Heading into the 2016 season, it looks it’ll be a two-team race for the AFC South crown, between the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans.
Even without any other real star power on the team, the Las Vegas odds makers have the Indianapolis Colts as the favorites to win the division because of one player: quarterback Andrew Luck.
The quarterback who was supposed to make his leap into the next NFL superstar spent the first half of the season getting bruised and battered, and missed the second half of the season after sustaining a lacerated kidney. With Luck back under Center — and the interior of the offensive line getting a much-needed upgrade in the form of center Ryan Kelly, the team’s first round draft pick in 2016 from the University of Alabama — the Colts will look a lot more like the top-ranked passing offense they were in 2014, and a lot less like the 22nd-ranked passing offense they were in 2015. Wide receivers T.Y. Hilton and Phillip Dorsett (the team’s first round pick in 2015) are having great camps, and Donte Moncrief appears to be poised for a breakout season. Running back Frank Gore‘s number should improve, with teams being forced to spread out to stop the passing attack.
Indianapolis is likely hoping that their prolific offense will put up enough points to where they don’t have to rely much on their defense, considering they really didn’t make that many changes to a unit that was ranked 26th in the NFL last season. They lost inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman — one of the better players at his position — and moved reserve Nate Irving into the starting lineup, and replaced nose tackle Josh Chapman with David Parry, the team’s 5th round pick in last year’s draft. Journeyman cornerback Greg Toler will be replaced by journeyman cornerback Patrick Robinson, and journeyman free safety Dwight Lowery will be replaced by Winston Guy, a former practice squad player. The level of performance by the Colts defense this year will have huge implications on how far this team will go in 2016.
The Texans are also returning 8 of their 11 starters on defense last year, but they have good reason to do so, considering that unit was ranked third in the NFL last year and basically carried the team to the playoffs. Even with J.J. Watt‘s recent back surgery (which could result in him missing a game or two early in the regular season), he’s still the best defensive player in all of football. Whitney Mercilus (12.5 sacks last year) and Jadeveon Clowney (the team’s former #1 overall pick) form a lethal pass rushing duo at outside linebacker. Brian Cushing and second-year man Benardrick McKinney are rock solid inside linebackers. Jonathan Joseph is a bit past his prime, but still among the top 10 or 12 cornerbacks in the league, and they’ve got youth and talent — in the form of Kareem Jackson and Kevin Johnson — behind Joseph.
So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Texans focused the majority of their resources towards overhauling their absolutely anemic offense from last year. In comes quarterback Brock Osweiler, the former backup to Peyton Manning in Denver. If he can simply challenge a defense vertically and actually run the offense, the Texans will be in great shape. Running back Lamar Miller — signed away from the Miami Dolphins — will provide them the same dual-threat production that they got when Arian Foster was healthy (if the Texans use Miller correctly and often enough, which wasn’t the case with the Dolphins). With the additions of rookie wide receivers Will Fuller from Notre Dame — the team’s first round pick who reminds you a lot of a poor man’s DeSean Jackson — and Braxton Miller from Ohio State — the former quarterback who can do some serious yards-after-catch damage underneath — gives Osweiler a variety of weapons to throw to, instead of having to force every pass in DeAndre Hopkins‘ direction. If head coach Bill O’Brien can get this unit to gel, they could easily overtake Indianapolis for the division title.
The Jacksonville Jaguars could be a fascinating team this season. Most people would agree that Blake Bortles‘ stat line look a lot sexier than his actual performance as a quarterback, but he’s got three stud receivers to throw the ball to — Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, and Marqise Lee (who could emerge as yet another breakout receiver for them this year) — and a tight end (Julius Thomas) who could/should re-emerge as one of the better players at his position. Adding Chris Ivory alongside TJ Yeldon gives them a formidable one-two punch at running back. On defense, they made two excellent free agent acquisitions — defensive end Malik Jackson (formerly of Denver) and safety Tashaun Gipson (formerly of Cleveland) — and got two superstuds with their first two picks in the 2016 NFL Draft: defensive back Jalen Ramsey (the #1 overall player in this past draft according to many analysts) and linebacker Myles Jack (who will be the steal of this draft if the worries around his knee turn out to be much ado about nothing). They’re not quite ready to contend for the division title just yet, but from a pure talent standpoint, they might be even deeper than the Colts.
The Tennesee Titans might still have the most work to do among the teams in the AFC South, but with Marcus Mariota at quarterback, they’re at least headed in the right direction. New General Manager Jon Robinson and no-longer-interim head coach Mike Mularkey focused on adding key pieces around Mariota, in order to bolster his development: a couple of ‘bell cow’ running backs, in the form of DeMarco Murray (acquired via trade from Philadelphia) and rookie Derrick Henry (the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, drafted in the second round); offensive tackle Jack Conklin (taken with the team’s first round pick, he’ll immediately start at right tackle, allowing Taylor Lewan to move to left tackle and thereby solidify both tackle spots); and veteran receiver Harry Douglas (who played under new offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie when the latter was the wide receivers coach in Atlanta).
The Titans defense is one of those units that has decent players at every position, but almost nobody you’d scoff at upgrading (the one exception might be defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who’s quietly one of the very best players at his position). Their new additions include Al Woods at nose tackle, and free safety Rashad Johnson; the latter will be replacing free safety Michael Griffin, who manned the position for the Titans for the past nine seasons. This will likely be a big focus for upgrading by the current Titans regime in off-seasons to come.