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Thursday, May 22, 2014
NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC South

By ESPN.com staff

 
The NFL draft has come (finally) and gone and now it’s time to take stock of how it affected the teams around the AFC South.

The division was clearly the worst in the NFL in 2013, with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans combining for just 13 victories. The Texans had the No. 1 overall pick and the Jaguars were two spots behind. That means those teams needed a lot of help.

The Texans nabbed perhaps the best pass-rusher of the past 15 years in Jadeveon Clowney to pair with J.J. Watt but didn’t address an obvious need at quarterback until the fourth round.

The Jaguars surprised everyone by taking quarterback Blake Bortles with their first pick, then adding a pair of receivers in the second round, including first-round talent Marqise Lee.

The Titans went substance over style with their draft but did nab one of the top three offensive tackles in Taylor Lewan and may have found a replacement for Chris Johnson in Bishop Sankey.

The Colts had the fewest draft picks in the league (five) but didn’t address perhaps the team’s biggest need.

Division reporters Michael DiRocco (Jaguars), Tania Ganguli (Texans), Paul Kuharsky (Titans) and Mike Wells (Colts) help you figure out what it all means.

First Down

Have the Titans added enough to their hybrid 3-4 defense to make a leap?



Michael DiRocco: One of the key things about coordinator Ray Horton's defense is that it demands versatility, especially among the linebackers. They have to be able to play multiple spots, and that requires speed and athleticism. The addition of Wesley Woodyard from Denver certainly helps, because he can play inside and outside. Drafting Avery Williamson, however, doesn't seem to fit. He's an inside player who doesn't run well. I do like tackle DaQuan Jones, though. He can play multiple spots on the line. The one thing the defense is missing is a big-time pass-rusher and that's the key to making the defense work.

Tania Ganguli: When the Texans made the transition to the 3-4 base defense in 2011, it went smoother in some areas than others. Mario Williams' move to outside linebacker had mixed results. There's always a transition process when a team makes that change and the outside pressure becomes even more important once that shift is made. The addition of Shaun Phillips will help because he comes in knowing the position. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton is smart enough that he knows not to put his players in positions where they can't succeed. And given how rare teams are in their base defense these days, I'm not worried about the scheme shift, even though the Titans didn't add a defensive end or outside linebacker in the draft.

Paul Kuharsky: I don't know. The four primary outside linebackers can turn out to be a good group. I think Kamerion Wimbley will be a lot closer to the player the Titans paid big money to in 2012 now that he's back to the position in a favorable scheme. And Shaun Phillips was a smart signing considering production and price. The system is also a better fit for Akeem Ayers. I'm not as certain about Derrick Morgan, who's listed as a defensive end/linebacker but worked in position drills with the linebackers at the pre-draft voluntary minicamp. Ropati Pitoitua is much more of a run-stopper than a pass-rusher, and he's certain to play end in the three-man front. The Titans have a lot of candidates to play with him and opposite him, but none scream that they will consistently get into the backfield. Jurrell Casey was excellent last season with 10.5 sacks. I feel certain coordinator Ray Horton won't do anything to mess up the good thing the Titans have going with Casey. The pass rush will be better. But better enough? I would have liked to have seen a young edge guy added in the draft.

Mike Wells: It may eventually work in Tennessee, but don't be surprised if it takes a little time for the defensive players to adapt to the 3-4 defense. Ask Colts linebacker Robert Mathis if you need further proof. Mathis shifted from defensive end in the 4-3 defense to outside linebacker when coach Chuck Pagano brought his 3-4 defense to Indianapolis in 2012. Mathis went from 8.0 sacks in his first year under Pagano to 19.5 sacks last season. The Titans have some players who are familiar with the 3-4 scheme. Shaun Phillips (9.5 sacks in 2012 with San Diego), Wesley Woodyard and Kamerion Wimbley have all played in the 3-4 at some point in their careers. But will the rest of their defensive teammates pick it up right away? I'm not convinced it'll happen.

