Best-Case/Worst-Case: AFC South Edition
Photo Credit: Tennessee Titans, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
In this edition of the Best-Case/Worst-Case, we come to the AFC South, home to last year’s top overall seed - Titans of Tennessee. Though their season ended in distressing fashion, with an early exit versus the Cincinnati Bengals in the Divisional Round (maybe they were too eager for a vacation at Norris Lake?), the Titans return much of the same core that has helped the organization keep the division crown for three years running. Even with pass rusher Harold Landry going down with an ACL-injury this week, the Titans have enough talent on offense and defense to remain the standard-bearers of the South.
The Indianapolis Colts, though, will have something to say about that. In Week 18 of last year, the Colts blew a win-and-your-in opportunity for a Wild Card spot by losing to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, who had already fired head coach Urban Meyer for a litany of bad decisions. The Colts had seven players named to the Pro Bowl and five who were named All Pro. The Jags had…none.
And speaking of the Jaguars, has any team done more to wash themselves of the stink of their last season? Meyer is gonzo, and in comes Doug Pederson, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles, a Super Bowl champion, and a guy who will presumably refrain from kicking his players, skipping team flights, berating assistant coaches, etc. Pederson is a better coach than Meyer, though that’s about as obvious as saying Beyonce is a better businesswoman than Lindsey Lohan.
Finally, the Houston Texans also brought in a new face to lead this team for 2022: former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith. Smith is widely respected around the league, but there’s plenty of doubt as to whether he’s the right man for this job - especially after previous head coach David Culley was fired after just one season. Even though this is his first year, Smith is likely already coaching like his career depends on it - and it probably does.
DE Mario Addison (free agent)
LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin (free agent)
CB Steven Nelson (free agent)
CB Derek Stingley Jr. (draft)
OG Kenyon Green (draft)
QB Deshaun Watson
DT Ross Blacklock
S Justin Reid
Best-Case Scenario: 8 - 9, 2nd in the AFC South
The Texans may have struck gold when they selected QB Davis Mills in last year’s NFL Draft. The former top QB recruit in his class, Mills struggled with injuries during his time at Stanford, and fell to the third-round. But his misfortune was the Texans’ gain, and it may have worked out for the 23-year-old in the long-run after all as he looks to have secured the starting position (at least for 2022).
If Mills proves he can be the franchise QB of the future, then the Texans have already won. 2022 is way too early to expect a run at the division title, especially with the lack of upper-end talent on this roster, but a solidified Mills will give this coaching staff and front office the confidence to make some serious splashes in the upcoming offseason a la the Russell Wilson-led Seattle Seahawks squads of the mid-2010s.
As for the defense, the cupboard might not be bare, but it’s been raided over the past two years. In the previous offseason, the Texans lost superstar defensive end J.J. Watt and this year, they lost their most consistent defender in safety Justin Reid. With their first pick in the draft, the Texans brought in cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. out of LSU, to help replenish those losses and inject some needed youthful upside into this defense.
A former top recruit, Stingley burst onto the college football scene as a freshman, securing six interceptions for the National Champion Tigers. The rest of his undergrad career didn’t go as planned, however. Stingley would struggle with injuries, playing in just ten games over the next two seasons, and did not record another interception. Still, given his tremendous opening act, NFL scouts drooled at his obvious potential.
Overall, this is a building year for the Texans. They’ll be focusing more on developing their future stars over making a concerted push for the playoffs. Up-and-coming rookies like first-round guard Kenyon Green, second-round safety Jalen Pitre, and fourth-round running back Dameon Pearce all look to have secured starting positions this year. Their growth will be essential if the Texans are to compete down the road. A winning record might not be realistic, but if they can approach .500, that will be all the indication this organization needs to know they’re on the right track.
Worst-Case Scenario: 2 - 15, 4th in the AFC South
Lovie Smith needs a hug right now. That’s just the feeling you get when you look over this Texans roster. Is this the worst team in the league? At the moment, that answer is yes.
Mills was a great story last year, but he was also shut out twice while piloting this offense. He obviously was let down by the talent around him, but he wasn’t exactly the rising tide that lifts all boats, per se.
