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How different is the face of the AFC South than in the past? The most famous offensive players ever include talented field generals such as Peyton Manning, Steve McNair, Mark Brunell and the now-infamous DeShaun Watson. But where the talent of the quarterback of a team once dictated success, this season it will fall on their ability to support running backs to determine who will be this group’s champion.
Record in 2021: 4-13
Key Player: Head Coach – Lovie Smith
Player to Watch: Quarterback – Davis Mills
The Texans stand as an exception to being reliant on their running game but are more involved with improving another important element of success: coaching. Lovie Smith replacing David Culley as the team’s head coach brings instant credibility in comparison to the previous staff, regardless of whatever the motivations for Smith’s hiring were. In a league where offensive coaches have become all the rage in turning franchises around, the hope is that Smith as a defensive coach will provide guidance to turn around 2021’s 27th-ranked defense. Rookie cornerback and third overall pick Derek Stingley and seven-year veteran defensive tackle Malek Collins could be very big pieces to that puzzle.
Offensively, the Texans still showed plenty of focus on upgrading during the offseason, starting with their offensive line. Ranked 29th last year according to Pro Football Focus, three rookies were added, including former Texas A&M Aggie Kenyon Green who is expected to represent a significant upgrade at the guard position.
Despite the tremendous unrest in the organization and lack of protection in contests last season, Houston quarterback Davis Mills was easily among the most underrated rookies last year. While Mills’ marks of 2,664 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and 67% passing aren’t Pro Bowl-level stats, if he can deliver the ball to wide receivers led by Brandin Cooks, Nico Collins and Phillip Dorsett with ground support from the run game, maybe the Texans won’t need to draft a man under center. Instead, they get a young playmaker to further lift the on-field product.
However, for that to happen, the efforts that second-year general manager Nick Caserio has made to uplift the Laremy Tunsil anchored offensive line as well as other steps for evolution must be successful. That being said, Patrick Creighton of ESPN 97.5 in Houston put it this way during The Student of the Game Podcast to give Texan fans hope. “At least you feel like the Texans have a path: they’re on it, and the path is going somewhere positive.” Prediction: 5-12
Record in 2021: 9-8
Key Player: Running back – Jonathan Taylor
Player to Watch: Quarterback – Matt Ryan
In last season’s AFC South Preview, I mentioned that Philip Rivers put the Colts just “three points away from shocking the world by beating the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round” in the 2020 season previous to Carson Wentz coming in to be the quarterback. Now that Wentz is out and Indianapolis has acquired 2016 MVP Matt Ryan from the Atlanta Falcons, I see this offense being similar in makeup. Jonathan Taylor might be the best running back to be paired with Ryan in his career. And this sets the table for teams to have to think twice before stacking the box to stop the ground game.
“Stacking the box — you’re not going to get away with that,” said Chris Lewis of the Dropped Balls Podcast on The Student of the Game Podcast. He continued, “Jonathan Taylor, yeah [the Colts] have him, but what I like is the backs that we have behind him. We have Nyheim Hines and don’t be surprised if you see Nyheim Hines lining up in the slot sometime this year”. Match this with Quentin Nelson at guard as the top man on Indy’s solid Offensive Line over and above Michael Pittman and the rest of the receivers and suddenly Indy has an opportunity to battle hard for the division.
On Defense, linebacker Darius Leonard remains a mainstay of reliability while DeForest Buckner has made a difference stopping the run when healthy. While their safety Khari Willis retired to pursue mission work, rookie Nick Cross is coming in with a ton of promise to make an impact right out of the gate. The balance this team brings is the reason they will be playoff competitive. Prediction: 9-8
Record in 2021: 3-14
Key Player: Head Coach – Doug Pederson
Player to Watch: Running back – Travis Etienne
For the purposes of addition by subtraction alone, Super Bowl-winning coach Doug Pederson replacing Urban Meyer in what may be the worst single season of coaching in NFL history can’t be ignored. The Jacksonville Jaguars were guaranteed to have more wins off the bat based solely on that.
Special Contributor to The Student of the Game Podcast Travis Holmes agrees and also adds to what Pederson’s potential impact could be. “I see a ton of addition from Urban Meyer to Doug Pederson,” said Holmes. “but I also believe that [Pederson] is pretty equivalent to [former Jags head coach] Doug Marrone”. If the infamous “Miles Jack wasn’t down” play doesn’t stop the former Jacksonville linebacker from taking it to the house, the Jags are left with a three-score lead over the New England Patriots with around 13:30 left in the 2018 season’s AFC Championship game. The same Patriots that Pederson beat two weeks later as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. The way that Travis frames it is that if the Jaguars won that Super Bowl “all of a sudden Doug Marrone is Doug Pederson”. In short, this franchise has the opportunity to have one of the biggest turnarounds in its history.
Trevor Lawrence has not only shown signs of improvement and confidence in both passing and running the ball, but if he can work out the kinks to feed his revamped receiving corps, there’s so much potential. While there has been criticism surrounding the overpayment of new arrivals Christian Kirk and Zay Jones to join Marvin Jones, this is certainly a better unit as a whole compared to last year.
The support in the ground game is also looking promising despite James Robinson missing the duration of camp due to injury. 2021 first-round draft pick Travis Etienne is seeing action for the first time after missing last year on injured reserve and has shown progression as he becomes accustomed to NFL speed and life in Pederson’s system. While Robinson is still listed as the top man assuming he returns for week one, Etienne will definitely be a part of the committee that sees action and is a constant big play threat.
The focus of Jacksonville’s 2022 draft was to bolster the defense. Not only with the first overall pick in Travon Walker, but others they acquired at linebacker and defensive back spots. However, the biggest issue for the Jags is depth. If they suffer any significant injuries to top guys like defensive end Josh Allen, cornerback Shaquill Griffin, or any starting offensive lineman, this organization will struggle to recover. However, I do see them on the road to recovery. Prediction: 6-11
Record in 2021: 12-5
Key Player: Running back – Derrick Henry
Player to Watch: Wide receiver – Robert Woods
It’s no mystery that when you talk about the Titans, you are talking about running back Derrick Henry and him carrying the football with relentless size, agility, and force. Imagine that same relentless football player trying to prove to the world that his being injured late last year will not define him – and then combine that with the fact he’s playing in a contract year where he is trying to prove to the league he is not a depreciating asset just yet. That’s the makings of a pretty intimidating force.
Now take Henry as a personification of what the Titans’ dealt with last year as far as injuries and imagine how motivated the franchise must be as they try to show the world that their loss to the Cincinnati Bengals in the previous season’s divisional playoff round was a fluke due to three Ryan Tannehill interceptions.
“This team just basically has a chip on their shoulder,” said Mike Patton of the Touring the AFC South Podcast. “The thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that when nobody counts on the Titans to play well or do well and when they have a chip on their shoulder that’s when you get the best version of the Tennessee Titans.”
As assets on the offensive line and on defense all return healthy, as well as Robert Woods back in the receiver corps, the Titans may still make themselves an underdog story as defending champions of the AFC South. Prediction 10-7