The AFC South is emerging as a division with all four teams stocked with young talent at key positions. The decision has been dominated by the Colts in recent years but injuries to Andrew Luck last season opened the door for Houston to take the division. Jacksonville showed great improvement behind the emergence of Blake Bortles and Allen Robinson, although their record didn’t show it. Tennessee has quietly amassed some talent throughout their offense to go along with an aggressive, productive, and underrated defense. With no clear cut leader the AFC South should be one of the most hotly contested divisions this year.
Invigorated, perhaps, by their success in 2015 Houston made several splashes in free agency acquiring Lamar Miller and Brock Osweiller. Both players figure to take some of the pressure off of DeAndre Hopkins as does first round selection Will Fuller. Bill O’Brien finally has the pieces he needs to have a dynamic offense and the results should be obvious. Defensively Houston boasts the game’s best player in JJ Watt and a talented supporting cast around him. Their two-deep boasts 7 former first round picks, six of whom start. If Jadeveon Clowney can regain his collegiate form the Texans defense should be among the league leaders in quarterback pressures and turnovers created. In terms of the division Houston just has fewer questions than anyone else, which should propel them to an 11-5 record.
It’s tempting to favor the Colts behind the play of Andrew Luck, the most exciting young player in the game. The injuries that hampered him last season figure to be the exception rather than the norm, but the poor offensive line play in unlikely to be drastically improved with the simple addition of Ryan Kelly, a center. TY Hilton remains an explosive player and Donte Moncreif has shown enough potential to be on every list as a potential breakout receiver this season. Frank Gore is no longer a 200 carry back, at least not an effective one, but he is a crafty runner that will help the team in key situations. The Colts defense, however, has almost as many questions as it has players. The only unit that looks close to average is the linebacking corps which is largely made up of veteran free agent signings due to the awful drafting of the last few years. Vontae Davis, the Colts best defender, is likely to miss a few games, and without his steady presence in the secondary the team is likely to have difficulty stopping anyone. The Colts will again have to outscore their opponents in order to win which they’ll do, but not enough to make the playoffs. I see them finishing at 9-7.
Jacksonville showed potential last season even if their record didn’t show it. This team is certainly trending upward behind the play of Bortles and Robinson. Julius Thomas will be healthy this year and the Jaguars added Chris Ivory to help their running game get moving. Allen Hurns has a very good year last year and offers a nice compliment to Robinson in the passing game. Dante Fowler will make his debut on the defensive side of the ball along with Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack giving the jaguars a young impact player at all three levels of defense. Gus Bradley is a defensive minded coach and the team will need to improv on this side of the ball but it’s hard to imagine, with the talent they are adding, that they won’t be quite a bit better, especially late in the season. 7-9 is a realistic possibility with a slew of close losses.
We can assume that the Titans plan on running the ball this year. DeMarco Murray and Derek Henry give the team two physical backs that can pound defenses between the tackles while Marcus Mariota beats them wide with the read option. Delanie Walker had a breakthrough year in 2015 and it’s not hard to see him replicating his numbers, or even improving them, in 2016. Their offensive line is built to run with Conklin, Lewan, and Warmack all recent first round choices that excel in run blocking situations. Defensively the Titans continue to do a nice job of developing players without having a big name among them. The Titans defense should be among the fiercest in the league this season but many non Titans fans would be hard pressed to name 3 of their defensive starters.Tennessee is a tough team to get a handle on, production wise, but their experience level makes me somewhat bearish. 4-12 is my best guess.