Free-agent additions make Texans, Jaguars, AFC South frontrunners
The AFC South was quite possibly the weakest division in football in 2015. Despite rotating a procession of dreadful QBs, the Texans were able to win enough games to make the postseason. Their playoff run was predictably short-lived, however, resulting in an offensive overhaul thus far in the offseason. Are those additions enough to hold off the Jags, Colts and Titans? Here’s a look at how the four teams now stack up after the first wave of free-agent signings.
1. Houston Texans
Key additions: QB Brock Osweiler, G Jeff Allen, RB Lamar Miller, G Tony Bergstrom
Key losses: G Brandon Brooks, C Ben Jones
Although we’re far from sold on Osweiler as a franchise QB, he’s undoubtedly an upgrade over the combination of Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett. The Texans may have been forced to pay a king’s ransom for a mid-level starter at the position, but Osweiler possesses the upside to be more than that. He flashes big-time talent on some throws, but struggles to generate the consistency of the top NFL signal-callers (in his small sample-size of games, at least). With that said, Osweiler has the potential to improve with live experience in a QB-friendly system.
Quarterback wasn’t the only position the Texans improved in free agency. RB Lamar Miller provides an instant upgrade in the backfield. The offense looks in good shape with DeAndre Hopkins providing the playmaking on the perimeter, and replacements found for the departed Brooks and Jones in free agency.
The defense, which carried the Texans to the postseason in 2015, also returns in its entirety (aside from role players Quintin Demps and Jared Crick, who could yet be retained). The front seven remains outstanding, with the potential to improve further. If Jadeveon Clowney develops into the elite pass rusher many expected, the Texans’ defense will be even more dominant. The unit is perhaps lacking a little depth, but few teams can compete with a core of J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Johnathan Joseph. The Texans’ defense should be at least as good as it was in 2015.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Key additions: DT Malik Jackson, RB Chris Ivory, CB Prince Amukamara, S Tashaun Gipson, OT Kelvin Beachum
Key losses: None (C Stefan Wisniewski remains an unrestricted free agent)
Gus Bradley has been the rare beneficiary of patient ownership. He must start repaying the faith in wins pretty quickly, though. Will 2016 be the year? The good news is that the Jaguars appear to have finally found their long-term answer at QB. Blake Bortles took not just a step, but a leap forward last season. Coupled with a trio of top receivers, the Jaguars should be able to move the ball effectively through the air. The offensive line is a major concern—the only lineman to record a positive grade for the Jags in 2015 is currently a free agent—but in T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory, Jacksonville has a pair of running backs capable of generating yardage on their own.
The crucial projection in this ranking concerns the Jags’ ability to generate pass-rush pressure. Only sub-package DE Ryan Davis generated any sort of consistent heat on opposing QBs last season; the arrival of Malik Jackson should help in that regard. The return from injury of Dante Fowler will also be crucial. If Fowler can hit the ground running, the Jaguars’ defensive front will be much-improved. The addition of CB Prince Amukamara to a group that already includes Aaron Colvin and Davon House gives Jacksonville three solid corners, and Tashaun Gipson could add the playmaking touches to an already reliable unit. Improving against the pass would give the Jaguars a real chance to compete in the AFC South.
3. Tennessee Titans
Key additions: WR Rishard Matthews, HB DeMarco Murray, C Ben Jones
Key losses: CB Coty Sensabaugh
The Titans are something of a sleeper in terms of 2016 projection. As Bortles proved last season, young QBs can develop at an exponential rate. Marcus Mariota played much better than the Jaguars’ signal-caller as a rookie, despite suffering through injuries. Assuming he improves, the Titans could have a successful season next year.
WR Rishard Matthews was one of the best-value additions in the entirety of free agency thus far. With Dorial Green-Beckham, Kendall Wright, and Delanie Walker already in the fold, the Titans have a solid set of pass-catchers. DeMarco Murray may not be the player he was in 2014, but he’s a worthwhile low-risk investment for a team that has struggled to find talented running backs. The offensive line remains a major concern, but Ben Jones should solidify one interior line spot, and the draft could provide some reinforcements.
Tennessee has a number of solid players in their front seven. Jurrell Casey is a stud, but otherwise the Titans lack difference-makers. Outside linebacker is a position of particular concern. Brian Orakpo had a decent season in 2015, but isn’t getting any younger. Derrick Morgan recorded his lowest pass-rush grade since 2011. The Titans lack the pass-rushers to conceal the deficiencies of a secondary full of holes. Brice McCain is certainly not the answer, Perrish Cox had an average 2015 season, and Jason McCourty recorded the worst coverage grade of his career. The Titans are relying on a resurgence from both Cox and McCourty to be competitive on the back end in 2016.
4. Indianapolis Colts
Key additions: None
Key losses: LB Jerrell Freeman, S Dwight Lowery, QB Matt Hasselbeck, TE Coby Fleener
Predicting the Colts’ 2016 season is almost impossible because of the enigma that is Andrew Luck. Luck was dreadful last year, so much so that Hasselbeck proved a dramatic upgrade in on-field production. Luck may have been struggling with injuries, but his performances offer no confidence that the he can lead the Colts to a division title next season. His supporting cast does, however, remain amongst the best in the division. T.Y. Hilton should get some help from a healthy Phillip Dorsett in the passing game, while Donte Moncrief is an underrated No. 2. The loss of TE Coby Fleener is not particularly significant, especially with the re-signing of Dwayne Allen, and the Colts retain one of the better offensive lines in the division.
If the outlook on the offensive side of the ball appears rosy—Luck notwithstanding—the defensive projection is fairly bleak. The Colts lost their highest-graded defender to the Bears (Jerrell Freeman) and another valuable contributor in safety Dwight Lowery. CB Vontae Davis remains an excellent player, but Indianapolis is yet to find a complement across from him.
Pass-rush is another department of significant concern. Robert Mathis and Trent Cole are legends of the game, but haven’t been impact pass-rushers for a good few years. The fact that Erik Walden took the majority of OLB reps in 2015 is a major concern for any defense. The holes at corner and on the edge might be too significant for the Colts to overcome, even assuming offensive improvement.