Draft Grades 2012: AFC South

Sep. 25, 2010; South Bend, IN, USA; Stanford Cardinal tight end Coby Fleener (82) catches a touchdown pass in front of Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Brian Smith (58) in the first quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE

Next in the draft grades series is the AFC South. I try to break down each draft into the 2 biggest components, need and value, and the average of the 2 is the overall grade.

The grades themselves aren’t the important thing, but rather another way of trying to gain insight into how a particular organization looks at things. A low grade usually means the franchise reached for need over available talent.

The NFL draft is the easiest way to get a snapshot of how any given organization feels about its existing talent. If a team “reaches” somewhere, they probably are not so much fooled on a kid’s ability as they are desperate.

Conversely, if a team doesn’t draft a position that seems to be an obvious need, perhaps they feel a little better than you think they do with their prospects. For instance, Carolina’s top need was thought to be DT, but Rivera took exactly zero having taken 2 in the 3rd round last season. There was a lot of youth in last year’s DT spot, and Rivera’s certainly a lot better at this than I am, so it’s obvious they know something most of us don’t. For their sakes, let us hope so.

Same format as before; team needs in bold, lesser needs in normal type. “Impact” players are impact for their respective teams, not necessarily league-wide, who should either start by season’s end or otherwise see the field a lot.

Oh – A few friends have read some of my posts but don’t know some of the terms, so here’s a quick reference for everyone:

SAM – Strong side Linebacker

MIKE – Middle Linebacker

WILL – Weak side Linebacker

“Strong” side is the side the TE lines up on, or if none, the QB’s dominant-hand side.

Houston Texans

Needs: WR, LB, DT, CB, TE, C

Round Pick Position Player College
(1) 26 DE Whitney Mercilus, Illinois
(3) 68 WR DeVier Posey, Ohio State
(3) 76 G Brandon Brooks, Miami (OH)
(4) 99 C Ben Jones, Georgia
(4) 121 WR Keshawn Martin, Michigan State
(4) 126 DT Jared Crick, Nebraska
(5) 161 K Randy Bullock, Texas A&M
(6) 195 T Nick Mondek, Purdue

Who they took
Whitney Mercilus led the NCAA in sacks as a senior and is one of the best pass rushers in the draft. He won’t replace Mario Williams (nobody in this draft can) so they got the next best thing at #26 overall. Posey has a specific set of skills to get downfield, but is a poor run-blocker and body-catches too much and has only average “moves” so he may find getting open more difficult in the NFL. Brooks is a huge 350 lb. guard that gets low and uses leverage, but has limited range and in fact needs to lose 30 pounds to get more nimble. Jones could wind up being the best Center in the draft as he fought off SEC DL every week. Martin projects as a slot WR and return man. Crick is a steal if he can stay healthy and play as a 3-4 end. Bullock won the Lou Groza award for best kicker. Mondek is a typical project-player from late rounds, but has upside, which is the key to drafting 6th and 7th-rounders.

What it means
The Texans did a great job of getting players that fit their system. For instance, Brandon Brooks isn’t a pulling guard, but the Texans are a zone-blocking team and that plays to his strength. They took two WRs to try to help take heat from Andre Johnson, but both have some lingering question marks and Martin may be more productive from the slot than Posey opposite Johnson. If the group holds up injury-wise, the Texans shouldn’t a huge fall-off from last year’s defense, but a CB would have been nice (and needed). You just don’t replace a Mario Williams overnight – especially drafting from a playoff team’s slot.

Needs: B- — The Texans got the OL help they needed with some nice picks while getting Mercilus to help dull the sting of Mario Williams’ departure to join the wagon-circling in Buffalo. They didn’t draft any true NFL DTs or CBs, so Wade Phillips needs to get the most of the 2 defensive players they drafted to keep his D in the top-five next season. The OL help they got should make the entire offense a little better while adding depth across the trench and the 2 WRs might help open up the passing game more for Andre J.

Value: B+ — Mercilus was supposed to be gone by 26, so that’s a good value. Posey may have gone a bit high, but Jones, Martin and Crick were decent value where they were chosen. Kinda hard to grade them on value because Posey was a slight reach but keep in mind they run a different animal in their schemes than most NFL teams do. Talent-wise overall I think they got very good value from this year’s draft.

Overall: B — One of the unsexier drafts I’ve seen despite the 2 WRs there. Mercilus should be able to grow into his role and earn the image his name evokes.

