Ladies and Gentlemen, the season is finally upon us after months of waiting. We can now say goodbye to the hundreds of tropes and hot takes that have been filling the off-season media merry-go-round and we can finally let the football on the field do the talking. I for one love this time of the season where about 450 players come in “in the best shape of their life”, another 130 will have “career defining years” and the Chargers “are Superbowl bound” yet again. The hard truth is that this delicate house of cards built around most teams falls and falls hard and fast when it comes to cleats hitting the turf. With that cold-hearted logic in mind, let us dissect each of the AFC South teams one by one in detail, uncovering their strengths and weaknesses, where they will succeed and need to improve and ultimately what the 2021 season holds for them.
Major Additions: Julio Jones WR, Josh Reynolds WR, Bud Dupree OLB, Janoris Jenkins CB, Kyle Peko NT, Denico Autry DE
Major Losses: Arthur Smith OffCo, Jonnu Smith TE, Jadeveon Clowney DE
Biggest Question entering the season: What will this offence look like in 2021?
The first thing to note about the Tennessee Titans is that they are the presumptive favourites to win the AFC South in 2021. We’ve reached this point for a number of differing reasons, not all necessarily of the Titans making. The first and most valid reason is that they are the only team in the division that has a settled QB entering the season. We only need to look at what winning teams in the NFL share and the one thing they do not have is uncertainty at the most important position in the team. Factor in as well that the Titans have a good QB who hit almost 4000 yards, 33 TD’s and only 7 interceptions last season and who led them to a second consecutive playoff appearance only to lose in the Wildcard game to the Ravens. Looking around the division, the Colts seem to be intent on rushing Carson Wentz back from injury for Week 1 come hell or high water, the Jags have a rookie albeit a very promising one and the Texans have no idea of the situation they could face but Tyrod Taylor looks to be under centre on gameday.
Secondly, the Titans have had a good off-season on balance. Their biggest issue these last two seasons has been a defence which just gives up too many points to be considered Championship worthy and an offence all too reliant on Derrick Henry. Starting with the defensive side of the ball, the Titans made big improvements to the pass rush and line of scrimmage with the additions of Bud Dupree from Pittsburgh, Kyle Peko from Denver and Denico Autry from division rival Indianapolis. Play-calling duties are also seemingly now off coach Mike Vrabel’s plate, with the reins being handed to DC Shane Bowen. The defence has been disastrous the last few seasons so this should be an improvement for them this season. As for the offence, the addition of Julio Jones from Atlanta and Josh Reynolds from Los Angeles will give new OC Todd Downing two day one starters to help Tannehill keep up his impressive numbers in 2020. Other than this, not much has changed so expect much of the same run-first play action game that has characterised this team in recent seasons.
However, it would be deeply unwise to close this division off to competition. There are several important reasons why other teams should take heart that Tennessee will take a slump in 2021. The biggest question entering this season has to be will they be able to keep using Derrick Henry to the same levels as the previous two seasons? The 2020 Offensive Player of the Year had a career high 378 carries, which is high enough to be a signal to Tennessee to dial it back. Having more weapons for the passing game should help keep Henry right and ready for the playoffs. Admittedly Henry is not like other running backs today or in the past and if there is one player who could defy what a RB is physically capable of, it is him. As far as the coaching staff is concerned, losing offensive mastermind Arthur Smith (now the head coach of the Falcons) could mean a slight drop off in terms of production. Tennessee is obviously anticipating this and will attempt to keep the games lower scoring with a stingier defence.
Even at their worst, I think this Titans team should be looking at least at a 9-win season. At their best and with a bit of luck with injuries etc, I think this could go as high as 12-5. They have strengthened at some key positions and have managed to keep a fairly settled offence in the pre-season thus far. With regards to the division, I think the Titans are AFC South champions and will head into the playoffs. They showed in 2019 they are fully capable of a Championship run but the question will remain if they can take care of business against the AFC big boys like Kansas City, Buffalo and Baltimore.
