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Colts look tasty in vanilla AFC South

By Brady Kannon  () 

The AFC South feels like the most vanilla division in football. No AFC South champion has won more than 12 games in the last 11 years. Since Peyton Manning’s Colts lost to the Saints in the Super Bowl after the 2009 season, no AFC South team has made it to the title game. The division has twice been won with a record of just 9-7 and four times with a mark of 10-6. Since Manning was sidelined for all of 2011 and departed in 2012, the division has lacked a dominant team, and it appears it will be more of the same in 2020.

 

Houston Texans

2019 record: 10-6

2020 season win total: 7.5

2020 division odds: %plussign)5

2020 non-division games: at Chiefs, at Steelers, at Browns, at Lions, at Bears, Ravens, Vikings, Packers, Patriots, Bengals

 

The puzzling litany of Bill O’Brien transactions continued this offseason as he traded one of the best players in the league for a struggling running back. The general manager/coach sent four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona for running back David Johnson. O’Brien made a haul of acquisitions last offseason and lost a number of draft choices. He did recoup a second-round pick and a fourth-round pick in 2021 for Hopkins. With Houston’s receiving cupboard now holding only Kenny Stills and Will Fuller, O’Brien grabbed Randall Cobb in free agency and then traded for Brandin Cooks. The Rams sent Cooks and a future fourth-round draft pick for a 2020 second-round pick.

 

After the wide receiver whirlwind, the Texans went to work on their secondary, part of a defensive unit that ranked 29th against the pass in 2019. Two safeties were secured via free agency, Eric Murray from Cleveland and Jaylen Watkins from the Chargers. Cornerbacks Phillip Gaines, Vernon Hargreaves and Bradley Roby were re-signed. On offense, tackle Brent Qvale came over from the New York Jets.

 

On draft day, the Texans had only five picks. They used a fourth-round selection on another cornerback, John Reid of Penn State, and a fifth-rounder on another wide receiver, Isaiah Coulter of Rhode Island. With its first three selections, Houston looks to have made some positive moves. Defensive tackle Ross Blacklock of TCU, whom many regarded as a first-round talent, was taken in the second round. Linebacker Jonathan Greenard of Florida was chosen in the third round as the Texans looked to improve a rushing defense that ranked 24th in the NFL in 2019. Finally, offensive tackle Charlie Heck of North Carolina was selected in the fourth round and might be good enough to start soon.

 

The Skinny: If you want a second opinion regarding the Texans’ moves the last two years, just look at this year’s season win total. This team took the division in 2019 with 10 wins, yet this year the oddsmakers are hanging 7.5 as the win total number. Some of that has to do with the perceived improvement of division opponent Indianapolis, but the road to the playoffs looks bumpy. The Texans are the third choice to win the division at about 3-1 odds. You might also argue that all three AFC South opponents have better coaches than the Texans. They still have one of the brightest stars in the league in quarterback Deshaun Watson, but the rest of the plan seems discombobulated. Players come and go, draft picks come and go, the organizational strategy is a head-scratcher and I would lean toward betting no on anything Texans before I’d bet yes.

 

 

Indianapolis Colts

2019 record: 7-9

2020 season win total: 9

2020 division odds: %plussign0

2020 non-division games: at Bears, at Lions, at Browns, at Raiders, at Steelers, Ravens, Vikings, Packers, Jets, Bengals

 

Before losing to the Chiefs in the divisional round of the 2018 playoffs, Indianapolis won a playoff game on the road in the wild-card round, and hopes were high heading into the 2019 season. Then star quarterback Andrew Luck retired. Indianapolis went from division favorite to the longest shot overnight. With backup QB Jacoby Brissett at the controls, the Colts were going along fine until Week 9, when wide receiver T.Y. Hilton went down with a leg injury. Indianapolis finished a disappointing 7-9, and it was eye-opening to see how much this offense relied on him. The passing offense ended up 30th in the NFL.

 

Addressing the passing offense in the offseason, Indianapolis signed free-agent quarterback Philip Rivers from the Chargers. On defense, the Colts were stout against the run, ranking fifth in rushing defense but only 23rd against the pass. The Colts engineered a trade with San Francisco for All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner also grabbed defensive tackle Sheldon Day from the 49ers via free agency. In the secondary, Indy brought in two veteran cornerbacks, Xavier Rhodes from Minnesota and T.J. Carrie from Cleveland. Rounding out the free-agent haul, the Colts picked up Pro Bowl fullback Roosevelt Nix and tight end Trey Burton. Burton will replace Eric Ebron, who was acquired by the Steelers.

 

In the draft, Indianapolis tried to improve the passing offense and passing defense. With their first pick, coming in the second round at No. 34 overall, the Colts selected wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. of USC. The 6-4, 220-pounder will be an excellent target for Rivers and a nice complement to Hilton. In the third round, they took defensive back Julian Blackmon of Utah. He is an excellent tackler who can play corner and safety but is coming off an ACL injury less than six months ago. The Colts also traded up to select Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor. I really like Taylor, but how he will split time with Marlon Mack remains to be seen. But Mack, Taylor and Nix should bolster a rushing attack that already ranked fifth in 2019. Finally, Washington quarterback Jacob Eason was selected in the fourth round, though many rated him as high as the second round.

