By the end of this month, training camps will open across the NFL. Where are the looming position battles to keep tabs on? Who are the critical players to watch? We'll provide each team's keys in this division-by-division series. Today, Gennaro Filice digs into the AFC South:
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 21) and veterans (July 24).
Location: Houston Methodist Training Center in Houston.
Most important position battle: general manager. That's not a literary zinger. Just ask NFL Network's Tom Pelissero, who reports that the Texans are operating as if they'll be GM-free in 2019, with head coach Bill O'Brien, executive vice president of team development Jack Easterby and others enjoying more personnel responsibilities. How did we get here? Houston shockingly fired general manager Brian Gaine in June, just a year and a half into his five-year contract. Shortly thereafter, the Texans fixed their gaze on New England director of player personnel Nick Caserio, but the Patriots cried tampering. Texans CEO Cal McNair powwowed with Pats owner Robert Kraft and subsequently released a statement that he was "made aware of certain terms in Nick's contract" and Houston "would stop pursuing Nick." Although there were trade talks between the two sides, Pelissero reports that if New England's compensation price tag doesn't come down, the Texans are poised to "wait it out" until Caserio's contract lapses after the 2020 NFL Draft. So apparently, for the time being, it's GM by committee. Now, the presumption is that O'Brien will lead the charge in many ways. After all, he's had final say on the 53-man roster since first joining the franchise in 2014. But from the outside looking in, it's still unclear how the entire managerial hierarchy will operate. Will O'Brien bite off more than he can chew? Could the Texans suffer the effects of too many cooks? This Houston team's top-heavy, with depth issues and impending contract conundrums on both sides of the ball. It's a roster that could really use deft management to reach the next level of contention. Is this fertile ground for a power struggle? It's a fascinating study in team management, and it begins in earnest when training camp kicks off next week.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Tytus Howard, offensive tackle. If the Texans had a GM, the previous section would've been dedicated to the offensive line as a whole. Houston allowed Deshaun Watson to be sacked a league-high 62 times last season, subjecting the young franchise centerpiece to such a beating that he had to ride the bus to one road game in order to avoid potential swelling that could occur at 20,000 feet on the team flight. Unsurprisingly, the O-line is easily Houston's most-maligned unit, and offensive tackle is the weakest link of the weakest link. Julie'n Davenport -- who led all NFL offensive linemen in pressures allowed and penalties last season, according to Pro Football Focus -- could be the starter on the blind side. Why? Well, the other veteran tackle options on the roster, Matt Kalil and Seantrel Henderson, are A) fresh off season-ending injuries and B) haven't exactly lit the world on fire with their play. The wild card is Howard, whose April selection at No. 23 overall was met with great derision, as it came directly after Philadelphia leapfrogged the Texans to snatch up the OT everyone presumed Houston was zeroed in on (Andre Dillard). An athletic but raw prospect out of Alabama State, Howard faces a massive uptick in competition after cutting his teeth in the SWAC. But given the alternatives at tackle, the Texans -- and Watson -- need the first-round pick to grow up quick.
Looming camp question: How is Jadeveon Clowney's off-site preparation going? As mentioned above, the Texans don't have a general manager. Nor do they have Clowney -- at least for the moment. The former No. 1 overall pick was slapped with the franchise tag back in March, but he has yet to sign the one-year tender. And the deadline for franchise-tagged players to sign long-term deals came and went on Monday without pen hitting paper. This came as a surprise to no one who has been following the reporting on this front. According to one recent dispatch from Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio, Gaine was interested in locking up Clowney, but O'Brien was not. And only one of those men is still employed by the team. So, what's next? All indications are that Clowney will stay away from the team through training camp -- as he has all offseason -- but eventually sign the tag and be ready to go in Week 1. But how ready to go? That's the natural question when a player's preparing for the season off on his own. And Clowney didn't exactly burst out of the gates last September. For what it's worth, the dude's blasting workout 'Grams. And planking on exercise balls is pretty impressive to me. But maybe I'm stuck in 2011.
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 21) and veterans (July 24).
Location: Grand Park in Westfield, Indiana.
Most important position battle: cornerback. Mike linebacker will feature hardy competition between third-year pro Anthony Walker and third-round pick Bobby Okereke, but honestly, the position might just end up being a time share, with the veteran taking early downs and the rangy rookie subbing in for pass coverage. So instead, let's focus on a battle in the back end of Matt Eberflus' defense. Indianapolis re-signed Pierre Desir following the veteran CB's 2018 breakout, and the Colts made Kenny Mooreone of the highest-paid slot corners in the league. Needless to say, those two are entrenched starters. But who'll man the perimeter CB spot opposite Desir? Quincy Wilson remains inconsistent, and now the 2017 second-rounder has another Round 2 coverman breathing down his neck. Rock Ya-Sin, selected with the 34th overall pick in April, brings a skill set that already earned premium ink in GM Chris Ballard's secondary gig as Peter King's writing partner. The biggest challenge for the rookie could be adjusting to Eberflus' zone-heavy scheme, as Ya-Sin made his bones in man coverage at Temple.
