Analysis

AFC South roster reset: Quarterback storylines define division's offseason

Our Roster Reset series takes a division-by-division look at where things stand across the league heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. Adam Maya examines the current makeup of the AFC South below.

Houston Texans
Houston Texans
2020 record: 4-12

BIGGEST ADDITION: Tyrod Taylor, quarterback

Old team: Los Angeles Chargers


Here's an insurance policy that could kick in immediately. The Texans reached an agreement with Taylor just as other bridge/backup quarterback dominoes began to fall. This was after Deshaun Watson made his trade request but before he was accused of sexual assault or harassment in lawsuits filed by 22 women, resulting in ongoing investigations by both the Houston Police Department and the NFL. New coach David Culley was Taylor's position coach for his final season in Buffalo, a pairing that produced modest numbers but a wild-card berth. He can be serviceable again. But this team isn't primed for a playoff run in 2021 -- even with Watson. 


BIGGEST LOSS: J.J. Watt, defensive end

New team: Arizona Cardinals


It made sense financially to part ways with the best player in franchise history. Watt is 32 and no longer in his prime, while the Texans face a potentially long rebuild and needed cap flexibility to restock the roster. Still, his presence could have preserved some stability in the locker room amid all the chaos outside of it. It's never easy saying goodbye to a cornerstone. In this case, the timing couldn't be worse.

 

TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Edge rusher


Listing just one group feels incomplete. Houston has serious problems at wide receiver and along the offensive line. But defense was the primary culprit for the team going 4-12 last year, and the pass rush was an issue before Watt exited stage left. His sack numbers were down despite the fact he continued to generate a lot of pressure, in large part because of constant double-teams and a subpar supporting cast. The Texans, of course, don't own a pick until the third round and hold just two before the fifth round. They have to make them count.


FINAL THOUGHTS:


It was only 15 months ago that the Texans were charging toward their first-ever AFC title game appearance. Just about everything has gone wrong since they squandered that 24-point lead to the Chiefs. Houston's first-time GM and first-time HC inherited a depth chart with holes everywhere -- unchanged by their modest free-agent acquisitions -- and a QB quagmire that might not be resolved anytime soon. The scenarios involving Watson are wide-ranging, given that he's asked for a trade -- a desire the organization has repeatedly said it has "no interest" in granting -- and is now under investigation for sexual assault allegations. The uncertainty of it all leaves Houston without an obvious path forward. Not even the draft presents a realistic opportunity to rebuild the roster.

Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
2020 record: 11-5

BIGGEST ADDITION: Carson Wentz, quarterback

Old team: Philadelphia Eagles


This will be the third straight season in which the Colts will start a quarterback no one would have predicted just a year before. The risk, and perhaps reward, will be much greater this time around. Wentz was inexplicably one of the worst QBs in football last year. It was a campaign so bad that, especially when juxtaposed with his breakout 2017 season, it clouded how we remember his 2018-19 performances. Wentz has been more good than bad through five years, and his best was with Frank Reich. Gambling on their reunion with a win-now roster was a logical move given how late Indianapolis drafts in the first round (No. 21 overall) and an uninspiring QB free-agent class.


BIGGEST LOSS: Anthony Castonzo, tackle

New team: Retired


This one hurts, even if it was expected. The Colts have boasted one of the best O-lines in the NFL in recent seasons. Castonzo contemplated retirement last offseason, only to return and help anchor an offensive unit that ranked in the top half of the league in both passing and rushing. He was a model of consistency and durability over the past decade in Indy. While also losing Philip Rivers to retirement initially left a major void, identifying Castonzo's replacement might be trickier.


TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Left tackle


The Colts recently signed two tackles with starting experience on the blind side in Sam Tevi and Julie'n Davenport. They'll more than likely be counted on to provide depth for a rookie from the 2021 draft class. The Colts own just two picks in the first three rounds, so Castonzo's successor should be clear by Day 2. It's a decision that might have a resounding effect on Wentz, whose struggles in Philly often correlated with poor line play.


