INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It remains Priority 1: win the division.
Every move being made by the Indianapolis Colts during this coronavirus-impacted offseason is focused on building a roster capable of recapturing the AFC South for the first time since 2014. The Houston Texans have taken control of the neighborhood, ruling it in four of the last five seasons.
Win the division, and return to the playoffs with a first-round game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Easy, right? Well, not exactly.
“I’ve said it every year, this is a tough division,’’ Chris Ballard said last month at the NFL Scouting Combine.
The AFC South champion has been joined in the playoffs by a divisional wild-card for three straight seasons: the Texans and Tennessee Titans last year, the Texans and Colts in 2018 and Jacksonville and the Titans in ’17.
The AFC’s Final Four in January included Houston and Tennessee, with the Titans reaching the conference championship game with back-to-back road wins before being overwhelmed by the soon-to-be-Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. The 2018 wild-card Colts went into Houston and thrashed the Texans 21-7.
The AFC South combined for a league-best 35-29 record in 2018 and was 32-32 last season and had the distinction of being the only division where every team notched at least six wins.
“Our division is good,’’ Ballard said. “It’s well-coached. We have good GMs and good coaches. It’s fun. Why wouldn’t you want to play in it?
“The one thing you know is you are battled-tested. I think that’s why you are seeing our teams in the division having (playoff) success. They get in. They are battle-tested throughout the year playing each other.
“We are in a great division.’’
That in mind, here’s a look at how the division stacks up after two-plus weeks of free agency and prior to the April 23-25 draft:
What happened: You mean besides Andrew Luck retiring 15 days before the Sept. 8 opener against the Los Angeles Rams? The sudden transition to Jacoby Brissett worked, until it didn’t. Remember the 5-2 start? And the 2-9 finish? The major flashpoints included season-long troubles in the kicking game (Adam Vinatieri missed a career-high 14 FGs/PATs while dealing with injuries to his left knee) and injuries that compromised the passing game.
Brissett sprained the MCL in his left knee week 9 at Pittsburgh and never approached his early efficiency after returning. His completion percentages over the final four games: 52.8, 52.9, 51.9, 48.0. He tossed four TDs in his last nine games. Injuries absolutely decimated Brissett’s options in the passing game. T.Y. Hilton, Devin Funchess, Parris Campbell, Eric Ebron and Chester Rogers combined to miss 49 games. A torn calf muscle resulted in Hilton missing a career-high six games and finishing with 45 receptions and 501 yards, each career lows. He failed to post a 100-yard game for the first time in his eight-year, 118-game career.
Major additions: QB Philip Rivers (1 year, $25 million contract), DT DeForster Buckner (sent 13th overall pick in draft in trade with San Francisco 49ers; signed Buckner to four-year extension worth $21 million annually); DT Sheldon Day (1-year contract, terms unknown), CB Xavier Rhodes (1 year, estimated $5 million with incentives).
Major retentions: OT Anthony Castonzo (2 years, $33 million), OL Le’Raven Clark (1 year, $1.2 million).
Major subtractions: CB Pierre Desir (released), DL Margus Hunt (released), QB Brian Hoyer (released), PK Adam Vinatieri (still unsigned), DE Jabaal Sheard (unsigned), S Clayton Geathers (unsigned), TE Eric Ebron (signed 2-year, $12 million contract with Pittsburgh), OL Joe Haeg (1 year, $2.3 million with Tampa Bay), OL Josh Andrews (1 year with New York Jets), WR Devin Funchess (signed with Green Bay).
Draft picks: 7, including 34th and 44th overall in round 2. Traded 13th overall pick in round 1 to San Francisco for DT DeForest Buckner.
Cap space (per Overthecap.com): $27.9 million, which does not reflect Rhodes and Day signings.
2020 outlook: The moves thus far are a clear indication Ballard continues to be driven by a long-range game plan (Buckner turned 26 March 17 and Day is 25; Rhodes is 29), while believing the roster is capable of contending for a playoff berth in 2020 (Rivers is 38 but an upgrade over Brissett). Rivers has a clear understanding of what coach Frank Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni want to do on offense, but the issue is how quickly he’ll be able to develop anything approaching familiarity with his new teammates with the uncertain offseason that’s ahead. Defensively, teaming Buckner with Justin Houston should greatly increase the overall effectiveness of the pass rush and strengthen the Desir-less secondary. Rhodes is a three-time Pro Bowler who’s coming off a few down seasons despite being a ’19 Pro Bowl alternate. He’s the experienced body needed to replace Desir.