Impact Players: Mercilus, Jones, Crick, Bullock

Indianapolis Colts

Needs: everything except LT

Round Pick Position Player College
(1) 1 QB Andrew Luck, Stanford
(2) 34 TE Coby Fleener, Stanford
(3) 64 TE Dwayne Allen, Clemson
(3) 92 WR T.Y. Hilton, Florida International
(5) 136 DT Josh Chapman, Alabama
(5) 170 RB Vick Ballard, Mississippi State
(6) 206 WR LaVon Brazill, Ohio
(7) 208 T Justin Anderson, Georgia
(7) 214 LB Tim Fugger, Vanderbilt
(7) 253 QB Chandler Harnish, Northern Illinois

Who they took
Luck speaks for himself, but watch him to see if he learns to better step up into the pocket after his drop-backs as a pro. At times in college, he’d get caught up in the rush or make some “wonderful” scramble out of trouble because he didn’t do that. TEs Fleener and Allen are the top two TEs in the draft. Hilton’s a burner in the slot that should immediately replicate departed WR Pierre Garcon’s production if he can stay in the slot out of press coverage. Chapman had ACL surgery in Jan. to repair an injury suffered in October, so he’s a tough player and was the anchor of Alabama’s run defense even when hurt. Ballard is a strong, patient runner of a style Indy hasn’t seen since Edgerrin James but isn’t as punishing a runner as he looks. Brazill is a very good return man but inconsistent who is one of those who “takes plays off.” Anderson has good athletic ability but is another one of those late-round projects. Fugger played DE at Vandy at 248 lbs so he’ll be a speed pass-rusher type LB in the NFL after adjusting and a special teams player to begin with. QB Chandler Harnish has an outside shot of making the team as their 3rd QB. He wasn’t drafted to push Andrew Luck!

What it means
All you have to do is look at the top 3 choices they made to figure out the direction they want to go offensively, and it’s not a bad idea. They want to use a pair of talented TEs to create mismatches over the middle of the field. Luck and Fleener started together in college so they’re several steps ahead of the game going in. 37 yr old Reggie Wayne needs help/replacing soon, and Hilton could provide some relief from day one. If Luck can take what they’re building so far and at least move the chains with those two athletic TEs, it’ll help open up the run to shorten the game and keep the Colts in more contests than last season. They’ve got a LONG way to go as a franchise, but look to be well on their way.

Needs: A – Hard not to hit on a need when Pat Angerer, Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, and Anthony Costonzo are about the only guys who have job security for 2012. They will need help in the secondary heavily in next year’s draft, but they did a good job nabbing a lot of talented young players. Last year’s Colt offense was about as potent as the Panthers were the previous year; a paper cut on the side of an elephant.

Value: B- – Luck’s the best prospect but at #1 overall, he’s no “value.” Allen was a nice value in the third round, as were Hilton and Chapman. Chapman’s injury may have caused his slide, but in the long run he’ll be a very good player. The Colts’ draft saw them find most players about where they were slated to go, with a couple of minor exceptions. The REAL value in this draft is in upgrading so many positions after the NFL’s biggest offseason overhaul, so a “B-” might seem harsh but not really any reaches or big steals…just a draft board that was friendly to them. There’s a difference in upgrading and getting that upgrade 3 or 4 rounds late.

Overall: B+

Impact players: Luck, Fleener, Allen, Hilton, Chapman, Ballard, Fugger

Jacksonville Jaguars

Needs: DE, WR, CB,, QB, RB

Round Pick Position Player College
(1) 5 WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State
(2) 38 DE Andre Branch, Clemson
(3) 70 P Bryan Anger, California
(5) 142 LB Brandon Marshall, Nevada
(6) 176 CB Mike Harris, Florida State
(7) 228 DT Jeris Pendleton, Ashland

Who they Took
Justin Blackmon was the top-rated WR in the draft and could become a threat they haven’t had since the Smith/McCardell days. Branch looks to be an upgrade, but did the most damage his senior season and against inferior opponents so I have to wonder about him with the Jags’ reputation for drafting non-producing edge rushers. The deck is heavily stacked against Branch, so he’s going to be interesting to watch this fall. P Bryan Anger could be a workhorse with Gabbert at QB and will secretly be pulling for Chad Henne to win the QB job in camp. Marshall-D (since there are now two Brandon Marshalls) projects as a SAM or MIKE (he lacks the athletic ability to play WILL) but is only 6’1″ with poor coverage skills. Harris is a good athlete for the 6th round at corner who could see time as a special teamer and backup CB as a rookie. Pendleton is 28 years old from a JUCO and then a small school so he’s a big question still.

What it means
To put it nicely, other than Blackmon this looks like the Joker and his gang burst in, took over the Jags’ HQ during the draft, made their last 4 picks for them, swore every last person in the organization to secrecy, and left never to be seen or heard from or about since. Branch was enough of an uncertainty, albeit with a lot of upside, coming in. The Jags have a history of drafting busts at both the WR and DE positions. For their sakes, I hope they reversed it on both this year. Blackmon was all the help Gabbert’s gonna get in this year’s draft. The Jags will be only slightly less horrible in the passing game until Gabbert develops better decision-making software for his brain to work with.

