I have no idea why I wrote so many words about five AFC teams, and I’m prepared for some pushback in the comments section for doing it, but let’s keep these points in mind:
- The Rams play all five of these teams next season and it was their poor performance against the AFC East (1-3) that helped push them out of a division title last year
- Don’t think of it as something you have to read from start to finish — jump around
- Consider this your first and last opportunity to talk about the AFC teams until the season begins — these are some exciting teams.
The Rams play the AFC South, a division that should be in the conversation for potentially being the worst in the NFL, plus a 17th game that will come against the Baltimore Ravens.
Week 2 at Colts
Week 8 at Texans
Week 9 vs Titans
Week 13 vs Jaguars
Week 17 at Ravens
Some of these teams have changed a lot, some a little. The following diary is a summary of those changes, plus a bit of my opinion about what those changes could mean.
Previously on Opponent Updates:
Tennessee Titans: Is Mike Vrabel the rich man’s Jeff Fisher?
Following the firing of Jeff Fisher after the 2010 season, the Titans tried out Mike Munchak, Ken Whisenhunt, and Mike Mularkey as head coaches over the next seven years. Though Munchak and Mularkey delivered Fisher-like 9-7 campaigns, Tennessee was never dominant and often mediocre or bad.
The team went 13-3 with a +141 point differential in 2008, but wasted the postseason bye week by getting dominated against the Ravens defense in a 13-10 loss at home.
In 2009, the Titans went 8-2 when Vince Young was starting and Chris Johnson gained 2,006 yards on the ground, plus another 503 in the passing game. But an 0-6 start to the season behind quarterback Kerry Collins — accentuated with a 59-0 loss to the Patriots in Week 6 — proved too difficult to overcome and Tennessee finished 8-8. Fisher nearly redeemed himself once again in 2010, starting the season 5-2, but some lessons are never learned.
The quarterbacks in 2010 were still Young and Collins and ultimately that duo would never be good enough to help a team contend for a postseason run. The Titans lost six in a row after the 5-2 start and Fisher was fired after going 6-10 in his 16th season. Tennessee had posted a +141 in 2008, but then they posted the following point differentials beginning in 2009:
Over those nine seasons, the Titans finished in the top-ten in scoring zero times and in the top-ten in scoring defense once: In Munchak’s first season, the year after Fisher was fired, the team ranked eighth in points allowed but 18th in yards allowed.
And though Mularkey went 9-7 in both of his seasons as the head coach, including a playoff appearance, and a postseason win over the Chiefs, he was fired with a -22 point differential in 2017. Probably because in spite of being over .500, there was virtually nothing to get excited about when looking ahead. The team had drafted Marcus Mariota, Corey Davis, Derrick Henry, Taylor Lewan, and Jack Conklin in recent years, but the offense wasn’t good: Mariota had 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 15 games, Henry was buried behind DeMarco Murray, Davis was underwhelming as a top-10 pick, and they weren’t doing as much as you’d think they could do given that Lewan and Conklin turned out to be great picks.
That Tennessee team was 19th in points, 23rd in yards, and 25th in third down percentage.
The Titans also didn’t just fire Mularkey, but they replaced him with a coach who only had one year as a defensive coordinator under his belt and he did so for the team ranked 32nd in points allowed in 2017 and went 4-12. But what Vrabel lacked in coaching experience and success, he made up for in mentors and reputation: eight years playing for Bill Belichick, two years coaching for Urban Meyer at Ohio State, and four years of learning what not-to-do under Bill O’Brien.
Vrabel was in some ways the “Patriots hire” that wasn’t a Patriots hire and given how many “Patriots hires” have failed after leaving the Patriots, at least New England is one place where Vrabel never coached. But he could still take away what he learned as one of the leaders of a three-time championship defense and he could still form his own identity as head coach of the Titans, rather than just being a chip off of Belichick’s block.
In year one, Vrabel went 9-7 and posted a +7 point differential. More importantly, that may have also been his year to find out that Mariota was not going to be the answer. So in year two, the Titans traded for Ryan Tannehill to push Mariota, and once an injury happened, he pushed him entirely out of the way.
