Four Downs: AFC South

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

by Tom Gower

Houston Texans

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Wide Receiver

Andre Johnson was perhaps the second-best wide receiver in the NFL in 2012, thanks to a return to health after missing multiple games in both 2010 and 2011. With the release of Kevin Walter, whose salary was outsized considering his declining level of production, the rest of the depth chart at wide receiver is young and unproven.

That starts with first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins. Considered about the most pro-ready receiver in this year’s draft, the Texans are counting on his relatively polished route-running skills and natural hands to let him step in as a starter immediately. Most late first-round receivers of late have been eased into the lineup, but the Texans need Hopkins to be a high-impact player immediately.

Hopkins is expected to play such a big role because no receiver on the roster other than Johnson has more than Keshawn Martin’s 10 career catches. Martin hit the rookie wall last year and is better suited in the slot and as a returner anyway. 2012 third-round selection DeVier Posey seemed to be coming on late in the year, but an Achilles injury suffered in the playoffs is expected to sideline him until midseason.

Notable Undrafted Free Agent Additions

The biggest name the Texans signed is Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein, but he is raw enough as a passer that he can fairly be considered a camp arm only. With the loss of Justin Forsett, the Texans have a hole at third-string running back behind Arian Foster and Ben Tate. One of Ray Graham, Dennis Johnson, George Winn, or Cierre Wood is likely to fill that, and do not be too surprised if more than one of them (Graham and Wood?) makes a 53-man roster, either in Houston or elsewhere.

Indianapolis Colts

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Cornerback

Before the 2012 season, the Colts traded their second-round pick in this year’s draft for Vontae Davis. The physically talented Davis struggled to cover effectively in the 10 games he played, finishing in the bottom ten in Success Rate and yards per pass according to Football Outsiders game charting (stats explained here). Davis can play better, but his inability to play up to his physical potential was why the Dolphins were willing to trade him to the Colts in the first place.

To replace the oft-targeted Cassius Vaughn opposite Davis, the Colts went to free agency and added Greg Toler, who ranked in the top ten in Success Rate and yards per pass. However, those stats are heavily dependent on Toler's role. His career history suggests that Toler can be a good nickel or dime corner, as he was in Arizona last year, but that he struggles when asked to play a full-time role. The Colts will be hoping that Darius Butler, who put up the best charting numbers of any Colts corner, can stay on the field and keep Toler in a sub package role where he can be an asset. The Colts are also hoping the addition of LaRon Landry at strong safety, replacing the woefully overmatched Tom Zbikowski, can help ease some of the coverage burden placed on Antoine Bethea’s shoulders. Vaughn returns in case the Colts want to put a bull’s-eye for quarterbacks on the field.

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Notable Undrafted Free Agents

If the Colts are looking for cornerback reinforcements, Nigel Malone was a first-team All-Big 12 player for Kansas State in 2011, while Sheldon Price was a multi-year contributor for UCLA. Between Wagner defensive end C.O. Prime and Idaho State wideout Rodrick Rumble, the Colts also have two names on the UDFA All-Name Team.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Quarterback

In some ways, what the Jacksonville Jaguars did at quarterback this offseason is very admirable and a model for how similarly situated teams should treat a quarterback issue moving forward. With no quality veteran starter in the free agent market, they did not pay any of the average or below-average passers like he was better than he was. Knowing they were not an average quarterback away from the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl, they did not trade draft picks for a non-great player. Holding the second overall pick in the draft, they selected not the top quarterback on their board, but the best player.

At the same time, the Jaguars still have Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne as their two potential starting quarterbacks. Gabbert was not very good, finishing 30th in Total QBR. Henne was worse. It is very hard to win games with quarterback play as bad as the Jaguars have had recently, and generally requires a strong defense (and the Jaguars ranked 28th by defensive DVOA) and a strong running game (and the Jaguars ranked 27th by DVOA there). (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)

The addition of Luke Joeckel and the return to health by Maurice Jones-Drew should mean an improved running game in 2013, but another season of Gabbert and/or Henne likely means another high pick for the Jaguars in 2014.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

With one of the league's worst overall rosters, opportunity abounds for undrafted free agents in Duval County. The biggest names are quarterbacks Jordan Rodgers, Aaron's brother, and Matt Scott, a potential mid-round prospect with intriguing mobility whose three concussions his final year at Arizona may have knocked him out of the draft. Other players with a chance to stick include plus-size defensive tackle T.J. Barnes, fullback Lonnie Pryor, and tight end Ryan Otten.