The run game will be massively dependent on the rookie Pearce, who wasn’t even the primary ball carrier in college at Florida. He’s been very impressive in preseason, and his pure speed and powerful running style are fantastic traits for any NFL-caliber back, but unless he’s Alvin Kamara, he probably won’t be turning the Texans into a premier running team overnight. The rest of the RB depth chart won’t scare anyone, either.
The receiver situation is dangerously thin as well. Brandin Cooks, who, admittedly, has been one of the most consistent deep threats since he entered the NFL in 2014, will be on his own this year. With second-year WR Nico Collins, and cast-offs Tyler Johnson, Phillip Dorsett and Chris Moore, the Texans’ receiver group rivals Green Bay and Baltimore for the worst in the league. If the Texans were impressed by Mills last year, seeing him do damage with this group would be out of this world.
As for the defense, there’s a strong possibility that the talent drain of the last few years is still too much to overcome in 2022. The team did bring in Jalen Reeves-Maybin from the Detroit Lions and defensive ends Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes from the Buffalo Bills, but none of these guys is likely to turn in a massive season in 2022. The Texans will be counting on Stingley Jr. and Pitre to live up to their draft position, and that’s no guarantee.
The biggest concern for the Texans has to be the future of Coach Smith. By all indications, the Texans were very interested in hiring former QB Josh McCown to be their head coach, that is, until Brian Flores threw a wrench in everyone’s plans by suing the Miami Dolphins. Flores' lawsuit brought to light some of the ugly realities of being a black head coach in the NFL, such as being put in unwinnable positions and not being given the appropriate amount of time to do a full rebuild. Even the guy Smith replaced, David Culley, was only given a single year before he too was fired. With zero head coaching experience, or even NFL coaching experience period, handing McCown the keys to the franchise would have raised more than a few eyebrows.
So, is Lovie the Texans’ guy, or is he just a patsy holding down the fort until the Texans bring in their favored man? That question will likely be answered in the offseason. The optics will be horrible but count me as someone who doesn’t see Lovie getting a chance in year two.
QB Matt Ryan (trade)
DE Yannick Ngakoue (trade)
CB Stephon Gilmore (free agent)
WR Alec Pierce (draft)
QB Carson Wentz
WR Zach Pascal
DE Al-Quadin Muhammad
OG Mark Glowinski
Best-Case Scenario: 13 - 4, 1st in the AFC South
Quick, which team had the most players selected for the 2022 Pro Bowl? It wasn’t the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, and it wasn’t their Super Bowl counterpart the Cincinnati Bengals. It wasn’t the Patrick Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs or the high-flying Buffalo Bills. It wasn’t Green Bay, it wasn’t San Francisco, and it wasn’t Tampa Bay. It wasn’t a playoff team at all. It was the…wait for it…Indianapolis Colts, who had seven players chosen to represent the AFC in the annual exhibition.
Unfortunately for the Colts, all that talent meant squat when they faced the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 18. With a playoff berth on the line, the Colts wet the bed against the worst team in the NFL, losing pitifully 11 - 26 to finish the year with a 9 - 8 record. Fortunately, the Colts didn’t hesitate to move on from the primary culprit of their demise: quarterback Carson Wentz.
For the 2022 Colts, so much of the excitement for the new year comes from the upgrade at QB. Replacing the maddening Wentz is the steady Matt Ryan, who arrives in Indy after fourteen seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. The Colts are counting on Ryan’s professionalism and consistency to make up for Wentz’s up-and-down play that sabotaged the team when it mattered most last year.
If Ryan is the upgrade the Colts believe he is, then the sky's the limit for Indy. This could very well be the best roster in the NFL, top to bottom. Considering the relative weakness of the rest of the division, the Colts could easily end up with the top seed in the AFC if they can clean up against the South.
The Colts did lose defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who took the head coaching position with the Chicago Bears, but the remaining talent and leadership of this unit should allow them to continue their high-level play. Linebacker Shaquille Leonard, defensive tackle DeForrest Buckner and slot corner Kenny Moore are some of the best in the business. This should still remain a top-tier unit, especially with new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley bringing years of experience to the job,
Finally, running back Jonathan Taylor looked like the brightest star at the position in the NFL last year, as he exploded for 1,800 yards and 20 total touchdowns in his sophomore campaign. He looked like prime Eric Dickerson with his astonishing combination of power and straight-line speed. With a good offensive line headlined by four-time All Pro guard Quenton Nelson, the Colts should again be the top rushing offense in the NFL.
