Two seasons ago, I said the AFC South would be fun. It was.
Last season, I said the AFC South would finally be really good. It wasn’t.
The Texans won ten games in a row by howling at cracked-toothed, quarterbackless offenses chewing on the bricks they smashed their face into. The Colts came on late. The Titans were mediocre, bland and mayonnaise. The Jaguars...well, the Jaguars’ defense regressed and the core components of their offense were injured, vaporizing the insects in their ecosystem.
This year may finally be the year the AFC South is both fun as hell and great. For this to happen, each team needs to live their best lives this offseason. Here’s what they could, should, and probably will do. Each team aside from the Houston Texans, that is. That blood has already been spilled.
Death and regression come for us all. In 2018, the Jaguars had a concise offensive scheme built around getting early leads, an inefficient power run scheme, crossing routes, and Blake Bortles galloping for first downs. The all-time great pass defense from 2017 dropped off, and the run game picked up in its wake. It was still a healthy defense, a top ten one, but it couldn't carry a dismantled offense that plopped from mediocre to horrendous.
Injuries killed the Jags’ offense. They played seventeen different offensive tackles, didn't have Leonard Fournette or Marqise Lee, and Bortles isn't good enough to win on his own. Disaster. The Jags tumbled from 10-6 to 5-11.
They should be better in 2019. They have the talent of a 9-7 team and are coming back from a truly terrible season. They aren't losing any players they have to have: Donte Moncrief, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Corey Grant, T.J. Yeldon, and A.J. Cann are free agents, but none of them are indispensable. Jacksonville probably won't re-sign any of them. The problem for the Jags is they are over the cap after going all in what became a 5-11 season.
Blake Bortles, Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell,
Marcell Dareus, Tashaun Gipson, and Carlos Hyde are all potential salary cap casualties because of how much they are owed this season. Jacksonville has money laundering to do. There are salaries to renegotiate like they already did with Dareus. They'll do the same to Campbell to turn bonuses into crypto currencies like kitty cat coins. Bortles, Jackson, Gipson, and Hyde will all probably be released.
Speaking of Jacksonville’s franchise quarterback, Bortles was no longer playing in a safe space and was terrible last year, getting benched for Cody Kessler multiple times. Jacksonville has the seventh overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. They can use it on a quarterback, or they can grab a veteran like Nick Foles or (OMG, please I beg of you) Teddy Bridgewater and bank on Fournette’s summer of health and their great defense. Jackson is really good, not great, and isn't worth the money anymore. Gipson and Hyde play positions that aren't valuable considering Jacksonville’s roster.
If the Jags can scrape together $25 million in space, expect for them to grab a possession receiver who eats up first downs and a new right guard. Ramon Foster and Ronald Leary would be solid fits. If the run game is churning and violent, the Jags should be back again. If it isn't, they'll be dependent on their quarterback, and who knows who that will be?
Defensively, they should be a top ten defense again. They need Taven Bryan to do something, anything, and for Ronnie Harrison to continue to play well after a nice rookie season. I'm thinking both these things will happen, and the rest of the talent takes off from there.
I’ve dumped a plastic hefty bag filled with Logan’s Roadhouse gift cards, blue jeans (both light blue and navy), fishing lures, pineapple costumes, and plastic treasure chests housing teeth off at the local Goodwill. Last year I wasn’t a Titans fan. I couldn’t enjoy the leading of men or the new two-toned denim jerseys with stripes of gray and bits of red. Exotic methmouth was dead. The Titans became bland, like 2% milk, sour cream, or cottage cheese. They were mediocre at just about everything and weren’t great at any singular thing. Under Matt LaFleur, the offense was uninteresting, outside zone running and play action without the results. The defense when blitzing was entertaining, but too often they sat in their gaps and hung back.
This offseason, the Titans look to improve on another 9-7 season. They have one more year to make this Marcus Mariota thing work, or they risk ending up like the Miami Dolphins, stuck with a forever intriguing quarterback who can never quite move out of the house and live on his own. With his fifth year option picked up, Mariota is set to make $20.9 million this season. Mariota has flashed mobility, pocket awareness, and anticipation throughout his career, but he has to provide consistent play for an entire year all while staying healthy.
The funny thing is the Titans invested in their offensive line. They built their team to protect the quarterback, yet Mariota still keeps rolling and tumbling and bumping and breaking. They re-signed Taylor Lewan last year, have Jack Conklin for at least one more season, and have Josh Kline and Ben Jones under contract. Quinton Spain, an above average guard, is a free agent this year; the Titans can choose to try and improve or replace him. In a free agent market with dependable interior blocking, it will be fun to see where Spain ends up and for how much. I really need new ways to have fun.
