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The AFC South enters the 2022 season with all four of its teams going in varying directions. Whether they are in the early stages of rebuilding or trying to set themselves up to contend, this year is sure to have a wide range of outcomes for each southern squad. A great man once told me you can’t get too high and you can’t get too low in sports. One must find the happy middle. Will any of these teams reach their ceilings? Will they crash to their floors? Or is their season somewhere in the happy middle?

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Houston Texans

Ceiling: 7-10, 3rd in the AFC South, building momentum in rebuild

Davis Mills builds upon the flashes that Texans fans saw in 2022 to impress new head coach Lovie Smith. He begins to show that he might have the potential to be their franchise QB, post-Deshaun Watson. He is aided by the ever-reliable Brandin Cooks as one of the best WRs in the division as well as an improving 2nd year receiver Nico Collins. Rookies Kenyon Green & Dameon Pierce make an immediate impact, giving Mills better protection and a rushing attack he can rely upon to ease his offensive burden.

On defense, the additions of Derek Stingley and Jalen Pitre transform the back end. The young DBs form a strong trio with veteran Steven Nelson to help slow down opposing passing games both on the outside and in the slot. Free Agent signings Maliek Collins, Jerry Hughes, and Mario Addison provide a good enough pass rush to complement the burgeoning secondary, but more help is needed (especially considering Addison & Hughes are each 34 years old).

Lovie Smith’s return to head coaching is a success in year 1. He provides a stabilizing voice of reason and guidance for a young team in the early stages of a rebuild. With the Texans nearly getting to .500 with wins over the Colts (Week 1), Bears, Jaguars (2x), Titans, Giants, and the Commanders, they take a big step toward returning to the playoffs in the future. Though the playoffs might not be in the cards for 2022, the Texans will be well set up to continue to improve upon 2022 with John Metchie III’s 2023 debut, and a lot of upcoming 1st round picks thanks to the Watson trade.

 

Floor: 2-15, 4th in the AFC South, top 3 draft pick

The Texans’ season is yet another unmitigated disaster in their recent history. Davis Mills proves to be nothing more than a brief flash in the pan and a career backup. With his elongated neck, he appears to be the 2nd coming of Mike Glennon, and his play is at a similar level as well on the field. Nico Collins doesn’t take the next step, and the other receivers outside of Cooks struggle mightily with drops/separation. Dameon Pierce fails to separate himself from Rex Burkhead, and the duo struggles to establish a consistent ground attack. Kenyon Green has some growing pains at guard in the NFL, and outside of Laremy Tunsil, the OL is a series of four turnstiles that couldn’t stop a New York commuter, let alone NFL defensive linemen. The Texans’ offense ranks near the bottom in scoring and needs to be rebuilt in 2023, especially under center. CJ Stroud, Bryce Young, Anthony Richardson, or Will Levis get their name called in April to be that new face of the franchise that Houston desperately needs.

The Texans’ defense fairs arguably worse in 2022. Stingley and Pitre get eaten up in coverage and need further development. Stingley doesn’t flash his freshman form that made him such an acclaimed prospect. The veteran additions do not aid the pass rush, with Addison and Hughes’ best days behind them. The lack of pass rush does the young secondary no favors, with QBs having enough time to binge-watch a TV series and throw passes from clean pockets. Fantasy owners salivate with their players getting matchups vs. the Texans, and they allow more points than nearly any other team in 2022.

Lovie Smith is already on the hot seat as a first year head coach for the Texans. Depending on the owner’s patience, he might not have a job for 2023 as the Texans again look for a new direction to help mold their next QB. The Texans still have plenty of picks to rebuild their team (though if the Browns are good in 2022 in spite of Watson’s suspension, it could further hinder the Texans’ rebuild). It is a long road to relevance, and the Texans are still only getting started on their journey.

Expectations: 5-12, 4th in AFC South, Small step forward in rebuild


Jacksonville Jaguars

Ceiling: 9-8, 2nd in the AFC South, Longshot 7th seed 

Trevor Lawrence begins to live up to his pre-draft hype. Doug Pederson gives him more stability and a better system. Lawrence is molding into a franchise QB before our eyes, with special potential to enter the upper echelon of QBs in 2023 with further development and talent around him.

