If you’re unfamiliar with watching any AFC South team play football last year, the results are uninspiring. The Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans finished with a combined 25-39 record throughout the 2015 season. Exclude these teams records against eachother and you have a group of four teams that went 13-27 against every other team in football – the worst out of any division in football.
However, even win-loss records doesn’t describe just how relatively bad these teams were last year. By almost any metric you look at, their performances range from being graded as around average to being ranked the worst in football. Take a look at AFC South division leader from last year: the Texans. They graded only 18th in overall DVOA and 16th in SRS, which takes into account point differential and strength of schedule. In order, the Colts finished 23rd, Jaguars 25th, Titans 31st at each respective statistic.
Either way, someone from this division will have to go to the playoffs. Which team will it be?
2016 Houston Texans:
It doesn’t sound like much, but the Texans actually seem to have an upgrade at quarterback! After struggling through a year with Brian Hoyer, TJ Yates and Ryan Mallett leading the offense, Houston seems to have finally found their starter for hopefully a full season: Brock Osweiler.
Osweiler isn’t necessarily a good decision maker, but as shown through his stretch with starting for the Broncos last season, he is an okay game manager that can occasionally throw a deep ball pretty well. It would obviously be ridiculous to expect Osweiler to turn into some kind of star, but based on what we’ve seen from him so far in his career, he is about an above-replacement level player at his position and has the potential to become an average starter. That’s already a huge improvement from Hoyer, Mallet and Yates: all below replacement level players last season.
Also consider a guy who will most likely be Osweiler’s biggest target for the season: DeAndre Hopkins, who is an arguably top five or ten player at wide receiver. Add the Texans’ upgrade at running back as well, from an aging Arian Foster to the fresh and promising Lamar Miller as another weapon for the young quarterback to use, along with the speedy first round draft pick wideout in Will Fuller. Given his skillset as a big-arm guy and his history of playing in a conservative offense, there’s reason to be optimistic about Osweiler – especially since Hoyer had a relatively good box score stat line for the year, with 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Osweiler doesn’t have to be Aaron Rodgers or even Joe Flacco to make this offense work – he just has to be capable.
If the offense can hover around league average, it could provide a good enough support for Houston’s JJ Watt-anchored defense, which ranked No. 8 in defensive DVOA last year and has someone who arguably has the best defensive prime of an NFL player ever. Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel deserves a ton of credit for turning around the formerly No. 18 defense in football in 2013 to becoming a top ten force with a chance to get even better.
However, just giving credit to Watt for Houston’s excellent defensive line play is unfair. Edge rushers in Whitney Mercilus and Jadaveon Clowney provide great pressure on the outside, even if their individual sack totals don’t show impress skeptics. Situation veteran defensive tackles like Vince Wilfork and John Simon also add depth to a front seven that ranked No. 9 in adjusted line yards in stopping the run and No. 6 in adjusted sack rate last season. There’s no reason to believe that rank won’t increase or stay around the same level heading into next season, given the return of the solid cornerback tandem in Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson as well.
Houston’s offensive line is no longer the force it was back when left tackle Duane Brown was one of the league’s elite players at his position. Even with right guard Jeff Allen providing a great upgrade over the departed Brandon Brooks and returning starting right tackle Derek Newton, there are question marks at center and left guard: with the disappointing left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo coming back and the unproven rookie second round center Nick Martin. Injuries in an offensive line are almost inevitable for any team – if any of these guys go down, it will have a negative ripple effect on the offense.
Though the Texans’ defense is one of the best in the league, it’s also still dependent on how it does in the trenches. Second-year Bernardrick McKinney is a bright spot in an otherwise desolate group of inside linebackers like Brian Cushing and an out-of-position Eddie Pleasant. This can cause Houston to be susceptible to No. 2 wideouts or at defending receiving backs: in both categories, Houston ranked No. 23 and No. 18 in DVOA.
That may not even be Houston’s biggest weakness. The Texans had the worst special teams DVOA in the NFL last season to continue a stretch of abysmal special teams play over the last few years. Firing their special teams coordinator was a step in the right direction, but it’s certainly still a concern for Houston heading forward, even if they aren’t the worst in the league again.
