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Revisiting Gardner Minshew’s rise with the Jaguars: The mania, the magic, the mustache

Gardner Minshew is stll the most interesting quarterback in the NFL. The Jaguars’ second-year starter has built on his surprise rookie success for a red-hot opening to the 2020 season.

Jacksonville is 1-1 and has put up 57 points over its first two games thanks in big part to Minshew. He’s completed 75.4 percent of his passes with 7.9 yards per attempt and an astronomical 115.7 passing efficiency rating. He’s thrown six touchdown passes to two interceptions, the latter just last week. He’s also picked good spots to run when needed against the Colts and Titans.

MORE: Minshew, Fitzpatrick to settle facial hair fracas on “Thursday Night Football”

The Jaguars could have either targeted Minshew’s replacement in NFL free agency or early in the draft. But transitioning to a new offense under Jay Gruden, they stuck with “Minshew II” in Year 2 and are being rewarded early going into Thursday night’s Week 3 home game vs. the Dolphins.

Here’s a look back on Minshew’s unlikely rise from maniacal, magical meme to a top-half QB in the NFL:

How and why did the Jaguars draft Gardner Minshew?

The Jaguars needed to select a quarterback in the 2019 draft as they were starting over at the position, moving on from 2014 first-rounder Blake Bortles. They splurged on former Eagles supersub Nick Foles in free agency, but Bortlees’ departure also called for them to take a development type.

With the No. 7 overall pick, it was guaranteed the Jaguars wouldn’t get either Kyler Murray (No. 1 to the Cardinals) or Daniel Jones (No. 6 to the Giants). They passed on Dwayne Haskins (Washington) in Round 1, Drew Lock (Broncos) in Round 2 and Will Grier (Panthers) in Round 3. Those early non-picks led them to wait until the sixth round, No. 178 overall, for Minshew. 

Nine QBs in all were taken ahead of Minshew, a list that includes Ryan Finley (Bengals), Jarrett Stidham (Patriots), Easton Stick (Chargers) and Clayton Thorson (Eagles). Murray’s high selection helped Minshew get more notice, given that he also had a good grasp of NFL trendy Air Raid concepts from his time under Mike Leach at Washington State.

How has Minshew found such early success in the NFL?

Minshew was used to a high-volume passing game, throwing a lot for Washington State after transferring from East Carolina. When Foles went down in Week 1 last year with a broken collarbone against the Chiefs, Minshew came in unfazed despite being thrown into the fire in his first NFL game. He showed his mental toughness early, but his football intelligence was critical to him accelerating his development.

The Jaguars were fortunate to have a deep, versatile receiving corps timed with the meteoric second-year rise of wideout D.J. Chark. Between Doug Marrone, former offensive coordinator John DeFilippo and current offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Minshew has had a lot of support to execute a variety of West Coast concepts.

By the time Foles came back in Week 11, Minshew became the QB who gave the Jaguars a better chance to win games. Once they didn’t try to force Foles into the lineup after Week 13 because of how much they invested in him for one year, there was renewed rookie confidence in Minshew. He finished strong, including two stellar winning performances against the Raiders and Colts.

Minshew has a trait that isn’t innate for most young quarterbacks. He doesn’t wilt in the face of pressure and has the toughness and athleticism to buy time to more efficiently pass downfield. This season, the Jaguars’ running game has come back stronger after Leonard Fournette’s fade, thanks to better offensive line play and the impressive undrafted rookie running of James Robinson.

The Jaguars also wisely added a dedicated receiving back, Gruden favorite Chris Thompson, plus a big-bodied tight end, Tyler Eifert. They also got more big-play oriented with their receiving corps by drafting Laviska Shenault Jr. and fading slot man Dede Westbrook. Early in 2020, Keelan Cole has re-emerged as a strong No. 2 opposite Chark.

Not only did Jacksonville pass on intriguing options such as Jordan Love and Jalen Hurts in the draft, it also resisted going down a veteran path for a QB such as Cam Newton. While that confirmed that the organization is committed to seeing it through with Minshew, at the same time — behind the scenes, starting with the hiring of Gruden — the Jaguars also tailored their offense more to Minshew’s strengths.

What’s different about Gardner Minshew in Year 2?

Minshew is no longer catching teams by surprise. Gone is that rookie sensation feeling when watching him play. He looks more like an established veteran starter with the way he’s carried himself in the first two games.

The Jaguars signed journeyman Mike Glennon and drafted another QB, Jake Luton, in the sixth round. But it’s been clear this offseason that the Jaguars were empowering Minshew with no extra sophomore pressure of looking over his shoulder.

Minshew has built on chemistry with his teammates and also grasped Gruden’s QB-friendly playbook well. He’s neither a flashy overachiever nor a young bridge starter just waiting to be replaced. He’s motivated not to make the Jaguars tank, because the better he plays, the more they win. And the less they lose, the worse they are positioned to tap into a strong quarterback class early in 2021.

What’s up with the Gardner Minshew mane and mustache?

Back at Washington State, Leach gave Minshew his chance start for a Power 5 program, ending a long college journey that began at Troy University and had been previously stamped by starring for Northwest Mississippi Community College. Minshew was allowed to be the freewheeling leader, and part of that was letting his facial hair grow — short of a Ryan Fitzpatrick-style beard and complementary old-school mullet.

Minshew instead settled for the “Uncle Rico” look, headband and all, only with more grizzle. He let his hair grow and went full beard during the offseason COVID-19 quarantine, but Minshew has gone back to the classic Fu Manchu for the season. The mustache has become a big part of Minshew’s identity, but he’s providing more reasons to focus on how he’s playing vs. what’s on his face.

Why Gardner Minshew is more than mania and magic

Minshew Mania. Minshew Magic. Nicknames like that for what Minshew has done on the field to inspire and bring new energy to the Jaguars’ franchise and fans suggest he’s a fad, like he’s Tim Tebow on the Broncos or Jeremy Lin on the Knicks. But if that were the case, the fade would already be here.

Instead, Minshew has made it an even better September to remember, making a case that he’s the No. 2 QB in his draft class behind Murray, ahead of both Jones and Haskins. The last time a sixth-round pick at quarterback busted out, he arrived to stay for a long time — Tom Brady.

But could the Jaguars still replace Gardner Minshew in 2021?

There are three surefire first-round quarterbacks in next year’s draft: Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. After Lawrence goes No. 1 overall to whichever team picks there, Lance will likely be gone in the top 10.

In Sporting News’ preseason 2021 mock draft, in which the Jaguars were projected to pick No. 2, Fields was mocked to them. The Jaguars, however, would be currently selecting No. 16 overall, out of range for all three QBs.

Assuming Dak Prescott is re-signed long term by the Cowboys and Newton gets another season with the Patriots, none of the older pending free-agent QBs are more appealing than Minshew, based on how he’s playing at the moment.

How long is Gardner Minshew’s rookie contract with the Jaguars?

Minshew got a four-year deal worth $2.7 million with only $190,884 of that guaranteed. He earned nearly $687,000 in base salary as a rookie before the bump in 2020 to still-a-bargain $850,000, what he’s also in line to make next year.

The Jaguars might have the look of a rebuilding team, but if Minshew keeps playing well, they should consider going back to being more aggressive in free agency to take advantage of having a highly underpaid quarterback. For 2021, no team has more room under the cap than Jacksonville at nearly $85 million available.

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