NFL Preview: AFC South

The Houston Texans won the AFC South last season but the Indianapolis Colts look primed to take over.

AFC South
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Over the next two months, we will be previewing every division around the NFL. In this week’s edition, we take a look at the AFC South, which might be one of the more intriguing divisions in the league. The Indianapolis Colts seem primed to take the division while the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, and Jacksonville Jaguars will look to compete for wild card spots.

Previous Division Previews

AFC East

AFC North

Image result for houston texans logoHouston Texans

2019 Season: 11-5; Lost to Indianapolis Colts in playoffs 

The Houston Texans struggled mightily out of the gate to start the 2018 season. After the first quarter of the year, the Texans stood in last place in the NFL. Bill O’Brien’s job was on the chopping block and quarterback, DeShaun Watson was running for his life behind a porous offensive line.

However, the Texans then turned it around and rattled off nine straight wins. They would eventually win the division, finishing 11-5  before losing in the playoffs to the Colts.

Offensively, the Texans weren’t stellar last season. The most prominent proponent was the poor play from the offensive line. Football Outsiders rated the offensive line as one of the worst in the entire NFL. Watson does deserve some blame, considering he holds the ball in the pocket longer than the majority of the other quarterbacks.

The Texans did attempt to fix this issue during the offseason. They drafted Tytus Howard and Max Scharping with their first two picks and signed Senio Kelemete, Zach Fulton, and Seantrel Henderson. However, many draft analysts believe that Howard and Scharping were over drafted and not prepared to start Week 1 this season and the three other additions didn’t play well last year.

Skill position wise, the Texans are running it back with the same crew outside of their former Tight End, Ryan Griffin. Luckily for Watson, this is a great group of talent with arguably the best receiver in the NFL, DeAndre Hopkins. Second-year Running Back, D’Onta Foreman who battled injuries all last season is finally healthy and may take the starting job from Lamar Miller by the end of the year.

Defensively, the Texans bring the majority of their starting lineup back but do lose a few pieces in the secondary. The most significant loss is free safety, Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu had an excellent season in Houston and played well next to the former rookie Justin Reid once he broke into the lineup. The Texans opted to sign former Jaguar Tashaun Gipson to replace Mathieu for the upcoming year.

Houston also let cornerback Kevin Johnson go, as he never seemed to pan out and always dealt with injuries in his short career. To fill that hole, Bradly Roby signed from Denver where he’s coming off a relatively poor season after beginning his career off well.

Essential pieces of the Texans defense are J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. These two are the engine and will continue to be next year.

Break-Out Candidate: Keke Coutee- Coutee showed some flashes last season but battled injuries all year. He’ll be an excellent third receiving option over the middle in this offense.

Best Case Scenario: Playoff RunThe Texans should be a bit better this season with everyone healthy. However,  they’re not talented enough nor coached well enough to have a chance at the title in 2019.

Prediction: Wildcard- The division is too difficult for the Texans to pull it off again. The Colts have gotten much better, and the Titans have as well. However, the AFC isn’t great,  leaving a wild-card spot for the Texans.

Image result for indianapolis colts logoIndianapolis Colts

2019 Season: 10-6; Lost to Kansas City Chiefs in playoffs

Frank Reich replaced Chuck Pagano before the 2018 season. Similar to the Texans, Reich and the Colts got off to a slow start, losing five of their first six games. Despite the poor beginning, any fan could tell that this was a much different team compared to the year prior.

Andrew Luck’s arm looked better, and the offense was able to move the ball more effectively than in 2017. After the slow start, the Colts rattled off five straight wins, and even beat nine of their last ten opponents to garner a wildcard spot in the playoffs.

The Colts then beat the Texans for a second time, and ultimately lost in the divisional round to the Kansas City Chiefs. The season exceeded expectations and Luck answered most criticisms that dealt with his shoulder. General Manager, Chris Ballard, was awarded the “GM of the Year” and Frank Reich was a finalist in the “Coach of the Year” award.

The Colts were able to return nearly every starter on the offensive side of the ball, with wide receiver Ryan Grant, being the lone departure. A few years ago, the offensive line of the Colts was an issue that saw Luck taking hit after hit. Now, it’s considered a top-five unit, even ranked fourth by Football Outsiders in DVOA.

The offensive line overhaul began in 2016 when the Colts drafted Center, Ryan Kelly in the first round. In the 2018 draft, Indianapolis double dipped into the offensive line pool and selected Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith in the first two rounds. Nelson has been a mauler inside and was recognized as an All-Pro in his rookie season.

This is a team with a very solid receiving/tight end cast surrounding Andrew Luck. Four-time Pro Bowler, T.Y. Hilton returns as Luck’s favorite downfield weapon. Chris Ballard went out and signed Devin Funchess from Carolina, and drafted Parris Campbell from Ohio State to give offensive coordinator, Nick Sirianni more offensive flexibility.

Funchess often struggled in Carolina with only one season above 550 yards, but a change of scenery can help his young receiver. Both Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron return as Tight Ends from 2018 that saw Ebron have a career year, scoring thirteen touchdowns.

Defensively, the Colts returned all of their starters besides their nose tackle but added former All-Pro edge rusher, Justin Houston. The former Chief was a cap casualty in Kansas City and has battled injuries for the last few years. However, he is still a productive player and has 18.5 sacks in the last two seasons.

Last year’s big breakout was the second-round draft pick, Darius Leonard. Leonard started almost every game and won “Defensive Rookie of the Year”. The linebacker recorded 163 tackles which led the entire NFL. He also led his position in sacks with seven.

