AFC South Draft Needs: Can the Colts Find the Missing Piece?
"They are who we thought they were!"
While the original quote was being directed towards the 2006 Chicago Bears by the great Denny Green, the same can be said for the AFC South in 2014. The division race was highly predictable, with one up-and-coming powerhouse and potential Super Bowl contender, one solid-yet-unspectacular team with a very good defense and running game but a quarterback away from being a real factor in the AFC, and two cellar-dwellers with among the least talented rosters in the league.
The division didn’t provide much intrigue or suspense, as most people who follow the NFL closely foresaw the fortunes of these four teams ending up exactly as they did. The upcoming NFL Draft will be extremely important for these four franchises (as it is for all 32), with the Colts looking to take the next step and compete for multiple championships, the Texans needing a couple of pieces to propel them into the AFC’s elite, and the Jaguars and Titans aiming to restock their cupboards with as much talent as possible at a number of positions.
Biggest Need: Quarterback
The Titans have arguably the least talented overall roster in the entire NFL, so upgrades are needed all over the field. But as we know in the current climate of the NFL, it all starts at the quarterback position. Teams are devoting more and more resources to procure an “elite” quarterback, meaning there are fewer to go around every year.
Tennessee may like what they have in last year’s sixth round pick, Zach Mettenberger, as he did show some flashes in his first NFL season. However, if he was the franchise-altering quarterback they were looking for, he wouldn’t have lasted until the sixth round. (Patriots fans: I know, I know. There are exceptions to every rule.)
According to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which quantifies a player’s production level and compares it to the league average -- or expectation -- Mettenberger did not show much promise last season. Mettenberger’s Passing NEP total of -8.99 ranked 56th out of the 72 quarterbacks that attempted a pass last season. While he may have NFL arm strength, his accuracy needs a lot of work, and his mobility is nonexistent.
If you have the chance to get a young franchise quarterback, you grab him. If the rest of the roster was ready to compete, I might give Chargers general manager Tom Telesco a call and see if there’s any merit to the Philip Rivers trade speculation, but with so many holes on both sides of the ball, a full rebuild is necessary.
The Titans are in the envious position of having the second overall pick in a draft with only two stud quarterbacks. So, the choice is easy: pick whoever Tampa Bay passes on and build the franchise around him. While neither one is a surefire Andrew Luck-type lock for stardom, they both have the potential to be great quarterbacks for years to come, and the face of a franchise that is sorely lacking one.
Potential Picks: QB Jameis Winston (Florida State), QB Marcus Mariota (Oregon)
Biggest Need: Outside Linebacker
While the results on the field aren’t quite there yet, David Caldwell and Gus Bradley are quietly accumulating young talent and building a nice overall roster. Even though Blake Bortles’ -97.97 Passing NEP ranked dead last in the NFL last year, the Jaguars -- right or wrong -- have their franchise quarterback in place and have been surrounding him with weapons to help him succeed. With a good young receiving corps and a Pro Bowl tight end now in the fold, Jacksonville should look to the defensive side of the ball with their first pick in the upcoming draft.
It may surprise some, but the Jaguars actually tied the New York Jets for the sixth most sacks in the entire NFL last year (45). However, they were in the lower half of the league in stopping the run, allowing the 27th most rushing yards (2,033) and finishing with an Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP of -0.72, which ranked 18th.
While they’re hoping they’ve solidified their “Otto” strong-side linebacker spot with former 49er Dan Skuta, there is still a big hole at the “Leo” weak-side linebacker spot, a very important position on Gus Bradley’s defense. Chris Clemons is getting long in the tooth and was relatively ineffective last year, so the Jags may want to make up for passing on future stud Khalil Mack and fill that hole right off the bat this time around.
Luckily, there are several prospects that fit the bill and warrant consideration with such a high selection. Leonard Williams (a defensive end from USC) will definitely be in the mix, but with the offseason acquisition of Jared Odrick, a hybrid pass-rushing linebacker who can play three downs should end up being the pick.
Potential Picks: OLB Dante Fowler Jr. (Florida), OLB Vic Beasley (Clemson)
Biggest Need: Wide Receiver*
*Let me start this with a caveat -- the biggest need for the Houston Texans is by far the quarterback position. With the best overall defense in the NFL according to our metrics (-53.43 Adjusted Defensive NEP), and a strong running game led by Arian Foster, they are an elite quarterback away from being a perennial Super Bowl contender.
However, with just two projected first-round quarterbacks in this year’s draft, Houston won’t be using their first selection on a signal caller (barring a major trade up with Tampa Bay or Tennessee, which goes against the grain of their recent draft strategy) and will instead be looking at the best player available at another position of need.
That position could very well be wide receiver in a draft chock full of them. DeAndre Hopkins looks the part of a future number one option, having posted 2,000 yards and 8 touchdowns in his first two NFL seasons, and is not yet 23 years old. His 96.06 Reception NEP ranked 17th among wide receivers in the NFL last season, and the sky is the limit for the young Clemson product.
However, the other members of the receiving corps are not causing any defensive coordinators to lose sleep. A couple of under-the-radar veteran additions in Nate Washington (57.12 Reception NEP, 50th in the NFL among wide receivers) and Cecil Shorts (33.32 Reception NEP, 84th) along with returning slot-man Damaris Johnson (20.39 Reception NEP, 105th) make up the rest of the group, so additional play-making is definitely a necessity.
Even though new Colt Andre Johnson (tears may have been shed while writing those words for the first time) had a down season in 2014, he will be sorely missed, and a new second option will have to emerge. Top wide receiver prospects Amari Cooper (Alabama) and Kevin White (West Virginia) will most certainly be gone when the 16th pick rolls around, but Houston may very well have their pick of the remaining pass-catchers after that.
Potential Picks: WR DeVante Parker (Louisville), WR Dorial Green-Beckham (Oklahoma), WR Breshad Perriman (UCF)
Biggest Need: Offensive Line
Only one game away from a Super Bowl in 2014, the Colts will be looking to build upon that success and take the next step forward in 2015. Adding veterans Andre Johnson, Frank Gore, and Trent Cole will certainly help, but aside from adding Todd Herremans, the offensive line has been seemingly neglected this offseason, and reinforcements should be brought in during the draft.
While the Colts led the NFL in pass attempts with 661, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton still wants to maintain the identity of a power running team. They ranked 27th in the NFL with an Adjusted Rushing NEP of -28.01, and while perennial 1,000-yard rusher Frank Gore might give them their first true three-down workhorse back since Edgerrin James, his age will catch up to him quickly if the offensive line doesn’t provide him adequate running lanes.
The left side of the line has two potential building blocks in left tackle Anthony Castonzo and sophomore left guard Jack Mewhort, but the rest of the line is an uncertain bunch. Jonotthan Harrison and Khaled Holmes will be vying for the center position, but neither inspires much confidence. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus can have a positive impact when healthy, but his knees are very worrisome. The right guard job may be Herremans’ to lose, but he is more suited to be a backup at this point in his career.
Keeping Luck upright and clearing holes for Gore will be key for the Colts’ offense in 2015. While there aren’t any can’t-miss offensive lineman in this year’s class, the group does provide depth -- which may be a good thing for Indianapolis selecting at the bottom of the first round.
Potential Picks: C Cameron Erving (Florida State), T D.J. Humphries (Florida), G A.J. Cann (South Carolina)