Welcome to the AFC South edition of my free agent target series. Last week we covered the AFC East grabbing some big names of the market. With good cap space throughout the division, let’s see where it is spent.
There are three teams in the AFC South with cap space above the league average. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars in this division sit in a terrible cap space conundrum. This is a division on the rise. The AFC South could become the deepest division in the AFC if these teams can hit on the draft and acquire a key free agent or two.
The Titans could use a new offensive coordinator or some offensive Line help but with key free agents of their own will need to spend on defense. The Texans need to spend their cap space to retain their defensive core. The Jaguars need to focus on the draft. The Colts have a lot of spending money with a solid core in place. Let’s take a look to see how the cap space is being spent.
Needs: Outside Linebacker, Defensive Tackle, and Safety
Notable Free Agents: Bennie Logan, Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan, William Compton, and Kenny Vaccaro
Cap Space: $44,185,620 (13th most)
Who Will They Sign?
1) Kenny Vaccaro – Safety
The Titans signed Johnathan Cyprien this past offseason. Before the season even had a chance to take off for Cyprien, he tore his ACL. The Titans had balked for a while until they finally decided to sign Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro was one of the outcasts this offseason due to his involvement in the protest to stand during the National Anthem.
Kenny Vaccaro has been a productive player in his career. In his six-year career, he has played in 80 games with 79 of those starts. In those games he has totaled 434 tackles (317 solo), 26 tackles for a loss, 9.5 sacks, 33 passes defended, nine interceptions, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and one Touchdown. Vaccaro is also still relatively young going into his year 28 season. Kenny Vaccaro has always been a terrific run stopper since his days with the New Orleans Saints.
32 in there is SAFETY Kenny Vaccaro playing with a bunch of boys much bigger than he is. pic.twitter.com/d21k5962Sh
— Justen Gammel (@gamscout) November 15, 2017
In 2018 with the Titans he filled in quite nicely for Cyprien. Vaccaro displayed many of the same traits that made him a 79 game starter.
His contract had only been for the 2018 season but if the Titans were smart they would make him a top priority signing. Cyprien is under contract all the way through the 2020 season but is often injured. He has a history of soft tissue injuries with a hamstring in 2017 and also had a torn ACL this season. Having a little insurance as well as depth would be nice.
2) Danny Shelton – Defensive Tackle
With Jurrell Casey on the squad, this position may not look like a position of need. Casey is an impressive DT and leads the team in sacks with seven but the Titans need somebody to play the big tackle role in the middle. They need somebody to fill holes in the middle, stuff gaps, and soak up offensive lineman to allow his teammates the ability to make a play.
Danny Shelton was drafted 12th overall in the 2015 NFL draft but is on his second team and has only started one of the twelve games he was active for this season. How Shelton fell out of favor with two teams is tough to answer, but he still has shown ability in the past. In Shelton’s second season he produced 59 tackles playing tackle for the Browns.
Shelton has played his best football against the AFC South Division with almost 25% of his career tackles coming in games against these teams. Playing next to Casey should help Shelton as he has never had the opportunity to play next to somebody of his caliber. Casey will have the majority of the inside attention which could allow Shelton to finally reach his potential of first round pick.
3) Dominique Easley – Outside Linebacker
Easley could be a nice buy-low free agent option for the Titans. Easley was a 1st round pick in 2014 29th overall. He has, unfortunately, had four knee surgeries in his four seasons. The Los Angeles Rams switched his position from defensive tackle to outside linebacker to help ease the pressure on his knees. To there unfortunate surprise, it did not work.
In his 41 games, Easley has 6.5 sacks and 18 QB hits. He does a solid job at getting to the quarterback. The Titans have both starting outside linebackers hitting the free agency market in Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. With not too much out there in the free agent market for outside linebackers, Easley, if healthy, may be able to make a splash or at the least provide depth at the position. Maybe a pure pass rushing role will help Easley stay on the field. He could be a nice cheap option for the Titans.
Needs: Safety, Cornerback, Linebacker depth
Notable Free Agents: None
Salary Cap: -$5,897,136 (31st most)
The Jaguars are in the unfortunate position of already being over the salary cap. They are also sitting at 5-10 this season. Good news for them is that their defense is stout as stout as it was before, they just didn’t get any help from the offense. Quarterback Blake Bortles was an utter mess and running back Leonard Fournette barely played this season. Due to their cap situation, the Jaguars will be doing nothing but looking at the draft for adding talent.