Ryan Tannehill’s story isn’t talked about enough. Spent 2 years playing WR in college, switched to QB his final 2 seasons and developed into a Top-10 pick.— Ray G (@RayGQue) June 17, 2021
Good-to-bad-to-hurt-to backup-to EXCELLENT NFL QB. Nothing but respect for that level of perseverance. Big Fan of him! pic.twitter.com/CIjpwbtD6Y
That also allowed Henry to finally break out as the feature of the offense (NFL-leading 1,540 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns) and for rookie A.J. Brown to emerge as a league star at receiver (52 catches for 1,051 yards). Tennessee won nine of their first 12 games with Tannehill, including two in the playoffs. They lost in the AFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl winners and posted a point differential of +71.
Excluding that 2008 season, the +71 was the best the franchise had seen since 2003. And the last Titans or Oilers coach other than Fisher to even do better than +10 was Jack Pardee in 1993.
The 2019 season was a long time coming for the Titans. But what may not be as apparent to everybody is that the 2020 season was in some ways a step back for the team as a whole and if Tennessee wants to be the Super Bowl contender that so many claim they are after trading for Julio Jones, they’ll need to address the elephant in the room that isn’t anywhere near Jones’ locker: a defense that ranked 24th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed.
The Titans improved their record to 11-5 last season, but the point differential went down to +52.
Tennessee also failed to make a deep playoff run in 2020. In fact, much like in 2008, the Titans took a 7-0 lead against the Ravens, only to see the offense sputter for the rest of the game and ending in a quick postseason exit. The Titans managed only three points and 103 yards after the first quarter, losing 20-13.
This was the same team that scored over 40 points five times during the regular season and ranked fourth in points, including a 30-24 overtime win in Baltimore.
An offensive disappointment in the playoffs and a defensive disappointment in the regular season would require some sort of offseason response in 2021. The most notable move was trading for Jones, a 32-year-old future Hall of Famer who is either near the end of his prime or gearing up for a second act similar to Jerry Rice switching from Joe Montana to Steve Young in 1991.
Rice made first team all-pro in the five seasons prior to ‘91, and first team all-pro in the five seasons after ‘91.
But Jones won’t be the only change in 2021 and given the free agent losses of Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith, he has plenty of room to cover and there will still be targets left over for free agent/former Rams receiver Josh Reynolds and others. What other changes have happened?
Most noted offseason addition: WR Julio Jones
Potentially the most important offseason addition: OLB Bud Dupree
First round pick: CB Caleb Farley
The Titans got so much attention for their three-headed monster on offense that most people may not have noticed how underwhelming the passing rushing trio on Tennessee ended up being last season. The edge rushing unit of Harold Landry, Jadeveon Clowney, and Vic Beasley combined to only register 5.5 sacks in 2020 — and 5.5 of those came from Landry.
There’s plenty to like about Landry, but Clowney and Beasley only made it that much more clear as to why they were available on modest one-year contracts last offseason. The Titans responded by signing Bud Dupree to a five-year, $82.5 million deal with the hope that he’ll be able to repeat the production he had over his final two seasons with the Steelers: 19.5 sacks, 32 QB hits, 6 forced fumbles in 27 games.
Tennessee also signed defensive end Denico Autry, who subtly has 20 sacks in his last 40 games, all of which came for the Colts. Autry hasn’t played in a full season since 2017, but should provide more optimism than Clowney and Beasley.
And 2019’s first round pick, defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, still managed 14 QB hits and three sacks despite not having much talent around him. If the edges are better, Simmons could be a breakout player next season.
That front-seven now includes Simmons, Dupree, Autry, Landry, 2018 first rounder Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown, third round pick Monty Rice, and fourth round pick Rashad Weaver.
Bud Dupree says his rehab is on schedule but is unsure as to when he’ll practice: “That’s really up to them” #Titans— Buck Reising (@BuckReising) June 15, 2021
Behind them, the Titans only had three players in the secondary who started more than six games last season and two of them — Malcolm Butler, Kenny Vaccaro — are gone now. The other is free safety Kevin Byard, one of the best in the league.
