2016 NFL Preview: AFC South

The AFC South is the worst division in the conference. It is competing against the NFC East for the worst division in the NFL. Houston and Indianapolis will compete to be the strongest of the meek.

 

AFC South:

 
Indianapolis Colts 9-7
Houston Texans 8-8
Jacksonville Jaguars 7-9
Tennessee Titans 5-11

 

 

 
Houston Texans

 
Talent Wins: 8.68
Expected Wins: 8.31
DVOA Wins: 7.4
Last Year: 9-7 (8.8 Pythagorean Wins)

 
The good news? The Texans’ offense has been rebuilt. The bad news? J.J. Watt is recovering from back surgery and might not be available to start the season. Watt is the most important defender in the NFL, by a sizable margin. Jadeveon Clowney has been in and out of practice. If they’re both healthy, the Texans’ front-seven is formidable. If they are unavailable, the season could go south fast.

 
The Texans’ major offseason addition was quarterback Brock Osweiler. He was last seen riding the bench as the Broncos’ defense carried Peyton Manning to his second ring. When he played, Osweiler was mediocre (-3.2% DVOA, 153 DYAR). That was good enough for $37M in guaranteed money.

 
Remember, good quarterbacks simply do not reach free agency unless they are damaged goods. Peyton Manning was hurt, as was Drew Brees. Osweiler was expendable. The market price for a potential elite quarterback is implied in the prices teams have to pay to trade up to draft them. The prices Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck could command on the open market are unknown. All we do know is that Brock Osweiler was “worth” $37M.

 
Last season, DeAndre Hopkins had an absurd 192 passes sent his way. His 111 receptions and 1,521 yards receiving have to be judged in that context. He was good (4.8% DVOA, 307 DYAR), but he’ll be better if he can get some help. The Texans agree with this sentiment, and traded up to draft Will Fuller. Fuller’s speed and college highlights seduced teams, but let me share what I wrote before the draft:

 
“Will Fuller: He’s fast. You can’t teach that. Problem is, he has small hands, and that’s not something you can improve with coaching. I still remember Stephen Hill. Blazing speed, terrible hands. Utter failure for the Jets. Fuller is faster, but his hands are an inch smaller. I’d be very reluctant to spend a first-round pick on Fuller, and not all that excited early in the second round.”

 
The Texans are rolling the dice that he’ll be able to separate and catch the ball at the NFL level. We’ve seen numerous examples where pure speed wasn’t enough. It’s just a matter of time before he beats a safety and then drops a sure touchdown. Let’s see how the Texans react at that point. 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong is the third option. Every note on him mentions his poor conditioning last season. Supposedly he’s in the proverbial “best shape of his life” this year. This is a talented trio, especially if Strong can stay on the field. #4WR Cecil Shorts struggled last season. His best hope is to build some kind of rapport with Osweiler. Rookie third-round pick Braxton Miller is looking at a potential “slash” role with the Texans. He was a high upside value pick and has worked his way up to fifth on the depth chart. 2014 third-round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz has been a bust (-24 career DYAR). He’s still the best tight end on the roster, though. Another poor season and we’ll see the Texans revisit this position in the 2017 draft.

 
The Texans have curiously good running back depth. I use the word “curiously” because they’ve invested a lot of resources in an area where the rate of return isn’t going to be that high. The truth is they have a multiple areas of their roster where such resources could possibly have accomplished more. The biggest splurge was the signing of Lamar Miller.

 

 

As with Osweiler, it is effectively a two year deal with a pair of team options following. Miller was excellent in 2014 (255 DYAR), but fell back a bit in 2015 (137 DYAR). He saw his DVOA fall from 12.3% to 0.5%. Paying premium money for average performance is not how you get ahead in the NFL. The addition of Miller will mean less playing time for Alfred Blue. Blue has never had Miller’s peaks, but he was solid enough last season (1.9% DVOA, 92 DYAR). Then again, Blue was lousy in his 2014 rookie season (-47 DYAR). I felt like he showed improvement last season and I think he’ll be effective in limited usage this year. Jonathan Grimes was efficient last season (8.1% DVOA), but in a small sample (87 touches). He might not get that many this year. Rookie fourth-round pick Tyler Ervin is a Darren Sproles prototype. He’s small, explosive, with good hands. I had him closer to sixth-round value, so I hope the Texans have a plan for him. There was a time that investing in four capable runners made sense. That time was 1972. On the plus side, the Texans can withstand RB injuries better than any other team in the NFL.

