As we have known for a while, the Detroit Lions play the AFC South division in the 2016 season. This was welcome news for many fans, as the AFC South has been the worst division in football for the past few seasons.
Sadly, I’m here to tell you that the AFC South won’t be the pushover it has been. Even with the lowly 23-39 total record compiled by the Jaguars, Texans, Titans, and Colts, I think the division could have three teams 8-8 or better.
Starting in Indianapolis, the favorite to win the South this season, their season last year was derailed by an Andrew Luck injury and a dysfunctional front office. Amidst rumors of a rift between GM Ryan Grigson and Head Coach Chuck Pagano, it was assumed that Pagano would be fired after the season. Pagano was able to salvage a 8-8 season with Matt Hasselbeck and even Josh Freeman at QB, he and Grigson made up, and the Colts look ready to strike this year.
Even with a front-7 that is borderline worst in the NFL on paper, if Luck returns to form the offense could be among the top three in the NFL. Rookie Ryan Kelly anchors a new-look offensive line, and established stud T.Y. Hilton and rising star Donte Moncrief lead a deep receiver group with 2015 first round burner Phillip Dorsett. Questions are there in the running game, but if Gore can turn back the clock and at least pose a reasonable threat to open up the passing game the Colts will be a force in the AFC South.
The Jacksonville comeback story has been one in the works for a few seasons now, and this year the ownership is expecting results. The Jaguars have solid to above-average starters at almost every position.
Starting on the offense, Blake Bortles has shown a lot of promise. If he can put together a season where he makes a few plays a game and limits his turnovers he will put himself in the conversation for best young quarterback. He has formidable weapons, highlighted by the two Allens. Allen Robinson is the WR #1, while the recently paid Hurns is a high end #2. Tight end Julius Thomas is a threat in the pass game, and the Jags also have one of the best backfields in the NFL with T.J. Yeldon, Denard Robinson, and recently signed Chris Ivory.
On defense, there are plenty new faces in 2016. Johnathan Cyprien is the free safety, along with first round pick Jalen Ramsey and Prince Amukamara holding down the defensive backfield. Dante Fowler, a top-five pick from last year is back from a torn ACL at linebacker, and free-agent prize Malik Jackson lines up with Sen’Derrick Marks in the trenches. I like Jacksonville’s chances to be a playoff team.
The Houston Texans have been one of the most talked about team this off-season with new quarterback Brock Osweiler and the new look offense. Come September, the Texans will likely have four new starters who weren’t on the team last year, not including recently drafted WR Braxton Miller. Nick Martin will be a rookie center, Lamar Miller at RB, the previously mentioned Osweiler, and speedster Will Fuller V from Notre Dame.
The Texans already have an established defense led by J.J. Watt and Brian Cushing. Jadeveon Clowney has been a disappointment so far, but he is a physical specimen who I wouldn’t count out just yet. The defensive backfield is a bit weak, but if last year’s first pick Kevin Johnson has a great sophomore campaign he could solve some problems.
The Texan’s success this year will depend on how quickly the new offensive weapons get used to playing with each other. If they’re clicking by late September, the Texans could be a sleeper Super Bowl caliber team.
So those are the three teams in the AFC South that could really have successful seasons, but one team remains…
The Titans are young, and a few players away from playoff caliber, but if you think they’re an easy win for the Lions come week two, you’re wrong. Marcus Mariota is a promising young QB who I believe can become a star if he stays healthy. I am a fan of Derrick Henry and DeMarco Murray together in one backfield, and who doesn’t get excited when head coach Mike Mularkey calls his offense ‘exotic-smashmouth’?
I think the Lions will do well against the AFC South this year, but the idea that their schedule is easy is a false notion.