For years, the AFC South has been seen as one of the bottom-level divisions across the league. Since the creation of the AFC South, the Colts have won the division nine times. Seven of those titles came from 2003 to 2010, when the team dominated the division, finishing 1st seven of the eight years in that stretch. Unfortunately, the years following would not provide the same result as the team has only held the throne twice since, those coming in 2013 and 2014.
During the Colts’ AFC South drought, each team has finished 1st, Houston and Tennessee both winning multiple times. The Colts have come close in the past four seasons finishing 2nd three of the past four years, but at some point, one has to think “being close” isn’t enough. In hopes of ending the eight-year drought, the team made drastic changes this offseason, but now the question is, was it enough. Each team had an active offseason, and the division will look very different in 2022.
In this series, I will be looking into each position group and ranking each unit in the AFC South. Today we will begin with the offensive side of the ball.
Projected Starter: Davis Mills
As a rookie last season, Mills was more or less thrown into the fire of being an NFL QB. The 2021 3rd-round draft pick began the year behind Tyrod Taylor on the team’s depth chart before being propelled to the starting role when Taylor went down with an injury. Mills had the expected rookie growing pains for the position but put a solid season together. Mills ended the season 3rd in yards (2,664), 2nd in touchdowns (16), and tied for fewest interceptions among rookies who appeared in at least 12 games last season.
Mills’ ceiling still appears to be on the lower end, but he proved to be a QB who can be a starter at the pro level. This next year will be very telling of the player Mills can become as he is set to go through the offseason as the sure starter.
Projected Starter: Matt Ryan
For the 5th consecutive season, the Colts will have a new starting QB. The only difference is that they will be the only team in the division doing so this time around. This year under center, the Colts will have probable future HOFer Matt Ryan. Last season, Ryan had a down year where he saw his 10-year streak of throwing over 4000 yards end as he only threw for 3,968 yards. Additionally, he only threw 20 touchdowns, tying his 2nd fewest in a season in his career. So when evaluating the QB and what Colts fans should expect, I believe it’s important to look at a QB that came to Indy in a similar fashion: Philip Rivers.
The year before becoming a Colt, Rivers put up 4,615 yards, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions. Now comparing the stat lines, the biggest differences are passing yards and interceptions. Rivers had significantly more passing yards as well as more interceptions. The Colts need a true game manager who can take what the defense gives them to lead the team to victory. A big part of that role is limiting key mistakes; something Coach Reich has a track record of his QBs seeing improvements in. An example of this can be seen these past two seasons Rivers brought his interception total down from 20 to 11. Then again, last season, Wentz brought his interception number down from 15 to 7.
Projected Starter: Trevor Lawrence
To say Trevor Lawrence had a lackluster rookie season would be an understatement. Lawrence was getting talked about as a future number one pick before he even made a college selection. From the moment he walked on the field at Clemson, fans everywhere were trying to figure out how their team could get into the Lawrence sweepstakes. And his rookie year fell short of the hype without a doubt. The Jaguars roster did him no favors, but Lawrence ended the season with 3,641 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions.
The second year of a young player’s career has been very telling of their career’s direction. The Jaguars operated the offseason with that thought in mind being among the biggest spenders of the offseason, adding offensive weapons like Christian Kirk, Evan Engram, and offensive lineman Brandon Scherff.
Lawrence has all the talent to be a special player in this league, but with another season like last, the road to that potential becomes much less attainable.
Projected Starter: Ryan Tannehill
Tannehill’s career resurgence with the Titans hit a bump in the road last season. The Titans’ roster saw a ton of injuries during the season, which caused Tannehill to take on more responsibility leading to more mistakes by the quarterback. The team was able to fight through the injuries and still end the regular season as the number one seed in the AFC. The injuries and Tannehill’s play would catch up to Tennessee as they fell in their first playoff game in the Divisional Round to the Cincinnati Bengals 19-16. A game where they were able to sack Joe Burrow nine times and hold the dynamic Bengals offense to under 20 points. So what went wrong for the Titans?
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill would be the largest portion of that answer. Tannehill would go 15/24, throwing 220 yards, one touchdown, and three interceptions. His first interception came on the Titans’ first play of the game, and his last came on their final play. The Titans reacted to the poor outing and overall season by drafting Liberty quarterback Malik Willis in the third round of the NFL Draft. While a third-round pick isn’t normally someone a starting quarterback has to worry about, Willis was viewed by many as a 1st round talent and has traits that should excite fans and worry Tannehill.
