opportunity to build off of this remarkable 2017 season.
Which team would be the best fit for Bortles in 2018?
Clay: Bills. If Bortles moves on from Jacksonville, his best shot to start and succeed would be a run-heavy offense with a good defense and a hole at the quarterback position. There are a few teams which check those boxes, but the likes of Minnesota (Keenum) and Washington (Cousins) have a solid in-house option to try to re-sign. Denver, Cleveland and the New York Jets can address the position via a top-six overall pick in April’s draft. If I connect one more dot and send Alex Smith out of the AFC to Arizona, that leaves the run-heavy, quarterback-needy, defense-first Bills as a logical landing spot. Bortles makes sense as veteran competition for second-year QB Nathan Peterman and, same as he did with Jacksonville, he would be asked to simply manage a Bills offense that features LeSean McCoy. It’s a match made in The Medium Place.
DiRocco: Jaguars. Bortles likely will get some competition during the offseason via free agency or in the draft, but he should still be the opening-day starter. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has said repeatedly that Bortles made significant strides in his first season in his offense (remember, when Hackett was promoted to OC midway through the 2016 season he stuck with Greg Olson’s offense because changing midseason would be ridiculous). That year of experience, as well as the addition of some help at wide receiver and tight end, should result in better production in what will be Bortles’ final chance to prove he is the long-term answer.
Kimes: Arizona. With Arians out, it’s hard to predict what sort of signal-caller the organization will look for next season, but I could see the Cardinals paying Bortles a below-average starter salary to compete alongside a young draft pick. My second choice would be the Jets for the same reason.
Sando: San Francisco comes to mind for some reason. Kyle Shanahan might be able to work with him and help him become effective in an offense that emphasizes the running game. Kansas City and Oakland come to mind as places where the head coach could take an interest in developing someone at the position. Just to be clear: We’re talking about him as a backup in this context.
Yates: The Jaguars. It’s clear that Bortles has some physical tools that a team desires in its quarterback, and it’s also clear that he found a comfort zone in Jacksonville this season. Quarterback play often stems back to confidence and the ability to process information before the snap, leading to improved execution after the snap. Bortles made strides in all those categories in 2017 and would be best suited to stay in Jacksonville in 2018.