 

The Skinny: The Colts are getting a lot of love in their betting numbers for 2020. The season win total of nine looks to be right on. Just better than even money to win the division seems short, but I do understand their position as favorites in the AFC South. One bet I am eyeing is their Week 1 game at Jacksonville, in which they are laying as high as 7.5 points. Early season divisional home dogs is an angle I like to back, so I would be looking to take the points and bet against the Colts in their opener.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

2019 record: 6-10

2020 season win total: 4.5

2020 division odds: 45/1

2020 non-division games: at Bengals, at Chargers, at Packers, at Vikings, at Ravens, Dolphins, Lions, Steelers, Browns, Bears

 

I view Nick Foles as an average quarterback in this league, yet Jacksonville was one of two teams in the last two years that invested heavily in him. After Foles was injured early in 2019 and started only four games, Jacksonville traded him to the Bears this offseason for a fourth-round draft choice. Second-year quarterback Gardner Minshew assumes the lead role after starting all six of the Jaguars’ wins in 2019. His passing accuracy is a plus. He threw 21 touchdown passes against just six interceptions and contributed to a passing offense that ranked 15th in the league. As a rookie, he also engineered three fourth-quarter comebacks.

 

Minshew will work under Jay Gruden, who comes over from the Redskins and is now the offensive coordinator. Tight end Tyler Eifert from Cincinnati came over in free agency along with former Redskins running back Chris Thompson. Despite trying to trade running back Leonard Fournette, it appears the fourth-year player will spend at least another season in Florida. Thompson gives the offense a good pass catcher out of the backfield and slips into the No. 2 spot on the depth chart ahead of Ryquell Armstead. The rest of the moves in free agency were on defense, in large part to plug the holes left by the departures of end Calais Campbell, tackle Marcell Dareus and cornerback, A.J. Bouye. Linebacker Joe Schobert comes over from Cleveland, defensive ends Rodney Gunter and Cassius Marsh arrive from Arizona and former Seattle Seahawk Al Woods was acquired to fill the need at defensive tackle. Finally, Rashaan Melvin was added in the secondary, coming over from Detroit. The Jaguars were 28th in the NFL in rushing defense in 2019 and 16th in defending the pass.

 

Jacksonville didn’t have to go far in making its first-round draft pick, selecting cornerback C.J. Henderson of nearby Florida with the ninth overall pick. The focus continued on defense as the Jaguars took edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson of LSU 20th, Ohio State defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton in the third round, Michigan State cornerback Josiah Scott in the fourth and Miami linebacker Shaquille Quarterman, also Round 4. Safety Daniel Thomas of Auburn went to the Jaguars in the fifth round. On offense, Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault was picked in the second round. If Gruden can orchestrate the offense successfully and Shenault can stay healthy, this could be a human highlight-reel player. Collin Johnson, a 6-6 wide receiver from Texas, was taken in the fifth round, and Oregon State quarterback Jake Luton was picked up in the sixth. I really like these last two picks and expect Johnson to make an impact as a rookie and Luton to compete with Minshew as a strong backup.

 

The Skinny: The Jaguars’ management and coaching staff does not give me loads of confidence, but I believe this offseason was successful. Jacksonville loaded up on defense, and that should help an offense still trying to find a rhythm with an inexperienced quarterback. Minshew should have plenty of weapons to throw to, but the running game will have to produce. This will be a good test for Gruden. We will see just how good he is at running an offense. If he’s up to snuff, this team could surprise. I highly doubt Jacksonville will win the division, though 45-1 is an incredible price. But I will look for this team to go Over its season win total of 4.5.

 

 

Tennessee Titans

2019 record: 9-7

2020 season win total: 8.5

2020 division odds: %plussign0

2020 non-division games: at Broncos, at Bengals, at Packers, at Vikings, at Ravens, Bills, Lions, Steelers, Browns, Bears

 

Coach Mike Vrabel made a midseason switch at quarterback in 2019, going from Marcus Mariota to veteran Ryan Tannehill, and it paid off as Tannehill was named NFL comeback player of the year. Under Mariota, Tennessee started 2-4. Tannehill then went 7-3, and the Titans averaged over 30 points per game during that run and landed in the AFC championship game against Kansas City. Running back Derrick Henry was a huge help to Tannehill and the Titans, playing in nine of the final 10 regular-season games, averaging 125 yards rushing and scoring 12 touchdowns.

 

Vrabel is getting better with each year of experience. Heading into his third season with the Titans, Vrabel lost two key linemen to free agency in defensive end Jurrell Casey and offensive tackle Jack Conklin. So he went to the Atlanta Falcons looking for replacements and picked up edge rusher Vic Beasley, defensive tackle Jack Crawford and offensive tackle Ty Sambrailo in the free-agent market. Looking to improve a unit that ranked 26th in passing defense, Tennessee grabbed cornerback Jonathan Joseph from Houston and safety Ibraheim Campbell from Green Bay.

 

The Titans’ first three draft selections could be difference-makers right away. Bolstering the offensive line, Tennessee selected tackle Isaiah Wilson of Georgia with the 29th overall pick. Cornerback Kristian Fulton of LSU was taken in the second round and was graded as a first-round talent by many. Finally, running back Darrynton Evans was taken in the third round out of Appalachian State and should be an excellent change-of-pace option alongside the bruising Henry.

 

The Skinny: You can make the case that Tennessee addressed its needs admirably during the offseason. Vrabel’s philosophy of smash-mouth football with strong line play on both sides of the ball will not slip as this team’s signature. My concern is the durability of Henry and the likely regression of Tannehill. Coming off a season in which the team ranked 25th in passing offense, I still do not see any real threats at wide receiver. This team is good and is well coached, but I still see the Titans in the second tier of the AFC hierarchy. I will not bite on the odds to win the division, and I think there is a decent chance that this team finishes .500, so Under the season win total is the direction we are headed.

 

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