Welcome back to part three of this series, where I take the temperature of every general manager and head coach around the National Football League. In parts one and two, we took a look at the AFC East and the AFC West respectively, and for the most part, we have had seats that were relatively cold and where jobs are safe. The AFC West is heating up as a highly competitive division, but also has some coaches and front office members who are starting to look over their shoulders. Now, in the AFC South, there are a ton of new faces leading the charge. While some face extremely daunting times (looking at you Houston), others are welcoming in new players who could be big time difference makers for their respective franchises. Let’s take a look at an interesting AFC South division.
Indianapolis Colts: GM Chris Ballard and Head Coach Frank Reich
The Colts are one of the deeper and stronger teams in this division, and certainly are contenders in the entire AFC. They’re led by a great duo in GM Chris Ballard and HC Frank Reich, who have built a deep and competitive roster that has a chance to take a further step in this winning window that is opening up. Ballard has done an exceptional job drafting high quality players and perennial Pro Bowlers during his tenure as GM. While his very first pick in 2017 (safety Malik Hooker) didn’t necessarily work out, mainly due to injury, his remaining draft classes have been quite helpful overall in developing depth and solid starters across the board. In 2018, he drafted two All-Pro players with back-to-back picks (offensive guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard) who are spoken of as some of the better players at their positions. In 2020, he acquired Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner for their 2020 first round pick and drafted exciting wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. out of USC in the second round. In addition, he drafted one of the top college running backs, Jonathan Taylor, out of Wisconsin. Ballard has certainly done his fair share of good work building this roster from top to bottom, but he still had some question marks at the quarterback position. One of the common themes you’ll see in this division is the turnover at the QB position that this division has faced, and the Colts were certainly affected by it. This team was still trying to recover both emotionally and from a football performance standpoint with the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck. Last year, they brought in long time Charger Philip Rivers as a bit of a stopgap option, and they wound up winning 11 games before losing to the Bills in an exciting wild-card matchup. Rivers retired after this past season, which prompted Ballard to search for a QB either in free agency or through the draft. He ended up making a big splash by trading for embattled QB Carson Wentz (formerly of the Eagles), which reunited him with his former offensive coordinator, and now head coach, Frank Reich. They are big believers that Wentz will rebound from an awful and tumultuous season with the Eagles last year and be able to lead them to a division title.
Seat temperature: Cold. The Colts are an underrated team in the AFC and don’t seem to get the respect that they deserve, which they probably thrive off of. Chris Ballard has done a very good job drafting and grooming home grown talent, and hasn’t hurt the franchise by dedicating tons of cap space to keep those core players in Colt uniforms for a long time. Coach Frank Reich is finally getting a QB who he can trust and allow to operate his offense at an effective level. Both have nothing to worry about with their jobs.
Tennessee Titans: GM Jon Robinson and Head Coach Mike Vrabel
The Titans have had some productive seasons under the watch of Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel. Robinson has been instrumental in drafting players like Derrick Henry, Kevin Byard, Jeffrey Simmons, and A.J. Brown. He did miss on OT Isiah Wilson in the 2020 draft and is also hoping that their first rounder this year, CB Caleb Farley, will find a way produce on the field as he recovers from offseason back surgery. Robinson also made a big move when he traded for QB Ryan Tannehill to back up incumbent starter Marcus Mariota. This ultimately led to Tannehill taking over the starting QB job and improving his own play, which finally turned a position of weakness into a strength. Robinson most recently made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason, when he acquired All-Pro WR Julio Jones from the Atlanta Falcons to pair with Brown, Henry and Tannehill. Two seasons ago, the Titans shocked the league when they won two road playoff games, against New England and Baltimore, before running into Kansas City. Last season, they had an earlier exit, since Lamar Jackson and the Ravens got their revenge in a wild-card win, thus avenging the previous year’s upset. The team has played well for Coach Vrabel, even with some of their deficiencies on the defensive side of the football. They lost some talent this past offseason from the WR and TE room, but made up for it by acquiring Jones. They might even look to acquire another TE in some way or another, as has been noted by ProFootballRumors. They have a new-look secondary led by Kevin Byard and Janoris Jenkins, so it’ll be interesting to see how this team plays on a weekly basis.
