Is the AFC South Actually Better?

Nashville, TN, United States / The Game Nashville
Is the AFC South Actually Better?

On last Saturday’s edition of The Chase McCabe Show (Saturdays 6-8 am & Sundays 9-11 am), I heard my friend Chase make a statement that I disagreed with unabashedly in the first hour he was on-air.

“You look at the AFC South, as a whole, not just the Titans,” Chase remarked, “It’s better. The worst division in football has gotten better because three teams have improved themselves in fee agency thus far.”

Where in the world is there any evidence of that?

Let me first preface this by saying that in no way do I mean to dispute that Chase knows what he is talking about when it comes to the NFL and in no way do I mean this as an attack on him.

What I am attacking is this idea that teams have automatically improved through free agency before they have even taken the field.

Consider this: the most substantial signings for the four teams in last year’s most putrid division in football were a quarterback with seven career starts, a 28-year old running back who is two seasons removed from being run into the ground with 400 carries and 1800+ yards, a defensive tackle that no NFL fan (outside of Denver) had heard of prior to this season, and a 43-year old kicker.

We see this trend on an annual basis; the Super Bowl champion team of the previous season has its roster completely pilfered by lesser franchises who are willing to shower players with guaranteed money. The team with whom these players won their Super Bowl cannot usually afford to pay every one of the following off-season’s free agents. So, players leave their original winning teams in favor of the exorbitant contracts that other NFL squads at the bottom of the standings are willing to throw at them while they look supplement their inferior lineups.

The results remain consistent. Each year, the number of guaranteed money adjusts to the year-end inflation of the salary cap making the former cycle’s record-setting player deals look minuscule the following year.

For example, in September of 2014, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt agreed to a six-year, $100 million contract extension. Because NFL contracts are essentially structured with Monopoly money, the actual figure that must be accounted for is the number of dollars that the player is guaranteed. In Watt’s case, that numeral was &51.8 million which, at the time, was the most for a defensive player in NFL history.

This year, the New York Giants, who finished with a record of 6-10 and missed the playoffs, gave the now richest contract for a defensive end in NFL history: five years, $85 million with $52.5 million guaranteed to Olivier Vernon.

Watt is considered the best defensive player in football, a perennial All-Pro selection and a future Hall-of-Famer; Vernon is a former third-round pick who has 45.5 less career quarterback sacks than Watt.

The moral to be found here: sub-par teams are so laughably desperate and prove year after year to be both irrational and irresponsible in free-agency.

You can understand my reservations when I heard Chase say that the division with four of the five worst teams in football last season (no one can top Cleveland) are now markedly better after the early rounds of free agency.

Still doubting my cynicism?

Below, I break down my logic on why each of the biggest off-season acquisitions for the Jaguars, Titans and Texans should be viewed with a wary eye. The Colts, who did not bring in new and expensive players but opted instead to re-sign their own, will be excluded.

Brock Osweiler (Houston Texans): 4 years, $72 million & $37 million Guaranteed

Houston Texans QB Brock Osweiler (Getty Images)

Osweiler turned down $16 million a year from the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos for $18 million a year with Houston. Who among us would not take an extra $2 million annually?

The question is not why Osweiler would opt for a new team instead of the proven organization that drafted him (although, the decision does appear to have been as much personal as it was business-related after reports that he “ignored calls from Broncos coaches and teammates,” likely a response to being benched). The better question is why Denver would choose to let him walk over such a marginal sum.

In a league that has been recently plagued by horrendous quarterback play, the popular cliche to use for crappy teams is that they’re “only a quarterback away.” True, coach Bill O’Brien could not justify a return to the self-saboteur Brian Hoyer who single-handedly ended the Texans 2016 playoff hopes in the Wild Card against Kansas City but who’s to say that Osweiler is any better?

