AFC South Season Preview
It’s been a hectic couple of weeks in the NFL, giving sports fans some excitement and something to look forward to in a world of uncertainty. There was the NFL Draft, followed by the run on undrafted free agents. On Thursday, the NFL schedule was released, giving teams and fans an idea of when they were going to face the opponents that they were already aware of and giving clarity to their schedule. With that said, we can start taking a look at how we think the divisions will pan out in 2020. Today, we take a look at the AFC South, where Houston and Tennessee made the playoffs a year ago. The Titans made a run to the AFC Championship Game before falling: will the division have success again this year?
1) Tennessee Titans
It was a strange season for the Tennessee Titans last year. The team started slowly and couldn’t get their offense going to save their lives. Tennessee then made the move to switch from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback and things started clicking. The Titans recommitted to the run game and made plays defensively to turn things around. A week 17 romp over Houston clinched a playoff spot to put the teams in the playoffs for just the second time in the last 11 years. Tennessee didn’t slow down as they stunned New England in the wild card round before stopping top-seeded Baltimore in the divisional round with both games on the road. The Titans look to build off that success in 2020.
2019 Record: 9-7 (2nd in AFC South, lost AFC Championship Game 35-24 at Kansas City)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 35/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 17/1
Odds to Win AFC South: 7/4
Key Additions: DE/LB Vic Beasley Jr. (Falcons), T Ty Sambrailo (Falcons), DT Jack Crawford (Falcons), RB Senorise Perry (Bills), CB Jonathan Joseph (Texans)
Draft Picks: T Isaiah Wilson, CB Kristian Fulton, RB Darrynton Evans, DT Larrell Murchison, QB Cole McDonald, S Chris Jackson
Key Losses: T Jack Conklin (Browns). DT Jurrell Casey (trade, Broncos), QB Marcus Mariota (Raiders), CB LeShaun Sims (Bengals), RB Dion Lewis (Giants), WR Darius Jennings (Chargers), WR Tajae Sharpe (Vikings), DT Austin Johnson (Giants), CB Logan Ryan, TE Delanie Walker, DE Cameron Wake, K Ryan Succop
Tennessee got their offense going after Tannehill took over the reins and finished 10th in the league in scoring offense with an average of 25.1 points per game. The Titans finished 12th in total offense despite ranking 21st in passing offense last season. Tennessee did their damage in the ground game as they were third in the league with just under 139 yards per contest. They finished second in the league with 21 rushing scores on the season. Tannehill completed 70.3 percent of his throws after taking over for 2,742 yards with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions while adding 185 yards and four scores on the ground. A.J. Brown was solid as a rookie as a big-play threat as he hauled in 52 balls for 1,051 yards plus eight scores. Corey Davis (43 grabs, 601 yards, two TD) is playing for a new deal after the team declined his fifth-year option while Adam Humphries (37 catches, 374 yards, two TD) looks for improved numbers in year two with the team. Jonnu Smith (35 receptions, 439 yards, three TD) takes over the starting tight end role with Walker no longer with the team.
The ground game will be powered by Derrick Henry once again. He was a force in the home stretch of each of the last couple seasons, finishing last year with 303 carries for a league-leading 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns. Henry added 446 yards and two scores on the ground in the playoffs and threw a three-yard scoring pass. With Lewis gone, Evans or Khari Blasingame will get a crack at seeing the field in a secondary role. The offensive line has some work to do with Conklin moving on for an eight-figure salary with Cleveland. Dennis Kelly will have to step in and do his part on the offensive line in order to make up for Conklin’s departure.
Defensively, the Titans were solid but unspectacular for coordinator Dean Pees last year. The team was 12th in scoring defense by allowing 20.7 points per game though they were 21st in total defense and 24th in passing defense on the year. Tennessee did play solidly against the run, ranking seventh in the league by allowing 104.5 yards per game via the ground. There are some cracks for the Titans this season as they dealt away Casey, who was a force on the defensive line. Beasley Jr. adds a pass rush threat but he isn’t a space eater that can shut things down in the middle like Casey. DaQuan Jones (42 tackles, sack) has to ramp up his game to help offset that loss while Crawford gets a chance to step into a starting role.
