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2023 NFL Draft Wish List: AFC South

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Seemingly everyone got the AFC South wrong last season. The Colts were a disappointment, the Titans fell apart, the Texans (though finishing last again) played tough football every week, and the Jaguars ended the year atop the division.

A lot continues to change in the AFC South and that will remain true throughout the NFL Draft. Below, I’m looking at the draft wish list for each AFC South team this year.

 

By the time the NFL Draft starts April 27, we’ll have touched on every team around the league. Here’s the schedule for our Draft Wish List series:

2023 NFL Draft Wish List: AFC South

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • First pick: 1st round, 24th overall
  • Total first-rounders: 1
  • Total selections: 9

The 2021 and 2022 seasons could not have been more opposite for the Jaguars. After a nightmare 2021 campaign, Jacksonville’s ascending signal caller and inspiring new head coach led the team to an AFC South title and a memorable come-from-behind playoff win over the Chargers in 2022. Entering the 2023 season, there is zero reason to believe that Jacksonville shouldn’t win the division again, though they do have some areas of improvement on this roster. For starters, doing everything possible to protect Trevor Lawrence seems important. Adding Calvin Ridley to an offense already consisting of Christian Kirk, Travis Etienne, Zay Jones and Evan Engram is terrific but the Jaguars could use help at left guard and potentially center. At 24th overall, O’Cyrus Torrence could be on their radar, especially since this center class is pretty underwhelming. Torrence started his college career at left guard at the University of Louisiana and eventually transferred to Florida, where he mostly played right guard. He didn’t allow a single sack throughout over 1,000 collegiate pass-blocking snaps and per PFF, did not commit a single penalty this past season. At 6-foot-5 and 330 pounds with massive hands, Torrence can move anyone and would be a tremendous addition to the Jaguars’ offensive line.

Jacksonville also needs more help at defensive back but at 24 overall, the top-four players at the position will most likely be gone. Cam Smith could sneak into the back end of the first round due to his tremendous ball skills. He started his career primarily playing on the outside but played more inside in his final season. Smith isn’t a massive presence when it comes to stopping the run, while his tackling can be very questionable. Emmanuel Forbes is a similar player, intercepting 14 passes over his career, mostly playing in a zone-heavy scheme at Mississippi State. 

In the second round, Jacksonville could address the center position with Luke Wypler, though I also wouldn’t rule out edge or even running back. Travis Etienne is obviously the lead running back and while the team did add D’Ernest Johnson, it wouldn’t shock me to see the Jaguars target Roschon Johnson or Tank Bigsby at 88 overall.

 

Tennessee Titans

  • First pick: 1st round, 11th overall
  • Total first-rounders: 1
  • Total selections: 6

The Titans are quickly becoming one of the most interesting teams of the draft. There have been rumors that Tennessee is looking to trade up, potentially as high as third overall. And if that is the case, it is almost guaranteed to be for a quarterback. If it happens and the Titans move up to third overall, Anthony Richardson would likely be the selection, though perhaps they try moving up one more spot to secure either Bryce Young or CJ Stroud. Of course, the Texans are at second overall, making it difficult for the Titans to trade with their division rival. Assuming the Titans stay put at 11 overall, one of two positions will be addressed — offensive line or wide receiver. If the season started today, Tennessee’s starting tackles would be Andre Dillard and Nicholas Petit-Frere, two players with very little combined experience. The Titans have been mocked to Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. very often this offseason. He’s an outstanding, athletic, versatile tackle with experience playing on both sides of the offensive line. The Titans’ offensive line has fallen apart but starting the rebuild with Johnson would be ideal. If Johnson is off the board before then, Peter Skoronski would firmly be in consideration, though his underwhelming arm length could lead to him playing more guard than tackle.

If Tennessee passes on offensive line in the opening round, I’d wager that the selection will be Jaxon Smith-Njigba. Treylon Burks showed flashes as a rookie but the top two receivers after him on the depth chart are Nick Westbrook-Ikhine and Kyle Phillips. JSN would be a pretty interesting fit alongside Burks considering they are very different players. He is so good at finding the soft spots in zone defenses and getting open for his quarterback, though he isn’t close to the athlete that Burks is. Their skillsets would complement each other very well.

