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AFC South Breakdown of Coaching and Offensive Line

Trevor Lawrence

NFL BREAKDOWN OF COACHING AND OFFENSIVE LINE 2023 SERIES

Hey all and welcome to installment #4 of these breakdowns. We’re halfway, and I’ve decided how to approach the 2023 season. Today we get the AFC South, which somehow has a northern state’s team in it.

OLine and Coaching Series Quick Links

 

 

Houston Texans

NFL Futures: Regular Season Win Odds: 5.5

  • HC: DeMeco Ryans
  • OC: Bobby Slowik
  • DC: Matt Burke

Head coaching change #3 yields DeMeco Ryans, most recently known as the 49ers DC. Ryans might be the fastest person to ascend to a head coaching position after retiring. It was as recent as 2015 that Ryans was still playing linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles.

He brings Bobby Slowik, who just served as the 49er passing game coordinator, along with him. Slowik is an interesting choice for OC. Beyond his relationship with Ryans, Slowik is joined by offensive assistants Shane Day and Bill Lazor, who is a three time former OC with the Dolphins, Bengals and Bears. Both Day and Lazor have experience coaching rookie QBs in Justin Herbert and Justin Fields, respectively. The three of them will be responsible for putting CJ Stroud in the best possible position to succeed. I expect a West Coast offense in the style of the 49ers that relies on the run. Between Slowik, Lazor, Day, and Ryans, their goal will be to keep things as simple as possible for Stroud this season.

Matt Burke is becoming a DC for the second time in his career, and has been coaching in the NFL since 2004. His first DC stop was with Miami in 2018 and 2019, which didn’t go well. Prior to this year he was the defensive line coach for the Arizona Cardinals. While Ryans and Burke have never worked together nor do they really know one another, Burke ended up with the job after Ryans realized they saw eye to eye on defensive philosophies. This was despite Burke being 2 hours late for the interview. Matt Burke is quite an interesting fellow considering his Ivy league playing history and charitable work on other continents. As such, he’s someone who is easy to like and cheer for. Considering Ryans’ background though, he will be highly involved in the defensive scheme and implementation while Burke is there to help execute it and offer advice. That scheme will be a 4-3 base, with most LBs dropping into coverage. Third-overall pick Will Anderson will be asked to do a lot from his Edge position in year one.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters

  • LT: Laremy Tunsil
  • LG: Kenyon Green
  • C: Scott Queensbury / Henry “Juice” Scruggs
  • RG: Shaq Mason
  • RT: Tytus Howard

One good piece of news for CJ Stroud and the Texans is the presence of Laremy Tunsil, who was locked up to a 3 year, $75 million deal making him the highest paid tackle in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, Tunsil is the best pass-blocking tackle in football. His counterpart on the opposite side of the line, Howard, is no slouch either and PFF has him as the 6th best pass blocking tackle.

Mason was brought in to help the interior, though as it has not been good, but neither has Mason lately. If he returns to form though, he has the potential to influence this offense seriously. The team hopes Green makes a leap in year two after struggling as a rookie. Queensbury is arguably the worst center in football so the Texans drafted Scruggs in the second round. Scruggs is out of Penn State and showed some serious resilience after being involved in a car crash in 2019 that fractured his vertebrae and ended his season.

Line coach Chris Strausser is new this year but he has over 30 years coaching experience, including the last 4 as the Colts line coach. Other than last year, that’s been a solid group for some time. This is going to come down to whether or not Strausser can help these players improve for the Texans to have sustained offensive success. There are some pieces here, but it isn’t a slam dunk. I would expect this line to focus on being better at run blocking, since that is probably what they will be doing the most in 2023.

Verdict

Call me skeptical, but it’s hard to trust an organization that is on its 5th head coach in 4 years. Ryans did a good job as DC for Niners because he created a locker room that bought in and kept themselves accountable. As a former player, he knew first hand what style his players would like. While I think players will initially like Ryans, they will not like losing, which seems contagious in Houston.