The strength in the Tennessee defense is with their linebackers. Tennessee’s trio of Rashaan Evans (111 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, fumble recovery, TD), Jayon Brown (105 tackles, three tackles for loss, sack, INT, fumble recovery, TD) and Harold Landry (68 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, team-high nine sacks, two fumble recoveries, forced fumble, INT) can wreak havoc on opposing ball carriers and play solidly in the pass game. Tennessee’s secondary is in a state of flux as the team chose not to keep Ryan, who led the team in tackles last season. The team looks to bounce-back seasons from Malcolm Butler (32 tackles, nine pass defenses, two INT) and Adoree’ Jackson (45 tackles, three tackles for loss, six pass defenses) after they missed seven and five games, respectively. Fulton could be in the mix early on in the season, either in a nickel role or to push one of the two starters. Greg Joseph was one of four kickers for Tennessee last season and is the clubhouse leader to have the starting job to start the year.
Tennessee has some pieces to replace from last season with starters like Casey, Ryan and Wesley Woodyard missing on the defensive side of the ball. The Titans are going to have to retool their defensive lineup in order to help take pressure off some of the young guys. Beasley Jr. is going to have to turn up the heat on the quarterback in order to help potential generate turnovers. Tannehill has to prove that last season’s showing wasn’t a fluke and that he’s worth the money that the team handed out. Henry is going to try and do his best work as a battering ram once again this season after leading the league in carries, rushing yards and rushing scores last season. If the receivers step up and play to potential, the Titans should be able to punch their ticket to the playoffs as the champs of the division.
Projected Record: 10-6, 1st in AFC South
2) Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts were rocked before the 2019 season started when Andrew Luck announced his retirement in the preseason. Instead of having their #1 quarterback under center to start the season, the team had to go with Jacoby Brissett, who had his struggles moving the ball. Throw in injuries to the majority of the receiving corps and it made life more challenging for a relatively unproven commodity at quarterback. As a result, the team struggled and ended up missing the playoffs. Indianapolis has been proactive in the offseason looking to upgrade in an effort to get back to the playoffs in 2020.
2019 Record: 7-9 (3rd in AFC South, missed postseason)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 25/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 12/1
Odds to Win AFC South: 7/5
Key Additions: QB Philip Rivers (Chargers), DT DeForest Buckner (trade, 49ers), CB Xavier Rhodes (Vikings), DT Sheldon Day (49ers), CB T.J. Carrie (Browns), FB Roosevelt Nix (Steelers), TE Trey Burton (Bears)
Draft Picks: WR Michael Pittman, RB Jonathan Taylor, CB/S Julian Blackmon, QB Jacob Eason, G Danny Pinter, DT Robert Windsor, CB Isaiah Rodgers, WR Dezmon Patmon, LB/S Jordan Glasgow
Key Losses: TE Eric Ebron (Steelers), CB Pierre Desir (Jets), WR Devin Funchess (Packers), T Joe Haeg (Buccaneers), QB Brian Hoyer (Patriots), C Josh Andrews (Jets), DE Margus Hunt (Saints), K Adam Vinatieri
Indianapolis struggled offensively last year as subpar quarterback play and questionable receivers combined to doom the team. The Colts were 16th in the league in scoring offense with 22.9 points per game though they finished just 25th in total offense last season. Indianapolis was a dismal 30th in passing offense but made up for some of that on the ground as they were seventh in rushing by averaging 133.1 yards per game on the ground, including 4.5 yards per carry. Brissett completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 2,942 yards with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions last season while adding 228 yards and four scores on the ground. He’ll be the backup now as Rivers comes over after spending his entire career with the Chargers. Eason has the bloodlines to be a successful QB and with Frank Reich as his head coach, he has a capable leader to get the most out of him. T.Y. Hilton led the team with just 45 receptions for 501 yards and five scores though he missed six games last season. Jack Doyle (43 receptions, 448 yards, four TD) and Zach Pascal (41 catches, 607 yards, five TD) have to improve their numbers to help Pittman get up to speed in the passing game and take pressure off.
The ground game was solid last season with a quartet of backs and the Colts added another back to their stable in the draft. Marlon Mack ran 247 times for 1,091 yards and eight scores as the feature back in the system. Nyheim Hines (52 carries, 199 yards, two TD, 44 receptions, 320 yards) is a solid third-down back, while Jordan Wilkins (51 carries, 307 yards, two TD) and Jonathan Williams (49 carries, 235 yards, TD) were effective in the mix. Williams is a free agent while Taylor steps in after running for 6,174 yards and 50 scores in the last three years at Wisconsin. Indianapolis dodged a bullet on their offensive line by re-signing Anthony Castonzo, preventing a hole at left tackle. With Castonzo and Quenton Nelson on the left side, the Colts have solid protection on Rivers’ blindside.