 
The Texans don’t know how their offensive line is going to look. I had Duane Brown as the eighth-best left tackle in the NFL last year. If he can’t go, Chris Clark will start in his stead. Clark barely cracked the top ten on my right tackle list. Switching to the left side is a step up in difficulty and I’m sure the Texans are hoping Brown is ready to go. Like Brown, left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo finished eighth at his position. Jeff Allen and Derek Newton have both played multiple positions on the line, with solid performance. They are slated to start at right guard and right tackle, respectively. We’re going to see a new face at center: rookie second-round pick Nick Martin. Here is what I wrote about Martin before the draft:

 
“Nick Martin: The dropoff from Kelly to Martin is larger than I expected. It’s possible Martin was playing hurt (ankle), and is better than he looked. I think I’d rather reach for Kelly then hope Martin fell to me later.”

 
Ryan Kelly ended up going 18th to the Colts, so it isn’t really fair to compare Martin to someone who went 32 picks earlier. Martin is a fine player who should be able to contribute from week one onward. Backup Tony Bergstrom can step in if Martin struggles. Overall, there is good depth here. One concern is that despite solid play throughout the line, the results were less than the sum of the parts. I’m not sure if it was an issue of power, or something else entirely. Just because you hit your block doesn’t mean you can move him out of the way. Overall, I rate this as the best offensive line in the division.

 
As I noted earlier, we aren’t sure when J.J. Watt will take the field. It’s hard to expect peak performance from him if he’s playing through pain. Losing Watt creates an enormous hole in the Texans’ defense, as he had 17 sacks and 88 hits+hurries last season. Yes, he was also dominant against the run. He’s the best defender in the NFL. If Watt can’t go, we’ll see Brandon Dunn and 2015 sixth-round pick Christian Covington start at defensive end. Dunn is more suited to play tackle, but in a 3-4 defense you can have one end in that role. Covington impressed last season, in a small sample. We’ll see how he looks without Watt around to draw double-teams. Free agent Devon Still will also be a prominent part of the rotation.

 
Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is rapidly becoming a shadow of the player he once was. I wonder if some of the money spent on Lamar Miller might have been better used on a potential replacement for Wilfork. Then again, quality NT’s don’t sign for $14M guaranteed. Instead, the Texans drafted D.J. Reader in the fifth round. Reader is an interesting pick. He missed much of last season for personal reasons. He came back and was excellent in the National Championship game and the Senior Bowl. He can play end or tackle, but hasn’t shown enough technique to start in the NFL at either position. For now he will back up Wilfork, and hopefully learn from one of the former greats.

 
Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus combined for 16.5 sacks and 47.5 hits+hurries. That’s not bad, but twelve of those sacks came from Mercilus. The Texans are still waiting on Clowney to reach his full potential. He’s been good, which is unfortunate when you were expecting great. Injuries have help him back, so it is concerning when he misses practices, even in the preseason. On the inside, Brian Cushing has become a seasoned veteran. His elite physical skills are gone, so at this point he’s just a contributor, not a difference-maker. 2015 second-round pick Benardrick McKinney had his moments, but needs to be more consistent this year. The depth inside consists of special teams players, so McKinney is in no danger of losing his job.

 
It’s the front seven that gets the headlines, but this is one of the deeper secondaries in the NFL. #1CB Jonathon Joseph is coming off of an excellent season. 2015 first-round pick Kevin Johnson excelled at nickel. He’s coming back from offseason knee surgery. #2CB Kareem Jackson struggled a bit in coverage. He was playing through an ankle injury and may be better this season. 2014 seventh-round pick Andre Hal made a successful switch from corner to free safety. Despite challenges from Antonio Allen and Eddie Pleasant, Quinton Demps remains the starting strong safety. Demps’s numbers weren’t bad last year. Obviously, J.J. Watt helps everyone’s numbers, but I think most teams would happily trade defensive backfields with the Texans.

 
Special teams are supposed to be somewhat random, but not in Houston. They’ve had a bottom-five unit each of the past three seasons. That’s hard to do. Kickoff coverage was the only strength. The punting game was just awful, as was the punt return unit. Kicker Nick Novac is currently in a positional battle with rookie undrafted free-agent Ka’imi Fairbairn. Normally I’m impartial about such things, but I’m rooting for Fairbairn here. Novac has had his chance and he’s been awful. I’m surprised Shane Lechler isn’t facing a battle for his job. Tyler Ervin is in line to take over kick return duties, and may steal the punt return job from Cecil Shorts. The bigger issue is that the coverage and blocking units have been overmatched. I don’t know if this is talent, coaching, or both. At this point I am prepared to rule out luck or variance. This should be considered a bad unit until it proves otherwise.