Projected Starter: Marlon Mack
Similar to recent years, the Texans will likely go with the backfield by committee approach. The most likely involved backs are former Colt Marlon Mack, Rex Burkhead, and rookie Dameon Pierce. Mack had two very productive seasons with the Colts in 2018 and 2019. Their choice to “replace” Mack with Taylor said more about their love for Taylor than a dislike for Mack. Before getting injured, the plan was for him and Taylor to be a two-headed backfield for years to come. However, Mack’s injury opened the door for a larger role for Taylor, and his dominance at the spot would end up shining through. The fresh scenery could be great for Mack, who’s finally healthy and ready to show what he has still in the tank.
Projected Starter: Jonathan Taylor
Jonathan Taylor is entering his third NFL season and coming off his best season as a pro. Last season was his first as a full-time starter, and he rushed for 1811 yards and 18 touchdowns, leading the NFL in both. Coach Reichs mantra of wanting to be a run-first offense isn’t going to change anytime soon as Taylor’s rise to superstardom continues. A player that will have a larger role in 2022 is Nyheim Hines. Hines saw his snaps and productions minimized in 2021 via the playstyle of the quarterback under center. How will Hines’ increased snap share affect Taylor?
Taylor is too dynamic to keep off the field for too long, but Hine’s larger role will be great for Taylor’s longevity in the NFL. Hopefully, it prevents a similar situation we’ve seen with other AFC South teams who run their star backs until their wheels ultimately fall off.
Projected Starter: Travis Etienne Jr.
Projecting the starting back in Jacksonville was a little more complicated than the others. With Robinson’s injury coming so late into the year in 2021, his availability to start 2022 is up in the air. Etienne is coming off an injury of his own, but before the 2021 season even began. Being drafted in the 1st round last year and being college teammates with QB Trevor Lawrence seemed to always add up to Etienne running away with the job when he got the chance.
That chance is now, and I expect Etienne to be an immediate upgrade to Robinson in the passing game but has some improvements to make running between the tackles to keep Robinson off the field. With a vital season upcoming for QB Trevor Lawrence, I expect him to use the targets he trusts the most to help crawl out of his disappointing rookie season, and Etienne is atop that list.
Projected Starter: Derrick Henry
Derrick Henry is a freak of nature. After leading the league in rushing with 2027 yards in 2020. Henry’s production is undeniable. In 2020 he was able to carry an abnormally heavy workload with ease as he rushed for over 2000 yards and played in all 16 games. That same fortune can’t be said for 2021, as he could only appear in 8 games before being sidelined for the rest of the regular season. Even though he only appeared in less than half the season, he would end the year with 937 yards which was good enough to finish 9th in rushing. The team would bring Henry back for their 1st and only playoff game against the Bengals, where he rushed 20 times for 62 yards and one touchdown. You could tell Henry wasn’t himself that outing, and the injury still affected his play tremendously.
When on the field, Henry’s talent and usage will make him the most productive back in the league. The question now isn’t how good Henry is but can he hold the weight Tennessee puts on his shoulders and stay healthy. 2022 will give us that answer, but until then, Henry’s expected workload and carry count should make him the favorite for the 2022-2023 rushing title.
Projected Starters: Brandin Cooks, Nico Collins, John Metchie III
The Texans WR room is headlined by, in my opinion, one of the most underrated WRs in the league in Brandin Cooks. If I were to rank each WR in the AFC South, Cooks would be number 1. In both seasons with the Texans, Cooks has put up over 1000 yards and six touchdowns in both seasons. Despite the downgrade from Deshaun Watson to Tyrod Taylor/Davis Mills, Cooks didn’t miss a beat. In 2021 he only had 113 yards less and had nine more catches. Many thought the WR would be dealt this offseason with Houston rebuilding, but instead, he signed an extension with the team.
The rest of the WR core has a lot of work to do; a lot of eyes will be on the projected starter opposite of Cook’s 2nd-year WR, Nico Collins. Collins put up a modest rookie season with 446 yards on 36 catches and one touchdown and will be asked to take the next step in his development in year 2. The player in this room that I’ll be watching closely is rookie John Metchie III out of Alabama, drafted in round 2 of this year’s draft.
Projected Starters: Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce, Parris Campbell
Another WR room in the AFC South with a single proven WR in the room in young question marks surrounding him. In fact, after Cooks, who, as mentioned above, is the best WR in the AFC South at the moment, Michael Pittman Jr. would be 2nd. Pittman Jr., in his 2nd year in the league, took the leap toward being the team’s number one WR going for 1,082 yards on 88 catches and hauling in six touchdowns. It was even more impressive, considering he did so without even a slightly intimidating 2nd option in the receiving game. In fact, after Pittman, the team didn’t have a single player with more than 400 receiving yards. Zach Pascal would end the year 2nd in receiving for the Colts with a whopping 384 yards.
