When Peyton Manning was released by the Colts in 2012, the AFC South was finally up for grabs for the first time in a decade. The Titans and Texans both finished the 2011 season with winning records with Houston losing to Baltimore in the divisional round. The Colts were poised to select Andrew Luck with the first pick in the draft and the Jaguars would have a top ten selection for the fifth consecutive year.
Heading into the 2017 season, not much has changed. Tennessee is poised to compete with Indianapolis for the division crown while Houston’s season hopes largely depend on the quarterback battle between Tom Savage and DeShaun Watson and Jacksonville is entering rebuilding mode under vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin and new coach Doug Marrone. So without further ado, let’s take a look at how the AFC South will pan out this season.
Tennessee Titans: 1st place
Best positions: Offensive line, Tight end, Running Back
The Titans have without a doubt the most put together roster in the division. As per usual in the NFL, their success on offense largely stems from putting together an effective offensive line. Last year, Pro Football Focus ranked the Titans’ line as the best in the league and they are returning every single starter from last year which means, barring injury, Marcus Mariota will have one of the strongest protected pockets in the NFL.
It was a close call between Delanie Walker and the Texans’ C.J. Fiedorowicz for the best tight end in the division but Walker was slightly more productive last year and has a longer track record of being a number one tight end. In today’s NFL, a good tight end is a huge piece to have a successful season and Delanie Walker is without a doubt a top ten tight end in the league.
The Titans also have one of the top running back duos in the league with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Murray proved his stint with the Cowboys wasn’t a product of the offensive line in his first year in Tennesse as he rushed for over 1,000 yards for the first time since his time in Dallas and finishing with nine touchdowns, second most in his career. Henry had a productive rookie season finishing just under 500 yards and five touchdowns.
Worst positions: Defensive line
The Titans biggest, and frankly only, weakness is defensive line. While Jurrell Casey is one of the top defensive ends in the league, DaQuan Jones at the other end position and Sylvester Williams at nose tackle both leave room for improvement. Jones only registered a sack and a half compared to Casey’s five and Williams was ranked as a middle-tier free agent by most experts in the off-season. The defensive line will be without a doubt the Titans’ main focus next off-season.
Indianapolis Colts: 2nd place
Best positions: Quarterback
The Colts are in an odd position where they don’t have any particular advantages over other teams in the division other than quarterback but they have managed to keep the team afloat to the point where they can compete for a wild card spot in the playoffs. This is largely thanks to the strength at quarterback. Since being drafted Andrew Luck has been a three-time Pro Bowler and led the league in passing touchdowns in 2014 and solidified himself as a top ten quarterback in the NFL. While some may say that Marcus Mariota is more dynamic than Luck, the Colts’ signal caller has a more proven track record. Luck’s rushing ability is one of the more underrated aspects of his skill set. He has rushed for over 200 yards in each of the past three seasons which is on par with Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback whose scrambling ability is well covered.
Worst Positions: Linebacker, cornerback, tight end
The Colts defensive side has been the team’s biggest weakness stemming back to the Peyton Manning era. New general manager Chris Ballard did a good job of shoring up the main weaknesses on that side of the ball in free agency but they’re nothing more than Band-Aids. Inside linebacker Antonio Morrison only started four games for the Colts last year and is therefore largely unproven while fellow insider Sean Spence has only had 19 starts in six seasons. Meanwhile outside linebacker John Simon has largely been a backup for Houston in the past three years so the only real strength the Colts have is Jabaal Sheard at the other outside linebacker position.
Cornerback is just as weak yet more promising than the linebackers. Vontae Davis was once one of the top corners in the game but in recent years, his production has been slipping. Quarterback ratings against him have more than doubled since 2014 and the Colts recognized that. Opposite of Davis is Rashaan Melvin who has still yet to register a career interception despite being in the league for five seasons. Indianapolis drafted Florida’s Quincy Wilson in the second round and Temple’s Nate Hairston in the fifth. While both of these players do show a lot of promise, it is impossible to rank the Colts’ cornerbacks above any other team in the division.
When the Colts traded Dwayne Allen to the Patriots in March, they vastly devalued their tight end position. Jack Doyle had a surprisingly productive year in his first year as a starter but that doesn’t guarantee he will keep it up. Meanwhile, the now-number-two Erik Swoope only has fifteen career receptions so it’s impossible to determine if he will fill in for Allen effectively.