CJ Stroud does seem legit, but he’s still a rookie. His backups are Davis Mills, who has an awkwardly long neck, and Case Keenum, who might as well be my grandfather. There are questions around this offensive line as well, so I’m not exactly jonesing for drafting Texans in 2023. Dameon Pierce had a nice rookie campaign, but the Texans brought in Devin Singletary to eat into Pierce’s workload. The Texans are going to be running a lot. If you’re grabbing Pierce with your 4th round pick, then Singletary at the end of the 11th or beginning of the 12th might be prudent. WR1 Nico Collins has an ADP of 150, which is round 13 and possibly the latest that a team’s WR1 gets picked. I’m more interested in John Metchie, ADP of 200 in the 17th round, to become this team’s WR1 eventually. Hopefully, that will happen this season, but Stroud and Metchie are a combo I’m definitely interested in for dynasty.

Also, Dalton Schultz is going at pick 112, the 11th TE off the board. If Slowik and company successfully integrate the Niner offense here, it may be worthwhile to note that young QBs like Brock Purdy and Nick Mullens relied heavily on their TE when they were pressed into service. Schultz could be a good 4 – 8 grabs per game kind of guy for CJ Stroud.

 

Indianapolis Colts

NFL Futures: Regular Season Win Odds: 6.5

  • HC: Shane Steichen
  • OC: Jim Bob Cooter
  • DC: Gus Bradley

Not to be outdone, the Colts also changed their head coaching position. They moved on from Frank Reich to Shane Steichen, who just finished being the OC for Philadelphia the last two seasons. In that time the Eagles were top 10 in nearly every offensive category, including being 1st in rushing yards, rushing yards per game, and rushing TDs. Prior to that, Steichen was with the Chargers and part of Justin Herbert’s initial NFL success. Steichen is an excellent offensive coach. To me he seems quite good at chess. He has the ability to understand what a defense thinks is coming, and then call a completely unexpected offensive play.

Cooter most recently served as the offensive passing game coordinator for the Jaguars. To be honest, that’s why I really think he is here as OC this season. All reports suggest Anthony Richardson is going to have some huge rushing upside as his instincts with running from the QB position are elite while his passing tendencies need coaching. Cooter was part of Trevor Lawrence’s leap this past season, and back in the day he helped a young Matt Stafford as OC for the Lions. Cooter and Steichen will attempt to get Richardson up to speed on RPOs that are designed to pass instead of run. Richardson will have plenty of running opportunities, but these coaches also want to utilize his cannon of an arm.

Steichen has decided to retain DC Gus Bradley, who will be entering year two with the Colts. Bradley and Steichen worked together with the Chargers, so they were already familiar with one another. Bradley’s biggest claim to fame might be the 4 years he spent with Seattle from 2009 – 2012, helping to lay the foundations of the Legion of Boom. Bradley is big into zone coverage and asks for versatility among his defensive players, even more rest time in between plays than they are used to. Last year the Colts incurred a good amount of injuries and were particularly bad a stopping the run. Shaquille Leonard and DeForest Buckner are two guys who absolutely need to stay healthy for this group to be successful.

While Steichen gets a ton of credit for the rise of Jalen Hurts and the effectiveness of the Eagles offense, one thing Steichen had going for him was an exceptional offensive line.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters

  • LT: Bernhard Raimann
  • LG: Quenton Nelson
  • C: Ryan Kelly
  • RG: Will Fries
  • RT: Braden Smith

The names on this line are quite solid, especially with run blocking. Nelson and Kelly have put together nice careers but took steps backwards last year. Interestingly enough, Nelson was made the highest paid guard in the NFL last season but turned in his worst single season performance. Braden Smith had a good year, as did rookie LT Bernhard Raimann.

The underperformance of this group during the 2022 season is part of the reason behind Jonathan Taylor burning many as the #1 pick overall last year. Tony Sparano is entering his first season as an O-line coach after recently serving as an assistant for the Gmen, Panthers and Jaguars. Between all the new coaches and influx of new schemes,  the hope is that the younger players on this line will continue to ascend while the veterans are reinvigorated. It’s hopefully a return to Pro Bowl performances for players like Nelson.

