AFC South Preview: Futures for Titans, Colts in 2023-24
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images. Pictured: Derrick Henry & Ryan Tannehill (Titans)
Reasons for Optimism: Free from Urban Meyer's shackles, Trevor Lawrence showed major growth in Year 2. He more than doubled his touchdown rate, going from 2.0% as a rookie to 4.3% last season. He cut his interception rate in half, from 2.8% to 1.4%. He increased his yards per attempt by a full yard (from 6.0 to 7.0) and his completion rate went from 59.6% to 66.3%.
Most importantly, he led the Jaguars to a 9-8 record — a six-win improvement from 2021.
General manager Trent Baalke has surrounded Lawrence with one of the best skill-position groups in the league, with Travis Etienne at running back, Calvin Ridley, Christian Kirk and Zay Jones at wide receiver, and Evan Engram at tight end.
Like Lawrence in Year 1 under head coach Doug Pederson, career-best seasons also came from Kirk, Jones and Engram, which bodes well for Ridley, who's easily the most talented of the bunch.
The defense remains a work in progress, but it should produce more sacks this season after finishing fourth in pressure rate (25.1%) but 27th in sack rate (5.5%) in 2022, according to Pro Football Reference.
Causes for Concern: Not one offensive lineman on the Jacksonville roster graded out above average at their position last season.
Right guard Brandon Scherff got $30 million guaranteed and proceeded to have, by far, the worst, most injury-riddled year of his career; he's no sure thing to bounce back at age 32.
Center Luke Fortner, a 2022 third-round pick, was one of the worst centers in the league as a rookie, ranking 34th of 36 qualifiers at PFF.
Left tackle Cam Robinson is coming off a torn meniscus and will serve a four-game suspension to start the year for use of performance-enhancing drugs. In Robinson’s absence, the team will turn to Walker Little, a 2021 second-round pick who regressed in Year 2 and allowed a pressure on 10% of his pass-blocking snaps this preseason.
Meanwhile, rookie No. 27 overall pick Anton Harrison’s career hasn't gotten off to a great start. He injured his shoulder a couple weeks into camp and has been playing with a harness ever since.
While the pass rush should be better than last year at converting pressures into sacks, the pass defense as a whole is still a concern after it clocked in at No. 30 in DVOA last season.
Josh Allen remains the only established pass rusher on the outside.
Arden Key, who according to PFF was second on the team with 44 pressures last season, is now with the Titans.
Last year’s No. 1 overall pick, Travon Walker, registered only 3.5 sacks in 15 games last season and needs to take a big Year 2 leap to avoid the bust label.
Cornerbacks Tyson Campbell, Darious Williams and Tre Herndon all struggle in man coverage, which limits what defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell can do pressure-wise.
Still, Baalke didn’t address the edge rusher position until late in Round 4 and didn’t address the secondary until late in Round 5. If I'm a Jags fan, I'm uncomfortable with so few changes having been made to a bottom-three pass defense.
That's especially true because the Jags are unlikely to enjoy the pristine injury luck they had last season, finishing with the second-fewest Adjusted Games Lost, per Football Outsiders.
Outlook: The Jags' strengths at the skill positions obscure their weaknesses everywhere else. I see them as neck-and-neck with the Titans in the race for the AFC South, but I think they're still a year away from being as good of a real football team as they are a fantasy football team.
Reasons for Optimism:Mike Vrabel is 4-1 toward the over on win totals and was on his way to 5-0 before a cluster of insurmountable injuries turned a 7-3 start into a 7-10 finish.
Despite the optics of an 0-7 finish, four of those games were one-score losses (which tend to regress to .500 over time), and a fifth was a meaningless game they punted by resting Derrick Henry.
They should have much better injury luck this season after finishing with the third-most Adjusted Games Lost (128.6) in 2022, including the most on defense (85.6).
The front seven is loaded with talent — Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Teair Tart, Arden Key, Harold Landry and Azeez Al-Shaair, to name a few.
Kevin Byard is still one of the best all-around safeties in the league, and Amani Hooker is one of the best safeties in coverage.
Third-year cornerback Kristian Fulton came into his own down the stretch, allowing a 48.8% catch rate and 5.5 yards per target over his final eight games.
Sean Murphy-Bunting was signed in free agency following a strong 2022 campaign with the Bucs in which he allowed a 55.0% catch rate and 4.3 yards per target.
