AFC South: NFL 2021 season preview

By Emile Avanessian

AFC South: NFL 2021 season preview

Published: 17:18, 6 September 2021 | Updated: 21:39, 23 September 2021

In 2020, the AFC South was a two-horse race, and things don’t look to be much different in 2021.

The 2021 NFL season is quickly approaching, and we’re here to make sure you’re prepared.

We’re breaking down the teams that make up each of the league’s eight divisions. In this instalment, we take a look at the AFC South, where a pair of well-drilled, but at times flawed teams, will battle it out for the top spot. This division will likely come down to a battle between the Tennessee Titans’ spectacular offense and the Indianapolis Colts, who are in good shape almost everywhere but quarterback.

Elsewhere, the Jaguars and the Texans are still bringing up the rear. In 2021, though, the Jags (notionally) can be more optimistic, while the Texans are just deeper in the mire.

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Tennessee Titans

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 11-5, wild-card loss to Ravens
  • Head Coach: Mike Vrabel
  • Starting Quarterback: Ryan Tannehill
  • Predicted 2021 finish: at least 11 wins, a division title, and a mesmerising offense.

The Titans are far from a perfect team. Their middle-of-the-pack offensive line is awful in pass protection. The receiving corps, having lost its second and third leading wide receivers and starting tight end, lacks proven depth. The coordinator of last season’s top-five offense, Arthur Smith, is now coaching the Atlanta Falcons. Their 2020 defense was one of the NFL’s worst, and doesn’t feature a player who is top 10 in his respective position.

And yet, in a division where the only other competitive team has massive questions at QB (chiefly being: they are in a midst of a massive rebuild, and are arguably the NFL’s most hapless and depressing franchise) that ought to be enough. Where the Tennessee Titans are likely do well in, in 2021, they are likely to do really, really well in.

In two seasons in Tennessee, QB Ryan Tannehill has been fantastic. He’s thrown 55 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions, while completing more than two-thirds of his passes, for a league-best 8.55 yards per pass attempt. He’s also an outstanding athlete, whose speed and quickness help to offset mediocre pass blocking. The loss of his offensive coordinator may sting, but the gameplan shouldn’t change much.

Speaking (indirectly) of the guys up front, while the O-line hasn’t thrived in pass protection, they are an elite run-blocking unit — and they’re clearing the way for, not only the best running back in the game today, but potentially one of the best ever in Derrick Henry. In 2020, Henry led the NFL for a second consecutive season in rushing attempts (378), yards (2,027; just the eighth 2,000-yard season in history) and touchdowns (17), and topped the league in total yards from scrimmage (2,141). Most impressively, 2020’s Offensive Player of the Year has a (by far) league-high 2,758 yards after contact since the start of 2019.

Meanwhile, the receiving corps, still led by the spectacular (and spectacularly efficient) A.J. Brown, now also features the NFL’s most prolific wide receiver over the past decade: future Hall of Famer – and A.J. Brown’s hero growing up – Julio Jones, acquired from the Falcons in exchange for a pair of draft picks. Though Jones missed most of training camp with a leg injury and Brown spent much of the offseason rehabbing after knee surgery, both are expected to be back at full strength by Week 1.

With Tannehill, three apex playmakers, and a potential star in fourth-year tight end Anthony Firsker, this offense promises to be devastating.

The story on defense is more straightforward – and, admittedly, less exciting.

The NFL’s 29th ranked defense in 2020 added a pair of solid pass rushers – Bud Dupree and Denico Autry, and overhauled the cornerback position, adding veteran Janoris Jenkins, and 2021 first-rounder Caleb Farley. Unfortunately, Dupree (ACL) and Farley (back surgery) are both currently on the sidelines recovering from injury. Assuming full recoveries, the newcomers, combined with some quality holdovers, should improve this unit.

Given the sky-high potential of the offense, “competent” would be enough for the defense.

The Bottom Line: Whether Julio Jones is enough to vault the Titans into the AFC’s top tier remains to be seen. Less of a question is the Titans’ standing in the division. They’ve improved an already excellent offense, and tweaked a defense that was probably as bad as it’s going to be in 2020. Meanwhile, the only other threat in the division, already downgrading at QB, is starting the season with an inexperienced backup under center. The Titans are well-positioned for at least a division title. If the defense makes strides, it could be more.

Indianapolis Colts

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 11-5, wild-card loss to Bills
  • Head Coach: Frank Reich
  • Starting Quarterback: Carson Wentz
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 8-9 wins, and without a spot in the playoffs

In 2017, then-incoming Colts general manager Chris Ballard inherited a roster consisting of a top-tier quarterback, Andrew Luck, and not much else. Unlike his predecessor, Ryan Grigson, Ballard was meticulous in assembling a roster around his superstar. Two years later, on the eve of the 2019 season, Luck, three weeks shy of his 30th birthday, shocked the sports world and abruptly retired. 