Verdict

The Shane Steichen factor is a potentially huge influence for both QB Anthony Richardson and RB Jonathan Taylor. If it weren’t for him starting camp on the PUP list, I’d be a little more comfortable with Taylor at RB3 and ADP of 5 this year than I was with him as #1 overall last season. Something to monitor for sure.

Richardson is an interesting piece to me. He is currently being drafted anywhere from #114 to #136. Barring an injury, he’s got a good chance to be higher than that when the season is over. I am aware that Gardner Minshew is here to compete for the starting role and that he just spent two years working with Steichen as an Eagle, but I’m banking on Richardson being under center sooner rather than later.

I love Michael Pittman as a player, but he’s a scary end-of-the-5th/beginning-of-the-6th-round proposition in a transitioning offense with a QB who’s passing game is in question. If he were to fall out of that range, though, I might have an interest.

Since Eagles TEs contributed to Steichen’s Eagle offense, and Evan Engram had his in Cooter’s passing attack, I love second-year TE and athletic freak Jelani Woods to make a step this season. He basically isn’t getting drafted. His ADP is 246, and I like his chances of finishing higher than TE33.

Outside of Pittman, I feel most players have the potential to outperform their ADPs. At the same time, I don’t see everything gelling immediately out of the gate. By season’s end, however, I think we are talking about Richardson as a top 12 QB in 2024 and Jonathan Taylor should be back as a top 5 RB.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

NFL Futures: Regular Season Win Odds: 9.5

  • HC: Doug Pederson
  • OC: Press Taylor
  • DC: Mike Caldwell

These three were all in their first years last season, so with a playoff win and a loss to the eventual champs, they all return for year 2. That and Pederson’s a former Super Bowl champion.

On offense, Pederson and Taylor, who worked together in Philadelphia, attempted to organize a West Coast style around the skills of Trevor Lawrence, and I’d say they were quite effective. Lawrence spent much time using RPOs from the shotgun and throwing on first downs. The Jags did a great job of getting defenses to show their hand, which helped Lawrence make decisions after identifying coverages and pressures. We saw Lawrence make a significant step last season, and he might be in for another in year two with these coaches.

Despite a mediocre defensive season, Caldwell will lead this defense again. There are few standouts in Jacksonville anymore, but Josh Allen and Tyson Campbell are quite good. Caldwell is a former NFL LB. He likes to run a 3-4 base with zone coverage. This enables the defense to utilize more LBs either up front, if needed, or have them drop into coverage. The defense is young, and improvement on last year is likely. Their secondary was particularly subpar last season and very well could be again in 2023 as they have not had much change over in that group.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters

  • LT: Cam Robinson / Walker Little
  • LG: Ben Bartch
  • C: Luke Fortner
  • RG: Brandon Scherff
  • RT: Anton Harrison / Walker Little

While the loss of Jawaan Taylor is not ideal, his moving on illustrates the staff has confidence in both Robinson and Little, the latter started both playoff games after Robinson got hurt. Robinson is suspended for 4 games FYI. The team also selected Anton Harrison at the end of the first round, so he’s in play as well.

Fortner was a rookie last season and could use some improvement in his sophomore year. Bartch is a steady performer at LG. Scherff was brought in as a free agent last season, but has not really lived up to his 3 year $49.5 million contract as of yet.

Overall, this group is regarded as a good pass-blocking unit, but an under-average run-blocking one. In order for this offense to truly reach its ceiling, they are going to need better overall line play.

Verdict

We are likely looking at the division champ here. We are also looking at a team that’s likely to be more pass heavy than have a true workhorse RB. Trevor Lawrence is going at pick 56, which is QB8. He’s an interesting 5th round decision, but I like his ADP better than Travis Etienne. The RB is going in the 3rd round of drafts. Etienne should have his weeks, but I‘m not taking him at the round 2/3 turn when he runs in an offense that’s notorious for using multiple backs. That offense drafted Tank Bigsby in the 3rd round and kept JaMycal Hasty on the roster.

I am excited about the addition of Calvin Ridley, but I don’t want to spend a 4th round pick on a guy who hasn’t played football in 2 years. If he were to fall a bit, I would take a shot. Otherwise, I’ll take Christian Kirk at 67, Evan Engram at 85, or Zay Jones at 143.

