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06 Mar 2018

Four Downs: AFC South

by Andrew Potter

Houston Texans

Biggest Hole: Offensive line

This has been mentioned already, but the Texans are in a rather odd place this offseason. One year ago, they made the divisional round of the playoffs despite essentially being quarterbacked by a lamppost in shoulder pads. They found a franchise quarterback in the draft, forgot they had done so until the second half of Week 1, and promptly finished 4-12 after said quarterback blew out his knee in October. Two of the three best players in their defensive front seven lost almost the entirety of the season to injury; the only 16-game starter in their secondary is a free agent; and they are on their third defensive coordinator in three seasons. A year ago, they looked like they were only a quarterback away. Now the Texans are secure at the position but putting out fires all over the roster elsewhere.

The most devastating of those blazes is the one that has annihilated the offensive line. Since the end of the 2015 season, the Texans have lost Duane Brown, Ben Jones, Brandon Brooks, and Derek Newton to either trades, free agency, or injury. Only Brown ever made a Pro Bowl in Houston, but all four were solid players, and with them in place the Texans line was once considered the strength of the team. Last year's line was the team's clear and obvious weakness, and with three of last year's starters headed for free agency, every spot except center is likely to be occupied by a different player next season.

     

There are two major obstacles to a rebuild: the lack of viable free agents, leading to fierce competition for the few who come available, and the team's lack of draft capital stemming from last offseason's quarterback shuffling. Cleveland owns both of Houston's top two draft picks, putting top tackle prospects such as Mike McGlinchey and Brian O'Neill well out of the Texans' reach. The Texans may be able to trade into the second round if a prospect they like is available, but given the breadth of the problem they may be better putting as many picks as possible on the roster with a few veteran additions and waiting to see how things shake out.

Notable Free Agents: Johnathan Joseph, CB; Chris Clark, LT; Marcus Gilchrist, SS; Breno Giacomini, RT; Xavier Su'a-Filo, G; Tom Savage, QB; Alfred Blue, RB.

One of the better options in a weak free-agent class, Johnathan Joseph declined contract talks with the Texans last offseason in favor of testing the market. He is widely expected to stay in Houston; the declined talks seem to be aimed more at establishing his market value than sincerely investigating alternative landing points. Marcus Gilchrist was one of the worst starting safeties in the league in 2017. The rest of Houston's free-agent group mostly comprises of backups from the backfield (Tom Savage, Alfred Blue) or loose fittings from the rickety offensive line.

Indianapolis Colts

Biggest Hole: Pass defense

The Colts offense has a few pieces in place, but the defense has more holes than Eagle Creek. The run defense was solid enough last year, ranking 10th in DVOA, and the switch back a 4-3 base should suit interior linemen Al Woods and Johnathan Hankins just fine. What they need now are upgrades to last season's 32nd-ranked DVOA pass defense. Unfortunately, that means literally the entire pass defense: pass rush, cover linebackers, and defensive backs.

It helps that the staff knows what it wants to achieve. New defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has already discussed in some detail his intention to return the Colts to a Tampa-2 base, meaning primarily zone coverages, simplified gap responsibilities, and an emphasis on speed over size. Outside linebackers John Simon and Jabaal Sheard will transition to defensive end, while returning safety Malik Hooker should excel as a ball-hawking deep safety tasked with keeping routes in front of him and breaking on the ball.

     

Everything else is a question mark. The only cornerback to start 10 games for the Colts last year, Rashaan Melvin, is a free agent. Previous top corner Vontae Davis was cut in acrimonious circumstances in November and has since joined the Bills. Early offseason rumors had Clayton Geathers moving to weakside linebacker, but general manager Chris Ballard has stated that Geathers is staying at safety. The team desperately needs cover linebackers and cornerbacks, may need another safety depending who works out next to Hooker, and probably needs at least one true 4-3 defensive end added to the rotation with Sheard and Simon. It is not quite the mess of last offseason, when the team switched out almost the entire starting lineup, but the front office has a lot of work to do this year to bring the defense up to the necessary standard.

Notable Free Agents: Frank Gore, RB; Darius Butler, FS; Jack Mewhort, G; Kamar Aiken, WR; Barkevious Mingo, ER; Rashaan Melvin, CB; Donte Moncrief, WR.

In the third millennium, the world changed. Climate, nations, all were in upheaval. The Earth transformed into a poisonous, scorched desert, known as "The Cursed Earth." Millions of people crowded into a few Megacities, where roving bands of street savages created violence the justice system could not control. Frank Gore had roughly 260 rushing attempts for around 1,200 total yards. He appears set to continue doing so until the inevitable heat death of the universe.

