AFC South Divisional Breakdown: Rivers leads the Colts over Henry and the Titans
During the 2019 season and 2020 offseason, the AFC South was a division full of surprises and turnover. An unfamiliar face rose to power and nearly made it to the Super Bowl while one of the division’s best players was sent packing in a trade that shocked those around the NFL. This season provides a chance for three teams to compete for the division equally, and fans may be surprised yet again.
As usual, my rankings take into account the odds and win projections given to each team, as well as the additions made to each of their rosters during the offseason.
|Team||Odds to win Division||Win Totals||2019 Record||2019 PF||2019 PA||DIFF|
1. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts make the biggest jump in my rankings, even though they finished 3rd in the division in 2019. Indianapolis holds the best odds (+135) at winning the AFC South and is projected to win nine games this season. In my estimation, Indianapolis could be even better than their projection if the team builds chemistry on a newly constructed offense, and the defense takes a big step forward this season. The Colts should compete with both the Texans and Titans to win the division in 2020, but I’ll give Indianapolis the edge since I believe they are the better overall team.
Indianapolis was poised for a huge season in 2019 before franchise quarterback Andrew Luck made an abrupt retirement that caught both the fans and management off-guard. Backup Jacoby Brissett was thrust into the fire right away and managed to guide Indy to a 7-9 record. Although Brissett has shown he can win games in the NFL, he’s an average starting quarterback at best. Injuries on offense also hurt the Colts, as star wideout T.Y. Hilton was limited 10 games and finished with his lowest receiving totals (45/501/5) in his eight-year career. Even without Luck and Hilton, the Colts finished 16th in scoring per game (22.6).
This season I expect the Colts offense to finish inside the top ten, as the team made a series of key additions in the offseason. Indy kickstarted free agency by adding long-time Charger, quarterback Phillip Rivers. Even with Rivers throwing for the most interceptions in nearly a decade, the veteran still threw for more than 4,500 yards. Rivers brings experience and success to a Colts offense that is in win-now mode. Rivers will have plenty of weapons at his disposal, as the Colts have a great tight end in Jack Doyle, and capable pass-catchers with receivers T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, and Zach Pascal. Indy also used its first draft pick in 2020 on USC receiver, Michael Pittman Jr. Pittman gives Rivers and the Colts a big-bodied receiver with strong hands and is a terrific red zone threat.
The Colts offense also features a great running game, headlined by a terrific offensive line and explosive running back, Marlon Mack. In 2019, Mack finished with 1,091 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns. The Colts also added Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor in the second round of the draft as Mack is in a contract year this season. Taylor recorded 6,174 rushing yards and 55 total touchdowns in his three years at Wisconsin and should split carries with Mack this season. While Mack contributed heavily to Indy’s success on the ground last season, the Colts also have one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. The unit ranked 3rd in the NFL last season and is led by guard Quenton Nelson. Even with only two seasons under his belt, Nelson has entered the discussion for the league’s best offensive lineman. Nelson has also been graded as the highest run-blocker at his position over the past two seasons.
Defensively, the Colts also possess a ton of young talent at each level, and I expect them to break out this season. The group features former All-Pro Justin Houston, safety Malik Hooker, and star linebacker Darius Leonard. In 2019, the Colt defense finished 18th in opponent scoring, surrendering 23.3 points per game. That defense is much better than a year ago as the Colts traded for DeForest Buckner from San Francisco and added former Pro-Bowl corner Xavier Rhodes. Buckner is coming off a terrific season in 2019, recording 62 tackles and 7.5 sacks. Rhodes has 10 interceptions in seven seasons and gives the Colts exceptional depth at the cornerback position.
2. Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans were the biggest surprise of the 2019 season, clinching a wild card spot and making it to the AFC Championship before losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. Having the league’s third-ranked running attack, the Titans finished 8th in scoring per game (24.9) and finished the season with a 9-7 record. Running back Derrick Henry led the NFL in rushing, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill took home Comeback Player of the Year honors. The decision to rank the Colts above the Titans was a tough one, as Tennessee possesses a well-balanced team on both sides of the football. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tennessee wins the division should they replicate the formula on offense they had a year ago.
In the offseason, the Titans rewarded Tannehill’s career season with a four-year, $118 million contract. Tannehill finished 2019 with 2,742 passing yards, 26 total touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in 10 games as a starter. Tannehill also posted the best passer rating (117.5) of his seven-year career and finished the season with a 7-3 record as the Titans starter. A considerable part of Tannehill’s success through the air was due to an elite offensive line and a terrific season from rookie wideout A.J. Brown. In 11 starts, Brown led all rookies with 84 receptions, 1,051 receiving yards, and 8 touchdowns. The Titans also finished 2019 with the NFL’s 8th ranked offensive line and returns four of their starters in 2020. The only departure was right tackle Josh Conklin who joined the Cleveland Brown in free agency. Tennessee moved quickly to fill the void at tackle and selected Georgia’s Isaiah Wilson with 29th overall pick in the draft. The 6th ranked tackle in the draft, Wilson is an immediate starter for the Titans and is an excellent run-blocker.
As I mentioned earlier, running back, Derrick Henry was 2019 NFL rushing champ and looks to be lined up for a massive contract extension later this season. In 2019, Henry rushed for 1,540 yards and racked up 16 touchdowns. If there is anything to complain about in Henry’s game, it’s his inability as a receiving threat out of the backfield. Henry has only 57 receptions and 3 touchdowns in his four-year career. The Titans addressed their depth in the backfield perfectly, selecting Appalachian State’s Darrynton Evans, who is a terrific receiving back and compliments Henry’s punishing running style. As a junior, Evans caught 21 passes for 5 touchdowns in addition to 1,480 rushing yards.
