With three legitimate postseason contenders, the AFC South is primed to be among the top divisions in the league next season. In 2017, it finally came together for Jacksonville, they won the division with 10 wins and were a few plays away from representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. Tennessee also made the playoffs and advanced to the divisional round, but Houston’s season was completely derailed by injuries to most of their top players.
Over the last decade, Indianapolis and Houston have led the division with four titles apiece. The Colts appear to be stuck in rebuild mode, nonetheless, expect an absolute dogfight in 2018 between the three other talented teams.
It all begins on defense for the Jaguars. The additions of Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye helped produce the league’s top ranked pass defense last season. Jacksonville fields elite defensive talent at every level, including Malik Jackson, Telvin Smith, Myles Jack and Jalen Ramsey. Barring injury, the defense should continue to dominate. On the offensive side of the ball, they replaced Allen Robinson with receiver Donte Moncrief and their marquee addition was Andrew Norwell, who should solidify a physical offensive line. Leonard Fournette will carry the load as a workhorse back. Still, a big question remains - can the mediocre Blake Bortles quarterback Jacksonville to a championship?
Not content to rest on their laurels, Tennessee hired Mike Vrabel as head coach, Matt LaFleur as offensive coordinator and Dean Pees as defensive coordinator. On paper their team is much improved. Dion Lewis was signed to provide lightning to Derrick Henry’s thunder behind a stout offensive line. Marcus Mariota is hoping second-year receiver Corey Davis can take the next step as a field stretcher to complement steady tight end Delanie Walker. The Titans concentrated most of their draft capital on their defense, picking plug and play linebacker Rashaan Evans as well as polished pass rusher Harold Landry. They will bolster an already imposing front that features Pro Bowl tackle Jurrell Casey. And cornerback Malcolm Butler joins Logan Ryan, Adoree’ Jackson and All-Pro safety Kevin Byard in the secondary. One way or another, Tennessee is poised for a deep playoff run.
Bill O’Brien has a top heavy roster. Tyran Mathieu will come in to play safety behind a hopefully healthy J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus. The Texans may field the best linebacking corps in the league with Benardrick McKinney, Jadeveon Clowney and Zach Cunningham. Yet it remains to be seen if Deshaun Watson can repeat his rookie performance behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Watson will rely heavily upon premier wideout DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans season will likely hinge on the health of their star pass rushers.
4. Indianapolis Colts
With or without Andrew Luck, new head coach Frank Reich has his work cut out for him. There is only so much a franchise quarterback can do with a sub par supporting cast. Indy drafted generational guard Quenton Nelson to pair with Anthony Castonzo on what should be a solid left side of the line. Ryan Grant was signed to play alongside T.Y. Hilton, tight end Eric Ebron was acquired and Marlon Mack could be in-line for a breakout sophomore season. Still, the Colts 30th ranked defense remains a major liability. Ballhawking safety Malik Hooker is perhaps their only above average defender. Reich may need several seasons to right the ship in Indianapolis.
1. Jacksonville Jaguars
Ravens fans know all too well how imposing Jacksonville’s defense was in 2017, as Baltimore suffered an embarrassing 44-7 Week 3 loss in London last year. After not making the playoffs in a decade, the Jaguars rode their second-ranked defense all the way to an AFC Championship appearance. Once at the bottom of the division in 2016, defensive leaders like Calais Campbell, Telvin Smith and A.J. Bouye propelled the franchise past the perpetual rebuilding phase. Sophomore running back Leonard Fournette looks to build on his breakout rookie season of 1,040 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in 2018. Often under estimated, Blake Bortles will enter the 2018 season coming off his lowest turnover rate and highest completion percentage of his career last year. The Jaguars are poised to repeat and remain a legitimate threat in the AFC.
