The AFC South gets flak for how poor the bottom of the division is, even though the top of the division features legitimate contenders in the AFC. The AFC South appears to be a two-horse race between the Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts, franchises that are annual playoff contenders and dark-horses to reach the Super Bowl.
Tennessee bolstered its explosive offense by adding Julio Jones this offseason following the free agent departure of Corey Davis. Indianapolis took the gamble it can revitalize Carson Wentz after acquiring the former Philadelphia Eagles franchise quarterback and reuniting him with Frank Reich. The Colts were a playoff team with Philip Rivers in his final season, but are banking on Wentz returning to his MVP form from the 2017 season and becoming a Super Bowl contender in the conference.
The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 pick and took a shot on Urban Meyer at head coach. Jacksonville has lost 15 consecutive games, but optimism has never been higher for the team's future thank to the presence of Lawrence. Meanwhile, the Houston Texans have an uncertain future with first-year head coach David Culley -- who is leading one of the worst rosters in the NFL.
With a 17-game schedule in 2021, the AFC South will likely come down to the final week -- leaving some legitimate questions that need to be answered before the start of the season. It's time for each team to get the jump on each other as camp is set to begin.
1. How does Julio Jones fit in this offense?
The Titans scored one of the biggest prizes of the offseason in acquiring Jones, who is still one of the most dynamic players in the league despite an injury riddled 2020 season. Jones still was sixth in the league in average receiving yards per game (85.7) despite being limited to just nine games. Jones has 12,896 career receiving yards though 135 games, the most for a player in NFL history. He's averaged 104.3 yards per game in the playoffs, trailing only Larry Fitzgerald (104.7) for the highest mark in NFL history (minimum five playoff games).
How will the Titans use Jones? Is he the No. 1 option for Ryan Tannehill? That's a question new Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing will have to answer, but Tennessee has two excellent big-play wideouts in Jones and A.J. Brown. Don't be surprised if Jones recaptures his prime with all the offensive playmakers surrounding him in Tennessee. This is a warning.
2. Can Shane Bowen fix one of the NFL's worst defenses?
Bowen did call the plays for the Titans defense last season, even if he wasn't technically the defensive coordinator. His promotion wasn't too reassuring for Titans fans, as Tennessee's defense was 30th in sacks, opponents' red zone touchdown percentage, and three-and-out percentage. Tennessee had the worst third-down defense (51.9%) since 1972 in a non-strike season -- all under Bowen's "watch."
Tennessee added Bud Dupree to replace the disappointing Jadeveon Clowney in the pass rush. The Titans also signed Janoris Jenkins and selected Caleb Farley in the first round in an effort to revamp the cornerback situation (36 touchdown passes allowed was second most in football).
Are these changes enough to get the Titans back to a top-15 unit? Bowen may only get one year to correct this mess, even though he's only 34 years old and appears to have a bright coaching future ahead of him. Tennessee's defense is the catalyst toward a Super Bowl run.
3. Will any running back step up if Derrick Henry runs out of gas?
No player in the NFL has more carries over the last three years than Henry (896), so the back-to-back rushing champion's workload is incredibly high. Does Tennessee have any running back step up if Henry becomes human and breaks down this season?
Henry is coming off consecutive 300-carry seasons, making the need for a No. 2 option even more prevalent. Jeremy McNichols averaged 4.3 yards per carry (47 carries) in a reserve role with the Titans last season, so he's the top candidate. The Titans are hoping 2020 third-round pick Darrynton Evans takes the next step after an underwhelming rookie season which he had just 14 carries. Evans had just one game which he recorded over 10 offensive touches -- and that was in mop-up duty.
Tennessee needs McNichols or Evans to give Henry a breather throughout the season so the game's top running back doesn't wear down over the course of the year. Henry shouldn't have 378 carries in 2021.
1. Can Frank Reich fix Carson Wentz?
This is the $20.4 million question in Indianapolis (Wentz's cap number after the Colts acquired him). Wentz was one of the worst quarterbacks in football last season, having the second-worst completion percentage (57.4), third-worst yards per attempt (6.0), and the most turnovers (19) in the league -- despite playing just 13 games. Indianapolis gave up a 2022 conditional first-round pick and 2021 third-round pick in the hopes Wentz is the quarterback for the next decade.