Needs: Defensive Tackle, Cornerback, Linebacker depth
Notable Free Agents: Christian Covington, Jadeveon Clowney, Kareem Jackson, Shareece Wright, Tyrann Mathieu
Salary Cap: $68,516,213 (7th most)
The Texans are a very intriguing team with a good amount of cap space. The defense is playing very well together and the Texans sit in first place in the AFC South right now. They have the seventh most cash to spend but I see the majority of that cash being spent to retain Kareem Jackson, Tyrann Mathieu and Jadeveon Clowney. I see all three of these players signing again with the Texans to keep a solid core together to push for the playoffs. The Texans are now starting to look like a free agency destination, especially on the defensive side of the ball. With that prediction made, let’s see who else they could go for.
Who Will They Sign?
1) Brian Orakpo – Outside Linebacker
Outside Linebacker may not look like a position of need for the Texans. Whitney Mercilus has been a solid producer for the Texans in his career but his numbers have seemed to drop slightly. In his first five seasons with the Texans, Mercilus had 37.5 sacks, which is an average of 7.5 sacks per season. For his last two seasons, he has played in twenty but started only fourteen. In those 20 games, he only has 4.5 sacks and seems to have lost his starting job.
Orakpo for his career is a good pass rusher with 66 sacks in his 10 years in the league, an average of just over 6.5 per season. This season you saw his total reach only 1.5 sacks. This is not all his fault as the Titans were not a great pass rushing team in general, averaging 2.5 sacks per game.
Awful, awful play by Cam Robinson. Blake Bortles fumbles on sack by Brian Orakpo. pic.twitter.com/9cCasqaLxC
— Big Cat Country (@BigCatCountry) September 17, 2017
Orakpo is 32 years old, but in the right situation could still produce. Just last year he had seven sacks and 10 in 2016. Orakpo still has a high motor and is incredibly athletic. Imagine the possibilities with Orakpo pass rushing alongside Clowney and J.J. Watt. Due to the speed of his pass rush, he hits the blind side with force and tied a career-high with three forced fumbles in 2016.
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) November 12, 2017
Orakpo played his college ball for the University of Texas and I think that a reunion with the state could be very intriguing to him.
2) Davon House – Cornerback
The Texans have some solid corners on the team. The newly re-signed Kareem Jackson joins Johnathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson. Outside of his rookie year, Johnson has not played a complete season due to injuries. Outside of these three, there is not much depth. The Texans can look deep into the free agent pool and can come out with having added someone like Davon House for a bargain.
Back in 2015, House had his breakout season with the Jaguars. He had 109 tackles, 23 passes defended and four interceptions to only start four games the following season. House then signed on for his second stint with the Green Bay Packers in 2017, producing a modest 81 tackles, one sack, six passes defended and one interception. House is an aggressive player and strong tackler which fits in well with what the Texans do. He is also an interchangeable piece and can be used like Kareem Jackson was at safety due to his physicality.
— Titletown Chatter (@TitletownChat) May 27, 2018
With 87 career games under his belt, House and Joseph bring a lot of experience at the position. The Texans run man coverage about 50% of the time which is where House excels. He does not need to be an every-down player but can still make an impact as a part-time player. House is a veteran presence and would be a seamless fit into what the Texans are doing.
3) Al Woods – Defensive Tackle
Al Woods may not seem like a sexy signing for the Texans but it is a necessary one. Brandon Dunn is the starting nose tackle for the Texans and after him, there really is not any depth at the position. Woods has five straight seasons with at least 30 tackles. Just two seasons ago he had the season of his life. In that season he had totals of 64 tackles, five for a loss, and one sack.
— Josh Boeke (@JoshBoeke) November 19, 2018
Al Woods plays the run on the interior very well and his ability to push up the middle could make life even more lavish for Watt and Clowney. Woods could come in and make an impact from the get-go.