 
The Texans have done a lot to rebuild, but for what gain? Lamar Miller and Will Fuller add talent to the offense. Will Brock Osweiler live up to his contract? That’s the thirty-seven-million-dollar question. My gut says yes. He was competent in Denver. This offense looks like it will put less pressure on Osweiler than most. The offensive line is solid, as is the running back corps. Osweiler has everything he needs to succeed (assuming Will Fuller can catch). The defense may see some regression, especially if Watt isn’t 100%. Without Watt, the pass-rush drops from fierce to cuddly. With a healthy Watt, I’d rate the Texans as 9-7 team. With him dinged up, 8-8 is a more likely outcome. 8-8.

 

 

 
Indianapolis Colts

 
Talent Wins: 8.02
Expected Wins: 8.56
DVOA Wins: 7.8
Last Year: 8-8 (6.0 Pythagorean Wins)

 
The Colts stank last year. I know they went 8-8, but they were outscored by 75 points. I would add that they faced an easy schedule. Andrew Luck only played in seven games last season, and he battled injuries in almost all of them. It was just a bad year for the Colts.

 
Let’s ignore 2015. In 2013 and 2014, Andrew Luck averaged 7.0% DVOA and accumulated 1,529 DYAR. Good numbers. Not great numbers. Luck has never approached the Brady/Roethlisberger class in the AFC. The Colts have attempted to give him all the assistance he needs, but their efforts have been hit or miss. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d love for him to have hit free agency and joined the Jets. I’m just saying we have enough of a track record on Luck to know he’s a gunslinger. Let’s check out the rest of his gang.

 
As with Luck, we’ll be ignoring the 2015 results for the other skill positions. T.Y. Hilton was excellent in 2014 (16.5% DVOA, 303 DYAR) and can be again this year. We don’t have the same track record with 2014 third-round pick Donte Moncrief. He performed admirably in a tough situation last season (1.1% DVOA, 110 DYAR). With a healthy Luck, they might be one of the elite pairings in the NFL. 2015 first-round pick Phillip Dorsett is pretty much coming off of a lost season (-59 DYAR). Hopefully, a full offseason and time to practice with a healthy Andrew Luck has given him a better grasp of the offense. Hilton is dealing with a nagging hamstring injury, while Moncrief is mostly recovered from toe surgery. Both should be healthy for week one. Tight end Dwayne Allen suffered as much as anyone last season. He saw his numbers drop from 104 DYAR (22.7% DVOA) to -48 DYAR (-31.4% DVOA). Football is a team game, folks. A bad quarterback is a real problem. There is very little receiving depth beyond the top four. If they can all stay healthy, this is a talented unit.

 
I felt a moment of sadness when I saw Frank Gore’s rushing stat line: -8.6% DVOA, 0 DYAR. I think it was the zero that did it. Seeing Gore reduced to a replacement-level player is tough to watch (I’m ignoring his -60 receiving DYAR). Backup Robert Turbin has played well, if not much, the past two seasons (13.9% DVOA, 175 DYAR). He’s managed to find his way from Seattle to Dallas, and now to Indianapolis, so I think he qualifies as a journeyman.

 
Most of the offensive line returns. Left tackle Anthony Costanzo was just the tiniest bit above-average last season. Left guard Jason Mewhart was the “star” of the line, finishing ninth in my positional rankings. Right guard Hugh Thornton was the only returning starter who was below-average, albeit just barely. Right tackle Joe Rietz was right at the median as well. The newcomer is rookie first-round pick Ryan Kelly. Here were my thoughts on Kelly before the draft:

 
“Ryan Kelly: It’s become increasingly clear that centers are highly valued in the draft. Kelly is the best option this year, and I expect him to sneak into the first round. He’s an excellent tactician, with very long arms. I have no problem with a team reaching for him.”

 
Centers going above their draft grade has become the norm, especially for the top centers who can start immediately. I was happy with the pick and expect him to help the line. One thing worth noting: For the past few years the Colts have been better at pass protection than run blocking. I see Kelly continuing that trend.

 
The Colts’ defense carried the team during its offensive struggles last season. That will be tough to repeat this year. The defensive line looks very thin right now. Kendall Langford is currently sidelined with an injured knee. Henry Anderson is still on the PUP list due to a torn ACL last November. Either of them might be available week one or gone for a while. Anderson might start the season on the PUP list, in which case he is out for a minimum of six weeks. When healthy, Anderson was quite good. Langford was a beast last season (seven sacks, 27.5 hits+hurries, dominant against the run). Whether or not they’re available will determine much of the success of the defensive line. We know Arthur Jones is out four weeks, because he is suspended. The week-one starting lineup might be 2014 undrafted free-agent Zach Kerr, 2015 fifth-round pick David Parry, and rookie fourth-round pick Hassan Ridgeway. Parry surprised with a strong rookie season. Ridgeway was a nice pick, but his weakness is a lack of conditioning. The depth is questionable, at best. We may see more teams copy what the Patriots have done vs. the Colts and run down their throat.

