The AFC South is an Andrew Luck injury away from becoming a complete embarrassment:
Indianapolis Colts 11-5
Houston Texans 8-8
Tennessee Titans 5-11
Jacksonville Jaguars 5-11
Expected Wins: 8.15
Scouting Wins: 7.61
DVOA Wins: 7.3
2014 Record: 9-7 (9.8 Pythagorean)
The similarities between the Texans and Bills are striking. Both teams had lousy offenses and strong defenses. Both had winning records but underperformed their Pythagorean expectations and missed the playoffs. Buffalo had much better special teams, but that’s the only major difference in their statistical profiles.
Coincidentally, both the Texans and Bills have partaken of the Ryan Fitzpatrick experience and moved on from him shortly thereafter. That shouldn’t inspire much confidence for Jets fans. It’s not like either team has a quality QB on its roster. Brian Hoyer’s numbers don’t do him justice (-5.3% DVOA, 166 DYAR). Over the past three seasons, he’s been a combined 61 yards above replacement. He’s a mediocre backup quarterback and is currently the leading contender to start for the Texans. Ryan Mallett wasn’t able to win the starting job for the Texans last year, mostly due to problems with accuracy that appear intractable. He hit the free agent market with dreams of a fresh start and…
Ouch. If he had hopes of a free agency payday:
The third man competing for the job is 2014 fourth-round pick Tom Savage. Savage was the beneficiary of a hype-whisper campaign last season, much the same way Bryce Petty was this year. The reality is that Savage lacks even rudimentary skills in terms of dealing with pressure. He is going to need some major coaching, but my suspicion is he doesn’t have the skills to make it as an NFL quarterback.
Arian Foster is currently recovering from major groin surgery. His status to start the season is unknown, and even if he is available, it’s unclear if he’ll be fully recovered. Foster has only played in 21 games over the past two seasons and running backs don’t age like wine. The fact that the Chargers traded ahead of Houston (to draft Melvin Gordon) is a sign that they think the Texans see the writing on the wall. Foster is 29 and has only accumulated 383 DYAR over the past three seasons. 2014 sixth-round pick Alfred Blue was a disaster last season (-21.3% DVOA, -88 DYAR). He’ll be battling free agent pickup Chris Polk for carries. Polk was effective in VERY limited usage in Philadelphia (57 carries for 107 DYAR over the past two seasons). If Foster returns to form, great! If not, this is a questionable unit.
DeAndre Hopkins has quietly become one of the best receivers in the NFL. His 10.3% DVOA and 237 DYAR aren’t that impressive until you adjust for the (lack of) quarterback play. It’s a shame he’ll have to do with a Hoyer/Mallett/Savage monster at Texans Quarterback (TM):
Rookie third-round pick Jaelen Strong has first round talent, but scared teams off when he declined to allow teams to examine his injured wrist at the Combine. Early accounts suggest he’s fully healthy and it’s a matter of time before he takes the #2WR job from Nate Washington. Washington is a reliable veteran option who performed admirably for the Titans the last few years (325 DYAR since 2012). Fourth option Cecil Shorts is coming off of… a bad year for the Jaguars (-33.7% DVOA, -183 DYAR). Some of that is due to “Bortles!”, but Shorts was bad in 2013 too (-16.3% DVOA, -36 DYAR). Early reports are that the move to Houston has revitalized Shorts and that he’s also in the running for the #2WR job. 2014 third-round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz couldn’t stay on the field. It wasn’t that he was hurt, he just sucked. Seriously. His blocking was shockingly poor and he wasn’t much of a receiver (four receptions). It’s not like he faces a lot of competition, as starter Garrett Graham has produced -31 DYAR over the past three seasons. Overall, the Texans’ tight ends combined for 316 yards receiving last season. The best case scenario is that Hopkins and Strong feed off each other and create space for an otherwise pedestrian group of receivers. Of course, that still requires Texans Quarterback (TM) to get them the ball.
