FF-Winners.com’s 2017-8 AFC South Preview

There’s a reason why many people believe that the AFC South is essentially the Junior Varsity division of the NFL. All four teams have plenty of interesting young players and essential pieces needed to build a successful team, but they have even bigger questions that are hindering them from truly being among the contenders in their conference.

Perhaps no team in the NFL fits the “this team could be really good if they just had an answer at quarterback” description more than the Houston Texans. Needless to say, the $64 million gamble they took on quarterback Brock Osweiler last season turned out to be an utter catastrophe, to the point where they actually gave Cleveland a 2nd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, in exchange for the Browns taking Osweiler off the Texans’ hands. If they can even get replacement-level play from under center, courtesy of either Tom Savage or first round pick Deshaun Watson, this team has a lot of interesting pieces assembled. DeAndre Hopkins is one of the most lethal wide receivers in the NFL. Lamar Miller is a very capable running back. There might not be a defense in the AFC with a better front seven than that of the Texans, and no team in the NFL has three fear-inspiring pass rushers like Houston has with Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus, and the return of JJ Watt. If Houston’s offense doesn’t do its job this season, the seat that head coach Bill O’Brien is currently sitting on may begin to get uncomfortably warm.

The Tennessee Titans have become one of the “trendy” picks to win the AFC South and/or make the playoffs in 2017 by the media and fans, especially given the fact that they finished the season with a 5-2 record over their last seven games, en route to a 9-7 record overall. But for all the intrigue around the development of quarterback Marcus Mariota, the “exotic smash mouth” running game featuring Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry, the bevy of pass catchers this team has assembled, and a workmanlike group of defenders on the other side of the football, this team still has a lot to prove before they’re anointed as the next up-and-comer in the NFL. Mariota has sustained season-ending injuries over each of the past two seasons. Head coach Mike Mularkey has a career head coaching record of 27-46, and has never taken a team to the postseason. Murray is a few months away from his 30th birthday, the age when running backs start to fall off the proverbial cliff. The secondary was one of the worst in the NFL last season, and while they invested in the cornerback spot via free agency (signing Logan Ryan) and the draft (taking Adoree’ Jackson from USC), it’s far from solved. So, while t wouldn’t be that big of a surprise to see the Titans usurp the AFC South crown from the Texans, it wouldn’t be any surprise if they fell surprise if Mularkey’s crew fell short of expectations either.

The darkhorse team in this division is undoubtedly the Indianapolis Colts, but the entire outlook of their season rests on the surgically-repaired shoulder of Andrew Luck. Only days away from the start of the 2017 regular season, head coach Chuck Pagano claims that he hasn’t seen Luck throw the football normally this year. Indianapolis is planning to start backup quarterback Scott Tolzien in their season opener against the Los Angeles Rams, but how long will Tolzien have to continue to play in place of Luck? That’s a question that virtually nobody in and around the team has been able to answer, and that dark cloud of uncertainty has cast a big shadow over what was otherwise a promising offseason. The Colts finally rid themselves with the general ineptitude of former General Manager Ryan Grigson, and replaced him with well-respected personnel czar Chris Ballard. In Ballard’s first draft, he took three guys who can help the perpetually beleaguered Colts defense immediately: safety Malik Hooker, cornerback Quincy Wilson, and edge rusher Tarell Basham. Running back Marlon Mack, whom the team also took in this year’s draft, presents an interesting change-of-pace option for the ageless Frank Gore as well. But as long as the cornerstone of this franchise is standing on the sidelines and not wearing a uniform, this team is still running in place.

Ironically, who continually rounds out the bottom of the AFC South — the Jacksonville Jaguars — find themselves in the same boat as the team that won this division last year. Blake Bortles was supposed to be the franchise quarterback for this team, and yet he’s turned into a quarterback version of Benjamin Button: he only gets worse with more experience. There have been plenty of headlines this offseason about Bortles’ teammates making their displeasure towards his poor caliber of play publicly known, to the point where the team seriously considered replacing him with backup quarterback Chad Henne; Henne didn’t get the job because he played equally as terrible in the preseason, during what was presumably his audition to be the starting quarterback. The mess under center overshadows what is otherwise a deceptively loaded roster. The depth this team has at both the running back (Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory, and TJ Yeldon) — and wide receiver (Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, DeDe Westbrook) positions would be the envy of many teams around the league. The defensive front four has the potential to be one of the very best groups in the league. They have two Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks (Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye) and a pair of the rangiest linebackers in the NFL (Telvin Smith and Myles Jack). But the sheer incompetence this team has received from the quarterback position is the main reason they have never been able to finally emerge from the basement of this division.

About Rajan Nanavati


Rajan Nanavati is a professional sportswriter with over 15 years of experience covering the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, college football, and fantasy football. His work has been featured on ESPN and the Washington Post, among other publications. He runs a successful sports podcast with several hundred listeners per month at http://www.hailtothedistrict.com/.