The AFC South is a division unlike any other.
Go through any other division in the NFL. You’re bound to see a team that’s destined to finish near the bottom of the overall standings. But that probably won’t be the case here.
After compiling the most total wins of any division, the AFC South returns in 2019 with four legitimate playoff contenders. It makes this division the most intriguing one for pre-season betting.
The Houston Texans have the firepower on offense to take the top spot in the South again this year. But is their offensive line improved enough to push them through? And what is to become of pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney?
The Indianapolis Colts were the hottest team in the division to end last year. They then beat Houston in the first round of the AFC playoffs. Have they given Andrew Luck enough help at wide receiver? Is their secondary better off than it was last year?
At least those two teams know their future is sound at quarterback. As for the Tennessee Titans, there’s still some question about the health and potential of Marcus Mariota.
And then there’s the Jaguars, a team that went 5-11 last year. The injury bug, locker room turmoil, and incompetence at quarterback hurt them dearly. But with Nick Foles at QB now and the defense revamped, there are no excuses for this team.
Each squad has a shot, which means a good value might be found. So here’s a look at how these AFC South teams stack up, with odds presented by MyBookie.
Indianapolis Colts +150
The Colts had more cap space than any other team in the NFL and had just made the AFC Divisional round.
Indianapolis was already one of the more balanced units in the NFL. On offense, they had their leader in quarterback Andrew Luck and the most improved position group in the NFL, their offensive line. The complete makeover of the blockers in front of Luck completely transformed this team as a whole.
It wasn’t expected that they’d be that good that soon. But center Ryan Kelly (third year), left guard Quentin Nelson (rookie), and right guard Mark Glowinski (fourth year) all played like seasoned veterans. The same surprise production could be said for the running back position.
Marlon Mack came out of nowhere to put up nearly 1,000 yards (4.7 per carry) in 12 games. Pairing him up with Spencer Ware this year could make for a very underrated duo if the latter RB can supply support out of the backfield. Nyheim Hines already established himself (63 receptions) in that area.
What Luck really needed in the offseason was wide receiver help. T.Y. Hilton is about as reliable as they come as a No. 1 wideout, as long as he stays healthy. But no other wide receiver on the team reached 500 yards last season.
Parting with Ryan Grant and picking up Devin Funchess gives Indy more production at the position. But his catch and drop rates for his size and lack of burst are somewhat concerning, as is his statistical decline in 2018. I’m way more excited about Parris Campbell, a second-round pick with combine-leading speed.
And in terms of reliability, Luck also has Eric Ebron with tight end size and wide receiver athleticism. He’s easily a top-10 target at the TE position who can split out from the line if need be.
From tight end to defensive end, I shift to the most interesting signing of the Colts’ free agency: Justin Houston.
Yes, he’s hit that not-so-magical age of 30 and has already experienced three injury-shortened seasons. But he also has a chip on his shoulder after Kansas City parted ways with him. And he still showed he had enough left in the tank last year to make an impact.
He had 9.5 sacks last year and only got better (five in his last four games) as the season wore on. He could very well have another Pro Bowl in him.
The trio of him, Denico Autry on the other side, and LB Darius Leonard should give the Colts all the pass-rush they need. That is if he stays healthy and can morph from a 3-4 for to a 4-3 defense.
Re-signing CB Pierre Desir was the right move. But sticking with Clayton Geathers at strong safety is a little uninspiring.
The deciding factor for the team’s improvement is how young corner Quincy Wilson progresses and if Rock Ya-Sin is an instant impact in zone coverages after mostly playing man-to-man in college.
Houston Texans +225
As is the case in Indy, the Houston Texans have no worries about the face of their franchise. Deshaun Watson has been a proven winner at every level and has the stats to back it up.
If there is a worry about him, it’s that he will be eaten alive by defenders again in 2019.
Despite his scrambling capabilities, Watson was sacked 62 times last season, which easily led the league. The O-line needs a Colts-type transformation to keep the pocket clean.
After doing nothing in free agency to solve the problem, the team took OT Tytus Howard in the first round of the draft. There is great upside with him, but he’s a bit raw. His impact could be great for this team, but it may not be immediate.
For Watson’s sake, fans need to hope second-round tackle Max Scharping comes in well-groomed enough to start.
What success the Texans may or may not have in the trenches on offense they certainly should have on the outside. Their receiving group is an electric one, led by Pro Football Focus’ top receiver, DeAndre Hopkins.
He’s been unstoppable in the red zone, and also plays bigger than his size (6’1”) and faster than his 40-time (4.57). Keke Coutee is a speed-demon on the other side who will open the field up. Will Fuller has the capacity to be a top-end No. 2 target as well if he can properly recover from an ACL tear.
The name of the game for this group is health. If Coutee and Fuller stay on the field for most of the season, Watson could put up some video game-like numbers.
Running back Lamar Miller technically made the AFC Pro Bowl team last year. But Watson is who will complete the run-game. And it’d be nice if one of their young backs pitched in as well.
Something that may be even less solidified is the secondary. Losing CB Kareem Jackson in free agency hurt, and it’ll be interesting to see if free agent signing Bradley Roby can man that No. 2 position. He’ll get competition from second-rounder Lonnie Johnson Jr. out of Kentucky.
But at this point, neither is going to be what Jackson was. Same goes for Tashaun Gipson coming in to replace the roving capabilities of Tyrann Mathieu. At least they don’t have to worry about lockdown corner Jonathan Joseph.
Something that is of concern is what will happen to edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney. There are still rumors about him potentially being traded. But if he stays, there’s no doubt he and J.J. Watt are a duet of pressure few o-lines can prevent.