Defensively, the Colts were 18th in scoring defense by allowing 23.3 points per game last year. Indianapolis was 16th in total defense, leaving them smack in the middle of the pack, and finished 23rd in passing defense on the season. The Colts were stout against the run, finishing seventh by allowing 98 yards per contest on the ground. Indianapolis bolstered the middle of their defensive line by acquiring Buckner, who can help stop the run and collapse the pocket to generate pressure on the quarterback. That could make Justin Houston (44 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries) even more dangerous as an edge rusher.
The linebacker group is solid, led by Darius Leonard (121 tackles, seven tackles for loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles, seven pass defenses, five INT), who has been terrific in his two years in the league. Bobby Okereke (65 tackles, two tackles for loss, sack, two forced fumbles, fumble recovery) and Anthony Walker (124 tackles, six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, forced fumble) are in the mix there as well. The corner spots are new this year with Carrie and Rhodes stepping into the starting roles with Rock Ya-Sin likely moving into the nickel spot. Malik Hooker (51 tackles, three pass defenses, two INT, fumble recovery) and Khari Willis (71 tackles, two tackles for loss, pass defense) are back at the safety spots. The kicking game may have a new leg in town as the team hasn’t re-signed 47-year-old Adam Vinatieri. That means Chase McLaughlin (26 of 26 extra points, 18 of 23 field goal attempts) will battle with Rodrigo Blankenship for the job.
The Colts are likely going to be an improved team this season, solely on quarterback play with Rivers taking over. He’s got the experience and the leadership that Brissett couldn’t provide and he has experience with Reich, who was formerly the Chargers’ offensive coordinator. If the receivers can stay healthy, things should be better and that alone could help Indianapolis gain ground in the AFC South. The Colts should climb a rung in the standings from last year and that could put them in the playoff picture this season.
Projected Record: 9-7, 2nd in AFC South
3) Houston Texans
It was a decent but unfulfilling season for the Houston Texans in 2019. As up and down as the season was last year, the offseason was that much crazier as Bill O’Brien continues to confound people with the deals he makes as the team’s general manager. Someone seriously needs to have coach O’Brien sit down and talk with front office O’Brien and ask him why he’s trying to sabotage the on-field product. The Texans have had a lot of upheaval in the offseason and one has to wonder if Houston will wise up and get their previous scouting department that brought in gems like Arian Foster to the mix.
2019 Record: 10-6 (1st in AFC South, lost 51-31 at Kansas City in AFC Divisional Round)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 60/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 30/1
Odds to Win AFC South: 3/1
Key Additions: WR Randall Cobb (Cowboys), WR Brandin Cooks (trade, Rams), RB David Johnson (trade, Cardinals), DT Timmy Jernigan (Eagles), S Jaylen Watkins (Chargers), S Eric Murray (Browns), T Brent Qvale (Jets), S Michael Thomas (Giants)
Draft Picks: DT Ross Blackstock, DE/LB Jonathan Greenard, T Charlie Heck, CB John Reid, WR Isaiah Coulter
Key Losses: WR DeAndre Hopkins (Cardinals), DT D.J. Reader (Bengals). S Mike Adams (retired), DE/LB Barkevious Mingo (Bears), RB Taiwan Jones (Bills), S Tashaun Gipson (Bears), CB Johnathan Joseph (Titans), RB Carlos Hyde, RB Lamar Miller
Houston was a middle of the pack offensive team in 2019 as they finished the year 14th in scoring offense with 23.6 points per game. The Texans were 13th in total offense, 15th in passing offense and ninth in rushing offense last year. Of course, there are issues as last year’s top receiver and their top running back are both gone. Deshaun Watson is back under center and he was solid last season. He completed 67.3 percent of his throws for 3,852 yards with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while taking 44 sacks. Watson finished last season second on the team with 413 rushing yards and seven scores. With Hopkins gone, that means that Will Fuller V (49 catches, 670 yards, three TD) is the team’s leading returning option. Kenny Stills (40 receptions, 561 yards, four TD) and Cooks (42 grabs, 583 yards, two TD with the Rams) have to step up as well. Cooks has battled concussion issues in recent years and that is going to be something that bears monitoring.
