The roster-building portion of the NFL offseason is all but over. Your favorite team’s lineup is pretty much set, with the big names in free agency all snatched up and the 2016 NFL Draft in the books.
How did your favorite team do addressing its biggest needs heading into May and June OTAs? We’re taking a team-by-team look with offseason exit interviews for each division. We kicked off our look around the league with the NFC East before jumping to the NFC North. Next up? The AFC South.
1. They upgraded at quarterback
The 2015 Texans had some of the worst quarterback play in the league. Houston ranked 30th league wide in completion percentage, 29th in yards per attempt, and 24th in passer rating on the year. Brian Hoyer then completely melted down in their postseason loss to the Chiefs. They couldn’t credibly bring him back as the starting QB and call themselves a playoff contender.
Pretty much anyone they brought in would be considered an upgrade, and Brock Osweiler is that. But more on him in a minute.
2. They gave their new quarterback a host of new weapons
The Texans basically had one high-level target last season: DeAndre Hopkins. That’s it. He was targeted 192 times — 98 more than his next closest teammate (Nate Washington). Expecting Osweiler to shine with only one target, no matter how good he is, would have been misguided. So Houston went out and got him a few more weapons to spread the ball to.
They drafted Notre Dame speedster Will Fuller in the first round.
They snagged Ohio State’s Braxton Miller (arguably the most versatile offensive player in the draft) in the third.
And they gave Osweiler a significantly better running back than the Texans originally had in house by signing Lamar Miller away from the Dolphins.
That’s how you set your quarterback up for success.
3. They still employ J.J. Watt.
Dude is pretty good.
1. They gave an unproven quarterback $72 million
Osweiler may be an upgrade over Hoyer, Ryan Mallett and Brandon Weeden, but we don’t know much more about him than that. He has a track record that’s exactly 305 passes long, and those 305 passes don’t paint the picture of a star. Osweiler’s 61.8 completion percentage from 2015 is below average for this era, and so is his 7.2 yards per attempt figure.
The Broncos went 5-2 in his seven starts, sure, but the defense also allowed 18.5 points per game in those seven starts. NFL teams over the last five years are 902-241 in games where the defense allows less than 20 points. That’s good for a 0.789 winning percentage that is slightly better than Osweiler’s 5-2 record. He basically won about as often as would be expected given his defense’s performance. It’s possible this contract works out, but it’s also a sizable bet to make on a pretty big unknown.
2. They didn’t upgrade the offensive line
Improving the weapons around Osweiler should help put him in position to succeed, but he also has to be upright long enough to deliver the ball. Houston’s offensive line was a relative weakness last season, allowing 36 sacks and checking in with a below average Adjusted Sack Rate, per Football Outsiders.
The Texans then lost center Ben Jones and guard Brandon Brooks in free agency this offseason — two players that could have been young stalwarts on their line over the next few years. (They’re both 26 years old.)
Bringing Jeff Allen in from the Chiefs should help alleviate the loss of Brooks, but counting on rookie Nick Martin as the center could get dicey. And we’re still not sure what they have in Xavier Su’a-Filo. There are just a lot of question marks on the line right now.
3. They lost their second franchise legend in as many years
This won’t affect the Texans on the field, and as was the case last year with Andre Johnson, they were likely correct to cut ties with Arian Foster. Replacing Foster with Miller was a good move, just as shifting many of Johnson’s targets to Hopkins was.
But that’s two of the best players in franchise history walking out the door in consecutive years. For a franchise with a very short history, it’s notable.
1. They got a ton of value to move down from the No. 1 pick
Tennessee received Nos. 15, 43, 45, and 76 draft picks this year, as well as first- and third-round picks in 2017, in exchange for Nos. 1, 113, and 177.
The Titans won this trade on the traditional Jimmy Johnson trade value chart (by 9.1 percent), the Chase Stuart Approximate Value-based trade value chart (by 75.6 percent), AND the Brian Burke Massey-Thaler Value trade chart (by 263.8 percent).
It’s safe to say they came away with more value in the deal, which they were in position to make because they drafted Marcus Mariota in 2015.
2. They attacked needs early in the draft and free agency
The Titans had a dreadful offensive line in 2015. They signed a center in free agency and drafted a tackle with their first-overall pick. The Titans had a dreadful group of weapons beyond Delanie Walker in 2015. They signed Rishard Matthews.
The Titans struggled badly to get after the passer in 2015. They drafted Kevin Dodd.
The Titans had issues on the back end of their defense in 2015. They signed Rashad Johnson.
They Titans did not run the ball well in 2015. They traded for DeMarco Murray and drafted Derrick Henry.
That’s what we call attacking your needs.
3. They took a low-cost flier on a former star
All it cost the Titans to acquire 2014 AP Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray was a swap of fourth-round picks. They can get out of Murray’s remaining four years and $25 million for no extra cost after the 2017 season. He’s effectively on a two-year, $12.25 million contract. That’s a pretty decent buy-low.
