Now that the dust has settled on the 2020 NFL Draft, we want to take a look at where the AFC South stands. Who has improved? Who has stayed the same? Has anyone actually gotten worse?
The Houston Texans won the division again in 2019 and have captured it in four of the last five seasons. Mike Vrabel’s Tennessee Titans, though, ran all the way to the AFC Championship game behind Derrick Henry and a stifling defense. In Indianapolis, the Colts made major splash moves in signing Philip Rivers and trading for DeForest Buckner. Meanwhile, the Jacksonville Jaguars are a young team that just had a sneaky good draft. 2020 might be anyone’s game.
To get some answers, we assembled a crack team, led by senior NFL editor Terry Biggs. He is joined by Colts writers Mason Ford and Fred Sprunger, and Colts managing editor Jesse Pierson is mediating the questions. Let’s begin.
How Would You Rank the AFC South Heading Into Draft Weekend?
TB: 1. Colts, 2. Titans, 3. Texans, 4. Jags
MF: Before the draft, it was a pretty close tie between the Texans, Titans, and Colts as the favorites to win the division. Each team had holes to fill. The Colts needed receivers and depth at the offensive line, the Titans needed help in their secondary and an offensive tackle to replace Jack Conklin, and the Texans needed to patch up their defensive line.
FS: 1. Titans, 2. Colts, 3. Texans, 4. Jaguars
JP: Until someone dethrones them, Houston has to stay at the top. Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt keep them in contention, despite Bill O’Brien’s best efforts to implode the team. I’m going to bump Indy ahead of Tennessee, as I think the Titans’ postseason run cannot cover the flaws of a 9-7 regular season. Jacksonville is the caboose, but they are closing the gap.
How Would You Rank Them Now That the Draft Is Over?
TB: 1. Colts, 2. Titans, 3. Texans, 4. Jags
MF: After the draft, the teams that improved the most are clear: the Jaguars and the Colts. While the Colts also had a few picks that were a bit confusing, they had the best draft between the four teams. They had a great balance of addressing positions of need and loading talent all across the roster. The Jaguars brought in 12 new players, but some picks left fans scratching their heads. They did a good job in earlier rounds but not so much in the later ones. Bill O’Brien only drafted five players, but all five seem to be decent picks. The team with the worst draft is the Titans. They had few picks, and despite addressing positions of need, they didn’t fill all of the holes they needed on defense.
FS: 1. Colts, 2. Titans, 3. Texans, 4. Jaguars
JP: It’s hard not to have a knee-jerk reaction after the draft. The Colts addressed a clear area of need at receiver with USC’s Michael Pittman. Jacksonville added five potential starters with their first five picks–C.J. Henderson, K’Lavon Chaisson, Laviska Shenault, DaVon Hamilton, and Ben Bartch–but they still have a lot of questions to answer. Tennessee brought in two solid pieces in Isaiah Wilson and Kristian Fulton. Houston traded away DeAndre Hopkins and don’t have a suitable replacement on their roster. I have to think it is now the Colts and Titans tied for first, Houston second/third, and Jacksonville fourth.
Who Has Had the Best Offseason So Far? And the Worst?
TB: The Colts added a veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers. What version of Rivers remains to be seen. Yet, Rivers will challenge defenses vertically. Plus, he enjoys the luxury of an upper echelon offensive line. Meanwhile, the Houston Texans continue to circle the drain and waste Deshaun Watson’s career. In trading away DeAndre Hopkins, Bill O’Brien cemented his legacy as an abysmal evaluator of talent and leader of men.
MF: The Jaguars had a good draft but not free agency, the Texans have had a mediocre free agency and draft, and lastly, the Titans were below average in both areas. The only team to greatly improve in both the draft and in free agency is the Colts. They filled in all the holes on their roster by free agency moves except for receivers, and then drafted a receiver with their first pick. On top of that, in later rounds of the draft, the Colts added depth and talent on both offense and defense.
