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AFC South preview: Can the Titans build on last year's success?

Profile Picture: Jason Ence

August 31st, 2020

When it comes to balancing competitive play with head-scratching front-office moves, no division does it better than the AFC South.

Whether it’s trading away one of the best receivers in the league for a box of scraps, or cutting a No. 4 pick just days before the season starts, this division rarely fails to deliver discussion fodder.

Let’s dive into the AFC South and try to figure out how things will play out this year.

Houston Texans

2019 record: 10-6, won division, lost in AFC Divisional round

Key additions: RB David Johnson, WR Brandin Cooks, WR Randall Cobb, OT Brent Qvale, S Eric Murray, DT Ross Blacklock

Key departures: WR DeAndre Hopkins, DT D.J. Reader

Imagine losing a playoff game you led 24-0 in the second quarter.

Things couldn’t get much worse, Texans fans must have thought, as they entered the offseason. Then, Bill O’Brien said “hold my beer” and traded DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals, in exchange for David Johnson and a pair of picks — none of which were in the first round. The trade was lambasted and is already considered one of the worst in NFL history, all because Hopkins wanted a deserved raise.

The 28-year old Johnson is a shell of the dominant runner he was just a few years ago, but he will hope a fresh start in Houston can reinvigorate his career. Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb will try to replace what was lost with Hopkins, but quarterback Deshaun Watson will no longer have the big playmaker he can rely on every down. Instead, it will be more about their depth across the field, rather than getting mismatches with Hopkins.

On the defensive side, J.J. Watt is still the leader of the unit, but the loss of D.J. Reader is a big blow. The Texans did not sign anybody to fill his spot, but drafted Ross Blacklock in the second round to try to plug the gap.

They did take steps to improve the third-worst pass defense in the NFL, with the addition of safeties Eric Murray and Jaylen Watkins.

However, losing Reader from a defense that ranked in the bottom eight in the NFL, combined with the loss of Hopkins, is a recipe for disaster that will see the Texans slip this season.

Tennessee Titans

2019 record: 9-7, wild card, lost in AFC Championship Game

Key additions: DE Vic Beasley, DT Jack Crawford, CB Jonathan Joseph, T Isaiah Wilson

Key departures: T Jack Conklin, QB Marcus Mariota, RB Dion Lewis, WR Tajae Sharpe, TE Delanie Walker, DE Cameron Wake, DT Jurrell Casey, CB Logan Ryan

The Titans have gone all in with QB Ryan Tannehill.

They re-signed him to a deal that pays him $118 million over four years. It is a huge gamble for a player who hadn’t shown any signs of deserving that kind of money until the second half of last season, but Tennessee knows their window was small. They also re-signed RB Derrick Henry to a four-year deal, so they have a clear win-now mentality.

Delanie Walker will be missed, but Jonnu Smith has shown promise and will look to take a step up in play.

The Titans did not change much else offensively, other than the replacement of tackle Jack Conklin with Isaiah Wilson through the NFL Draft. They will still look to run the ball and set up Tannehill’s play action passing game.

They suffered major losses on defense, however, and that might derail their hopes to repeat the success of 2019. Defensive end Vic Beasley will help their pass rush, but the Titans were leaky last season could slide more this year.

If Henry slips, or if Tannehill reverts to previous form, it could be a very disappointing season in Nashville.

Indianapolis Colts

2019 record: 7-9

Key additions: QB Philip Rivers, DT DeForest Buckner, WR Michael Pittman Jr., RB Jonathan Taylor, CB Xavier Rhodes, DT Sheldon Day, TE Trey Burton

Key departures: TE Eric Ebron, WR Devin Funchess, K Adam Vinatieri

The Colts will enter the season with something they lacked last year — a proven quarterback.

The loss of Andrew Luck to retirement rocked them last season, but Philip Rivers has relocated to Indianapolis to try to lead them back to the playoffs, and he has a solid team around him.

The addition of Michael Pittman in the draft will give Rivers a big-play target in the passing game, and the quarterback has a solid pair of running backs in Marlon Mack and Jonathan Taylor.

The Colts had a decent defense last season, but they made major additions with DT DeForest Buckner from the 49ers and CB Xavier Rhodes from the Vikings. Buckner's presence should free up Justin Houston to be a more disruptive force on the defensive line, and an improved secondary means the Colts won’t have to solely rely on the offense to win games.

I like the Colts to make the playoffs and challenge for the division crown.

Jacksonville Jaguars

2019 record: 6-10

Key additions: QB Mike Glennon, TE Tyler Eifert, RB Chris Thompson, CB Rashaan Melvin, CB CJ Henderson, DE K’Lavon Chaisson, LB Joe Schobert

Key departures: RB Leonard Fournette, DT Yannick Ngakoue, QB Nick Foles, T Cedric Ogbuehi, WR Marqise Lee, CB A.J. Bouye, DE Calais Campbell

In the time it took to write this preview, the Jaguars made two roster moves that changed the entire outlook on their season.

They first traded away stud defensive tackle Yannick Ngakoue, their franchise-tagged player, to the Vikings for a pair of draft picks.

Then came the news that they were cutting running back Leonard Fournette, who was taken fourth overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. Head coach Doug Marrone said shortly after that the Jaguars received no trade offers for Fournette, and the offense would be better without him. Marrone isn’t wrong. Without Fournette in the lineup, the offense seemed to flow much better last season.

With Nick Foles traded away, it is officially Gardner Minshew’s team. He will need to build on a solid rookie campaign, and he has a decent group of receivers. The addition of Tyler Eifert was huge, and Chris Thompson will need to step up to fill the void left by Fournette.

Defensively, the Jaguars focused on corner. They drafted CJ Henderson in the first round and signed Rashaan Melvin.

However, the losses of Ngokoue and defensive leader Calais Campbell will be too much to overcome. The rebuild has begun in Jacksonville, and the Jaguars will struggle to finish better than last.

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