Welcome back to our offseason series of Four Downs. We’ll be reviewing each division one-by-one, looking at each team’s biggest hole going into free agency as well as the most important players who may be on the market.
Biggest Need: Cornerback
Six different cornerbacks started multiple games for the Texans in 2019. Of those, only second-round rookie Lonnie Johnson (seven starts) and midseason trade acquisition Gareon Conley (six) are under contract for 2020. Bradley Roby, who was clearly the team’s best cornerback, is one of the top unrestricted free agents after performing well on the one-year deal that lured him from the Broncos last spring. Johnathan Joseph, who started the most games at the position for the Texans, turns 36 next month and his best days are clearly well behind him. Former Buccaneers first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves has already been cut after logging a couple of late-season starts, and fellow two-start free agent Philip Gaines is a decent veteran backup who should be nobody’s idea of a starter.
With no first-round pick thanks to the Laremy Tunsil trade, but plenty of cap room ahead of a potential Deshaun Watson extension, free agency is the obvious route for the Texans to fill this void. The top option at the time of writing is likely to be another former Broncos starter, Chris Harris, closely followed by the younger Byron Jones. The ideal scenario would be to add one of those two and retain Roby, turning a prospective hole ahead of free agency into a prospective strength ahead of the draft, but more likely the Texans will be looking for at least one, and probably two starters from the selection process.
Major Free Agents: Bradley Roby, CB; Johnathan Joseph, CB; Vernon Hargreaves, CB; Lamar Miller, RB; Carlos Hyde, RB
We’ve already discussed the cornerback situation above, but the second potential hole is in the offensive backfield. Lamar Miller has been a solid enough feature back since joining from the Dolphins in free agency, logging between 850 and 1,100 rushing yards in each of his last five healthy seasons, but he missed the entire 2019 season with a torn ACL and turns 29 next month. Carlos Hyde was a solid fill-in for Miller’s between-the-tackles role, and probably has the advantage of being cheaper to retain than Miller, but these types of backs are relatively easy to obtain and the smarter move is probably to let both leave in favor of a younger model.
Biggest Need: Quarterback?
Any assessment of the Colts’ biggest hole likely depends on that person’s assessment of the Colts’ starting quarterback, and assessments of the Colts’ starting quarterback are almost as varied as the team’s performances in his three-year Colts career. Former Patriots third-round pick Jacoby Brissett is currently The Man for a franchise with slightly flashier tastes.
It’s not that Brissett is bad. Finally given a chance to be the unquestioned starter with a well-coached team and a decent supporting cast, Brissett posted the first positive DVOA of his career (2.9%) in 2019 despite his best receiver missing large chunks of the season with nagging injuries. However, Brissett takes too many sacks and tends to be cautious to a fault. He is capable of keeping the offense on schedule and operating within the system as designed, but he has never shown the ability to elevate his supporting cast or create consistent success when forced away from those initial designs. He has all the traits required for a long career as one of the league’s best backups … but one of its most underwhelming starters.
Behind Brissett, Brian Hoyer was a disaster in his first meaningful action since 2017. His mistakes resulted in losses in winnable games against the Dolphins and Steelers that could have made a big difference to the perception of this offseason. It would be remiss of the Colts not to at least add somebody as a younger prospect in case Brissett falters or gets hurt. Whether they can add anybody better is an entirely different question.
Major Free Agents: Anthony Castonzo, LT; Eric Ebron, TE; Jabaal Sheard, DL; Joe Haeg, G; Dontrelle Inman, WR
Anthony Castonzo would be a big loss; while not quite in the elite tier at the position, he is certainly good enough to be an important player for the Colts. Eric Ebron would have been considered a bigger potential loss a year ago, coming off a career-best 13-touchdown season; however, at 27, even his inconsistent play will have strong value at a position lacking breadth of quality. Joe Haeg is a solid interior lineman and consistent starter. Dontrelle Inman is a solid complementary receiver. Jabaal Sheard is a strong veteran rotational and package edge defender.
