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Most pressing 2019 fantasy questions the AFC South has to answer

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With the offseason now in view for the majority of NFL teams, it’s time to spin forward. While all 32 clubs will spend the next few months searching for every possible way to upgrade their rosters, each team has one major question front and center in their mind. Here, we’ll explore the most pressing question each AFC South team must answer before the 2019 NFL season begins, and how it pertains to fantasy.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Pressing question to answer: Who are we? Where are we?

We were led to believe that the Jacksonville Jaguars would be a throwback organization, one to live among the modern beasts of the pass-happy NFL. A run-based, defensive-minded squad that could see your spread concepts and raise you an ass-kicking defense.

Just one year removed from an impressive run to the AFC Championship, a team who once looked to have a clearer identity than at least 80 percent of the league is now right back in the wilderness.

Defensively, the Jaguars became just the latest team to have the reality of the brief window a dominant stop unit brings slap them in the face. Jacksonville’s defense was overall a plus asset in 2019. However, it was not the playmaking, top of the line unit that lifted them to wins in 2017 — especially in the scoring department. It’s just too hard to roll over that kind of efficiency year-over-year in the modern era NFL.

The defense is still their identity, but there are questions. And it’s not the same locked-in feelings of good vibes provided after 2017.

On the other side of the ball, we find the true source of the rot. The albatross of the Blake Bortles disaster, and the subsequent decision to double-down on him last offseason, still loom large over the entire franchise. Even worse, the player Jacksonville insisted they would truly build around, running back Leonard Fournette, has quickly become more pariah than public hero.

The curtain fell on the 2018 season with team vice president Tom Coughlin releasing a statement (which no one asked for) of embarrassment surrounding the running back’s sideline “behavior” and the Jaguars attempting to strip his contract of remaining guarantees. A grievance was promptly filed.

Fournette’s status as a member of the team has to be in question. Even without all the off-field squabbles and contract disputes, the Fournette show hasn’t been anything close to worth the price of admission. He’s yet to crack 4.0 yards per carry in his career and is consistently hobbled by or unavailable due to injuries. Taking a running back without strong receiving chops at the fourth-overall pick was a bad process move at the time and it’s a decision that only gets worse with age as fellow 2016 draft picks Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes continue to take over the league.

Leonard Fournette once looked like a key piece to the Jaguars operation but it’s hard to consider that a reality (Getty Images).
Leonard Fournette once looked like a key piece to the Jaguars operation but it’s hard to consider that a reality (Getty Images).

The Jaguars head into the offseason with layers of questions and few, if any, answers. With Fournette a major question and no life in the passing game, it’s hard to imagine being interested in any Jaguars players at cost in fantasy this coming season.

Who are the Jacksonville Jaguars? They are a ship lost at sea; a ghost of a thrilling team that captivated us in 2017.

Possible solutions

Making matters worse in their pursuit of escape paths from their quagmires, the Jags don’t have much money to spend, either. They’re alone with the Eagles as the only teams currently over the 2019 cap. Jacksonville has contracts like Carlos Hyde and Marcel Dareus they can ditch to create easy room but will face more difficult decisions to get any real breath of fresh air. Especially considering they must take a hit when/if they finally shed Blake Bortles from the roster.

The most important move they can take in rebooting the franchise and finding a new identity is to solve their quarterback problem. Even though Jacksonville decided to run it back one more time with the same leadership structure, the brain trust cannot possibly fool themselves into thinking there is any other option but to take their medicine and send Bortles packing.

The Jaguars will once again be picking inside the top-10 of the selection process this spring. They’ll have to consider a player like Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins near the top of the NFL Draft. He’s one of the few passers who evaluators seem intrigued by that high this year. With their cap situation, a cheap rookie deal seems like the only option to plugging the hole behind center.

The organization also has a bonus Day 3 pick in the Rams third-rounder to play with. Once Jacksonville has clarity on their quarterback plan and that domino falls, they can begin to search for answers to the litany of other questions that haunt this roster.

Tennessee Titans

Pressing question to answer: How do we really feel about Marcus Mariota?

Rather fittingly, the Tennessee Titans season ended with a dud in Week 17, as they were easily vanquished by the division-rival Colts while losing out on the final AFC playoff seat. It made all the sense in the world, as the Titans season was littered with duds along the way of a mediocre team that came into the year with some hopes of promise.

