2017 AFC South Projections

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X-Houston Texans 10-6

Four of the last six years have seen the Houston Texans make the playoffs, but they’ve been unable to get past the second round. And the two biggest reasons why the Texans have been unable to advance are the New England Patriots who have eliminated them in two of those years as well as their issues at the most important position on the football field. Each of the last four years has seen the Texans have a different starting quarterback on opening day and this year will mark five consecutive seasons in which that is the case.

The Brock Osweiler experiment is over for the Texans after just one season as Houston has decided to move on from him. Tom Savage will enter the new season with the most experience at quarterback for the Texans, but he only started two games for Houston last year. The Texans used a first-round pick this year on quarterback Deshaun Watson as he is looked at as the future of the franchise, but he could also be the present.

After Watson lost his first start for the Clemson Tigers in 2014, he would only lose twice more for his collegiate career. Watson led Clemson to consecutive 14-1 seasons and this past January saw the Tigers claim their first national championship since 1981. Watson might not be familiar with taking snaps under center, but he is a winner which is something that the Texans need at the position.

Bill O’Brien

For Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, he has a solid commitment to running the football which is a lost art in today’s game. Last year the Texans were eighth in the National Football League in rushing and you can expect another healthy dose of the rushing attack this season. Lamar Miller will once again be the feature ball carrier for the Titans, and he once again has the potential to gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground. But Houston has depth behind him in the form of Alfred Blue as well as D’Onta Foreman as this rushing attack will be important to a young quarterback in Watson who I expect to get his feet wet sooner rather than later.

It has not taken wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins that long to morph into one of the better pass catchers in the National Football League, and he has been able to accomplish this in spite of not having consistency at the quarterback position. Like Watson, Hopkins is a Clemson alum, and if these two former Tigers are able to get on the same page, Houston’s offense should be a force.

J.J. Watt

Defensive end J.J. Watt has been at the forefront of the relief efforts in the Houston area following the devastation that was caused by Hurricane Harvey, and the icing on that cake is that he is a darn good football player. Watt is a three-time National Football League Defensive Player of the Year, but he is attempting to bounce back after an injury plagued 2016. Last season Watt was limited to just three games as he underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back. Watt is a physical specimen, but it’ll be interesting to see how is body will be able to respond to the wear and tear that comes with paying in the NFL.

However Watt’s return along with the emergence of outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney as well as the consistency of outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus and inside linebacker Brian Cushing will once again make Houston’s defense tough. And whereas that the Texans will be unable to replace the experience of nose tackle Vince Wilfork who retired after 13 years in the National Football League, the return of Watt will be able to remedy some of that.

The Texans will face their old nemesis in the Patriots in Week 3, however with the competition in the AFC South expected to once again be light, Houston should once again be the team to beat in that division.

Tennessee Titans 9-7

The 2016 National Football League season saw the Tennessee Titans possibly barreling to their first playoff appearance since 2008. However things would change in Week 16 when quarterback Marcus Mariota would suffer a fractured right fibula. The Titans would go on to lose that game to the Jacksonville Jaguars, but they would rebound to defeat the Houston Texans to end the regular season. The Titans would finish 9-7 for their first winning season since 2011, while they tied the Texans for the top spot in the AFC South. However the Titans would lose the tiebreaker with Houston due to the fact that Tennessee was only able to go 2-4 within the division, while the Texans were 5-1. But now as a new season is set to begin, are the young Titans poised to take that next step in 2017 in order to become a playoff team?

Marcus Mariota

After the Titans made Mariota the second overall pick of the 2015 National Football League Draft, he is rapidly developing into a franchise player as well as a leader in Nashville. The biggest knock on Mariota coming out of college was whether or not that he would be able to make the transition to the pro game which meant adjusting to a pro-style system as opposed to the spread offense that he played in during his collegiate days.

Mariota has been able to make the transition which has included him completing more than 62% of his passes in the National Football League. Titans head coach Mike Mularkey has done a solid job of putting Mariota in situations where he can succeed which means an emphasis on featuring his running ability.

The Titans were third in the National Football League season in rushing as this is a team that is a throwback to a different era of football. Running back DeMarco Murray enjoyed his first season in Nashville as his 1,287 yards were third in the NFL. Murray did carry the football 293 times last season, but Tennessee won’t have an issue in regards to keeping him fresh due to his understudy.