Tennessee Titans

Biggest Post-Draft Hole: Defense

The Tennessee Titans did not have a very good defense in 2012. They ranked 24th by DVOA. They gave up more points than any defense in the history of the franchise. When they went on a big free-agent spending spree, their biggest moves and most of the spending came on offense, which is also where they spent their first- and second-round draft picks. The defense returns largely intact, with the only likely changes being Bernard Pollard at strong safety instead of the released Jordan Babineaux, and Sammie Lee Hill, who was the Lions’ fourth defensive tackle, starting in place of the departed Sen’Derrick Marks.

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Instead, the Titans seem to be counting on a lot of internal improvement, better coaching with the addition of senior defensive assistant Gregg Williams (though Jerry Gray returns as defensive coordinator), and an offense that can do a better job of sustaining drives. While the Titans fielded a particularly young defense in 2012 and some internal improvement is likely, most defenses that go from bad to good quickly devote more resources to adding better players, especially a premium player of the type the Titans do not have unless Derrick Morgan can translate his impressive 2012 hurry total into a double-digit sack season.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents

Until long snapper Beau Brinkley and defensive tackle DaJohn Harris made the team in 2012, no rookie undrafted free agent had made it past the first three games for the Titans since 2006. After adding a full score of players between veteran free agency and the draft, that seems unlikely to change in 2013. The player with perhaps the best shot of making the team is Nevada running back Stefphon Jefferson, a solid between the tackles runner who finished second in the NCAA in rushing yards in 2012 and can contribute in the passing game.

(Parts of this article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)


25 comments, Last at 06 Mar 2014, 4:48am

1 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

Between Wagner defensive end C.O. Prime and Idaho State wideout Rodrick Rumble, the Colts also have two names on the UDFA All-Name Team.

Three if you count Denodus O'Bryant.

QB: Trent Steelman (BAL)
RB: Denodus O'Bryant (IND)
FB: Taimi Tutogi (TB)
WR: Rodrick Rumble (IND)
WR: Ozoma Nwachukwu (HOU)
TE: Philip Lutzenkirchen (STL)

LT: Nick Speller (TB)
LG: Manase Foketi (DEN)
C: Braxston Cave (CLE)
RG: Patrick Omameh (SF)
RT: LaAdrian Waddle (DET)

DE: E.J. Epperson (KC)
DE: Toben Opurum (KC)
DT: Linden Gaydosh (CAR)
DT: Roosevelt Holliday (NYJ, already cut)

OLB: Joplo Bartu (ATL)
ILB: Uona Kaveinga (DEN)
ILB: C.O. Prime (IND)
OLB: Paipai Falemalu (CLE)

CB: Momo Thomas (ATL)
CB: Jose Cheeseborough (BAL)
3CB: Nickell Robey (BUF)
SS: Jawanza Starling (HOU)
FS: Jordan Dangerfield (BUF)

K: Maikon Bonani (TB)
P: Brad Wing (PHI)

2 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

In the Indianapolis Colts part:
"game charting ( target="_blank"stats explained here)."

that's missing something :)

3 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

"With no quality veteran starter in the free agent market, they did not pay any of the average or below-average passers like he was better than he was."

This is where the new management is noticeable. In previous years, the Jaguars would go after average players and sign them to contracts way to big.

4 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

Vontae Davis is without a doubt the most overrated Colt by fans.

The perception that he played fantastic last year is pervasive and also dead wrong.

He had some moments, no question, but he also had some truly terrible stretches.

He's more question than answer.

22 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

Yeah, I get that uneasy feeling as well. You've seen him more than I have, but every time I see comments like "Well, we have Davis on one side, check." I get nervous. Clearly, since they didn't pursue available talent in the draft, the front office feels they have adequate answers. Hopefully a more robust DL, with pocket pressure both inside and outside (regardless of sack numbers) will help out. I know I could cover better for three seconds than for five. (Not exactly good... but better.)

