2021 AFC South Preview

    From Jacksonville's Rebuild to Indianapolis's Chase for a Championship, the AFC South is set up to have interesting storylines this year.

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    With the bulk of the offseason now in the rearview mirror, all 32 NFL rosters look a little different from their rosters at the end of February. The New York Jets drafted their next franchise quarterback (again), Matthew Stafford and Jared Goff have swapped jobs, and the Miami Dolphins brought in several new offensive weapons to surround their 2020 first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa.

    Amongst these 32 teams include the four that make up the AFC South: the Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, and Tennessee Titans. And just like the other 28 teams in football, these four franchises made some changes. Some players stayed home, some found new teams in free agency, and new faces were brought in to hopefully improve a weakness on the roster. In this article, we will review each team in the division’s offseason; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Additionally, we’ll forecast each franchise’s potential for the upcoming 2021 season, including who has the best shot to take home the division title.

    Jacksonville Jaguars

    The Boston Globe

    After a 1-15 season, the Jaguars finished the 2020 season in the basement not only of the division but the entire NFL. However, this won them the rights to the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, which going back to his days in high school, everyone and their mother knew would be the Clemson QB, Trevor Lawrence. But before the Jags got the chance to turn in the card they had probably filled out in January, they had some significant changes to make within the organization. These moves began with the firing of former GM Dave Caldwell and former head coach Doug Marrone. In their places, owner Shahid Khan brought in former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer and promoted Jacksonville’s director of pro personnel Trent Baalke to the general manager position. The new duo in Duval wasted no time before making any moves, which began with assigning the franchise tag to LT Cam Robinson to ensure their offensive line stayed intact for their soon-to-be franchise quarterback. They then put their league-leading $74 million in cap space to use, starting with the re-signings of CB Tre Herndon, C Tyler Shatley, and CB Sidney Jones to one-year extensions and brought back DE Dawuane Smoot on a two-year deal. Their first new addition to the team was DE Roy Robertson-Harris, who they brought in on a three-year deal. These signings continued with adding depth pieces which included TE James O’Shaughnessy, DB Rayshawn Jenkins, DE Jihad Ward, TE Chris Manhertz, and K Aldrick Rosas. Baalke also traded one of the Jags’ many draft picks, in this case, a seventh-rounder, for veteran DT Malcolm Brown.

    Then came the more notable signings. Former Seahawks CB Shaquill Griffin was brought in on a 3 year/$40 million deal to pair with 2020 first-round selection CB CJ Henderson. After bringing back multiple defensive backs, this addition nearly ensures that Meyer has his cornerback situation figured out. Baalke added a potential starter on the offensive side of the ball in former Lions WR Marvins Jones Jr. to a 2 year/$12.5 million deal, a bit of a steal in my book. He then added some playmaking veterans in QB CJ Beathard and RB Carlos Hyde. Jacksonville then continued to add some more depth pieces, which included WR Jamal Agnew, WR Phillip Dorsett, OLB Damien Wilson, and DB Rudy Ford.

    The Jaguars’ free agency wasn’t without player departures, however. The team lost several players to free agency, most notably DB DJ Hayden, WR Dede Westbrook, TE Tyler Eifert, CB Rashaan Melvin, QB Mike Glennon, and WR Keelan Cole. Overall, not the flashiest free agency, but certainly a busy one for Jacksonville, as many guys will come in for training camp looking to earn themselves a roster spot.

