It was a case of the haves and have-nots in the AFC South last season. The Jacksonville Jaguars took control of the division race early, and fished atop the standings at 10-6. The Jags were just minutes away from their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, but came up short against the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. The Tennessee Titans snuck into the playoffs after a 9-7 finish, and advanced to the divisional round following an upset of the Chiefs in their wild-card game. Elsewhere, quarterback injuries doomed the playoff hopes of both the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans, who finished at the bottom of the standings with 4-12 records. However, the return of their respective quarterbacks should have both fan bases optimistic about a playoff push next season.
Though their spot in the NFL hierarchy would have them picking No. 3 and No. 4 respectively, in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Colts and Texans have both traded out of position. Houston used its 2018 first-round pick as part of the trade that allowed the Texans to move up and select Deshaun Watson last year, and though it was the right decision at the time, it’s disheartening to see the Cleveland Browns picking fourth overall instead. Indianapolis took the opposite approach, dropping down three spots in a trade with the New York Jets, and picking up two second-round picks in the process. The Colts will be the first team in the division on the clock at No. 6, and should have plenty of great options to choose from.
Houston Texans (4-12, 3rd in AFC South)
2017 snapshot: Things started well enough for the Texans last season, who alternated wins and losses to a 3-3 start in Deshaun Watson’s first season under center. Unfortunately, in Week 8, Watson suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the rest of the season. Weeks earlier, the team had lost superstar J.J. Watt to a leg injury. The Texans never recovered. With two of their biggest stars on the shelf they lost 11 of the last 12 games to finish the season.
Biggest needs: Houston attacked its biggest need a year ago by trading up for the opportunity to select Watson. The Texans attempted to upgrade its offensive line early in the offseason, but adding a franchise left tackle to protect Watson is the most important item on the agenda at this point. Despite finishing dead last in the NFL in scoring defense (27.3 ppg) last season, the defense appears to be in good shape, especially after adding Tyrann Mathieu through free agency to solidify the secondary. Depth at running back also would be nice.
First-round pick: None; First pick No. 68 overall
Potential picks: Barring another major move to trade into one of the first two rounds, the Texans have a long wait ahead of them at the draft. Though Houston shouldn’t expect to find its left tackle of the future in the third round, it’s possible a player on the team’s draft boards could still be available. Texans fans should cross their fingers a one-time potential first-round lineman like Oklahoma All-American Orlando Brown, versatile Mississippi State tackle Martinas Rankin or Western Michigan’s Chukwuma Okorafor slips to No. 68.
Indianapolis Colts (4-12, 4th in AFC South)
2017 snapshot: There is one major similarity between the 2017 Colts and the ‘11 squad, which suffered an incredible 2-14 blip — both teams were without its starting quarterback. In 2011 it was Peyton Manning who was sidelined following neck fusion surgery. Last year, it was Andrew Luck who missed the entire season following right shoulder surgery. As a result, Indianapolis stumbled to 4-12 — only the second losing season for the franchise since 2001. The Colts suffered offensively without their franchise quarterback, and finished 31st in the NFL in total offense (284.6 ypg), and last in yards per play (4.6) and passing offense (180.8 ypg). The defense wasn’t much better, ranking No. 30 in both total defense (367.1 ypg) and yards allowed per play (5.7).
After the season, the franchise parted ways with head coach Chuck Pagano, had New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels lined up to take over following the Super Bowl, then were surprised when the deal fell through and McDaniels returned to the Patriots. The Colts instead turned to Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who of course helped orchestrate Philadelphia’s Super Bowl LII victory.
Biggest needs: The Colts have been very quiet in the early free agency period despite a growing list of needs. Offensive line has long been a concern, and the unit needs multiple upgrades to keep Luck healthy (in addition to helping him put points on the scoreboard). Cornerback, linebacker and running back also must be addressed, and fortunately, the Colts hold four of the first 49 picks in this draft, with the potential for more should they take another opportunity to trade down.
