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AFC South Round-Up: Frank Gore And DeMarco Murray Are Gone, Shane Lechler Stays, And The Jags Don’t Tag

A summary of what’s happened in the AFC South this week.

The week before free agency is usually tame. Veterans get released. Fringe roster players get re-signed. Franchise tags may get used. The water is placid, other than the occasional ripple created by browned, crumpled leaves that held on for too long.

That train of thought careened off the tracks this offseason. It’s a copycat league! It’s a NFL cliché. Since the Philadelphia Eagles built their Super Bowl roster with trades, the rest of the NFL has now realized, that yes, trading for players is a good thing. One team gets to rid themselves of salary and malcontents, and the other is able to trade a potential lottery ticket for a known, contributing player. Already this offseason Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, and Michael Bennett have been traded. This trend should continue onward into the paling light.

While the rest of the NFL is having a party and everyone is swinging, the AFC South has been quiet. The teams here have done what has usually happened in the past. Release veterans. Re-sign fringe roster players. Make decisions regarding the franchise tag.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts didn’t release anyone, but they kind of, sort of did. Frank Gore is an unrestricted free agent, and the Colts let it be known they are not expected to keep him around for another season.

Of all the players signed during the Colts ‘Super Team’ attempt in the 2015 offseason, Gore was the only one to stick around and the only one who contributed in a meaningful way in that disastrous, ‘let’s spend all of our money on free agents to get over the Patriots’ offseason, that ended with Matt Hasselbeck playing way, way too much.

Gore’s season in 2015 looked just like his season in 2017; it was only slightly better. Over the course of those three years, Gore was constantly given 200+ carries and continued to pick up around four yards every time. He averaged 3.8 yards an attempt during those three years. Last season, at age 34, he averaged 3.7 yards on 261 attempts. Old people die. Old running backs see their production fall dramatically. Gore is immortal. He is the pulling of the tide.

Despite being dependable, the Colts were never efficient at running the football with Gore retaining the majority of the carries. They had a rushing DVOA of -12.3% (24th) in 2015, a 1.2% (10th) DVOA because of Andrew Luck in 2016, and -20.9% (30th) this past season.

And so, at age 35, Gore is going to look elsewhere for work. Personally, I’m always in favor of treating the running back position like a lottery by keeping younger, more athletic players around who have upside rather than sticking with gnarled, old battering rams. But for a young team who needs a weathered voice to teach, or a veteran team that has a niche to fill, signing Gore wouldn’t be terrible. He’s old, he’s fine, he’s whatever. He’ll probably play somewhere else next season. Gore wasn’t a disappointment with the Colts, but the ideals they discussed when he first signed were never brought to fruition.

For the Colts, Marlon Mack is now the best running back in the roster. He was pretty good last season. He flashed and did things like stiff-arm Jadeveon Clowney. I don’t know if he’s an every-down back, but a minimum he can do things with ten carries a game and can catch passes out of the backfield. It’s important to have two running backs. The Colts will find someone else to pair with Mack this offseason, and their running game should be better next season.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans, on the other hand, actually did release a veteran. DeMarco Murray was entering the last year of his deal that took him to Philadelphia as a free agent to play for Chip Kelly. Yes, that was once the reality we were living in, one where Murray was coming off an 1,800+ yard season and was one of the most coveted free agents in football, and one where Chip Kelly dominated NFL headlines by signing all of the running backs. In the last year of his contract, Murray was set to receive $6.5 million. Instead of paying the 29 year old, the Titans cut the hook without swallowing any dead money.

Murray had a weird season. He played, but rarely looked himself. He was able to break some big runs and toss that monster stiff-arm, but he was consistently unsuccessful. Murray had a success rate of just 39%. His DVOA was -5.0%. I 2017 he had 659 yards on 184 attempts, 6 touchdowns, and averaged 3.6 yards an attempt. Then, to finish the season, he stood on the sideline too injured to play while Derrick Henry took over.

Behind the same offensive line in the same offense, Henry was a better back. He had a DVOA of -1.4%, a DYAR of 54, he averaged 4.2 yards a carry, and he had a success rate of 48%. Henry is younger, better, and cheaper. Additionally, Henry pretty much won a playoff game all on his own against the Chiefs. In the Titans’ comeback, he was able to constantly jog to the center of the line of scrimmage, cut outside, and then scamper down the sideline against one of the worst defenses in football. Against Kansas City last year, all you had to do to run forever was block the first level. With Henry taking every carry, the Titans were able to do exactly that.

Cutting Murray and going with Henry is the right decision. However, Henry is far from a great running back. The second part of Tennessee’s dual Heisman backfield is great at bouncing runs outside, but he’s underwhelming between the tackles. Despite his monstrous size and strength, he’s tentative between the tackles. Rather than hit and get hit, Henry will waddle and look. There’s a narrow path between patient and hesitant at the running back position, and Henry is more of a reality show contestant milking it for drama than a wildlife photographer. As the lead back, he’ll need to get better at churning out four successful yards instead of usually getting one to two in preparation for enormous gains.