Wentz was a star when Reich was his offensive coordinator in Philadelphia. He completed 60.2% of his passes for 3,296 yards, 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a 101.9 passer rating in 13 games in the 2017 season (his last with Reich as his coach), setting the franchise record for touchdown passes in a season. Despite missing the last three games, Wentz finished second in the league in touchdown passes.
Wentz's problems weren't all on him, as the Eagles allowed the most sacks (65) in the league last season and Doug Pederson's offense became stale. The Colts have one of the best offensive lines in the league (allowing just 21 sacks) and are committed to using the running game to build the offense (the opposite occurred in Philadelphia).
Wentz has the coaching and pieces around him to succeed in Indianapolis, but Reich has to get him back on the right track mentally. The Colts will see where Wentz's confidence level lies when adversity comes his way. It's on Reich to help Wentz this summer.
2. Are the wide receivers good enough to get Wentz back on track?
The Colts have depth at wide receiver, but it remains to be seen if a true No. 1 is on this roster. Indianapolis ran it back with this wide receiver group, re-signing T.Y. Hilton to a one-year deal. Hilton's 762 yards last season were the eighth-fewest by a leading receiver in the league.
Hilton has been declining over the past few seasons, so someone amongst the wide receivers needs to emerge as the top option. Michael Pittman is the best bet here, as he had 30 catches and 424 yards after Week 9. Pittman also led Indianapolis with five catches for 90 yards in the wild card playoff loss to Buffalo. He's the big-bodied receiver that can really thrive with Wentz.
None of these players are No. 1 options right now, but one can emerge in camp. The pressure will be on Pittman here.
3. Can Wentz improve Indy's red zone woes?
The Colts were limited in the red zone due to Philip Rivers' immobility last year, converting just 58.3% of their red zone trips into touchdowns (tied for just 17th in the league). Indianapolis settled for 19 field goals made in the red zone, the third most in the league. That number needs to be better if the Colts are going to contend for a division title.
Wentz's mobility outside the pocket will significantly help here. The new Colts quarterback just needs to protect the football, which has been difficult for him throughout his five seasons in the NFL. Wentz has 58 fumbles in 68 career games, a significant part of his turnover woes in Philadelphia. If Wentz can protect the football and bide his time to find playmakers, the Colts will score more touchdowns in the red zone and improve their offense significantly. This is on Wentz to finally straighten out the biggest flaw in his game.
1. Who's the quarterback?
Seriously, who is going to be the quarterback for the Texans? The obvious answer is Deshaun Watson, but he's facing 22 civil lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct. Watson still wants to be traded, but he may need to use the Texans to improve his trade stock and rebuild his image. Watson could hold out, which may not be a wise decision for his career.
Tyrod Taylor is the likely starter come Week 1. Taylor isn't short of experience as a starting quarterback, having been in the NFL for 10 years. In 72 career games -- 47 as a starter -- Taylor completed 61.4% of his passes for 9,770 yards with 54 touchdowns to just 18 interceptions and an 89.5 passer rating (24-21-1 record). Only 1.4% of Taylor's passes have been intercepted, which is the same percentage as Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.
Third-round pick Davis Mills will also compete for the starting job, even though its likely he'll learn under Taylor until Culley throws him into the fire later in the season. The Watson allegations make this scenario all the more confusing, but Houston should bank on Taylor being the starter come Week 1.
2. Which running back will emerge as the top option?
Houston signed a few running backs to compete with David Johnson for the top job in 2021. Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram are two viable options to take carries away from Johnson, who rushed for 691 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games in 2020, averaging a career-high 4.7 yards per carry.
Lindsay has proven he can start in the NFL, and got a raw deal in Denver despite rushing for 2,550 yards and 17 touchdowns in three seasons. Despite having consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, Lindsay lost his starting job to Melvin Gordon prior to the season and moved on to a better opportunity in Houston. Ingram fell out of favor in Baltimore to J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, but the 31 year old will compete for touches in 2021. He may be the team's red zone back.
