I fear for the AFC South.
Sure, it’s aligning with modern pro football in some ways:
Three of the four teams have picked a quarterback in the top 10 of the draft in the past two years, intent on building around him.
Of course everyone’s got an emphasis on rushing the passer: the Texans in the second incarnation of Wade Phillips’ swarming front; the Colts as they shift Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis around; the Titans with the addition of Kamerion Wimbley; the Jaguars with the draft selection of Andre Branch.
But it’s a division with some outdated philosophies, expenditures and roster construction.
We’ve got teams talking too much about the run and not enough about the pass. We’ve got costly running backs. We’ve got offenses determined to use fullbacks, most of whom are unlikely to be threatening as receiving targets.
While the Texans can have a nice offensive-defensive balance and a nice run-pass balance on offense, the teams chasing them can’t yet claim the same.
So here’s my look at some of the issues that put the division at risk of being dodo birds who lose out in the NFL’s survival of the fittest.
Mindset: Coach Chuck Pagano arrived in Indianapolis touting an old staple of how to play. His Colts, he said, will run and stop the run -- even if that’s not a great template for success anymore, as teams that don’t run well and don’t play great run defense are winning.
He cited the Steelers, who were 14th in rushing last year and eighth in run defense. Hardly dominant.
A team with a great running game and ground defense can probably win big in today's league. But it would be breaking with current convention, where our most recent Super Bowl winners have been built around quarterbacks and people who rush the quarterback.
Last year’s Super Bowl teams were hardly in line with a run-and-stop-the-run philosophy. The Giants were the league’s worst run team in the regular season and ranked 19th in rush defense, while the Patriots were 20th in rushing and 17th in rush defense.
Paying running backs and roster construct: Three of the four teams in the division have big, second-contract investments in running backs: Houston’s Arian Foster, Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson.
Spending big money at the position is not the way the league is moving, and those three teams are no longer in position to try to play keep away from Peyton Manning. In today's NFL, veteran running backs get used up and discarded in favor of younger, cheaper options with more tread who are less prone to a sudden drop-off.
The Jaguars are built around Jones-Drew, who now wants a new, bigger contract despite the high odds that his team can win five games without him in 2012 just as easily as it did with him in 2011.
In fact, it’s reasonable to wonder about Jacksonville's overall financial allocations.
Jones-Drew makes good money, and if the Jaguars are healthy at linebacker, it’s probably their best position on defense. They paid big bucks to recruit Paul Posluszny and Clint Session to town last year to play with Daryl Smith.
Unfortunately, teams that play 4-3 defenses don’t require three top-flight linebackers. One of them is typically a situational player who’s not part of the nickel package.
And the difference between a great 4-3 linebacker and an average 4-3 linebacker seems much smaller to me than the difference between a great end and an average end in the same system. It's easier to find guys who can run, hit and tackle than it is to find guys with pass-rush skills. That's where a 4-3 focus should be.
It's an issue in Tennessee, too, where the Titans have spent their past two second-round picks on linebackers Akeem Ayers and Zach Brown. Even if they are starters for years, isn't it easier to find good linebackers later in the draft (see: Colin McCarthy from the fourth round in 2011) than it is to find good pass-rushers?
Plenty of fullback snaps: Houston can continue to call James Casey a fullback. He’s an H-back to me. He can block, sure, but the Texans sacrifice nothing having him on the field at one of the five spots eligible to catch passes. Teammates rate his as the best hands on the team.
The other three teams in the division don’t have such a guy.
Greg Jones is a good blocker for the Jaguars. I want him in the game on third-and-short or a goal-line package. But beyond that, his presence does at least one of two things if not both: signals run and sacrifices one of those five eligible positions as a weapon for Blaine Gabbert. (I know Montell Owens is viewed as a special-teamer, but with Jones, Owens and Brock Bolen, the Jaguars have three fullbacks. Three!)
The role for a fullback on offense is small. And although small roles can have big value, I'm not so sure about fullbacks these days. With two fantastic tight ends on its team, New England used a fullback on 10 snaps last season. The Giants used a fullback on 24.93 percent of their offensive snaps, less than the Texans, Jaguars and Titans.
Isn’t a tight end who is capable of lining up a bit in the backfield more valuable, presuming he’s got better hands?
I’d rather the Jaguars line up with Marcedes Lewis and Zach Miller than with Lewis and Jones, because Miller can be a threat in the pass game. I’d rather the Titans line up with Jared Cook and Craig Stevens than with Cook and Quinn Johnson or Collin Mooney. I’d rather the Colts use Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen than take one off the field for a fullback whose name I do not yet know. (The Colts have said they intend to use a fullback, though they don’t have one now and didn't use one in the Manning/Bill Polian era.)
Heck, feel free to go all the way from a two-back set right past a two-tight set all the way to a three-wide set. Spread out the field for your passing game while also creating space for your running back to work. Jones-Drew led the league against stacked boxes. Imagine what he might do if the Jaguars can spread out a defense.
Sure, you’re going to mix up personnel and use all those sets, and your people and philosophy will dictate some of it. But look to the league’s best teams, centered on quarterbacks and pass-rushers, as a guide for what to try to use more and what to de-emphasize.
It's a copycat league. Is the AFC South keeping up with the Joneses?