The savings from cutting Murray net the Titans with $55 million to spend on free agents. They’ll have to figure out what to do with the guard positions, since both of their starters are free agents. They have to decide if they want to re-sign Avery Williamson or if they want to find inside linebackers who can cover someone in the pass game. They can always use more secondary help. A defensive end who can rush the passer would dramatically change this defense. They have options to use this money all over the roster, and it will be money better spent than on Murray and the running back position.

Houston Texans

The Texans re-signed three players. Ufomba Kamalu was the first. Someone who I think had a sack against the Colts this year. He’s depth. Whatever. If he’s playing important snaps, it says more about the state of the team than Kamalu. Corey Moore was second. He’s been given chances to start at strong safety; every time he regurgitates it and Houston is forced to look elsewhere. He had some special teams tackles on a bad special teams. Cool. Shane Lecher was the third. Copy and paste the same argument from the last two offseasons and from the season review. Some things just keep happening, and eventually there comes a time to not care. Now is that time. We can plant a house. We can build a tree.

Houston should have been in on trading for Aqib Talib. A fifth-rounder and taking on $11 million in salary is nothing for a great defensive back, especially to a team that doesn’t have a competent one. Houston could have given up one of their extra fourths to make this trade. Yeah, he braggadocios and literally shoots himself, but he’s been a key reason why the Broncos had one of the best pass defenses in football until last year. Instead Houston is going to go looking for defensive back help in the form of more expensive free agents like Kyle Fuller or Trumaine Johnson, or they’ll go scrapping around for second-tier guys like Morris Claiborne. Unlike Lechler, this is something to actually care about.

Jacksonville Jaguars

According to Spotrac, the Jaguars have $29,517,000 in cap space after resigning Blake Bortles. Without any enormous holes, they are in the position to make novelty decisions to try and repeat as the champions of this spectacular division. Because of this, keeping Allen Robinson in Jacksonville was something attainable and expected.

Instead of franchise-tagging Robinson, the Jaguars let it come and go. It would have cost the Jaguars $15.98 million, an amount greater than Robinson’s cap hit would have been if re-signed. But the risk associated with the franchise tag is less than the risk in trying to re-sign him, if that’s even what the Jaguars desire to do. Robinson caught one pass for 17 yards in 2017 before tearing his ACL and missing the rest of the season. Coming off this injury, it’s unknown what he’ll be capable of in 2018. If they’d tagged him, the Jaguars wouldn’t have to worry about competing on the open market and trying to match bids from teams like the Indianapolis Colts and San Francisco 49ers, both of whom can offer more money. For now, the Jags have exclusive negotiation rights with him until March 12th, and after that, he’ll become a free agent on March 14th.

If Robinson does hit the open market, he’ll be the most coveted wide receiver available. Even more so than the tradeable and often discussed Jarvis Landry. He’s one of the best route runners in football as an outside receiver. Watching Robinson play has broken my brain too many times. Easily and constantly, he’s able to break and beat isolated man coverage. In the deep passing game, he can leap over anyone to make spectacular catches. His 2015 season was entirely based off that trait. He had 80 catches on 151 targets, averaged 17.5 yards a reception, and had 14 touchdowns. Absurd, all while catching passes from Blake Bortles, who was just closing his eyes and heaving it.

There’s no question Robinson is great at playing football and is worth a $10+ million a year contract. But it’s a question if the Jaguars want to re-sign him. Without Robinson last year, Bortles had a mini-jump. The Jaguars went to a run heavy, play action offense that was mixed with a spread out horizontal passing offense. Bortles just had to hand the football off, fake the run, or run for first downs when it was open. When he had to make throws, it was usually easy, wide open crossing routes to quick wide receivers with the occasional downfield heave mixed in.

Jacksonville’s offense kept things smooth-brained and simple. It didn’t force Bortles to make super complicated reads or difficult throws. They removed him from having to throw the tough curls, outs, and fades to the outside. These are the same routes that Robinson runs. Jacksonville wants to limits the chances Bortles has to turn the ball over. By paying a lot of money for an isolated outside wide receiver, they would be pushing Bortles into more of the very opportunities they are trying to limit.

Additionally, the Jaguars may like what they already have. Allen Hurns was bad after getting paid last year, but was hurt for most of the season, and like Robinson, he is an outside receiver. Marqise Lee, Keelan Cole, and Dede Westbrook all had much better years at running quick crossing routes. Lee is a free agent as well. And the Jaguars could choose to retain him at a cheaper rate that better fits this offense. Cole and Wesbtook are on their first frugal contracts. The Jags have also been great at finding skill players late in the draft and outside of the draft as well. Their confidence in finding cheaper replacements at wide receiver could play into letting Robinson walk.

I don’t think Robinson is going to stay in Jacksonville. Instead, I think the Jags will look to use that money to upgrade the guard position or re-sign Aaron Colvin instead. Robinson is going to be expensive, he’s coming off a traumatic injury, and there are teams dying at receiver who can pay more. Where Robinson ends up is going to be one of the focal points of free agency.