Replacing them will be former Rams corner Janoris Jenkins, who started 13 games for one of the top pass defenses in the league last season in New Orleans, and Caleb Farley, a first round pick out of Virginia Tech. Farley had been projected as 2021’s top corner until injury concerns came to the surface, and he wasn’t present at rookie camp as he recovers from back surgery. Expecting much from Farley this season might be disappointing. But the team also has 2020 second round pick Kristian Fulton to develop.
We know that the Titans had an average defense in 2019, so it’s entirely possible that Vrabel could get that side of the ball back to being average after a season of being bad. If the offense can maintain it’s high level of play from last year thanks to the addition of Jones, then Tennessee might compete to be the AFC’s number one seed. But if Vrabel wants to make sure he’s not confused with all the malarkey, he’s going to need to avoid an ugly postseason exit.
Indianapolis Colts: But why Carson Wentz?
In a vacuum, trading a conditional first round pick for Carson Wentz might have made sense because without anything else to compare it to, trade evaluations are simply left up for debate. But given that the trade came after the Lions had potentially received a first round pick just to take on Jared Goff from the Rams, I find the deal more confusing. Because as critical as I have been of Goff, I don’t see him as a downgrade as compared to Wentz.
Goff is two years younger and his most concerning issues, like ball security and elite downfield passing abilities, seem more fixable and disguisable than the injury and decision-making issues that plague Wentz. Even if you think Wentz is better than Goff, is he really on the exact opposite side of the spectrum for first round value?
Carson Wentz tuning mechanics with 3DQB's Adam Dedeaux https://t.co/wzUr1cGmNC— TheColtsWire (@TheColtsWire) June 15, 2021
I don’t understand it and they both have oversized extensions, so money doesn’t explain it.
Imagine if the Colts had jumped ahead of the Rams by offering the Lions their 2021 and 2022 first round picks, plus Wentz, for Matthew Stafford. Not even Brad Holmes’ undying affection for Les Snead could have stopped him from accepting that deal given that Indy’s first round picks come a year sooner and would have been guaranteed the 21st overall pick in this past draft. The Rams may only need to make the playoffs to have a pick that will be lower than 21st.
Indianapolis would have been entering free agency with Stafford at quarterback and a boatload of cash left to spend because they had the most cap space in the NFL. The Colts wouldn’t have been able to draft defensive end Kwity Paye, but they still took another pass rusher in the second round with Dayo Odeyingbo anyway. And a roster that has Stafford, not Wentz, might have attracted better pass rushers in free agency than Isaac Rochell.
This is yet another reason why I see the Stafford acquisition as the best move of 2021, and it’s held up as such since late January.
Never did that look more true than when the Colts traded a conditional 2022 first (first round if Wentz plays 75% of snaps in 2021 or if Wentz plays 70% of snaps and Colts qualify for 2021 playoffs, else second round) for Wentz, the same pick that they could have just as easily used to tempt Holmes to spurn his former boss and make the deal with Indy instead-y.
The difference between the Colts having or not having Stafford is really as simple as the difference of having Kwity Paye and Wentz or simply having Stafford.
Indianapolis general manager Chris Ballard opted to not go that route and instead he trusted Frank Reich’s opinion that Wentz is still about as close to being a franchise quarterback as Patriots rookie Mac Jones is. Except that Wentz turns 29 in December and he tied for the lead in interceptions last season even though he was only 21st in passing attempts.
I never like to come off as so negative about a player but Wentz does represent an issue with judging quarterbacks based on TD:INT ratio, even though those numbers can look very pretty or very ugly. Based on TD:INT ratio, Wentz was nifty in 2019 with 27 and 7. But his 5.91 net yards per pass attempt that season ranked 23rd and his stats that season were close to identical with Jacoby Brissett’s. Wentz just had more attempts.
Wentz, 2019: 607 attempts, 4.4 TD%, 1.2 INT%, 6.7 Y/A, 5.91 NY/A, 5.7 sack%
Brissett, 2019: 447 attempts, 4 TD%, 1.3 INT%, 6.6 Y/A, 5.87 NY/A, 5.7 sack%
Did the Colts trade a conditional first round pick to get another Jacoby Brissett?
Wentz has never finished in the top-ten in NY/A, not even during his 2017 MVP campaign when he finished 11th, and there haven’t been many signs that he’s ever been “underrated” for any reason, including for lack of receiving talent. Philadelphia might have made all the wrong decisions at receiver, but many quarterbacks have endured talent draughts without being given up on by their franchise.