The ground game is going to be an overhaul this season as well. Hyde rushed for 1,070 yards and six scores last year but the team didn’t re-sign him to a new deal. Miller missed all of last season with a torn ACL and MCL, so the team let him go too. That leaves Duke Johnson Jr. (83 carries, 410 yards, two TD, 44 receptions, 410 yards, three TD) as the lone returning back though he’ll be in the mix with Johnson, who has battled injuries in recent seasons. He finished with 94 carries for 345 yards plus two scores along with 36 receptions for 370 yards and four touchdowns last year with the Cardinals. Johnson battled injuries and then lost his job to Kenyan Drake after the team picked him up at the trade deadline. On the plus side, the Texans bring back their offensive line from a season ago, creating some continuity.
Defensively, Houston tried to be a bend but don’t break defense, with varying results. The Texans were 19th in the league in scoring defense as they gave up an average of 24.1 points per game. Houston was just 28th in total defense and was 29th in passing defense while giving up 33 scores through the air. The Texans were 25th in rushing defense by allowing 121.1 yards per game while they were 27th by allowing 4.8 yards per carry. Losing Reader in the middle of their defensive line is a major blow when it comes to having a space eater in the middle. Eddie Vanderdoes or Blacklock are going to have to step up and fill some big shoes. J.J. Watt is a force on the outside but he hopes to turn in a full season after missing the second half of the regular season last year with a torn pectoral muscle. He did return for the playoffs.
The strength of Houston’s defense may be its linebacker group. Zack Cunningham (142 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, two pass defenses, two fumble recoveries) and Bernardrick McKinney (101 tackles, four tackles for loss, three pass defenses, four tackles for loss, sack, forced fumble, two fumble recoveries) are good in the middle. Whitney Mercilus (48 tackles, 7.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, fumble recovery, two pass defenses, two INT) and Brennan Scarlett (51 tackles, three tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles) are capable of making plays on the outside. Houston’s secondary has to be better than they were last season as they were scorched repeatedly. The Texans gave up at least 300 yards through the air eight times in the regular season last year and weren’t much better in the postseason. Houston allowed the Bills to throw for 280 yards before giving up 321 to Kansas City in the game that ended their season. The Texans allowed opposing teams to convert 48.5 percent of their third-down situations last season, which was abysmal. Ka’imi Fairbairn hit 40 of 45 extra point attempts and 20 of 25 field goals last season but was re-signed in the offseason to handle the kicking game.
Houston managed to win the AFC South last season but that was due to a favorable confluence of events. With Hopkins traded, the Texans have to hope that Cooks returns to full health and gets back up to speed to replace that lost production in the passing game. By the same token, letting Hyde and Miller go puts a lot of pressure on Johnson to stay healthy and provide the numbers he did a couple of years ago in Arizona. The Texans’ defense is still leaky and has major problems, especially in the secondary. I expect Houston to regress a little bit and that ends up potentially costing them a playoff berth.
Projected Record: 8-8, 3rd in AFC South
4) Jacksonville Jaguars
It was the start of a rebuild for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2019 but one has to wonder if it was one precipitated by injury. Nick Foles didn’t make it through his first start with the team after signing a big deal in free agency, going down with a broken collarbone in the second quarter of the opener. That put a rookie under center and, while Gardner Minshew had his moments, the fact remains that it’s tough to win as a rookie QB. Throw in a slew of off-field incidents, some shoddy play and a lack of playmakers at skill positions to help out and it made for a long season for Jacksonville. Now, facing year two of a revamp, things don’t look that much brighter. Can Jacksonville find some answers?
