For the last few years, the AFC South has been regarded as one of the worst divisions in the NFL if not the worst. It felt like a 9-7 or an 8-8 team would win the division, thanks to injuries to star players within the division or just plain out ineptitude. But it has a feel the AFC South from top to bottom will be a little different and maybe one of the more tougher divisions in the NFL in 2018, assuming that certain stars do not get injured.
Last year, Jacksonville’s defense was the talk for getting turnovers and having a physical play to their defense. They won the division with it and were a few plays away from stunning New England in the AFC Championship. Tennessee with their run game and Marcus Mariota took that next step and returned to the playoffs and stole a first round win in Kansas City before getting educated by the Patriots. The Texans for a brief moment had looked to have a great offense to go with a great defense thanks in part to DeShaun Watson. However, Watson was injured as well as JJ Watt and it derailed the season. And the Colts, while looking pretty rough without Andrew Luck, weren’t as awful as the record points out to be and has some pieces moving forward. Will it be Jacksonville’s year to take over the AFC? Will Tennessee make a bigger jump and jump ahead of Jacksonville? Will a healthy Texans team return to the top and will Indianapolis look like a threat with a healthy Andrew Luck?
(1) JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS
LAST YEAR: (10-6, 1ST PLACE, DEFEATED BUFFALO IN WILD CARD ROUND; DEFEATED PITTSBURGH IN DIVISIONAL ROUND; LOST TO NEW ENGLAND IN AFC CHAMPIONSHIP
KEY ADDITIONS: QB-Cody Kessler (Trade-Cleveland), WR-Donte Moncrief (FA-Indianapolis), TE-Niles Paul (FA-Washington), G-Andrew Norwell (FA-Carolina), CB-DJ Hayden (FA-Detroit), CB-Dexter McDougle (FA-New Orleans), S-Cody Davis (FA-Los Angeles Rams), S-Don Carey (FA-Detroit), DT-Taven Bryan (Draft-Florida), WR-DJ Chark (Draft-LSU), S-Ronnie Harrison (Draft-Alabama)
KEY LOSSES: QB-Chad Henne (FA-Kansas City), RB-Chris Ivory (Buffalo), WR-Allen Robinson (FA-Chicago), Allen Hurns (released-Dallas), TE-Marcedes Lewis (FA-Green Bay), LB-Paul Posluszny (retired), CB-Aaron Colvin (FA-Houston)
Jacksonville, who had been the target of jokes throughout the last decade of being a stale team and ranking near the bottom of the NFL for a while, surprised many and made it to the AFC Championship. And they nearly pulled off the upset. Blake Bortles, who has been much maligned because of his play over the years, played solid throughout, not making porous decisions with the ball, thus earning him a contract extension. But the running game of Leonard Fournette and TJ Yeldon really kicked it in gear last year and is the Jags bread & butter. It is a key reason why they let two key targets in years past of Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns walk. On defense, which they were excellent lat year, they only improved their roster this year. They added Taven Bryan from Florida and Ronnie Harrison from Alabama, two great defensive players on defensive oriented teams in college while adding more depth with Cody Davis, Don Carey, and others. The Jaguars look primed for a late January run, even with Bortles, but if Bortles can continue to make smart decisions, who knows what might happen. KEY QUESTION: Is Blake Bortles good enough to take the Jaguars to the Super Bowl. If he just makes the right moves, it is possible with that defense. He was a couple of plays away last year.
MY PREDICTION: 11-5. Jags defense is a very young and tough-minded bunch. They will not be easy for anybody on their schedule this year.
