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AFC South Round-Up: Mathieu Arrives, The Tennessee Patriots, The Colts Do Nothing, The Jags Have A Plan

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This is what’s going on in the AFC South after one week of free agency.

Ryan Dunsmore

It’s too nice outside. Being alive is too beautiful again to waste time with an introduction. The first wave of NFL free agency is over. This is what’s happened in the AFC South.

Houston Texans

The AFC South’s worst team in 2018 had two gaping holes entering this offseason. Offensive line. Secondary. They had a little more than $63 million to spread across the roster and these two position groups specifically.

There were two big fish in the pond, two bigmouth spotted fish lurking under the water among the goldfish—Andrew Norwell and Nate Solder. Norwell is a fringe top-five guard in football coming off an All-Pro season. Solder is mediocre, but he was the best left tackle on the market. Solder was old, shredded cheese in an empty fridge. Norwell was stolen by the Jaguars from the Giants after they gave him a five-year, $65 million contract with $30 million guaranteed. Houston was never in on him. They wanted a left tackle. They wanted Solder.

The Jaguars signing Norwell yanked the Giants into the Solder chase. The rumor is Houston and New York offered similar contracts, but Mrs. Solder wanted to stay in the northeast. The Giants were able to make him one of the highest paid players in football by giving him four-years and $62 million with $34.8 million guaranteed.

Teams don’t pay a player what he’s actually worth in free agency. They pay what it takes to reel him in. An inside run-centric team paying that much for one of the best guards in football, like the Jags did with Norwell, will probably end up working out. But giving Solder that much is reprehensible. He didn’t do much of anything in the run game, needs help on the edge with chips and tight ends staying home to pass protect, doesn’t have a consistent punch, and never fully extinguishes a pass rush, all while blocking for the greatest quarterback of all-time, the most important component of pass protection. The Giants paid for need and scarcity. Every team would have been better off looking under different stones. Every Houston fan should be sending Mrs. Solder flowers right now.

The Texans did the free agency version of trading down in the draft after missing out on these two players. They signed a bunch of guys to moderate deals. Houston brought in Seantrel Henderson, Senio Kelemete, and Zach Fulton to improve the offensive line. They plopped a glob of money on the counter and spread it around. All four players will get a chance to start in 2018. As of right now, my best guess at the Texans’ starting offensive line for Week One is Julie’n Davenport (LT)-Jeff Allen (LG)-Nick Martin (C)-Zach Fulton (RG)-Seantrel Henderson (RT), with the possibility of Allen playing left tackle, Senio Kelemete playing left guard, and Davenport playing right tackle. The Texans still have a hole at right tackle. Cameron Fleming is still their best option.

Although there are still questions and the pop is shaken up, this scenario is better than paying the average Solder $15 million a year for a quieter mind. That deal would have ruined Houston’s cap space next season when Benardrick McKinney, Tyrann Mathieu (maybe!), and Jadeveon Clowney could all be unrestricted free agents. The surest way to kill your cap is by paying mediocre players who don’t influence teammates, the scheme, and the direction of the team. Solder is not Dale Carnegie.

The Texans also missed out on several big names in the secondary. They didn’t trade for Marcus Peters or Aqib Talib (who they should been in talks to trade for). They didn’t sign 28 year old Trumaine Johnson, or make a serious run to steal Kyle Fuller from the Bears. Again, Houston skimped around some.

The Texans’ BIG cornerback deal went to Aaron Colvin, who I’m not too high on. He was the nickel corner on the best pass defense in football, covering the scraps in the slot leftover by A.J. Bouye, Jalen Ramsey, Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson, and one of the best pass rushes in football. In this comfy situation, Colvin was good, not great, giving up only five yards a pass (18th) when the average pass traveled 6.4 yards. He had a success rate of 53% (94th) covering short passes. The previous season, on a worse but still top ten defense, Colvin was slightly worse, with a success rate of 55% against twenty targets. He’s a slot corner, and he will be better off remaining in that same position in Houston.

