The AFC South might be competitive this year

The headline is kind of misleading. The AFC South was competitive last year, too.

The Jacksonville Jaguars won the division with a 10-6 record, and made a run to the AFC Championship game. A questionable down by contact call prevented them from putting the game out of reach and a trip to the Super Bowl. Instead, Tom Brady took the Patriots on a game winning drive like we all expected.

Those same Patriots beat the Tennessee Titans a week before that in the AFC Divisional round. Tennessee finished the 2017 campaign with a 9-7 record, good for a Wild Card spot. They stunned the Chiefs by coming back from a 21-3 halftime deficit on the road.

Until Deshaun Watson‘s season-ending ACL injury before Week 9, the Houston Texans were also in the mix. They were 3-4, so it would have been difficult, but Watson had started to figure it out and was a frontrunner for Rookie of the Year. He threw for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns in 7 weeks as the starter, plus the second half of the opening game.

I’m really looking forward to his return. He has the potential to have a Carson Wentz-like sophomore season.

The Indianapolis Colts were bad, but that’s a good place to start looking ahead to 2018.

Andrew Luck turns 29 during the season, which isn’t that old for a quarterback. He’s had an entire season to rest his shoulder, and took a nice trip to Europe for treatment. That wasn’t even the weirdest shoulder injury/recovery of 2017. Looking at you, Sixers.

Aside from the nagging injury, Luck’s biggest problem was getting sacked, often by no fault of his own. He was dropped in the backfield 41 times in 2016, and the Colts allowed a league high 56 sacks in 2017.

To address this, they added the best offensive lineman in the draft, Quenton Nelson. He should make an immediate impact on the Colts’ line. I’d compare him to Jake Long before his injury problems. They also took Braden Smith from Auburn in the second round.

To take some of the pressure off of Luck (all kinds of pressure), the Colts drafted running back Nyheim Hines from NC State. Frank Gore was never bad for Indy, but he probably shouldn’t have been the RB1. Hines and fellow rookie Jordan Wilkins from Ole Miss should improve the run game significantly.

A healthy Andrew Luck is a Top 10 quarterback, and a good quarterback puts any team in the playoff conversation.

For the past few years, intra-division games have played an important role in deciding the AFC South champion, but it’s never been between all four teams. That could change this year.

Things are finally on track for Tennessee and Jacksonville, with Houston not far behind. Indianapolis isn’t quite there, but improved its roster in the offseason.

8-8 can win a division, and sometimes a wild card spot if the rest of the conference is bad enough. The entire AFC south is capable of winning at least 7 games, which in theory, puts everyone in the playoff hunt. That probably won’t happen, but hey, it’s fun to think about.

Draft Grades: AFC South

Houston Texans: C- DZZICYWVQAALCtE.jpg

Round 3: Justin Reid, S, Stanford

Round 3: Martinas Rankin, C, Mississippi St.

Round 3: Jordan Akins, TE, UCF

Round 4: Keke Coutee, WR, Texas Tech

Round 6: Duke Ejiofor, DE, Wake Forest

Round 6: Jordan Thomas, TE, Mississippi St.

Round 6: Peter Kalambayi, LB, Stanford

Round 7: Jermaine Kelly, CB, San Jose St.

Houston made a healthy eight selections in this Draft. The problem is none of them are that great. Reid will certainly help a thin secondary, but not having any high picks really hurt. The good news is they gave up those picks for Deshaun Watson, who is pretty good, and definitely worth the trade.

Indianapolis Colts: B+

Round 1: Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame

Round 2: Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State DbwA-abXkAAphou.jpg

Round 2: Braden Smith, G, Auburn

Round 2: Kemoko Turay, DE, Rutgers

Round 2: Tyquan Lewis, DL, Ohio State

Round 4: Nyheim Hines, RB, N.C. State

Round 5: Daurice Fountain, WR, Northern Iowa

Round 5: Jordan Wilkins, RB, Mississippi

Round 6: Deon Cain, WR, Clemson

Round 7: Matthew Adams, LB, Houston

Round 7: Zaire Franklin, LB, Syracuse

This was somewhat of a boring draft for the Colts, but still a good one. They got Quenton Nelson, the best offensive lineman in the class, and used four(!) second round picks to add another guard and some defensive help. Trading back from No. 3 paid off with a good haul of future assets.

Jacksonville Jaguars: C+

Round 1: Taven Bryan, DT, Florida DQyomY4VoAAAX80.jpg

Round 2: DJ Chark, WR, LSU

Round 3: Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama

Round 4: Will Richardson, T, N.C. State

Round 6: Tanner Lee, QB, Nebraska

Round 7: Leon Jacobs, LB, Wisconsin

Round 7: Logan Cooke, P, Mississippi St.

