Our trip down south concludes today, with the AFC South next up on our list of 2020 division previews.
My early thoughts on the state of this division are pretty positive in nature. Instead of a usual two team race for the division title, we’re going to have the chance of monitoring three well built teams, all with good shots at winning the AFC South. The Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts return as your usual early favorites to take home the division crown, but the Tennessee Titans have improved well enough, to be thwarted into the conversation.
Houston and Indy both had some notable changes on offense in the off-season, Tennessee locked up their two 2019 offensive stars for the foreseeable future, and Jacksonville……well, let’s just say they’re a work in progress.
Let’s get to work.
Best Offense: Tennessee Titans
This choice might be on the controversial side, but at least give me the opportunity to explain.
It’s well documented on how explosive the Titans’s offense was once Ryan Tannehill was named the starting quarterback in week 7. The offense went from scoring a sluggish 16.3 PPG(28th in the league) to a staggering 30.4 points per game(4th in the league). Various other improvements in rushing touchdowns, rushing yards per game, total touchdowns, yards per play, and yards per game were seen on the stat sheet as the season chugged along.
But even with the near historic jumps in success the Titans had with Ryan Tannehill under the center, odds are those levels of offensive production won’t be able to be sustained long term. Even still, the concerns for future outputs of above average offensive production for both Tannehill and Derrick Henry shouldn’t be all that high, just pop on the tape and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Tannehill’s ability to maximize what he’s given in an offense like this one for the long haul, shouldn’t be downplayed just because a few stats of his were insanely eye opening.
Although not in the same capacity of his late 2019 form, I’m a big believer in Tannehill’s chance to keep up his play that earned him a lucrative 4 year deal this off-season, especially if Derrick Henry can get off to a better start in the run game in the first half of the season.
In all honesty though, I was really close to penning down the Texans’s offense as the best in the division. But there’s too many questions in that wide receiver room. It’s full of talent, no doubt about that, but boy does it have a disappointing past with the injury bug.
Deshaun Watson is really good though, and should be putting up even more of a Houdini act this season with the departure of DeAndre Hopkins.
Best Defense: Tennessee Titans
I really like the Tennessee Titans’s defense.
Even with the loss of Jurrell Casey, the Titans’s defensive line possesses some intriguing talent, in terms of both youth and experience. Jeffery Simmons is expected to have a much larger role in his 2nd year in the league, and he should find success throughout the year if his previously injured left knee is ready to roll. DaQaun Jones doesn’t offer as much as Simmons as a pass rusher, but he’s really made his mark as a run stuffer.
The young linebacker duo of Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown made a lot of noise last season, and should be in line to make even more noise if Evans can erase some of his deficiencies in coverage. You can’t forget about 2nd year pro David Long either, who really made some strides as the season wore on.
The corner group is arguably the best in the division, and should have the added bonus of versatility due to the departure of Logan Ryan. Last but not least, Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro combine to make one of the best safety tandems in the entire league, so no worries there.
Honestly, this defense doesn’t have a lot of concerns. But if I had to pinpoint one area where this defense has to improve, it’s the pass rush.
Outside of Harold Landry and Jurrell Casey(now in Denver), this Titans pass rush in 2019 was well, weak. Even Landry, the Titans’s leader in sacks last season, disappeared far too often at crucial times. To somewhat address the need at EDGE rusher, the Titans signed ex-Falcon Vic Beasley, but it’s reasonable to say Beasley himself won’t be enough to soothe the Titans’s long running pass rush problem.
The team has been connected with Jadeveon Clowney all throughout the off-season, and it’d be a welcome sight for the Titans if they can get that sort of talent on their roster.
Until that happens though, the concerns at pass rusher will remain.
Dean Pees’s departure from defensive coordinator is a big loss as well, but with the experience added to the defensive staff this off-season, I wouldn’t be too worried.
The Colts were potential selection for this specific category, but outside of Rock Ya-Sin, that secondary has some questions that need answering.
Impact Rookie: Jonathan Taylor
The Tennessee Titans aren’t the only AFC South team that possess a physical offensive identity. Ever since Frank Reich came to town, the Colts have transitioned into a scheme where running the ball has become a top priority on offense each and every week.
For the most part, Marlon Mack has been the focal point of the run game, with Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines spelling Mack whenever they’ve been needed to do so. Now, with Jonathan Taylor joining the fold, I’m expecting this Colts run game to take a step forward this upcoming season.