The Colts brass noted this unacceptable stat and selected WR Alec Pierce with their 1st selection in the 2022 draft in the 2nd round. Pierce has impressed many already in his short offseason work, but another Colts WR many have highlighted as the offseason star is Parris Campbell. Campbell has had a tough go in the NFL so far with injury after injury. When on the field, Campbell has shown flashes of the player drafted in the 2nd round of the draft in 2019. If 2022 is the year Campbell is able to stay on the field and produce in the WR room, the Colts could see a drastic improvement to a WR room ranked near the bottom of the league in 2021.
Projected Starters: Marvin Jones Jr., Christian Kirk, Zay Jones
One of the Jaguars’ biggest offseason moves was signing Christian Kirk to a massive deal early in free agency, pairing him with veteran WR Marvin Jones, newly signed Zay Jones, and soon-to-be 3rd-year WR Laviska Shenault. That group of four WRs on paper is the most talented WR room in the entire division. Where this room lacks is having the worst WR1 among the AFC South. With Kirk’s contract being the stature it is, the team is hoping for him to step into that role, showing the rest of the league why they went all in on the former Cardinals wideout.
This season’s main goal for Jacksonville should be getting 2nd-year QB, Trevor Lawrence back on the right track to having a successful career. This WR room will have a lot of responsibility making that goal achieved.
Projected Starters: Robert Woods, Treylon Burks, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine
The Titan’s WR room is headed by one of the best young WRs in the league A.J. Brown… Oh wait, that’s right; he is a Philadelphia Eagle after the team traded the star WR during the 2022 draft. In that trade, the team would use the 1st round pick acquired to select WR Treylon Burks out of Arkansas. Burks will be added to a WR room headed by newly acquired WR Robert Woods coming over from the Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams via trade this offseason.
Woods has been a very productive WR in his career and saw last season ended early as he tore his ACL in week 9 of last season. Woods, now 30, could still very well have a lot left in the tank, but is this version of Woods able to carry the weight as the team’s WR1. If not, rookie Treylon Burks will need to be productive immediately to keep this WR above the league’s bottom tier.
Projected Starters: Pharaoh Brown, Brevin Jordan
Houston’s projected snap leaders for the TE room are Pharaoh Brown and Brevin Jordan. Together, the combo had 349 yards last season. Pharaoh Brown, at 28, probably isn’t going to develop into a heavy pass game TE anytime soon but is a solid run blocker, which will keep him on the field for Houston this season. Second-year player Brevin Jordan on the other hand, could very well take a step in the right direction as a pass-catching threat this season.
History has shown us that rookie TEs rarely produce at a high level immediately, so Jordan’s lackluster rookie season shouldn’t share too many fans. With very little competition in the TE room, Jordan should see the largest target share of the room. With a young QB under center, he could see a large increase in targets this season as a safety blanket for Davis Mills.
Projected Starters: Mo Alie-Cox, Jelani Woods/Kylen Granson
The Colts TE room took a significant hit when the team’s top TE, Jack Doyle, retired this offseason. The team acted swiftly, signing their own Mo Alie-Cox to an extension and then drafting Jelani Woods (3rd round) and Drew Ogletree (6th round). Adding them to 2nd year TE Kylen Granson makes up a very young room, but three of the four are 6’5 or taller. So while the room lacks experience, they possess something that can’t be taught in pure size. QB Matt Ryan will have multiple big bodies to choose from, whether in the red zone or a must-convert 3rd down. Alie-Cox will be the loan key contributor from the room returning in 2022, coming off a year putting up 316 yards on 24 catches and four touchdowns.
While the team has spoken very highly of rookie Jelani Woods already through the offseason process, very few rookie TEs are able to produce at a high level right away. So at year’s end, I’d expect Mo Alie Cox and Kylen Granson to be the team’s snap leaders at the position.
Projected Starters: Evan Engram, Dan Arn0ld
Yet another position headlined by a 2022 free agent move for the Jaguars. The team added former Giants TE Evan Engram to last year’s starter Dan Arnold. Engram is an incredible athlete at the position and possesses speed that can create multiple mismatches. His biggest issues so far in his career have been durability and drops. In his five-year career, Engram only played a complete season one time in 2020, and his best statistical season came in his rookie season, where he put up 722 yards on 64 catches and six touchdowns.
While Engram’s career hasn’t gone in the direction many expected after that season, he still has multiple traits that can translate to Jacksonville. Pairing him with Dan Arnold, who also has the above-average speed for the position, gives the team an advantage against most coverage assignments.