(2) TENNESSEE TITANS
LAST YEAR: 9-7 (2ND PLACE; DEFEATED KANSAS CITY IN WILD CARD, LOST TO NEW ENGLAND IN DIVISIONAL)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB-Blaine Gabbert (FA-Arizona), RB-Dion Lewis (FA-New England), WR-Michael Campanaro (FA-Baltimore), G-Xavier Su’a-Filo (FA-Houston), DT-Bennie Logan (FA-Kansas City), LB-Will Compton (FA-Washington), CB-Malcolm Butler (FA-New England), LB-Rashaan Evans (Draft-Alabama), LB-Harold Landry (Draft-Boston College
KEY LOSSES: QB-Matt Cassel (FA-Detroit), QB-Brandon Weeden (FA-Houston), DT-Sylvester Williams (Released-Detroit), LB-Avery Williamson (FA-New York Jets) S-Da’Norris Searcy (FA-Carolina), RB-DeMarco Murray (retired)
Like Jacksonville, Tennessee ended their playoff drought and had a come-from-behind win against Kansas City before the Patriots had their way with them. With DeMarco Murray gone, expect to see Derrick Henry be the main guy in the backfield, and he is a load to bring down. And the Titans added Dion Lewis who can be a multi-purpose guy and change the climate when he is subbing for Henry. It’s a great move for Tennessee and it will also take a load off of Marcus Mariota to throw and hopefully his targets of Corey Davis and Rishard Matthews continue to trend upwards as they could have a very formidable offense in 2018. On defense, which struggled at key times last year, the Titans added Bennie Logan at tackle and Malcolm Butler from the Patriots to shore up any shortcomings there. The Titans also drafted Alabama linebacker Rashaan Evans, who could be a sleeper. So while the Titans I believe are already a good team, the potential is there to be far better and be a threat in the AFC. KEY QUESTION: How far can the Titans go in 2018? As far as the defense takes them and Mariota is healthy. The running game is there but with Mariota being a mobile QB, he is always at high-risk of injury. Defense has to get better especially being in a division with the Jags and Texans (when they’re healthy). KEY QUESTION: Can the Titans offense become multi-dimensional and have a quality passing game? That’s a key one to look at. Mariota can pass the ball. It’s a matter of can Matthews and Davis keep taking steps upward? Again, adding Lewis will help and I think they will take a step in the right direction.
MY PREDICTION: 10-6. Maybe lofty, but the pieces the Titans have in place are excellent pieces like Mariota, Henry, Jurrell Casey and if the players respond around them, watch out.
(3) HOUSTON TEXANS
LAST YEAR: 4-12 (4TH PLACE)
KEY ADDITIONS: QB-Brandon Weeden (FA-Tennessee), QB-Joe Webb (FA-Buffalo), WR-Sammie Coates (Waivers-Cleveland), C-Zach Fulton (FA-Kansas City), G-Senio Kelemete (FA-New Orleans), T-Seantrel Henderson (FA-Buffalo), SS-Tyrann Matthieu (FA-Arizona), CB-Aaron Colvin (FA-Jacksonville), CB-Johnson Bademosi (FA-New England), S-Justin Reid (Draft-Stanford), OT-Martinas Rankin (Draft-Mississippi State), S-Jordan Akins (Draft-UCF)
KEY LOSSES: QB-Tom Savage (FA), QB-Josh Johnson (FA-Oakland), RB-Andre Ellington (FA), G-Xavier Su’a-Filo (FA-Tennessee), G-Breno Giacomini (FA-Oakland), S-Marcus Gilchrist (FA-Oakland), CB-Marcus Williams (FA-Arizona), LB-Brian Cushing (released),
Whatever could have gone wrong for Houston in 2017 pretty much went wrong. JJ Watt was lost for the season after 5 games with a broken leg and has now only played 8 games in two seasons. DeShaun Watson played great in his short time starting in 6 games and going 3-3 before he was lost to a torn ACL during practice. And after Watson was injured, that was it for Houston. That said, both Watt on defense and Waston on offense changes the entire Houston dynamic. Watson has weapons with DeAndre Hopkins and Lamar Miller and the Texans will have a couple of key additions in the secondary (which was lit up last year) in Tyrann Matthieu and Aaron Colvin, both of whom expect to play huge roles for the team. Adding on, Jadaveon Clowney continues to get better and better for Houston. So the Texans could have the potential to really be a massive threat in the AFC, if the injury bug doesn’t hitting key pieces of the team. They have an excellent shot to win the division this year and I practically forgot Houston went 4-12 last year, which I think Texans fans can relate as it was a forgettable year. KEY QUESTION: Will JJ Watt ever be the same player after the injuries suffered the last two seasons? I won’t doubt a guy like JJ Watt ever, but it is a question people need to ask. Two major injuries and only 8 games in 2 seasons what does he have left? My guess is he isn’t going to be the same guy, but I also think the Texans are a better team defense than in years past this year.
