It’s time for Regular Season Predictions! For this article I’ll be predicting the 2018 AFC South teams, predicting the worst record they could have (Floor) and the best (Ceiling). Let’s not waste any time dealing with an intriguing division that has Blake Bortles as a starting quarterback.
1. Tennessee Titans
I won’t go into great detail about the Titans since I cover them on SB Nation, so I’ll make this as brief as possible.
Simply put, Mike Mularkey was terrible for Marcus Mariota. He kept selling out with 7-man protection schemes while isolated the receiving routes without any options underneath, crippling the offense and forcing Mariota to be perfect. I thought Mariota looked better than what his numbers suggested, and was very accurate to an offense that featured a limited receiving corps.
Under former Rams offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, Mariota doesn’t need a fantastic scheme, but rather a competent one. If the preseason games have been of indication (and it’s rare that they are), LaFleur is giving Mariota a friendlier environment by spreading the receivers and including a checkdown option, which is huge.
LaFleur’s promise of versatility will also help the offensive line, whose guard play struggled last year. Taylor Lewan, who hit the jackpot on a new contract extension this offseason, is a quality left tackle that is locked in for a long time. Right tackle Jack Conklin is still recovering from a torn ACL injury he suffered against the Patriots in the 2017 Divisional Round, while Dennis Kelly takes his place for the time being. Ben Jones isn’t a bad center, but he needs to bounce back in 2018.
Derrick Henry has been decent in his first two seasons, but his vision has been inconsistent and he’s shown very little in the receiving game. Fortunately, the Titans decided to sign former Patriot RB Dion Lewis. Lewis is a terrific receiving back that is electrifyingly quick and can also exploit small holes as a runner. He should be getting as many carries as Henry if not more because of the dimension he adds to the offense. I think he’s the superior back too.
Under LaFleur, Titans fans should expect an offense based more on yards after the catch. Corey Davis showed flashes of quality in his rookie season, and has a great approach to the catch that gives him an edge for YAC. Taywan Taylor has not had much success in man coverage, but is a potentially dangerous screen receiver and gadget player in the right hands. Rishard Matthews offers a solid #2 receiver, and Tajae Sharpe is making his return to football since missing all of 2017. Like Davis and Taylor, Sharpe’s ceiling is an unknown player.
The tight end situation is interesting. Delanie Walker was a free agent gem when he first signed with the Titans, and recently got another extension. His hands weren’t as reliable in 2017, though, experiencing some bad drops. Sophomore Jonnu Smith’s sample size is limited, but he brings speed and quick athleticism to the tight end position, and should have a bigger impact on the offense this season.
The opposite side of the ball was greatly improved in the offseason. Longtime Titan Jurrell Casey is one of the best defensive tackles in football, and Tennessee’s draft added two pass rushing studs in Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry. Kevin Byard is a terrific young safety, Adoree Jackson’s development at corner is enticing, and the addition of former Patriot corner Malcom Butler should also be an upgrade.
New head coach Mike Vrabel had a rough year as defensive coordinator for the Texans in 2017, but has invested in a decent amount of talent on defense to work with. While this team still has some issues, the quality of Marcus Mariota, the backfield, the potential of the receiving corps, and improvements made on defense should make the Titans AFC South champions in 2018.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars boasted one of the most exciting teams of 2017 thanks to a run-heavy offense and arguably the best defense in the league. This led to an incredible playoff run where they were minutes away from the first Super Bowl in franchise history.
Shockingly, instead of trying to get better on offense, the Jaguars let Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns walk, and signed Blake Bortles to a 3-year extension. Bortles isn’t the worst quarterback in the league, but he’s one of them. Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett stripped Bortles’ responsibilities to a bare minimum, focusing more on conservative play calling and getting the ball to Leonard Fournette. Even then, Bortles’ inability to play at the right speed was exploited late in the regular season, and his limited skill set meant the game plan against the Patriots wasn’t enough to win.
The receiving corps has been called one of the worst in the league, and it’s not hard to see why considering the lack of experience. Keelan Cole was really good in the second half of the 2017 season, and Dede Westbrook had some flashes in his limited role. Marqise Lee was recently extended, and he’s ok, but the signing of Donte Moncrief did not make much sense to me. DJ Chark has a chance to make an impact in his rookie season because of the limited sample size of this year’s receiving corps.
The offensive line received a massive upgrade when they signed former Panther left guard Andrew Norwell. Norwell is one of the best left guards in the league and should pay dividends to the offense. At tight end, signing Austin Sefarian-Jenkins was an odd choice, as he wasn’t much of a playmaker with the Buccaneers or Jets.
The bright spot on the offense is sophomore back Leonard Fournette. While he hasn’t had many reps as a pass catcher, as a runner he offers a lot of quality and brings an aggressive running style to the mix. T.J. Yeldon isn’t great, but he isn’t a bad third down back either.
There’s not much to say about the defense other than it is full of talent. Calais Campbell is a beast hybrid defensive end and defensive tackle, while Yannick Ngakoue is one of the best young pass rushers in football with a deadly chop cross. Malik Jackson is one of the better defensive tackles in the league, Myles Jack and Telvin Smith form a deadly linebacker duo, and the secondary; featuring phenomenal corner talents in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye as well as the safety duo of Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson, is also stellar. The addition of Taven Bryan in the first round gives the rookie a fantastic situation to develop his skill set.
