2016 NFL Preview: AFC South

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Much like the other Southern division, the AFC South is one of quarterbacks and one that concentrates purely on the quarterback.

Unlike the NFC though the AFC is full of the next generation of quarterbacks, some on the edge of greatness and others still fairly unknown.

Like every team throughout the league, the teams in the AFC South have always been looking for that one player to make a difference.

It is the easiest answer to the question of winning in the NFL and yet the hardest question to actually answer.

More often than not a struggling team continues to struggle because they lack that quarterback who can make a difference.

The most successful teams and the most consistent teams are the teams that find a quarterback and keep that quarterback around.

Finding that quarterback is a very tough task though as teams struggle for years to find someone they can depend on for multiple years.

Some teams rotate through QBs almost every season trying to find the one while others look to a top draft pick and try to get it to work only to find years of poor play.

Teams spend a long time and a lot of money trying to find the guy that can help them get to winning football.

In the AFC South, every team seems to have finally figured it out and that could mean some big things for the south division this season.

The NFC South is a mix of veterans and young guns but in the AFC the entire division could be just at the start of a long period of quarterback battles.

The elder statesmen of the group are Andrew Luck and Brock Osweiler who both entered the league in 2012.

Out of the two only Luck has seen real starting time while Osweiler sat behind one of the best ever.football-sidebar

Meanwhile, Marcus Mariota and Blake Bortles are just beginning their time in the league and looking to make a bigger impact as they add years to their careers.

The most interesting part of this division is the fact that all of these quarterbacks are really just getting started in the league.

To see the future of the game it just takes one look at the AFC South which means good things for the conference.

It might not happen just yet but the fact is that all of the QBs have the potential to lead their teams to the playoffs.

If they meet that potential this division could become one of the toughest in the league.

Luck is clearly the class of the division but his Colts are not necessarily the most put together team in the South.

The Texans took the title last year and that was without a great quarterback which they might just have now.

Meanwhile, the Jaguars and Titans were looking more to the future seeing good play from both of their young quarterbacks.

If the Texans have found their quarterback the Colts may have found a new division rival for the near future.

If the Titans and Jaguars can see their quarterbacks take another step they may very well throw their hats into the ring.

It could be an interesting year in 2016 as everything seems to come down to some young arms that will lead to their team’s success or failures.

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The Texans have been a very good team over the last few years but they have always lacked one of the most important aspects of an NFL team. They have been a bit of mystery over those years as they have continued to win without having a truly great quarterback. They even won the division last season while continuing to rotate between T.J. Yeldon and Brian Hoyer. Both are good QBs but they are not the type of quarterbacks that can carry a team if need be. In this era of the NFL that type of quarterback is a must and for the Texans, 2016 could the year they finally found him. What is scary about this team is that if their new addition pans out, a team with a great defence just got the offensive help they needed to be Super Bowl contenders. That new addition was Brock Osweiler who left Denver after three years of being the heir apparent to Peyton Manning. He got plenty of work last year when Manning struggled and showed flashes of why the Broncos liked him so much. He decided to take his free agent opportunity to Houston and if he meets his potential the Texans may have found their missing piece. That is largely because the rest of the team is already in place especially in the passing game. DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best young receivers in the league but has yet to see someone who can feed him the ball. His success might depend on the success of sophomore receiver Jaelen Strong who needs to provide enough of a distraction to take double coverage off of Hopkins. In the backfield, the Texans have moved on from oft-injured Arian Foster and to new signee Lamar Miller who broke 1,000 yards in 2014 with Miami before he became more of a back-up. The offence has always been the question for the Texans while the defence has been the steady hand that has led them to great years. Led by possibly the best player in the league, J.J. Watt, who returns from injury in time for the season, the Texans are a tough team to play against. Along with Watt, the Texans have seen great development from Whitney Mercilus while they continue to wait for Jadeveon Clowney to have a healthy season. The rush is a strong one and it gives the Texans a break in the secondary where they are a mix of veterans and inexperience. Kevin Johnson looks to avoid a sophomore slump while Johnathan Joseph hopes to continue his resurgence and Kareem Jackson hopes for a fully healthy year. The Texans could be a complete team this year but they need one player to step up and change the fate of a team that already knows how to win.

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indianapolis_colts

The Colts were enjoying another period of dominance in the division before last year’s 8-8 season. They were on their way to being an almost guarantee to win the division while leaving everyone else to fight for second and a wild card. A lot of that dominance was due to the fact that they had found a new quarterback after Peyton Manning. Andrew Luck has been everything that was promised in the NFL as he has been the franchise QB they needed in order to continue to be a team to beat. The only issue with the Luck era is that it is very similar to the Manning era in that without that key piece they aren’t the same team. Luck proved that when he went down last year only starting seven games last year and the Colts only managed eight wins. 2016 will depend on Luck again as they hope he is ready to go and free from injury all year in order to lead the team back to the division title. He has his favourite targets again this year as T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief make a very good pair in the passing game. Behind Luck is a collection of backs as Frank Gore is still the top rusher but is getting older and the Colts will likely not want to ride him too much. Expect to see Robert Turbin in certain situations as they look to break up the carries of Gore. The defence was also hampered by injuries last year and will hope that a healthy season from a bit of a new-look defence can help them. David Perry and Zach Kerr are both still young but hope to continue their development on the line while Kendall Lawrence acts as the veteran presence on the end. The linebacking corps is sure to miss their leader in Jerrell Freeman but they are still a solid group with Robert Mathis on the outside and D’Qwell Jackson in the middle. In the secondary, the Colts were left with some holes in the off-season with the departures of two of their cornerbacks. Vontae Davis and Mike Smith return as leaders while new signee Patrick Robinson and rookie T.J. Green fill in the other holes. The defence is a good group but much like they were when Peyton Manning was the quarterback they seem to be built to play with the lead rather than to win by themselves. It seems clear with this team that their quarterback is the linchpin for everything that goes on. If Luck can stay healthy and remain under centre all year they have a good chance at competing for the division but if he gets hurt again they will fall out of the running for another year falling short of their expectations.

