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After winning draft, AFC South set to shed loser reputation

The AFC South has languished at the bottom of the league for years, but we may look back on the 2016 NFL draft as a turning point.

That bastion of ineptitude known as the AFC South hasn’t merely been the worst of the NFL’s eight divisions the past five seasons; it has practically lapped the field.

The Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans combined for a league-low 25 wins last season, the third time in five years the AFC South has finished eighth in that particular race—its 25 wins in 2014 represented the second lowest total in the NFL. From ’11 to ’15, the AFC South totaled just 131 regular-season wins, a whopping 16 fewer than the next least successful division, the NFC East (147).

And consider this mind-boggling set of numbers: Since 2011, the AFC South has six times featured a team that finished either 2–14 or 3–13, with all four teams taking a turn bottoming out at 2–14 (Colts in ’11, Jaguars in ’12, Texans in ’13 and Titans in ’14). The entire rest of the league in that same five-year span combined for just seven seasons of 2–14 or 3–13, making the AFC South the unquestioned best at being the worst.

But the times, they are a-changin’.

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If there was any division that had a better collective three days of work during the draft, it escaped my notice. The AFC South for all intents and purposes killed it, with the Jaguars and Titans universally lauded for their haul, and both the defending division champion Texans and perennially contending Colts posting solid draft classes that on paper look to help them upgrade considerably from their respective 9–7 and 8–8 finishes in 2015.

Once a one-team show, thanks to first Peyton Manning and then Andrew Luck in Indy, the AFC South is an easy choice as the most improved division in football.

The headlines were these: The Jaguars’ total makeover on defense continued full bore; the Titans took their commitment to an “exotic smashmouth” ball-control running game to another level; the Texans addressed their need for speed in dramatic fashion; and the Colts took major steps to fix their problematic offensive line and protect their franchise quarterback.

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“I think all three of [our division opponents] had a clear idea of what they wanted to do this off-season, and all three did a really nice job,” fourth-year Jaguars general manager David Caldwell said Tuesday morning. “I’m sure they don’t need me to give my endorsement, but they all got better, and it’ll be fun to see how this division plays out this season.”

Let’s start with all the good news emanating from Jacksonville, where the 5–11 Jaguars had the supreme luck to somehow come away with two of the premiere defensive players in the draft in Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey and UCLA linebacker Myles Jack. The knee issue that sent Jack tumbling from the top five into the second round represents a long-term risk, of course, but in the second round that’s a chance well worth taking. When you add those two elite talents to a 31st-ranked defense that already will be getting both 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler—out all of last season due to a May ACL tear—and centerpiece free agent Malik Jackson added to the defensive line, there’s no unit in the NFL that got better in March and April.

Maryland edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue in the third round and Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day in the fourth provided two more intriguing pieces to Jacksonville’s revamped front seven and pass rush, and don’t forget the underrated Sen’Derrick Marks will return at defensive tackle after missing all but four games a year ago due to a torn triceps. Add in free-agent pickups like safety Tashaun Gipson and cornerback Prince Amukamara, along with Ramsey’s unique skill set, and Jacksonville’s secondary appears much more formidable too.

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“Where we’ve really struggled is on third downs, so our whole mission this off-season was how are we going to affect the passer and get off the field on third down?” Caldwell said. “When you look at our four rushers that are penciled in to be our starters from day one in our nickel package, there’s not one of them who was on the field for us last year.”

If that huge infusion of defensive talent comes together quickly in Jacksonville, look out, because the Jaguars already took a significant jump on offense last season, with the young combination of quarterback Blake Bortles and receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns turning in breakout years. Bortles threw for 35 touchdown passes, while both receivers posted 1,000-yard seasons and double-digit touchdown totals. Jacksonville’s offense jumped into the top half of the league at 14th overall in yardage, averaging almost 24 points per game.

In Tennessee, the forging of a new impose-our-will identity for the Titans’ run-first offense continued with the trade up in the first round to draft offensive tackle Jack Conklin at No. 8, then the selection of workhorse Alabama running back Derrick Henry midway through Round 2. Conklin is a mauler as a run blocker, and Henry, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, makes for a punishing 1-2 punch in the power running game along with veteran DeMarco Murray, formerly of the Eagles and Cowboys. The plan is for Murray to help soften up a defense, then for Henry to finish it off in the latter stages of a game.

The Titans are making no secret of their intention to own the line of scrimmage and knock people off the ball, shortening the game and hopefully making second-year quarterback Marcus Mariota even more effective when he’s asked to make plays with his arms or legs. And sixth-round guard Sebastian Tretola of Arkansas was another draft pick who figures to factor in eventually as a physical, run-blocking cog in the Titans’ downhill ground game.

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Then there’s Houston, which prioritized increasing its team speed on offense in the draft, and by every assessment succeeded in rapid-fire fashion. The first round brought deep-threat receiver Will Fuller of Notre Dame, a polished and proven burner who is hopefully perfectly suited to the strong arm displayed by new high-priced free-agent quarterback Brock Osweiler.

The second round brought a solid starting center in Notre Dame’s Nick Martin, and then the Texans returned to the theme of the weekend with the selections of Ohio State receiver Braxton Miller in the third round and San Jose State running back Tyler Ervin in the fourth, two more gifted athletes who can run past people and add to the the Houston offense’s previously limited playmaking capability. Miller, a converted quarterback, remains something of a work in progress, but Ervin is an exciting, Darren Sproles-like weapon who should invigorate Houston’s third-down offense. With Osweiler and veteran free-agent running back Lamar Miller joining the mix, the Texans’ offense is no longer “Throw it to DeAndre Hopkins and hope for the best.”

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Lastly, the Colts made the solid and sensible moves that were necessary in attempting to build a protective moat around Luck, whose injuries last season effectively ended any Super Bowl dreams, not to mention a three-year streak of playoff berths. Luck remains the division’s premier quarterback, and keeping him upright is the key to any postseason contention in Indianapolis.

And that’s where first-round pick Ryan Kelly, the Alabama center, comes in. Kelly was the draft’s finest center prospect, and he should more than capably fill a void that has been glaring since veteran Jeff Saturday left Indy. And to make sure everyone understood the urgency of repairing the offensive line, the Colts kept their focus there, taking Texas Tech offensive tackle Le’Raven Clark in the third round, offensive tackle Joe Haeg of North Dakota State in the fifth round, and center Austin Blythe of Iowa in the seventh round.

Long the dominant team in the division, the Colts aren’t messing around in their determination to maximize the advantage Luck gives them. But after this year’s off-season, the Texans, Titans and Jaguars all look poised to make the AFC South a much more competitive race than at any time in recent memory.