2021 NFL Draft: Team Needs - AFC South
Andrew Cooper takes a look at the AFC South division and breaks down the needs for each team ahead of the NFL Draft this upcoming Thursday!
Team Needs: AFC South
Picks: 21, 54, 127, 165, 206, 248
Set: Running back, defensive tackle, interior offensive line
In this series we break things up into positions where the team is “set”, as in they are least likely to draft this position, “immediate” needs where they have holes they need to fill with impact players in the early rounds, and “depth” where there may be expiring contracts or older players so they want to plan for the future. For instance, the Colts took Jonathan Taylor in the early second round last year and he had a bit of a breakout season. They also bring back pass catching back Nyheim Hines, power back Marlon Mack, and four other backs including the useful backup Jordan Wilkins. In that case, they are relatively “set” at running back and unlikely to use high end draft capital on the position.
On defensive they run a base 4-3 so defensive tackle is more important than it is for some teams. But they currently have starters in DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart locked up through 2024 and 2023 respectively. On top of that, they have six other DTs signed to contracts and, if they draft an edge rusher as we predict below, that allows other guys to shift inside and help out there if they want to go with a “NASCAR” package with four pass rushers. Because of that, I don’t see them making a big splash at defensive tackle. Same on the other side of the ball. They have depth at guard and center including Quenton Nelson who might be the very best in the business. They just picked up his fifth year option so interior O-line isn’t much of a need.
Immediate: Edge rusher, offensive tackle
The division rival Titans signed away defensive end Denico Autry after a 7.5 sack and 9 tackle for a loss season last year. They are still in the mix for Justin Houston who they employed last year but it’s hard to believe they would sign him back before the draft. Even then, Houston is 32 years old so the Colts are likely candidates to invest the position.
The Colts have had one of the best offensive lines in the league and still do for the most part but Anthony Castonzo announcing his retirement is a bit of a blow. The Colts have a bit of a coin flip decision with the 21st pick whether to go with edge rusher like we discussed above or try to replenish the O-line. Chris Ballard has never been one to shy away from moving around in the draft so perhaps they do just that and sacrifice one of their mid round picks to bring in high end guys at both positions.
Potential early round picks: Christian Darrisaw (Virginia Tech), Kwity Paye (Michigan), Jayson Oweh (Penn State), Teven Jenkins (Oklahoma State), Jaelen Phillips (Miami), Liam Eichenberg (Notre Dame), Payton Turner (Houston), Rashad Weaver (Pittsburgh), Brady Christensen (BYU)
Depth: Wide receiver, cornerback, tight end
There are three wide receiver “roles”. Split end, flanker, and slot. General football rules dictate that you need to have seven guys “tethered” to the line every play. The difference between a split end and flanker is that the split end in the guy right up on the line or tethered and the flanker is a step back where they have room to beat the jam and can go in motion. Slot just means that they are lined up with another player outside of them - either a split end or a flanker. The Colts have the big bodied Michael Pittman to play split end, they have T.Y. Hilton as flanker, and, assuming he’s healthy, Parris Campbell at slot. They also have the excellent run blocking Zach Pascal who can play all three roles and six other players under contract who can play special teams or act as depth. But T.Y. Hilton is 31 years old now and it was already questionable about whether he was coming back this year so they could start planning for the future with a speedster on the outside.
You can also apply the same exact logic to cornerback. Much like Hilton, Xavier Rhodes is a great player who’s had a great career but he’ll also be 31 when the season starts and is back on a one year deal so you may want to think about the future there as well. A lot of times with these later picks teams just go with the best player available so it comes down to how the draft shakes out and what their board looks like.
Before they found Pittman at split end, the Colts would often use two tight end sets to fill the tethered player requirement as Hilton is only 5’9” and other split end options like Andre Johnson, Donte Moncrief, Devin Funchess etc. never panned out. They do still have a number of tight ends on the roster but mostly on the blocking side - Jack Doyle is a 5 flat 40 yard dash guy who is already 31 and people might forget that, when everyone was healthy, Mo Alie-Cox actually blocked more than any of the tight ends in the unit. Most people just hear “former basketball player” and think he’s a shoe in to catch balls but he really only had good games in that aspect when both Trey Burton AND Jack Doyle were out. So I could see them taking a stab on a pass catcher to replace Burton.
Picks: 1, 25, 33, 45, 65, 106, 130, 145, 170, 249
Set: Kick/punt return, cornerback
You don’t get the first pick by accident so the Jaguars have a lot of holes. They also have a lot of draft capital meaning there are probably very few jobs which are “safe. One such job would be Jamaal Agnew’s who has been one of the league’s best kick and punt return specialists. They bring him in on a three year deal so they are good to go there.