2019 Record: 6-10 (4th in AFC South, missed postseason)
Odds to Win Super Bowl: 200/1
Odds to Win AFC Championship: 100/1
Odds to Win AFC South: 12/1
Key Additions: QB Mike Glennon (Raiders), LB Joe Schobert (Browns), DE Rodney Gunter (Cardinals), TE Tyler Eifert (Bengals), DE Al Woods (Seahawks), CB Rashaan Melvin (Lions), DE Cassius Marsh (Cardinals), LB Aaron Lynch (Bears), RB Chris Thompson (Redskins)
Draft Picks: CB C.J. Henderson, DE K’Lavon Chaisson, WR Laviska Shenault, DT Davon Hamilton, G Ben Bartch, CB Josiah Scott, LB Shaquille Quarterman, S Daniel Thomas, WR Collin Johnson, QB Jake Luton, TE Tyler Davis, CB Chris Claybrooks
Key Losses: QB Nick Foles (trade, Bears), T Cedric Ogbuehi (Seahawks), WR Marqise Lee (Patriots), TE Nick O’Leary (Raiders), LB Jake Ryan (Ravens), DE Calais Campbell (trade, Ravens), CB A.J. Bouye (trade, Broncos)
Jacksonville had their struggles last season and it was a major reason why the team finished 6-10. Offensively, the team was 26th in the league in scoring with an average of 18.8 points per game. The Jaguars mustered 13 points or less in seven different contests last season. That’s not going to get it done. Jacksonville finished 20th in total offense, 16th in passing offense and 17th in rushing offense with an average of 106.8 yards per contest. Gardner Minshew II took over when Foles went down and held the starting job most of the rest of the way. He completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 3,271 yards with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. For good measure, he finished second on the team in rushing by picking up 344 yards on the ground. DJ Chark had a breakout campaign as he caught 73 passes for 1,008 yards and eight scores. Dede Westbrook (66 catches, 660 yards, three TD) and Chris Conley (47 receptions, 775 yards, five TD) were solid options as well. Shenault and Keelan Cole will factor in when the Jags go four or five wide. Glennon was brought in as a veteran backup for kind of a mentor role.
Leonard Fournette had a solid campaign in the backfield and is playing for a new contract, with the Jaguars or elsewhere, as the team declined his fifth-year option. He finished the season with 265 carries for 1,132 yards and three scores while leading the team with 76 catches for 522 yards as a safety valve. There wasn’t much behind him as Ryquell Armstead was next in production for a running back with 35 carries for 108 yards. The hope is that perhaps Thompson can put himself to use as a change of pace back. Jacksonville has a decent offensive line but they have to get more from their skill players to have a chance to compete.
Jacksonville’s defense is in a state of flux and to be honest, it wasn’t all that great last season. The Jaguars were 21st in scoring defense by allowing 24.8 points per contest. Jacksonville finished the year 24th in total defense, 16th in passing defense and 28th against the run as they allowed an average of 139.2 yards per game last season. The team was 31st in yards per carry allowed (5.1) and in rushing scores allowed (23) last season. Much of how things unfold defensively this year centers around Yannick Ngakoue, who is on the franchise tag but has repeatedly demanded to be traded. He finished last year with 41 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, eight sacks, four forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, an interception and a score. He made Josh Allen (44 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, two forced fumbles) than much more dangerous as a rookie. Taven Bryan (33 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, forced fumble) and Abry Jones (31 tackles, two sacks) have to be better in the middle.
The Jaguars bolstered their linebacking group with the addition of Schobert, who was a do-everything kind of guy last year in Cleveland. He finished last year with 133 tackles, seven tackles for loss, nine pass defenses, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, two sacks and four interceptions. Pairing with Myles Jack (66 tackles, three tackles for loss, four pass defenses, interception) gives the Jaguars a pair of solid linebackers to work with in their defensive scheme. The secondary is going to be overhauled a bit with Melvin potentially moving into a starting role, displacing Tre Herndon (55 tackles, 13 pass defenses) with D.J. Hayden (41 tackles, six pass defenses, two sacks, fumble recovery) also in the mix. Henderson should see the field plenty in his rookie campaign. Jacksonville has a pair of hard-hitting young safeties in Ronnie Harrison (71 tackles, two sacks, two INT, nine pass defenses, fumble recovery) and Jarrod Wilson (79 tackles, four pass defenses, two picks, forced fumble) bringing the thunder on the back line. Josh Lambo had a sparkling season last year, hitting 19 of 20 extra points and 33 of 34 field goal tries.
Jacksonville is going to have an uphill climb in the AFC South this season. The Jaguars have to hope that they can find a way to improve defensively despite losing one of their top players in Campbell and their top corner in Bouye. Schobert will help shore up the front seven but the offense is going to have to be improved from last season. Scoring less than 13 points a game in nearly half your contests won’t get it done. Jacksonville is clearly trailing the other three teams in the division and it might be too much to ask if you’re looking for them to improve on last season’s mark. It would surprise no one to see a regression here as teams now have a season’s worth of film on Minshew.
Projected Record: 5-11, 4th in AFC South