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13 Feb 2014

Four Downs: AFC South

by Rivers McCown

Houston Texans

Biggest Hole: Linebacker

Obviously, the Texans' real biggest hole is their desperate need for a quarterback with an NFL future, but all indications are that they will select one with the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. So, even though we'll all be subjected to another three months of mock draft scenarios that pretend otherwise, let's go ahead and pencil that in as taken care of.

The biggest problem on Houston's defense last season was linebacker. The Texans committed a six-year extension to Brian Cushing in September only to watch him end a second consecutive season on IR with a torn LCL and a broken fibula. Cushing returned from his first injury in good shape, and though his medical history is starting to make the contract look a little scary, LCLs and broken fibulas aren't devastating injuries in the long run.

But Cushing hasn't been the problem; it's the players around him that have disappointed. Former first-rounder Whitney Mercilus went from part-time pass rusher to full-time player following Connor Barwin's departure last offseason, and he went from six sacks to seven mostly because he picked up 2.5 against a battered Seahawks line early in the season. Mercilus also had a few adventures with the concept of setting the edge. Former second-rounder Brooks Reed is such an effective pass rusher that he's continually been hounded by rumors of a position switch to middle linebacker since Cushing went down. That's what happens when you notch 5.5 sacks in your last two seasons combined. Former fourth-rounder Darryl Sharpton is injury-prone, a free agent, and has the zone coverage instincts of a fish that was just yanked from the sea.

Veteran run stuffer Joe Mays and waiver claim Jeff Tarpinian filled out this sad sack unit that helped lead Houston to just two negative (i.e. better than average) defensive DVOA game scores over the last nine games of the season. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)

Assuming Houston uses its first pick on a quarterback, they'll miss out on most of the best pass rushers in this class. And, assuming they bet on Cushing rebounding (which, contractually, they have almost no choice but to), it's unlikely they'll use a high pick on a second middle linebacker to fill out Romeo Crennel's 3-4. So, the hope is probably that someone like BYU's Kyle Van Noy is still around at the top of the second round, and that the Texans can rebuild that edge rush they desperately needed last year with some extra oomph.

Indianapolis Colts

Biggest Hole: Secondary

This category could also be narrowed down to "every non-Robert Mathis defender," but secondary draws an extra focus in Indianapolis because two of the few non-zeros Indianapolis started last season, corner Vontae Davis and safety Antoine Bethea, are free agents.

Davis has always had the raw talent and tools to be a top cornerback, but this is the first year he really played like it. Even then, he had his lapses. (Davis was among the top ten cornerbacks in our Success Rate charting stat, but was only average in yards allowed per pass because he got burned big a few times.) The Colts will probably have to pay him No. 1 corner money, but he's toward the median of the No. 1 corner category rather than some kind of Richard Sherman-esque difference maker. Bethea has lost some range and will turn 30 before the 2014 season starts, but he still has his terrific instincts and still packs a wallop in the ground game.

The good news is that the Colts happen to have quite a bit of cap space coming into the offseason. Indianapolis has about $30 million in cap space as of today, and could generate a little over $8 million more by cutting Samson Satele and Greg Toler. That opens up the franchise tag if they'd like to hold off on signing Davis long-term, or if they'd just like to keep other teams from negotiating with him.

The bad news is that LaRon Landry plays safety like an 11-year-old plays defense on Madden: hit-sticking the entire way. Toler was lost for most of the year to a groin injury, and while Darius Butler had some really nice games, he's not an optimal starting corner. Indianapolis will have holes in the secondary with or without Davis and Bethea.

The worst news is that the Colts won't have a first-round pick to try and fix things; they used it to acquire Trent Richardson, the only player on the roster besides Mathis that can bring an offense to a screeching halt. That means more of Ryan Grigson's adventures in free agency, where he snubs the top tier to find the Erik Walden of cornerbacks (might we suggest Nolan Carroll?), and maybe stumbling into a safety like Stanford's Ed Reynolds at the back of the second round. (Hey, we're not the first NFL writers to predict that the Colts employ every other Cardinal player because Andrew Luck, Coby Fleener, and Pep Hamilton are all in Indy.)