As the Titans prepare for Year 2 of the Mike Vrabel regime, they’ll be faced with an uncomfortable question about the quarterback they once took at No. 2 overall. Tennessee was too often exposed to Blaine Gabbert in 2018 as Marcus Mariota started just 13 games and left for portions of others with injuries.

The team was bottom-five in passing attempts, yards and touchdowns. Mariota offered a handful of promising outings (vs. New England and Philadelphia, in Houston) but left the team in a bind with several blistering clunkers (in Buffalo, Indianapolis and New York). He was often indecisive and took 42 sacks on the year.

From a bottom-line perspective, what they got from their quarterback in 2018 will never be good enough. The most damning reality may be that the team seemed to realize it as the year went on, and asked less and less of Mariota. By the time the season ended, the desired modern offense of now-Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was long since scrapped in favor of all the team could do…pound the rock with a red-hot Derrick Henry.

A Mariota apologist can make the argument that this Titans offense was hideously undermanned from a talent perspective and the quarterback had to play with one hand tied behind his back. It’s easy to forget all these months later but an offense that once planned on having a star at tight end in Delanie Walker and a strong No. 2 receiver in Rishard Matthews saw those players whisked away all too quickly. Walker went down for the year in Week 1. Matthews disappeared during training camp and eventually was granted his release.

Tennessee’s good young right tackle, Jack Conklin, played nine games this year after tearing his ACL in their 2017 playoff loss. Even the promising Taywan Taylor dealt with injuries throughout his sophomore campaign. The offense was essentially either Corey Davis, the running backs, or bust.

The health questions are real but perhaps the team decides the odds are just too stacked against him for Mariota to thrive in 2018. You can make the argument, for sure. Yet, with Mariota seeming to regress or at least plateau in each of the last two seasons, the Titans have to find clarity, and fast, as he enters his fifth-year option season.

Possible solutions

Even if the Titans believe Mariota is salvageable as a franchise quarterback if they can boost the skill-position talent, they have to add better alternatives to the roster. Mariota’s injury history, especially multiple nerve-related ones in 2018, leave them with little choice.

The Titans have $43.5 Million in cap room heading into 2019 and could even create more room by severing contracts like Logan Ryan, Jonathan Cyprien and Wesley Woodyard if they so choose. Yet, with the defense needing to suffer in doing so, it seems unwise to fire cannons at the roster in order to dive into an uninspiring veteran free agent quarterback market. No matter what you think of Mariota, it’s hard to write in pen any of the available passers being a clear upgrade on him this coming season. Just a modest upgrade over Gabbert as the No. 2 quarterback should be in the plans, if anything.

Tennessee should, however, strongly consider dipping into the NFL Draft pool to add options at the position. While they won’t pick in the top half of the draft and merely own their own picks in Rounds 1 through 5 with no extras, some cheap competition is needed. The team would have no incentive to move on from Mariota this offseason, as this hypothetical rookie would almost certainly not be better than him 2019. However, after the last two years, the Titans have to begin grooming a contingency plan for the future with the prospect of handing out a massive quarterback deal to a shaky Mariota looms ever closer.

Indianapolis Colts

Pressing question to answer: Where do we most need difference-makers?

After a 1-5 start, the Indianapolis Colts set the league ablaze with a strong dash to the AFC postseason, eventually making it all the way to the Divisional Round. That was never supposed to happen.

The Colts were without question ahead of schedule in 2018 and are gorgeously set up for the future. Indianapolis has the right general manager, coach and quarterback to thrive in the modern NFL; all other things are secondary. The team managed to jumpstart the rebuild with Chris Ballard finally fixing the offensive line and constructing a defense that rarely broke but certainly bent last year.

With their future looking bright and the present already quite desirable, the Colts’ 2019 offseason will be consumed with finding out how to take the next step. With all the base-line ingredients of an annual playoff-bound squad in place, they’ll now search for needed difference-makers to help push them into the NFL’s top-tier of contenders.

The Colts will have to decide whether they want to focus their boosting efforts on either the offense or defensive sides of the ball. Andrew Luck paired with an offensive line that allowed a league-low 18 sacks and that ranked fourth in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards will forgive many sins.