Newcomers/players returning from injury to watch: Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell, wide receivers.T.Y. Hilton remains one of the most consistent -- and consistently underrated -- wideouts in football, but he has lacked steady support in the receiving corps since Reggie Wayne hung 'em up. So Ballard threw 10 million bucks at Funchess in free agency and snagged Campbell in the second round of the draft. With games as divergent as their college allegiances (Michigan and Ohio State), Funchess and Campbell each bring something Indy has been missing at receiver of late. Funchess is a big-bodied wideout with post-up ability, while Campbell's a catch-and-run/jet-sweep playmaker with blazing speed. Neither comes without concerns, though. Funchess struggled to get separation -- and to hold onto the football -- during his four years with the Panthers. Campbell ran a very limited route tree in Columbus, as Urban Meyer's system rarely asked him to make plays downfield. But if the success of 2018 free-agent gem Eric Ebron is any indication, Frank Reich and Co. will look to accentuate the newbies' strengths. Throw in much-buzzed-about deep threat Deon Cain, who's working back from the torn ACL that cost him his entire rookie season, and Andrew Luck will have some fun new toys to play with. Which brings us to our next subject ...
Looming camp question: Are we about to witness Andrew Luck's long-anticipated MVP campaign? Luck has been touted as the perfect quarterback specimen since the beginning of time -- or, at least, this decade. And while he's made four Pro Bowls and guided the Colts to the playoffs four times over his seven NFL seasons, Luck has yet to completely take over the league in a way that felt almost inevitable when he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2012. Granted, lackluster supporting casts and injuries have been factors. But as we hurtle toward kickoff, the 2019 season feels like it could be a special one for the soon-to-be 30-year-old. Ballard has built a fortress around his franchise quarterback while also supplying him with diverse weaponry. Reich is fresh off a debut season that started slow but ended with his Colts winning 10 of their last 12 games. And although a calf strain kept Luck off the field during offseason workouts, the Colts don't seem too concerned. Most importantly, the Indy Star hasn't made any recent updates to "Andrew Luck's secret pain," an exhaustive timeline of his multi-year shoulder issues. Is this the season we finally see peak Luck? If so, some shiny hardware -- of the individual and team sort -- could be in the offing.
Training camp report date: rookies (July 22) and veterans (July 24).
Location: TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.
Most important position battle: wide receiver. In today's pass-happy NFL, the Jaguars might field the league's most nondescript group of wideouts. The receiver room doesn't boast any first-round picks, past or present, and the only guy who's made (or even sniffed) a Pro Bowl is Keenan McCardell, the position coach. But the Jags actually appear surprisingly content with their WR clan. "There are a lot of guys in that group that people won't know their names," head coach Doug Marrone said last month at minicamp, "but I think when we start playing, I think some of those guys will rise to the top." That starts with Dede Westbrook, whose solid sophomore production (66 catches for 717 yards and five touchdowns, all team highs) got lost in the shuffle of Jacksonville's lost season. Operating primarily out of the slot, Westbrook is a problem in space, setting up blocks like the punt returner he is before accelerating upfield in a blur. Playing with his best quarterback since Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma, Westbrook could be poised for a true breakout season. Beyond him, though, the pecking order is anybody's guess. Marqise Lee's still recovering from the torn ACL that cost him the entire 2018 campaign, and he might start the season on the PUP list. Meanwhile, Keelan Cole couldn't hold onto the ball in a disappointing second season, while D.J. Chark barely made a blip in Year 1. The biggest offseason addition to this group was Chris Conley, who flashed promise in Kansas City but struggled for touches in the Chiefs' star-studded offensive lineup. Conley also happens to be good friends with the Jags' new quarterback. OK, enough beating around the bush. Let's get to the man of the hour in Duval County.
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Nick Foles, quarterback. After eight years of Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne and Blake Bortles, Jacksonville entered this offseason starved for capable quarterbacking. Which is why no one was surprised when the Jaguarsshelled out $88 million for Nick Foles' services. Still, Foles is anything but a sure thing -- not when you consider the extraordinarily odd trajectory of the 30-year-old's career. From his scintillating second pro season to his near-retirement in 2016 to his Super Bowl LII MVP, this roller-coaster ride leaves every football-consuming human with one question: Who's the real Nick Foles? Now, Jacksonville doesn't need a world-beater at the position. With a defense that's loaded from front to back, the Jags just need a steadying hand who can lift the offense from the depths of 15.3 points per game -- the second-lowest figure in the league last season. Taking care of the football wouldn't hurt. Bortles' five-year run as Jacksonville's starter featured a whopping 94 turnovers (75 picks and 19 fumbles lost), the highest total in the league during that span. And his 13 pick-sixes -- also an NFL-worst -- broke many a back. Will Foles clean this up? Well, the key to his Philly renaissance was a fearless playing style that routinely saw him hold onto the football for an eternity before taking a shot downfield while simultaneously taking a shot to the midsection. That's why Eagles fans gleefully took to celebrating his big ... courage. But it's the kind of approach that doesn't always prioritize ball security. Foles isn't Bortles, but he also isn't a safe, low-variance field general like Alex Smith. So, who is he?
