Four Downs: AFC South

Four Downs: AFC South
Four Downs: AFC South
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Tom Gower

Houston Texans

Biggest hole: Linebacker

When then-Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips was asked why he switched from the 4-3 to the 3-4, he declared it was because he had more good linebackers than defensive linemen. Nearly thirty years later, his son Wade’s defense in Houston is running the 3-4, but not because his team has a surfeit of quality linebackers.

The problem exists at both inside and outside linebacker. On the inside, Brian Cushing was lost for the season in Week 5 after tearing his ACL. He should be healthy for Week 1, but the lack of talent around him is troubling. Darryl Sharpton was supposed to fill the spot vacated by the offseason trade of DeMeco Ryans, but started the year on the physically unable to perform list, then did too little, especially in pass coverage, when he did make it onto the field. A quantum improvement by Sharpton or a new starter, most likely from the draft, is a necessity.

At outside linebacker, the Texans used a first-round pick in 2012 on Whitney Mercilus, who had a modestly productive rookie season. After leading the team in sacks in 2011, Connor Barwin added 15 pounds in the offseason and struggled to turn the corner, recording only 3.0 sacks. Now a free agent, the bright side of his struggles may be that the cap-strapped Texans find it easier to keep him. Even if they do, they’ll need a big step forward from him or Mercilus to find a complementary rusher to J.J. Watt.

Indianapolis Colts

Biggest hole: Defense. All of It.

The Colts made the playoffs in 2012, but they were not a very good team, especially on defense. They ranked 31st in defensive DVOA, and the problems existed at every level of the defense. They were the league’s worst run defense, forced the third-fewest turnovers in the league, and struggled especially on passes to tight ends and slot receivers.

The first thing the Colts need is a starting cornerback opposite Vontae Davis. Cassius Vaughn was one of the worst starters in the NFL, and Colts opponents knew it, targeting him more than any other corner in the league. (Vaughn had a Success Rate of 48 percent according to Football Outsiders game charting, which ranked him 69th out of 89 corners with at least 35 charted targets.) If free agent Darius Butler, who played well on the too-infrequent occasions he was healthy, is not retained, the Colts need to replace him as well. The Colts also ranked worst in the league on allowing long runs. Some of the responsibility for that is on safety Tom Zbikowski, who looked like the marginal starter he was in Baltimore.

Outside linebacker is an obvious position of need, with Dwight Freeney an unrestricted free agent who will almost certainly be allowed to test free agency due to an obscene franchise tag number of around $20 million. With not much depth at the position, the Colts will definitely be looking for a starter in the draft or free agency. Defensive line is another area of need and a big reason the run defense struggled, as Baltimore import Cory Redding was the only good starter.

Only two years removed from a season where they lost their first 13 games and ended up with the first pick in the draft, Colts fans should be ecstatic they made the playoffs in 2012. But without major defensive improvement, the Colts are more likely to finish below .500 in 2013 than they are to return to the postseason.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Biggest hole: Quarterback

Blaine Gabbert had a very, very bad rookie year. He had the worst Total QBR in the league, but even that understates how bad he was. By Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, Gabbert had the second-worst season of any quarterback since 1991 (minimum 400 passes). Only David Carr in his rookie season was worse, and even then, only because of all the sacks he took.

Gabbert was slightly better in his second year, but even here, "slightly better" means that he improved to 30th in the league by Total QBR and 34th by DVOA before a shoulder injury prematurely ended his season. Chad Henne came in and delivered splashier play, but ultimately ended up with an even lower Total QBR (he finished 33rd). It’s very, very hard to win in today’s NFL without quarterback play significantly better than what the Jaguars have had the past two seasons.

With a new regime in place, including new general manager David Caldwell and new head coach Gus Bradley, the Jaguars have entered a rebuilding phase. What does that mean at quarterback? The Jaguars hold the second overall pick in this April’s draft, but there is no quarterback prospect that comes close to Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin, and the Chiefs would likely select that player if he existed in this class. If the Jaguars are looking for a new quarterback of the future -- and some recent comments indicate they may not be -- they may look to the later rounds of the draft to find one.