In the years since, rather than sacrifice draft capital and financial flexibility in pursuit of a quarterback, Ballard has committed resources to strengthening the remainder of the roster. He’s even passed on opportunities to draft a QB, instead trading down and accumulating additional drafts picks. His philosophy is sound: in the absence of an elite quarterback, create an environment in which a good-to-very-good QB can succeed. 

Ballard has executed that plan about as well as could be expected. On offense, he’s drafted standout running backs Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack, wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and three starters along the offensive line – which is among the NFL’s best – most notably All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson and Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly. On defense, in 2018, one round after drafting Nelson, he nabbed another future All-Pro in linebacker Darius Leonard.

In free agency he’s added former All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and maybe the league’s best slot cornerback in Kenny Moore II. In 2020, he traded a first-round pick for defensive end DeForest Buckner, who himself earned All-Pro honours, and has since drafted high-upside lineman Kwity Paye in the first round of the 2021 draft. 

At no point has Ballard made a splashy move for a quarterback. In the aftermath of Luck’s retirement, the Colts turned to Jacoby Brissett, who was already on the roster. After missing the playoffs in 2019, the Colts turned to veteran Chargers star Philip Rivers on a one-year deal. Rivers led Indy to an 11-5 record and a narrow playoff defeat against the Buffalo Bills, after which he announced his retirement.

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Following Rivers’ departure, Ballard sent a couple of draft picks to Philadelphia, in exchange for the #2 overall pick in the 2016 draft, Carson Wentz. It’s Ballard’s biggest move to date for a quarterback but, given the cost, and that Indy isn’t committed to Wentz beyond 2022, hardly an “all in” play.

In 2017, Wentz was a revelation, starting 13 games (the Eagles won eleven), throwing 33 TD passes, just seven interceptions, and garnering serious MVP consideration. However, in Week 14 of that season, he suffered a torn ACL and had to watch from the sideline as his backup, Nick Foles, led the Eagles to their first-ever Super Bowl win.

Wentz returned with a pair of strong individual seasons in 2018 and 2019, before turning in an awful 2020 campaign, in which he threw a joint-league-high 15 interceptions, and fumbled another ten times. Equally troubling are the factors that led to Wentz’s exit in Philly. According to a steady stream of rumours, teammates and coaches had serious questions about Wentz’s “leadership, accountability and willingness to be coached”. Ouch. (More on this in a second).

The Colts are betting that a reunion with head coach Frank Reich, the Eagles’ offensive coordinator in 2017, will set things straight. Perhaps. Compounding matters is the fact that Wentz broke a bone in his left foot early in training camp, and is unlikely to be back by Week 1. Serving as a placeholder until his return is second-year man Jacob Eason, a 2020 fourth-round pick who’s yet to throw a meaningful NFL pass.

The Bottom Line: There is a lot to like about the Colts’ roster. Given even moderate competence at quarterback, this team should be in the playoff picture.

However, between the competing minefields of Wentz’s prickly personality, turnover woes, and surgically repaired foot, it’s tough to blindly trust that that competence will be there. It also doesn’t help that QB cupboard behind him is essentially bare.

Maybe Eason is a quick study and ably guides the Colts until Wentz is back. Maybe Wentz, again working with Reich, comes back at full strength, cuts down on the mental errors and turnovers, and is a model teammate. Maybe. The early reports are not encouraging.

The quality of the roster will paper over some cracks, but I’m in no rush to bet on the 2021 Colts making the playoffs.

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 1-15, missed playoffs
  • Head Coach: Urban Meyer
  • Starting Quarterback: Trevor Lawrence
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 4-5 wins, out of the playoffs

The Jaguars are a more optimistic version of the Jets. New head coach, new franchise quarterback and some talented pieces around the roster.

As with Zach Wilson in New York, it’s ALL about Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville. Well, almost all. The #1 overall pick in the 2021 draft is a generational QB prospect, and the Jags’ entire outlook rests on his ability to fulfil his limitless potential.

The offense that Lawrence inherits is hardly bereft of talent. However, each group has its question marks. Optimism (or lack thereof) is in the eye of the beholder.

For instance, Jacksonville returns all five starters along the offensive line. The interior – led by center Brandon Linder – could be one of the NFL’s best. However, the returning tackles are, at best, below average – and face little competition for their starting spots.

In wide receivers D.J. Chark and free agent arrival Marvin Jones, Lawrence has a nice downfield threat and one of the league’s best at making contested catches. 2020 draftees Laviska Shenault and Collin Johnson potentially provide more solid options. However, the Jags’ tight end situation is potentially the worst in the NFL.

At running back, undrafted rookie James Robinson shone in 2020, racking up 1,414 total yards (1,070 rushing) and 10 touchdowns. Joining him was to be first-round pick Travis Etienne. While a teammate of Lawrence’s in college, Etienne was one of the nation’s premier big-play backs, both as a runner and as a receiver. Those skills should translate to NFL stardom – though not before 2022, as a Lisfranc injury in his left foot will cost Etienne the entirety of his rookie season. The challenge will be balancing the workload between Robinson and the perpetually underwhelming Carlos Hyde, who starred under new head coach Urban Meyer in college.

