Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at the state of the league before the 2020 NFL Draft. Grant Gordon reviews the current membership of AFC South below.
Although the Houston Texans have won four of the last five AFC South titles, the division has been anything but predictable – during the season and beyond.
In each of the past two seasons, arguably the biggest shockers in the league have emerged from AFC South, with Andrew Luck retiring before the 2019 campaign and Bill O’Brien sending DeAndre Hopkins to the desert via trade this off-season .
After each of the previous three seasons, at least one AFC South team failed to reach the playoffs after winning at least one playoff game in the previous campaign.
One of those teams was the Colts, who failed to get 2019 to dance when Luck’s retirement got off to a promising start in Indianapolis, falling to the side of the road with a litany of injuries.
Marked by breathtaking crafts, the division has seen an abundance of remarkable movement so far, but it is the Colts who stand as having added to an already promising list. While recognizable names like Hopkins, Calais Campbell, Jurrell Casey, Marcus Mariota, Jack Conklin, Nick Foles and DJ Readers should be playing elsewhere, Indy is where new big names have been added – Philip Rivers, DeForest Buckner and Xavier Rhodes.
With an impressive free-run run to date, the Colts may well be the only team in the division that looks better on paper now than when it moved away from the 2019 season.
As for the Texans, Titans and Jaguars, it seems that there are as many questions to be answered as those that have been addressed.
Three seasons ago, the Jaguars were supported by a dominant defense in an AFC championship game, but no longer look like this 2017 team and have apparently started to rebuild the franchise, as evidenced by a multitude of movements, but none more emblematic of where the franchise is headed rather than swapping Campbell, defense heart and title man of the year for Walter Payton. While exceptional defense was once the hallmark of this franchise, it looks like quarterback Gardner Minshew is now the face of the future – and the future is what the Jags are focused on.
In Houston, O’Brien’s roster shifts are in the fore again, but when you have Deshaun Watson and (a healthy) JJ Watt, a three-round division can’t be considered out of the realm of possibility. .
And then there are the Titans, who lost a lot but ensured the returns of the two most synonymous riveting racing players of last season.
It was a story of triumph of return rarely seen.
Ryan Tannehill still resuscitated his career and the season of the Titans. A seemingly neglected career was somehow revitalized during a week he was on the pine and the next had offered Tennessee the incendiary switch so long absent. And after these Titans emerged with a playoff spot, they unleashed the fury that was the rumble of a single man known as Derrick Henry. Henry’s historic playoff run has turned the AFC into an equally historic tizzy. Gone are the Patriots – Tannehill, Henry and Co. having knocked down this powerful dynastic force in what turns out to be Tom Brady’s last 60 minutes with New England – then also disappeared the Ravens, a reinforced No. 1 seed. with a dynamic first quarterback wonder and a record rush attack. After leaving for Las Vegas, Mariota is apparently a footnote, but an important one. The Titans have a new quarterback and look forward to a new era for them, but sustaining success in AFC South – or the NFL as a whole – is no easy task.
Things have started all over again in AFC South, with the Colts galloping towards the biggest wins, but there are reasons to be optimistic and worrying for each team in the division.
FREE NOTES FROM THE AGENCY
GREATEST ADDITION: Philip Rivers, quarterback.
Former team: Los Angeles Chargers. New team: Indianapolis Colts.
In an offseason in which the division suffered greater losses than gains, the Colts’ additions stood out from afar. DeForest Buckner’s trading could have taken that place and is probably the most important move for the Colts – and AFC South – in the long term. However, a year ago, the Colts were very ready to do great things in the minds of many. Then Andrew Luck and retired. Jacoby Brissett took the reins and behaved well at first, but he was one of many Colts who were bitten by the injury virus. Enter Rivers. At 38 and after a season of 20 interceptions, Rivers is certainly accompanied by question marks, but he also brings with him a resume, experience and the ability to lead and rally a team around him. It is also imperative, looking at the back view of Rivers’ 2019 season, that he played behind a porous offensive line and is now ready to play behind one of the most beautiful and fearsome units in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, the Chargers were the No. 29 O line a season ago, while the Colts were No. 3. Of course, there may not be enough time in Rivers’ career, but it’s also time for the Colts take a giant leap with a well-rounded team and it makes for an enticing marriage.
GREATEST LOSS: DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver.
Former team: Houston Texans. New team: Arizona Cardinals.
There has been a parade of highly publicized departures from AFC South and yet this is an easy dilemma to answer. DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best players not only in his job, but in the NFL and at the peak of his career. If the answer to this most important dilemma had been Bill O’Brien’s sanity, he would likely have encountered warm laughter and many affirmative nods. In fairness to O’Brien, his cavalcade of confusing movements has been widely met with success – including Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and Carlos Hyde last year. Still, trading Hopkins – and getting ball carrier David Johnson and a second-round pick back (with a fourth round swap) – is hard to predict. Houston added Randall Cobb to join Will Fuller and Stils, often injured but very talented, in the host corps. There is however no Hopkins level replacement. There may be reinforcements in the receiver-rich project, but the Texans are missing from a first-round pick. Nevertheless, they left Nuk, leaving one of the best quarterbacks in the game, Deshaun Watson, in search of a new No. 1.
