Off-Season Report Cards: AFC South
Sizing up the off-season moves of the Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans, and how they’ll influence the 2017 campaign
These are the league’s biggest contracts by total dollars.
2016: 9–7, first in AFC South, loss in AFC divisional round of playoffs
Significant Additions: QB Deshaun Watson (R1), LB Zach Cunningham (R2), RB D'Onta Foreman (R3)
Significant Losses: QB Brock Osweiler, CB A.J. Bouye, S Quintin Demps, LB John Simon
It could not have been easy for Bill O’Brien watching his Texans lose to the Patriots in the 2016 playoffs. Statistically, Houston had the best defense in football. They had an elite wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins and a 1,000-yard rusher in Lamar Miller in the backfield. And they still lost, 34–16, against the organization that O’Brien came up through and the quarterback he used to coach—while O’Brien’s current QB, Brock Osweiler, threw three interceptions.
The previous year had ended in a similar fashion for O’Brien when the Chiefs, another AFC powerhouse that had built itself around the consistent play of its veteran quarterback, demolished the Texans in the first round of the playoffs, 30–0.
O’Brien and general manager Rick Smith recognized a pattern here. It isn’t enough to just make the playoffs every year; if a team is going to contend in this league, the team needs a top-flight quarterback. And in O’Brien’s first two years as head coach, he saw Brian Hoyer, Tom Savage, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, Brandon Weeden and Osweiler all start at least one game for him.
Smith went about fixing this by borring a tactic from the NBA and jettisoning Osweiler to the Browns. In the NBA, teams often unload highly paid players to teams with an excessive amount of cap space by sweetening the deal with a draft pick. That’s what Smith did here, sending Osweiler and a 2018 second-round pick to the Browns, in exchange for, well, not much in return. It was a brilliant move on Smith’s part, but this put the Texans in a awkward spot. They desperately needed a quarterback, and the whole league knew it.
None of the quarterbacks available in the 2017 NFL draft were considered a surefire pick, so the Texans first targeted Tony Romo as a possible option—and, by all indications, Romo seemed attracted by the Texans’ situation. Of course, we know how that ended: Romo retired and moved to the broadcasting booth.
That left the Texans’ scrambling again. Unless O’Brien wanted to enter the season with Tom Savage as his starter, which did not seem like a desirable situation, he needed to acquire a quarterback in the draft. After the Bears shocked everyone by trading up to take Mitchell Trubisky at No. 2 overall, and after the Chiefs traded up to take Patrick Mahomes at No. 10, Smith and O’Brien paid a ransom to trade up with—who else?—the Browns for the No. 12 slot, where they drafted Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.
The cost? The Texans had to give the Browns their 2018 first-round pick.
So, to recap: the Texans traded away both their first- and second-round picks in 2018 to replace Osweiler—who threw 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions last season—with a rookie, in Watson. It will be interesting to see how early O’Brien decides to play Watson now. Watson did just win a national championship at Clemson, and he has shown, perhaps, that he has the maturity and the intangibles to be able to step in and play early on.
Only time will tell whether Watson is the right quarterback for the Texans. If he’s not, the moves the Smith and O’Brien made this offseason may set the franchise back a few years. But that’s just the reality of doing business in the NFL, when your team needs a quarterback.
2016: 8–8, third in the AFC South
Significant Additions: S Malik Hooker (R1), CB Quincy Wilson (R2), LB Tarrell Basham (R3), RB Marlon Mack (R4), LB Jabaal Sheard (FA), LB John Simon (FA), WR Kamar Aiken (FA), GM Chris Ballard
Significant Losses: TE Dwayne Allen, LB D’Qwell Jackson, S Mike Adams, GM Ryan Grigson
The Colts’ offseason began with a bang in mid-January, when owner Jim Irsay fired general manager Ryan Grigson. Since drafting QB Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Grigson failed to build a championship-caliber defense to complement his franchise quarterback. From 2012 to ’16, the Colts routinely had one of the worst defenses in the league, ranking 26th, 20th, 11th, 26th and 30th.
To replace Grigson, Irsay hired Chris Ballard, an executive who had spent the last four seasons in the front office of the Kansas City Chiefs, one of premier organizations in the NFL that also—perhaps not coincidentally—had a reputation for building solid defenses. And among Ballard’s first tasks was re-shaping the porous defense in Indianapolis.
