The Houston Texas won their second straight division title last season, fueling Super Bowl hopes for Gary Kubiak's squad heading into the playoffs. Although the postseason run ended short of the big game, Houston's thorough domination of the AFC South (5-1 in the division) has forced the Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars to up the ante in free agency and the draft. With plenty of trench workers and playmakers snatched up during the three-day sweepstakes, the AFC South is poised to be one of the most competitive divisions in pro football.
AFC South notables
Which rookie will stand out in 2013?
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The second overall pick should always be considered a "can't miss" prospect, but the Jaguars deserve credit for ignoring other pressing needs in favor of a cornerstone player for GM David Caldwell's rebuilding project. Joeckel is a skilled technician with the capacity to play on either side of the line. Most importantly, he is a high-motor player with the toughness and physicality to anchor the Jaguars' offensive line for years to come.
Hunter was considered one of the top pass-catching talents in college football prior to last season, but inconsistent play led to varying opinions on his pro prospects heading into the draft. Hunter's staunchest supporters, however, cite his prototypical physical dimensions, speed and athleticism as factors behind his rise up the charts. The Titans, who drafted receiver Kendall Wright 20th overall last year, gave up two draft picks to move up six spots and select Hunter. The Tennessee product gives this organization a potential No. 1 receiver to build around going forward, which will be big if Kenny Britt is unable to regain his pre-injury form. With Jake Locker looking to find his game, the addition of Hunter could help maximize his potential as a franchise quarterback.
Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has a reputation for identifying and developing edge players in his 3-4 scheme. Montgomery has the potential to be a star in Phillips' system with his solid skills and relentless motor. Additionally, he is a power player ideally suited to complement Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed off the edge. If Phillips can foster Montgomery's talents as a run stopper/pass rusher, the former LSU standout could become the next difference maker on Houston's defensive front.
Note: Click on team names to see complete draft classes.
HOUSTON TEXANS: GM Rick Smith and Kubiak needed to add a few pieces to a roster that was on the verge of title contention. DeAndre Hopkins is the complementary receiver the Texans have desired for years. The electrifying playmaker is more explosive than his timed speed (4.57) indicates, which makes him a dangerous option against single coverage opposite Andre Johnson. Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry are intriguing O-line additions with the capacity to fortify the Texans' front in the future. Montgomery and Trevardo Williams are edge players with diverse defensive skills and relentless energy. D.J. Swearinger is a headhunter between the hashes with underrated awareness and ball skills. GRADE: B
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: The Colts' surprising playoff berth a season ago was fueled by the stellar contributions of many first-year players. To make another run at the postseason, the Colts will need a similar effort from a rookie class that features solid (but unheralded) players at every turn. Bjoern Werner is a productive pass rusher with energy and skills. He doesn't display the flash or sizzle of many counterparts in this draft class, but he has a knack for getting to the quarterback. Hugh Thornton and Khaled Holmes are hard-nosed interior blockers who should fortify the Colts' leaky front line. Montori Hughes is a boom-or-bust pick with remarkable talent and a suspect motor. Kerwynn Williams adds some speed and quickness to the Colts' running back rotation. GRADE: C+
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Caldwell is intent on remaking the Jaguars with solid, blue-collar players at every position. Jacksonville's draft class certainly reflects that philosophy, based on the number of "hard hat and lunch pail" prospects secured. Joeckel was considered the premier left tackle in the draft by most observers, but fell to the No. 2 pick (below Eric Fisher) due to questions about his overall athleticism. He will team up with Eugene Monroe to give the team a solid set of bookends on the line. Ace Sanders and Denard Robinson are versatile playmakers with the capacity to impact the game as offensive hybrids and returners. Safety John Cyprien and cornerback Dwayne Gratz are instant starters in the secondary with instincts, awareness and ball skills. GRADE: B-
TENNESSEE TITANS:Mike Munchak wants to build the Titans into a playoff contender behind a powerful offense and a rugged defense. Both units have slipped considerably in recent years, so scoring well in the draft is critical to the team's postseason hopes. Chance Warmack is a "furniture mover" with the size, strength and power to blow defenders off the ball. He will team up with free-agent signee Andy Levitre and fourth-round pick Brian Schwenke to form an imposing trio in the middle of the line. Defensively, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, LB Zaviar Gooden and DE Lavar Edwards add speed and athleticism to the lineup. Gooden, in particular, is one of the most explosive athletes in this entire draft class, with the burst to wreak havoc from sideline to sideline. GRADE: B