The Texans’ offensive line was excellent last season. Left tackle Duane Brown ranked fourth in my rankings. Right tackle Derek Newton ranked seventh. Departed center Chris Myers was third. Right guard Brandon Brooks was above-average, ranking 11th. The weakest link was left guard Ben Jones. He was a bit below-average. He’ll be moving over to center to replace Myers. 2014 second-round pick Xavier Su’a Filo is taking over at left guard. He was less effective than Fiedorowicz last season. There will be a lot of pressure on Filo this season, as there is no real depth along the line. If Filo lives up to his draft status, then this will be one of the best lines in the AFC. If not, look for an overall decline.
I understand what the Texans were trying to do on defense. Grab Jadeveon Clowney, pair him with J.J. Watt, and unleash havoc. Watt held up his end of the bargain (20.5 sacks, 89 hits+hurries), but Clowney was MIA due to microfracture surgery on his right knee. The odds that Clowney will be able to stay healthy and return to the dominant form he showed in college are slim. He’s just now returning to practice, and it will take some time for him to get back into game shape. Moreover, this is the type of injury that creates long term weaknesses in the cartilage structure of the knee. I’m rooting for Clowney, but it would be irresponsible to assume he’ll return this season and be the player the Texans thought they were drafting. Frankly, beyond Watt and Clowney, this is an underwhelming front-seven. Vince Wilfork is a nice addition at nose tackle, but he’s well past his prime and has shown signs of wearing down. Given the attention offenses were paying to Watt, Jared Crick’s 3.5 sacks are an embarrassment. Crick has been a disappointment and this is his last chance to show what he can do. Overall, Watt alone makes this a very strong defensive line, but it could be so much more.
If healthy, Clowney could play at linebacker or end, and would likely be placed at linebacker to keep him out of a 3-point stance. The current plan is to put Clowney across from Whitney Mercilus. Mercilus was given a surprisingly generous extension given his level of play. It’s been acceptable, but not much more than that. Inside, Brian Cushing is a shell of the player he was before the NFL caught him juicing. The NFL will usually go out of its way to avoid catching guys using steroids, so if you get caught it means you’ve pushed the envelope very, very far. He’ll play alongside Akeem Dent or rookie second-round pick Benardrick McKinney. McKinney is a good fit for the Texans, as he’s much more comfortable moving North-South and has a limited coverage area in this system. McKinney was also a good value in general for where they got him. Dent was pretty good in a backup role last season and I wonder if perhaps it should be Cushing who moves back in the rotation. Overall, this unit is Clowney or bust, and my guess is the latter.
Cornerback Kareem Jackson quietly became the second-best player on the Texans’ defense. He excelled at every part of his job and looks to be a solid #1CB for the foreseeable future. The Texans grabbed his future counterpart Kevin Johnson in the first-round. I thought Johnson was a bit of a reach, but for now I’ll trust the Texans’ scouting department (despite their being no evidence that anyone should). For now, Jackson will play across from Johnathan Joseph. Joseph is a competent veteran who is going to be playing for a new deal this season. There is excellent depth here, and an injury to anyone other than Jackson would likely be overcome with no major issues. Things are a little less sanguine at safety. Free safety Rahim Moore has overcome compartment syndrome and is a competent starter. He still has major injury red flags and the Texans will have to monitor him carefully. BTW, do not Google compartment syndrome. It’s nastier than testicular torsion. The strong safety spot is unsettled, with Eddie Pleasant battling Stevie Brown for the job. Brown was lousy last season, while Pleasant has rarely seen the field. This is not a strong positional grouping for the Texans, but overall the secondary is fine.
The Texans haven’t been able to develop competent coverage units or kick return blocking units. It’s been a known problem for years and it’s normally the kind of thing that can be solved with attention and resources. Not here. Punter Shane Lechler is getting up in years and there are concerns he’s due to decline. Kicker Randy Bullock improved last season, but that just brought him to average. For a kicker that was drafted in the fifth round in 2012, that’s unfortunate. The Texans have managed to finish in the bottom-five in special teams DVOA in each of the past three years. That’s hard to do, and I expect them to be below-average again this season.
