2017 NFL Season Preview: AFC South

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The Open Man previews the 2017 NFL Season with breakdowns of all 32 NFL teams. Today’s preview focuses on the AFC South, a division that should come down to the wire between the Houston Texans and the emerging Tennessee Titans for a second straight season. 

Houston Texans

If not for incredible injury luck in late December, the Houston Texans would be entering the 2017 season off the back of a disappointment in 2016. Without JJ Watt, the Texans struggled through the failed Brock Osweiler experiment and nearly lost the AFC South to the surging Tennessee Titans.

Luckily enough for the Texans, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota suffered a season ending leg injury that all but conceded the division to Houston. In the playoffs, the Texans received further injury luck when they faced the Oakland Raiders after Derek Carr also suffered a late season ending injury of his own.

Those two injuries turned the Texans’ season from a disappointment into a division title and win the AFC Wild Card before bowing out to the New England Patriots. Given the circumstances and the lack of JJ Watt for most of the season, a home playoff win along with a division title was a success for the Texans in all measures.

However, the injuries to Mariota and Carr papered over the cracks on an awful season of football in Houston. With Osweiler and his replacement in Tom Savage at quarterback, it was hard to watch the Texans abysmal offense luck their way into an aberration of a season compared to the on-field quality.

To the Texans credit, the front office addressed the terrible quarterback play with the selection of National Championship Game star Deshaun Watson out of Clemson. Watson was college football’s most dynamic passer over his final two seasons at Clemson and the expectation is he will start in Houston at some point in his rookie season.

Head coach Bill O’Brien needs Watson to become an instant upgrade after three years of quarterback struggles under his watch. O’Brien’s main gimmick is his prowess in the passing game as a coach and rightfully deserves to be under the gun if he can’t get it right with a talented passer in Watson who won and thrived in his collegiate career.

Unfortunately for the O’Brien, he got his quarterback and lost his franchise cornerback in A.J. Bouye to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Bouye lifted the Texans to the playoffs and become a star recognized to be one of the best corners in the game during Watt’s absence.

This Texans season hinges on the health of JJ Watt and the ability of Deshaun Watson to succeed right away as a rookie. If Watt is healthy enough to finally play a full 16 game season and Watson can manage the offense enough, this Texans team can win another AFC South title.

If one of those two factors goes badly for the Texans, the door is open for the Tennessee Titans to surpass them. Either way, 2017 is an interesting year in Houston while they build for a hopeful Deshaun Watson Era.

Tennessee Titans

Despite the aforementioned Marcus Mariota injury that cost the team a playoff spot, 2016 was a success for the Tennessee Titans. In DeMarco Murray’s first season with the Titans, the offense took a leap and showed signs of encouragement for the future of a team riding a franchise quarterback in Mariota.

The next step for the Titans is to build on their strong season prior to Mariota’s injury into a division title and playoff berth.

That goal is a realstic one for the Titans after an offseason of upgrades to load up for a run to the postseason. Tennessee drafted Western Michigan wideout prospect Corey Davis in the first round and spent two third round picks on targets for Marcus Mariota in Taywan Taylor and tight end Jonnu Smith.

Throw in the addition of veteran target Eric Decker and the Titans made a serious commitment to upgrade the targets for Mariota. Those additions should give the Titans the final piece to the puzzle on offense to make a serious run at the AFC South divisional crown, after an encouraging first year with an attack based around DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry on the ground.

On defense, the Titans bolstered their secondary with the draft of USC’s Adoree’ Jackson and the signings of Logan Ryan along with safety Jonathan Cyprien.

After addressing the majority of holes in their roster with impressive free agency and draft moves, there is a lot to like when it comes to this Titans roster. If Mariota recovers from injury and continues his development, this will be the year the Titans take the leap and take the division out of the hands of the Texans and Colts.

Indianapolis Colts

For much of the past two decades, it appeared the Indianapolis Colts would dominate the AFC South forever. Peyton Manning begat Andrew Luck’s instant success and it looked as if the Texans, Titans, and Jaguars would forever be in the shadow of the success in Indy.

Back to back 8-8 seasons conceded the balance of power in the AFC South from the Colts to the Texans. Indianapolis clearly regressed and much of the blame is placed on questionable moves made by now former general manager Ryan Grigson.

2016 marked the first time since 1998 that the Colts missed the postseason in consecutive seasons. A glaring stat that shows the reality of the decline for a franchise that expects to be near the top of their division and in the playoffs year after year.

Sadly for the Colts, their offseason doesn’t breed much confidence in a change in fortunes. New general manager Chris Ballard didn’t make many splashes in free agency and that is a problem for a Colts team lacking in elite talent beyond Luck and wideout T.Y. Hilton.

Instead, Ballard opted to make a handful of minor moves in the mid-tier of the free agency class to overhaul the depth of his team. Names like Jonathan Hankins and Jabaal Sheard improve the Colts, but slightly increasing the talent level of a bad team with above average free agents isn’t overly inspiring.

Compared to the Texans and the Titans, the Colts roster is a clear notch below the top of the division right now. With Andrew Luck also coming off labrum surgery this offseason as a health question mark, it certainly looks like this could be a third straight year of no playoffs in Indianapolis.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jacksonville Jaguars’ struggles in the Blake Bortles era have followed a similar path. The Jags limp to a bottom-of-the-standings record, draft a new batch of prospects and splash money on a few free agents who want to cash in on the lack of state tax in Florida, only to see the same results on the field.

It is clear the Jags will never win with Bortles captaining the offense, but the team didn’t bring in a new quarterback this offseason. That includes not signing Colin Kaepernick, who is an upgrade in every way to the team’s current abysmal situation.

That means the additions the Jaguars did make this offseason – namely the signing of top free agent cornerback AJ Bouye from the division rival Texans – will be for naught because the quarterback play is too awful for this team to win games on Sundays, and certainly for competing in the AFC South race.

Bortles did manage to beat out Chad Henne for the starting quarterback job in the preseason. But the fact Bortles had to beat out a quarterback as mediocre as Chad Henne is an indictment of how badly his career has progressed since he was selected ahead of both Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr.

With another year of Bortles at starter, the Jaguars are on a clear path to a year of tanking to hopefully press the reset button in the draft.

The Jaguars’ ability to lure talented free agents might work against them in that pursuit of a top pick and chance at USC’s Sam Darnold.

However, this team will be bad anyway and won’t win until they find a competent quarterback for the first time since David Garrard was in Jacksonville.