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Previewing the AFC South

Editor’s note: Reed Tucker Garrison has a passion for NFL football, especially the AFC South. His knowledge of the division is extensive and he wanted to share his thoughts on the Warren County Sports Authority site!

2020 AFC South Season Preview

Tennessee Titans

2019 Recap: The Tennessee Titans rode one wild roller coaster throughout the 2019 season. Tennessee started off the year with fifth-year quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was on his final year of his rookie contract. After starting off the new year with a somewhat surprising and dominant win against the Cleveland Browns - which were one of the hottest darkhorse Super Bowl picks last offseason – the Titans fell to 2-4.

Head coach Mike Vrabel decided to make a quarterback change and handed over the keys to the offense to Ryan Tannehill. With this change and the transformation of running back Derrick Henry into superstardom, the Titans went to finish the season at 9-7 and entered the playoffs as a wildcard team.

As a major underdog, the Titans went into Foxboro and knocked off Tom Brady in his final game as a Patriot and then went into MT&T Stadium in Baltimore and beat the 14-2, No. 1 seed Ravens, who were led by unanimous MVP Lamar Jackson.

The Titans' run ended at the hands of the eventual super champions Kansas City Chiefs, losing 35-24 after jumping out to an early double-digit lead.

Draft and Offseason Additions/Subtractions: The Titans added depth to their already good offensive linemen with the selection of OT Isaiah Wilson from Georgia with the 29th pick of the first round. In the second round the secondary got some help with the addition of Kristian Fulton, a cornerback from LSU. Fulton had first round potential and draft grades.

With the Titans third-round pick, the two-tone blue selected Darrynton Evans, a speedy running back from Appalachian State who had comparisons to Darren Sproles in terms of elusiveness.

The Titans cut veteran tight end Delanie Walker and veteran running back Dion Lewis. The Titans also lost DT Jurrell Casey to the Denver Broncos in free agency. Jack Conklin also left in free agency after signing a lucrative deal with the Cleveland Browns to play tackle. Cornerback Logan Ryan also left in free agency, signing with the New York Giants.

The biggest moves for the Titans this offseason came from taking care of their two leaders on offense - re-signing QB Tannehill to a four-year, $118 Million team friendly deal and using their franchise tag on Henry, a superstar with MVP potential. Lastly, the Titans were able to re-sign Dennis Kelly to help fill the gap back in the offensive line after Conklin left.

(Editor’s note: The Titans signed DE Jadeveon Clowney to a one-year, $15 Million deal after Garrison submitted his preview.)

Offense Preview: The Titans run a run-heavy offense behind Henry and one of the better offensive lines in the NFL, led by Taylor Lewan. Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith likes to ground-and-pound the ball with Henry, which sets up the down-field targets to break out. Last year, it was rookie receiver A.J. Brown of Ole Miss.

With Tannehill under center, the Titans can now expect him to be able to lead the team and not worry about a quarterback competition. He had to to battle with Mariota for the first six weeks last season.

At the skills positions, the Titans have Brown as the team’s primary target and are still hoping to see Corey Davis, who has rare physical potential, take that next step into becoming an elite receiver. Tannehill also can rely on veterans Adam Humphries and Jonnu Smith to catch passes.

One player to lookout for is Evans, the rookie running back. With Lewis no longer King Henry's backup, Evans has a great shot at getting snaps for more passing situations and in third-and-long.

Defensive Preview: The Titans were a middle of the pack team defensively last year under now retired defensive coordination Dean Peas. With the Titans deciding to not hire a new coordinator, Vrabel will now be responsible for improving this defense.

With some key contributors leaving during the offseason, the Titans will be looking for more help from the strength of their defense - the linebacking core. Rashan Evans, Jayon Brown and Harold Landry can apply major pressure in both pass and run situations. Also, the new addition of Clowney on the defensive line should make the Titans pass rush one the league’s best.

The Titans can safely say that they have two of the best safeties in the entire league. Kevin Byard and Kenny Vaccaro bring both brilliant ball-hawking skills and high football IQ to the Titans.

One area that the Titans may have some concern at is at the cornerback position. With Malcom Butler now longer being as dominant as he was as a Patriot and corner Adoree Jackson still trying to find his role, some teams can take advantage. Though Jackson has a smaller frame than most, he makes up for it in speed and IQ.

One name to look for in the secondary is Fulton from LSU. Fulton can bring size and strength to the cornerback position. Kalif Raymond is also another name to lookout on special teams that could really impact games.

Prediction: 11-5

Houston Texans

2019 Recap: The Houston Texans are coming off a 10-6 season with an AFC South championship and a Wildcard round win against the Buffalo Bills. The season ended with a divisional-round loss to the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium - one of the most memorable games of the 2019-20.

The Houston Texans ranked 13th in total team offense, led by star quarterback Deshaun Watson and star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, both Clemson alums. On the other side of the ball, the Texans defense was a middle-of-the-pack team ranked 19th in total team defensive.

