Inside the AFC South: Best Offseason Moves
Every Saturday, reporters covering the AFC South teams for SI.com’s NFL community will look at an 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 best offseason move by each team, which include coaching staff changes, a trade and a contract.
The Jacksonville Jaguars made a lot of major moves this offseason, though most came at the expense of overhauling the roster and attempting to reshape the locker room and draft capital moving forward. With that said, there is one addition the Jaguars made which could pay off in a big way early on: hiring Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator.
Just in terms of his experience and track record, Gruden is a massive upgrade at play-caller compared to John DeFilippo, Nate Hackett, Greg Olson, and Jedd Fisch, each of the Jaguars coordinators before him. Gruden has worked extensively with young quarterbacks in the past, helping mold Andy Dalton in his first three seasons in Cincinnati and then aiding Kirk Cousins in his development as a starter in Washington. Minshew has a similar skill set to both of these passers, so realistically Gruden is a good match for what he brings to the table as a passer.
Too often in 2019, Minshew and the Jaguars' offense weren't set up for success. DeFilippo's approach to play-calling simply didn't get the job done, and it was clear Minshew would need a more established coordinator to thrive in his second season. With the Jaguars' entire 2020 relying on Minshew's performance, it was critical for the Jaguars to find a play-caller who could help guide him through the murky waters of the NFL. In Gruden, they did just that.
-- John Shipley, JaguarReport
Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard stepped out of his trade-back-for-more-picks comfort zone when he parted with his first-round selection, 13th overall, to acquire defensive tackle DeForest Buckner from San Francisco in March. Eyebrows raised because the Colts don’t usually make big splashes in free agency and Ballard, in four drafts, has traded back in nine of 12 deals.
What made Buckner the exception? Or as Ballard said of the decision, “a no-brainer.” Turn on the last Super Bowl and watch how the 2019 All-Pro second teamer was throwing around Kansas City Chiefs blockers. Buckner plays the three-technique on the defense line, which is the engine for the Colts’ defense. Lately, that engine has kept running on spare parts. Buckner, who for his 6-7 and 300-pound size is a bit of a freak in his ability to rush the passer and stop the run, more than qualifies as a major upgrade. It’s an entirely new engine.
That’s also why Ballard did something else unusual — he gave Buckner a four-year, $84-million extension. So, this 26-year-old defender is signed through 2024. That means weakside linebacker Darius Leonard, a tackle machine with 284 total stops in two seasons, will get to play more like his “Maniac” nickname because Buckner should keep blockers off his All-Pro teammate.
Why would the 49ers trade Buckner? On a loaded defense with young talent, including 2019 NFL Rookie of the Year defensive end Nick Bosa, general manager John Lynch decided to give defensive tackle Arik Armstead a five-year contract that could reach $85 million. Lynch didn’t think he could afford two lucrative deals, and with Buckner due to get paid in a year on his rookie contract, it made sense for the 49ers to get what they could for him now. Lynch then pulled “a Ballard” by trading back one spot from No. 13 — which basically equated to a later-round pick improving from the seventh round to the fourth — and selected South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw at No. 14.
-- Phillip. B. Wilson, AllColts
The Texans' best move is head coach Bill O'Brien unplugging from the offensive side of the football and turning the keys and play-calling duties to first-year coordinator Tim Kelly. Add in new defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver. The Texans have two new coordinators for the first time during the O'Brien Era.
It will only be the second time during O'Brien's tenure that he will not call plays. The last time was during the 2015 season. The change will allow O'Brien to be a head coach and keep a pulse on the team by letting his coordinators and position coaches do their jobs with the players.
Last season, there were times when O'Brien looked flustered on the sideline dealing with the offense and trying to be a head coach at the same time. Gamedays will be the most significant help for O'Brien, allowing him to monitor the game and steer the ship in terms of game flow with his coordinators.
O'Brien had so much on his plate last season with the start of his general manager duties, head coach, and running the offense, now with him no longer calling plays. It will no doubt help the Texans have a clearer picture when the regular season arrives.
-- Patrick D. Starr, State of the Texans
The Titans had some difficult decisions to make this offseason, including whether or not to get involved in the Tom Brady free agency saga (they did not). Without question, though, their best move was to use the franchise tag to retain running back Derrick Henry.
General manager Jon Robinson chose not to (or did not need to) use a franchise or transition tag in any of his first four years on the job. Henry forced him to do something different because A) Tennessee cannot afford to be without the fifth-year running back and B) no one can say for sure what is his actual value following a season in which he led the NFL rushing (1,540 yards) and was a dominant figure throughout the first two weeks of the postseason.
Henry is atypical of the modern running back because he does not figure prominently in the passing game (57 receptions in four seasons). So, you can’t exactly use Christian McCaffrey, LeVeon Bell or Melvin Gordon for comparison. Ezekiel Elliott is the most similar, but Henry has only performed for the last 20 weeks of regular-season play at the sort of elite level Elliott has for four years.
The tag (the Titans chose the non-exclusive franchise tender) set a price for 2020. Even more important, it did not alienate Henry, who signed the deal in early April. Thus, the move took pressure off all involved, who now have until July 15 to work out a long-term deal or they get another full season to evaluate.
-- David Boclair, AllTitans