Despite all of their injuries last season, the Titans were still No. 1 in DVOA against the run. Injuries mainly took a toll on their pass defense, which dropped from 11th in DVOA in 2021 to 28th last season. Given the talent on the roster, there's no reason why they can't continue to be excellent against the run while returning to being above average against the pass.
Ryan Tannehill was still efficient, clocking in at fifth among 33 qualified quarterbacks in raw yards per attempt (7.8) and 11th of 33 in Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (6.39). DeAndre Hopkins gives Tannehill the best wide receiver he's had since A.J. Brown.
Also, Treylon Burks and Chigoziem Okonkwo are primed for Year 2 leaps.
Derrick Henry will slow down sooner than later, but his 5.1 yards per touch last season was right on his career average. The Titans used a third-round pick on Tyjae Spears (Tulane), who gives them their best complement to Henry since the days of DeMarco Murray.
New left tackle Andre Dillard allowed just one sack on 261 pass-blocking snaps over his last two seasons in Philly. He replaces Dennis Daley, who allowed a league-high 12 sacks on 508 pass-blocking snaps last season.
Tackle/guard Dillon Radunz made a quick enough recovery from his ACL tear to avoid the PUP list to open the season. Radunz allowed no sacks and just two pressures on 146 pass-blocking snaps last season while splitting time between left tackle, left guard and right guard. His 78.1 PFF pass-blocking grade would've ranked top 20 among tackles and top 12 among guards if he had enough snaps to qualify.
Causes for Concern: Right tackle is anything but. Last year’s third-round pick — Nicholas Petit-Frere — graded out 74th of 81 tackles last season at PFF and allowed five pressures and a sack on just 23 pass-blocking snaps this preseason.
He has — mercifully — been suspended the first six games for gambling.
That leaves the starting job to Chris Hubbard, a 32-year-old, 10-year vet who hasn't been a starter since before the pandemic. Radunz is listed as the backup right tackle and may indeed be the best right tackle on the roster — despite having played everywhere but right tackle as an NFL pro.
Outlook: Save for a seven-week blip at the end of last season, the Titans have exceeded expectations for the entirety of Vrabel’s tenure. Not only has Vrabel led the Titans over their win total in four of five seasons, he's also led them to an above-.500 record as an underdog (20-19-1).
Many will remember the 0-7 finish but forget not only the 7-3 start, but also the 12-5, No. 1 seed finish in 2021 that came in spite of Arthur Smith leaving to take a head coaching job in Atlanta, Henry missing nine games and Brown missing four full games and most of a fifth.
Future: Over 7.5 Wins -125 at DraftKings
The Titans could get most of the way to eight wins solely off the strength of playing the Colts twice, the Texans twice and the entire NFC South.
Factor in that the Titans have a winning record as an underdog under Vrabel, and it’s hard to envision this team not winning at least 8 to 9 games.
Future: Titans to Win AFC South +350 at DraftKings
This should be a two-team race between the Titans and Jaguars, and yet the Titans are longer than 3-to-1. While the Jaguars are better at the skill positions, the Titans are no slouch with Tannehill/Henry/Hopkins/Burks/Okonkwo.
Both teams have O-line concerns, but the Titans have far more talent on defense. And though it’s no slight to Pederson, the Titans also have the better coach.
Bet to: +200
Reasons for Optimism: The Colts have one of the better offensive lines in the league. Left tackle Bernhard Raimann and right tackle Braden Smith both graded out in the top 25 among 81 qualified tackles at PFF last season. Guard Quenton Nelson and center Ryan Kelly both have top-15 overall pedigree and graded out above average last season, as well.
While No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson has mobility in spades to overcome a poor offensive line, having a strong unit from day one could speed up his development as a pocket passer.
Defensively, DeForest Buckner is one of the best interior linemen in football. Shaquille — formerly Darius — Leonard is one of the best linebackers in the game, at least when healthy.
Shane Steichen is not Frank Reich or Jeff Saturday.
Causes for Concern: The team’s best offensive player (Jonathan Taylor) has requested a trade and will miss at least the first four games of the season on the PUP list with an ankle injury.
Related: The Colts may have the worst owner in sports.
Richardson completes passes at a rate that hasn’t been acceptable since the late 1970s.
Darius Leonard made back-to-back All-Pro first teams in 2020-21. Shaquille Leonard is a figment of our imagination that doesn't exist outside of being listed as "out" on the injury report.
The Colts cut their best cornerback (Isaiah Rodgers) due to a year-long gambling suspension. Rodgers’ PFF coverage grade of 81.5 ranked fifth of 120 qualified corners last season. No other corner on the roster earned a coverage grade higher than 52.2, which ranks outside the top 100.
