By Lucas Kochevar
Back with another division preview in the middle of summer with little to no news in the NFL. This time we head to the South, and I suppose one city in the Midwest, to talk about the AFC South. This division has gone through different stretches of dominance from one team and there could be a new reign on the South with Jacksonville stepping up last season. The Colts were the consistent winner with Peyton Manning in the 2000s. The Texans were largely relevant during the 2010s. The Titans were sprinkled in there throughout the years and have won back-to-back division titles in 2020 and 2021. Now with Trevor Lawrence and co., the Jaguars look to dominate the division for years to come while other teams go through their own rebuilds.
Jacksonville Jaguars (9-8 Last Season)
The Jacksonville Jaguars have been historically bad ever since I've been watching football. Even after a surprising 2017 AFC championship performance, they've been horrible. For the first time in a long time, the Jaguars have hope and could win their third ever AFC division title. This is one of the funniest and sad stats that I have regarding the Jaguars: Doug Pederson is the fifth winningest coach in Jags history after coaching the team for one season. The Jaguars have hope. With Lawrence and Pederson, they have hope to win games, even in the playoffs. With a rising offense and defense, the Jaguars are the favorites to win the AFC South.
I've been very high on this Jaguars offense since they acquired Calvin Ridley from the Falcons last season. Although Ridley was suspended last year, I was still very high on this move to help out Lawrence and this offense. Ridley was a multi-time 1,000-yard and double digit touchdown receiver. He brings a different element to the team that Christian Kirk and Zay Jones couldn't. I've elaborated on the team before in my top five offenses list and you can find that here. The defense's improvement will be something to look for when monitoring the Jaguars this season. With Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd entering their second years as full-time starters, the Jaguars will need their improvement to reach their ceiling as a team. Despite being the first overall pick, it was known that Walker had to develop. Their secondary also has young talent in safety Andre Cisco and corner Tyson Campbell. I also haven't mentioned Josh Allen, not the quarterback. Edge rusher Josh Allen has been building upon his success these past couple years, but they're still waiting for that big breakout year.
I've given all the attention to Pederson, Ridley and the defense in this write-up, but I haven't mention Lawrence that much. I don't want to underate how big this year is for him. The third year for young quarterbacks feels like a critical one. He improved substantially in his second season and could make the jump to no-brainer elite quarterback. People are high on Lawrence for good reason and there aren't many quarterbacks in the league you would take over him going forward, but I do think the expectations have to be lowered. Despite winning his first playoff game, he had four interceptions in the first half of that game. Don't be too shocked of that problem shows up early in the season. I think he'll have a really strong year and the Jaguars will win the division at 10-7.
Tennessee Titans (7-10 Last Season)
The Tennessee Titans have been a product of great defense, great coaching and Derrick Henry for the past couple of seasons. Now, it feels like they have to change the formula and find a new way to win games. Henry has a ton of mileage on him and quarterback Ryan Tannehill proved he couldn't carry an offense last year when Henry went down. Ever since they decided to move on from A.J. Brown, the Titans receiver room has been in flux and their offense really hasn't been the same since Arthur Smith left to be the head coach for Atlanta. Tennessee will have to figure out that side of the ball in order to win games because as they're currently constructed, I'm not sure they can average 15 points per game. It's truly dreadful.
The clock is ticking on Tannehill, but if you want some optimism to look at, they have the succession plan with two young quarterbacks on the roster in Will Levis and Malik Willis. Willis started a couple games last year and definitely didn't look good, but he's still super raw and Levis is also a raw player with upside. Second year receiver Treylon Burks is also going into the season healthy, something that didn't happen last year. Their first round pick, Peter Skoronski, should also be a starter this year. It's never fun when your team draft an offensive lineman, but if he can make an impact on the field early, then you feel a whole lot better about the pick. Even though I know the Titans want to compete, I think development is the big thing for this offense. The defense largely has the same problem as the offense. They have a couple players that are great, but the rest are young players that need time. I think their defense will be better than their offense just because head coach Mike Vrabel is an excellent defensive coach and he'll get the most out of them.
All-in-all, I don't think this team will win a ton of games. They benefit heavily from a weak schedule and two divisional opponents that are rebuilding. On top of that, I think the way their coached will win them a couple of 50/50 games. The Titans launched a mini rebuild these past couple of off-season's and I think if they start off slow, they'll sell off some pieces and really lean into the rebuild. I'll be curious if they keep Mike Vrabel after this season, especially if they're big time losers. I have the Titans finishing 7-10 with the reasons I listed earlier. Their schedule really is that weak.
