The 2023 NFL Draft season is upon us.
Among the 32 teams building their rosters to compete for the next Lombardi Trophy is the Jacksonville Jaguars, who hold nine picks in this season’s draft -- including the No. 17 overall pick.
As we march closer and closer to April’s draft, we will look at individual draft prospects and how they would potentially fit with the Jaguars. Instead of looking at any negatives, we are going to look at what the players do well and if they could match what the Jaguars need at the specific role or position.
Next up: Illinois defensive lineman Jer'Zhan Newton.
A Clearwater, Florida native, Newton was ranked by 247Sports as a three-star recruit. He was the No. 1,057 recruit in the country, the No. 51 strong side defensive end, and the No. 138 recruit in the state.
Newton ultimately chose Illinois over offers from Georgia Tech, Maryland, Boston College, Cincinnati, Colorado State, Florida, Florida State, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas State, Kentucky, Miami, Middle Tennessee State, North Carolina, Rutgers, Southern Miss., Syracuse, Toledo, UCF, USF, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia.
Newton played in eight games and started two during his freshman season in 2020, recording 23 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble. In 2021, the redshirt freshman started 11 games and recorded 50 tackles, four tackles for loss, and three sacks.
In 2022, Newton led all Power-5 interior defensive lineman in pressures and led Illinois in TFLs (14.0), sacks (5.5), quarterback hurries (11), and fumble recoveries (2). After starting all 13 games, he was ranked a Bednarik Award semifinalist and made the All-Big Ten First Team.
In 2023, Newton became the fourth defender in program history to earn the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award and first in 29 years, while also being the only defensive tackle on the Nagurski finalist list and a Unanimous All-American.
What Jer'Zhan Newton Does Well
Disruption is the name of the game when it comes to Jer'Zhan Newton. He isn't the biggest or longest defensive lineman on the field, but he is able to make an impact on any game thanks to his ability to live in the opponent's backfield. Whether against the run or the pass, Newton is a player who will be capable of splash plays like sacks and tackles for losses at the next level.
Despite being maxed out in terms of physical traits, Newton doesn't play like an undersized defensive tackle. He is able to win one-on-one blocks by locking offensive linemen out and then using quick feet, hustle, and physicality to slip off the block. He plays with active hands and does a good job of using his athleticism to cross the face of blockers even after engaged.
Newton also plays with impressive timing and awareness. He is able to provide pressure on bootlegs and from the backside of formations because he does a good job of identifying plays and ball-carriers and doesn't lose sight of plays while engaged.
As a pass-rusher, Newton plays with quick hands, quick feet, and plenty of flexibility. He has a number of moves in his tool-box to shed blocks, whether on quick pressures or on second efforts. He has the athletic ability to dip around offensive tackles and wide-setting guards, and has the closing burst to finish plays in the backfield.
How Jer'Zhan Newton Would Fit With the Jaguars
The Jaguars had one of the least impactful pass-rushing defensive lines in the NFL in 2023. Part of this was due to an injury that limited DaVon Hamilton and forced him to miss the first half of the season played a role, but
The Jaguars' interior defensive line recorded just 4.5 sacks in 2023, with 3.5 of those coming from Roy Robertson-Harris and the other coming from Adam Gotsis. Together, Robterson-Harris, Gotsis, Hamilton, Foley Fatukasi, Angelo Blackson, Tyler Lacy, and Jeremiah Ledbetter combined for just 14 tackles for loss and 24 quarterback hits. The lack of play-making from the unit was an issue all year long, and this doesn't even factor in the decline of the run-defense.
Among 152 interior defensive linemen with at least 75 pass rushes in 2023, the Jaguars had just one rank in the top-75 in pass-rush win-rate: Robertson Harris at No. 75. Add in Fatukasi at No. 81, and the Jaguars only had two in the top-130. The Jaguars had four players rank in the bottom 22, per Pro Football Focus.
In short, the Jaguars got next to nothing from their defensive line in the pass-rush department. Newton, however, recorded 12 sacks, 26 quarterback hits, and 64 hurries over the past two seasons and already shows the athleticism and technique needed to win as a pass-rusher.
Regardless of what kind of fronts new defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen wants to deploy in 2023, Newton could find a role. He played plenty of five-technique in 2023 but also has the experience and the necessary traits to thrive at three-technique in a four-man front.
I am hesitant in most cases to make proclamations on where I would select players without athletic testing in place. With that said, it would take Newton truly tanking the combine for me to be very down on him as a prospect. He isn't the perfect defensive line prospect with prototypical size or length, but he knows how to win as a pass-rusher and has the burst and speed to make plays up and down the line.
The Jaguars would be rolling the dice selecting Newton due to some of his outlier traits, but he would give them the pass-rush inside that they missed in 2023. No. 17 is a small stretch in terms of value, but not an outrageous one.
For all of our 2024 NFL Draft profiles, click below.