Typically, the AFC South is a power struggle between everyone except Jacksonville, and 2020 did not veer far from that course. While Houston fell out of that conversation early, a handful of plays could have completely changed that story. Seven of their 12 losses came from games lost by a touchdown or less, making for a frustrating season. The Texans were not alone in their misery, however, both the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans fizzled out in their respective Wild Card games. With all of this combined with the Jaguars receiving the first overall pick in the 2021 draft, storylines around the AFC South has been plentiful this off season and at times a little much to unravel. The road in the AFC South looks to be a lot of speculation and “what if?” scenarios but I will try to break it down the way I see it in the most realistic way I can. While keeping in mind why we love this game to begin with and that is because any given Sunday, anyone can beat anyone, and everyone can be wrong. So, without further ado, let’s dive on in.
Houston Texans Projected Finish (4th):
As I mentioned before, Houston came agonizingly close to making a meaningful season several times last season but ultimately fell flat. With a 4-11 record and the resulting loss of their head coach Bill O’Brien in Week 4, Deshaun Watson felt the ground slipping from under him, requesting a trade. The Houston front office however was not quite ready to part ways with their star quarterback and insisted on a large price tag to cover the investment they felt they had put into him. Little did anyone know at the time that Watson would be charged in the coming months with 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints of sexual harassment and assault bringing even more questions into this conversation. While the investigations and hearings are still being deliberated, Houston stayed firm in their intent on a bigger number than most other interested parties could afford. Should he stay out of legal trouble for the remainder of the season, though, Watson shows no signs of letting up any time soon and I expect to see that fire to spark something in at least a few games this season. But ultimately, the season will come down to the personnel surrounding him and supporting him on the other side of the field on defense. Head coach David Culley enters his first season in Houston having coached as an assistant with six other NFL teams, most recently in Baltimore. Culley started his coaching career at Austin Peay in 1978 and has been primarily used as a wide receiver coach. He will definitely have his plate full with this receiving core. Outside of Brandin Cooks, there isn’t a ton to look at except the potential of rookie Nico Collins and tight end Jordan Akins, who showed marked improvement last season. The running back personnel look much more formidable although it could be a while before we know who will get most of the calls. Making moves in the offseason, Houston picked up Phillip Lindsay from Denver, Mark Ingram from Baltimore and Rex Burkhead from New England to add to David Johnson, who recorded 691 yards and six touchdowns in his first season since being picked up from Arizona. Lindsay was plagued with injury and struggled to be impactful throughout his 2020 campaign. Ingram fought for playtime against a loaded Ravens offense and only managed 4.2 yards per carry. Burkhead similarly registered only a 4.1 average, which could be largely contributed to a season ending knee injury in Week 11. The success of the offense will, in the end, be dependent on the competence of the offensive line which was a massive overhaul project in itself. Laremy Tunsil returns to guide the new talent and looks to remain the big standout among this year’s offensive line. The two-time Pro Bowler has his plate full whipping these new faces into the patterns and schemes they will need to know to protect their quarterback and give time and space for the backs and wideouts. Finally, the defense looks a bit scarce in the way of household names but still shows some promise. The defensive line is complimented by young talent such as Johnathon Greenard, and Ross Blacklock while the secondary boasts veterans Tremon Smith and Vernon Hargraves. This combination could potentially create problems for teams who might underestimate Houston as an easy out. With all these uncertainties surrounding so many aspects of the team as a whole, it is easy to understand why odds and confidence are so low on Houston. While it is possible for them to overachieve, it is unlikely all these questions will be answered this year.
