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NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - JANUARY 10: Running back Derrick Henry #22 of the Tennessee Titans walks to the sidelines during their AFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens at Nissan Stadium on January 10, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Ravens defeated the Titans 20-13. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

Editorials

2021 NFL AFC South Preview

Training camps for both the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers officially opened for business yesterday, signaling the true start of the slow, grueling mush towards the annual professional tryout sessions.

Or in other words, the NFL pre-season.

But before we can throw away our off-season rambling bait pieces and put off all vacation plans until next spring, we have to finish our ongoing division preview series.

Today, we’re finishing up the southern divisions, with the AFC South on the agenda. The NFC South was addressed this past Tuesday, so check that preview out either before or after you sit down and read today’s installment.

Without further ado, let’s jump right into it.

2020 Standings

1. Tennessee Titans (11-5)

2. Indianapolis Colts (11-5)

3. Houston Texans (4-12)

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-15)

Overview of 2020 for the AFC South

The AFC South in 2020 was….interesting to say the least.

Tennessee was a one unit show last season. The offense was a problem for opponents, as Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown, Corey Davis, and even Jonnu Smith at times completely dominated defenses week in and week out. Especially Henry and Brown, with both stars easily creating weekly highlights without much of a sweat. The defense was a different story however and once you take a look at the stats it’s easy to understand why.

They couldn’t stop even the most average of offenses even if they tried. It was so bad that even from a neutral perspective, you couldn’t help but feel embarrassed each time an offense drove up and down the field against this helpless defensive unit. Jeffery Simmons and Amani Hooker were bright spots, but everything else involving that defense was about as stinky as your local landfill.

The Indianapolis Colts were the more balanced team compared to Tennessee. Their defense was fantastic, stifling opponents all year while making life a little bit easier for their offense. Speaking of their offense, it was a respectable unit in 2020. Philip Rivers didn’t play like one of the quarterbacks in the top echelon of the league, but he didn’t have to. All he was tasked with was limiting his turnovers and playing efficient football, which he did.

Rivers’ steady play allowed Jonathan Taylor and the Colts’ run game to step into the spotlight and strut its stuff, which was needed a great deal as the stretch run started to bare its fangs. I can’t move on from the Colts without talking about Taylor in detail though, since his rookie year was fantastic. He rushed for just over 1,160 yards, displaying elite speed for his size and bringing a true physical presence the Colts haven’t had at running back in years. He should be in line for another impressive season in 2021, especially if Carson Wentz can rebound and make defenses respect the passing attack.

Houston relied on Deshaun Watson to at least keep them respectable in 2020. It was probably the only thing they could do since the roster was shot and gutted down its last elite player on the offensive side of the ball. It wasn’t all bad however, since Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks put up some impressive numbers despite the shortcomings around them aside from Watson.

Jacksonville was bad, let’s just keep at that.

If I attempt to talk about them any further I fear I might lose whatever brain cells I have left.

Best Offense for 2021

Tennessee Titans- Let’s kick things off with a little bit of common sense.

Tennessee finished with one of the league’s most explosive offenses in 2020, ranking in the top 5 of the league in a number of offensive categories, including rushing yards, rushing yards per game, yards per carry, and a variety of other stats related to passing efficiency.

There were a number of moving parts this offense required to function at the level it did, but no piece was more important than Derrick Henry. Henry was an absolute tank, rushing for over 2,000 yards and stamping his name into the league’s history books in the process. The 2,000 yards weren’t achieved by simply padding the stat sheet with useless end of the game add ons either. Henry simply terrorized opposing teams from start to finish for the most part, completely flipping the narrative of him solely being a weapon that fully unlocks his effectiveness once the game gets into the late stages.

Aside from Henry, there were plenty other contributors to the Titans’ historic 2020 season. A.J. Brown finished with 1,000 yards receiving for the second straight year despite nagging ankle and knee injuries nipping at his back throughout the entire season. Corey Davis finally showed why he was at least a little bit worthy of the fifth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, finishing with just under 1,000 yards receiving while carrying some consistency each week, which was good to see considering inconsistency was a problem that had plagued him during the first four seasons of his career.

Jonnu Smith contributed as well, but his overall impact was limited due to the team’s tackle situation rolling through a couple of speed bumps.

Looking ahead to 2021, I think this offense is set to instill concern into defensive coordinators once again. Corey Davis left in the off-season to join the New York Jets, but he was replaced by a future Hall of Famer in Julio Jones. Taylor Lewan is back after missing most of 2020 with a serious knee injury and should bring some much needed stability to the offensive line. Rookie Dillon Radunz should be a candidate to start at right tackle, but if he doesn’t, the team has some depth available to work with until they feel Radunz is ready.

One thing I’d look out for is how much new offensive coordinator Todd Downing will throw the football. This offense has primarily been a run first offense since Jon Robinson took over as general manager in 2016. But with Henry’s workload being what its been over the last two seasons, along with Downing potentially bringing his love for 11 personnel over to the offense, this unit could watch itself lean more towards a pass friendly approach.

