Titans start overhaul; Colts to trade up for QB? AFC South analysis

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Titans coach Mike Vrabel has already taken big steps in the right direction for a pivotal offseason.

Just hours after Vrabel’s end-of-season news conference on Monday, Tennessee announced the firings of offensive coordinator Todd Downing, offensive line coach Keith Carter, secondary coach Anthony Midget and offensive skill assistant Erik Frazier. The offense, offensive-line play and pass defense were the Titans’ biggest weaknesses this season, so the moves make sense.

Downing had been Tennessee’s offensive playcaller the previous two seasons after serving as tight end coach in 2019-20. Carter arrived in Nashville in 2018, Midget in 2020 and Frazier in 2021. 

Injuries hit Tennessee hard for a second straight season, essentially capping its ceiling. The team was forced to use 86 players in 2022, a year after it used a league-high 91, an NFL record for a non-strike season. But coaching played a major role in the team’s inability to maximize the potential of the available players. 

That started with Downing and his underachieving offense, which averaged 5.5 second-half points per game, the worst mark in the NFL. The playcalling lacked creativity and was predictable at times with early down Derrick Henry runs. Compared to 2021, Downing’s unit got worse across the board in 2022 — in total offense (30th), passing offense (30th), rushing offense (15th), third-down efficiency (23rd), fourth-down efficiency (16th), red-zone efficiency (6th), time of possession (28th) and points (28th). There was no justification to retain him. 

Then there’s the pass defense, the Achilles’ heel to what was otherwise a strong defense. The Titans allowed 279.3 passing yards per game, worst in the league. During locker room cleanout Monday, safety Kevin Byard noted that pass defense is the area that must improve the most in 2023. 

And Tennessee’s offensive-line play regressed for a second straight year under Carter. The Titans ranked 16th in adjusted sack rate and adjusted line yards (run-blocking metric) last season and dropped to 18th in both categories in 2022. Former second-round pick Dillon Radunz, once seen as the team’s future at right tackle, lost the starting job to third-round rookie Nicholas Petit-Frere. And left tackle Dennis Daley, a starter since Taylor Lewan was lost for the season with a torn ACL in Week 2, was one of the worst-performing offensive tackles in the NFL, allowing league-highs in sacks (12) and pressures (52), according to Pro Football Focus.

The Titans have a lot to fix, after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2018 and posting their first losing season since 2015. Vrabel appears to have taken the correct first steps. 

Other thoughts across the AFC South:

Texans GM Nick Caserio feeling pressure? 

Texans general manager Nick Caserio looked a bit uneasy at Houston’s news conference Monday night explaining the decision to fire coach Lovie Smith. His mannerisms and the way he spoke screamed of someone who knows his job is on the line. A couple of times, Caserio mentioned how he’d have to respect if ownership felt he was no longer the best person for his role. 

“If ultimately, the best thing for the organization is for me to not be in that position, then I have to respect that and acknowledge that,” Caserio said. “I’m certainly not above and beyond anything else.”

The apparent pressure Caserio feels is warranted. He’s getting the opportunity to hire his third head coach in three seasons, unheard of for NFL general managers. The Texans are 7-27 under Caserio, with tangible progress not clear. Houston is in great shape this offseason to improve its roster — with two top-12 picks and plenty of cap space — but the franchise has spiraled further into irrelevance the last couple of years. 

Caserio has to hit a home run this offseason, or he’s likely out in Houston.

“In the end, I’m committed to trying to get it fixed, committed to getting it right with the people that are in this building and trusting the people that are around me, trusting the resources that are available,” Caserio said. “In the end, that’s how we’re going to arrive hopefully at the end result we’re all proud of.” 

Colts may trade up from No. 4 in the draft

Colts general manager Chris Ballard laughed Tuesday when asked if he had any early thoughts on the 2023 quarterback class, declining to say anything. But Ballard made this clear: If there’s a quarterback that the Colts think is their guy, the team would try to move up from No. 4 to get him. 

“I’d do whatever it takes,” he said. 

The Bears having the No. 1 pick is advantageous for the Colts. First, Chicago already has a franchise QB in Justin Fields and figures to trade the pick. Plus, if the Texans had the top pick, getting it would essentially be out of the question, considering Houston is a divisional rival and has no reason to help a team it plays twice a year. 

Assuming the Colts fall in love with one of the top quarterbacks — presumably Alabama‘s Bryce Young or Ohio State‘s C.J. Stroud — and pull off a trade with the Bears, they would move a spot ahead of the Texans, who are also likely looking for a quarterback.

Ben Arthur is the AFC South reporter for FOX Sports. He previously worked for The Tennessean/USA TODAY Network, where he was the Titans beat writer for a year and a half. He covered the Seattle Seahawks for SeattlePI.com for three seasons (2018-20) prior to moving to Tennessee. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @benyarthur.

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