AFC South Reset: Texans all in and Titans on the rise, but don't forget the Colts
With free agency and the draft in books, it's time to survey the AFC South
The NFL's NASCAR division just keeps running the same boring race each season, over and over. The result? Another offseason in which the middling teams of the AFC South face the exact same questions.
This division has been an annual contender for the NFL's worst for nearly a decade, dating all the way back to Peyton Manning's salad days with the Colts. It desperately needs an NFC South makeover. The Jaguars have lost more games than any other NFL team since 2012, when Shahid Khan bought the franchise, and own the NFL's fourth-longest playoff drought, going on nine seasons. The Titans aren't much better, with an eight-year playoff drought of their own. And just so we're clear, a 9-7 record has won this division the last two seasons, with the Texans somehow getting to the playoffs despite uneven QB play.
So what's to say anything changes in 2017? With free agency and the NFL Draft in the books, and training camp just two months off, here's how the division shapes up.
Oh, Romo, Romo! Wherefore art thou, Romo?
The Texans' offseason was a Shakespearean drama in three acts. There was a former lover scorned (Brock Osweiler), a failed pursuit of a new object of desire (Tony Romo), followed by a hasty, short-sighted deal (trading away a future first-round pick for Deshaun Watson) to try to save face.
If Romo had opted to fly south from Dallas and don a Texans uniform, instead of joining our team at CBS, the Texans would be a trendy Super Bowl pick. Instead, Houston, led by the NFL's top-ranked defense last season, is pinning its Super Bowl hopes on Tom Savage and his 92 career passes and Watson, the poised rookie from Clemson. While that's an infinitely better plan than sticking with Osweiler, who the Texans would've seemingly given away for a ham sandwich and a few Gatorades, it's still a huge gamble.
The Texans were the talk of the league last offseason after giving Peyton Manning's former backup a four-year, $72 million deal that came with a whopping $37 million guaranteed. For that vote of confidence, Osweiler went out and completely sucked in 2016, becoming the new poster boy for free agency fool's good while completing only 59 percent of his passes and chucking 16 interceptions to 15 TDs in 15 starts. The Texans gave the Browns a 2018 second-round pick just to take Osweiler, which makes the trade up for Watson even more dicey. With no picks in the first two rounds of next year's draft, and without making any splashy free-agency signings, the Texans will try to keep their Super Bowl window open with two unproven commodities at QB.
Houston also let shutdown corner A.J. Bouye and starting safety Quintin Demps walk in free agency, with Bouye bolting to the rival Jags. Demps, who signed with the Bears, led all safeties with six interceptions last season. Still, the return of a healthy J.J. Watt should be huge, and the Texans likely got a steal with three-down linebacker Zach Cunningham, who fell to them at No. 57 overall. Cunningham should eventually overtake an aging Brian Cushing, while third-round pick D'Onta Foreman, the downhill runner from Texas, should immediately help an eighth-ranked rushing attack that had to do the heavy lifting in 2017, given Osweiler's struggles.
If Watson ends up being the franchise QB that the Texans envision, the big move up to get him could help the franchise recover quickly from the Osweiler debacle, but that's a big if.
'Exotic smashmouth' gets some air support
The rise of the Titans is the talk of the AFC South entering 2017. Powered by the NFL's best offensive line, according to Pro Football Focus, and the two-headed rushing monster of DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, Tennesse rebounded from a 1-3 start last season to challenge Houston for the division title. Those playoff hopes were crushed, however, in a 38-17 Week 16 loss to the Jaguars. Marcus Mariota snapped his fibula late in the third quarter of that game, and the Titans wound up on the outside looking in at the playoffs despite beating the Texans in Week 17 to finish with an identical 9-7 record.
The Titans spent the offseason upgrading their 25th-ranked passing offense and their leaky secondary, which surrendered 269.2 passing yards a game, third-worst in the NFL. They signed Patriots corner Logan Ryan to a three-year deal and swiped strong safety Johnathan Cyprien from the Jaguars in free agency. The Titans did let go of guard Chance Warmack and tight end Anthony Fasano, a key cog in their running attack, as well as backup center Brian Schwenke, but kept the core of their line intact, led by mauling tackles Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan. PFF graded Conklin as the seventh-best pass-blocking right tackle, while Lewan was PFF's second-ranked run-blocking left tackle.
