- AFC South
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Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. Grant Gordon examines the current makeup of the AFC South below.
Though the Houston Texans have won four of the last five AFC South titles, the division’s been anything but predictable — during the season and beyond.
In each of the last two offseasons, arguably the league’s largest shockers have emanated from the AFC South, with Andrew Luck retiring before the 2019 campaign and Bill O’Brien sending DeAndre Hopkins to the desert via trade this offseason.
Following each of the previous three seasons, at least one AFC South squad has fallen short of making the postseason after winning at least one playoff game the previous campaign.
One such team was the Colts, who failed to make the 2019 dance as the Luck retirement was met with a promising start in Indianapolis only to stumble to the wayside with a litany of injuries.
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Marked by stunning trades, the division has seen an abundance of noteworthy moves thus far, but it’s the Colts who stand tall as having added to an already promising roster. While recognizable names such as Hopkins, Calais Campbell, Jurrell Casey, Marcus Mariota, Jack Conklin, Nick Foles and D.J. Reader are set to play elsewhere, it’s in Indy in which new big names have been added — Philip Rivers, DeForest Buckner and Xavier Rhodes.
With an impressive free-agency run thus far, the Colts might well be the one team in the division that looks better on paper now than when it walked away from the 2019 season.
As for the Texans, Titans and Jaguars, it would seem there are as many questions still to be answered as have been addressed.
Three seasons ago, the Jaguars were buoyed by a dominant defense on an AFC Championship Game run, but now look nothing like that 2017 team and have seemingly begun to reconstruct the franchise, evidenced by a bevy of moves, but none more emblematic of where the franchise is headed than trading away Campbell, the heart of the defense and reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year. While a standout defense was once the hallmark of this franchise, it would seem 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 shake-ups are once again at the forefront, but when you have Deshaun Watson and (a healthy) J.J. Watt, a division three-peat can’t be seen as out of the realm of possibility.
And then there’s the Titans, who lost plenty but assured the returns of the two players most synonymous with last season’s riveting run.
It was a tale of comeback triumph seldom seen.
Ryan Tannehill resurrected his career and the Titans’ season all the same. A career seemingly left behind was somehow revitalized when one week he was riding the pine and the next had offered Tennessee the incendiary switch so long absent. And after these Titans emerged with a playoff berth, they unleashed the fury that was the one-man rumble known as Derrick Henry. Henry’s historic playoff run turned the AFC into an equally historic tizzy. Gone were the Patriots — Tannehill, Henry and Co. having downed this mighty dynastic force in what would prove to be Tom Brady’s last 60 minutes with New England — and then gone, too, were the Ravens, a No. 1 seed bolstered by a dynamic first-time-ever wunderkind of a quarterback and a record-setting rushing attack. Having left for Las Vegas, Mariota’s seemingly a footnote, but an important one. The Titans have a new franchise quarterback and are hoping a new era upon them, but maintaining success in the AFC South — or the NFL as a whole — is no easy task.
Things have reset once more in the AFC South, with the Colts having galloped to the biggest gains, but there’s reason for optimism and concern alike for every squad in the division.
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BIGGEST ADDITION: Philip Rivers, quarterback.
Old team: Los Angeles Chargers. New team: Indianapolis Colts.
In an offseason in which there were more notable losses to the division than gains, the Colts’ additions stood out far and away. Trading for DeForest Buckner could well have taken this slot and is most likely the larger move for the Colts — and the AFC South — in the long-term. However, a year ago, the Colts were very much poised for big doings in the minds of many. Then Andrew Luck up and retired. Jacoby Brissett took the reins and actually fared well at the onset, but he was one of many Colts bitten by the injury bug. Enter Rivers. At 38 and coming off a 20-interception season, Rivers certainly comes with question marks, but he also brings with him a Hall-of-Fame resume, experience and the ability to lead and rally a team around him. It’s also imperative when looking into the rear view of Rivers’ 2019 season that he played behind a porous offensive line and is now set to play behind one of the NFL’s finest and most fearsome units. Per Pro Football Focus, the Chargers were the No. 29 O-line a season ago, while the Colts were No. 3. Sure, time might well be running low on Rivers’ career, but the time is also now for the Colts to take a giant step forward with a well-rounded team and that makes this an enticing marriage.
BIGGEST LOSS: DeAndre Hopkins, wide receiver.
Old team: Houston Texans. New team: Arizona Cardinals.
There was a parade of high-profile departures from the AFC South and yet this is an easy quandary to answer. DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best players not just at his position, but in the NFL and he’s in the prime of his career. Had the answer to this biggest-loss quandary been Bill O’Brien’s sanity, it likely would’ve been met with some hearty chuckles and plenty of affirmative head nods. In fairness to O’Brien, his cavalcade of confounding moves have largely been met with success — bringing in Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills and Carlos Hyde last year, among them. Still, trading away Hopkins — and getting running back David Johnson and a second-round pick in return (along with a swap of fourth-rounders) — is arduous to forecast ending well. Houston has added Randall Cobb to join the oft-injured-though-uber-talented Will Fuller and Stills in the receiving corps. There isn’t a Hopkins-level replacement among them, though. Perhaps there are reinforcements in the receiver-rich draft, but the Texans are absent a first-round choice. Nonetheless, they have moved on from Nuk, leaving one of the game’s finest quarterbacks, Deshaun Watson, searching for a new No. 1.
