With the conclusion of the offseason and the so-called “mini-camp” that followed the 2021 NFL Draft, the 32 teams across the National Football League are now one step closer to the main portion of the preseason – the training camp. The premier part of the preseason is already underway, with 29 teams officially reporting on Tuesday. Needless to clarify, the preparations are rapidly progressing with rumors floating around.
Moreover, all rosters are just about complete and the only remaining task is narrowing them down to 53 players, with others moving to the practice squad. This competition-driven process is bound to offer some intriguing position battles, as well as other storylines, across all thirty-two NFL teams.
Here is what to watch out for in the AFC South.
(Note: The first part of this article will focus on the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans. In the second part, at the reader’s attention will be the top storylines of Tennessee and Jacksonville)
Indianapolis Colts: Battle on the Edge
Just like last summer, the Indianapolis Colts are entering the 2021 NFL season with one of the deepest rosters in the National Football League. Not only that but their squad is also amongst the most balanced groups in the league. The team’s offensive unit was 13th through the air and 16th on the ground while their defense was 12th and 2nd. Furthermore, Indy’s pass-rush ranked 13th league-wide whereas their accomplished offensive line impressed yet again, allowing the second-fewest sacks.
These respective spots mean no position group ranked outside of the upper half of the league. They also established three main needs heading into the 2021 offseason – air raid, running game, and pass-rush.
Interestingly enough, the Colts roster did not undergo a drastic transformation as regards to none of the three units. To a large extent, that statement applies to Indianapolis’s actions during the entirety of free agency. The club did not sign any players to deals longer than one year. Furthermore, many of the one-year contracts that were handed out were returning assets, such as T.Y. Hilton, Xavier Rhodes, and Marlon Mack. The Colts’ most important free-agent addition was Eric Fisher, who will be paid about $8 million in 2021.
However, the 2021 NFL Draft did see Indy bring in reinforcements in the field of edge-rushing. With the 21st overall pick, general manager Chris Ballard did not hesitate to select Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye. By getting the Guinea native aboard, the Colts guarantee competition to one of the rare pieces of liability within their solid group of players.
Acquiring a more trustworthy option alongside a defensive end of Tyquan Lewis‘s caliber indeed resembles catching a break. Although it has to be noted that the projection for Paye himself perhaps will not be, and should not be, very high in the short term. During his four years as a Wolverine, he appeared in more than ten games just twice. Moreover, these two years (2018 and 2019) saw him post 2.0 and 6.5 sacks, respectively, in addition to tackles-for-loss figures of 5.5 and 12.5. These statistical achievements are not all that disappointing. However, they seem rather underwhelming for a first-round pick considering the turnout of players at the same position both in the early and late stages of the event. His final season in Ann Arbor also failed to turn his 2019 stability into a trend as the 22-year-old played just four games due to an injury.
Yet, Tyquan Lewis doesn’t have much more to boast, despite having three years of NFL experience behind him. The Ohio State alum has appeared in just 33 matchups for the Colts since getting drafted in the second round back in 2018. Although Lewis has started just ten games across the early portion of his career, he managed to post pleasant numbers in his latest campaign. In 2020, Tyquan Lewis, starting four of sixteen showdowns, accumulated four sacks. That was despite participating in just 40 percent of all of the Colts’ offensive snaps. This efficiency sets the bar high should he earn a bigger chunk of the pie.
However, selecting a defensive end on the first day of the draft speaks avidly of the Colts’ unwillingness to be confident in Lewis’s abilities as a starter. Moreover, this also means that their intentions are likely to favor the newcomer on the edge. Nonetheless, it seems evident that Lewis is capable of providing a fight for a starting spot until proven otherwise.
Houston Texans: Watson Or Nothing
The legal issues surrounding fifth-year Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson have cooled down for the time being. However, as he arrived at Houston’s training camp venue, it became apparent that Watson still fiercely demanded to get traded away from the AFC South team. The worrying prospect of such events seems problematic from the team’s point of view, especially considering the current state of the offense’s air raid.
The reason why the Texans need Watson to stay in Houston is not merely because he is a good passer. It is primarily due to the damage done to the receiving corps for the second straight offseason. Last season, the club recovered from the DeAndre Hopkins trade by replacing him with former LA Ram Brandin Cooks. That seemed to have paid dividends as the Texans’ passing unit remained as sharp as it has ever been. It produced the second-highest passer rating, the second-most yards, and the third-best completion percentage. However, this past offseason has made the task of replicating these figures much more difficult.
As the team has suffered the departure of prolific pass-catcher Will Fuller, the receiving core has been left shorthanded in terms of both quality and depth. Heading into the 2021 preseason, the best Houston’s offense has to offer behind Cooks includes such assets as rookie Nico Collins, Anthony Miller, Andre Roberts, and Keke Coutee. This group certainly will not fuel the Texans staff with confidence with anyone other than Watson under center.
Should Deshaun Watson get traded, the first takeaway would be that the team isn’t going to get as much for him as they would have twelve months ago. His market value has plummeted under the influence of various factors. That puts into question how many impactful players or draft picks they can have the leverage to negotiate in return.
Secondly, head coach David Culley and offensive coordinator Tim Kelly would not have a broad collection of options to choose from. Currently, Tyrod Taylor is situated right behind Watson on Houston’s depth chart. Now 31 and into his eleventh NFL campaign, Taylor has not been a regular starting quarterback in professional football for three years. Furthermore, the Ravens draftee has only started a total of four games over the past three years with the Browns and the Chargers.
The third scenario at QB would be 2021 third-round pick David Mills. Mills could have been drafted with the idea of succeeding Watson in mind. However, he did not have the most impressive of careers at Stanford, recording just 11 starts across four seasons with the Cardinal. Therefore, Mills will need time to adapt to the NFL game, to say the least.
Seemingly, the Texans do not have an option they can be pleased with in the event of a Watson trade. These concerns are multiplied by the underwhelming state of the offense’s receiving corps. The possible saving grace for Houston? One way would be to talk Deshaun Watson into remaining a Texan. Another option is to, somehow, acquire another starter-worthy quarterback before the season’s kickoff in mid-September.
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