PFW roundtable: 5 key offseason questions, AFC South edition

Jaguars still class of South? Or could healthy Watt, Watson shift divisional power back to Texans?

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PFW editors Bob LeGere, Eric Edholm, Greg Gabriel, Arthur Arkush and Hub Arkush answer five key AFC South questions.

1) Who will be the biggest impact rookie?

LeGere: An interior offensive lineman? Why not? Sixth overall draft pick OG Quenton Nelson has the tools to be a 10-year Pro Bowl player, and he’s coming to a team that has struggled up front for several years, especially in pass protection. That much was evident when the Colts readdressed their deplorable OL situation 31 picks after Nelson, when they tabbed Auburn’s Braden Smith. If and when QB Andrew Luck returns, he will enjoy better protection than at any time in his career, and that will do more to resuscitate the Colts than anything.

Edholm: Yeah, I am picking an offensive guard — so what? Quenton Nelson arrives with as sterling a reputation for an interior blocker who has entered the league in some years now, and he should help patch a trouble spot on the Colts line. Of course, this prediction comes with the Lourdes-level hope that Andrew Luck returns to quarterbacking. Otherwise, we might not give Nelson’s work as much notice. But he’s that good, folks. A generational talent inside.

Gabriel: Quenton Nelson has the skill set to become a Pro Bowl player as a rookie. We can’t say that about many rookie offensive linemen. His personality will also bring about a toughness to the Colts offensive line group.

Arthur Arkush: Tennessee traded up to secure its Day 1 and Day 2 targets — a strong indication Mike Vrabel and Co. have a specific early plan for LB Rashaan Evans and EDGE Harold Landry. Landry requires some seasoning, but Evans should be the latest ex-Tide ‘backer to make waves immediately. And after watching the Titans’ linebackers struggle in their last game to defend the Patriots’ backs and tight ends and then lose Avery Williamson in free agency, Evans’ rounded game and experience will be needed.

Hub Arkush: The temptation is to jump on Colts rook Quenton Nelson because I believe he will eventually be a perennial Pro Bowler and is NFL-ready Day One, but how much of an impact can an offensive guard make? I'm voting for Titans' second-rounder Harold Landry. Off his junior year, he was a top-five pick, the Titans made a big move up to get him in Round Two and, if his ankle is sound, he's the most NFL-ready pass rusher in this rookie class. Double-digit sacks is a reasonable prediction.

2) Best under-the-radar addition?

BL: The TE position in Jacksonville has been a wasteland for several years. No. 1 TE Marcedes Lewis averaged less than 20 catches per season over the past four years, and although he had five TDs last season, he had just three in the three years previous. Enter Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who caught 50 passes for the Jets last year, more than double his previous personal best. He averaged just 7.1 yards per grab with the Jets but averaged 13.4 yards in two-plus seasons with the Bucs.

EE: The Titans bringing in offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur could be the kind of addition that helps Marcus Mariota emerge from the funk of 2017 (the playoff win notwithstanding) and become the player many expected following a banner Year 2. LaFleur helped Matt Ryan develop into an MVP-caliber QB in Atlanta and shepherded Jared Goff in a breakout second season last year. Mariota has all the talent and enough contributing parts on offense to make that happen. LaFleur’s fresh eyes and new ideas should not only bring that to be, but it also could make him a hot head-coaching candidate in 2019.

GG: Colts OT Austin Howard was not a first-tier free agent, but he is a winning right tackle in the NFL. Over the past six seasons, Howard has started a minimum of 10 games in each year. The Colts have to protect Andrew Luck, and Howard will help do that.

AA: Justin Reid was Houston’s top pick, No. 68 overall. But there isn’t a more puzzling position in the NFL this offseason than safety, where versatility and athleticism have never been more important, yet guys just haven’t received the commensurate paydays and draft investments. Nevertheless, Reid brings the intelligence, ball skills and versatility to quickly unseat Andre Hal and form a dynamic duo with Tyrann Mathieu on a pass ‘D’ that was routinely ravaged deep.

