(Marcus Mariota photo courtesy of the Tennessee Titans)
(Andrew Luck photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Colts)
Talk of Fame Network
The AFC South is no longer Andrew Luck’s division to win. It’s J.J. Watt’s division to lose.
That’s what happens when one team can win with its backup quarterbacks, and the other can’t, as was the case with Watt’s Texans and Luck’s Colts last season. The division will become more competitive this season with Luck healthy again and the Texans signing free-agent Brock Osweiler to take over their quarterbacking chores. Plus, both Jacksonville and Tennessee have emerging young quarterbacks in Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota.
That’s the subject of our weekly poll at the Talk of Fame Network – who’s the best team in the AFC South in 2016? Here are your candidates:
Houston Texans: The division’s best defense. Watt is the best defender in the game and you can make the argument he’s the best overall player. Watt and that N. 3-ranked defense powered the Texans to a 9-7 record and an AFC South title a year ago despite Houston starting those four different quarterbacks during the season. The Texans have moved on from that shaky situation by signing Osweiler away from the Super Bowl-champion Broncos in free agency, and they no longer have to keep their fingers crossed that Arian Foster stays healthy. They let him go and signed Lamar Miller away from Miami to become their primary ball carrier. Houston also drafted two speedy wide receivers in the first three rounds, Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, to help Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins stretch defenses.
Indianapolis Colts: The Colts were a huge disappointment last season, finishing 28th in offense and 26th in defense on the way to an 8-8 record. They fell from an AFC title game appearance in 2014 right out of the playoffs. Injuries that cost Luck nine starts played a large part in that demise. The Colts drafted two blockers in the first three rounds to better protect their franchise quarterback: Center Ryan Kelly in the first round and tackle La’Raven Clark in the third. For a secondary that had difficulty creating turnovers, the Colts used a second-round pick on free safety T.J. Green of Clemson. But any return to playoff contention hinges on getting 16 healthy games out of Luck.
Jacksonville Jaguars: The division’s best offense. The Jaguars haven’t been to the playoffs in eight seasons, but they’ve been quietly building a team under GM Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley that can contend. The offense is now there. In 2014, Caldwell drafted Bortles in the first round, wide receiver Allen Robinson in the second and also signed wide receiver Allen Hurns as an undrafted college free agent. All are now emerging stars — Bortles with a 4,400-yard, 35-TD passing season in 2015 and both Robinson and Hurns with 1,000-yard receiving seasons. The Jaguars signed Chris Ivory away from the Jets in free agency this offseason. He was one of only seven NFL backs to rush for 1,000 yards in 2015. For the defense, Caldwell gave end Malik Jackson an $85-million contract in free agency to lure him away from the Super Bowl champions and also used his first two draft picks on cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack.
(Malik Jackson photo courtesy of the Jacksonville Jaguars)
Tennessee Titans: The Jaguars aren’t the only young, up-and-coming team in the AFC South. The Titans already have Mariota and patched holes on the roster with that blockbuster trade with Los Angeles that sent the first overall pick of the 2016 draft to the Rams for six premium selections. The Titans used a first-round pick on offensive tackle Jack Conklin and two seconds on an outside (Kevin Dodd) and inside (Austin Johnson) pass rusher. The Titans also traded for 2014 NFL rushing champion DeMarco Murray and used another second-round pick on a Heisman Trophy winner (Derrick Henry) to back him up.