Looming camp question: Is Leonard Fournette still a building block? Over the last five years, five running backs have been drafted in the top 10. Four of them -- Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley -- have provided spectacular returns on investment. And then there's Fournette. Year 1 had positives (1,040 yards rushing, 10 total touchdowns) and negatives (3.9 yards per carry, two games missed to injury, one game missed for a violation of team rules). Last year, though, was an unmitigated disaster. Fournette began the season with a hamstring injury in the opener and ended it with prime real estate in Tom Coughlin's doghouse. In between, he rushed for just 439 yards at a miniscule 3.3 a pop, got into a mid-game fistfight that cost him a game and a half and missed seven other contests due to various injuries. Consequently, the Jaguars went from leading the league in rushing in 2017 to finishing 19th last year. But Jacksonville still wants -- and yes, taking a look at the RB depth chart, needs -- Fournette to live up to his draft pedigree this fall. "I'm going to call it what it is: He's going to be a major reason where our offense goes and I'm not going to sugarcoat that," new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo told the assembled press during OTAs. "Leonard Fournette needs to be a big part of this offense." From your lips to the football gods' ears, Flip.
Training camp report dates: rookies (July 22) and veterans (July 25).
Location: Saint Thomas Sports Park in Nashville, Tennessee.
Most important position battle: right guard. This might come as a surprise to many, but Tennessee has one of the most clear-cut starting lineups in the NFL. There just aren't that many true position battles for a first-team role, as GM Jon Robinson has quietly assembled a pretty solid overall roster. Thus explains my opening up the Titans portion of this file with guard talk. (Sexy!) Guard play was an issue for Tennessee in 2018, which is why the Titans moved on from both starters (Quinton Spain and Josh Kline) this offseason. Robinson pounced on Rodger Saffold in free agency, handing the 31-year-old a four-year, $44 million deal to hold down the LG spot. Who'll start opposite him on the right side? It's a battle between veteran utility lineman Kevin Pamphile and third-round rookie Nate Davis. Davis, who played his college ball at Charlotte, was seen as a raw prospect whose most notable draft tidbit was his unique frog stance -- something he's working to change. (Which is unfortunate -- frog-related merch is a completely untapped market for the NFL.) Will the rookie show enough growth to unseat the 28-year-old Pamphile, who has started 35 games over five NFL seasons? Pro Football Focus has high hopes for this O-line as a whole, ranking the unit fourth in the NFL earlier this month, which only enhances intrigue on the one spot that's up for grabs. Guard talk!
Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Delanie Walker, tight end. From 2013 through '17, Walker led all NFL tight ends in receptions with 356. He made three Pro Bowls during that span, establishing himself as the clear No. 1 option in Tennessee's passing game. So, when the TE suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1 of 2018, it was absolutely devastating to the Titans. And given the gruesome appearance of the dislocation/fracture -- an injury that led to him being carted off the field with his leg in an air cast -- you had to wonder if the ailment would permanently hinder the 34-year-old. But reports out of Nashville have been quite encouraging this offseason. Although he sat out minicamp, he was running around the field and participating in some drills during OTAs. He could start training camp on the PUP list -- "I'll leave that up to the coaches," Walker recently told Jenny Vrentas of SI.com -- but it feels like he'll be back in action sooner than later. This would obviously be huge for the Titans, including one guy heading into a true make-or-break season ...
Looming camp question: Is Marcus Mariota a franchise quarterback? Playing on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract, the former No. 2 overall pick has to put up or pack up. The importance of this season -- for Mariota and the Titans -- cannot be overstated. Tennessee is rapidly approaching an unavoidable fork in the road at the game's most important position, and Mariota has to convince the franchise to go his way. A model citizen off the field and beloved teammate on it, Mariota has flashed potential during his first four NFL seasons. He posted a 26:9 TD-to-INT ratio in Year 2. The following season, he guided the Titans to their first playoff win in 14 years. But he failed to take the next step last fall, and he enters this year with a 27-28 career record. Mariota's biggest problem is fragility. He has yet to complete a 16-game season, and he has played numerous Sundays in a compromised state. In an effort to fend off the injury bug during this ultra-critical campaign, Mariota has packed on some noticeable bulk this offseason. Can the former Heisman Trophy winner put together the kind of season that'll prove to Tennessee brass that he's worth another contract? If so, the well-rounded Titans should be a major player in this highly competitive division -- and beyond.