 
I’m a wee bit concerned about the Colts pass rush. Robert Mathis had seven sacks last season. That was as many as Erik Walden, Trent Cole, and the now departed Jonathan Newsome had, combined. The Colts haven’t brought in any reinforcements, so it is up to the over-the-hill-gang to get to the quarterback. D’Quell Jackson is solid inside. It looks like he’ll play alongside Sio Moore. Apart from Mathis and Jackson, I am not seeing any difference-makers along the front seven who I’m certain will be available week one. (I just noticed that the Colts’ outside linebackers had excellent numbers vs. the run. While that isn’t their main responsibility, it is a nice bonus).

 
Vontae Davis has cemented himself as one of the premier cornerbacks in the NFL. His counterpart is currently unknown. Free agent pickup Patrick Robinson was the early favorite to win the #2CB job, but he may have suffered a groin injury. If he is sidelined, Darius Butler is the favorite to get the job. Butler got his ass kicked last season, so the Colts are hoping Robinson is good to go. Jalil Brown rounds out the dime package. The Colts are hoping 2015 third-round pick D’Joun Smith stays healthy this season. They’d like him to work his way up the depth chart.

 
Mike Adams has the strong safety job locked up. He’s been a strong contributor for the Colts for the past two seasons. The free safety job is up in the air. Clayton Geathers has the job if he’s healthy, but he’s currently sidelined by a foot injury. If he can’t go, rookie second-round pick T.J. Green will be asked to start. Green impressed last season at Clemson, but I don’t think he was anywhere close to a value in the second round. As with Robinson, the Colts have to hope Geathers is ready to go. The Colts have been a bit above-average against opposing passing games for the past few years. Their current issue is they may have sacrificed too much against the run. There is a lack of overall power on the Colts’ defense.

 
The Colts’ special teams are the same as they were last year. Adam Vinatieri remains a quality kicker. Punter Pat McAfee has handled punting and kickoffs, doing both jobs quite well. So well that the Colts are going to be one of the teams punished by the new touchback rules. The punt coverage and return units weren’t great. Overall, the Colts special teams should be about average.

 
The Colts were a disappointment last season. The expectations may have been too high. The Colts’ offense has only had a positive DVOA once in the Andrew Luck era. They were lucky to get to the AFC Championship game two seasons ago. Their destruction at the hands of the Patriots wasn’t a fluke. The Colts went 11-5 in each of Luck’s first three years mostly due to weak opposition. The roster has generally lacked depth in most units. Injuries are to be expected in the NFL, so it’s hard for the Colts to avoid getting punished by the holes in their roster. The Colts have a couple of scheduling breaks this year. Their road game against Jacksonville will be at a neutral field in London. They also don’t have to play the Patriots in the regular season. Those breaks lead me to expect them to go 9-7 this season. 9-7.

 

 

 
Jacksonville Jaguars

 
Talent Wins: 7.43
Expected Wins: 7.49
DVOA Wins: 6.9
Last Year: 5-11 (6.2 Pythagorean Wins)

 
I’m of two minds regarding the Jacksonville Jaguars. The optimistic view is that they have stocked their roster with a ton of talent. They were able to add the #2 and #3 ranked players on my draft board when Jalen Ramsey fell to the fifth pick and Myles Jack fell into the second round. In Jack’s case, the issue is a degenerative knee condition that will eventually require surgery. So far, he’s appeared healthy, and should be ready to contribute in week one. The pessimistic view can be summed up quite simply: Blake Bortles.

 
Blake Bortles followed up a miserable rookie season (-40.7% DVOA, -955 DYAR), with a decent sophomore performance (-9.9% DVOA, 54 DYAR). However, those numbers don’t tell the whole story. His accuracy is still poor. Receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns made Bortles’s numbers look a lot better than his passes did. He also holds the ball too long, taking unnecessary sacks (51 last season, with about one third of them clearly his fault). It was a shock when the Jaguars took Bortles with the third overall pick (much had been made of their new “analytics department”) and it looks like that pick was a blunder.