Defensively, the Texans have future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt as the leader of this defense. The linebacker duo of Zach Cunningham and Bendrick McKinney were a very productive tag team all over the field -both were in the top rankings in total tackles.

Draft and Offseason Additions/Subtractions: In the first ever virtual NFL draft, due to the Covid-19 Pandemic, the Houston Texans added five incoming rookies to their roster. In the second round, the Texans selected Ross Blacklock, DT, TCU (No. 40 pick). With only one pick in the third round the Texans again went to add depth behind their strong linebacker room by adding Jonathan Grenard from Florida. In the fourth round of the draft the Texans added OT Charlie Heck (North Carolina) and CB John Reid from Penn State.

The Texans were the talk of the entire NFL offseason as they traded away Hopkins – one the best receivers in the NFL - to the Arizona Cardinals. The Texans also sent out a 2020 fourth round pick. In return, the Texans received RB David Johnson, a 2020 second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick.

Starting running back Lamar Miller also found himself a new home after singing a new deal with the New England Patriots this past month.

The Texans bolstered their wide receiver core by trading for Brandin Cooks (giving up a 2020 second and 2022 fourth-round pick) and signing Randall Cobb to a three-year, $27 million contract.

Offense Preview: With a proven MVP candidate and First-Team All-Pro at the helm, the Texans offense will always have a chance to put up a lot of points against opposing teams’ defenses. With his talent throwing the ball and being able to improvise with his legs, Watson can be one of the toughest quarterbacks to slow down in today’s league.

The question many are asking when it comes to the Texans offense is about the playmakers. The expectation around Houston is that with the addition of veteran receivers (Cooks and Cobb), there should not be to much of a drop off. This Texans offense has a real chance to be one of the biggest threats against opponents this year. With Cobb, Cooks and Will Fuller V at receiver positions and a solid TE group with Darren Fells and Jordan Atkins, Watson and this offense should not miss a beat.

One area off concern with this Texans offense is the running back position. With adding Johnson to the roster, you are getting a potential star. Since being one of the top-ranked backs in the league a few years ago, his production has fallen quite severely after a couple of brutal injures. Johnson’s back up is Duke Johnson.

Defense Preview: After a middle of the pack team defense in 2019, the Texans hope to improve that ranking in the 2020 year. Watt is in his ninth year in the NFL and injuries have been keeping Watt down for the last couple of years. Veterans Watt and Whitney Merciless are the two leaders of this defense in the trenches.

At linebacker, Cunningham ranked at the sixth in tackles in the NFL last year and McKinney is a great defender in coverage – they account for a good 1-2 combo for the Texans.

Lastly, the Texans secondary gifted the fourth-most passing touchdowns in the NFL last year (33 touchdowns). At cornerback, Bradley Roby and Gareon Conley are both speedy cover guys. Over the top at safety, veteran Justin Reid will be one of the key contributors and local leaders of this secondary.

Prediction: 9-7

Indianapolis Colts

2019 Recap: In the second season of the Frank Reich era, the Indianapolis Colts finished the 2019 season third in the AFC South division with a record of 7-9. Going into last season the Colts were a hot pick to be a dark horse for winning the Super Bowl with All-Pro quarterback Andrew Luck. In the third game of the 2019 preseason, social media erupted when Ian Rapaport of NFL Network and Adam Schefter of ESPN broke the news that Luck would be retiring immediately. Luck retired at age 29 due to mulling over multiple injury comebacks and more rehabilitation.

Jacoby Brissett took over as the starting quarterback. The Colts, led by wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and RB Marlon Mack, had the 17th best total offense in the NFL. The Colts defense - anchored by arguably the best middle linebacker in the NFL, Darius Leonard - was also a middle-of-the-pack defense. The Colts really struggled against the pass as they were the second-worst defense in opposing team’s completion percentage.

Draft and Offseason Additions/Subtractions: The Colts traded their first-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers for DT DeForest Buckner.

The Colts added QB Phillip Rivers in free agency after the Los Angeles Chargers decided to move in a new direction. Rivers will be in his 17th year and will take over as starting quarterback.

The other major Colts signees in free agency were TE Trey Burton, DT Sheldon Day and CB Xavier Rhodes. The Colts upgraded their backfield with the selection of running back Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin. Also in the second round, the Colts selected USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. In the fourth round, the Colts selected Jacob Eason, a big-armed QB from Washington.

Offense Preview: With the addition of Rivers, the Colts have someone who can manage games and bring his veteran experience to help this young and talented offense. Rivers is someone known for his IQ and moxie. Though Rivers may lack in arm strength, he makes up with it in his competitiveness.

One area that excites Colts fans is the running back position. With Mack coming off a good season and the addition of Jonathan Taylor, the Colts have great weapons to get the ground game going. The Colts are hav the best offensive line in the NFL led behind All-Pro guard Quentin Nelson.

Rivers will have all the time in the world to look for his weapons. Hilton will have to lead and help grow the young newcomers to this offense. Look for Pariss Campbell, who showed flashes last season, to be a reliable third-down and over-the-top playmaker. The addition of rookie Pittman Jr. should give Rivers a chance to have a good 1-2 punch.

