2018 AFC South Projections


Y-Tennessee Titans 10-6

We’ve seen on numerous occasions that success in the National Football League doesn’t guarantee job security. The Tennessee Titans went 9-7 last season which saw them earn a wild card berth in the AFC. The Titans didn’t stop there as they were able to win their first playoff game in 14 years which appeared to be a building block for the future. However everyone that was a part of Tennessee’s playoff triumph is not along for the ride heading into the new season as there was a coaching change made in Nashville.

In spite of leading the Titans to the second round of the playoffs, head coach Mike Mularkey was given his walking papers which surprised everyone. And in Mularkey’s place, the Titans are going with Mike Vrabel as their new head coach.

Mike Vrabel

This is Vrabel’s first time around the block as a head coach in the National Football League as he spent last year as the defensive coordinator of the Houston Texans, while he also enjoyed a 14-year career as an outside linebacker in the league which was highlighted by winning three Super Bowl Titles with the New England Patriots. But even with those personal accolades, is Vrabel the guy that the Titans to the next level?

Marcus Mariota is entering his fourth year as the Titans starting quarterback and he shown flashes in regards to putting it all together, but now it is all about doing it each game. Throughout Mariota’s time in the National Football League, he has remained poised, but the biggest thing for him will be making more plays in the pocket as opposed to taking off as a runner. And even though that Mariota must make more plays in the pocket, the Titans are built to be a running team which needs to be their bread and butter here in 2018.

At 6’3″, 247 lbs., running back Derrick Henry is a very imposing figure. Henry is built like a defensive end, but he gets to carry the football, and it’s time for the Titans to utilize him more. In two years with Tennessee, Henry has yet get at least 200 carries in a season as he needs to be their featured back. With the size of Henry, he can lean on and ultimately wear down an opposing defense in the same fashion of former ball carriers in the franchise’s history such as Earl Campbell and Eddie George.

After helping the Patriots reach the Super Bowl in each of the last two seasons, running back Dion Lewis hit free agency, and the Titans felt that he would the perfect compliment to Henry in their backfield. Lewis flourished coming out of the backfield as a receiver which is something that offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur will have to utilize.

Taylor Lewan

The Titans have one of the biggest and nastiest offensive lines in the National Football League as they will look to dictate things on the field. Left tackle Taylor Lewan has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two years, and he plays with an angry streak that not too many players in the league have. The Titans right tackle in Jack Conklin is not too shabby either with his aggressive nature as Tennessee has a luxury that most teams in the NFL do not have, and that is a pair of bookend tackles who can get the job done blocking without having to rely on help from tight ends, or running backs.

During a portion of Vrabel’s playing career with the Patriots, Dean Pees was his position coach and defensive coordinator. Now Vrabel has sought out Pees to be the Titans defensive coordinator as he brings with to Nashville nearly 40 years of coaching experience. Pees knows how to develop an aggressive defense, and although that Tennessee doesn’t have a pass rusher that opposing offenses must focus on, it will be done by committee as their coverages will be mixed up in order to get to the cornerback.

Malcolm Butler

Tennessee has upgraded their secondary this off-season as they signed cornerback Malcolm Butler and strong safety Kenny Vaccaro. Butler became a household name in Super Bowl 49 when he interception of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the closing moments of the game gave the Patriots the win. Butler is a solid cover corner, but after that career defining play, he has been a disrespected player by the Patriots which included being benched for Super Bowl 52. However the Titans have welcomed Butler with open arms, and I anticipate Butler using his Patriots embarrassment as motivation to show that he can get things done.

Vaccaro has been a solid player throughout his career due to his ability to play both the run and pass. And I can anticipate Vaccaro being all over the field for this Titans defense in the role of a rover.

The Jaguars may have won the AFC South last year, but the Titans swept them which is something that Vrabel needs to build off of as Tennessee looks to win their first division title since 2008.

X-Jacksonville Jaguars 10-6

The 2017 National Football League season saw the Jacksonville Jaguars come out of nowhere to become contenders. All year long the AFC South was up for grabs until the Jaguars took control en route to their first division title since 1999 when they were in the AFC Central. And in the postseason the Jaguars rode a wave of momentum to a berth in the AFC Championship Game which included a road win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. But just like it was for the Jaguars during the franchise’s first trip to the AFC Championship Game in 1996, they would succumb there to the New England Patriots. And after the Jags got themselves a taste of success last season, will they be able to build off of that in order to take the next step?

Jaguars executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin and head coach Dave Marrone have a good working relationship which is important as they’ve worked together in reshaping the team’s roster, as well as the culture inside of the locker room. And the result has been a Jaguars team that isn’t worried about winning pretty, as it is merely about winning.

Leonard Fournette

Last year saw the Jaguars use a first-round pick on running back Leonard Fournette and he was as good as advertised. Fournette was a force as he became the first Jaguars running back to gain 1,000 yards rushing in a season since Maurice Jones-Drew in 2011. At 6’0″, 228 lbs., Fournette is built like a big bruiser, but he moves like a Ferrari as speed is the name of the game for him. Fournette had 268 rushing attempts last season, and you can expect another heavy dose of him as Coughlin and Marrone are committed to the run. But as good as Fournette can be, the key to Jacksonville’s offense will be the play of quarterback Blake Bortles.

