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AFC South Preview: Titans and Colts Rise to the Top

It will likely come down to Derrick Henry maintaining greatness or Carson Wentz finding it again.

Once upon a time, the expectation was that Deshaun Watson and the Texans would rule over this division for years. That was before this offseason, when Watson first demanded a trade and then was accused by 22 massage therapists of sexual misconduct, opening him up to civil and possibly criminal cases, as well as league discipline. Watson has denied all charges, but the quarterback’s future with the team and possibly the NFL are murky.

Meanwhile, a trio of intriguing passers have an opportunity to take control of the AFC South. Each has his promise and his pitfalls.

It’s possible that Tennessee’s offense, ranked No. 3 last year, will continue humming despite coordinator Arthur Smith’s leaving to coach the Falcons. After all, the Titans still have 2020 rushing leader Derrick Henry (2,027 yards) and QB Ryan Tannehill, who displayed elite efficiency under Smith. And Tannehill already had one huge target in A.J. Brown; now he’s bookended by two-time All-Pro Julio Jones. But if new coordinator Todd Downing’s schemes are not as effective in opening up receivers, Tannehill could easily regress.

The Colts’ new QB is Carson Wentz, acquired from the Eagles in a trade and reunited with coach Frank Reich, who was Wentz’s coordinator in Philadelphia. After Aug. 2 foot surgery, Wentz missed a large portion of the summer, but the long-term hope is that Reich can take advantage of their history and develop an offense that gets Wentz, who fell into bad habits in Philadelphia, back to the form that made him an MVP candidate in 2017.

In Jacksonville, if Trevor Lawrence can acclimate as quickly as Andrew Luck, the last prospect who came into the NFL with this level of expectation, the Jaguars could bounce back from last year’s 1–15 record with surprising quickness. But if Lawrence’s development is hampered by playing on a roster that is raw, that won’t be good for coach Urban Meyer, the two-time NCAA champion who was controversially chosen to leap to the NFL at age 57 and lead the most critical era in Jags history.

And then there are the Texans. At press time Houston was attempting to accommodate Watson’s demand for a trade, but his legal issues leave his status uncertain. Assuming Watson is done in Houston, the team’s only goal this year under new coach David Culley should be to see whether its other quarterbacks can lead the team. Veteran Tyrod Taylor is capable under center, and Houston was fortunate to land Davis Mills, a high-upside prospect out of Stanford, in the third round. Should either emerge as a long-term option, the task of rebuilding this threadbare roster will become far easier. In reality, this seems like a roster that is built to either sell off or fall apart without any long-term financial burden.

The AFC South is a cautionary tale at looking too far into the future—and it’s not just about Watson. It wasn’t long ago that Luck seemed to have a Peyton Manning–esque stranglehold on the division, before his surprise retirement in 2019. Now the landscape is wide open, with anyone but Houston looking plausible. Sure, the Titans have Henry, but he has logged two straight seasons of almost 400 carries. The Colts have an elite defense, led by linebacker Darius Leonard, tackle DeForest Buckner and esteemed coordinator Matt Eberflus. Who knows? Perhaps even the young Jaguars are ready to take charge.

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Predicted Order of Finish

1. COLTS (11–6)
Best Case: Wentz finds his old form behind a strong offensive line and with more accomplished pass catchers than he had in Philly. Parris Campbell, a 2019 second-round pick, finally stays healthy, and his speed elevates the offense.
Worst Case: Wentz is slow to return from surgery, and rusty when he returns. Without the benefit of a full training camp, many of last year's mistakes are repeated, submarining Indy's stellar run game and defense.

2. TITANS (10–7)
Best Case: The offense hums along as the losses of TE Jonnu Smith and WR Corey Davis in free agency are offset by the acquisitions of WRs Julio Jones and Josh Reynolds and the emergence of fourth-year TE Anthony Firkser. Free-agent end Bud Dupree adds a new punch to last season’s 28th-ranked defense.
Worst Case: Henry finally wears down, and the turnover at offensive coordinator and at the wide receiver position (Adam Humphries is also now gone from the roster) is too much. Tannehill regresses into the middling, inconsistent quarterback who was traded by Miami in 2019.

3. JAGUARS (7–10)
Best Case: Lawrence is as pro-ready as advertised, injecting an Andrew Luck-ian sense of stability at the position. Jacksonville finishes the year close to .500 and appears ready to make the playoffs in Lawrence’s second season.
Worst Case: The Jaguars’ schemes look dated, especially on offense, as Lawrence fails to flourish under offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Jacksonville shakes up its coaching staff after the season, giving the feeling that the team is mishandling the best QB prospect in years.

4. TEXANS (1–16)
Best Case: By winning more than two games and finishing with something other than the worst record in the NFL, the Texans exceed expectations. The team plays hard for Culley. Mills establishes himself as the QB of the future while the front office accumulates as much draft capital as possible.
Worst Case: Taylor starts all season at quarterback and ekes out enough victories with Houston’s crew of middling veterans to drop the Texans back in the draft. This robs them of the ability to select one of the top QBs of the class of 2022.

More Division Previews:

AFC East: Can the Bills Hold Off the New-Look Pats?
AFC North: Cleveland's Time Has Arrived
AFC West: The Chiefs, and Then What?
NFC East: It Can Only Get Better
NFC North: Leaders Are the Pack, Again
NFC South: The Champs Have Room to Improve
NFC West: Battle to Be Best of the Best