On the back of the best defense in football last season, the Broncos won the Super Bowl with the lifeless corpse of Peyton Manning at QB. Though that defense is somewhat dissipated from its championship form, the major pieces to succeed are still there. GM John Elway allowing Osweiler to depart means two things: Denver was not impressed with last year’s seven-game sample size and their defense is still good enough to handle less-than-ideal quarterback play from a much cheaper option.

DeMarco Murray (Tennessee Titans): 4 years, $25.5 milion & $12 million Guaranteed

Tennessee Titans RB DeMarco Murray (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Tennessee acquired Murray via a trade that the former Offensive Player of the Year (OPY) sought out in which the Titans and his former team, the Philadelphia Eagles, would swap fourth round picks in this year’s NFL Draft. The trade will move the Titans from the second pick in that round to the 15th.

It is hard to argue that you would be able to find a running back with Murray’s potential halfway through the mid-rounds of the draft. And, for a player with his pedigree, the money is not entirely outrageous.

But, Murray is 28 years old; not ancient, generally, by NFL standards but, at the position he plays, he is nearing the point in his career where production falls of a cliff for anyone not named Adrian Peterson. He comes off a season in which he posted the second-worst numbers of his career when playing at least 10 games.

In 2014, when he won OPY, Murray ran for  1,85 yards on 392 carries with the Dallas Cowboys. Those number say, to me, that Dallas never had any intention of bringing back Murray after his contract year and, instead, decided to run him into the ground for as much production as they could squeeze out of him. It should be noted, too, that Murray achieved those career-best behind a Bill Calahan-coached offensive line that went from 24th in rushing DVOA in 2012 to fifth in 2014 season. The Titans offensive line struggles have become a major point of discussion as one of the team’s biggest failings and will likely see them select an offensive tackle with the first overall pick in the 2016 Draft.

Murray’s troubles last season in Philadelphia are emblematic of the free-agent spending problem I referred to earlier. The Eagles lured Murray in for a visit last year and did not let him leave until a five-year, $42 million contract with $21 million in guarantees worked out. One season later, after a series of bumbling, undermining mistakes on the part of Philly, Murray is now a Tennessee Titan.

His story serves as the ultimate buyer-beware.

Malik Jackson (Jacksonville Jaguars): 6 years, $85.5 million & $42 million Guaranteed

Jacksonville Jaguars DT Malik Jackson (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)

Of the three of these deals, this one is probably the least cringe-worthy. If you tell me you knew who Malik Jackson was six weeks into last season, you are probably a liar. The former fifth-round pick out of Tennessee becomes the highest paid player on Jacksonville’s roster with $31.5 of his $42 million fully guaranteed the moment he signed his contract.

On Wednesday, Jackson made a wonderfully honest statement: he is only in Jacksonville for the cash. His sincerity is a welcome change of pace for those of us who do not enjoy the retread of, “I’m here to win a championship,” or “I’m excited to be a part of the culture change.” These statements sound nice when trying to appease a fan base, but do not actually mean anything.

So, while I enjoyed Jackson’s comments, fans in Jacksonville had to have absolutely abhor them.

No one in their right mind would dare fault Jackson for his comments or for taking the money. What you certainly can question is how committed he will be to the cause after you have just handed him the keys to the bank. I do not know Jackson. I do not know his character. When you hear him say, essentially, that he left Denver and a chance for another Super Bowl for cash, doubting that he will still be hungry to succeed now that he has bee paid becomes fair game.

Jacksonville gambled on one of the better interior pass rushers who is entering the prime of his career, but paying for past production can be a dangerous thing. It does not account for so many different human elements that can change one a player begins to make life-altering money.

In reality, none of us actually know how these contracts will play out. All three could turn their respective clubs into contenders, or send them straight to the top of next year’s draft order. The larger point that I am getting at is that saying the division is instantly better before a single snap is played sets expectations far higher than they should be for three teams that have been largely irrelevant for the better part of a decade.

True, the days of the Indianapolis Colts lording over the AFC South are no longer a certainty. But, until we see actual on-field results from the Houston, Jacksonville or Tennessee, everything else is just meaningless chatter.

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