When the league year started, Ballard chose to pass up the big-name free-agent defenders like A.J. Bouye, Stephon Gilmore, Calais Campbell or Brandon Williams—all of whom received deals of at least four years worth somewhere between $26 million and $40 million guaranteed. Instead, Ballard found two pass rushers—Jabaal Sheard and John Simon—in the bargain bin, inking them both to team-friendly three-year contracts. Both Sheard and Simon served rotational players for the last two years for the Patriots and Texans respectively, and in their limited roles, they both showed they could pressure the quarterback. In two years, Sheard compiled 13 sacks and Simon 8.5.
Then Ballard turned his focus to the draft, where he found help for his secondary, thanks, in part, to how the top of the draft fell. After the Bears picked Mitchell Trubisky and the Titans chose Corey Davis in the first five picks — both surprises — several of the top defensive prospects were pushed down, which led to Malik Hooker, one of the top safety prospects, falling right into the Colts’ lap. Grigson followed that up by picking a cornerback a tall, press corner from Florida named Quincy Wilson in the second round, and then he added another pass rusher in the third, a high-energy guy from Ohio University named Tarrell Basham.
Ballard had more needs he could have addressed this offseason. Luck could have used more weapons around him perhaps, and the Colts’ offensive line has also been horrible over the last five years with Grigson was in charge. Offensive line was arguably a more pressing need than the defense, too, because a bad offensive line means Luck gets roughed up more and more, and thus the chances of him getting hurt are greater. But Ballard did not address the offensive line in any tangible way, other than drafting Zach Banner, the 6' 8", 350-pound USC tackle in the fourth round, as, presumably a developmental project.
Maybe that’s a sign of just how bad the Colts defense really is. The moves Ballard made won’t fix it overnight, either. But he showed that he at least has a plan to fix it: build a core of young defenders through the draft and find under-the-radar pieces to fill in the gaps. Colts fans may be hoping that next offseason he splurges on a high-priced free agent, too.
Letter grade: B+
2016: 3–13, fourth in AFC South
Significant Additions: DL Calais Campbell (FA), CB A.J. Bouye (FA), S Barry Church (FA), RB Leonard Fournette (R1), OT Cam Robinson (R2), Tom Coughlin as Executive Vice President of Football Operations, Doug Marrone as head coach
Significant Losses: OT Kelvin Beachum, G Luke Joeckel, S Johnathan Cyprien, CB Prince Amukamara, DL Tyson Alualu, head coach Gus Bradley
This time a year ago, the Jaguars were the hot pick to make a run to the playoffs. QB Blake Bortles’s stastically strong season in 2015 and the flashy players added during free agency made it easy for pundits and fans alike to ignore the fact that Jacksonville was coming off a five-win season.
As we all know, it ended up being a mirage. The Jaguars only won three games, Bortles seemed to regress and the defense allowed more than 25 points a game. Owner Shahid Khan fired coach Gus Bradley and brought in Tom Coughlin as executive vice president above GM Dave Caldwell, which appeared to be the first step in realizing that high-priced free-agency signings doesn’t exactly build a strong team. This would be the first time that Coughlin, who oversaw the Jaguars’ four playoff appearances from 1996–’99, would have control over building a team, but the move just felt ... right.
But even with Coughlin on board, the Jaguars seemed to revert to their same old free-wheeling ways this off-season. When free agency opened, they signed arguably the top cornerback available (A.J. Bouye) and the top defensive lineman available (Calais Campbell), handing over a combined $56 million guaranteed. Then they added safety Barry Church, giving him another $12 million guaranteed.
On paper, the Jaguars seemed to have upgraded their defense immensely, with three new starters. Campbell was a second-team All Pro selection last year, Bouye had a breakout year and finished 12th in the league in passes defended, and Church had proven to be a steady presence with the Dallas Cowboys. But it was also fair to wonder, was this Déjà vu all over again? Take a look at the big-name players that the Jaguars signed during the previous three free agency periods:
2016: Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, Chris Ivory
2015: Julius Thomas and Jared Odrick
2014: Zane Beadles, Ziggy Hood, Toby Gerhart, Chris Clemons, Red Bryant
Of the players signed in 2014 and ’15, none of them are still with the Jaguars. Of the three players the Jaguars signed in 2016, only Malik Jackson—who received $42 million in guarantees over a six-year deal—improved his play after signing. Jackson recorded a career-high 6.5 sacks last year, while Ivory and Gipson both seemed to stagnate.