    Then came the moment the franchise had been waiting for since the end of the 2020 season: the 2021 NFL Draft. As expected, the Jags took QB Trevor Lawrence to lead their franchise for the foreseeable future. Then, the fun began for Jags fans. With Jacksonville owning the 25th overall pick (acquired in a trade with the LA Rams for CB Jalen Ramsey), the team surprised the league by adding Clemson RB and teammate of their new quarterback, Travis Etienne. Urban Meyer continued to bolster his secondary on Day 2, spending the 33rd overall pick on Georgia CB Tyson Campbell and the 65th pick on Andre Cisco, a safety from Syracuse. With the 45th pick, Baalke took Stanford OT Walker Little, likely to challenge current RT Jawaan Taylor for his starting job, or to take over the left side from Cam Robinson, should he depart the team in 2022. Day 3 saw even more playmaking additions to both sides of the ball for Urban Meyer’s squad, with USC DT Jay Tufele and UAB OLB/EDGE Jordan Smith being added to the front seven in the fourth and round. Their final two picks were spent on offense, taking a familiar face to Meyer, Ohio State TE Luke Farrell in the fifth round. The team rounded out their draft by adding WR Jalen Camp from Georgia Tech. But their work was not done yet, as the team added six more undrafted free agents: Alabama LB Dylan Moses, Southern Miss WR Tim Jones, Illinois WR Josh Imatorbhebhe, DT Kenny Randall from Charleston, Georgia CB DJ Daniel, and Louisiana Monroe CB Corey Straughter.

    The team even added former NFL QB turned TV analyst turned minor league baseball player turned TE Tim Tebow to their roster just recently.

    Of course, not every one of these additions will make the final 53 man roster. With the Jags already having some solid pieces in place, some guys will certainly be cut. Heading into 2021, Jacksonville’s impressive core of young players include DEs Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson, RB James Robinson, CB CJ Henderson, WRs DJ Chark, Laviska Shenault, LB Myles Jack, and RT Jawaan Taylor. LB Joe Schobert, C AJ Cann, OG Andrew Norwell, and DT Davon Hamilton will look to bring a sound veteran presence to a very young roster. But despite all the talented additions to their roster, keep in mind the Jaguars are just writing the first pages in a new chapter for their franchise. While Trevor Lawrence could wreak havoc across the NFL from Day 1, I wouldn’t expect Jacksonville to immediately compete for the AFC South title. Anticipate a significant improvement from 2020. Jacksonville does get the chance to play some other rebuilding teams in 2021, with the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, and Atlanta Falcons on their schedule. However, they do run into some heavyweights along the way as well, with games against the Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, and division foes Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts all on the schedule for this young Jags team.

    Houston Texans

    Nick Caserio. (Houston Texans)

    The Houston Texans might be the most puzzling teams in the AFC South, if not the entire league. And it starts at the most important position on the football field: the quarterback. With current starter Deshaun Watson being involved in multiple sexual assault allegations, nobody knows anything about his status with the organization. While that has been the story of the Texans’ offseason, Houston also had to make some changes at the top. While CEO Cal McNair will be staying with the team, former general manager/ head coach Bill O’Brien was fired in the middle of the season, and then DC Romeo Crennel took over head coaching duties. Once the season wrapped up, the Texans finally hired a true GM in Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio. The Caserio hiring was followed by the hiring of Ravens passing game coordinator David Culley as their next head coach.

    After these changes, Caserio and his crew got to work. After starting the offseason with very little cap space to work with, Caserio freed some of it up by releasing long-time star pass rusher and likely future Hall of Famer JJ Watt, C Nick Martin, and RB Duke Johnson. Sacrificing veteran experience for cap room, Houston then had about $20 million to work with. With a roster looking like it was in need of a rebuild, the Texans did what the Texans do, and confused everyone by starting their offseason off with a trade: ILB Benardrick McKinney was sent to the Miami Dolphins for DE Shaq Lawson in a player-for-player swap which also included a swap of late-round draft picks. Likely looking for someone to replace JJ Watt, Houston gave away one of their better defenders. A bit of a head-scratcher at the time. Nick Caserio also brought back a few pieces, including re-signing CB Vernon Hargreaves III to a one-year deal worth $2 million. He also brought in C Justin Britt on a one-year deal as a replacement for Nick Martin, who he had cut as a cap casualty. Houston then made another trade, this time acquiring OT Marcus Cannon from Caserio’s Patriots, sending a fourth and sixth-round pick to New England in exchange for Cannon as well as fifth and sixth-round selections. Another puzzling trade, as Houston had sent a haul to Miami for OT Laremy Tunsil in 2019 and had spent a first-round selection on OT Tytus Howard in 2019 as well. It shouldn’t surprise you that those two moves came under Bill O’Brien. Someone will likely be sliding inside to guard, most likely either Howard or Cannon.