FS: The best off-season belongs to the Colts, followed closely by the Titans. The Colts address a gaping need in the passing game by acquiring Philip Rivers, and use their first two 2020 draft picks on offensive weapons. Michael Pittman brings a pair of reliable hands to a Colts offense that has been plagued by drops the last few seasons. Pittman did not show blazing speed at the NFL Combine, but a 2.8% drop rate in college makes him a day one starter. Jonathan Taylor, a two-time Doak Walker Award winner, also brings dependability and durability to the Colts’ running game. Both Pittman and Taylor will be instant contributors to the Colts offense.
The worst off-season belongs to the Houston Texans. Bill O’Brien traded DeAndre Hopkins, one of the top wide receivers in the NFL, to the Arizona Cardinals, and replaced him with Brandin Cooks (who has been plagued by injury). Although the Texans added some nice pieces on defense in the draft, parting ways with Deshaun Watson’s best friend on that Houston offense lands the Texans with the worst offseason grade in the AFC South.
JP: I think this is a consensus. The Colts upgraded their quarterback, pass rush, and receiving options. The Texans kept O’Brien in charge of personnel decisions, and they lost their best offensive threat as a result. Oof.
Which AFC South Draft Pick Surprised You the Most, Good or Bad?
TB: I was surprised how well the Jags drafted. By and large, they filled holes on the defense, added big wideouts and did not reach for anyone. Considering how poorly Tom Coughlin helmed the team, Jags should improve.
MF: The most surprising pick by far is Jonathan Taylor going to the Colts. Few would have predicted a team that was top 10 in rushing yards last season, who also has three fantastic running backs, spend a premium pick on a player at that position. The Colts might think that a player of Taylor’s caliber will be more productive than Marlon Mack behind their powerful offensive line.
FS: The most surprising AFC South draft pick was Kristian Fulton, defensive back from LSU, to the Tennessee Titans at 61 overall. This was an incredible value pick for the Titans, as many draft experts gave Fulton a first-round grade. LSU has become a breeding ground for defensive backs (e.g. Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Jamal Adams), and Fulton certainly has a chance to be the next great LSU DB in Mike Vrabel’s defense.
JP: It was surprising to see Fulton fall so far, and I agree that he has a chance to be an immediate contributor in Nashville. The biggest shock to me, though, was Indianapolis trading up a few spots to nab Taylor. They already had both talent and depth in the backfield, but they saw a chance and took it. The Colts’ running game was already a strength, and Chris Ballard somehow made it even better. Philip Rivers must be smiling from ear to ear.
Who Are Your Way-Too-Early AFC South Award Winners? MVP, OROY, and DROY?
TB: MVP, Derrick Henry. The Titans will horse Henry this season. As a result, he will lead the league in rushing yards. While that strategy fails the long-term test, it works for now.
OROY, Jonathan Taylor. The former Wisconsin standout is accustomed to high usage. However, Frank Reich will be a bit more judicious in his approach. Look for Taylor to tally double-digit touchdowns.
DROY, K’Lavon Chaisson. If the Jags just turn him loose, he will stack sacks like new money. Do not overcomplicate his tasks.
MF: MVP, Deshaun Watson, Texans. OROY, Michael Pittman Jr., Colts. DROY, C.J. Henderson, Jaguars.
FS: MVP, Derrick Henry. OROY, Jonathan Taylor. DROY, C.J. Henderson.
JP: I’m taking Rivers as the surprise MVP pick. The Colts won seven games last year despite an anemic 207 passing yards per game and 15 missed kicks (nine field goals and six extra points). With even a modest improvement in both categories, Indianapolis should return to the playoffs. For OROY, I like Laviska Shenault to turn some heads in Jacksonville. He was one of the more versatile offensive players in this year’s draft class, and he could help make Gardner Minshew‘s job a lot easier in 2020. As Terry said, Chaisson should be the DROY. The Jaguars needs a pass rusher opposite Josh Allen, assuming they move on from Yannick Ngakoue like we all expect. I dig the youth movement in Duval.