On defense, the Titans were above average in 2019 and almost snuck into the top ten in opponent scoring per game. The group surrendered 20.6 points per game and was a large part of Tennessee’s success last season. The big loss comes in the secondary, as starting corner Logan Ryan remains a free agent. In the draft, the Titans spent a second-rounder on LSU’s Kristian Fulton, the 10th best corner in the class. Although Fulton is raw, he has tremendous upside and could compete with Malcolm Butler for the starting spot opposite of Adoree’ Jackson. Tennessee also signed pass-rusher Vic Beasley, who had 37.5 sacks in five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. Beasley joins fellow pass-rusher Harold Landry and a Titans defense that produced 43 sacks in 2019.
3. Houston Texans
The Texans finished the 2019 season with a 10-6 record, winning the division before losing a playoff contest to the Kansas City Chiefs. Despite a winning regular season and solid performance in the playoffs, the Texans’ season was highlighted by a move the team made during the offseason. The Texans shockingly traded arguably their best player, DeAndre Hopkins, to the Arizona Cardinals. In doing so, the Texans only received oft-injured running back David Johnson, a 2020-second round pick, and a 2021 fourth-round pick. This was a move that puzzled both executives and players around the league, as Hopkins has been in the discussion for the NFL’s best wide receiver for at least the last three years.
With a huge hole to fill at wideout, the Texans didn’t flinch for a second, trading for Los Angeles Rams receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks had been one of the NFL’s most productive receivers over the past six years, racking up five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons before being limited to 583 yards in 2019 due to injuries. While the Texans are getting a number one caliber receiver, Cooks has failed to stay healthy in recent years and experienced concussions in back-to-back weeks last season. Along with Cooks, Houston signed former Cowboys receiver Randall Cobb to a three-year deal. Cobbs joins a receiver corps with Will Fuller V, Cooks, and veteran Kenny Stills.
All four have shown an excellent capability to produce at a high level, but I have some questions about how healthy Cooks and Fuller will be in 2020. Despite losing Hopkins, the Texans did add a ton of depth at wideout for quarterback Deshaun Watson who should continue to put up big numbers this season. In 2019, Watson threw for 3,852, 26 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. I expect him to improve this season due to the number of weapons around him.
Defensively, Houston finished near the bottom (23rd) of the NFL in opponent scoring, surrendering 25.3 points per game. Many problems on defense can be attributed to former DPOY J.J. Watt’s health. Watt remains one of the NFL’s best defensive players, but he has struggled to stay on the field. Since leading the league in sacks in 2015, Watt has only averaged eight games per season. Should Watt stay healthy this season, the Texans defense could be one of the best in the NFL. In the draft, Houston addressed their needs upfront, selecting TCU defensive tackle Ross Blacklock early in the second round. Blacklock fills the hole left by D.J. Reader, as Reader signed with the Bengals in free agency. Blacklock was the 25th overall ranked player in the draft and could start right away for a Texans team in need of run defense. Houston also bolstered its secondary, signing corners Vernon Hargreaves III and Phillip Gaines while resigning starter Bradley Roby to a three-year extension.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Not much went right for the Jaguars in 2019, and I expect much of the same in 2020. The team vastly underachieved last season and finished with a 6-10 record. After giving a huge contract to former Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, he was benched for unheralded rookie Garner Minshew. To Minshew’s credit, he performed well, throwing for 3,271 yards and 21 touchdowns. The team has perhaps entered a rebuild, as I see them finishing near the bottom of the league in 2020.
Ever since their AFC Championship appearance in 2017, the Jags have been in constant turmoil both on the field and in the front office. The team has since traded away its key pieces, including Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, and Jalen Ramsey. Two more of its core players could join the list of departures, as I believe the franchise is looking to trade both running back Leonard Fournette and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue. The Jaguars should look to capitalize off of Fournette’s prime years in a trade, while the latter continues to demand a hefty contract extension from management. In 2020, the Jaguars placed the franchise tag on Ngakoue.
There are a few positives to Jacksonville’s future, though, as the team looks to have found a number one receiver in DJ Chark while investing heavily in their future via the draft. In his sophomore season, Chark burst onto the scene last season, catching 73 passes for 1,008 and 8 touchdown receptions. Rookie defensive end Josh Allen also had an impressive season, recording 44 tackles and a team-leading 10.5 sacks. In free agency, Jacksonville’s big signing was tight end Tyler Eifert, who agreed to a two-year contract worth $15.5 million.
As Jacksonville is in a full-on rebuild, the team capitalized with eleven picks in the 2020 draft. The Jaguars’ haul of talent includes Florida’s CJ Henderson, LSU defensive end K’Lavon Chaisson, and wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. Henderson will start right away for Jacksonville, as head coach Doug Marrone will try to mold him into a true shutdown corner. Chaisson brings a ton of potential off the edge, as he recorded 19 career sacks in his three years at LSU and 13.5, which came last season. Chaisson should help a pass-rush that already has Josh Allen and Yannick Ngakuoe. Laviska Shenault Jr. was the 10th ranked wideout in a wide receiver class regarded as one of the best in decades and could compete for a starting spot with Dede Westbrook or Chris Conley. Shenault is a big-bodied receiver who has excellent ability after the catch and produced 17 total touchdowns in about two and a half seasons at the University of Colorado.