NFL DRAFT

How did the rest of the AFC South fare in round 1?

The Titans, led by Marcus Mariota, picked up an impact player. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

With a lack of hometown excitement for the first round of the NFL draft, I figured I would look at how the rest of the division did. The Texans have a lot of starters returning from injury and should be better equipped to handle the lack of high draft picks; but if the competition is getting impact players, it may change the degree of difficulty Houston will have to overcome.

The Colts addressed a major need with a solid choice but didn’t get the impact player to change their fortunes. The Titans got an impact player that could boost their defense and make them a tougher opponent. The Jaguars took a luxury pick that will keep their defense at the top of the league standings.

Indianapolis Colts—Rd. 1 Pick 6: Quenton Nelson, Guard, Notre Dame

This is a solid pick by the Colts because offensive line was a huge need for them. But an interior lineman doesn’t scream drastic improvement. Nelson has what it takes to be an all pro at the next level, it’s just not the expected choice when the tackle position is generally the key for protecting the quarterback. Nelson will help in the trenches and improving the run game will go a long way to furthering the offensive improvement, but the Colts have a lot more needs they will have to address before the impact of this pick is felt.

The Texans lost both games to the Colts in 2017, both were without Deshaun Watson at quarterback. The Colts are a team that has a lot of needs and not nearly as many stars as the Texans. They got away with it last year but with games in week 4 and 14 it might not be the same result. Early in the season the Texans will be coming off gritty games ready to win on the road. The late season game will be during a stretch of games that should see Houston on a roll. Houston should be able to take both games unless the Colts can get more impact players than the top interior lineman.

Tennessee Titans—Rd. 1 Pick 22: Rashaan Evans, Linebacker, Alabama

This is a moment when a team moves up to where value and need meet. The Titans decided they needed to get their guy and they found a willing partner in the Baltimore Ravens, moving up from pick 25 to 22 to get a guy that should be able to start on day 1. He will have to improve on some of the more instinctual aspects of his game but that will come with experience. He has the speed and length that a lot of coaches are looking for in a linebacker and it will give him the ability to be moved all around. That flexibility will be huge for the Titans defense that was No. 4 against the run last year. He has the speed and quickness to make plays all over the field and he adds an additional strength in the pass rush.

This is a solid pick that makes their defense better. The season series was split last year with two very different games. When Houston was healthy, it was a blowout loss for the Titans. Late in the year the Titans had to win a close game they probably shouldn’t have. Getting a playmaker like Evans can be big when playing a mobile quarterback like Deshaun Watson and might force another season split.

Jacksonville Jaguars—Rd. 1 Pick 29: Taven Bryan, Defensive Tackle, Florida

When you play in the conference championship game you have a lot of wiggle room in your draft picks. You can take a guy with first round talent but still in need of a lot of coaching and development. Bryan is one of those players. Already one of the most feared defenses in the league, the Jaguars made sure they got a guy for the future who can still contribute now. He could possibly play inside or out and can be useful in containing a mobile quarterback. He will need to develop more overall but right now his role will be useful in keeping a top defensive line fresh during games.

The Texans lost both games against the Jaguars last year in embarrassing fashion. The only thing that changes that is a full dose of Deshaun Watson. Maybe those games are different if he is playing. But getting speed and depth on defense for a team that already has plenty of it doesn’t bode well for the Texans. The 2 games they play this year could easily be a split. The first game is in Jacksonville near mid-season when both teams will be fighting for every win they can get. They don’t play again until week 17 when playoff spots might be truly on the line.

It wasn’t long ago that the Texans were the most talented team in one of the worst divisions in the NFL. They are still very talented but the Jaguars have now surpassed them and the Titans are right on their level. This will make for one of the most competitive divisions in football. Houston’s new GM Brian Gaine will have to make some wise choices with his later round picks to get the depth needed to stay competitive and make another return to the playoffs.

 

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Good news for Jose Altuve. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

One never knows how things will play out but of the known General Manager candidates, Jim Crane nailed it in hiring Dana Brown out of the Atlanta Braves' organization where he was Vice President of Scouting. The 55-year-old Brown's scouting and development pedigree is stellar. The Braves have been a talent-producing machine in recent years. Obviously all the credit isn't Brown's but his four years with the Braves preceded by a productive pipeline he was part of in Toronto speak highly of him. Not that it was or should have been the guiding principle to Crane's decision-making, but the Astros now have the only African-American General Manager in Major League Baseball (Ken Williams is Executive Vice President of the Chicago White Sox).