Gabbert was a high first-round pick under the new CBA, so his salary is guaranteed for 2013 and 2014 even if he’s not on the team. Notwithstanding Russell Wilson’s play in 2012, rookies drafted after the first round have a very modest history of success. With no above-average starters available in free agency, that likely means another year of Gabbert as a starter. Unless he shows tremendous improvement, that will likely end in another high draft pick in 2014. Maybe the Jaguars will be able to find a good quarterback with that pick.

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Tennessee Titans

Biggest hole: Interior offensive line

2012 was the fourth consecutive season the Titans have ranked in the bottom seven of the NFL on runs up the middle by our Adjusted Line Yards metric, which minimizes the distorting effect of long runs. While Chris Johnson’s running style does not flatter these numbers, it is a real issue.

Head coach Mike Munchak has indicated the Titans will be looking for multiple new players on the interior of the offensive line after all three starters (center Eugene Amano and guards Leroy Harris and Steve Hutchinson) finished the season on injured reserve. Harris, who’d never played right guard before 2012, is a free agent and will likely be allowed to leave. Hutchinson, who will turn 36 next season, may retire. If he does not, the Titans may find his injury history (three consecutive seasons on injured reserve) and declining play do not justify his salary. Amano’s performance has never lived up to the lucrative extension he signed in 2010. He could be cut as well if the Titans retain Fernando Velasco, a restricted free agent who played competently in his stead in 2012.

Do not be surprised if the Titans add a starting caliber-guard in free agency and use one or multiple draft picks on centers and guards after ignoring 2012’s pledge to get younger at the position only to wind up signing the veteran Hutchinson.

(This article originally appeared at ESPN Insider.)


15 comments, Last at 26 Feb 2013, 5:46pm

#1 by Michael Gormley (not verified) // Feb 19, 2013 - 11:09am

Biggest hole schematically for Texans is defending the spread offense. If linebackers can get the Texans to the point where they can play the Patriots and Packers like they play the rest of the league, than I am all for more linebackers.

My one concern with this as biggest hole is the unexplained slump the offense experienced in the last 1/4 of the season and the playoffs. A new RT or WR2 (or elite pass catching TE) might do wonders for the offensive unit.

Points: 0

#3 by Tom Gower // Feb 19, 2013 - 1:46pm

If I had to make a list back in preseason of the Texans' biggest problems, it would have been, in no particular order:
1. WR2
2. Right side of offensive line
3. Schaub's health
4. ILB
5. CB depth
During the season, their biggest problems ended up being 1, 2, 4, and 5, plus secondary rusher to Watt (Barwin's decline). Writing about LBs let me hit two of those issues.

Points: 0

#15 by nath // Feb 26, 2013 - 5:46pm

I still don't understand why the Texans refuse to spend any significant resources on a WR2. Their depth nearly everywhere on the roster is sorely lacking, too.

Points: 0

#2 by RickD // Feb 19, 2013 - 11:52am

Can you please ask the people at ESPN to stop calling QBR "Total QBR." The word "total" implies that the statistic is the sum of a bunch of things. QBR isn't. By which I mean you don't calculate the Total QBR over a set of games by adding the QBRs for all the games together.

Points: 0

#4 by Gus (not verified) // Feb 19, 2013 - 3:06pm

Maybe if they stopped being TOTAL idiots about it...

Points: 0

#5 by theslothook // Feb 19, 2013 - 4:20pm

Ugh, the collection of defensive talent for the colts is as awful as it gets. There isn't a single good player across the defense(other davis and you could corry redding).

Ironically, the offensive line is the worst unit the colts have. Seriously, how the hell did they manage to win 11 games is beyond me.

That said - going beyond the best player available strategy - I would build on the offense and if there's a chance that the colts land a truly good receiver, they should take him. After that, pass rusher.