In 2015, running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy en route to helping the Alabama Crimson Tide win the national title. Henry was used sparingly last year as a rookie; mainly to give Murray a breather. However I see Mularkey and Titans offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie using Henry more this season. Henry checks in at 6’3″, while he weighs 247 lbs., and he has solid speed on that frame which means that he runs like an 18-wheeler that is barreling down the interstate. And aside from being a good runner at the goal line, Henry could team with Murray and Mariota to give the Titans a running game reminiscent of that of the Miami Dolphins from the early 1970s which featured running backs Jim Kiick, Larry Csonka, and Mercury Morris.

Mike Mularkey

Once upon a time Mularkey was a tight end in the National Football League and he’s bringing that physical mentality to his team. The Titans have a pair of bookend studs in left tackle Taylor Lewan and right tackle Jack Conklin who help to give Tennessee one of the best offensive lines in the NFL which will be important with Mariota returning from the injury.

But as much as the Titans can run the football, they are going to need some production through the air. The Titans used a first-round pick on wide receiver Corey Davis, while they also signed free agent wide receiver Eric Decker. Decker has proven throughout his career that he can be a solid slot receiver in the right offense. And as effective as the Titans can run the football, Decker should be able to benefit from consistent play-action passing.

For Titans defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, he operates a 3-4 defensive scheme where the strength of the unit comes from the linebackers. However the Titans were 20th in the National Football League in total defense last season, while they lack a disruptive force on the defensive line as well as at linebacker who can consistently get to the quarterback. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo was able to tally 10.5 sacks in 2016 which led the team, but as he is 31, while also having several severe injuries during career, can he be counted on to have another productive season?

The Titans do have several weapons on special teams who could be game changers. The Titans entered the National Football League last spring owners of a pair of first-round picks with one of those being used on cornerback Adoree Jackson. The Titans not only drafted Jackson for his coverage skills on defense, but also for his ability to return kicks and punts, while he could also be used in special packages on offense. And then there is kicker Ryan Succop who made 11 field goals from beyond 40 yards last year as his leg will be important in 2017 if Tennessee wants to end their playoff drought.

The mental strength of the Titans will be tested during the early stages of their schedule as four of their first five games will be against playoff teams from last season. But if the Titans want to take the next step, these are the games that they must find a way to win.

Indianapolis Colts 6-10

The names have changed for the Indianapolis Colts, but the results are still the same as this is an organization that has too much reliance solely on their quarterback. The Colts made quarterback Andrew Luck the first overall pick of the 2012 National Football League Draft, but they have failed to put a quality team around which was also the case of his predecessor in Peyton Manning. Grant it that Luck has worked under a different general manager than Manning did, but during Ryan Grigson’s time as Colts GM, he never did right by Luck which led to his termination last season. Now former Kansas City Chiefs director of football operations Chris Ballard has begun his tenure as Colts general manager by picking up right where Grigson left off from which included having a lackluster draft class come to Indianapolis. However for Ballard, his dilemma is a little bit bigger than initially thought.

Andrew Luck

The Colts inability to put a quality team around Luck which includes having a lackluster offensive line has led to injuries for him. Over the last two years Luck has missed a combined 10 games. And as the injuries are catching up to Luck, he underwent shoulder surgery during off-season which prevented him from participating in the team’s training camp. Now the Colts must deal with the reality that Luck will not be ready for start of the upcoming season. And even when Luck returns to action, how effective will he be coming off of the mend?

In order to offset Luck’s absence, the Colts acquired quarterback Jacoby Brissett from the New England Patriots this summer. Brissett was a third-round pick of the Patriots last year, and in two starts with the team he was able to complete nearly 62% of his passes. However now that Brissett won’t have the luxury of having the talent around him on offense like he was accustomed to with the Patriots, how productive will he be in Indy?

Chuck Pagano

For Colts head coach Chuck Pagano, his offense was tenth in the National Football League in total offense in 2016. But with Luck on the shelf and a veteran running back in Frank Gore, how productive will the Colts offense be this year? Gore is coming off of a productive first year with the Colts as he was able to surpass the 1,000-yard mark for the ninth time in his National Football League career. Gore is 935 yards shy of becoming only the fifth player in NFL history to rush for 14,000 career yards, but he is a 34-years of age, and at some point the other show has to drop.

