Inside The AFC South: Instant Impact Draft Picks

David Boclair

Every Saturday, reporters covering the AFC South teams for SI.com’s NFL community will weigh 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 the teams’ most important draft pick.

JACKSONVILLE

The Jacksonville Jaguars' most important rookie is far and away cornerback CJ Henderson, who they selected with the No. 9 overall pick in April's draft. Henderson's stock soared throughout the draft process thanks to a dominant performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, and while some were surprised to see him selected in the top-10, the Jaguars opted to prioritize cornerback over wide receiver and offensive tackle.

Following a series of trades since October, the Jaguars' cornerback depth went from among the best in the NFL to maybe the weakest. All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey was traded to the Los Angeles Rams following a nasty divorce from the franchise, while the team traded veteran corner A.J. Bouye to Denver for a 2020 fourth-round pick to free up cap space. With the formerly elite duo no longer in Duval, Jacksonville had nothing but question marks around their cornerback room, with only two players (Tre Herndon, D.J. Hayden) having extensive experience.

Henderson will now be tasked with being the Jaguars' top cornerback and learning the ins and outs of the NFL without an abundance of veterans around him. As a rookie, the Jaguars utilized Ramsey to follow No. 1 wideouts even in his NFL infancy, and while Henderson isn't the prospect Ramsey was, it can be expected for the Jaguars to deploy him in the same way. No rookie is more important to the Jaguars' success this year than Henderson, and it could even be argued that there aren't many players in general who are more important.

-- John Shipley, JaguarReport

INDIANAPOLIS

A strong argument could be made for either of the Colts’ second-round selections — wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. or running back Jonathan Taylor — being their best draft pick. The Colts traded their first-round choice to address an important need with the March acquisition of defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, but Pittman and Taylor are also important.

The 6-4 and 223-pound Pittman, drafted at No. 34 overall, is the son of an NFL running back and appears to be pro-ready to become the Colts’ best big pass catcher since Reggie Wayne in 2014. He joins a wide receiving group that is not just thin but injury prone, so this was an obvious need.

Some eyebrows raised when the Colts traded up to get the 5-10 and 226-pound Taylor at No. 41 overall, but it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Leading rusher Marlon Mack is a speed back entering a contract year and has missed eight games in three years due to injuries. Taylor provides power and speed to a rushing offense that ranked seventh last season.

A 24-hour Twitter poll asked which player would have more of an offensive impact in 2020? Taylor received 57 percent of the 356 votes. It makes sense because the run game is that important to the Colts and Taylor is sharing the workload with Mack whereas Pittman will split catches with four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, Zach Pascal and others. That said, for most running backs not named Frank Gore, those who play the position typically take more punishment that can shorten careers. Taylor might very well be the best Colts’ draft choice in 2020, but Pittman could prove to be the better selection should he succeed with more career longevity.

-- Phillip B. Wilson, AllColts

HOUSTON

The Texas was able to come out of the draft with what many analysts felt was a first-round talent in TCU defensive tackle Ross Blacklock (pictured). His college coach TCUs Gary Patterson felt if Blacklock stayed in school for his senior season, he could have been a top-15 selection in the 2021 draft. Patterson also mentioned his "high-ceiling" due to his pass-rush ability and his run-stopping presence in the middle, which makes him a prospect with high-end potential.

The Texans have lacked an inside presence between the tackles to create issues for opposing offenses, and that is what they see in Blacklock. With the exit of D.J. Reader, the Texans feel Blacklock can be more than just a two-down run-stuffer but a complete player to stay on the field for three-downs to collapse to the pocket in passing situations. With the addition of Blacklock, it could help the edge rushers for the Texans, particularly J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus.

There have been thoughts that the Texans will be careful with their rookies during the shortened off-season and take time to get on the field. For Blacklock, defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver sees plenty of snaps available for the rookie defensive tackle to join one of the worst pass-rushing units in the NFL in 2019 and try to improve it.

The Texans feel they have landed a steal with Blacklock's potential not only as a day one contributor but also as a long-term player with the franchise.

-- Patrick Starr, State of the Texans

TENNESSEE

Second-round pick Kristian Fulton is the one guy who must produce for the Titans right out of the gate. If the cornerback out of LSU, considered by many a first-round talent, does not step in as the slot cornerback, the job will fall to 36-year-old free agent addition Johnathan Joseph – and that will be contrary to the offseason plan, which was to get younger and faster on defense.

Tennessee asks a lot of its nickel back. In his two years as a starter at college, Fulton showed the necessary coverage skills and the sort of elite athleticism that should allow him to match up with the receivers he will face in that position. What he must show is that he can time up a blitz properly and tackle effectively, either in the backfield or in space. Those were areas at which Logan Ryan, who was not re-signed, excelled last season.

If first-round pick Isaiah Wilson is not ready to start at right tackle, veteran Dennis Kelly will. Third-round choice Darrynton Evans is a complement – not a challenge – to running back Derrick Henry, and the three Day Three selections will have to carve out roles for themselves. Fulton, on the other hand, does not have luxury of time. Coaches will expect him to develop into an every-down player eventually but that process must include a lot of time on the field, in the slot, this fall.

-- David Boclair, AllTitans

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