AFC South preview: Best bets for every team

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The VSiN pro football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 32 teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.

Here are the team previews and best bets for the AFC South:

Houston Texans

The Texans continue their major rebuild in 2022. Last year, 65-year-old first-time head coach David Culley led them to a 4-13 record. Culley was one and done and 64-year-old Lovie Smith was promoted from his associate head coach/defensive coordinator role. Culley did not inherit a very talented roster nor does Smith. Apart from Laremy Tunsil and Brandin Cooks — arguably the team’s two best players — the Texans have no one on the roster who will count more than $6.3 million against the cap this season. That includes quarterback Davis Mills, the team’s third-round selection in 2021, who put together some solid play down the stretch last year. The jury is still out on Mills, but he is likely to get one more year to prove he can be a starting quarterback before the 2023 NFL draft, when Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud will be available. 

Offense

Mills showed improvement as the season progressed. He looked overwhelmed in an ugly four-interception game at Buffalo in Week 4 (Houston had minus-23 net passing yards at halftime, the fewest in a first half since 1999), but by the end of the season he had an 88.8 passer rating which was second among rookies (behind Mac Jones), beating out four other rookie first-rounders in the category.

Pep Hamilton gets promoted from passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. Not only will he be tasked with the continued development of Mills, but he also must improve a running game that ranked last in the NFL (83.6 ypg). Hamilton's West Coast offense often uses power run-blocking schemes. Kenyon Green was drafted in the first round out of Texas A&M to slot in at left guard. Tunsil restructured his deal and will provide help to the rookie on the left side. Houston also exercised right tackle Tytus Howard's fifth-year option and signed veteran center Justin Britt and guard A.J. Cann to two-year contracts. The line at least has some stability but will need to open more lanes and holes for new running back Marlon Mack, who was a 1,000-yard rusher for the Colts in 2019 before tearing his Achilles in 2020 and then losing his job to 2021 NFL rushing leader Jonathan Taylor.

Cooks was re-signed through 2024 and had 1,037 yards and 90 catches on 134 targets. That is good production, but the second-most targeted receiver was Nico Collins with just 60. Rookie John Metchie III was drafted in the second round but will miss the season after being diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. Keep an eye on how Hamilton uses multi-tight end packages. He doesn't yet have an all-around player at the position.

Defense

The Texans couldn’t run the ball and couldn’t stop the run either. They had the NFL's second-worst rush defense, surrendered 20-plus-yard pass plays at the league's third-highest rate and were blown out frequently enough to stick the franchise with its worst point differential (-172) in history.

Smith will still call the defensive plays. GM Nick Caserio identified a few core players. Christian Kirksey, the team's Mike linebacker, and Maliek Collins, a powerful 3-technique defensive tackle, both return on two-year deals. The rest of the defense is being filled out by free-agent acquisitions and rookies, most notably corner Derek Stingley (LSU, No. 3 overall pick). Free safety Jalen Pitre (Baylor, Round 2) and Will linebacker Christian Harris (Alabama, Round 3) will also start as rookies.

Only one player (second-year end Jonathan Greenard, a rare bright spot for the future) had more than four sacks and the defensive line still lacks depth. The Texans are hoping Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison (both signed from Buffalo) still have some gas in the tank as pass rushers.

 

Outlook

Lovie Smith is not being dealt a great hand with the roster or the schedule. Outside of the division games, Houston has road trips to Denver, Las Vegas, Miami and Dallas. Plus, the Chargers (who the Texans upset in Week 16 last season), Eagles, Browns (Deshaun Watson’s first game back) and Chiefs come visiting. The Texans will start reaping the benefits of the Watson trade with an additional first-round pick in each of the next two drafts, but this year remains a massive rebuilding effort. The team will play hard for Smith, known as a players’ coach. Nevertheless, the win total of 4.5 seems about right.

Pick: Pass

Indianapolis Colts

After an 0-3 start, the Colts rebounded and looked primed to make the playoffs. Then they lost at home in Week 17 as 8.5-point favorites to the Raiders and lost in the final week as 14-point favorites in Jacksonville to miss the playoffs altogether. Carson Wentz was shipped to Washington and Matt Ryan was acquired from Atlanta, so the Colts have their fourth different starting quarterback in four seasons. Wentz was the scapegoat and his numbers (27-7 TD-INT ratio) were not bad, but his decision-making late in games set the Colts back at various stages of the season. Chris Ballard is widely thought of as one of the better GMs in the NFL, but the Colts have won only one playoff game since his tenure began in 2017 and haven’t won the AFC South since 2014. Nevertheless, the team does have the best roster in the AFC South and is the odds-on favorite to win the division.

Offense

Although Ryan leaves Atlanta off a brutal season, there is still a sense of optimism that he has a little left in the tank. He was behind a bad offensive line and top receiver Calvin Ridley only played five games. Instead of being part of a rebuild, Ryan, 37, gets one last shot at a winner.

