2020 NFL Preview: AFC South

Photo By Kirby Lee, USA Today Sports

Written by Stephen Brown III

After breaking down the AFC West and East, we head South for a division that, despite being constantly mediocre, always manages to send multiple teams to the playoffs. This offseason has seen a lot of big changes for every team. So let’s break it down and see who comes out on top.

Houston Texans, Last year record: 10-6, 1st place

I love this Houston Texans team. They have a star on offense with Deshaun Watson, a star on defense with J.J. Watt, and a lot of solid talent to surround them. However, their biggest weakness is their head coach, Bill O’Brien. Despite the fact that this team is pretty consistently in the playoffs, they constantly underperform. For the last couple of years, they got by on talent alone. Bill O’Brien has bungled end of game situations, abandoned successful game plans, and made terrible calls in clutch situations. Not only has this team been plagued by Bill O’Brien the coach, but they’ve also been plagued by Bill O’Brien, the GM. Since Bill O’Brien has taken over GM duties, he’s made some decisions that have been questionable. For one, in order to address a hole they had at left tackle, O’Brien sent two first-round picks and a second-round pick to Miami for Laremy Tunsil. While Tunsil is a solid add, the issue could’ve been addressed via free agency or the draft, rather than wasting precious draft capital that could’ve been used to build around their young franchise QB. The worst move O’Brien made was trading DeAndre Hopkins, one of the elite receivers in football (who’s only 28) for a second-round pick and David Johnson, who hasn’t been good since 2016. Let’s keep in mind that Stefon Diggs and Amari Cooper both were traded for first round picks. While they are both solid receivers, Hopkins is an elite receiver who is on another level compared to those two.

Now that I’m done ranting about Bill O’Brien’s terrible coaching and managing of players, let’s get into the offense. As I mentioned, this team has Deshaun Watson, one of the best, young quarterbacks in football. At running back, the Texans have David and Duke Johnson, who skill-wise, are very similar players. And then at receiver, the Texans made a move to try to replace Hopkins, trading a second-round pick for Brandin Cooks. Offensively, this team should still be pretty good. While this team lacks a dynamic skill position player, they do have a lot of speed. Cooks, Will Fuller (if he can stay healthy), and Kenny Stills are all solid speed threats at the receiver position. What this offense is really going to boil down to is the running back position. Can David Johnson return to his 2016 form? And if not, can Duke Johnson shoulder the load? And even if everything goes right personal wise, can Texans fans trust Bill O’Brien not to ruin it all?

Defensively, this team is very unexciting. They still have their cornerstone player, an aging, oft-injured JJ Watt. They returned a lot of guys like Whitney Mercilus, Benardrick McKinney, and Zach Cunningham among others. While none of these guys are stars, they do form a group that, if coached right, can be a middle of the road defense. If this team is going to return to the playoffs this year, they will need their offense to carry them.

Final Record: 10-6

Tennessee Titans, Last year record: 9-7, 2nd Place

Last year, the Titans shocked everyone with their play down the stretch. Ryan Tannehill took over and was the most efficient QB in the NFL. Meanwhile, Derrick Henry did his thing and ran over everyone in his way. After securing a 9-7 wild card berth, this team went into New England and upset the perennial favorites, then went into Baltimore and upset the first seeded Ravens, and even had a lead against the eventual Super Bowl champs in Kansas City. There’s a lot of optimism for this offense, who returns nearly every key piece. The biggest loss, however, is right tackle, Jack Conklin. Conklin was signed by the Browns this offseason. He has been a solid piece for the Titans when healthy and was a big part of Henry’s success at running back.

Defensively, this team was middle of the pack last year, ranked 16th in DVOA according to Football Outsiders. However, they were very consistent, ranked first in variance, meaning each game, you pretty much knew what to expect from this unit. This team returns a lot of solid pieces on defense, including Malcolm Butler, Kenny Byard, Adoree Jackson, and Kenny Vaccaro in the secondary and guys like Jayon Brown, Harold Landry, and Jeffery Simmons in the front seven. With Mike Vrabel at the helm, this defense should once again be solid. And with the ground and pound attack from the offense, they should spend a lot of time on the sidelines.

While I really like what this team did last year, I think it will be tough to replicate again. I think Tannehill is a solid QB but it’s hard to believe he’ll be the most efficient QB in the league again. With Tannehill likely coming back down to Earth, I don’t see much room for improvement for this team record-wise.

Final Record: 8-8

Indianapolis Colts, Last year record: 7-9, 3rd Place

Frank Reich is one of the best coaches in football in my opinion and had it not been for Jacoby Brissett getting injured (and subsequently not looking right when he returned), this team would have been a playoff team. Not only is Frank Reich an excellent coach, but he has also built a team that, on paper, seems to have no real weaknesses.