1. They kept a sub-par coach
Mike Mularkey has a career record of 18-39. His teams have, on average, ranked 22nd in points per game, 28th in yards per game, and 28th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which adjusts performance for down distance, and opponent).
He went 2-7 after taking over last season and the team did not show improvement on either side of the ball. He had his interim tag removed and was named the Titans’ full-time coach anyway.
Combine his track record as a very conservative, not-so-creative coach with the special, rare talent they drafted last season (Mariota) and he seems an especially uninspired choice.
2. They’re designing an offense that moves away from their quarterback’s strengths
We went deep on this issue in March, when Mularkey first declared his intention to move Mariota out of the shotgun and put him under center more often. Along with his declaration that he’d like the Titans to be an “exotic smashmouth” football team, it’s clear he’s moving away from what his QB does well in order to shoehorn him into a pre-existing offensive philosophy.
It’s not only unwise, but it’s also a shame that we’ll likely be robbed of seeing Mariota’s full repertoire for a year-plus.
3. They gave up a lot of value to move from No. 15 to No. 8 and didn’t select the best player at the position they chose
In order to move up from No. 15 to No. 8, the Titans surrendered the No. 76 pick and a second rounder in 2017. (They also received the No. 176 pick.) That’s a loss on the Jimmy Johnson chart by 58.9 percent, on the Chase Stuart AV-based chart by 78.8 percent, and the Brian Burke Massey-Thaler Value chart by 73.5 percent.
The Titans then selected Jack Conklin with the No. 8 pick when Laremy Tunsil was on the board, even though Tunsil was near-universally considered a better prospect. Yes, a video of Tunsil smoking marijuana leaked just minutes before the draft, but that seems like the kind of thing most teams would have ignored had it happened even a month earlier. In the moment it seemed huge, but in hindsight it may turn out that sticking to the board and taking the best prospect would have been a better choice.
1. They addressed the offensive line
Andrew Luck has been sacked 101 times in 55 career NFL starts. That works out to 1.8 sacks per game, and the constant punishment finally caught up to him last season, when he missed the final 11 games with various injuries to his shoulder, ribs and kidney.
And while Luck, who likes to extend plays, was responsible for some of the hits, much of the responsibility rested with a porous offensive line. It’s why 2015 first-round pick Ryan Kelly, the center from Alabama, was a no-brainer. The team selected four offensive linemen in the 2016 NFL Draft, including Texas Tech guard/tackle La’Raven Clark in Round 3, North Dakota State tackle Joe Haeg in Round 5 and Iowa interior lineman Austin Blythe in Round 7.
2. They didn’t sign a bunch of over-the-hill vets during free agency
General manager Ryan Grigson was lauded early in his career for his personnel acumen but the reality is that beyond having Luck fall into his lap, his track record has been pretty poor. The flashing neon sign of poor decision making starts with trading a first-round pick for Trent Richardson, but Grigson is also on the hook for the likes of LaRon Landry, Ricky Jean Francois, Gosder Cherilus, Andre Johnson, Trent Cole and Frank Gore.
But his offseason was a quiet one; the team’s biggest free-agent signing was cornerback Patrick Robinson, who is a low-cost, high-upside addition to the secondary.
3. They have a healthy Andrew Luck
If we’ve learned anything from today’s NFL it’s that a team without a franchise quarterback just can’t compete. We’ve also learned that you have to keep that quarterback healthy.
Luck was mostly horrible in seven starts last season, but he was also battling myriad injuries. Luck said this month that he has “no limitations” — and that’s certainly welcome news — but as coach Chuck Pagano said earlier this offseason, his quarterback can’t play the position like a linebacker either.
1. They kept Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano together
It certainly looked like the Colts’ lost 2015 season would result in Grigson, Pagano or both getting fired, and reports of a less-than-harmonious relationship between the two all but confirmed that a parting of ways was inevitable.
Instead, after meeting with owner Jim Irsay, both men were retained in easily the most surprising move of the Colts’ offseason. And while everyone was smiling when Irsay announced that his GM and coach would return, how long everyone remains on the same page is another matter.
WTHR’s Bob Kravitz reported in January that Grigson “meddled” and was “overly involved in the coaching side of things since the day both he and Pagano arrived in Indianapolis in 2012, and that nothing has changed.” But now things have changed. The question is for how long.
2. They still haven’t gotten anything from Arthur Jones
Unlike some of Grigson’s other free-agent signings that seemed like long shots to work out (LaRon Landry, Gosder Cherlius, Andre Johnson), Arthur Jones arrived in Indy after a solid 2013 season in Baltimore.
With the Colts, Jones was reunited with Pagano, but he only played in nine games in 2014 and missed all of 2015 with two separate ankle injuries. The fact that Jones’ issues are health and not talent-related doesn’t soften the blow on the five-year, $33 million contract he signed, at least there’s hope he can return to the form that made him so good with the Ravens.
