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Published August 31, 2023
2023 Season Outlook: AFC South
Written by Alex C.
Arguably the least serious division in the league, the status of the AFC South looks to shift as each team was overhauled and looks to be on a positive path moving forward. If it wasn’t for the supernatural run that the Jaguars put together in the second half of the previous season, the AFC South would have been the most clowned division in the entire NFL. Prior to that, it seemed as if the division was littered with directionless teams who were in a scramble to return to their individual glory.
With one of the best free agencies in recent memory occurring along with a successful draft across the board, this agonizing section of franchises all look to be in the position to recourse their trajectory and finally emerge from years of distress. There’s a lot to expect from each of them moving forward, so let’s delve into their current state and how they can build upon their limitless potential.
Previous Record – 9-8
The Jaguars took the NFL by storm last year, clinching a last-minute division title after an epic seasonal turnaround. With the well-needed departure of disastrous coach Urban Meyer, the state of the Jags franchise was left with a lot of grey areas. Fortunately, the team hired Super Bowl winning head coach Doug Pederson to help steer the team in a new direction. The Jags experienced some growing pains early on, sitting at an underwhelming 2-6 record in the middle of the season. Still, this ragtag group of misfits showed they had a lot of fight left in them as they rallied to a 9-8 finish, clinching the AFC South in an upset win against their division rival Tennessee Titans. The fun didn’t stop there either as the Jaguars were able to miraculously comeback from a 27-point deficit in a playoff game against the Chargers. Doug Pederson did the impossible and turned a directionless roster around into a bonafide playoff contender, but the question to be held is: can he do it again?
Comparing this Cinderella Jags team to the 2021 iteration of the franchise is a day-and-night difference. The same Trevor Lawrence that led Jacksonville to a 3-14 finish the year before ended his second season looking to be the next hot quarterback coming out of the AFC. The turnaround is more impressive when you look at the state of the roster, which somehow managed to stay intact as the team endured free agency. The Jags lost veteran wideout Marvin Jones Jr., who returned to Detroit despite his valiant contributions during the team’s year of struggle. With a reliable receiver out of the picture, the Jags prioritized the return of offensive staple Evan Engram. Despite hitting him with the disputable franchise tag, the team was able to bring Engram back for another three years. They also mustered up the resources to help out the offensive line and defensive end positions, which had their peaks and troughs throughout the previous season.
Going into the draft with nine picks, the Jags played their cards into flipping their capital to a total of thirteen picks that panned out through the later rounds. With their sizable amount of draft capital, Jacksonville came out of the draft with an array of selections across different positions. The team left Kansas City – the location of the 2023 draft – with pairs of offensive lineman, safeties, edge rushers and running backs as well as singular selections at tight-end, wide receiver, linebacker, cornerback and defensive end. However, the spotlight was shed on their first three selections – Anton Harrison (offensive tackle), Brenton Strange (tight-end), and Tank Bigsby (running back). The first two made for solid selections in a strong class for their respective fields, but the selection for Bigsby in the third round seemed like a great pick up as the Auburn product could sit behind and learn from running back Travis Etienne, who had a great season last year.
Doug Pederson worked every ounce of magic in his body to help turn this franchise around and after a year of building the squad, there’s a lot for Jacksonville to look forward to in the upcoming season. The Jaguars team that looked like a complete disaster going into 2022 overcame all adversity it was faced with and turned the tables from a projected catastrophe to a possible championship contender. With the overall state of the AFC South looking pretty weak, there’s no doubt that the Jags will be frontrunners to claim the division crown again. We’ve seen the wonders that Trevor Lawrence is capable of, but the only thing left for him to prove is if he can hang with the heavy hitters in the conference. How well can T-Law match up against a Mahomes-led Chiefs in a rematch or a Burrow-led Bengals with a revamped squad?
Lawrence has a lot of expectations going into the 2023 season, but there’s an overwhelming confidence from the league in his ability to take that next big step in his career. Here’s to hoping the Jaguars can get right back on track and turn around years of misfortune.
