2017 NFL Season Preview: AFC South

Can one of the weaker divisions show signs of competition in 2018?

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The Sideline Report looks ahead to the 2017 NFL season continues today with a look at the near impossible to pick AFC South.

Houston

Key Additions

QB Deshaun Watson, LB Sio Moore

Key Losses

QB Brock Osweiler, LB John Simon, CB AJ Bouye, NT Vince Wilfork, S Quinten Demps

What does a successful season look like?

Long considered a team a quarterback away from being a serious Superbowl contender, the Texans would love for one of either veteran Tom Savage or rookie Deshaun Watson to emerge as the clear starter (preferably the rookie, of course). If Watson could step out of a quint-essential college offense run by Clemson into the big time behind a good enough offensive and backed by the leagues reigning number one ranked defense, the Texans could become a genuine threat in the AFC seemingly over night. AJ Bouye’s loss from a thin cornerback depth chart hurts, but if goliath DE JJ Watt returns healthy from his persistent back injuries which have plagued him, and Jadeveon Clowney builds off a strong 2016 season, it could make an ordinary secondary look much better. If Watson can win the starting job and take the Texans on a Dak Prescott-esque journey in 2017, the Texans are the clear frontrunners in the South. They’ve gone 9-7 with shoddy QB play, 10 or 11 wins is not out of the question with everything falling into place, which would almost certainly mean a third straight division title.

What does a disastrous season look like?

Watson wins the starting job, but is benched by HC Bill O’Brien by week 8 after looking out of his depth. The defense doesn’t help, with JJ Watt a shell of his former self and Clowney and Whitney Mercilus left to do too much, the Texans leave too much to their average at best secondary who allow the most yards through the air in season 2017. Tom Savage reminds everyone of his lack of talent, throwing a bunch of interceptions that eventually lead to the franchise moving on from both he and coach Bill O’Brien at seasons end. To make matters worse, all three divison oppenents go past the Texans, leaving them on the AFC South dooremat with a record of 4-12.

Cold Hard Truth

Things can change quickly and for the better if rookie Deshaun Watson proves why so many college and pro scouts had him rated so highly during draft time. This has the look of a serious contender if Watson is the real deal, if not, they still might be good enough for an 8-8 record. That of course won’t be enough for a wild card spot or a contract extension for O’Brien.

Indianapolis

Key Additions

LB Jabaal Sheard, LB John Simon, S Malik Hooker, WR Kamar Aiken, NT Jonathan Hankins

Key Losses

LB Robert Mathis, P Pat McAfee, S Mike Adams, TE Dwayne Allen

What does a successful season look like?

The Colts regime have brought in a ton of help via both the draft and free agency, so they’re certainly not resting on their laurels. If the offensive line can continue to improve at the rate it did  down the stretch last season (led by rookie centre Ryan Kelly and rookie right tackle Le’Raven Clark), and Andrew Luck can manage to stay out of harms way for a 16 game stretch, this certainly has the look of a play-off calibre Colts team. The running game will still ask a bit of age-old warrior Frank Gore, but Colts fans will hope that rookie 4th round pick Marlon Mack will play early on and have an impact as well. There’s a ton of new faces on defense, and if they can gel quickly and get instant impact from rookies Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson in the secondary, the Colts could be on their way back to the top of the AFC South. 11 wins is not beyond them, if Luck’s health permits.

What does a disastrous season look like?

The Colts havn’t drafted well in recent off-seasons, which may be why the head honchos went in search of experienced quick fixes such as linebackers Jabaal Sheard and John Simon. If the defense plays like it reads on paper (extremely average) then this could be another season where the Colts ask Andrew Luck to do everything without the talent they should have surrounded him with. Malik Hooker will be a fantastic long term safety prospect, but if he struggles in year 1 there doesn’t look to be anybody else who can repeatedly get the ball back to Luck and the offense. So long as Luck is on the field, the Colts will be in the division race. However, if Luck misses considerable time again in 2017, there’s not enough talent here to suggest they could still climb to a winning record. Anything less than 7-9 would be cause for sackings.

Cold Hard Truth

There’s only a few things that have to happen for Indy to return to January football. Most of it has to do with Luck, but if the offensive line can continue to improve and Malik Hooker and co on defense play consistent, Luck has the potential to get this team back to the top. 10 wins may or may not get them there.