Bortles was the Jags first-round pick in 2014, and he has been the team’s starting quarterback since his first day on the job. Bortles’ record as Jacksonville’s starting quarterback is 21-40 which has opened him up to a world of criticism in Northern Florida. Last year was the first time in Bortles’ career that he finished a season with a completion percentage above 60%. However Bortles hasn’t shown that he can consistently put the Jaguars offense on his back, and this year more than others it will be needed.

The Jaguars were 17th in the National Football League in passing last season and that production should decrease being that they don’t have play makers at the wide receiver position. And once you factor in Bortles’ inconsistency in the pocket, Jacksonville opponents will be stacking the box more in order to stop Fournette, while making the fifth year quarterback beat them with his arm.

But make no mistake about it that Jacksonville’s bread and butter is their staunch defense. Last year the Jags were second in the National Football League in total defense as they became the intimidators under defensive coordinator Todd Walsh. This defense is littered with play makers who know how to make things happen, while frustrating their opponents.

Jalen Ramsey

In a short period of time cornerback Jalen Ramsey has become one of the loud mouths of the league, but he is also one of the game’s best players. Ramsey provides blanket coverage to most wide receivers that he covers as he is a blend of Darrelle Revis and Deion Sanders. And when it comes to coverage, Ramsey always takes an opponent’s top receiver and guards him, while he simply takes away one side of the field.

Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. and outside linebacker Myles Jack were selected early by the Jags in recent years, and each player is beginning to live up to his respective potential. Fowler is a solid edge rusher, while Jack is an athlete. Jack can play the run or the pass, while Walsh has the opportunity to line him up at different spots in the formation which helps to sure up Jacksonville’s coverage, and keep opposing offenses off balance.

Jacksonville was also second in the National Football League in sacks last season with 55. Veteran defensive end Calais Campbell is a stud on the Jagaurs defensive line, while he is also a leader. 2017 was Campbell’s first year with the Jags and he didn’t disappoint as he was tied for second in the NFL in sacks with 14.5. At 6’8″, 300 lbs., it’s hard to move Campbell, and when he gets leverage on an opponent, look out.

Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue is looking to build off of his breakout season as he tallied 12.5 sacks last year, while veteran defensive tackles Malik Jackson and Marcel Dareus must also be accounted for on the Jaguars defensive line.

Unlike last year the Jaguars won’t be able to sneak up on their opponents. And now that the Jaguars are expected to be good, will they be up for the challenge?

Houston Texans 9-7

2017 saw the Houston Texans suffer through a 4-12 season, but not before we were able to get a glimpse of what the franchise could be. Last year the Texans traded up in the first round of the National Football League Draft to select quarterback Deshaun Watson. In six starts for the Texans, Watson was 3-3, while throwing 19 touchdowns to 8 interceptions. Watson was well on his way to being the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year until he suffered a torn ACL in practice. Without Watson, the Texans came apart at the seams as they lost eight of their final nine games. However for the Texans and their head coach Bill O’Brien, hope springs eternal with the start of a new season in the NFL.

Deshaun Watson

For the Texans to contend for the top spot in the AFC South, it begins with having a healthy Watson. Even though that Watson was injured last year, he still had the opportunity to watch and pick up on many aspects of the game which should carry over to his second season in the league. There are those who will categorize Watson as a scrambler, but he moves around in the pocket in order to give his receivers time to get open. And as long as Watson is healthy again, while being able to trust his body, Houston’s offense should be exciting.

One player on the Texans who is happier than the others that Watson is returning is wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. It hasn’t taken Hopkins that long to prove that he is one of the best wide receivers in the National Football League. Already Hopkins is second on the Texans all-time list for receiving yards, while he has also caught at least 90 passes in two of the last three seasons. Hopkins led the NFL in receiving touchdowns with 13, and another big season could be in store. Hopkins is a freak of nature who can climb to reach the football at its apex, while he knows how to box out defensive backs in the end zone. And with Watson’s ability to buy time for his receivers, Hopkins should benefit greatly from that.

The Texans were 14th in the National Football League in rushing and that should improve slightly with a healthy Watson. Running back Lamar Miller is entering his third season with the Texans after he began his career with the Miami Dolphins. And the pattern for Miller over the last four years has been that he’ll alternate having 1,000-yard seasons on the ground. Miller gained just 888 yards last season which means that you can all but pencil him in for another 1,000-yard campaign.

But even with the running ability of Miller and Watson, there is a big question on the Texans in regards of the void that hasn’t been filled since left tackle Duane Brown was traded last year to the Seattle Seahawks. And even though that many people that believe Watson has what it takes to one day be the MVP of the National Football League, it won’t mean a thing if he doesn’t have an offensive line in front of him.

