2018 NFL Preview: AFC South

afc-southThere may be no division that has had to deal with injuries at the level of the AFC South where some of the biggest names have fallen to injuries.

It leaves the entire division as a bit of question mark because when teams finish a season without their best players it is hard to say that the season was a good representation of the team.

Although injuries are a part of the game and teams need to be prepared to deal with those issues there are teams in the south that have had some pretty major issues.

In Indianapolis, the replacement for their legendary quarterback has shown that he can fill very big shoes but hasn’t had a lot of time on the field.

Andrew Luck has been as good a replacement as a team that said goodbye to a future Hall of Famer in Peyton Manning as they could hope for.

Yet a serious shoulder injury kept him off of the field the entire 2017 season and had bothered him throughout 2016.

Nobody really knows what the Colts can truly look like with Luck under centre as he has proven to be a QB that can make others better but with a full season off, the question mark is still there.

In Tennessee, the future of the quarterback position has never played a full season of football in the NFL.

Marcus Mariota was drafted to end their long search for a quarterback and he has shown flashes of greatness in his first three seasons.

The problem is that he has missed games in all three seasons due to various injuries and nobody knows how good he can be if he played an entire year.

No teams has been hurt by injuries more than the Houston Texans who are among the most talented teams in the league.

Yet every year someone goes down and the Texans are not the same team as they were when they came into the year.

More often than not that player who goes down has been J.J. Watt, widely considered one of the best defensive players in this era.

Watt can do just about everything, even play offence, and seemed like he was on pace to win the Defensive Player of the year for as long as he wanted to play.

In 2014 he was just getting started winning his second DPOY and then repeating despite a groin and hand injury in 2015.

Before the 2016 season, he underwent back surgery but returned for the first week before being place don inured reserve a few weeks later.

In 2017 he looked to be back to form but suffered a broken leg in Week 5 and missed the rest of the season.football-sidebar

Without Watt the Texans are simply not the same defence and not having him in place makes the team slightly less formidable.

Add that to the fact that their new QB who many believe to be a future MVP winner, Deshaun Watson, also missed most of last year on the IR and the Texans were not the team they were supposed to be.

The only team to stay generally healthy was the Jaguars but injury bugs have a way of creeping up and who knows what 2018 has in store.

If all teams stay healthy this year it could be a great battle between a lot of very talented teams making this division one of the best in the league.

The talent that Houston and Jacksonville bring on defence is scary and add a better offence for Houston with a potentially great QB it can make things very interesting.

The Titans made their own run last year despite their injury issues and if Mariota stays healthy nobody knows what that offence can do.

Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, the big name talent might not be there but Luck can make things happen throwing a wrench into the plans of the top teams.

If all stay healthy this division can be a lot of fun this year but that is a big if with so many major injuries plaguing every team.

Without some of their biggest stars, these teams fall apart, as evident by Houston going from Super Bowl favourites to the bottom of the division without Watt and Watson.

For the sake of football fans in general, the hope has to be for these teams to stay healthy and give fans some great football action throughout the season.

If that happens the Super Bowl Champions could come out of this division as long as they survive the division battle itself.

