Who will win the AFC South?
By: Andy Davies
Welcome to the most topsy turvy division in the NFL. This is a division featuring two teams that are expected to make the playoffs and two teams that are expected to have no more than 5 or 6 wins. In the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans, the AFC South presents a very contrasting division. During the past seven seasons, all four teams have at least once tasted the division crown.
With it only being one of two teams that are likely to win the division this season, here is a preview of the AFC South.
Houston Texans (2020 record: 4-12. Third worst record in the NFL)
The Texans are in a dysfunctional mess. It seems just yesterday that they were 24-0 up against the Kansas City Chiefs during the Divisional Round in January 2020. The franchise has overseen massive changes and none are for the better.
Star wide receiver Deandre Hopkins was traded to the Arizona Cardinals in the 2020 offseason, which had a massive role to play in the Texans finishing 4-12 last season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson had his best statistical season despite the team’s record and the loss of his number one wideout, earning the award of passing yards leader. A request for a trade followed by legal troubles leaving his chances of suiting up once again in a Texans jersey slim to none. Defensive end J.J. Watt, who is probably the best player in franchise history, said an emotional goodbye to the Texans this offseason, with his move to the Arizona Cardinals in Free Agency confirmed.
The team has attempted to address the QB situation in the offseason, with Tyrod Taylor picked up in Free Agency and Davis Mills being taken in the third round of this year’s draft, the team’s first selection. The running back room is one area where Houston will be happy. Along with David Johnson, who was part of the aforementioned Hopkins trade, will be joined by three free-agent signings. Mark Ingram, Phillip Lindsay, and Rex Burkhead have all joined this summer via the Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots, and Denver Broncos respectively.
Wide receiver Chris Conley, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, linebackers Christian Kirksey, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and cornerback Desmon King are five other notable additions but none of these players are likely to make much of an impact. With the exception of Watson, who has an uncertain future both in the NFL and as a Texan, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and linebacker Zach Cunningham are the only two players that would start for the majority of teams in the league.
The Texans face a difficult season and new head coach David Culley has a tough task on his hands. Expect them to finish last in the division and have the worst record in the entire league.
Prediction: 4th in AFC South
Indianapolis Colts (2020 record: 11-5. Lost in Wildcard Round)
Indianapolis has the longest period without a division crown, with their last AFC South title coming in the 2014 season. Head coach Frank Reich has done an excellent job since being appointed in 2018, a job that was given to him after Josh McDaniels’ u-turn.
They started 1-5 in 2018 before turning it around to finish 10-6 and bow out in the Divisional Round. Quarterback Andrew Luck had an excellent 2018 campaign but announced his retirement on the eve of the 2019 season, Jacoby Brissett would come in as the starter before 2020, where Phillip Rivers arrived for what ended up being the final season of his career.
Carson Wentz departed the Philadelphia Eagles for the Colts this offseason but an injury put his season in doubt. It has since been reported that he has recovered way better than expected and may even play in week one. The more realistic outcome is Wentz playing in either week two or three.
He is reunited with his former offensive coordinator in Reich, someone who was a big part of his 2017 campaign. This is a season where he was everyone’s favourite for the MVP before injury prevented this. If there is anyone that can get him back to the player we once saw, this is Reich. Wentz knows the Reich system and once he starts for the Colts, the transition from franchises should be a smooth one.
Wentz comes into a very talented offense. He firstly will have running backs Jonathan Taylor, Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines to hand the ball off to. Michael Pittman showed flashes of what he can do in the NFL last season in his rookie year. Zach Pascal and Parris Campbell have the opportunity to make their mark, especially with the injury concerns surrounding T.Y. Hilton.
The offense will be massively helped by what is an excellent offensive line. Alongside centre Ryan Kelly, the Colts have the best offensive lineman in football. Guard Quenton Nelson has been a force in the league ever since being drafted sixth overall by Indianapolis in 2018. It is not only the offensive line where the Colts excel. They have an excellent defensive unit.
Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, DeForest Buckner will be joined by 2021 first round pick in defensive end Kwity Paye, who was one of the best defensive prospects in this year’s draft.
Games against the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots as well as two division games against the Titans makes for a tough schedule. These are mostly all Super Bowl contenders. Two games against the Texans and Jaguars will offer the Colts some wins, as well as their games against the inconsistent Cardinals and Las Vegas Raiders.