Bryan certainly has value at No. 29, but Jacksonville has no real issues on the defensive line. Additionally, both their starting safeties are signed through 2020. Chark was their best pick, because they lack wide receivers. My question is why not take a better one in the first?

Tennessee Titans: B DTMgBUbXkAA_cyn.jpg

Round 1: Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama

Round 2: Harold Landry, LB, Boston College

Round 5: Dane Cruikshank, S, Arizona

Round 6: Luke Falk, QB, Washington State

Realistically, the Titans should get a C for this Draft. I’m not sure about trading up for Evans, but he was certainly a good pick. Him and Landy are really what convinced me to bump them up half a letter. Expect good things from those two.

 

 

Draft Overview: Indianapolis Colts

The Indianapolis Colts went 4-12 in a rough 2017 season and coach Chuck Pagano was fired soon after.

Quarterback Andrew Luck did not play a single snap, even though he was supposed to be ready to start the season. After a mystery vacation to Europe, Luck recently started throwing. He should be good to go for camp in July.

Frank Reich was hired as the new coach in early February after winning Super Bowl LII as the Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator.

Jacoby Brissett and Scott Tolzien were dropped in the back field 56 times last season. Even if Andrew Luck is completely healthy in 2018, it won’t be good if he takes that many hits.

Remember when owner Jim Irsay angrily tweeted about Luck needing better protection?

Since that angry tweet, Luck has been sacked 114 times, an average of 38 per season.

Irsay has said repeatedly that Luck is his man. If he is that committed, his team should consider drafting an offensive lineman to help protect his quarterback. There are two guys already in Indiana (Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson) who are expected to come off the board early.

For the third straight time, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley makes an appearance in a draft overview. Frank Gore was the team’s leading rusher last year, running for 961 yards. That’s not bad for being 34 years old. Gore can still play, and play well, but it might be time to look to the future. A younger Barkley can carry the ball more and take some of the workload off of Luck.

While drafting an offensive lineman or a running back like Barkley makes sense, there is a safe pick for the Colts to make — this one on the other side of the ball.

General manager Chris Ballard seems to be focusing on defense this season, citing that the Colts can’t rely on luck all the time. The defense allowed 25.3 points per game in 2017, which ranked 30th in the NFL. Their defense needs a playmaker.

North Carolina State defensive end Bradley Chubb fits the Colts’ needs. He’s big, he’s athletic and he’s productive. Speed on the edge is especially important when you play in a division with elusive quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Deshaun Watson.

Colts hire Eagles’ Frank Reich

The Indianapolis Colts have reportedly hired Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator as their next coach, per Mike Garafolo of the NFL Network.

The hire comes days after Josh McDaniels backed out of the position to return to the New England Patriots.

Reich was also the San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator before joining the Eagles in 2016. His first NFL was with the colts, where he started as an offensive assistant in 2008.

He is expected to fly to Indianapolis tonight to sign his contract, something the Colts really hope actually happens this time.

UPDATE, 5:37 p.m.

Reich has signed a five-year contract, making the deal official.

Trying to explain the Josh McDaniels debacle

New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was set to become the next coach of the Indianapolis Colts, but backed out just hours after the Colts announced the hire on Tuesday.

It was rumored that McDaniels might have been scared off by Andrew Luck’s injury anomaly, or owner Jim Irsay’s tendencies to do as he pleases with the team, limiting what McDaniels could control.

On Wednesday afternoon, ESPN reported that control was a large reason for McDaniels’ decision to stay put in New England. Patriots coach Bill Belichick reportedly told his offensive coordinator that he could begin taking on more duties with the team, including roster decisions and salary cap management. New England already lost defensive coordinator/ rocket scientist Matt Patricia, who will be the next coach of the Detroit Lions.

McDaniels deciding to return to the Patriots sparked conspiracy theories suggesting that Belichick was retiring sooner than expected. While highly unlikely, it does make sense that Belichick is preparing McDaniels to be his successor, if the report of increased control is true.

The Colts were expected to hire McDaniels several weeks before they announced him as the coach, but were prohibited from officially doing so because he had yet to coach in the Super Bowl, which the Patriots lost to the Eagles.

Many potential replacements around the league took other coaching jobs during that duration, leaving the Colts with limited options. They are expected to request an interview with Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich.

McDaniels’ agent Bob LaMonte dropped him as a client on Wednesday.