Four Downs: AFC South

Houston Texans RB David Johnson
Houston Texans RB David Johnson
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

Houston Texans

Biggest Need: Firing Jack Easterby

As an analytics website, Football Outsiders generally is not focused on who is in charge of a team so much as prescribing wisdom for what that person should do. The problem is that the Texans are an empty shell of an organization without Deshaun Watson, a crime scene that happens to play 16 football games a season.

While firing Easterby, Houston's executive vice president, would be but a start towards keeping Watson (depending on who you ask, the quarterback is as mad at team owner Cal McNair as he is at Easterby), it's going to be impossible to run a typical free agency program with the man having any say in football operations. Nobody on the team trusts him. Sports Illustrated reports have him doing things like spying on players. The front office continues to be stacked with loyalists.

Like most of our prescriptive bold advice, we don't expect the Texans to actually do anything about this. Just, you know, this time instead of it being about solving a problem on the team, it's solving a problem that is beyond the scope of the roster.

Major Free Agents: WR Will Fuller, CB Gareon Conley, LB Tyrell Adams, OT Roderick Johnson

Fuller's free agency is a fascinating one. He may be the most talented wideout available. He also has never played even 13 games in a season between injury and suspensions. How do you value someone who is dominant on the field but has major issues staying there? Many NFL teams devalue players like this. Then there's the cap, which should decrease from last year, tightening everyone's wallet. We could see Fuller franchised. We could see Fuller signing a huge deal elsewhere. We could also see Fuller signing a smaller deal. As always, Fuller's possibilities range the full spectrum. The rest of the Texans free agents honestly aren't all that appealing, but there could be some bargains out there.

Indianapolis Colts

Biggest Need: Quarterback (yes, still)

When the Philip Rivers retirement came down, this write-up became a fait accompli. Rivers had a nominally successful season in a game manager role for the Colts—a 60.2 QBR that ranked 20th, a 9.9% passing DVOA that ranked 12th. Even had he stayed, however, quarterback of the future would have been a question. Now that he is gone it becomes a question of what the Colts do in the long term.

Asked about this after the season, general manager Chris Ballard gave the most honest answer you can give:

Look, taking one will get y'all off my ass for a little bit, but the second that guy doesn't play well, I'm gonna be the first one run out of the building. I promise you we get the importance of the quarterback position. But the difference between just taking one and taking the right one is the key in our minds. We'll explore it. We'll examine it. We'll go A to Z on it, I promise you. That position never leaves my mind, and it's something we want to get fixed.

The Colts have already taken a step in this direction by trading for Carson Wentz, but he was awful last season, and they probably shouldn't have a lot of faith in him as the quarterback of the present. They probably need to continue exploring trading up for someone like Trey Lance or Justin Fields.

Major Free Agents: EDGE Justin Houston, WR T.Y. Hilton, DL Denico Autry, DL Al-Quadin Muhammad, CB Xavier Rhodes

Nineteen sacks in two seasons for Justin Houston. At 32, he's less a complete player and more of a situational pass-rusher, but he's still got plenty of juice. Muhammad and Autry actually notched more pass pressures per SIS charting than Houston, albeit in larger playing time samples. Autry had 23 and Muhammad had 22, both behind DeForest Buckner's 30. Rhodes had a bounce-back season in a defense that bases out of zone, but probably can't find a better fit for his talents. Hilton had a rough early season as he adjusted to Rivers, and now is finding a pretty strong free-agent market for receivers. He, like Fuller, will be an interesting free agency value case.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Biggest Need: Defensive playmakers

We're all assuming that Trevor Lawrence will be the No. 1 overall pick. I don't think there's any reason at this point to pretend otherwise, right? So let's leave that as it is. The Jaguars defense was one of the worst in the NFL last year. 31st in defensive DVOA, 31st in pass defense DVOA. Tight ends and slot receivers roasted this defense last year. Allowing a 25.6% DVOA to tight ends (30th), and 19.5% DVOA to "other" wide receivers (28th) were major blind spots.

