In 2023, nearly the entire AFC South will be in a rebuild. 3/4 of the AFC South teams are either in the beginning or middle stages of a rebuild, and only one can claim they aren’t rebuilding but instead retooling their roster after a successful 2o22 season. But what is a rebuild?
A rebuild of an NFL franchise is when a franchise commits to overhaul their roster and begin the process of remolding it via drafting new players, trading away/releasing expensive players with high cap hits, and committing to not likely contend immediately but to focus on developing a young talent to eventually create a better window of contention. This success of rebuilding highly correlates with the drafting of a young QB or development of a young existing QB on the roster. Fans expectations are tempered, and the playoffs berths are considered a bolder ambition (though not entirely unprecedented) early on in the rebuilding efforts.
Some rebuilds are swift, others take time to bear fruits from the labour of mediocrity. Some fail and require the cycle to begin again. For some fans, rebuilds are about hope for the future in the face of current suffering, for others it represents a perpetual state of being. In the AFC South, rebuilds are relatively normal, with 1-2 teams seemingly always in either the beginning or middle stages of one. But which teams in the AFC South are at which stages of a rebuild’s life?
Houston Texans | Embraced Beginning Rebuild Stage
The Texans already began their rebuild in the 2021/2022 offseasons. With major roster overhauls, the Deshaun Watson trade, and multiple one year stint Head Coaches, the Texans have dismantled most of their old core with swift imploding force.
S Jalen Pitre, a Houston native, on DeMeco Ryans “Everyone in Houston is so fired up. Everyone is so excited – my family, my friends, our fans. I can’t wait to play for him.”
— John McClain (@McClain_on_NFL) February 4, 2023
Whether or not the Texans can surround their next starting QB with enough talent to succeed is anyone’s guess. No one wants to see another David Carr situation after all. The Texans do have some talented young players and vets to build around. Laremy Tunsil provides a strong 29 year-old blindside blocker. Brandin Cooks is a solid veteran deep threat WR. Nico Collins is a solid complimentary WR and John Metchie III could be another weapon depending on his post-leukemia recovery. RB Dameon Pierce had a solid rookie season. Derek Stingley Jr. and Jalen Pitre each had promising rookie seasons in 2022 and could lead a young up and coming secondary. With enough development of a young core over the next few years, the Texans could turn things around after their disastrous 3 year stretch of 2020-2022 (11-48-1).
Indianapolis Colts | Initiating Beginning Stage of Rebuild
The Colts procrastinated in the rebuilding efforts. The 2019 retirement of Andrew Luck set the entire franchise into an entirely new direction. After they were forced to embrace Jacoby Brissett as the starter late in the 2019 offseason, 2020 was a chance for a fresh start. Instead they believed in their core and felt they were a QB away. While that may have been true in 2020 with Rivers, his and Anthony Castonzo’s retirements further pushed the team back from contention level and into the treading water territory. The doomed Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan reclamation projects and delayed development of finding a LT of the future. Eric Fisher’s 2021 stint and Matt Pryor’s early 2022 stint before Bernhard Raimann’s mid rookie year rebound hurt the Colts’ vaunted protection unit. This played a major part in ending Head Coach Frank Reich’s tenure in Indy. With a subsequent 1-7 finish to the season with Jeff Saturday at the helm and a rotating door of QBs, the Colts ended the 2022 season on a sour note.
With the Colts getting to $30.3m-$42.3m in cap space post-Ryan, they will have either the 5th or 8th best cap situation heading into the offseason. There is a solid mix of existing talent already on the roster. On the roster, the Colts have All-Pro caliber players (2020-2022 1st or 2nd Team) DT DeForest Buckner, G Quenton Nelson, LB Shaquille Leonard, RB Jonathan Taylor, CB Stephon Gilmore, C Ryan Kelly, and CB Kenny Moore II (Pro-Bowl caliber), providing them with a solid amount of proven high-end talent that they can choose to build around or move to get more cap space and draft picks.
- QB | Matt Ryan
- CB | Kenny Moore II
- DT | DeForest Buckner
- C | Ryan Kelly
- CB | Stephon Gilmore
- DT | Grover Stewart
- TE | Mo Alie-Cox
- QB | Nick Foles
Maximum Total Cap Space: $102.1m
The Colts have a lot of team friendly contracts to open up space with minimal dead cap hits. How many players the Colts move on from will depend on the next head coach’s roster evaluation. If he wants more of his own identity on the roster and depending on what trade value the Colts can net, some of these players might not return to Indy. The most likely candidates to be moved on this list are Matt Ryan, Kenny Moore II, & Ryan Kelly. Moving these three can get the Colts to up to $57.8m in cap space. This could net the Colts additional draft picks, or be used to trade up in the draft if they fall in love with one particular QB in this class. Former Colts DC Matt Eberflus does love a lot of Colts players in his system, which makes his current Bears team a very likely trade partner.