Last year the Texans were 20th in the National Football League in total defense, but things should be changing for this unit in the upcoming season. Houston lost their defensive coordinator from last season as Mike Vrabel is now the head coach of the Tennessee Titans. And in Vrabel’s place, the Texans are turning to Romeo Crennel to lead their defense. Crennel’s was Houston’s defensive coordinator from 2014-2016 before O’Brien named him the assistant head coach last year. But throughout Crennel’s career as a defensive coordinator which includes stops with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, his defenses were always attacking and aggressive.

J.J. Watt

When healthy, defensive end J.J. Watt is one of the best players in the National Football League at any position. Watt is a four-time Pro Bowl selection, and a three-time Defensive Player of the Year as his ability to rush the passer not only disrupts opposing offense, but he also makes the other players around him better. But Watt’s pass rushing ability has taken a backseat over the past two years as he has only been able to appear in eight games for the Texans. In 2016, Watt was done in by back surgery, while a leg injury cut his season short in 2017. However if Watt is healthy this year, there is nothing that should prevent him from tallying at least 15 sacks.

Watt is not the only Texans defender who is looking to return from injury as outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus is looking to bounce back after he appeared in just five games last season. And as Watt and Mercilus are looking to bounce back, defensive end/outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney appears to be coming into his own as a breakout season could be in the cards.

At the age of 34, cornerback Jonathan Joseph is still one of the best cover corners in football, while the addition of strong safety Tyrann Matthieu will this defense another playmaker. Mathieu has the ability to play multiple positions in the secondary, and Crennel will utilize that ability as he will line him up in different spots in the formation which includes sneaking up to play the run.

The Texans weren’t given any gifts to start the season as their first two games of the year will be on the road versus playoff teams last year as they’ll travel to face the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans. The Texans will be one of the most exciting teams in football, but their season will come down to whether or not that Watt and Watson will be able to remain healthy.

Indianapolis Colts 3-13

There is no denying that the Indianapolis Colts are a struggling franchise and it begins with their front office. The Colts drafted quarterback Andrew Luck first overall in 2012, but they have failed in regards to putting a quality team around him. Luck was able to carry the Colts to the AFC Championship Game in 2014, but since then he nor Indianapolis have been able to replicate that success. The Colts have missed the playoffs in each of the last three years, while also failing to post a winning record in any of those seasons as they are now the worst team in a division that they dominated for years. Luck has played behind a make shift offensive line which has led to him getting injured and missing the entire 2017 National Football League season completely.

Andrew Luck

Over the last 20 months, the Colts have attempted to restructure their front office in order to do better by Luck which began by naming Chris Ballard as the team’s general manager in 2017. But when Ballard attempted to hire a new head coach this past winter, he found that the process was harder than anyone expected it to be.

All signs pointed to the Colts hiring New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to be their next head coach. The Colts were set to introduce McDaniels as their next head coach when he abruptly decided to remain with the Patriots. This caused the Colts scramble to find a new head coach, but they would find their guy in Frank Reich.

Reich enjoyed a 14-year career in the National Football League as a quarterback which included bringing the Buffalo Bills back from a 32-point deficit in the 1992 playoffs. Reich also spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, and his play calling helped the Eagles win their first Super Bowl Title in franchise history.

Now Reich will be charged with not only getting things turned around for Indianapolis, but also getting the most out of Luck who is a damaged quarterback mentally and physically.

The last year that Luck was healthy came in 2014 when he led the National Football League in touchdown passes with 40. But since then Luck has taken a beating due to a lack talent around him. Outside of wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, the Colts have not produced another Pro Bowl player at the skill positions, while in just 22 starts since 2015, Luck has been sacked 56 times. Luck missed the entire 2017 National Football League season as the result of undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder. Since then Luck’s rehab has been highly publicized which included a trip to Europe to receiver therapy. There are some skeptics that feel Luck will not be the same quarterback that he once was, but the Colts still believe in him.

Regardless if Luck initially does not have the same arm strength that he once did, Reich has to put his franchise quarterback in the best position to succeed which will be hard to do. The Colts have only had one running back in the last ten years reach 1,000 yards rushing, while Marlon Mack is the team’s top returning ball carrier as he only gained 358 yards on the ground last season. Indianapolis still has a suspect offensive line which means that Luck will be taking the field at his own risk each time that he is under center.

The lack of talent for the Colts is just not a problem for their offense as their defense was one of the worst in the National Football League in 2017. The Colts were 30th in the National Football League in total defense last year which included teams converting nearly 45% on third down which was 31st. Matt Eberflus is set to begin his first season as the Colts defensive coordinator and he will have his work cut out for him as he looks to make this bunch competitive.

The Colts have the ageless one connecting on field goals in Adam Vinatieri. Vinatieri is 45-years of age as he is the modern day George Blanda. Vinatieri benefits from the Colts playing their home games indoors, but he is still one of the most accurate kickers in football.

2018 will be a struggle for the Colts, and with two of their first five games coming against both recent Super Bowl participants in the Eagles and New England Patriots, Indy will indeed be a long shot to reach the postseason.

X-Wild Card

Y-Division Winner

Source: Pro-football-reference.com


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