2. Tennessee Titans
Last season the Titans were able to put the final nail in Alex Smith’s coffin, eliminating the Chiefs in the wild-card round and losing to the Patriots in the following weekend of the 2017 playoffs. Led by Marcus Mariota, the Titans have the potential to compete for another wild-card berth if they are unable to usurp the Jaguars dominate defense for the divisional crown in 2018. While Mariota threw for over 3,000 yards and completed 62 percent of his passes last season, he also threw a career-high 15 interceptions. Without an elite receiver on the roster, Mariota will need extra support from running back Derrick Henry, especially with DeMarco Murray’s retirement this offseason. With their offense ranking in the bottom half of the league at 23rd, former Ravens receiver Michael Campanaro may have an opportunity to make contributions with his new team. The Titans will look to bolster their 13th ranked defense with rookie linebacker Rashaan Evans out of Alabama, who was selected 22nd overall as a result of a trade between the Titans and the Ravens in the 2018 NFL Draft.
3. Houston Texans
In 2017, Houston went from first to worst in the division, largely due to injury. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson captivated the NFL with seven stellar performances in a rookie season that was cut short by a torn ACL. With Watson expected to be fully recovered for the 2018 season, Houston will look for him to build off his 61.8 completion percentage, 81.5 QBR and 19 touchdown passes. Star defensive end and face of the franchise J.J. Watt is once again climbing back from injury, this time returning from a broken leg he suffered in Week 5 of the 2017 season. This offseason, the Texans signed safety Tyrann Mathieu. They will hope Mathieu can also remain healthy, as he struggled with shoulder and knee injuries through out his time with the Cardinals. If DeAndre Hopkins and Jadeveon Clowney can follow up their impressive 2017 productivity with equally strong performances in 2018 and be surrounded by a healthy core, the Texans have the ceiling to surpass conservative predictions.
4. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have not won the AFC South since they went back-to-back in 2013 and 2014. Andrew Luck, who was drafted first overall by Indianapolis in 2012, has not played a full season in three years, missing all of 2017 with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Without Luck, the Colts were able to secure just two AFC South victories last season, and they will likely need more time to develop under a new coaching staff to re-enter the fold as a formidable foe in the division. This offseason, the Colts signed tight end Eric Ebron, hoping the former top 10 pick can connect with Luck like he did with Matthew Stafford in Detroit. For a team that ranked 31st in total offense (YPG) and 30th in total defense (YPG), the uphill climb will be steep in 2018.
1. Tennessee Titans
The Titans were a somewhat underwhelming playoff team in 2017. Despite the fact that they stole a win at Arrowhead Stadium, nobody was particularly excited about them at almost any point of the postseason last year. A big part of that, in my opinion, was the milquetoast nature of head coach Mike Mularkey, something I expect to change under their new lead man, Mike Vrabel. The Titans have done a nice job building up talent under Jon Robinson over the past several offseasons, and really just needed someone to put it all together. The no-nonsense leadership of Vrabel will do it in 2018, giving Tennessee their first division title in several years.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars fielded one of the best defenses in NFL history in 2017, which was paired up with an at times historically inept offense. These types of teams emerge periodically (the 2000 Ravens and the 2015 Broncos for example), and they often only sustain a high level of success for one year, having caught lightning in a bottle with a volatile formula for success. While it would not be a surprise for the Jags to make the playoffs this year, they will need more out of their offense as the defense almost has to regress a bit this season.
3. Houston Texans
Deshaun Watson was so spectacular in his short stretch of starting play in 2017 that some believe the Texans are genuine Super Bowl contenders. Still, a championship seems less likely than they speculate due to issues on the offensive line. Watson could conceivably make enough plays to keep them in playoff contention late into the season. But first, he must readjust to the game after his injury, so look for him to come out of the gate slowly in 2018.
4. Indianapolis Colts
At this point, it is almost like the predicted generational talent of Andrew Luck no longer exists. Until Luck is healthy and performing at the level he was once capable of, the Colts will remain locked in the cellar of this division.
Who will win the AFC South?
This poll is closed