Despite facing far more questions than answers after undergoing more turnover than any division within the National Football League, will the AFC South exceed expectations or will it prove to be among the weakest???
Despite sending two of it’s residents to the Playoffs last season, the AFC South should look very different heading into the 2021 campaign, for you would be hard-pressed to find a division that underwent more change over the past six months. From top to bottom, all four teams have major questions to answer, ranging from significant roster turnover to the acclimation of brand new coaching staffs. The Titans look to make a major leap forward with the addition of (All-Pro Receiver) Julio Jones, while the Colts have already been met with adversity at the beginning of the Carson Wentz era, due to an unfortunate foot injury that could sideline the former Pro-Bowler until October. And then there are the Jaguars and Texans, who are both starting over with new Head Coaches, but while the former looks to begin a brand new era with (No. One Overall Pick) Trevor Lawrence, the latter continues to be mired in controversy due to the status of their (All-Pro Quarterback) Deshaun Watson, whose legal issues are another matter altogether. So it’s with that said that we’ll take you on a trip throughout the South, where we’ll highlight the new additions and the challenges that each franchise faces, and if any of them can in fact challenge within the greater AFC…
The Favorite: Tennessee Titans
Coming into 2021 all signs point to the Titans remaining the favorites to retain their crown within the AFC South for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, in a division in which all four teams have experienced a significant amount of turnover, Tennessee is by far and away the most stable of it’s number, though the changes that (General Manager) Jon Robinson instituted should make them a far more diverse (and hopefully dynamic) group, particularly on the offensive side of the football. After riding (2020 Offensive Player of the Year) Derrick Henry (2,027 YDS, 17 TD) to a Division Title, (Head Coach) Mike Vrabel’s charges welcomed in the addition of (All-Pro Wideout) Julio Jones (771 YDS, 3 TD), who should for all intents and purposes open up a passing attack that has lived within the shadow of the two-time reigning rushing champion. Coupled with (emerging Receiver) A.J. Brown (1,075 YDS, 11 TD), there are suddenly a wealth of weapons surrounding the steady Ryan Tannehill (65.5%, 3,819 YDS, 33 TD, 7 INT, 78.3 QBR), though it should be interesting to see how these pieces are put to use under (new Offensive Coordinator) Todd Downing, who was promoted following the departure of Arthur Smith, who in turn became the Falcons’ new skipper. With all that said, the Titans were very effective offensively last season, ranking fourth in points (30.7) and second in total yards (407.2), so it begs the question just how much better they’ll be with Jones flanking Brown, but make no mistake the biggest improvement must be made on the defensive side of the ball, where Tennessee underperformed mightily in 2020; they yielded 27.4 points (24th Overall) on a dismal 398.2 total yards (28th Overall), while amassing a scant nineteen sacks (30th Overall), third-fewest in the NFL. If not for twenty-three takeaways (7th Overall), this unit would have been in even worse shape, which is why Robinson opened up the check book and signed (Edge-Rusher) Bud Dupree (8 Sacks, 15 QB Hits) and (Defensive Lineman) Denico Autry (7.5 Sacks, 10 QB Hits) in Free Agency, though the health of the former is a lingering concern coming into the campaign after suffering a torn ACL late last season. Cornerback was another position that was a point of emphasis for the club, drafting Caleb Farley (22nd Overall) and Elijah Molden (100th Overall) to bolster their coverage within the Secondary. On paper this appears to be the most stable team within the division, and with these new additions they should be more dynamic in the passing game and (hopefully) more respectable against that of their opponents, though they’re in all likelihood still a notch below the likes of the Chiefs, Bills, and Ravens (who eliminated them in Nashville in the Division Round) within the AFC hierarchy.
The Contender: Indianapolis Colts
In many respects, the Colts would find themselves on equal footing with the team that we just discussed, but ultimately what is setting them apart from the Titans is the lingering transition to (former Pro-Bowl Quarterback) Carson Wentz (57.4%, 2,620 YDS, 16 TD, 15 INT, 49.6 QBR), who will become Indianapolis’ fourth starting signal-caller in as many years. After the brief Philip Rivers era saw them return to the postseason for the second time in three years, Wentz arrives with the intent of keeping that momentum rolling, though there are already a number of concerns regarding the status of the 28-year old and his prospects with his new team. More so than any other player in the NFL, Wentz desperately needed a change of scenery, particularly after a toxic 2020 in Philadelphia which saw him come into frequent conflict with his teammates, the coaching staff, and (of course) the media, eventually leading to his benching and outright exodus from the City of Brotherly Love. Reuniting with (Head Coach) Frank Reich in Indianapolis was the most natural of landing spots as the theme of his stay with the club is all about mutually benefitting one another; Reich served as Wentz’s Offensive Coordinator through his formative years with the Eagles, with the 59-year old in turn looking for a long-term answer at Quarterback following the carousel that Indy has seen at the position over the course of his tenure. With that said, Wentz’s injury history is considerable and at the moment a current issue; he suffered a broken bone within his foot during Training Camp and after surgery received a curiously broad recovery time between six to twelve weeks, though Reich has given hints that he should be back sooner rather than later. As for the team awaiting him, (Pro-Bowlers) Quenton Nelson and T.Y. Hilton have both been struck by injury, with the former suffering a malady to that of his Quarterback with an equally broad recovery time to boot. With that said, few franchises in the league have done a better of job of drafting and developing talent, with (General Manager) Chris Ballard routinely finding gems throughout the Draft, while Reich and his Staff have done a masterful job of cultivating said talent. Simply put, depth is not a problem in Indianapolis. Big things are expected from (Sophomores) Jonathan Taylor (1,169 YDS, 11 TD) and Michael Pittman Jr. (503 YDS, 1 TD) as they enter their second year with the club, particularly when you consider the benefits from a full (and proper) offseason with their teammates and the coaching staff, with the former erupting down the stretch of last season and the latter making tremendous strides in Training Camp. If Wentz can return to health and acclimate himself to his new surroundings, then there is a high probability that the Colts can compete with the Titans for division supremacy and beyond, but it’s also fair to wonder if we’ll ever see that player that turned so many heads back in 2018 even with Reich once again in his ear.