Malik Hooker leads the secondary and has shown many flashes in his short career. However, he already has some injury history, missing eleven games in two seasons.

Break-Out Candidate: Quincy Wilson – Wilson was drafted with lofty expectations, and even stated how he was the Number 1 Cornerback on the roster. He’s been pretty disappointing thus far. However, he was a solid corner at Florida and has now been taught how to be a professional.

Best Case Scenario: Super Bowl Finalist- The Colts are built with the ability to win now. It wouldn’t be shocking to see this team in the Super Bowl.

Prediction: Division Winner, Loss to Chiefs/Chargers-  The Colts will be favored to win the AFC South, but will lose to one of the AFC West wildcard teams in the first round.

Image result for tennessee titans logoTennessee Titans

2019 Season: 9-7; No Playoffs

In 2018, the Tennessee Titans were an enigma to say the least. They brought in a new coaching staff which included Mike Vrabel, Matt LaFleur, and Dean Pees. They had high expectations with Matt LaFleur, who was hired from the Los Angeles Rams and Sean McVay’s staff. However, Quarterback, Marcus Mariota battled nerve injuries all season. With Blaine Gabbert as the back up the Titans ranked 22nd in Offensive DVOA. It’s difficult to judge the year with Mariota’s injury, but the Titans still managed to scrap together nine wins.

This season could look very different for the Titans offensively and that’s because of the quarterback spot. Injury issues that plagued Mariota’s season, so the Titans signed a back-up plan and traded for the former first-round pick, Ryan Tannehill. Mariota has never played a full season, and Tannehill has shown he can be a consistent quarterback.

Receiving weapons like Corey Davis, Delanie Walker, Dion Lewis, A.J. Brown, and Adam Humphries surround both quarterbacks. Walker returns from injury while Davis is looking to take that next step. Up front, the Titans signed former Rams guard, Rodger Saffold, who was a top-tier guard last season and will see Jack Conklin return from injury at the right tackle position.

Defensively, the Titans are in pretty good shape. They boast the best safety in 2018, Kevin Byard, who is finally getting recognition for his play. They also have arguably a top three nose tackle in Jurrell Casey who is returning from injury along with cornerback Logan Ryan.

The Titans did lose Brian Orakpo to retirement, but he was only a shell of his former self, producing only 1.5 sacks last season. The Titans really need USC product Adoree Jackson to continue his development in the secondary. Jackson has started to come into his own and is a consistent starter now for Tennessee. However, he still isn’t that shut down corner just yet.

Break-Out Candidate: Rashaan Evans – Evans struggled at the beginning of 2018. However he got better over the last few weeks of the season. If he can build on that, he can become a mainstay in the starting lineup and fill a big hole in the defense.

Best Case Scenario: First Round Playoff Loss- Even if, and that’s a big if, Mariota stays healthy, and the offense clicks, it still may not be enough to go far into the playoffs especially with the Chiefs, Chargers, Patriots, and Colts lurking

Prediction: No Playoffs- The Titans will see a repeat of last season. They’ll come close but miss out.

Image result for jacksonville jaguars logoJacksonville Jaguars

2019 Season: 5-11; No Playoffs

The Jacksonville Jaguars last season were built similarly to 2017 with a great defense carries a mediocre offense. However, with regression on defense and the offense falling from 16th in DVOA to 30th, it was a disaster season for the Jaguars.

It’s difficult for a defense to stay at the top year after year as they tend to regress much more quickly than a great offense. The defense dropped from first to sixth, which is still good, but with a horrendous offense, it didn’t matter.

The Jaguars’ season started promising as they began 3-1 that included a win over the Patriots. Jacksonville proceeded to lose seven games in a row, or ten of their last twelve, giving them a 5-11 record. Todd Walsh came and took over as offensive coordinator for Nathaniel Hackett once the season ended.

In the off-season, the Jaguars shelled out $88 Million over four years for the 2017 Super Bowl MVP and released Nick Foles. Foles is an upgrade over Bortles but is still a fringe starting caliber quarterback.

The offensive line is much improved compared to 2018. Due to injuries, Ereck Flowers and Patrick Omameh started over half the season. This year, Andrew Norwell and Cam Robinson will be back on the left side with Flowers and Omameh no longer on any team’s roster. Jacksonville also drafted Jawaan Taylor in the second round to hopefully win the starting job either in camp or the middle of the season.

Defensively, the team returns almost every starter except, Telvin Smith. Smith decided he wouldn’t play in 2019 and is sitting out for health and family reasons. Smith was consistently the leading tackler for the Jaguars and always near the top for the entire league. The Jaguars appear to replace Smith with D.J. Alexander who has never been more than a special teams player in the past.

The defense still boasts many outstanding players in Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue, and Marcell Dareus man the line, while the duo of Jalen Ramsay and A.J. Even lead the secondary. Even with the loss of Telvin Smith, the defense should expect to be a top ten unit.

Break-Out Candidate: Taven Bryan  – Bryan was considered a steal when he fell to the 29th pick in the 2018 draft. The issue for him has been the depth and talent of the defensive line in Jacksonville. He showed some flashes, and if he’s given more playing time, he could be the next great defensive lineman they have in that front-seven.

Best Case Scenario: First round Playoff loss –  With a better quarterback in Nick Foles, the best case scenario for the Jaguars is a return to the postseason and hope for some Foles playoff magic. 

Prediction: No Playoffs- This team still isn’t inspiring, even with Foles. The defense will remain outstanding, but the offense has mountains to climb.

Final Standings

1. Indianapolis Colts

2. Houston Texans

3. Tennessee Titans

4. Jacksonville Jaguars

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