They also lost their most productive linebacker (Bobby Okereke), pass rusher (Yannick Ngakoue) and safety (Rodney McLeod).
They did, however, retain defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who has led three different franchises to bottom-10 finishes in points allowed over the past three seasons.
Outlook: This is a team that went 4-12-1 with 4.8 Pythagorean wins last season and may have gotten worse. The coaching got better, but the defense got worse.
Offensively, Richardson may be the long-term answer, but in Year 1, there will be a lot of incompletions, turnovers and sacks.
Meanwhile, the team is looking more and more likely to get even fewer games from Taylor than the 11 he played last season.
I have the Colts as the clear worst team in the AFC South.
Future: Under 6.5 Wins +100 at DraftKings/Bet365
The Colts have a first-year head coach, a rookie developmental project at quarterback and one of the least talented rosters in the NFL — with too much of the talent they do have coming at non-premium positions.
Richardson is talented but raw and will likely deliver more fantasy football wins than real-football wins. Since 2002, teams that draft a quarterback in the top 10 who goes on to start eight or more games as a rookie are 11-16-4 (40.7%) toward the over on their win total, including 4-11-2 (26.7%) over the past decade.
Bet to: -145
Future: Colts to finish last in AFC South +205 at DraftKings
The Colts have a less talented roster than the Texans and a less accurate, more turnover-prone rookie passer than Houston.
I have the Titans and Jaguars in the top tier, with the Texans in tier two and the Colts a rung below in tier three. I’d peg the Colts as better than a 50/50 bet to finish in last place.
Factoring in injury variance, I’d still put their odds closer to 40%.
Bet to: +150
Reasons for Optimism: The Texans may have found their franchise quarterback in No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud. They then packaged their 2024 first-round pick in a deal with the Cardinals to move up to No. 3 and select edge rusher Will Anderson Jr., effectively eliminating the option of selecting a top quarterback in next year’s draft in the process.
I wouldn’t have done the Anderson deal, but I still characterize it as a reason for optimism for 2023 because it signals a shift in philosophy; the Texans are still rebuilding, but no longer tanking.
That means instead of filling out the roster with inexperienced, replacement-level talent, they have added veteran assets like Jimmie Ward, Shaq Mason, Sheldon Rankins, Denzel Perryman, Robert Woods, Dalton Schultz and Devin Singletary.
Laremy Tunsil may be the Texans’ only truly elite player, but they also don’t have many truly terrible players — at least not in starting roles.
Some of their worst performing starters from a year ago are young, highly drafted players with lots of upside, such as cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (drafted No. 3 overall in 2022) and safety Jalen Pitre (No. 37 overall in 2022).
Causes for Concern: The front office may have gone a bit overboard adding high-floor veterans at the skill positions. Woods, Noah Brown, Schultz and Singletary are two or three too many fundamentally sound but non-explosive players.
Given Stroud’s strong accuracy, he would have benefited from more players like third-round pick Tank Dell, who can turn a short completion into a long gain.
The center spot could be an issue. Scott Quessenberry was slated to start before tearing up his ACL and MCL. Rookie second-round pick Juice Scruggs was next in line, but he'll miss at least the first four weeks of the season after being placed on IR with a hamstring injury.
That forced the Texans to trade for Kendrick Green, who was one of the worst centers in the league as a rookie in 2021 before being a healthy scratch for the entirety of 2022.
Outlook: The Texans are, weirdly enough, something of a high-floor rebuilding team. I don’t think they have the ceiling to beat out the Jaguars and Titans for the division, but I also have them clearly ahead of the Colts.
I see parallels between the roster that general manager Nick Caserio has put around Stroud and the roster the Patriots put around Mac Jones — high-floor, low-ceiling, good defense — which is not surprising given Caserio began his career with the Patriots.
Meanwhile, I think the Colts with Richardson will more closely resemble the lower-floor Justin Fields Bears, except with a better offensive line that should allow Richardson to drop back a few more times per game than Fields did early in his career.
Future: AFC South Exact Order 1. Titans 2. Jaguars 3. Texans 4. Colts +1200 at DraftKings
Another way to bet on the Texans being solidly in a tier of their own above the Colts — but below the Titans and Jaguars — is to bet on an exact order finish.
The favorite is Jaguars-Titans-Colts-Texans at +310, but merely swapping the Jags for the Titans and the Colts for the Texans brings it all the way up to +1200.
Bet to: +750