AFC South- The Division to Watch
After years of footballing irrelevance (we can exclude the Manning Colts in this introductory verbal attack), could it really be that the AFC South is finally interesting? No, don’t adjust your handheld device- it’s true. I’ll admit that in the past when I looked at the game pass line-up on a Sunday morning and I saw a heavyweight clash between the 2-win Jaguars and the forever sub-500 Titoons, I would sigh and switch to a division that could muster even a single verbal utterance of excitement in an entire evening of football watching. Things have changed in 2021. This offseason has been tumultuous to say the least and this draft could change the fortune of at least one franchise for the next decade or more. Let’s breakdown what the story is so far and what could yet unfold over the course of this week.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2020 Record 1-15)
The Jaguars’ Suffering from Success 2020 season has left them in the position where going 1-15 has offered them, in the eyes of draft experts, the best draft QB since Andrew Luck and maybe even further back than that. It’s been long known that Urban Meyer will use the Number 1 overall pick on Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence and honestly it’s no surprise. He has more style than a Gardner Minshew photo-shoot and double the hair count. He could be a truly franchise changing player but only if he’s put in the right situation. Pick 1 has already long been settled so the true success or failure for the Jaguars in this draft is what they choose to do with the other 9 picks they have. 5 of those 9 subsequent picks are in the top 65 overall so there’s really very little excuse to fill position needs and oh boy there are some positions needs. If we have learned anything from the ordeals of Andrew Luck, Sam Darnold, Joe Burrow etc, it is that a QB cannot succeed in the long term if the team cuts corners on the OL. The Jags will use a high pick on getting OL talent to put Lawrence in the position where he isn’t on the back-foot against a half decent pass rush.
The Jaguars have had a productive free agency window and have given Lawrence some weapons in the form of Marvin Jones and Phillip Dorsett. Additionally, they’ve brought in the steady and absolutely un-spectacular hand of Carlos Hyde in the backfield. These are players that are unlikely to set the NFL on fire this season and it was very much a case of quantity over quality for the Jags. Look for them to add some additional offensive talent in the draft with a WR or TE being brought in.
Suffice to say for any team whose previous season was 1 game shy of a winless one, the Jaguars have black hole sized gaps on the defensive side of the ball. However, free agency brought a genuinely good transaction in the form of Shaquill Griffen via the Seahawks. They overpaid to bring in Rayshawn Jenkins at safety but along with Griffen they should help the DB room. Having said that, they could be busy with a lack of pass rush so I would expect to see Jacksonville target a defensive lineman at some point in the draft.
Overall, the Jags are in an extremely predictable situation- number 1 overall is wrapped up and they’ll spend a majority of picks on giving said number 1 both protection and weapons to use. The real question is whether this 400th rebuild in Jacksonville can show some signs of progress under Urban Meyer. They are in a tough position with the Colts and Titans at least 2-3 years ahead in their development compared to the Jags. Add in that the AFC has 5-6 other teams that could legitimately call themselves SuperBowl contenders in the Chiefs, Browns, Ravens, Bills and Steelers. Jacksonville has a long way to go to even consider themselves competitive in this environment.
Houston Texans (2020 Record 4-12)
With no first or second round picks this year thanks to the Texans trade with Miami for OLineman Laremy Tunsil, Houston is essentially an irrelevance in this year’s draft. So why are they being given a full 3 and a half paragraphs instead of 2 lines at the bottom with an asterisk stating that I have a better chance of quarterbacking the New Orleans Saints to a second Lombardi than the Texans do at having a winning season? Well, it is pretty amazing at how far this franchise has fallen in 2 seasons. Cast your eyes back to the 2019 playoffs and the AFC South champion Texans have a first quarter 21-0 lead over the Superbowl champion-elect Kansas City Chiefs. From that quarter onwards the fortunes of both teams took diametrically opposed trajectories. The Chiefs went on to win Superbowl 54 while the Texans lived up to type by blowing the 2019 playoff game, trading away a pro-bowl talent in DeAndre Hopkins, trading draft capital like it was going out of fashion and blundering their way to a 4-12 2020 season which, let’s face it, was 4 wins more than they would have had without Deshaun Watson behind centre. Add into that the recent departure of “face of the franchise” JJ Watt and your franchise QB of the future asking for a trade and we can gather that 2020 was a year that only a team as criminally mis-managed as the Texans could have had.
So basically, the last thing this franchise needed was another spotlight burning down on NRG Stadium. The allegations made against Deshaun Watson and the ongoing investigations into his conduct are bigger than any football story. However, for Houston, it has put a huge question mark over any move they can make. No team will realistically trade for Watson without a guarantee he will play in 2021 and beyond (which can’t be given at the moment) and so the Texans have to work under the impression that firstly, he may not play in 2021 so they need a QB that can start and secondly that they have very little chance of gaining any draft capital from a trade from QB hungry teams. So, for now, let’s hop on board the Tyrod Taylor hype train- choo choo! Next Stop- 3-14.