Most people know that NFL offensive lineman have the longest careers on average. They might not realize that number is still pretty low at three years and eight months (according to a study done by The Wall Street Journal). Even more surprising might be that defensive back is the next longest with an average of three years and two months. So, as a rebuilding team, it wasn’t a bad move to sign the 25 year old Saquill Griffin to a three year deal to go along with first round draft pick CJ Henderson. Assuming the fifth year option is executed, Henderson will have four more years on his deal. The Jaguars have 11 corners on the depth chart, four of which are 22 year old draft picks, so they already have a head start on this position for the rebuild.
Immediate: Quarterback, offensive line, tight end, safety
Not much needs to be said about QB. Trevor Lawrence has essentially been a first overall pick since he was a freshman in college. The timing worked out well for the Jaguars.
Anytime you are in the beginning of a rebuild, especially when you have your quarterback of the future, the first thing to attack is the offensive line. Not only do these players seem to have the best longevity and are easier to identify in the early rounds of the draft but protecting your new rookie QB is paramount. The Bengals have seemed to dodge a bullet with Joe Burrow’s injury but guys like Robert Griffin III, Teddy Bridgewater, and Chad Pennington haven’t been as lucky. The Jags brought back Cam Robinson but had to use the franchise tag to do so. When you are in the Jaguars position as a team that is on the upswing of the rebuild but also projected by Las Vegas to lose 12 games this year, you go best player available with your early picks and build a foundation. Line is as good of a place as any to look.
As for tight end, the one hopeful upside piece they had was third round pick Josh Oliver and they just traded him to the Baltimore Ravens. For pass catching tight end they essentially just have the injury plagued Tyler Eifert and, on the run blocking side, they have the solid Chris Manhertz. Beyond that they just have journeymen. Due to the dual nature of having to gain the trust of both the blocking unit and the pass catching unit, tight end can take some time to develop so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to grab one at the start of the rebuild. At safety they are in a similar boat. It’s a position that has some longevity but often guys will start out as nickel or dime players before graduating to full time safety. A guy like Andrew Wingard has been on the wrong end of two many Jonnu Smith or Derrick Henry highlights at this point so they should probably consider someone here.
Potential early round picks: Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Teven Jenkins (Oklahoma State), Walker Little (Stanford), Dillon Radunz (North Dakota State), Pat Freiermuth (Penn State), Brevin Jordan (Miami), Hunter Long (Boston College), Jamar Johnson (Indiana), Ar’Darius Washington (TCU), Andre Cisco (Syracuse)
Depth: Wide receiver, front seven
We talked about the three wide receiver positions in the last section. The Jaguars have DJ Chark at split end (with Collin Johnson as backup), Marvin Jones at flanker (with Phillip Dorsett as backup), and Laviska Shenault at slot (with return man Jamal Agnew capable of handling the role if need be). Jones, Shenault, and Johnson are all signed for this year and next at least so, if they were to extend Chark, they’d actually be “set”. But Marvin Jones is also 31 and they have a ton of high end draft capital so they could go either way at this position.
As we mentioned, the Jaguars have so many picks that it’s inevitable that they use some in the front seven of the defense as well. They have some great pieces with Myles Jack, K’Lavon Chaisson etc. but new offensive coordinator Joe Cullen runs a 3-4 when the Jaguars had previously been a 4-3 team so it would be wise to let him load up. He knows what fits his system so he might be able to find some unique assets with the later picks that fit a niche within the scheme. Not everyone needs to play 100% of the snaps in a 4-3, especially if you are also doing a lot of 4-2-5 nickel.
Picks: 22, 53, 85, 100, 126, 166, 205, 215, 232
Set: Quarterback, defensive line, interior offensive line
The Ryan Tannehill - Tennessee Titans marriage has been mutually beneficial for both parties and they rewarded him with a contract that should keep him with the team for the next three years. They have two backups on the roster as of now so should be good to go at this spot.
The Titans may be thin at some positions but not at interior offensive line. They have Ben Jones at center who graded out in the top 5 at his position per PFF. They retain Aaron Brewer who also graded out well in his limited snaps. And they signed Kendall Lamm away from the Browns who played well when called upon. Right now Lamm is actually slated to play tackle but, if they do draft an offensive lineman, we believe it would actually be a tackle and then they slide Lamm over to guard. So we don’t foresee them drafting center or guard either way.
Immediate: Wide receiver, tight end, cornerback, safety
We’ve been hesitant to list wide receiver as a “need” for a lot of these teams but Tennessee may be the most wide receiver needy team in the entire league. The team is competing now so are in a rare position to splurge on luxury picks. They just lost their split end in Corey Davis and their slot receiver in Adam Humphries. They have AJ Brown and brought in Josh Reynolds to play split end but the jury is still out on whether Reynolds is starting caliber. The Patriots also signed away their starting tight end Jonnu Smith to a monster deal and, on top of that, they quietly lost their best run blocking tight end in Mycole Pruitt. They do have Anthony Firkser who skews pass catching and blocked on fewer pass plays than any other tight end in the league last season. And Geoff Swaim, who is a journeymen tight end that is more of a blocker. With a team like Miami in our AFC East draft needs article, we used the term “pass catcher” in our needs assessment because it’s likely the team drafts either a WR or a tight end early but not both. Not here. The Titans are in a position where they might draft both positions or perhaps they draft two wide receivers even.