New defensive coordinator Joe Cullen has never called plays in the NFL before. Mostly a defensive line coach, the last time he coordinated a defense was 2004, when he led the Indiana Hoosiers to a sterling—wait, never mind, that actually predates FEI and SP+. When you type "2004 Indiana Hoosiers" into Google it autocompletes with "basketball." Cullen's Hoosiers allowed 31.2 points per game, which honestly doesn't sound all that bad in comparison to Hoosier football history.

With more cap space than any other team in the NFL, we expect the Jaguars to try to reel in some defensive playmakers to go alongside Myles Jack and Josh Allen. Perhaps it would be an easy transition for Shaq Barrett to go across Florida for some big bucks. We could also see the Jaguars bringing in a veteran corner or safety to help out. Justin Simmons would make a lot of sense here if he escapes being franchise-tagged.

Major Free Agents: LT Cam Robinson, CB Tre Herndon, WR Keelan Cole, CB Sidney Jones, C Tyler Shatley

Robinson has been more name than game as a starting outside tackle; Sports Info Solutions has charted him with 52 blown passing blocks in the last two seasons alone. But there will be teams that look at his size and strength and believe they can play him better than that. Shatley played fairly well as a reserve and could get some looks elsewhere. Sidney Jones had some impressive interceptions last season and could be a bargain if—as always—he can stay healthy.

Tennessee Titans

Biggest Need: Edge rusher

You've heard of month-long events like Movember, where you're supposed to grow a moustache? The Titans celebrated Defensive Nap December. Over the course of four games, the unit produced a grand total of one sack. They finished with the third-fewest sacks in the NFL, ahead of only the Jaguars and Bengals. Harold Landry has been more Derrick Morgan than Derrick Thomas, racking up hurries but not finishing any of them. Jadeveon Clowney was hurt and played like it, and STILL led the team's defensive ends with 17 hurries in only eight games.

Clowney's failure doesn't hurt the Titans much in the long term because his money vacates pretty quickly, but it remains concerning that this team hasn't found much to surround Jurrell Casey and, later, Jeffrey Simmons with up front. The Titans allowed the highest third-down conversion rate in the NFL, they were 30th in the NFL in defensive DVOA and 29th in pass defense DVOA.

The Titans are actually producing a number of good free agents this year, and unlike the Colts and Jaguars they are notably cap-strapped. They will have to do a lot of maneuvering with Ryan Tannehill's contract, perhaps a Malcolm Butler release, and a few other moves to bring back who they want. Maybe that's Clowney, maybe it's not. The point is that while it's possible for the Titans to be players in the defensive disruptor market, they will need to do more finagling than the Jaguars will to play in it.

Major Free Agents: LB Jayon Brown, WR Corey Davis, TE Jonnu Smith, CB Desmond King, DL DaQuan Jones, EDGE Jadeveon Clowney

Brown's ability to defend the pass is a rarity among linebackers and, particularly, among free-agent linebackers not named Lavonte David. That might get him paid handsomely. King was a great mid-season get for the Titans and played well on the interior. Jonnu Smith is somehow the best player in the NFL when the ball is thrown to him and also never gets the ball enough. Corey Davis had his fifth-year option declined but had a stellar season and does just about everything but win deep one-on-one. This is a deep class of free agents and the Titans may lose some interesting pieces.

Comments

24 comments, Last at 24 Feb 2021, 6:18pm

1 Easterby

I read that SI article last month, and even if you filter for disgruntled employee exaggeration,  "Fire Jack Easterby" is still easily the Texans' greatest need.

2 Watson for Lawrence.  Would…

Watson for Lawrence.  Would the Jags have to add anything to this deal? 

Obviously Watson is proven and Lawrence is not.  Watson has a big if reasonable for franchise QB salary.  Lawrence would be on a rookie contract.  It's often said a franchise QB on a rookie contract is the most valuable thing in the NFL - so IF Lawrence proves to be a franchise QB, the Texans would be acquiring that asset.  At least they'd possibly have a franchise QB and a lot of cap relief.

The Texans might insist on dumping Mercilus' contract here too.

I'm deliberately ignoring the intra-division aspect of this trade.

5 You're kidding, right? Oh, you're not

The Jags would never do this in a million billion years. If Trevor is the next Andrew Luck, and it pretty much looks like he is, he will be the single most valuable property in the NFL. A Top 10 and still improving quarterback on a rookie contract.