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The Jaguars may finally have figured out the right track to being competitive after years of trying to get back to their successful years, however, brief they were. They had fallen into the danger of so many other teams in trying to continually add new leaders only to see them struggle and then abandon them. With the addition of Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell, the Jaguars decided to stay with a plan and see if it could lead to more success. So far that patience is seemingly paying off with the Jags looking like a team on the edge of being competitive. The focus has long been on trying to create an offence that could compete with the best in the league. That all started when they drafted Blake Bortles who has turned out to be a great fit even if he is rarely mention among the best young QBs in the game. He is very similar to Ben Roethlisberger and so far has been able to put up some great numbers for the team. He has help in that though as Marcedes Lewis has been a favourite target of his while Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns both broke 1,000 yards last year forming a very good one-two punch. In the backfield, T.J. Yeldon turned out to be as advertised last year putting up 740 yards and hoping to see more growth this year to become a 1,000-yard rusher. The concentration on building an offence has been a good one as they are a potent group but they have lacked the defence to help them out. That will hopefully change as they have shifted their focus to the defence this off-season hoping to build more of a complete team. One of the biggest additions was on the line where they lacked a pass rush but tried to change that in the off-season. The signing of Malik Jackson should help their line while the return of Dante Fowler, who was sidelined most of his rookie year with an ACL tear. At linebacker, the Jaguars are actually pretty good with Paul Posluszny leading the way in a solid run defence. Expect rookie Myles Jack to eventually make an impact this year even if he starts as a back-up in Week 1. The secondary will get a boost with a rookie too as Jalen Ramsey is set to start right away alongside Davon House who was the best corner for the Jags a year ago. The addition of Tashaun Gipson should also give a boost to the pass coverage this year. The fact is that the Jaguars are seemingly doing everything right as they continue to build in all of the areas they need most. It might not pay off this year though as they are still young and mistakes will be made along the way. That doesn’t mean they won’t challenge more teams in 2016.

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tennessee_titans

The Titans are in the midst of a rebuild not unlike the Jaguars but for them, they have yet to find the right path to take. They have constantly made changes to management and personnel with little concern for finding a way to get there. Their latest experiment is their new GM Jon Robinson who is not shy about making big moves to try to compete right now. If he continues to make moves with little success he is sure to be let go like so many before but if they improve under his leadership things might finally look up for the Titans. He came into a good situation as the quarterback position has been figured out with Marcus Mariota is the future of the position for the team. He made mistakes last year and wasn’t a breakout star but he was good and with more development, he could be great. He never really had much help in the passing game but the Titans are hoping that will change. Delanie Walker has been one of the brighter spots as Mariota has the tight end to throw to who can break out. They will look to Tajae Sharpe who impressed enough in training camp to start this year while Rishard Matthews, Andre Johnson, and Kendall Wright all try to become a main target for the young QB. Mariota will get some extra support in the running game as one of the bigger moves made by the new GM was to grab DeMarco Murray. The veteran back is sure to boost the running game while his back-up Derrick Henry, will likely see some time to give the veteran a break. As the offence continues to figure things out they will lean on a good defence that has carried them this far. The strength of that defence is on the line where Jurrell Casey leads the team even as an under the radar player. Along with DaQuan Jones, they make up a very big part of this team that makes life difficult for opposing teams. Another big part of that pass rush is the combination of linebackers in Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan who were a good pair until Morgan was hurt. In the secondary, the pair of Jason McCourty and Perrish Cox is a good one while the Titans wait for their young players to find their way to the starting roles. The Titans are a team that has built a good defence that ranked top 20 in the league last year. Where they need to see development is on offence as they seem to have the players they need to be good but still need some development. If they can develop they might start to challenge other teams but if they continue to struggle they will be out of the hunt quickly.

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Prediction:
The South is an interesting division as so much depends on the development of the young QBs that are taking over teams. The entire division is full of young QBs and all of their teams depend on them to get where they need to be. Unfortunately for their teams they can’t do everything themselves. Because of that the Jags and the Titans will sit at the bottom for another year. Both teams are developing but all of the pieces aren’t in place yet making them teams that will look good at some points and bad at others. The Jags are on the right track though as inexperience might be their biggest issue. They will take the battle and move into third while the Titans continue to struggle with too many holes on offence putting them in last. The big battle might come at the top where Houston and Indianapolis look to fight for the division title. The Texans might be able to win but there is one big question at QB that makes them less of a sure thing. For the Colts it is all about a healthy season from Andrew Luck who will lead the Colts to a division title as long as he stays on the field.

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