SLEEPER ADDITION: Tyler Eifert, tight end.
Old team: Cincinnati Bengals. New team: Jacksonville Jaguars.
Once upon a time, Tyler Eifert showcased the talent to be one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league. Injuries have stunted his career, unfortunately, but — plain and simple — when you have a 13-touchdown season on your resume, as he does during a 2015 Pro Bowl campaign, hope will linger that that brilliance can be rekindled. Even if the Jaguars don’t hit the jackpot, he’s still an offensive option long absent in Jacksonville. More so, as the team begins to build around quarterback Gardner Minshew, the magnificent-mustached prodigy now has an option he really didn’t during his rookie year. Though Eifert’s 43 grabs in 2019 were hardly eye-popping, the Jaguars’ TE combination of James O’Shaughnessy, Geoff Swaim, Seth DeValve and Nick O’Leary combined for only 49 receptions. Injuries will always be a concern, but Eifert played in all 16 games last year for the first time in his career, and with his new start comes a new facet to the offense for Minshew and the Jags.
Houston Texans: Lost in the loss of Hopkins has been the departure of defensive lineman D.J. Reader, an unsung stud in the middle for Houston who’s moved north to Cincinnati and left a mammoth hole on the Texans’ D-line. With Watt’s injury troubles, the Texans’ defensive line as a whole is in need of reinforcements as is the cornerback position. However, filling the Hopkins vacancy will be at the forefront for the remainder of this offseason (and perhaps many more to come). While this is projected to be a draft with an all-time crop of receivers, as aforementioned, the Texans are absent a No. 1 pick. It’s not all together implausible to predict anything can happen with the Houston front office. So, perhaps the depth of Stills, Cobb, Fuller and Keke Coutee is seen to be enough. Likely not. Joining the wide receiver, defensive line and cornerback corps in the major-need category is the offensive line. Trading for Tunsil was a huge move for the health of Deshaun Watson, but one player — phenomenal as Tunsil is — didn’t remedy all those ills. Per Pro Football Focus, the Texans offensive line was 20th in 2019, and that was an improvement from 2018. Watson is likely to run into his share of sacks, but there’s plenty of room to get better in that contingent.
Indianapolis Colts: At this time a year ago, despite an abundance of cap room, the Colts kept relatively quiet in free agency. In 2020, not so much. They traded for Buckner, signed Rivers and Rhodes, and in one of their biggest-yet-unheralded moves, re-signed Anthony Castonzo to keep arguably the finest offensive line heading into next season all together. Though Rivers is on board and could make the Colts a contender, a long-term solution at quarterback could await in the draft (maybe Jacob Eason). The addition of Buckner doesn’t mean an edge rusher isn’t still a need and solidifying the receiving ranks is likewise paramount. Perhaps the most noteworthy departure was tight end Eric Ebron. Adding an offensive option at that position and somebody to at least pair with Jack Doyle could bode well as Rivers was half of one of the greatest QB-TE combos of all-time with Antonio Gates.
Jacksonville Jaguars: A lofty sum was paid for linebacker Joe Schobert, perhaps a steal was had in the acquisition of tight end Tyler Eifert and the defensive signings of defensive end Rodney Gunter, linebacker Cassius Marsh and defensive lineman Al Woods could be potential stop-gaps. But there’s no mistaking that this offseason is one in which the Jaguars are largely starting over,with free agency being more about loss than gain. The Jaguars traded away Campbell, cornerback A.J. Bouye and quarterback Nick Foles, and their once hallmark defense looks nothing as it did before. With a pair of first-round draft picks (No. 9 and No. 20) and quarterback Gardner Minshew, defining a strong, young nucleus and building around it starts now. Needs are abundant across the roster; in particular, offensive tackle, wide receiver, cornerback and pass rusher are areas that should and need to be addressed in the draft.
Tennessee Titans: Co-authors of the Titans’ remarkable 2019 run — QB Ryan Tannehill and RB Derrick Henry — have returned and that was no doubt Tennessee’s top offseason priority. Still, as much of a one-man wrecking crew as Henry was, his success didn’t come without a sensational offensive line. Taylor Lewan and Ben Jones are still there, but the loss of Jack Conklin makes finding a top-level right tackle in the draft the new top priority going forward. Losing Jurrell Casey furthers the need for help all along the defensive line despite the addition of Vic Beasley. Cornerback and tight end are also likely options in the draft, but right tackle and the defensive line stand out as the Titans’ targets going forward as they look to duplicate last season’s success rather than becoming the latest AFC South charge to produce a playoff run only to fall to the wayside the ensuing season. The task at hand for the Titans is recovering from huge losses with Casey and Conklin, so 2019 is the beginning of sustained success rather than an aberration.
Follow Grant Gordon on Twitter @TCNGrantGordon.
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