July 27, 2021

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Four Downs: AFC South | Football Outsiders

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For this May round of Four Downs, we will be looking at each team’s biggest remaining need as well as notable undrafted free agents who will be going to camp with each franchise.

Houston Texans

Biggest Need: Edge rusher

The trade of Jadeveon Clowney and another major injury to J.J. Watt meant that the Texans pass rush, formerly the strength of their defense, struggled in 2019. Whitney Mercilus has proven to be a fine ancillary rusher, but he is overmatched as the focus of the pass protection — 5.5 of his 7.5 sacks came in the season’s first nine contests, with Watt still healthy, but his only sacks in his seven games after Watt was lost for the regular season both came in Week 16 against the collapsing Jaguars.

Watt’s injury history suggests the team needs a more reliable stable of rushers to combine with Mercilus, but a lack of draft capital meant they spent only a single third-round pick at the position, for Jonathan Greenard of Florida. Clowney is still a free agent, but absolutely nothing suggests that he is considering a return to Houston. That leaves the team hoping against hope for Watt’s second healthy season in five years, for Greenard to take the league by storm, or for somebody else to make a significant leap forward into a starting role.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Houston native Cordell Iwuagwu (Texas Christian) is a 6-foot-3 guard with experience at center who fell out of the draft due to injury concerns, but who should at least stick on the practice squad if not the final roster. Receiver Tyler Simmons (Georgia) averaged just under 16 yards per punt return in his senior year, suggesting he has a chance to stick as a special teamer. Tight end Dylan Stapleton (James Madison) has prototypical physique and a decent receiving average, but only played two seasons in college and starts at the bottom of a deep player pool.

Indianapolis Colts

Biggest Need: Right guard?

Depending on your assessment of the team’s quarterback situation — specifically, how much Philip Rivers has left — the Colts do not appear to have any major roster holes going into 2020. Rivers should be a significant upgrade on Jacoby Brissett, meaning Brissett will once again be one of the best backup quarterbacks in the league. The few spots on defense that needed upgrades have, in theory, been upgraded; another second-round receiver has been added to the targets mix; and Trey Burton makes up for the departure of Eric Ebron.

That probably leaves Mark Glowinski’s spot at right guard as the weakest starting spot on the team, but even that can hardly be considered a hole: Glowinski is a perfectly decent starter when surrounded by other talented linemen. Given the condition of their roster and salary cap, it is easy to see why the Colts chose to go all-in this past offseason.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Kicker Rodrigo Blankenship (Georgia) might be the most recognizable undrafted kicker in recent memory, but he is more than a name and a pair of glasses — Blankenship hit over 80% of his college field goals and 100% of extra points, and he has a chance to supplant Chase McLaughlin as the potential successor to the legendary Adam Vinatieri. Edge defender Kendall Coleman (Syracuse) is an Indiana native who has worked with Colts legend Robert Mathis; his strong technical ability may compensate for an underwhelming physical profile. Interior lineman Kameron Cline (South Dakota) is a run-stuffing three-technique who has a chance to stick as an early-down plugger.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Biggest Need: Cornerback

In contrast with the Colts, narrowing the Jaguars roster down to a single hole was a challenge. Even if we assume that Minshew Mania will resume after a difficult second half of 2019, the Jaguars have problem spots in the offensive line, the offensive backfield, the front seven, and the secondary. Of those, the most glaring remains cornerback, despite the addition of CJ Henderson with the team’s top draft pick.

Henderson not only has to step right into a starting role as a rookie and replace 2017 All-Pro Jalen Ramsey, but to do it while not having anybody nearly as good as A.J. Bouye across from him, and without either Calais Campbell or Yannick Ngakoue (who surely, surely will be traded before the season) wreaking havoc in the front seven. That is simply too big an ask for one rookie. Rashaan Melvin is a solid veteran, and Henderson may prove a fine pick, but the Jaguars cornerback room still needs a strong infusion of talent and depth to get even close to the level of what was, only one year ago, still one of the best in the game.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Trade rumors swirling around Leonard Fournette and an inexperienced pool of backs behind him may give Tavien Feaster (South Carolina) a chance to make the roster at halfback. Safety J.R. Reed (Georgia) was widely expected to be a Day 3 pick, and he has a strong chance to make the roster as the Jaguars plunge into a total rebuild of their secondary. Luq Barcoo (San Diego State) was a first-team All-Mountain West cornerback and a Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist as a senior; he likewise has a great opportunity afforded by the Jaguars’ rebuild.

Tennessee Titans

Biggest Need: Pass rush

2018 second-round pick Harold Landry broke through as a highly effective edge rusher in 2019, but the rest of the Titans pass rush was underwhelming, finishing No. 30 in Sports Info Solutions’ pressure rate. That was before the cap-clearing trade of their best interior rusher, Jurrell Casey, and the free-agency departure of cornerback Logan Ryan, who was surprisingly effective as a secondary blitzer. Those departures increase the need for the team to get more from its outside rush.

Post-draft rumors have the Titans heavily linked with former Texans edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney, whose most productive season in Houston came under the tutelage of Mike Vrabel. Clowney would make a huge difference for a defense that struggled to get pressure from its front seven in 2019. Even if they don’t snag Clowney, however, the Titans should look to upgrade on the current list of hopefuls and reclamation projects currently competing to start across from Landry.

Notable Undrafted Free Agents: Running back Cameron Scarlett (Stanford) has a strong opportunity to beat out the mediocre veteran competition behind Derrick Henry and fellow rookie Darrynton Evans. Most of the rest of the Titans’ undrafted rookie budget was spent on trying to address their shallow receiving depth chart. Of those four, Nick Westbrook (Indiana) appears to have the best shot as a versatile receiver with special teams experience and strong character references. Defensive lineman Teair Tart (Florida International) is something of a shot in the dark, but an intriguing prospect for a team that just traded away a star defensive lineman.

Portions of this article originally appeared at ESPN+.


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