Division Preview: AFC South

DeAndre Hopkins

Since the division realignment in 2002, the AFC South has been dominated by the Colts thanks to Peyton Manning and, for a few years, Andrew Luck. But over the last three years, it’s been all about the Texans and just last season the Jaguars as the new faces of the AFC South, with the Titans appearing as if they are on the rise led by Marcus Mariota.

This season may be the most competitive the AFC South has ever been as all for teams have made some sort of improvement this offseason. So without further ado, here’s my season preview for each of the four teams in the AFC South.

We’ve already previewed the AFC North and NFC East.

Jalen Ramsey

1. Jacksonville Jaguars

2017 record: 12-4 (3rd seed in AFC)
Best/Worst Potential Record: 14-2 | 10-6
Playoff Prediction: Super Bowl berth
Team MVP: Jalen Ramsey
Best Free Agent Acquisition: G Andrew Norwell
Biggest Loss: WR Allen Robinson
Draft Grade: A
Best Draft Pick: LSU WR DJ Chark
SUMMARY: After shocking the NFL by going 10-6 and reaching the AFC Championship, Jacksonville heads into the 2018 season as one of the top contenders in the AFC and a favorite to reach the franchise’s first ever Super Bowl. They had a weird free agency, to say the least. Former Panthers All-Pro lineman Andrew Norwell was a great signing but instead of pursuing the top wide receivers on the market to replace Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, they signed and overpaid an inconsistent Donte Moncrief who’s dealt with injuries the past few seasons.

The Jaguars, however, dominated the draft. Their first three selections; Florida DT Taven Bryan, LSU WR D.J. Chark, and Alabama S Ronnie Harrison, will all be future starters. All three players were ranked inside my top sixty. A key UDFA they signed was Stanford CB Quenton Meeks, who I had a first-round grade on heading into the draft.

After taking a look at Jacksonville’s schedule, I think they have a good shot to have one of the best records in the league. The run game will be stronger than ever and I expect a big year for second year running back Leonard Fournette. Blake Bortles should have another solid season like last year where he had a career low in interceptions with just thirteen. The Jags defense looks like the most well-rounded unit in the entire league. A lot of young but extremely talented players such as Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye.

 

DeShaun Watson

2. Houston Texans

2017 record: 11-5 (5th seed in AFC)
Best/Worst Potential Record: 11-5 | 8-8
Playoff Prediction: Wild Card loss
Team MVP: J.J. Watt
Best Free Agent Acquisition: DB Tyrann Mathieu
Biggest Loss: LB Brian Cushing
Draft Grade: B
Best Draft Pick: Mississippi State OT Martinas Rankin
SUMMARY: If you think the Texans are a bad football team, you are so wrong. This is a team that was absolutely rocked by injuries with three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, pass rusher Whitney Mercilus, second-year receiver Will Fuller, rookie D’Onta Foreman and potential Rookie of the Year finalist quarterback DeShaun Watson all missing most or all of the season with an injury. Had this team been fully healthy, they might have made the playoffs.

The Texans offseason was very solid. They upgraded the secondary with Pro Bowl DB Tyrann Mathieu and former Jags nickelback Aaron Colvin, who is expected to play on the outside this season. The team had a solid draft despite not having a first or second-round pick. Stanford S Justin Reid was their first pick in the third round. I had a first-round grade on Reid heading into the draft and I’m shocked he fell that far. I expect him to make an immediate impact for the Texans. The Texans second pick, Martinas Rankin was a guy that I think if he landed with the right team, he could start at tackle. That’s exactly what happened. Don’t be surprised if he plays guard as well. Wide receiver KeKe Coutee could emerge as a nice slot option, while EDGE Duke Ejiofor and TE Jordan Akins will see plenty of playing time as well.

I expect the Texans to be back in the playoffs this season. Assuming DeShaun Watson returns to form, Houston’s offense might become one of the most dangerous in all of football. J.J. Watt looks like he’s in the best shape of his life and he’s my favorite to win Comeback Player of the Year. I think he’s still the best pass rusher in all of football despite being injured the last few seasons. Along with Watt, his pass rushing buddies of Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus should wreak havoc on opposing offensive lineman and quarterbacks. The secondary should improve and I expect Tyrann Mathieu to return to being one of the most feared defensive backs in football. Don’t sleep on the Texans.