Best Case: Houston sweeps its own porous division and an Osweiler looking to prove himself leads a well-balanced offense with a breakout year from Lamar Miller. An elite defense and improved enough special teams squad help the Texans finish at 10-6 with an AFC South division title.
Worst Case: Despite playing with two of the best skill position players in the league, Osweiler regresses under the pressure of being a starter and the defense suffers enough injuries to its core, while the special teams unit stays awful. The Texans finish 6-10 and out of the playoffs.
2016 Indianapolis Colts
After 2014, when Andrew Luck looked like he could become an MVP-candidate in 2015, Luck was awful last year, playing in only seven games, throwing 12 interceptions, completing only 55.3 percent of his passes and having a 5.04 ANY/A. As prone to turnovers as Luck can be at his worst, it’d be overzealous to see him throw 4.6 percent of his throws for interceptions again: an almost unsustainably bad rate. His career 2.6 percent INT rate should be a little more indicative for the kind of season we can expect, since he’ll also be back in top shape and likely not leading the No. 30 team in offensive DVOA again. Maybe he’ll even begin to solidify himself as the NFL’s corniest commercials guy.
Supporting Luck on the offense are returning veterans in halfback Frank Gore, the devastating deep threat TY Hilton and a promising secondary wideout in Donte Moncrief. Moreover, the offensive line should still be solid for Luck, with returning weak side linemen in tackle Anthony Castonzo and Jack Mewhurt. Even Indianapolis’ rookie first round center Ryan Kelly should provide an improvement from last season’s Jonotthan Harrison, who was hurt and one of the worst starting centers in football when he played.
Don’t forget that the Colts finished No. 13 in defensive DVOA last season, despite struggling on the other end. Here, they also have returning starters and players like Vontae Davis, Henry Anderson, Kendall Langford, Trent Cole, Robert Mathis and Erik Walden coming back. Continuity in key starters on a defense over the years is important for improvement and sustainability.
It doesn’t hurt that one of the positions the Colts has tried to replace has a great jump in quality of play. In place of the much-maligned cornerback Greg Toler is Patrick Robinson, who quietly had a resurgent year with the Chargers before singing with Indianapolis. Replacing any starter on a defense can be tricky, but the difference between horrendous and even just average can sometimes be all it takes for a defense to significantly get better in an area.
Even if Luck doesn’t play like the worst at his position again, there’s still questions about how much of an impact he can actually have on his offense. Despite his reputation as a box score stat stuffer, he has never led an offense to a top ten finish in DVOA since being drafted. This is obviously not an indictment on Luck’s ability to be a successful starter, but just something to consider when discussing his ability to be the next Tom Brady-esque player at his position.
The strong side of Indianapolis’ offensive line also still has questions. Right guard Hugh Thornton missed four games last year, but was a below replacement player when he played, while returning right tackle Joe Reitz was up and down throughout the year. The Colts could try to use a mix of tight ends Jack Doyle or Dwayne Allen to help out in blocking, but neither of these two are Rob Gronkowski as dual threats in blocking and receiving.
Furthermore, while I wrote about Robinson replacing Toler, the Colts also lost their defensive MVP last season in linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who left for Chicago and was one of the best players at his position in football, as well as probably the best run-stopping linebacker. In his place will be likely Sio Moore coming back from a bad hip injury that kept him out for all of 2015. Moore might not be a bad player, but he’s a huge drop in production from the brilliant Freeman.
Strong safety Clayton Geathers, who looked inconsistent and frequently lost when he played in last season, should look better this year, but he’ll be replacing the departed Dwight Lowery, who is now in San Diego. If the young Geathers doesn’t improve significantly, he and the ageless, but declining free safety Mike Adams could be liabilities down the field for opposing offenses to expose.
Best Case: Andrew Luck comes back with a vengeance with a less turnover-heavy and more touchdown-filled season, finally leading a Top Ten offense people have dreamed of him. He gets a few MVP murmurs early in the season and leads the Colts to a 10-6 season.
Worst Case: Luck doesn’t have the breakout season his fans wanted to see and plays like the same solid, but up-and-down gunslinger we’ve seen earlier in his career. The defense significantly declines and Indianapolis stumbles around mediocrity at 7-9 for another missed playoffs year, as head coach Chuck Pagano gets fired.
