This is the third installment of our 2016 NFL Off-Season Recap and Season Preview posts. After discussing the AFC North and AFC West, we find ourselves in the heart of the AFC South. A division that used to be run by the Indianapolis Colts has a whole new look. The days of Manning are long gone, and it is time for some open competition in the South.
Last year, the AFC South was the worst division in football. As a whole, the teams in the division earned 25 wins. Tennessee gave the keys to rookie QB and number two overall pick Marcus Mariota. With a mediocre running game, inexperience at the QB position, and a lackluster defense, the Titans finished the season with only three wins. Jacksonville, behind young QB Blake Bortles improved to 5-11. This was the best record for the Jaguars since 2011. The Colts lost starting QB Andrew Luck in week seven, leaving the team to play with veteran backup Matt Hasselbeck. He was able to play well enough to earn six of the team’s eight victories. Houston had an interesting season that including playing more than four different quarterbacks. Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt and Pro-Bowl WR DeAndre Hopkins led the team to a division title with only a 9-7 record.
Let’s take a look at what these teams did during the 2016 NFL Off-Season to get ready for the new league year.
Luckily for the Titans, the off-season was pretty fair to them. They lost their number two/three cornerback in Coty Sensabaugh and their starting free safety in Michael Griffin. Sensabaugh appeared in all 16 games for Tennessee last year and was forced to replace Jason McCourty when he went down with an injury. He hasn’t seen much progress since entering the NFL in 2012, so it may be better for the Titans to try and bring up younger players at the position. Griffin had spent the last nine seasons in Tennessee and was named to the Pro-Bowl twice. In the later years, he has seen some regression and has slowed down a bit. As with the CB position, it may be a good opportunity for the Titans to get younger at FS.
The team also traded last year’s second-round pick, WR Dorial Green-Beckham, to the the Philadelphia Eagles. The promising young wide-out has received criticism on his motivation and character, which is probably what led to his trade early this morning. I really like DGB as a prospect and hope he can turn his focus to being the best football player he can be, which could be really impressive if he takes advantage of his athleticism and size.
Tennessee added some good pieces this off-season bringing in WR Andre Johnson, WR Rishard Matthews, CB Antwon Blake, FS Rashad Johnson, and C Ben Jones. Andre Johnson had his worst statistical full season of his career in Indianapolis. Now with his third team in the AFC South, he looks to prove that he still has something left to give to the game. He will likely fall into the third or fourth receiver role. Matthews had the best season of his four-year career. He is competing in a surprisingly deep WR pool, but his contract makes it safe to say he will be a top three option for the Titans. Blake had a pretty solid season on the stat sheet, making over 60 tackles, picking off two passes, and starting in all 16 games, however, Blake was only there because of how poor the Steelers’ defense was. Now, he is likely the fourth CB, which may hurt his production. Rashad Johnson had a really strong season with the Cardinals last year. He had a career-high six interceptions and appeared in over 93% of the plays the defense ran. He is a pretty good hold-over piece until the Titans can develop a young FS. Jones will come in and compete for the starting center job with Brian Schwenke and Andy Gallik who split the job last year. If they can sure up the center position, the Titans will have one of the best all-around offensive lines in the NFL.
The Titans completed another trade with Philadelphia earlier in the off-season to acquire RB DeMarco Murray. Murray never really got going with the Eagles, and behind, what looks like, a solid offensive line he should be much more productive.
In the draft, Tennessee chose OT Jack Conklin out of Michigan State with the eighth pick. Conklin will slide in and be the starter on the right side opposite Taylor Lewan. This will help both Murray and Mariota severely. The team also drafted RB Derrick Henry out of Alabama. The two running backs will likely take over the number one and two spots. This probably leaves the Titans with the ability to trade one of their pieces from last season, Bishop Sankey, David Cobb, or Antonio Andrews.
I see an improvement from the Titans this season. I could see them finishing 5-11 or 6-10, but they will still be fourth in the division. With more experience from Mariota and an improved roster, the Titans could be on an uptick.
Like the Titans, the Jaguars made it through the off-season without losing many key pieces. Their biggest loss was G Zane Beadles. The LG played all 16 games over the last two seasons for Jacksonville, but his play was not all that stellar. His impact was more on the fact they didn’t have to worry about the LG position, because he has never missed a game in his NFL career.
The Jaguars made some splashes in free agency, as they threw around a lot of the money they had to spend. Their acquisitions included guys like DT Malik Jackson, RB Chris Ivory, CB Prince Amukamara, OT Kelvin Beachum, and FS Tashaun Gipson. Jackson was given a huge pay day after his Championship run with Denver last year. He will heavily influence the Jaguars run-defense, and as a DT, has a pretty solid pass-rush ability. Ivory will take over the number one RB spot from T.J. Yeldon, who last year just wasn’t efficient enough to get the job done. I think last season was the best we are going to see from Ivory, but he will find a middle ground between his time in New Orleans and last year with the Jets. Amukamara slides into a top four cornerback role in Jacksonville, and he could have the chance to land a starting job if he outplays Devon House and Aaron Colvin. He will need to vastly improve if he wants a starting role, because he was part of a horrendous New York Giants secondary last year. Beachum suffered a torn ACL last season and is looking to come back and battle with LT Luke Joeckel for the starting spot. Although Joeckel was the number two overall pick in 2013, he has not lived up to his draft spot. If Beachum returns to his old self, he should take over the LT spot and be an upgrade to protect Bortles. Gipson will get the starting FS job, and will provide some experience to a very young secondary.