Unlike in Atlanta, Ryan has a top-10 offensive line in Indianapolis. All-Pros Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly battled various injuries last season, but they along with right tackle Braden Smith give some stability to a group with two new starters.

Ryan also gets to play with arguably the best running back in the NFL in Jonathan Taylor, who topped the NFL with 1,811 rushing yards (a franchise-record) and 18 rushing touchdowns, plus his 40 receptions tied for second on the team. The best part is he’s only 23. The Colts will also look to get Nyheim Hines more involved, especially out of the backfield, to take a bit of the load from Taylor.

Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Marcus Brady will be looking for more balance. Overall, the Colts passed on 52.6% of their plays last season, the fifth-lowest mark in the league and the lowest in Reich’s four seasons as Colts coach. Wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. also enjoyed a breakout second season with 88 catches for 1,082 yards and six touchdowns. However, most of the other pass-catching options are unproven.

Defense

Former defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus was hired as the Bears head coach, which meant the Colts lost a top assistant for the second consecutive year after offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni was hired as Eagles head coach in 2021. The Colts brought in Gus Bradley as defensive coordinator after he helped the Raiders make the playoffs. He's expected to devise schemes that will boost the aggressiveness of his defenders. The Colts' obvious inconsistencies were generating a pass rush and covering receivers. The Eberflus system relied on a lot of zone schemes, but it often didn't work when the pass rush was unable to get enough pressure.

Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is one of the league's best out of the 3-technique, which means he draws his share of double teams. Nevertheless, the pass rush must get better and that’s why the Colts traded corner Rock Ya-Sin to the Raiders for Yannick Ngakoue, who has 55.5 sacks in six seasons. Kwity Paye, a 2021 first-round pick, showed promise as a rookie with four sacks and 10 QB hits.

Mike linebacker Shaquille (formerly Darius) Leonard is the leader of the defense. He has 538 tackles in four seasons as well as 15 sacks, 17 forced fumbles and 11 interceptions.

The key to the secondary is probably Stephon Gilmore, who started just three games in Carolina. Since being named the Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, Gilmore has missed 14 games due to injuries. When healthy, he's among the league's best cover corners. The Colts still must settle on the other corner where Brandon Facyson likely gets the first look, but slot cornerback Kenny Moore II made his first Pro Bowl and can shift outside when needed. The Colts added experience at safety with the signings of Rodney McLeod and Armani Watts.

Outlook

The Colts went 2-5 in one-score games last season, so some better luck could come against the third-easiest schedule in the NFL (according to Warren Sharp). Ryan gives the Colts a higher-end game manager who should be able to cut down on turnovers and bad decisions. There are still some 9.5s with heavy juice on the season win total, but Over 10 it is still worth a smaller play.

Pick: Over 10

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Urban Meyer experiment was a disaster both on and off the field. Enter Doug Pederson, a Super Bowl-winning coach who brings an experienced NFL staff. Trevor Lawrence, the 2021 No. 1 overall pick, led the NFL with 17 interceptions last season but never really had a chance under Meyer. This year, he has a coach who’s at least smart enough not to bench the team’s best running back (James Robinson). Jacksonville also spent, and overpaid, in free agency to land wide receiver Christian Kirk, guard Brandon Scherff and linebacker Foyesade Oluokun. The Jaguars also focused on building the defense through the draft. There is nowhere to go but up for a team that has won four combined games over the last two seasons.

Offense

The Jaguars invested in free agency to help further develop Lawrence, who showed brief flashes but ended up throwing just 12 touchdowns versus 17 picks. Pederson, who will call the plays, and new offensive coordinator Press Taylor will be challenged with creating a more explosive group that ranked last in the NFL in scoring (14.9 ppg).

Kirk gets an opportunity that never came in Arizona to be the No. 1 receiver. Zay Jones and tight end Evan Engram come in via free agency to join a group that includes Marvin Jones Jr., Laviska Shenault Jr., Jamal Agnew and Laquon Treadwell.

Owner Shad Khan and GM Trent Baalke also invested heavily in the offensive line, signing left tackle Cam Robinson to a three-year extension, adding five-time Pro Bowl right guard Scherff and drafting center Luke Fortner. This group must improve as they allowed their franchise player to be sacked 32 times.

James Robinson had 1,414 total yards and 10 touchdowns as a rookie in 2020 but fell out of favor with Meyer and tore his Achilles late last season. He just returned to begin 7-on-7 drills. Travis Etienne, a first-round pick in 2021, missed last season with a foot injury but participated in the team's offseason program and looks to recreate the magic he had with Lawrence at Clemson.

Defense

This group was near the bottom of the league with only 32 sacks. Jacksonville elected to go with potential by drafting Travon Walker (Georgia) with the No. 1 overall pick instead of selecting proven production with Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan). The Jaguars used most of their draft selections on the defensive side (five of seven overall), including Utah’s Devin Lloyd (No. 27 overall) and Wyoming’s Chad Muma (Round 3).

