As we put the draft in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to look ahead at the AFC South and begin to try to predict how the division will break down in the upcoming season. To do that, we’ll take each position group from each team and pit them against each other, ranking them from worst to best.
To clarify how I’ll be arriving at these rankings, I will be taking various factors into account for each position group. For example, simply having the best running back doesn’t make a group the strongest if they have to run behind a cardboard cutout offensive line. The totality of the situation will be considered before arriving at a ranking.
Bringing up the rear (again) are the Jaguars. They simply don’t have the skill position talent to do much of anything on offense, and poor Nick Foles is going to have to be incredible to get anything out of this group. As a quarterback leaving a system with excellent tight end play, he’ll lead a unit with a pretty bare cupboard.
Their ostensible starter Geoff Swaim is a solid blocking tight end who got his start in Dallas. His career has been marked with injury, and while he has been a valuable blocker, doesn’t offer much in terms of the passing game. If Swaim can stay healthy, he should help them in the run game and in pass protection, but he doesn’t add much if anything in the way of passing threats.
Behind Swaim sits rookie third round pick Josh Oliver. Oliver is an interesting player who gives the Jaguars some speed at the position and a receiving threat. Coming out of San Jose State, it will be critical for him to develop quickly, because they’ll need him. When watching Oliver’s film, what I took away was that he is still very raw. He is tentative on the field as both a blocker and at times coming out of his breaks. He has good hands and speed, but he’ll be dependent upon the coaching staff to bring him along. If they can, he could be a good player given a year or two. This year though? I don’t expect much.
Behind these two are just a bunch of guys. Could someone have a big year? Sure. But there isn’t a lot in terms of track record to build on, and without much in the way of supporting cast, it seems like that would be a stretch to expect.
The Texans could easily be swapped with the Titans here, because neither is a sure thing. The Titans get the nod because they have Walker, and while I like some things the Texans have done, they have their own problems at tight end.
First, starter Ryan Griffin. Griffin is a player who doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence as a starter. His best season as a pro yielded 442 yards and 2 touchdowns. He is a nice balanced tight end and has the ability to contribute, but he is not the kind of player who draws particular attention from the defensive coordinator and he isn’t costing anyone sleep. Oh, and he got arrested for public intoxication a few weeks ago, when he got drunk and punched out a hotel window. So there’s that.
Behind Griffin is promising draft pick Kahale Warring. I really liked Warring in this draft, and actually thought he’d make a nice fit with the Colts. The reason? He’s really raw. Relatively new to football, Warring has excelled in just about every other sport. He is an athletic freak who has all the traits needed to be great, but just needs time and coaching to develop. In a couple years he could be an incredible player, but the jump to the NFL given his relative inexperience might be a tough one. He adds a nice upside to this offense, but it may take time to see that pay off.
2018 6th rounder Jordan Thomas will likely be in the mix for snaps as well this season and certainly provides a size and athletic advantage at the position. Unfortunately, like Warring, he is very unrefined and the Texans will need to see potential converted to production. There are things to like from this group, but too many what-ifs to be rated higher.
Delanie Walker is a very good player, and one of the most underrated tight ends of the last several years. Unfortunately, when this season kicks off, he’ll be 35. Compounding the impact of father time is the fact he’ll be coming off a really nasty leg injury suffered in week 1 last season. Age and injury are a bad mix, and while the receiver room is improved which should take pressure off Walker, it would be a big gamble to expect him to maintain his prior levels of production.
Behind him is Jonnu Smith, another guy working back from injury. Smith tore his ACL last season, which makes the second time that has happened for him with the same knee. That is more than a little concerning. Smith is an adequate blocker, but is really best in a TE2 role as a move tight end. Given his knee issues, this could hamper that production.
What remains are guys like Anthony Firkser, Keith Towbridge, and Cole Wick. The Titans did not address the position in the draft or in free agency, and will have to hope their guys can get healthy and stay that way, or they’ll be in a rough spot at tight end for the 2019 season and forward.
There is a gulf between the Colts and everyone else at the tight end position. The Colts might just have the best tight end tandem in the NFL in 2019. While there are still questions about how this unit will shape up in 2019, there is little question that they will be expected to produce a lot this season.
Eric Ebron had a monster season in 2018, to the tune of 750 yards and 14 touchdowns. Ebron was a red zone weapon like the Colts haven’t had in a while, and Frank Reich repeatedly found ways to get him the ball inside the 20. It seems unlikely to expect him to repeat this performance, because the Colts have added other offensive weapons, but it is almost certain that Reich will continue to capitalize on the matchup advantage Ebron provides in the red zone.
The success of Ebron has caused some weird revisionist history about starter Jack Doyle. I’ve heard many people talk about Doyle as a lesser player because of his rough 2018 season. Doyle was injured most of that time, and unfortunately, his only memorable play from 2018 was when he fumbled the ball against Cincinnati, a play that essentially ended the game in a loss. That memory stuck with a lot of people and made them forget how consistent Doyle had been in the past.
Doyle is a very talented player who has been one of Andrew Luck’s most reliable targets. At 29 and returning from a hip injury, there is reason to wonder whether he can be his old self or if he will be retained after this season, but little reason to doubt that he will be involved heavily in the passing game. What’s more, Doyle is an excellent blocker, making him a true dual threat tight end. His ability to sit down in zones and be a critical 3rd down option has been critical in years past, and his impact on the running game is noticeable. With Frank Reich running the show and a healthy Andrew Luck, this should be a big bounce back year for Doyle if he can stay healthy.
Behind these two will likely be Mo Alie-Cox, Ross Travis, or maybe rookie UDFA Hale Hentges. Hentges would likely be playing the blocking back, H-back role that Ryan Hewitt played last season, which might give him an edge. Frank Reich showed no hesitation in getting each of his players involved last year, and the position may be one where we see the Colts utilizing the practice squad heavily again. Erik Swoope yo-yo’d back and forth from the practice squad many times last season.
The Colts have the perfect blend of proven talent and developmental guys, and a coaching staff that knows how to use them. This tight end group should be dangerous, and fun to watch.
So what do you think?