A crucial point about the AFC South before we begin. It’s the best division in football. Each team has a quarterback they can feel good about, and some semblance of a plan (ok, maybe not you Indianapolis). All things considered, this division should produce some of the best games of 2018, and could potentially put three teams in the playoffs.
1. Houston Texans Projected Record 12-4
Before Quarterback Deshaun Watson went down last season with a torn ACL, the Houston Texans looked to be one of the league’s most dynamic offenses. The team averaged over forty points a game over Watson’s final four starts, and they now have the benefit of playing a last place schedule. Houston’s offense will pick up right where it left off last season, and should continue to torch defenses from week one. Wide receivers Deandre Hopkins and Will Fuller complement each other beautifully, while running back Lamar Miller provides a steadying presence in the backfield. The major question mark surrounding the offense is the offensive line. Houston gave up the second most quarterback sacks and allowed the most quarterback hits of any offensive line in the league last season, yet failed to substantially improve the unit heading into 2018. Seantrel Henderson is the team’s new starting right tackle, and he played alright in seven starts with the Bills last season, but he is far from the solution. The one silver lining is Watson thrived behind a slightly worse offensive line last season, and there’s no reason to think he can’t again. Defensively, the Texans boast one of the league’s strongest front sevens with the return of superstar defensive end JJ Watt and the emergence of linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. The signing of free agent Tyrann Mathieu was one of the savviest in the league, and should pay dividends from the jump. Mathieu should help legitimize a secondary that gave up the second most passing touchdowns and the most plays over forty yards in the league last season. Overall, I predict huge things for the Texans this season behind the greatness of their quarterback prodigy Deshaun Watson.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars Projected Record: 12-4
After capturing the AFC South and making a impressive run to the AFC Championship game last season, the Jacksonville Jaguars will look to build off their surprising success. The team added All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell and wide receiver Donte Moncrief, but the offense looks essentially the same it did last season. The offense will still revolve around running back Leonard Fournette, but their ceiling is only so high with Blake Bortles at quarterback. He showed slight improvement over the course of last season, but overall he’s still a bottom tier signal caller. The Jaguars front office hasn’t done him any favors, surrounding him with an uninspiring group of receivers, but it will be interesting to see how much Doug Marrone and the rest of Jacksonville’s coaching staff asks of him. On the defensive side of the ball, Jacksonville remains one of the league’s most feared units. Lead by All-Pros Calais Campbell and Jalen Ramsey, this defense is overflowing with talent at every level. With no conceivable weaknesses and plenty of depth, it’s hard not to see this defense continuing to dominate and carrying this Jaguars team to the playoffs.
3. Tennesse Titans Projected Record: 9-7
The Tennessee Titans spent the past offseason molding themselves in the image of the New England Patriots, and if there is a team to model yourself after it is certainly the Pats. With the hiring of Mike Vrabel as head coach, and the signings of both Dion Lewis and Malcom Butler, the Titans front office clearly placed an impetus on bringing the New England culture to Nashville. Vrabel’s biggest concern is likely the progression of quarterback Marcus Mariota, and to that he turns to new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. LaFleur, the first branch of the Sean Mcvay coaching tree, is the new offensive coordinator in Tennessee and Mariota’s new best friend. Mariota has never had a coordinator half as creative as LaFleur, and an offense heavy with play action, run pass options, and trick plays will best utilize Mariota’s unique skillset. At this point, Mariota has run out of excuses. The weapons around him have never been better; Corey Davis is an enticing option at wide receiver, Delaine Walker is still one of the leagues best tight ends, and the running back tandem of Derrick Henry and Lewis form an impressive one-two punch. On defense, the Titans have a number of enticing playmakers littered across the unit. Kevin Byard may be the most underrated player in the league, and Adoree Jackson showed flashes of dominance in his rookie season. Up front, Jurrell Casey remains one of the leagues best defensive tackles, and Derrick Morgan is a strong presence off the edge. The opportunities are there for the Titans to jump into the upper echelon of the AFC, but they all hinge on the play of Mariota. His improvement will almost singlehandedly determine the outcome of Tennessee’s season, and it could shake up the entire AFC playoff picture.
4. Indianapolis Colts Projected Record: 4-12
Similar to most last place teams, the Indianapolis Colts roster is bereft of talent. Unlike most last place teams though, they actually have a plan at quarterback. Assuming he returns to his pre injury form (granted that’s a big assumption), Andrew Luck has enough talent to keep the Colts in almost every game they play. Their wide receiving corps is nothing to write home about, as T.Y. Hilton proved last season how ineffective he is without Luck under center, and running backs Marlon Mack and Jordan Wilkins have much to prove before they could be considered starting-caliber backs. Thankfully the Colts front office have finally placed a priority on protecting Luck, and a combination of center Ryan Kelly and guard Quenton Nelson should help keep Luck upright for the foreseeable future. Defensively, Indianapolis is lacking in elite talent and should be one of the worst units in the league. Free safety Malik Hooker is the only long term solution at any position for the Colts, as he and pass rusher Jabaal Sheard may be the only NFL caliber players in the starting eleven. All in all, Luck will breathe some much needed life into this franchise, but their defense is far too young and inexperienced for the Colts to seriously compete in the cutthroat AFC South.