 
The good news for the Jaguars is that their receiving corps is solid. 2014 second-round pick Allen Robinson (14.0% DVOA, 318 DYAR) is a budding star. Allen Hurns (16.1% DVOA, 236 DYAR) has found his niche as a mid-to-deep threat. The #3WR job is up in the air. Bryan Walters had the inside track, but he’s been sidelined with an injury and might not make the final roster. If Walters isn’t available, 2014 second-round pick Marquise Lee will be given an opportunity. Injuries and poor performance have been Lee’s trademarks so far (-43 career DYAR). 2015 fifth-round pick Rashad Greene has a shot to win the job as well. I loved the pick at the time. However, he had a brutal rookie season (-33.8% DVOA, -61 DYAR). I know Bortles isn’t accurate, but a portion of that is on Greene. He’ll need to improve to stay on the field.

 
It was a rough first year in Jacksonville for 2015 free-agent pickup Julius Thomas. He missed the first four games with a broken thumb. When available, he was a shadow of the player he was in Denver:

 
2014: 24.7% DVOA, 140 DYAR

2015: -17.7% DVOA, -57 DYAR

 
I love to blame Bortles, but this was on Thomas. Oddly, Thomas was still the more effective of the two featured tight ends. Marcedes Lewis was an awful target (-37.0% DVOA, -76 DYAR). At least he was a good blocker.

 
The Jaguars have upgraded their running game with the addition of Chris Ivory. Ivory has had a negative rushing and receiving DVOA each of the past three years in NY (-7.8% DVOA over that time). Perhaps the Jaguars front office knows something I don’t. The Jets front office was shocked when the Jaguars offered Ivory $10M guaranteed.

 
2015 second-round pick T.J. Yeldon performed reasonably well (-1.4% DVOA, 91 DYAR). I would have expected an increased workload this season, but the Ivory signing will likely put the kibosh on that. The running back position is not an area where I like to see teams invest significant resources. Signing Ivory after drafting Yeldon makes me think at least one of those moves was a blunder.

 
Speaking of blunders, the Jaguars are attempting to move on from Luke Joeckel. Free-agent pickup Kelvin Beachum is sitting on top of the depth chart at left tackle. Beachum is recovering from an ACL tear. I had Beachum as the second worst left tackle in the NFL last season, ahead of only Nate Solder. Joeckel was a bit below-average, but not bad enough to warrant this demotion. Another free-agent pickup, Mackenzy Bernadeau, looks to start at left guard. He didn’t play much last season in Dallas. 2014 third-round pick Brandon Linder was terrible in limited usage at right guard last season. He was injured and unavailable after week three of last season. He’s being moved over to center where his lack of power will be less of an issue. 2015 third-round pick A.J. Cann was effective at right guard last season. He took over from the injured Linder, and will return as the starter. Ditto for Jeremy Parnell at right tackle. This is an offensive line in flux. It struggled last season, and I’d expect it to be one of the weaker units in the NFL again this season. The Jaguars have invested significant resources in this line, so continued weakness has to be disappointing.

 
The Jaguars’ defense is looking at a serious infusion of talent. 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler is coming back, and he’s ornery. Myles Jack is going to add speed to the linebacker corps. Jalen Ramsey could offer an upgrade at either cornerback or safety. He’s currently slated to start at cornerback.

 
The return of Fowler sets up a Fowler-Jared Odrick pairing at defensive end. Odrick picked up a respectable 5.5 sacks last season, but he is more of an end/tackle hybrid. Fowler is a pure pass rusher. There is more incoming talent on the inside. Free-agent pickup Malik Jackson will start at tackle, alongside Roy Miller. Jackson is a major talent and his contract reflects that. $42M guaranteed. There are very few people on the planet who can do what he does as well as he does it. There is solid depth throughout the line, especially inside. If Fowler can perform, we’ll be looking at an area of strength for the Jaguars.

 
Paul Posluszny is still listed as the starter at middle linebacker. That might not be true for long. Here is what I wrote about Myles Jack before the draft:

 
“Myles Jack: At best he could be another Luke Keuchly. At worst, his knee fails and you get nothing. The range here is enormous. If your medical staff says his knee is not a major concern, you’re looking at the best front-seven prospect in the draft. He’s an elite talent, so the question is “who is willing to pull the trigger”?”

 
We now know the answer to that question. So long as Jack is healthy, he’s a steal. At this point, Posluszny is “just a guy.” Telvin Smith and Dan Skuta will be starting at outside linebacker. Smith has excellent range. Skuta is a decent player, but he might be the player benched to make room for Jack. That might be the best move at first to give Jack a slightly easier job to start his career in the NFL. I expect him to eventually move over to the middle. Whether Jack starts on the inside or outside, this is going to be an improved unit. Pairing him with Smith gives the Jaguars as much range as any linebacker corps in the NFL.