    But the trades didn’t stop there. Caserio made another trade with New England, this time acquiring TE Ryan Izzo for a seventh-round pick. Houston made the fourth trade of their offseason soon after, acquiring Bengals QB Ryan Finley and a seventh-round selection for a sixth-round pick. Despite having Deshaun Watson still on their roster, the Finley trade was just one of the multiple moves for a quarterback made by the Texans. Since the trade with the Bengals, Nick Caserio signed veteran QB Tyrod Taylor to a one-year/$5.5 million contract and also signed QB Jeff Driskel to a one-year deal. Finley has since been released, which evidently gives Houston the loss on this trade. The rest of free agency was filled with a flurry of one-year deals, given to RBs Mark Ingram II and Phillip Lindsay, LBs Kamu Grugier-Hill, Joe Thomas, (not former Browns tackle Joe Thomas, a different Joe Thomas) and Christian Kirksey, DT Maliek Collins, DBs Tremon Smith, Terrence Brooks, and Desmond King, among many others. The Texans also gave two-year deals to WR Donte Moncrief, WR/KR Andre Roberts, LB Kevin Pierre-Louis, and OLB Jordan Jenkins, among others. Caserio & Co. making it clear that these guys will have to earn their place on the team, and if they don’t they won’t be around for long.

    The Texans lost numerous guys to free agency, including CBs Gareon Conley and Phillip Gaines, DT PJ Hall, OLB Brennan Scarlett, QB AJ McCarron, TE Pharaoh Brown, and most notably, WR Will Fuller V.

    The 2021 NFL Draft for the Texans was unlike any you’ll ever see. After finishing the 2020 season with a 4-12 record, Houston had earned the 3rd overall pick. However, their pick belonged to the Miami Dolphins, as it was one of the multiple first-round picks Bill O’Brien had sent to Miami for OT Laremy Tunsil. In that same trade, O’Brien had also sent the Dolphins Houston’s second-round pick as well. Nick Caserio found himself patiently waiting until the third round to make a selection, where once again, the Texans confused the rest of the league by shockingly taking a quarterback, Davis Mills out of Stanford, bringing their total number of QBs added in the offseason to four. Like the rest of the offseason, quarterback became the main topic of conversation regarding the Texans. Of course, the main question everyone has is, what is the deal with Deshaun Watson?

    Houston spent the rest of their draft picks on Michigan WR Nico Collins in the third round, Miami TE Brevin Jordan and TCU LB Garrett Wallow in the fifth round, and Roy Lopez, a DT from Arizona in the sixth round. Only 5 total selections, as most picks had been spent in trades to acquire players from other teams.

    On offense, the Texans have a few veterans who are set to be starters, including OT Laremy Tunsil, WRs Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb, and RB David Johnson. Center seems to be the only position of weakness on the offensive line, as Marcus Cannon and Tytus Howard will man the right side of the line at guard and tackle respectively, while Tunsil and OG Max Sharping will handle the left. Rookies Brevin Jordan and Nico Collins will also look to make an impact from the get-go. Defensively, the loss of JJ Watt is a big one. Maliek Collins will look to step up on the edge, while young stud Charles Omenihu looks to continue his development and emerge as the team’s number one pass rusher. Second-year man Ross Blacklock looks to hold down the interior of the defensive line in Houston’s 3-4 defensive scheme. Newly acquired Shaq Lawson should get chances to rush the passer as well as play some coverage. With the loss of Watt, MLB Zach Cunningham will need to step up and become of this defensive unit from his spot in the middle. S Justin Reid looks to be the main guy in the Texan’s unimpressive secondary, while guys like Bradley Roby and Vernon Hargreaves will look to contribute despite getting up there in age.