Once upon a time, Donte Moncrief might have merited more than a single sentence noting his impending free agency. Jack Mewhort is a competent guard when healthy, but he has finished each of the past two seasons on injured reserve. Cornerback Rashaan Melvin started 19 games over the past two seasons in Indianapolis, and the team reportedly wants him back. Darius Butler is Ryan Fitzcornerback: a mediocre perennial backup who inevitably gets a handful of starts every season as an injury replacement. Former Browns first-round pick Barkevious Mingo contributed 2.0 sacks and three forced fumbles in his 16 appearances for the Colts.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Biggest Hole: Quarterback

Just over a week ago, Blake Bortles Discount-Flaccoed his way into a contract extension for the Jaguars after a season in which he was just mediocre enough for the team to make the playoffs despite him. Big contracts on defense have the Jaguars up close and personal with the salary cap, and re-signing free-agent-to-be Allen Robinson is an expensive offseason priority. This probably factored into the extension: while $54 million over three years is a lot of money for a mediocre starter, the extension lowers Bortles' $19.5 million cap hit in 2018 from his fully-guaranteed fifth-year option. The Jaguars have a deep and talented defense, a solid offensive line, talented backs, and an apparent knack for finding and developing young receivers. Quarterback is their one glaring weakness: with a better passer, they are likely a preseason favorite to win the AFC.

With so much money tied up elsewhere, the options available to actually get a better quarterback are limited. Most of the obvious upgrades in free agency will be too expensive for Jacksonville to squeeze under the cap. Backup Chad Henne is a free agent, so the team is likely to take a quarterback at some point in the 2018 draft. Whether they do so on Day 1, as we suggested in our Bold Moves column last week, or wait until later in the draft will provide some clue to the level of confidence the team has in Bortles for next season and beyond.

Notable Free Agents: Paul Posluszny, LB; Chad Henne, QB; Marqise Lee, WR; Allen Robinson, WR; Patrick Omameh, G; Aaron Colvin, NB.

The Jaguars have four important players approaching free agency; two each on the offense and defense. The team's pair of 2014 second-round picks, receivers Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee, are probably the most notable. Robinson led the Jaguars in receiving in 2015 and 2016 before tearing his ACL in the 2017 season opener, while Lee finished second in that category in both 2016 and 2017. Either would be a significant loss, despite the emergence of Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook. On defense, Paul Posluszny and Aaron Colvin effectively split time as the base linebacker and nickelback, respectively. Colvin in particular was an underrated component of the excellent Jaguars secondary in 2017. Patrick Omameh is a journeyman offensive guard who has started at least seven games in each of his past four seasons on the Jaguars, Bears, and Buccaneers.

Tennessee Titans

Biggest Holes: Guard/Edge rusher

The Titans are quite an awkward team to assess, as a marginal playoff squad with a basic level of competence at most positions but very few actual strengths. The offensive line, particularly at tackle, is the strongest unit on the roster, while the loss of Eric Decker and Harry Douglas probably leaves receiver as the weakest. Even there, the Titans believe that they will have two starting-caliber receivers with some development from second-year professional Corey Davis alongside veteran Rishard Matthews. As always, tight end Delanie Walker will also make a big contribution as a pass target, and Taywan Taylor at least offers a credible deep threat. Mike Mularkey was roundly criticised for much of his two seasons as the Titans head coach, but his one definite contribution was to help fashion a solid roster with few glaring problem areas.

That said, age and free agency could potentially open two such holes quite quickly. Right guard Josh Kline is an unrestricted free agent; the sort of solid but unspectacular guard who would not typically be expensive to retain, but may also be a target for other teams competing in a very limited market. Left guard Quinton Spain is a restricted free agent, giving the Titans at least the option to match any contract offer made to him. The loss of either player would open an obvious hole on the roster, but neither is so important that the Titans could not find an adequate replacement.

On defense, the outside pass rush came last year from veterans Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo. Morgan is 29, and Orakpo will be 32 on opening day. Both players are still performing well -- they combined for 30 starts and 14.5 sacks -- but backup Erik Walden is a 33-year-old free agent and the team has basically nobody else at that position. Regardless of what happens with Walden, the Titans are widely expected to add at least one edge rusher in April's draft.

Notable Free Agents: Eric Decker, WR; Harry Douglas, WR; Erik Walden, LB; Brice McCain, CB; Josh Kline, G; Brian Schwenke, C; Brandon Weeden, QB.

Josh Kline has started 30 games in the past two seasons as a competent if limited guard. Eric Decker and Harry Douglas are veteran receivers whose best days are behind them, and both will probably leave Tennessee. Brian Schwenke is a former starter who lost his job when the Titans picked up Ben Jones from the Texans; unless Kline leaves to open up a spot for him at guard, Schwenke will probably look for, and get, a chance to compete for a starting job elsewhere.

Posted by: Andrew Potter on 06 Mar 2018

15 comments, Last at 09 Mar 2018, 3:56pm by The Ninjalectual

Comments

1
by Ryan :: Tue, 03/06/2018 - 5:20pm

An Eagle Creek reference? Someone knows his Indy landmarks!

4
by Theo :: Wed, 03/07/2018 - 7:43am

And Judge Dredd to boot...