 

Marcus Mariota

 

 

3. Tennessee Titans

2017 record: 10-6 (6th seed in AFC)
Best/Worst Potential Record: 11-5 | 7-9
Playoff Prediction: Wild Card Loss
Team MVP: Marcus Mariota
Best Free Agent Acquisition: CB Malcolm Butler
Biggest Loss: LB Avery Williamson
Draft Grade: A-
Best Draft Pick: Alabama LB Rashaan Evans
SUMMARY: Despite advancing in the playoffs, the Titans still fired Head Coach Mike Mularkey, even after telling him that he’d reportedly be back and then offering him an extension. The offense underperformed this past season and most of that blame was on Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie. Enter former Texans outside linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, and former Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. Both can help out with changing up both sides of the ball. I believe LaFleur can bring the what he had in LA to Tennessee and let Marcus Mariota flourish while helping Derrick Henry take the next step.

The Titans had a pretty good offseason. I really liked the Dion Lewis and Malcolm Butler signings. I expect the Titans to use Lewis like he was used in New England: a third down, change-of-pace back. Butler is a great addition to a secondary that already includes Adoree Jackson, All-Pro safety Kevin Byard, and Logan Ryan. This could be a dangerous secondary next season. Despite having only four draft slots, the Titans hit a three-run homer. Rashaan Evans is a perfect fit for a team that needs an aggressive, hard-hitting linebacker. I was shocked that Harold Landry fell so far. He instantly upgrades the pass rush for Tennessee and he’s the type of player that Mike Vrabel loves. Dane Cruikshank will be a future starter for this football team and he should’ve been a top one hundred pick. Luke Falk was a nice selection, too. He’ll be a great career backup and someone who could turn into a valuable trade piece down the road.

I expect the Titans to be back in the playoffs. Despite playing in what might be the toughest division in football, they’ll probably sneak in over the likes of the Chiefs or Ravens. Marcus Mariota should bounce back after an average season and if that happens to not be the case, Derrick Henry could be the focal point of the offense. The Titans defense should make a big leap this upcoming season with the new additions they brought in. I believe they will be in contention for a Super Bowl in a few short years.

 

 

Quenton Nelson

4. Indianapolis Colts

2017 record: 5-11
Best/Worst Potential Record: 6-10 | 3-13
Team MVP: Andrew Luck
Best Free Agent Acquisition: TE Eric Ebron
Biggest Loss: DT Johnathan Hankins
Draft Grade: B
Best Draft Pick: Notre Dame G Quenton Nelson
SUMMARY: Believe me when I say this: the Colts are heading in the right direction in terms of being back in the playoffs. I really like what general manager Chris Ballard is doing in the front office. This team is going to a contender in the AFC in just a couple more years, making this division the toughest in football by a mile. I’m a huge fan of the Frank Reich signing. We’ll probably see an offense similar to what the Philadelphia Eagles installed here in Indianapolis throughout the 2018 season.

The Colts, despite all of the cap space they had available, signed former Lions tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron is, to some, a bust. I believe that he can still be the guy that was so dominate at Chapel Hill. After failing a physical with Baltimore, Ryan Grant signed a one-year/$5 million dollar deal. Not really sure about this signing but the Colts probably see something special in him that a lot of folks don’t.

Chris Ballard had a very good second draft. They hit the jackpot quite a few times with the selections of Notre Dame Guard Quenton Nelson (6th overall), Rutgers pass rusher Kemoko Turay (52nd overall), Ole Miss RB Jordan Wilkins (169th overall), and Clemson WR Deon Cain (185th overall). At least eight to of their eleven selections could end up with some significant playing at some point this season. The Colts best addition of the offseason is without a doubt Quenton Nelson, who could end up being a Pro Bowler in his rookie year. He’s that good folks.

The question that many fans and analysts will be asking this offseason is if Andrew Luck will be ready by Week one. I made the Colts record prediction assuming Luck returns this season. I think the offense will be better than some think with the young talent they added via draft. I don’t expect the defense, though, to be any good at all. It’s gonna be another long season the Colts fans. But the future is bright…and the best is yet to come!

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