The front seven should at least be better at stopping the run with the additions of Walker and Lloyd, who will play alongside Josh Allen (needs to find the form of his 2019 rookie season when he posted 10.5 sacks), Oluokun (led the league last year with 192 tackles), Malcom Brown, Roy Robertson-Harris and Foley Fatukasi (signed in free agency after playing his first four seasons with the Jets).

The biggest offseason deal in the secondary was signing former Rams cornerback Darious Williams. Williams will start opposite Shaq Griffin, with 2021 second-round pick Tyson Campbell playing the nickel. Free safety Rayshawn Jenkins must make a more significant impact after not having an interception in 14 games. Second-year strong safety Andre Cisco must meet expectations after failing to beat out Andrew Wingard for the starting job last season. This group only had seven interceptions (tied for 30th) last season.

 

Outlook

There are reasons for some optimism in Jacksonville as this roster has more talent than last year and has a significant upgrade in coaching. However, the organization has had 10 double-digit losing seasons in the last 11 years. If Lawrence can play like he did in the season finale, when he helped knock the Colts out of the playoffs, then Jacksonville could eclipse their win total. Nevertheless, they still look to be a year early. 

Pick: Under 6.5 

Tennessee Titans

Somehow, someway the Titans managed to go 12-5 and earn the No. 1 seed in the AFC last season despite losing Derrick Henry to a fracture in his right foot in Week 8. However, the overachieving season ended with a thud when the Titans lost at home to the Bengals, a franchise that had never won a road playoff game (0-7 previously) in 54 seasons of existence. That kind of loss can hang over a team’s head the following season. The Titans outscored opponents by 65 points, which put their Pythagorean win total at 10.3, almost two wins below their actual record. Football Outsiders' DVOA ranked the Titans just 20th in the league, profiling them as just an eight-win team. The Titans had a lower DVOA than any No. 1 or 2 seed in the history of FO's database. Mike Vrabel earned Coach of the Year honors as his team overachieved largely by going 6-1 in games decided by three points or less.

Offense

At 34, Ryan Tannehill finds himself at a career crossroads. Three years ago, he was the Comeback Player of the Year, led the NFL in passer rating and took the franchise to the AFC title game for the first time since 2002. He then led the Titans to two AFC South division titles and is 30-13 as a starter in Nashville. However, he threw three interceptions in the playoff loss to Cincinnati last year and now has third-round pick Malik Willis looking over his shoulder.

Tannehill also must command an offense that is looking to replace 66% of its receiving targets from the previous season, the highest mark of any team in the league. A.J. Brown was traded to the Eagles on draft night after GM Jon Robinson would not meet his asking price for a new contract. Julio Jones was released and is now chasing a ring in Tampa Bay. Treylon Burks (Arkansas) was drafted in the first round to replace Brown and former Rams WR Robert Woods comes in via a trade but is coming off an ACL injury. Free-agent veteran Austin Hooper and rookie Chigoziem Okonkwo add an instant influx of talent at tight end.

Henry entered 2021 as the reigning two-time rushing champ and bulldozed his way to 937 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns through seven-plus games before the foot injury. Despite playing less than half the season, Henry still finished ninth in the NFL in rushing yards. Can he rediscover his form of the previous three seasons? Much of the offensive line is still in flux, so we’ll see.

 

Defense

Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry make up one of the better interior pushes in the NFL and they helped the Titans lead the league at stopping the run (83.5 ypg).

Off the edge, Harold Landry III had 12 sacks and 22 QB hits and was rewarded with a five-year, $87.5 million deal. Bud Dupree was fresh off an ACL surgery when he signed for five years and $82.5 million last offseason but only had three sacks in 11 games. 

Free safety Kevin Byard was a first-team All-Pro last season and forced seven turnovers with two touchdowns. Cornerback Caleb Farley, last year’s first-round pick, was oft-injured at Virginia Tech and tore his ACL last year in Week 6. Kristian Fulton has also missed time in each of the last two seasons but has been productive when he has been on the field. Roger McCreary (Auburn) was drafted in the second round to either provide depth at corner or perhaps start if Farley cannot stay healthy. Safety Amani Hooker also missed a few games early last season, but he and nickel back Elijah Molden provide versatility.

Outlook

The trade of Brown will likely prove to be the right financial decision for 2023 and beyond as the Titans elected not to participate in the wide receiver sweepstakes in the offseason, but it will likely hurt this season. Tennessee will need its new receivers to step up in a hurry. Even if Henry does not lose a step from the last three seasons, the Titans were the most run-heavy team on first down in the NFL. That makes the offense more predictable and sets the team up for a larger number of one-score games. The Titans will likely take a step back from a fortunate 2021 season. Under 9.5 with larger juice would be still playable on the win total, but 9s are starting to populate the market.

Lean: Under 9

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