That’s the problem with the Colvin signing. Outside, the Texans have Kevin Johnson, Kareem Jackson, and Johnathan Joseph, three players who were different shades of grotesque, stomach-curling green last year. Johnson was one of the worst players in football last year even when he was healthy. Jackson has never had great footwork, and as he’s gotten slower and older, he’s now unable to stay in front of receivers. Add this to his inability to look and find the ball, and you get a chasing defender who doesn’t affect passes. Joseph was recently re-signed. He’s fine at reading and reacting to short passes, but his cells are cremains. No longer can he keep up with the kids running real fast down the sideline. Houston is going to need Johnson Bademosi to do more than cover punts.

It’s amazing what one signing can do to change the opinions of everyone. Tyrann Mathieu’s decision to sign with Houston quelled the uprising. The futuristic safety playing behind an underwhelming bunch of cornerbacks is the first competent strong safety Houston has had since Danieal Manning. Mathieu can do everything: play slot corner, play in the box and mash in the run game, or cover from midfield to the sideline. He’s a roving marauder and playmaker. At one-year and $7 million, he was a stellar signing.

My concern is Houston won’t be able to do much with Mathieu because of the defensive backs in front of him. The palms are showing me Mathieu and Andre Hal splitting the deep halves of the field to protect against deep passes and to reinforce the chasing Johnson, Jackson, and Joseph. Houston probably won’t be able to play much single-high, and even if they do get funky and play with three safeties, quarterbacks will simply throw opposite of Hal.

The most important part of the defense is going to again be the front seven. If J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus are healthy, Houston’s defense will be great. If they aren’t, the Texans won’t be able to rush the passer, and the defense will again be a mess regardless of what Romeo Crennel can conjure up. That’s how bad the law firm of Johnson, Jackson & Joseph, L.L.P. was and probably will be again.

Free agency has been fine for Houston. They’ve been able to take a lot of small shots, which is how things fell with the players available and the decisions made. But it’s still not over. The Texans have more money to spend. They can use more defensive back help, another edge defender, a tight end, a right tackle, and a backup quarterback. They should be able to grab two more starting caliber players and extend Jadeveon Clowney before it’s all over. There’s still a lot of time before it’s over.

Tennessee Titans

When Bill O’Brien moved from New England to Houston, he took the “do your job” mantra and past Patriots players and coaches with him. It was nauseating to see a culture hated attempted to be replicated. The Titans are now copying the team that copied the team. They made Mike Vrabel their head coach—LOL—said the right things about discipline and jobs, and then they signed Malcolm Butler and Dion Lewis.

The Titans did need defensive back help. Last season they finished 24th in pass defense DVOA at 19.0%. They were 28th against WR2s with a DVOA of 29.3%. Previous Patriot Logan Ryan was fine last year, but he wasn’t what you want from a number one cornerback. Adoree Jackson is really fast and a baby, but he stood no chance in the slot since he doesn’t have the size to press; the outside was also mean to him. He has the athleticism to be a professional cornerback, and it takes time for defensive backs to get it. Last year was still a terrible time for Jackson.

There are two problems with what the Titans did. The first is Butler was paid $61.25 million, $30 million of it guaranteed, over the course of five years. This contract is going to be an atrocity. The second is that Butler hasn’t been a great player. He’s been a pretty average player since the 2015 season, the one after the famous pick to win the Super Bowl. He’s had a success rate of just 58% and 53% since then. His ability to play the ball has been his guardian angel and propped up his coverage struggles; Butler deflected 15 passes last season and 16 the year before. Like all New England defensive backs, Butler can recover after getting beat, play the ball, and save the play like a radio playing Queen.

Hopefully playing on a team with an actual pass rush will allow Butler to play as he prefers, aggressively, which will help him on his journey to become a great player again and save the Titans from their outside receiver coverage struggles. Jurrel Casey, Derrick Morgan, and Brian Orakpo are all plus pass rushers who had at least thirty hurries last year. The Titans’ pass rush is good. But without a singular spectacular pass rusher, they need a fourth player to step up and terrorize quarterbacks.

Earlier this week, they had dinner with Ndamukong Suh. The Titans have $45 million in cap space. They can make this move. Suh would automatically improve an already great run defense and be the missing link the Titans need to rush the passer. Seeing him shove guards to the ground and accidentally step on people in two-tone blue jean colors is everything Tennessee needs. Hopefully dinner becomes something more than ‘He was nice but I’m not interested’. A Suh signing should lift the Titans from bad at playing defense to mediocrity at a minimum.