HA: In Jacksonville everyone is talking about Andrew Norwell arriving as a free agent off his first All-Pro season at guard, but the biggest difference maker in the division will be Norwell's new teammate Austin Seferian-Jenkins. Tight end hasn't been all that productive for the Jaguars in recent seasons with veteran Marcedes Lewis extremely dependable but less than exciting. Seferian-Jenkins grew up in New York (of all places) and now appears ready for a leading role and with Lewis gone and top wideouts Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns having moved on as well. Expect Seferian-Jenkins to get every opportunity to make a significant impact and to be the Jags' top red-zone target.

 

3) Biggest offseason defection?

BL: While the Colts have bolstered their O-line under GM Chris Ballard, the skill-position talent has waned, most notably with the defection of WR Donte Moncrief, which leaves a gaping void across from go-to guy T.Y. Hilton. Moncrief never had more than 733 receiving yards in his four seasons in Indy, but he’s a big body, and he had 15 TD catches in the past three seasons.

EE: Allen Robinson lost almost all of last season to injury and was coming off a disappointing 2016, so there was reason for the Jaguars to hedge a bit when it came to bringing him back. But letting Robinson sign with the Chicago Bears for relatively tame WR1 money (three years, $42 million, including $25.2 million guaranteed) feels a bit risky to us. He’s not even 25 years old yet and has shown far more upside than his possible replacement, Donte Moncrief, who comes in on a one-year deal just shy of $10 million. Second-rounder D.J. Chark could be special in time, and they kept Marqise Lee to help, but the Jaguars also had to part ways with Allen Hurns. Will the net value for a team close to a title be worth losing a potential star in free agency over a few million bucks? Hard to say.

GG: Yes, it’s true that with Allen Robinson missing all but one game last year, the Jags were still able to make the playoffs, but the truth is that they don’t have a receiver on their roster that has the skill set, capability and  leadership skills that Robinson possesses.

AA: Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye form an elite CB tandem, diverting our attention from Aaron Colvin’s strong slot play. I’m very skeptical that D.J. Hayden can replace Colvin, now in Houston, meaning teams will be even more inclined to avoid the boundaries and attack Jacksonville's 'D' over the middle. Granted, the speed of Telvin Smith and Myles Jack could help counter that, but the NFL’s best pass ‘D’ still must adjust to losing a valuable part.

HA: I hate to be stuck in Jacksonville, but the truth is not that much talent left the AFC South, and the best player to go was Allen Robinson. Granted, he is two full seasons removed from his breakout All-Pro 2015 campaign, but he was huge that season and the Jaguars opted to search off the rack for his replacement. Legit No. 1 wideouts are hard to come by, and though there's no guarantee Robinson's '15 season will be the norm for him when healthy, he's still just 24, the odds are with him and the Jaguars now don't have anyone vaguely resembling a No. 1 receiver on the roster.

4) Heat check (coach most on the hot seat)?

BL: The Texans and coach Bill O’Brien will enter the 2018 season on the heels of a six-game losing streak that left them with a 1-10 record in their final 11 games to close out 2017. Sure, the Texans suffered catastrophic injuries to key players last year, but that late-season collapse included embarrassing losses by 26, 28 and 38 points.

EE: Bill O’Brien won a power struggle over ousted GM Rick Smith and was given a four-year extension through 2022, attached at the hip now with Smith’s replacement, Brian Gaine, whose moves this offseason were believed to be more of a co-brokered operation than anything Smith did with O’Brien there. So it’s hard to imagine he’s truly on the hot seat, barring a shockingly bad season — something on the order of two or three wins. Could Doug Marrone be in any trouble if the Jaguars flop this season? He also has a long-term deal, through the 2021 season, and likely isn’t going anywhere. But if the Jaguars somehow fall to a terrible mark this year, it wouldn’t be completely shocking, we suppose, to see Tom Coughlin call for the heads of Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell. It just doesn’t feel very likely to us either.