The scoring unit was still far too barren on the fringes, relying almost solely on T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron through the air. Another high-quality receiver would go a long way to creating an elite offense after they operated with vagabonds across from Hilton all year.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is part of a base for the team that any organization would die for. (AP Photo/AJ Mast
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck is part of a base for the team that any organization would die for. (AP Photo/AJ Mast

For the selfish fantasy enthusiast out there, the Colts adding beef to this Andrew Luck-led offense is tantalizing. Not only would Luck look like one of the most appealing bets at the position this side of Patrick Mahomes, a running back like Marlon Mack would only increase his 2019 appeal if this offense had just another layer juice.

Nevertheless, the Colts could use a similar defensive star to help that unit take the next step. Indianapolis was surprisingly solid in 2018, ranking 13th in yards per play allowed and securing 29 turnovers. Issues came against great offenses who could slice through their zone-heavy schemes without the threat of a great pass rush. One more pressure machine on the edge or the interior and an asset in the secondary would be a welcome sight.

Possible solutions

The good news for the Colts: They may be able to do both in one offseason. No team enters the offseason with more cap room than the Colts, who have $117.4 million in space to stretch their legs. It’s hard to imagine the sharp Ballard suddenly becoming an aggressive spender in the occasional pitfalls of the open market but he can certainly make at least one or two starting-caliber signings.

While the public will be quick to connect Indianapolis to Le’Veon Bell, it’s worth wondering if that’s a wise financial move with former Day 3 draft pick Marlon Mack coming on late. That said, Bell’s receiving abilities and the Colts’ massive amounts of cap room make it intriguing. The wide receiver market could also bring them a pristine slot receiver like Golden Tate or another field-stretcher in the underrated John Brown. Both would be massively appealing catching passes from Luck.

On defense, the Colts should aim high. Any of the potential difference-makers like Ndamukong Suh, Ezekiel Ansah, Kareem Jackson, Earl Thomas or LaMarcus Joyner would be a solid add to take their group from a “bend don’t break” stop unit to one that breaks you.

If the veteran free agent market doesn’t catch their fancy, the Colts have four picks in the first two days of the NFL Draft. The Jets sent them their second rounder in 2019 for the rights to secure Sam Darnold.

One way or another, playmakers will be in their sights this spring. Make no mistake, while the Colts have some holes to fill, they have the resources to do it and a base to build on that would make most teams smirk with anticipation for the 2019 kickoff.

Houston Texans

Pressing question to answer: How can we fix an offensive line in one offseason?

Despite a strong overall season that included a nine-game win streak and a march to the AFC South crown, the Texans played all year with a clear and present weakness. Houston’s offensive line was among the worst, if not the very worst, offensive line in the NFL.

The pass protection was the biggest issue. Deshaun Watson was under pressure on 44.7 percent of his dropbacks in 2018, more than any other quarterback (min. 200 dropbacks), per Pro Football Focus. Watson handled these situations well overall, with an 88.2 passer rating on those plays, which trailed only Nick Foles’ 90.6. However, it’s difficult to string together consistent drives with such leaky blocking.

Watson had something of an underrated sophomore campaign, getting better in “real football” as the year went on before a disappointing playoff outing and finishing the regular season as the QB4 in fantasy. That was despite playing with a consistently banged up supporting cast and with a hand tied behind his back thanks to a broken offensive line. Watson could stabilize his weekly performance as a passer even further if he gets proper protection.

Despite his early prowess, there is still so much room for growth with this quarterback and passing game as a whole. But it has to start up front.

Possible solutions

Houston enters the offseason flush with cap space at $67.1 million. Some of that will dry up when they decide on how to handle Jadeveon Clowney but they can also get Demaryius Thomas’ $14 million figure off the books with no dead money charge.

The Texans have money to play with in free agency but as we know, rarely do key solutions just walk out into the open market. The organization can at least make a run at a veteran interior player like Mike Iupati or Roger Saffold but that won’t come with much guarantee. Houston will likely look to the draft, where they hold four picks on the draft’s first two days. Expect multiple front line additions this April. If they don’t nail this, it will be an anchor on the team once again.

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