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AFC South Round-Up: Grading The Division’s Offseason

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Round it up, round it up, round it up.

Last week I asked you a simple question, “Which AFC South team had the best offseason?”. Now it’s my turn. But instead of discussing who is the best, I got my red pen out, a shovel, newfound summer muscles, and a piece of metal filled with little holes. I’m ready to party. Here are my grades for each AFC South’s team offseason.

Indianapolis Colts

There’s two ways to look at what they’ve done. The first is in the light that Andrew Luck is going to start this year; the second is that Andrew Luck isn’t going to start this year. Based on the decisions the Colts made and the fact that Andrew Luck still hasn’t thrown a football, I’m leaning to the latter.

The Colts made the right decisions if Luck isn’t healthy enough to start the 2018 season. They staved off obliterating their cap space for another year and skipped out on those big cap devouring contracts, like the ones handed out to Andrew Norwell, Trumaine Johnson, and Sammy Watkins. The Colts just need talent. Without Luck, there’s no point in trying to make the water bubble when there’s no gas out back.

The Colts pretty much did what they did last year. They made a bunch of teensy, cute deals. They signed Denico Autry to play defensive end in their new 4-3, Eric Ebron to complement Jack Doyle, Jack Mewhort to hopefully bounce back from injury, and the speedy Ryan Grant. Like signing John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, and Jabaal Sheard to low risk contracts that were easy to get out of in 2017, Chris Ballard did it again this year while still having $52 million in cap space.

In the 2018 NFL Draft, the Colts were conservative and took an analytical approach by trading down in the draft. They flippy-flopped with the Jets. The Jets jumped from 6th to 3rd to take Sam Darnold way before the draft even happened, giving up two second round picks this year and another second round pick next year to do it. By making the trade, the Colts picked Quinton Nelson, who may end up being the best player in this draft. If Mewhort stays healthy and Nelson is as monstrous in the pros as he was in college, the Colts will have one of the best interior lines in the league. With stability and a flat line in the middle of the line of scrimmage, tackle play isn’t as important. The Colts may actually have a decent offensive line.

All of that is cool and all, but here’s the problem. If Luck starts Week One, you need to have done more. You can’t punt on seasons when you have a player of Luck’s caliber and talent at quarterback. Do you know what you need to make the playoffs? Andrew Luck. That’s it. Every year you aren’t getting to the postseason with him healthy is a waste of time. With the cap space the Colts have, they could have made an enormous leap in talent in an offseason, a leap big enough to be one of those teams that go from four wins or less to the playoffs.

I like what the Colts did if Luck isn’t ready by Week One. I hate what the Colts did if Luck starts week one.

Grade: B+ Without Andrew Luck, D With Andrew Luck.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans are a slightly better team after this offseason. They changed out their coaching staff. Mike Vrabel is the head coach, and as long as he isn’t scheming and can lead men a la John Harbaugh, he should be alright. Dean Pees is better than the retirement home Dick LeBeau. I don’t know if Matt LaFleur is good or not; the Rams were great because of Sean McVay. LaFleaur’s impact was unknown.

I’ll miss #exoticmethmouth. It worked in a league filled with speedy light boxes for a year but stuttered once Mike Mularkey failed to continue to innovate and not change things up based on the opponent. Running up the middle against the Texans’ leaky coverage instead of spreading things out is an egregious example.

The one thing I loved about the Titans’ offseason is the selection of Harold Landry. A fourth pass rusher is what the Titans have been missing. Jurrell Casey, Brian Orakpo, and Derrick Morgan are all competent pass rushers; Casey is the best of the bunch. But none of them are especially great. They’ve been missing another pass rusher for the last two seasons, and Landry should be exactly that.

Everything else Tennessee did made the team better. The question will be if it’s worth the amount they paid for the improvement. I don’t think any of the signings are dramatic enough, though. Malcolm Butler is making an average of $12.25 million; he was an average player last year. Dion Lewis is a good complement to Derrick Henry, who is more of an outside runner than most realize; he’ll make $4.95 million a year. Josh Kline and Quinton Spain were re-signed to keep together an offensive line that substantially regressed in 2017.

This is Tennessee. This is pretty much what they are going to be for the next two years. Unless Butler, Lewis, and Landry offer incredible production, and Marcus Mariota makes another leap, the Titans are going to be stuck in the wild card rat race. They will have to be satiated with first round playoff wins.

Grade: B.

Houston Texans

The Texans had a good offseason. When you consider the draft restrictions they had, the Texans had a superb offseason. In Brian Gaine’s first offseason, he had two monumental tasks—upgrade the offensive line and secondary.

