NFL Previews and Predictions: AFC South

Moving on with our division previews and prediction, it’s time to look at a very intriguing division: the AFC South. This division had two playoff teams a season ago in the Colts and Texans, but each team has its strengths; it’ll be competitive once again this season. Can the Colts repeat last year’s success? Will the Texans be able to overcome their awful offensive line? Does Marcus Mariota have the capability of leading the Titans to the playoffs? What are the Jaguars at this point? Let’s answer those questions by closely examining each team in the AFC South.

First Place: Indianapolis Colts

colts
Photo Cred: Stampede Blue

Record Prediction: 11-5

Best Case: 13-3

Worst Case: 10-6

Power Ranking: 6th

Offense Ranking: 4th

Defense Ranking: 15th

Initial Thoughts: After starting out 1-5 last season, the Colts went on a tear down the stretch, finishing 10-6 and making it to the Divisional Round of the playoffs. General manager Chris Ballard has transformed this roster with very strong drafts and savvy veteran additions, and as a result, they should be the favorites to win this division this season.

Offense: The Colts offense improved significantly last season with the return of Andrew Luck, and though he’s dealing with some lower-body injuries, he should be able to start for most of the season at least. If so, this offense should be a top-five unit this season. TY Hilton is a very capable #1 receiver in his own right, but with the addition of a Red Zone threat in Devin Funchess through free agency and an elite run after catch/vertical receiver in Parris Campbell through the draft, Luck has a lot of weapons to utilize, and that’s without even including a strong tight end duo of Jack Doyle and Eric Ebron. Unlike what he’d become accustomed to, Luck also had excellent protection behind a top-tier offensive line last season. Ballard hit on guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Braden Smith in the 2018 draft, picked up a starting-caliber guard in Mark Glowinski, and now paired with left tackle Anthony Castonzo and center Ryan Kelly, the offensive line should only continue to progress as the young linemen continue to develop rapidly. Add in a solid running back by committee approach with Marlon Mack, receiving back Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins, and there are so many ways that this offense can attack defenses this season. Oh, and did I mention that head coach Frank Reich is also one of the top play-callers in football?

Defense: For years, the Colts had one of the worst defenses in football. Now, similarly to their offensive line, the defense also appears to be on the rise. The secondary has been completely rebuilt; Pierre Desir, second-round pick Rock Ya-Sin, Quincy Wilson, and nickel corner Kenny Moore make out a deep corner room, free safety Malik Hooker is an emerging player, and the duo of Clayton Geathers and Khari Willis at strong safety should work. The pass rush is also improved with the addition of Justin Houston, as he’ll be complemented well by Jabaal Sheard, Kemoko Turay, Tyquan Lewis, and second-round pick Ben Banogu on the edge. Obviously, this is a very deep group of pass rushers, and Denico Turay, Margus Hunt, and Jihad Wards aren’t slouches on the interior as well. Additionally, Darius Leonard is already a tremendous linebacker, while Anthony Walker, third-round pick Bobby Okereke, Skai Moore, and Matthew Adams will compete for the other two linebacker spots. This may not be a star-studded defense, but it’s very deep, which will allow them to handle injuries; they’re poised for a potentially deep playoff run.

Final Thoughts: The Colts don’t have a lot of stars, but they’re very young and have almost too much depth. As a result, they lack a true weakness, clearly play with an edge, and are definitely on the rise. Even if they aren’t Super Bowl bound this season, they should definitely win this division, and should be a Super Bowl candidate for the next 10 years at least.

Second Place: Houston Texans

texans
Photo Cred: House of Houston

Record Prediction: 10-6

Best Case: 12-4

Worst Case: 5-11

Power Ranking: 21st

Offense Ranking: 22nd

Defense Ranking: 13th

Initial Thoughts: The Texans were able to win the division last year as a result of their stars and relatively easy schedule. It’ll be tougher this season, as this team has multiple holes, but as long as their stars remain in place, they should be able to compete for a wildcard spot.

Offense: The Texans have the luxury of having one of the top young quarterbacks in Deshaun Watson, who’s quietly been terrific in his first two seasons. Watson should continue to grow, especially since he has the top receiver in football in Deandre Hopkins. The depth outside of Hopkins is a little thin, since deep threat Will Fuller is injury-prone, and Keke Coutee is unproven, but if Fuller is healthy, this offense could be fun to watch. That is, of course, if the offensive line can prove to be anything other than a liability this season. Center Nick Martin is fine, and Senio Kelemete and Zach Fulton is a decent guard duo, but having a pairing of two of Matt Kalil, Julie’n Davenport, and Sentrell Henderson at tackle will not be acceptable if they want to protect Watson, and because of that, the passing game will hinder as a result. Meanwhile, Lamar Miller and receiving back Duke Johnson are fine as a runningback duo, though they certainly won’t elevate the offense. This should be a mediocre and inconsistent offense in 2019, as there will be times where Watson and Hopkins dominate, but other times Watson is running for his dear life.

Defense: Like the offense, the Texans have some nice players on defense, but definitely are thin in certain areas. The pass rush remains elite, assuming Jadeveon Clowney remains with the team and can be paired up with JJ Watt, but if Clowney is traded, that’ll be a major blow that the team may not be able to recover from. After all, the secondary, which has a solid safety duo in Justin Reid and Tashaun Gipson, but is relying on a 35-year-old Jonathan Joseph, is pretty weak and will rely on the pass rash to cause havoc for quarterbacks. Outside of the secondary, the defense as a whole is pretty strong. The duo of Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham at linebacker will without a doubt get the job done, and they have a lot of big body interior defensive lineman to help them stop the run. As a result of the poor secondary, this can’t be a top-ten defense, but the rest of the defense should be able to hide that weakness to an extent, as long as they hold onto Clowney.

