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AFC South rookie grades: Texans find their quarterback (finally!)

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  • By Nick Shook NFL.com
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With the 2017 NFL campaign in the rearview, draft season's about to kick into high gear. But before we completely shift over to the Class of 2018, let's review the returns from this past season's crop of rookies. Division-by-division, we're providing grades on each team's 2017 draft class, as well as identifying areas that must be upgraded this offseason. Nick Shook examines the AFC South below.

Houston Texans

Round 1: (No. 12 overall) Deshaun Watson, QB, 7 games/6 starts.
Round 2: (57) Zach Cunningham, LB, 16 games/13 starts.
Round 3: (89) D'Onta Foreman, RB, 10 games/1 start.
Round 4: (130) Julie'n Davenport, OT, 11 games/4 starts; (142) Carlos Watkins, DL, 12 games/6 starts.
Round 5: (169) Treston Decoud, S, 10 games/0 starts.
Round 7: (243) Kyle Fuller, OL, 9 games/2 starts.
Notable rookie FA signings: LaTroy Lewis, LB, 2 games/0 starts.

Watson was exceptional in his seven games (six starts), posting a 3-3 record as a starter, making every Texans game must-see TV and single-handedly giving their offense life -- and taking it away when he suffered a season-ending ACL injury. Watson has the potential to be a star, making this draft extremely worthwhile on that pick alone, even if it required Houston to surrender its 2018 first-rounder. Additional credit is due to since-departed GM Rick Smith for finding key guys in Foreman -- who looks to be one half of a potentially devastating two-headed running back monster -- and Cunningham, who recorded 90 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 16 games as a rookie. Davenport had the unenviable task of replacing Duane Brown after Houston traded the veteran to Seattle, starting in four games. Lewis is an athletic backup for Jadeveon Clowney who offers edge-rushing depth. GRADE: B+

Combine/free agency focus: Does Houston believe in the potential of Will Fuller and/or Braxton Miller opposite DeAndre Hopkins? That will help determine the team's strategy, with more work coming in free agency than the draft, thanks to the Texans sending both their first- and second-round picks to Cleveland in separate trades. Johnathan Joseph is on his way out, and Marcus Gilchrist isn't far behind, creating needs at corner and safety. Houston also needs to address right tackle -- Breno Giacomini is simply not cutting it.

Indianapolis Colts

Round 1: (No. 15 overall) Malik Hooker, S, 7 games/6 starts.
Round 2: (46) Quincy Wilson, CB, 7 games/5 starts.
Round 3: (80) Tarell Basham, DE, 15 games/0 starts.
Round 4: (137) Zach Banner, OT, 8 games/0 starts (with Cleveland); (143) Marlon Mack, RB, 14 games/0 starts; (144) Grover Stewart, DT, 15 games/0 starts.
Round 5: (158) Nate Hairston, CB, 14 games/4 starts; (161) Anthony Walker, LB, 10 games/2 starts.

Hooker was in direct competition with fellow former Ohio State defensive back Marshon Lattimore for Defensive Rookie of the Year before he suffered a season-ending injury. Basham didn't quite live up to expectations, but was also learning a new position and playing behind seasoned veteran Jabaal Sheard, from whom he can learn plenty. Banner was a massive disappointment, ending up with Cleveland via waivers, but Mack was a pleasant surprise in spelling Frank Gore. Wilson struggled to earn playing time until late in the season, while Stewart, Hairston and Walker all contributed for a young team slogging through a tough season. GRADE: C+

Combine/free agency focus: Mack showed potential, but running back is still a position of serious need with Gore heading toward free agency (in the twilight of his career). In what has seemed to be a constant need, offensive line needs upgrading, specifically at right tackle and left guard. Sam linebacker is also a position of intrigue, where former first-round pick Barkevious Mingo wasn't great, but wasn't horrible.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Round 1: (No. 4 overall) Leonard Fournette, RB, 13 games/13 starts.
Round 2: (34) Cam Robinson, OT, 15 games/15 starts.
Round 3: (68) Dawuane Smoot, DE, 16 games/0 starts.
Round 4: (110) Dede Westbrook, WR, 7 games/5 starts.
Round 5: (148) Blair Brown, LB, 13 games/2 starts.
Round 7: (222) Jalen Myrick, CB, 5 games/0 starts; (240) Marquez Williams, FB, 1 game/0 starts (with Cleveland).
Notable rookie FA signings: Keelan Cole, WR, 16 games/6 starts; Colin Holba, LS, 7 games/0 starts (drafted by Pittsburgh); Donald Payne, LB, 13 games/0 starts.

Fournette was the home run we expected him to be when he was selected fourth overall, but the true strength of this class lies in the success of Robinson and potential of Westbrook. The latter didn't play in a game until Week 11 but put together a nice little stretch, catching 34 passes for 424 yards and a touchdown in 10 games (and eight starts, including playoffs). Robinson was everything a team hopes to get out of a first- or second-round pick at tackle, sliding into the left tackle position and playing well, especially for a rookie. Smoot joined an incredibly deep position group and still contributed when appearing in spots, playing 24 percent of regular-season defensive snaps. For finding a franchise running back, a solid left tackle and drafting for defensive depth, GM Dave Caldwell gets a firm round of applause. GRADE: B+

Combine/free agency focus: Blake Bortles wasn't the main reason Jacksonville fell in the AFC Championship Game, but the question surrounding the quarterback position will remain until either Jacksonville acquires competition, or the offseason ends with Bortles still holding the keys. An additional receiver could help a group that had to rely on Jaydon Mickens and Keelan Cole late in the season (thanks in part to an early injury to Allen Robinson). Overall, there aren't many holes on this young roster that's brimming with potential.

Tennessee Titans

Round 1: (No. 5 overall) Corey Davis, WR, 11 games/9 starts; (18) Adoree' Jackson, CB, 16 games/16 starts.
Round 3: (72) Taywan Taylor, WR, 16 games/4 starts; (100) Jonnu Smith, TE, 16 games/13 starts.
Round 5: (155) Jayon Brown, LB, 16 games/0 starts.
Round 6: (217) Corey Levin, OL, 0 games/0 starts.
Round 7: (227) Josh Carraway, OLB, 1 game/0 starts; (236) Brad Seaton, OT, 0 games/0 starts; (241) Khalfani Muhammad, RB, 0 games/0 starts.

The jewel of this group was supposed to be Davis, but injuries limited his rookie season to just 11 games. His touchdown grab against New England in the Divisional Round gave us a taste of why he was the fifth overall pick. Jackson's rare athleticism was on display from the beginning of the season, but he ran into struggles in coverage similar to that of many young corners. It was difficult for Taylor to make a huge impact, having played just 24 percent of offensive snaps in the regular season, but there were also moments in which he was a mild disappointment in the vein of many rookies adjusting to the pro game. Smith was one half of a productive tight end group, filling in the small opportunity gaps not occupied by Delanie Walker. Brown proved to be an effective inside linebacker behind veteran Wesley Woodyard -- especially in pass coverage, where he registered four pass breakups. GRADE: B

Combine/free agency focus: Outside of Jurrell Casey, Tennessee could use some help along the defensive line -- especially at defensive end, a position currently occupied by DaQuan Jones and David King. It's also time to consider the future beyond DeMarco Murray, specifically by finding Derrick Henry's future spell back.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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