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Vault Valuables: AFC South Preview

With this today's preview, we are moving on to a much less competitive division in the AFC South. This looks to be a two-horse race (the Colts and the Titans), with the Titans having a leg up.

 

Tennessee Titans

At a consensus -140 to win the division, the Titans have a stacked roster, and even upgraded with some key additions in Julio Jones and Bud Dupree. Overall, they look like they should be able to run it back and win the division with relative ease.

Offense

Quarterback

After pulling off a trade in which they sent a fourth round pick to the Dolphins, the Titans could not be happier with the production at the quarterback position. Since Ryan Tannehill has taken over for Marcus Mariota, he has matched Patrick Mahomes in many statistical categories, such as QBR, TD:INT ratio, etc. Tannehill has been mentioned in MVP conversations, albeit not winning it yet. While I believe they still do not completely trust Tannehill (they have heavily leaned on the running game in the playoffs), they are set at the position. Unless Tannehill gets hurt (no depth), the Titans should be set for a playoff run in 2021.

Skill Positions

There is a reason that the Titans lean so heavily on the run game. When you have a physical specimen (6’3”, 247 pounds) that is one of, if not the best in the game, you give him the ball. After being first in yards and touchdowns rushing, there is no reason to think it will stop now. Derrick Henry has more yards after contact by himself than most teams have combined. He is a beast, and I am glad I am not on the field with him running full speed at me. Behind him, the Titans have Darrynton Evans and Brian Hill to spell him, as well as handle pass catching duties. They will not be on the field much, but hopefully they can be as impactful as newly retired Dion Lewis was in the pass game for Ryan Tannehill.

At receiver, the Titans are just as talented as they are at running back. This will be Tannehill’s best supporting cast he has ever had, and they should be able to elevate him to elite. The main two receivers that everyone knows about are Julio Jones and AJ Brown. After making a blockbuster trade for Julio Jones (arguably the best in the game) and developing third year player AJ Brown into a top 15 receiver, defenses will have their hands full. Essentially, they will have to choose between stopping King Henry or Julio Jones and AJ Brown through the air. Either way, it is a win for the Titans. The only issue here could be health, as Julio Jones is often injured at his elevated age. Behind Jones and Brown, Tennessee brought in Josh Reynolds from the Los Angeles Rams. After playing behind Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods, he will play the same role behind Jones and Brown. After having 618 yards as a third option last year, he will have more than enough production for this offense.

Tight end is the weakest spot on this Titans offense. After losing Jonnu Smith to the Patriots this offseason, they downgraded to Geoff Swaim (with such elite players everywhere else, they had to downgrade somewhere). The most receptions he has ever had in a season is 26, so he will certainly be asked to step it up as a starter this year. Behind him are Anthony Firkser and Luke Stocker. Both having played a few years in the league, this position group seems like it is destined for a tight end by committee approach rather than a clear cut starter. While they have capable blockers, pass catching is more of a question (with the exception of Stocker who is the third tight end).

Offensive Line

This offensive line group has been one of the top ten lines in the league for a few years now. While they certainly look better due to Derrick Henry’s dominance, his gaudy rushing numbers aren’t done by himself. After losing Jack Conklin to the Browns, Tennessee definitely downgraded a bit, but overall, they should be fine. At left tackle, the Titans have Taylor Lewan. While he is known for having a bit of a mean streak and getting fined/suspended, they don’t put up with his antics for nothing. He is considered a borderline elite left tackle, so he certainly elevates this group. At left guard is 33 year old Rodger Saffold III. Saffold was also considered elite, however, at his elevated age, we should consider him just above average now (albeit he has a knack for opening up holes in the running game). At center is Ben Jones. The ten year veteran is a top 10 center in the league, and a great communicator up front. At right guard is former third round pick Nate Jones, and at right tackle is Conklin’s replacement: Ty Sambrailo. Overall, this group should be top ten, but will not be as dominant as in years past. For depth, the Titans have David Quessenberry and this year’s second round pick Dillon Radunz.

