Four Downs: AFC South
by Tom Gower
Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. We'll be reviewing each division one-by-one, looking at each team's biggest hole going into free agency as well as the most important players who may be on the market (provided they aren't franchise tagged or re-signed before March 5).
Biggest Hole: Cornerback
The Texans were the best run defense in the league by DVOA in 2018 but proved vulnerable through the air, ranking just 25th against deep passes. It's easy, obvious, and probably correct to point to cornerback as a position that needs to be remade. The group has declined sharply after A.J. Bouye's departure in free agency.
Houston cornerbacks fall into three basic groups: players who probably shouldn't play corner but can if needed to; players whose big money may be the only reason they play; and the rest. Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph fall into the first group. Joseph has hit the wrong point of the aging curve where his lack of recovery speed can outweigh his veteran savviness. As a corner, pending free agent Jackson showed last year he could be a fine safety.
Aaron Colvin and Kevin Johnson form the second group. Colvin was a complete misfit and finished a healthy scratch. His $7.5 million base salary is fully guaranteed, so he might end up as the slot corner if the Houston cannot find a team willing to give up a late-round pick for his services. Johnson hoped to rebound from pre-injury form but saw concussions send him to injured reserve early. His fifth-year option salary of $9.1 million was guaranteed for injury, so the Texans cut him earlier this week.
The third group features Shareece Wright. If a Bouye-like emergence was coming from a player on the roster, last year was a chance to show it, and veteran Wright still kept getting beat on double moves on the field.
What the heck general manager Brian Gaine can and will actually do to remake the position group is an open question, as quality at corner falls off quickly in free agency. Houston does at least have high draft picks this year, so they can select a rookie who should be able to play immediately and will probably need to.
Thomas was not the answer when Will Fuller was lost for the season, so his release (before his latest vehicle problems) was not a surprise. Clowney may still get a long-term deal, though reports also indicate he might be traded. Fairbairn will return. Mathieu played reasonably well for Houston, but sorting out a safety group with Andre Hal's return, Justin Reid's fine rookie season, and Jackson and Mathieu both free agents may be Gaine's second-biggest dilemma this offseason.
Biggest Hole: Wide receiver
Andrew Luck's top-ten finish in DVOA was built on T.Y. Hilton's strong play, not the collective excellence of the Colts' wide receivers as a whole. Ryan Grant and Chester Rogers were the other two wideouts with at least 50 targets, and they both ranked around sixtieth in both DYAR and DVOA. Dontrelle Inman was better in a smaller sample. Like Grant, though, he is now an unrestricted free agent, while Rogers is of the restricted variety.
Thankfully, Chris Ballard enters this offseason with gobs of cap space and ultimate flexibility on what to do beyond Hilton. Retaining Rogers if Indianapolis wants him back is almost inevitable, given how quiet the RFA market has been, but Ballard should want to add at least one more starting-level contributor.
Trading for a prominent fellow Liberty Hill native to join Hilton and give Frank Reich the best one-two combination the league has seen in years is one intriguing possibility. Ballard's comments at the Combine make it seem unlikely as signing Le'Veon Bell to a major contract after the Colts had a decent run game with a collection of Day 3 picks, and the Steelers might not want to trade Antonio Brown to a potential AFC playoff foe, but speculation probably will not die until he is dealt elsewhere because of the base logic of need meeting opportunity.
The big question is what sort of window Ballard sees for the Colts. A postseason spot appeared extremely unlikely at this time last year, but then Indianapolis won a playoff game. If Ballard wants to take advantage of their good fortune, trading for Brown and trying to make the offense elite might be the best way to win in the short term. If Ballard expects defensive regression keeping the Colts close to .500, filling the remaining spots with mid-level free agents and draft picks makes more sense.
