AFC South Preview 2020
The AFC South has a reputation for having mediocre teams win the division. This year looks like a 3 team race. The Indianapolis Colts brought in QB Philip Rivers and made some changes on defense in hopes of giving the team a jolt. The Houston Texans struggled in their opener, but still have a dynamic offensive unit. The Tennessee Titans rode a solid defense and running back Derrick Henry to the AFC Championship game. They don't have an amazing offense, but they figure to be a contender again.
Quarterback: Deshaun Watson is one of the premier young stars in this league. His dual threat ability absolutely kills opposing defenses and makes this offense what it is. They would definitely lose some firepower if he has to miss any time, but backup A.J. McCarron has started games in the NFL and has proven himself serviceable.
Wide Receiver: Trading DeAndre Hopkins hurts, but they still have a very good unit with lots of speed. Their top 4 receivers are Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, Kenny Stills, and Randall Cobb, all of whom are capable of reaching 1000 yards as long as they stay healthy. Anything they get from everyone else is just icing on the cake.
Secondary: While they have plenty of guys with starting experience, there are very few who have done it at a high level. Vernon Hargreaves and Bradley Roby are probably their best corners, with Lonnie Johnson not far behind. Their safeties are alright, but there's a substantial gap between the first and second team players. It's not a doomed group, just a group that's not quite there yet.
Outside Linebacker: This is a team that loves to use its outside linebackers as pass rushers. Right now, the only name that jumps off the page is Whitney Mercilus (if you were thinking J.J. Watt, he's a d-end). It's not a group that you'd expect to see much production from this year.
Running back: Outside of the recently injury-prone David Johnson, they only have complementary backs at best. Duke Johnson is probably the best of those, but the talent level clearly goes down from there.
The 3rd year tight end nearly doubled his production in 2019 and was the team's leading receiver at the position. With not much to pick from, I'd say he's Houston's TE #1 and will have plenty of opportunities to build on his previous season. He was a small bright spot in the season-opening loss to Kansas City.
While they're deep at receiver, will they be able to make up for the loss of DeAndre Hopkins?
I highlighted receiver as a team strength, and it still is. It's just a different kind of receiving corps, filled with small, speedy players, instead of big, tall guys that can bring certain advantages in the red-zone. That was an area where Hopkins excelled. Who will they turn to for those key plays now?
Which David Johnson will we see?
The running back had a terrific start to his career in Arizona, but has been derailed by injuries in recent seasons. He comes to Houston via the Hopkins trade. Luckily for the Texans, his best seasons have come in even numbered years. If he can find that old form, they may have something.
Can top players stay healthy?
David Johnson's dealt with injuries. So has J.J. Watt...and Will Fuller...and Deshaun Watson, you get the picture. Injuries to key players are the ultimate tests of roster depth. There are positions on this roster I wouldn't worry about and others that couldn't handle the injuries. If they can get mostly healthy seasons out of their key players, they'll compete for the division crown.
Final Record: 9-7
Offensive Line: The Colts may have the best offensive line in football and are still very young. They've been able to grow together and are now gelling after years of struggling. The protection they can provide only makes this offense stronger and should make them a good unit.
Running Back: 4th year Marlon Mack is coming off his first career 1000 yard rushing season and has scored a combined 17 touchdowns in the last 2 seasons. Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins won't put up huge rushing numbers, but they've proven to be exemplary complements. Oh yeah, and they drafted Jonathan Taylor, the only NCAA player ever to run for 6,000 yards in 3 seasons. He finished his collegiate career 6th all-time in NCAA rushing yards and 2nd in the Big Ten. A do it all kind of back with some thump, he makes this backfield even stronger.
Update: Mack suffered a possible season-ending injury in Sunday's opener.
Secondary: Last year's starting corners, Pierre Desir and Quincy Wilson, are both gone. They signed Pro Bowler Xavier Rhodes after he was released by Minnesota, but still lack a solid number 2 at the position. At safety, veteran Tavon Wilson comes in to help promising youngsters Malik Hooker and Khari Willis. It's a young group that will get tested often this year.
Campbell was a highly thought of prospect in the 2019 draft and looks to become the latest Ohio State receiver to succeed in the NFL. He's a great route runner with speed and good hands. Someone has to emerge as Robin to T.Y. Hilton's Batman, and Campbell has a good case.