Defense

Front Seven

The front seven for the Titans has historically been imposing. This year is not much different. On the line, their main rushers will be Jeffrey Simmons, Denico Autry, Harold Landry III, and Bud Dupree. The fact that I can write about four rushers that are established and considered above average to elite on the same team is ridiculous. Landry and Dupree will come off the edges, with Simmons and Autry in the middle. For depth, they have Kyle Peko and John Simon as the established veterans.

On the second level, Tennessee’s linebackers are mainly going to be Jayon Brown and Rashaan Evans. Evans is a former first round pick that is a hard hitter, and Brown is going to be a fifth year player that has started the vast majority of games for the Titans in his fourth year career. His best year was in 2019 when he had 105 tackles. Both Brown and Evans are young and have largely been able to stay healthy in their careers. The Titans will hope for that same health this year, as the depth behind them is not strong.

Secondary

This offseason, the Titans lost Malcolm Butler to Arizona and Adoree Jackson to the Giants. Overall, Tennessee did a good job of replacing them. They signed veteran Janoris Jenkins, return Kristian Fulton, and drafted Caleb Farley from Virginia Tech. You know what you will get from Jenkins: a feisty cover corner who is a bit older now. Kristian Fulton hopes to return to LSU form after having a below average season last year. Caleb Farley hopes to play like the first round talent he was thought to be at the beginning of the college season before back injuries tanked his draft stock.

At safety, the Titans have Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker. Byard has been one of the best safeties in the league for the last few years. Last year, he had 111 tackles. He has also played every game in his 5 year career so far. Meanwhile, Hooker is going into just his third year. He has also played in every game in his career. Last season, he was tied for the seventh most interceptions in the league with four. While Byard garners most of the attention, Hooker can play a bit himself as well.

Overall

This Titans team seems to be a bit flipped from year’s past. Usually, they are stronger on defense than they are on offense. While their defense is certainly not poor, their offense got exponentially better this year with the addition of Julio Jones. Overall, as long as they have good health (especially for Tannehill), they should take the division.

 

Indianapolis Colts

At +180, the Colts certainly have a chance. They have an elite defense, a good O line, and just traded for Carson Wentz to be their new QB. With this new addition, Indy is hoping that Wentz can lead them to the promised land.

Offense

Quarterback

After Phillip Rivers retired, the Colts needed a new quarterback to lead this playoff-ready team. They decided that would be Carson Wentz when they traded a conditional first round pick for him. Everything seemed to be going well until he felt a twinge in his foot during training camp. This led to a surgery that was to hold him out 5-12 weeks. It is now being reported that he should be back for the opening game of the regular season. This has been his problem for a bit… injuries. He played at an MVP level before tearing his ACL for the Eagles. If he can return to form, the Colts may steal the division or take the wild card spot. Behind Wentz is Jacob Eason and Sam Ehlinger, two talented former college QB’s.

Skill Positions

The Colts are deep at running back. They have Jonathan Taylor, Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines, and Jordan Wilkins. All four have had significant time playing for the Colts. Taylor looks to take the lead back role, after having success in his rookie year. Behind him, Marlon Mack is coming off of a torn achilles in last year’s opener. Running backs don’t tend to return to form after this severe injury, but Indianapolis is hoping he can be a good backup to Taylor. Wilkins and Hines behind them will be the main pass catchers, especially Hines, as he is extremely talented is pass catching and blocking.

At receiver, Michael Pittman looks to build on a successful rookie year. He may be the breakout receiver of the year, as he has all the physical tools to play well. Behind him is TY Hilton who has been a mainstay in Indianapolis. He hasn’t been amazing since Andrew Luck retired, but he is still talented. They also have Zach Pascal and Parris Campbell. Pascal has been consistent in Indy, and Campbell looks to show everyone why he was loved by so many teams in the draft process last year.

At tight end, Indianapolis returns the always reliable Jack Doyle. He has been a safety net for many QB’s in Indy before Wentz. Behind him is the huge Mo Alie-Cox. While not an exceptional blocker, Alie-Cox is a red zone mismatch that has an advantage against any defender (usually in size).

