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April 20, 2011

NFL Draft Preview: AFC South

by awieders

By: Alex Wiederspiel

The AFC South is truly a division in flux. The Colts are about to go through a rebuilding process, but like New England, attempt to continue winning in the present held up by a fantastic passing game and a scrappy defense. The Colts have to rebuild the running game from the ground up, and defensively need to continue adding talent throughout the entire unit. While the Colts try and rebuild, the Jaguars continue to try and stay afloat while rebuilding after a monstrously bad off-season two years ago.  Many will wonder if the Texans will finally get over the hurdle with new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, while the Titans look like the most talented team in the division, but had a locker room that fell apart last year when coach and quarterback began to butt heads. This division is wide open, but the odds on favorite is still Indianapolis.


1. Indianapolis Colts
2010 Record: 10-6
Season Finish: Wildcard Round Loss
Draft Picks:
1st Round — 22nd Overall
2nd Round — 53rd Overall
3rd Round — 87th Overall
4th Round — 119th Overall
5th Round — 152nd Overall
6th Round — 188th Overall
Team Needs: Back-up QB, WR Depth, OT, OG, DT, CB, S

The Colts have some work to do, because Peyton Manning can’t survive another beating like he did last year, and the Colts can’t survive on the short passing game entirely for another season. If the Colts want to really go wild it wouldn’t hurt to have four new starters on the line with Jeff Saturday being the only player keeping job, but of the worst of the worst it was left tackle Charlie Johnson and right guard Mike Pollak. Johnson and Pollak were both all-around horrendous, grading near the bottom in both run blocking and pass blocking in the NFL. A good strategy would be to move Kyle DeVan over to right guard and create an entire new left side of the line with rookies–which is what I’m anticipating. The offensive linemen are deep on the first two days at both tackle and guard, and Indianapolis is poised in perfect position to grab one of the top four tackles in the first. It would be a serious upset if the Colts did not go offensive line in the first.

Right now I’m thinking Gabe Carimi and Marcus Cannon (a mammoth guard who moves like a tackle) in the first two rounds. After that, Indianapolis will look on the defensive side of the ball. In the 3rd, a good option would likely be Shareece Wright, the cornerback film junkie from USC. Look for the Colts to add mid-round talent at defensive tackle, and possibly at quarterback as well, since there are rumors that the Colts no longer believe in their long-term project–Curtis Painter.

If Indianapolis does go a different direction in round one, the only real possibility would be cornerback Jimmy Smith, safety Rahim Moore, or defensive tackle Corey Liuget. However, Bill Polian knows that he hasn’t addressed the offensive line in a while. He also knows that with Howard Mudd gone, he needs to put some talent in front of Manning to make up for losing one of the best offensive line coaches in the game. It would help if half of Peyton’s offensive weapons didn’t get hurt this year, but most importantly as we saw last year you have to keep Manning upright and healthy. Manning was able to keep himself healthy, but another season of punishment on his aging body would be a disaster for Indianapolis. I fully expect the Colts to go offensive line in the first two rounds exclusively.


2. Jacksonville Jaguars
2010 Record: 8-8
Season Finish: 2nd in AFC South
Draft Picks:
1st Round — 16th Overall
2nd Round — 49th Overall
3rd Round — 80th Overall
4th Round — 114th Overall
4th Round — 121st Overall
5th Round — 147th Overall
6th Round — 182nd Overall
Team Need: QB, WR, C, DE, MLB, CB, S

There is definitely no shortage of needs in Jacksonville, but by and large it’s impressive what Jack Del Rio has done with a team that has essentially been rebuilding ever since the off-season fiasco of Jerry Porter and Drayton Florence. Believe it or not, Jacksonville isn’t far out of contending, but they still have some work to do.

Eugene Monroe once again struggled protecting Garrard’s blind side this year, but has proven to be a terrific run blocker. As a unit, the Jaguars are one of the best run blocking groups around and Maurice Jones-Drew’s success is partially attributed to that. For MJD though, he needs to get healthy after off-season knee surgery. He’s the fuel that makes the Jaguars run. The Jaguars are unlikely to address their offense at all in the first round unless Julio Jones somehow falls to 16th overall (and that’s not going to happen). It’s all about the defense in Jacksonville. Tyson Alualu and Terrence Knighton are becoming one of the young, formidable tackle duos in the league, but the end play in Jacksonville is still a problem. Derrick Harvey doesn’t look he’s ever going to pan out like he was supposed to, while Aaron Kampmann can no longer stay healthy. The Jaguars need help at both ends, but at least can put together some semblance of a blind side. On the strong-side, opposing teams ran all day on Derrick Harvey and  Austen Lane. I fully expect the Jaguars to go after an all-around defensive end, and who better then Alualu’s former teammate–Cameron Jordan. Jordan is an above average pass rusher who won’t be much more than a 5-6 sack guy per season, but his real benefit is as a run stopper. He is extremely strong and holds the point of attack with seeming ease. He’s not as instinctive as Alualu, but Jordan is versatile and can play either 4-3 strong-side DE or be a five-tech in a 3-4.