@PaulKuharskyNFL D will be good and improve through season. O, unfortunately, may have many drives that end with less than #FourDowns

- Matt Ramsey (@MattRamsey1) May 15, 2014

Second Down

Will the Colts regret not trading up to grab a top safety to replace Antoine Bethea?



DiRocco: The Colts had only five picks, so that didn't give them a lot of ammunition to trade up. It would have been too costly to jump into the first round because it would have meant dealing future picks. The real problem is they failed to address the position in free agency, when there were several options available. That magnifies their failure to find a safety in the draft. Why is it a problem? Two reasons: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. To take the next step in the playoffs, the Colts are going to have to go through Denver and/or New England, which means dealing with Manning and Brady. The Pats pounded the Colts on the ground in a playoff victory last season, but the key to beating those teams is stopping the pass.

Ganguli: It would have been nice if they had been able to address that position high in the draft, but I'm not sure what they would've been able to trade in order to do that. Five picks isn't a lot to begin with and losing some of those would put the Colts at an even bigger disadvantage, considering how important draft picks can be to a team's future. I didn't like the decision to move a first-round pick for Trent Richardson and I would have liked even less for the Colts to reduce their number of picks again by going to get a safety.

Kuharsky: There are going to be positions on virtually any team where the top guy on the depth chart doesn't look like a sure thing and the competition isn't topflight. The Colts believe Delano Howell can be an effective successor to Bethea and that they have sufficient guys to supplement him. Through an excellent career with the Colts, Bethea was a guy who consistently got to the right place at the right time and was a very sure tackler. It will be tough for Howell to match that. The bigger concern in my eyes is if LaRon Landry gets hurt and the Colts need another safety to step up. But given their lack of picks this year, trading up for a guy would have been awfully difficult and they certainly shouldn't dip into their 2015 picks.

Wells: It was going to be tough for the Colts to trade into the first round because they only had five picks total in this year's draft and very little interest in giving up a first-round pick in next year's draft. They are steadfast in saying running back Trent Richardson is their first-round pick. Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward was the best cover safety in this year's draft. He was the 30th overall pick by San Francisco. I didn't think not addressing safety would be an issue at first with Mathis leading the way on what should be an improved front seven. There wouldn't have been as much pressure on the Colts' secondary. But as everybody knows, Mathis has been suspended for the first four games next season, leaving the Colts without the 2013 league leader in sacks. I think the Colts may regret not trading into the first during Mathis' suspension, but they'll be fine with Delano Howell, the likely starter, when it's all said and done.

@MikeWellsNFL Lots of S were drafted early, so that leads me to think lots of good veteran S will be waived. No regrets, claim 1 on waivers.

- Ben Meyer (@TheBigBenDiesel) May 15, 2014

Third Down

Were the Texans right to wait until the fourth round to draft a quarterback?



DiRocco: Nope. They blew it, especially when they could have made a move back into the last part of the first round to get Teddy Bridgewater -- which is what Minnesota did. The Texans also could have taken Derek Carr or Jimmy Garoppolo but instead went with a guard at the top of the second round. Coach Bill O'Brien did turn Matt McGloin and Christian Hackenberg into very good Big Ten QBs, and I'd rather have either of those guys than Tom Savage, who somehow became the hottest QB prospect in the weeks before the draft. The Texans are still talented enough to be a playoff team with the right quarterback in place. O'Brien apparently believes he can find one among Savage, Ryan Fitzpatrick, T.J. Yates and Case Keenum. Andre Johnson clearly doesn't agree.

Ganguli: If the Texans have the patience to wait and see how their quarterback situation settles, they were right. By waiting until the fourth round, they almost certainly assured themselves that they'll have to wait at least a year to use that player. They have a schedule in which they'd like Tom Savage to learn their offense, but the scale for his learning is sliding. With Ryan Fitzpatrick, they brought in a player who lessened the urgency to find the quarterback of the future right away. That kind of urgency can have bad consequences if there isn't one in the draft. Savage might be one, or he might not, but the Texans need time to figure that out.

