The Titans took a step forward last year despite barely missing the playoffs. Going into week 16, they just had to beat the Jaguars to stay in the hunt for the division title. Instead, Marcus Mariota suffered a season ending injury for the second year in a row and they were the lowly Bortles-led Jags 3rd win of the season. What could have been the start of a budding team’s entrance into the conversation of upper level NFL squads will seemingly have to be put on hold.
I believe in the Titans this year, and the foundation of that belief rests upon Marcus Mariota. My confidence in him would be a bit higher if not for the fact that his past two seasons have ended on the trainer’s table, but that doesn’t take away from his obvious talent for the position. Guys like Matthew Stafford have had trouble adjusting their bodies to the physicality of the NFL game and still gone on to be productive iron-men, and I hope the same can happen for Mariota.
One of the things I like the most about the Titans is that the fate of the offense doesn’t rest on #8. GM Jon Robinson has built a stout offensive line and put two work-horses behind it with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, and both of those guys are viable threats in the passing game as well. Even though I did think he was a reach at #5 overall, I loved Corey Davis coming out of Western. If he can come in and be the #1 receiver his draft slot shows us to be then I think the Titans will have no regrets about the selection. The Titans needed desperate help at receiver, and now with the late addition of Eric Decker, they finally have put a complete offense around Mariota.
The defense looks to take a step forward this year as well after adding Logan Ryan in free agency and then selecting Adoree Jackson 18th overall with their second first round selection. Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo had really solid years getting after the passer, and Jurell Casey continues to hold it down for Tennessee on the interior.
In a mediocre AFC South, I’m reluctant to pick the Titans to win the division. Yet I will.
The two time reigning AFC South champion Houston Texans made it to the second round of the playoffs, where despite a good fight they could not overcome the fire power of the eventual Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. While a division championship and a competitive playoff loss could seem like a good sign for the Texans faithful, I’m not sold yet. This team went 9-7 for the third straight year, in arguably the worst division in football. The Texans made the biggest splash of the 2016 off-season by signing Brock Osweiler (with 7 career starts under his belt) to a whopping 4 year/72 million dollar contract. They seemed to be primed to take that next step towards the NFL’s elite, already having one of the best defenses in football and now their young franchise quarterback. This was all to good to be true, their offense was abysmal under Osweiler. Proof is in the stat sheet as he had 0 games throwing for over 300 yards, while also having 0 games in which he threw more than 2 TDs. Osweiler also was not short on a supporting cast. Having one of the games most dangers receivers in DeAndre “Nuke” Hopkins, a nice secondary option in speedy rookie Will Fuller, and a solid run game under fellow 2016 offseason signee Lamar Miller, it was incredibly disappointing signing .
Heading into the 2017 off-season the Texans brass understandably abandoned the Brock Osweiler project, unloading him and a 2nd rounder to Cleveland for a 4th and 7th round pick. When April’s draft came along they knew a signal caller was a top priority, and they traded from #25 to #12 with the Browns once again to land Deshaun Watson. In Watson the Texans got in my opinion the most NFL ready quarterback in the class, and a proven winner with great character. With their second and third round picks the texans drafted Zach Cunningham at #57 and D’Onta Foreman with pick #89. Zach Cunningham is a long athletic linebacker from Vanderbilt, with first round talent, who fills an immediate need with an aging yet effective Brian Cushing in the middle. Foreman is a big powerful running back (6’ 233) who has sneaky quickness and should fit well in the stable of backs down in Houston. Also expect to see fourth round pick Carlos Watkins get some significant playing time in the middle of that defensive line, with Vince Wilfork now gone.
Looking to next fall and how Houston will fare, I think they have made a significant step in the right direction. Unlike last season they really do have a quarterback of the future in Deshaun Watson, and with a defense that should show no signs of slowing down barring injury, the Texans should be better. Better however might not cut it in this years NFL, which I believe is considerably better. Tom Savage will be game manager in the best case scenario, and Bill O’Brien’s offense has been known to be intricate and difficult to get accustomed to, most likely delaying Deshaun Watson’s debut. Playing another first place schedule doesn’t help at all, which is why I think the Texans two year run atop the AFC South ends in 2017.
Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts had a relatively forgetful year in 2016 posting an 8-8 record. The 2016 Colts looked like a team that had promise at times, but in the end they couldn’t get it donw. Before I get into the outlook for 2017, I would like to expound on the face of the Colts, Andrew Luck. I have always come to the defense of Indianapolis’ franchise quarterback and I will continue to and here is why. I believe that Andrew Luck is unquestionably an elite quarterback. With the exception of his injury-shortened 2015 season, Luck has put up some of the best numbers in the league with a brutal roster especially on the offensive line thanks to the awful ownership/manegerial moves by Jim Irsay and company. So far in his career Luck has yet to have a defense that I can comfortably call “good” and the same can be said about his offensive line(s). In 3 years, Luck will be considered the best quarterback in the NFL and I will be truly staggered if he retires without at least bringing one trophy home to Indy. Which brings me into the subject of this piece, the 2017 Indianapolis Colts. I believe the Colts had one of, if not the best draft out of any NFL team in 2017. Their first three picks consisted of, top 7 projected ball-hawking safety Malik Hooker (15), gritty, physical, and skilled corner Quincy Wilson (48) out of Florida, and edge rushing End Tarell Basham (80) who should fit their 3-4 scheme perfectly. I believe all three of these players will rub their cleats all over respective NFL fields as rookies. They also added bulk in the latter rounds in the form of 6 foot 9, 350 pound tackle Zach Banner out of USC and D-II sack monster and hole plugger Grover Stewart from Albany State. All that being said, my favorite pick in this draft for the colts and the pick that I believe will take heaps of pressure off Andrew Luck goes to the Colts 143rd selection, running back Marlon Mack out of USF. Mack is the all time leader in career rushing yards (3609) and touchdowns (32) at South Florida in his three years there. I don’t think Mack could be in a much better position than the one he is currently in, playing behind and learning from future hall of famer and fellow Florida native Frank Gore. I believe his skillset will translate promisingly to the league. The addition of Chris Ballard from the Cheifs as their General Manager is a step in the right direction and a much needed move for this club.