GG: The truth is, I don’t know if Bill O’Brien is under any pressure to win. That said, the Texans have a new general manager in Brian Gaine — and he was not the person who hired O’Brien. If there is a problem in the working arrangement between Gaine and O’Brien, the coach could be the one to go.

AA: What a difference a year makes in this division: Bill O’Brien hired new Texans GM Brian Gaine after signing an extension. The Titans and Colts cleared their coaching decks. Jacksonville extended its power trio — Dave Caldwell, Doug Marrone and Tom Coughlin — after the franchise’s best season in a decade. Because Frank Reich wasn’t the Colts’ first choice, he’s our default pick, but we can’t truly envision the 56-year-old rookie only lasting one season, especially as it inches closer without a healthy Andrew Luck.

HA: The AFC South may require more air conditioning than most of the NFL, but right now it's the coolest division in football. The Texans have no intentions of eating the four-year contract extension they just gave Bill O'Brien. The chances that either Mike Vrabel or Frank Reich could be a one and done are slim and none, and slim is already on a jet out of town, and Doug Marrone has a few 2017 Coach of the Year votes in his hip pocket. Things will probably be different by the end of the season — they always are in the NFL — but right now there is literally no heat anywhere in the AFC South, and it will take something completely unforeseen to change that.

5) Predicted order of finish?

BL: 1. Jaguars 2. Texans 3. Titans 4. Colts

The wild card is the Titans, who fired head coach Mike Mularkey, even after he got his team into the playoffs and won a game in the postseason, despite a disappointing season from QB Marcus Mariota. The Jaguars can count on their defense to get them back into the postseason, but if the Texans stay healthy, they could challenge them. The Colts are also-rans with or without Andrew Luck.

EE: 1. Texans 2. Jaguars 3. Titans 4. Colts

If you told me today that Luck would be fully healthy, would I even consider flip-flopping the last two? No, I don’t think I would. Am I nuts for putting the Texans ahead of the Jaguars? Perhaps, but I do wonder about the sustainability of a Jacksonville team that received 17 percent of its touchdowns off defensive returns last season. Assuming the Texans don’t face the spate of injuries they did a year ago, with Deshaun Watson reassuming his pre-injury play this season, I’ll take him by a hair over the Jaguars. And I have healthy respect for what the Jaguars have built, especially with a dominant defense and a potentially strong offensive line. I think it really could come down to the Week 17 game between the two teams.

GG: 1. Jaguars 2. Titans 3. Colts 4. Texans

The Jaguars reached the AFC championship game last year, and their roster is too strong not to compete for the same this season. The Titans tabbed a new coach to help Marcus Mariota reach his enormous potential, and have a deep roster. In Indianapolis, if Andrew Luck is healthy, the Colts will compete for a playoff spot. Overall, the AFC South has the makings of a very strong division. The Texans are a good club, and if Deshaun Watson plays the way he did before his injury, Houston could just as easily be first or second as last.

AA: 1. Texans 2. Jaguars 3. Titans 4. Colts

Jacksonville’s roster might be the best, but I believe more in the coaching and quarterback in Houston, where unrivaled reinforcements — Watson, Watt and Whitney Mercilus — are en route. I’m amped about Matt LaFleur resuscitating Marcus Mariota, but it feels like Tennessee might still be a playmaker or two away — and some Texans observers think losing the unproven Vrabel is addition by subtraction. It’d be helpful to at least know whether Reich will again need his magic QB2 touch before assessing Indy.

HA: 1. Texans 2. Jaguars 3. Titans 4. Colts

I'm assuming good health for Watt, Watson and Mercilus; what fun is it to pick the Jaguars? Jacksonville is too talented to implode, but Bortles is a big question mark, and it's always tougher the second time around. So, just how good is Marcus Mariota, and is Mike Vrabel really ready? Ballard's done some nice things, but there's so much to do, and will he have any Luck?

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