I don’t see how Wentz will be getting a significant upgrade in that are in Indianapolis either.
The offensive line has Quenton Nelson at left guard, but they might not see an improvement with the addition of Eric Fisher at left tackle given that Fisher had fallen out of favor with a Chiefs team that was desperate for o-line help. TY Hilton is the only proven receiver out of him, Michael Pittman, and Parris Campbell, but can he prove that he’s still capable of being a top-25 receiver when he’s been more like the 50th-best over the last two years?
My initial thought with the trade was the Reich might be the perfect fit for Wentz, but then you also have to ask if he’s the worst person to ask about Wentz. Who else will be more sure of his ability to succeed than a coach who shared a Super Bowl-winning season with him? But that was four years ago and Wentz was at the center of one of the wildest bad seasons in history in 2020.
That being said, maybe running back Jonathan Taylor is great and the defense reaches the top-five?
The Colts could be a good team!
Biggest offseason addition: Wentz (there weren’t many other options to choose from)
First round draft pick: DE Kwity Paye
Most interesting pick: QB Sam Ehlinger
The Colts are set to have by far the most cap space of 2022 — and while that may be a good sign for 2022, I think it could be an indication that the roster is still in the middle of it’s build and could be a couple of years away from real contention. Outside of Nelson, Darius Leonard, and DeForest Buckner, who else would they even be in a rush to pay? Buckner has been paid (four years, $84 million), Nelson and Leonard will be compensated, and then there’s a lot of room for growth.
To become a Super Bowl contender in 2021, the Colts will need more than just a rebound season for Wentz. Will Pittman take a leap forward in his development? What about all the recent day two picks on defense, like Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay, Ben Banogu, Bobby Okereke, Rock Ya-Sin, and Julian Blackmon? GM Chris Ballard’s been cited as one of the best general managers in the NFL, but at some point the rebuild has to just be: built.
This is not the second year of Reich, it’s the fourth. The Colts posted eight 12-win seasons under Peyton Manning. They’ve had zero since they chose to pick Andrew Luck over Manning’s neck, and that was almost 11 years ago now.
I hope Wentz is good and Indianapolis is competitive — that seems better than the Titans running away with the AFC South — but I think this is the worst offseason of any team in the league. They seemingly had a few opportunities to get better, passed all of them up, made a confusing trade for Wentz in which the conditions don’t even protect them against him having a bad season, and could have regressed from the 11-5 season they just had with Philip Rivers. If the Colts wanted to make a big and risky move with a 2022 draft pick, they could have instead kept Brissett and traded for Julio Jones.
I think that might be an even better QB-WR combo than any option that the Colts have right now.
Frank Reich liked what he saw from Kylen Granson and Mike Strachan this spring:https://t.co/lr9u1ZrISP— Kevin Bowen (@KBowen1070) June 20, 2021
Houston Texans: When is Deshaun Watson going to return to the NFL?
I’m surprised that people are so convinced that Watson isn’t going to be play in 2021. Were it not for the fact that Watson entered the offseason with a plan to holdout if he didn’t get traded, then surely Watson would have tried to show up to Texans practice, even with 22 lawsuits filed against him. If that were the case, would the NFL have finally made a statement about his future? Would they have placed him on the commissioner’s exempt list to force him to stay home until the lawsuits were settled?
But we don’t know what the NFL will do, we only know that Watson is holding out, that he wants to be traded, and that the market will not move until teams know more about what happened in his past and what obstacles lay ahead in his future.
And most likely teams will only care about the future, not the past.
At present, the Houston Texans are without Watson at quarterback and we are nearing Tyrod Taylor’s fourth attempt to be an NFL starter. In 2015, Taylor made the Pro Bowl during his first season with the Buffalo Bills: 242-of-380, 3,035 yards, 20 TD, 6 INT, 8 Y/A, 99.4 rating, 568 rushing yards, four touchdowns.
The Bills seemed to have such a bright future entering the 2016 season, building around Taylor, LeSean McCoy, Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Charles Clay, and Cordy Glenn on offense. McCoy being the oldest of those players at 28.
