The AFC South has been a laughingstock for years now, but there are signs of a turnaround brewing. Each of the division's four teams has a reason to believe they have a franchise quarterback under center, although Andrew Luck is the only passer who really qualifies as something close to a finished product. The Colts were the most disappointing team in the NFL last season, which resulted in a relatively wide-open divisional race before the Texans rode a 6-2 second half to the divisional crown.
Now, in 2016, you can make a case that every team in the division had a smart offseason, given their individual situation and available resources. What worked for the Colts wouldn't have made sense for the Jaguars and vice versa. Even if Luck comes back at 100 percent, this feels like a far more competitive division than it has since Peyton Manning's last healthy season in Indianapolis, when the Texans were rising up as meaningful competition. And now, as division champs, Houston began its attempt to repeat this offseason by massively upgrading the weakest spot on its roster ...
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What went right
They made an aggressive move for a quarterback. We don't know if the Brock Osweiler signing will work for the Texans; he has thrown all of 305 professional passes over the past four years. His run last year in place of Manning suggests that Osweiler could be a league-average quarterback, and with the Texans signing him to what amounts to a two-year, $37 million deal to start, he's being paid to perform like one.
If you're a Texans fan, you have to be worried that the Broncos saw what Osweiler could do and twice passed on him. They went back to Manning, who had been both injured and ineffective, after Osweiler had a hiccup in Week 17. And then, when the bidding for Osweiler increased to the $18 million-per-year range, the Broncos chose the unknown quarterback void over re-upping a player they had been around for four years. They were right the first time. It's hard to argue they'll be wrong this time.
And yet, what else were the Texans going to do? Brian Hoyer had been competent toward the end of the regular season, but he had been a mess alongside Ryan Mallett earlier in the year and fell apart during a disastrous playoff loss to the Chiefs. The Texans arguably could have pursued a small upgrade by going after somebody like Ryan Fitzpatrick or Mark Sanchez or taken a bigger risk by signing Robert Griffin, but Osweiler has a higher floor than Griffin and a far higher upside than Fitzpatrick or Sanchez. If the choice came between signing Osweiler to this sort of contract or trading their next two drafts to move up and take Carson Wentz or Jared Goff, signing Osweiler seems like the more preferable option.
They plugged their other holes on offense. The Texans were a flawed offense last year, finishing 24th in DVOA solely upon the virtues of Bill O'Brien and DeAndre Hopkins. Even after adding Osweiler, they've taken strides to fill in the gaps elsewhere. Free-agent running back contracts rarely turn out to be successful, but Lamar Miller showed enough upside in Miami to seemingly justify what amounts to a two-year, $14 million deal. For the Texans' purposes, the fact the Dolphins didn't believe Miller was a No. 1 back may turn out to be a blessing in disguise because he has just 638 NFL carries on his tires.
Center Ben Jones and right guard Brandon Brooks left in free agency, with Brooks a particularly painful loss, but the Texans drafted center Nick Martin in the second round and signed the underrated Jeff Allen from the Chiefs. Since there was rarely anybody to stretch the field in Houston last season, you could understand why the Texans would be interested in Will Fuller of Notre Dame, a bona fide burner whom Houston drafted in the first round. Everything general manager Rick Smith did this offseason seemed to address an obvious problem, and that's promising.
What went wrong
They drafted Fuller in the first round. Projecting wide receivers before they enter the league is a fool's errand, and I'm not a scout, but I have to admit I'm a little skeptical of the idea that Fuller was worth a first-round pick. Nobody doubts his speed and ability to take the top off of opposing defenses, and that has value, but he has major issues with drops and is moving to a league in which everyone is fast. Comparisons have been made to Ted Ginn Jr., who carved out a career, but was another player drafted far too high when the Dolphins took him ninth in the 2007 draft. Even the best-case scenario seems to be DeSean Jackson, who fell to the 49th pick a year later. I don't think Fuller would have lasted to the second round, and the speed is real, but does O'Brien seem like the kind of coach who is going to keep Fuller on the field if he drops a wide-open bomb? It's tempting to wonder whether the Texans would have been better off with Josh Doctson and relying on third-round pick Braxton Miller to stretch the field.
They left their defense virtually untouched. The fan's rule of thumb in getting carried away about a team is to assume everything that went wrong for a team in a given year will bounce back or regress toward the mean the following season, while everything that went right will stay that way. Sometimes, teams think that way too. There's nothing wrong with the Texans focusing on upgrading their offense, of course, but their eighth-ranked defense got virtually no help this offseason.
Houston added one veteran free agent this offseason, and that was Jets safety Antonio Allen, who missed all of 2015 with a torn Achilles. They traded up twice during the draft to grab offensive players and used their first four selections on that side of the ball, leaving them with just a pair of fifth-round picks to spend on defenders, adding defensive tackle D.J. Reader and safety KJ Dillon.
