Even in what looks like an historically great class of running back prospects, LSU's Leonard Fournette comes out on top. The depth of quality options, though, makes it clear: 2017 is a great year to draft a runner.
03 Mar 2017
by Tom Gower
Biggest Hole: Quarterback
It was tough to find many people who really liked Houston's big commitment to Brock Osweiler last season, but Osweiler had at least been significantly better than Peyton Manning (-3.2% vs. -25.8%) in Denver the year before. Houston head coach Bill O'Brien had managed to cadge acceptable play out of Brian Hoyer in 2015 (-3.0% DVOA) and career-best level performance from Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2014 (6.7%). Given that, our projection in Football Outsiders Almanac 2016 that the Texans would have the third-worst offense in the league seemed excessively pessimistic.
Unfortunately, his contract means Osweiler's roster spot is guaranteed for 2017, so the Texans cannot move on from him the way they moved on from Fitzpatrick and Hoyer. Their options are limited. They could give more reps to Tom Savage, who looked better than Osweiler in a small sample size last year (-5.1% DVOA on 78 attempts), but that would be no more than a lottery ticket. They could spend a high pick on a quarterback, but with so many coming out with limited experience, being stuck with Osweiler might be a good thing. Or they could punt as they did in 2015 when they brought in another obvious non-answer in Hoyer, improving the offensive line to help Osweiler but kicking the can to next year, hoping the defense continues to be as good then. Maybe QB Purgatory featuring Matt Schaub was not so bad after all.
A.J. Bouye came into the year as an odd man out behind a trio of former first-round picks in Kareem Jackson, Kevin Johnson, and Johnathan Joseph. But he took advantage of the opportunity created by Johnson's injury and had an outstanding season. Longtime Houston writer John McClain expects him to re-sign with the Texans, but wherever he winds up, expect Bouye to get a lot of money at a position everybody needs. Quintin Demps would need to be replaced if not retained, but is relatively fungible. John Simon was behind Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus but is still somehow one of the top edge rushers available with all the franchise tags given out.
Biggest Hole: Cornerback
The Titans went into 2016 with better cornerback depth than they had seen in seasons. That represented less a testament to Jon Robinson's work than the malign neglect with which they had operated in the past. The results, again, were not good. The Titans finished 26th in pass defense DVOA and were one of the two worst teams against opponents' second wide receivers for the third straight season.
Personnel-wise, they needed more answers than they had. Starting corner Perrish Cox was cut during the season, but still led the team in interceptions and was the only corner with good ball skills. Jason McCourty lacks lateral quickness. Brice McCain should be limited to the slot. Fifth-round rookie LeShaun Sims started late in the season. Valentino Blake (FKA Antwon) should not be more than your fourth or fifth corner. Dick LeBeau playing much more man coverage than he had historically did not help matters much.
The solution is simple: the Titans need to throw resources at the position, especially if they are going to continue to play so much man coverage. They have the cap room to throw money at Bouye if he makes it to free agency and also to Logan Ryan, a player general manager Jon Robinson scouted for the Patriots. Though LeBeau has never been associated with a first-round corner in 27 years as an NFL head coach or defensive coordinator, it would make sense for the Titans to consider a premium corner prospect like Marshon Lattimore if they miss out on Bouye. Either way, cornerback should be a position they prioritize this offseason, and with multiple major additions.
Mike Mularkey's offense requires a tight end who can be a quality in-line run blocker for their 12 and 21 personnel sets, and Anthony Fasano's departure creates a void there. Kendall Wright was a healthy inactive for the season finale, but should draw interest as a slot receiver elsewhere with the potential to be more. Chance Warmack was a disappointment as the tenth overall pick, but some teams will invest in even average starting guards. Rashad Johnson and Daimion Stafford were part of rotations at safety. Kevin Byard should assume a larger role in 2017, making Johnson's role surplusage, while Stafford could return at the right price.
Biggest Hole: Edge Rusher
In last year's post-draft series of Four Downs, we did not highlight outside linebacker as the Colts' biggest need because they had the players they needed to line up and play in 2016. But Indianapolis cannot go into another season relying on Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, and Erik Walden to provide the pass rush, and not just because Mathis retired and Walden is a free agent.
More pressure in 2017 is a must. Though the Colts finished 13th in adjusted sack rate, subscribers to our Premium Charting database would know the Colts defense posted by far the worst pressure rate in the league, just 15.0 percent compared to Cleveland's second-worst total of 18.9 percent. Erik Walden's 11.0 sacks, nearly matching his combined total from the first three years of his deal, was not a sign of a healthy pass rush.
Mathis, as noted, has retired. Walden is a free agent. So is Cole, who missed nine games with a back injury. If the season started when the new league year began, Akeem Ayers and Josh McNary would seem to be the Colts' starting outside linebackers. That cannot be the case come Week 1, 2017. The best available pass rushers all got the franchise tag, but new general manager Chris Ballard may have no choice but to dive into that market anyway, as well as hitting the deep class of edge rushers in the draft.
The Colts have shown interest in bringing back Jack Doyle, but the tight end seems likely to test the market for a better offer. He ranked ninth in DYAR and tenth in DVOA last year and fits best as a move tight end. Darius Butler began last season in the slot, but played safety out of necessity due to injuries and inexperience last year. He will find a role as a versatile defender, whether in Indianapolis or elsewhere. Mike Adams turns 36 on March 24, and you do not find many defensive backs that old.
Biggest Hole: Edge Rusher
Jacksonville's pass rush was part of their general defensive improvement last season, as they finished 17th in adjusted sack rate and 19th in defensive pressure rate. But two years into his career, after an injury wiped out Year 1 and he had 4.0 sacks last year, Dante Fowler is looking more like the disappointment SackSEER projected and less like the sort of transformational talent you hope to find with the third overall pick. 2016 third-rounder Yannick Ngakoue tallied a respectable 8.0 sacks to lead the team, but overall Jacksonville needs more help.
The biggest question is where to find that help. Myles Garrett will likely go before they pick fourth overall. Unless you consider Jonathan Allen an edge rusher or love Solomon Thomas, there may not be one worthy of taking at that spot. There may be a run on the position late in the first round. What Jacksonville could really use is a veteran, but Indianapolis and plenty of other teams have the same sort of need and the free agent crop is Nick Perry, Jabaal Sheard, and a bunch of guys. Missing out on Olivier Vernon last year hurt a lot.
Another team would consider alternatives to Blake Bortles after he disappointed in his third season, but Dave Caldwell and company appear committed to him for at least this coming season. A late-round pick or change at backup quarterback from Chad Henne might happen, but a major investment would be an even bigger surprise than the Bortles pick was.
Prince Amukamara suited up for most of 2016 after being hurt by injuries the previous couple seasons, but did not make many plays on the ball and will likely be playing elsewhere. The Jaguars picking up Branden Albert would seem to rule out Kelvin Beachum's return after they declined his team option, but Caldwell recently said he could still return. Johnathan Cyprien's 2016 was better than his first three seasons in the league, especially because Tashaun Gipson's presence meant he could be play closer to the line of scrimmage. Some other team may put more value on his upside. Luke Joeckel will get a chance elsewhere, without the burdens of expectation that come from being the second overall pick.
21 comments, Last at 22 Mar 2017, 4:09am by Bright Blue Shorts