Final Thoughts: Without a doubt, the Texans have enough stars in order to be extremely competitive this season. What they’re missing is depth, as well as talent in key areas, and as a result, their weaknesses may outweigh their strengths. They’re actually the polar opposite of the Colts, adding to the dynamic of this defense.

Third Place: Tennessee Titans

NFL: Tennessee Titans-Minicamp
Photo Cred: clarkvillagesportsnetwork.com

Record Prediction: 7-9

Best Case: 11-5

Worst Case: 5-11

Power Ranking: 18th

Offense Ranking: 20th

Defense Ranking: 7th

Initial Thoughts: The Titans may actually be the true polar opposite of the Texans. They don’t have stability at quarterback, which hurts their ceiling, but they’re without a true weakness, giving them a very high floor. They’ve been pretty mediocre over the last couple seasons, and that should remain the case this season.

Offense: The Titans have no idea if Marcus Mariota is their quarterback of the future, which is why he hasn’t been given a new contract, but they’re certainly trying their hardest to supplement him with a solid supporting cast. They added slot receiver Adam Humphries in free agency, as well as one of the top receivers in the draft in Ole Miss product AJ Brown. Add that to former fifth-overall pick Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, Tajae Sharpe, and tight ends Delanie Walker, Jonnu Smith, and MyCole Pruitt, and this is suddenly a rather deep receiving corps. Losing left tackle Taylor Lewan for four games due to suspension will hurt, but this team added guard Roger Saffold in free agency, guard Nate Davis in the draft, and still has other key linemen back, including right tackle Jack Conklin. This team also has a strong running back duo of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis; Mariota is in a perfect position to succeed, but it’s unclear if he’s capable of leading a playoff push, even with this supporting cast.

Defense: The Titans haven’t just tried to hide a potential weakness at quarterback with a strong supporting cast on offense, but they’ve also built a strong defense. Head coach Mike Vrabel was brought in to get the most of this defense, which is what he did last year. Tennesee’s defense is perfect for this modern era. They have three corners in Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson, and Malcolm Butler, as well as the best free safety in Kevin Byard and a solid strong safety in Kenny Vaccaro. The pass rush could be better, but you could do a lot worse than Harold Landry and veteran Cameron Wake as your top two edge rushers, and the defensive line is strong with Jurrell Casey, Brent Urban, and Daquan Jones providing a solid run defense (plus some pass rush with Casey). Additionally, they’re actually too deep at linebackers, as they have only two spots for Wesley Woodward, Rashaan Evans, and Jayon Brown, but that’s fine; they have depth in case of injuries or if anyone underperforms. This defense is really under the radar, as they don’t have a clear weakness, and have a star in Byard. They’re easily a top-ten defense, and possibly top five.

Final Thoughts: I actually may be higher on the Titans than the Texans, but Houston’s schedule is definitely more favorable, and it’s hard to trust Mariota at this point. This team is definitely adding a lot of talent and is heading in the right direction, but it may take a quarterback change for them to truly realize their potential.

Fourth Place: Jacksonville Jaguars

jags
Photo Cred: Fox News

Record Prediction: 3-13

Best Case: 8-8

Worst Case: 1-15

Power Ranking: 24th

Offense Ranking: 30th

Defense Ranking: 11th

Initial Thoughts: The Jaguars were one quarter away from the Super Bowl in 2017, and after a 2018 collapse, they’re hoping to restore that glory this season. Unfortunately for them, that won’t be the case.

Offense: Nick Foles was added in the offseason to save this team’s quarterback problems, but at $88 million, he’s well overpaid; he’s more of a backup quarterback than someone you would rely on to start. He needs a supporting cast to succeed, and they may have the opposite of that. Dede Westbrook seems like a clear breakout candidate, but him, Keelan Cole, Marquise Lee, Chris Conley, and DJ Chark are all more of #2 or #3 receivers at best than high-impact players, and since this team lacks a go-to tight end, there’s no one here for Foles to truly count on. Additionally, running back Leonard Fournette has stagnated due to injury concerns and his inability to be more than a short-yardage power rusher, and there isn’t much depth behind him. Then, there’s the offensive line, which is fine, but has some questions at left tackle (Cam Robinson), right guard (AJ Cann), and if Cedric Ogbuehi is their right tackle, Foles won’t have much protection as well. Even offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is a question mark, as he couldn’t last a full season with the Vikings. There’s little upside at all with this offense, which is bound to be a bottom-three unit.

Defense: When the Jaguars made the AFC Championship, they relied on their strong defense to lead him. They still have plenty of players from that defense, but they’ve also lost some as well; they won’t be able to carry a putrid offense to the playoff this season. Yes, the elite cornerback duo of Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye is still intact, but there’s zero-depth behind of them, and the safeties have regressed to relying on Ronnie Harrison and Jarrod Wilson, which definitely isn’t what it once was. The once elite linebacker group? Only Myles Jack is still there; Tevin Smith is stepping away from the team this year, forcing them to rely on third-round pick Quincy Williams and Leon Jacobs. The pass rush is still top-notch with Yanik Ngakoue and Calais Campbell on the edge, as well as first-round pick Josh Allen, but there’s no pass rush on the interior, as Malik Jackson was a cap casualty. There are definitely some stars here, but this team’s inability to replace the players they’ve lost since 2017 has forced them to be more of a fringe top-ten defense than the top defense, and as a result, it’s unclear what their path to winning this year will be.

Final Thoughts: The Jaguars definitely have some hype with a postseason hero in Foles, stars like Ramsey, Ngakoue, and Campbell, and their 2017 success. Still, their glory is in the past, and rather than competing for the playoffs, Foles and company will likely be competing for the #1 pick.

 

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