The AFC South has bounced back -- sort of.
The division had long been the butt of jokes thanks to the frequent losing ways, off-field dramatics and lackluster postseason performances from its four inhabitants.
But entering 2022, the division has a bit more respect thanks to a string of strong seasons from the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts. The Jacksonville Jaguars are now led by a Super Bowl-winning head coach, while the Houston Texans have an experienced head coach in Lovie Smith.
With the AFC South set to be a tightly-contested battle between its four teams this season, we are going to take a unit-by-unit approach to compare each team and how they stack up for the 2022 season.
For the purpose of context, we are ranking units and players based on how we project they will play in the 2022 season.
Next, we move on to the four general managers commanding each front office in the AFC South. Between Trent Baalke, Jon Robinson, Nick Caserio, and Chris Ballard, who comes out on top?
4) Nick Caserio, Houston Texans
There is no question that Nick Caserio walked into a bad situation in Houston. The team was reeling from the end of the dysfunctional Bill O'Brien era, Jack Easterby's odd presence was still impactful and the team was set to trade its franchise quarterback. Still, we now have two offseasons of work to base Caserio's job performance on thus far, and so far he and the Texans haven't made many moves to suggest they will crawl back to contending anytime soon.
Houston spent money on low-tier free agents during both the 2021 and 2022 free agency periods, signing dozens of players but mostly signing players who wouldn't start on playoff-caliber teams. He worked with limited asserts in the 2021 draft but Davis Mills, Nico Collins and Brevin Jordan could turn out to be useful players, albeit not game-changers. Then in 2022, he reached in the first-round for Kenyon Green at No. 15 and made a risky move selecting John Metchnie at No. 44. So far, the book on Caserio has been so-so.
3) Trent Baalke, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jaguars general manager Trent Baalke entered this offseason as one of the most embattled general managers in the NFL, which portions of the Jaguars' own fan base and large sections of local media speaking out against his role at the top of the front office hierarchy. Fans pointed to roster mismanagement in free agency and the draft during his two years employed by the team (one year as general manager), while national media pointed to his less-than-sterling reputation among other executives and agents.
Baalke survived the onslaught of reports, though, and is entering his second season as general manager, this time at the side of new head coach Doug Pederson. Baalke is ahead of Caserio on this list for a few reasons. Firstly, his tenure with the 49ers alone is more than anything Caserio has accomplished as a general manager. Secondly, his 2021 draft alone stands out thanks to picks like Tyson Campbell, Andre Cisco and potentially Walker Little and Travis Etienne. Baalke had a lot of draft capital to work with, but he did find impact players.
The negatives to the Baalke tenure have been mismanagement in free agency more than anything else. The Jaguars overpaid for role players in 2021 and signed bottom-tier free agents at every offensive skill position as opposed to building around No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence. And three of Baalke's four non-Lawrence top-33 picks have been used on defense, with Baalke instead looking to make risky moves to bolster the defense as opposed to putting a complete offense around Lawrence.
2) Chris Ballard, Indianapolis Colts
A true media darling among general managers, you will frequently find lists that have Chris Ballard as one of the top general managers in the entire NFL. Ballard has certainly found some success since being hired in 2017 and the retirement of Andrew Luck was a tough card to be dealt. In that span, he has made some stellar moves (drafting Quenton Nelson and Darious Leonard, hiring Frank Reich following the Josh McDaniels fiasco).
But there have also been some non-stellar moves, with few big free-agency splashes, some key misses in the draft and a big swing and miss at Carson Wentz. The Colts are 41-40 under Ballard, which feels just about right for the kind of moves he has made over the last five seasons. The Wentz trade was always a disastrous idea, even if Ballard did get some picks back in return. Until he finds the Colts a quarterback, he will likely be No. 2 here.
1) Jon Robinson, Tennessee Titans
It is ironic to land Jon Robinson No. 1 on this list after some of his comments have landed him in hot water with some seconds of the football community, but the results speak for themselves. In six years with the Titans, Robinson has never seen the Titans finish worse than 9-7, going 59-38 in that span despite having the Colts and Texans both fielding solid teams during the period.
Robinson has made his fair share of mistakes. The Titans look foolish for not paying A.J. Brown, trading for Julio Jones, drafting Isaiah Wilson, and likely will look foolish in the near future for paying Ryan Tannehill. But Robinson has turned the Titans into a solid team at worst and a team capable of taking down the AFC's top teams at best. Until the Titans start losing, he is the best general manager in the AFC South.