Points: 0

#6 by Johnny Socko (not verified) // Feb 19, 2013 - 6:56pm

Agree in general, but your assessment of the Colts defense is too harsh for me. Isn't Mathis still a good player? What about Jerrell Freeman - everybody raved about what diamond in the rough find he was by Grigson. Plus, I'm surprised it says nothing about the Colts having $43 million to spend on free agents. Filling a few needs on defense is not out of the question with that kind of cap space.

Points: 0

#7 by theslothook // Feb 19, 2013 - 8:49pm

Mathis is ok I think, but he's getting old and isn't a long term solution. Freeman is ok too, probably would be even better if the rest of the team wasn't so bad. The issue is more that freeman isn't very good or even a top 10 ilb. That i think is the biggest problem with the colts defense. In isolation, they have some parts that are decent. Mathis, Freeman, Bathea, Davis, Redding, etc. But they have no stars. So what you end having is a handful of solid players carrying a lot of poor players and the overall effect is a bad defense.

Then again, I'm not sure what stars the colts have on offense either, other than wayne and Luck, and wayne is getting old too. I do like Dwayne allen though.

Points: 0

#8 by Podge (not verified) // Feb 20, 2013 - 4:32am

That's not fair. Pat Angerer isn't terrible, and surely gets bonus points for having a great name. He spent all of last year on IR though.

If the Colts keep drafting as well as they did last year they could be pretty good pretty quickly.

I think your draft strategy for them is pretty fair. Apart from QB and left tackle, there isn't really any position where picking the best player available wouldn't seem to be a clear upgrade (assuming the player picked actually works out, which is a pretty large assumption).

Points: 0

#10 by AB (not verified) // Feb 20, 2013 - 10:38am

While the assessment of the Colts' defense as talentless is correct, it's important to cut the front office some slack.

Last year they made the deliberate decision to draft for offense in order to give Luck some weapons. That was heavily debated on here, the better view being that it was a sensible decision, since you don't want to ruin your rookie franchise QB. That has turned out to be a good call.

In those circumstances it's hardly surprising that (having been 1-15 the year before) the defense is still pretty hopeless.

Points: 0

#12 by theslothook // Feb 21, 2013 - 1:55am

I'm not blaming the front office at all. They were up against the cap last year and were saddled with a 2-14 roster sans Manning. Essentially, they started from basic scratch and did exactly what I thought they should do, build as much on offense as possible.

Its year two and I still feel that should be the optimal strategy, save for pass rusher. The o line is still a train wreck and I still feel like the colts need a true number 1 receiver sometime either next year or in the next two. No one can expect to be elite at everything so you have to prioritize. Given that, I would build around the pass game with better receivers. Parts for the o line can be acquired later in the draft.

I'd much rather have good receivers a mediocre line than a good line and mediocre receivers personally.

Points: 0

#11 by Ben // Feb 20, 2013 - 4:17pm

The only players on the Colts defense that could be considered at or above league average would be Davis, Redding, and maybe Angerer and Freeman.

That being said, I disagree with this article that the Colts' biggest need is defense. The offensive line is by far the biggest need. Priority one for this team is to keep Luck upright and healthy. He got hit way to often last season. Certainly every position on the defense could use an upgrade, but that has to be secondary to protecting Luck.

Points: 0

#14 by Anonymous111 (not verified) // Feb 25, 2013 - 11:35am

Mathis? Bethea?

Points: 0

#9 by Paul R // Feb 20, 2013 - 9:16am

In addition to the Colts' other defensive problems, Tom Zbikowski is obviously ill-suited to play safety.
Football players with names like Zbikowski are supposed to play guard or nose tackle, some position where they have a big belly and lots of bars on their facemask.

If you want a corner or a safety, positions with lots of speed and style, you need to get players with lots of V's and S's in their name.
"Verve Swiftness," now that's a safety's name!

Points: 0

#13 by LionInAZ // Feb 24, 2013 - 6:43pm

Zbikowski is a great name for a linebacker, too. In other words, any guy who'll sell out to make a tackle.

Points: 0

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