Taking Corey Davis with the fifth overall pick in the draft was somewhat of a shocker, considering top safety Jamal Adams, top corner Marshon Lattimore and top tight end O.J. Howard, among others, were still on the board. There's a possibility that Davis would have still been around at No. 18, but that's a big maybe, considering the Chargers nabbed Mike Williams two picks later and the Bengals took John Ross at No. 9.
Nevertheless, Davis fills a pressing need, and the Titans went DB at No. 18 with USC speedster Adoree' Jackson. While not exactly polished as a corner, Jackson is a freakish athlete who will help in the return game. He could also see snaps on offense, given how electric he is with the ball.
The Titans then doubled down in the passing game, taking Western Kentucky receiver Taywan Taylor and FIU tight end Jonnu Smith in Round 3. The shifty, nimble Taylor fits best in the slot, while Smith will be tasked with replacing Fasano's output as an extra blocker while hopefully being an upgrade in the passing game.
It's not hard to see the Titans as a playoff team, given the QB issues surrounding the Jags and Texans, and the pieces in place around Mariota to help him evolve as an NFL passer.
But what about the Colts?
If you subscribe to Prisco-metrics, then the Colts should win the AFC South every season. Best QB, best team. That was certainly the case under Peyton Manning, and in Andrew Luck's first three seasons, where the Colts were a surprise wild-card team in 2012 and division champs in 2013 and 2014. But since advancing to the AFC title game after the 2014 season (you know which game we're talking about), Ryan Grigson's lousy roster-building and injuries to Luck have conspired to turn the Colts into an also-ran.
The biggest offseason acquisition was new GM Chris Ballard, the former Chiefs exec, who started quickly turning over Grigson's roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
The Colts signed linebackers Jabaal Sheard (Patriots), John Simon (Texans), Sean Spence (Titans) and Barkevious Mingo (Patriots), defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins (Giants) and Al Woods (Titans), and defensive end Margus Hunt (Bengals). Center Brian Schwenke was also signed away from the Titans, and Ballard brought in wide receiver Kamar Aiken (Ravens) and tight end Brandon Williams (Seahawks).
Ballard didn't stop on defense in the draft, taking ball-hawking safety Malik Hooker (No. 15), corner Quincy Wilson (No. 46) and edge rusher Tarell Basham (No. 80) with his first three picks. He then added depth on the offensive line with USC tackle Zach Banner (No. 137) and Frank Gore's likely replacement in South Florida back Marlon Mack (No. 143) before taking three more defenders: defensive tackle Grover Stewart (No. 144), corner Nate Hairston and inside linebacker Anthony Walker Jr..
It all adds up to a roster that will look drastically different in 2017, with an emphasis on youth. If Luck can stay healthy, and the defense can improve into even a middling unit after finishing 25th against the run and 27th through the air last season, there's no reason the Colts can't get back atop their division perch, though they may be a year out.
Will the Jags finally figure it out?
Tom Coughlin is back in Jacksonville, running the football operation, which means the Jaguars have to be better, because it really can't get any worse. This is a franchise that has won a total of 15 games over the past five seasons, despite picking in the top five of the draft for six straight years.
Yet again, the Jaguars were among the paper champions of NFL free agency, throwing around big money to win the sweepstakes for A.J. Bouye ($67.5M/5 years, $10M guaranteed) and former Cardinals defensive tackle Calais Campbell ($60M/4 years, $30M guaranteed. Former Cowboys safety Barry Church ($26M/4 yrs, $12M guaranteed) was also among the 11 players that Jacksonville signed in free agency, and tackle Branden Albert came over in a trade from the Dolphins.
But despite all that spending, and the notable additions of hard-nosed, physical talents in the draft, headlined by bruising running back Leonard Fournette and road-grading tackle Cam Robinson, the Jaguars stuck with Blake Bortles at QB.
Bortles, who hasn't completed more than 59 percent of his passes in his three seasons in Jacksonville, is out of excuses for not succeeding in 2017. There is enough talent around him that if he flops again in 2017, the Jaguars will be looking to start over again at the quarterback position, despite picking up Bortles' fifth-year option in 2018. He's veering in bust territory firmly occupied by recent first-round flops like Blaine Gabbert (2011), Justin Blackmon (2012) and Luke Joeckel (2013).
If the Jaguars win five games, that will be an improvement, though it could still mean another top-five pick next season.
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