Instead of following that upward trend, like Buffalo has done with Sean McDermott and Josh Allen recently, the Bills remained static under Rex Ryan, who was fired at the end of 2016. Taylor’s progress also flatlined — he protects the football but he doesn’t spark an offense into the end zone consistently enough — and Buffalo parted with him following the 2017 campaign so that they could open the door for Allen.
Taylor signed with the Cleveland Browns in 2018 as a bridge to Baker Mayfield, but that run ended midway through Week 3, when he got pulled after starting 4-of-14 for 19 yards against the Jets.
He then joined Anthony Lynn, one of his former coaches in Buffalo, with the LA Chargers where he could work on his game as a backup to Philip Rivers. Lynn expressed confidence in Taylor as a starter entering 2020, and LA won their first game of the season, but when a medical malfunction forced Justin Herbert into action in Week 2, it was obvious that LA’s offense was much better off in the hands of the rookie.
Taylor went 16-of-30 for 208 yards, no touchdowns, two sacks, and six carries for seven yards in Week 1 of last season, a 16-13 victory over the Bengals. It’s not quite the spectacular “How could you keep him on the bench?” beginning that it has been painted as without the proper details.
Even if Taylor is the type of veteran quarterback who “does all the right things” and is a “leader” and he “sets an example” for a young team that everyone expects to be doomed next season because of all the fires they’ve needed to put out, there is no context in which Taylor is even a top-25 starter.
If we gave bonus points to recent first round picks like Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson, Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow, Daniel Jones, Justin Fields, Kyler Murray, then which teams even enter the 2021 season in a worse situation at quarterback than the Texans? Washington enters the season with Ryan Fitzpatrick; the Steelers are crossing their fingers that Ben Roethlisberger is not near the end; the Broncos have a competition between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater; the Eagles are trying out Jalen Hurts vs Joe Flacco; the Saints only have Taysom Hill to challenge Jameis Winston; and the Panthers are buying into the “Sam Darnold was ruined by Adam Gase” hype.
I’ll take any of those situations over Tyrod Taylor, third round pick Davis Mills, and Jeff Driskel as my only options.
If Watson’s 22 lawsuits go away in the next two months, and there’s reason to believe that both sides are hopeful to make that happen, then we will find out soon just how much punishment the NFL thinks is appropriate for the given situation. Until then, I won’t speculate on what the punishment will be. But perhaps no team has a greater disparity between the starting quarterback and the backup options and that’s exactly the future that’s facing Houston and new head coach David Culley.
There’s little reason to believe right now that the Texans will start Watson next season, so the only questions remaining then would be about the compensation that Houston will receive in a trade, and when. Is it possible that they could do anything to help themselves in 2021? Probably not. So these are the Houston Texans we can expect to see, and it could end up as the worst Houston Texans team in Houston Texans history.
Going from Watson to Taylor is sure to deflate Houston’s offense, which is concerning given that most of their problems last year were on defense. The Texans ranked 30th in yards allowed, 32nd in rushing yards and yards per carry allowed, 32nd in interceptions, 30th in points per drive allowed, and 24th in passing yards allowed.
Biggest offseason addition: LB Christian Kirksey
First round draft pick: None
Most interesting pick: WR Nico Collins
In response, the team fired Bill O’Brien midseason and then hired Culley — a 66-year-old first-time head coach who has worked for Bill Cowher, Andy Reid, John Harbaugh, and Sean McDermott — to replace him. Culley retained 34-year-old offensive coordinator Tim Kelly but went for a proven commodity when he chose Lovie Smith as defensive coordinator.
Nico Collins is such an interesting prospect. Has all the tools to become a very dominant player in the league.— EverythingTexans (@houstonfball) June 16, 2021
Nico could wind up starting sooner rather than later. You will see a lot or Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb but that last spot is truly up for grabs.
Smith, former defensive coordinator for the Rams, and a head coach for 11 years, returns to the NFL after spending the last five seasons at the University of Illinois. As far as franchise “building blocks” on that side of the ball, it’s difficult to identify many, if any: Safety Justin Reid has been okay over his three-year career; defensive end Charles Omenihu was the only Texans player other than J.J. Watt to record more than seven QB hits last season; inside linebacker Zach Cunningham led the NFL in tackles last season and is only 26.