The Wild Card: Jacksonville Jaguars
More so than any other team in the NFL, the Jaguars enter 2021 a veritable blank slate, and it’s for that reason that it’s nearly impossible to forecast just where they’ll finish within the AFC ‘s hierarchy. That’s primarily due to the fact that they’re still very much in the early stages of yet another rebuild, which has been a perpetual state of being for a franchise that has enjoyed just one winning season over the last fourteen years. After cratering to a league-worst 1-15 record last season, Jacksonville received their golden ticket, earning the No. One Overall Pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, which was spent on the generational talent that is Trevor Lawrence, whom the Jags hope will become their first proper Franchise Quarterback since the days of Mark Brunell. While the development of the gifted passer is indeed the most important theme of this new era of football in Northeastern Florida, another intriguing storyline is the presence of (Head Coach) Urban Meyer, who finally makes the leap to the National Football League after enjoying one of the most successful coaching careers within the collegiate ranks in recent memory. With that said, the NFL has rarely been kind to successful coaches making the jump from college, and the early stages of his tenure in Jacksonville haven’t been the smoothest by any means; the 57-year old has been met with criticism from the media and around the league by some of the acquisitions made to both his Coaching Staff and roster (ahem, Tim Tebow), which has caused him to make even more changes as the offseason has progressed. However, this is still a team that remains remarkably short on talent and depth despite oftentimes selecting towards the top of the Draft; indeed, no team in the league has enjoyed more top-ten picks over the past decade than the Jaguars, which makes it all the more puzzling that they continue to struggle matching their opposition in terms of talent. Unfortunately, that problem will appear to continue for at least another season, as (Second Round Pick) Travis Etienne suffered a severe sprain to his foot that required season-ending surgery, robbing the attack of a versatile weapon who left Clemson as the ACC’s all-time leading rusher. Indeed, Meyer’s patience will be tested more than it ever has at any point of his venerable career, and it remains to be seen if he’ll have enough of it to see this latest rebuilding project through in Jacksonville.
The Rest: Houston Texans
Lastly, anyone who claims to know what is going on in Houston is purely speculating at this point, for the Texans find themselves in arguably the most unenviable position of any team in the NFL: that of complete and utter uncertainty. That’s entirely due to the current status of (All-Pro Quarterback) Deshaun Watson (70.2%, 4,823 YDS, 33 TD, 7 INT, 70.5 QBR), who has been mired in what can only be described as a hellish offseason littered with a myriad of civil suits citing sexual harassment from over twenty different woman following a trade demand that has become entirely moot. Whatever comes of his lingering legal issues, it’s almost certain that Watson will eventually become subject to the league’s Personal Conduct Policy when (and if) he returns to the grid iron, which at this point doesn’t appear to be at any point this season. In the meantime, the franchise is looking to turn the page from a miserable 4-12 campaign which saw them completely rebuild their own hierarchy, welcoming in (General Manager) Nick Caserio and (Head Coach) David Culley. Though the hiring of the longtime Patriots’ executive earned serious plaudits around the league, the appointment of Culley was met with nothing but criticism; the 65-year old certainly bucked the NFL’s trend of hiring younger, offensive-minded coaches, with the longtime assistant having never served as a coordinator despite spending the last twenty-six years coaching various position groups. Simply put, this was a curious and unfavorable hire that has left a shockwave throughout the organization, leading to an exodus of talent. A year after losing (All-Pro Receiver) DeAndre Hopkins and (former No. One Overall Pick) Jadeveon Clowney, (three-time Defensive Player of the Year) J.J. Watt (5.0 Sacks, 17 QB Hits) was next to depart from Southern Texas along with (vertical treat) Will Fuller Jr. (879 YDS, 8 TD), further draining the roster of star power. Caserio has done his best to stop the bleeding, adding (journeyman) Tyrod Taylor to fill the void left by Watson, while signing (veteran Tailback) Mark Ingram (299 YDS, 2 TD) in Free Agency, though that’s hardly enough to compensate for what has been lost. Ultimately, this rebuild cannot properly begin until Watson is moved, but with the franchise demanding a substantial haul (at least three Frist Round Picks plus players) and nobody willing to offer anything close to that until his legal matters become more clear, they’ll continue to tread water while at a disadvantage against just about every team they face. Buckle up, Texans fans. It’s going to be a LONG season…