Despite all of their flaws, the Texans have one great thing going for them: Either they or the Colts have the easiest schedule in the NFL. Even so, I don’t see them producing another winning record. I don’t like any of their quarterbacks, and the front-seven is pretty thin beyond J.J. Watt (unless Clowney surprises). I want to say 7-9, but their schedule really is garbage. 8-8.
Expected Wins: 10.65
Scouting Wins: 10.54
DVOA Wins: 9.3
2014 Record: 11-5 (10.2 Pythagorean)
Bear with me here:
2011: 2-14 (3.2 Pythagorean)
2012: 11-5 (7.2 Pythagorean)
2013: 11-5 (9.4 Pythagorean)
The 2011 Colts tanked to “Suck for Luck,” but the truth is, their roster was utter garbage. Only the Lions had cratered as hard in terms of an overall lack of talent (although Jacksonville and Oakland have since put together some awful rosters). In 2012, the Colts put together one of the strangest 11-5 seasons you’ll ever see. They were outscored by 30 points in the regular season, but managed to come one game short of beating out the 12-4 Houston Texans for the division. They lost 24-9 to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens in a game I had the good fortune to attend. In 2013, 11-5 was good enough to win the division by four games. In the Wild Card round, they needed an incredible comeback to beat the Chiefs 45-44, They then got demolished by the Patriots 43-22. Last season 11-5 was good enough to win the division by two games. The Colts shut down a wounded Bengals squad 26-10. The followed that up by shutting down the Broncos 24-13 when Peyton Manning couldn’t throw with any power. That brought them back to New England, where their Super Bowl dreams were deflated 45-7. The point of all this? The Colts still don’t have an elite roster. They have a great young quarterback on the final year of a rookie contract. After that? Well, read on.
Andrew Luck has improved each season, going from -5.1% to 4.6% to 9.2% in DVOA, good enough for tenth in the NFL last season. He was also tenth in DYAR with 879. Beyond that, Luck embraces the variance when he is behind. He’s willing to take risks to make the big plays the Colts need, which leads to high number of sacks, fumbles, and interceptions, but also an unusually high number of comebacks. As Luck improves, he’ll be able to win more games while playing conservatively in the fourth quarter. However, after this season his cap number is going to explode, so the Colts will have to make some tough choices in terms of roster construction around Luck.
Frank Gore is 20th all time in NFL rushing yards. That’s a sign he’s been a very productive runner for a long period of time. I assume you can see what I am getting at. He ran for 1,106 yards last season (6.3% DVOA, 154 DYAR), so don’t bury him yet, but he’d still be on the 49ers if they weren’t concerned that the end could show up soon. If he does fall off, Dan Herron and Vick Ballard will compete for the job. Ballard missed last season with an Achilles tear, while Herron was in that gray area above replacement (27 DYARLOS), but below-average (-4.0% DVOALOS). Let’s hope Gore has another good year left in him.
T.Y. Hilton broke out last season (+11.9 +/-, 16.5% DVOA, 303 DYAR). That’s why Drew Rosenhaus
was able to pull this off:
Good for all involved. Hilton is a star and will play with Luck for the foreseeable future. He’ll be playing across from Andre Johnson. Three years ago, Johnson was a monster (+13.3 +/-, 19.5% DVOA, 461 DYAR), but he has faded badly ever since. He may have quit last season (-86 DYAR), but he wasn’t great in 2013 (-2.3% DVOA), and is 34 years old. If he can still play, we’ll know fairly swiftly. There is a lot of young talent here to push him for playing time. 2014 third-round pick Donte Moncrief put together a solid rookie season as Luck’s sixth-favorite target (32 receptions, 444 yards). He should be ready to shoulder a larger load this season, but there is a lot of competition. Rookie first-round pick Phillip Dorsett is a great pure deep threat. I wrote this about Dorsett before the draft “Put him with a QB with a strong arm and some DB’s will get posterized.” There we go. Last season, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen combined for 80 receptions, 1,169 yards, and 216 DYAR. That’s not a bad job of building Frankengronk. This is a very talented receiving corps and it will be fun to see what Luck does with it.
