NFL Preview: AFC South

A crucial point about the AFC South before we begin. It’s the best division in football. Each team has a quarterback they can feel good about, and some semblance of a plan (ok, maybe not you Indianapolis). All things considered, this division should produce some of the best games of 2018, and could potentially put three teams in the playoffs.

1. Houston Texans                                      Projected Record 12-4

Before Quarterback Deshaun Watson went down last season with a torn ACL, the Houston Texans looked to be one of the league’s most dynamic offenses. The team averaged over forty points a game over Watson’s final four starts, and they now have the benefit of playing a last place schedule. Houston’s offense will pick up right where it left off last season, and should continue to torch defenses from week one. Wide receivers Deandre Hopkins and Will Fuller complement each other beautifully, while running back Lamar Miller provides a steadying presence in the backfield. The major question mark surrounding the offense is the offensive line. Houston gave up the second most quarterback sacks and allowed the most quarterback hits of any offensive line in the league last season, yet failed to substantially improve the unit heading into 2018. Seantrel Henderson is the team’s new starting right tackle, and he played alright in seven starts with the Bills last season, but he is far from the solution. The one silver lining is Watson thrived behind a slightly worse offensive line last season, and there’s no reason to think he can’t again. Defensively, the Texans boast one of the league’s strongest front sevens with the return of superstar defensive end JJ Watt and the emergence of linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. The signing of free agent Tyrann Mathieu was one of the savviest in the league, and should pay dividends from the jump. Mathieu should help legitimize a secondary that gave up the second most passing touchdowns and the most plays over forty yards in the league last season. Overall, I predict huge things for the Texans this season behind the greatness of their quarterback prodigy Deshaun Watson.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars                              Projected Record: 12-4

After capturing the AFC South and making a impressive run to the AFC Championship game last season, the Jacksonville Jaguars will look to build off their surprising success. The team added All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell and wide receiver Donte Moncrief, but the offense looks essentially the same it did last season. The offense will still revolve around running back Leonard Fournette, but their ceiling is only so high with Blake Bortles at quarterback. He showed slight improvement over the course of last season, but overall he’s still a bottom tier signal caller. The Jaguars front office hasn’t done him any favors, surrounding him with an uninspiring group of receivers, but it will be interesting to see how much Doug Marrone and the rest of Jacksonville’s coaching staff asks of him. On the defensive side of the ball, Jacksonville remains one of the league’s most feared units. Lead by All-Pros Calais Campbell and Jalen Ramsey, this defense is overflowing with talent at every level. With no conceivable weaknesses and plenty of depth, it’s hard not to see this defense continuing to dominate and carrying this Jaguars team to the playoffs.

3. Tennesse Titans                                     Projected Record: 9-7

The Tennessee Titans spent the past offseason molding themselves in the image of  the New England Patriots, and if there is a team to model yourself after it is certainly the Pats. With the hiring of Mike Vrabel as head coach, and the signings of both Dion Lewis and Malcom Butler, the Titans front office clearly placed an impetus on bringing the New England culture to Nashville. Vrabel’s biggest concern is likely the progression of quarterback Marcus Mariota, and to that he turns to new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. LaFleur, the first branch of the Sean Mcvay coaching tree, is the new offensive coordinator in Tennessee and Mariota’s new best friend. Mariota has never had a coordinator half as creative as LaFleur, and an offense heavy with play action, run pass options, and trick plays will best utilize Mariota’s unique skillset. At this point, Mariota has run out of excuses. The weapons around him have never been better; Corey Davis is an enticing option at wide receiver, Delaine Walker is still one of the leagues best tight ends, and the running back tandem of Derrick Henry and Lewis form an impressive one-two punch. On defense, the Titans have a number of enticing playmakers littered across the unit. Kevin Byard may be the most underrated player in the league, and Adoree Jackson showed flashes of dominance in his rookie season. Up front, Jurrell Casey remains one of the leagues best defensive tackles, and Derrick Morgan is a strong presence off the edge. The opportunities are there for the Titans to jump into the upper echelon of the AFC, but they all hinge on the play of Mariota. His improvement will almost singlehandedly determine the outcome of Tennessee’s season, and it could shake up the entire AFC playoff picture.