Seat temperature: GM Jon Robinson: Warm. I think that there’s some pressure on him to prove that he’s a solid talent evaluator, as he’s made some high risk selections that haven’t worked out. Jack Conklin is no longer on the team, the team declined the fifth-year option for LB Rashaan Evans, and they haven’t been able to establish a strong pass rush (although they did spend a lot of money on former Steelers OLB Bud Dupree). We all know how the Isiah Wilson selection turned out, as he is no longer on the team (or any other team for that matter) after just one year, and Caleb Farley will have to prove that he was worth the investment following his surgery. HC Vrabel: I think his seat is cold, as he’s done a great job coaching this team. That being said, he certainly has his work cut out for him, since there has been a ton of roster turnover as well as the team having new offensive and defensive coordinators. The expectations are high for this Titans ball club, and they will have to deal with the Colts and an up-and-coming Jaguars team.
Jacksonville Jaguars: GM Trent Baalke and Head Coach Urban Meyer
Speaking of which, the next team under the microscope is the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars are ushering in a new and fresh start with Baalke, Meyer, and their franchise QB Trevor Lawrence. Baalke ran the show out in the Bay Area with the 49ers for five years before he was replaced by John Lynch, and now he is getting his second opportunity. Their only win of this past season was in Week 1… and then they proceeded to lose 15 straight games afterwards. Well, at least they secured the rights to Lawrence, who they hope will turn this franchise around and bring them up to relevance. The front office brought in some serious talent from the college ranks and, on paper, they definitely look a lot better than 1-15, but I don’t expect this team to land in the playoffs just yet. The Jaguars are a very young team with a first time NFL head coach in Urban Meyer, who will look to carry over his success from Florida and, more recently, Ohio State University to the NFL ranks. We are seeing more and more GMs put an emphasis on surrounding their young QBs with talent to maximize their potential, and I think the work that Baalke has done in his first year as GM will help Meyer and Trevor get a handful of wins this season, with good young potential on both sides of the ball.
Seat temperature: Cold. Both Baalke and Meyer will have a long leash to build the roster in their vision to field a competitive team for years to come in the AFC South. My expectation is that this team will begin to become a formidable opponent every week in a year or two. We should see some flashes, but also some growing pains as well, in year 1 of this new era in Duval County.
Houston Texans: GM Nick Caserio and Head Coach David Culley
Where do I even begin with this team…? The state of affairs for the Houston Texans have been negatively impacted in dramatic fashion, and my full and honest opinion on the Texans would be better saved for its own article in the future. For now, we are going to focus on first-time GM Nick Caserio and first-time HC David Culley, who are taking over a Texans team that is in disarray and coming off a 4-12 season. After some internal issues within the organization, and alarming off-field issues, it is almost guaranteed that Deshaun Watson has played his final snap in a Texans uniform. It is believed that Watson wanted to be more involved with the hiring process and was ultimately disregarded, adding even more friction to an already tense situation. Now, it remains to be seen whether action will be taken against him or not, which will certainly impact his demand to be traded. Houston brought in long time executive Nick Caserio over from the Patriots to steer the ship and begin the healing process for this team. One of his first moves, however, was an unpopular one: he released lifelong Texan J.J. Watt after nine seasons with the team. Unfortunately for Caserio, he was only armed with five draft picks to help a roster that is deprived of talent… He seemingly closed the book on Watson when he took QB Davis Mills in the third round and also brought in veteran journeyman Tyrod Taylor as a stopgap option. Caserio brought in assistant head coach of the Ravens, David Culley, to be the head coach, but I do not think that he’ll find any success right away. This is one of the worst rosters on paper in the NFL, and I can’t see them winning more than three games, if even that.
Seat temperature: GM Nick Caserio: Cold. He was brought in to put his own stamp on this team after many successful seasons as an executive in New England, but he will have to navigate some uncharted waters rather quickly in a somewhat unexpected fashion. This team was reaching near Super Bowl level contention but now face being the favorites to lock up the number one pick in the 2022 draft. HC David Culley: I think his seat is cold as well. I doubt he’ll be let go after one year, unless he shows that he can’t lead properly or field a competitive team every Sunday. I don’t expect him to stick around long term, but the expectations aren’t high enough in Houston right now for him to lose his job right away.
I will be back again soon with part 4 of the series, where we will focus on the AFC North.