With the cap space he had available, Gaine improved both position groups dramatically. On the offensive line, Houston added Senio Kelemete, who is inconsistent but can be a competent starter, Zach Fulton, who is a great interior lineman that can play both center and guard, and Seantrel Henderson, a whatever, buy-low option who hasn’t played since 2014 and wasn’t even really capable then.

The most important decision might have been the one Houston wasn’t able to make. The mediocre Nate Solder went to New York (G) to become one of the highest paid players in football on a cap-crippling deal that Houston was lucky to not seal with blood. Also, in the draft, Houston added my favorite offensive tackle, Martinas Rankin. If Juli’en Davenport can start and be average on the left side, the Texans’ offensive line will be fine in 2018.

The secondary added Aaron Colvin and Tyrann Mathieu in free agency. They brought Johnathan Joseph around again without even having to ask Mrs. Rita, and they drafted Justin Reid with their first third round pick. These moves are all about versatility. Colvin played press man in the slot and Cover 3 and Cover 4 in Jacksonville; he was an afterthought on a team with the best cornerback combo in football. Mathieu and Reid both can play deep middle, hook zones, robber zones, and they will dramatically improve the screen pass issues the Texans have had for the last few years. Both Mathieu and Reid can also blitz and mash in the run game.

The biggest question is going to be if Houston’s DBs can cover on the outside. As of right now, the answer is hell NO. Kevin Johnson was one of the worst cornerbacks in football last year. Kareem Jackson has always had footwork issues. The difference is now, at an older age, Jackson can’t make up for it with athleticism; he’s constantly chasing with his back turned to the quarterback, still unable to find the football. Joseph can read routes and react, yet at his age he can’t play one on one on the outside. That’s death. Long fly routes crush J-Jo. Colvin doesn’t move the needle enough in that regard for me.

The key for Houston is going to be the pass rush. If J.J. Watt can stay healthy and end all thoughts of him being squandered treasure turned to coal by goblins, if Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney can stay healthy and produce, the pass rush will be a top ten unit. If injuries happen again, which wouldn't be a surprise at all, Houston won’t be able to cover well enough for long enough on the back end.

There’s good news on that front, though. Even if Houston loses one of their pass rushers during this season, Romeo Crennel is a warlock. He’ll be able to generate a pass rush, and he has a ton of multicolored blocks to click in place. Houston’s defense is going to be fun as hell. They are going to be versatile. A lot of guys are going to play. They are going to run a lot of different coverages and blitz schemes.

All in all, Houston didn’t add a ‘top’ impact player with their cap space. It was a down year for free agency, and Houston did the right thing. They improved their biggest weaknesses with good players in a cost effective way, and they refused to try and keep up with the neighbor’s above-ground pool by digging a peanut-shaped one.

Grade: B+.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars had the best defense in the NFL in 2017, with the best pass defense in football by an enormous margin. This isn’t going to change in 2018. This is who they are and what they are going to do best. A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey are the best cornerback duo in football. Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, the renaissance of Dante Fowler Jr,, and Malik Jackson compose a pass rush that likes to scratch. The Jags obliterated teams with their defense last season, and they’ll do the same this year.

On offense, the Jaguars hunkered down. They know who they are. They are going to get a lead, force teams to throw against a ferocious defense, and shorten the game from there. They added a top six guard in Andrew Norwell. This wood chip covered monster will revolutionize the Jaguars’ interior run game, an interior run game that ran it a ton but was never really successful at it. Leonard Fournette will treat defenses like a hurdle and shed the plodding label he had last year.

Because of this focus on the run game, the pass offense changed last year and will change again this year. It’s going to be a lot about play-action roll outs for Blake Bortles. There will be quick horizontal passes and spread wide receiver sets where if nothing is open immediately, Bortles will run for it. Add a dash of Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook deep pass attempts, and you have the Jaguars’ entire passing playbook.

This switch worked last year. It allowed Bortles to do more with his athleticism and limited the opportunities he had to Bortle. This is also why the Jaguars opted to sign Marqise Lee and Norwell over Allen Robinson. An outside vertical route runner catches difficult and complicated passes, passes that can be picked off easier than short drags and angles. Norwell will grind bones in the run game. Lee is a YAC man and screen catcher. Both fit the Jaguars’ new lifestyle better than Robinson did, even if Robinson is a supreme receiving talent.

To round it out, Jacksonville exchanged Colvin for D.J. Hayden, who’s more of a man coverage corner. They signed Austin Seferian-Jenkins and added athleticism to the tight end position; I mean, Marcedes Lewis is in “NFL 2K5.” They drafted Taven Bryan to improve the worst aspect of their team, stopping the run. Bryan is also a natural Marcel Dareus replacement.

The Jaguars played like this last year and almost knocked the Patriots off the AFC throne. This year they went all in on this model of football and became better at the things that they are already great at. The Jaguars are a Super Bowl caliber team heading into 2018.

Grade: A.