 
The Jaguars may have the best cornerback trio in the NFL. Devin House played very well in a tough situation last year. He’ll start across from Jalen Ramsey. Here is what I wrote about Ramsey before the draft:

 
“Jalen Ramsey: I know Ramsey hasn’t had many interceptions. I know he isn’t a pure fit at cornerback or safety. I also know that after Laremy Tunsil, he’s the first non-quarterback I would take off the board. His range is stupendous for a safety, and his power is elite for a cornerback. If he ends up merely being the best free safety in the NFL, so be it.”

 
Ramsey is an elite talent. He has the speed and power teams covet. His technique will improve with experience. Free-agent pickup Prince Amukamara is as good a #3CB as you’ll find in the NFL. He’s just a one-year rental, attempting to prove his value. Injuries limited him in New York. If he can stay on the field, this will be a significantly upgraded unit. Another free-agent acquisition, Tashaun Gipson, will start at free safety. While not as big a name as some of the other newcomers, he’s a solid pickup. The weak link is 2013 second-round pick Johnathan Cyprien at strong safety. He’s currently beating out James Sample in a positional battle. Cyprien has decent numbers in coverage, but has been a disaster when defending in the open field. That’s an important skill for a safety. Even with Cyprien’s struggles, this looks like a solid unit. On paper, the Jaguars’ defense looks a lot better than it was last season. We’ll see if Fowler, Jack, Jackson, Amukamara, Gipson, and Ramsey all pan out.

 
It wasn’t kicker Bryan Anger’s fault he was drafted early in the third round of the 2012 draft. That was one of the many bad decisions of the previous front office. He’s gone now, replaced by either Brad Nortman or Ryan Quigley. Right now Nortman is expected to win the job. Jason Myers is battling Sam Ficken to see who will hold the kicker job. Myers has a very strong leg, but as noted previously, that is less valuable with the new touchback rules. His accuracy was his weakness (he missed 7 XP’s, 4 field goals). The Jaguars’ punt coverage units were lousy last season. That’s been an issue for a couple of years. Punt coverage is the one area where defenders should generally be at an advantage, as they know where they’ll have to target before the play begins. Perhaps the Jaguars lacked the team speed required. Overall, the Jaguars are likely to have below-average special teams. After all, if they liked their specialists, they wouldn’t be in competition for their jobs. Oh, I should note Rashad Green was very effective returning punts last season. He’ll have the job again.

 
The Jaguars’ defense might be the most improved in the league. It’s hard to know, when three of the potential impact players haven’t played a down in the NFL. The offense still has the major problem of “Blake Bortles.” Maybe he’ll continue to improve. I’m skeptical because he’s still not accurate. Sure, he looks the part, but then you have to actually throw the ball. I also don’t love some of the changes that have been made on offense. I also don’t like that the Jaguars are giving up a home game, facing a divisional rival on a neutral field (London). I was tempted to bump the Jaguars up to 8-8, but that’s a bit much for a team that is going to be facing a tougher schedule than they faced last year. 7-9 is the call. 7-9.

 

 

 
Tennessee Titans

 
Talent Wins: 5.15
Expected Wins: 6.04
DVOA Wins: 7.2
Last Year: 3-13 (4.8 Pythagorean Wins)

 
The good things the Titans have done lately:

 
1. Draft Marcus Mariota

2. Trade down in the 2016 draft

 
The bad things the Titans have done to throw away the good things they have done:

 
1. Hire Mike Mularkey to develop Marcus Mariota:

 
2. Draft Jack Conklin over Laremy Tunsil

 
The fanbase has not been happy with Mularkey. Winning would change that tune, but how likely is that? By all accounts, not very likely.

 
Mariota dealt with a pair of MCL injuries last season. That limited him to a 12-game season. In that time, he showed tremendous potential. I loved the pick when it happened and I still love Mariota. He’s bulked up a bit and has another year of practice under center. That’s key because much of his training has been from the shotgun. There are some analysts who believe taking snaps from under center is an anachronism. Shotgun sets generally have a higher DVOA than snaps from under center. That limits your running game, but the gains from the passing game more than make up for it. In any event, Mariota is going to learn to adjust to an “old school” offense. That’s fine insofar as it doesn’t ask him to run. Risking your franchise quarterback to gain four yards is nuts.