But trading for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil cost the Texans a first rounder in 2020, plus their first and second rounders in 2021, so they didn’t add any defensive prospects of note to fix their issues this year, at least as far as what we should expect. It’s a defense that will feature many players who didn’t last with their previous teams, including Vernon Hargreaves, Bradley Roby, Shaq Lawson, Derek Rivers, Maliek Collins, Jordan Jenkins, DeMarcus Walker, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Christian Kirksey, Joe Thomas, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Terrance Mitchell, Jaleel Johnson, Neville Hewitt, Joe Thomas, Desmond King, Keion Crossen, Terrence Brooks, and Hardy Nickerson.
Even in Houston, it is hard to make castoffs go blast-off.
The Texans might try and mitigate their problems at quarterback by heavily utilizing a four-headed rushing attack that includes Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, Rex Burkhead, and David Johnson (or maybe just two or three of those guys), but what’s more likely? That the Texans believe they’re going to surprise the world with a 9-8 record or that they’re feeling ashamed of the mistakes that happened under O’Brien and gearing up to draft Spencer Rattler or another quarterback to hit the reset button in 2022?
This sure appears to be the worst team in the NFL. But they will have competition for that title. Which is more than they can say for the non-competition at quarterback.
Jacksonville Jaguars: How is Urban Meyer going to fit with Trevor Lawrence?
Urban Meyer lost 32 games over 17 years as a college coach, and six of those came at Bowling Green State. Meyer went 83-9 as the head coach at Ohio State, but he’s now leading a team that has lost at least 10 games in nine of the last 10 seasons.
The 2010s were arguably worse for the Jaguars than any decade has ever been to a franchise (if not for that pesky appearance in the AFC Championship game in 2017 with Jalen Ramsey leading the top-ranked pass defense) but no matter how bad things got, Jacksonville had never had the number one pick until now. And the Jaguars are getting a quarterback who is so special that his placement at the top of the 2021 draft was a foregone conclusion even when other special quarterbacks went second and third right after him.
Believe in Trevor Lawrence’s NFL future or not, few quarterbacks have ever entered the league with a better resume: three years as a starter at a top-two college program, three top-three finishes in the AP poll, a national title win over Alabama, 90 touchdowns against 17 interceptions, and career-highs with 69.2% completions and 10.2 adjusted Y/A as a junior who battled through the COVID season and did so with a supporting cast that is good, but far from what Mac Jones or Justin Fields enjoyed at their schools.
Oh and he’s 6’6 and even looks like an animated version of some after school cartoon’s “prototypical captain of the football team”.
The Jaguars have finished 30th, 31st, or 32nd in points scored in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2018, and 2020. They were 25th in 2016 and 26th in 2019. People say “There’s only one way to go up,” but the Jags have proven time and time again that you can always go sideways. At least 2021 appears to be and end to that lateral movement.
Jags are done for minicamp and the offseason. QB Trevor Lawrence looked fantastic today and was at his best in the red zone.— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) June 15, 2021
20-0 is no longer out of the question.
These are the changes/non-changes on Jacksonville’s offense:
QB - Gardner Minshew to Trevor Lawrence
RB - James Robinson to Travis Etienne (both will play a lot, Carlos Hyde is also there)
WR1 - D.J. Chark
WR2 - Laviska Shenault
WR3 - Keelan Cole to Marvin Jones
TE1 - Tyler Eifert to Chris Manhertz
OL - Entire starting offensive line returns
The head coach goes from Doug Marrone to Meyer, and the new offensive coordinator is Darrell Bevell, who in the past has worked with Brett Favre, Russell Wilson, and Matthew Stafford.
The team picked Lawrence and Etienne in the first round this year, Shenault in the second round last year, and this year picked Stanford tackle Walker Little in round two. Little shouldn’t be asked to contribute right away however, because the Jaguars have an experienced offensive line that might finally come together and be what they had hoped a couple of years ago when they added guard Andrew Norwell.
The Jags averaged 19.1 points per game last season and I could see how that number goes up by at least 5 points per game in 2021.
Now what to expect from a defense that allowed 30.8 points per game.
