2021 NFL Preview: AFC South

Matthew King

Fans are back and most players are back and ready to roll. We are just days away from what should be one of the most exciting seasons of football in a long time. The countdown is on.  Every day leading up to the NFL season I will post a preview of each division with records and breakdowns of each team. It will all culminate on opening day with my playoff predictions where I will give you my pick to hoist the Lombardi Trophy this season. Think of these as little appetizers to help pass the days.

A division that will see three new starting quarterbacks earns the spotlight now. The AFC South has some very intriguing teams and storylines to follow in 2021. Three of the teams are on the right path to being Super Bowl contenders. The other is an absolute disaster. Which category do they all fall under? Let’s take a look.


1. Indianapolis Colts (2021 Prediction, 12-5)

The Colts made a big offseason change as they try to take the next step towards winning the AFC South. A new quarterback was needed with Phillip Rivers retiring this offseason. Carson Wentz takes over with a good defense and plenty of help on offense to get the job done. It is all up to him.

For the first time in his career, Carson Wentz will be under center for a team that’s not the Philadelphia Eagles. Wentz lost the starting job in Philly a year ago to Jalen Hurts. The biggest reason for that was because of Wentz holding onto the football for way too long. Wentz was hesitant to throw the ball down field and that resulted in a lot of sacks and hits absorbed by Wentz. A career high in interceptions with 15 along with being sacked a whopping 50 times forced the Eagles to move on. Indianapolis will hope to get the same Carson Wentz we saw in 2017 in his year as an MVP candidate. Confidence is the key in whether or not he can do that. If Wentz trusts his arm and doesn’t constantly worry about defensive pressure, he can step up and be that high level QB needed to win a division in the NFL. I don’t think he gets quite back to that level, but he will be good enough to get the job done.

The weakest area for the Colts is at the wide receiver position. Michael Pittman Jr., Zach Pascal and Parris Campbell have all shown skill, but one of them will need to step up and be the guy. Wentz loved using Zach Ertz from the tight end position with the Eagles. Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox should both be showcased this season as a result. Alie-Cox was great on third downs for Phillip Rivers in 2020. His size at 6’5” and 267 pounds makes for a tough problem for whoever is covering him. Jack Doyle will look to finally reach the potential many have talked about over the course of his career. The weapons for Wentz are a step up from what he had in Philly, but are still below average as a whole.

If you want to see a running back take the league by storm, look no further than what Jonathan Taylor did last season for the Colts. After missing a crucial week 11 game against Tennessee, Taylor came back as a different player. He had seven touchdowns in the final five games and averaged 130 yards per game over that stretch. That stretch ended a debate on who should be the starter between himself, Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack. They still have plenty of depth in the backfield, so expect to see all of those guys get their opportunities. The run game will flourish regardless of who is back there so that should help relax Carson Wentz quite a bit.

Another reason Wentz should be able to relax with his new squad is because of the phenomenal offensive line. The Colts spent years building up talent and all the patience is finally paying off. They did lose a major piece in Anthony Castanzo who retired this offseason. He will be replaced at left tackle by Eric Fisher once he recovers from achilles surgery. Fisher should be able to be very effective once he returns as long as the injury heals up. Quentin Nelson is obviously one of the best offensive linemen in the sport. It should terrify opposing defenses when you hear a massive left guard screaming as he runs at you full speed. Ryan Kelly at center is one of the most dependable linemen the Colts have had in a very long time. The right side isn’t as good, but is much better than what Wentz had in Philadelphia. Expect the Colts to have a top five offensive line this year.

On defense the Colts relied heavily on their zone defense. In 2020 that approach worked wonders. The secondary looked solid even though they don’t have any real elite guys back there. Xavier Rhodes looked more like his old self since he didn’t have to stop opposing teams top guys by himself. Darius Leonard went out and shined, garnering a lot of respect from around the league. The numbers were actually down from his incredible rookie year in 2018. All in all though he is the leader of this defense and a guy you have to gameplan for. The one thing they could improve on a bit is the pass rush. They were average in that area last year but most of that was due to the acquisition of DeForest Buckner. Buckner totaled 9.5 sacks last season but had a career high 26 hits on opposing quarterbacks. As a team the Colts had plenty of sacks but didn’t generate a lot of pressures. If they can get creative to create extra pressure, they could finish towards the top of the league defensively. The defense should not be an issue for this team in 2021. They will keep this team in games and give the offense plenty of opportunities to get the job done.

I believe that Carson Wentz will be the missing piece to win the division in 2021. Everything else is good enough except for the receiving corps to have success and get back to the playoffs in 2021. They are still not to the level of being a Super Bowl contender, but winning a division title will be a welcome sight for the Indianapolis faithful.