The good news for the Colts is that left tackle Anthony Castonzo is above-average, finishing 12th in my rankings. After him, things get a little hairy. Left guard Lance Luis ranked 31st in limited usage. 2014 second-round pick Jack Mewhort was an average left guard last season, but will be moved to right tackle this season. Khalid Holmes failed to impress (in very limited usage) last season, but will likely start at center this year. Right guard Todd Herremans was ineffective for the Eagles last season. There is actually pretty good depth, but apart from Castonzo (and perhaps Mewhort), there aren’t any difference-makers here. This shouldn’t stop the Colts from winning the AFC South, but it may be a problem when they face some of the tougher defenses in the playoffs.
When the Indianapolis Colts were on the clock during the first round there was speculation they would grab Malcom Brown, or stop Randy Gregory’s slide. Instead they gave Luck another weapon. That leaves the Colts a bit thin along the defensive line. Kendall Langford, Josh Chapman, and Arthur Jones had 2.5 sacks and 7.5 hits+hurries last season. Langford and Chapman are run-stuffers, but the Colts expect a bit more from Jones. There is some decent depth here, but I’m not in love with rookie third-round pick Henry Anderson. He’s drawn some nice press, but I don’t think he has the strength to play DE in a 3-4 system. We’ll see if he proves me wrong. (Update: And Jones is now gone with an ankle injury. He’ll be placed on IR, and a thin line gets thinner)
The Colts have a plethora of outside linebackers with similar skill-sets. They all prefer to rush the passer and struggle to stop the run. Unfortunately, the only one with a high success rate was 2014 fifth-round pick Jonathan Newsome. If he had started for the whole season, he would have ended up with an estimated 13 sacks and 39.5 hits+hurries. He’s slated to come off the bench again, as free agent pickup Trent Cole and not-quite-a-bust Bjoern Werner are slated to start. Football may be a meritocracy, but first-round picks and free agents must be paid their due. Eric Walden may have been the most productive Colts linebacker last season (6.5 sacks, 30.5 hits+hurries), but he was lousy vs. the run and will have to settle for being part of the rotation. Inside, Jerrell Freeman’s numbers can be excused, as his role is to play a bit further away from the line of scrimmage. He’ll play alongside D’Qwell Jackson. It was an eventful year for Jackson, as he made the Pro Bowl. I’m not sure he deserved the honor, but it was his first trip after playing the rest of his career with the Browns, so let’s give a former dog a bone.
The Colts have a clear hierarchy in their secondary. Vontae Davis is a high quality #1CB. Greg Toler is a solid #2CB. Darius Butler handles the nickel job quite well. However, after that the Colts got their butts kicked. Tight ends hurt them, and running backs demolished them. That’s generally on the safeties and the linebackers. In this case, it wasn’t strong safety Mike Adams’ fault. He played well in coverage and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl. He’ll be joined by new acquisition Dwight Lowery. Lowery played well (when healthy) in Atlanta. This is a solid group, although safety depth is a concern.
The Colts have an unusual, but effective special teams setup. Adam Vinatieri handles field goals, while Pat McAfee handles punts and kickoffs. McAfee has excelled in both roles, and Vinatieri is still one of the best at age 42. The coverage units are solid as well. Phillip Dorsett looks to win both return jobs, so we’ll see what he’s capable of in space. This looks to be a very good special teams unit overall.
I wonder what the Colts’ practices are like. The defense is built to rush the quarterback (by blitzing multiple linebackers), and cover wide receivers. It’s vulnerable to the run, and the short passing game. The offense is designed to take advantage of Andrew Luck. He’s been given multiple weapons, but will he have the time to use them? The Colts’ schedule is garbage, but this isn’t a great roster. I’m going to say they go 11-5 for an astounding four years in a row. 11-5.