2016 Tennessee Titans
You wouldn’t be able to tell by their 3-13 record last season, but the Titans actually have a unified direction in terms of the future for their offense. Yes – a team that just finished dead last in the league in offensive DVOA somehow has a cohesive identity for the future outside of just having a promising young quarterback like Marcus Mariota.
Take the signing of veteran DeMarco Murray to complement second-year Antonio Andrews at running back, along with recent Heisman Trophy winner and rookie Derrick Henry. Murray is clearly not the running back he was with Dallas, but he provides another option as a veteran running back and could at least show competence, which could help a rushing offense that finished No. 30 in DVOA for the year. Also consider Mariota’s effectiveness as a running quarterback, just to add another rushing threat on the offense.
If the rushing game succeeds, it will also likely be because of the Titans’ returning two tight ends in the still effective veteran Anthony Fasano and Delanie Walker, who has a case for being the best non-Gronk tight end in football. As seen by his stint with Jacksonville in 2012, Mike Mularkey isn’t exactly an ideal head coach, but his history in working with versatile tight ends is quite remarkable, having been a tight ends coach for Walker and Tony Gonzalez and successful blocking tight end Mark Bruener before. He’ll have a lot to work with on the offense, along with wideouts like Rishard Matthews and rookie Tajae Sharpe, who has looked great so far in training camp and on Twitter.
Either way, it’s tough to imagine the Titans being as bad on offense as they were last season. Most of their failures came as a result of lacking big plays and turning the ball over, which are high-variance factors that should return back to league average. They ranked 31st in toxic differential last year, which combines turnover differential and big play differential. If Mariota comes back healthy, it’s almost guaranteed that this rank gets better.
Led by longtime great defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Tennessee’s defense also could become one of the league’s most stout forces. Having already finished No. 1 in adjusted sack rate last season, the combination of defensive ends Jurrell Casey and Daquan Jones, as well as edge rushers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan should continue to wreak havoc on opposing passers – especially if given help by blitzing defensive backs, like the zone-blitz innovator LeBeau is notorious for doing.
The return of corner Jason McCourty, who played only four games while hurt all of last year, plays a crucial role in Tennessee’s hopeful growth as a pass defending team. Cornerback Perrish Cox, safety Da’Norris Searcy and star linebacker Wesley Woodyard add continuity to a promising defense.
Before getting into the flaws with Tennessee’s current team, look at how they’ve drafted over the last three seasons. After drafting Sankey in 2014, they picked up the undrafted free agent Andrews in the same season, traded for Murray two years later and then drafted Henry anyways. Running backs are valuable, but loading up on them is certainly a curious decision if the Titans are trying to find good offensive talent.
The tight ends help with trying to create a heavy-set offense, but the line outside of left tackle Taylor Lewan is still extremely suspect, with left guard Quinton Spain coming off an injury-filled and bad 2015. Right guard Chance Warmack has started in most games for his first few seasons, but he hasn’t quite evolved past being an up and down lineman. Anchoring the spot between rookie right tackle Jack Conklin and center Ben Jones is going to be a heavy task for Warmack heading into the season.
On the other end, Tennessee’s blitz-heavy defense still has significant holes in its rush defense, as the team didn’t really do anything to address its need here, having finished No. 24 in rush defense DVOA. Linebackers Sean Spence and Avery Williamson are also particular suspect in defending slot receivers – and the Titans emphasis on getting the passer at all costs could still leave open holes all over the middle of the field against a quick passer.
Best Case: The Titans vision for a heavy-set offense with a physical and blitz-heavy defense creates vast improvements in both sides of the field, as Murray has a redemption year ala 2015 Chris Johnson to be a contributing member of a good offense. Tennessee then takes care of an easy schedule en route to an 8-8 record and maybe, just maybe, a division title if the division is bad enough.
Worst Case: Instead of significantly improving, the Titans emphasis on a jumbled running back committee doesn’t make any gains, as the offensive line stays below average and the secondary doesn’t improve with a still inconsistent McCourty. Mularkey finishes the year 5-11 and questions around Mariota’s ability to be a starting quarterback linger in the offseason, as Tennessee most likely picks up another running back to desperately fix its problems.
