The rise of the AFC South; the NFL’s next top division

It’s been a while since there has been this much intrigue going into an NFL season surrounding the AFC South. The often maligned division is experiencing something of a renaissance if you will; the AFC South is wide-open this year, and for good reason as well.

Since the inception of the AFC South in 2002, the Indianapolis Colts have dominated. They’ve won the division title nine times with the Houston Texans winning it three times and the Tennessee Titans twice in that span. The reason for such dominance can be easily explained as well: Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. The Colts have always had the best QB in the division, and, after all, it’s the modern day NFL, the QB is still the most important piece in the league. Replacing one Hall of Fame of QB with another superb QB in Andrew Luck has further cemented the Colts as the most dominant AFC South team. Whilst the other AFC South teams floundered during this twelve year period, the Colts won a Super Bowl  under Peyton Manning and looked to the future in earnest by drafting Andrew Luck with the No. 1 pick in 2012. That was, of course, until the 2015 season. 

The 8-8 Colts relinquished the division in 2015 to the surprising 9-7 Houston Texans; who then were blown out in style by the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. Despite this however, the Texans will still be better this year then they were last year. As I said, the NFL is a league dependent on the strength of the QB’s, and in 2016, the division has gotten itself four young, exciting, and dynamic QB’s.

The Texans signed Brock Osweiler to a four-year, $72 million deal in free agency; who looked extremely promising in seven starts last year with the Broncos. The Titans have sophomore QB Marcus Mariota coming off an impressive rookie season (19 touchdowns in just 12 games, and 2,818 passing yards). Jacksonville remain confident in 3rd year starter Blake Bortles (who tossed 35 touchdowns and 4,428 passing yards in 2015) and the Colts welcome back three time Pro-Bowler Andrew Luck to the fold.

It doesn’t seem likely, that after a somewhat difficult bedding in process for Mariota and Bortles, the selection of QB’s in the AFC South are going to flatline this year (exception: Brock Osweiler). The Colts, Jaguars, Titans, and Texans all made excellent additions this off-season: which can only mean one thing for this recently god awful division, redemption.

Indy made moves this off-season to address their needs on both the interior of the offensive line and their secondary by drafting Ryan Kelly(C – Alabama) with the 18th pick and CB T.J. Green(Clemson) with the 57th pick. The plan for the Colts was to put as many weapons around Luck to protect him this season; after he took an absolute beating all too often in 2015. They also believe they have the people to compete offensively with Phillip Dorsett, Donte Moncrief and T.Y. Hilton. As long as they manage to keep Luck healthy and protected throughout the season, you can see the Colts still winning the division. Luck is still the best QB in the division, and one of the best in the league. Outside of this, draft pick Le’Raven Clark could potentially start at right tackle, but he is still too raw to be certain on. It’s a fine line in Indy, but you can’t not bank on Luck producing if he’s healthy.

The Titans have added former Eagles RB DeMarco Murray in free agency, along with current Heisman holder Derrick Henry (RB – Alabama) in Round 2 of the 2016 Draft: aiming to improve Tennessee’s decaying ground game, which ranked a less than inspiring 25th in the NFL in rushing last season at 92.8 yards per game. The team’s leading rusher, Antonio Andrews, barely cleared 500 yards on the ground and averaged well under four yards per carry. Adding both running backs vastly improves a Titans offence in dire need of some furore and animation. In addition, the Titans have strengthened their defence with offensive tackle Jack Conklin(OT – Michigan State) and defensive end Kevin Dodd(Clemson). If it all comes together, it could be quite a sight to behold—a fast, lighting quick run game, the past two Hesiman Trophy winners in Henry and Mariota, and an interior D-Line who will give Mariota more time in the pocket. Tennessee are one of the most improved teams in the league. Keep an eye out for those Titans.

As exciting as the Titans and Colts may be, no other team in the league has collected a better young, defensive core than the Jaguars. Focusing on developing their offence in recent drafts, the Jags turned their eyes to defence this off-season. Drafting potential studs/Pro Bowlers in Jalen Ramsey(CB – Florida State) and Myles Jack(OLB – UCLA) with their first two picks, and, if that wasn’t enough, former first round pick Dante Fowler will effectively begin his rookie season after missing all of 2015 due to a mini camp injury. On top of some exciting picks by the Jags, they made a splash in free agency, giving big contracts to Prince Amukamara, Tashaun Gipson and Malik Jackson, all of whom will become starters, too. Steady growth in Jacksonville over the years has lead to this point, they have the pieces they need to move from league laughing stocks to a potential playoff team.

And finally we arrive in Houston. The ultimate fate of the Texans rests on the shoulders of Brock Osweiler. Handing such a massive contract to a still very raw QB is a big gamble by HC Bill O’Brien; after all, Brock only has a 642 snaps and 305 pass attempts to his name in a four-year career with Denver. The jury is still out on him, it’s not possible to define Osweiler as a guaranteed success or bust. Which is why the biggest question mark hangs over the Texans in this division. In a division with solid, capable QB’s, the Texans are the only team that can either completely regress, or push on and better last years Wild Card round exit to the Chiefs. Saying that however, it’s difficult to believe he can be worse than Brian Hoyer was in the playoffs last year. In terms of talent lost versus talent gained, the Texans struggle the most in the division. They have lost key guard Brandon Brooks to the Eagles and centre Ben Jones to the Titans; with their replacements coming in the draft via Nick Martin (C – Notre Dame) and K.J. Dillon (S – West Virginia). Passing on Josh Doctson(WR – U of Wyoming) to draft Will Fuller(WR – Notre Dame) remains a questionable decision for the Texans also; scouts noting that Fuller’s “hands are an issue. Having dropped 10 of 72 catchable passes in 2015 for a 13.9 percent drop rate that ranked 88th of 96 qualifiers at wide receiver”. Fuller is gamble, especially since neither he nor Osweiler are noted for their deep pass threat.

In the end, for the Texans to be able to compete in this much improved division this year, they will have to make sure they get the best out of Osweiler. If he succeeds, the Texans will have two legitimate franchise players for years to come in reining Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt and Osweiler. If he flops though, then the Texans are left with an overpaid, underperforming QB surrounded by a handful of rookies on offence. Bill O’Brien has so far excelled in developing this team since he took the HC job, the 2016 season is do-or-die for this franchise.

The building blocks are definitely here in the AFC South. A lot rests on the new additions to really prove that they are worth the draft picks and contracts thrown at them. Yet, you can certainly feel the winds of change here in this division; ultimately the Head Coaches feel good about the coming season – “I think it’s gone up a notch” Mularkey says of the South, “I think you’re going to see this division really take a step” promises Gus Bradley. It’s their time to shine, it seems.

 

 

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