Expected Wins: 5.43
Scouting Wins: 4.72
DVOA Wins: 6.3
2014 Record: 3-13 (3.6 Pythagorean)
Do you value the process more than the outcome? It’s harder than it sounds. It can be very frustrating when a series of good decisions leads to a slew of bad results. The most obvious example in football is going for it on fourth down. Pretty much any detailed statistical analysis will suggest teams are too conservative on fourth down, which led to one very frustrated robot joining Twitter:
A few years ago the Jaguars made some noise when owner Shad Khan created a position for his son Tony Khan: Jaguars Senior Vice President, Football Technology & Analytics. They claimed they would reform their processes, including using analytics to inform the scouting department. So, I ask again: Do you value the process more than the outcome? Because this is the outcome:
The NFL draft is a crapshoot. The top three picks in the 2013 draft (Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel, and Dion Jordan) have all been major disappointments. The first two were expected to be the top picks, while Jordan was a surprise after the Dolphins traded up for him. The three top picks in the 2014 draft have been disappointments so far as well (Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Robinson, Blake Bortles!). Again, the first two were expected to be the top picks, while the Jaguars traded up for Bortles! This year, the Jaguars grabbed Dante Fowler Jr. with the third overall pick. Let’s take a look at the Jaguars’ picks at the top of the draft over the past eight years:
2008: Derrick Harvey, eighth overall, eight lifetime sacks. Bust.
2009: Eugene Monroe, eighth overall, 62 starts with the Jaguars before being traded to the Ravens. Didn’t live up to expectations, but definitely not a bust.
2010: Tyson Alualu, tenth overall, 13 sacks, 131 tackles so far with the Jaguars. Since he is still starting for them I don’t want to close the book on Alualu, but he’s certainly been a massive disappointment.
2011: Blaine Gabbert, tenth overall. Before there was Bortles!, there was Yo Gabbert Gabbert. -1,865 career DYAR.
2012: Justin Blackmon, fifth overall. Solid rookie season, but his career was derailed, and eventually destroyed, by drug use. He is currently suspended indefinitely and was denied reinstatement for the 2015 season by the NFL. Bust.
2013: Luke Joeckel, second overall. Started 16 games at left tackle last season. Below-average performance, but probably not quite a bust, as he’s at least providing some value.
2014: Blake Bortles!, third overall. Put up an astonishing -955 DYAR last season. On pace to track down Gabbert, if given enough playing time.
2015: Dante Fowler, third overall. Torn ACL early in minicamp, gone for the season.
That’s eight picks, zero Pro Bowls, and a whole heap of regret. The Jaguars are attempting to rebuild Bortles! from the ground up, but so far he is uncomfortable with his new throwing motion. If Bortles! shows no signs of improvement, the Jaguars can turn to Chad Henne and start analyticsing the quarterbacks at the top of the 2016 draft. Because that’s what the Jaguars do. Analytics.
Speaking of analytics, the Jaguars grabbed T.J. Yeldon early in the second-round. Yeldon is currently dealing with a sprained finger, but should be healthy to start the season. He’s a good runner, but I’m concerned about the rest of his game. His pass protection skills were comically bad, and he has shown little ability as a receiver. I’m assuming he can be taught those skills, especially pass protection, but it is a concern. He’ll be backed up by Denard Robinson. Robinson’s career DYARLOS is -103, so let’s hope Yeldon is a fast learner.
One has to take the Jaguars’ receiving stats with a grain of salt due to Bortles!, but this is still an underwhelming group. 2014 second-round pick Marquise Lee is the most dynamic threat, but he is currently dealing with a hamstring injury. Fellow 2014 second-round pick Allen Robinson was more consistent than Lee last season, but is coming back from a foot injury. 2014 undrafted free agent Allen Hurns had more receptions than either Lee or Robinson last season. They’ll all have a chance to step up, as leading receiver Cecil Shorts flew the coop. Rookie fifth-round pick Rashad Greene may prove to be the biggest beneficiary. I think he was a great value pick for the Jaguars. He was Jameis Winston’s best target at Florida St. and should be able to make a quick adjustment to the NFL. This is a very young receiving corps, and in a perfect world they would all develop along with Bortles!. Free agent pick up Julius Thomas is currently dealing with a broken hand. That’s a problem:
Thomas was excellent in Denver, but this is going to be an entirely different type of flying. Good luck, we’re all counting on you.