First-round pick: No. 6 overall
Potential picks: Much like the 2011 implosion set the Colts up to draft Luck No. 1 overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, last year’s struggles put Indianapolis in position to draft an instant impact rookie and potential franchise cornerstone. Because Luck is expected to return healthy in 2018, the Colts also are fortunate not to be in the market for a quarterback, leaving the team with a wide range of options — one of which it took by trading down from No. 3 to No. 6, adding two second-rounders. If NC State pass rusher Bradley Chubb falls to No. 6, he would likely be a no-brainer. Notre Dame guard Quinten Nelson appears to be one of the can’t-miss prospects in this year’s draft, and would be a safe, if not overly exciting, selection. Saquon Barkley, arguably the best all-around athlete on the board, might fall to No. 6, and would provide Luck with a unique playmaker.
Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6, 1st in AFC South, lost to New England in AFC Championship Game)
2017 snapshot: Simply put, the 2017 season was one of the best in Jacksonville Jaguars history. The Jags relied on one of the NFL’s top defenses (and a better-than-expected offense), to go 10-6 in the regular season and make the first playoff appearance for the franchise in more than a decade. Close victories over the Bills and Steelers set up a showdown with the New England Patriots with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, but Doug Marrone’s squad couldn’t hold onto a 10-point fourth-quarter lead on the road and fell 24-20.
Biggest needs: The Jags have already addressed their biggest offseason need with the addition of free agent guard Andrew Norwell, who should help solidify the interior offensive line, and have addressed the departure of wide receiver Allen Robinson in order to give quarterback Blake Bortles options in the passing game. The emergence of Bortles and addition of new backup Cody Kessler means quarterback isn’t a pressing need, though Jacksonville could still target a second-tier signal-caller. That leaves receiver and tight end as the most likely target spots, with offensive line another potential option in the first round.
First-round pick: No. 29 overall
Potential picks: Thanks to their 2017 postseason success, the Jaguars won’t pick until No. 29 overall, and the draft can twist and turn many times by that point. A playmaker like Maryland wideout D.J. Moore or Texas A&M receiver and return man Christian Kirk would be a great addition if available, and premium tight ends such as Mike Gesicki (Penn State), Dallas Goedert (South Dakota State) and Hunter Hurst (South Carolina) also could help offensively. Potential offensive line prospects that could be available at that point include Texas tackle Connor Williams, Notre Dame tackle Mike McGlinchey or UTEP guard Will Hernandez. Depending on how the quarterbacks shake out atop the first round, Jacksonville could select its signal-caller of the future. There has been chatter about 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and record-setting Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph as potential fits.
Tennessee Titans (9-7, 2nd in AFC South, lost to New England in divisional round)
2017 snapshot: The Titans made the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and posted a winning record for the second straight year. Tennessee then quickly dispatched with the favored Kansas City Chiefs on the road in the wild-card game before falling 35-14 in New England in the divisional round. Despite the good showing, the organization couldn’t reach a contract agreement with head coach Mike Mularkey and hired Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel to replace him.
Biggest needs: The Titans posted mediocre statistics both offensively and defensively, ranking No. 23 in the NFL in total offense (314 ypg) and No. 19 in scoring (20.9 ppg), as well as 13th in total defense (328 ypg) and 17th in scoring defense (22.3 ppg). Tennessee struggled most against the pass, though the front office took steps to address that concern in free agency with the addition of former Patriots corner Malcolm Butler. Upgrading the pass rush is now the top priority, and adding an edge rusher in the first round could be the best option at this point. Losing Avery Williamson makes inside linebacker another need, and depth at safety would be nice. Quarterback Marcus Mariota could use additional weapons in the receiving corps. Tennessee went hard after Ndamukong Suh, so adding an interior defensive lineman could also be an option if the right fit comes along.
First-round pick: No. 25 overall
Potential picks: As Vrabel looks to fill out his 3-4 defense, adding a pass-rushing outside linebacker makes the most sense at No. 25. If Boston College edge rusher Harold Landry is available, he would be a great fit. Other options could include Ohio State’s Sam Hubbard, LSU speed rusher Arden Key, Lorenzo Carter from Georgia, or Should the Titans look to add a tight end, they could have their pick of the aforementioned Gesicki, Goedert or Hurst. One dark horse name to watch is Alabama standout Da’Ron Payne, who would be a versatile option along the defensive line.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.