For the sixteen years of its existence, one team has dominated the AFC South – the Indianapolis Colts. Since 2002, they’ve won it a total of nine times, the Houston Texans four times, the Tennessee Titans only twice and finally, after last season, the Jacksonville Jaguars joined the list.
The Jaguars went from being a 3-13 last place team in 2016 to the 2017 AFC South divisional champs thanks to a 10-6 record and a week 16 loss by the Titans, the divisional runner up and eventual wildcard team.
The Jag’s miracle run took them past the wildcard Buffalo Bills by an unimpressive score of 10-3 and barely (but impressively) past the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional playoffs 45-42. They even led for most of the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots until they allowed two touchdowns in the 4th quarter before losing 24-20.
Injuries to key players kept Houston and Indianapolis down in 2017, their 4-12 records not a true reflection of their team’s ultimate potential. With those key players set to return and Jacksonville and Tennessee still looking strong, expect the 2018 AFC South to be something it’s never been – one of the tougher divisions in the NFL.
The Jacksonville Jaguars
Those Blake Bortles haters out there (and there are plenty) might want to keep in mind that it wasn’t his fault the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars lost their chance to go to Super Bowl LII. The normally inconsistent Bortles (with a 23-41 overall record) actually had a decent game finishing with 23-of-36 passing for 293 yards, no picks and a touchdown.
It was Jacksonville’s normally stellar 2nd ranked defense that gave up two 4th quarter touchdowns somehow. And that ‘somehow’ was Tom Brady hooking up with Danny Amendola twice. Head coach Doug Marrone will have the entire offseason to figure out how to handle Brady’s offense.
With Bortles’ contract about to expire by the end of the 2018 season, the Jaguars’ front office had a big decision to make.
Is Bortles the man?
The question was whether that 2017 version of Blake Bortles – the guy who completed 60% of his passes for 21 touchdowns and 13 interceptions – was the quarterback they’d be seeing in 2018 or was he a fluke?
General manager David Caldwell answered with a three-year, $54 million contract. But just to be safe, the Jags also traded the Cleveland Browns for definite backup Cody Kessler and in the 6th round of the draft selected big armed Tanner Lee from Nebraska. 2018 will be the year Bortles must prove his new worth and establish his reputation as a team leader who’s now a winner.
This Jags defense can stop it all – well, mostly
The numbers normally don’t lie – the Jaguars defense finished 2017 second best in both yards and points allowed and they finished first in yards allowed per play and points allowed per drive. Plus, they had two defensive player of the year candidates – All Pro defensive end Calais Campbell (14.5 sacks) and elite cornerback A.J. Bouye (6 picks and voted 2nd team All Pro).
But what’s odd is how that same punishing squad allowed Pittsburgh to score 42 points in the Divisional Playoff Game and New England to score twice in the fourth quarter to win the AFC Championship Game. That cost the team their first Super Bowl visit and tarnished the second ranked defense’s otherwise golden reputation.
With most everybody returning in 2018, including All Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey, virtually the entire offensive line (including Campbell and tackle Malik Jackson) and linebackers Myles Jack and 2nd team All Pro Telvin Smith, defensive coordinator Todd Walsh’s squad looks ready to dominate once again.
The Jags offense no slouch either
Rookie running back Leonard Fournette was drafted by the Jaguars fourth pick overall in the 2017 NFL draft and the 6’ 1” 228 lbs LSU record setter did not disappoint. Fournette ran for 1040 yards and caught for another 302 yards for a total of 10 regular season touchdowns plus the four he scored in the playoffs.
The signing of former Carolina Panthers All Pro guard Andrew Norwell made the already solid offensive line even stronger. Norwell scored a $66.5 million contract with $30 million guaranteed, making him the highest paid guard in the league.
Last season, injuries to wide receiver Marqise Lee and others forced rookies Dede Westbrook (339 yards and one TD) and Keelan Cole (748 yards and 3 TDs) to step up and deliver and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett expects even more from them in 2018. Speedy second round draft pick D.J. Chark from LSU and free agent Donte Moncrief have been added to help catch Bortles’ passes for an offense ranked 6th last season.
Bottom line: The Jacksonville Jaguars will have to play a first-place schedule in 2018 so it’ll be no easy walk back to the playoffs for them. If Bortles and Fournette can have another breakout year and the defense can continue its dominance, though, the Jags appear capable of coming out on top of their division once again.
ESPN predicts the Jaguars will go 11-5 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Jaguars will go 9-7 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Jaguars 2018 over/under win total at 9.5
The Tennessee Titans
With a week 17 win over the AFC South first place Jacksonville Jaguars, the Tennessee Titans clinched their first playoff berth since 2008. Proving they deserved to be there, the wildcard Titans upset the Kansas City Chiefs with an exciting one-point win, 22-21.
