Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars finally realized the defensive potential they’ve been building for the past few years and won the AFC South for the first time since the division realignment in 2002. Their last division title came in 1999 when it was still the AFC Central. The Jaguars finished 10-6 and were inches away from a Superbowl bid, but the rest of the division went a combine 17-31. The 9-7 Tennessee Titans secured a playoff berth largely because of the overall weakness of the AFC.
This year will be completely different. I believe the AFC South will be the most competitive division in the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans suffered critical injuries that contributed to their lackluster seasons, and the Jaguars and Titans only got better in the offseason. Let’s look at the key acquisitions, draft picks, or players returning from injury that will embolden each on of these teams.
The key signing for Jacksonville this offseason was guard Andrew Norwell, a free agent from the Carolina Panthers. Norwell is considered to be one of the best guards in the league and ranks third (among all guards) according to Pro Football Focus. The Jaguars already had a top 10 run blocking offensive line and they ran more rushing plays than any team in the league last year, and their unit just got better. This is great for Blake Bortles who should have more time to throw the ball and great for Leonard Fournette who will get even more cushion in the run game. Last year’s game plan for the Jaguars was to suffocate you with defense and then run the ball down your throat. This year that plan will be, if possible, more effective.
The big boosts for the Titans this season will be a (hopefully) fully healthy Marcus Mariota and Corey Davis, and new running back Dion Lewis. Mariota was on the cusp of a breakout season but was once again hindered by injuries. He put on a show in the Titan’s playoff win over the Chiefs on the road and we should see more of those types of performances this season. Davis was the 5th overall pick in the 2017 draft and he was supposed to set the NFL on fire, or at least that’s what should be expected when you draft a wide receiver that early. His offseason injury, however, forced him to miss the entire preseason and a five game chunk of the regular season as well. Just like Mariota though, he dazzled in the postseason with nine catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns over two playoff games. Dion Lewis is an upgraded version of DeMarco Murray. Pro Football Focus grades him as the 5th best running back in the league and the 6th best in pass protection. Along with Derrick Henry, the Titans might have the best running back duo in the league.
The Colts draft strategy this year was clear: protect Andrew Luck. Two of their first three draft picks were guards Quentin Nelson and Braden Smith. They still need a lot of work on defense, but if Andrew Luck is healthy, anything can happen. Since Luck entered the league, the Colts haven’t finished below .500 in any season where’s he’s played a game. He’s that valuable. With Luck as their starter, the Colts’ defenses have ranked 26th, 20th, 11th, 26th, and 30th in the league. They won’t be a true contender until they can address the issues on that side of the ball, but with Luck in the game it makes them infinitely more competitive.
A healthy DeShaun Watson and a healthy defense will make the Texans a completely different team. DeShaun Watson went down after his 6th start but was the most exciting player in the league in those six games. He went 3-3 as a starter. On the other side of the ball, J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and Brian Cushing each only played five games. That’s the core of their defense minus Jadeveon Clowney. Injuries to key players was the biggest reason the Texans weren’t competitive last season, but if the Watson to Deandre Hopkins threat is intact, and the top ranked defense from 2016 is healthy, they’ll be right back in the playoff mix.