Mark Glowinski filled in surprisingly well for Slauson, but Ballard has big decisions to make on the other major free agents. With the limited depth available at corner, Desir seems like a good player to re-sign, unless Ballard is willing to trust in Quincy Wilson and Kenny Moore and find a third. Geathers' injury history will make the Colts or any other team chary about committing him big money. Hunt had a great start to the season and only Jabaal Sheard played more snaps among Indianapolis defensive linemen. If by chance one of the big edge rushers makes it to free agency, the Colts should be among the highest bidders.
Biggest Hole: Quarterback
Jacksonville shows the strength and weakness of the defense-oriented team in the modern NFL. When they do get a lead, they are almost unbeatable. They only have two losses in the past two seasons when their first-quarter passing DVOA is above average, to San Francisco and then New England in the postseason in 2017. But when they do not get quality quarterback play in the first quarter, winning is almost impossible. When the Jaguars' first-quarter passing DVOA is below league average, they were 1-5 in 2017 (only beating the Bills in the playoffs) and 2-11 in 2018.
2017's outstanding first-quarter offense, where the Jaguars led the league (and were second in passing), was taken as a sign that Blake Bortles had emerged as at least an average starting quarterback, the kind who could win games with a strong defense, notwithstanding Bortles' play in the second through fourth quarters looking exactly like his 2015 and 2016 play. 2018's fourth-worst offensive DVOA in the first quarter (sixth-worst passing) confirmed that 2017 was a mirage, that Bortles is not that player, and backup Cody Kessler was not either.
Jacksonville has to do something at quarterback this offseason if only to settle a locker room and fan base that appeared to have totally lost confidence in Bortles' ability to play at a predictable and competent level on a consistent basis. The hiring of John DeFilippo as offensive coordinator creates an obvious link to Nick Foles, while with the seventh pick the Jaguars are in position to draft a rookie quarterback. Heck, they could even do both. Another year of Bortles and Kessler or some other backup appeals to precisely nobody.
Jacksonville's biggest dilemma is how they manage the cap space they have allocated to players still on the roster and any potential quarterback addition, rather than about their pending free agents. The acquisition of Flowers was a sign of their desperation after Cam Robinson's season-ending injury. Cann will have to be replaced, but kept getting starts because he was a third-round pick and there was a lack of options. One-year gambles on Moncrief and Seferian-Jenkins did not pan out.
Biggest Hole: Outside linebacker
The Titans overall slightly improved on defense from 2017 to 2018, but that improvement was not due to the pass rush. They fell from 12th to 26th in pressure rate, per Sports Info Solutions charting, and ranked 22nd in adjusted sack rate. Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo have been the veteran mainstays at outside linebacker for several years, and down seasons by both were part of the reason for the decline. Both missed time with injuries, and neither ranked in the top four in sacks among Titans linebackers.
Behind them, the Titans have last year's second-round pick Harold Landry and nobody they would be comfortable penciling in for the 500-plus snaps both Morgan and Orakpo played even in limited seasons. Orakpo announced his retirement after the season ended, so he definitely will not be back. Morgan was a better all-around player and had more pressures than his 0.5 sacks would indicate, but does not seem likely to return.
With their need for two significant contributors at the position, expect the Titans to be linked to every free-agent pass-rusher who might or actually does hit the market while also being linked to pass-rushers who make it to the 19th pick in the first round. Za'Darius Smith of the Ravens may make particular sense, with his history with defensive coordinator Dean Pees. It may be a disappointment for general manager Jon Robinson to have to spend another early pick on a pass-rusher after Landry and Kevin Dodd, but unless he adds Smith and another starter-type in free agency, it seems inevitable.
The Titans' most interesting decision is what they do at strong safety. Adam Schefter reported Monday they plan to release Johnathan Cyprien, who missed 2018 with injury and was scheduled for a $5.5 million base salary. Kenny Vaccaro played well as a late signing after Cyprien got hurt in training camp, but he is probably looking for money a lot closer to the contract Eric Reid got from the Carolina Panthers than the near-minimum he made in 2018. Tennessee wants to re-make their interior offensive line, and it seems unlikely they will commit big money to Spain after paying right guard Josh Kline last offseason.