Taylor’s explosiveness and physical running style makes him the perfect back for the ideal offense Frank Reich wants to run. Taylor’s experience at Wisconsin, running in a power run game, should come in as an added bonus as well. Not only do I expect Taylor to become the lead back at some point, I expect him to do so earlier than most people might expect. It won’t happen with the snap of a finger, but with the skill-set Taylor brings, it’s going to be hard to keep him on the sideline as the season chugs along.
Sleeper Team: Houston Texans
I got a weird feeling when I jotted the Texans down for this specific choice.
For years, the Texans have been looked at as the favorite to bring home the AFC south division title, but this year is different for a couple of reasons. With DeAndre Hopkins no longer in Houston, more added responsibility will be placed upon the shoulders of Deshaun Watson to make plays.
Well, this current Texans wide receiver group doesn’t possess one single player that can match the production Hopkins put out during his time in Houston. Of course that’s blatantly obvious, Hopkins is one of the best players in football, you’re just not going to replace that level of talent with a wish and some praying.
The best bet for the Texans, is to rely on the overall wide receiver group to cover up the massive DeAndre Hopkins sized hole. While that idea has some merit, it comes with it’s own risk due to the injury history that hangs over the Texans’s projected top 4 wideouts.
Kenny Stills has found himself consistently fighting injuries throughout his career, Will Fuller finds himself on the injury report every other week with a hamstring problem, Brandin Cooks has a concerning concussion history, and Randall Cobb isn’t safe from the constant annoyance of the injury bug either.
There’s just too many questions surrounding this wide receiver group to confidently set a safe amount of production you can expect moving forward. But what will keep this offense from going off the deep end, if things do indeed start to spiral downward, is none other than Deshaun Watson.
My only concern for Watson, is that he’ll feel some sort of responsibility to go out there and do every single little thing to keep this offense rolling. Yes, that magic Watson has shown off in the past is a great weapon for entertainment purposes, but it puts him in harms way a lot more than you’d like.
If this wide receiver core can stay healthy, I don’t think the drop off will be as drastic as some people might suggest. But if the injuries start to pile up, my level of concern will rise.
Plus, while Bill O’ Brien has basically been worthless as a GM, he somehow finds ways to win. The guy just knows how to win football games, and I can’t take anything away from that sort of valuable knack.
Biggest Disappointment: Indianapolis Colts
It’s not that I have a problem with what the Colts are doing, believe me, I love what Frank Reich and Chris Ballard have built during their time in Indianapolis. I’m just not all that impressed with the quarterback they’ll be running out there this fall.
Listen, Philip Rivers has accomplished a great deal during his time in the league, but are we sure he’s a insanely better option that Jacoby Brissett? Don’t get me wrong, Rivers still has a respectable amount of juice left in the tank, even as he nears the red alarm inducing age of 40.
But I can’t see Rivers being a player that puts this Colts team over the top in 2020. Maybe he leads them to a playoff spot, and that’s a really big maybe.
I just might be lower on the Colts than everyone else, but I just don’t see this Colts team raising the roof, and taking home the AFC South crown this season. Believe me, I could be wrong, and I want to be wrong considering my love for watching run heavy teams dominate while everyone else scrambles to implement an up tempo, pass happy scheme.
But I just can’t see it.
How Many Teams Make The Playoffs: 2
3 teams from this division have realistic playoff aspirations, but for realism purposes, I’ll stick with 2.
I have the Houston Texans and the Tennessee Titans rounding out the playoff teams from the AFC South, with the Colts narrowly missing out. The Texans and Titans are the two teams with the least amount of questions surrounding their rosters, and they’re honestly the 2 most safest options here.
Philip Rivers himself is a question mark, the Colts have a brewing problem at wide receiver, and the defense is missing some key pieces. If TY Hilton can stay healthy, and Rivers dips into the fountain of youth, I’ll feel a bit better about the Colts’s playoff chances.
But right now, I’m not too confident.
Division Winner: Tennessee Titans
I’ll go a little bold here, and choose the Tennessee Titans, but I’m extremely cautious here. To make things a little easier to understand, let’s just call this one a toss up.
The Titans have gone 9-7 for 4 straight seasons, and all four of those seasons had the same theme. A slow start, then a strong finish.
That sort of momentum can’t be counted on year after year. You have to start faster earlier on in the year, whether that’s with an entire unit, or a singular player. This seasons’s team is primed to push for division titles, and playoff wins, starting off fast is essential to comfortably achieve those sorts of goals.
With all that being said, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit of the Texans find their selves winning the AFC South once again, no one would blame you for reaching that conclusion.
But for now, I’ll stick with the Titans, and roll with the punches if my prediction is wrong.