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Sizing Up the AFC South Ahead of the 2021 Draft

Tennessee's hold on the top spot looks tenuous. Houston looking up at the other three teams.
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The AFC South looks as if it will be more interesting in 2021 than it was in 2020.

The drama will increase with this weekend’s NFL Draft given that Jacksonville has the No. 1 overall choice and Houston has no picks before the third round. Barring trades, Indianapolis (No. 21) and Tennessee (No. 22) will make their first selections in succession.

Before then, it is time to take a step back. The free agency dust has settled and a majority of moves have been made.

So, it’s time to examine the division in which every team has finished first at least once in the last seven seasons. Here is a look at which teams got better, which teams got worse, and which teams are simply out of it.

Tennessee Titans

Major move: The Titans brought in edge rusher Bud Dupree on a lengthy five-year deal in hopes of fixing a subpar pass rush. He is coming off of a season that saw him tear his ACL, but he will be ready to go Week 1. In the 11 games he played last season, he recorded eight sacks. And in the season prior, he tallied a career-high 11.5.

Dupree is a guy who “plays with his hair on fire” with his tenacity to get to the quarterback. And after things didn’t work out with Jadeveon Clowney in 2020, Dupree gives the Titans another shot at an elite pass rush.

Supplemental additions: DE Denico Autry, WR Josh Reynolds, CB Janoris Jenkins, CB Kevin Johnson.

Autry is a former divisional rival, playing for the Indianapolis Colts. He knows the AFC South well and will be a veteran leader in the locker room. In 2020, he recorded 7.5 sacks, 33 tackles and 10 quarterback hits in 14 games played. A veteran presence on a defensive line that couldn’t get to the quarterback is a welcome addition.

Tennessee brought in Reynolds as a replacement for Corey Davis, who left for the New York Jets at the start of free agency. It’s assumed that Reynolds will play the No. 2 role. He’s been consistent in a limited role for the Los Angeles Rams, and the hope is that in Tennessee, he will have more opportunities to showcase his skill within the offense.

Jenkins and Johnson were both brought in as the Titans attempt to restructure the secondary. Both Jenkins and Johnson are quality players, but Tennessee is still expected to target young defensive backs in the draft.

Key Losses: TE Jonnu Smith, CB Adoree Jackson, CB Malcolm Butler, CB Desmond King, S Kenny Vaccaro, WR Davis.

Verdict: The jury is still out on if Tennessee can repeat as division champion. At this point, it is far from a shoo-in. It will boil down to if the offense – specifically Derrick Henry – can put together anything close to another historic season. But as it stands now, fans should like Tennessee’s chances against the grain.

Indianapolis Colts

Major move: The Colts traded for quarterback Carson Wentz in the hope of rehabilitating his NFL career and keeping their offense going in the right direction after one season with Philip Rivers in charge. The move reunited Wentz with Frank Reich, and if he can return to MVP-type form, Indianapolis’ offense can cause some problems within the division.

Supplemental additions: OL Sam Tevi, OL Julie’n Davenport.

Tevi and Davenport were signed to fill the hole created by Anthony Castonzo retirement. Those two aren’t exactly franchise cornerstones, but that is a need the Colts can look to replenishing through the draft.

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Key Losses: LB Anthony Walker Jr., DE Denico Autry, OL Castonzo.

Verdict: Outside of Wentz, Indianapolis wasn’t too busy this free agency period. Meaning, a good amount of its season now hinges on the draft and if Wentz remind everyone of 2017. And with how good the offensive line is, it’s safe to assume he will be more productive than he was in the 2020 NFL season. Does that mean Indy wins the division? Maybe. Expect a close race between the Colts and the Titans near the end of the season.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Major move(s): Jacksonville looks like it finally wants to fix its abhorrent defense. In free agency, the Jaguars brought in cornerback Shaquill Griffin and safety Rayshawn Jenkins. Both received a healthy amount of money to sign with a team that went 1-15 in 2020, and both should help bolster a defense that finished second-worst in the league.

Supplemental additions: WR Marvin Jones, DT Malcom Brown, DT Roy Robertson-Harris

Jones is a veteran wideout, who still has a bit of explosiveness when he is healthy. Assuming that the Jaguars take Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick, his addition gives the rookie quarterback another weapon on the outside.

Brown and Robertson-Harris are both underrated additions. Defensive line depth and skill are at a premium in this league. Those two provide that for a team that was terrible defensively in 2020. Though the names may not cause someone to write home, they are the moves around the edges that signify a change in expectation in Jacksonville.

Key Losses: WR Keelan Cole, WR Chris Conley.

Verdict: The excitement for Jacksonville entering the 2021 season is real, and it’s warranted. For the first time in a long time, the franchise seems to be making moves that make sense. And adding Urban Meyer is also gives fans an intriguing storyline to follow throughout the season. However, they are far from contending for the divisional crown. The team is still young around the edges, and unless Lawrence hits the ground running, the offense is going to go through growing pains. But the reason for excitement is still there.

Houston Texans

Major move: Bringing in Phillip Lindsay means that the run game should be much better. He only played in 11 games last season and ran for 502 yards. However, in each of the two years prior he rushed for more than 1,000 yards. He won’t necessarily wow fans with highlight plays, but he is a running back of attrition - who is a known worker on every down.

Supplemental additions: OT Marcus Cannon, DE Shaq Lawson, RB Mark Ingram, QB Tyrod Taylor, QB Ryan Finley.

Houston bringing in Cannon is a commitment to offensive line depth. However, it is uncertain what quarterback he will be blocking for, as the football world awaits the impact of Deshaun Watson’s off-field conduct.

Lawson offers Houston another pass rusher since long-time community pillar J.J. Watt left for the Arizona Cardinals, indicating a major rebuild might be on the horizon for Houston.

Mark Ingram brings a veteran presence and productivity when he’s healthy to the Houston backfield. He joins Lindsay and David Johnson at the running back position. Making for one of the more intriguing running back groups in the division.

And the two quarterbacks, Taylor and Finley, are clear insurance against a Watson suspension. There is a good chance the Texans franchise quarterback doesn’t play this season as he faces a litany of lawsuits for his alleged misconduct. These two quarterbacks give Houston at least a chance to have an average offense if Watson is unavailable come the fall.

Key Losses: DE J.J. Watt, WR Will Fuller.

Verdict: Watson and his legal situation stand center stage for now. He is the organization’s best player, and without him, not many football games are going to be won in Houston. Hypothetically, if Watson can play, still Houston is looking at a lengthy rebuild. Their chances at contention in the AFC South are slim-to-none.