AFC South Preview

The Jacksonville Jaguars were the surprise team in the division last season, finishing with a 9-8 record and playoff appearance. This came out of nowhere after having the first overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. The Titans appeared poised for a playoff run until dropping their last seven to finish at 7-10. The Colts and the Texans had numerous problems and fought to stay out of last place, combining to win just seven games.

Jacksonville appears to be in good hands with rapidly improving quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who threw for 4123 yards and 25 touchdowns with only eight interceptions. He plays behind a strong offensive line that allowed only 28 sacks, which bodes well to finding Christian Kirk, Calvin Ridley, and Zay Jones. The running game will fall on the shoulders of Travis Etienne Jr, who galloped for 1125 yards and five touchdowns last season.

Defensively, the Jaguars allowed just a shade above 20 points per game, possessed a solid pass rush, and a knack for creating turnovers with 14 interceptions and a +5 turnover differential. Linebacker Josh Allen led the defense with seven sacks, while Rayshawn Jennings, Tyson Campbell, and Andre Cisco each had three interceptions from the secondary. Brandon McManus is the new kicker after nine seasons in Denver. He looks to rebound from a subpar season in which he hit 28-of-36 field goal attempts.

The Titans still have an outstanding coach in Mike Vrabel, but health and age are becoming an issue. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill missed five games last season and threw for 2536 yards and 13 touchdowns. Adding DeAndre Hopkins immediately gives Tannehill a legitimate number one threat. Also in the mix at receiver are Treylon Burks and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. Running back Derrick Henry ran for 1549 yards but he is 29-years-old and one must wonder how much longer he will be an elite back.

Tennessee was very difficult to run against last season, allowing only 77 yards per game on 3.4 per attempt. They also intercepted 14 passes and allowed only 21.1 points per game. Despite the defense, the team had a –3 turnover differential, which is a direct reflection on the ineptitude of the offense. Jeffery Simmons and Rashad Weaver return to lead the pass rush, while Kevin Byard will continue to wreak havoc in the secondary after 108 tackles and four interceptions last season. Kicker Nick Folk enters his 17th NFL season after spending the last four in New England.

The Texans will go to rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud out of Ohio State. The problem is putting a respectable group of players around him to help. Stroud will throw to the likes of Nico Collins, Robert Woods, Noah Brown, and Dalton Schultz. On the ground, Dameon Pierce rushed for 939 yards on 4.3 per carry and could take some pressure off Stroud. However, if the Texas are playing from behind (which will likely be the case in many games), then Stroud could experience his share of growing pains.

A positive on the defensive side of the ball is a pass defense that intercepted more passes (16) than touchdowns allowed (15). On the flip side, teams had their way on the ground, averaging a whopping 170 yards per contest and 25 touchdowns. Jerry Hughes led the team in sacks with nine, and he isn’t even listed first on the depth chart. Perhaps the best player on defense is safety Jalen Pitre, who led the team in tackles and interceptions. Kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn returns for a seventh season after nailing 29-of-31 attempts last season.

The Colts are in the midst of continuous turmoil surrounding running back Jonathan Taylor, who is most looking to be traded. Zach Moss, who had 365 yards rushing last season, has become the number one back. Another question is at quarterback where rookie Anthony Richardson takes over after starting only 13 games at Florida. Michael Pittman Jr will be the primary target, although he is far from a home run threat, averaging only 9.3 yards per reception on 99 catches last season. The offensive line was brutal last year, allowing 60 sacks and that must improve for the Colts to increase their scoring output from a putrid 17 points per game last season.

Despite allowing 25 points per game last season, the Colts showed some promise defensively. They allowed barely over 200 yards per game through the air and recorded 44 sacks. DeForest Buckner had eight sacks, but the Colts have a hole to fill when Yannick Ngakoue (9.5 sacks) signed with the Bears. Free safety Rodney Thomas II is a playmaker, leading the team with four interceptions last season. Matt Gay, who kicked for the Rams over the past three seasons, takes over the kicking duties. He hit 28-of-30 field goal attempts, including 7-of-9 from beyond 50 yards.

The Jaguars will be the winners of the AFC South partly due to being an overall solid team and partly due to how far this division has fallen. Tennessee should finish second but might not reach .500. It’s difficult to see the Texans or the Colts making much headway. Six wins for each team would be an expected improvement over last season.