Jacksonville

Key Additions

Head Coach Doug Marrone, CB AJ Bouye, DE Calais Campbell, S Barry Church, RB Leonard Fournette

Key Losses

S Johnathan Cyprien, G Luke Joeckel, TE Julius Thomas

What does a successful season look like?

The Jags have been the hype team the last few off-seasons, but it hasn’t come to fruition. This year seems different, and there looks to be a different identity to the Jaguars in 2017. The Jags look to ride rookie RB Leonard Fournette all the way to the post season, with the bulldozing runner also hoping to pick offensive rookie of the year honours along the way. If Blake Bortles can fix a few of his mechanical issue (and cut out the back-breaking redzone interceptions) this offense will be on it’s way to keeping the team in more games this season, if not winning them. On paper, this may be one of the top 5 defences in the AFC. With veterans up front such as Malik Jackson and new recruit Calais Campbell getting after opposing QB’s, Telvin Smith and second-year break out candidate Myles Jack on the second level with Free Agent pick-up AJ Bouye and stud CB Jalen Ramsay manning the perimeter, this finally looks like a Jags team that is for real and more than capable of reaching double digit wins for the first time in 10 years.

What does a disastrous season look like?

It could all come down to the progress of young QB Blake Bortles. Despite the fact he will obviously be asked to throw the ball a lot less this year, Bortles has to show he’s improved as a passer in the pros. The Jags are bound to find themselves behind at times this season, and when the stud young RB is benched and it’s all on Bortles to get Jacksonville back in to games, can he deliver? Bortles has too much talent on defense and too much talent surrounding him on offense in Fournette and young revievers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns to let this opportunity slip. If it simply doesn’t happen for him, the Jags could be picking inside the top 10 again and be on the look out for a new signal caller. Again.

Cold Hard Truth

This is a team that will go as far as their talented but mechanically flawed young QB will take them. If Bortles recaptures his 2015 form, look out, as this could be an 11 or 12 win team based on their stockpiling of young talent. 8-8 sounds more realisting with no play-offs for at least another season.

Tennessee

Key Addition

S Johnathan Cyprien, CB Logan Ryan, WR Eric Decker, WR Corey Davis, CB Adoree’ Jackson

Key Losses

G Chance Warmack, WR Kendall Wright, CB Jason McCourtey

What does a successful season look like?

Marcus Mariota makes a giant leap in year 3, showing no signs of a broken leg that ended his 2016 season. The offense turns into a top 10 unit behind the emergence of rookie Corey Davis’ brillance and Eric Deker’s career revival. Derreck Henry pinches the starting job from DeMarco Murray by week 4 and still finishes in the top 5 in rushing yards at seasons end. A defense that surprised last season with 40 sacks (second in the AFC) continues to do so, with Brian Orakpo and second year man Kevin Dodd combining for 19.5 sacks between them. A secondary that could have up to 4 new starters jumps out of the gate, with first rounder Adoree Jackson leading all rookies in interceptions by seasons end and becomes a house hold name in the return game, logging both 2 punt and kick-off returns for touchdowns. The Titans feast on an otherwise ordinary division, soaring to 11-5 and their first division title since 2008.

What does a disastrous season look like?

Mariota struggles to overcome his leg injury of 12 months ago, struggling outside of the pocket and regressing as a downfield passer. Corey Davis finds the jump from the MAC to the pros too much to handle and can only muster 20 receptions and just a pair of TD’s. Neither DeMarco Murray or Derreck Henry can wrestle the starting job from the one another, leading to a stale and unwatchable season on offense. The defense can’t make up for it, proving season 2016 to be an aberration on that side of the ball. A secondary that starts 4 players who played on 4 different teams a year earlier never gets on the same page. The Titans sputter to a 4-12 record, buckling under the pressure and hype surrounding a team that has been in the football wilderness since the music city miracle.

Cold Hard Truth

This is an exciting Titans team that has been built exceptionally quickly by General Manger Jon Robinson, and has been built to win a lot of games not just during the year, but in the play-offs as well. Much will depend on the recovery of the young QB’s leg, but if this offense goes to another level now with a quality WR1 in Corey Davis and a more than functional ground game, there’s no reason to say why these emerging Titans can’t win AT LEAST 10 games.

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