In terms of what to expect from the Texans? Who knows…pick a random position on the depth chart and chances are the Texans are in desperate need of talent. With their first pick not until the 67th overall (remembering the Jags will have selected 5 players by this stage), the Texans will possibly look to fill the void left by JJ Watt and aim for a pass rusher. However, they could equally argue they are in desperate need of an extra OL/WR. Free agency on the other hand was interesting for the Texans where they brought in average to above average talent in the form of Mark Ingram and Philip Lindsay but overall, they will have a pretty boom or bust offense with players like Ryan Izzo and Donte Moncrief being added.
Overall, it has been a tumultuous 2 seasons for the Texans, and it doesn’t seem to be improving any time soon. They’re starting from a losing position and with all three of their AFC South rivals using draft capital and free agency to their advantage, it is genuinely hard to see how they can be competitive in any form in 2021.
Indianapolis Colts (2020 Record 11-5)
It says a lot about the state of the AFC South when it could be argued that the 11 win and current division champion Colts have possibly the biggest question mark hanging over them and their direction heading into the off-season. The 2020 Colts were one of the most enjoyable teams in the NFL to watch every week. They had a fun, if somewhat flawed offense, and a defense that has bundles of young talent. The big question mark is of course surrounding Philadelphia QB survivor Carson Wentz. Can Frank Reich rekindle the 2017 flame and get the best out of Carson Wentz? I think that Wentz will be thrilled to be somewhat out of the spotlight which shone too brightly in the city of brotherly love, but also he’ll be given a chance to work with a functioning offense- something which injuries prevented for a lot of Wentz’s time in Philly. The league cognoscenti are understandably a bit cautious at the thought of Wentz as a franchise QB and have poured cold water on the idea that the Colts are anything more than the 5-6th best team in the AFC.
For the Colts to build on last season, they will have to draft well. The retirement of tackle Anthony Costanzo is an important gap that the Colts will want to fill immediately using their first-round pick (21st overall) and bring in the best OLineman available to pair up with Quentin Nelson. Additionally, look for Indy to target WR/TE and give Wentz extra weapons in the passing attack which saw the crucial resigning of T.Y. Hilton. Free agency also saw Marlon Mack coming back into the stadium and Xavier Rhodes will add some experience, if not a lot of quality anymore, in the defensive backs room.
The Colts have probably the biggest boom or bust potential in the AFC South, but GM Chris Ballard has done an excellent job in the past few seasons trading and drafting well. I don’t see that changing this week and Ballard will want to place Wentz in the best possible position so he can succeed. However, given his propensity to get creative in the draft, Ballard could try to recoup some of the draft capital given away in the Wentz trade and move down in a deep draft class for the OL position. Regardless, given the position of weakness Houston and Jacksonville are starting from, and the turnover Tennessee has had this off-season thus far, the Colts are in a strong position and getting stronger.
Tennessee Titans (2020 Record 11-5)
Like the Colts, last season’s Titans were a really fun team to watch. I’m usually not a fan of power-running teams but Derrick Henry made it a joy, particularly when he stiff arms Josh Normans of the world (look it up if you haven’t watched it- just lovely). However, as the timeless pigskin mantra goes, offense wins games, but defence wins championships, and with last year’s defense the only championship the Titans were winning was the “team I want my flailing offense to play against” cup. Bud Dupree was a huge free agency signing and the former Steeler will give the Titans some desperately needed pass rush and could instantly be viewed as one of the best pickups in the entire league. Former Saint CB Janoris Jenkins will also instantly improve a secondary that shipped out Malcolm Butler and was flamed in what seemed like every game of last year. I would expect Tennessee to use at least 1 of its 9 draft picks on further strengthening the defence.
QB Ryan Tannehill lost a valuable weapon in the form of Jonnu Smith joining the Patriots however gained two solid receivers in Josh Reynolds and Corey Davis. I would hope that Mike Vrabel has realised that it is unsustainable to be so reliant on Derrick Henry and the run game and so will look to formulate an off-season plan to remedy this and give more attention to an underrated Tannehill. Whether the Titans can make it work and challenge the Colts for the division title? They could, but they could equally revert back to type and slump to a .500 season or worse.
That was 2 thousand words on why the AFC South is actually one of the most intriguing divisions on the NFL entering draft week. I look forward to next week’s blog where I retract most of my views and quietly pretend to have predicted that the Jaguars war room would collectively suffer from a temporary bout of insanity and draft an obscure right guard from North Dakota State only to allow the New York Jets to draft Trevor Lawrence, who will then go on to exert a Darth Vader-like influence over the rest of the AFC for the next 17 plus years. You heard it here first.