Jacksonville Jaguars

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

Chad Henne isn't as bad as you think he is.

The Jaguars' quarterback for the competitive portion of their schedule (After Gabbert, as it's known in the history books) finished 39th in QBR, but by DVOA, he was 33rd. That puts him ahead of noted elite quarterback Joe Flacco, and Henne had at least as many complaints about receiver quality and offensive line play as Flacco did last season.

But Henne is a backup quarterback to go to war with, someone who can come in and competently run an offense and help receivers develop. A franchise quarterback he is not, and that's what the Jaguars would probably most like to find with the third overall pick. Depending on how the top of the draft shakes out, they could find Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, and/or UCF's Blake Bortles available at this spot. Even if they don't, and have to "settle" for Jadeveon Clowney or Anthony Barr, this is a fairly deep class at quarterback and the Jaguars could be looking for one near the top of the second round, where players like Fresno State's Derek Carr, Georgia's Aaron Murray, and LSU's Zach Mettenberger could be possibilities.

Free agency is … less inviting. Unless you're a believer in the idea that Josh McCown can keep playing like he did last season, and if you are, have we got a Damon Huard to sell you! Owner Shad Khan has already suggested that the Jaguars might leave the draft with two quarterbacks. Don't stop there, Khan. Draft six. Draft eight. Give them all "Not Gabbert" jerseys. It's an important step in the history of this franchise to be able to avoid a fourth straight year of the Gabbert conundrum, and Jacksonville should do everything in their power to take it this offseason.

Tennessee Titans

Biggest Hole: Linebacker

While I am personally not a believer in Jake Locker, the series premise is "Filling The Holes," not "Answering The Question Marks," so let's focus on a big area of need in Tennessee: the linebacker corps.

The Titans have spent heavily on this position in the past few drafts. They picked Akeem Ayers near the top of the second round in 2011, Zach Brown in the second round in 2012, Zaviar Gooden in the third round in 2013, and Colin McCarthy in the fourth round in 2011. Despite all that, they had street free agent Moise Fokou starting at linebacker for most of the season, and, against all odds, staying on the field in nickel and dime packages. Fokou is a heady player who has been a favorite of coaching staffs in Philadelphia and Indianapolis, but he doesn’t exactly have the sideline-to-sideline speed that a highly-drafted linebacker should, in theory, have.

Tennessee has essentially relegated McCarthy to the failed experiment table. The two second-round linebackers regressed last year. Brown has speed to burn, but looks more like an athlete playing the part of linebacker than an actual linebacker at times. Ayers was bumped down as a nickel rusher and dropped from six sacks in 2012 to one last season. That was a big reason Tennessee's Adjusted Sack Rate fell from 13th in 2012 to 20th last year.

The Titans probably aren't going to spend another high draft pick at linebacker – the hope is likely that the lumps of moldable clay that Jerry Gray left can be turned around in the hands of new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. With the switch to a 3-4, though, a stabilizing middle linebacker like Karlos Dansby or Jon Beason could be something the Titans pursue with their meager cap room. Assuming their negotiations toward re-signing Alterraun Verner aren't too costly, that is.

This article previously appeared on ESPN Insider.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 13 Feb 2014

22 comments, Last at 20 Feb 2014, 11:16am by Lebo

Comments

1
by jacobk :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 12:01am

There seems to be a consensus that (1) Clowney is a significantly better prospect than any of the available quarterbacks; and (2) the Texans will draft a quarterback. Why would they do that? If they could go back and redo the 2006 draft, would they take Leinart or Young over Mario Williams? How can you possibly justify passing on the best player in the draft if he's a once-in-a-generation talent?

