JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Maybe close friends Bill O’Brien and Doug Marrone had a bet. Maybe they were playing a back-and-forth game of “Can You Top This?”
If so, Marrone clearly won this round.
Marrone and the Jacksonville Jaguars have dumped five potential starters, including three former Pro Bowlers, since early March. It started with cornerback A.J. Bouye (traded to Denver). Defensive end Calais Campbell (traded to Baltimore) was next, followed a few days later by quarterback Nick Foles (traded to Chicago).
Not to be outdone, O’Brien sent one of Houston’s best players, perennial All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins, to Arizona a day after Jacksonville parted with five-time Pro Bowler and team captain Campbell. The Texans got oft-injured running back David Johnson and a second-round draft pick in return for the franchise’s second-leading receiver. The teams also swapped fourth-rounders.
The other two AFC South teams refused to sit back and let Jacksonville and Houston hog the spotlight, essentially saying: “Hold my beer.”
Tennessee signed quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who threw for 88 and 72 yards in consecutive playoff games, to a four-year, $118 million contract that includes $62 million guaranteed. And then the Titans gave inconsistent pass rusher Vic Beasley a one-year deal worth up to $12 million.
Indianapolis responded by landing 38-year-old Philip Rivers on a one-year, $25 million rental — taking a chance on a veteran who threw 20 interceptions last season and seemingly lost whatever zip he had left.
Those were enough risky moves over one week to make a Las Vegas sports book jealous. Will they backfire or pay off big this season? The head-scratching decisions could significantly shape the NFL’s only division with two playoff teams in each of the last three years.
The Jaguars added to their list of questionable moves this week by trading disgruntled pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue and waiving running back Leonard Fournette.
“At the end of the day, I’ve got to be able to field a team that I believe gives us the best chance to win,” Marrone said. “That’s what my role is and that’s what I’m doing.”
Tennessee, meanwhile, has yet to see Beasley on the field. He reported to camp 10 days late, potentially racking up $500,000 in fines, and remains on the non-football injury list after failing a physical.
“We have to make sure he’s ready, and what’s best for the team,” coach Mike Vrabel said. “We’re hopeful that we can get working with Vic on the field. “
Three of the four teams will have new starting quarterbacks from the 2019 opener. Indianapolis sent Jacoby Brissett to the bench. Jacksonville moved on from Foles. And Tennessee parted with former first-round pick Marcus Mariota.
All four teams seemingly have more settled situations now, with Deshaun Watson, Gardner Minshew, Rivers and Tannehill entrenched as starters.
The division that led the AFC in sacks in 2019 might be even tougher to block this season. Every team from the South made at least one major move along the defensive front between free agency and the draft.
Houston used its first two picks to land TCU defensive tackle Ross Blacklock and Florida pass rusher Jon Greenard. Indianapolis traded its first-round draft pick, No. 13 overall, to San Francisco for 2018 Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
Jacksonville used its second of two first-round picks to land LSU pass rusher K’Lavon Chaisson to pair with Josh Allen, a Pro Bowler as a rookie. Tennessee signed Beasley, although it remains to be seen how much he will help after missing most of camp.
In a passing league, the South made notable moves at running back.
The Texans gambled on Johnson, who led the NFL in yards from scrimmage (2,118) and total touchdowns (20) in 2016. The Colts drafted Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor in the second round, adding the first player in Football Bowl Subdivision history to rush for 6,000 yards over three seasons.
The Jaguars cut Fournette, the fourth overall pick of the 2017 draft, in hopes of getting more production from a committee approach featuring second-year pro Devine Ozigbo and undrafted rookie James Robinson. The Titans gave reigning NFL rushing leader Derrick Henry a four-year, $50 million contract in July.
Titans (most complete), Texans (best QB), Colts (potential abounds), Jaguars (rebuilding mode).