The Colts have a young but deep crop of O-Linemen. 28 year old “veteran” Anthony Castanzo out-ages everyone on their line by at least 3 years and that doesn’t even include rookie Zach Banner. Ryan Kelly will continue to grow. The line definetly has some maulers, this year is a prove it year for this group. At TE, the colts welcome back 2016 breakout performer, Jack Doyle, who should make a similar impact in 2017. T.Y Hilton is a proven reciever who will get them 1,000+ and 6+ but in order for their offense to round out, they need their other pass-catchers to step up. This category includes Donte Moncrief and Phillip Dorsett, two guys who just outright need to be better than they were last year. In the backfield, the combo of Gore, Mack, and occasionally Robert Turbin should rush for a league average. Under center you’ve got 12, and I’ve already said my piece. Bottom line, this offense has the makings of a productive NFL group but their youth scares me in regards to the 2017 season. Defensively the Colts were borderline atrocious last year. They brought in d tackles Jonathan Hankins and Margus Hunt to help shape up their defensive front, they also added super bowl champion Jabaal Sheard and former Texan Jon Simon to help bolster their linebackers/pass rush. They have the most “new look” defense out of the AFC, proving that their front office is willing to make changes and wants to win. I like the Colts secondary a lot even though it is very young. Quincy Wilson playing across from Vontae Davis should be a dangerous cornerback duo and if Malik Hooker can translate his ball hawking skills to the NFL, the secondary should hold its own. The Colts should and will make the playoffs in 2017.
Can the Jacksonville Jaguars escape the doldrums? That has been the question since the Jaguars rebuild began, but unfortunately for them 2016 was more of the same. The Jaguars stumbled to a 3-13 record while losing their head coach in the process. Despite “winning” free agency with the big money signings of Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson, and Chris Ivory, the team failed to see that translate in to wins. Blake Bortles seems to have made no progress from year 1 to 3, as he continues to prove to be unable to run an offense. The chemistry he seemed to build with Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns in 2015 was non existent as their passing attack took a step back. The two back system of Chris Ivory and TJ Yeldon was used to little effect, but its hard to drive the ball with command with an offensive line as paltry as theirs.
It was almost always the Jaguars defense that was keeping them in all of their games. They finished 6th in yards allowed, and their defensive line set the tone as the teams best positional group. Ninety million dollar man Malik Jackson lead the way with 33 tackles and a career high with 6.5 sacks. 2015 first round pick Dante Fowler had a respectable rookie campaign after missing the 2015 season with a torn ACL, finishing with 32 tackles and 4 sacks. The Jaguars have also found a steal in the third round of the 2016 draft with Yannick Ngakoue. The 69th overall pick brought a spark off the edge recording 8 sacks along with his 22 tackles. Telvin Smith is one of the leagues best young linebackers in the league and is a commanding force in the middle of the field. Highly touted second round rookie Myles Jack looked promising in a limited role, he should look to have a much bigger role in the coming years. Jalen Ramsey the 5th overall pick from last years draft was hell bent on earning respect from day one, and his presence radiated in their secondary from his first snap. He finished the year with 65 tackles and 2 interceptions, and finished second in DROY voting. He is a cornerstone in their defensive backfield and will be elite for at least the next ten years.
Shahid Khan hired former Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin as Executive VP of football operations. Coughlin is returning to the franchise after being the first coach of the Jaguars back in 1995. Coughlin started his process right away, promoting Doug Marone from his interim role to full time head coach. The Jaguars were once again big spenders in free agency, adding three new defensive starters in safety Barry Church, defensive end Calais Campbell, and corner A.J. Bouye. On draft night the Jaguars continued to add impact players, starting with their first pick, running back Leonard Fournette. With Fournette the Jags get the draft’s consensus best back, a true power at 6’ 240, with 4.5 speed. There’s no questioning Fournette’s ability, but I do have legitimate concerns about the offensive line in front of him, which I see as one of the leagues worst. At the top of the second round the Jaguars looked to address that, taking arguably the drafts best offensive line prospect in Cam Robinson from Alabama. Robinson is a mammoth at 6’6 322, and is an impressive athlete who has the ability to play both tackle and guard. Third round pick Dawuane Smoot, a defensive end, should carve out a nice role in their deep rotation. Dede Westbrook one of College Football’s most exciting players from a year ago is a solid pick at the top of the fourth round, and should be able to be an effective weapon if he can subdue his reported attitude issues. Even with another step in the right direction its hard for me to hop on the bandwagon just yet. Blake Bortles is still looking like a fringe starter and with an impressive 2018 quarterback class on the horizon, this seems to be do or die for the former 3rd overall pick. If I’m a Jaguars fan I’m looking for hopefully a competitive offense, and a young defense looking to establish themselves as one of the leagues best. Nonetheless even if all of these stars align, I still feel like 7-9 is the ceiling.