Beyond the movable vets with All-Pro/Pro-Bowl caliber resumes, the Colts have a good mix of of young talented players already acquired over the last three drafts. With names like WR Michael Pittman Jr., DE Kwity Paye, DL Dayo Odeyingbo, WR Alec Pierce, TE Jelani Woods, and LT Bernhard Raimann, there is reason for optimism in Indy going forward. Should the Colts coaching search and QB draft pick hit and get the Colts offense back on track, the longtime bane of the rest of the AFC South could re-emerge sometime in 2023-2024.
Tennessee Titans | Considering Initiating the Beginning Stage of Rebuild
The Titans are a fascinating case study of flawed management. After a 2019 surprise AFC Championship game appearance as a wildcard team, they decided to reward their QB Ryan Tannehill with a franchise QB payday (and subsequent restructure in 2021 to make him the highest paid QB of 2022), and RB Derrick Henry with a market-setting contract. For a while these seemed like smart moves, but with GM Jon Robinson’s decision-making and some rotten injury luck, the Titans made several blunders that finally cost them in 2022. They went from 2020-2021 AFC South division winners to missing the playoffs altogether in 2022. Moves like trading away AJ Brown, not retaining Jack Conklin, enduring the Todd Downing offense experiment, and numerous early round draft misses, cost the team dearly.
Injuries have eroded this team of chemistry and consistency. With many highly paid players coming off of injury/bad play/aging, the Titans needing to free up cap space even after dealing with Ryan Tannehill (-$5.7m in cap space post-Tannehill), new GM Ran Carthon, is likely preparing to rebuild the roster.
- DE | Bud Dupree
- LT | Taylor Lewan
- WR | Robert Woods
- LB | Zach Cunningham
Max Total Cap Space: $39.4m
With that amount of cap, Carthon could commit to retooling the Titans OL, Defense, or add more weapons for the next QB.
Tennessee Titans don’t want a messy rebuild, but they’re headed toward one anyway | Estes https://t.co/IsaaFkBn3I via @tennessean
— Evans Donnell (@EvansDonnell) January 27, 2023
The Titans will also have the 11th overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, putting them in a position to maybe get a QB. The Titans could trade up for a rookie QB or stay pat and hope one falls to them. They could also entertain a bridge and or hope for the development in Malik Willis. However this path would be if they doubt in the 2023 QB class or feel they can’t secure a trade up to get one and would rather wait until next year. Depending on how Carthon views the existing roster, they will either retool and hope most of the existing roster, if healthy, with a new OC and vet QB can return to prominence, or initiate a full rebuild and embrace a new direction.
Jacksonville Jaguars | Ending Stage of Rebuild, Beginning of Retooling
Congratulations are in order to the Jacksonville Jaguars. After the rise of the Sacksonville 2017 season that saw the Jags reach the AFC Championship game, the team fell back down to earth with four straight years in last place of the AFC South. With the dismantling of the Sacksonville defense, spending more money than any other team in the NFL for several off-seasons, and two years of 1st overall picks, the Jaguars seemed to be stuck in another era of perpetual rebuilds. But low and behold, gaining a competent HC helped Trevor Lawrence’s development into a franchise QB, and tw0 solid drafts and spending with reckless abandon helped surround him with some talent!
Jaguars QB Trevor Lawrence on what’s changed in one year’s time: “I have a lot more confidence in where we’re going,” via @TCNGrantGordon https://t.co/APVTcOUauM pic.twitter.com/qrcpwqkxDZ
— Around The NFL (@AroundTheNFL) February 5, 2023
The window could be beginning to crack open for the Jaguars, and it is up to them to maximize this opportunity while Trevor Lawrence is on an affordable first contract. Jacksonville has three years with Lawrence being paid well below market price for a franchise QB. With strong drafts and smart spending, the Jaguars have a genuine opportunity to build the most sustained level of success in their franchise history since the 1996-1999 era. The pressure and expectations are on for the trio of GM Trent Baalke, HC Doug Pederson, and QB Trevor Lawrence.