Worst-Case Scenario: 7 - 10, 3rd in the AFC South
I’m not buying into the idea that Matt Ryan is the skeleton key that will unlock the Colts passing game. The 37-year-old QB is coming off one of the least productive seasons of his career and expecting a renaissance at this stage is a little ambitious. Besides, it’s not like the offensive situation he’s walking into in Indianapolis is light-years better than the one he left in Atlanta.
Okay, okay, so Atlanta didn’t have anyone remotely near Taylor’s skills or production at running back, but they could offer a reasonably talented group of pass catchers, such as WRs Russell Gage and Calvin Ridley and top pick Kyle Pitts at tight end. With the Colts, Ryan will have third-year receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and 2022 second-round pick Alec Pierce to work with - not exactly the most encouraging group.
The biggest concern for the offense has to be the o-line, which saw the departures of guard Mark Glowinski and left tackle Eric Fisher in the offseason. There’s still plenty of talent there, particularly in Nelson, center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Braden Smith, but the holes at guard and left tackle could seriously diminish the overall performance of this unit. After all, an offensive line is more than just the sum of its parts, and one or two weak links could hamper this offense significantly.
If the line takes a step back, that could hurt Taylor’s production, which could in turn make life much, much harder for Ryan and the passing game. Without Taylor gaining chunk yards with every carry, the threat of the play-action pass is decreased, and defenses will be able to invest more resources in stopping the Colts’ less-than-spectacular receivers. There’s a possibility that this offense could be a bottom-third unit in the league.
Defensively, the additions of cornerback Stephon Gilmore and defensive end Yannick Ngakoue should help, but the loss of Eberflus could be a problem. Bradley has been a good DC in the past, but his most recent season with the Raiders left a lot to be desired. A former acolyte of Pete Carroll in Seattle, Bradley made a name for himself employing the vaunted Seattle Cover-3 scheme that helped turn players like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner into Hall-of-Fame-caliber players. Today, though, that scheme has come under fire.
If Bradley is unable, or unwilling, to adapt to the modern NFL where two-high safety looks have become vogue, he could be the rare subtraction-by-addition coaching hire. Cover-3 looks are fine when you have a field-halving presence like Sherman or a ranger center fielder like Thomas, but the Colts don’t have those players. Gilmore is a former Defensive Player of the Year, but he struggled mightily in Carolina last year, and expecting safety Julian Blackmon, who is coming off an Achilles tear in Week 7, to become a Thomas-clone is incredibly unlikely.
Put it all together, and there are reasons to be concerned about the Colts’ preseason hype. There’s probably too much talent on this roster to fall to the bottom of the division, especially with the state of the Texans at the moment, but the worst-case scenario could see this team miss the playoffs for the third consecutive season and put head coach Frank Reich’s job security in jeopardy.
WR Christian Kirk (free agent)
OG Brandon Scherff (free agent)
LB Foyesade Oluokun (free agent)
DE Travon Walker (draft)
LB Devin Lloyd (draft)
WR D.J. Chark
OG Andrew Norwell
OG A.J. Cann
LB Myles Jack
Best-Case Scenario: 11 - 6, 1st in the AFC South
Hear me out! It might be a long-shot, but I really believe the Jags could be the surprise worst-to-first team in the 2022 NFL season. Consider the following:
What if quarterback Trevor Lawrence is actually everything scouts thought he was when the Jaguars made him the #1 pick in 2021?
What if Doug Pederson should never have been fired from Philadelphia and he’s actually the Super-Bowl-winning coach we all viewed him as just four years ago?
What if Urban Meyer did such a pathetic job as the head coach that his leaving alone is worth two or three wins?
What if Travon Walker lives up to the billing as the #1 pick in 2022 and becomes the explosive and versatile pass rusher the Jaguars think he’s going to be?
Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect all these things to be true, at least right away - but this team winning the AFC South wouldn’t be an upset on the scale of, say, Buster Douglas defeating Mike Tyson in 1990. The Titans and Colts appear strong on the surface, but after being bounced early in the playoffs, the Titans look like an obvious candidate for regression, and I already laid out how the Colts might disappoint in 2022. The Texans…well, let’s just say they’re not a huge threat.