2. Tennessee Titans (2021 Prediction, 10-7)

Tennessee made one of the biggest splashes in the offseason when they signed Julio Jones to a deal. Jones has had some injury issues in the last few years in Atlanta, but when he is healthy he is an elite receiver. The Titans are in a similar spot as the Colts in that they are a playoff team but still trying to become a Super Bowl contender.

Since leaving Miami, Tannehill has found a groove in Tennessee. He has only thrown 13 interceptions in 28 games with the Titans. The touchdown numbers have gone up as well. He had a career high 33 touchdown passes in 2020 with only seven interceptions. In Miami he had to do it all on offense. Now, he is in a more balanced system and doesn’t have to throw as many times during the season. He doesn’t get hit as much and stays healthy throughout the season. We have learned that Ryan Tannehill is a very capable NFL quarterback and I believe he is above average. Tannehill was not the problem in Miami and now he is thriving in Tennessee.

The biggest reason, and I mean that literally, that Tannehill is able to succeed as much as he does is Derrick Henry. There is nobody better at running the football than Henry. His size and strength combined with his speed is so rare in the NFL. Henry led the league in rushing and finished with almost 500 more yards than the second place rusher in 2020. In today’s NFL running backs mostly do both rush the ball and do damage in the pass game. Henry is not one of those guys. He is a primary ball carrier and he does not need to do more. The big bruiser has been dominant since he came into the league and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. Derrick Henry will once again be a top running back in the league this season.

I already touched on the big addition this offseason for the Titans in Julio Jones. Jones will add just another weapon for Ryan Tannehill to use in the lethal play action pass game that Tennessee uses. AJ Brown will see more opportunities with Jones joining the receiving corps. They are still not even the main focus of the offense. Defenses have to focus on Henry which means Brown and Jones will get plenty of one on one opportunities. Anthony Firkser is expected to have a big year at tight end. If he can have a big season there will simply be too many weapons for this team to not have success on offense.

The offensive line will be better than they were last season just by Taylor Lewan staying healthy. He never even had a chance to have an impact, but he is the leader of this O-Line. This line is built for the run game. All of them are good run blockers which opens up the holes for Derrick Henry. Ben Jones at center is one of the more under appreciated centers in the league. They also have to make a decision on who will be the starter at right tackle. Kendall Lamm and Ty Sambrailo should both be able to step in and be effective. The line as a whole is beat up coming into the season which could give them trouble early in the season. Once they get healthy though, this unit should be fine.

Now to the reason why I have the Titans finishing as the runner-up in the AFC South. They allowed the 5th most passing yards in 2020 and the second most passing touchdowns. They went out and got Bud Dupree but I don’t see that helping much. He is a solid player but the secondary is still a disaster. Janoris Jenkins is past his prime and just can’t help slow down any top receivers. Kevin Byard is not awful at safety but they just aren’t going to be able to make the necessary plays to slow down the offenses on the schedule.

The Titans will go as far as the offense can carry them. I think they improved in that aspect. I just don’t think they improved enough on defense to take the next step. They strengthened their strengths while ignoring their weaknesses. Tennessee will still be good but other teams are getting better.


3. Jacksonville Jaguars (2021 Prediction, 4-13)

Jacksonville hit the full reset button this offseason. They went out and got a new head coach in Urban Meyer who comes out of retirement and moves up to the professional level. They also went out and got who they hope will be their franchise quarterback in Trevor Lawrence. Now this season is more about seeing what Lawrence can do and how Meyer can adapt to the NFL.

Trevor Lawrence coming out of college was one of the most highly touted quarterbacks in the history of the NFL draft. He has all of the tools you look for when trying to find a professional quarterback. The arm is incredible for still being just 21 years old. He also has incredible poise for being so young. He dominated at the college level making the National Championship game in two of his three seasons and won one. The former National Champion is mobile enough to be able to escape pressure and can throw on the run. Lawrence doesn’t try to force anything and will take what the defenses give him. Now we know he did all of that at the college level. It is a different animal in the NFL. This season will give Lawrence experience and allow him to see what the NFL is like.

It looked like Lawrence would have his college running back with him in the NFL coming into the preseason. However a foot injury will cost Travis Etienne his rookie season. Luckily for the Jags, they struck gold last season in undrafted free agent James Robinson. The former Illinois State Redbird finished with ten total touchdowns in his rookie season while playing in 14 games. Robinson finished 9th in yards from scrimmage in the NFL in his rookie campaign. He is a dual threat back and should be relied on heavily while Trevor Lawrence gets experience. Losing Etienne hurts, but Robinson would have been the starter anyway and now will see even more touches on offense in 2021.

