We’re onto the 2018 AFC South preview in our 2018 NFL season preview series. If you haven’t checked out the earlier installments, be sure to check up on all the action. To summarize again, we are going to make predictions against every team’s Vegas win total, take a deep look at each team’s roster, and make some predictions for the division overall. The order in which the teams are listed is the projection of the finals standings within the division come season’s end. Let’s get to the 2018 AFC South preview.
Tennessee Titans – O/U 8 – Over
I’m going to go against my own grain with my prediction for the Titans. Normally I would tell you how the Titans went 9-7 despite finishing with a negative point differential (-22), and in turn overachieving against their pythagorean win expectation (7.4). The Titans fit the mold of a team I would say is due to take a step back, but enough has changed in Tennessee that I am optimistic and confident in projecting them as the 2018 AFC South champion.
Gone is Mike Mularkey’s 1992 smash mouth offense. In comes Matt LaFluer as offensive coordinator and play caller. LaFluer spent 2017 in Los Angeles as the Rams offensive coordinator, but didn’t have play calling responsibilities. Now it would be wrong to just assume LaFluer is the next Sean McVay, but if LaFluer was paying attention to what McVay did in Los Angeles last season this has the potential to be a wonderful fit.
Guess who had the highest passer rating on play action passes in the NFL in 2017? Marcus Mariota. Guess who had the highest yards per attempt on play action attempts in the NFL in 2017? Marcus Mariota. Second place? Jared Goff. Guess who ran the most play action attempts in 2017? The Rams.
I’m not expecting a massive breakout from Corey Davis, but it’s certainly possible. What is definite, however, is that a full, healthy offseason from Corey Davis means that the 2018 version of Davis will be an upgrade for the Titans at his position compared to last year.
Another offensive area of upgrade is at running back. Dion Lewis, who led the NFL in DYAR and ranked 2nd in DVOA last season among running backs, was brought in to replace DeMarco Murray. If you want to complain that Lewis is injury prone, remember, he is replacing DeMarco Murray. Lewis also greatly outpaced Murray last season in PFF grading.
Delaine Walker and Rishard Matthews are two of the most under appreciated players at their respective positions. Derrick Henry is still around.
According to ProFootballFocus, all these weapons are propped up further by the league’s 5th best offensive line. I like Mariota to have his best season yet playing for a modern day offensive coordinator for the first time in his career. The Titans have underrated weapons and an elite offensive line. I’m drinking the cool aid on this offense taking a big step forward in 2018.
Tennessee heads into the season sporting the 12th best pass rush in the league, but I think there is potential for a top 8 unit. Harold Landry falling to the second round of the draft is an absolute joke and one of the biggest steals of 2018. With Landry joining Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, Tennessee now has a three deep edge rush rotation surrounding a solid interior rusher in Jurrell Casey.
Per ProFootballFocus, the Titans also sport the league’s 9th best secondary. Adding Malcolm Butler to Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson makes the Titans three deep at corner. In the modern NFL you need to be three deep at corner. None of these guys are superstars (maybe Jackson can become one) but each of them is solid. Having three solid corners is uncommon in the league. Additionally, Kevin Byard is one of the best safeties in all of football.
An elite offensive line propping up skill players that should be improvements from 2017, lead by a play caller who has watched film that was recorded post 1965. Add a top 10 secondary and a top 12 pass, and pushing on 8 should be a gimme while getting to at least 9 wins should be relatively easy. Considering I have them winning the division I’m expecting double digit wins.
Jacksonville Jaguars – O/U 9 – Over
The Jaguars finished last season 4th in point differential (or tied for 2nd, depending on how you look at it) with a mark of +149. Having finished 10-6, they under performed their pythagorean win expectation of 11.9 by nearly two full games. They should be an obvious candidate to be even better next year.
Well, not exactly. Jacksonville scored 7 touchdowns last season on defense, and another on special teams. That’s 56 points that didn’t come from the offense. If you subtract that 56 points from their 149 point differential, you get +93, which is nearly identical to the Ravens +92 mark in 2017. The Ravens pythagorean win expectation in 2017 was 10.5.
Obviously, it’s not as straight forward as that. You can’t just cancel out those points. The team is probably going to score more than 0 non-offensive touchdowns in a season with a defense this good. They also could have been tackled deep in enemy territory, setting up easy offensive touchdowns to make up the 56 points anyway.