Had it not been for Wentz’ injury, the Colts would be my tip to win the AFC South. However, the uncertainty around his health and the NFL readiness of backup Jacob Eason means that the Colts will find it tough to win this division.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC South
Jacksonville Jaguars (2020 record: 1-15. Worst record in NFL)
Hope surrounds Jacksonville, with new head coach Urban Meyer and number one overall pick Trevor Lawrence. Fans are left extremely excited over how the next three to four seasons will play out.
However, there have been some setbacks this offseason. Fellow first-round selection Travis Etienne was making good waves in training camp. The running back was said to be playing snaps as a receiver, which would allow fellow back James Robinson to kick on from his excellent rookie campaign. Etienne is now out for the season after suffering a foot injury.
Meyer’s body language has not exactly been positive and the three preseason games have highlighted the issues with the Jaguars offensive line, despite the win over the Dallas Cowboys. Lawrence will struggle to become the quarterback we all expect him to be if his line cannot protect him. If they can get that part of their team right, then the Jaguars can be a team to shock a few. Lawrence has the chance to throw to what is a very underrated wide receiver room in Jacksonville.
Marvin Jones has come in during the offseason after 36 touchdowns in 5 seasons with the Detroit Lions. Alongside 2020 draft pick Laviska Shenault and D.J. Chark, who has recorded 13 touchdowns throughout his three-year NFL career, the Jaguars are set at the wide receiver position. Offensive weapons should be the last of their concerns in the 2022 draft.
Defense should be a concern going into the 2021 season, considering they finished 27th in passing yards allowed and 30th in rushing yards allowed last year. No matter whether their offense excels or struggles, their defense will let them down. This is a far cry from the 2017 Jaguars defense that were proclaimed ‘Sacksonville’, a unit that was dismantled year by year until all of those individuals left the franchise.
Expect the Jaguars to show their potential in short spells as the rebuild continues for this franchise. Improvement will be made on last season.
Prediction: 3rd in AFC South
Tennessee Titans (2020 record: 11-5. Lost in Wildcard Round
Under an excellent head coach in Mike Vrabel and the reigning Offensive Player of the Year in running back Derrick Henry, the Titans go into this season with plenty of excitement. They are seen as a dark horse for an appearance in Super Bowl 56 but can they surprise a few and make it to the big game?
With an exciting offense, anything is possible. Ryan Tannehill has rejuvenated his career in Tennessee after being traded from the Miami Dolphins, with 55 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and 6,561 passing yards since arriving at the franchise in 2019. He will hope to continue his success despite the departure of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who is now the new head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
Of course, there is Henry. He became just the eighth player in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards. He is the hearbeat of this offense. His sheer size and athleticism makes him a terror for any NFL defense. His importance to this team means that opponents can draw up a gameplan that aims to take him out of the game. If they are successful, then this can often be Tennessee’s downfall. This is a big if. Teams who take Henry out of the game often still get bullied by him and those that deal with Henry often then get stung by the Titan’s passing offense.
Wide receiver A.J. Brown had an excellent 2020, where he caught for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns. Josh Reynolds has arrived in Free Agency but the biggest headline addition is Julio Jones. He joined from the Falcons after 10 years and likely to be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Injuries halted his 2020 campaign but if the Titans get a Julio at his best, then they have a very exciting and deep receiver room. By double teaming either Jones or Brown, this can open up space for the other to capitalise and get Tennessee down the field. Tannehill is excellent when running play action. His ability to move around the pocket and evade defenses is a massive plus to this Titans team.
Defensively is where Tennessee struggled in 2020, ranking 29th in passing yards allowed and 19th in rushing yards allowed. There was a clear intent this offseason to address the defensive issues, with stopping the pass a clear priority, with 5 of Tennessee’s 8 picks on the defensive side of the ball, with three of those being defensive backs. Cornerback Caleb Farley was taken 27th overall with second-round pick Dillon Radunz and third rounder Elijah Molden both expected to be taken higher than what they were. Bud Dupree has come in during Free Agency to add some quality to the defense. The Pittsburgh Steelers were 11-0 when Dupree suffered a season ending injury. They finished the season 12-4 and lost in the Wildcard Round. This shows how crucial he was to the Pittsburgh team.
The Titans have a fairly tough schedule. This is despite having the same fortunes as Indianapolis in that they will play the Jaguars and Texans twice. Games against the Bills, Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Rams, Seattle Seahawks and 49ers await Tennessee as well as two games against the Colts.
This may impact Tennessee’s chances of winning the division but their stacked roster, particularly on offense, has the capabilities to win it and go far in the playoffs.
Prediction: 1st in AFC South.