The Texans were relatively healthy on defense last year; their 11 starters combined to miss just 11 games. J.J. Watt played through five torn muscles in his core, so that number doesn't tell you everything, but they were a relatively healthy team. Watt can cover for a lot of problems, but you only have to go back to 2013 (when the Texans fell from fourth to 17th in DVOA) to remember how the Texans can fall apart when they're beset by injuries, even with a future Hall of Famer at defensive end. If they're healthy, things will be fine, but they might look back and rue their lack of investment on the defensive side of the ball.
Signing Hopkins to an extension. Next in this sense won't come until the spring of 2017, but the most important thing the Texans need to do is lock up their star receiver, who will have a bargain-basement cap hold of just $2.4 million this year. Hopkins is tentatively set to be part of a banner class of wide receiver free agents in 2018, alongside the likes of Antonio Brown and Allen Robinson, but the chances of any of those guys actually hitting free agency are slim at best.
What went right
They stopped acting like the Colts. Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson shoved in all his chips last offseason in an attempt to push the Colts over the threshold and into a Super Bowl. His moves backfired spectacularly, as veterans such as Andre Johnson and Trent Cole failed to make any sort of impact. It was the third consecutive offseason in which Grigson had spent heavily in free agency to try to build a team around Luck, and truthfully, the team was left with little to show for its endeavors. The Colts were still dependent upon Luck, and when the oft-battered quarterback finally succumbed to injury, Indy collapsed.
It's promising in a way, then, that Grigson appeared to change paths this offseason. Instead of firing more of his free-agent bullets, the Colts mostly sat out the free-agent period, re-signing Dwayne Allen while making modest investments in Patrick Robinson and Robert Turbin. As a result of staying away from free agency and letting Coby Fleener leave, the Colts will likely get a fourth-round compensatory pick, the first time Grigson has generated a comp pick before the seventh round during his time at the helm. They even traded down during the draft to acquire additional picks. All of this is promising if you're a Colts fan hoping Grigson doesn't make the same mistakes.
What went wrong
They retained both Grigson (and Chuck Pagano). It might be a little unfair to suggest that Grigson should have been fired, given how he did dramatically shift his tactics this offseason, but it's also hard to argue that the Colts have done very much to surround Luck with talent during his time at the helm. They've had one of the biggest bargains in the league on their books over the past four seasons in what has almost surely been the easiest division in football, and they don't have a ton to show for it.
The case for firing Pagano wouldn't have been quite as clear, given the reported infighting between him and Grigson that cropped up during Indy's disappointing 2015 campaign, but the Colts' defense hasn't been an albatross. The Colts were 31st in defensive DVOA during the 2012 season, which Pagano mostly sat out while undergoing treatment for leukemia. In 2013, they took a leap up to 16th and then to 13th a year later, where they finished again in 2015. They haven't been able to solve the Patriots in the playoffs, and Pagano's game management has been iffy at best, but a lot of teams have issues with that too.
If you want to argue that the Colts should have fired Pagano, it's going to revolve around that famously terrible fake punt against the Patriots (which seemed to be a combination of player error and, strangely for Pagano, hyper-aggressiveness) and the idea that a new general manager will want to pick his head coach. There wouldn't have been many voices against firing Pagano if the Colts had done it in January, but I don't think it was necessarily the wrong move to retain their head coach. If Indianapolis continues to run in place, though, Jim Irsay's decision to retain both his coach and general manager this January might look like the basis for another wasted season 12 months from now.
Re-signing Luck. Since I wrote about the parameters for a Luck contract earlier this year, I've heard from multiple NFL executives who have suggested my estimates are too low. The baseline for a Luck extension might very well be the cost of guaranteeing three consecutive franchise tags. Going with a simple estimated exclusive franchise tag cost of $25 million in 2016, that would mean the Colts would be in for $30 million in 2017 and a whopping $43.2 million in 2018, suggesting that locking up Luck would cost the Colts $98.2 million in guaranteed money. That will be a fun negotiation.
What went right
The draft broke their way. After last year, when the Jaguars drafted Dante Fowler Jr. No. 3 overall and promptly saw their edge rusher tear his ACL on the first day of minicamp, you could forgive the Jaguars for getting a little lucky on draft day. Coach Gus Bradley desperately needed help in his secondary, and the player who many suggest will be the best from this draft class, Jalen Ramsey, fell to the Jaguars at five. It's not clear whether Ramsey fills in as a cornerback or an impactful safety, but the good news is that the Jags need both.