Speaking of Jacksonville’s defense, the Jaguars were second in the league last year with 33 takeaways. 12 of those 33 takeaways were fumble recoveries, which was the 4th highest total in the league. Typically when you are this high in the league in takeaways, especially fumbles recovered, you decline the next season. Footballs just bounce weird, and a lot of fumble recoveries are just luck.
My point, really, is that I don’t think the Jaguars underachieved at 10-6, I just think they were more on the level of a 10-6 team.
Bolstering this theory is that the Jaguars ended up with 9.0 estimated wins. From the FootballOutsiders Glossary: “Estimates Wins uses a statistic known as “Forest Index” that emphasizes consistency as well as DVOA in the most important specific situations: red zone defense, first quarter offense, and performance in the second half when the score is close. It then projects a number of wins adjusted to a league-average schedule and a league-average rate of recovering fumbles.”
The Jaguars defense also was very fortunate in the health department last year. Staying healthy isn’t a repeatable skill, it’s just luck.
But the defense is loaded. They have the second best pass rush in the league and the league’s best secondary, which sports the best outside corner duo in football and it isn’t even close. Losing nickel corner Aaron Colvin is sure to hurt, but this team is set on the back end.
However, this offense is still lead by Blake Bortles. Bortles isn’t as wretched as his reputation makes him out to be, but, uh, he isn’t good.
Neither are the weapons at Bortles’ disposal. Marquise Lee is out for the season. The receiving options are now Keelan Cole, Donte Moncrief, Dede Westbrook, and D.J. Chark. One or two of these guys could be good (except Moncrief), so ya know, who knows. But man, Bortles needs more help than this. Looking back on it now, I actually can’t believe the Jaguars didn’t make a move up the board when Calvin Ridley fell into the mid 20’s.
At least Leonard Fournette is a stud. I really don’t feel the need to expand on this, but here is a cool stat. Guess who was tracked as the fastest player on a single given play in the NFL last year? No, it wasn’t Tyreke Hill. It was the freakin 235lb Leonard Fournette at 22.05 MPH. Ridiculous.
The offensive ranks 15th headed into the season after breaking the bank on Andrew Norwell. A.J. Cann was someone I liked coming out in the draft so if he can improve the Jaguars have a really nice interior line.
The most likely outcome in my mind is that the Jaguars repeat their 10-6 record but it isn’t enough to take the division this time.
Houston Texans – O/U 8.5 – Under
This is all I’m going to say about Deshaun Watson: Last season his touchdown rate was 9.3%. Tom Brady’s career touchdown rate is 5.5%. Do you think Watson is a 70% improvement over Tom Brady? Let’s all wait for a large sample size than 6 starts.
You’d think if your quarterback was returning from a torn ACL you would want a solid offensive line protecting him. Well the Texans don’t. Not only do they have by far the worst offensive line in football, but what they put out on the field last season was one of the worst in the past decade. Enjoy Julie’n Davenport as your starting left tackle.
Speaking of unsustainable touchdown rates, Will Fuller’s touchdown rate last year was 25%. TWENTY FIVE PERCENT! ONE QUARTER OF WILL FULLER’S RECEPTIONS WERE TOUCHDOWNS. Antonio Brown’s touchdown rate last year was 9%. If Brown had posted a 25% TD rate he would have scored a single season record 25 touchdowns.
I just don’t trust the weapons on this team outside of DeAndre Hopkins. There are guys with potential but as of now there is no one I view as a consistent contributor on a week to week basis.
I’m also very concerned for Lamar Miller’s well being. Miller is not exactly the most durable running back and he will probably be getting blasted five yards behind the line of scrimmage on every hand off. Of course, due to the new helmet rule all of those hits will be penalties, but I digress. Given Dont’a Foreman’s early season absence and Miller’s passing game work as well, he is going to handle a large workload and a significant injury is a very real possibility.
I’m sure the Texans fans reading this (I’m ecstatic if there actually is one) are ready for some positives. Houston has the 5th ranked pass rush headed in 2018 according to ProFootballFocus. J.J. Watt returns, Jadeveon Clowney is a stud, and Whitney Mercilus also returns who racked up 26 sacks, 24 hits and 90 hurries between 2015 and 2016, before missing most of the 2017 campaign. It is fair to question if we will ever see the ultra-mega-dominant Watt ever again. He has suffered multiple significant injuries now, and it is possible he never gets back to peak performance.