Jacksonville in the second could go a number of different ways. Martez Wilson will likely still be available at middle linebacker and there is a good chance that Leonard Hankerson will be around as well at receiver. The Jags could also snag Aaron Williams, Curtis Brown, or Brandon Burton. Another possibility is Jacksonville really over loading on defensive ends and drafting a pass rusher in the mold of Jabaal Sheard or even Allen Bailey in round three.

As far as quarterback goes, I expect Jacksonville to look at some developmental prospects, but unless the Jaguars take the plunge in round one I wouldn’t worry too much about David Garrard’s job security. If the Jaguars do decide to go quarterback there are a number of things they could do, but the most likely is that they traded back from 14th overall or trade up from their second round pick into the back-end of the first to nab one of the West Coast Offense QB’s who would actually work in the warm weather of Jacksonville.


3. Houston Texans
2010 Record: 6-10
Season Finish: 3rd in AFC South
Draft Picks:
1st Round — 11th Overall
2nd Round — 42nd Overall
3rd Round — 73rd Overall
4th Round — 105th Overall
5th Round — 138th Overall
6th Round — 178th Overall
7th Round — 214th Overall
7th Round — 254th Overall (Compensatory Selection)
Team Needs: WR, OL, 3-4 NT, 3-4 DE, 3-4 OLB, ILB Depth, CB, S

Oh the Buzzsaw certainly liked the Texans in the pre-season (you get me on the Browns all the time, this is my reply!). But not me. I did not buy into the hype and I said before the season the one thing that would hold them back would be an atrocious secondary. Well…spot on. It also didn’t help that Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans were both lost to major injuries (Ryans from opening day on). Schaub still hasn’t quite learned how to win yet, but the Texans can win this division next year. They may boast the most talented team in the division, but they just don’t know how to close out football games. Rookie Kareem Jackson has nowhere to go but up, but he needs to seriously improve after a dreadful first season.

God it sure looks like Houston needs a lot. They’re unlikely to look at all on the offensive side of the ball. I wouldn’t bet against Houston using their first four picks to draft defense. The first pick is a crapshoot, if the top two corners are gone then Houston will go after a rush linebacker like Aldon Smith or Robert Quinn. Phil Taylor was at one time a possibility, but he looks likely to be available when the Texans pick in round two. If Houston stays put and Prince Amukamara is still available, he’ll likely trump everyone. There’s even a possibility the Texans, who truly aren’t far off, move up on draft day and go after Patrick Peterson who it’s said they covet. Peterson isn’t likely to fall past five, but if he does, expect Rick Smith to start calling Cleveland and San Francisco, because he’s going to want Peterson.

In the second, I would expect the Texans to snatch Phil Taylor if he’s still available at 42 or grab a rush linebacker if Justin Houston or Akeem Ayers is still available and the position was not addressed in the first. Houston has a solid 3-4 corps. already with Antonio Smith and Mario Williams at defensive end, Connor Barwin on the outside, and Brian Cushing and DeMeco Ryans on the inside. Ryans adjustment period to the new defense will be interesting, and Cushing’s role as an outside backer or inside backer is still somewhat up in the air, though it is likely he plays on the inside.

If Rahim Moore is still available at 42, I could see Houston bypassing everyone and grabbing him. Another option for the Texans will be Ras-I Dowling of Virginia if they don’t get a first round corner. As the draft moves on expect the Texans to pick up a developmental 3-4 DE like Lawrence Guy (Arizona State) or Cedric Thornton (Southern Arkansas). They need to begin to develop someone in case Mario Williams does not work in his new role or Antonio Smith begins to decline. In fact, it would not shock me if the Texans spend seven picks all on defense. While they do need to address some depth issues along the offensive line, the Texans offense will likely remain unchanged going into 2011.