houston_texans

It was a year full of promise for the Texans in 2017 as they had their star back and a new quarterback that was going to bring the future to the team. Then five games in their best players were hurt along with another key member to their defence that had been the strength for this team for years. There was some hope as their new quarterback showed up at the right time and began taking over and making his way directly to the Rookie of houtexansthe Year and potentially the MVP. At least until Watson was hurt and when he went down any chance of the Texans making the playoffs went with him. A season with some serious promise turned into a house of horrors and the Texans sank to the bottom of the division. The talent is there but that talent needs to stay healthy which has been a challenge for the Texans in recent years. The biggest issue has always been with their best player as JJ Watt can change this team. Watt has only played 8 games over the last two seasons due to injuries and the Texans truly do need him on defence. He is the beginning and end for a good group and with him, in the lineup, things get freed up for everyone else. Watt returns along with Christian Covington and D.J. Reader, none of which ended last season on the field. In the linebacking corps will be without its leader as Brian Cushing was released after failing another drug test in 2017. Benardrick McKinney will take over the leadership of this group but there is no doubt where the talent lies. Jadeveon Clowney was brought in to be part of the two-headed attack on the quarterback. Clowney has been great in his first two years but nobody knows just how good he can be when Watt begins to split attention, which is what the Texans will hope happens this year. That rush could provide support for a secondary that wasn’t great last year but now has a legitimate playmaker in Tyrann Mathieu who can do a bit of everything. On offence, a lot of the success will depend on Watson and what he can do after he tore his ACL last season. If he can come back healthy the belief is he can be an MVP-calibre player and with the weapons around him, it is possible. DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller make up a very good receiving tandem and have already found a groove with Watson. In the backfield, Lamar Miller, D’Onta Foreman and Alfred Blue could split time as none have proven to be an every-down back. The Texans have the talent to win this division but if that talent is not on the field they have no hope making this team a bit of a question mark this year.

indianapolis_colts

The Colts have similar problems to their rivals in the Houston Texans as they have been rocked by injuries that have kept them out of the running. Unlike the Texans though, the injury bug has really only surrounded one player and beyond that one player, the Colts have lacked a lot of talent that can help them to the playoffs. Last year they were hoping indcoltsto see Andrew Luck return under centre but their star quarterback didn’t take a snap throughout the season. It might have been just as well with some serious issues on the offensive line likely to put him back on the injury list. Entering a new season the Colts are looking to the return of Luck to bring them back into relevance but there are some serious concerns about the team they have built around him. Luck has been out due to a serious shoulder injury that kept him out of the entire season last year. They are hoping that he is back for good because this team is different with Luck under centre as he is one of those talents that makes everyone around him better. He will need to do that this year as the Colts lack a lot of depth in the receiving corps as T.Y. Hilton is one of the best deep threats in the game but beyond him, there is not a lot. Hilton and Luck will look to connect again while new addition Eric Ebron hopes to become a favourite target of Luck and provide a secondary target that hasn’t really been there. Behind Luck will be Marlon Mack as Frank Gore is now in Miami and Mack will take over in his second year hoping to take the reigns of the rushing attack. The biggest issue in the past few years though has been the line and with a host of young lineman taken in the draft including Quenton Nelson who looks to start right away, the Colts are hoping to solve that issue. The defence will go through some major changes as the scheme has switched to 3-4 leaving a lot of long-time Colts without a real role. That has left the line to be led by a group of players without any major experience including rookie Kemoko Turay although Jabaal Sheard hopes to step up and lead the group. At linebacker, the theme continues as many of the long0tie veterans are gone leaving players like rookie Darius Leonard to lead the rush. In the secondary, the only real playmaker is second-year safety Malik Hooker who returns from an injury last year. The rest of the group is a bit up in the air as anything could happen through the rest of the season. Luck returning could help this team be better but they are not going to be competing with a lack of talent surrounding him.