Offensive Line

The offensive line has been the Colts’ calling card for a few years. Since Quenton Nelson was drafted, the Colts offense has gotten exponentially better. Unfortunately, he has the same injury that Wentz has, but hopes to return for the regular season opener as well. As long as the injury doesn’t hamper him too much, he should be an all-pro guard again. At left tackle, the current starter is Will Holden, although they signed the former first overall pick in Eric Fisher during the offseason. For now, he is hurt, but he is largely talented, and should be able to help this offensive line. At center, they have the talented Ryan Kelly. Then at right guard, the Colts will start Mark Glowinski. At right tackle, Braden Smith will start, fresh off of his 72 million dollar contract extension. Overall, as long as they stay healthy, this line should be a top ten group in the league.

Defense

Front Seven

As stated earlier, this defense is elite. That starts up front. This year, the Colts spent a first round pick on Kwity Paye. Paye, the Michigan product, was apparently the first defensive end on Indy’s draft board, so they were sure happy when they got him. Inside, they have Deforest Buckner, who they got from San Francisco. They also have Grover Stewart, Tyquan Lewis, and Zaire Franklin. Overall, with the elite presence of Buckner, this group should succeed.

Linebacker was one of Indy’s strongest groups last season, and it looks like it will be the same this year. One of the best linebackers in the game is Darius Leonard. He has the spirit that the Colts are hoping for, as just after signing his huge contract extension, he went on NFL Network saying that his job was not done in this league. He hasn’t won a super bowl or defensive player of the year, so he has accomplished nothing. He talked about all the work he would have to continue to do to reach the mountain top. Next to him is Bobby Okereke, who deserves a lot of credit. He is one of the best young players in the league as well, but just doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, due to his fellow linebacker next to him. Overall, this is one of the best young linebacking duos in the entire league.

Secondary

At cornerback, the Colts are deep. They have veteran Xavier Rhodes, young and talented Kenny Moore II, and TJ Carrie and Rock Ya-Sin for depth. Xavier Rhodes has dropped off a little bit, but he has been nicknamed “Rhodes Closed” for a reason. Kenny Moore is on the boundary opposite him. While young, he has developed into a talented lockdown cornerback. Ya-Sin and Carrie will provide valuable and experienced depth assuming injuries or nickel/dime personnel on defense.

At safety, the Colts have Julian Blackmon, the Utah product, and Khari Willis, the Michigan State product. Both are young and don’t have much experience in the league, but with all the talent in front of them, Blackmon and Willis should be able to survive, if not succeed in the backfield.

Overall

As said earlier, if anyone has a chance to unseat the Titans, it will be Indianapolis. A major question here will be health, and Wentz’s play. If a couple of things break right for Coach Frank Reich and the Colts, they could have some luck.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

At +600, the Jaguars don’t seem to be keen on winning the division; however, they got a great head start on the rebuild by securing the first pick in the draft in Trevor Lawrence and hiring Urban Meyer as their head coach.

Offense

Quarterback

As written right above, the Jaguars drafted Trevor Lawrence with the first overall pick. The Clemson product is one of the best and most decorated prospects to ever come out of the college game. As everyone says every year, “he may be the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck,” but this time that might be the truth. He clearly looked like a man amongst boys in college, and he has played well in training camp as well. We will only be able to see in the regular season, but so far, the Jaguars hope they have their man of the future. Behind him is Gardner Minshew. While the depth chart currently lists them as co-starters, it will be Lawrence who starts despite Minshew’s success at the NFL level.

Skill Positions

At running back, the Jaguars are talented. After cutting Leonard Fournette last year, all hope seemed lost until undrafted James Robinson burst onto the scene and was one of the best backs in all of football. It looked like they had the position settled with Robinson, but then the Jaguars signed Carlos Hyde and drafted Lawrence’s college teammate Travis Etienne. This draft pick especially was peculiar, but it seems like they are using him more as a receiver right now than a running back (he might be the third down back as well). Overall, this position group is deep and talented.