Biggest Need: Cornerback
Assuming the Jaguars at least think that they are set at quarterback with Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew, the priority for the front office should be a restock of the team’s ailing secondary. Gone are four of the five starters who formed the league’s best defensive backfield just two short years ago; the one remaining player, A.J. Bouye, is widely expected to be a cap casualty this offseason.
The two young safeties who have come in, Jarrod Wilson and Ronnie Harrison, were the team’s top two tacklers on defense in 2019 — a fact that tells its own story about the troubles of the players ahead of them. Jalen Ramsey’s midseason departure left undrafted second-year player Tre Herndon and former Raiders bust D.J. Hayden starting alongside Bouye, and despite excellent contributions from the pass rush — augmented by ten-sack rookie Josh Allen — the team posted its worst defensive DVOA since the first year of the ill-fated Gus Bradley era. The Jaguars need a talent infusion at cornerback, and quickly.
With the team hard against the salary cap, the only route currently available for that talent infusion is the draft, where Jacksonville at least has two picks in the top 20 (including, incredibly, their 18th top-ten draft pick in 25 seasons). At least one of those first-round picks should be used on a cornerback, regardless of what they ultimately decide about Bouye; if they do make that cut, they will need to build depth through the mid rounds and free agency as well.
Major Free Agents: Yannick Ngakoue, DE; Akeem Spence, DL; Tyler Shatley, G; Nick O’Leary, TE
The problem the Jaguars have ahead of the free-agency period is not the number of meaningful potential free-agent departures, it’s the quality of the likely headline departure added to the cuts they might need to make to stay under the salary cap. Yannick Ngakoue has become one of the league’s best pass-rushers, and given his youth (Ngakoue is only 25) he may even be the most in-demand edge defender of this class. (Reports indicate the Jaguars will slap the franchise tag on Ngakoue, although he’s stated publicly that he does not want to remain with Jacksonville.) Akeem Spence would be a less noteworthy departure, but the loss of Spence after the cap-related cut of Marcell Dareus would have a significant impact on the team’s defensive line depth.
Biggest Need: Edge rusher
The Titans are yet another team in this division whose biggest hole depends entirely on what you think will happen with their quarterback … or in this case, quarterbacks. We should be able to safely consider Marcus Mariota a goner, for the sake of both the player and the franchise. For the purposes of this article, we’ll also assume that the Titans do not let Ryan Tannehill get away. If they do, then the lack of any quarterback whatsoever on the roster trumps any further discussion of roster holes.
Assuming the presence of a starting quarterback, the Titans had one major weakness last season: their outside pass rush. Former Boston College youngster Harold Landry came on strong with 9.0 sacks, and the team’s adjusted sack rate was middle of the pack, but SIS charting credited the Titans with the fourth-worst pressure rate in the league, second-leading edge rusher Kamalei Correa is a free agent, and the only other edge rusher to claim more than one sack was 37-year-old Cameron Wake.
Fortunately, the free agent class is unusually deep. Even beyond the headline acts such as Jadeveon Clowney, Everson Griffen, and Chris Jones, there is a second tier that includes the likes of Mario Addison, Robert Quinn, and Jason Pierre-Paul. Even veterans such as Adrian Clayborn and Bruce Irvin should give the Titans more than they had last year at reasonable cost, allowing them to focus the big money on retaining their own headline names on offense.
Major Free Agents: Ryan Tannehill, QB; Marcus Mariota, QB; Derrick Henry, RB; Jack Conklin, OT; Logan Ryan, CB; Wesley Woodyard, LB
The quarterback situation is the obvious wild card. As mentioned above, the current expectation is that Marcus Mariota will leave, whereas Ryan Tannehill will stay. Most observers expect the team to reach a deal with Derrick Henry, too. Jack Conklin and backup tackle Dennis Kelly are both free agents; expect the Titans to draft a replacement if Conklin leaves. Logan Ryan is likely to command more than the Titans are willing to pay him. Wesley Woodyard is merely a veteran presence at this stage, but his standing makes him a noteworthy departure nevertheless.