The Colts passing offense which was fifth in the National Football League will more than likely take a hit without the services of Luck for all 16 games which means that wide receiver T.Y. Hilton won’t be as productive. Hilton has become one of the biggest deep threats in the NFL which included him leading the league in receiving yards last year with 1,448. And in spite of the fact that Hilton was able to lead the NFL in receiving last year, he is not a player who is considered as a typical top receiver which goes back to my point about Indianapolis failing to put talent around Luck.

Prior to Pagano becoming a head coach, his specialty was defensive football, however that has not transferred over to his time with the Colts. Last year Indianapolis was 30th in the National Football League in total defense And like the Colts offense, this organization has failed to find play makers on the defensive side of the football which has greatly inhibited their ability to stop opponents. Last season Colts opponents were able to convert on 41.5% of their third down conversions which was 25th in the National Football League and I expect that trend to continue here in 2017.

Only one of the Colts first eight opponents made the playoffs last year. But even an easy schedule to begin the season won’t prevent Indianapolis from struggling this year.

Jacksonville Jaguars 4-12

The names on the back of the jerseys as well as that on the offices of the head coach and general manager may change, but the losing has continued for the Jacksonville Jaguars. You have to go back to the 2007 National Football League season to find the last time that the Jaguars had a winning season, while they’ve won no more than five games in a campaign since 2011. What has hurt the Jaguars the most is the ineptitude in their front office which has seen the organization consistently miss on their first-round picks as this is never a recipe for success.

After leading Jacksonville to a playoff appearance in four of the team’s first five years of existence as their head coach, Tom Coughlin has returned to the organization. This past January, Coughlin was named as the Jaguars executive vice president of football operations and he hopes to return the team to prominence, while brining with him some of the winning formula that helped him attain a pair of Super Bowl Championships as the head coach of the New York Giants. Coughlin is a staunch disciplinarian who pays attention to detail. And if the young Jaguars won’t buy into what Coughlin is selling, he won’t have a problem helping them pack their bags to get out of town.

After replacing Gus Bradley who was fired as the Jags head coach with two games remaining in 2016, Doug Marrone was retained to be the Jaguars head coach. Prior to joining the Jaguars, Marrone was the head coach of the Buffalo Bills from 2013-2014, and he appeared to be on the track to success until he opted out of his deal due to issues within the front office. But only time will tell if things will work out differently for Marrone in Jacksonville.

Blake Bortles

For the past three years Blake Bortles has been the Jaguars starting quarterback and it has not gone well for him. In three years as the Jags starting quarterback, Bortles has led the National Football League in sacks twice and interceptions once. In total Bortles has been sacked 140 times, while also throwing 51 interceptions. And most importantly Bortles’ record as a starting quarterback with Jacksonville is only 11-34. Bortles does have solid wide receivers to get the football to in Allen Hurns, Allen Robinson, and Marquise Lee, but he appears to be lacking the “it” factor. Bortles has heard his fair share of criticism in Northern Florida, and as the Jaguars have talent around him on offense, 2017 will be a make or break year for him.

During Coughlin’s time as the head coach of the Jaguars and Giants respectively, his teams always had a commitment to running the football which goes back to his days as a collegiate running back for the Syracuse Orangemen. And Coughlin’s first pick upon returning to the Jaguars organization was used on running back Leonard Fournette.

Leonard Fournette

Fournette comes into the National Football League with plenty of hype as he was the first running back that was selected from a very deep class of running backs this year. At 6’0″, 228 lbs., Fournette is a bruising runner who combines size with speed and he now gets an opportunity to shine on the big stage as he is an immediate upgrade to a Jaguars running attack that did not have one ball carrier tally at least 500 yards in 2016.

Jacksonville must get more competitive defensively and it begins with some of their recent early round draft picks stepping up. In 2015, defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. was the third overall pick of the National Football League Draft. However Fowler would suffer a torn ACL in his first practice with the Jaguars and he has yet to become the impact player that he was expected to be. Last year Jacksonville would use a second-round pick on middle linebacker Myles Jack who entered the NFL with knee issues. And any turnaround that Jacksonville wants to have defensively in 2017 begins with Fowler and Jack being able to live up the hype which was bestowed upon team heading into the NFL.

For Coughlin and Marrone, they are attempting to change the culture in the Jaguars locker room which isn’t a quick fix. There is a deep culture in regards to losing in Jacksonville, and until it is fixed which also includes making better draft decisions, this team will continue to finish near the bottom of the AFC South.

X-Division Winner

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

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