Best Outcome 7-10
Worst Outcome 3-14
Indianapolis Colts Projected Finish (2nd):
The Indianapolis Colts are another team with lots of question marks floating around. After an 11-5 season, the Colts really took advantage of Phillip Rivers’ last year in the league. While the veteran quarterback was still a shadow of the man he was in his prime, he still managed 371 passing yards in a nail-biter Week 6 win against Cincinnati. Indianapolis rounded off their 2020 campaign by finishing in the top-10 in both total points scored and points allowed. The retirement of Rivers, the addition of Carson Wentz and the drafting of Sam Ehlinger left Jacob Eason on a bit of a rollercoaster of emotion during the offseason. Then, early in the preseason, Wentz went down with a foot injury. Initially it was thought that he would need surgery that would sideline him for 12 weeks. However, it was later discovered that a less invasive procedure could cut that time down to as little as five weeks and it now looks like he may be the starter Week 1. Head Coach Frank Reich opted for the safe route and is, for the time, keeping all three on staff. Eason did not play any significant time in 2020 and has been chomping at the bit in his preseason appearances to impress his coaches and coordinators. Johnathon Taylor made a name for himself after Marlon Mack tore his Achilles tendon ending his season. Taylor finished the season recording 1,169 yard 11 touchdowns while being utilized both as a back and the occasional receiver having also completed 36 receptions. Nyheim Hines also looks to build on his efficient 2020 year having run for 380 yards and reaching the end zone three times. Michael Pittman Jr. and T.Y. Hilton combined for over 1,200 yards on 96 receptions and six touchdowns. Add to that the triple tight end threat of Jack Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox and Kylen Granson, and the Colts should have plenty of targets for whomever is the starting quarterback this season. The one flaw in this offense could be with the offensive line. Injuries and COVID quarantines have pestered the Indianapolis offensive line including center Ryan Kelly, who is back at practice but with a brace for protection after a hyperextended shoulder in early July. The defense also looks to build on a somewhat successful year. Xavier Rhodes and Julian Blackmon both snagged a pair of interceptions while Darius Leonard looks to bounce back from a little bit of a backslide last year. If last year proved anything for this defense, it is only that this team can keep their offense in the game and make up for any pieces lacking on offense by keeping the opponents score low on the other side of the ball. While uncertainty remains for this Colts team, I still feel they have more to look forward to than they do to worry about.
Best Outcome: 12-5
Worst Outcome: 8-9
Jacksonville Jaguars Projected Finish (3rd):
The year of 2020 was rough for everyone and the Jaguars were no exception. A few tidbits can be pulled together to form a slightly positive spin on an otherwise dumpster fire of a season. After winning their first game against the Colts, they proceeded to go winless throughout the remainder of the season. Gardner Minshew made a respectful effort recording 5,530 passing yards and 37 touchdowns, but his 11 interceptions and 24 fumbles didn’t do anything to prevent a 15-game losing streak bringing Jacksonville their worst record in franchise history. While the dismal season insured a first round pick in the draft, it also meant the severing of head coach Doug Marone. The vacancy was soon filled by former Ohio State and Florida head coach Urban Meyer. Meyer has won three national titles and numerous accolades along the way making him a household name in the world of college football. With the first pick of the 2021 NFL draft the Jaguars took Clemson quarterback sensation Trevor Lawrence. Accumulating over 10,000 passing and just under 1,000 yards rushing scoring over 100 touchdowns between the two, big cat fans finally began to see a light at the end of a long and dark tunnel. When Lawrence’s Clemson teammate, Travis Etienne was picked by Jacksonville later in the first round, Jags fans were nearly beside themselves with possibilities for the upcoming season. Unfortunately, Etienne injured his foot in a 23-21 preseason loss to the New Orleans Saints effectively ending his season before it even started. All hope is not lost, however. James Robinson spent his rookie year proving that he belonged in the league. Rushing for over 1,000 yards, the undrafted back punched in seven touchdowns and received and additional three. Jacksonville also brought in Carlos Hyde during the offseason making for a remarkably interesting ground game. Should Lawrence decide to air it out, he has some very decent pieces in his receiving core as well. Laviska Shenault and DJ Chark both showed they have real potential last season and with the addition of Marvin Jones from Detroit, defenses around the league could have their hands full with this young squad. The two biggest issues with this offense are with the offensive line and tight end positions. They allowed 44 sacks last year and did little to curb that trend this offseason. Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator is really going to have to work hard to give Lawrence the time he is going to need in the pocket while he gets comfortable with the playbook. Another bright spot for the Jaguars is a young exciting defense. Between Myles Jack, Josh Jones, CJ Henderson and Joe Shobert they recorded 378 tackles and 5.5 sacks, and they have a ways to go to be dominant but definitely have the building blocks for a foundation of a tough defense in the years to come. All in all, this is a total rebuild year for the Jaguars. They just need to focus on getting better every game and learning the process. Trying to rush things will only slow this team down ultimately and with so many bright futures on this young team, patience is key. While they may not win very many games, expect to see a more interesting version of the team this year.