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Travis Etienne and James Robinson stay healthy and emerge as a dynamic duo from the backfield. Marvin Jones and Christian Kirk give Lawrence a pair of strong WR2s and Engram provides an explosive weapon in the middle. The pass protection is competent, but upgradeable. Lawrence is able to evade the pressure and still find his targets downfield most of the time.

The retooled front Jags front-7  gets a big boost from its rookie class. Travon Walker proves to be less raw than initially thought and uses his insane athleticism to be a fairly productive rookie pass rusher. He and Josh Allen form a solid pass rushing duo on the edges. The overhauled linebacker corps has immediate impact as well. Rookies Devin Lloyd and Chad Muma join with Foyesade Oluokun to form one of the better offball LB trios in the NFL. While the secondary doesn’t have the same infusion of talent from this offseason, they also take another step forward. Andre Cisco and Tyson Campbell take 2nd year leaps to begin to form a solid core with Shaquill Griffin in the secondary.

Doug Pederson proves to be the right man for the job of rebuilding the Jaguars. Duval has its first winning season since 2017. While the team still has some holes (OL, DBs, DT, lack of true WR1), it has a strong infusion of young, cheap talent that can help get them into the playoffs over the next few years. If Lawrence takes the next step in 2023, it could be the beginning of the first stretch of sustained success for the Jaguars in over two decades.

Floor: 3-14, 4th in the AFC, Top 3 Draft pick

Trevor Lawrence still looks lost under center. The pass protection looks terrible and Lawrence has a hard time overcoming constant pressure in the pocket. With his continued struggles, the whispers of Lawrence getting the bust label begin to get louder.

Injuries continue to hamper the backfield, as neither Etienne or Robinson can stay on the field consistently. This causes a lack of balance again offensively, putting even more pressure on Lawrence’s shoulders. Kirk and Jones struggle to perform with worse QB play as well. Jones begins to look a bit older for a WR and Kirk struggles to separate being one of the primary targets. Engram’s drops continue to plague him and bite the Jags O most egregiously in big moments.

The Jaguars’ defense is a work in progress. Travon Walker still needs time to develop, and Josh Allen gets double teamed relentlessly because of the inconsistent pass rushers besides him. Lloyd and Muma have some rookie year struggles as well. While each has flashes, they struggle to put together consistently good games and have some miscues that hurt the 2nd level. The secondary gets torn to shreds without a shutdown CB1 and consistent pass rush.

Doug Pederson provides less controversy than Urban Meyer and a more mature voice in the locker room, but the Jags’ record remains the same. Shad Khan will be a bit more patient with Pederson for a year or two more, but the seat is getting hot. The team is still is a few years away from relevancy, and in its infancy of development. Maybe year 2 with the same system and a few more high draft picks brings the team better fortune in 2023?

Expectations: 6-11, 3rd in AFC South, Building momentum in rebuild


Tennessee Titans

Ceiling: 12-5, 1st in the AFC South, Darkhorse 1 seed

The rumors of the Titans’ demise are greatly exaggerated. Ryan Tannehill has a bounce-back year, providing the Titans solid QB play yet again. Malik Willis continues to sit on the bench and wait for his time. Derrick Henry returns to his status as “King”, leading the league in rushing totals. He puts together another career performance on his final year of his deal, justifying him being the highest paid RB of 2022.

Robert Woods bounces back from his 2021 ACL Tear like its nothing. Him and rookie WRs Treylon Burks and Kyle Phillips form a solid WR trio. Burks in particular has a rookie year breakout nearly reminiscent of AJ Brown’s. The Hog Hunter’s performance gives credence to their pre-draft comparisons. Austin Hooper has a comeback season as well, with him and rookie Chigoziem Okonkwo forming a reliable TE duo. Nicholas Petite-Frere and Dillon Radunz prove the old adage “iron sharpens iron” true, with the winner of their camp battle for RT solidifying the RT spot. Them and veterans Taylor Lewan and Ben Jones perform a solid job in pass protection, while continue to be absolute maulers on the ground.