That about concludes the positive part of the Texans preview. Per PFF, Houston sports the 25th ranked secondary headed into 2018. Johnathan Joseph hasn’t performed well in two years, Kareem Jackson hasn’t performed well in three years, and Kevin Johnson – the reason the team let A.J. Bouye walk in free agency – was a disaster last season. Johnson still has a chance to turn it around and looked promising in his second season, but 2017 was not encouraging.
Houston may have something going at safety with Tyrann Mathieu and rookie Justin Reid, but, like Watt, Mathieu to this point has suffered multiple significant injuries and it is fair to wonder if we will ever see peak Honey Badger ever again.
I’m not here to hate on Watson. I thought he was the best quarterback available in the 2017 draft. I think he will have a pretty good career. I just think the hype train is out of control right now based on an unsustainably hot five games. Watson tore his ACL in practice so our last visual memory of him is that bodacious duel with Russell Wilson in Seattle.
Horrific offensive line, lack of receiving weapons, injury prone running back starring down too much of a burden, and a poor secondary. Under. Hard.
Indianapolis Colts – O/U 6.5 – Under
Andrew Luck is back, and while I’m not going to sit here and try to pretend I know exactly how far back to form he is, even 75% of his previous self is a huge victory for the Colts.
What’s more is that this is the best offensive line Luck will have ever had. Anthony Castonzo has established himself as one of the more reliable left tackles in the NFL. Quenton Nelson is a plug and play All-Pro, and that is not a term I throw around as I think it is ridiculous to call a rookie a plug and play All-Pro in the vast majority of scenarios. Nelson is just that good. Indianapolis also added Braden Smith in the draft, so if Ryan Kelly can get back to his rookie form where he showed a lot of promise the Colts may have one of the better offensive interiors in football.
The weapons around Luck aren’t as inspiring. T.Y. Hilton and Luck have a connection, and it was only 2016 when Hilton led the NFL in receiving yards. The issue with Hilton, as his fantasy owners will surely let you know, is his lack of consistency. Hilton blows up some weeks and is rather quite in others.
The rest of the receivers are lacking. Ryan Grant figures to be the second starter with Chester Rogers in the slot. I’ll repeat that. Ryan Grant figures to be the second starter with Chester Rogers in the slot. Moving on.
Jack Doyle is solid and Eric Ebron has been a bit underrated through his career thus far, but he hasn’t lived up to his draft slot in the slightest. Still, the Colts should be comfortable running out two tight sets.
This backfield is a tough one to figure out. Marlon Mack is currently injured, leaving the door open for someone else to take the job. Out of Mack, Jordan Wilkins, and Nyheim Hines, I expect someone to become a reliable contributor. How many times are we going to keep selling Robert Turbin and Christine Michael hype before learning our lesson?
The defense is where the roster starts to get really dicey. I don’t remember where I heard this, but someone joked on a podcast that the Colts led the league last season in players who started that you’ve never heard of.
Indianapolis has the 21st ranked pass rush, and that ranking is due largely to the presence of Jabaal Sheard. Margus Hunt had his best season in 2017 but his impact was felt more as a run defender. The Colts are hoping to get an immediate impact out of rookie Kemoko Turay.
The secondary is where things get extremely dire, as the Colts have the worst secondary in the league. There is room for improvement as both Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson enter their second seasons, but Clayton Geathers, Pierre Desier, and Nate Hairston project as starters for Indianapolis. Maybe the Bills should have realized that when the Colts didn’t want to retain Vontae Davis it meant Davis probably wasn’t worth $5 million.
Luck has the ability to prop up an offense and he even has a solid offensive line now. Still, the lack of weapons is concerning and we don’t know exactly how healthy he is. This also figures to be one of the worst defenses in football. Getting the 10th easiest schedule helps get this team to 5 or 6 wins, but it’s hard to envision any more than that.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Quenton Nelson, G, Colts
This isn’t a sexy pick and it might be a cop out since he was the highest drafted offensive player in the division, but Nelson is good enough to make an All-Pro team in 2018.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Harold Landry, Edge, Titans
Landry will prove to be one of the biggest steals of the draft as he pushes double digit sacks on a division winner.
Breakout Player: Corey Davis, WR, Titans
Leading up to the 2017 draft, Corey Davis got a lot of Brandon Marshall comparisons. His rookie season was sunk by injuries and falling behind learning the offense and developing chemistry with Mariota, who battled his own injuries. Then Davis teased us with glimpses of his upside in the playoffs. With a full, healthy offseason to get on the same page with Mariota in an offense that was designed more recently than 1976, Davis is a prime breakout candidate.