 

Tennessee Titans

NFL Futures: Regular Season Win Odds: 7.5

  • HC: Mike Vrabel
  • OC: Tim Kelly
  • DC: Shane Bowen

Mike Vrabel is back for year #6 with the Titans. He is much more involved in the defense than the offense. To that end, the Titans have promoted from within after the departure of last year’s OC Todd Downing.

Tim Kelly ascends the coaching depth chart after one year as Passing Game coordinator. Prior to that Kelly was with the Texans and was the OC from 2019 – 2021. These years coincide with the Deshaun Watson years. That offense was a Spread offense. Watson operated in the shotgun, utilized RPOs, and threw all over other teams. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen in Tennessee though. Below you will see how limited the offensive line is in Nashville. Instead, Kelly will likely continue to use the West Coast offense in Tennessee since Arthur Smith. This means short passes and a lot of running plays for Derrick Henry.

This is Vrabel’s defense. He makes the final decisions and calls the plays during the game. 3-4 is the base setup, but Vrabel is willing to move out of it if necessary. He likes his defense to be aggressive and focused on creating turnovers. However, the have been bad, particularly against the pass. Those two combinations is why you occasionally see a $2100 Titans DST in the Milly Maker winner. Vrabel has had good defenses in the past, but this group is starting to look like a bunch of younger players who are incapable of the consistence being asked of them.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters

  • LT: Andre Dillard / Peter Skoronski
  • LG: Daniel Brunskill / Peter Skoronski
  • C: Aaron Brewer
  • RG: Daniel Brunskill / Peter Skoronski / Dillon Radunz
  • RT: Peter Skoronski / Dillon Radunz / Nicholas Petit-Frere / Jaelyn Duncan

RT is the most glaring problem as sophomore Petit-Frere is suspended for the first 6 games of the season, so the replacement is up for grabs. Duncan is a 6th round rookie and Radunz is in his 3rd year. He has bounced along this line over the last two seasons as a utility lineman.

The wildcard here is Peter Skoronski. He’s a highly touted tackle whom the Titans took with their 11th overall pick. While he is traditionally a tackle, the Titans could elect to use him at guard depending on their needs at the time. All signs look good for this rookie, but time will tell.

Dillard is being brought in from Philly, who has had a pretty good line for some seasons. Dillard has shown himself to be a quality lineman, especially at LT, but he has dealt with injuries to the tune of only playing 715 snaps since entering the league in 2019.

Brunskill is in from the 49ers. Like Radunz, he has bounced all over the formation throughout his career.

Brewer is moving to center after spending most of his time at LG.

Line coach Jason Houghtaling is entering his second year with the Titans, but it will be his first as head line coach. Houghtaling will have to deal with one of the worst-graded lines in all of football who just lost long-time Titans Ben Jones and Taylor Lewan, staples on the offensive line for the last 7 seasons.

There is a lot of versatility in this current group. There is also injury history, a lack of experience, suspensions, and question marks. Many of these players also grade out fairly decently in pass blocking, but not in run blocking. Having this much versatility along a line is an interesting approach, but it could certainly backfire. Many experts out there are ranking this group as the worst going into the 2023 season.

Verdict

Derrick Henry is going in the second round this year. Henry is still the top RB here, and despite a porous offensive line, he’s still capable of the big run. The volume and effectiveness might not be what it was in the past, but the fantasy points should still be worthy of a selection in the 2nd round.

Treylon Burks is going in the 7th round of drafts. I don’t mind that ADP at all considering his target share, but I bet that takes a hit with Deandre Hopkins now here.

Speaking of DHop, he now goes around pick 50. Hopkins and Kelly worked together in Houston, so this is a reunion of sorts. DHop will be very good at creating options for the QB in the short game, so I could see him being serviceable from a PPR standpoint. Otherwise I don’t have much interest at the 4th/5th turn.

Chigoziem Okonkwo is going at pick 125. I love the player and his athleticism, but I’m not sure I’m willing to wait until then to secure my TE1.

No interest in the QBs here, not even in dynasty.

 

Thanks again! As I said, we’re halfway there. See you for round 5!

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