2016 Jacksonville Jaguars
If you watched Jacksonville last year, you can attest to its skill position players being some of the most underrated in the NFL. You wouldn’t be able to tell this by their No. 21 offensive DVOA rank, but there is a ton of hidden potential within the Jaguars offense that goes beyond just low-key valuable skill position fantasy players.
The two beasts at wide receiver on both sides, Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, are probably the duo of wideouts that offensive coordinator Greg Olson has had to work with since being the offensive coordinator for Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt. Alongside them is a returning Julius Thomas, who should be better this season after missing last year’s opening four games with a broken finger and looking inconsistent for the rest of the season.
Another hidden boss within the Jacksonville offense in running back TJ Yelton, who looked good in his stint as a starter and will likely be splitting carries with the effective veteran Chris Ivory. For a young quarterback like Blake Bortles, these skill position threats are about as much as you can realistically want for success and continued development on offense.
As a defense, the Jaguars were clearly not very good last year, finishing No. 26 in defensive DVOA, but they have a good chance to be a lot better this season. Another year in head coach Gus Bradley’s 4-3 scheme should lead to improved play from returning players Jared Odrick, Roy Miller, Sen’Derrick Marks, presumptive starting edge rusher Dante Fowler in his first healthy year and the newly acquired Malik Jackson: a crucial member of last year’s tremendous Broncos defense. If its members can stay healthy, this could be one of the better defensive lines in the NFL and much better than last year’s injury prone squad.
The Jaguars struggled against top wideouts last year, finishing No. 31 in pass defense, but that number should get a bit better with the addition of veteran corner Prince Amukamara, who will be part of a defensive back group of rookie slot corner Jalen Ramsey and nickel defensive back Davon House. This is a versatile group of defenders that aren’t barnburners, but are solid and versatile enough to defend in man coverage against any group of receivers. For what it’s worth, these players will at least be practicing against Robinson, Hurns and Thomas each week. That should do enough for improvement, right?
Football guru and ESPN writer Bill Barnwell has already gone at lengths to analyze Bortles and what we can expect from him in his third season. The main gist of his article was that a look at the tape shows that Bortles was often bailed out by his gifted skill position players, frequently throwing would-be incompletions and only improving marginally as a decision maker. Per Football Outsiders, Bortles actually led the league last season in adjusted interceptions, which takes into account dropped picks.
It’s also hard to say the Jaguars’ current motley crew of disappointments and castoffs constitutes anything close to an ideal scenario in the trenches. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum, leaving Pittsburgh, is the line’s only bright spot. He’s an enormous improvement from Luke Joeckel at left tackle, but instead of getting a new guard, the Jaguars shifted Joeckel to left guard and moved their former starting guard Brandon Linder to center. Jacksonville also kept both strong side starters in guard AJ Cann and tackle Jeremy Parnell.
Shifting players on a line can already be a dangerous proposition, but with a quarterback already susceptible for turnovers, an otherwise promising offense can turn into a disaster defined by missed pre-snap assignments, confusion in play calling and general chaos. Bortles is the kind of quarterback whose strengths get magnified depending on the kind of pressure he receives – if he doesn’t have time to throw, his production could get ugly for the Jaguars.
Additionally, if Jacksonville’s defensive line and corner play are going to improve, that still leaves a gaping hole in the team’s safety positions, likely occupied by converted corner Tashaun Gipson and John Cyprien, two of the worst players at safety in the NFL. To add onto their weaknesses is a porous linebacking core, with likely starters in Telvin Smith, Dan Skuta and whatever is left of Paul Posluszny. The Jaguars could theoretically move a player like Fowler to the outside linebacker position to help out, but that doesn’t do anything to help their atrocious safety help and vulnerability in the middle of the field.
Best Case: Somehow, miraculously, the offensive line plays just good enough for the skill position players to lead the offense for an better year, while the defensive line carries the defense. If Bortles can develop into an average starter this year, maybe this could be an 8-8 division title holder?
Worst Case: This is the same team from 2015, but with a marginally better defense and a quarterback that isn’t bailed out from his receivers. 4-12 finish in coach Bradley’s final season.