Meanwhile, the defense – a disaster in 2020 – is very much a work in progress. New defensive coordinator Joe Cullen (formerly the Ravens’ defensive line coach) will look to implement a blitz-heavy scheme with a lot of man coverage. He inherits some talent at the defensive end, linebacker and cornerback, but it’s tough to imagine last year’s weak link immediately turning things around.

Then, of course, there’s Urban Meyer. Winner of seven conference titles and three national championships over 17 seasons, Meyer is one of the great coaches in recent college football history.

At the same time, this is his first foray into the NFL, and Meyer is something of an authoritarian. That’s not uncommon in the college ranks. However, there’s not much of an appetite for it among high-earning grown men in the NFL. This transition is seldom seamless, and occasionally blows up, even for the most successful of college coaches.

Beyond personality, there’s the simple issue of dealing with adversity. Also, by the season’s end the Jaguars will almost assuredly have topped Meyer’s seven-year loss total at Ohio State – nine – probably with some ease. In 17 years as a college coach, Meyer lost a total of 32 games. That’s 1.9 per season. Were the Jags not playing the Texans in their season opener, they’d be a good bet to top that mark by the end of Week 2.

The Bottom Line: There’s no better way to launch a rebuild in the NFL than with a franchise quarterback. And seldom does a prospect come along who better looks the part than Trevor Lawrence. Paired with a top-notch offensive innovator and play-caller, it’s not tough to see a path to success. (A bit more early encouragement might be nice).

The style of coaching that succeeds in college rarely works in the NFL. There’s no guarantee that Meyer will find the right formula. However, given his track record of both immediate and immense success in a variety of college jobs, it’s clear that he’s at least somewhat flexible – though adapting to dealing with professionals will clearly be a process.

Success in Jacksonville in 2021 won’t be measured in wins and losses. Rather, all eyes will be on the speed with which rookie QB and rookie head coach acclimate, to both the NFL and to one another.

Houston Texans

  • 2020 regular-season/playoff finish: 4-12, missed playoffs
  • Head Coach: David Culley
  • Starting Quarterback: Tyrod Taylor (assumes Deshaun Watson trade or suspension)
  • Predicted 2021 finish: 2-3 wins, out of the playoffs

On September 2, 2019, Bill O’Brien looked poised to man the sideline in Houston for years to come. He was not only the Texans’ head coach but, having consolidated power within the organisation, also the general manager.

Sure, the day before, he’d overpaid in a trade with the Miami Dolphins – effectively sending two first-round picks and a second-rounder, in exchange for offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil – but there was a plan in place. Tunsil is a huge talent, and O’Brien had an arsenal of offensive weapons to protect.  

In his second year, quarterback Deshaun Watson was a nailed-on superstar, and a future face of the sport. Watson had a spectacular connection with one of the best young receivers in NFL history, DeAndre Hopkins. For good measure, Will Fuller looked to be an excellent complementary receiver. On top of all of that, running back Lamar Miller had just been selected to the Pro Bowl.

If you can take your offense from star-studded and exciting to genuinely terrifying, an overpay is not necessarily an overpay. 

Combined with a loaded defense that included all-universe defensive end J.J. Watt, two Pro Bowler linebackers (Benardrick McKinney and Jadeveon Clowney), two should-be Pro Bowler linebackers (Zach Cunningham and Whitney Mercilus), and a strong secondary, Super Bowl contention seemed within reach.

To his credit, Tunsil has been one of the NFL top tackles, earning Pro Bowl selections in each of his two seasons in Houston. The first of those saw the Texans win ten games and a playoff game, before falling to the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs in the Divisional Round.

That was as good as things would get. And the speed with which optimism morphed into desolation has been staggering.

First, in a 2019 preseason game, Miller blew out his knee. He never played for the franchise again.

The following offseason, O’Brien traded Hopkins – one of the best receivers ever to play the position through seven seasons – to the Arizona, in exchange for (basically) a second-round pick and running back David Johnson, who already looked a shell of his 2016 self. The Texans proceeded to lose their first four games of 2020, at which point O’Brien was fired.

That offseason, Watson, frustrated with the direction of the franchise, demanded a trade. This, on its own, is nightmare fuel for a fan. But the Texans stood firm. As that saga wore on, in February 2021, franchise legend and three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt was released. And then…

On March 16, 2021 – one year to the day after the calamitous Hopkins trade – a massage therapist from Houston filed a civil lawsuit against Watson, alleging sexual misconduct. As of late-August, Watson is facing 22 civil lawsuits. Should he be indicted on even one felony charge, Watson will likely be placed on paid leave by the league. He’s shown up at training camp, but it’s unlikely that Watson sees meaningful action any time soon. Thus, journeyman Tyrod Taylor is the team’s presumptive Week 1 starter at quarterback.

My goodness. What a difference two years makes.

The Bottom Line: This situation is just so bleak. The best anyone can hope for here is no major injuries and the #1 pick in the 2022 draft.

If this team wins three games it will be a surprise.

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