The defense proves to be a top 10 unit yet again, despite the loss of Harold Landry for the season. Bud Dupree stays healthy and has a bounce-back season that helps alleviate the pass rush concerns on the outside. Rashad Weaver takes a 2nd-year leap and proves to be a solid EDGE2. Denico Autry and Jeffrey Simmons continue to wreak havoc on the inside. Simmons solidifies himself as one of the best DTs in the NFL, not named Aaron Donald.

The non-pass rushing back 7 takes a step forward. Cunningham and Long continue to be a solid complementary ILBs, with Cunningham stuffing the run and Long covering the pass very well. Hooker and Byard remain arguably the best Safety duo in the NFL. The corners take the big leap forward. Caleb Farley and Kristian Fulton stay healthy and really impress as boundary CBs, showing shutdown potential. Elijah Molden builds upon his rookie season as the starting nickel, and Roger McCreary provides excellent depth as CB4 for Quarters formations or in case of injury.

Vrabel’s squad earns yet another AFC South title, with a chance to be a high seed. They have the potential to win a few playoff games depending on the teams health and momentum heading into the playoffs. If Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry perform in the playoffs, another run could be in the cards.

Floor: 7-10, 3rd in the AFC South, Beginning soft rebuild

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 The rumors of the Titans’ demise were not exaggerated. Like the primordial Greek gods they were named after, they have been smited. Ryan Tannehill struggles again under pressure, both mental and literal. Taylor Lewan and Ben Jones show signs of aging, making the last 2 pillars of the offensive line in dire need of successors. The rest of the OL struggles mightily, with Brewer, Davis and Radunz/NPF all failing impress, especially in pass protection.

The “King” is dethroned. Derrick Henry doesn’t look the same, whether it be through age (28), over usage (579 carries in the last 24 games, ~25 carries a game), or injury (2021 Jones fracture or a new injury). Without him performing at his usual level, Haskins and Hillard have a hard time filling the void on the ground. None of the three provide exceptional receiving chops, limiting Tannehill’s checkdown options.

Robert Woods proves to be yet another new 30+ year old WR coming off of a major injury who struggles to regain his form for the Titans. Treylon Burks struggles to find a consistent impact and is nowhere near what AJ Brown was. Phillips and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine are good but not great complementary pieces but can’t makeup for the lackluster starters out wide. Austin Hooper struggles to regain his form from when Matt Ryan was throwing him the ball, and Chig is a bit raw at TE as a rookie.

On defense, the loss of Harold Landry is devastating. Dupree continues to struggle to stay on the field and Weaver goes through growing pains in his new role as a starter. Without a consistent outside pass rush, opposing O’s slide protections to the interior, assigning constant double or triple teams to Simmons. Autry shows signs of aging and injuries begin to nag him like they did in preseason. The pass rush as a whole takes a major step back.

In the back end, the LBs limitations are exposed in the middle. Zach Cunningham gets picked on in coverage while David Long gets overwhelmed in the run game. The corners struggle with both health and development. The young Corners continue to get picked on, with Farley and Fulton each struggling health wise and McCreary unable to physically keep up with more athletic NFL WRs outside. Byard and Hooker are spread thin on the backend. While both are able to help limit the deep shots, the lack of a pass rush and struggling boundary corners limit their impact.

Vrabel focuses on retooling the Titans going forward, with Willis at the helm. The Titans need a new workhorse back to carry the load, and further weapons in the passing game. The recent OL whiffs in the draft (Wilson, Radunz, NPF) have really hurt the Titans up front, and need to rebuild nearly the entire unit and find successors for the aging Lewan and Jones. The hope is the defense continues to develop and get better, especially with the return of Landry in 2023.  The Titans still have a good enough core and coaching to be competitive, but the youth of the team needs to take a step forward if they want any chance to return to the playoffs soon.

