Off-season Primer: AFC South
For the third straight season, the Indianapolis Colts finished with an 11-5 record, making them a rare bastion of consistency in the AFC South, a division that has been severely in flux over the last few years. While the Houston Texans may be just one quarterback away from finding that consistency, the Jacksonville Jaguars are attempting to get their personnel together and the Tennessee Titans are realizing that their personnel is falling apart. For the 2015 season and beyond, the Colts appear to be the only sure thing about this division.
• Free agents of note: Head coach Bill O'Brien has a serious decision to make at the quarterback position -- should he go with Mallett, whose torn pectoral muscle ended a season full of potential, or draft a quarterback? The Texans' secondary was a feast-or-famine entity in 2014 -- Houston allowed 28 touchdown passes, but recovered 34 turnovers, a franchise record. And three of the main men in that secondary -- cornerback Kareem Jackson and safeties Kendrick Lewis and Danieal Manning -- are on the block as free agents. The team certainly hopes to bring Jackson back, as he had an outstanding season, allowing an opponent passer rating of 74.1 and picking off three passes to three touchdowns allowed in 71 targets. Lewis and Manning patrolled the back half adeptly, turning the team's pass defense into a strength after years of relative weakness. After waiting for Reed to develop through his first contract, the Texans enjoyed a good season from him in 2014. Dent is more a replaceable run-plugger.
• Positions in need of improvement: Quarterback is the obvious concern here -- the Texans might have won the relatively weak AFC South with better play at that position. Also, look for Houston to implement an aggressive approach to acquire tight ends through free agency and the draft, as well. Bill O'Brien loves to use tight ends in the passing game, and their need for more has been there since before J.J. Watt's amazing run as a complementary pass-rusher.
• Key free agents: QB Matt Hasselbeck, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, WR Reggie Wayne, WR Hakeem Nicks, G/T Joe Reitz, C/G A.Q. Shipley, DE Fili Moala, DE Cory Redding, OLB Andy Studebaker, CB Darius Butler, CB Josh Gordy, S Mike Adams, S Colt Anderson, S Sergio Brown.
• Free agents of note: Bradshaw is the Colts' best back when healthy, but that isn't often. Perhaps he would take a team-friendly deal to return; his outstanding overall skill set would benefit any team, but again, buyer beware on the injury front. Wayne was affected by elbow and triceps issues in 2014 -- he was still relatively productive, though, and he would like to finish his career in Indianapolis. His veteran acumen will be a big factor as the Colts continue to find legitimate playmakers to complement Andrew Luck and T.Y. Hilton. Butler has been a quality slot corner, and Adams is a good situational playmaker -- they should be retained to maintain Indianapolis' stronger secondary. Redding has been a force on the defensive line, and he's one of the more disruptive hybrid defensive ends in the NFL.
• Positions in need of improvement: Given Indianapolis' issues at running back, it would be wise for them to bring in someone who can be on the field more often. They were hamstrung by the Trent Richardson trade, which may be one of the worst in NFL history, given that Richardson was suspended by the team for various issues just in time for the AFC championship game. They may void his contract and trip an NFLPA grievance, but that trouble might be worth it just to get rid of the problem.
The linebacker position has been inconsistent, and as much as the Colts play nickel, perhaps they could spot the right kind of half-field defender in the draft. Whether Wayne comes back or not, the team needs a reliable and dynamic possession receiver -- second-year man Donte Moncrief might be that guy, but it wouldn't hurt to double down. And there's a definite need for talent and depth on the offensive line, especially given how much Luck throws.
• Free agents of note: Ball is the one player Jacksonville should really work to bring back for the 2015 season and beyond -- he flew under the radar with an outstanding 2014 campaign, allowing a 64.5 opponent passer rating and just 21 receptions and one touchdown on 41 targets. Alualu had a disappointing season; he's a talented player, but it might not be showing in Jacksonville. We'll see what head coach Gus Bradley has in mind for the defensive line. Shorts has been productive, though he was the NFL's lowest-ranked qualifying receiver in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. He could thrive on a team where he doesn't have to be one of the main men.
• Positions in need of improvement: The Jaguars are convinced that Blake Bortles can be their long-term quarterback, but there's aways to go in that department. In the meantime, the team needs an infusion of talent along the offensive line and some serious help at the running back position. Toby Gerhart was signed to a three-year, $10.5 million deal in March 2014 and barely made a dent; he doesn't have the explosiveness to be a top-tier back.
Bradley brought Chris Clemons and Red Bryant from Seattle, but both players are on the downsides of their careers and there is a need for ends who can rush the passer and stop the run alongside tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, who is outstanding. This is a team building up from the studs, and though they're doing fairly well so far, it's a long-term project.
• Key free agents: QB Jake Locker, QB Jordan Palmer, RB Leon Washington, FB Jackie Battle, WR Derek Hagan, WR Nate Washington, TE Chase Coffman, TE Matthew Mulligan, C Eric Olsen, C Chris Spencer, T Michael Roos, T Byron Stingily, T Will Svitek, LB Quinton Groves, DT Karl Klug, LB Colin McCarthy, LB Derrick Morgan, CB Brandon Harris, S George Wilson, P Brett Kern, K Ryan Succop,
• Free agents of note: Locker will certainly leave for greener pastures. Washington could be back as a special teams player, but little more. Roos, who has been great, is considering retirement after missing most of the 2014 season with a knee injury. Washington had a couple of high-quality seasons in Tennessee over a six-year period, but the team can do better. Outside of Morgan, who thrived as a pass-rusher in Ray Horton's defense, and McCarthy, who has a great deal of potential, there aren't a lot of blue-chippers here.
• Positions in need of improvement: The Titans are clearly in the beginning stages of a major rebuilding -- starting with Zach Mettenberger, who the team hopes will be the quarterback of the future. There's need for talent infusions at receiver, along the offensive line, and at outside linebacker if Morgan leaves for free agency, which he probably will. No Titans cornerback gave up an opponent passer rating below 90, and the safety play was equally problematic outside of Wilson, who the team should endeavor to retain.