Needs: Defensive Tackle, Cornerback, Safety
Notable Free Agents: Al Woods, Margus Hunt, Pierre Desir, Mike Mitchell, and Clayton Geathers
Salary Cap: $122,807,204 (Most in the NFL)
The Colts are in the midst of a 9-6 season so far and Andrew Luck looks to be back to form. The defense has also taken huge leaps, ranked 30th overall as a group last season to 13th ranked this season. The Colts have good young talent on defense with linebackers Darius Leonard and Anthony Walker, safety Malik Hooker, and cornerbacks Quincy Wilson, and Kenny Moore II. With 2018 free agent additions like defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Denico Autry who have excelled in 2018 and this defense looks scary now and has a bright future. The Colts also have the most cap space in the league for 2019. With an up-and-coming team and a healthy Luck, the Colts are now a free agent destination. They should be able to attract some big names.
Who Will They Sign?
1) David Irving – Defensive Tackle
Defensive tackle Margus Hunt is a free agent after this season as well as Al Woods. Hunt had a very strong start to 2018 but tailed off later in the season. While Hunt is one of the better DT free agent names on the market, with the cash available to the Colts they should shoot for the best available. The best available just might be David Irving.
Irving is a vicious pass rusher and should be a target for any team needing pressure up the middle. He needs to keep himself out trouble off the field to start, but a change of scenery can help that. We all know what Dallas can do to some people. The only other knock on Irving is his ability to stay healthy. When healthy though, he is an animal.
In eight games in 2017, he had 22 tackles, nine for a loss, seven sacks, six passes defended, and one forced fumble. He can get to the quarterback with an array of pass rushing moves as well.
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) June 11, 2018
The Colts are middle of the pack when it comes to sacks. Most of the sacks come by way of Autry and Leonard who have combined for 15 of the Colts 38 sacks. Irving has shown, when healthy, that he can be a double-digit sack producer. Irving is a spectacular talent and the Colts would be wise to spend capital to add pass rush talent like this to the defense.
2) Clayton Geathers – Safety
Geathers is one of the free agents on the team that they should retain. Sure, Geathers has a lengthy health history that stems into this season. That does not negate the fact that when he plays, he is one of the best tackling safeties in the league. In the 41 games in which he has played, he tallied 183 tackles (137 solo), nine passes defended and two forced fumbles.
Geathers biggest impact for this team may not be seen in the box score. As I said before, he is one of the best tackling safeties in the league. Knowing he is back there allows the linebackers to be more aggressive. Look at Darius Leonard‘s numbers this year when Geathers was on the field as opposed to injured. In Weeks 5-8 Geathers was either limited or out. During that span, Leonard did not come up with a sack and only had one quarterback hit. In the other eleven games, Geathers was a full participant, Leonard has seven sacks and seven quarterback hits. Leonard is a marvelous blitzer but is not used as so when Geathers is off the field. Geathers is the tackle insurance behind Leonard if the pressure does not amount to anything.
— Andrew Aziz (@AndrewAzizSB) September 17, 2018
The duo of Hooker and Geathers has shown to be a great combo when both of them see the field. Geathers age is also attractive as he is only 26 years old. The age of this team is what gives it so much cap space and promise. Geathers ability to show up in the box score and impact the teams defensive game plan is a reason why he should be retained.
3) Buster Skrine – Cornerback
The Colts have some good young talent at the cornerback position. Moore II is a budding star. Wilson has played admirably in his time on the field and is looking to make a leap in 2019. One spot they could use an upgrade is in the slot. Nate Hairston played a lot of slot snaps for the Colts but he has had issues staying healthy.
Skrine is an eight-year veteran who has been productive. He has lined up at every cornerback spot and also played some safety, allowing him to fit right in with the new schemes that are more relevant in today’s NFL. His coverage has always been solid as 75 career passes defended. Here you see him in great coverage picking off New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady:
— John Gatta (@johngattajr) October 16, 2017
Skrine will be 30 next season but still has plenty of gas left in the tank. Adding a savvy veteran to the infusion of young talent on this defense would be a great idea. He could become that vocal leader and help some of these young guys learn and improve. Skrine would be a nice addition to a team looking to make some noise.
These are my analyses on what each team in the AFC South should do for free agency. Unfortunately for the Jaguars, that means nothing. The other three teams should fill some holes they have while the Texans and the Colts push to make themselves legitimate contenders. Next edition we will be looking into the AFC North Division, be sure to give it a read.
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