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AFC South rookie grades: Colts' revival fueled by fine draft class

The 2018 NFL season is in the books, meaning the 2019 NFL Draft is coming down the pike. But before we completely shift focus to the next crop of prospects entering the league, let's take full stock of the rookies who just finished up Year 1. In this division-by-division Rookie Grades series, we're evaluating each team's 2018 draft class and spotlighting areas to address this offseason. Nick Shook examines the AFC South below.

Round 1: (No. 6 overall) Quenton Nelson, OG, 16 games/16 starts.

 **Round 2:** (36) 
 Darius Leonard, LB, 15 games/15 starts; (37) 
 Braden Smith, OT, 15 games/13 starts; (52) 
 Kemoko Turay, DE, 14 games/3 starts; (64) 
 Tyquan Lewis, DE, 8 games/6 starts. 
 **Round 4:** (104) 
 Nyheim Hines, RB, 16 games/4 starts. 
 **Round 5:** (159) 
 Daurice Fountain, WR, 1 game/0 starts; (169) 
 Jordan Wilkins, RB, 16 games/3 starts. 
 **Round 6:** (185) 
 Deon Cain, WR, 0 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 7:** (221) 
 Matthew Adams, LB, 16 games/5 starts; (235) 
 Zaire Franklin, LB, 16 games/2 starts. 

What a class. GM Chris Ballard eschewed sexier picks in the early rounds, instead selecting the best lineman in the draft in Nelson, who immediately paid dividends while earning All-Pro honors. Smith is a competent tackle who could improve into a very good player with proper coaching. Leonard was a revelation at linebacker, taking home Defensive Rookie of the Year while also earning All-Pro honors. Turay's future is bright on the edge after he recorded four sacks in 14 games. Hines was a nice change-of-pace back who found success in the passing game. Cain could develop into a good receiver if he can return to full strength after tearing his ACL in August. Lewis needs more reps to develop, but recorded two sacks in eight games. Wilkins was a nice find in the fifth round. Adams played in all 16 games, recording 33 tackles as a depth defender. Franklin was another depth defender with a less productive rookie campaign. In all, an excellent draft for Ballard, who landed two All-Pros, solidified what was a porous line and helped turn around the Colts.

 **Combine/free agency focus:** Depending on Cain's health, the 
 Colts could again look to receiver in this draft for a contributor opposite 
 T.Y. Hilton. Otherwise, they'd be well served to at least explore the position, even after signing 
 Dontrelle Inman for their run to the playoffs in 2018. Middle linebacker and another edge rusher would also be welcome. Cornerback might be perceived as a need. 
 Pierre Desir had a good year in Matt Eberflus' system, but he's headed toward free agency. A decision looms there. 

Round 3: (No. 68 overall) Justin Reid, S, 16 games/12 starts; (80) Martinas Rankin, OL, 16 games/4 starts; (98) Jordan Akins, TE, 16 games/6 starts.

 **Round 4:** (103) 
 Keke Coutee, WR, 6 games/2 starts. 
 **Round 6:** (177) 
 Duke Ejiofor, LB, 12 games/0 starts; (211) 
 Jordan Thomas, TE, 16 games/10 starts; (214) 
 Peter Kalambayi, LB, 15 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 7:** (222) 
 Jermaine Kelly, DB, 0 games/0 starts. 
 **Notable rookie FA signings:** 
 Trevor Daniel, P, 16 games/0 starts. 

Reid was everything the Texans hoped they were getting from a safety, especially one selected in the third round. He figures to be in the back end of that defense for years to come. Coutee stepped up after Will Fuller was lost to injury and did an admirable job as a rookie, catching 28 passes for 287 yards and one touchdown and coming close to earning my nod for the Texans' unsung hero. Rankin could become a decent guard for the Texans, and spent a lot of his rookie season attempting to fill holes up front created by injuries. Thomas and Akins teamed up to address the void at tight end, with Thomas logging all four of the TE touchdowns and Akins finishing with 17 receptions for 225 yards. Ejiofor and Kalambayi are depth players, and Kelly spent the whole season on IR. Daniel beat out six-time All-Pro Shane Lechler for the punting job in training camp, and showed some promise in Year 1, particularly when it came to dropping the ball inside the 20 (with 36 such punts, fourth-most in the NFL).

