In the run up to the 2018 NFL season, we’re previewing each division. Have a read of our other previews here. Next up: AFC South
The Jags are still banking on 2015 Broncos, sub-par quarterback and all, as being a viable model. Though, where the Broncos had star wide receivers, Jacksonville will rely on Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook and Donte Moncrief. There’s also the issue that highly-drafted back Leonard Fournette showed a lack of gamecraft and nous as a rookie. He can beat players physically, and make requisite catches, but to star in the NFL he’ll need to make better decisions. He’ll also have a reasonable offensive line, though Andrew Norwell will upgrade the interior. Expect a lot of runs using Norwell and star run-blocking center Brandon Linder to create holes.
Though the offense might struggle to uphold its side of the bargain, the Jags’ D remains incredible. Read off the potential starters: Calais Campbell, Marcell Dareus, Malik Jackson and Yannick Ngakoue on the line. Myles Jack and Telvin Smith at linebacker. A secondary of AJ Bouye, Jalen Ramsey, Tashaun Gipson, Barry Church. Sub-packages (which continue to be misnamed given how often they’re on the field) will expose one weakness, but it’s quality with bags of front-four depth.
This is the key, in fact. That was where Philadelphia kept pressure up throughout games last season. It’s a fantastic template, so expect the likes of Dante Fowler Jr, Abry Jones, Mike Bennett, and rookie Taven Bryan to star too. The Jags will get pressure from the front and shut down opposing playmakers at every level. They’re going to be a nightmare for most offenses. Including their own.
It was a brave and correct decision to dump Mike Mularkey despite winning a playoff game last year. We don’t know if Mike Vrabel will be the answer, but Mularkey’s season looked like an anomaly, grinding out results with veteran players and despite few young players developing.
Tennessee has had bags of draft stock in recent years, and we’re getting towards the crunch point where we know what they’ve turned that into. Marcus Mariota struggled last year and needs to progress through his reads and make better decisions. Derrick Henry has to prove his decision-making just as Leonard Fournette does, though the excellent Dion Lewis will fill any gap adroitly. I’m excited to see how Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor and Jonnu Smith kick on in year two. Leaps from two out of three of those will make the Titans scary through the air.
I don’t have many concerns on defense, though I worry how Tennessee will cover tight ends. Trade acquisition Kamalei Correa never found a natural position in Baltimore, and I’m not sure coverage linebacker is it. And with Jon Cyprien on IR, Kenny Vaccaro’s better in run support than coverage. But I want to mention the rest of the secondary, where Malcolm Butler upgrades an already strong group, and where Kevin Byard could cement his status as an elite free safety. Tennessee will hope that group can force coverage sacks, but in reality should expect teams to target the short and intermediate completions.
It’s tough to know where Indy sit right now. Until I see him throw a regular season pass, Andrew Luck will remain Schrodinger’s Quarterback. In the best case scenario though, he’ll likely still be a notch or two short of his pre-injury best. I’d expect he’ll be making use of two-TE sets often, both because new addition Eric Ebron offers much as a receiver but less blocking, and because they must keep Luck upright at all costs.
Whither Andrew Luck? (Thomas J. Russo/USA Today Sports)
The line might be the best they’ve had in years. Austin Howard and Matt Slauson are savvy veteran signings. Anthony Costanzo remains a reasonable left tackle. Ryan Kelly will want to bounce back after a rough sophomore campaign. But the reason the line gets its own paragraph? Quenton Nelson, who could become an elite guard overnight. He’ll certainly become a run-blocking highlight reel as he throws D-linemen around with aplomb. Yes, it’s a big step up from college. I’m all in on Nelson making it look like barely a pebble.
The Colts still have a long way to go on defense – Jabaal Sheard and Malik Hooker are the names that stand out, and it’s a stretch to project elite play from either. In reality this is a weak, weak roster recovering from years of Ryan Grigson’s near-criminally negligent mismanagement, and it still has a long way to go.
There’s a lot of hope disguised as confidence that Deshaun Watson will be instantly back to his pre-ACL-tear self. Understandable, too. Watson had the foundations for becoming the kind of star the league needs. Dynamic, exciting, smart, clutch, all that. Watson wasn’t perfect as a rookie though, and the loss of practice time recovering from injury may have delayed that “game slowing down” phase that’ll hopefully pre-empt his next leap.
You can’t say with confidence he has the support cast, either. Texans’ sinners parade of previous quarterbacks have got by throwing solely to Nuk Hopkins, and it still looks like the best strategy. Will Fuller’s ceiling may still be Ted Ginn. Ryan Griffin is their starting tight end. Lamar Miller is the running back. The offensive line was near-league-worst last year and hasn’t improved. This roster is shallow on offense outside of the two stars.
And on defense, it’s fragile. JJ Watt has played 8 games in two years and didn’t look himself in either of them. Jadeveon Clowney put in his only career healthy season last year. Whitney Mercilus lasted only 5 games in 2017. Houston can star with all three healthy and at their best, but how likely is that? I’ve no complaints on the secondary, where the addition of Tyrann Mathieu strengthens a unit with strong starters and depth. But it’s the only element of the roster you can say that to.