At receiver, Jacksonville has talent as well. The first three receivers are DJ Chark, Laviska Shenault, and Marvin Jones. Chark has had a breakout year in the league, Jones has been a consistent threat on the outside for years, and Shenault is this year’s breakout candidate due to his talent and the addition of Trevor Lawrence. Behind them are Phillip Dorsett and Collin Johnson, a speedster and a tall red zone threat.

At tight end, the Jags have Chris Manhertz and James O’Shaughnessy. Neither has been that successful in the NFL, but O’Shaughnessy has been one of the better blockers at the position.

Offensive Line

This offensive line has been poor, but it seems to be getting a bit better. From left to right, the starters on the line are Cam Robinson, Andrew Norwell, Brandon Linder, AJ Cann, and Jawaan Taylor. Robinson has talent, but has had trouble putting it all together. Norwell was once made the highest paid guard in league history. Linder is talented, and Taylor was a borderline first round pick just two years ago. While it won’t be horrible, this line will be nothing above average.

Defense

Front Seven

The front seven for Jacksonville has tons of talent, the hope is just for them to put it all together. Inside, they have Malcom Brown (from the Saints), DaVon Hamilton, and Roy Robertson-Harris (from the Bears). On the outside, the pass rushers are K’Lavon Chaisson and Josh Allen. Both are first round picks from the last two years. In Allen’s rookie year, he showed out, but the same can not be said for Chaisson. Chaisson has all the talent in the world (coming out of LSU), he just needs to put a bit more weight on and he should be successful as a pass rusher.

At linebacker, the Jags just sent Joe Schobert to the Steelers in a bit of a salary dump. While they get his contract off the books, his talent will certainly be missed on the field. The name to talk about in this group is Myles Jack, as he has been a pro bowler, gotten a massive contract, and is one of the fastest linebackers in the league. He is also one of the only players left from the “Sacksonville” years. They also brought Damien Wilson over from the Chiefs, and they have Shaw Quarterman and Jihad Ward behind them for depth.

Secondary

At cornerback, the Jags brought in Shaquill Griffin from Seattle on a 3 year contract. They hope that he can be their lockdown corner for the foreseeable future. Opposite him, they have Sidney Jones IV from the Philadelphia Eagles (he wasn’t so good there, so this may be a problem for Jacksonville). Behind them, Tyson Campbell is a nice developmental piece out of UGA. Last year’s first round pick, CJ Henderson, has been a disappointment. So much so that they tried to trade him this offseason. He is currently buried on the depth chart, but he will surely get a chance due to his draft status.

At free safety, they signed Rayshawn Jenkins over from the Chargers to start. Historically, Jenkins has been feast or famine, either making great plays or getting burned/caught out of position. If he can become more consistent, he will be a starter for years to come. At strong safety, Jarrod Wilson looks locked into the starting position. Going in to his sixth year, all with Jacksonville, Wilson hopes to have his best year yet, as he only has 3 forced fumbles and three interceptions in his five-year career.

Overall

As said earlier, this seems to be stage two of the rebuild. They got their quarterback (hopefully), they got their coach (hopefully), and they have bits and pieces of talent all over the board. They won’t win the division this year, but hopefully they will improve with Trevor Lawrence at the helm.

 

Houston Texans

At +2500, the Vegas sportsbooks seem to be giving Houston essentially zero chance to win the division. With the questions surrounding Deshaun Watson and an overall subpar roster, Houston is not going to win the division unless the world turns upside down.

Offense

Quarterback

As said above, there are plenty of questions regarding Deshaun Watson. While he can be a top 5 quarterback in the league, you need to be on the field to perform. Unfortunately, he is currently undergoing investigation and lawsuits regarding sexual harassment with 22 women. On top of that, he has demanded a trade, and has consistently said he does not want to play for the Houston Texans any longer. This would have been an easier trade to complete before the draft and if he did not have an investigation looming over his head, but unfortunately for him, that is not true. Instead, the current starter for Houston is Tyrod Taylor. This signing made sense, as he can run many of the same plays that Watson does due to his speed. Behind him is Davis Mills, who is a talented 22 year old quarterback out of Stanford. He will be the developmental piece. This whole season for the Texans’ success relies on Watson though.

