The AFC South struggled in 2015. In fact, the AFC South ranked last in the NFL last year, as the Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans recorded the lowest average record of any division (6.25-9.75). The average record of the NFC East was a close second (6.5-9.5).
This narrative may change quickly. After free agency and the NFL Draft, analysts generally agree that the AFC South has a promising and upward-trending future. Marc Sessler of NFL.com even questions whether the AFC South is the NFL’s next great division?
Sessler’s speculation is fair. Reliable quarterback play is the cornerstone of NFL success. As of now, each team in the AFC South has either a reliable quarterback (Andrew Luck) or a promising young quarterback (Brock Osweiler, Blake Bortles, Marcus Mariota).
However, the division’s upward trajectory additionally results from each team’s addressing multiple weaknesses from last year. We can examine each team stepwise.
Last season the Houston Texans earned a playoff birth after winning the AFC South with a 9-7 record. The team’s successes in large resulted from their defense, which ranked third best in the NFL behind only the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos.
During free agency, Houston addressed the single position holding the team from a potential deep playoff run: quarterback. Last season the team ranked 31st in average yards per play, 29th in average yards per pass, and 28th in average yards per rush — all of which can be in part attributed to Houston’s cycling through three starting quarterbacks.
So the organization signed former Broncos’ quarterback Brock Osweiler to a four year, $72 million dollar contract.
Although Osweiler was the best available quarterback in free agency, and although he led Denver to a Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers last season, the 25-year-old raises some concern since he has just seven career starts.
Moreover, Houston lost or waived four offensive starters from last season: running back Arian Foster, wideout Nate Washington, center Ben Jones, and right guard Brandon Brooks.
The organization responded in the Draft by giving Osweiler help at offense: wide receiver Will Fuller (Round 1, No. 21); center Nick Martin (Round 2, No. 50); wide receiver Braxton Miller (Round 3, No. 85); and running back Tyler Ervin (Round 4, No. 119).
One thing is certain about this supporting cast of rookies — they’re fast. Fuller, Miller and Ervin ran the 40-yard dash in 4.32, 4.50 and 4.41 seconds, respectively.
The Colts’ most pressing concerns from 2015 were their offensive line and secondary. The team ranked 2nd in the NFL for quarterback hits allowed (118) and 24th in total passing defense (257.1 yards/game).
In response Indianapolis used four of their eight draft picks on offensive linemen: Ryan Kelley (Round 1, No. 18); Le’Raven Clark (Round 3, No. 82); Joe Haeg (Round 5, No. 166); and Trevor Bates (Round 7, No. 239).
Kelly is expected to start at center next season, since shortly after the draft, the organization released incumbent starter Khaled Holmes.
Kelly walked onto the Alabama football team in 2011 and worked his way up the ranks. At the end of his senior year, he had earned the Rimington Award as college football’s best center and had been voted best offensive lineman in the SEC.
At the secondary, the Colts signed cornerback Patrick Robinson to a three year, $13.5 million dollar contract. The sixth year veteran fills the vacancy at cornerback opposite of Vontae Davis and should limit big pass plays from opposing offenses.
According to Pro Football Focus, Robinson allowed 8.9 yards per catch last year, the best mark among all NFL cornerbacks with 40 or more targets.
In 2015, the Jaguars allowed the 2nd most points per game (28), the 9th most yards per game (375), and the 2nd highest third down percentage to opposing offenses (46%).
The organization therefore extensively addressed their defense during free agency and the Draft. Jacksonville did very well. They finished the offseason with arguably the best acquisitions in the entire division.
In free agency, the team spent $178.3 million dollars, most of which was needed to acquire three high-profile players: Pro Bowl safety Tashaun Gipson (5 years, $36 million); defensive lineman Malik Jackson (6 years, $85.5 million); and running back Chris Ivory (5 years, $32 million).
According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson was the No. 16 interior defender last season, and Ivory was the No. 11 running back. Gipson was not ranked because he missed much of 2015 because of injury; however, he led the AFC in interceptions in 2013 and 2014.
In the Draft, Jacksonville then acquired two of the best defensive prospects at the respective positions — cornerback Jalen Ramsey (Round 1, No. 5) and linebacker Myles Jack (Round 2, No. 36) — as well as four defensive linemen: Yannick Ngakoue (Round 3, No. 69); Sheldon Day (Round 4, No. 103); Tyrone Holmes (Round 6, No. 181); and Jonathan Woodard (Round 7, No. 226).
Ramsey missed OTAs and training camp because of a meniscus surgery, and Jack was unable to participate in OTAs because the NFL prohibits rookies from participating in team activities until the current senior class graduates at their school. Though, both Ramsey and Jack will be available for the start of training camp in late July.
Moreover, defensive end Dante Fowler, who the Jaguars drafted No. 3 overall in 2014, is set to return this season after missing all of last year with a torn ACL.
The Titans finished the 2015 season with the worst record in the NFL alongside the Cleveland Browns (3-13). In other words, the team had many deficiencies to address on offense and defense.
During the offseason, head coach Mike Mularkey and general manager Jon Robinson addressed four positions in particular: offensive line, running back, wide receiver, and cornerback.
These positions were worthy of attention, as Tennessee sacrificed the most sacks last season (54), rushed for the 7th fewest yards (92.8 yards/game), dropped the 11th highest percentage of team passes (4.4%), and allowed the 3rd most passing touchdowns (34).
At the offensive front, Tennessee signed center Ben Jones to a four year, $17.5 million dollar contract and drafted Jack Conklin with their No. 8 overall pick, a blue-collar tough guy who fits Jon Robinson’s team vision.
“When coach Mularkey and I set out three months ago, we talked about building a tough, team-first, accountable football team and we were able to add a player [in Jack] to this roster that embodies everything that Tennessee Titans football is going to be about.”
Free agent acquisition DeMarco Murray and former Heisman winner Derrick Henry will rush behind Tennessee’s bolstered front five. The Titans signed Murray to a relatively inexpensive four year, $25 million dollar contract, and drafted Henry at No. 45 overall in the second round of the Draft.
The Titans also drafted wideout Tajae Sharpe (Round 5, No. 140) and signed wideout Rishard Matthews to a three year, $15 million dollar contract and with hopes of evoking competition among the team’s young receivers: Kendall Wright, Dorial Green-Beckham, and Justin Hunter.
The additions have been successful thus far, as Sharpe and Matthews rotated for first-team reps during OTAs and minicamps.
Lastly, the Titans signed veteran cornerbacks Brice McCain and Antwon Blake to a two year, $4.4 million dollar contract and a one year, $1.5 million dollar contract, respectively. The two formerly played for defensive coordinator Dick LaBeau, and McCain is expected to contend with Perrish Cox for a starting role during training camp.
Mike Greenberg of ‘Mike an Mike in the Morning’ said about the AFC South, “You want to talk about a division with an arrow pointed straight up. [The AFC South] was a division where there was really only one quarterback. You had Andrew Luck, and that’s why [the Colts] owned that division … Now, all of a sudden, you’ve got Blake Bortles who’s developing, you’ve got Marcus Mariota who we have high hopes for, you have Brock Osweiler — let’s see, they’re paying him like he’s a really good player. I think that division could go from zero to 60 in the blink of an eye. All those teams could be good.”
Many more agree.
Next season will tell.