Expectations: 10-7, 1st or 2nd in the AFC South, Likely playoff team


Indianapolis Colts

Ceiling: 13-4, 1st in the AFC South, Possible 1 seed

The Colts are back. Not since the days of Peyton Manning has this team had such a dominant regular season. The star-studded Colts roster finally has a QB worthy to lead it to postseason glory post-Luck. Matt Ryan is as cool as ice, carving up defenses with precision. Finally gaining a strong OL, a dominant rushing attack, and a top notch defense, he has enough support to truly thrive for the first time in years. In return, his pinpoint accuracy, solid arm, & dependable leadership uplift the Colts offense into the top 5 once again.

Jonathan Taylor is “King.” While Ryan provides a big boost to the offense, Taylor continues to be one of the main engines of the offense. With his dominant rushing and being a strong threat out of the backfield being the primary focus for opposing defenses, he helps opens up the passing game outside. With Nyhiem Hines getting an expanded role and Ryan providing a more uptempo and higher volume passing attack, JT’s role is lessened, but still prominent.

Michael Pittman Jr. proves to be a true WR1. With strong hands, great frame, and excellent separation skills earning plenty of better placed targets, his YAC rebound close to his rookie numbers. The league begins to really take note. Alec Pierce meanwhile has a really solid season as a rookie WR2, flashing incredible downfield separation. He earns a solid amount of targets, and with further development could take a huge step in 2023. Parris Campbell stays healthy, and him and Hines form a lethal slot duo as movable chess pieces in motion as well. Mo Alie-Cox and Jelani Woods form a dominant blocking duo, while getting solid volume in the middle as receivers.

The OL bounces back from a down 2021 season, re-emerging as a top-flight unit. Quenton Nelson returns to 1st Team All-Pro form now that he is healthy. Ryan Kelly and Braden Smith also bounce back to their usual selves now that they are healthy, too. Raimann/Pryor solidify the LT spot, with the loser of the LT battle either sliding into RG or being strong depth in case of injury. Pinter holds down the RG spot adequately while he waits to slide to C should anything happen to Kelly. A more healthy OL gives Matt Ryan plenty of time in the pocket, while creating sizable holes for Taylor and Hines on the ground.

On defense, Yannick Ngakoue provides the missing spark to the pass rush. As the LEO, he flies off the line of scrimmage, racking up consistent sacks and pressures and freeing up DeForest Buckner on the interior. Buckner and him threaten for 10+ sacks each and wreak havoc on passers. Kwity and Dayo make year 2 leaps as well, each using their insane athleticism to give linemen and QBs nightmares. On passing downs, that quartet allow the Colts to rush four comfortably (with Grover Stewart swallowing up OL whole in run downs).

Darius Shaquille Leonard is his usual Maniac self. With his Shaq Strikes punching the ball out, racking up INTs in coverage with QBs under pressure, and swarming vs the run, Leonard makes a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year votes. Bobby Okereke provides reliable coverage and tackling as well to give the Colts a versatile and dynamic LB duo.

Stephon Gilmore and Kenny Moore II complement each other perfectly. Gilmore is a shutdown CB1 and while maybe not quite at his 2019 DPOY level, he still locks down his side of the field. Kenny Moore II is lightning in a bottle, terrorizing slot WRs and crashing run lanes from the nickel on his way to his 2nd straight Pro-Bowl nod. Isaiah Rodgers and Brandon Facyson end up getting the most targeted amongst the corners as QBs learn to avoid Gilmore and Moore II’s zones, giving each the chance to make some spectacular plays on the ball. Julian Blackmon stays healthy and returns to his early rookie season form, patrolling the deep and crashing down low at safety with equal effectiveness. Nick Cross has a phenomenal rookie year, proving to be a strong replacement for Khari Willis. Rodney McLeod provides a reliable 3rd safety behind Blackmon and Cross, creating strong 3-safety looks in Gus Bradley’s defense.

Frank Reich and Chris Ballard effectively silence doubters on their coaching and team building. Each are contenders for the Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year award respectively. With nearly everything clicking and enough injury luck, the Colts could be a dark horse Super Bowl contender.