jacksonville_jaguars

It was one of the best turnarounds in the league last year as the Jaguars went from the bottom of the league to one of the top teams. After only winning three games in 2017 the Jags took a reloaded team and made a deep run into the playoffs totalling 10 wins on the season and finding their way to the conference finals. That has set a high standard for the new season as there is a lot expected of this team heading into 2018. In the era of offence, the Jaguars are taking a different path as they are concentrating on defence first. jacjaguarsIt all starts up front for the Jags who have a great group that includes one of the best free agent signings of 2017 in Calais Campbell. Alongside Yannick Ngakoue, Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson this group gets back to the quarterback better than almost any other team in the league. It doesn’t get any easier moving through the defence as Myles Jack and Telvin Smith are among the best pair of linebackers in the league. The secondary is even better as they are a good group even with the loss of Aaron Colvin. Jalen Ramsey is considered one of the best in the game and with Tashaun Gipson, A.J. Bouye and Barry Church the group put up the most interceptions in the league last year. The defence is the strength and after being ranked among the top defences in the league there is a lot to live up to but they are confident that they can do just that. On offence, the Jaguars are just as old school as they are looking to keep the ball on the ground as much as they can. With Leonard Fournette at running back, they can do that as the rookie put up 1,000 yards in his first season and some improvements on the line hopefully give him more space. Blake Bortles remains a controversial figure in Jacksonville but a two-year contract in the offseason shows that the Jags are confident in their quarterback. He will have a lot of new faces to throw to this year as some of his best targets are gone due to money issues or injury worries. They have the guys behind them though as Keelan Cole led the league in his first year while Marqise Lee remained a top target. Donte Moncrief and Austin Seferian-Jenkins new additions meant to boost the passing game. The Jaguars went old school last year and that plan seems to be in the works for another year as they look to defence and a running game to lead them back to the playoffs. The talent is there and with their new additions they could find themselves back in the playoffs likely t the top of the division.

tennessee_titans

Every team in the NFL usually has some kind of identity whether they are a hard-nosed tough team or a team that prefers the flashy side of football. The Titans are a team that seems like they are void of a true identity as they aren’t necessarily a defensive powerhouse or a creative offensive team. They also aren’t entirely a hard-nosed in your face type of team as they are caught in the middle of all of those things. That could be the tentitansreason why the Titans are a good team but never really a team that many look to as a Super Bowl contender. Last year was a good one as they were able to grab a wild-card spot but were ousted by the Patriots in the second round. It was only a matter of time until Mike Vrabel took over a team after essentially interning under big names like Urban Meyer, Bill Belichick and Bill O’Brien. He tries to bring a new attitude to the Titans and with that attitude and the talent he is looking at a serious shot at the playoffs. The offence was often built around the running game last year but with a new offensive coordinator, a lot more could be put on fourth-year QB Marcus Mariota. He will need Corey Davis to adjust to the NFL game this year after his rookie campaign left a lot to be desired while Rishard Matthews and Delanie Walker provide reliable outlets. DeMarco Murray is no longer with the team leaving Derrick Henry to take the starting role while Dion Lewis provides a change of pace for the run game. The defence might be the strength this year and with Vrabel, in the mix, they hope to step up their game. Most of the talent for this team is in the secondary where Kevin Byard led the league in interceptions last year. He will be joined by new addition Malcolm Butler who slots in opposite Logan Ryan while new addition Kenny Vaccaro joins Byard in the middle. The linebacking corps returns Brian Orakpo and Derick Morgan who led the team in sacks last year. Inside the team could see contributions from rookie Rashaan Evans while tackling leader Wesley Woodyard looks to continue providing a stable presence. The defensive line is a good one although not one that many people look to in order to lead this team. Jurrell Casey is small but takes a lot of focus giving DaQuan Jones some more freedom as he returns from an injury that ended his season early last year. The Titans have the talent to compete for the division crown but they will likely have to fight for a wild card spot this year.

Prediction:
The battle could be a good one but a lot of it will have to do with exactly what teams show up for the season. The Jaguars look like the best team overall but they have to prove that they are for real after a surprise rise last year. They will have to fight off the Texans who could be just as good but are still an unknown thanks to the injuries that they have dealt with for years. Nobody knows what this team can do with a full complement of players and if they have their talent in place they could take the division but that is still a big if after the last few seasons. The Titans are a good enough team to make the playoffs and if the Texans struggle they are very likely to make the playoffs. If the Texans don’t struggle they could be in for a battle to get a wild card spot that might keep them just shy of the playoffs this year. The Colts are looking for an improvement with their quarterback returning but the talent around him just isn’t there to compete even if he stays healthy.

afcsouth-prediction

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