4. Indianapolis Colts                                  Projected Record: 4-12

Similar to most last place teams, the Indianapolis Colts roster is bereft of talent. Unlike most last place teams though, they actually have a plan at quarterback. Assuming he returns to his pre injury form (granted that’s a big assumption), Andrew Luck has enough talent to keep the Colts in almost every game they play. Their wide receiving corps is nothing to write home about, as T.Y. Hilton proved last season how ineffective he is without Luck under center, and running backs Marlon Mack and Jordan Wilkins have much to prove before they could be considered starting-caliber backs. Thankfully the Colts front office have finally placed a priority on protecting Luck, and a combination of center Ryan Kelly and guard Quenton Nelson should help keep Luck upright for the foreseeable future. Defensively, Indianapolis is lacking in elite talent and should be one of the worst units in the league. Free safety Malik Hooker is the only long term solution at any position for the Colts, as he and pass rusher Jabaal Sheard may be the only NFL  caliber players in the starting eleven. All in all, Luck will breathe some much needed life into this franchise, but their defense is far too young and inexperienced for the Colts to seriously compete in the cutthroat AFC South.

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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.

 

 

NFL Mock Draft 1.0

The NFL Scouting Combine is next weekend, which means it’s draft season.

This first mock draft is pretty short in all honesty, only picks one through eight. That’s because we don’t know who the ninth pick will belong to. It will either go the San Francisco 49ers or Oakland Raiders and will be decided by a coin toss on March 2, the same day the combine begins.

Let’s get this rolling.

1. Cleveland Browns: Sam Darnold QB, USC

The Browns need a quarterback and Darnold is the highest touted prospect in this draft class. With the first pick, Cleveland can get their man of the future … hopefully.

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2. New York Giants: Josh Rosen QB, UCLA

Eli Manning isn’t good anymore. Rosen already said he’d prefer to stay out of Cleveland, so he’ll be there for the Giants. With a year to develop behind Manning, Rosen can thrive in New York with the talented (when healthy) receiving corps. He’ll also thrive in the New York media market.

3. Indianapolis Colts: Bradley Chubb DE, NC State

The Colts’ biggest concern going into next year is probably Andrew Luck’s health, but they also need to add some talent to an aging roster. Chubb will be a playmaker on a defense that ranked 30th in points allowed last season.

4. Cleveland Browns: Saquon Barkley RB, Penn State

Barkley might be the best college player in the draft, but here have been questions as to whether his skills will translate to the NFL. He’s still worth the pick. Sam Darnold won’t be able to do all the work in Cleveland, and having Barkley in the backfield will help distribute the load.

5. Denver Broncos: Josh Allen QB, Wyoming

The Broncos window for championships is still open, but they’ll get nowhere without a decent quarterback. General manager John Elway is believed to like Allen, and with the Jets prepared to pay Kirk Cousins big money, they’ll take their chances on the rookie from Colorado’s neighbor state.

6. New York Jets: Minkah Fitzpatrick S, Alabama

We already discussed how the Jets can land their quarterback, so now they turn their attention to the other side of the ball. Fitzpatrick is the best defensive back in the draft and will be an excellent piece to play alongside Jamal Adams. That’s a pretty goos secondary.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Josh Jackson CB, Iowa

An aging Brent Grimes is set to become a free agent, so the Bucs will need to find a replacement. Drafting a young and talented cornerback is a good way to go.

8. Chicago Bears: Calvin Ridley WR, Alabama

The Bears are committed to Mitchell Trubisky at quarterback. Now they need someone for him to throw the ball to. Ridley can fill the role of WR1, creating a potentially scary QB-WR duo.

 

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.