FINAL THOUGHTS:


Indy was probably better than its 11-5 record suggested last season. The AFC was surprisingly deep, yet the Colts still looked like contenders even as they narrowly lost in the Wild Card Round to the Bills. Their path in the AFC South could be a bit easier now considering the turnover Tennessee has endured this offseason. The Colts used their abundant cap space to swing the Wentz deal and re-sign homegrown fixtures T.Y. Hilton and Marlon Mack and former Pro Bowler Xavier Rhodes, perhaps positioning them for a deeper postseason run in 2021. Of course, that will largely depend on whether Wentz rebounds. Hitting on their early draft selections -- the Colts still need to bolster their pass rush -- would help, too. But GM Chris Ballard continues to prove he's one of the best in the business, and his team again looks to be trending up.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars
2020 record: 1-15

BIGGEST ADDITION: Shaquill Griffin, cornerback

Old team: Seattle Seahawks


Several teams were (and still are) seeking better cornerback play, so landing an above-average starter is notable. Griffin is just one year removed from a Pro Bowl season. Equally important, he joins a revamped secondary in which he instantly becomes the best player. His presence should take some pressure off 2020 first-rounder C.J. Henderson, who experienced a fair share of growing pains as a rookie. Griffin might not be a ballhawk, but he can cover at a high level. The Jags will take it.


BIGGEST LOSS: Keelan Cole, wide receiver

New team: New York Jets


Jacksonville was clearly comfortable restocking its wide receiver room. Gone are Cole, Chris Conley and Dede Westbrook, while Marvin Jones and Phillip Dorsett are now in teal. More pass catchers will likely be added in the draft. Cole is the choice here because he appeared to come into his own last season. He set career highs in catches (55) and touchdowns (five) while showing he could be more than an occasional downfield threat. But he was expendable.


TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Quarterback


There was never much suspense about whom Jacksonville would target with the top pick. Urban Meyer then made it a complete non-discussion when he all but assured Trevor Lawrence would be heading to Duval. The real intrigue lies in what happens next. Lawrence is conservatively viewed as the best QB prospect since Andrew Luck, with some rating him higher. He'll be the first No. 1 overall selection in franchise history, but not the Jags' first top-10 QB. The shortcomings of Byron Leftwich, Blaine Gabbert and Blake Bortles not only define the team's revolving door at QB this century but its overall ineptitude. Lawrence signals change.


FINAL THOUGHTS:


The Jags began free agency with arguably the worst roster in the league and the most money to spend. They came out of it seemingly better on all three levels of the defense. They can hit the offensive side hard in the draft, where they own 10 picks total, including five in the first 65 slots. While Meyer has proven to be a master at rebuilding college programs, this figures to be his toughest task yet. Jacksonville has been among the hardest places to win at, even for coaches with a good track record. It's been 21 years since the Jags won double-digit games in consecutive seasons. They've had just one winning season since 2007. None of that meshes with Meyer's excellence. His current cupboard suggests he'll have to be as patient as he's previously been good to make this franchise a winner.

Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans
2020 record: 11-5

BIGGEST ADDITION: Bud Dupree, outside linebacker

Old team: Pittsburgh Steelers


Pass rush was a glaring need for the Titans, and they paid for it by locking up Dupree on a five-year deal worth up to $85 million. His impact in Pittsburgh went beyond the box score, as evidenced by the Steelers' late-season swoon following his ACL injury. Consider the 28-year-old one of the best players in the league who has yet to make a Pro Bowl. If he can return to form this year, it would instantly reshape what was one of the league's worst defenses in 2020.


BIGGEST LOSS: Jonnu Smith, tight end

New team: New England Patriots


Corey Davis might be a better player at this juncture, and his departure will be felt, as well. But at least Josh Reynolds could serve as a reasonable facsimile. Smith was the more valuable red-zone weapon and could be tougher to replace. After three relatively quiet seasons, he established career highs in receptions (41), yards (448) and touchdowns (eight) in 2020, proving to be an ideal fit in this offense. And his continued presence clearly would've smoothed Todd Downing's transition from tight ends coach to offensive coordinator. Smith will surely be missed, even if his blocking won't.


TOP DRAFT PRIORITY: Cornerback


This was a position of need before Tennessee jettisoned starters Malcolm Butler and Adoree' Jackson. The Titans simply weren't good enough at corner last year. The addition of Janoris Jenkins is a nice start. Tennessee still stands to add a couple pieces in the draft with its nine selections, which include four in the top 100. This appears to be a strong CB class compared to recent years. Tennessee will be looking for guys who can start Day 1.


FINAL THOUGHTS:


After limping to the finish line in 2020, the Titans needed to shake things up a bit. Mike Vrabel has clearly instilled a culture in Tennessee and identified a winning formula. After all, the franchise just reached the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 2007-08. But the personnel stood to improve. It remains to be seen how big of a loss offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is to the equation -- it might be sizeable. Relying so heavily on Derrick Henry also feels flawed, which bore out in the playoff loss to the Ravens. Vrabel knows as well as anyone from his time in New England that even good teams have to evolve from year to year and greatness sometimes requires dramatic change. The Titans will be different in 2021, one way or another.

Follow Adam Maya on Twitter.

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