Season Outlook Grade – A
Previous Record – 7-10
It’s crazy to think an overall solid Titans team that held the number one seed in the AFC conference at one point would endure such a disastrous end to season. From injuries to key positions to mediocre play across the board, it’s safe to say the Titans hit their ceiling in 2021. After losing star receiver A.J. Brown to the Eagles the following season, the Titans started off strong – they looked to lock the AFC South title once again in consecutive years, but of course, destiny had other plans. Despite looking like a top contender in the division throughout the first half of the season, the Titans are left with an uncertain roster scattered with its fair share of red and green flags.
At this point, its safe to say that Tennessee is beginning a soft reset, going all in for the win despite some question marks surrounding the most crucial positions. The Titans lost a lot of players to free agency, many of which helped bolster the defense from the year prior. Names like linebacker David Long and defensive end DeMarcus Walker walked to free-agency, leading the Titans to prioritize defensive signings in the offseason. Tennessee came out of the free-agency stage with a plethora of good pick-ups, including linebackers Arden Key and Azeez Al-Shaair as well as cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting. And who could forget the highly anticipated acquisition of generational wide-receiver DeAndre Hopkins? The Titans put up an overall solid effort in free agency signings to accompany one of the more unsettling draft selections across all teams.
With the wide range of defensive players signed in the offseason, the Titans entered the 2023 NFL Draft shifting their focus on offense – but not in the ways that most would expect. A receiver-needy Tennessee skipped out on some solid wideouts and went with offensive tackle Peter Skoronski with their first selection. With the quarterback play that the team experienced last season, it was clear that they would benefit from an otherwise stacked o-lineman class. Their next selection, however, shook up the facility as they selected Kentucky quarterback Will Levis in the second round. With Tannehill inching closer to retirement and a lack of faith in the quarterback they selected in the previous draft – Malik Willis – the Titans used the Levis selection as an attempt to start from scratch, only to create a tense quarterback room.
The Titans made an off-hand effort at picking up some potential offensive targets in later rounds, but the intention is still unclear as to how they will approach the season with this roster. It’s clear they’re trying their best to climb back up the ranks in the AFC, but the key pieces that sustained a once-contending roster are slowly wasting their potential in complete mediocrity. Whether they like it or not, the Titans can’t continuously depend on Derrick Henry to do all of the heavy lifting time and time again. The team needs to establish some identity in the passing game – and while the Hopkins acquisition will help the team in that aspect, they need to figure out what their plan is at quarterback.
How long will an injured Tannehill take the reins on this offense before they end up in the same position as previous seasons? When will one of the two young quarterbacks be ready to step up and start, or make the start when the time comes? For now, the Titans roster poses more questions then it does address any answers.
Season Outlook Grade – C+
Previous Record – 4-12-1
No team had a more confusing fall from grace than the Indianapolis Colts did last season. A franchise that was once seen as an automatic playoff lock has come to terms with its self-deprecatory game of quarterback roulette and questionable decision-making in poignant moments. We should’ve known their season was over when they continued the streak of picking up middle-aged washed up quarterbacks and brought in ex-Falcons player Matt Ryan into the mix. As if things couldn’t get any worse following a rocky start to the season, the Colts fired their head coach – Frank Reich – in the middle of the season, replacing him with the inexperienced ex-Colts center Jeff Saturday. Though this struggling Colts team has endured years of confusion and incompetency, things are finally looking to be better for Indianapolis in the future – for now, at least.
Things looked to be moving pretty quickly in free agency as the Colts lost just as much as they gained, especially on defense. Offseason losses include edge-rusher Yannick Ngakoue, linebacker Bobby Okereke, and safety Rodney McLeod – however, the most notable departure from the squad would have to be cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who served as a leader to the secondary with an established veteran status. Also prominent was the sudden waiving of cornerback Isaiah Rodgers due to issues with gambling on NFL games throughout the previous season. Though the defense took a small hit, the team’s signings were very diverse, covering all sorts of different roster spots. The range spanned from quarterback Gardner Minshew to linebacker/defensive end Samson Ebukam, as well as kicker Matt Gay. Free agency as a whole sort of just came and went for the Colts, who looked to dedicate more focus to their selections in the draft.