Now they just need anyone to step up and help them.
The interior line isn’t anything to rave about. They’re hoping they have the depth at the next level aside from Benardrick McKinney, who is one of the league’s better run-defenders.
Jacksonville Jaguars +300
Pretty much anything that could go wrong did for Jacksonville last year. After nearly reaching the Super Bowl in the 2017 season, they fell flat at 5-11.
A lot of the blame can fall onto the quarterback situation and the lack of offensive creativity it bred. Leonard Fournette only playing half a season also hampered them dearly. But there was also a defense that let its ego speak louder than its play.
As far as the first issue goes, it shouldn’t be one any longer. Blake Bortles is gone and playoff hero Nick Foles is here to replace him. His ability to air it out should help Dede Westbrook blossom into a top-flight deep threat.
But they could’ve used something more than Chris Conley in free agency to help their receiving corp. after losing Donte Moncrief. Marquise Lee averaged 776 yards between 2016 and ‘17 but sat out all last year with a knee injury.
The Jags are going to have to rely a lot on Fournette and T.J. Yeldon out of the backfield.
Those two could make for a dynamic pair. But it’s hard to know what Fournette Jacksonville will get. He missed half of last season and was clearly slowed by hamstring problems when he did play. His 3.3 yards-per-carry sum that up pretty well.
The line wasn’t exactly elite in front him either. Jawaan Taylor’s fall in the draft could be telling, or it could end up being a steal for the Jags at tackle. On the other side, Cam Robinson followed up a poor rookie year with a promising sophomore start, only to go on the IR.
The defense seems destined to do at least somewhat better than last year.
Jalen Ramsey was a lot more talk than play last season, repeatedly getting beat. But he still has more potential than maybe any corner in the league. A.J. Bouye had been the real star across from him, but neither graded in the top-20 corners last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
The safety group isn’t all that impressive without Gibson in the fold. Hopefully, Ramsey and Bouye will return to form so they won’t need as much help overtop. D.J. Hayden covering the slot should give them an advantage in coverage.
What won’t do them any favors is the absence of Telvin Smith at linebacker. He’s going to sit out in 2019 due to family and health reasons. There’s decent depth at the position, but that’s a major blow for the Jags. Myles Jack is now the only sure thing at the second level.
Something that is a certainty is the excitement around Josh Allen coming in to rush off the edge. The 7th overall pick should be able to shift from OLB to DE in the 4-3. He may find himself at linebacker more with all the shifting parts there.
That also could be the case considering veteran Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue (20 combined sacks) have been such a force on the ends.
Tennessee Titans +600
They’re longshots, but the Titans have surprised a lot of people by staying relevant the last two years.
Even with Blaine Gabbert having to fill in at times, the Titans were eliminated on the final night of the regular season in 2018.
Mariota did end up making 13 starts and having a 68% completion percentage. But he often played hurt and his passer rating was only 23rd in the league.
At least he knows Corey Davis is mostly working out for Tennessee, as the former first-round pick is a borderline No. 1 receiver. Adam Humphries was a little overpaid, but he’s been reliable the last few years in the slot.
The team also looks to be getting good value out of 2017 third-rounder Taywan Taylor. They hope to get a full season of him to know for sure. Rounding out the group with second-round pick A.J. Brown should give them one of the better receiving groups they’ve had in some time.
They also hope to get the Derrick Henry they had at the tail-end of last season. The bruising back averaged over 146 yards in the last four games. He had only averaged 39.5 through the first 12.
The line got better with him, as they cracked PFF’s top-10 to end the year. They also upgraded at guard since then with Roger Saffold in free agency and Nate Davis in the draft.
Was on the other side of the line. That would be Jeffery Simmons, an end they needed to have considering their lack of an elite pass-rusher.
Jurrell Casey is an absolute beast on the inside and it led to a Pro Bowl berth. But LB Javon Brown was the only other player to reach five sacks. Simmons should immediately change that. Cameron Wake was also signed, but it’s unsure how much the 37-year-old still has left in the tank.
The linebacking group should be set with better edge rushers and Wesley Woodyard patrolling the middle. Rashaan Evans didn’t give much reason for complaints during his rookie season either.
The secondary is still pretty established too after Tennessee brought back safety Kenny Vaccaro. Kevin Byard is the crown jewel of the defense on the strong side. And while there wasn’t an elite corner on their team, Adoree Jackson has those kinds of abilities. There’s also depth at that position.
With Telvin Smith leaving Jacksonville for now, that only adds to the uncertainty all around this franchise.
Having Foles is a big plus. But they’re relying on a lot of guys to return from down years on defense. They’ll need a lot out of a running back who may not have the health to give it to them. And Lee will probably be looked at to contribute as a No. 2 receiver after not even playing last season.
The Titans were carried by their defense last year. But I like the improvements they’ve made in their passing game, and less so to both lines. They don’t have a ton of weaknesses if Henry comes back strong. But there’s no incredible spot on the field either unless it’s at safety.
The Colts and Texans stand a half-head higher than them. That’s mostly due to Houston’s wide receiver potential and the Colts pass-rushing capabilities.
Indianapolis was not super aggressive in the offseason. Not everyone loved their strategy in free agency, but they still netted some solid talent for their defense. Rock Ya-Sin better be good though, or they might not improve their biggest defensive weakness of all.
Houston looks worse in the secondary too. And if Clowney doesn’t stay, they’re in even more trouble. Likewise, I’m not sure their offensive line has had as many gaps filled as they would like.
The difference in the end? The AFC East opponent for each team. The Colts get the Dolphins from the East. The Texans get the defending champion Patriots.