The Indianapolis Colts expected little, if any, resistance from the rest of the AFC South in 2014. It was a quick rebuilding period once Peyton Manning left for the Denver Broncos, and the Colts have been dominant since then. The Houston Texans were one of the worst teams in the league in 2013, and both the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars didn't look to be competitive any time soon.
Surprisingly, it was the Texans who pushed the Colts, at least early on last season. They bounced back from their issues in 2013, but ultimately fell short of making the AFC South a race to the finish. Indianapolis finished with a comfortable 11-5 record, while Houston came in at 9-7. Jacksonville and Tennessee finished at 3-13 and 2-14, respectively.
Houston is still a deeply flawed team, but it had a fruitful free agency period, and it wasn't the only one in the AFC South to do so. We'll break down how each team looks after a couple weeks of free agency and whether any of them closed the gap on the Colts.
We start with the Colts. In each of Andrew Luck's three seasons, the Colts have gone deeper in the playoffs. They made it to the Wild Card round in his rookie year, the Divisional round in 2013 and the AFC Championship last season. They fell to the New England Patriots, who won the Super Bowl, but the point is this: The Colts are a complete team. Still, they had a productive free agency period.
The first thing the they did was release Trent Richardson. He was a failed experiment and a massive misstep by the organization, but Indianapolis brought in veteran Frank Gore to carry the load in 2015-16, and that seems like a quality signing. The Colts added another offensive veteran in Andre Johnson, who will receive the best opportunity to rekindle his career late in the game. Other than those two veterans, the Colts added key pieces in Trent Cole and Todd Herremans, filling most of their significant needs.
Indianapolis still has needs along the offensive line, specifically at center and right tackle. It will likely look to the draft for that.
Houston has serious issues at the quarterback position, which will be the biggest roadblock for success going forward. But, the Texans addressed the position by getting Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer on the team to compete for the starting job, and that's a step in the right direction. More importantly, the Texans re-signed key free agents Derek Newton and Kareem Jackson.
The big signings were wide receiver Cecil Shorts and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. Shorts isn't exactly Andre Johnson, but he's young and has a lot to offer alongside DeAndre Hopkins, and Wilfork lining up next to J.J. Watt should provide for one of the most potent one-two punches in the NFL. Houston still needs to address the inside linebacker and center positions going forward.
It's weird to see free agents going to Jacksonville, especially the big names, but that has a lot to do with well-respected head coach Gus Bradley. The Jaguars are a long way from competing, but tight end Julius Thomas and defensive tackle Jared Odrick are huge signings. Jacksonville was serious about improving too: It tried to sway DeMarco Murray but ultimately lost out on him.
Thomas is one of the best tight ends in the league and gives Blake Bortles a reliable target. Jacksonville may have overpaid Jermey Parnell on the open market, but he should be able to come in and fill a vacant tackle spot, which will help Bortles immensely. Jacksonville ticked all the major boxes as far as needs go, outside of the center spot, which the team will need to address in the NFL Draft.
The Titans didn't address their biggest need: quarterback. However, they're expected to do that in the NFL Draft, and they made some quality signings elsewhere. They brought in outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, who is one of the better pass rushers in the league when healthy. They also re-signed Derrick Morgan and acquired guys like Anthony Fasano and Harry Douglas.
There are still plenty of holes the Titans need to fill. Aside from the aforementioned quarterback spot, they have significant needs at offensive tackle and guard, they need another safety (Da'Norris Searcy was a quality signing) and maybe another cornerback after bringing in Perrish Cox. This is an important draft for Tennessee, to say the least.