Needs:C- — Frankly, they did TRY to address really their top 3 need positions with their top 3 picks – WR, DE and Punter. With Gabbert as QB, I see Vegas odds being 50/50 with the Colts’ Pat Angerer on punts and tackles. “Who is Angrier? Angerer’s tackling or Anger’s punting?” Keep score at home, its fun for the whole family! Or maybe there will be local pockets of office-pool betting over Anger punts vs. Gabbert completions in any given game. At 6-4, he does have Prototypical Fake Punt-Thrower Height, though, so there’s another 2 plays a season they got. I hope he gets paid by the punt. Durability will be a factor at punter in 2012. Blackmon will do his best under a horrible situation, seriously, but I don’t see more than 800 yards if Gabby’s pulling the trigger out of the new Water Pistol formation I hear they’re experimenting with down there. Blackmon is going to be surrounded by an Honor Guard composed of opposing defenders everywhere on the field, so here’s a hint for Fantasy Owners out there: Mercedes Lewis. And a sleeper hint: Chad Henne. There’s a reason “Pocket Hercules” is a top-10 fantasy player every year, correct?

Value: F — Branch slid the last week or so before the draft as his multiple question marks ate away his first-round status and he’d have been better off on a team with established playmakers so he could grow into things, but such is not the case. The Jags traded up to get Blackmon, so he’s no value pick. Oddly enough, the punter could be the Pro Bowler out of this group. Blackmon could have all the ability in the world but will be quintuple-covered and cannot actually throw the ball to himself, unlike Brett Favre whose first career completion was to himself. If Chad Henne can’t win the job from Blaine Gabbert in training camp, Blackmon won’t be much of a factor. Seriously, is a 3rd round punter gonna be THAT much better than a 6th or 7th, and why not take the punter in the 5th and why so worried over the punter in the first place? Oh…that’s right…your QB is Blaine Gabbert! Look for Anger to be a workhorse in J-city, USA.

Overall: D- — If not for landing Blackmon, it’s an F. It all depends on what Branch does and if anyone after the punter can do anything at all other than special teams.

Impact Players: Blackmon, Branch, Anger, Harris

Tennessee Titans

Needs: WR. CB, S, OLB, TE, DE

Round Pick Position Player College
(1) 20 WR Kendall Wright, Baylor
(2) 52 LB Zach Brown, UNC
(3) 82 DT Mike Martin, Michigan
(4) 115 CB Coty Sensabaugh, Clemson
(5) 145 TE Taylor Thompson, SMU
(6) 190 S Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State
(7) 211 DE Scott Solomon, Rice

Who they took
Wright’s antics at the receiving end of Heisman Trophy QB Robert Griffin III’s throws are well-known by now. Wright should lead all rookies in YAC is my guess and he’ll start from day one. Brown was making some pre-draft noise with his speed as an OLB prospect but is very raw. He’s a great athlete that will see special teams duty but could be seeing the field a lot in passing sub-packages with has tons of upside. Mike Martin is very strong against the run and can occasionally get a sack and could push to start as a rookie if he elevates his game a bit. Sensabaugh is a nice pick in the 4th and has the athletic ability to develop into a very good NFL corner with some seasoning. Thompson was a DE in college with prototypical receiving-TE size, hands, and speed and is a very intriguing pick to keep an eye on. Markelle Martin needs to be more consistent to ever be anything more than a back-up. Solomon isn’t known as much for his wisdom as he is his motor, but he can’t overpower NFL linemen. He could see limited action as a nickel DE and might even get a few sacks but is useless against the run.

What it means — Wright is a good addition since Kenny Britt stays hurt. If Britt can somehow stay healthy, Thompson emerges as a threat and Jake Locker competently takes over the offense this year, the Titans could be as explosive an offensive team as any…but that’s a whole lotta “ifs.” This draft gives Locker/Hasselbeck some help and the defensive side has a lot of high-ceiling, low-floor guys.

Needs: B — A lot of teams seemed to go with a pass-rusher in round 2, but even if Brown helps there, the Titans lack a pass rush from the DE spot. It looks like they got Mike Martin to stop the run in the middle while providing occasional mayhem up the middle of the pocket as he develops more. They seem to be looking to get what they need perhaps from non-traditional areas and taking a Best Athlete/Player Available approach to this year’s draft.

Value: C — If nothing else, it’s a top-5 class to keep an eye on just to see how they develop this year and next perhaps. It’s a top-5 athletically-talented draft that will tell us a lot about the Titans’ coaches and approach to the game and the draft. Tons of raw material here, so it could be an “A” in time. It isn’t unheard of at all to have a Pro-Bowler TE who was “a convert” from someplace, often basketball. Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez did, but Thompson’s first name isn’t some form of “Tony.” At least one “analyst” last season questioned Andy Dalton’s ability to be an NFL QB because he had red hair. Seriously. There are some real idiots out there.

Overall:B- — Probably will be the most deceptive “grade” of them all because this draft class has a lot of potential with the athletes they drafted but lots of experience and technique questions linger. Nobody is 100% sure how fast Kendall Wright will even play, so this class is extremely difficult to properly “grade.” If it’s a question of games started or immediate help, this draft’s a “D-” only because Wright is a sure starter. If it’s a question of long-term franchise help as a whole, if they live up to potential, it’s an “A” with any of the first 5 guys being Pro-Bowlers one day…if the Pro Bowl will even exist!

Impact Players: Wright, Brown, Sensabaugh, Thompson

Topics: AFC South Draft Grades, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans

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