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How Hard Could It Be? – 2023 AFC South Preview

2023 AFC South Preview

Scott Logush

Associate Editor

The AFC South has been one of the weaker divisions in recent memory. In the offseason, they had an injection of youth with three of the four teams taking rookie quarterbacks in the 2023 NFL Draft. The future looks bright for the division, but let’s see how it looks ahead of the 2023 season.

Houston Texans

After Lovie Smith went for the win in the final week of the season, the Texans fell to the second overall pick in the draft. After months of wondering if they would go quarterback or Will Anderson, Houston did both! They took CJ Stroud second overall, then traded up to the third overall pick to select Will Anderson Jr. I want to try and be optimistic about Houston, but they won’t see success this year. They’ll rely on Nico Collins and Robert Woods as their primary pass catchers. Their offensive line has some strong pieces in Laremy Tunsil, Shaq Mason, and Tytus Howard, but their center and left guard spots will hamstring this offense. 

Their defense is a mix of youth and strong veterans. Derek Stingley struggled as a rookie, and they have several solid corners in Steven Nelson, Desmond King II, Shaquill Griffin, and Tavierre Thomas. Jalen Pitre at safety is entering a second year where his run defense needs a lot of work. He missed nearly 20% of his tackle attempts in 2022, for a total of 35 on the year. From a team’s last line of defense, they need better. They bring over veteran safety Jimmie Ward who follows Demeco Ryans from San Francisco. Denzel Perryman is a very good linebacker who arrived on a modest one-year $2.6M deal. Linebackers, like running backs, just don’t make much money in the NFL. Their defensive front is probably their strongest position with a solid rotation of Jerry Hughes, who can consistently get 50+ pressures and has been a pass rush specialist for over half a decade, Chase Winovich, and Jonathan Greenard. Will Anderson will likely take care of the other side with Maliek Collins, Sheldon Rankins, and Roy Lopez taking care of business up the middle. Still, this team needs some development and work before they can sniff the playoffs.

Indianapolis Colts

Has the ultimate quarterback rotation ended in Indianapolis? The Colts are set to have their seventh different week-one starter in as many years. With the team making a significant investment in selecting Anthony Richardson out of Florida with the fourth overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, they’re hoping he can stop the quarterback rotation. The Colts also have a sneaky solid roster with a strong offensive line. Jonathan Taylor wants out or to be paid, and the front office in Indianapolis isn’t too motivated to do either one of those things. Michael Pittman Jr is their best receiver with second-year receiver Alec Pierce looking to help drive the passing attack with Anthony Richardson.

Their defensive line is solid with Deforest Buckner and Grover Stewart on the interior. Kwity Paye is entering his third year and has had more than 30 pressures in both prior years with Indianapolis, and free agent acquisition Samson Ebukam is coming off a career-high 43 pressures in 2022 with the 49ers. Their secondary is the most concerning group with Kenny Moore being their best player but primarily a slot defender. Their safeties aren’t too encouraging either with Julian Blackmore and Rodney Thomas being fine but unable to make up for a liability of an outside corner group.

Jacksonville Jaguars

I will use this as my opportunity to sing Nathan Rourke’s praises (even though he got waived yesterday) and let everyone know his “little” brother is also draft-eligible for the 2024 NFL Draft and is currently smashing records at Ohio. BC Lions stud Nathan Rourke signed with the Jaguars this offseason and is just casually becoming the Patrick Mahomes of the preseason, despite being waived on Monday, I’m absolutely pulling for Rourke to get some regular season action this season. The Jaguars may not have made any massive moves on the offensive side of the ball in the offseason but one thing will improve, Calvin Ridley is coming back and ready to play. The Jaguars made the move at the 2022 trade deadline, a clear investment for the future and it will pay dividends this year in a big way. Christian Kirk is set for another good year in the slot, and they brought back Evan Engram after a great season. Their offensive line leaves a bit to be desired. Cam Robinson is suspended for the first six games of the year, forcing Walker Little into action with first-round rookie Anton Harrison at right tackle. Their interior is questionable with Brandon Scherff coming off a poor season and Luke Fortner entering his second year.

Defensively, they’re solid. Josh Allen is a very good edge rusher and they don’t have any glaring holes. They’ll be looking for one of their two second-year linebackers to step up in Devin Lloyd or Chad Muma. Roy Robertson-Harris was an under-the-radar signing who is a sneaky good player. Tyson Campbell had a strong year as an outside corner and Darius Williams is at his best as an outside corner despite his size profile. Jacksonville realized this and began playing him almost exclusively outside after their bye week. Jacksonville is a team that’s not afraid to adjust to make their team better, and they’re easily a top-12 team in the league. Spoiler alert, They should run away with this division.

Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans are trying to have a competitive rebuild, trying to infuse young talent into the mix while having some veterans run the show. Their offensive line is looking like one of the worst heading into the season. They gave Andre Dillard a three-year contract worth $29 million after he has played just over 700 snaps in his career since being drafted in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Their best offensive linemen will likely end up being Peter Skoronski who they’re sliding into left guard after selecting him in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft. I just have no confidence in the rest of their offensive line. Ryan Tannehill is still a very good quarterback, and they signed DeAndre Hopkins in free agency to be their number-one guy opposite of Treylon Burks. Derrick Henry is still in the backfield, and although that doesn’t mean as much as you may expect, he’s a consistent player who has been typically good at staying healthy.

Their defense is underrated and could keep them in some games or outright win some games. They have a great front with Jeffery Simmons leading the way on the interior after posting 53 pressures and 27 run stops in 2022, and Harrold Landry on the edge who missed the entire 2022 campaign with a knee injury after posting over 50 pressures every season from 2019-2021 and 63 in 2021. Although corner Caleb Farley has struggled to stay healthy, they have a young group with potential in Roger McCreery, Kristian Fulton, and Sean Murphy-Bunting. Kevin Byard is still a top safety in the NFL. The Titans played well against good teams in 2022, and I expect them to do the same in 2023.

Final Prediction

It’s no surprise that the Jaguars are both division favourites and the team I’m picking to win the AFC South. The Titans are closer than they’re getting credit for and are in a position to come second with ease as the Colts and Texans are still in the middle of rebuilding with rookie quarterbacks. I might be higher on the Titans than most, but don’t be shocked if they finish around or above .500.

Standings:

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars
  2. Tennessee Titans
  3. Indianapolis Colts
  4. Houston Texans
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