I’m kind of surprised, but the Jaguars’ offensive line could be very good this season. Left tackle Luke Joeckel has disappointed so far, but there is still hope he can turn things around and dominate the way he was projected to. Left guard Zane Beadles was very good last season, finishing seventh in my rankings. New center Steve Wisniewski was average last season, but should be a small improvement over Luke Bowanko. Right guard Brandon Lindor was a bit above-average. New right tackle Jeremy Parnell was excellent last season, albeit in limited usage. Rookie third-round pick A.J. Cann was a pretty good pickup, and can provide depth on the interior of the line. He may push Lindor or Beadles for a starting job. Overall, the Jaguars have pretty good depth along the line. One thing I should note: The Jaguars have had terrible run-blocking numbers over the past two seasons, and my metrics are not very good at singling out who is responsible. Even if the line improves, I’d expect the line to still be below-average in that respect this season.
Tyson Alualu. Jared Odrick. Chris Clemons. Andre Branch. Dan Skuta. Telvin Smith. Meet your Jaguars pass rush. I can see why they took Fowler, and why his loss was such a huge blow. One name I deliberately left out was Ryan Davis. He nabbed 6.5 sacks and 17.5 hits+hurries in only 305 snaps last season. I’m curious if he’ll be able to maintain anything close to that pace this season. Odrick is actually a converted defensive tackle that the Jaguars are looking to play at end, so I’ll cut him a bit of slack. Clemons grabbed eight sacks last season, but the tape says that was a fluke, and he’ll be 34 this season.
With Sen’Derrick Marks and Roy Miller in the middle of the line, the Jaguars should be very hard to run against. Marks was also a surprisingly good pass-rusher, grabbing 8.5 sacks and 19.5 hits+hurries. Marks is recovering from a torn ACL he suffered at the end of last season, so we don’t know what kind of form he’ll be able to produce this season.
Dan Skuta is a replacement level outside linebacker. Telvin Smith is a little better than that, but if he looked good last season it was only relative to his teammates. Middle linebacker Paul Posluszny has become a clear weak link and offenses are going to attack his lack of mobility this season. As you might imagine, the depth here is quite poor.
Free agent pickup Devon House will step in as the #1CB. It’s a step up for him and we’ll see if he can handle it. Demetrius McCray played well enough last season to earn the #2CB job. He’s not a great athlete and he may get picked on if teams decide to avoid House. Dwayne Gratz looks to win the nickel job, and he’s proven effective near the line of scrimmage. 2013 second-round pick strong safety Johnathan Cyprien hasn’t lived up to expectations, but he’s a capable NFL starter. Free safety Sergio Brown is another free agent pickup. He played reasonably well last season, but altogether this is a backfield without any stars. Odd fact: The five players listed above combined for two interceptions last season. Two. That number will have to improve or it will be a very long season for the Jaguars.
Kicker Jeff Scobee needs to improve his accuracy. Punter Bryan Anger needs to increase his distance. The Jaguars need to find new return men. Most importantly, the Jaguars need to improve their punt coverage units The Jaguars have very needy special teams. I feel bad for them, as most of the coaching attention is necessarily directed at helping Blake Bortles! train to one day become an NFL quarterback.
Yes, this is a poorly constructed roster with no discernible quarterback. BTW, for those few Chad Henne fans remaining, he was worse than Bortles! last season (-54.3% DVOA, -249 DYAR in only 94 plays). If Henne had played as much as Bortles!, he would have put up an astounding -1,404 DYAR. Good lord, this is a bad football team. Even with a soft schedule, I want to put them at 4-12, but I have to assign 256 wins across the 32 teams. 5-11.