 
Mariota’s receiving corps is… underwhelming. 2012 first-round pick Kendall Wright has seen his performance decline each year (-8.1% DVOA, 21 DYAR last year). At this point, the Titans are hoping he can be a consistent possession receiver. He’ll have to stay healthy. He hasn’t played a full season since 2013. He’s currently slowed by an injured hamstring, but is expected to be healthy week one. He might start across from rookie fifth-round pick Tajae Sharp. Sharp excelled at Massachusetts. That doesn’t mean he’s ready to beat NFL coverage. He doesn’t have overwhelming physical skills, so this seems an oddly fast promotion. The other option is Rishard Matthews. Matthews was having the year of his life in Miami before a rib injury ended his season (36.4% DVOA, 235 DYAR). It came out of nowhere, and the Dolphins decided it was likely a fluke. The venerable Andre Johnson is currently battling the disappointing Justin Hunter for the #4WR job. Johnson is 35 and has produced -59 DYAR over the past two seasons. 2013 second-round pick Hunter has been injury-prone and has yet to record 30 receptions or 500 receiving yards in a season. He had a few flashes last year, and finished with a 17.0% DVOA and 70 DYAR. I have to think Hunter has far more upside than Johnson.

 
Mariota’s best target last season was tight end Delanie Walker. Their skill sets meshed perfectly and Walker had a career year (94 receptions, 1,088 yards, 13.0% DVOA, 174 DYAR). Not bad for a guy considered a blocking specialist. Anthony Fasano really is a blocking specialist, although he wasn’t bad last season as well (4.0% DVOA, 32 DYAR). Still, Mariota would be better off if the team had a true #1WR to throw to.

 
DeMarco Murray has experienced a tale of two cities:

 
2014 Dallas: 2,261 yards-from-scrimmage, 13.1% DVOA, 440 DYAR

2015 Philadelphia: 1,024 yards-from-scrimmage, -11.5% DVOA, -16 DYAR

 
Now THAT is how you fall from grace. Tennessee is going to provide a better system to highlight his skill set. Don’t expect him to get anywhere close to 456 touches, though. The Titans picked up Heisman winner Derrick Henry in the second round. Here is what I wrote about Henry before the draft:

 
“Derrick Henry: Multiple scouts have said he’s perfect for a four-minute offense. He’s a bit raw in pass protection and as a receiver, so for now his value will come from getting tough (high leverage) yards. He is sneaky fast, and runs through contact. On second thought, I shouldn’t be too harsh on his receiving skills. He wasn’t asked to do much in that role, but he showed solid hands at the combine. One odd note about Henry: He has the physique of an elite edge rusher. It’s not like the coaches at Alabama failed to notice this, and I haven’t heard any talk of him switching sides. He’s a top-tier running back, so this is just an amusing thing to notice.”

 
Having both Henry and Murray suggests the Titans over-invested in their running game. That might have been on purpose if Mularky really is trying to turn back the clock. The Titans have drafted RB’s in each of the past three drafts (Bishop Sankey in the second round in 2014, David Cobb in the fifth round of 2015). Cobb and Sankey combined for -4 DYAR last year. They are both behind #3RB Dexter McCluster (-13.4% DVOA, -7 DYAR) on the depth chart. It’s things like this that remind me the Titans are 5-27 over the past two seasons.

 
The Titans traded the 15th and 76th picks, as well as a 2017 second round pick to acquire the eighth overall pick, as well as the 176th pick. They guy they moved up to take? Jack Conklin. Here is what I wrote about Conklin before the draft:

 
“Jack Conklin: Scouts love his attitude. Conklin can play anywhere on the line. I’m not sure I’d like to use a top-ten pick on him, but I’d understand it. As with Stanley, I’d expect him to be a long-term starter, although in Conklin’s case I’m less certain it will be at left tackle.”

 
When I said I’d understand using a top-ten pick on Conklin, I was assuming both Laremy Tunsil and Ronnie Stanley were already off the board. Taking Conklin over Tunsil is nuts. Let me elaborate a bit. This is the class I put Tunsil in:

 
95+: All-Pro, potential future HOF Prospect. 2014 first and second overall picks Jadeveon Clowney and Greg Robinson fell in this range, so be aware there are no guarantees.

 
Over the past two years I’ve rated three players at 95+. Clowney has been slowed by injuries, but looks awesome so far this preseason. Greg Robinson was a slightly below-average left tackle last season. He showed flashes of dominance, but also continued immaturity (16 penalties, the most by a solid margin for any left tackle). The other was Leonard Williams. He’s coming off of an awesome rookie season. I estimate in a few years we’ll grade two of these picks as hits, with one miss. As for Conklin’s class:

 
70-85: Should be able to play immediately and make an impact. Quarterbacks are exempted from that expectation, but are also bumped up in terms of draft value. It’s about as hard to win the Super Bowl without an elite quarterback as it is to win an NBA title without a star.