The Texans traded DeAndre Hopkins for Johnson, and have already admitted their mistake by bringing in Lindsay. The running game will be improved in 2021, but the No. 1 back job will be a battle throughout camp.
3. Does the defense have anybody who can help Zach Cunningham?
The Texans are going to have to find out if they have any assets on defense not named Zach Cunningham. J.J. Watt was released and Shaq Lawson was brought in to bolster the defensive line, yet Lawson has recorded more than four sacks in a season only once (6.5 in 2019).
This defense was one of the worst in the NFL last season, allowing 6.2 yards per play (third highest in NFL) and 416.8 yards per game (third-highest average). Houston's nine takeaways were the fewest in the league, so the Texans added Terrance Mitchell and Desmond King in free agency to improve that total.
Houston's run defense was abysmal, allowing the most rushing yards per game (162.3) and the highest yards per carry (5.2) in the league. Christian Kirksey is an upgrade to the unit, but the team not having a first- or second-round pick didn't improve the defense. The Texans have to find some building blocks on a poor defense this summer, or else this unit may actually be worse than it was in 2020.
1. How good will Trevor Lawrence be in Year One?
Lawrence is going to shine in Jacksonville. He has the running game in Travis Etienne and James Robinson to manage his workload and a pair of promising young receivers in DJ Chark and Laviska Shenault to throw to. Let's not forget how much of an impact Marvin Jones will have to this young receiver group.
The weapons are there for Lawrence to succeed, and he gets rid of the ball quickly enough to mask an offensive line that could improve at tackle. All five starters returning for the Jaguars should help Lawrence develop.
It's fair to believe Lawrence can have the impact Justin Herbert had for the Chargers in his rookie season. Lawrence is one of the most talented quarterbacks to enter the league in years, and expectations are legitimate he can turn the Jaguars' fortunes around over the next few years. If Lawrence throws 30 touchdowns this year, it shouldn't be a shock.
2. Can Urban Meyer's style transition to the NFL?
Meyer already has experienced some bumps in the road as an NFL head coach --and he hasn't coached a game yet. Hiring Chris Doyle to his staff raised eyebrows considering Doyle was put on administrative leave for alleged negative treatment to Black players. Doyle resigned less than 48 hours after his hiring was announced.
Meyer has also been frustrated by contact limitations and the need to spend more time with the players, a major difference between the NFL and college. He also was fined for violating the no-contact rule for offseason practices in minicamp, even though a few players overextended to live contact to impress the coaching staff.
Drafting Etienne and lining him up at wide receiver is a questionable move. The signing of Tim Tebow, who never played tight end in the NFL and has been out of football since 2015, made some scratch their heads as well.
If Meyer loses a few games, will he be able to handle it and control his locker room? At the end of the day, Meyer can eliminate all those issues by developing a young Jaguars team and winning games in Year One.
The fate of the Jaguars franchise is in Meyer's hands. He gets at least two years to see if his style works. This Jaguars team is good enough to win at least six games.
3. Is James Robinson still the top option at running back?
This was a question that didn't need to be asked, yet Meyer drafted Etienne in the first round despite the spectacular rookie season Robinson had. An undrafted rookie free agent, Robinson tied for fifth in the NFL with 1,070 rushing yards and his 1,414 scrimmage yards were the most ever by a rookie who went undrafted. Robinson should be the unquestioned starter.
However, Etienne was arguably the best running back in college football at Clemson. Etienne scored a touchdown in 46 of his 55 career collegiate games (most in FBS history). He is the ACC's all-time leader in rushing yards (4,952), scrimmage yards (6,107), rushing touchdowns (70), and scrimmage touchdowns (78). Meyer is finding a way to use both Robinson and Etienne, making Etienne a receiver and third-down back. The Jaguars coach wants to utilize his talents in the passing game.
Carlos Hyde, who played under Meyer at Ohio State, is also on the roster. Hyde will likely spell Robinson at times this year, but for how long? Will the Jaguars keep Robinson off the field for a possession or two so Hyde and Etienne get touches?
This preseason won't be an indicator what Meyer will do with Robinson. Unfortunately, we won't know how the standout sophomore will be utilized until Week 1.