Our fifth stop on our tour squaring the best and worst moves in NFL free agency, the AFC South. We’ve already gone through both the AFC and NFC North. Likewise for the AFC and NFC East. The AFC South was arguably the toughest division in football just a couple of seasons ago. Now, it is a division mostly in transition but one that should still be a dog fight.
Best and Worst of NFL Free Agency: AFC South
Best Move: None
Yea. This isn’t a cop-out or laziness. The Houston Texans have had one of the weirdest offseasons in recent memory. After giving away arguably the best wide receiver in the game, Houston (led by head coach and general manager Bill O’Brien) did well just to not trade away the franchise in Deshaun Watson, though it’s hard to believe they’re building trust either.
There does appear to be a method to the madness or at least a strategy for navigating what is sure to be an adjustment period for Watson. They added Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb to a group that will still return Kenny Stills, Will Fuller, and Keke Coutee. Fuller and Coutee have struggled to stay healthy (as has Cooks) and Stills has always been a complementary option.
Worst Move: Swapping Receivers
This is a little bit of piggybacking. Taking on David Johnson’s contract certainly qualifies. But this deserves its own section. Let’s go to the tape: Hopkins is a three-time All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowler, and has 315 catches for 4115 yards with 31 touchdowns over the last three seasons. Cooks has none of the accolades and caught 187 balls for 2869 yards and 14 scores.
Production on the field is dependant upon being on the field; something Cooks has struggled with. Nuk has missed all of two games in one more NFL season than Cooks, who has missed time with numerous injuries, not the least of which being multiple concussions. Aside from a change philosophically (and an out in Cooks’ contract in 2021), the benefits are hard to find.
Next Move: Protect the Franchise
Watson is second in the NFL in sacks taken over the last three seasons, trailing only Russell Wilson. This is especially notable because the former Clemson Tiger missed more than half of his rookie season with a torn ACL and is only in second place by 17 sacks. He even led the league in the category in 2018.
When the Texans traded for Laremy Tunsil, the seemed to be moving towards correcting a fatal flaw. Trading away Watson’s top weapon isn’t doing any favors and Tunsil wound up leading the NFL in penalties. Houston still needs an infusion of talent and should look to do so in a draft rife with interior line talent. For what it’s worth, it’s also full of talented wide receivers.
Best Move: Old Man Rivers
Any time a team adds a Hall of Fame quarterback to their roster it has to set the bar for grading their free-agent class. The Indianapolis Colts courting and subsequent signing of Philip Rivers is no different. They tried to make do with Jacoby Brissett following Andrew Luck’s abrupt retirement, even giving the former New England Patriot a short extension.
Brissett is no Luck and he isn’t Rivers either so the upgrade is obvious. It is a shift in philosophies for Indy and head coach Frank Reich. They have largely been a ball-control offense, playing at their pace and fielding a solid defense. Rivers is the definition of a gunslinger and a talkative one at that. It will be interesting to watch this marriage in 2020.
Worst Move: Missing Out on Diggs
In stark contrast to their division mates in Texas, it is rather difficult to find a flaw in the offseason the Colts have had. They got a new field general, kept their offensive line together, and traded for a solidifying presence along their defensive line. The one thing they “failed” (quotes because it’s subjective) to do is give Rivers ample weapons as he enjoyed with the Los Angeles Chargers.
Stefon Diggs would have made a perfect option. His versatility would have allowed him to be the short-area weapon a la Keenan Allen but he is also explosive enough to be the downfield threat that Mike Williams was. Instead, Rivers will lean on T.Y. Hilton who dealt with injuries last season and is somehow already 30 years old. There weren’t many misses for Indy but this opportunity might be one.
Next Move: Find Another Corner
Indy signed former Minnesota Vikings corner Xavier Rhodes in free agency to replace the departed Pierre Desir alongside Rock Ya-Sin and Kenny Moore. The problem is Rhodes, who will be 30 when the season starts, allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete over 80 percent of their passes in his direction.
