By Nick Shook
Around The NFL writer
Read full post on NFL.com
Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2018 NFL Draft. Nick Shook examines the current makeup of the AFC South below.
It’s a fine time to critique the AFC South.
The division is nearing its greatest collective strength in the last decade-plus. With Houston, Tennessee and Jacksonville all expected to jockey for postseason bids, the usually “meh” division enters 2018 as one of the most intriguing in the NFL.
Jacksonville returns from a surprising run to the AFC Championship Game, Tennessee aims to build on a trip to the Divisional Round on the back of an upset of the Chiefs, and Houston looms as a team that became wildly entertaining with Deshaun Watson at the helm before his (and ultimately, the whole team’s) season ended prematurely due to injury.
We’re back and seem better than ever. The AFC South is 75 percent ready to roll (with the Indianapolis Colts‘ future riding very much on the status of Andrew Luck). New additions have bolstered all three teams, who are gearing up for a football battle royale not seen since the peak of the AFC North. Can we get to the starting line already?!
FREE AGENCY NOTABLES
BIGGEST ADDITION: Tyrann Mathieu, safety.
Old team: Arizona Cardinals. New team: Houston Texans.
Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Arizona chose to spend $20 million on Sam Bradford and ask Tyrann Mathieu to take a pay cut in the same breath.
Now that that’s taken care of, let’s examine Mathieu’s new landing place: Houston. Two seasons ago, the Texans were a team built on incredible defense, especially in the back end. That performance saw A.J. Bouye leave in free agency for more money in Jacksonville, though the Texans recently got one back when they signed Aaron Colvin away from the Jaguars.
Meanwhile, strong safety has been a revolving door filled with mercenaries. Quintin Demps replaced D.J. Swearingerand manned the position for two seasons before Marcus Gilchrist filled the spot last year. For the first time in the Bill O’Brien era, the Texans have a player with potential to be a long-term answer at the position (despite Mathieu arriving on a one-year, $7 million deal). They also have a rare talent who’s capable of playing safety and/or corner when necessary and can serve as a top-flight defender in the process, capable of covering anyone on the field at any time.
It’s a delicious pairing, Mathieu and sage defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, but also has the feel of boom-or-bust potential. It seems as though new GM Brian Gaine acknowledged as much when he inked the safety to the one-year deal. But if it pans out, it will be lauded as one of the best moves from this offseason.
BIGGEST LOSS: Allen Robinson, wide receiver.
Old team: Jacksonville Jaguars. New team: Chicago Bears.
I wrote about this position group in our burning draft questions earlier this week, because I’m struggling to come to grips with Tom Coughlin and Dave Caldwell looking at Jacksonville’s receiving corps and being OK with it. Sure, the Jaguars found success with lesser names in the absence of Robinson last season, and likely didn’t feel comfortable paying the $15.9 million the franchise tag would have cost them with the wideout coming off a torn ACL, but it’s still surprising a serious effort wasn’t made to retain him. Less than three years ago, Robinson caught 80 balls for 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns. Now, at 24 years old, he wasn’t worth it? It seems Jacksonville, which still has $18 million and change in cap space, per Over The Cap, decided it would rather pay Donte Moncrief and Marqise Lee a combined $14 million than dump a slightly larger figure on Robinson. Financially, that makes sense. And yet …
… we’re going to read plenty of puff pieces about how Robinson fits in extremely well with the Bears — after all, your ex is always going to make sure you think he/she is happier with his/her new significant other, Instagram stunts and all — but when Jacksonville finds itself in a close game late in the season (or in the AFC championship again, where the Jags could’ve used Robinson), will the team be glad it went with Moncrief, Lee and Co. over Robinson (and Allen Hurns)?
SLEEPER ADDITION: Andrew Norwell, offensive guard.
Old team: Carolina Panthers. New team: Jacksonville Jaguars.
