When the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars take the field on Sunday, it will be the battle for third place in the AFC South. Both teams come into the game with 1-6 records, and the Texans' lone victory came against the Jaguars in Week 5.
Between them, the teams have won the past five division titles -- four of which were won by the Texans -- but that trend is highly unlikely to continue in 2020. Since the start of training camp in 2019, both teams have traded some of their best players, with the Jaguars getting significant draft capital in return and the Texans getting veteran players who haven't been difference-makers.
While Jacksonville has more high draft picks and cap space to help replenish talent, Houston has the most important piece of all: a franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson.
Texans reporter Sarah Barshop and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco examine what went wrong and what each team has going for it and against it. Mike Tannenbaum, an NFL Front Office Insider for ESPN, reveals which team he'd prefer to rebuild if he were in charge.
What went wrong
Jaguars: Injuries have had a major impact on a defense that had little frontline talent, and second-year quarterback Gardner Minshew hasn't improved.
The Jaguars traded defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye, two veterans who would have helped significantly. Three free agents the Jaguars were counting on to play significant roles on defense either opted out because of the coronavirus (nose tackle Al Woods and cornerback Rashaan Melvin) or were forced to retire because of a health condition (defensive lineman Rodney Gunter).
Minshew's play last season earned him a chance to prove that he could be the franchise quarterback. However, there are still issues that plagued him as a rookie: comfort in the pocket, arm strength, throwing receivers open and working the middle of the field. Minshew will miss Sunday's game because of a thumb injury, and rookie Jake Luton will make his NFL debut.
Texans: The Texans started 0-4 and fired head coach and general manager Bill O'Brien less than six months after ownership allowed him to trade All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for running back David Johnson and a second-round draft pick. The Texans agreed to take on Johnson's $11 million salary and he has run for 392 yards and three touchdowns in 101 carries through seven games.
Watson's completion percentage (69.5%) is the best of his career, but the Texans haven't scored on an opening drive this season.
Defensively, the Texans simply did not do enough to improve a unit that allowed the Kansas City Chiefs to score 51 unanswered points in the divisional round of the playoffs in January. The lack of talent on defense is startling. Second-round DT Ross Blacklock has not cracked the starting lineup and was ejected from Houston's Week 2 win for punching an opposing player. The Texans have one interception through seven games.
Yet the biggest issue for Houston's defense is it cannot stop the run. The Texans enter Sunday's game giving up an average of 165.9 rushing yards per game, which is second worst in the NFL.
Future bright spots
Jaguars: There is young talent on the roster around which the Jaguars can build. Allen must learn to deal with being the focus of opponents' pass protections. Henderson and Chaisson have to make strides in 2021, and Jack needs to stay at weakside linebacker, where he has excelled this season, but that's a good starting point.
The Jaguars have four picks in the first two rounds of the 2021 draft. And the way things are trending, some of those will be pretty high picks. Two of those four picks are the result of trades: The Jaguars have the Los Angeles Rams' first-round pick and the Minnesota Vikings' second-round pick (which should be pretty high, too).
If they keep losing, the Jaguars could be in position to draft Clemson's Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State's Justin Fields, which would instantly make this team significantly better and give it that potential franchise quarterback.
Plus, the Jaguars right now have the most cap space available in 2021 ($100 million, per ESPN's Roster Management System) of any team, though the amount will change based on how the salary cap is impacted by this season.
Texans: They have Deshaun Watson. Before the Texans drafted their franchise quarterback in 2017, they had a revolving door at the position. Before this season, the Texans had won the AFC South in the two seasons that Watson was healthy.
The Texans have one more season before Watson's cap hit jumps to a significant portion of the salary cap, as he signed a four-year contract extension before the season. Watson's teammates often talk about how Houston might have a lot of holes on the roster, but because Watson is behind center, they know they are rarely out of a game.
Jaguars: There are still plenty of holes on the roster, especially along the defensive line and in the secondary, and it's unlikely the Jaguars can fix everything quickly. That would mean hitting on the majority of their 10 draft picks in 2021 and especially the four in the first two rounds.
There are so many bad teams this season that the Jaguars might finish with a poor record and still have no shot at Lawrence or Fields, who are viewed as potential franchise-changers.
Texans: There are a lot of holes on the roster and very few draft picks with which to fill them. The Texans have seen how filling a roster through free agency and the trade market hasn't set them up for success this year and they have failed to draft impact players outside of Watson.
While some teams with a 1-6 record are looking toward the draft, the Texans can't. O'Brien traded away their first- and second-round draft picks in 2021 as part of the trade that brought Tunsil and wide receiver Kenny Stills to Houston. Unless they make a major trade, the Texans will have made only one first-round draft pick in four seasons (2018-21).
Tannenbaum was executive vice president of football operations for the Miami Dolphins (2015-2018) and general manager for the New York Jets (2006-2012). He gives his case for each team, and makes a pick for the franchise he believes has a more promising future, based on their current situations:
Texans: "I think they have a lot of good pieces in place, from obviously to the quarterback to the left tackle, who I drafted, so obviously there's a little bias there. But those are hard pieces to get. I know it's easier to focus on what they don't have, but if you were sitting there and saying, 'Well, you know we have a first-round pick and we hope to get a young high-character, dynamic, playmaking quarterback,' you can check that box. They have it. So I think you really need to focus on what they do have, not what they don’t have. And they do need a lot of pieces -- that's pretty apparent -- but I think the hard things are there.
"You look at guys that you can trade. ... You try and accumulate, even if it's fifth- and sixth-round picks. And as you get closer to the draft, you try to maybe put those together, package those together. ... You hope one transaction leads to subsequent ones."
Jaguars: "They check a lot of boxes. They play and practice on grass. They're in a tax-free state. They have perfect weather. It should be a destination. And you have really good ownership, so hopefully that's an organization that can turn things around quickly as well."
Tannenbaum's preference: Texans. "Anytime you have a quarterback, it kind of begins with that conversation, because you can find other pieces if you're thorough and look at different avenues to do so. It always, in my opinion, begins and ends with the quarterback."