 
I don’t expect Conklin to be dominant. I expect him to be solid, which is fine, so long as dominant wasn’t one of the options. When Jimmy Johnson “Good is the enemy of great,” this isn’t what he meant. He will start at right tackle. 2014 first-round pick Taylor Lewan struggled a bit at right tackle, but finished the season just a bit below-average. Quinton Spain was effective at left guard, albeit in only seven games. Free-agent pickup Ben Jones was solid last year in Houston. 2013 first-round pick Chance Warmack hasn’t lived up to expectations. He was a bit above-average last season, but the Titans were expecting dominance. Conklin and Jones should help improve this line. Tunsil and Jones would likely have improved it more. Overall, the Titans’ line was graded the worst in the NFL coming into this season. I don’t expect it to be quite that bad. While it really was awful last season, 40% of the line has been upgraded, and there is good depth here. I still wish they had Tunsil, though.

 
Things that amuse me about the Titans’ defensive line:

 
1. A. Woods is backing up A. Woods at nose tackle. That would be undrafted free-agent Antwaun Woods back up returning starter Al Woods.

 
2. Antwaun Woods being ahead of rookie second-round pick Austin Johnson on the depth chart.

 
3. Rookie second-round Kevin Dodd being fourth on the defensive end depth chart.

 
The Titans do not appear to be in the habit of moving guys up the depth chart just because of a lofty draft status. For the record, I thought both Dodd and Johnson were good values where the Titans took them. Here is what I wrote about Dodd before the draft:

 
“Kevin Dodd: He’s coming off of a great season at Clemson. The problem is, that’s pretty much the extent of his resume. Scouts are split between Dodd and Lawson as to who was the best lineman on the Tigers’ defense. I think the answer is Lawson. We’ll see which one comes off the board first.”

 
Shaq Lawson ended up coming off the board first, but is currently sidelined due to shoulder surgery. For the record, SackSEER hates Dodd. We’ll see. As for Johnson:

 
“Austin Johnson: Solid 3-4 NT. Didn’t have a great combine and will probably end up falling a bit in the draft.”

 
He didn’t fall all that far in the end. The starting lineup of Jurrell Casey, Al Woods, and DaQuan Jones didn’t have a particularly good performance last year. Woods was the weak link, although Jones shouldn’t be proud of his zero sacks. Casey was the only premium performer (seven sacks, 19.5 hits+hurries). It really would be nice if Dodd and Johnson lived up to their draft status. Karl Klug and Angelo Blackson provide mediocre depth here.

 
Outside linebackers Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo were on pace for a combined 18.5 sacks last season when Morgan got hurt. Orakpo had zero sacks in Morgan’s absence. The Titans’ pass rush is reliant on both of them staying healthy. David Bass stepped into the lineup when Morgan was out. He was… ineffective. There is not much depth here, and it is an area the Titans are likely to address in the 2017 draft. On the inside, 2015 fifth-round pick Avery Williamson has become a defensive team leader. He’s expected to play alongside Wesley Woodward, but first Woodward will have to hold off free-agent pickup Sean Spence for the job. Woodward was better than Spence last season, but he’s 30 and has seen his physical skills decline. Overall, this unit isn’t bad, presuming Morgan, Orakpo, and Williamson all stay on the field.

 
Every once in a while you come up to a positional unit and just have to pause. That is what happened to me when I looked at the Titans’ cornerbacks. They intend to start the season with Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox as their starters. That’s a… bold decision. The more I look at this roster, the more I hate the trade for Conklin. This is a roster shockingly devoid of talent. I guess that’s how you win five games over two seasons, but man this is bad. McCourty missed most of last season with a groin injury. The backups were even worse. Free safety Michael Griffin was destroyed last season. He’s been replaced by Rashad Johnson. Da’Norris Searcy returns at strong safety. There isn’t a single impact player in the defensive backfield, and the depth is lousy throughout. The Titans had better hope for a strong pass rush.

 
The Titans had one strength and two weaknesses in their special teams last season. The strength was punter Brett Kern. He was fantastic. Unfortunately, one of the weaknesses was punt coverage, and it more than made up for his contributions. The second was the blocking on kick returns. It was inconsistent/incompetent. On a roster devoid of talent, I suppose this is one of the lesser concerns. The rest of the units were roughly average.

 
There is so much to dislike about this roster. It’s thin, with a lack of talent at both receiver and the defensive backfield. The offensive line was horrible last year and is going to need to gel quickly. The coaching is suspect, although I suppose leaning on the running game will keep the clock moving and lower the overall number of possessions. Make the final scores less embarrassing. Playing in the AFC South is helpful, but that can only take you so far. There may be some improvement, but not much. 5-11.

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