Like every other team in the playoffs (except for the Super Bowl winning Philadelphia Eagles), the Titans fell to Tom Brady’s New England Patriots, getting whipped 35-14.
Despite their playoff appearance and back-to-back 9-7 seasons, though, head coach Mike Mularkey was not re-signed. There were questions over the team’s inconsistent offense as well as the development of quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The Titans’ next level leader
Under the close watch of controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk, Titans’ general manager Jon Robinson made Mike Vrabel the Titans head coach. A former college and NFL player who served as defensive coordinator with the Houston Texans last season, Vrabel brings with him a reputation as a natural team leader who encourages fast and aggressive football.
First thing Vrabel did (that apparently Mularkey refused to do) was hire a new offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur from the Rams. Then he hired former Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees for the same position.
Vrabel has made a commitment to do a better job than his predecessor of developing Mariota.
The franchise quarterback needs work
In 2016, Mariota threw for 3,426 yards, 26 TD’s and only 9 interceptions while rushing for 349 yards and 2 TD’s. Then in 2017, he threw for less yards (3,232), less TD’s (13) and a lot more interceptions (15).
Under Vrabel and LaFleur’s guidance, that backwards trend in Mariota’s development is supposed to turn around and move forward like it did after his rookie season. Vrabel says he wants to run a diverse offense that plays to Mariota’s strengths, like screens and play-action.
2018 Titans offense stays virtually the same s 2017
The Titans signed New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis who ran for 896 yards last season for 6 TD’s but did little else for their 23rd ranked offense. Running back Derrick Henry will try to improve on his 2017 season of 744 yards for 5 touchdowns.
Second year wide receivers Corey Davis, who was limited by a hamstring injury, and Taywan Taylor, who saw limited playing time, hope to make bigger impacts in 2018.
Offseason improvements made on defense
Last season the Titans’ defense was ranked 13th overall so they added stellar cornerback Malcolm Butler (the guy who Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick inexplicably benched for Super Bowl LII) which gives Logan Ryan an equally effective partner in the secondary.
All Pro safety Kevin Byard returns hoping to snag another 8 interceptions like he did last season.
With the first round drafting of linebackers Rashaan Evans from Alabama and Harold Landry from Boston College, suddenly the middle of the field looks a lot more solid.
Pees’ defensive front line will get help from free agent nose tackle Bennie Logan (52 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2017) who Tennessee picked up from Kansas City with a one year, $4 million contract.
Bottom line: The Titans will be facing a second-place schedule in 2018 so returning to the top of the AFC South won’t be particularly easy. Mariota needs to thrive under Vrabel and LaFleur’s guidance while the team has to remain unaffected by the transition to new leadership. An improved defense will help, but unless the offense can begin to click, the Titans are destined to have a mediocre 2018.
ESPN predicts the Steelers will go 10-6 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Titans will go 8-8 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Titans 2018 over/under win total at 7.5
The Indianapolis Colts
A lack of Luck had a lot to do with the Indianapolis Colts’ 2017 record of 4-12. Franchise quarterback Andrew Luck has missed 26 games over the last three seasons due to injury, including all of 2017. With a healthy Luck, the Colts went 11-5 and made the playoffs his first three seasons from 2012-14.
Without Luck, however, the Colts tend to lose. Often.
In 2015, Luck only started seven games because of an injured shoulder and then a lacerated kidney and a partially torn abdominal muscle and the Colts went 8-8. During the 2016 season, despite a semi-healthy Luck throwing for 4,210 yards, 31 TD’s and a career-high 63.5 completion percentage, the Colts went 8-8 again. That offseason, Luck underwent the shoulder surgery that would keep him from playing any games in 2017.
His backup, the second year player from a Patriots trade, Jacoby Brissett, just hasn’t been able to fill his healthy shoes.
All those sacks don’t help
In Brissett’s defense, his 2017 numbers were decent – he threw for 3,098 yards, 13 touchdowns and 7 interceptions while rushing for 260 yards (4.1 per carry) for another 4 touchdowns. However, Brissett was sacked 52 times, the most of any quarterback in 2017. The year before, Luck was tied for second in that same category having been sacked 41 times.
By the end of the season, the Colts’ defense was ranked 30th overall and their offense 31st, so new general manager Chris Ballard fired head coach Chuck Pagano. The job was offered and accepted by New England Patriots’ offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.
But then he mysteriously changed his mind.
