Teams in the AFC South have had over two weeks to assimilate the effects free agency will have on their rosters for the 2013 season. The Houston Texans have mostly watched the action from the sidelines, not really getting into the game until the signing of Ed Reed.
The Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans have been most active in the market, signing 10 and 11 new players, respectively. Salary cap room is tough to nail down. Going into the signing period starting March 12, the Colts had well over $40 million to work with while the Titans had a little less than $20 million.
The Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars were not quite as active, even though the carryover from what the Jags did not spend in 2012 ($19.5 million) gave them a total of $22 million worth of cap space.
At this premature stage of the preseason, where do these teams stand in comparison to each other?
Key Holdovers: QB Andrew Luck, WR Reggie Wayne, WR T.Y. Hilton, P Pat McAfee, CB Darius Butler
Key Signees: RT Gosder Cherilus, NT Ricky Jean-Francois, QB Matt Hasselbeck, FS LaRon Landry, OG Donald Thomas, CB Greg Toler nickel, OLB Lawrence Sidbury, OLB Erik Walden
Key Losses: WR Donnie Avery, OLB Dwight Freeney, NT Antonio Johnson, RT Winston Justice, SS Tom Zbikowksi
The Colts have the most money to spend and an unexpected playoff season to build upon. Could it be they are ready to contend for the division crown?
They finished with an 11-5 record in 2012 and kept the Texans from capturing top seed in the AFC with a home win in Week 17. And it took a lot of Luck to make it all happen.
The first pick in the NFL 2012 draft had average statistics, but a knack for pulling out the win. He had four fourth-quarter comebacks and seven game-winning drives. Then again, his defense left him little choice.
The defense had only 18 takeaways, and the offense was little help as it gave up the ball 30 times itself. A team with so many young players is bound to improve in its second season, but its main additions on defense, Landry, Walden and Jean-Francois, are not makeover artists based on their previous resumes.
Key Holdovers: QB Blaine Gabbert, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, WR Justin Blackmon, C Brad Meester, WR Cecil Shorts, DE Jeremy Mincey, MLB Paul Posluszny, DT C.J. Mosley
Key Signees: None
Key Losses: CB Derek Cox, FB Greg Jones, DT Terrance Knighton, WR Laurent Robinson, CB Aaron Ross, OLB Daryl Smith, SS Dawan Landry
Based on its nonchalant approach to free agency, the Jaguars management is hoping for one of two things. Either it hits it out of the park in this year’s draft, or it wins the race to the bottom in hopes of another top-three pick in next year’s rookie roundup.
The consensus around the league is that the Blaine Gabbert experiment should be terminated. Most mock drafts show the next man behind center for Jacksonville will be Geno Smith from West Virginia.
The 6’7” Gabbert was more statue than statuesque, so the mobility of a read-option QB like Smith should be a plus. On the other hand, he will have to get used to taking snaps from under center and backpedaling while he makes his reads.
Actually, we are getting ahead of ourselves because the Jaguars have been a run-first offense since the emergence of Maurice Jones-Drew in 2009. During this period, FB Greg Jones has led the way for a lot of the tough yards.
The thought of Jones leaving for the Texans led to this reaction from MJD:
His worst fears were confirmed as Jones signed with the Texans for a paltry $1 million, a number well within the Jags’ $23 million cap gap.
The defense has not been upgraded in any fashion and stands to lose one of its best if unrestricted free agent Daryl Smith is not re-signed. Would it make any difference considering the entire secondary from 2012 has either been released or remains unsigned?
It looks like Jacksonville fans will have to cover their eyes while owner Shahid Khan decides if the empty seats should be covered at EverBank Field.
Key Holdovers: RB Chris Johnson, QB Jake Locker, WR Kendall Wright, WR Nate Washington, LT Michael Roos, DE Kamerion Wimbley, DE Derrick Morgan, OLB Akeem Ayers, CB Alterraun Verner
Key Signees: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, LG Andy Levitre, C Robert Turner, TE Delanie Walker, DT Sammie Lee Hill, SS Bernard Pollard
Key Losses: TE Jared Cook, QB Matt Hasselbeck, SS Jordan Babineaux
The Texans' main competition for the AFC South title in 2012 appeared to be the Titans. But inconsistent play at quarterback and a leaky pass defense brought those aspirations down to earth.
Second-year QB Jake Locker was knocked out in Week 4 by the Texans’ very own Glover Quin, and the reins were handed over to Matt Hasselbeck. The veteran actually put up better stats than Locker had to that point.
But the defense surrendered an average of 31 points per game over the five games Locker was injured. That trend continued as Tennessee ended up dead last in points allowed.
Now Hasselbeck is backing up Andrew Luck and that Rubik’s Cube of a QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is filling the backup role. This leaves the most important position on the team in the hands of two underachievers.
On the plus side, the offense has an above-average running game headed by Chris Johnson, a host of good receivers and a solid front line bolstered by the additions of Turner and Levitre. Too bad the quarterback situation is so undependable.
The most notable addition on defense is a new coordinator in Gregg Williams. Mr. Bountygate is known for high-risk schemes that generate an abundance of turnovers.
He was DC for the Titans when they made their Super Bowl run in 1999 and coached the defense to the top spot in the league the following season. If he hasn’t lost the touch during his year on the sidelines, the rest of the division could be in for a rude awakening.
Key Holdovers: QB Matt Schaub, RB Arian Foster, WR Andre Johnson, LT Duane Brown, DE J.J. Watt, ILB Brian Cushing, CB Johnathan Joseph, CB Brice McCain
Key Signees: FS Ed Reed, FB Greg Jones, P Shane Lechler
Key Losses: SS Glover Quin, OLB Connor Barwin, FB James Casey, RB Justin Forsett, WR Kevin Walter
Now we come to reigning titleholders of the AFC South. A team that took an unprecedented opportunity for postseason positioning and turned it into the worst playoff matchup possible.
The circumstances of a season that started with an 11-1 bang and ended it with a 2-4 whimper are well documented. What the discerning fan wants to know is: Can the Texans play the entire 2013 schedule like the first 12 games of 2012?
Some believe the downturn on defense started with the ACL tear that ended Brian Cushing’s year. Others will say Houston never stood a chance with a mediocrity like Matt Schaub leading the offense.
After a couple of months following their feeble exit from the playoffs, GM Rick Smith and head coach Gary Kubiak opened free agency by basically sitting on their hands.
Maybe they were just saving their resources to keep Cushing and J.J. Watt in the fold come next year. Or they were waiting for all the high rollers to make their splashy signings, then swoop in for all the low-cost leftovers.
Ed Reed might be able to share enough of his experience with the Houston secondary to provide it with a collective brain. Shane Lechler may have enough power left in his right leg to single-handedly improve the worst special teams group in the NFL.
The decision-makers for the Texans are taking their time while working with a dearth of dollars. Of the 639 free agents listed at NFL.com, 392 are still unsigned. The more time that passes, the more it becomes a buyer's market.
The truth is Houston still has the best talent, top to bottom, in its division. It has holes at WR, ILB, OLB, RT and FS/SS that will be addressed with experienced players or draftees. There might even be a promising replacement for the much-maligned Schaub when the endless mock drafts are finally supplanted by the real thing.
A lot can happen between now and the final regular-season game on December 29th. The Colts could find a defense, the Titans a quarterback and the Jaguars a reason to keep coming to work. The way it looks now, they will all be staring up at the Texans, sitting on top of the AFC South for the third consecutive year.