2021 NFL Offseason Outlook: AFC South

2020 Recap

The AFC South sent two teams to the playoffs in 2020, the Titans (11-5) and Colts (11-5), who battled it out for the top spot in the division all season long. The Texans (4-12) and Jaguars (1-15), meanwhile, were among the worst teams in the NFL last season. Houston has tons of problems at the moment and will find it very difficult to field a competitive team next season. Jacksonville, on the other hand, has a boatload of draft picks, including the #1 overall selection and the most cap space in the NFL. New head coach Urban Meyer will be gifted with a rejuvenated roster, especially with how valuable cap space is this offseason.

Tennessee TitansTennessee Titans

Current Cap Space: -$2.19 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, DT DaQuan Jones, WR Corey Davis, OT Ty Sambrailo, TE Jonnu Smith, WR Khalif Raymond, CB Desmond King, LB Jayon Brown

Biggest Team Needs: EDGE, IDL, WR, CB, IOL, TE, IDL

2021 Draft Picks: #22 (R1), #53 (R2), #85 (R3), #116 (R4), #149 (R5), #160 (R6), #189 (R6)

Analysis: The last offseason for the Titans featured big extensions for quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry, and those players responded with huge seasons in 2020. Henry led the league in rushing for the second straight season, while Tannehill threw for 33 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions. A.J. Brown has been phenomenal through his first two seasons in the NFL as he has over 2,000 yards and 19 touchdowns in 30 career games. This group rivals any trio of QB-RB-WR in the NFL. Corey Davis is a free agent after a career-best season in which he caught 65 passes for 984 yards and 5 touchdowns through 14 games. PFF projected his contract at 4 years and $65 million, which would be difficult for the Titans to afford. Jonnu Smith is also a free agent with a projected 4-year, $38 million deal by PFF. If Davis or Smith are not resigned, the Titans will need to look for cheaper wide receivers to sign in free agency or dip into a talented pool of pass-catchers on Day 2 of the draft.

Taylor Lewan’s expected return from a torn ACL will make this offensive line whole again, and the rest of the line had a very strong 2020 season. Lewan will join Rodger Saffold, Ben Jones, Nate Davis, and Dennis Kelly in an offensive line with impressive consistency. That level of continuity makes life much easier on Tannehill and Henry. The Titans do head into this season without former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, the new head coach of the Atlanta Falcons. Todd Downing will replace Smith as the offensive coordinator, and Shane Bowen will be the new defensive coordinator after the team did not employ one last season. Bowen will have a lot of work to do with the team’s defense after they allowed the eighth-most points per game in the NFL last season.

The front seven is littered with upcoming free agents, with Jadeveon Clowney, DaQuan Jones, and Jayon Brown all likely garnering sizable contracts in free agency. The Titans’ pass rush was virtually nonexistent for most of last season, so the loss of Clowney would be tough to swallow as the best edge rusher on the team. At cornerback, there are some key decisions to be made. Desmond King, a player the Titans, acquired via trade last season, is a free agent. Meanwhile, Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler are not guaranteed to be on the roster next season. Tennessee can save $10.2 million against the cap by cutting either Butler or Jackson and can save $20.4 million by cutting both of them. The Titans’ pass defense wasn’t well last season, and a complete overhaul of the secondary might be in the cards. The entire defense can’t be remade in one offseason, but it would be surprising to see Tennessee not use their first-round pick on a defensive player.

First-Round Pick Targets: EDGE Kwity Paye, CB Caleb Farley, LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, CB Jaycee Horn, DT Christian Barmore, EDGE Azeez Ojulari, LB Zaven Collins

Free Agency Targets: LB Lavonte David, S Marcus Williams, CB Jason Verrett, CB Shaquil Griffin, CB Brian Poole, EDGE J.J. Watt, EDGE Carl Lawson, LB K.J. Wright

Indianapolis ColtsIndianpolis Colts

Current Cap Space: $43.63 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: WR T.Y. Hilton, EDGE Justin Houston, EDGE Denico Autry, S Malik Hooker, QB Jacoby Brissett, CB Xavier Rhodes, OT Le’Raven Clark, S Tavon Wilson, RB Marlon Mack, WR Zach Pascal (RFA), TE Mo Alie-Cox (ERFA)

Biggest Team Needs: OT, CB, EDGE, WR, IDL, IOL, QB, LB, TE

2021 Draft Picks: #21 (R1), #54 (R2), #117 (R4), #148 (R5), #180 (R6), #211 (R7)

Analysis: The Colts come into this offseason with a unique convergence of factors impacting their decision-making. After Philip Rivers’ retirement last month, Indianapolis took advantage of a weakened trade market for Carson Wentz and reunited the former Eagle with Frank Reich. I have no doubt that Wentz will improve in his new surroundings, but the Colts have some work to do in order to fully support his improved play. Anthony Costanzo’s surprising retirement leaves the Colts with a major hole at left tackle, and they should be major players for high-value free agents at the position – Trent Williams, Taylor Moton, and Daryl Williams. Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski, and Braden Smith all return as starters. The rest of the offensive line is set, but left tackle is arguably the most important position on the line, and it’s a major question mark for the Colts as things currently stand.

