The 2018 season has concluded and the focus for each and every front office moves quickly to making the necessary changes to the roster, looking for either incremental improvements or to substantially change the fortunes of a team. In the AFC South two sides made the playoffs (Texans and Colts), the Titans narrowly missed out and the Jags were left trailing in their wake.
At this point let’s think big for all four sides. What BIG statement moves could each team make; we’ll pick one move on offense and one on defense and for now lets concentrate on free agency moves (and who is available at the moment) with a passing nod to the draft.
For the Texans 2018 was a success, with a third division title in four years and a ‘bounce-back’ season after going 4-12 in 2017. But, they need to find that extra step to go deep in the playoffs. On offense the improvement is perhaps the most glaring of this article – keep Deshaun Watson upright! They allowed a league high 62 sacks. Some of that is on Watson himself, holding on to the ball too long and he does need to learn when to throw it away. Blocking more generally will also need to improve but the O-line is the obvious one to make a statement on. How about they go get Trent Brown from the Patriots. Huge season for him in 2018 stepping up as the Giants took Nate Solder. When he was at 49ers Kyle Shanahan described Brown as “the best pass protection tackle I’ve ever seen in my life”, and he can play either left or right tackle. If they look to the draft then Andre Dillard should be available at pick no 23 for them.
On defense it needs to be seeking to contain ‘air-raids’ as they allowed an average of 260 passing yards per game (5th highest). The ‘honey-badger’ Tyrann Mathieu hits free agency as do other members of the secondary (Jackson, Webster, Wright) so that may need a rebuild. In that case let’s look to some high priority targets – how about Landon Collins from the Giants who may be frustrated with a team not challenging for the playoffs for the last two seasons, or Tre Boston from the Cardinals, again another team with a lot of improving to do. Pair them up with using their two consecutive 2nd round picks at 54 and 55 and the Texans should be able to improve in the secondary. Alternatively they can reduce the pass yards by improving the pass rush, if they go down that road then the likes of Dee Ford from Kansas, or Preston Smith from Washington may prove good value, particularly if they lose Jadeveon Clowney.
The strength in the Colts offense is through the air with a rejuvenated Andrew Luck looking imperious throughout the 2018 season. The Colts ended the season 5th in points scored, 6th in passing yards and 7th in total yards, but 20th in rushing yards. The one big priority for the Colts is to take some of the pressure off Luck and to secure themselves a premier running back. Marlon Mack had a good season in 2018 (908 yards) but a top drawer back could be the final piece in the Colts offense. They have just over $100M of cap space so how about we go blow a huge chunk of that on the best RB available, LeVeon Bell! Imagine that – Luck to TY Hilton (I expect them to improve depth at WR in the draft) or Eric Ebron through the air, and Bell ripping up the yards on the ground. If Bell was too much of a stretch then CJ Anderson from the Rams has done his resumé no harm at all in the last month and could be available at a fraction of the Bell price tag.
The Colts’ defense stood up pretty well during the 2018 season ranking around 10th in the league, except they were down at 19th on number of sacks. Let’s up the stakes on the pass rush, particularly when there is Demarcus Lawrence available from the Cowboys. Imagine that. Or maybe, just to increase divisional rivalry, they go hunting for Jadevon Clowney from the Texans. Ouch!
With this approach I think the Colts could capitalise on their ‘Super Bowl window’ with Luck at the helm, lots of good young talent from the recent draft (GM Chris Ballard looks like he can be relied upon to pull future stars out of the bag come April) plus these new stellar pieces on the board.
The Titans offense needs to up the ante in the passing game. They were 29th in passing yards per game (185.9yds) and 30th in plays of 20 yards and over. Two ways in which they could seek to improve here. Most likely first, let’s improve the targets available to Marcus Mariota. However, there is not an abundance of quality receivers in free agency but one does stand out and that is Golden Tate at the Eagles. He could really stretch things down field and he did not really work out in Philadelphia but his class is proven – 3 of his last 4 seasons in Detroit were over 1000 yards and double figure TDs. Alternatively lets improve things in the slot with the ever reliable Cole Beasley who seems to have talked his way out of Dallas. Either way I think the Titans also look to the draft at WR.
The other left field possibility for the Titans is, what if they cut Mariota, or at least bring in a more competitive free agent to challenge for the starting spot. What about Teddy Bridgewater? He could provide the Titans with an alternative to Mariota, either if needed because of injury or if the Titans decide they need to go in a different direction at QB.
For the defence, similar to the Texans, I think they need to look to the secondary (23rd with only 11 INT). They too could look to go big with a Landon Collins approach but it may be more likely that the Titans seek to pinch from their own division and try to snag a Kareem Jackson or Tyrann Mathieu (Texans) or an even better move would be for Pierre Desir from the Colts. Weakening a divisional rival whilst bolstering your own ranks is always a good idea.
Okay, let’s do the easy one here. Jags offense struggled to move the ball through the air and Blake Bortles appears ready to be consigned to his place in the Jacksonville history books. Lots already written about whether they will use the draft to secure the QB of the future but they will most likely seek to use free agency to ensure they have a more capable and experienced passer come September. The problem is the lack of cap space, but with some pruning and clever restructuring of certain contracts (the likes of Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye for example) they probably can make the space they need. I could ignore it but you have to look at this through the lens of John DeFilippo, new OC in Jacksonville and his link with Nick Foles from the Eagles Super Bowl run. Let’s ink that one in.
The stat that stands out the most on the Jags defense is not one easily solved with money. When you look at penalty count the yardage (gained vs lost) was a total of -377 yards. That’s huge. Discipline was often the issue in 2018 – the talent is there and undeniable. But what if in the fallout from 2018 they do decide to move on from the likes of Calais Campbell? They could seek to secure experience with Brandon Graham from the Eagles whilst picking up further new talent in the draft that they can mould with the discipline you would expect from a Coughlin/Marrone mantra.
With bold moves in free agency backed up by the early round picks each team currently has for the 2019 NFL draft all teams in the AFC South are only a few key pieces away from challenging strongly next season.
Mark or MJ has turned his love of the NFL into sharing his thoughts and opinions on twitter @47yards and on 47yards.blog – He has been a New York Giants fan since their Super Bowl wins in 1986 and 1990 (47 yards is a reference to the distance Scott Norwood missed from in 1990 for the Bills – sorry Bills fans). He enjoys all things NFL and has extended that enjoyment to College football of late, following Ohio State. He is loving seeing the growth of the NFL fan base in the UK and finds September to February is the best part of the year!