MY PREDICTION: 9-7. Of course, if the Texans are healthy they could be better than this, but will need guys to step up if Watt is lost for any time again.
(4) INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
LAST YEAR: 4-12 (3RD PLACE)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR-Ryan Grant (FA-Washington), WR-Kasen Williams (FA-Cleveland), TE-Eric Ebron (FA-Detroit), T-Austin Howard (FA-Baltimore), G-Matt Slauson (FA-Los Angeles Chargers), DE-Denico Autry (FA-Oakland), DE-Chris McCain (FA-Los Angeles Chargers), Rakeem Nunez-Boches (Waivers-Kansas City), LB-Najee Goode (FA-Philadelphia), G-Quenton Nelson (Draft-Notre Dame), LB-Darius Leonard (Draft-South Carolina State), G-Braden Smith (Draft-Auburn), DE-Komoko Turay (Draft-Rutgers, DE-Tyquan Lewis (Draft-Ohio State)
KEY LOSSES: RB-Frank Gore (FA-Miami), WR-Donte Moncrief (FA-Jacksonville), LB-Jonathan Bostic (FA-Pittsburgh), LB-Barkevious Mingo (FA-Seattle), Rashaan Melvin (FA-Oakland), CB-Vontae Davis (Released-Buffalo)
Andrew Luck has been the Colts franchise since he arrived in 2012. For the first 3 years when Luck was on his game and playing at MVP caliber level, Indianapolis was near the front of the AFC. When Luck struggled in 2015 and 2016 as the injuries came in, the Colts struggled. When he wasn’t on the field, Indianapolis bottomed out at 4-12, though they were competitive in about six of those 12 losses and could have won those. Jacoby Brissett served in admirably for Luck in that time. However, Luck is back and he will have a new coach waiting for him in Frank Reich. Of course the key question will be how well can Luck throw the ball? Could he be Drew Brees 2.0 where he flings it everywhere or will he end up being a Chad Pennington where 10 yards is about as far as he can go? But he does have good receivers in TY Hilton and Ryan Grant to throw at and maybe Eric Ebron can step up after a disappointing run in Detroit. Indianapolis also made key moves on the line signing Austin Howard and drafting Quenton Nelson to make sure the hits on Luck are minimal. The Colts have more questions than their divisional counterparts though, notably on the defense. Malik Hooker is a good pick from the 2017 Draft and the Colts signed Chris McCain who had 5 sacks with the Chargers last year. But that is still a major work in progress. The other concern with Frank Gore gone at running back there is a running back-by-committee where it includes Robert Turbin, Christine Michael, Marlon Mack, and now 4th round pick Nyheim Hines from NC State. So the Colts will be on the upswing, but right now, they are still a healthy distance behind their divisional foes to me at least. KEY QUESTION: If Luck struggles throwing, would they consider taking him out? It’s very possible. A quarterback with a shoulder injury and had a hard time recovering from? Luck is far from a lock being that QB who was a potential MVP candidate from 2012-2014.
MY PREDICTION: 6-10. Colts will be better though the run game will be an issueand still have some gaps on the defense that need to be answered.
That’s it for this week. Will be back in 2 weeks from now. Be safe!
-Fan in the Obstructed Seat