9
by Andrew Potter :: Wed, 03/07/2018 - 5:03pm

The Dredd section was originally about both Gore and Adam Vinatieri. Sadly, they had to go and extend Vinatieri before we published.

14
by The Ninjalectual :: Fri, 03/09/2018 - 3:48pm

That was a reference? I thought you were just getting poetic about describing real life.

2
by Steve in WI :: Tue, 03/06/2018 - 5:29pm

Is $54 million over 3 years really so much for a mediocre starter anymore? Especially when only $26.5 million is guaranteed at signing. Heck, Mike Glennon signed for $45 million over 3 years with $18.5 guaranteed.

If Bortles is really bad in 2018, they can get rid of him for 2019 or draft a rookie to compete with him. If he continues to be mediocre, they can look for his replacement at their leisure rather than out of desperation. And if he somehow improves into a top 10 QB, they've got him locked up for 3 years at a below market rate. They're already too good to expect a high draft pick in the next couple years unless they trade a boatload to move up, so I think what they did is smarter than just letting Bortles walk after 2018.

3
by theslothook :: Tue, 03/06/2018 - 8:28pm

Are we so sure they are "too good"?

They looked an awful lot like the Broncos in 2015. 2016 with some slippage and equally awful qb play, the broncos fell to 8-8. One year later with even more slippage and still awful qb play, they are picking 5th.

Paying Bortles felt more like a political move than a football one. Almost everyone here is pretty convinced Bortles is bad and I can't imagine the Jags are fooling themselves either. Best strategy, in cold rational terms, would have been to let Bortles test the market and find a Tyrod Taylor type at qb(if not get Tyrod himself).

5
by Steve in WI :: Wed, 03/07/2018 - 3:01pm

I don't know that I'm sure of anything in the NFL, but I would be very surprised if the Jaguars found themselves picking in the top 5 in the next two seasons. In 2017, the Broncos didn't just have mediocre or bad QB play, they had the 3rd-worst QB in the league by DVOA. Is it possible that Bortles regresses to that point? Sure. But if he just stays in that 15th to 20th best in the league range, unless there are multiple major injuries I don't see them being much worse than .500.

Also, didn't the Jaguars already commit to Bortles for 2018 by picking up his 5th-year option before the 2017 season? You could argue that they're simply throwing good money after bad, but if you view the new contract as only guaranteeing an extra $6.5 million beyond what they were already committed to, spreading the cap hit out a bit, and giving them the chance to hold on to him a bit longer if he improves, it seems even less expensive.

15
by The Ninjalectual :: Fri, 03/09/2018 - 3:56pm

"I don't see them being much worse than .500."

So you'd agree that 7-9 is the lower end of reasonable? How many injuries, or how much bad fumble luck is it to 3-13 from there? You're also assuming good roster management in that stretch. As a Broncos fan, I can tell you 3-13 is never as far away as you think.

6
by MilkmanDanimal :: Wed, 03/07/2018 - 3:12pm

"And now the Colts are getting Andrew Luck back."

Hey, didn't we hear that this time last year?

7
by ChrisS :: Wed, 03/07/2018 - 4:06pm

Yeah and I didn't believe it then. Any real, objective news on how he is progressing?

8
by Andrew Potter :: Wed, 03/07/2018 - 5:02pm

I didn't write the blurb, but I did write the Colts section for Bold Moves, in which I wrote that they should treat the offseason as though Luck isn't coming back and consider it a bonus if he does.

I'll believe it when I see it, and not a minute sooner.

10
by jtr :: Thu, 03/08/2018 - 9:48am

They could hardly have handled it worse than they did last year, when they realized "oh sh*t we need a quarterback" literally one week before their first game. At least they have Brissett under contract for the next two seasons and he offers a baseline level of backup QB competence. Given how badly Luck's injury has progressed, I totally agree that they should treat this offseason like they don't have him. For once it's actually a buyer's market for quarterbacks, and they have more than enough cap space to grab, say, one of the Vikings trio and still have cap space left over to plug several of the holes in the defense.

11
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 03/08/2018 - 10:00am

Does grabbing Bradford or Bridgewater really improve their QB reliability?

Those guys are even glassier than Luck is.

12
by jtr :: Thu, 03/08/2018 - 10:41am

I'm honestly kind of doubting whether Luck will ever have his shoulder at full NFL QB strength again. This is an injury from the 2015 season, and there's been essentially no indication of any progress since then. I think there's more chance of getting a full season out of Bridgewater or Bradford than there is for Luck. Even if you think they're about equally likely, you're more likely to get a successful result out of one of two coin flips than one of one. They have $72M in cap space this offseason, they can afford two injury-risky QB's on the roster at once. Hell, they have the third overall pick in a good QB class. They just need to do SOMETHING to invest in the position, because they really screwed themselves last year when they bet the whole season on Luck's recovery.

13
by billprudden :: Thu, 03/08/2018 - 11:28am

I much agree about the draft pick = QB. What is the worst-case scenario? They trade the guy once Luck is back to full health?