Inside the AFC South: Free Agents Likely to Get Paid
Every Saturday, reporters covering the AFC South teams for SI.com’s NFL community will weigh in on one aspect of the division as it relates to each of the franchises, the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans.
This week we look at players in contract years who are playing well enough to be rewarded with a big deal next offseason.
The Titans have a host of players, including some notable names, in contract years, which means Jayon Brown is not the first one who comes to mind. Don’t expect the inside linebacker to last long on the open market, however, assuming he gets there.
Brown was fifth-round pick in 2017 largely due to his speed, and the expectation was that he would play in sub packages as someone who could run with tight ends and running backs. He has become much more than that.
Five games into this season, he is the Titans’ leading tackler with 35 stops. That puts him on pace for his third straight season with more than 100. He also has forced one fumble, broken up two passes and made three tackles for loss.
Over the past three seasons, coaches have tried to put Brown’s speed to use in a number of ways – and he has done well at all of them. In 2018, he showed a knack for the blitz and registered six sacks and 18 quarterback pressures. He was a part-time starter early that year and made 11 tackles in each of the first two times, and by the end of 2018 he was an every-down player on the defense.
Two other 2017 draft picks, wide receiver Corey Davis (first round) and tight end Jonnu Smith (third round), as well as guys like outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney and veteran nose tackle DaQuan Jones all will garner plenty of attention as free agents. Brown, though, looks like a guy who can fit in with any team regardless of its scheme, and he is the right age to warrant a long-term, big-money deal. Expect him to cash in in a way none of the others do.
-- David Boclair, AllTitans
The Texans have plenty of players on both sides of the ball who are in contract years. That said, Will Fuller has emerged at the top of that list fairly quickly and established himself as a player who, if he remains healthy, is a guy that they simply can’t afford to lose.
Following the DeAndre Hopkins trade to Arizona, Deshaun Watson’s top weapon and most reliable playmaker was suddenly gone. Fuller, while obviously not Hopkins, has done his best to replace that production, and has been one of the top receivers in the NFL through the first few weeks.
In fact, to this point at least, Fuller has been a top 10 receiver in terms of production, catching 28 passes on 41 targets for 455 yards, and four touchdowns, with a catch percentage of 68.3-percent, and 11.1 yards per target, with just one drop.
The one knock on Fuller to this point has undoubtedly been his ability to stay healthy and stay on the field. In his five-year career, Fuller never has played all 16 games, missing two his rookie season, six in his second year, nine in his third year, and five games last season. So far in 2020, however, Fuller is six for six and will look to stay that way through the rest of the year.
Fuller is currently set to take home $10.16 million and $9.4 million guaranteed, and if he proves that he can stay healthy, and stays on pace to break all of his personal bests statistically, the Texans would be hard-pressed not to sign him to a new long-term deal.
-- Matthew Galatzan, Texans Daily
The Colts locked up Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly with a $50-million extension to address the No. 1 priority among players entering contract years.
Most of his teammates looking to get paid after this season haven’t fared well. Safety Malik Hooker and running back Marlon Mack suffered season-ending Achilles tendon tears. Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton has yet to have one breakout game, which doesn’t bode well for negotiations.
Two players signed to one-year prove-it deals have provided mixed results. Quarterback Philip Rivers has completed a high percentage of passes, but he’s also thrown some bad interceptions. He has seven TD passes and six interceptions, one returned for a touchdown.
But cornerback Xavier Rhodes has steadily improved after allowing a game-winning TD pass in the season opener at Jacksonville. Pro Football Focus lists Rhodes third among cornerbacks with the best passer rating allowed. One of his two interceptions was returned for a touchdown.
The Colts paid Rhodes $3 million with the hope that he could regain past form as a 2017 All-Pro shutdown cornerback. He’s being asked to read quarterbacks more than just receivers, and except for a couple of hiccups on big plays allowed, he’s been effective more often than not. The way he’s playing now, it won’t be a surprise if the Colts move him up the priority list of players looking to get new contracts in the offseason.
-- Phillip B. Wilson, AllColts
Entering the 2020 season (at least once Leonard Fournette was released), there were just a few players entering contract seasons for the Jaguars. Receivers Keelan Cole and Chris Conley are notable names, while receiver Dede Westbrook and defensive end Dawuane Smoot are depth players who will likely play elsewhere (or on a small deal in the case of Smoot).
But through six weeks, none have been Jacksonville's best contract-year player. Instead, that honor goes to left tackle Cam Robinson, who is quickly flipping the narrative on his career after injuries plagued him for the last two seasons.
A second-round selection in 2017, Robinson started 18 games, including the playoffs, as a rookie left tackle. He suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Year 2, however, and Year 3 was mostly wasted as a result. But in 2020, Robinson has solidified the left tackle position for the Jaguars and has quickly become one of the team's top offensive players.
Robinson won't always make it look pretty, but he has been more than serviceable when protecting Gardner Minshew's blindside. He has to continue to work on his consistency, but he is worthy of a mid-level extension at this point in time. He is improving in pass protection, is a terrific run blocker and is young enough to continue to improve. If the Jaguars don't sign him this offseason, some other team will.
-- John Shipley, JaguarReport