August is upon us in the NFL, and anticipation is building across the league. As usual, the majority of franchises have at least some hope of top-tier success this season, and that applies to three of the four clubs in the AFC South.
No one would mistake the AFC South for the sexiest division in the league, but there is still a lot to discuss. Jacksonville has a new coach after a disastrous (and brief) tenure with Urban Meyer at the helm. Houston remains in a rebuilding phase, though there are some positive signs. Matt Ryan has the helm in Indianapolis after a fringe Hall of Fame run in Atlanta. And, finally, Tennessee is back after winning the division title in 2021, albeit with a bit of a different cast at wide receiver.
With that in mind, let’s take a quick look at the biggest question facing each squad in the division.
Jacksonville Jaguars: What does Trevor Lawrence look like in a post-Urban Meyer world?
The Jaguars were very, very bad in 2020, but that wasn’t really an issue because the lack of success paved the way to draft Trevor Lawrence. In 2021, Jacksonville’s plan likely did not entail a three-win performance but, with Urban Meyer driving the bus straight off a cliff, it felt as if the Jaguars simply lost a year of development. That is the case for Lawrence, who did show flashes as a rookie but did not perform at the A-plus prospect level some believed he might. Lawrence completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes, threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and did not benefit from the level of tutelage befitting of a franchise quarterback. Now, the situation is vastly different in Jacksonville — former Super Bowl winning head coach Doug Pederson is now in charge — and the big question is whether Lawrence can immediately show the promise or whether his rookie season really dampened things. The smart money may be on the former, but the Jaguars are still projected for a win total of around six or seven games. It cannot be overstated just how much of a disaster the Meyer tenure was for the Jaguars, but perhaps Lawrence will prove to be immune from any long-term consequences. It will be interesting.
Houston Texans: Is Davis Mills a quarterback to build around?
As noted above, Houston is really the only team that is not projected as a potential playoff group coming out of the AFC South, and that is reasonable when examining the team’s roster at this stage. That comes from a complete teardown that began a year ago, and the Texans might have actually over-performed to reach a 4-13 mark in 2021. That is how dire the personnel situation was in the wake of the Deshaun Watson fallout and everything else that accompanies a rebuild. Alas, 2022 can still be interesting for the Texans, and perhaps the biggest question is the future of Davis Mills. The rookie from Stanford made 11 starts last season and did show some positive signs, compiling nearly 2,700 yards and connecting on 16 touchdown passes in 13 overall appearances. However, Mills slipped to the third round of the 2021 draft while not being considered a top-tier prospect, and he didn’t necessarily light the entire league on fire. Houston may be picking near the top of the draft again and, if Mills doesn’t prove to be the guy, the Texans need to know it soon.
Indianapolis Colts: What’s the dynamic between Jonathan Taylor and an improved passing game?
Jonathan Taylor led the NFL in rushing attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns a year ago. Taylor, who is now entering his third season, earned All-Pro honors and was the undisputed centerpiece of an offense that was quarterbacked by Carson Wentz. Without piling on, Wentz was not a notable strength for Indianapolis, and the Colts tabbed veteran Matt Ryan to steer the ship in 2022. Ryan is past his prime at this juncture, but the former MVP produced at a star level in Atlanta and, at the very least, should represent an improvement over Wentz’s performance from 2021. Ryan is likely comfortable taking something of a backseat to a legitimate star at running back, but Taylor may not see quite the same volume as he did last season, particularly if the Colts can find some success through the air. Finding that balance could be a bit tricky, especially in the early going, and Indianapolis has top-tier upside if the group can find its groove sooner rather than later.
Tennessee Titans: Can they still build the entire plane around Derrick Henry?
Tennessee is in the midst of a retooling phase on offense. Gone are the days when the Titans could simply throw the ball to AJ Brown and get out of the way, and the Julio Jones experiment didn’t exactly go the way Tennessee hoped. Still, Tennessee produced a 12-win season and a division title a year ago, and the Titans did it with only eight regular season appearances from Derrick Henry. While Taylor led the NFL in rushing categories across the board, Henry was actually in the driver’s seat until he was injured, and he finished in the top ten of the league in rushing attempts while playing fewer than half of his team’s games. Henry also would have led the league in rushing yards per game (117.1) if he qualified, and the former AP Offensive Player of the Year is still a monster. However, Henry will turn 29 in January, and he has more than 1,400 regular season carries through six seasons. He did manage to return for the playoffs, rushing for 62 yards on 20 carries, and that does assuage some concern. Still, Tennessee’s receiving corps projects to be notably worse without Brown, and it isn’t as if the Titans are built to dominate through the air. Between roster turnover and scheme tweaks, it isn’t a guarantee that Henry is the number one, two, and three options as he has been previously. From there, it’s also possible that he isn’t quite the same dominant force when he’s out there, as age (plus wear and tear) eventually comes for us all.