Three rookies have a chance to make a strong impact this season. Last season the Jaguars drafted Dante Fowler Jr. out of Florida. On the first day of mini-camp last May, Fowler tore his ACL and sat out the entire season. This year the organization drafted CB Jalen Ramsey out of Florida State with the fifth overall pick, and they took LB Myles Jack out of UCLA with the fourth pick in the second round. All three look to leave their mark on the league this season, and they could all be in the conversation for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Jacksonville impressed many people last season with the play from QB Blake Bortles, WR Allen Robinson, and WR Allen Hurns. Combine that with the tremendous strides they made this off-season, and we should see some improvement in their overall record. I could see this team finishing 8-8, their best record since 2010.
Indianapolis lost three key pieces in the off-season in TE Coby Fleener, LB Jerrell Freeman, and FS Dwight Lowery. Fleener did not have a huge presence on the field, but he was certainly one of QB Andrew Luck’s favorite targets since their days at Stanford. In 2014, he found Fleener eight times for a touchdown. The team could only keep one of the duo of Fleener and Dwayne Allen, and I believe they made the right choice. Freeman was a starter since his rookie season in 2012, but he had been passed over on the depth chart by guys like Trent Cole and D’Qwell Jackson. It was smart to let Freeman walk. Lowery had a solid year in Indianapolis, and he used it to turn a one-year deal into a three-year contract with the San Diego Chargers. Luckily for the Colts, he was replaced by T.J. Green, a second-round pick in this year’s draft.
The only notable free agent acquisition that the Colts made was signing CB Patrick Robinson. Robinson’s career hasn’t been anything special, but he does provide some talent at the number two cornerback spot. The years of waiting for Greg Toler to mess up are now over in Indianapolis, and their is a more than suitable replacement in Robinson.
In this year’s draft, the Colts selected the nation’s number one center in Ryan Kelly out of Alabama. Since 2011, the Colts have been looking for a replacement for Jeff Saturday, and they may have finally found him. Something needed to be done to protect their biggest asset in Andrew Luck, and GM Ryan Grigson finally made a smart move, even if it isn’t the “sexy” pick their fans were hoping for.
The Colts should see some improvement with Andrew Luck’s return, but I wouldn’t expect anything to significant. I expect the Colts to finish 9-7, which may be enough to win the South. There are just too many holes on this team to see them making huge strides. Not only are there not enough impact players, but I haven’t seen a lot of progress for Luck since entering the league. It looks like he is just doing the same things and making the same mistakes he did as a rookie. He will need to carry this team if they have playoff aspirations.
The three biggest losses for the Texans came on the offense. C Ben Jones, G Brandon Brooks, and RB Arian Foster were all swept away by other teams during free agency. Jones was a stable part of the offensive line for the past four years. He was replaced by their second-round draft pick, but their shouldn’t be much difference considering how poorly they performed last season as a unit. Brooks was another piece that had been consistently starting at the right guard spot the last four seasons. Luckily, Houston found a replacement for him as well. Foster was the franchise running back in Houston for seven seasons. He was extremely successful with the Texans, but he was constantly battling injuries. This past season, Foster suffered a torn Achilles that resulted in a season-ending IR designation. Without Foster, the Texans struggled to find success in the run-game with Alfred Blue and Chris Polk.
Houston brought in a few veteran pieces to improve their roster including QB Brock Osweiler, RB Lamar Miller, G Jeff Allen, and C Tony Bergstrom. Osweiler split the season with Peyton Manning last year, often times out-performing the legend, on their way to a Lombardi Trophy. He will get his first shot to be a starter in the NFL, and he has the tools to take that job by the horns. There will be some missteps at first, but his arm strength proves to be one of the top 15 arms in the NFL. Miller never really got the full support of the Dolphins during his time in Miami. When he ran the ball, he was effective, but those opportunities were not nearly enough. If given the ball as often as Foster was, Miller can be a productive NFL running back. Allen will slide in and replace Brooks, and Bergstrom will battle it out with second-round pick Nick Martin. To be brutally honest, the offensive line couldn’t be much worse than it was at the end of last season.
The Texans took WR Will Fuller out of Notre Dame with their first-round pick. Fuller, Hopkins, and Jaelen Strong can prove to be one of the better WR trios in the league, with all three offering different skill sets. Adding any type of NFL-level talent to the receiving core makes the transition just that much easier for Brock Osweiler.
I predict the Texans finishing 8-8 this season. The division is certainly on the upswing, but there are still a lot of young players in the AFC South. I would pick the Texans to win the division, but J.J. Watt is projected to miss some time at the beginning of the season, and without him, the challenge is much bigger for Houston.
Agree… Disagree.. Let me know.