Best Defense for 2021

Indianapolis Colts- This Colts defense was one of the main reasons why this team was as good as it was in 2020. DeForest Bucker and Denico Autry made life extremely difficult for opposing offensive lines, as their tendency to overpower others in the trenches kept things fluid for the rest of the unit.

The linebacker group shined again with Darius Leonard leading the way. The only suspect area on this defense last year was the secondary, which hasn’t gotten any better in terms of additions and subtractions roster wise.

But even with the secondary being a little suspicious, this unit still boasts a good front seven that can change the game to their favor.

No other defense in the division comes close to this one, so Indy takes home this worthless honor.

Best Head Coach for 2021

Frank Reich- Reich has developed into one of the faces for this organization ever since his arrival in 2018. His delicate handling of the quarterback situation has been a joy to watch, as has his development as one of the true leaders of this football team.

He’s handled everything with class, has treated media very well, and has seemingly wrapped his arms around the wonderful city of Indianapolis.

That screams a man who has put every ounce of effort into his job, which is something I can really respect. Aside from that, I think it’s safe to say Reich is the best head coach in this division. We saw what he did with a healthy Andrew Luck in 2018, leading this team to a playoff appearance and a playoff win before a defeat at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs ended his first season in charge.

If Reich can get the chance to work with another decent quarterback option, I think we’ll see his true talents be put on full display. Carson Wentz isn’t one of those, but let’s just say Reich finds a way to work around the Wentz problem, we’d have to give this man as many flowers as he wants.

It’ll be a challenge to do so, but if any man is up to the task, it’s Reich.

Potential Breakout Candidate to Watch for Each Team in 2021

Tennessee Titans- iDL Jeffery Simmons

Simmons was really good last season, sometimes looking like the only football player that was worth mentioning in a positive light on this Titans defense. But the one thing that escaped him was the game to game consistency that the top tier of interior defensive linemen have mastered up until this point. If Simmons can start racking up eye opening performances consistently, then he’s going to be mentioned among the best interior defensive linemen by season’s end.

Indianapolis Colts- WR Michael Pittman

In an offense that lacks a true WR1, Pittman looks like the only player that can fit the billing as a top receiver. He’s long, possesses a good amount of speed, and has an unexpectedly strong frame. He began to take on more of a leading role as the regular season came to a close in 2020, even carrying some of that momentum in the playoffs. The Colts love him, they love his potential, it isn’t unreasonable to expect him to take a sizable jump in production in 2021.

Houston Texans- WR Nico Collins

The quarterback situation isn’t favorable enough for me to confidently say Collins will 100% breakout in 2021. But he’s a big body and has shown off his massive catch radius, that it’s hard to not see whatever quarterback the Texans roll out not at least looking his way a multitude of times in the red zone and across the field in traffic. He won’t put up gaudy first year numbers, but his touchdown numbers could be through the roof for rookie standards.

Jacksonville Jaguars- WR Laviska Shenault Jr.

Shenault Jr. was one of the lone bright spots in Jacksonville last season. He’s an explosive receiver that can really make things happen in the open field. I wouldn’t call him an experimental weapon of sorts, in fact he’s more than that. But his athleticism and supreme ability to make people miss makes him stand out on an improved Jaguars offense. He should see an uptick in snaps this season, which makes me more confident in him increasing his numbers on the stat sheet, especially in an Urban Meyer offense that loves to take advantage of speed.

Who Wins the Division in 2021?

When it comes to deciding on a division winner, I think you can label both the Titans and Colts as the two main contenders for the crown. Both have decent rosters that possess an ample amount of talent and both have coaching staffs that have proven their worth.

Plus combine that with the fact that Jacksonville and Houston are still years away from challenging either Tennessee and Houston the division, and you get an extremely top heavy division as a result.

Now just because this division is top heavy, doesn’t mean the top two teams are perfect.

Carson Wentz is a big time question in mark in Indy, as his recent poor play has marred his previous MVP like form. His mechanics look broken, he’s turned into a poor decision marker, and he’s become a player that hasn’t responded well to any sort of pressure. That last point is major, since this team is banking on him to potentially be the quarterback they’ve been looking for since Andrew Luck unexpectedly retired in 2018. To be honest, it isn’t really fair to close the door on Wentz returning to the form that had him squarely in the mix for an MVP award in 2017.

But he’s so far gone that it’s difficult to imagine him bringing anything slightly positive to the table.

Tennessee on the other hand isn’t perfect either. The wide receiver depth aside from A.J. Brown, Julio Jones, and Josh Reynolds is full of questions, a problem you don’t want to have if you’re dead set on competing for a Super Bowl in the near future. The defense is still suspect as well since we have no idea how much they’ll improve after their historically bad 2020 season.

You won’t be crucified for picking the Colts to win the division. But I’m more comfortable with Tennessee’s weapons on offense and I’m banking on this defense not being feeble like it was in 2o20.

So give me the Titans as repeat champs of the AFC South, but like I said before, you won’t be crucified for going the opposite direction.



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