Expected Wins: 5.61
Scouting Wins: 5.77
DVOA Wins: 6.4
2014 Record: 2-14 (3.3 Pythagorean)
This is what I wrote before the draft:
Since then my respect for Mariota has significantly increased. I like what I’ve seen from him with the Titans. Yes, he has to make a large adjustment from the Oregon offense. He’ll make his rookie mistakes and get his ass kicked because that is what rookie quarterbacks do, but in a few years the Titans will have a quality professional quarterback to challenge the Colts and Andrew Luck.
2014 second-round pick Bishop Sankey appears to have a firm grasp on the starting RB job, despite a somewhat disappointing rookie season. His -4.5% DVOA doesn’t tell the whole story, as his struggles in pass protection led to him only getting 354 snaps last season. He’s had an offseason to train, so hopefully most of those issues have been corrected. Rookie fifth-round pick David Cobb is a bigger back than Sankey, and may usurp the starting job if the Titans decide to trade speed for power. Cobb has the power to excel in pass protection, but his technique is raw, so he too will require some coaching. For now, Mariota should keep his head on a swivel.
2012 first-round pick Kendall Wright is still waiting to put up a positive DVOA or crack the 100 DYAR mark over the course of a season. He’s had opportunities, but he simply isn’t the player the Titans were hoping for when they took him. Hakeem Nicks is coming off of a poor year in Indianapolis, and looks to be a one-year rental to give Mariota an experienced veteran to work with. It’s kind of surprising Nicks is ahead of Harry Douglas on the depth chart, as Douglas put up 279 DYAR over the past two seasons in Atlanta, and has been a much more consistent performer overall. Rookie Dorial Green-Beckham (DGB) was a nice find in the second round. He’s had issues with violence and marijuana usage, but if he can stay focused on football he’s an elite talent. As for 2013 second-round pick Justin Hunter:
He has other things than football on his mind. Hunter hasn’t been the player the Titans hoped he would become (-13.4% DVOA, -4 DYAR last season). Ken Whisenhunt said Hunter has been trending up in practice, but coaches say things all the time. We’ll see if he means it when the season starts. Tight end Delanie Walker is an interesting test case of traditional vs. advanced stats. Let’s look at his last three seasons:
2012: 21 receptions, 344 yards, 3 touchdowns
2013: 60 receptions, 571 yards, 6 touchdowns
2014: 63 receptions, 890 yards, 4 touchdowns
Steady improvement? Not exactly:
2012: -0.8 +/-, -2.8% DVOA, 32 DYAR
2013: +6.8 +/-, -0.7% DVOA, 38 DYAR
2014: -1.2 +/-, -5.6% DVOA, 12 DYAR
In 2012 he was used sparingly as a midrange threat. In 2013 he was a regular short range target, and did a pretty good job in his role. His -0.7% DVOA is more reflective of conservative (read: poor) play calling than anything he did wrong. Last season he was one of the Titans’ main offensive weapons. He doesn’t have the kind of talent to excel in such a role, and his advanced metrics suffered. He’s a fine complimentary player, but shouldn’t be asked to be much more than that. He’s currently battling a thumb injury, but should be healthy to start the season. The Titans have plenty of depth here, headlined by free agent pickup Anthony Fasano. Fasano is past his prime, but should be serviceable if Walker is sidelined. Craig Stevens is an excellent blocker, but he’s returning from a serious knee injury, so he might not be the player he once was. Overall this is a very deep receiving corps, but it is looking for someone to lead it. Given how disappointing Wright and Hunter have been, the pressure is going to fall on DGB sooner than might be reasonable.
I feel bad for the Tennessee Titans. They’ve made a good faith effort to solve their offensive line problems. They’ve thrown first-round draft picks and big money free agents at the problem, with little success. 2014 first-round pick Tyler Lewan got his ass kicked last season when thrown into the fire at left tackle. The Titans had high hopes for Andy Levitre:
But both Lewan and Levitre finished in the bottom three in their respective positional rankings. That’s horrible. Lewan may rebound this season, but Levitre has to be considered a major disappointment. Center Brian Schwenke was slightly above-average last season. He’s had trouble staying on the field, and rookie sixth-round pick Andy Gallik is already gunning for his job. I had Gallik as a solid value in the fourth round, but he fell in the draft due to a short wingspan. 2013 first-round pick right guard Chance Warmack has struggled for most of his career, but he put up excellent numbers late last season and that may be a sign he’s finally figured things out. He’s extremely talented, so if that is the case things may improve rapidly for the Titans. Right tackle Byron Stingily played well in limited usage last season, and seems to be holding off rookie third-round pick Jeremiah Poutasi for the job. Poutasi can play inside, and may eventually threaten Lewan’s hold at left tackle. There is a lot of young talent here, and this line should be much better than it was last season.