 **Combine/free agency focus:** Offensive line remains a massive priority for a 
 Texans team that simply didn't protect 
 Deshaun Watson (who, it must be said, didn't help matters by holding on to the ball too long at times). Coutee was helpful, but Houston still had to make a trade for a receiver ( 
 Demaryius Thomas, who ruptured his Achilles in December). The 
 Texans should spend on that position again. Offensive tackle 
 Seantrel Henderson was re-signed in January, but Houston still needs to spruce up a shoddy line (outside of Nick Martin). 

Round 1: (No. 22 overall) Rashaan Evans, LB, 15 games/7 starts.

 **Round 2:** (41) 
 Harold Landry, LB, 15 games/3 starts. 
 **Round 5:** (152) 
 Dane Cruikshank, DB, 12 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 6:** (199) 
 Luke Falk, QB, 0 games/0 starts (waived in September and claimed by 
 Dolphins before landing on IR). 

With less picks, it becomes more difficult to find contributors, but the Titans did so in selecting Evans and Landry. Evans' debut was a bit delayed by injury, but his potential is great and he'll get a chance to prove himself moving forward. Landry recorded 4.5 sacks in 15 games and is promising, but needs to take the next step. He'll get a chance to do so after the retirement of Brian Orakpo. Cruikshank didn't get many opportunities in a loaded defensive backfield, but he made an impact on special teams. Falk was released before the season and ended up on Miami's roster.

 **Combine/free agency focus:** Tennessee could use a beefed-up edge presence, especially after Orakpo's retirement. 
 Jurrell Casey could use another difference-maker alongside him on the interior defensive line. Might the 
 Titans make a run at 
 Grady Jarrett or 
 Marcell Dareus (provided he's released by the Jaguars)? Another receiver alongside 
 Corey Davis would go a long way for an offense that too often saw 
 Marcus Mariota hang on to the ball too long. 
 Delanie Walker missed almost the entire season due to an ankle injury -- and he isn't getting younger, either, opening the door for the addition of a developmental tight end to join him, 
 Jonnu Smith and 
 MyCole Pruitt. 
 Jayon Brown's emergence removes the need for an inside linebacker, but Tennessee would be wise to retain 
 Kenny Vaccaro, a late addition who arrived to replace the injured 
 Johnathan Cyprien (who's still under contract for two seasons). Tennessee could also use an interior O-lineman for depth purposes. 

Round 1: (No. 29 overall) Taven Bryan, DT, 16 games/1 start.

 **Round 2:** (61) 
 D.J. Chark, WR, 11 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 3:** (93) 
 Ronnie Harrison, DB, 14 games/8 starts. 
 **Round 4:** (129) 
 Will Richardson, OT, 0 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 6:** (203) 
 Tanner Lee, QB, 0 games/0 starts. 
 **Round 7:** (230) 
 Leon Jacobs, LB, 12 games/3 starts; (247) 
 Logan Cooke, P, 16 games/0 starts. 

Foreseeing a need at defensive tackle, Jacksonville swung on Bryan -- and, after a year, it might have been a miss. Bryan recorded 20 tackles and one sack in 16 games, but wasn't the kind of impact player you'd typically expect from a first-round pick, making the likely impending release of Marcell Dareus tougher to swallow. Chark wasn't the contributor the Jags might've anticipated he'd be, but still has the size and skills needed to develop. Richardson's first season was a washout due to knee injury, and his absence was felt when Cam Robinson was lost in September due to an ACL injury. Harrison was an encouraging rookie and -- right now -- stands as the best player from this class. Lee spent the majority of his rookie season on the practice squad. Jacobs was a depth player who made a minimal impact in 12 games. Cooke was a competent punter, averaging 41.2 net yards and putting 37 of his 86 punts inside the 20 (ranking third in the NFL).

 **Combine/free agency focus:** The 
 Jaguars need to address the quarterback position and seem to have the draft as their only avenue, due to having minimal cap space and a ton of money still tied up in 
 Blake Bortles. (Jacksonville will take a dead cap hit of $16.5 million if he's released.) Missouri product Drew Lock has been routinely mocked to the Jags with their first pick at No. 7. From there, receiver could use an addition, though 
 Dede Westbrook was a decent second option. Jacksonville needs a true No. 1 receiver, but needs a quarterback more. Offensive line appears to be a need, but the 
 Jaguars are better when healthy, so that's not a main priority. Interior defensive line needs better play from Bryan, and could use a depth addition to protect against Bryan not improving in Year 2. 

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.

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