Right out the gate, the Colts were fortunate enough to catch Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson with the fourth overall selection. The Colts have finally liberated themselves from the cycle of veteran quarterback play they found themselves in, but their main priority should be to ensure the development of Richardson goes as smoothly as possible – his play wielded a few uncertainties from draft analysts. Aside from the Colts finding their new quarterback, Indianapolis had a very productive draft with the team flaunting twelve overall picks from this year’s class. While their hotspot resided within the fifth round, the second standout pick they had from this class emerged in the third round, as the team went with North Carolina receiver Josh Downs. All in all, the Colts made a solid effort in the draft, but it all comes down to how the talent on this roster is managed.
The Colts are one of few teams who wield a terrible track record when it comes to the administration of their roster. Many examples come to mind, whether it be the failed management of injuries to star players or incompetent decision making from the organization – however, the Colts have to make sure they’ve learned from these mistakes to set their potential star quarterback for future success. Richardson has been named the starting quarterback for the beginning of the 2023 season and if the team is able to set his trajectory properly, they could look to bounce back into consistent playoff contention. Obviously, the process isn’t going to see immediate results, considering the kid is a rookie who comes with concerns regarding accuracy and recklessness in terms of his play – however, Richardson wields all of the right traits to make a great starting quarterback. Again, it’s going to take some time – but if the Colts can help get him on the right track, they’re looking at another few hot years of success.
Season Outlook Grade – B
Previous Record – 3-13-1
The “younger brother” team and laughing stock of the NFL is ironically on the right track to make some noise in the following years. The absence of stars like DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt and – hesitantly included – Deshaun Watson, left a painful void in the middle of this organization that has continued to linger over the past few years. Constant regime changes and an array of whiffed draft selections has stunted this team’s growth for quite some time – fortunately, this year brings a perfect opportunity for this poor franchise to turn the tables as first year head-coach and Texans legend DeMeco Ryans looks to be the catalyst for change in Houston.
The Texans’ aggressive attempt at a successful free agency left us wondering who they didn’t end up signing in the process. Granted, there weren’t any blockbuster acquisitions, but Houston did a good job of picking up a reliable cast of players on both ends of the ball. Some of the signings include tight end Dalton Schultz, free safety Jimmie Ward, linebacker Denzel Perryman, running back Devin Singletary and wide receiver Robert Woods – just to name a few. Based off the names alone, this roster isn’t the star-studded ensemble you’ll constantly see lighting up the field, but it’s the perfect stepping-stone squad to help elevate the team higher. Last season, the Texans mightily struggled on both offense and defense but it can’t get worse than a 3-13-1 finish – especially with the moves Houston made in the draft.
The Texans were the stars in this years draft as the team made the bold move to trade up for the third overall pick, guaranteeing back-to-back selections. Their first selection with the number-two pick went towards acquiring Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud. Just as predicted, Stroud was taken immediately off the board by the Texans – they were also able to pick up Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. with the following selection. Both Stroud and Anderson are expected to play major roles in flipping the fortune of a struggling Texans roster – and really, nothing can get worse than what the fans have put up with the past few years. The Texans should be able to get more out of Will Anderson Jr. though, giving the defensive-minded DeMeco Ryans an explosive piece to help develop and utilize in an effort to exercise their full potential.
The Texans ended 2022 on a very low note, succumbing to an ironic cause of self-sabotage in missing the first overall pick. It wasn’t the ideal situation to be in, but with a new set of eyes coming in to make up the coaching staff, it looks like they’re in position to reverse their history of misfortune with this draft. Both DeMeco and Casserio did a great job of building a roster filled with depth and reliability across all positions as well as executing some solid drafting – but at this point, the question lies among whether the two could coordinate in putting together a competent squad that will get Houston back in the playoff race. Despite the red flags due to Stroud’s cognition test results, this team is on the right track in getting the Texans back into the hunt. This will be a lengthy process, however, and all Houston can really hope for this year is to miraculously contend among a very stacked AFC.
Otherwise, it’s time to play the waiting game and see if this is the administration that will dig Houston out of the mud and into catapult them back into glory, whether it be consistent or temporary.
Season Outlook Grade – B-