Barring continued slippage in Rivers’ game, the Colts most definitely should be considered a contender in the AFC South. Beyond that? We’re not ready to place them in the Kansas City Chiefs-Baltimore Ravens neighborhood in the AFC.
2019: 10-6. Won AFC South, defeated Buffalo 22-19 in overtime in first round, fell to Kansas City 51-31 in divisional round.
What happened: So much was accomplished, but nothing came easily for Bill O’Brien’s Texans. They walked a tightrope en route to winning the division, posting an 8-3 record in one-score games. They lost to the Colts 30-23 in Indy, then won the rematch in Houston 20-17 after trailing 16-10 in the second half. It was more of the same in the first-round of the playoffs as Houston trailed 16-0 in the third quarter – at home, no less – before coming to life and turning back the Bills in OT on Ka’imi Fairbairn’s 28-yard field goal.
Then, the game that seemed to define these guys. Fairbairn’s 31-yard field goal pushed the Texans into a 24-0 second-quarter lead, silencing the Arrowhead Stadium crowd and seemingly shoving the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs to the brink. One of the biggest collapses in NFL ensued. Incredibly, Kansas City rattled off 41 unanswered points and won going away. It was the fourth-largest comeback in playoff history and the Chiefs became the first team in postseason history to trail by at least 20, then win by 20.
What a ride.
Major additions: RB David Johnson (trade with Arizona), WR Randall Cobb (3-year, $27 million contract).
Major retentions: CB Bradley Roby (3 year, $36 million), K Ka’imi Fairbairn (4 years, $17.65 million), TE Darren Fells (2 years, $7 million), QB A.J. McCarron (1 year, $4 million), OT Roderick Johnson (1 year, $1.75 million), CB Vernon Hargreaves (1-year).
Major subtractions: WR DeAndre Hopkins (traded to Arizona), CB Johnathan Joseph (unsigned), DL D.J. Reader (unsigned).
Draft picks: 8, including 57th overall. Sent first-rounder to Miami as part of deal to obtain LT Laremy Tunsil.
Cap space: $34.9 million.
2020 outlook: We’d love to have been a fly on the wall when QB Deshaun Watson learned his coach/GM decided to ship one of the NFL’s premier wideouts to Arizona. Just like that, the Texans rid themselves of a 27-year old who was a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro. It’s been reported Hopkins’ relationship with O’Brien was hardly cordial, and that was exacerbated by Hopkins’ desire for an extension that would have paid him between $18-20 million per season. O’Brien’s response: enjoy Arizona.
Houston still possesses several game-wreckers, including Watson, J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. But replacing everything Hopkins brought to the offense is going to be difficult.
One thing to keep in mind: the NFL remains a QB-driven league. As long as Watson is under center, the Texans are a threat.
2019: 9-7. Earned AFC wild-card spot. Upset New England in Foxboro in first-round 20-13 and followed with 28-12 domination of the Ravens in Baltimore before falling to Chiefs 35-24 in Arrowhead in AFC title game.
What happened: Marcus Mariota stumbled out of the gate, Ryan Tannehill took over and the Titans took off. They earned their second playoff berth in three seasons with a fourth consecutive 9-7 record. The move from Mariota, the 2nd overall pick in 2015, to Tannehill, the former Miami 1st-rounder acquired in a March 2020 trade, can’t be overstated. Tannehill gave the Titans offensive efficiency and productivity, and balance with RB Derrick Henry. He led the team to seven wins in his 10 starts by averaging 259.8 passing yards per game with 22 TDs, five interceptions and a 119.6 rating. He was named NFL Comebacker Player of the Year and earned his first Pro Bowl selection.
Henry, meanwhile, was an absolute beast. He led the NFL with a career-high 1,540 yards and 16 rushing TDs. He was a 6-3, 247-pound battering ram in the playoffs, rushing for 446 yards (5.4 yards per attempt) and two TDs.
Major additions: LB Vic Beasley (1 year, $9.5 million).
Major retentions: QB Ryan Tannehill (4 years, $118 million with $62 million guaranteed), RB Derrick Henry (franchise tag at $10.728 million), OT Dennis Kelly (3 years, $21 million).