Indianapolis could also stand to add some pass-catching talent for Carson Wentz. T.Y. Hilton is a free agent, and the Colts would like to bring him back, but he might command a significant contract from a team more willing to shell out money. The fact that Indianapolis hasn’t already agreed to an extension with Hilton isn’t a great sign for his long-term position with the team. Parris Campbell will hopefully return from his MCL/PCL injury to provide some juice, and Michael Pittman Jr. and Zach Pascal have proven to be reliable. Jack Doyle and Trey Burton also likely make Mo Alie-Cox expendable. However, Indianapolis would benefit from adding another dynamic pass-catcher. The team’s run game is among the best in the NFL, and Jonathan Taylor should be set for a huge season behind a strong offensive line.

The Colts also need to address their edge position where both Justin Houston and Denico Autry become free agents. Neither player was particularly great last season, and there are fine replacements in-house with Al-Quadin Muhammad and Kemeko Turay. However, this was going to be a position to address irrespective of the team’s free agents. Shaquil Barrett and Carl Lawson could be worthwhile targets for big-money contracts. Indy’s secondary is also a question mark with the upcoming free agencies of cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Malik Hooker. Rhodes has been inconsistent thus far in his career but had a very strong 2020 and should be brought back. Hooker is a different story, and his underwhelming production will likely leave him fairly expendable. The Colts have plenty of cap space to address their defense, and there will be a handful of intriguing options available for them in the draft.

First-Round Pick Targets: CB Jaycee Horn, EDGE Azeez Ojulari, OT Christian Darrisaw, WR Kadarius Toney, WR Rashod Bateman, OT Samuel Cosmi, EDGE Jaelan Phillips

Free Agency Targets: OT Trent Williams, S Marcus Williams, S Marcus Maye, OT Taylor Moton, OT Daryl Williams, CB Richard Sherman, EDGE Shaquil Barrett, EDGE Carl Lawson, EDGE J.J. Watt

Houston TexansHouston Texans

Current Cap Space: $5.89 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: WR Will Fuller V, EDGE J.J. Watt, LB Brennan Scarlett, CB Gareon Conley, CB Vernon Hargreaves

Biggest Team Needs: OT, IOL, WR, EDGE, IDL, LB, CB, S, QB, RB

2021 Draft Picks: #67 (R3), #99 (R4), #112 (R4), #130 (R5), #163 (R6), #176 (R6), #186 (R6), #193 (R7)

Analysis: Nick Caseiro has an unenviable amount of work to do in his first year as the Texans’ general manager. The first order of business needs to be the future of Deshaun Watson with the team after he has made it clear that he wants to be traded. There will undoubtedly be a strong market for the superstar quarterback, and a draft haul isn’t the worst proposition if Watson is determined to play for a different team. Those picks would be all-the-more important since the Texans have no first or second-round picks this year and have a roster in need of major rebuilding. Will Fuller V is the team’s highest-profile free agent, and while the Texans will do their best to resign him, it wouldn’t be shocking if he doesn’t want to continue to play for this team. The rest of the Texans’ offense outside of Watson and Fuller is a bit of a mess. Brandin Cooks had a strong 2020, but Houston can save $12 million against the cap by releasing him prior to June 1.

Houston’s offensive line is also a mess at the moment and is one of the worst units in football. Laremy Tunsil is the best player on the line at left tackle, but it’s hard to be convinced it was worth trading away a first-round pick to acquire him. Max Scharping, Nick Martin, Zach Fulton, and Tytus Howard will likely return as starters, but none should be seen as high-level options. A complete lack of a run game hurt Houston last season, as did Watson continuing to be sacked at an alarming rate. If the Texans want to get back to the playoffs in 2021, they have to get better play out of their offensive line. A release of David Johnson can save the Texans $6.4 million, and a release of Duke Johnson can save $5.1 million, so the team may look for a more cost-effective option to lead the running game.