Best Outcome: 7-10
Worst Outcome: 4-13
Tennessee Titans: Projected Finish (1st):
The Tennessee Titans surprised a lot of people last season (myself included) with a very successful campaign and ended their season with a 11-5 record tying the Colts for the division leader. The tiebreaker was the two regular season games which were split but Tennessee had more accumulated points so were rewarded with playing the red hot Ravens. Even though they fell short of advancing in the postseason, the Titans had a historically good season and a lot to look forward to in the future. The Titans not only had their first double digit win season since 2008, they also finished top-10 in scoring margin, turnover margin, yards per play, rushing offense, Red zone efficiency and third down defense. In his second season with Tennessee, head coach Mike Vrabel impressed. In his third season he needs to wow and some of the moves made in the offseason could be indicative of just that. The more things change, however, the more they stay the same. There is no quarterback controversy in Nashville like there is around much of the league this year. Ryan Tannehill returns as the play caller and looks to change even more minds when It comes to his position among the leagues best. The 33-year-old threw for 3,819 yards and 33 touchdowns and only gave away seven interceptions on the year with little more than A.J. Brown and Anthony Firsker. Add in Julio Jones and you could have something really exciting this year. The ground game also has made some strides in improvement this offseason. While few backs around the NFL can come close to Derrick Henry’s explosiveness, he can’t run every play, so the Titans went out to get some help on that front too. They drafted Darryton Evans from Appalachian State and Mekhi Sergent from Iowa. Sergent looks to be the more compelling player accumulating 20 touchdowns and doing some work in the air as well, snagging 32 receptions for 300 yards. All this is for naught if there isn’t a good offensive line to protect the interior. Tennessee also prepared for this, bringing back Harold Landry and acquiring Bud Dupree from Pittsburgh. Dupree’s 39.5 career sacks rank in the top-50 of all active players. Tennessee also brought back David Quessenberry whose victory over cancer could go a long way to the heart of this team. The defense, while not as flashy and noteworthy, still has some strength at linebacker. Captain DaQuan Jones along with Rashad Evans and Jayon Brown will have to buckle down early seeing how most of their most difficult games will be before Week 9. At the end of the day, I am optimistic for this team as a whole though. They have the potential to improve on last year’s record and even make a deeper run in the postseason.
Best Outcome 12-5
Worst Outcome 8-9
So, in conclusion, while the future is bright for the AFC South, the near future may look awfully familiar, however. I would expect the results from last year to be pretty much the same in this season. The Titans and Colts should have pretty good outcomes while the Texans and Jaguars will likely be relegated to continuing their rebuild endeavors. While Tennessee seems to have the best chance at a deeper run in the postseason, even they will have a difficult time against whoever they line up against in the rest of the AFC divisions. The other three divisions of the AFC are loaded to the gills with talent and well-seasoned teams. Tennessee could win their wildcard matchup, depending on who that may be, but it’s very unlikely that they will go any further than that this year. There are enough question marks around Indianapolis that to make any kind of postseason run seem out of reach, but I feel like they will at least get their shot in a wildcard game. Jacksonville and Houston have enough pieces that they could surprise everyone with a few more wins but I think it doubtful that those answers will come this season. If they continue to build on these rosters in the offseason, you could see some quite different standings come next year.
Jimmy Jones is a Contributor for Unwrapped Sports Network. Follow him on on Twitter @mighdymouse