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AFC South: One reason to be cheerful, one reason to be fearful

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Houston Texans

Reason to be cheerful: cap space

In many ways, the Texans have a lot that other teams would want: a budding star at QB, an unstoppable wide receiver, and a fearsome front seven on defence. But this is a very lopsided team.

On offense, the unit rises and falls with receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who last season had over 1,000 more receiving yards than the teams second highest receiver, Will Fuller. Hopkins is an elite talent and quite rightly is the focal point of offensive game-planning, but Calvin Johnson and the Lions will tell you, it is not a recipe for sustained or repeated success. Hopkins, and QB Deshaun Watson, need a viable number two receiver and a pass catching tight end who can take some of the heat off Hopkins.

It goes without saying that the offensive line needs reinforcements, particularly at tackle, where coach Bill O’Brien may look to his former employers, the Patriots in picking up left tackle Trent Brown. Alternatively, Houston could pay a premium at the other tackle spot for someone like Ja’waun James from Miami or Daryl Williams from Carolina, then look to the draft for Watson’s blindside blocker. Either way the team has plenty of cash to shore up the roster for a deeper playoff run.

Reason to be fearful: a secondary that is holding the defence back


The Texans have a talented front seven, including J.J. Watt; Jadeveon Clowney; Whitney Mercilus and Bernardrick McKinney. The team ranked 3rd in the league, in fact, in rush defence allowing only 82.7 rush yards per game.

That tremendous success, however, was undone by the unit’s ranking in pass defence.

Houston was the 5th worst in the league giving up 260.4 passing yards per game. Safeties Justin Reid and Andre Hal should provide some optimism with the rookie Reid claiming 3 interceptions (returning 1 for a touchdown) and 10 passes defended. Hal, who returned to the Texans in week 7 after receiving treatment for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, recorded the same number of passes defended and interceptions as he did in a full season in 2017.

If the team want to add talent at cornerback whilst getting younger they may have to take a calculated risk on either Bradley Roby, Pierre Desir and Jason Verrett, who whilst all flashing talent come with question marks as well as likely heightened contract demands due to their talent and age.

Whilst the Texans do have some concerns, they can likely remedy them through the draft and free agency.


Indianapolis Colts

Reason to be cheerful: finally starting to build a team around Andrew Luck

If the Texans have just a few concerns, the Colts should be almost zen like this offseason. In what was expected to be a bit of a transitional season whilst the defence moved to a 4-3 scheme and GM Chris Ballard sought to get younger and build though the draft, the Colts surpassed everyone’s expectations by reaching the Divisional Round of the playoffs where they lost to the explosive Kansas City Chiefs.

On offense Indy ranked 5th in points (averaging 27.1) and 7th in offensive yards (386.2 per game). Tight end, Eric Ebron, regarded as a first round bust with the Lions, went off racking up 750 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns and looking nearly unstoppable in the red zone.

The biggest transformation though was the offensive line which went from ranking last in the league in 2017 allowing 56 sacks and 113 QB hits, to leaping to 1st in the league with only 18 sacks and 77 QB hits.

The defence under Matt Eberflus also managed to show significant improvement led by second round pick, Defensive Rookie of the Year, All-Pro and the most ridiculous Pro Bowl snub of the year, Darius Leonard. The South Carolina State product recorded an incredible stat line of 163 combined tackles, 7 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. Denico Autry, a bargain buy by Ballard, put together 9 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in his 5th season and first as a full time starter in the league, whilst his fellow defensive end Kemoko Turay put together 4 sacks in 3 starts.

Reason to be fearful: ______________

It’s very difficult to think of anything for Colts fans to be worried about. As mentioned previously, the team overachieved last year and has the most salary cap space in the league, with over $100 million available to add some impact starters.

The only relatively minor concern in Indianapolis could be the potential loss of Eberflus to a head coaching position next offseason if the defence maintains its level of progress this season.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Reason to be cheerful: still an elite defence

Despite not making it back to the playoffs last year, the Jags woes can largely be attributed to offensive inefficiency. The defence ranked 5th in yards per game and still retains its core players at every level.

The talent level on this unit is enviable and still in its prime, from linebacker duo Telvin Smith and Myles Jack, to defensive linemen Calais Campbell (10.5 sacks) and Yannick Ngakoue (9.5 sacks). Campbell obviously is the wrong side of 30, but his level of production is phenomenal.

In addition, the Jags have arguably the best cornerback pairing in the league with Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. Neither matched the heights that they reached in the Jaguars 2017 season, but neither did much of the offence.

This defence, with a few tweaks, is still Super Bowl calibre. But that window will close soon, meaning fixing the offence has to happen quickly.

Reason to be fearful: offensive inadequacy

Inefficiency doesn’t seem enough to sum up the Jaguars offense, which when I watched it last season, was like a throwback to the 1940s: three yards and a cloud of dust. The team clearly didn’t trust QB Blake Bortles enough to put the ball in his hands, instead emphasising his running ability. In fact, the former UCF product put together less than 3,000 yards of offense and remains turnover prone. Despite his new contract last season, which seemed short-sighted at the time, he is likely to move on from Florida this season.

Bortles wasn’t helped by an absolute scarcity of playmakers around him though.

The team chose not to re-sign receiver Allen Robinson, who was working his way back from a torn ACL, and that looks likely to be an error. Don’t get me wrong, Robinson didn’t set the world on fire in Chicago, but he showed flashes of the player he was in Jacksonville before his injury, and certainly would have been an upgrade on the Jags current crop of wide receivers. Leading receiver Dede Westbrook currently profiles best as a WR2, although that’s not to say he can’t develop into a dominant receiver, but currently that’s where he is.

The Jaguars want to pound the rock with Leonard Fournette but he only managed 8 games due to injury, and a later suspension for fighting. The LSU product has averaged below 4 yards per rush in both his seasons at the Everbank Stadium, which should be a cause for concern. Now to qualify that point, this may be because teams load the box up on Fournette and dare Bortles to beat them through the air, as well as the team’s offensive line woes in Fournette’s first season. Nonetheless, he isn’t the difference maker the Jags require him to be for their offensive scheme to work at this stage.

Tennessee Titans

Reason to be cheerful: Kevin Byard and Derrick Henry

The standout talents on the Titans roster are safety Byard and Henry who emerged as the bell cow back towards the end of the season. Byard followed up his 8 interception 2017 season with 4 interceptions last year and was ranked as the 4th best safety according to Pro Football Focus.

Henry managed over 1,000 rushing yards and saw a significant increase in rushing attempts from week 14 onwards. The former Alabama back averaged 4.9 yards per carry positioning himself as a player for the offense to orientate itself around.

Reasons to be fearful: a largely anonymous roster

Three years after GM Jon Robinson was brought to town from the Patriots, this roster lacks explosiveness. Jurrell Casey led the team in sacks, with just 7, whilst the team’s leading receiver was Corey Davis with 891 yards. Dion Lewis wasn’t able to bring his effectiveness as a satellite back in New England to the Music City, and most fans outside of Nashville would probably struggle to name a significant number of players on the Titans roster.

I know that having a recognisable team and a good roster on paper doesn’t necessarily translate to success on the field but Robinson needs to add weapons at wide receiver and tight end. Tennessee has been too reliant on veteran Delanie Walker who is ageing and was out for the majority of last season with injury. There is talent on the offensive line, but even if the Titans want to be a run first team, they must diversify the offence. Remember Mike Mularkey’s exotic smashmouth football? Tennessee needs more variety in order to make a move in the AFC South.

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