Skill Positions

The Texans made a few peculiar signings this offseason, and a couple came at running back. Those signings made them almost unnecessarily deep at the position. At running back, they have Mark Ingram, David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay, and Rex Burkhead. All have excelled at some point or another in the league, and it is weird that they would all sign to the same place knowing they will not get a lead back role. This group can catch, run, and block, as well as fill in for each other when some are hurt.

The Texans are not very talented or deep at receiver. After losing Deandre Hopkins last year, Will Fuller and Randall Cobb this year, that only got worse. They are now left with Brandin Cooks, Anthony Miller, Chris Conley, and Keke Coutee. None of the aforementioned receivers have had sustainable production besides Cooks who is often injured. This is one of the problems on this roster, and it is a large one for the offensive side of the ball (especially with no Deshaun Watson).

Houston lost Darren Fells this offseason, so their starter is Jordan Akins. He has been fine for them, but nothing special. They also have Ryan Izzo from New England, and drafted Brevin Jordan from the University of Miami. Jordan has the most potential to turn into something, but that might take the most time. Once again, the tight end group in Houston is not strong.

Offensive Line

Offensive line has been a huge problem for Houston in recent years. That is why they paid a ridiculous premium to trade for Laremy Tunsil (one of the picks they traded turned out to be the third overall pick last year). While he is elite, he also gets called for lots of penalties. Also, a left tackle is extremely important, but it can not win you games alone. Inside, they have Max Scharping, Cole Toner, and Marcus Cannon. Cannon is the most accomplished out of this group, having played for New England for years. On the outside, the Texans have Tytus Howard, a former first round pick. They have the talent, but they haven’t been successful in recent years.

Defense

Front Seven

This defense really isn’t much to write home about. It is going to struggle.

On the defensive line, the Texans have Whitney Mercilus, Maliek Collins, Brandon Dunn, and Jordan Jenkins. Behind them, the Texans have Charles Omenihu, Vincent Taylor, Ross Blacklock, and Shaq Lawson (acquired via trade). This group is going to struggle. After losing JJ Watt (the heart and soul of Houston) to the Cardinals, they have no one to hang their hat on anymore.

At linebacker, Houston has Christian Kirksey and Zach Cunningham. Cunningham has been arguably their top success story in terms of the draft. He was rewarded with a contract extension recently. Kirksey was recently one of Cleveland’s starters, and hopefully he can hold down the middle with Cunningham. These two are some of the more talented players on this Texans team, but with minimal talent on the line, it may not matter much.

Secondary

At corner, Terrance Mitchell and Bradley Roby will likely be the starters. Veteran Desmond King (from the LA Chargers) and the young Vernon Hargreaves III (considered a bust from the University of Florida) are the likely backups. Overall, this group is pretty talented, but Roby and King are going to be the names most fans know.

At safety, Justin Reid and Eric Murray will be the starters. Murray has one forced fumble/fumble recovery and one interception in his career. Meanwhile, Justin Reid’s best year was 2018 when he was a rookie. He caused six turnovers overall. In general, this secondary is not going to be great, especially with the minimal amount of pressure from the defensive line (they work together).

Overall

As said earlier, a lot of this team’s success depends on Deshaun Watson’s situation. Assuming he doesn’t play for the Texans (that is common consensus), they are likely to have one of, if not the worst records in the league. They have horrendous odds to win the division for a reason.

 

Recap

As is clear through this preview, the AFC South is a two horse race, with the Titans having a leg up. With some elite additions, the Titans hope to not only win the division, but contend for a super bowl as well. At -140, you won’t make much money, but they are a pretty safe bet. If you want to bet on the underdog for some value, the Colts are the way to go at +180 odds.

Overall, I expect this division to play out just how I wrote it, in the order of Tennessee, then Indianapolis, then the Jaguars and the Texans.


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