4. Tennessee Titans
2010 Record: 6-10
Season Finish: 4th in AFC South
Draft Picks:
1st Round — 8th Overall
2nd Round — 39th Overall
3rd Round — 77th Overall
4th Round — 109th Overall
4th Round — 130th Overall (Compensatory Selection)
5th Round — 142nd Overall
6th Round — 176th Overall
7th Round — 212th Overall
7th Round — 251st Overall (Compensatory Selection)
Team Needs: QB, OG, C, DE, DT, CB, S

If you are asking yourself why the Titans can’t seem to function like a normal team you are not alone. Vince Young and Jeff Fisher both get the axe, Kenny Britt gets arrested, and Chris Johnson is delusional enough to think Vince Young will still be a Titan next year.

Okay that’s just what’s happened in the off-season. In the regular season we had the Young-Fisher fight, Britt’s injuries, a locker room divided, and a defense that fell apart down the stretch. the Titans finished last season 8-2. They started this year 5-2. 13-4 in their last 17 games before going on a 1-8 slide to end the season that resulted in the end of both Young and Fisher. Now Kenny Britt’s status is up in the air as well, and Britt was likely going to be the focal point of the passing game.

You can be sure of this, we have no idea what’s going on in Tennessee. Blaine Gabbert makes perfect sense in Tennessee where they already have a well established running game and awesome up-and-coming weapons in Kenny Britt and Jared Cook Jr. Defensively, Tennessee is pretty good, but losing Jim Washburn as DL coach and probably Jason Babin as well will hurt, as Babin is likely going to follow the only DL coach who has ever gotten him success. Tennessee may be talented, but they’re going to have to get worse before they get better because of what happened this off-season.

Okay, so I’m thinking that if Cincinnati and San Francisco both pass on Blaine Gabbert then the Titans snag him up. Gabbert is a more natural passer then VY ever was, even though Gabbert still has a long way to go before he’s ever a legitimate starting NFL quarterback. His deep ball is really awful and is going to need work, but in Tennessee being surrounded by the type of talent on the field that the Titans have it only makes sense for the Titans to be “that team” that decides to start it’s rookie quarterback. The Titans have a late 2nd rounder, so it’s always a possibility that they draft an impact player at 8th overall and then trade up to grab a late first quarterback like Ryan Mallett. If Mallett keeps his nose clean (literally), I think Tennessee might be the best landing spot for him. Pairing him with Britt on the field would be dynamite (though off the field these two would need a restraining order so that they don’t party together). If Tennessee either can’t get Gabbert at 8th, or choose to pass on him, I assume that they will draft Prince Amukamara, Nick Fairley, or trade down. Tennessee shouldn’t have a problem though–Fairley should fall to them.

So assuming Tennessee lands their quarterback and their defensive playmaker within the first 40 picks, the Titans have to look at a couple of other things. First and foremost, it would help if the pass rush wasn’t so inconsistent. A healthy Derrick Morgan could fix that problem. The Titans secondary has been extremely up and down, but with Michael Griffin entering a contract year I’m expecting him to light it up in his quest to get a new deal. Cortland Finnegan needs to seriously improve this season. He allowed two out of every three balls that came his way to be caught for a YPC of over 11. That’ s unacceptable for a guy who is supposed to be among the best in the league. Last year Finnegan’s QB rating against was a shade over 97. Once again, not acceptable. Tennessee is going to try to add a corner within the first three rounds. I could see Ras-I Dowling in round two or Shareece Wright in round three becoming a Titan.

I think, inevitably, Tennessee is going to pass on Nick Fairley for Blaine Gabbert. If that happens look for a cornerback or guard in the second round, or center Stefan Wisniewski if he’s available. My guess is corner, and then the following two rounds Tennessee goes offensive line (Kristopher O’Dowd will definitely be available in the 4-6 range) and rounds out there needs.

Tennessee has plenty of talent. On offense Chris Johnson, Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Damian Williams, Jared Cook Jr., and Bo Scaife can all be playmakers by creating mismatches. The glue will be  a quarterback, if Tennessee can find one. Don’t expect the Titans to compete for the AFC South, but the division will be wide open while Indy goes through something of a rebuilding. Jacksonville is still a year or two away, and we’re not sure they can actually win in December. Houston now becomes the most legitimate contender to the Colts, but we have no idea how that 3-4 is going to gel in it’s first year, and Houston may be the type of team that frustrates you all season until a late December win streak saves Gary Kubiak’s job.

I guess we’ll find out in the Fall.

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