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.
I instinctively wrote in the Jaguars here, because I’ve been so used to putting them at the bottom on the offensive side of the ball, but here they finally have the opportunity to avoid last place. That distinguished honor goes to the Houston Texans, whose offensive line is their fatal flaw. Last year that line gave up 62 sacks. Sound familiar?
They have brought in free agents to fill holes and added tackle Tytus Howard and guard Max Sharping in the first and second rounds of the draft respectively. Also, there is a hope that second year guard Martinas Rankin can take a big step forward this season after making starts at several positions on the line last season due to injuries.
Unfortunately, in terms of proven talent, there is very little. Current bookends Seantrel Henderson and Matt Khalil are underwhelming, and any time you have to put faith in rookies to play a meaningful role, it is a roll of the dice. The Colts hit the jackpot doing this in 2018. Will the Texans be so lucky? I have my doubts, but we will see. If they can’t improve, it will likely make a path deep into the playoffs nearly impossible.
The offensive line for the Jaguars took a beating last season. 4 of their 5 starters ended their 2018 season on injured reserve. There is not an offensive line in the NFL that has the backups to survive that, and it is tough to even field a semi-competent unit when it happens.
Because of this, 2019 will almost definitely mark an improvement in the line’s play. However, with so many injuries sidelining your linemen, it is fair to ask what kind of condition these guys will be in when they get back on the field. We take for granted that guys will return to form, but that is no guarantee. Additionally, short of Andrew Norwell, there just isn’t a lot in terms of proven talent on this roster to put faith in.
They will certainly hope rookie tackle Jawaan Taylor can step in and make an impact on day one for this group, and if he can, it will certainly bolster them significantly. Taylor has a few questions regarding conditioning, but otherwise seems well suited to be a solid NFL starter who can lift this line as a whole and add another blue chip player to it.
This is a young group, and a lot of their progress will depend on staying healthy and on good coaching, but they should see an improvement this season with a better quarterback under center and the return of their starters.
The Titans have a very solid tandem at tackle in Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin. The pair form one of the best tackle groups in the NFL, as they should be since they were both top 15 picks. On the interior there are more questions. Kevin Pamphile and Roger Saffold will likely be the starting guards, and Ben Jones should handle snaps at center.
Saffold was brought in as a free agent from the Rams this offseason, and he’ll be 31 when the season starts. He has been a solid player and was voted Second-Team All-Pro in 2017 and likely offers an upgrade to the interior of the Titans line, but giving big contracts to players who are past 30 is always a risky endeavor.
Third round pick Nate Davis was also brought in to compete for a starting role at the guard position, and he rated as the 7th interior offensive lineman in our draft guide. He has the necessary traits to be a valuable starter, and should he develop quickly, this line could be pretty stout all the way across.
In short, if the Titans have a healthy Lewan and Conklin, their offensive line should be pretty good. Conklin was hurt much of last season and that led to a down year to the tune of 47 sacks allowed. If Saffold is close to the player he has been, this group should be able to be one of the better groups in the league.
They’ve done it! They’ve swept every offensive position group in their division. Even if you’ve disagreed with me on some of these rankings, you probably didn’t think the Colts were far off, and on the offensive line, they are the clear favorite. The Colts have very possibly got the best offensive line in the NFL, and look like they could have them for a very long time.
To begin with, we have Anthony Castonzo, who has been underrated in his value to the team. Castonzo has been a stalwart piece of the line at left tackle, and his return to the roster in week 6 marked a major change in the quality of play across it. They did not allow a sack from week 6 to week 11 after Castonzo returned.
Next we have rookie All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson. Nelson is exactly the kind of player the Colts needed to add to their line. He brought with him a punishing mentality, as well as the desire to be a great teammate. Seriously, watch 2018 Colts film and count how many times someone other than Nelson helps up the receiver or runner after a play. He is almost always on the scene at the end of a play. It is tough to imagine Nelson being a better player in his second season, but it is also a likely possibility.
Ryan Kelly had an excellent year himself at center, and being surrounded by quality talent certainly didn’t hurt. With a second year in the same offense and an offseason to work with Luck, Kelly should only get better.
The right side of the line for the Colts gets overlooked as pundits rain down praise on Quenton Nelson. Guard Mark Glowinski and tackle Braden Smith solidified a part of the line that had been in flux for the entirety of Andrew Luck’s time in Indy. Glowinski was a waiver claim from the Seahawks and earned himself a nice contract to re-sign with the team. He liked playing with them so much that he even mentioned foregoing better paychecks to stick with the Colts. Smith was a surprise, because he was drafted to play guard. All he did as a rookie was step into the right tackle position and handle guys like J.J. Watt like a seasoned veteran.
With so much youth on this line, there is obviously room to improve. That is what makes the addition of the legendary Howard Mudd so critical to this offseason. This front office has built, in short order, a culture that values protecting Andrew Luck. Now they’ve brought in the teacher to hone their technique. Pairing good technique with their winning mentality should make this line dangerous both in 2019 and into the future.
How would you rank these groups?