Minnesota’s defense was once among the best in the game but they have slipped of late, falling from third in passing yards allowed in 2018 to 15th in 2019. Indy finished the season ranked 23rd so expecting Rhodes to be a stabilizing presence is probably a stretch at best and a recipe for disaster at worst.
Best Move: Moving Foles
When the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million contract the thought was they overpaid for an average quarterback who had a magical run. After one season and Gardner Minshew, that thought has largely remained the same. What has changed is who will be paying Foles going forward.
Jacksonville managed to extract a draft pick from the Chicago Bears for the journeyman quarterback, reuniting him a veritable who’s who of his former coaches including John DeFilippo who was the Jags offensive coordinator last season. Kudos to general manager David Caldwell for actually getting something for Foles, let alone a fairly valuable mid-round pick.
Worst Move: Sticking with Marrone
Making coaching changes for the sake of changing coaches is never the way to go. But the fact of the matter is coaches have been fired who have accomplished much more than Doug Marrone has. Our first section dedicated to a coach, this is not advocating for anyone to lose their job. But when assessing offseasons, it’s fair to question if Jacksonville should’ve moved on.
Marrone is 21-27 in three full seasons down in Duval. This is on-brand for him; he went 15-17 in his two seasons at the helm for the Buffalo Bills. Jacksonville ranked 31st and 26th in points the past two seasons and his once stout defense has been parted out because of cap and culture issues. Loyalty to Marrone could keep the Jaguars in neutral in 2020.
Next Move: Replenish the Cupboard
With 12 selections in the 2020 NFL Draft and a team seemingly stuck in place, Jacksonville needs to get back to what got them the buzz they had a couple of seasons ago. They have to get some talent back on the roster, namely on that defense. And to be even more specific they need to get their secondary at least close to what it was when Jalen Ramsey was still in town.
Jacksonville brought in Rashaan Melvin to replace the departed A.J. Bouye who bolted for the Denver Broncos. That is really a lateral move and not a particularly good one. This draft has got some talent at the top at the position so it would be wise for Caldwell and Co. to get back to what got them to this point.
Best Move: Not Overcommitting to Henry
The sentiment around paying top dollar for a running back (giving them a second contract) is well documented. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would say that’s a good idea. So the Tennessee Titans slapping the franchise tag on Derrick Henry almost makes too much sense. After all, his 300 carries, 1500 yards, and 16 scores all led the league. He’s still a runningback.
Christian McCaffrey just finagled the Carolina Panthers for a record-setting contract. Yes, he became the first player to have 2500 yards rushing and receiving in his first three years, that hasn’t helped the Panthers win much. Tennessee rode Henry’s legs far more than their quarterback’s arm. But they still had the wherewithal to not overpay for diminishing returns.
Worst Move: Overcommitting to Tannehill
No one can deny the impact switching from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill had on the Titans. For example, Henry averaged 3.68 yards per tote with Mariota under. That number jumped to 5.92 with Tannehill, no small feat. Tennessee looked beyond his raw stats and rewarded him with a lucrative, averaging just under $30 million per year.
If Tennessee had looked at Tannehill’s raw stats, at least those from Miami, they might not have been so generous. First, he dealt with injuries in his last three years, an issue Tennessee had with Mariota. But his career even before then could be described as mediocre with even his best of seasons leading to a .500 record. The Titans get great marks for their handling of Henry. Not so much with Tannehill.
Next Move: Repeat Success
This section was close to suggesting Tennessee go hunting for their next franchise passer; sort of a Brett Favre–Aaron Rodgers situation. Instead, in much broader terms, they need to recapture their 2019 magic. That won’t be easy despite the simplistic appearance of their attack.
Henry isn’t likely to have the stretch he had from Week 7 on and the returns on backs who had 300-plus touches the season before is also ugly (take note, Panthers fans). Teams are going to focus on putting more on Tannehill’s plate. He had flashes of being able to answer the call last season, but consistency hasn’t been his forte. Titans fans better hope that has changed.