Indianapolis Colts (4-12-1 Last Season)
My biggest fear for the Colts heading into the offseason was them hiring Jeff Saturday full-time. They didn't make that move and went with Shane Steichen as their new head coach. I've talked about him, Anthony Richardson and the Colts at various stages throughout this offseason because this upcoming season is a big one for the Colts. It's the first time they've drafted a quarterback in the first round since Andrew Luck and a lot of their great players are in the middle of their prime. The Colts could be a sleeper team this year if Richardson is ahead of schedule in his development. That's a big time if and with a first year head coach, I cant see them jumping to the playoffs.
The Colts real success will likely be tied to Richardson's success this season. He may or may not start the season, but I have to imagine we'll see him at some point this year. He'll have a great cast around him with Jonathan Taylor behind him and Michael Pittman Jr. on the perimeter. Alec Pierce and Josh Downs are also young guys that can affect the passing game in different ways. Downs is the vertical threat and Pierce is a big, physical receiver. I think this offense has a real chance to be a threat quickly if Taylor can stay healthy. The defense is also pretty good. They have Shaquille Leonard and DeForest Buckner as the trademark names with many other solid starters. Watching Kwity Paye develop can hopefully jump start this pass rush and I think they can have a good year. The Colts are, unfortunately, apart of that gambling scandal around the league with Isaiah Rodgers being guilty. He'll be gone, which throws rookie Julius Brents into a starting role. I like him, but starting a rookie corner is always risky business.
Even though it sounds like I'm high on the Colts as bounce back candidates this year, I do think they'll fail to make any real noise. Similar to the Titans, I think this year will mainly be a development year. The Colts are definitely set up to move forward and win games quicker than Tennessee, but all roads lead back to Richardson. I think Richardson will be decent in his first season, but I think his interception numbers will be high. The Colts faithful will have their patience tested this year as he really isn't quite ready to be a full-time starter. They have to remember that he only started 13 games in his entire career at Florida. The potential is there, just wait. As I said with the Titans, the schedule is weak for this division and I have the Colts going 6-11 in year one under Steichen.
Houston Texans (4-12-1 Last Season)
The Texans are in a very similar spot as the Colts with a first year head coach and rookie quarterback. Former 49ers defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans takes over the Texans and looks to lead the Texans to immediate success. Houston likely won't find that success immediately since they've been rebuilding their team for years and years. It's by design since they've had to pivot from the Deshaun Watson fiasco and ripping the team down to the studs was the best way to do that. Now, they made the biggest investment of all in the young rookie quarterback. I've talked about C.J. Stroud at length and his fit with the Texans. I think it's a good one, especially if the offense is very structured for him.
I think Stroud did his best work in college when the system was set up to be very direct for him to read. Improvising isn't Stroud's best trait and that's okay. I think Stroud has a good chance to have early success with some of the young guys he's throwing to. I also wouldn't be shocked if he struggled early to anticipate the speed of the game and talent level. Stroud luckily has a good offensive line and young pieces at receiver. The real work in turning this thing around is the defense, especially since that's Ryans' trademark. Stroud wasn't the only elite guy they drafted as they got Will Anderson Jr. in a trade up for the third pick. The Texans defense leaves a lot to be desired with veterans that are fine players, but should probably be rotational pieces. The Texans are the ultimate "Be Patient" team when it comes to the amount of young guys they have. They're likely going to be terrible again, but finding hope in some of their young guys should make them watchable instead of the slew of players they've put on the field these past couple of seasons.
The Texans are clearly still in rebuilding mode, but the catch for them is that they traded their 2024 first round pick to the Cardinals for Will Anderson Jr. I'm sure the Texans would love to win immediately so that they don't have to spoon feed a top five pick to the Cardinals. Unfortunately, that isn't the reality for them at this stage. The Texans will need to look forward to potentially spending some money on weapons in the future to help speed up their rebuild and take advantage of Stroud's rookie contract. I believe the Texans will struggle this year and they won't be ready for that next step. I would look forward to watching a rookie quarterback. I have them going 5-12 while giving the Cardinals a very nice pick.
Next Week: The NFC South