ADD SLEEPER: Tyler Eifert, tight end.
Former team: Cincinnati Bengals. New team: Jacksonville Jaguars.
Once upon a time, Tyler Eifert presented the talent of being one of the best tight corners in the league. Unfortunately, injuries have slowed his career, but – plain and simple – when you have a 13 touchdown season on your resume, as he does in a 2015 Pro Bowl campaign, there will be hope that that shine can be rekindled. Even if the Jaguars do not win the jackpot, there remains an offensive option long absent in Jacksonville. What’s more, as the team begins to build around quarterback Gardner Minshew, the gorgeous mustache prodigy now has an option he really didn’t have in his rookie year. While Eifert’s 43 wins in 2019 were not entirely surprising, the Jaguars’ TE suit of James O’Shaughnessy, Geoff Swaim, Seth DeValve and Nick O’Leary only combined for 49 receptions. Injury will still be a concern, but Eifert played in 16 games last year for the first time in his career, and with his new start comes a new facet of the offense for Minshew and the Jags.
Houston Texans: Lost in the loss of Hopkins was the departure of the defensive lineman D.J. Reader, an unknown stallion in the middle of Houston, who moved north of Cincinnati and left a gigantic hole on the Texans’ D line. With Watt’s injury problems, the Texans’ defensive line as a whole needs reinforcements, as does the cornerback position. However, filling the vacant position at Hopkins will be at the forefront for the rest of this off-season (and possibly many more to come). While this should be a project with a crop of all-time receivers, as mentioned above, the Texans are missing out on the first choice. It’s not all implausible to predict that anything can happen with the Houston front office. So maybe the depth of Stills, Cobb, Fuller and Keke Coutee is enough. Probably not. The offensive line joins the body of wide catches, defensive lines and cornerbacks in the major needs category. Tunsil’s business was a huge step for Deshaun Watson’s health, but one player – however phenomenal Tunsil may be – has not remedied all of these ills. According to Pro Football Focus, the Texans’ offense line was 20th in 2019, and it was an improvement over 2018. Watson is likely to meet his share of bags, but there is plenty of room to improve in this contingent .
Indianapolis Colts: At that time, a year ago, despite an abundance of caps, the Colts remained relatively silent in free agency. In 2020, not that much. They traded for Buckner, signed Rivers and Rhodes, and in one of their most important but unannounced moves, re-signed Anthony Castonzo to keep arguably the best offensive line before next season. Although Rivers is on board and could make the Colts a competitor, a long-term quarterback solution may wait in the draft (perhaps Jacob Eason). The addition of Buckner does not mean that an edge rusher is not yet a need and the solidification of the reception rows is also essential. Perhaps the most notable departure was tight end Eric Ebron. Adding an offensive option to that position and at least someone pairing up with Jack Doyle might bode well, as Rivers was half of one of the greatest QB-TE combos of all time with Antonio Gates.
Jacksonville Jaguars: A large sum was paid for linebacker Joe Schobert, perhaps a theft was made in the acquisition of tight end Tyler Eifert and the defensive signatures of defensive end Rodney Gunter, linebacker Cassius Marsh and the player Al Woods’ defensive line could be potential stopping points. But there is no doubt that this offseason is the one where the Jaguars are largely starting again, free will being more a matter of loss than gain. The Jaguars have traded Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and quarterback Nick Foles, and their once iconic defense is nothing like they were before. With a pair of first round picks (# 9 and # 20) and Gardner Minshew quarterback, defining a young, strong core and building around it starts now. There are many needs throughout the list; in particular, tackling tackle, wide catcher, cornerback and pass rusher are areas that should and should be addressed in the project.
Tennessee Titans: The co-authors of the remarkable Titans race in 2019 – QB Ryan Tannehill and RB Derrick Henry – have returned and it was undoubtedly Tennessee’s top priority during the offseason. Yet as much of a man’s demolition team as Henry was, his success didn’t happen without a sensational offensive line. Taylor Lewan and Ben Jones are still there, but the loss of Jack Conklin makes tackling the draft a top priority in the future. The loss of Jurrell Casey reinforces the need for help throughout the defensive line despite the addition of Vic Beasley. Cornerback and tight cornering are also likely options in the project, but right tackle and defensive line stand out as the Titans’ targets in the future as they seek to replicate last season’s success rather than becoming the last AFC South charge to produce only the roadside crash the following season. The task for the Titans is recovering huge losses with Casey and Conklin, 2019 is therefore the beginning of sustained success rather than an aberration.
Follow Grant Gordon on Twitter @TCNGrantGordon.