Welcome to the 2014 version of Plugging the Holes, an eight-part examination from Football Outsiders of the biggest needs for every NFL team, division by division, going into the offseason.
Houston Texans: Linebacker
Obviously, the Texans' biggest issue is their desperate need for a quarterback with an NFL future, but chances are they will select one with the No. 1 overall pick. So let's go ahead and put a check in that box for now, as it is a pretty well-identified need by this point.
The biggest non-QB problem last season was at linebacker. The Texans signed a six-year extension with Brian Cushing in September, only to watch him end a second consecutive campaign on injured reserve with a torn LCL and a broken fibula. Cushing returned from his first injury in good shape, and though his medical history is starting to make the contract look a little scary, LCLs and broken fibulas aren't devastating injuries in the long run.
But Cushing hasn't been the problem; it's the players around him who have disappointed. Former first-rounder Whitney Mercilus went from part-time pass-rusher to full-time player following Connor Barwin's departure last offseason, and he went from 6.0 sacks (in 2012) to 7.0 mostly because he picked up 2.5 against a battered Seattle Seahawks line early in the season. Mercilus also had a few misadventures with the concept of setting the edge. Former second-rounder Brooks Reed has had so many issues as a pass-rusher that he has continually been hounded by rumors of a position switch to middle linebacker since Cushing went down. That's what happens when you notch 5.5 sacks in your past two seasons combined. Then there's former fourth-rounder Darryl Sharpton, who is injury-prone, a free agent and has the zone coverage instincts of a fish out of water.
Veteran run-stuffer Joe Mays and waiver claim Jeff Tarpinian filled out this sad-sack unit that helped lead Houston to just two negative (i.e. better than average) defensive DVOA game scores over the final nine games of the season. (DVOA is Football Outsiders' defense-adjusted value over average metric, explained here.)
Assuming Houston uses its first pick on a quarterback, the Texans will miss out on most of the best pass-rushers in this class. And, assuming they bet on Cushing to rebound (which, contractually, they have almost no choice but to do), it's unlikely they'll use a high pick on a second middle linebacker to fill out Romeo Crennel's 3-4 defense. So, the hope is likely that they'll find an edge rusher at the top of the second round.
Indianapolis Colts: Secondary
This category could also be narrowed down to "every non- Robert Mathis defender," but secondary draws an extra focus in Indianapolis because two of the few non-zeroes Indianapolis started last season, corner Vontae Davis and safety Antoine Bethea, are free agents.
Davis has always had the raw talent and tools to be a top cornerback, but 2013 was the first year he really played like it. Even then, he had his lapses. (Davis was among the top 10 cornerbacks in our Success Rate charting stat, but was only average in yards allowed per pass because he got burned big a few times.) The Colts will probably have to pay him No. 1 corner money, but he's toward the median of the No. 1 corner category rather than some kind of Richard Sherman-esque difference-maker. Bethea has lost some range -- and will turn 30 before the 2014 season starts -- but he still has terrific instincts and packs a wallop in the ground game.
The good news is that the Colts happen to have quite a bit of cap space coming into the offseason. Indianapolis has about $30 million in cap space as of now, and could generate a little more than $8 million more by cutting Samson Satele and Greg Toler. That opens up the franchise tag if they'd like to hold off on signing Davis long-term, or if they'd just like to keep other teams from negotiating with him.
The bad news is that LaRon Landry plays safety like an 11-year-old plays defense on Madden: going for big hits the entire time. Toler was lost for most of the year to a groin injury, and while Darius Butler had some really nice games, he's not an optimal starting corner. Indianapolis will have holes in the secondary with or without Davis and Bethea.
The worst news is that the Colts won't have a first-round pick to try to fix things; they used it to acquire Trent Richardson, the only player on the roster besides Mathis who can bring an offense to a screeching halt. So if they want to address their secondary in the draft, they'll have to wait until at least the second round.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Quarterback
Chad Henne isn't as bad as you think he is.
The Jaguars' quarterback for the competitive portion of their schedule ("After Blaine Gabbert," as it's known in the history books) finished 39th in Total QBR, but by DVOA, he was 33rd. That puts him ahead of noted elite quarterback Joe Flacco, and Henne had at least as many complaints about receiver quality and offensive line play as Flacco did last season.
But Henne is a backup quarterback, someone who can come in and competently run an offense and help receivers develop. A franchise quarterback he is not, and that's what the Jaguars would probably most like to find with the third overall pick. Depending on how the top of the draft shakes out, they could find Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and/or UCF's Blake Bortles available at this spot. Even if they don't, and they have to "settle" for Jadeveon Clowney or Anthony Barr, this is a fairly deep class at quarterback and the Jaguars could be looking for one near the top of the second round, where players such as Fresno State's Derek Carr, Georgia's Aaron Murray and LSU's Zach Mettenberger could be possibilities.
Free agency is ... less inviting. Owner Shad Khan has already suggested that the Jaguars might leave the draft with two quarterbacks. Don't stop there, folks. Draft six. Draft eight. Give them all "Not Gabbert" jerseys. It's an important step in the history of this franchise to be able to avoid a fourth straight year of the Gabbert conundrum, and the organization should do everything in its power to take it this offseason.
Tennessee Titans: Linebacker
While I am personally not a believer in Jake Locker, this series premise is "plugging the holes," not "answering the questions," so let's focus on a big area of need in Tennessee: the linebacker corps.
The Titans have spent heavily on this position in the past few drafts. They picked Akeem Ayers near the top of the second round in 2011, Zach Brown in the second round in 2012, Zaviar Gooden in the third round in 2013 and Colin McCarthy in the fourth round in 2011. Despite all that, they had free agent Moise Fokou starting at linebacker for most of the season, and, against all odds, staying on the field in nickel and dime packages. Fokou is a heady player who has been a favorite of coaching staffs in Philadelphia and Indianapolis, but he doesn't exactly have the sideline-to-sideline speed that a highly drafted linebacker should, in theory, have.
Tennessee has essentially relegated McCarthy to the failed experiment table. The two second-round linebackers regressed last year. Brown has speed to burn, but looks more like an athlete playing the part of linebacker than an actual linebacker at times. Ayers was bumped down as a nickel rusher and dropped from 6.0 sacks in 2012 to 1.0 last season. That was a big reason Tennessee's Adjusted Sack Rate fell from 13th in 2012 to 20th last year.
The Titans probably aren't going to spend another high draft pick at linebacker; the hope may be that the lumps of moldable clay that Jerry Gray left can be turned into masterpieces in the hands of new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. With the switch to a 3-4, though, a stabilizing middle linebacker like Karlos Dansby or Jon Beason could be something the Titans pursue with their meager cap room. Of course, that's assuming their negotiations toward re-signing Alterraun Verner don't prove too costly.