Great defense + adequate quarterback play is a winning combination, and there look to be a few veterans on the market I would describe as adequate. Hell, Schaub might do better once he's out of Kubiak's offense. They can even pick up a QB prospect at 33 from the second tier of QB prospects with an eye for long term development without giving up too much in upside compared to the top guys.

3
by t.d. :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 1:05am

While I was a big 'Suh over Bradford' guy, the questions about whether Clowney took plays off are enough of a red flag that it isn't a slam dunk (though I'm still hoping Clowney falls to 3 and we can figure out the qb situation later)

5
by Pied :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 9:23am

For me it's the idea of pairing him with Watt that really sells it.
I'd get Clowney and a QB in the 2nd.

As a Colts fan, I hope they don't though.
Get the QB, Houston!

6
by nath :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 9:33am

"If they could go back and redo the 2006 draft, would they take Leinart or Young over Mario Williams?"

I don't see what the quality of those prospects has to do with the quality of this year's quarterback prospects. Teddy Bridgewater is not a worse QB prospect because Vince Young didn't pan out.

I was for Suh over Bradford, but I'm also for Bridgewater over Clowney. I think the knocks on Clowney are a case of tall-poppy syndrome, but I think Bridgewater is the best QB prospect of the last ten years not named Andrew Luck.

It's close enough that I wouldn't mind if they took Clowney. The thought of pairing Clowney and Watt is a dream come true defensively and such a historically rare opportunity. I would be very upset if they passed on Clowney for Johnny Manziel, though. (I do like Blake Bortles the more I see of him, but I'd still rather have Bridgewater.)

11
by jacobk :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 4:51pm

The point is that "Best QB Available" is not a smart strategy, even if you need a QB. The draft evaluations that I have seen tend to put the three QBs significantly behind Clowney (as a prospect, not necessarily in terms of draft position). If they think any of them are franchise QBs then sure, take them, but taking a guy #1 doesn't turn him into Andrew Luck.

12
by BDC :: Sat, 02/15/2014 - 7:28am

Obviously taking the best QB available, if all the QBs suck, is not a smart strategy. On the other hand, blindly ignoring your team's needs to draft this year's "once-in-a-lifetime" talent is not any smarter, since while almost every draft is hyped to have such a player, they all can't be true. So yea, taking a HOF DE is a smarter move than taking a mediocre QB. But of course we don't know who the HOFers will be just yet.

13
by jacobk :: Sat, 02/15/2014 - 9:50am

You can fill needs at the market price in free agency (note: needs like "awesome QB" can't be filled this way, but "decent QB" usually can). The draft is your chance to accumulate under priced talent.

Even ignoring the hyperbole, every list of guys based on pure talent level that I've seen has Clowney ahead of the three QBs, and usually way ahead. Passing up the great talent to draft a pretty good talent seems like a good way to wind up back at the top of the draft next year.

14
by tuluse :: Sat, 02/15/2014 - 1:25pm

Name 3 teams in the last 3 years who found decent starting QBs in free agency. I don't believe such players are reliably availible.

If they were, the Jets should be 2 time Superbowl champions right now.

7
by Mr Shush :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 11:06am

If you believe that there is a franchise quarterback available at the spot you're picking, and you don't have one already, you take him, not matter what. It's that simple. Most years, there is no slam-dunk QB prospect, and some team kids themselves that Alex Smith or David Carr or whoever might be one. If you think that's the case this year, by all means take Clowney. But if you think Bridgewater (or one of the other guys) is the real deal, you have to take them. Watt is the best defensive player of his generation, but I'd trade him straight up for Luck in a heartbeat.

15
by Lebo :: Sun, 02/16/2014 - 8:24am

I agree with you. But I also think the Texans would be wise to consider the range of possibilities for how each potential draft pick may work out. If Clowney has a higher ceiling and a greater probability of fulfilling his potential than the available QBs, then the Texans may want to take Clowney (and hope to find a veteran QB before drafting a potential franchise QB next year).

I wouldn't trade Watt for Luck, but I would trade him for Bradford.

