(Previously posted: NFC North, NFC South, NFC West, NFC East, AFC North)
Going into the 2011 NFL Draft, the AFC South appeared to be one of the weaker divisions on paper. Tennessee lacked stability at quarterback, Jacksonville and Houston were low on defensive talent, and Indianapolis needed to better protect Peyton Manning. All four teams hoped to use the draft to not only add talent to their football teams, but to also address need.
With so many holes on the rosters, all four teams have plenty of roles for rookies to come in and fill.
Here are some of the situations rookies in the AFC South face to secure playing time:
Round 1: Anthony Castonzo, OT, Boston College
The Colts were very fortunate to have Castonzo, a player some analysts felt was the best tackle in the 2011 draft class, fall to 22nd overall. Indy hopes Castonzo can provide an upgrade to Charlie Johnson, who had a -8.6 rating. They may slide Johnson to the right side to replace Ryan Diem, who rated even worse (-25.1.)
Round 2: Ben Ijalana, OG, Villanova
Ijalana played left tackle at Villanova, but has already been informed he will be moving to guard for the Colts. Every Colts interior lineman except center Jeff Saturday graded negatively in 2011, so Ijalana should challenge for a starting spot immediately. His run-blocking abilities will upgrade an offensive line that had only Jeff Saturday grade positively in that department in 2010.
Round 3: Drake Nevis, DT, LSU
Nevis is a perfect fit for Indianapolis’ defensive scheme, and should be able to contribute immediately. He’s not likely to be any worse than Daniel Muir (-24.4) or Keyunta Dawson (-16.0.) Johnson, Muir, Dawson, and Eric Foster (-2.2) are all pending free agents, which should open the door for Nevis to make an instant impact.
Round 4: Delone Carter, RB, Syracuse
Carter gives the Colts some insurance in case Joseph Addai departs in free agency. Donald Brown has been a disappointment in Indianapolis and had a -6.2 rating last season, so Carter could be poised to challenge for the starting job if Addai leaves. If Addai re-signs with Indy, Carter and Brown will vie for the backup spot.
Round 6: Chris Rucker, CB, Michigan State
Justin Tryon was a nice surprise last year (+5.9), but besides Tryon the Colts had problems at the cornerback position. Jacob Lacey had an especially rough year, and will likely be battling Rucker for a roster spot. With Kelvin Hayden set to return from injury, Jerraud Powers manning the other starting corner position, and Tryon handling the slot, Rucker will have a hard time seeing the field in 2011 if he even makes the roster.
Round 1: Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri
Gabbert has the talent to start from day one, but with a capable starter already on the roster in David Garrard (+34.0 in 2010), the Jaguars have the luxury of letting Gabbert learn from the bench. The Jaguars re-signed Luke McCown to a one-year deal, and though it’s being touted as a “three-way quarterback battle,” Garrard is likely to keep the job, leaving McCown and Gabbert to fight for backup honors. Gabbert could potentially see the field later in the season.
Round 3: Will Rackley, OG, Lehigh
Vince Manuwai had a solid comeback campaign from injury (+1.9,) but Uche Nwaneri, who had a promising +5.0 rating in 2009, took a step backwards in 2010 (-7.4 rating,) especially as a run-blocker (-8.7 run-blocking rating.) Rackley will be given every opportunity to win a starting job in camp, but he’s more likely to be battling Justin Smiley and his -5.1 rating for the backup job.
Round 4: Cecil Shorts III, WR, Mount Union
The Jaguars expect Shorts III to contribute immediately, potentially seeing time in the slot. Mike Thomas was the only Jaguars receiver with a significant number of snaps to put up a positive rating (+4.9,) and with Mike Sims-Walker heading elsewhere in free agency, there’s room for Shorts to be an instant contributor for the Jaguars.
Round 4: Chris Prosinski, S, Wyoming
Prosinski steps into the perfect situation for him in Jacksonville: Courtney Greene was the better of the starting safeties at -3.8, while Don Carey graded as the NFL’s worst starting safety with a rating of -13.9. Prosinski will have a chance to start over Carey at free safety immediately, though the Jaguars are expected to address the position in free agency, which would likely leave Prosinski fighting for a backup spot.
Round 5: Rod Issac, CB, Middle Tennessee St.
Issac should be able to challenge William Middleton for the nickel corner job in training camp. If he can’t beat out Middleton, he’ll likely see most of his playing time on special teams.
Round 1: J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin
With Mario Williams being moved to outside linebacker in the Texans’ new 3-4 defense, Watt should win the starting job across from Antonio Smith at defensive end from day one. Amobi Okoye (-5.5,) the only player likely to challenge Watt for playing time, is reportedly likely to be released.
Round 2: Brooks Reed, OLB, Arizona
Mark Anderson, an impending free agent, was a nice surprise for the Texans at defensive end in 2010. Reed will battle Connor Barwin and Anderson (if he’s re-signed) for the starting job across from Mario Williams.
