Inside AFC South: Best Free-Agent Fit
Phillip B. Wilson
As training camps begin at NFL facilities, teams can better assess weaknesses and possibly look to add a free agent before the regular season.
The AFC South Division teams have concerns at different positions, be it backup quarterback, safety, edge rusher, or defensive tackle. One of the biggest names still available is defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who is typically linked to the Tennessee Titans. But coach Mike Vrabel’s team also needs a backup quarterback. The Texans need help with an edge rusher, but perhaps they look at other options as opposed to bringing back Clowney, whom they drafted No. 1 overall in 2014 and traded to Seattle in 2019.
The Jacksonville Jaguars could be in the market for a defensive tackle. And the Indianapolis Colts have drafted safeties in back-to-back years, which means youth at the position that could benefit from having an experienced mentor.
Here’s a look at what the editors for the respective Sports Illustrated-powered sites see as possible roster additions.
Patrick D. Starr, State of The Texans
The Texans were not at their best in getting to the quarterback, ranking near the bottom in that category last season. Aside from J.J. Watt, the pass rush didn't have much to be pleased about. With the return of Whitney Mercilus and Jacob Martin, the Texans are comfortable with the current group. Add in rookies Ross Blacklock and Jonathan Greenard, the Texans also see the youth helping out.
But the Texans need help, and an edge presence like Everson Griffen could be what the team is looking for to help the defense. The defense would probably have to shift some defensive personnel to make Griffen work to get him on the edge opposite of Watt, but he could be a needed force for the defense.
With 8.0 sacks last season for the Minnesota Vikings, Griffen's 20-plus quarterback hits in five of the previous six seasons would be a plus for a defense that ranked 26th in sacks in 2019.
Phillip B. Wilson, AllColts
If there’s a weakness on the Colts roster, it’s in the secondary at safety or cornerback. The Colts have a great playmaker in slot cornerback Kenny Moore II, but everyone else has something to prove in 2020.
That’s why it would make sense for Colts general manager Chris Ballard to kick the tires, if nothing else, on free-agent safety Eric Berry. Ballard knows Berry from their time together with the Chiefs. And the Colts’ last line of defense could use an experienced presence. Even if Berry isn’t the five-time Pro Bowl player of the past - he didn't play anywhere last year - he’s just 31 and could be an ideal mentor for youngsters.
It’s possible that Ballard hasn’t taken a look because NFL free agents can’t work out for teams yet. He probably doesn’t want to sign a veteran until that player has shown his skills in a workout. But Berry would address a need.
When Ballard declined to pick up the fifth-year 2021 option on safety Malik Hooker, it put the 2017 first-round pick on notice that he will have to be more consistent this season to earn a new deal after what is now a contract year.
The decision also means the Colts had to address the future of the position, presuming Hooker’s time on the roster is limited. That’s why Ballard used a third-round pick on Utah safety Julian Blackmon. But like with any young player, Blackmon is an unknown, especially since he’s coming off surgery to repair an anterior cruciate ligament tear suffered in his final college game.
The Colts’ other starting safety is second-year pro Khari Willis, a 2019 fourth-round pick who earned his share of snaps as a rookie because of his smarts, but still has a lot to learn.
John Shipley, JaguarReport
One position the Jaguars were strong at entering this week was nose tackle, with a mix of veteran and youthful talent in Al Woods, Abry Jones, and rookie third-rounder DaVon Hamilton. But now, the Jaguars could look to add to the position due to changes on the depth chart.
Woods, 33, announced on Friday that he would be opting out of playing the 2020 season, making him the first Jaguars player to do so. The 11th-year veteran just signed a one-year deal with the Jaguars and was supposed to compete for a starting role at nose tackle. With the loss of Woods, it would make sense for the Jaguars to look for another run-stuffing nose tackle, and one who would make ample sense is Damon “Snacks” Harrison.
Since 2012, Harrison has recorded 11 sacks, 37 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles, all solid numbers for a non-penetrating defensive tackle. Harrison won't get much push in the pocket on third down, but he has a track record for making plays at a position where not many plays are made. Jacksonville simply needs serviceable play at the nose tackle spot, however, and Harrison's track record indicates he could provide that. His play may have dipped some since his peak, but he can still get the job done on early downs.
Jacksonville's nose tackle issues were one of the biggest detriments last season, and Woods was supposed to be a major piece toward fixing that. With him not playing this fall, a player like Harrison is a logical replacement.
David Boclair, AllTitans
Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney remains the most alluring available free agent for the Titans. He is a big name and a big talent, who would make a defense that is already good a bit better.
Where Tennessee really needs help, though, is at backup quarterback, and a player who could provide that assistance is Blake Bortles. He is just 28 years old with plenty of experience as an NFL starter (73 games for Jacksonville from 2014-18).
Granted, his 24-49 record as a starter leaves much to be desired, as does the fact that in the past four seasons he has thrown 57 touchdown passes with 40 interceptions. But his 2,634 career pass attempts are 2,634 more than any quarterback on the Titans roster not named Ryan Tannehill. Plus, Bortles has as much playoff experience and success (three games, two wins) as Tannehill.
If the Titans planned to wait until post-training camp roster cuts and see which veterans were available at that time, they might be disappointed. The number of available candidates could shrink dramatically if the league adopts a “quarantine quarterbacks” policy.
Tennessee got into last season’s playoffs when it finished a game ahead of Pittsburgh, a team that needed 14 starts from two quarterbacks with no prior regular-season appearances after Ben Roethlisberger was injured. That should be reason enough to sign a veteran like Bortles, who spent last year with the L.A. Rams and worked with coach Sean McVay, who has a way with passers.
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.)