Major Additions: Carson Wentz QB, Eric Fisher T
Major Losses: Philip Rivers QB, Anthony Castanzo T, Justin Houston DE, Denico Autry DE
Biggest Question entering the season: Can Frank Reich rekindle Carson Wentz’s career?
If you were looking for a challenger to the Titans in 2021 look no further than the Colts. They are perhaps on a par with Tennessee with how far they can go and how good they could be however they are also accompanied by a Carson Wentz sized asterisk. Ultimately their roster, give or take a few important players, remains settled and well coached as they were in 2020 however, the biggest difference will be handing over the QB-baton from Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz. Rivers was never the long-term option in Indy, but he was a very solid starter who remained injury free and let the talents of his team win games. Wentz introduces a different level of restriction but also a higher ceiling of where the Colts could go. Admittedly, the last two seasons in Philadelphia were a catastrophe for Wentz however, it has to be said that Wentz played his best under his now head coach Frank Reich. How much they can rekindle the QB/Head Coach relationship will go a long way to answering where Indianapolis will finish this year.
Besides the obvious factor of how well Wentz will perform on the field this year, it must be asked how long he can stay on the field of play in 2021? His injuries have played a large part in why he probably hasn’t reached his potential yet and the Colts have decided that the upside meets the risk of another season-interrupting injury. We’ve already had a glimpse of what the 2021 Colts could look like with rookie Sam Ehlinger picking up the slack during the first couple of pre-season games and looking like the starter on day 1 unless Wentz makes it back. He has flattered to deceive thus far however and there has been a definite increase in urgency, going by reports, from the Colts to try to rehab Wentz’s just enough to get him in as early as possible. This is a situation that is by no means over, and I would not be surprised to see Sam Ehlinger taking snaps later this season. The Colts have other questions on offence, most notably how to replace Anthony Costanzo on the offensive line. However, they have one of the finest in the position in Quentin Nelson and other solid OL such as Ryan Kelly and the addition of Eric Fisher from Kansas City should help.
On the upside, the Colts have proven under Frank Reich to be one of the best coached teams in the NFL- they rarely make game altering mistakes and are able to keep with some of the best teams in the league. Theres no reason to suggest that this year will be any different. They have one of the finest young running backs in the league in the form of Jonathon Taylor and Nyheim Hines is an excellent third down back.
The Colts are hard to place this season- like a few teams there’s a high variance between their high and low for win totals. They have a hard start to the season facing the Seahawks, Rams, Titans, Dolphins and Ravens in the first 5 games however it starts to ease of after that and they have some very winnable games not to mention the 4 against Jacksonville and Houston. At their best, if Wentz reaches old heights, and remains injury free then Indy could really push Tennessee for the division and perhaps be playoff bound. Theres just too many “ifs” in that prediction for it to be realistic. I’m going to go for a 9-win season and a possibly wildcard spot for Indy.
Major Additions: Carlos Hyde RB, Marvin Jones WR, Philip Dorsett WR, Shaquill Griffen CB, Rayshawn Jenkins S
Major Losses: Keelan Cole WR, Dede Westbrook WR
Biggest Question entering the Season: How much progress will we see in this first season of a rebuild?
If you can cast your eye back to the beginning of the 2020 season, the Jacksonville Jaguars entered the season almost already in full tank mode in the eyes of most. They had one of the weakest rosters in the NFL and the talk was already of who would be their choice of No.1 in the 2021 draft. I know I definitely bought into this, wagering an undisclosed fee on a heavy Colts win in the first game of last season. Low and behold, the Jaguars win 27-20 and prompt a barrage of “maybe they aren’t bad” takes. Hilariously and predictably however the Jaguars proceeded to lose the following 15 games and clean house in the off-season as they go full REBUILD (Copyright NY Jets). Why am I telling you this? Well other than the obvious bitterness I still hold to this day, it goes to show that the Jaguars were an awful team in 2020 and the recent history of rebuilds suggests that this season is probably going to be a slight improvement but a lot more slight than a lot of people think.