Now, the Titans could release Mariota and move on. They won’t, but they could add the same $20 million and spend big. They can also cut Logan Ryan to save $10 million, which they probably won’t do, and Johnathan Cyprien (remember him?), who they probably will release, to save $4.75 million.
The Titans’ defense is in a weird spot. It worked when Dean Pees used the same ferocious murderous blitz packages he used in Baltimore. Yet they struggled creating pressure with their individual rushers. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan combined to create 31.5 pressures, 11 quarterback hits, and 2 sacks. This would be a rough season for one 3-4 edge rusher. It’s a travesty for a pair of them, especially paid the salary they were. Orakpo retired to play with his Easy Bake Oven. Morgan, at age 30, won’t be back.
But the future is here. Harold Landry will start. Jurrell Casey is in Nashville forever. They need to add additional rushers to this group. Dante Fowler coming back to the AFC South with the Titans just seems like something that has to happen.
It’s impossible to tell for sure what to do with Tennessee’s secondary. On one hand, they were horrendous. Adoree Jackson was their best cornerback as long as he wasn’t covering Tyreek Hill. Both Ryan and Malcolm Butler had sub 50% success rates; Butler was picked on downfield. The Titans finished 30th in DVOA at covering No. 2 wideouts. Without a competent rusher, the blame can’t be placed all on the DBs. The difficulty is separating the two. Whatever they do, the pass defense has to be improved again, just like last offseason.
The Titans also need another interior defender. Corey Liuget could be an option. And the Titans need a second wide receiver. They Andre Johnson’d Rishard Matthews for whatever reason and had no one who could play opposite of Corey Davis. They also need a slot receiver who can catch post routes after Mariota fakes the hand-off and puts one right above the linebacker. See Adam Humphries.
The Titans are the most confusing team in the division. Blah. Bleh. Eh. They have the resources to make things happen, talent at the right spots, and the potential to be interesting, but they have the murkiest path, one filled with animatronic faces and poisoned apples to even remain at that 9-7 mark.
The Colts may never lose another game. Andrew Luck went from being subbed out for Jacoby Brissett for a Hail Mary attempt to a Pro Bowl quarterback again. They have a dominant offensive line. Jabaal Sheard is the largest cap hit on a top ten defense. Their skill players are more than good enough. To upgrade the roster for 2019, they had $107 million before they re-signed Mark Glowiniski, all-time neckbeard and their starting right guard, for three years $ 16.2 million, and Adam Vinatieri, who will never go away, for one year and $3.875 million. Oh, and the Colts have two second round picks in this year’s draft after the Jets traded up with them to select Sam Darnold last year.
Indy doesn’t have a free agent they can’t live without. This is what happens when you rebuild by dumpster diving instead of going on all in two players only to regret it two years later. Ryan Grant, Margus Hunt, Al Woods, Pierre Desir, Dontrelle Inman, and Clayton Geathers are players they are slated to lose. Hunt played way better than he ever should have to start the year, but fell off. Woods is big and strong but is here to take on two at once. Desir is worth keeping around. Him and Kenny Moore being an above average cornerback duo was one of the surprises of the 2018 season. Inman came on to end the 2018 season. The Wild Card Round is still crisp and stuck inside my skull, but in a weak wide receiver free agency class, he may be too expensive to keep on. Geathers is an alright run stopper, but he can be left in the toaster for too long. I’d expect only Desir to stick around, and maybe Inman if the price doesn’t get too high.
In free agency, the Colts can do whatever they want. They can sign whoever they want. Anything and everyone is an option. They could trade a first round pick this year and two seconds for Antonio Brown to add a 1,500 yard receiver to play opposite to T.Y. Hilton.
Last season they were 29th in adjusted sack rate and 25th in pressure rate. They need more pass rushers. Chris Ballard is hoping for one great pass rusher to sneak past the franchise tag window and hit free agency. If they could land Grady Jarrett, Frank Clark, Jadeveon Clowney, DeMarcus Lawrence, or Dee Ford, they’d be in heaven. Hell, they could pull off both this offseason. If the big fish stay in their ponds, Za’Darius Smith, Shaq Barrett, Preston Smith, Sheldon Richardson, and you know what, any talented front seven player who has pass rushing ability is an option. I could also see the Colts going out and snagging a top safety like Landon Collins if he hits the market as an unrestricted free agent.
The Colts could trade for Brown, sign a top pass rusher, sign another pass rusher, and sign a top safety all in a single offseason. The Colts can throw their weight around however they want. Last season’s six game jump in the win colum doesn’t look like an aberration. It was a switchback on the way to thinner air.