Tuesday, April 26, 2011

NFL Draft Preview: AFC South

Welcome to the 2011 AFC South draft preview, part three of an eight-installment series looking at each NFL division leading up to this Thursday’s NFL Draft (ESPN, 8 P.M.)

The AFC South was a mediocre division last season, top to bottom. Peyton Manning and the Colts emerged as champions (again) with a 10-6 record, but they lost their aura of invincibility they had had in previous seasons. Jacksonville was wildly inconsistent all season long, finishing with a .500 record but losing by more than 20 points four times while never winning by a margin that large. And both Houston and Tennessee took large steps backward throughout the season, and enter this year’s offseason with a lot of uncertainty. So how will each team approach the draft? Hit the jump to find out.

Houston Texans
2010 Record: 6-10 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 11th, 42nd, 73rd
Team Needs: Tight End, Defensive Tackle, Cornerback, Safety

Houston is a difficult team to figure out. On paper the team is very talented, but every year something different happens to go wrong: one season it’s injuries, the next it’s bad luck. Last year, though, Houston was simply terrible on defense in almost every category, ranking 30th overall (376.9 ypg), and dead last in passing defense (267.5 ypg). When bad pass defense was combined with only 18 turnovers forced on the entire season, it translated to an atrocious 26.7 points allowed per game, good for second-to-last in the entire league.

With the Texans' defensive woes in mind, look for them to look on the defensive side of the ball with the 11th overall pick. Defensive end Mario Williams (8.5 sacks in 14 games) is one of only two irreplaceable players on the Houston defense (MLB DeMeco Ryans, who missed most of 2010 due to injury, is the other), so that should not be a huge position of need. Instead, look for Houston to look in the secondary with their first-round selection. With no safeties being rated even close to a first-round grade, Houston should select the best cornerback available with their pick. LSU's Patrick Peterson should be off the board by this point, but the other top corner, Nebraska’s Prince Amukamara, should still be available. If the Texans don’t trade up for Peterson and both top cornerbacks are off the board before they pick, do not be surprised if Houston decides to trade down or out of the first round altogether.

Indianapolis Colts
2010 Record: 10-6 (Lost in Wild Card Round)
Early Picks: 22nd, 53rd, 87th
Team Needs: Tackle, Guard, Defensive Tackle, Safety

The Colts have a long history of smart drafting under Bill Polian, and they find themselves heading into 2011 the favorite in the AFC South once again. The team is aging, however, especially in the trenches, so Polian must be smart in order to ensure a minimal dropoff as younger players are developed. It is even more important to have good drafts now that Peyton Manning is getting up there in years (he turns 36 next March), so the window of opportunity may not be as wide open for Indianapolis as it has been for the past decade.

Many draft analysts (here, here, and here) have the Colts taking an offensive lineman with the 22nd pick, but there is some slight disagreement over which one they should choose. Franchise tackles are usually harder to find than guards, so if Indy feels comfortable taking a tackle in the first round, they will. Three tackles are projected to go in the mid-to-late first round, so the Colts should be able to find one this year. Some analysts are projecting that they will go with 6-8 Colorado tackle Nate Solder, but Gabe Carimi (Wisconsin) and Derek Sherrod (Mississippi State) could also be options. Solder makes the most sense, given his size , but the Colts really can’t go wrong with any of the three.

Jacksonville Jaguars
2010 Record: 8-8 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 16th, 49th, 80th
Team Needs: Tight End, Defensive End, Linebacker, Safety

Simply put, Jacksonville’s defense was atrocious last season. Their 28th-ranked defense (371.8 ypg, 26.2 ppg) cost the team numerous games, especially considering that the offense had some great individual performances from running back Maurice Jones-Drew and tight end Marcedes Lewis. But Jacksonville’s situation is not that simple. David Garrard has been taking criticism for his quarterback play for years and might be nearing the end of his Jaguars career, and Lewis is a free-agent. I am assuming that Lewis will be re-signed as one of the young cornerstones of the Jaguars’ offense, but the uneasy quarterback situation is forcing Jacksonville to at least consider drafting one early in this draft.

Having said that, look for Jacksonville to target defensive players early in this year’s draft. The Jaguars definitely need secondary help (250 ypg, 28th), but the team’s poor pass defense was more a result of a lack of front-seven pressure than anything else. Jacksonville sacked the quarterback only 26 times in 2010, which is an embarrassing number considering that the Jags’ two top picks in the 2008 draft were defensive ends. As a result, look for Jacksonville to target a defensive end or pass-rushing outside linebacker with the 16th overall pick. Luckily for the Jags, defensive end is the deepest position in the draft, so they should have a number of options available for them by the time their selection rolls around. JJ Watt (Wisconsin), Ryan Kerrigan (Purdue), Da’Quan Bowers (Clemson), and Aldon Smith (Missouri) could all be viable options at 16, so look for Jacksonville to take one from that quartet.

Tennessee Titans
2010 Record: 6-10 (Missed playoffs)
Early Picks: 8th, 39th, 77th
Team Needs: Quarterback, Guard, Middle Linebacker, Cornerback, Defensive Tackle

The Titans are in disarray after a disappointing 2010 campaign. The season started off with a promising 5-2 start, but an abysmal 1-8 finish down the stretch doomed their season. And, to top it all off, Jeff Fisher, the longest-tenured coach in the league, was let go after the season. Newcomer Mike Munchak, who previously served as the Titans' O-line coach for the past 11 seasons, has a difficult rebuilding process ahead of him if he wants to make the Titans contenders again soon. At the very least, Munchak can build his offense around All-Pro running back Chris Johnson (3,370 yds, 28 total TDs over the past two seasons), but that’s where the certainty ends. Embattled quarterback Vince Young is still technically on the roster, but he does not seem to be Tennessee’s quarterback of the future.

On the other side of the ball, the Titans have tons of holes in their linebacker core and secondary. The Tennessee defense was ranked 26th last year, giving up 21.2 points per game. The team desperately lacked a big nose tackle in its 3-4 defense that could effectively clog the middle, so look for the Titans to search for one with the 8th pick. If Nick Fairley (56 tackles, 12 sacks in 2010) from Auburn is available, the Titans might look in his direction. If he’s not, Tennessee could either trade down and take a defensive tackle later on in the draft, or select one from the stable of defensive ends that will be available early on in the first round.

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