    Overall, I wouldn’t expect much from the Texans in 2021. They seem to be knee-deep in one of the tougher rebuilds in the league given the massive question mark at the QB position. A decline, while doing worse than third-worst in the league is tough to do, seems highly likely for Houston. If Watson does not play a game in 2021, I fully believe Houston could be in the battle for the number one pick in 2022. But only time will tell with the Watson situation.

    Indianapolis Colts

    Colts' Carson Wentz putting mobility on display at OTAs

    The Colts had as typical an offseason as typical can get. While having a little more than $63 million in cap space, third-most in football, Indy already had a very balanced roster, which allowed general manager Chris Ballard to sit on his hands during the first wave of free agency, letting all the big names sign elsewhere. Ballard did make a push to bring back veteran DE Denico Autry, but he had his benchmark and would not cross it. However, the highlight of the offseason was a blockbuster trade to acquire former Eagles QB Carson Wentz for a 2021 third-round selection in addition to a 2022 conditional second-round selection which could become a first-round pick. Given the conditions of this pick, it is likely this pick becomes a top 32 pick. For a full analysis of this trade, check out my article from February.

    Free agency did see the departure of a number of contributors, including starters DE Justin Houston, DE Denico Autry, LB Anthony Walker, QB Jacoby Brissett, and S Malik Hooker. The Colts also lost NFL veteran and future Hall of Famer QB Philip Rivers to retirement after spending what was his final farewell tour in Indianapolis. Perhaps more surprising, however, was the retirement of starting LT Anthony Castonzo. The Colts’ offensive line now had a huge hole at arguably the most important position on that line. Chris Ballard would need to find a replacement for Castonzo in the offseason for his newly acquired QB Carson Wentz.

    The Colts had many more of their own players hit the free-agent market. But instead of attempting to bring them back before the market opened, Ballard let them test the waters. Despite having the option to sign elsewhere, Indianapolis was able to bring back CB Xavier Rhodes on a one year/$4.7 million deal, CB TJ Carrie to a one year/$2 million deal, RB Marlon Mack to a one year/$2 million deal, DE Al-Quadin Muhammad to a one year/$990k deal, and veteran WR and longtime Colt TY Hilton to a one year/$8 million contract, all team-friendly contracts. Hilton had an offer with more money to head to Baltimore but decided to stay home and take less money, a testament to the culture Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich have built in Indianapolis. With these unrestricted free agents under contract, Ballard also brought back some restricted free agents by tendering S and standout special teamer George Odum, WR Zach Pascal, and TE Mo Alie-Cox who will all return to the team in 2021.

    As for the new additions in free agency, Chris Ballard again waited until the first wave was through before making any moves. His free agency began with the signing of former Chargers DE Isaac Rochell to a one-year/$2.5 million deal, adding to the defensive line, a common theme we will see throughout this offseason for Indianapolis. The new names that followed included OT Sam Tevi (one year/$2.5 million), OT Julie’n Davenport (one year/$1.1 million), S Sean Davis (one year/$1.1 million), and OG Chris Reed (one year/$1.1 million). All will add extremely nice depth to their positions while also getting the chance to rotate in with the other guys. The sheer number of one-year deals indicates one thing: Chris Ballard believes the Colts’ window to win a championship is now.

    Entering the draft, Indianapolis’s needs seemed fairly clear: pass rush, left tackle, wide receiver, and secondary depth. However, Chris Ballard & Co. somewhat confused many Colts fans with their draft. In round one, the team hit a home run by selecting DE Kwity Paye from Michigan, despite top OTs Christian Darrisaw and Teven Jenkins still available. On day 2, the Colts’ only pick was their second-rounder (54th overall) after sending Philadelphia their third-rounder in the Wentz trade. After addressing pass rush in the first, nobody expected Indy to double up by taking Vanderbilt DE Dayo Odeyingbo. Odeyingbo was projected to be a first-round pick before he tore his Achilles just before the Senior Bowl, throwing him under many people’s radar. Odeyingbo potentially may not play until 2022, but the Colts liked the talent enough to take a risk. Ballard entered day 3 of the draft with just one question the fans wanted to be answered: Who will be the starting left tackle? The day 3 picks were as follows: SMU TE Kylen Granson in the fourth round, Florida S Shawn Davis in the fifth round (yes, the Colts will have two safeties named Sean Davis, one spelled Sean and one spelled Shawn), Texas QB Sam Ehlinger in round six, and Charleston (WV) WR Mike Strachan and, finally, OT Will Fries from Penn State, both in the seventh round. Granson and Davis will look to make impacts from the getgo, while Strachan might need some work behind the scenes. The Ehlinger pick surprised everyone, especially after the selection of Jacob Eason in 2020. All signs point to either Eason taking over the backup spot behind Wentz, or a battle for the spot between the two young quarterbacks. But many fans were still left wondering, who would be the starter at left tackle?