Projected Starter: Austin Hooper, Geoff Swaim/Chigoziem Okonkwo
Former pro bowler Austin Hooper headlines the Titans TE room. Hooper wasn’t able to replicate his Atlanta success in Cleveland and was released this offseason by the team. Hooper is replacing last year’s starter Anthony Firkser who signed with the Atlanta Falcons this offseason. Those shoes won’t be too large to fill as Firsker only had 291 yards on 34 catches scoring two touchdowns. Hooper himself bested those numbers a year ago, putting up 345 yards on 38 catches and three touchdowns. The Titans would love to return to the years of productive TE play, such as the Delanie Walker years.
The Titans elected to draft Chigoziem Okonkwo out of Maryland in the 4th round of this year’s draft. Okonkwo is a solid athlete at the position who is slightly undersized at 6’2 244 lbs. I expect the Titans to attempt to utilize his smaller frame and quickness to create mismatches with LBers, and if it succeeds, Okonkwo could see an early role in 2022. With the Titans moving A.J. Brown, there are a lot of targets up for grabs, and I’d expect Austin Hooper to become one of Ryan Tannehill’s go-to targets this season.
Projected Starters: Laremy Tunsil, Kenyon Green, Justin Britt, A.J. Cann, Tytus Howard
The Texans’ offensive line didn’t do rookie QB Davis Mills any favors last year as he was sacked 31 times in his 13 games of the team’s 44 allowed total on the year. That adds up to being the 9th most sacks allowed last season. Then add in the team only being able to tally up 1422 rushing yards last season, which ranked last in the league. Their leading rusher was Rex Burkhead, who only had 427 yards.
Laremy Tunsil leads this group and is a really solid LT in the league after that though the group has a massive fall-off in production. The team did add Texas A&M G Kenyon Green with the 15th pick in the 1st round of this year’s draft. The hope is that move can solidify the left side of the line. As well hope some of the other pieces, such as 2019 RT Tytus Howard, can take a step in the right direction to improve a line among the bottom of the league a year ago.
Projected Starters: Matt Pryor, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Danny Pinter, Braden Smith
For the first time in a while, the Colts line saw multiple stretches of average to below-average play from multiple key starters last year. The team allowed the 9th fewest sacks with 32, blocked for the rushing leader Jonathan Taylor, and finished the year in 2nd in total rushing with 2540 yards. Last year was the 1st season since Anthony Castanzo’s retirement. Replacing the former pro bowler, the team brought in former Chief Eric Fisher, who less than delivered in his return to play after rupturing his Achilles the season prior.
The team will see the majority of their key starters back in place as Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, and Braden Smith are all back in the fold. The two other expected starters are returning Colts Matt Pryor at LT and Danny Pinter at RG. Pinter is projected to take over for Mark Glowinski, who left for the Giants this offseason. The ultimate starters at LT and RG will be decided in training camp as the Colts drafted T Bernhard Raimann in the 3rd round of this year’s draft, and the team has been impressed by 2nd year G Will Fries.
Projected Starters: Cam Robinson, Ben Bartch, Luke Fortner, Brandon Scherff, Jawann Taylor
Even after ending the year with the number 1 overall pick, the Jaguars’ offensive line didn’t grade out among the bottom of the league. The unit allowed the 9th fewest sacks in the league with 32 and finished slightly below average in rushing, being 20th with 1755 yards. Headlining the returners for next season is LT Cam Robinson, who the team elected to use their franchise tag on during the offseason before signing him to a three-year extension.
The team decided to make a splash signing to add to their line in the form of RG Brandon Scherff. For most of his career, Scherff has been ranked among the best guards in the league. He has struggled to stay on the field the last few years as he has missed 17 games over the last three seasons. If Scherff is able to put together a fairly healthy season, he is a huge upgrade to one of the team’s weak spots from a year ago.
Projected Starters: Taylor Lewan, Aaron Brewer, Ben Jones, Nate Davis, Dillon Radunz
The Titans’ offensive line had a very inconsistent season in 2021. They allowed the 7th most sacks with 47 but ended the year 5th in total, rushing with 2404 yards with their starting RB only playing eight games. The team ended up releasing one of their best linemen G Rodger Saffold in a cap-saving move this offseason, who would later sign with the Bills and also saw last year’s RT David Quessenberry join Saffold in Buffalo.
LT Taylor Lewan, C Ben Jones, and RG Nate Davis are returning from last year’s line. Headlining that group is C Ben Jones, who many believe is among the top centers in the league. The LG and RT spots will be a battle in camp, but as of this moment, it seems that 2nd-year lineman Dillon Radunz will win one of the two openings. Radunz’s versatility on the line gives him an edge here and will help the Titans be able to field the five best linemen possible and move Radunz to either T or G to fit.
Offensive Ranking Results:
Below are the overall offensive AFC South rankings. This list was created using the average ranking from the positions above to compile an overall offensive division ranking.
- Colts (1.8)
- Jaguars (2)
- Titans (2.6)
- Texans (3.6)