Kuharsky: The Texans have a major question mark at the most important position on the team. But it's not like they could have waved a magic wand to get a guy, or that one of the more highly regarded quarterbacks in the draft would have been a sure thing. I imagine they would have opened the second round with Teddy Bridgewater if Minnesota hadn't traded into the last pick of the first round to take him. After that, it's wise the Texans didn't force a pick. But Tom Savage hasn't played a great deal of football in the past few years and I think a lot of people won't be surprised if the Titans do better with sixth-rounder Zach Mettenberger than the Texans do with fourth-rounder Savage -- not that the odds of a pick in either range panning out into a reliable long-term starter are any good.

Wells: Yes. No Andrew Luck and no Robert Griffin III in this year's draft. There was no need for the Texans to use the No. 1 pick on a player they hoped could be as good as Luck one day. Teaming Jadeveon Clowney opposite J.J. Watt on what is already a solid defense gives the Texans better hope than with one of the quarterbacks selected in the first round. Give the Texans a serviceable quarterback with that defense and who knows what can happen. The highlight of taking Johnny Manziel -- in the first year at least -- would have made the Texans a national draw. But in the end, all that counts is wins and losses. Clowney will help the Texans win more games next season than what Manziel or any other quarterback taken prior to the fourth round would have.

@taniaganguli I would say yes. It's obvious Bortles could've been taken but we filled more needs by waiting. Still got our 'Prototypical' QB

- Ryan Brackenridge (@GHS_Forever) May 16, 2014

Fourth Down

Will Blake Bortles be the Jaguars' starting quarterback at any point this season?



DiRocco: I say yes, but I'm not as sure about when. This may sound like a cop-out, but it really depends on how he progresses. If he picks up the offense, fixes the lower-body issues that are preventing him from throwing the ball as hard and accurately as he can, and makes the transition from the spread offense, then he'll get on the field. I can see that happening by December, and if that's the case, then he'll get a start or two. At the very worst, he'll get a drive or a quarter within some games to get his feet wet.

Ganguli: No. This isn't a panicky regime and the Jaguars have indicated they'll be patient. They showed that last season. They managed to keep positive vibes throughout the organization despite a 4-12 record because of steady improvement and having a plan. It wasn't too long ago that a Jaguars regime threw a rookie who wasn't ready into the starting lineup sooner than he was ready and it didn't do the franchise any good. I'm a huge advocate of selecting a player based on his potential and then letting him grow into it. Just because Bortles was taken third overall doesn't mean there's any reason he should play before he's ready. No quarterback should.

Kuharsky: I really believe general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley will look back on what the previous regime did at quarterback and be super cautious. The Jaguars had no intention of starting Blaine Gabbert as a rookie. Then they cut David Garrard just before the season, watched Luke McCown struggle and had no choice. I don't know how much better Gabbert would have been if he was eased into NFL life, but it certainly would have been better for him. If Bortles needs time, they will resist temptation to start him even if Chad Henne struggles. In a way, this is an offensive line question, because if Henne gets hurt, they may not have a choice. They'll have three new starters in the interior to go with a healthy Luke Joeckel at left tackle. That group should fare better and increase the chances Henne is good to go for the whole season.

Wells: He has to be. It likely won't be in Week 1, but I expect it to happen at some point because the Jaguars aren't going to win the AFC South with Luck at quarterback for the Colts. More than 2,000 fans did not show up at the Jaguars' minicamp to watch cornerback Aaron Colvin. That was all about Bortles. The Jaguars need something to bring the fans out. The only highlight of the area is the nearby Atlantic Ocean. No offense to Chad Henne, but Bortles gives the Jaguars the best opportunity to bring some kind of excitement to the city. Look at it this way: He can't do any worse than Blaine Gabbert.

@ESPNdirocco I think he will be a starter after the bye week. #FourDowns Once O-line and WRs have proven themselves. You put him in.

- Christopher Gonzalez (@gonzorico) May 20, 2014