Defensively, the Texans have little to hang their hat on. They allowed the fifth-most points per game last season, and it’s hard to imagine that quickly improving. The defensive line has little power, especially with J.J. Watt out the door. Brennan Scarlett isn’t a high-priority resigning at linebacker with Whitney Mercilus, Zach Cunningham, and Bernardrick McKinney already at the position. The secondary also needs an overhaul, and the potential departures of Gareon Conley and Vernon Hargreaves are significant. Bradley Roby can be released for $8 million in cap savings, but activity at cornerback will be vital to improving this roster. The Texans could also use more in the way of pass-rushing talent as well as a boost to their run defense. Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, but this roster is not built to support him, and it’s impossible for any quarterback to win with minimal offensive line protection and a defense that constantly puts the team behind the eight ball.

First-Round Pick Targets: N/A

Free Agency Targets: S Malik Hooker, RB Marlon Mack, OT Taylor Moton, OT Daryl Williams, CB Nickell Robey-Coleman, CB Ronald Darby

Jacksonville JaguarsJacksonville Jaguars

Current Cap Space: $77.55 million (as of 2/21)

Top Free Agents: CB D.J. Hayden, TE Tyler Eifert, IDL Abry Jones, WR Keelan Cole, WR Chris Conley, OT Cam Robinson, TE James O’Shaughnessy, DE Adam Gotsis, CB Tre Herndon

Biggest Team Needs: QB, OT, WR, IDL, CB, TE, S, EDGE, RB, IOL, LB

2021 Draft Picks: #1 (R1), #25 (R1), #33 (R2), #45 (R2), #65 (R3), #96 (R4), #120 (R4), #128 (R5), #153 (R5), #191 (R7), #212 (R7)

Analysis: The Jaguars have a ton to work with this offseason. Armed with the most cap space in the NFL and four draft picks in the first two rounds, this roster will undoubtedly look very different from what we’ve seen more recently. Jacksonville is a near-lock to draft Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick after finishing last season with just one win. Lawrence will bring some much-needed explosiveness and drive to the team’s passing game, but he’ll need help. Keelan Cole, Chris Conley, Tyler Eifert, and James O’Shaughnessy were all contributing pass-catchers last season, but all are free agents. Jacksonville will look to add some juice to the pass-catching game beyond D.J. Chark, and Laviska Shenault Jr. James Robinson remains the top running back after an impressive season as an undrafted rookie, and he’ll be a big part of Urban Meyer’s offense.

There are a handful of high-level offensive linemen available in free agency, and the Jaguars may look to improve that part of their team. Left tackle Cam Robinson becomes a free agent this offseason, and it’s unclear if Jacksonville will be committed to bringing him back. Spotrac projected his market value at 4 years, $45 million. The Jaguars have the money to bring him back, but it remains to be seen how he factors into their long-term plans. Brandon Linder is a mainstay at center, and the duo of Andrew Norwell and A.J. Cann is solid if unspectacular, so the interior offensive line is solid. Jawaan Taylor could be improved upon on the right side, and Robinson may not be back next season, so Jacksonville will need to address the offensive tackle position.

Tre Herndon and D.J. Hayden were major contributors at cornerback last season, and both players become free agents. However, neither player was very well last year, and it’s unlikely that they will return as starters. Last year’s first-round pick C.J. Henderson is locked in as the team’s top cornerback. Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson also provide a young, talented edge-rushing tandem. Myles Jack and Joe Schobert give the defense a steady presence at linebacker. The interior of the defensive line could be improved, and the secondary needs some work, but this defense isn’t as far away as their collective play last season would suggest. Jacksonville can pursue high-priced safeties in Justin Simmons, Anthony Harris, or Marcus Williams, or they can add a dominant wide receiver for Trevor Lawrence in Allen Robinson or Chris Godwin. With a boatload of cap space at their disposal, the Jaguars can also outbid other teams on a number of mid-priced players to rebuild their depth chart across the board. Whichever direction the team takes, they should be very interesting to watch this offseason.

First-Round Pick Targets: QB Trevor Lawrence, EDGE Azeez Ojulari, LB Zaven Collins, WR Rashod Bateman, OT Samuel Cosmi

Free Agency Targets: OG Kelvin Beachum, EDGE Aldon Smith, TE Jonnu Smith, S John Johnson III, CB William Jackson III

I've been writing about sports for Lineups since the beginning of 2020 and on my own website since 2018. In May 2021, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in sport management. With my educational background in the sports business and a strong knowledge of the inner workings of professional and collegiate sports, I hope to tell enthralling stories about the world of sports as it unfolds around me.

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