The AFC South was a mixed bag in 2013. The Indianapolis Colts
won the division with an 11-5 mark, though there were times they looked anything but dominant. The Tennessee Titans
finished second at 7-9, and they looked as uneven as that record would imply. The Jacksonville Jaguars
doubled their win total from the year before -- sadly, that gave then just four victories on the season. And the Houston Texans
bottomed out after years of relative success with a 2-14 mark that nobody expected.
Going into 2014, it's not a lock that any one of these teams will be world-beaters, but the chase for a division crown will start with free agency. To that end, here's where each of the South's four teams stand.
• Key free agents: RB Ben Tate, TE Garrett Graham, OT Ryan Harris, OG Wade Smith, DE Antonio Smith, LB Joe Mays
• Players Houston needs back: Graham, Harris, A. Smith, Mays
Graham had a career year in 2013, and he was one of Houston's few pleasant surprises. He should be a relatively easy and low-cost re-signing. Harris is a bit on the bubble from a performance perspective, but his ability to play both tackle spots with reasonable aplomb makes him a valuable cog in a line in need of rejiggering. Smith had another strong season and should be a priority, even at age 32. Given the uncertainty about Brian Cushing's future from a medical perspective, and Mays' ability to play against the run, the Texans should seriously consider bringing Antonio Smith back as a rotational player.
• Players Houston should let walk: Tate, W. Smith
Tate has said that he may be done with the Texans, and that feeling might not transcend a coaching change. He wants a chance to be an NFL starting running back with corresponding money, and he's earned that shot. Smith is part of a line that used to be great and that now needs reinforcements at more than one position. His performance downturn was one of the starkest in a season full of disappointments for the franchise.
• Outlook: The Texans have already made a lot of changes this offseason after a monstrously disappointing 2013 campaign, and more are coming, to be sure. Quarterback Matt Schaub is almost certainly out the door, which will free up some necessary cap space and allow a place for the next franchise QB. But those pundits automatically assuming the 2014 Texans will slide into a worst-to-first story as the 2013 Chiefs did may not be seeing the entire picture -- there are issues along the offensive line and in certain defensive spots. It may be more realistic to assume that this team will push back to .500 in Bill O'Brien's first year.
• Key free agents: RB Ahmad Bradshaw, RB Donald Brown, WR Deion Branch, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, OL Jeff Linkenbach, OL Mike McGlynn, DT Aubrayo Franklin, DT Fili Moala, LB Pat Angerer, CB Vontae Davis, CB Cassius Vaughn, K Adam Vinatieri, P Pat McAfee
• Players Indianapolis needs back: Brown, Franklin, Angerer, Davis, Vinatieri, McAfee
Unless the Colts continue to see something in Trent Richardson that the rest of us don't, Brown should be brought back as insurance for an offense that can't handle too many more of Richardson's one-yard gallops. The Colts will probably make him a reasonable offer, and then take a chance on Bradshaw's durability issues if Brown balks. Franklin is a good rotational player, while Angerer played hurt through most of the 2013 season, and his performance was not entirely reflective of his talent. Vinatieri and McAfee give the franchise worry-free performances, which helps a lot -- because general manager Ryan Grigson is going to have a very busy offseason.
• Players Indianapolis should let walk: Bradshaw, Branch, Heyward-Bey, Linkenbach, McGlynn, Moala, Vaughn
Bradshaw can be valuable if healthy, but it's also quite possible Grigson can do better in the draft. Branch is roster spackle at this point, and while Heyward-Bey shows flashes of productivity, his inability to catch the ball consistently and grasp advanced route concepts doesn't really work in this offense. Linkenbach and McGlynn personify an offensive line that frequently played well below league average through large stretches of the season.
• Outlook: The Colts went 11-5 and made the playoffs in each of Grigson's first two seasons, but the pressure's now on. Roster attrition at certain positions, combined with a horrid Richardson trade that will deprive the franchise of its first-round pick in 2014... well, that's going to make things more difficult. On the plus side, Grigson has shown an enviable knack at picking late-round and undrafted gems, and Indy will have more than $30 million in cap space to use.
BURKE: Potential salary cap casualties
-Drew's time in Jacksonville might finally be coming to an end. (Michael Conroy/AP)
• Key free agents: QB Chad Henne, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, TE Clay Harbor, CB Will Blackmon
• Players Jacksonville needs back: Henne, Harbor, Blackmon
Henne beat out Blaine Gabbert for the starting job last season, and while that's not exactly long division to do, he'll be a great backup and help to whichever franchise quarterback the Jags take in 2014. Harbor is a good possession player, while Blackmon was one of the more underrated pass defenders in the league in 2013.
• Players Jacksonville should let walk: Jones-Drew
It's time for this dance to end. Jones-Drew and the Jags have been going back and forth for a good long time about his long-term future. While the previous front office was incorrect in assuming he didn't deserve a rich deal, there may very well be too much tread on the tires at this point.
• Outlook: The Jags' current front office is one of the smarter and more positive ones in the league, at least on paper. This is the year in which they must take major strides forward. With nearly $50 million in cap space (only the Raiders have more) and a system in which the front office and coaching staff are simpatico, there will be fewer and fewer rebuilding excuses as time goes on. General manager Dave Caldwell seems to get it, and head coach Gus Bradley is a very smart guy. But now, and especially in a division where there isn't one clearly dominant team, it's time for the one without a winning season since 2007 to make some stronger statements.
• Key free agents: WR Kenny Britt, WR Damian Williams, CB Alterraun Verner, S Bernard Pollard
• Players Tennessee needs back: Williams, Verner, Pollard
Williams is developing into a fine second receiver -- someone Jake Locker (or Tennessee's future quarterback du jour) can trust. Verner is a huge priority -- there were times last season when he played very much like the best cornerback in the NFL, and he may not have hit his ceiling just yet. Pollard is a tough, wily veteran who had a great season in 2013.
• Players Tennessee should let walk: Britt
It's pretty obvious that Britt won't be back, as he had another inconsistent season and responded to healthy scratches by blasting the team for having a "double standard." It will be interesting to see how much interest there is on the open market for a player with some talent, but with a great deal of development needed. Some in the league believe that Britt will never really get it.
• Outlook: It remains to be seen what effect the Titans' offseason front office shakeup will have on the field, but in new head coach Ken Whisenhunt, there's at least a guy with a proven ability to bring out the best in quarterbacks. And at this point, the Titans will only go as far as Jake Locker -- a healthy Jake Locker with some of his inconsistency issues put to bed -- will take them.
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