Nose tackle Sammie Hill did a fine job moving to the 3-4 last season. Jurrell Casey was the best pass-rusher on the team, but only managed to nab five sacks. 2014 fourth-round pick DaQuan Jones looks to have supplanted Ropati Pitoitua to start at end across from Casey. Pitoitua will see some playing time in short-yardage situations.
Derrick Morgan led the Titans with 6.5 sacks last season. However, that was a bit of a fluke, as Casey had 31.5 hits+hurries to Morgan’s 18. Morgan re-signed with the Titans in free agency. He’ll be playing across from Brian Orakpo. If you still think of Orakpo as an elite pass-rush prospect, it is time to update your files. He’s grabbed 11.5 sacks in 24 games over the past three seasons. Trusting him to stay healthy seems like a recipe for failure. Johnathan Massaquoi provides some depth here, but he was a disappointment in Atlanta. Rookie sixth-round pick Deiontrez Mount is a project and will take some time to develop. Inside, Avery Williamson will man one spot, while Wesley Woodyard and Zach Brown fight for the other. Brown is coming back from a major pectoral tear and missed almost all of last season. Brown is more talented, but Woodyard put up reasonable numbers across the board in Brown’s absence, and right now looks like he has the edge to hold the job. Overall this is decidedly mediocre front-seven. It’s the NFL equivalent of “Five Guys Named Moe.” I understand that the Titans are focusing on constructing an elite offense (a few years down the road), but at some point the front-seven is going to need an infusion of talent.
Some defenses prefer to die by 1,000 cuts, willing to let you nibble your way down the field and hope you make a mistake in the effort. The Titans chose the opposite path, which led to regular appearances in the background of the highlights on NFL Primetime. It’s a legitimate strategy, but the Titans’ secondary didn’t have the talent to pull it off. Jason McCourty remains in one starting spot, but Bidi Wreh-Wilson was demoted to make room for free agent pickup Perrish Cox. Cox will fit right in, and should be an improvement over Wreh-Wilson. Wreh-Wilson is currently battling Coty Sensabaugh for the nickel job. Sensebaugh struggled in the role last season, but Wreh-Wilson is recovering from a shoulder injury that ended his 2014 season. Free safety Michael Griffin is a shadow of the player he once was. Free agent pickup Da’Norris Searcy is taking over at strong safety. 2014 fourth-round pick Marqueston Huff is pressuring Griffin for his job. Huff is a converted cornerback, and the Titans may move away from Strong/Free roles, keeping their safeties on sides instead, as some teams do with their cornerbacks (the Seahawks are one example). Overall, this secondary should be better than it was last season, but it still looks vulnerable, especially given the Titans’ weak pass rush.
The Titans have had lousy special teams for the past few years. Punter Brett Kern is pretty good. Kicker Ryan Succop may have been let down by his coverage units, but he didn’t do enough to take them out of the equation via touchbacks. Dexter McCluster is a capable return man, handling both jobs. If the coverage (or kickoff distance) improves, this could turn from a weakness to a strength pretty quickly.
The Titans are throwing a rookie quarterback into the fire, so it’s best to keep expectations low this season. The same defense that finished 29th in DVOA last season returns pretty much intact. The offensive line might improve, and the defensive secondary should be a bit tougher. Frankly, as with the rest of the AFC South, the Titans’ biggest asset is a soft schedule. 5-11. (Update: The market has liked what it has seen from Marcus Mariota and has bumped up the Titans expected wins from 5.35 to 5.61 this preseason)