Then, of course, the Jaguars got close enough to Myles Jack in the second round that they made the rare trade up that everybody seems to agree on, sending a fifth-round pick to Baltimore to move up two spots and grab the former UCLA star. Trading up is generally a bad idea, given that teams who have one player higher on their board than the rest of the league are often wrong about their hunch, but Jack was a consensus top-10 player before the draft. Trading up for a guy many teams seem to think is undervalued is preferable.
Jack's best fit in the pros is probably as a weakside linebacker, but the Jags already have an effective player there in Telvin Smith, heretofore the lone young talent on defense to develop into a useful starter under Bradley. In 2016, Jack will take some snaps away from Dan Skuta on the strong side and serve as a nickel linebacker, but he probably ends up in the middle once the Jags eventually move on from Paul Posluszny, which could be sooner rather than later.
They shopped at the top of the market in free agency. For years, Jags general manager Dave Caldwell has gone into free agency and paid top-dollar prices for middling players. That strategy hasn't really worked; the guys from his first class such as Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and Zane Beadles are all off of the roster. Skuta and Jared Odrick weren't impactful in their first seasons. Davon House had his moments, but was memorably roasted by DeAndre Hopkins. Jermey Parnell is an acceptable right tackle being paid like a left tackle. Let's not even get into Toby Gerhart.
Caldwell did structure many of those deals in a smart manner, making it easy to get out of them after two years, when the hope was going to be that the Jags would have developed more homegrown talent. That has happened on offense, so now, it's promising to see the Jaguars going after top-tier talent on defense. Malik Jackson was likely an overpay at five years and $85.5 million, but he's a massive upgrade as a 5-technique defensive lineman and was widely regarded as the best defensive player available on the market. Tashaun Gipson wasn't at his best last year, but he's a legitimate ball hawk and was a Pro Bowler in 2014 at 23 years old. You don't need to project much to imagine each of them being impact players next season.
The Jags have ranked 20th or worse in defensive DVOA each of the past four seasons. Even including an out-of-nowhere fifth-place finish in 2011, their average rank over the past eight years is 24th. This is the first time in years there has been serious reason to be optimistic about what they can do. Bradley was brought in to lead the team through a painful rebuild and develop young talent on defense, as he did in Seattle. If he can do the latter, he might push them through the former.
They signed Kelvin Beachum and began to move on from Luke Joeckel. It must be so tempting as an organization to believe that you were right about a player such as Joeckel, who was the second overall pick and a would-be franchise left tackle when the Jaguars chose him in 2012. The scouting reports are still in their files. The college tape still seems as promising as it did the day you drafted him. The reality, though, is that Joeckel simply hasn't developed. He has been a major problem protecting Blake Bortles' blind side, and with Parnell paid comfortably to man the right side of the line, there isn't really a place for Joeckel to go.
The Jaguars could have left Joeckel there, delivered some buzzwords in public about how he needed to play better and hoped Bortles knows how to duck. Instead, they recognized Joeckel as a sunk cost and acted accordingly to fill a weakness. They signed Beachum, the former Steeler coming off a torn ACL after a wildly effective 2014 campaign, to a team-friendly deal. Beachum basically gets a one-year tryout for $5.4 million in 2016, and if he plays well, the Jaguars have the option to apply what amounts to a four-year extension for $40 million. That's about what the market value for a decent left tackle will be over the next four seasons, and there's every reason to believe Beachum can be that player.
What went wrong
They gave Chris Ivory a massive deal. Every single warning sign goes off when you consider the Ivory signing. The Jaguars have repeatedly failed to identify running back talent under Caldwell and Bradley. They signed Gerhart, which I promised not to dwell on earlier. After he flamed out, they used a second-round pick on T.J. Yeldon with the hopes of the Alabama star becoming their featured back. One year later, even as they publicly suggested that Yeldon was their starter, the Jaguars seemed to lose faith in Yeldon and gave Ivory a five-year, $32 million deal with $10 million guaranteed.
As I wrote back in March, Ivory is a talented back, but he's the exact sort of physical, bruising runner who tends to age poorly. Even last season, as he dealt with his biggest workload as a pro, he struggled to stay healthy and lost effectiveness during the second half of the season. Ivory was an undrafted free agent whom the Jets acquired for a fourth-round pick. Even if the Jaguars wanted a back to rotate with Yeldon, couldn't they have found a similar sort of player at a much cheaper price? The vast majority of the evidence available to us about running backs suggests the difference between Ivory and a player of that caliber won't be worth Ivory's deal, even if it only ends up as a two-year, $10 million contract.
Moving on from Joeckel. With the Jaguars turning down the opportunity to lock up Joeckel with his fifth-year option, the chances he'll be in Jacksonville after the 2016 season are slim at best. If Beachum shows up and looks effective in camp, the Jaguars might try to shop Joeckel around to a tackle-needy team like the Bears to see whether they can recoup a mid-round pick for their troubles.