For some teams the needs are more obvious than others. The Titans are one. They just lost Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson. They brought in Janoris “Jackrabbit” Jenkins who was cut by the Saints. And they have second round pick Kristian Fulton. But Fulton played limited snaps last year and most of them were in the slot so it would be in their best interest to bring in another high end CB to compete for an outside role right away. If Jenkins and Fulton are more NFL ready, then the rookie moves into the dime or nickel packages. On the back end of the secondary, they have a great free safety in Kevin Byard but Kenny Vaccaro is a free agency so they have snaps to replace at strong safety. They also look at a “jack of all trades” safety like Trevon Moehrig to come in and help with slot coverage right away, lessening the need for a CB but that would require a first round pick.
Potential early round picks: Jaylen Waddle (Alabama), Rashod Bateman (Minnesota), Elijah Moore (Ole Miss), Terrace Marshall Jr. (LSU), Caleb Farley (Virginia Tech), Trevon Moehrig (TCU), Asante Samuel Jr (Florida State), Aaron Robinson (UCF), Kelvin Joseph (Kentucky), Pat Freiermuth (Penn State), Brevin Jordan (Miami), Hunter Long (Boston College)
Depth: Running back, offensive tackle, linebacker
Derrick Henry is an absolute force. And he’s carried the workload like it as well as he leads all running backs in carries over the last three years. In fact he has had 896 carries during that span, Ezekiel Elliott has had, 849 and then no one else has had more than 700. So Henry has near 200 more than the guy with the third most. It speaks to his ability to stay healthy but, with that sort of usage, wear and tear can accumulate. Not to mention, he’s also never had more than 20 catches in a season. They have Darrynton Evans on the roster who is a solid backup on the ground but I don’t think it’s crazy for them to potentially target a back who can catch the ball out of the backfield and ease that workload a bit.
We already discussed what they could do with offensive line by drafting a tackle and moving Lamm over to guard. On defense they have stout pass rushing linebackers in Harold Landry and Bud Dupree and they have first round pick Rashaan Evans under contract for another year but could perhaps use a stronger player opposite him or simply some additional depth. Five of their linebacker contracts expire after this year.
Picks: 67, 109, 147, 158, 195, 203, 212, 233
Set: Running back, wide receiver
You’d have to be living under a rock to not know the Texans are in quite a predicament. They are at risk of not having their starting quarterback in 2021 and currently have the best odds of coming in dead last. In a situation like this, you basically just need to put the team into tank mode (which it seems they are doing letting guys like Will Fuller and JJ Watt leave).
Give that info, now is not the time to invest in short term assets like running back or wide receiver. These are positions you pick up on the other side of the rebuild as, unlike offensive line, these positions are considered to be on the back half of their careers at a relatively young age. I mean, Brandin Cooks is 27 and David Johnson is 29 and how do we feel about them? Trent Williams is 32 and he just got a 6 year $138 million dollar contract. The Texans have more than enough to get by with Johnson, Mark Ingram, and Phillip Lindsay at RB and Cooks, Randall Cobb, Keke Coutee, Donte Moncrief, Chris Conley etc. at WR.
As we mentioned before, players in the secondary have a surprisingly long shelf life. Yet the Texans haven’t really been able to lock down their long term guys since the days of Johnathan Joseph. Like a lot of their lineup in what should be a rough year, they’ve filled the gap with short term contracts for guys like Desmond King and Terrance Mitchell but I would start by trying to grab a cornerback. They don’t have a first or second round pick but solid corners have been found in the third and, given the proliferation of nickel and dime packages, CB has a high floor because they’ll play even if they aren’t starting outside caliber guys right away.
Potential early round picks: Jevon Holland (Oregon), Aaron Robinson (UCF), Tay Gowan (UCF), Kelvin Joseph (Kentucky), Eric Stokes (Georgia), Benjamin St-Juste (Minnesota)
Depth: Tight end, offensive and defensive line
You’ve accepted your fate and know that you aren’t winning much this year (an over/under of 4.5 wins per SportsBook.com is the lowest in the league and is especially low in a 17 game season). You don’t have a whole lot of high end picks (only one in the top 100). You want to push everything forward if at all possible. Trade picks for future picks. Or focus on positions they have long shelf lives or take longer times to develop. The worst thing for you to do is end up winning 7 games instead of 4 where you didn’t accomplish anything but also didn’t get a great pick.
As we discussed earlier, tight end is a position that has longevity and can take time to develop. Working on your foundation in terms of offensive and defensive line is a great way to plan for the future without really taking impact players that will win you games. I know it’s dreary, but you have to be smart about things and, when you look at the rebuilds that turned things around the fastest like the Dolphins or the Rams, the best thing to do was go full “Scorched Earth Policy” and burn it all down quickly so you have more room to grow immediately.