The other enormous signing the Titans made was paying Dion Lewis to refill DeMarco Murray’s locker room with amulets and mementos. Tennessee is looking to make Derrick Henry its lead running back. This is something Henry can do. He has the size, but he needs to get better at successfully running between the tackles. The current version of Henry is a boom-or-bust back. As the primary back, he’ll need to get those four yards on first down, three yards on second down, and convert on third down.

Lewis is the perfect complement for Henry. He was the most efficient running back in football last year. He averaged 5.0 yards a carry, was first in DYAR with 271, and 9th in DVOA at 31.8%, all while having a career high of 180 carries thanks to Mike Gillislee not working out and Rex Burkhead dealing with injuries. This efficiency and pass catching ability can allow Tennessee to add more layers to #exoticmethmouth while keeping Henry fresh and limiting his carries.

The same offensive line as last year is going to be blocking for Lewis and Henry. Quinton Spain and Josh Kline were re-signed. It’s going to be Tennessee’s third year keeping the same starting offensive line together. Things weren’t so great last year, though. They were last in yards per carry on interior runs. Their red zone touchdown rate plummeted. They finished 23rd in adjusted line yards. After watching them, I think they’ll be fine. These sad(!) stats have more to do with Mike Mularkey continuing to eat rocks with a bloody mouth and churning his teeth into shrapnel than the offensive line actually struggling.

After making cuts, the Titans ended up with a surprising amount of cap space, and they’ve done things with it. The Butler signing was desperate, but it was something they needed; it’s reasonable to think he’ll be better in Tennessee than he was behind New England’s meek pass rush. Lewis is a perfect complement to Henry even if spending on pretty good running backs is a poor use of resources. Both signings are costly, and they are going to limit Tennessee next year and the year after, but each one answered roster questions.

The spooky thing about the Titans’ offseason is the lack of a real plan. Like last offseason, it’s just been tossing some money at talent that fills needs. There isn’t a cohesive idea of what Tennessee is going to be this season compared to last season. They may have a slightly better pass defense, and they will probably still run the ball a lot. That’s all we got so far from them in this new era of TITAN UP.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts have done nothing. Despite needing to rebuild their entire offensive line, add wide receiver help, find another a running back, improve at the defensive end position, and upgrade their cornerback play, they have only signed Matt Slauson to a one-year contract, Ryan Grant to a one-year contract, and Eric Ebron to a two-year contract, which of course has zero guaranteed money. You gotta love Chris Ballard.

Because of this, it’s reasonable to assume, and probably correct to assume, that the Colts have no idea what’s going to happen to Andrew Luck this season. He still has yet to throw a football after missing all of last season. With the draft capital and cap space they have, a healthy Luck could transform into a playoff team in one spring. Instead they’ve sat on their hands and offered contracts similar to last offseason.

If this conspiracy theory is wrong, the Colts are being cautious and opting for the slow rebuild. That would be extremely surprising. With how the salary cap is set up and the nature of a sixteen game season, teams can improve dramatically in a single offseason. The idea is to maximize your ability to contend with Luck as your quarterback. At age 28, time is ticking on a slow rebuild. The recourses are available to snap the burglar bars off and jump into the playoff picture. Slowly accumulating talent is the wrong course of action if Indianapolis’ former generational quarterback prospect is an actual, fully functioning spectacular player again.

If this conspiracy theory is right, the Colts are doing exactly what they need to do. Wait and see if any of these young offensive linemen develop and watch Jacoby Brissett run for his life. Buy a bunch of tickets that turn pink when you scrape a penny across them. Stockpile draft picks. Then go all in on free agency and re-sign the pertinent players once Luck is healthy.

The Colts have already started to stockpile assets by dropping from third to sixth in the upcoming NFL Draft. They received three second round picks from the New York Jets, the 37th and 49th picks in the 2018 NFL Draft and a 2019 second round pick. The Colts now have five picks in the first 100 selections. They just barely missed having six since their fourth round pick comes at #104. The Colts may even trade down from #6 and net more spins at the wheel if the draft breaks certain ways.