Whereas I don’t really know who Houston’s “building blocks” and “cornerstones” are on defense, the Jaguars have obvious standouts on that side of the ball: defensive end Josh Allen had 10.5 sacks as a rookie in 2019, in case anyone forgot; cornerback C.J. Henderson was cited as one of 2020’s most impressive rookies early in the year but then missed eight games; linebacker Myles Jack, one of the few players from that 2017 squad who remains on the team, is only 25; and the Jaguars have 2020 first round pick DE K’Lavon Chaisson, 2021 second round pick CB Tyson Campbell, and free agent signee CB Shaquill Griffin to mix in alongside those players.
Biggest offseason addition: Trevor Lawrence
Most interesting pick: S Andre Cisco
Actually, does any team in the AFC South stand greater odds of having a top-10 defense in 2022 than the Jaguars?
Jacksonville will be switching to a 3-4 base alignment under new defensive coordinator Joe Cullen, a veteran defensive line coach who is calling plays for the first time. That means Allen and Chaisson as outside linebackers, Jack and Joe Schobert manning the inside, and a lot of competition along the defensive line. Griffin and Henderson make for an interesting cornerback duo, but the safety spots with Jarrod Wilson and Rayshawn Jenkins may be in line for some competition by 2022.
If Lawrence struggles as a rookie, then I’d expect the Jaguars to be bad. Peyton Manning struggled as a rookie and the Colts were bad then.
If Lawrence is fine, then I could see the Jaguars being fine. A 7-10 season feels right in Lawrence’s wheelhouse.
If Lawrence comes out firing as hot as Justin Herbert did in 2020, then the Jaguars could definitely compete with the Colts, if not also the Titans, for a division title. Jacksonville might not be ready to compete for a deep playoff run, but in large thanks to finally getting the number one pick — with some of that credit due to the LA Rams — it seems like the Jaguars can go from aughts' have-nots to the roarin’ 20s.
Baltimore Ravens: Okay, is this enough wide receivers yet?
There’s often talk about how the Ravens “can’t develop a great receiver” but maybe soon we can all agree that a large chunk of that responsibility is on the quarterback, his abilities, and the offensive coordinator’s ability to make the most of what the QB is capable of. With that being said, we’ve no idea yet if Lamar Jackson is capable of helping wide receivers make “big” (i.e., lots of yards) plays.
We know that Jackson is capable of scoring: NFL-best 36 touchdown passes in 2019.
We know that Jackson is capable of winning: 30-7 record as a starter.
We know that Jackson is capable of running: Career-average of 63.2 rushing yards per game, 6.0 yards per carry
But if you have a pitching machine that is pointed to the ground 20 feet ahead of you, the ball is never going to reach home plate no matter how many or what kind of baseballs you put into it. Home plate is 60 feet away. You need to adjust the pitching machine or you need to get a new one.
Jackson has attempted 777 passes over the last two seasons, which ranks 22nd among all quarterbacks in that time. Though Jackson’s started 30 games, it is fewer passes than Daniel Jones (26 starts), Andy Dalton (22), Matthew Stafford (24), Dak Prescott (21), Mitchell Trubisky (24), Sam Darnold (25), and Minshew (20).
Now compare that to some of the NFL’s most prolific pass attempters and it is not hard to draw a line between those players and the receivers who get to benefit from it: Matt Ryan (1,242 attempts since 2019), Tom Brady, Jared Goff, Philip Rivers, Kyler Murray, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Patrick Mahomes (1,072) are the top-eight in attempts.
It becomes immediately obvious that Baltimore’s wide receivers have fewer yards — and therefore do not stand out to the average fan who is only concerned about fantasy football — because they have fewer opportunities. That reality is exacerbated by the fact that tight ends Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, and Hayden Hurst were all in the top-five in targets on the Ravens in 2019, and Andrews has the most targets of any Ravens player since Jackson took over for Joe Flacco in mid-2018.
Is it really that Jackson isn’t throwing to his receivers “because they aren’t talented enough at the position” or is it more that the offense isn’t designed to throw to receivers because Jackson’s been more successful on short throws than deep ones?
According to the SIS Data Hub, Jackson’s 44 deep attempts ranked as the 20th most last season and his passer rating on those passes ranked 17th.