6 As to DeShaun

The Texans should of course of course of course trade Watson for the best deal they get. They're in a full rebuild, leastwise ought to be. Trading Watson is the only way to jump-start that process, both in the sense of the young guys it brings in and the future cap room it creates. Their playoff chances the next few years are so low, replacing Watson with (for example) The Bearded One would hardly push them lower in real terms.

7 As to Easterby

In reply to by BigRichie

Just for the sake of discussion, accept every bad thing said re Easterby on faith, and disregard all the people the SI writer (impressed by his journalistic fairness there) states do say 'yeah, that Easterby is a real good and a real sharp guy'. Go to the full extreme there, and what do you got?

A description of a personally super-ambitious executive who sucks up, polishes his own apple real well, and eliminates competition. That is, a description of a minority, but a significant minority, of super-ambitious executives. None of whom, as Rivers points out, Football Outsider ever calls for firing.

One thing, and only one thing, really sticks in Rivers' craw here. And Aaron's, and the rest of the FO staff. (and quite a few readers, as well; so it does make good business sense) One thing.

'youth pastor'

12 The thing that I suspect is sticking in the craw

In reply to by BigRichie

... is not the "youth pastor" tag (or anything for which that might be code), it's the football ineptitude.

Whether you see a bias in their treatment of JJ Watt versus Watson, or are assigning blame for the ... debatable ... football choices made by the front office, there's one stark issue facing the Texans: what to do with Watson?

If firing Easterby means keeping a re-gruntled Watson, they should have signed his walking papers weeks ago.  One of those two men is irreplaceable.  The other is not.

 

19 ...?

In reply to by BigRichie

Did the FO staff have a problem with Tony Dungy or Steve Young or Marvin Lewis or Kurt Warner's faith-related activities? Do they complain when Russell Wilson speaks about his faith?

Far as organizations go, the NFL as a whole seems to be extremely religious compared to the nation as a whole. Easterby's not unusual in that regard.

He's unusual in that he's unqualified for his role with the team, and in two short years, turned a perennial playoff team with a great young QB into the biggest trainwreck in the league.

23 "One thing, and only one…

In reply to by BigRichie

"One thing, and only one thing, really sticks in Rivers' craw here. And Aaron's, and the rest of the FO staff. (and quite a few readers, as well; so it does make good business sense) One thing.

'youth pastor'"

This assertion is crystal clear evidence that you don't know me, my motivations, or my background, at all. I'd appreciate if you wouldn't presume to.

9 ???

According to who? According to FO's own rating system, which I believe even they walked away from in the sense that yes, even they still thought Luck should go 1st over RG III? According to some statistics? According to some draftnik trying to make a name for himself? Really, what is your source for rating RG III back in that day over Luck?

14 That's true but saying it…

That's true but saying it that way dramatically undersells his contemporaries in that class.

 

RG3 is a cautionary tale of injuries as is Andrew luck. I might also point out that luck went to by far the worst circumstances of anyone in his class, both in terms of coaching and surrounding talent. we saw how his last season played out and I think had his career not been derailed we might have a very different opinion of this hierarchy. 

11 If Watson was willing to waive his NTC

why not? We KNOW Watson is good in the NFL. We THINK Lawrence will be. Yes, he's the most likely from the class but there's still that uncertainty. 

The Jags have the most cap space. Somewhere around ~$78m. And once Lawrence is signed with his signing bonus (~$7m) and Watson is traded without his signing bonus, he actually wont be that much more in year 1. Indeed it does shoot up then in base salary after ($35m) but the only guarantees are for that year and the next ($20m base+$17m roster bonus). Not that hard to imagine he'll still be good from ages 26-28. After that it's $0 dead cap if cut (if such a bizarre scenario calls for it, doubtful). 

Let them "dump" Mercilus who's only guaranteed 2021 then $0 dead. That's a measly $21.04m absorbed this year. And to his credit, we've never seen Mercilus play that bad until this past season. With the good Josh Allen on the other side, he'd likely shoot back up. 

Would be a slam dunk for Jax since DW is exactly what you want TL to be. And you get him in his mid 20s. Easy money. 

