Inside the AFC South: The Most Scrutinzed Offseason Moves

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 which offseason roster move will be most scrutinized throughout the 2020 NFL season.

TENNESSEE

The Titans transitioned to a 3-4 base defense in 2014 and with each passing year the desire to see an edge rusher who obliterates blocking schemes and terrifies opposing quarterbacks has intensified.

At the start of the offseason, that position once again loomed as one of their most pressing needs.

The only thing general manager Jon Robinson did to address it was to sign free agent Vic Beasley to a one-year, $3.5 million contract. The 27-year-old Beasley (he will turn 28 next week) did lead the NFL with 15 1/2 sacks in 2016, which earned him Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro recognition. In his other four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons he averaged 5 1/2 sacks and never produced more than eight.

Beasley follows Cameron Wake, a free addition in 2019 who was cut after year one of a two-year contract.

Tennessee will bank on recent draft choices Harold Landry (second round, 2018) and D’Andre Walker (fifth round, 2019) to do more than they have done. Landry did lead the defense with nine sacks last season and had at least one in five straight games, but he had none in the final four weeks of the regular season and just one in the playoffs. Coaches have suggested he would benefit from playing fewer snaps in 2020. Walker spent all of his rookie season on injured reserve.

So, there are possibilities. But everyone is waiting to see if at least one can become the type of pass rusher on which quarterbacks must always keep an eye.

-- David Boclair, AllTitans

HOUSTON

It caused the most fuss this off-season, and the Texans trade of DeAndre Hopkins was and remains one of the most talked-about for the team.

Can the Texans count on Deshaun Watson to distribute the to the open target properly without a bona fide number-one wide receiver? The Texans have made a concerted effort to move the offense into Watson's hands and create a balanced attack with more weapons rather than rely on the mass number of targets to Hopkins that were the norm in recent seasons.

Watson will have to make Brandin Cooks, Kenny Stills, Will Fuller, and Randall Cobb work en masse to replace the dynamic play of Hopkins. If the Texans offense falters, especially when a big play is needed, the trade to the Arizona Cardinals will be poked and prodded even more.

-- Patrick D. Starr, State of the Texans

INDIANAPOLIS

The Colts made two big offseason splashes with the additions of All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and quarterback Philip Rivers, but one looms larger than the other for 2020 because it’s at the most important position.

The decision to sign a 38-year-old Rivers to a one-year, $25-million contract will impact how general manager Chris Ballard prioritizes future decisions. If Rivers can regain Pro Bowl form and be the elite quarterback that head coach Frank Reich envisions, the passer plans to play for at least another year. Rivers has committed to become an Alabama high school coach so he can be a mentor for his two sons, which likely caps his retirement timeline at no more than two or three NFL seasons.

That would buy Ballard time to figure out the franchise’s quarterback for the future. He can position the team accordingly, either in the draft or managing the salary cap to be able to afford the addition of another expensive free agent.

If Rivers proves he isn’t worth further investment, the Colts are looking at not having a quarterback for 2021 unless rookie fourth-round pick Jacob Eason shows more promise than expected. As of now, Eason just making the roster isn’t a given.

The Colts faltered to 7-9 with seven losses in nine games in part because of a passing game that didn’t throw the ball down the field enough with Jacoby Brissett. They needed someone who would take chances, hence, Rivers became a popular alternative, especially when considering the gunslinger has previously thrived with Reich and Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, when they were Chargers assistant coaches.

But Ballard realizes he could be placed in an impossible situation of trying to solve the quarterback problem in 2021. What if he can’t draft the quarterback he covets? What if a seasoned pro that fits isn’t available in free agency?

That’s why Rivers is key, much more than Buckner, who at 26 is entering his prime and should be a long-term defensive cornerstone. The Colts were so sure in what they acquired for the 13th overall draft choice, Ballard gave Buckner a four-year, $84-million extension.

-- Phillip B. Wilson, AllColts

JACKSONVILLE

The most important position in football is the same one the Jaguars have made a potentially franchise-altering move at this season. For 2020, and likely the few years afterward, look for the Jaguars to be defined by their decision to trade quarterback Nick Foles to the Chicago Bears, opening the door for Gardner Minshew II as the opening day started in the fall.

There is no question that Minshew had a better 2020 season than Foles, though context is of course needed. Foles was given significantly fewer opportunities due to a Week 1 injury that sidelined him for eight games, in addition to being benched not even three full games into his return. Minshew was deserving of the job over Foles last season, but the thought for many at the beginning of the offseason was that Foles and Minshew would compete to see who start in 2020.

The Jaguars made their decision long before Week 1, however. They opted to trade Foles to Chicago for a 2020 fourth-round pick (which they'd later use to select backup linebacker Shaquille Quarterman), eliminating any need for a competition.

One can argue it was the right move since Minshew has more upside, but there is merit to the point that Foles, while inconsistent, has proven more throughout his career. All of Jacksonville's bets are on Minshew this year, but in the event he fails, it will likely wondered what the team could've done under Foles' watch.

-- John Shipley, JaguarReport

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