The snub heard round the league
A news conference announcing the hiring of McDaniels was set to take place on a Wednesday, but after the Patriots offered him a long-term commitment, he turned down the job that Tuesday.
Five days later, Ballard hired one of the great minds behind the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl LII victory offensive coordinator Frank Reich. The hope is that the success Reich has had with quarterbacks Nick Foles and Carson Wentz will apply to Luck.
Keeping their recovering quarterback healthy became a draft priority this offseason.
Two new guards protecting Luck
With their first round pick (sixth overall) the Colts showed they were serious about lowering the sacks allowed by drafting Notre Dame’s tough offensive guard Quenton Nelson. Then they grabbed Auburn’s Braden Smith in the second round. They’ll join center Ryan Kelly, tackle Anthony Castonzo and free agent tackle Austin Howard to keep Luck safe.
And hopefully under new offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni, this upgraded line will help explosive but inconsistent running back Marlon Mack contribute more in his second year. And better pocket protection will give returning wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and newly signed free agent Ryan Grant (WA) more time to get open.
Some holes plugged on defense
Four of the Colts’ first five draft picks in 2018 were on the offensive and defensive lines. By drafting Ohio State’s defensive end Tyquan Lewis and signing free agent DE Denico Autry, new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’s D-line will hopefully improve against the run (they allowed 120.4 yards per game in 2017) and sacks allowed (56).
Bottom line: Regardless of whether Reich and his staff (which includes 13 new coaches) can re-establish a winning atmosphere in Indianapolis, without a healthy Luck the team is destined for the middle of the pack.
ESPN predicts the Colts will go 7-9 in 2018.
Because nobody knows if Luck will play this season, Bleacher Report predicts the Colts will go 6-10 in 2018. They promise to adjust that if and when Luck returns.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Colts 2018 over/under win total at 6.5
The Houston Texans
In seven games (six starts) for the 4-12 Houston Texans last season, rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson passed for 1,699 yards for 10 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. While also rushing for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns. His rating was a 103 and his ranking by his peers (NFL Top 100 Players of 2018) was 50.
Then at a November practice on a non-contact play, Watson tore his ACL.
The Texans won just one more game after that. Since then Watson has undergone successful surgery and rehab and has plans to play in 2018.
A decent Texans Offseason
As a result of previously trading away trades, Houston didn’t even get a draft pick in 2018 until round three. General manager Brian Gaine used that selection on athletic Stanford safety Justin Reid to improve the struggling backfield.
Which was the same reason Gaine signed free agent safety Tyrann Mathieu who became available when the Arizona Cardinals released him after he refused to take a pay cut.
Three much needed offensive lineman were acquired through free agency: Zach Fulton (KC), Senio Kelemete (NO) and Seantrel Henderson (BUF) and in round three Mississippi State tackle Marinias Rankin was drafted. Head coach (and offensive coordinator) Bill O’Brien needs them to protect Watson better in the pocket and allow a lot less sacks (54).
Watt, Mercilus, Martin and Watson Healed for 2018
In addition to regaining Watson, a recovered defensive end J.J. Watt and linebacker Whitney Mercilus (both injured on the same drive against the Kansas City Chiefs) look to be returning in 2018.
With both of them at 100%, expect defensive coordinator (and assistant head coach) Romeo Crennel’s 20th ranked defense that allowed 109.2 rushing yards a game to improve greatly.
Injured center Nick Martin (ankle) also looks to make a return.
Watson’s tools are in place
All Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who caught 96 balls for 1,378 yards and 13 touchdowns without a healthy Watson under center, will benefit from his return.
As will the running game of Lamar Miller, who ran for 185 yards and two touchdowns less in 2017 than he did with Watson playing in 2016.
Bottom Line: Assuming everyone who’s supposed to come back healthy does and stays healthy, the Houston Texans should be fun to watch again in 2018. In a division that had two playoff teams last season and a (possibly) returning Andrew Luck, though, coming out on top of the AFC South might be at least one more productive offseason away.
ESPN predicts the Texans will go 11-5 in 2018.
Bleacher Report predicts the Texans will go 7-9 in 2018.
CBSSports.com Vegas Expert has the Texans 2018 over/under win total at 9.5
The 2018 AFC South being competitive depends first on whether all four teams can field healthy quarterbacks, and then on which of those young talents steps up his game. The Colts and Texans need to get better against interdivisional rivals (both 3-9 in 2017) if they expect to end up on top. The Jaguars and Titans need to get better on the road (4-4 and 3-5 respectively) if they expect to return to the playoffs. For now, though, until the return of Luck, Watson and Mariota to peak form is certain, the AFC South looks to be well in Jacksonville’s reach once again.