Brad Ausmus is a super-smart guy, but if had he gotten the GM gig it would have been in large part because he was teammate besties with Jeff Bagwell. While “It's not what you know it's who you know” plays a role in many, many hires, it would have been a poor rationale for tabbing Ausmus. Maybe Ausmus would have done a great job. Maybe Brown does a lousy job. Brown was the much more strongly credentialed candidate. While Bagwell has moved way up Crane's confidante list, Brown played college baseball with Craig Biggio at Seton Hall.

Speaking of Halls…

If I could tell you as absolute fact that exactly two members of the 2023 Houston Astros will someday make the Baseball Hall of Fame, who are you picking? Jose Altuve isn’t a lock just yet but he is obvious pick number one. So for the second spot are you going with Alex Bregman or Yordan Alvarez? We’ll get back to this a couple of paragraphs down.

As was basically a given, former Astro (and Phillie, Met, Red Sox, and Brave) Billy Wagner was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, but as I suggested last week the voting returns were very favorable toward Wagner making the Hall next year, or if not next year in his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association ballot for the Class of 2025. “Wags” in the Class of ’24 is looking good. Wagner jumped from 51 percent to 68 percent “put him in” votes. The only guy this year to get the necessary 75 percent for election is worthy third baseman Scott Rolen. Two years ago Rolen got 53 percent of the votes needed, last year 63 percent, before getting the call to Cooperstown with 76.5 percent this year. Wagner going from 51 to 68 to 75-plus looks likely. Of course it’s not as if Wagner can pad his case with a good 2023 season, but this is how the process works. The other ballot returnee well positioned to make it next year is former Colorado first baseman Todd Helton. Unlike this year there’s a sure-fire first time ballot guy going in next year. Third baseman Adrian Beltre will undoubtedly wear a Texas Rangers cap on his plaque.

As expected Carlos Beltran didn’t come close to election in his first year of eligibility, but drawing 46 percent of the votes sets him up well to eventually get the Cooperstown call. Beltran was a fabulous player and his Hall credentials are solid. However, no one reasonable would argue that Carlos Beltran was as good or better than Barry Bonds. In his first year of eligibility back in 2013 Bonds garnered 36 percent of the vote. There has been some turnover in the voter pool over the last decade, but it's clear that Beltran’s central role in the Astros’ sign stealing scheme was not held against him to the extent that PED use (actual and/or suspected) was held against Bonds and Roger Clemens. And Alex Rodriguez. And Sammy Sosa. And Manny Ramirez. And others. Foremost right now that’s encouraging for Beltran, but it’s also encouraging down the line for fellow Astros of 2017-18.

What does this mean for Jose Altuve?

If Jose Altuve retired today (perish the thought!) he’d have a good case for the Hall. He had superstar seasons in 2016, 2017, and 2022, and has five other seasons that while not in the realm of his three best certainly rate as excellent. If you judge a player by his five best seasons, there aren’t 10 second basemen in the history of the sport who’d rank ahead of Altuve. Among those who clearly would: Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Nap Lajoie. Among those four only Morgan played more recently than 1937. Then there’s a group of arguable guys like Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and yes Craig Biggio. Altuve has had the prime of a Hall of Famer. What sort of final numbers will he accrue? In late May or early June he should reach the 2000 hit plateau. How many more prime years does Altuve have left before inevitable decline? His career batting average is .307. Four years ago it was .316. Will Altuve retire a .300 hitter?

Bregman or Alvarez? Bregman gets extra points for being an everyday third baseman as opposed to a left fielder-designated hitter, but by age alone Yordan is the better play. Bregman turns 29 on opening day this year. Yordan doesn’t turn 26 until late June. When Bregman was 25 (2019 season) he put up a season more valuable than Alvarez’s tremendous 2022. In the three years since Bregman hasn’t approached that level, though his big second half last season could be a springboard back to that stratosphere. Yordan is in that stratosphere and figures to stay there for a while if his health holds up.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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