We’re keeping it in Jacksonville, because while the receiver decisions were somewhat mystifying, this addition was incredibly wise. The Jaguars quietly (and quickly) built one of the league’s better offensive lines in the 2017 offseason, extending center Brandon Linder and drafting tackle Cam Robinson. They took it a step further this year, inking the most sought-after lineman in the free-agent market in Norwell. The addition instantly bolsters a line that was already solid, upgrading the left guard position to create one of the league’s best young offensive lines.
They also got Norwell at a decent price. I spoke with an agent at the NFL Scouting Combine who said he expected Norwell to fetch a minimum of $70 million. Jacksonville signed him for a deal worth $66.5 million, with $30 million guaranteed. With a left side of Cam Robinson, Norwell and Linder at center, Blake Bortles has the best blind-side protection of his career.
Houston Texans: The Texans quietly had a nice free agency period, upgrading their defensive backfield while losing very little of anything. Offensive line was a weakness, but with new acquisitions Seantrel Henderson and Zach Fulton and Julie’n Davenport stepping into a starting role in his second season, this group could see a significant improvement. It’ll be key to protect Deshaun Watson, who’s returning from a torn ACL.
Draft-wise, Houston mortgaged its 2018 draft to erase a bad decision and remedy that same move with a player who is at the very least thrilling to watch, if not the future of the franchise. Houston’s signing of Sammie Coates adds another body to a receiving corps that was lacking them due to injuries last season, but a lot depends on how Houston views Will Fuller opposite DeAndre Hopkins. Does Houston look to a receiver on Day 2? Or is tight end a more pressing need? The loss of C.J. Fiedorowicz to early retirement makes one think it’s the latter.
Indianapolis Colts: The Colts can go in a number of directions with their first-round pick, but quarterback won’t be the move. The biggest question I have for Indianapolis does revolve around the position, though, because Luck still isn’t throwing footballs. We want to see Luck return, but until I see actual footage of him dressed and operating an offense (complete with passing the ball), I’m doubtful about his future. Jacoby Brissettis a solid backup, though, so not all would be lost if we ran into another “four-inch field between your ears” situation in 2018.
As for the rest of the roster, what do the Colts want to address first? Running back? Offensive line? A variety of defensive holes? Receiver? On paper, this team needs a ton of work to be a contender. That begins with this draft, and the bevy of picks acquired in the deal with the New York Jets.
Jacksonville Jaguars: A team that was one defensive stand from shocking the football world returns the bulk of its roster, with improvements at guard and tight end (swapped Marcedes Lewis for Niles Pauland Austin Seferian-Jenkins) and the aforementioned reshuffling at receiver. Defense was its strength, but the loss of Colvin is more important than most might think. In the back end of the first round, cornerback seems to be the way to go. Jacksonville also needs some depth at inside linebacker, as Blair Brown (13 games played, two starts in rookie season of 2017) is set to replace the retired Paul Posluszny.
Tennessee Titans: Even though the Titans missed out on Ndamukong Suh, their defensive front is looking rather solid with havoc-wreaker Jurrell Casey, DaQuan Jones and new addition Bennie Logan. The inside linebacker position opposite Wesley Woodyard raises an eyebrow, but with the addition of former Patriot Malcolm Butler, Tennessee’s secondary is as good as its been since Blaine Bishop and Samari Rolle were patrolling it nearly two decades ago (with respect also due to the 2008 Titans).
Don’t take it from me. Take it from All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, with whom I sat down with last week.
“Malcolm Butler‘s going to be a great addition,” Byard said. “I think he’s going to bring that grit, just no-nonsense, wanting to keep working. I think that’s our entire group. We’re not full of big-name guys and guys who are going to have a bunch of distractions. We’re not looking for no nicknames or anything like that. We just want to go out there and win games, make plays.
“We’re a talented bunch, and with Malcolm coming in, we got Logan (Ryan), we got Adoree’ (Jackson), we got three No. 1 corners in my opinion. Most teams don’t have that. I think we’re going to be solid.”
We also can’t overlook the addition of Dion Lewis, who is the perfect complement to bulldozer Derrick Henry in a backfield that instantly becomes much more dynamic.
Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.