The three players with the most deep attempts were Brady, Ryan, and Rodgers. Is it any surprise then that wide receivers in Tampa Bay, Atlanta, and Green Bay were all quite successful in 2020? They played in offenses, with quarterbacks, who threw the ball often and then within that, threw it deep a lot too.
Jackson is entering his fourth NFL season, not his first or second. Will this be the year that Jackson throws it often and throws it deep, or is this going to be another season of an explosive — yet “small” — offense? Whatever the answer is, we already know that Baltimore has responded like a team that agreed with the fantasy bros.
The Ravens made it a point to make changes at wide receiver, so there won’t be excuses left for Jackson, John Harbaugh, or offensive coordinator Greg Roman if it seems as though Baltimore’s offense is too limited to become Super Bowl champions in the current era.
Former Bills, Rams, and Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins, who only just turned 28, was signed to a one-year, $5 million contract.
Lamar Jackson made his best throw of the spring, hitting Sammy Watkins along the sideline on a pass that went 50 yards in the air and hit Watkins in stride.— Jamison Hensley (@jamisonhensley) June 16, 2021
Watkins, who beat Marlon Humphrey on that throw, had a strong day.
Then the team drafted Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman (a personal favorite of mine in this class) in the first round, followed by Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace in the fourth. Those two rookies combined for over 5,700 receiving yards over the last three college seasons.
They join a unit that already had 2019 first round pick Marquise Brown, 2019 third round pick Miles Boykin, and 2020 third round pick Devin Duvernay. So in the last three years, Baltimore has spent two first round picks, two third round picks, and a fourth round pick on wide receivers.
That’s a lot of capital to invest into the wide receiver position when you have a recent MVP at quarterback, right? The Packers never worried about that with Rodgers, and his stats never suffer for it. The Chiefs have only drafted one receiver higher than the fourth round over the last six years: 56th overall pick Mecole Hardman in 2019. Why is that the Ravens have to divert funds, attention, and draft capital away from their defense or offensive line in favor of getting more help for their MVP quarterback?
Biggest offseason addition: RG Kevin Zeitler, RT Alejandro Villanueva
First round draft pick: WR Rashod Bateman, OLB Odafe Oweh
Most interesting pick: OL Ben Cleveland
If 2021 isn’t the year that Baltimore has “found” their wide receivers, then maybe that time will never come while Jackson is under center. Much like it never happened for Cam Newton in Carolina.
That being said, it’s hard to imagine Baltimore not being successful next season.
The Ravens have consistently proven to be the NFL’s best rushing offense with Jackson under center, ranking first in attempts, rushing yards, and yards per carry in 2020, while also ranking 32nd in passing attempts and passing yards. Mark Ingram’s exit only opens the door for J.K. Dobbins to become a Pro Bowl back next season: Dobbins had 134 carries for 805 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 6.0 yards per carry as a rookie.
The team was forced to trade right tackle Orlando Brown, but I see little reason to be concerned about their offensive line and Ronnie Stanley could be the best left tackle in the league.
As usual, the Ravens win a lot of battles thanks to their defense and coordinator Don Martindale is going into his fourth season at the helm; Baltimore has ranked second, third, and second in points allowed over his first three campaigns, plus second, sixth, and fourth in yards per pass attempt allowed.
Marlon Humphrey could be the NFL’s best corner (any team with potential first team all-pros at QB, LT, and CB should be a Super Bowl contender) and it’s hard to do better than Marcus Peters as a number two.
The Ravens have invested heavily into the linebacker position, including 2020 first round pick Patrick Queen, 2020 third rounder Malik Harrison, and Odafe Oweh (previously known as Jayson Oweh) as their other first round pick in 2021 besides Bateman.
With so many talented veterans, it’s hard to count out Baltimore from being in the picture as a top-four AFC team, but they still lost the division to the Steelers after going 11-5 last season, then managed only three points in a divisional round loss to the Bills. So have they already hit their ceiling with Lamar Jackson or is this going to be the year that the Ravens announce themselves as a true mainstay in a conference that also features Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Baker Mayfield, Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence, Ryan Tannehill, and Zach Wilson?
It’s now or nevermore.
What will the Rams record be against the AFC?
This poll is closed