    After the draft, Indianapolis signed just five undrafted free agents: Texas WR and teammate of Sam Ehlinger, Tarik Black, USC WR and former teammate of Colts WR Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns, LBs Isaiah Kaufusi (BYU), and Anthony Butler (Liberty), and Duke RB Deon Jackson.

    After the dust had settled on the draft, Chris Ballard finally gave Colts Nation an answer by signing former Chiefs LT Eric Fisher to a one-year/$9.4 million contract. A former first overall pick and Super Bowl champion, Fisher did tear his Achilles in the AFC Championship game against the Bills. The Colts must feel confident he will come back sooner rather than later and help complete their offensive line.

    Much of the Colts’ talented roster remains intact. Star LB Darius Leonard will look to lead the defense along with DT Deforest Buckner. This unit will again look to be one of the top groups in the league. Offensively, there’s a little more change. Besides the Fisher signing, the offensive line remains the same lead by the league’s best guard Quenton Nelson. Jonathan Taylor will be the starting running back, but the Colts will get a chance to try out what they had planned for Marlon Mack and Taylor in 2020 before Mack went down for the year and have a two-headed attack. Nyheim Hines will be the third down and receiving back and should handle special teams duties. And of course, there is a new face at quarterback in Carson Wentz, who will look to rekindle the fire he and Frank Reich had started in 2018, the MVP caliber year Wentz was having before tearing his ACL. The receivers remain nearly the same with the only real added weapon in the passing game being rookie TE Kylen Granson. Parris Campbell will look to gain some momentum after overcoming two seasons of injuries. In his time on the field, Campbell has looked great, he just needs to stay healthy.

    Unlike Jacksonville and Houston, Indianapolis will be one of the favorites to win the division. While their tough schedule includes matchups with the Seahawks, Bills, Rams, Ravens, Buccaneers, and the Titans twice, I expect the Colts will fully be in the playoff picture for 2021.

    Tennessee Titans

    The Tennessee Titans are the current champions of the AFC South. But given their early playoff exit, GM Jon Robinson made some moves during the offseason. Entering free agency, Tennessee had just around $20 million in cap room. However, they still spent big money. The biggest of these transactions was the signing of former Steelers OLB/EDGE Bud Dupree to a monster five year/$82.5 million dollar deal to make him the Titan’s highest-paid defender. In addition to Dupree, Tennessee beat out their division rival Indianapolis Colts in a bidding war for DT Denico Autry, giving him a three-year/$21.5 million deal. In addition to these two pass rushers, Robinson brought in OT Kendall Lamm on a two year/$6.8 million deal, CB Janoris Jenkins on a two year/$15 million deal, WR Josh Reynolds on a cheap one year/$1.7 million contract, and CB Kevin Johnson on a one year/$2.2 million contract. Robinson also brought back a number of the Titan’s own free agents, including giving LB Jayon Brown a one year/$5.3 million deal, OT Ty Sambrailo to a one year/$1.9 million deal, TE Anthony Firkser to a one year/$3 million deal and FB Khari Blasingame to a one year deal worth $850k. Good work by the front office to bolster the pass rush, a glaring need for Tennessee, and bring back some key pieces on both sides of the ball.

