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.

FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 NFC South Preview


Among all the divisions in the National Football Conference, the NFC East might be the one with the most parity, the NFC West might be the one with the best team overall, and the NFC North might host the best quarterback in the conference (if not the entire league). But it could very well be the case that the NFC South might feature the most entertaining race to the division crown this year.

How does a team recover from blowing a 25-point lead in the third quarter of the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl appearance? That’s the question that’s going to hound the Atlanta Falcons all year long. It’s already been talked about ad nauseum, and if the team has any stumbles along the way this year, it’s certainly going to be brought up repeatedly. History is not on the Falcons side, either; nine of the last 20 teams to lose the Super Bowl failed to make the playoffs last season. Atlanta’s defense will be better this year, thanks to the addition of defensive tackle Dontari Poe, the selection of edge rusher Takkarist McKinley in the 2017 NFL Draft, and the return of cornerback Desmond Trufant from injury. But what type of drop off will Atlanta’s ultra-prolific offense see from last year’s performance, with the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan? New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has enormous shoes to fill, considering Shanahan guided the Falcons offense to the eighth-highest point total in NFL history, and helped quarterback Matt Ryan to an MVP award along the way; to make matters even more challenging, Sarkisian has never been an offensive coordinator in the NFL. In a division in which the Falcons top competitors certainly look to take a big step forward this year, the idea that Atlanta is a lock to repeat as the champions of the NFC South is far from a given.

The Carolina Panthers can provide first-hand attestation to the “hangover” that comes after losing the Super Bowl. After finishing the 2015 season with an NFL-best 15-1 record, the Panthers endured a season filled with all sorts of bumps and bruises, headlined by injuries to arguably the team’s two best players: quarterback Cam Newton, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Newton played in 15 of 16 games las tyear, but as a result of the merciless beating he endured all season long, he put up the lowest completion percentage and yards per attempt of his career, his second lowest passing touchdown total, and his second highest interception total. Newton is unquestionably the team’s franchise player, so Carolina went out and signed tackle Matt Kalil from the Vikings to protect Newton’s blindside as the left tackle, and drafted tackle Taylor Moton from the University of Wisconsin with the intention of him coming over and manning the right tackle spot. And to add to Newton’s oft-maligned group of pass catchers, the Panthers used draft pick on “hybrid” run-pass options like Christian McCaffrey (their first round pick) and Curtis Samuel (the first of their two second round picks). With nine of 11 starters returning from last year’s defense, the Panthers are banking on the continuity of their group to keep opponents out of the endzone, and the young secondary to make a big leap forward from last year’s campaign that saw the team finish with the fourth-worst passing defense in the NFL.

There might not be a more intriguing team in the NFL heading into this season than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The league made a brilliant decision featuring them on HBO’s Hard Knocks television show, because they have the star power to absolutely compel audiences. After finishing among the top 10 quarterbacks in touchdown passes last year, Jameis Winston looks primed to make a big leap forward in year three of his young career. To facilitate that, his front office has given him a repertoire of weapons that would make any quarterback envious: wide receiver DeSean Jackson (brought in via free agency), tight end O.J. Howard (the team’s first round pick in the draft), and wide receiver Chris Godwin (the team’s third round selection), to join incumbent tight end Cameron Brate (who led the league in touchdown catches among tight ends last year) and superstud receiver Mike Evans. If the defense can improve on its performance from last year (they were ranked 22nd in most yards allowed last season), this team could make serious noise in the NFC.

The question for the New Orleans Saints (and its fans) for this year is pretty simple: can the team break free from the treadmill of 7-9 finishes they’ve had in each of the past three seasons? In each of those three years, the storyline seemed to be the same: a top three offense in the NFL (in yards per game), and a bottom five defense (in points allowed per game). There was a point in time where the idea of a quarterback throwing for 5,000 yards in a season was a mind-boggling feat, and yet the incomparable Drew Brees is coming off a year in which he exceeded the 5,000 yard mark for the fourth time in six years. That’s a big reason why the Saints were the only team in the NFL with two receivers to finish among the top 10 in yards receiving. One of those two receivers was rookie Michael Thomas, whose 92 catches last year was the second highest total in NFL history for a rookie. With Brandin Cooks (the other thousand-yard receiver) now gone, Thomas becomes the focal point of the passing offense, and seems more than capable of handling those responsibilities. Of course, with such a prolific passing maestro like Brees orchestrating the offense, it certainly won’t all be on him to make things go. Meanwhile, New Orleans’ annually porous defense went through yet another overhaul, resulting in as many as six new starters for the group this year. The headline addition would likely be cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the team’s top draft selection this year, who could turn out to be a steal of a pick. Still, the question is the same in the Big Easy: can the Saints’ defense stop anyone from moving the ball up and down the field at will, in order to let the offense do its magic?