16 Subtraction by subtraction

This piece didn't go too deeply into who loses the most this offseason.  I guess Indy 100% guaranteed losing Rivers is a big deal and nobody knows how well Wentz will fill that hole (somewhere between 40% and 110%, which should not be reassuring). They also lose starting quality LT Castonzo to retirement, making LT their potentially biggest need.  Beyond that, they have the money to keep the rest if they want, or to shop for upgrades. But 3.5 starters on D and WR1 being free agents is a slap in the face. I am hoping they can re-sign Marlon Mack for $4M a year or less.  If he recovers his form, that could be a devastating backfield.

Houston's main loss would be Fuller (not terribly traumatic, but I'd hate to lose him myself after losing Nuk a year ago) and of course Watson (if, if, if), for which they should recoup a king's ransom, but could well find a way to mess that up as well.  

Titans potentially losing some key contributors, plus needing to solidify their pass rush, plus the cap is an obstacle for them.  Without a really good draft and some nifty FA recruiting, they should not be able to repeat atop the division.

And the Jags--Cam Robinson is one of their better players (although that may not be saying much), so losing him would be a blow.  With their #1 pick and mountain of cap space, they could go on a spending spree and be the most changed team in the division next year. Will they change enough?  

18 Cultural Shift.

Most of you are hitting the details while missing the big picture.

The Texans are tone deaf to how the rest of the NFL perceives them, which is obvious by their recent moves both pre-Easterby and thereafter.

It you look at the Watts release for what it is, a good move for both sides, it's not so much an outlier but a move that falls in line with the overall direction of the franchise.  They weren't going to pay his salary and letting him walk at least shows some respect to their overall best player in franchise history.

The Watson situation is much different due to his age and the fact that he just signed a lucrative extension.  

The Texans have two choices now.  Their next move will inform us of their long-term plans for the franchise.

I think they force Watson's hand and see if he's willing to sit out for a year.  They have nothing to lose in terms of on-field production seeing as how they're essentially bereft of talent now.  They don't care what the rest of the NFL thinks, either.  It becomes a stalemate between the owner and the franchise player.  

The Texans have come this far and I don't see them turning back now.

It's a race to the bottom.

 

20 I think in the end

In reply to by DIVISION

They deal watson for a lot less than expected.  Watson has the power to completely undermine the new coach and organization with it being obvious but not provable.  Lets play it out:

1. Watson shows up for camp and says the right things but not effusively. Same for whatever preseason.

2. Game 1 throws 4 picks. Says right things but also "new offense man".  Going to be a fun game 1 media day for hc.

3. Game 2. Throws 4 picks.  Says right things but also "hard to win when you feel disrespect".

4. Game 3 Do you think hes left in there long enough to throw 4 picks?  Pulled after 2?

Whats his value in return then, maybe 1 suitor with cap space? No way to prove conduct detrimental to the team, quarterbacks have rough games...

They have to deal him.

21 What you are saying is…

In reply to by youngerthanbrady

What you are saying is literally true, but I think its not as easy for Watson as it sounds. Right now Watson is seen as a heroic martyr. But intentionally flaunting his rebellion while collecting a paycheck starts to look unseemly real fast. Also, how many of his teammates are going to be happy to see him intentionally throwing games away just because he wants to get traded? 

How will it hurt his marketing potential and league wide appeal if people start to view him as a mercenary? How many owners will side with him when they realize their own players can throw rebellions and get their way. We saw Colin Kaepernick essentially banished because the owners didn't like him. 

And honestly, seeing that Watson was willing to play out the string even though the season was lost from the get go serves as evidence that the guy isn't wired like a mercenary. The dude strikes me as the ultimate professional. I suspect he will play hard and try his best but maintain his stance of wanting to be traded before he ever entertained going full James Harden on the Texans. 

22 Yeah, that move might be…

Yeah, that move might be available to Watson in theory, but I can't see him taking it. Sitting out is one thing, but deliberately half-arseing it would kill him. It's just not who he is.

24 Indeed

It could, literally, kill him. How do you go out there at QB thinking, 'I'm only going to give, say, 60% today', and not get completely destroyed? With the speed of the game and the hyper-focus required, you just can't dog it at the position. It's not like Randy Moss jogging on route - it means hyper-aggressive behemoths stampeding toward you, slaver dripping from their fangs.