5 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

As a colts fan, I didn't think much of Davis's play untilt the very end of the season. He played ok in the last 3 games, but the beginning of the season he looked like he had no idea what was going on.

6 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

I still feel like receiver is a big need that has to be filled sooner or later. Unless TY hilton has a huge season upcoming, this is still a passing game that's heavily reliant on wayne.

9 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

Even if DHB is an upgrade on Avery, I'm not sure that really means much. I suspect he's going to be competing with levon Brazil for the third/4th spot. And even if fleener steps up, it doesn't really solve the impending wayne departure.

11 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

Yeah if Fleener and Allen turn into a deadly combo at TE the passing game won't be reliant on TY and DHB catching a huge number of balls next year. Definitely going to need someone to step up eventually to fill Wayne's shoes though.

23 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

@theslothook/turbo, Your comments about the long-term picture at WR are valid, but there is some cross-talk when the draft is discussed. I suspect most people are talking about the effects on the 2013 team--in which case, the Colts look pretty solid with a broad spectrum of good options, one excellent option, and a few kids who may well make the jump. (Never got around to buying a Clark jersey... maybe it's tie to get an Allen one...) And even if they don't, there are enough of them that if one is hurt or develops the dropsies, others who are capable can take his place. That is 2013. Maybe even 2014.

And that's where my palms start to sweat--maybe Hamilton's O scheme can make the most of an offense that is "miles wide and inches deep" (many good options, none great)--KC had a very potent offense about a decade ago with the "triplets" of Trent Green, Priest Holmes, and Tony Gonzalez. You don't NEED a stud WR to have a potent O. I think that Indy's 2013 receiving options are superior to the KC options of ten years ago. But of course we'd all like to see Wayne's successor enter the picture soon. I'm sure Luck would, too.

24 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

From my perspective - the really elite passing offenses either have great receivers and a decent o line or mediocre receivers and a really good o line. THe KC triplets were elite with basically just Tony Gonzo as a good receiver. But their o line was one of the most dominant units of all time. The seahawks of mid 2000s also come to mind as a good offense with less than stellar receivers.

The trouble is, the colts have neither. Their o line, despite the upgrades, isn't expected to good and the receivers are deep but not necessarily good. Obviously, future drafts may change all of this, true, but it doesn't mean that upgrades aren't needed in the coming future.

I do want to say, I'm extremely optimistic for the future because I do believe Luck was everything he was hyped to be and more imo. Despite being a rookie, he was already compensating for a weak supporting cast. I suspect his accuracy needs to improve(long way to go before he even gets close to matching peyton in this regard), but his movement in the pocket and field vision are already very good.

12 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

The Texans signed FA CB Johnny Adams from Michigan State, who will be a solid pro, I'd say. Adams played 3 productive years starting at MSU, and knows what it takes to play well at the highest level. Watch out for Johnny Adams.

16 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

Sammie Lee Hill is a good pickup for Tennessee. He may not have broken into the starter role, but he has gotten enough snaps in the rotation with Suh, Fsirley, and Corey Williams to show that he's a capable DT.
I'm sorry to see him leave the Lions.

17 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

All I know is Gabbert has to step it up.

18 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

I'd have the Texans' biggest need as right tackle. I have far, far more faith in Hopkins' ability to be effective as a rookie than I do in one of Newton, Harris, Williams or Quessenberry being any more effective in 2013 than the first two named were in 2012.

19 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

If i were a Texans fan, I'd be pretty alarmed with Matt Schaub right about now. Unless there was something particular that I missed, he started looking really terrible toward the end of the year and I don't think it was purely the result of needing a better 2nd receiver.

20 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

It was the worst he's played as a Texan, definitely. I am worried about the possibility that it represents permanent decline, but for now I'm inclined to write it off as a combination of terrible blocking on the right side of the offensive line and a randomish temporary downturn in his play.

I absolutely think the Texans should be actively looking for Schaub's long term replacement, though; if this hadn't been such a terrible quarterback class, I'd have been all in favour of drafting one - even of moving up significantly and expensively in the first round, if the right player was there. That will be even more true in a year's time.

25 Re: Four Downs: AFC South

I’d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do