The Jaguars used their first-round pick to draft Ivory’s replacement in Leonard Fournette—considered by many to be the best running back in the draft. The Jaguars certainly had other needs: offensive line, tight end, defensive tackle, to name a few. But it seems that Coughlin envisioned the 6' 0", 240-pound Fournette as his new Fred Taylor, the workhorse running back who powered those ‘90s Jags teams.
Fournette also may offer the Jaguars something they seem to be searching for with all of these free agent acquisitions: an identity. After six-consecutive losing seasons, Jacksonville is desperate for a star, someone to save them from this ongoing mediocrity. At the very least he should relieve some pressure off Bortles and open up the offense. In time, maybe Fournette, the former All-American LSU running back, will grow into the face of the franchise.
The Jaguars have a new face of the front office, at least, in Coughlin. The question now is whether all these offseason moves are a stroke of genius on Coughlin’s part, or just another example of how the Jaguars seemed destined to make the same mistakes over and over again.
2016: 9–7, second in AFC South
Significant Additions: CB Logan Ryan (FA), DT Sylvester Williams (FA), S Johnathan Cyprien (FA), WR Corey Davis (R1), CB Adoree’ Jackson (R1), WR Taywan Taylor (R3)
Significant Losses: TE Anthony Fasano, LB Sean Spence, WR Kendall Wright, G Chance Warmack
For general manager Jon Robinson, this off-season was really a continuation of last off-season, when he made the brilliant move of trading the No. 1 pick in the draft to the Rams, allowing Los Angeles to draft QB Jared Goff. Robinson used those extra picks—both last year and this year—to surround Titans QB Marcus Mariota with a better support system.
Armed with the Rams’ first-round pick, the No. 5 overall selection, Robinson chose WR Corey Davis out of Western Michigan—a tall, fast receiver who averaged about 88 catches, 1448 yards, and 15 touchdowns a season in college, and led Western Michigan, a MAC school, to a New Year’s Six bowl game last season. He seems to be exactly the type of alpha-dog, No. 1 receiver that could stretch the field for Mariota for years to come.
Robinson also nabbed WR Taywan Taylor, another small-school receiver, in the third round. Compared to Davis, Taylor is the shorter, shiftier slot receiver. Taylor, who accumulated 98 catches, 1,730 yards and 17 touchdowns in his senior year alone, gives Mariota a safety blanket to check down to.
These moves also pointed to another theme of the Titans’ offseason. Not only was Robinson trying to surround Mariota with more talent, he seemed to be specifically targeting skill positions on offense and defense, making the Titans more athletic overall.
For example, with the Titans’ other first-round pick, the No. 18 overall pick, Robinson chose Adoree’ Jackson, one of the best athletes in the draft. At USC, Jackson primarily played cornerback, but he also moonlighted at receiver and was an elite return man. In his junior year, he had five interceptions and four special teams touchdowns. He could be a weapon at times on offense and in the return game, where he’d give Mariota good field position.
But the way Jackson may help Mariota the most is at his natural position in the secondary. The Titans’ pass defense ranked 30th in the league last year, which meant they played in a few barn-burners and Mariota was pressured to keep up. Robinson addressed the secondary during free agency, too, by, again, adding more athletes, signing Logan Ryan away from the Patriots and Johnathan Cyprien away from the Jaguars. Ryan, a pesky cornerback, was a key contributor to the Patriots’ Super Bowl team, and Cyprien, a hard-hitting strong safety, compiled a 127 tackles last season—the most of any defensive back in the league. And both Ryan and Cyprien are 26 years old, not much older than Mariota.
It’s obvious where Robinson is trying to go with this, building a young nucleus of players to support his quarterback. Mariota is coming back from a broken fibula and entering his third season in the league now, the year most players typically take a leap in their development. If he doesn’t make the leap, he can’t say his GM didn’t help him.