Tennessee is back on the clock at 42nd overall and whatever position they don’t draft in the first round, they should probably target here. If they go offensive line to start the draft, I love Josh Downs here. Downs is arguably my favorite wide receiver in this entire draft class. His footwork is exceptional, and it often looks like he is almost dancing or gliding when running routes. Downs is fantastic at getting separation, especially in the red zone on whip routes and double moves, which is a huge reason he scored 11 touchdowns last season. Simply put, Downs knows how to manipulate defenders and get open for his quarterback. In 2022 at North Carolina, Downs primarily played out of the slot, lining up there on 407 snaps, compared to just 70 snaps out wide. He is really, really good at altering his tempo when running routes, which always keeps opposing defensive backs guessing when covering him. Despite being 5-foot-9, Downs is arguably the best contested catch wideout in this entire draft class. He plays way larger than his frame, always attacking the football when in the air. Downs had 13 contested catches this past season, while sporting a contested catch rate just north of 70%. Between his contested catch skills and ability to get open in the red zone, Downs is going to be an awesome target on slot fades in the end zone. His catch radius and toughness is really, really impressive, especially when you consider his size. 

Houston Texans

  • First pick: 1st round, 2nd overall
  • Total first-rounders: 2
  • Total selections: 12

After a last-second Week 18 victory that caused pain and disappointment to Houston fans everywhere, the Texans hold the second pick of the draft this year. Maybe they get an offer they can’t refuse and trade out, but it is likely that either Bryce Young or CJ Stroud will be starting Week 1 of the 2023 for the Texans. There are obvious concerns regarding Young’s size but that is really the extent of it. Young is an unbelievable thrower of the football with plenty of playmaking ability. New offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik comes from San Francisco, so you can expect the Texans to target the middle of the field quite often — although Young stands at just 5-foot-10, it didn’t stop him from throwing across the middle during his time at Alabama. 

Houston also holds the 12th overall selection, and if the Titans don’t crush their souls, I like the idea of getting their rookie signal caller a talented wideout who can get open with relative ease. If JSN is off the board, it wouldn’t be crazy for the Texans to consider TCU’s Quentin Johnston, especially given how much this new Houston offense will prioritize yards after the catch, which Johnston excels at. Johnston averaged 8.9 yards after the catch per reception last year (10th) and has an absolutely mesmerizing spin move that leaves defenders in the dust. But if they have JSN in a tier of his own at the wide receiver position, it wouldn’t at all surprise me to see the Texans trade back if he is off the board at 12. 

To start the second round, I’d imagine Houston looks to improve their defensive line. Edge or interior defensive line should be on their radar and at 33rd overall, there will be plenty of good players still on the board. If Mazi Smith fell to the Texans at 33, that would be a dream. Smith is one of the strongest players in this entire draft class and could help the Texans finally turn their awful run defense around. In 2022, 15.7% of the runs against Houston’s defense gained 10 or more yards, the second-highest rate in the NFL. 

 

Indianapolis Colts

  • First pick: 1st round, 4th overall
  • Total first-rounders: 1
  • Total selections: 9

Like the Titans, the Colts have also been a team rumored to move up, even if it is just one spot to make sure they draft the quarterback they like. That puts them firmly in consideration for Anthony Richardson, one of the best athletes we have ever seen play the quarterback position. Richardson will obviously be very fun to watch at the next level, especially in Shane Steichen’s offense in Indianapolis. 

In the second round, I love the idea of the Colts drafting Steve Avila from TCU. Avila is an experienced offensive lineman who has played multiple positions, including center, right tackle and guard. Although he mostly played left guard last season, he can play on the right side, which he will be asked to do with Quenton Nelson operating the left guard position for the Colts. But this offensive line fell apart last year after the injuries they suffered, so the addition of Avila would give them a Day 1 starting right guard, as well as more overall versatility on the line. 

Finally, look for the Colts to address the slot wide receiver position in Round 2 or 3. Parris Campbell is now with the Giants after a quietly productive season last year. The team did sign Isaiah McKenzie in free agency, but if I’m Indianapolis, I am looking at Tank Dell from Houston. Perhaps Dell’s top trait is his change-of-direction speed and suddenness, especially after the catch. Once he puts his foot in the ground, you can forget about it, as Dell can be lethal in the open field. His 20 missed tackles forced were just outside the top-20 wide receivers from the 2022 collegiate campaign, while Dell also displays that elusiveness in the return game, as he was an electric punt returner for Houston. Dell is an extremely versatile player, as he played from both the slot and the perimeter during his time in Houston. The slot rate climbed during his final season, lining up on the inside just over 67% of the time, compared to a 50.4% slot rate in 2021. Houston would use him in pre-snap motion a ton, but more so in 2021 than 2022. And yes, at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, Dell is going to primarily play on the inside in the NFL but that doesn’t mean he can’t make an impact on the boundary. 

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