Houston Texans: 3rd place
Best positions: Defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver
Any line with J.J. Watt will always rank first in the division no matter who else is on the line. What Houston boasts is the fact that along with Watt, they have Jadaveon Clowney who Pro Football Focus ranked Clowney as the third best edge rusher against the run last year. At nose tackle, D.J. Reader spent a big part of the 2016 season learning behind Vince Wilfork and if you’re going to learn behind anyone at the nose tackle, you can’t do much better than Wilfork.
Despite losing A.J. Bouye to division rival Jacksonville, Houston still has the best group of defensive backs in the division. Johnathan Joseph has been stellar his entire career in Cincinnati and Houston while Kareem Jackson has also been a solid player since being drafted in 2010. Despite being placed on the injured reserve last year, third-year man Kevin Johnson has proven himself to be a more-than-capable third corner to serve Houston.
One of the Texans’ odder problems is the fact the team has a complete offense that is simply missing a quarterback. A big part of this is the wide receiver corps that Houston has put together over the past few years. DeAndre Hopkins has never once registered a season where he’s been targeted less than 90 times which is even more impressive given the constant carousel of quarterbacks he’s had to tolerate in his career. Meanwhile Will Fuller offers the Texans a speedy option at receiver while Braxton Miller provides a valuable possession receiver at the three spot.
Worst positions: Offensive line, quarterback
The Texans have a good offense at tight end, receiver and running back but their second biggest struggle on that side of the ball is the offensive line. Last year, Pro Football Focus ranked the Texans’ line as the 18th best in the league and they have done nothing to address it in the offseason. While Duane Brown is a good tackle on the left side, the most important position on the line, the rest of the line is questionable at best.
The line is largely dependent on the most important position in the entire sport: the quarterback. This has been the Texans’ biggest hole since Matt Schaub’s unexpected drop-off in 2013 and one they hope first round pick DeShaun Watson will fill. Until then, Houston’s hopes rely on current starter Tom Savage who realistically should be nothing more than a backup in the league. In five career starts, Savage has still yet to pass for a touchdown. That’s a big gamble to head into the season with and an unproven rookie is not much better.
Jacksonville Jaguars: 4th place
Best positions: Secondary, Linebacker
While a lot of bad can be said about Jacksonville’s approach to success over the past few years, one of them is most definitely not their investment in the defense. The Jaguars have focused on the defensive side of the ball in both free agency and the draft and it has paid off massively.
Not only did they sign safety Tashaun Gipson to a contract last offseason but they rounded out the safety position by signing Cowboys’ standout Barry Church this offseason. While Gipson wasn’t at the top of his game this past season, Church is coming off a career year in which he tied most career interceptions and second-most passes defended. Sprinkle in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye and you have one of the best secondaries outside of Denver.
Their linebacker corps is also the best in the division with Telvin Smith, Paul Posluszny, and promising rookie Myles Jack. Smith and Posluszny have both established themselves as legitimate starters in the league while Jack would’ve been selected in the top ten if not for injury concerns.
All of these strengths along with an established defensive end with Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson means Jacksonville has shored up a defense that can overcome whatever offensive woes they may face.
Worst positions: Quarterback, Offensive line
Blake Bortles is a bust. Some Jaguars fans may try to convince you otherwise but they’re living in a state of denial. Bortles has yet to establish himself as a true starting quarterback who can succeed in the NFL heading into his fourth season and with his team option being declined for next year, this is the year to prove all the doubters wrong. But how often do quarterbacks, or any player for that matter, go into that type of year and succeed?
Granted it’s hard for a quarterback to succeed with an offensive line as questionable as the Jags have. Center Brandon Linder is the sole bright spot in a line that will largely depend on a rookie at tackle which is always a gamble. Second round pick Cam Robinson is slow off the snap and particularly struggles in pass protection which is not something you want to say about a tackle with a quarterback like Bortles. Both guard positions are begging for an upgrade and Branden Albert has had a turbulent start with his new team after being traded by the Dolphins and when that is your best offensive linemen, that’s not a good sign.
Final Division Predictions:
Tennessee Titans: 11-5
Indianapolis Colts: 9-7
Houston Texans: 6-10
Jacksonville Jaguars: 4-12