Round 2: Brandon Harris, CB, Miami (FL)
Houston’s pass coverage was horrendous in 2010, so Harris shouldn’t have trouble finding playing time. With Glover Quin likely moving to free safety, Harris could beat out disappointing former Dolphin Jason Allen (-3.5) and becomethe starter across from Kareem Jackson. If Harris doesn’t win the starting job he should be the Texans’ first-string nickel corner.
Round 4: Rashad Carmichael, CB, Virginia Tech
Carmichael should be in line to challenge Brice McCain and Sherrick McManis for the Texans’ nickel duties, but a lot will depend on the others ahead of him. Either way, Carmichael should contribute on special teams and in dime packages from day one.
Round 5: Shiloh Keo, S, Idaho
Keo will be given every opportunity to win a starting job at strong safety, as last year’s starter Bernard Pollard was not tendered by the Texans and is unlikely to return. Given Pollard’s -6.1 rating last season, Keo could make an immediate impact. Dominique Barber (-1.2 rating in only 34 snaps) is the other current competition, though Keo could be relegated to a backup and special teams role if the Texans address the position in free agency.
Round 5: T.J. Yates, QB, North Carolina
Barring a Matt Schaub injury, Yates has no chance to see action in 2011. He’ll battle Dan Orlovsky and Matt Leinart for a roster spot, though at least one of the three won’t make the final roster.
Round 7: Derek Newton, OT, Arkansas State
Rashad Butler is a restricted free agent, so whether or not he re-signs with Houston plays a large part in Newton’s potential impact on the Texans’ roster. With starting guard Wade Smith also possessing the ability to play tackle in a pinch, Newton will be a backup for the Texans, and if Butler re-signs, Newton will likely be inactive on game days.
Round 7: Cheta Ozougwu, OLB, Rice
This year’s Mr. Irrelevant played defensive end at Rice but will transition to outside linebacker in the Texans’ 3-4 defense. Ozougwu won’t play ahead of Brooks Reed or Connor Barwin, so he’ll have to fight David Nixon, Darryl Sharpton, and Xavier Adibi to make the cut.
Round 1: Jake Locker, QB, Washington
Tennessee’s starting quarterbacks rated 29th and 30th in the league in 2010, so there is definitely room for improvement. Vince Young is headed out of town, so Locker will have an opening in training camp. If Tennessee re-signs Kerry Collins or brings in another veteran, Locker will have to win the starting job in training camp, but either way he should be starting sooner rather than later for the Titans.
Round 2: Akeem Ayers, LB, UCLA
Will Witherspoon (-7.9) was a big disappointment in Tennessee in 2010 and Ayers could provide an instant upgrade at the position. He should be Tennessee’s starting weakside linebacker on opening day, leaving Witherspoon to battle Gerald McRath for playing time.
Round 3: Jurrell Casey, DT, USC
The Titans’ defensive tackles were subpar run defenders in 2010, led by rookie Sen’Derrick Marks (-5.2 against the run, -8.0 overall) and free agent signing Jovan Haye (-4.6 against the run, -13.0 overall.) Jason Jones will be moving to defensive end, leaving room for Casey to battle Marks and Haye for the starting spot or, at worst, secure a backup and short-yardage role.
Round 4: Colin McCarthy, LB, Miami (FL)
Tennessee’s best linebacker, Stephen Tulloch (+13.9) is a free agent, so the Titans loaded up on linebackers in the draft for insurance. McCarthy can play inside or outside and will provide depth and possibly push for a starting spot down the road.
Round 4: Jamie Harper, RB, Clemson
Chris Johnson had sort of an off-year in 2010 (-1.6,) especially in the passing game (-5.0 passing rating.) Javon Ringer was merely average as a receiver out of the backfield, leaving a clear role open for Harper as a third-down back and potential short-yardage option.
Round 5: Karl Klug, DT, Iowa
A “tweener” defensive end/defensive tackle, Klug played defensive tackle at Iowa but will be moving to defensive end for Tennessee. Jason Babin was outstanding in 2010, posting a +25.1 rating, but he’s an unrestricted free agent. Backup pass-rushers Dave Ball and Jacob Ford are also free agents. Jason Jones will be moving to end in 2011, and 2010 first-round pick Derrick Morgan should be the starter on the other side, leaving Klug to battle holdover William Hayes for a backup role on the Titans’ defensive line.
Round 6: Byron Stingily, OT, Louisville
The Titans see Stingily as a potential “swing” tackle or backup at the guard position. Michael Otto is a free agent, so Stingily should be in the mix with Troy Kropog to be the primary backup at the tackle position.
Round 7: Zach Clayton, DT, Auburn
A flier pick at defensive tackle, Clayton will have a tough time making the roster with Tony Brown, Sen’Derrick Marks, Jovan Haye, and Jurrell Casey on board. He’s a likely practice squad player.
Round 7: Tommie Campbell, S, California (PA)
Chris Hope (-0.9), Michael Griffin (-2.1), and Vincent Fuller (-4.0) were below-average at the safety position for Tennessee in 2010, so there’s room for improvement, but Campbell seems more likely to fit in with Nick Schommer, fighting for a backup/special teams role.