The Colts are hoarders. We’ll have to break the dead cats out of the freezer once they finally start putting the resources to work. That will wait until Luck starts throwing footballs instead of rocks.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have made some confusing moves. They extended Blake Bortles. They let Allen Robinson walk. They signed Andrew Norwell, Donte Moncrief, Austin Seferian Jenkins, and D.J. Hayden. These moves may make you feel like Psyduck until you see what’s really going on here. The Jags have a plan.

Offensively, their goal last year was to run the ball and limit Blake Bortles’ ability to throw interceptions. They accomplished both these things. The Jaguars led the NFL in rushing attempts with 527 and were pretty good at it. They averaged 4.3 yards a carry (9th), scored 18 touchdowns (2nd), and had a DVOA of -4.8% (12th). They ensured they wouldn’t waste Leonard Fournette by driving him into the grave.

Bortles threw a career-low thirteen interceptions in 2017. While not good, it’s still better than previous years, and most importantly, he didn’t throw a single pick in the postseason. Jacksonville limited Bortles’ inclinations to drive through ‘Do Not Enter’ signs by spreading the offense out in passing situations and running play-action off the run game. Last season Bortles threw 417 short passes compared to 96 deep passes. On these short passes, Bortles had a completion rate of 67.1%, averaged 6.4 yards an attempt, and had a touchdown to interception ratio of 18:7. On deep passes, he had a completion rate of 36.5%, averaged 10.7 yards an attempt, and had a touchdown to interception ratio of 3:6. Longing for Allen Robinson morphed this offense into something more suitable for Bortles. He didn’t have to consistently make difficult downfield throws, so he could instead focus on shorter crossing routes and rollouts where he could run for it if nothing else was open.

The Jaguars’ offense is the complement to this team. The team is led by its defense. The Jaguars had the best defense in football and led it with a DVOA of -16.1%, including an absurd pass defense DVOA of -27.5%. Teams couldn’t throw deep or short on them. And the Jags had 55 sacks, ranked first in adjusted sack rate, and had a pressure rate of 34.3% (5th). A.J. Bouye, Jalen Ramsey, Calias Campbell, Barry Church, Telvin Smith, Myles Jack, Tashaun Gipson, Yannick Ngakoue, and Marcel Dareus held the rest of the NFL hostage.

This offseason, the Jags went all in on this model. They signed Norwell, one of the best guards in football, because the Jags love to run the ball up the middle. The Jags ran the ball 313 times in between the tackles last year, the most. They averaged just 3.63 yards a carry, 23rd in the league. Norwell is the type of player who can make every block and transform a run scheme. He can mash no matter who’s in front of him and no matter how stacked the box is. He, Cam Robinson, Brandon Linder, Patrick Omameh, and Jeremy Parnell form one of the best offensive lines in football. Those 3.63 yards a carry are going to bump up.

Jacksonville decided to not re-sign Robinson. Again, this makes sense. Robinson is an isolation outside wide receiver. He attacks man coverage. He goes up and gets it downfield, making spectacular catches, completing difficult throws for the quarterback. Since the idea is to continue to limit such throws, Robinson no longer fit. Instead, Bortles is better off with the guys he has—Dede Westbrook, Marqise Lee, and Keelan Cole—to snag quick passes and take off, to bring down the wide open downfield throws the run game sets up.

With their head barely above water, Jacksonville had to make cuts to get under the cap. They did it by cutting Allen Hurns and “NFL 2K5” favorite Marcedes Lewis. These moves saved the Jaguars $10.5 million in space. Hurns still fits in Jacksonville’s offense well, as he’s an all around receiver, but they felt they had a better short field receiver in Lee, and they signed Donte Moncrief to be their sideline threat. Lewis has been in Florida forever, and is a fan favorite, but the Jaguars got more athletic by signing Seferian-Jenkins. ASJ is going to thrive in this bootleg offense.

By going all in on this team—one that runs the ball up the middle, controls the clock, ends games on the ground, takes shots downfield at opportune times, attempts to limit turnovers, takes occasional shots downfield, and leans on the best defense in football—the Jaguars have pretty much become the 2014-2016 Houston Texans, but with a better running back, a more athletic quarterback, and a better defense.

As of right now, with the talent they have, the Jaguars are my favorite to win the AFC in 2018.