(If I were the Texans I would have already signed Bridgewater.)

17
by commissionerleaf :: Tue, 02/18/2014 - 7:44pm

Wait, someone thinks Sam Bradford's future career is going to be better than Andrew Luck's?

I'm prepared to believe that Luck wasn't the best QB in his draft class, and that he will never turn into Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers. (Although I think he might well be the second coming of Philip Rivers)

Clowney is probably going to be a successful NFL DE (all defensive players not named J.J. Watt take plays off) (Robert Ayers took the whole Super Bowl off). Teddy Bridgewater is a great prospect and therefore has a 50-50 shot of being a franchise QB.

18
by Mr Shush :: Wed, 02/19/2014 - 10:18am

Yeah, I'm higher on Bradford than most people, but that's still an . . . eccentric claim, if that's really what he meant (and that does seem the natural reading of it to me too).

For what it's worth - and not only am I not by any stretch of the imagination an expert but I have also seen considerably less college football this year than in some others - I agree with what I take to be your thrust: that Bridgewater has a high enough chance of being a very good pro quarterback that he would be a more rational choice than Clowney.

19
by Lebo :: Wed, 02/19/2014 - 2:46pm

I really don't agree that it's the natural reading of what I wrote; but for the sake of clarity allow me to rephrase:

"I wouldn't trade Watt for Luck, but I would trade Watt for Bradford."

But I do agree that Bridgewater's chance of being a good pro is high enough to warrant the Texans taking him over Clowney. However, if the Texans aren't as optimistic about Bridgewater's pro-potential then I also think there's an argument for for them to select Clowney.

That being said, if the Texans did draft Clowney I wonder how difficult it would be to keep both Watt and Clowney on the roster when Clowney's rookie contract expires.

20
by Mr Shush :: Wed, 02/19/2014 - 7:55pm

I think your rephrase (for me at least) retains the same confusion - I think if I were trying to say what I think you're trying to say, I'd say "I wouldn't trade Luck for Watt, but I would trade Bradford for Watt."

I.e. Luck > Watt > Bradford

In which case I completely agree.

I'm English; is Commissioner Leaf as well? Is that what's going on here? Language: funny stuff.

22
by Lebo :: Thu, 02/20/2014 - 11:16am

Yeah, I see your point. My bad.
So to clear confusion once and for all, I believe that Luck > Watt > Bradford.

And if the Texans project Clowney to be as good as Watt and all of the QBs to be only as good as Bradford, then I think they should select Clowney.

But personally, I think Bridgewater will be a great pro and they should already start negotiating his contract.

21
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 02/19/2014 - 8:17pm

The 'natural reading' of that statement is that you think Bradford > Watt > Luck. I think most people here would consider that entirely backwards.

2
by BDC :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 12:23am

Every draft has a supposed "once-in-a-generation talent" though.

4
by bravehoptoad :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 2:01am

Well...every third draft.

8
by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 11:33am

I really don't understand why the Titans are moving on from Locker. Kendall Wright is the only decent target they have, why should we be expecting a young qb to be doing that well? Locker wasn't that bad anyway.

9
by coboney :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 12:54pm

I think Locker had his best year last year and showed real signs of improvement so I happen to agree with you on that point. They have some passable targets in Washington but Wright is the only one I'd characterize as good and stable (Britt could on occasion be good but that was hampered by consistency and a lack of mental stability)

I think that the Titans would be best off working on improving their team and taking a mid-round QB prospect. That would give you someone to either groom as a back up or test out if Locker has issues but making Locker the focus for this year.

10
by Rivers McCown :: Fri, 02/14/2014 - 2:23pm

I haven't seen anything to that effect so far. The worst I've seen is that they're non-committal with him.

16
by Lebo :: Sun, 02/16/2014 - 8:31am

Tom Gower gave his perspective on the Locker situation to a Colts blog last year:
http://www.coltsauthority.com/2013-articles/november/behind-enemy-lines-...