Offensively, this team had the best offensive line in football, led by 2018 first-round pick, Quenton Nelson. With this entire offensive line back, this should be the team’s strength once again. This team also upgraded at QB, adding veteran and long-time Chargers QB, Phillip Rivers. Rivers is an absolutely perfect addition to Reich’s offense. This offense is predicated on a lot of short, quick throw. And with this offensive line being so good, Rivers will also have time to do what he loves and chuck it deep, something the Colts struggled to do well with last year. Rivers will be throwing to some solid receivers such as TY Hilton, Parris Campbell, and rookie second-round pick Michael Pittman Jr. And spearheading the running game is Marlon Mack, and rookie second pick Johnathan Taylor. Looking at this offense, there’s really nothing that is stopping it from being a top 15 to top 10 offense. The biggest question mark is whether Rivers’ struggles last year were from the team and system around him, or age finally catching up to him.

As I mentioned, this team has virtually no weaknesses on paper, and the defense is no exception. The unit, led by third-year superstar Darius Leonard, also returns some solid players from last year, such as Justin Houston, Malik Hooker, Rock Ya-Sin, and Bobby Okereke. Adding to the list of solid players is DT Deforest Buckner, who the Colts acquired from the Niners for a first-round pick and former All-Pro CB Xavier Rhodes. If Rhodes can return to even just Pro Bowl form and if the young players like Ya-Sin and Leonard keep getting better, there’s no reason this unit can’t be a top 12 defense.

It’s clear that I’m very high on this team and for good reason. Despite losing their franchise QB Andrew Luck to retirement prior to last season and losing his replacement for a number of games, this team still went 7-9. It seems that every move they make actually improves the team and every high draft pick is an instant impact player. As long as Phillip Rivers can play even just 80% of what he did for most of his career in San Diego/LA, this team is a real threat to be a dark horse Super Bowl contender.

Final Record: 11-5

Jacksonville Jaguars, Last year record: 6-10, 4th Place

At this time last year, Jags fans were optimistic. They were a season removed from an AFC Championship berth, that could’ve very easily been a Super Bowl appearance. They got rid of Blake Bortles and signed Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles to a 4-year deal. They still had many pieces of their once elite defense and added Josh Allen, one of the premier pass rushers in the 2019 draft. And then, the season started and it all went downhill. Foles was injured early in the first game of the season. There was constant infighting, which led to the trade of Jalen Ramsey. And now, the team that was so close to the Super Bowl in 2017, is now a shell of its former self.

On offense, Gardner Minshew will be the starting QB to begin the year. Minshew was a sixth-round pick last year who was just about the only bright spot on the team. Despite a solid rookie campaign, there’s already rumbles of the team tanking for Trevor Lawrence, indicating that Minshew likely isn’t in the team’s long-term plan, barring a breakout season. Earlier this week, the team released former first-round pick Leonard Fournette. Fournette has had an up and down start to his career, flashing his potential while missing time due to injury and suspensions. While the receiving core for this team isn’t bad, they are made up of a bunch of guys who are much better off as number 2 or 3 receivers on most other teams. Really, the only thing to look forward to on this offense is Laviska Shenault. Shenault is a versatile rookie second-rounder out of Colorado who played just about every position on the field in college. With the lack of playmakers on offense, it should be fun to see how new OC Jay Gruden uses Shenault. Other than that, this offense has the potential to be one of the worst in the NFL.

Since the 2017 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship, this team has lost nearly every big-name defensive player. Telvin Smith, Malik Jackson, Calais Campbell, AJ Bouye, Jalen Ramsey, and Yannick Ngakoue are all players the Jags have lost to free agency, trade, or in Smith’s case, retirement the last two seasons. The only starter from that 2017 season that still starts on this defense is Myles Jack. While the Jags still have him, Josh Allen and rookie first-round pick K’Lavon Chaisson, this defense is weak everywhere else. Plus, it’s hard for Jags fans to be optimistic about good young defensive players since they tend to unload them before their rookie contracts expire (i.e. Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue). Just like the offense, this defense has the potential to be one of the worst in football.

It’s really hard to go 0-16 in the NFL. But the Jaguars have one the best chances to do so in 2020. Their lack of talent on both sides of the ball, coupled with the strength of the rest of their division will make it tough. Even if their offense is above average (which is possible if Minshew progresses and someone like Dede Westbrook or DJ Chark has a breakout year), their defense just doesn’t have the personnel to consistently stop teams. But hey, they get to play the Bengals and Lions so maybe they can get some wins.

Final Record: 1-15

This is another division that can conceivably send three teams to the playoffs in 2020. In fact, all three of these teams have been playoff teams the last two seasons and all consistently finish around .500 or better. The only question mark for this division is, which of these three can come out on top, and are they good enough to make a legitimate Super Bowl run? And for you Jaguars’ fans, just remember, 1-15 means you could end up with Trevor Lawrence, so stay positive! Your time to shine will come again someday.

Final Standings

Colts: 11-5

Texans: 10-6

Titans: 8-8

Jaguars: 1-15

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