Look for the Colts to use a lot of heavy personal packages that include multiple tight ends and running backs to establish the running game and then lead to Rivers taking some shots down the field.

Defensive Preview: Getting to add someone such as Buckner to an already great Colts front seven just seems unfair. Buckner added 7.5 sacks to his tally last season for the 49ers.

At outside linebacker, the Colts will start Bobby Okereke, who many are raving about his talent after a great rookie season last year. At MLB, the Colts best player Leonard was recently named team captain. Leonard led the Colts with a total of 121 total tackles last year. He also added five sacks and five interceptions. If you play fantasy football, Leonard is always one of the first IDPs taken off the board because of how productive he is.

At cornerback, the Colts will be starting newly acquired Xavier Rhodes and Rock Ya Sin. Sin is one of these new types of defensive hybrids that defensive coordinators love. With both size and strength, he can play all over the field. If Rhodes can get back to his prime play the Colts corners can really challenge opposing teams’ receivers.

At free safety the Colts have Malik Hooker, a ball hawk and a hard hitter. Hooker last year totaled two interceptions to go along with 51 total tackles. If there was one position that Colts fans should worry about on defense it would be the depth at the nickel and the corner position. If Kenny Moore, Sin and/or Rhodes go down to injury it could be worrisome.

Prediction: 8-8

Jacksonville Jaguars

2019 Recap: The 2019 Jacksonville Jaguars finished the season at 6-10 and in last place in the AFC South. The Jaguars under head coach Doug Marrone went into the 2019 season feeling confident, especially with newly acquired Super Bowl MVP quarterback Nick Foles.

With Foles leading the offense and a top-tier running back in Leonard Fournette, many felt that the Jaguars had a great chance to compete in the AFC South. After throwing his first touchdown in a Jaguars uniform, Foles left the game due to a broken collarbone.

Marrone and offensive coordinator John DeFilippo looked to rookie quarterback Gardner Minshew to take over. Minshew, a name many did not know, had a nice season while being in a tough situation. Minshew threw for over 3,000 yards and 21 touchdowns.

The Jaguars’ journey with arguably the best cornerback in the NFL came to an end in October after Jalen Ramsey was traded to the LA Rams for two first-round picks.

Draft and Offseason Additions/Subtractions: The Jaguars, who were looking for as much draft capital as possible, traded both of their biggest stars last season and during the offseason. After trading Ramsey during the season, the Jaguars then traded Calais Campbell to the 14-2 Baltimore Ravens for a fifth-round pick.

Some of the major’s losses during the offseason also included QB Nick Foles, WR Marquise Lee, CB A.J. Bouye and DE Yannick Ngakoue.

Jacksonville Jaguars fans should have a lot of optimism coming out of the 2020 NFL draft. In the first round, Jacksonsville selected C.J. Henderson (CB from Florida) and LSU rusher K’Lavon Chaisson. Both first-round picks have lots of upside and will be able to contribute in a big way right away. The Jaguars also added WR Laviska Shenault Jr., DT DaVon Hamilton, OL Ben Bartch, CB Josiah Scott, LB Shaquille Quarterman and S Daniel Thomas in the 2020 NFL draft.

In free agency, the Jaguars added RB Chris Thompson, TE Tyler Eifert and LB Joe Schobert.

Offense Preview: With Minshew as the official starting quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars, fans will be looking for him to do some of the same as last year but also improve. Jay Gruden, in his first year as offensive coordinator for the Jaguars, will be calling the plays for Minshew and this offense. Gruden is typically known for his offenses to be much like a college team would be - You are looking at seeing a lot of quick and short timing routes which would then open some shots down field.

Just before the season, Marrone named James Robinson as the starting running back following the release of Fournette. It is likely that it will be a running back by committee type of back field with Fournette’s departure.

D.J. Chark was also another bright spot for the Jags offense last year. Going into 2020, Minshew and Gruden have a top receiver to be able to target. After Chark, the receivers get a little shaky. The Jaguars will also start Chris Conley and Shenault Jr., a rookie from Colorado. Eifert, if can stay healthy, can also be a good target for Minshew.

Defensive Preview: This year’s Jacksonville Jaguar defense has a chance to be a top defense. With many exciting and young talented players, it will be one that will keep opposing teams’ coordinators up at night.

Defensive end Josh Allen had 10.5 sacks as a rookie last year. Adding K’Lavon Chaisson to Allen gives the Jaguars two major impact players on the defensive line.

In the second level, the Jaguars have Myles Jack and Schobert at linebacker. Jack is known to be a great pass rusher and overall linebacker and Schobert is a good run stopper.

The area that worries most about this Jags defense is the secondary. Even with adding the Henderson with the ninth-overall pick, there are still some major questions.

Pro Football Focus has the Jaguars secondary ranking 29th out of 32 teams in the NFL.

Prediction: 3-13

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