Things would have to go the Jaguars way, but there’s a path to a division title for a team that’s been in the basement four years in a row. Lawrence will have to be great (and he was decidedly not in 2021) but his prodigious talent and college production suggests that he can still be that kind of player in 2022. With Pederson at the helm, Lawrence should have the best coaching of his life, and at least one million times better than the coaching he got from Meyer, who seemed to be following George Costanza’s playbook for getting fired from the New York Yankees.
New defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell’s unit may be lacking in star power, but there’s enough youthful talent to be excited about what they could achieve in 2022. Pass rusher Josh Allen (not the Bills’ Josh Allen) has been a consistent force off the edge since his rookie year in 2019, and Walker has physical traits that you’d assume could only happen if Bo Jackson and LeBron James had a baby. If Walker shines as a rookie, he and Allen could be one of the best duos in the NFL at bringing down opposing QBs.
The Jaguars also brought in a ton of talent in free agency this offseason, so they won’t be the talent-deficient team they were last year (at least, on paper). Receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, guard Brandon Scherff, linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, and pass rusher Arden Key aren’t going to be propelling this team to a playoff appearance on their own, but together, they raise the level of this team significantly. A playoff run would be a dream for any Jaguars fan.
Worst-Case Scenario: 4 - 13, 4th in the AFC South
Unfortunately for Duval County, this is not a very talented team. Sure, the Jags added a bunch of players in free agency, but none projects to be a top end player at their position, save for perhaps Scherff, who was named All Pro in 2020 but has also been unable to play a full season since his second year in the league. Without any top-end players to take the pressure off Lawrence, this could be another rough year for the second-year QB.
Pederson may have been made to be the scapegoat for the Eagles’ collapse following their Super Bowl victory in 2018, but he does deserve some blame for his handling of the Carson Wentz situation. The fact that Wentz turned into such a pumpkin after his near-MVP campaign in the 2017 season suggests that maybe Pederson isn’t the right guy to bring out the best in Lawrence. If he can’t bring out the best in his franchise’s supposed savior, his seat could get very hot, very quickly.
When he was drafted, Lawrence looked like the surest of sure bets. He had all the physical gifts of a QB like Justin Herbert and the production of Peyton Manning. He was can’t miss. Now, he’s teetering on whiff territory.
Two straight years of coaching incompetence could be disastrous for Lawrence, and the Jaguars franchise as a whole. The Urban-Meyer-experience set the team back at least two years and may have permanently stunted the growth of their most important player. If Pederson can’t get the job done, the Jags could find themselves at the bottom of the AFC South not just in 2022, but for many years to come.
With all the talent they added in the offseason, and with the relative incompetence of the Texans, the Jags should be able to surpass their 2021 win-total, even in the worst-case scenario. But anything more than that might be a pipe dream and might stay that way for a while.
WR Treylon Burks (draft)
WR Robert Woods (trade)
TE Austin Hooper (free agent)
WR A.J. Brown
WR Julio Jones
OG Rodger Saffold
OG David Quessenberry
Best-Case: 12 - 5, 1st in the AFC South
Your 2021 top overall seed in the AFC is hungry for redemption. The Titans were embarrassed last year after coming off their playoff bye week and falling to the fourth-seeded Bengals. Despite sacking quarterback Joe Burrow nine times, the Titans were unable to capitalize on their defense’s strong play, with QB Ryan Tannehill gifting the Bengals three interceptions, including a crucial, game-deciding pick that set up the Bengals’ game winning field goal.
It was a massive blow for a team with massive expectations, but there’s a catch: a massive part of their offense was not at full strength. Running back Derrick Henry, the 6-3, 247 lbs. mountain of a man was coming off a Jones fracture in his foot and did not look like the bulldozing presence he usually is. With a full offseason to recover, Henry should be good as ever.