Major subtractions: QB Marcus Mariota (traded to Raiders), OT Jack Conklin (signed 3-year, $42 million contract with Cleveland), DT Jurrell Casey (traded to Denver), CB Logan Ryan (unsigned), DE Cameron Wake (unsigned), TE Delanie Walker (unsigned), RB Dion Lewis (signed with New York Giants), WR Tajae Sharpe (1 year with Minnesota).
Draft picks: 6, including 29th overall.
Cap space: $24.5 million.
2020 outlook: Losing Casey and Conklin hurt. Casey has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last five seasons while Conklin, the 8th overall pick in 2016, had started 57 of 64 games at right tackle.
It was imperative to re-sign Tannehill, although we’re going to be one of those watching to see if 2019 was an aberration or verification all he needed was a change of scenery to emerge as a top-tier QB. Expectations and pressure go through the roof with a $118 million contract. Getting Tannehill’s extension finished allowed the Titans to retain Henry with the franchise tag. Good decision. As long as he holds up, Tennessee represents a balanced threat.
The Titans last won the AFC South in 2008, but should be in the thick of things this season with the Texans and Colts.
What happened: Initially, the Nick Foles Investment blew up in the Jaguars’ face. They signed the free-agent quarterback to a four-year, $88 million last offseason with $50 million guaranteed. He completed 5-of-8 passes for 75 yards and one TD in the first quarter of the opener against Kansas City before suffering a broken clavicle. He was replaced by undrafted rookie Gardner Minshew II, who showed flashes before Foles returned in week 11. Foles was ineffective in a three-game stretch, again yielding the offense to Minshew.
Inconsistency at QB was compounded by an unreliable and dysfunctional defense. The Jags ranked 4th with 47 sacks, but 24th in yards allowed (375.4) and 21st in points (24.8). The defense gave up at least 33 points five times. RB Leonard Fournette finished 7th in the league in rushing with 1,152 yards, but did anyone notice?
What folks did notice was the Jaguars trading two-time Pro Bowl CB Jalen Ramsey to the Los Angeles Rams in mid-October for a pair of first-round picks and a second-rounder.
Major additions: LB Joe Schobert (5 years, $53.75 million), CB Darqueze Dennard (3 years, $13.5 million).
Major retentions: DE Yannick Ngakoue (franchise tag, $17.78 million).
Major subtractions: DE Calais Campbell (traded to Baltimore), CB A.J. Bouye (traded to Denver), DL Marcell Dareus (unsigned)
Draft picks: 12, including 9th and 20th overall in round 1.
Cap space: $20.1 million.
2020 outlook: Can you say reboot? For what seems like the umpteenth time, the Jaguars are in rebuild mode. Does anyone remember they had the Patriots flat beat in the 2017 AFC Championship game at Foxboro – a 20-10 lead with 9 minutes to play – before fading and losing 24-20?
They began jettisoning high-profile players during last season, sending CB Jalen Ramsey to the Rams for a pair of first-round picks and a second-rounder. Recently, the Jaguars admitted they made a mistake with Foles, trading him to Chicago for a fourth-round pick. They also shipped five-time Pro Bowl d-lineman Calais Campbell to Baltimore for a fifth-round pick and Pro Bowl CB A.J. Bouye to Denver for a fourth-rounder.
And then there’s the lingering issue with Yannick Ngakoue. The 2016 third-round draft has spurned extension efforts by the team and made it clear he wants out of Jacksonville. Management maintained control of the situation by tagging him, but the only sensible outcome is a trade. He’s just 24 and has piled up 37.5 sacks in 63 games. Oh, and he’s looking to hit the lottery with his next contract; think $20-21 million per year.
The season might at least be entertaining with Minshew under center. No one knows if he’s a viable QB-of-the-future candidate, but he’s fun to watch. In 12 starts as rookie, he led the Jaguars to a 6-6 record with 21 TDs and just six interceptions.
By the way, the decision to cut ties with Foles ($18.75 million), Campbell ($2.5 million), Bouye ($4 million) and DT Marcell Dareus ($2.5 million) cost the Jaguars more than $27 million in dead money against the salary cap.
For history buffs, Jacksonville is coming off its eighth double-digit loss season in the past nine years.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.