    Of course, as is the case with every team, the Titans had a number of departures in free agency. These included TE Jonnu Smith, CB Desmond King (who had been acquired at the 2020 trade deadline), WR Khalif Raymond, EDGE Jadeveon Clowney, and K Stephen Gostkowski. Tennessee also declined the fifth-year option on former first-round pick Rashaan Evans’ contract, making him set to hit the market next year. Robinson & Co. also made many notable cuts, mostly to make room for their new free agents, which included CBs Malcolm Butler and Adoree’ Jackson, OT Dennis Kelly, and S Kenny Vaccaro.

    Tennessee made eight picks in total during the 2021 NFL Draft. With their first-round selection, Jon Robinson took Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley. Some considered Farley to be the best cornerback in the draft, while others preferred Patrick Surtain II or Jaycee Horn. This would be best explained by Farley’s back injury and the uncertainty that comes with it. But Robinson has not shied away from taking a risk on an injured player, using his 2019 first-round choice on DT Jeffery Simmons, who in his first year of NFL play has shown a lot of promise to be head coach Mike Vrabel’s defensive tackle of the future. Time will only tell with Farley. With their second-round choice, Tennessee snagged North Dakota State OT Dillon Radunz with the pick ahead of Indianapolis, who had a gaping need at the position. Radunz will likely be the replacement for 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Wilson, who only played 2 snaps during his rookie year and was eventually cut by the team. The definition of a draft bust. In round three, Tennessee grabbed Georgia LB Monty Rice and CB/S Elijah Molden to bolster their defense. The Titans also had two picks in the fourth round and selected Louisville WR Dez Fitzpatrick along with Rashad Weaver, a DE from Pittsburgh. With no picks in the fifth or seventh round, Robinson & Co. closed out their draft with two picks in the sixth round, taking Racey McMath (WR, LSU), and Brady Breeze (S, Oregon).

    As undrafted free agents, the Titans signed a number of players. The full list consisted of Alabama TE Miller Forristall, Kansas State TE Briley Moore, LSU FB Tory Carter, Michigan State DT Naquan Jones, BYU OG Chandon Herring, and Iowa OG Cole Banwart. They rounded out this group with two special teams pieces, K Blake Haubeil from Ohio State, and P James Smith from Cincinnati.

    Tennessee added some solid pieces to an already talented core. Offensively, OT Taylor Lewan will look to lead the offensive line and pave the path for star RB Derrick Henry. In the passing game, Ryan Tannehill will look to prove his doubter wrong and cement his position as a top ten quarterback in the league. He will have his top target, AJ Brown, leading the way for the wideouts as the top returning guy. The lack of depth behind Brown (rookie Dez Fitzpatrick, Chester Rogers, and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine) is a bit concerning, but the dominance of Derrick Henry in the running game should help compensate. Defensively, the additions to the pass rush should excite Titans fans as well as Jeffery Simmons, who will be under less pressure to produce. The additions to the secondary join veteran S Kevin Byard, who will look to be the leader of the secondary and defense.

    Tennessee has somewhat of a tough schedule, having to play the Seahawks, Rams, Chiefs, and Bucs, all teams who will be a challenge. Despite this, the Titans should find themselves in the playoff picture, whether that means winning the division or not.

    Looking at the division as a whole, there seem to be two contenders and two bottom feeders. Tennessee and Indianapolis look to be the two who will fight for the title, while Jacksonville will likely experience some growing pains with their rebuild and Houston may be on their way to a top-two pick in 2022. As for standings predictions, I see:

    1. Indianapolis Colts
    2. Tennessee Titans
    3. Jacksonville Jaguars
    4. Houston Texans

    I expect a tight race at the top similar to the 2020 season, where the Titans pulled it out of the division title late in the regular season. This year I see it going in favor of Indianapolis, who with consistent play all around could seriously push for not only the division title but could be your 2021 AFC champions. This would be the first AFC South title for Indianapolis since 2014, and their division-leading tenth title since the division’s inception in 2002. But it’s the NFL, where anything can happen on any given Sunday. Always prepare for the unexpected.

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