Will Philip Rivers rebound from a miserable 2019?
The 17 year veteran has enjoyed a great career, even without a Super Bowl title. He's had several 4,000 yard passing seasons but threw some key, ill-advised interceptions last year. He's now reunited with former QB coach Frank Reich, so we'll see if they fix the issue.
How long of a leash does the vet have?
How entrenched is he as the starter? What would it take for them to go back to Jacoby Brissett and how quickly? If Rivers plays just average, do they stick with him? These are the questions we'll have to wait to see answered.
What happens with Jacoby Brissett going forward?
Brissett hasn't been terrible, just not Super Bowl caliber. So the question is, does Indy view him as a future starter who could learn from Rivers? Or are they ready to move on and use Rivers as a bridge to someone else?
Final Record: 8-8
Linebackers: Off every position group on the team, this is the only group that PFF ranks in the top half of the league among it peers. Myles Jack and Joe Schobert lead the way. Jack had 3 good years to start his career before slipping in year 4. At just 24 years old, there's no reason to think he can't rebound. Schobert is a free agent signing from Cleveland, who has the 4th most tackles in the league since 2016. He's also relatively yound at 26 years of age. Factor in pass-rushers Josh Allen and K'Lavon Chaisson along with promising 2nd-year Quincy Williams, and you've got a good unit in the middle of the defense.
Corners: First round pick C.J. Henderson might already be their best corner as a rookie. Veterans D.J. Hayden and Tramaine Brock have always been depth players throughout their careers. Rookie Josiah Scott has been making noise in camp,but you know it's bad if the rookies are suddenly your best players on day one.
Offensive Line: Clearly bottom 10 in the league. They;ve drafted some guys to help over recent years, but tey're still developing. Center Brandon Linder is probably the best, and Andrew Norwell and A.J. Cann are average starters on the interior,but their tackles are a major work in progress.
I bet you were expecting to see Josh Allen here. I have a good reason for not listing him; he's already had his breakout as a rookie. Instead, I went with someone who could help him get even better. The 25 year old Smoot has always been build as a pass-rusher and had a career high 6 sacks in 2019. With his role likely expanding, I expect that number to increase, making Smoot a young building block for the defense.
Is Minshew a legitimate NFL starting QB?
The Jags made a somewhat surprising move, moving on from Nick Foles after just one injury filled year and turning to the 2nd-year, former 6th round pick Minshew as their starter. We've seen some late rounders pan out (anyone heard of Tom Brady), but it's rare. Minshew was solid as a rookie, so as long as he continues to develop, he'll carve out an NFL career. Any setbacks will be met with questions, but this staff loves him.
Final Record: 3-13
Running Back: Derrick Henry is finally showing what made him such a great player in college at the pro level. He is a rare combination of size speed, and instincts at the position. Behind him, they have rookie Darrynton Evans. While not a household name, Evans had an illustrious college career and can do everything a running back will be asked to do.
Wide Receiver: The passing game has been extremely dormant in Tennessee for years. Last year, they finally showed some signs of life in A.J. Brown. The rookie led the team in all receiving categories and entered the top 5 in many of the franchises rookie season rankings for those same categories. He and Corey Davis can make a decent pair, but the rest of the corps is nothing to brag about.
Quarterback: The quarterback play was also a big part of the struggles in the passing game. Marcus Mariota never lived up to expectations and was replaced by Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill didn't set the world on fire, but played well enough for the team to reach the AFC Championship. Tannehill has been a polarizing player in the NFL, and with Trevor Siemian and Logan Woodside as his backups, the group has a big drop-off from the rest of the league.
I could've gone many different ways here, as players like Adoree Jackson and Jeffrey Simmons also caught my eye, but I went with Landry. As just a second year player in 2019, he led the team in sacks with 9. That's a huge accomplishment for a player just starting his career. He could easily reach double-digits this season and become a household name. The Titans are in a very good spot with their young players.
Will the QB play be good enough to keep defenses honest?
As I alluded to before, their QBs haven't really had to carry the load. This team runs through Derrick Henry and their defense, and the league now knows it. Tannehill will have to step his game up to take the pressure off of the others.
Does Tannehill get enough help from his receivers?
A.J. Brown and Corey Davis are clearly their top duo, but what will they get from the others. Jonnu Smith has started to contribute at tight end, but they need more to have a legitimate passing attack.