Draft Needs: AFC South
Teams have now had a month of free agency to chase down veteran upgrades, replacements, and hole-fillers but their roster-twisting work is not done. Next on the horizon is the 2013 NFL draft and with it comes the yearly opportunity to land youthful talent that, ideally, will provide a long-term positive impact.
In our division-by-division look at current draft needs, the most pressing roster concerns are addressed for each team and Steve Palazzolo tacks on early- and late-round draft day options as we go.
Most teams that play a 3-4 live and die by the pressure of their outside linebackers. The Texans have been able to hide the fact they haven’t been stellar at that spot by having an unusually strong interior rush presence in JJ Watt and Antonio Smith. Connor Barwin was lured away by the Eagles leaving them with Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus. The pair combined for 10 sacks last year, but also a -25.8 pass rush grade. With the dominance of Watt and the consistent threat of Antonio Smith, the Texans will likely be able to survive another season with no real threat on the outside. The defense would instantly vault another level, though, if they could find a player to deploy on the perimeter to give offenses something extra to think about, and to take some attention away from Watt. Their three main OLBs last season teamed for just 92 total pressures, only 16 more than Watt was able to manage by himself on the interior. That needs to be upgraded.
Early round option: Cornelius Washington, Georgia
If the Texans are looking for another 3-4 outside linebacker near the top of their draft, they may be better off waiting for the second round with hopes that a player such as Washington is available. The top 3-4 OLBs will go in the Top 15, while the bottom half of the first round may be a bit rich for the next wave of pass rushers. After being overshadowed on a loaded Georgia defense, Washington might be around when the Texans pick at No. 57 overall and his jump to the NFL could prove more productive than his time spent in Athens.
Mid/late round option: Brandon Jenkins, Florida State
Jenkins is one of three Florida State defensive ends who will hear his name called in New York, but his senior season ended with a disappointing foot injury that caused him to miss all but the first half of the first game of the season. He’ll likely be around in the middle rounds where the Texans would be smart to snatch up the former potential first-round pick.
You might think the Colts have no more needs to fill given how they have approached free agency with a dredging net, but there remain some issues on the roster. At some stage the pass-rush duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis was going to come to the end of the line and need replacing. Changing schemes didn’t help either player, but even if they hadn’t changed, those once-formidable rushers are both the wrong side of 30 and likely on the decline in their careers. Freeney looks set to move on this offseason and was the least suited to the changing fronts Chuck Pagano wants to be able to employ. Robert Mathis will be back, and hopefully past the injury problems of 2012, but the Colts need a better player than Erik Walden to pair opposite him and provide some legitimate pass rush. Walden might be seen as a two-down player initially while the Colts then deploy a rookie pass-rush specialist to bring the heat that Walden has never been able to generate in Green Bay.
Early round option: Corey Lemonier, Auburn
Like Houston, the Colts are in a difficult spot if they look to add an edge rusher at the back end of the first round. Analysts have a lot of mixed opinions on Lemonier’s game, but he’s expected to go anywhere in the late first to the late second round and Indianapolis has two picks in that range to take a chance on one of the better pass rushers in the draft.
Mid/late round option: John Simon, Ohio State
If pass rusher isn’t addressed, Simon is a nice mid-round option. He’s often touted for his “good motor” which is scout-speak for “average athleticism”, but regardless of semantics, Simon has found his way to the quarterback throughout his Big Ten career and there’s certainly some potential value there.
Cornerback was a position that was none too good looking before the Jaguars said goodbye to their top three on the depth chart this offseason. Derek Cox and Aaron Ross have signed elsewhere as free agents, while the team is simply not going to offer a new contract to long-time veteran Rashean Mathis. They brought in Antwan Molden and Alan Ball in free agency, but in an ideal world both players should be battling to be the third corner at best. They need a pair of viable starters. In a division that features some formidable receivers, the Jaguars can’t afford to go into the season without a legit corner on the roster.
Early round option: Xavier Rhodes, Florida State
If new head coach Gus Bradley’s tenure as defensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks is any indication, size will be of utmost importance at the cornerback position in Jacksonville. He had Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner in Seattle, so look for the 6-foot-2 Rhodes to be a top target if he’s available at the top of the second round.
Mid/late round option: Sheldon Price, UCLA
Even if Rhodes is secured in the early rounds, the Jaguars could double dip at the cornerback position and Price fits the prototype at 6-foot-2 , 180 pounds. He’s a work in progress, but he has the size to play the press coverage that Bradley covets.
The Titans have been trying to find an answer at MLB for a while now, and it looked briefly as if Colin McCarthy could be that answer. However, after a season in which he posted a -15.3 grade in just 388 snaps before heading to Injured Reserve with concussions, the Titans must be seriously considering their evaluation. McCarthy will likely look to try and bounce back to his 2011 form, but the Titans need to add another option in the draft, because they can’t afford to have the 2012 version of McCarthy manning the middle for them all season and beyond if he can’t find that form. Will Witherspoon has had experience in the middle in the past, but the Titans aren’t looking to bring him back, so they also have a major lack of depth behind Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown as starters. Whether it is to supplant McCarthy in the middle or provide some much needed depth across the board, the Titans will be looking for linebacker help in the draft.
Early round option: Kevin Minter, LSU
Many early mock drafts linked the Titans to Manti Te’o at No. 10 overall, but those predictions have cooled as the hype train has died down. It’s unlikely that Te’o will still be on the board when the Titans come back around at No. 40, but Minter would be a nice consolation prize. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking as Minter could be gone by the end of the first round, but his run-stopping ability would be a nice complement to Tennessee’s current outside linebackers.
Mid/late round option: Jon Bostic, Florida
Bostic was a quietly productive three-year starter for Florida as he made plays both against the run and the pass. He ran better than expected during the offseason workouts, but he should be available in the middle rounds with the potential to start from Day 1.
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