AFC South Offseason Grades
Jan 14, 2014; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Titans new head coach Ken Whisenhunt (center) with general manager Ruston Webster (left) and president and ceo Tommy Smith (right) during the press conference at St. Thomas Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
There has been a lot of movement in the AFC South. Before the 2014 NFL season rolls around, there is sure to be a lot more. The Tennessee Titans just released Chris Johnson. The AFC South has seen two coaching changes and quite a face-lift thanks to free agency.
But will the hirings, firings and transactions make a difference for the better? The Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans and Titans will all hope so. Houston finished with the league’s worst record after starting the 2013 season 2-0 and losing their final 14 games. The Jaguars were competitive with new head coach Gus Bradley, but still lost 12 games. The Titans braved the storm of multiple injuries to quarterback Jake Locker to wade in the murky waters of mediocrity for most of the year.
The Indianapolis Colts stood tall and were the only AFC South playoff representative as they finished 11-5 for the second year in a row. They also won a thrilling playoff game. While they appear to be head-and-shoulders better than everyone else in the division for the moment, enough moves have been made that might suggest a little more competition within the division.
To get a better idea of the direction all four teams are headed in, let’s break down and grade their moves in free agency:
The Jaguars’ 4-12 record didn’t really show it, but they were a fairly competitive team in 2013, especially in the second half of the season after they gained confidence from ending a long losing streak. They kick off our AFC South grades thanks to a pretty good run in free agency, as they somehow got something back for failed franchise passer Blaine Gabbert (a 6th rounder from the San Francisco 49ers), brought back surprisingly decent signal-caller Chad Henne and made a slew of solid signings at reasonable prices.
Landing career-backup running back Toby Gerhart was one of those signings. He could easily end up being the biggest. Jacksonville remains a run-first offense and a team that seems to want to mirror head coach Bradley’s old team – the Seattle Seahawks. Gerhart may not be anything close to what Marshawn Lynch is but he’s a powerful back who will eat away at defenses and won’t kill you in pass protection. Sticking with a hopefully improved rushing attack, the Jags got better on the offensive line by adding Zane Beadles from Denver.
Jacksonville clearly needs a long-term answer under center, but only a fool would hope the Jags aimed to fill that need in free agency. Henne is merely a stop gap solution and/or a solid backup plan. Jacksonville’s real answer at quarterback will come in May. Elsewhere, the Jaguars kept plugging away to their improving defense, as they added Seattle holdovers Red Bryant and Chris Clemons, both of which are aging but still very effective. Former Steelers defensive tackle Ziggy Hood being added to the mix is simply the icing on the cake, while the Jags also held onto Jason Babin to keep their pass rush moving upward.
The Jaguars still need an answer at quarterback and have some more holes to fill on defense, but overall they upgraded at the bread-and-butter spots. They appear headed in the right direction.
Overall Grade: B+
So far this offseason, it’s been about starting over for the Texans. They traded away regressing quarterback Matt Schaub, let running back Ben Tate walk and replaced the predictable Gary Kubiak with former New England Patriots and Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. From a structural standpoint, the arrow is pointing up for a Houston team that still boasts a very talented and aggressive defense but clearly lost its way on the offensive side of the ball.
Unfortunately, free agency didn’t bring much in the form of actual results. The Texans may use a bit of a committee in their offensive backfield, but didn’t add any new talent and seem to be content rolling with now legit injury-risk Arian Foster. At quarterback, Houston brought in Ryan Fitzpatrick but still doesn’t have a true answer at the position under center. Houston also cut starting tight end Owen Daniels and replaced him by holding onto his former backup, Garrett Graham.
On defense, the Texans did beef up their secondary a bit with solid signings of Chris Clemons and Kendrick Lewis. As a whole, Houston had a very underwhelming stay on the open market.
While the new regime lacked flash in their first trip into the offseason, this was actually a decent run for them, as they didn’t unnecessarily overpay across the board. They positively addressed a very important need at safety. They still need to plug quite a few holes (namely quarterback) in the draft, but they actually seem to be very much on the right track.
Overall Grade: B-
Andrew Luck somehow overcame awful, predictable play-calling and an atrocious rushing attack last year as he willed the Colts into the playoffs for the second time in two seasons. Indy did well to make sure he won’t have to completely do it all alone in 2014, as they brought in some help at receiver with a potential stud in Hakeem Nicks. They stood pat at running back, which could go either way given how poorly Trent Richardson adapted to the offense last year, while they lost their one prove back in Donald Brown.
The Colts real issues heading into 2014 resided on defense. They did a solid job making sure that unit would keep getting better. Retaining stud corner Vontae Davis was arguably as big as any other new addition, while bringing in ex-Browns inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was a fantastic signing that should dramatically improve their run defense. They went even further in their bid to beef up their run defense, stealing defensive lineman Arthur Jones from the Baltimore Ravens to give them a versatile presence that can dominate the run game while also provide some extra help in the pass rush.
Indianapolis still could use some depth on the offensive line, safety help and some young talent to throw into their still growing 3-4 defensive scheme. That’s what the draft is for, though, as it’s hard to complain too much after the Colts did a solid job in free agency.
Overall Grade: B
Last, but certainly never least, the Titans also had a very interesting offseason. They ditched their coaching staff for an offensive upgrade, bringing in the “Wiz”, Ken Whisenhunt. With him came Ray Horton and some potential 3-4 defensive schemes. The coaching move was necessary and was a positive one, but the real question is if the Titans did enough beyond that to earn a positive grade for their offseason action.
On the surface, the Titans seemed to do nothing but lose solid talent. Starting cornerback Alterraun Verner jetted for sunnier skies in Tampa Bay, Kenny Britt went to the Rams, Ryan Fitzpatrick was replaced by the less-talented Charlie Whitehurst, kicker Rob Bironas was cut and so was CJ.
A closer look, however, shows the Titans bringing in Dexter McCluster to take on the “Danny Woodhead role” in Whisenhunt’s offense, and a slew of quality defensive additions that could help the Titans transition to a base 3-4 scheme or at least become more versatile to add 3-4 elements into their weekly game plan.
Bringing back hard-hitting safety Bernard Pollard had to be seen as a positive, while Tennessee got more athletic at linebacker with the addition of Wesley Woodyard and deeper in the pass-rush department with the signing of Shaun Phillips (10 sacks in 2013). The Titans even rounded themselves out on the offensive line when they nabbed offensive tackle Michael Oher.
It was a transitioning offseason for a team in transition. Tennessee still figures to give one last look at what Jake Locker brings to the table, while most of their issues stem from inconsistency in their offensive line and defense. With quality additions in both areas, the Titans could be a solid draft away from chasing down a wild card playoff spot in 2014.
Overall Grade: B-
This post comes from Justin Becker of FantasyFootballOverdose.com. You can follow the Fantasy Football Overdose Google+ Page, and for more Fantasy Football Rankings visit Fantasy Football Overdose, a fantasy football blog.