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McClain: AFC South opponents use draft to try to catch defending division champ Texans


John McClain, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, is in his 48th year of covering the NFL in Houston, including 45 seasons at the Houston Chronicle.

Now that we've had a week to analyze the draft, this is a good time to see how AFC South opponents did and how it could affect the Texans, the defending division champions.

The Texans were the only AFC South team without a first-round draft choice. Like the Texans, the Colts and Jaguars had nine picks each. The Titans had seven.

Before we get into how their division opponents fared, let's review the Texans.

Houston Texans

Executive Vice President and General Manager Nick Caserio drafted five players on defense and four on offense.

Caserio and Head Coach DeMeco Ryans selected three players (cornerback Kamari Lassiter, offensive tackle Blake Fisher and safety Calen Bullock) with three years of college playing experience. The last six selections (tight end Cade Stover, linebacker Jamal Hill, running back Jawhar Jordan, defensive end Solomon Byrd, defensive tackle Marcus Harris and guard LaDarius Henderson) played five seasons in college.

Caserio and Ryans leaned toward drafting team captains who were respected by teammates and showed leadership abilities both on and off the field. And once again, Caserio drafted players from Power Five Conferences.

Lassiter, the Texans' first pick in the second round, has the best chance to start right away because the coaches are looking for a cornerback to play across from Derek Stingley Jr. Some scouts viewed Lassiter as a prospect ready to play in the slot. Any way you look at it, the two-time captain and two-time national champion from Georgia could earn a starting job by the beginning of regular season.

The Texans' sleeper pick is Harris, a seventh-round pick from Auburn. Harris, who ran the 40-yard dash in 5.06 and did 27 reps on the bench press at the combine, recorded seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season.

Indianapolis Colts

Now, let's move on to the Colts, who finished 9-8 in Shane Steichen's first season as their head coach. Indianapolis drafted the first defensive player, edge rusher Laiatu Latu, the Lombardi Award winner, with the 15th overall pick. The run on offensive players, including Atlanta's selection of quarterback Michael Penix Jr. with the eighth overall pick when many thought they would target a defensive anchor, allowed the Colts to choose any defensive player in the draft.

Latu, who was forced to give up football because of a neck injury when he played at Washington, transferred to UCLA and became one of the nation's best pass rushers. If he stays healthy, Latu has the ability to cause a lot of problems for NFL quarterbacks.

Indianapolis General Manager Chris Ballard may have gotten a steal in the second round with receiver Adoni Mitchell. After transferring from Georgia to Texas, Mitchell became a top prospect who was projected to go at the bottom of the first round but lasted until the 52nd overall pick. Playing Mitchell with Michael Pittman Jr. and Josh Downs should give second-year quarterback Anthony Richardson a dynamic trio of wide receivers.

The Colts' sleeper pick is another receiver, Anthony Gould. He played a substantial role on Oregon State's offense and is built like Texans' second-year receiver Tank Dell (5-8, 165). Gould was 5-8, 174 at the combine and ran a 4.39 40. He played outside and inside. His kind of speed could cause nightmares for the Texans' defensive backs.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Last year, Jacksonville was in the same position as the Texans are in this year. The Jaguars were the defending AFC South champions coming off a playoff victory and heavily favored to win the division in back-to-back seasons. Playing a first-place schedule, the Jaguars still won nine games but finished behind the Texans.

In their third draft together, General Manager Trent Baalke and Head Coach Doug Pederson made an excellent first-round selection in wide receiver Brian Thomas Jr., 23rd overall pick from LSU. Last season, Thomas caught 68 passes for 1,177 yards (17.3 average) and 17 touchdowns.

Thomas put on an outstanding performance at the combine. At 6-3, 209, he ran the 40 in 4.33. With his size, speed and athleticism, Thomas could create problems for the Texans' secondary two times each season.

The Jaguars' sleeper pick is offensive tackle Javon Foster, a fourth-round pick who was selected 114th overall from Missouri. There shouldn't be any pressure on Foster to start right away because Jacksonville already has tackles Cam Robinson and Walker Little, both of whom are going into the last year of their contracts. If Foster develops the way Pederson hopes, he could be a starter in 2025.

Tennessee Titans

Last season, Tennessee finished 6-11 and in last place in the AFC South. The Titans lost eight one-score games, and Mike Vrabel was fired after seven seasons as their head coach. General Manager Ran Carthon and new Head Coach Brian Callahan used their first two draft choices to fortify their offensive and defensive lines.

First-round pick J.C. Latham was the second highest-rated offensive tackle to Joe Alt (Chargers). Latham (6-6, 342) played three years at Alabama, including starting the last two at right tackle. He'll move to the left side and be paired with guard Peter Skoronski, last year's first-round pick. Latham's move will be overseen by new offensive line coach, Bill Callahan, who's one of the best in NFL history.

The Titans drafted T'Vondre Sweat in the second round, 38th overall. At 6-5, 366, he excelled against the run at Texas and could be a force when collapsing the pocket in the NFL. Stamina could become an issue.

Latham and Sweat are gargantuan additions to the Titans' offensive and defensive lines. They'll be wide loads the Texans have to contend with for years.

The Titans' sleeper is edge rusher Jaylen Harrell, a seventh-round pick from Michigan. Harrell helped the Wolverines go undefeated and win the national championship in Jim Harbaugh's last season. At 6-4, 250, he's undersized for an edge rusher in the NFL, but he started 15 games last season and totaled 6.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss.

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