As we march on with our offseason division exploration before general managers begin bidding on football humans, we come to a division with both lots of money and no money at all, and a team that will determine the direction of the draft.
Estimated cap room: $37.8
Draft slot: no first-round pick (still hate you, Trent)
End game: When you sacrifice a first-round pick to acquire a player, the assumption is that said player will be of the highest caliber. He’ll be young, fast, and regardless of the position he plays, he’ll be the sort of athletic machine rarely available through trade. Trent Richardson is only one of those things. The young part.
Although at the time the trade to pry Richardson from Cleveland was hailed as a glorious victory by Colts general manager Ryan Grigson, it’s now a stain on what little there is of his legacy. Richardson averaged just three yards per carry throughout the season while being overtaken by Vick Ballard, and then under the bright playoff lights of January he was summarily dismissed and relegated to the sidelines, receiving only four carries over two games.
That trade and misfire is why any heavy offseason lifting the Colts aim to do while finding an immediate impact player will be restricted to free agency, as barring a trade Grigson isn’t on the clock until the back half of the second round on Day 2 of the draft (59th overall). So with that lack of draft ammunition and a heavy pocket, Indianapolis will be a fine place to get paid starting this afternoon.
The need for a middle linebacker with Pat Angerer departing was already addressed by overpaying for D’Qwell Jackson. Now in a passing league where guys who prevent completed passes are rather important, either retaining Vontae Davis or finding at worst his equivalent in free agency is the next priority. The contracts given to Sam Shields and Brent Grimes have quickly inflated the top of the cornerback market, and despite their cap room Davis’ figure may quickly exceed what Grigson is willing to sensibly spend.
Reports yesterday afternoon indicated that Davis, a highly coveted 25-year-old who fits the description of the new taller breed of cornerback at nearly 6′o”, likely won’t re-sign in Indy. Right away the common guess was that after ridding themselves of Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes to create their own mountain of cap space, the Jets are throwing around those riches to fill a clear need with young blood.
Grigson could then turn his attention to Alterraun Verner, Aqib Talib, or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. On the exact opposite side of the ball, there’s also a need at wide receiver because as timeless as he seems, Reggie Wayne can’t reverse the aging process. He’s coming off an ACL tear and entering the final year of his contract, and another weapon to pair with both him and T.Y. Hilton would take the Colts offense to a whole different level of scary. That puts Grigson among the leaders to overpay for Eric Decker, though given their aforementioned cap space and even greater need at the position, he’ll again face a strong push from the Jets.
Estimated cap room: $57.8 million
Draft slot: 3rd
End game: This is a time of transition for the Jaguars. But really, what time isn’t a time of transition for the Jaguars? There’s reason to believe this could be the start of the last transition, though, or at least something better than every other transition.
Maurice Jones-Drew is about to move on, and at the not at all ripe age of 29 after a career low 3.4 yards per carry in 2013 (his overall career average is much higher at 4.5), little thought needed to be put into letting him walk. But although running backs are treated like those relic throwaway camera things that yell tourist, you still need someone to run the ball on occasion, and the current combination of Denard Robinson and Jordan Todman doesn’t fill the heart with much confidence.
That’s why with their girth of cash the Jags will likely be in play for a cheap backfield option, one that hasn’t faced nearly as much abuse. LeGarrette Blount and Toby Gerhart both meet that description.
Beyond that, you name it and the Jaguars need to buy it. An improved interior offensive line is a priority, which is why Zane Beadles could be targeted. But at 379.4 the Jags have a defense that gave up the fifth most yards per game while allowing 28.1 points. Of all the defensive needs, a swift upgrade of their pass rush is the most glaring after only 31 sacks. That’s why the Jaguars can be expected to bid hard for Michael Johnson and LaMarr Houston, the two remaining premier young pass rushers on the market.
And those bids will ultimately fail, because given the history of losing in Jacksonville their money can’t speak loud enough. That’s why a difficult decision could be coming in May.
If the Texans pass on Jadeveon Clowney he’ll fall to Jacksonville at No. 3, since defensive end isn’t at all a need for St. Louis. He should be the Jaguars’ pick at that point to solve their pass rush woe, but not without some thought. Some long, hard thought on the quarterback position, as re-signing Chad Henne was little more than a safety net, and Blaine Gabbert is well into his bust doom.
Clowney provides an immediate solution to the most pressing defensive problem, but the problem of winning won’t be addressed until there’s a franchise quarterback. At least two and possibly three of the arms who can do that will be available at No. 3, and if they bite on Clowney without leveraging him to trade down (a very real possibility…hi, Falcons), there’s a steep fall from the Manziels and Bridgewaters in the first round, to A.J. McCarron and Jimmy Garoppolo in the second.
Estimated cap room: $8 million
Draft slot: 11th
End game: Cutting Chris Johnson has to happen here. With that minimal cap room (the fifth lowest in the league) that’s already going to result in the loss of Alterraun Verner, there’s just no other option. Johnson is still fast, and he sporadically does head-turning things. But he turns 29 shortly after next season starts, he’s registered 2,014 career touches, and most devastatingly, he’s due $8 million over each of the next two seasons.
That’s a death anchor at the running back position, especially for an offense with promising youth split out wide between Jason Hunter and Kendall Wright, and one that was just significantly upgraded along the offensive line a year ago between Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack. That extra cash provided by cutting Johnson could be used to replace Verner, who had five interceptions and 22 passes defensed, while allowing a tiny 55.8 passer rating against.
As it stands there’s no money available to find someone who’s even half of what Verner is, and really nothing in the bank to purchase a commodity of remote significance until Johnson is cut. That’s why on May 8 the Titans will join the many cornerback hungry teams in the early rounds, the difference being their 11th overall slot is far more favorable to land a top prospect at the position. It’s likely they get to choose between Jason Gilbert and Darqueze Dennard.
Estimated cap room: $9.3
Draft slot: 1st
End game: While the Jaguars above have a collection of deep, dark holes and quarterback is among them, the Texans are the model of a team that feels like they’re a pivot away from returning to playoff contention with stability at the most important offensive position. Or at the very least they’ll make a dramatic improvement after a two-win season that saw Matt Schaub get great enjoyment from throwing pick sixes.
That’s the easy argument in support of taking really awesome Quarterback X with the first overall pick (likely either Blake Bortles or Teddy Bridgewater), and it’s fueled by an offense with Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins in place, and a healthy Arian Foster with plenty of time to recover after his November back surgery can still be an effective Arian Foster. There isn’t much money available, but enough is in GM Rick Smith’s bedside piggy bank to add yet another piece to that receiving corps and plug in Julian Edelman to do his shifty slot thing.
The defense, powered by the league’s best pass rusher in J.J. Watt, allowed just 317.6 yards per game (seventh) can expect minimal free agency losses. But despite that defensive efficiency during an otherwise dreadful season, the quarterback at No. 1 overall counterargument needs only a name: Jadeveon Clowney.
Pairing him with Watt should be illegal, and Clowney has more than enough speed and athleticism to stand up and play as an outside linebacker in the 3-4 if needed. More likely and ideally, he’d be plugged in up front where Antonio Smith is departing. Combined with Watt’s strength and swatting, Clowney’s edge speed (reminder you don’t need: he ran a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash at the Combine) and vertical explosiveness will shrink the pocket fast.
All of that is tremendous. But when Clowney is on the sideline he would then be watching either Schaub play quarterback (shivers), or a second-rounder who isn’t ready yet. And still the great work of a great defensive will be undone repeatedly.