If Henry can recapture the same power and breakaway speed of his incredible 2,000-yard rushing season of 2020, the Titans will be in fine position to manage the losses of wide receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, who both departed in the offseason. While Jones was largely hurt and ineffective, Brown has been one of the better deep threats in the NFL since his rookie year in 2019. The Titans did draft his replacement Treylon Burks in the first-round, but as long as Henry is good to go, this team will go as he does - and he can go an awfully long way, even with defenders hanging on like five-year-olds on Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop.
It’s the defense, though, that could be truly special. This was already a unit that was outstanding versus the run, and the investments they’ve made in the secondary could make them equally as effective versus the pass. Safety Kevin Byard is an elite turnover-generator who’s recorded at least four interceptions in four of the last five seasons. Fellow safety Amani Hooker is also a significant threat against the pass, while cornerbacks Kristian Fulton, Caleb Farley and rookie Roger McCreary round out a potentially dynamite secondary.
Farley, in particular, could be a major problem for opposing offenses if he can turn his considerable physical gifts into full-blown production. The former first-round pick struggled with injuries in college, and even suffered a blown ACL in his first year in the league, but if those issues are behind him, he has the combination of natural size and ability to be a tough matchup for any receiver.
A shutdown outside corner is really the only thing missing from this defense, because everywhere else you look, there’s a playmaker. Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons is the best interior pass rusher in the NFL not named Aaron Donald, and his running mate Denico Autry is no slouch, either. The loss of Harold Landry will hurt, but fellow outside linebacker Bud Dupree is capable of holding his own on the edge.
The inside linebacker spots are solid too, with Zach Cunningham providing a reliable presence in run support and David Long Jr. a force against the pass. There’s very little to be concerned about with this Titans defense, and with head coach Mike Vrabel around, that will always be a tough and disciplined unit. The Colts might be able to stand toe-to-toe with the Titans in terms of overall team talent, but with the leadership and experience of this Titans team should be enough to secure a fourth-straight AFC South title.
Worst-Case Scenario: 6 - 11, 3rd in the AFC South
Ryan Tannehill sure didn’t look good against the Bengals. If that’s a sign of things to come in 2022, that could be a huge problem for a Titans team that desperately needs competent QB play. If Tannehill regresses as he heads into his eleventh season, the Titans offense could be an abject disaster.
Henry was a physical phenomenon at his peak, but there’s a chance the best of King Henry has passed us by already. And without Brown there to force defenses to respect the threat of the deep ball, there might not be a lot of room to run anyway. Burks was drafted to replace Brown, but the 22-year-old lacks Brown’s pure speed and hasn’t looked great so far in the preseason. Robert Woods, who was brought in from the Los Angeles Rams in the offseason, is more known as an intermediate option in the passing game and for his run blocking, not his ability downfield. Besides, the 30-year-old Woods is also coming off season-ending knee surgery and may need some time to ramp up before he’s back to full strength.
These issues, along with the losses of Rodger Saffold and David Quessenberry at the two guard spots on the offensive line could lead to a pathetic offensive performance from this group. The Titans offense already had issues moving the ball. Further deterioration would make this one of the worst attacks in the league.
Defensively, the Titans should be okay, if only because of the institutional knowledge and experience instilled by Coach Vrabel. Outside of Simmons and Byard, though, this isn’t a team flush with top-end talent or depth. The loss of Landry may be a much bigger factor than people realize, particularly because Dupree has never shown the ability to consistently win one-on-one matchups and has also struggled with injuries in the past. The eighth-year player has played in a full season just three times, and disappointed last year with a meager three sacks. He’s going to need to step up in a big way with Landry out, and he hasn’t shown the ability to do so thus far.
Much of the success of this season hinges on the development of Farley, who is mostly projection over production at this point. If he continues to struggle with injuries, or if he proves not to be the caliber of player they expected when the Titans made him the #22 pick in 2021, the Titans are in trouble because there aren’t any other good options to replace him. Fulton doesn’t have the size to handle many of the #1 WRs in the NFL, and rookie Roger McCreary is better suited to slot corner duties. Farley needs to play a big role in 2022, otherwise this pass defense could be exploited.
Fortunately for the Titans, they play in a division with two perennial doormats in the Texans and the Jaguars. There should be a few wins to be had in the division alone. However, the margin for error is razor thin. A decline by Tannehill and the defense could be enough to shoot this team straight down the division rankings and towards a top ten pick in 2023.