AFC South inside intel: Vital rookies, key position battles, juicy subplots

Charley Casserly spent three decades in the NFL, starting as an unpaid intern and ultimately serving as general manager of the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, snagging three Super Bowl rings along the way. During his rise up the scouting ranks and eventual entry into the front office, Casserly made connections across the league -- lasting connections that extend to this day and provide rare access to the team-building process.

In the Inside Intel series, our resident GM mines his sources across the league to relay the inside word on impact rookies, prominent position battles and remaining questions. You'll find the AFC South intel below.

Houston Texans
Houston Texans
2019 record · 10-6

IMPACT ROOKIE


Ross Blacklock, defensive tackle: Blacklock is an up-field player from the three-technique position. The Texans also will be looking for the rookie to help on third downs as a pass rusher playing nose tackle.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
Edge rusher Jacob Martin Duke Ejiofor Jonathan Greenard

J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus are usually Houston's edge rushers, but Watt does move around the defensive line to find the best matchup at times. When Watt moves inside, the Texans must find the best fit to play opposite Mercilus.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

How do Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb offset the loss of DeAndre Hopkins? Hopkins was the center of the offense as the receiver who got the vast majority of the targets. After trading him to the Cardinals this offseason, Houston wants Deshaun Watson to spread the ball around to a cast of speedy receivers. The addition of Cooks, who joins Will Fuller and Kenny Stills, gives the Texans a similar look to the Kansas City Chiefs' receiving corps. They will also have an effective slot receiver in Cobb. The offense's success depends largely on three things: 1) Can Cooks be a true No. 1 receiver who teams must game plan for and keep a safety deep to stop? 2) Will Watson be able to adjust to not having Hopkins as his go-to receiver when the play breaks down? 3) Who replaces Hopkins as the top target inside the hash marks and in the red zone?

Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
2019 record · 7-9

IMPACT ROOKIES


Michael Pittman Jr., wide receiver: T.Y. Hilton is still Indy's WR1, but look for the rookie to get a lot of playing time as the Colts sort things out in a receiving corps that also includes Parris Campbell and Zach Pascal. Pittman has excellent route-running ability and can catch contested throws. 


Jonathan Taylor, running back: Taylor and Marlon Mack will give the Colts a talented one-two punch at running back. The rookie will compete for the starting position, but he will see considerable playing time even if he's not the RB1. The Colts want to emphasize the run game to cut down the number of pass plays and to set up play-action -- both things should help veteran Philip Rivers. Taylor is durable and gives the Colts a chance for more big plays out of the backfield. Look for them to get him involved in the passing game even though he had just 42 catches in his three seasons at Wisconsin.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
RB Marlon Mack Jonathan Taylor
WR2/WR3 Michael Pittman Jr. Parris Campbell Zach Pascal
CB2/NCB Rock Ya-Sin Xavier Rhodes Marvell Tell III

Kenny Moore is the Colts' top cornerback heading into 2020, and he'll likely start on the outside or at nickel. At linebacker, Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke will be the starters along with Darius Leonard. The question is, between Walker and Okereke, who will be the MLB and who will be the SAM 'backer?

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

What does Philip Rivers have left? The Colts believe in the veteran passer and think he can adjust his game to cut down on turnovers. They think the former Chargers QB has a chance to dramatically decrease the number of INTs for several reasons. Chief among them: The Colts' offensive line is one of the best in the NFL, and the Colts aim to have a more balanced run-pass ratio than what Rivers grew accustomed to in L.A. The veteran made a lot of errors when trying to make plays while playing from behind, something the Colts don't intend on doing much of with their improved roster. All of these things should result in the best and most disciplined decision-making of Rivers' career.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars
2019 record · 6-10

IMPACT ROOKIES


C.J. Henderson, cornerback: The Jaguars expect him to start on the perimeter, but he'll have to earn the spot. He has the talent to be a complete cornerback, as he can play both press and off coverage well. 


K'Lavon Chaisson, edge rusher: Chaisson will likely be the defense's SAM 'backer on run downs and a defensive end in the nickel defense. The Jags expect the rookie to be able to set the edge vs. the run and provide outside speed to put pressure on the quarterback. 

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
WR2 Dede Westbrook Chris Conley Laviska Shenault Jr.
CB1/CB2 C.J. Henderson Tre Herndon Rashaan Melvin

Westbrook will often be the slot receiver, but he will also contend for a starting position on the outside. While Henderson, Herndon and Melvin compete for the two outside corner positions, D.J. Hayden will start at nickel.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

What happens with Yannick Ngakoue? There are still so many unanswered questions when it comes to what the future holds for Ngakoue, who received the franchise tag in March. The pass rusher has yet to sign the tag and has made it clear he wants to play elsewhere. Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell has said he wants Ngakoue to remain with the team, but there's also been word that Jacksonville would trade him for the right price. After the July 15 deadline to work out a long-term deal, Ngakoue can only play on the franchise tender in 2020. We did see Jadeveon Clowney's trade request met after he refused to sign his tag with the Texans last offseason, but not until September. So, this standoff could be far from over.

Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans
2019 record · 9-7

IMPACT ROOKIES


Isaiah Wilson, offensive tackle: Wilson will compete with Dennis Kelly for the starting right tackle spot. To win it, he must work on his technique in pass protection, primarily not getting beat by the inside rush. He also tends to overset to the outside to block the speed rush, which is why he struggles to get back inside quickly enough to fend off the rush. Wilson should use his size, arm length and patience to let the rusher come to him. That way, he'll stay balanced and can react to both the outside speed rush and counter moves inside.

 

Kristian Fulton, cornerback: He has the instincts and quickness to win the starting job at nickel back. But does he have the strength, and is he physical enough to play the run from that position?

 

Darrynton Evans, running back: Look for Evans to be used as a change-of-pace option and possibly a third-down back to complement Derrick Henry.

KEY POSITION BATTLES

Table inside Article
Position
RT Dennis Kelly Isaiah Wilson
DL Jack Crawford Matt Dickerson Joey Ivie IV
CB1/CB2/NCB Malcolm Butler Adoree' Jackson Johnathan Joseph Kristian Fulton

Along the defensive line, Jeffery Simmons and DaQuan Jones have solidified themselves as starters, leaving the trio of D-linemen listed above to vie for the last starting spot.

ONE ADDITIONAL STORYLINE

Can the Titans build on last year's strong finish? When teams lose in the conference title game, they often feel like it's a guarantee they will be there again next year. That's what Mike Vrabel and his team are trying to avoid. He won't let his team become complacent and knows the "us against them" underdog mentality is, in part, what got them there last season. To return to the AFC Championship Game, the Titans must stick to their identity of being a physical team that emphasizes and executes the fundamentals. On offense, they'll aim to continue to operate a strong, Derrick Henry-led run game, with Ryan Tannehill throwing effective passes off play-action. On defense, the Titans didn't make major mistakes and made opposing offenses work for everything last season. And this group must stay imaginative on special teams.

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