Unfortunately, no one seems to know when Jones can return to football. The hope is that he’ll be ready to go by training camp.
3. They still don’t have a running back
Yes, the NFL is a passing league, but a solid running game can go a long way. Just ask Ben Roethlisberger after he lost Le’Veon Bell last season.
The Colts tried to fill that hole last offseason when they signed Frank Gore. The reality is that Gore, who turned 33 this month, is close to 73 in running back years. Which is to say: He’s the shortest of short-term solutions, a fact reinforced by a 2015 season that saw him rush for 967 yards and average a career-low 3.7 YPC.
If Gore can’t get going in 2016, the Colts also has Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman on the roster to compete for carries. None are particularly dynamic, but perhaps the Colts’ revamped offensive line can compensate. If not, the offense again becomes one-dimensional and that’s not good for Luck.
1. They spent aggressively in free agency
Most notable was the signing of Malik Jackson, one of the key cogs in the Broncos’ Super Bowl run last season. He’s not proven over the course of a really long haul, but Jackson is just 26 and an absolutely disruptive force on the defensive line. He’s going to make the pass rush better out of the gates for Jacksonville, which should have a trickle-down effect on the linebackers and secondary.
Six years and $90 million is a lot of money for any player but in the NFL contracts are rarely really worth what they’re publicly worth. (The Jaguars have to make the playoffs and hit certain win totals for Jackson to get the full $90 million.)
Jackson’s ability to truly turn this defense into the unit Gus Bradley imagined will make a world of difference for Jacksonville in 2016.
2. They nailed the draft
Another year, another quality draft for GM Dave Caldwell and Co. Landing Jalen Ramsey in the first round was a little bit of luck (and the result of having a high draft pick), but making a move for Myles Jack in the second all but ensured the Jags would get high marks for their draft.
The Jags doubled down with their next few selections by taking pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue from Maryland, defensive tackle Sheldon Day from Notre Dame and pass rusher Tyrone Holmes from Montana. Even their late-round quarterback pick — Brandon Allen from Arkansas — was considered a strong upside move.
3. They focused on defense
Two years ago, the front office went all-in on the team’s offense, drafting multiple wide receivers to pair with Blake Bortles. They signed Julius Thomas in free agency and hoped Luke Joeckel would become a franchise tackle (he did not). But the larger point is they were investing tons of resources into the offense and it paid off a last season as the unit was explosive and fun to watch.
This offseason the move was to address the defense — and they did just that. Outside of their defensive haul in the draft, the Jags signed defesnive end Malik Jackson, safety Tashaun Gipson, defensive tackle Abry Jones and cornerback Prince Amukamara.
1. They’re leaning on rookies
Lost in all of the wonderful things Jacksonville did this offseason is the need to seriously utilize a pair of rookies drafted this offseason: Ramsey and Jack. Both are great players and instant-impact guys in theory.
But both also have red flags for injury reasons and, again, are rookies. You can’t guarantee any rookie is going to come in and make a positive impact in the NFL — the leap is just that difficult — but it’s much harder to expect when you’re talking about guys sliding into complex NFL defenses and starting from the outset.
Jacksonville’s relative depth should make it easier but if Jack and Ramsey disappoint the defense could start slow.
2. They didn’t beef up Bortles’ protection
We could nitpick about the lack of offensive firepower added this offseason, but the offense was good last year. Bortles took a big step forward in his development as a quarterback, Allen Robinson looks like one of the premiere wide receivers in the NFL, Allen Hurns is a nice compliment as a WR2 (touchdown regression is coming), Marqise Lee is already in the “best shape of his life” this offseason and Thomas made a very nice impact down the stretch last year.
The quibble worth quibbling is the lack of protection for Bortles who was sacked 51 times last year, just a season after being sacked 55 times. Both numbers led the league.
The Jaguars did sign Kelvin Beachem to improve the left tackle position but he’s coming off an ACL and isn’t expected to be ready for training camp in July, much less OTAs. Luke Joeckel is still on the roster, but the Jags don’t want to come into 2016 with him starting at left tackle again. Pretty obvious he’s a failed experiment at this point.
Bortles is a big, tough dude but letting him get sacked 50 times a third-straight year is a risky proposition.
3. They paid a lot for a running back
Just a year after drafting a running back with a high pick in T.J. Yeldon, the Jags went out and spent pretty big money on the position in free agency by signing Chris Ivory to a 5-year, $32 million deal. Ivory is a physical, bruising running back but he wore down late for the Jets last year. He’s easily the best red-zone weapon for the Jaguars (who struggled badly to run near the goal line) but he’s also a guy with just one season over 1,000 yards and, again, a running back. Improving the short-yardage ability of the offense is good but there were other more pressing issues they could’ve addressed with the money.