There are a few reasons to temper expectations (low as they may be) entering 2021. Has the team changed that much? Overall, not really, but they have improved in key areas, namely quarterback. Writing after the second pre-season game against the Saints, I think there’s now a realisation that while Lawrence is a prospect in the mould of Andrew Luck, he seems less pro-ready for day 1. This season will all be about how Lawrence develops and how much the Jags can do around him to help him win games for the team. How well he will play is still an unknown factor even with a player like Lawrence, but he is definitely one of the main reasons to watch the Jags this year. With regards to talent outside the QB position…that’s where we begin to run into issues. Travis Etienne, Lawrence’s teammate in college, has suffered a potentially season ending injury and at best hope seems to be out for at least the next 3 months. This is a bad blow to an offence which needed some playmakers. Philip Dorsett and Marvin Jones give Lawrence a good deep threat, but this is an offence not built to blow away teams just yet.
The second big unknown is new and first time NFL head coach Urban Meyer, fresh from the College scene and a successful spell at Ohio State. Coaches coming from college tend to be as unpredictable as the players accompanying them. What’s also hard to know is how being successful at a system like Ohio State, which can guarantee the best talent year after year, can translate to the more egalitarian NFL. Factor in that Jacksonville is not the most favourable destination for star players and you’re facing an uphill battle. Meyer has definitely shown he can coach talented players at Ohio State so his primary goal this season will be to bring the best out of Lawrence. On the bright side, Meyer is definitely going to be given this year as a free-hit regardless of what happens and that should give him the time and confidence to implement his plans in Jacksonville.
So, you may have noticed I didn’t mention a whole lot of positives for the Jags to look for this year…to be honest the biggest positive is that it can get worse than last season. Having a player like Lawrence, who looks like he could carry an entire franchise on his muscly back, is enough to get any fan excited and even a morsel of success this year will be enough going into 2022. Questions would begin to be asked going into 2022 if we saw no progress, however for this year at least the Jags have little pressure or expectation. As for win totals, I think at best we are looking at 4/5 wins- and that’s assuming they beat the Texans twice. The Jaguars have a mid-season run against the Seahawks, Bills, Colts, 49ers, Falcons, Rams, Titans but the overall success or failure of this season for Jacksonville will not be measured against the number of wins but rather the progress made.
Major Additions: Shaq Lawson DE, Philip Lindsay RB, Mark Ingram RB, Donte Moncrief WR, Tyrod Taylor QB, Anthony Miller WR
Major Losses: JJ Watt DE, Bernardrick McKinney LB, Will Fuller WR
Biggest Question entering the season: Can it get even worse?
The question can it get even worse probably shouldn’t be the main question entering the season for the Texans. It’s the opposite of a rhetorical question, it’s a question that has already been firmly and categorically answered- the answer being a strong yes with an asterisk that it could get even worse again. The 2020 Texans were not a good team and they won 4 games purely off the back of QB Deshaun Watson carrying them. Well, this year they haven’t really upgraded the talent around QB, and Watson doesn’t look like he will be under centre at all in 2021. Watson was the franchise player before now so with Tyrod Taylor at QB I’m really not sure what reason there is for anyone to watch this team this year. Taylor is a known entity to fans and more importantly his limitations are also known to fans and to other teams- his accuracy has been poor and with the addition of Lindsay and Ingram into the backfield, it looks to be run first and run often for the Texans offence this year.
Defensively the Texans have lost their identity player in JJ Watt and while Shaq Lawson might attempt to fill the void it won’t be enough to give the Texans even an average pass rush. Lovie Smith is a good defensive coordinator to introduce, and his best hope will be to keep the score down and hope Taylor and the offence can pull together a few scoring plays and win tight games.
Looking through the schedule, if you were to ask me specifically which 3 games the Texans could win I would be struggling. Unless they beat Jacksonville Week 1, I cannot see them winning a game until at least Week 12 when they meet the Jets. In that space they meet the Bills, Browns, Colts, Rams among others. They have a really tough schedule regardless of the uncertainty around QB and the lack of playmakers on the roster. *Should* Watson play, I think they’re probably capable of upping that win total by 1-2 games, but at the moment that looks to be a distant proposition.