The defense should have another phenomenal year, but I think the Jaguars, while still a playoff competitor, won’t make the AFC Championship again because of my doubts with Blake Bortles. I feel like the team’s failure to move on from the former first round pick will cost them some wins this season, though they should still crack 10 wins.
3. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are kind of a boring team, to be honest. Outside of a few players, who really stands out as an exciting name?
With that said, there are reasons to be excited about watching the offense. Andrew Luck is making strides on his comeback. How healthy he’ll be will affect how good the Colts will be (as does any quarterback), but at full health he’s one of the best passers in football. Behind him is Jacoby Brissett, who is a great backup who was surprisingly excellent as a downfield passer.
In recent years, the Colts have made efforts to improve their offensive line since Andrew Luck got killed by the unit during his first four seasons in the league. Ryan Kelly is a stud young center, and Quenton Nelson should be an excellent young left guard in his rookie season. Losing Jack Mewhort to retirement was a big setback, but Braden Smith is a promising addition at right guard. This could be a solid offensive line at the end of the day.
Head coach (and former “The Comeback” quarterback) Frank Reich was pretty much a last resort option after Josh McDaniels cheated the Colts, but hopefully he can bring some of Doug Pederson’s concepts to the team. Marlon Mack was an exciting rookie running back when he was on the field, and he’s given the keys as the starter entering the year.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of receiving talent so he may not be able to have his game plan fully realized in year 1. T.Y. Hilton is a quality #1, and Jack Doyle has become one of the best receiving tight ends in the league, but Chester Rogers and Ryan Grant don’t really scare me, and Eric Ebron drops the ball way too much.
On defense, there’s not too much to get excited about on paper in terms of veterans. Jabaal Sheard is a good pass rusher and Malik Hooker, who showed promise in his rookie season before suffering a torn ACL and MCL, is returning at safety, and I’m a secret John Simon fan, but outside of that this is a unit with a bunch of guys. I’d focus more on seeing what the rookies can do since the Colts invested heavily in young defensive pass rushers during the draft.
As you can probably guess, Andrew Luck’s health makes the Colts a top-heavy team. The defense doesn’t look impressive and needs to look at the younger guys, and the receiving corps is underwhelming. If Luck is at 100%, the team might stand a chance in the AFC South, but that will be a monumental feat.
4. Houston Texans
During the first half of 2017, Houston featured one of the most explosive offenses in the league. Head coach Bill O’Brien finally figured out how to provide a friendly environment for his quarterback, and gave Deshaun Watson a play action, option heavy vertical passing offense where his numbers sky rocketed.
When Watson went down, O’Brien inexplicably took away much of the play action and read option and left Tom Savage with straight up drop backs and the same isolated routes that plagued the Texans offenses of old. Savage is an awful player that has no right to be near the first-team offense, but O’Brien gave him a raw deal as well.
But with Watson back, the play action and option plays should be back in business. Watson had some issues with accuracy, leaving pockets early, and having sloppy mechanics under pressure, but his aggressive mindset is a lot of fun to watch. If he builds and works on his footwork and accuracy, he should take the next step as a passer.
It also can’t be denied that Watson’s got one of the best wide receiving duos in football. DeAndre Hopkins is a top five receiver with outrageous ball skills, and Will Fuller added a lot of value in his sophomore season thanks to more consistent, refined hands. Bruce Ellington is a solid 3rd receiver as well.
Outside of that, the Texans have loads of holes. Braxton Miller has not turned the corner at receiver so far, and the tight end spot is concerning especially with the retirement of C.J. Fiedorowicz. Perhaps rookie Jordan Akins can take the starting job away from Ryan Griffin, but if he doesn’t that unit might be brutal.
The same can be said about the offensive line. which will most likely be one of the worst of its kind. The Texans traded away left tackle Duane Brown to the Seahawks for a 2018 fifth round pick and a second round pick that won’t come until 2019, and the lack of talent lining up means Watson is going to get killed on plays that don’t involve play action or read option.
The team gave up a lot to draft Deshaun Watson without adding much, missing out on the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. Considering the holes they have, that’s not good. The poor quality of the offensive line will certainly affect Lamar Miller’s production, and D’onta Foreman had a limited rookie season due to injury.
The defense isn’t much better, but the front has some quality talent. Hopefully J.J. Watt will be at full health and play a full season for the first time since 2015. Jadeveon Clowney is a stud pass rusher on a contract year, Benadrick McKinney is really good at Mike linebacker, and fellow linebacker Whitney Mercilus is also returning from a torn pectoral he suffered early last season.
The same cannot be said for the secondary. Tyrann Mathieu should be an upgrade at safety if he’s fully healthy, but the rest of the unit just looks bad. Hopefully the return of Romeo Crennel makes the defense play more competently, since he had a fine year coaching the team in 2016.
If teams figure out the Texans’ offense, that’s not good either. Watson is a promising dual threat quarterback, and the wide receiving corps has proven starters, but the offensive line, tight ends, run game, and defensive secondary look bad. Watson is going to be asked to carry the bulk of the team, because I don’t see how else they make it to the playoffs.