What went right
The Titans took home a haul for the first overall pick. Despite the fact there weren't any quarterbacks seemingly worthy of the No. 1 pick until the end of March and that the Titans were never going to take a quarterback, new Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson sold the first overall selection to the Rams for a bushel of draft picks. The Titans took home two first-round picks, two second-round picks and two-third round picks when they sent the first, 113th and 177th picks to Los Angeles. Manufacturing that sort of market for a player Robinson didn't want was the exact sort of thing he needed to do to kick off his tenure in Tennessee.
They upgraded their offensive line. Robinson followed the lead of Reggie McKenzie in Oakland and directed Tennessee's rebuild through the hog mollies up front. (That's too good of a phrase to leave for Dave Gettleman alone.) While the Titans remain sufficiently unconvinced by Chance Warmack, whose fifth-year option was declined, Tennessee upgraded elsewhere on the line by signing away center Ben Jones from Houston and using a first-round pick on Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin. Tennessee may have ended up with two right tackles if Taylor Lewan doesn't get better in pass protection, given that Conklin's ceiling is likely as an upper-echelon right tackle, but the additions should be slightly better than Byron Bell and Brian Schwenke. The Titans aren't one player away from competing and didn't need to invest heavily in free agency, but protecting Marcus Mariota should be their top priority.
What went wrong
They retained Mike Mularkey as coach. It's hard to say the jury is still out on Mularkey, given that the Titans went 2-7 with him as their interim coach. The track record of interim coaches after being handed the permanent jobs is troubling, and there's little reason to think Mularkey is an exception to the rule.
Even if you want to suggest that Mularkey's dismal record with Tennessee was a product of coaching without a healthy (or even available) Mariota for part of his run, Mularkey's quotes about the sort of team he wants to coach don't inspire confidence. Mularkey suggested that he wanted his team to be an "exotic smashmouth offense," hoping to inform other teams after games to know "... they have been in a fight." Not only does it feel like empty coaching bravado, it seems at odds with the NFL in 2016, which is increasingly a pass-happy league. It's true that the Panthers have made a run-heavy approach work, but they're the exception to the rule and have operated in an offense that has been quietly one of the more innovative and progressive rushing attacks in all of football. Mularkey's offense, despite the presence of Mariota as the pointman, hasn't exhibited the same level of creativity or success. Coaches talking about establishing the run in 2016 are increasingly behind the times. Whether that's strictly in terms of verbiage or in actual offensive design remains to be seen.
They invested heavily in running backs. After the previous administration repeatedly made bad decision after bad decision in an attempt to solidify their halfback situation, the new Robinson regime stepped in and immediately ... sank more assets into running backs. The Titans swapped fourth-round picks with the Eagles to acquire DeMarco Murray, which wasn't much in terms of draft capital, but they gave Murray a restructured contract that basically washes out to a two-year, $12.3 million deal with two option years afterward. Given that Murray's old deal was coming off the best season of his career and paid him an average of only $8 million per year, it's hard to see how Murray coming off the worst season of his career is worth more than $6 million per season. It could make sense to try to buy low on Murray, but I'm not convinced this is a very low price.
Then, to supplement Murray, the Titans used a second-round pick on Alabama running back Derrick Henry. It's hard to see how drafting a back who now profiles as a backup behind a very expensive starter makes sense for the Titans, given their myriad holes elsewhere. The argument that they're going to try to run the ball 35 times per game ignores the reality that teams run when they're winning, not as part of an identity. And if you're suggesting that the Titans needed Henry because Murray is so injury-prone, well, that's a great argument against giving Murray more than $6 million per year. It would have been reasonable for Tennessee to make one of these moves, but pairing them up seems like overkill.
They traded up with the picks they had amassed. As valuable as it was for Tennessee to make those trades down, it subsequently got too aggressive in trading back up, likely as a product of believing that the picks it had acquired were bonus surplus and not assets in their own right. The Titans sent second- and third-round picks to the Browns to move up seven picks (and acquire a sixth-round selection) and grab Conklin. The Conklin pick was defensible, but the Titans sent close to the equivalent of the first overall pick in draft value (34.3 points, per Chase Stuart's chart) to trade up and grab their right tackle of the future. That's a pretty penny. Tennessee also traded up in the fifth round.
Convincing Mularkey to build his offense around the talent he has. The Titans are hardly devoid of talent on offense, but it's bizarre to hear Mularkey talk about how he wants to put Mariota under center more frequently, given that the league is more shotgun-intensive than ever and that Mariota spent virtually his entire college career at Oregon working out of the shotgun.