Jacksonville has a good young receiving corps. DJ Chark Jr. is so tricky for defenses to try to slow down with his length. He will be a favorite weapon for Lawrence especially when taking shots down field. Laviska Shenault Jr. also adds a dynamic aspect out wide for Jacksonville. He can line up outside or in the backfield and is effective wherever he lines up. He does most of his damage catching the ball near the line of scrimmage which could be even more helpful this year. That will be due to the addition of Marvin Jones Jr. from Detroit. Jones is able to win contested balls using his 6’2” frame and can do damage after the catch as well. He will give more of a veteran presence to this team. Tight ends can be a rookie’s best friend. Unfortunately that is a big question mark for Jacksonville. Whether it ends up being James O’Shaughnessy or Chris Manhertz, neither have shown the ability to be much of a threat offensively. That is something this team will need to address before the 2022 season.

Jacksonville brings back their entire offensive line from 2020. That can be extremely beneficial heading into 2021. They already have comradery and know one another’s strengths and weaknesses. The interior of Brandon Linder, A.J. Cann, and Andrew Norwell are one of the top trios on the inside in the NFL. They are able to create holes in the run game while also winning their matchups in the passing game to keep the QB upright. Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor have plenty of potential on the outside as well. This line will be better in 2021 and that is mainly due to them already playing a season together.

The defense was a mess in 2020. They were bad at stopping the pass and even worse at stopping the run. Adding Shaquill Griffin will help in the secondary even if they overpaid for him. CJ Henderson should take another step in his development after a rough back half of 2020. Having Griffin as a veteran voice will help him develop his skills as well. They tallied only 18 sacks last season which is crazy to think about. It was only a few years ago where the pass rush carried the Jags to the AFC Championship. Someone needs to step up and create some chaos on defense for this squad. I just don’t see anyone on the roster that is capable of doing that. If they want to create extra pressure, it will have to happen via the blitz.

Trevor Lawrence has a ton of pressure riding on him coming into the rookie season. I don’t believe that it will beat him down. This kid is special. The poise and knowledge are things that you just can’t teach. Lawrence will be just fine in the NFL. It just might take a couple years for the rest of this team to catch up.


4. Houston Texans (2021 Prediction, 1-16)

If you look up the definition of nightmare, you will get a recap of the last two years for the Houston Texans. This team was up big against Kansas City in the 2019 playoffs. They choked that game away and that was only the beginning. This will be a rough season and they could be the first 0-17 team in NFL history.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Deshaun Watson has some very serious legal issues and just doesn’t want to be in Houston any more. Tyrod Taylor will likely start. Taylor was the victim of a freak accident with the Chargers last season that cost him the starting job. Now he joins a team that is the definition of an unstable work environment. His lung was punctured by a team doctor in 2020 and that team was more stable than Houston. Deshaun Watson could lead this team to a few more wins, but I don’t think we will ever see him suit up for the Texans again.

Mark Ingram II will lead the rushing attack but this isn’t the same Mark Ingram from 2019. Ingram hasn’t been the kind of guy that can lead a rushing attack. He was the sidekick to Alvin Kamara in New Orleans and Lamar Jackson in Baltimore. He will have to not only lead the ground game, but lead the offense. David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay and Rex Burkhead are also on the roster. All three of those guys are threats in the pass game and can be rotated to change the tempo. This might be the strongest area for this team and it still leaves a lot to be desired.

Brandin Cooks takes over as the top receiving option with the departure of Will Fuller V. Cooks has shown great flashes of what he can do at this level but the consistency has not been there. Chris Conley and Anthony Miller are the other options at wideout and that is cause for concern. Conley and Miller are so unknown that we don’t really know what to expect from them. The starting tight end Jordan Akins also fits that bill. Sure, they could workout and be big time players. I however will always be a pessimist when it comes to the unknowns in football. 

The offensive line should be good enough to at least give Taylor the chance to air it out in 2021. They have plenty of depth which is always a great thing to have in the trenches. Justin Britt retired after the 2019 season but is back and the starting center in Houston. If there is rust, he could be a weak spot that opposing defenses can take advantage of. Laremy Tunsil will be one of the best players on the Texans this season. He dropped off a bit last season, but he is still young. I think he will bounce back and be a big piece in this team’s future. The line will be fine as long as guys can shake off what they each went through in 2020.

Houston lost their face of the franchise in J.J. Watt in the offseason. That is a major gut punch to this defense and fan base. The defense now needs somebody to step up as the new leader. Who will that be? I don’t know if anyone will be able to handle that. Justin Reid could step up big at safety. It could be Whitney Mercilus if he can stay healthy. Or could it be Christian Kirksey who is now on his third team in as many seasons. Unless these guys all over perform, they will give up quite a few points this season.

The damage that this team has endured over the last couple of years will take a long time to repair. I really think it starts with moving on from Deshaun Watson. They are just delaying the inevitable by hanging onto him. A very long rebuild is on the horizon. The Texans will have the first pick in next year’s draft.

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