 

Floor: 8-9, 3rd in the AFC South, Carousel Continues

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Disaster strikes and endless QB carousel in Indy continues. Matt Ryan shows his age, as his arm strength diminishes as well as his mobility. The Colts OL is devastated by injury to some of its Big 3 cornerstones (Nelson, Kelly, Smith) and the trio of Pinter, Raimainn, and Pryor struggle in expanded roles/rookie years. While the Colts can still maintain a strong rushing attack and open holes for Taylor, they are one-dimensional on offense again.

Jonathan Taylor once again is asked to shoulder a heavy load. While he still is amongst the league’s best for RBs, defenses really key in on him as they are not threatened by Matt Ryan deep. His efficiency on the ground takes a bit of a step back, but that is enough to hurt the Colts overall offensive performance. While him and Hines are still dynamic and can lead the Colts to be close to the top 10 in scoring, it isn’t enough on its own to make the Colts a truly elite offense.

Michael Pittman Jr. is reliable, but shows limitations. Pittman has a similar year to 2021, really good, but not elite to uplift the entire WR corps. Alec Pierce goes through growing pains as a rookie. He still has flashes, but if Ryan is unable to take advantage of Pierce’s downfield separation it limits his effectiveness. Parris Campbell unfortunately suffers yet another significant injury. He likely isn’t retained by the Colts with his rookie contract expired, making him test the waters for a depth roster spot elsewhere in the league. MAC fails to step up in a bigger role in the passing game with Doyle’s retirement. Woods, like most tight ends needs a few years of development, shows how raw he is as a rookie in 2022.

The Colts’ defense is solid but flawed at a few key spots. Ngakoue still makes an impact on the Colts pass rush, but him and Buckner as a duo aren’t quite as dynamic as what the Colts need. Ngakoue’s run Defense is a liability, hurting the Colts ability to contain talented rushers on outside runs. He is most notably on the wrong end of a Derrick Henry outside zone highlight run. Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo don’t take a year 2 leap, and still need some further development before they begin to reach their peaks. Injuries could play a factor for the young pass rushers.

Shaquille Leonard struggles to stay healthy, creating a void in the middle of the defense. If hampered by injury his range is again limited, if absent from games EJ Speed is solid as a replacement, but doesn’t make nearly the same amount of game-changing plays that the Colts are accustomed to see. Bobby Okereke is spread too thin trying to replace Leonard as well. JoJo Domann gets some snaps as well; and while he has flashes, he also has rookie year lapses as well.

In the secondary, Stephon Gilmore shows his age. He is no longer a shutdown corner and could suffer another injury as well. If he misses time that causes a big hole in the Colts on the boundary. Rock Ya-Sin’s absence is felt this season. Kenny Moore II is still a really good nickel, but he can’t cover everywhere. Brandon Facyson and Isaiah Rodgers struggle in bigger roles against tougher WR assignments, and get picked on in coverage accordingly. Julian Blackmon struggles to stay healthy, and while Rodney McLeod helps mitigate the loss, the Colts again lose some dynamic playmaking ability in the middle. Nick Cross is relied upon even more, and has his moments, but also gets beat too much downfield due to his indecisiveness as a rookie.

Rodrigo Blankenship misses crucial kicks in close games, Zach Hicks blames rogue lego bricks in his shoes and petitions for the NFL to abolish kickers.

Frank Reich is firmly in the hot seat. While he could be fired, he also could be given one more chance to coach up a new QB, this time a 2023 rookie. Matt Ryan might return for one more year or retire, but the rookie QB’s development and the team’s 2023 performance might determine Reich’s fate with the Colts. The Colts continuing to underperform, lose close games against solid teams, and inexplicably lose Week 1 to worse teams and in Duval. Jim Irsay is not pleased.

Expectations: 10-7, 1st or 2nd in the AFC South, Likely playoff team


The Happy Middle

1. 10-7 Indianapolis Colts

1. 10-7 Tennessee Titans

3. 6-11 Jacksonville Jaguars

4. 5-12 Houston Texans

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