NFL Football 2017-18 Season
AFC South Division Preview
With the days and weeks of summer ticking by, the arrival of a new NFL season continues to approach. Fans still have to wait until September 7th for Kansas City and New England to kick off in Gillette Stadium, but they don’t have to wait much longer for pre-season football starting August 3rd at FanPicks. To get you ready for the new season, here’s the outlook of AFC South teams.
In head coach Bill O’Brien’s first three seasons, the Texans have been amazingly consistent. O’Brien’s team has three consecutive 9–7 records, including the last two AFC South titles and a playoff victory last year. They have closed each season going 3–1 down the stretch.
Quarterback Tom Savage replaced Brock Osweiler late last season. The product of Pitt college would have started in the playoffs if not for a concussion suffered in the last regular-season game. Savage has a strong arm, can make any throw, knows O’Brien’s system and can handle his tough-love coaching. Entering the last year of his contract, Savage will be under a lot of pressure. He’s started two games, has never thrown a touchdown pass and has been injured each season. If he struggles early, fans and media will create a huge controversy by demanding that the 2016 Heisman trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson play.
In O’Brien’s first three seasons, the Texans have run the ball more than any team in the league. They’ll rely heavily on a ground-and-pound mentality featuring veteran Lamar Miller (1,073 yards rushing) and rookie D’Onta Foreman, a third-round pick who rushed for more than 2,000 yards last season at Texas. Miller shouldered the workload with a career-high 268 carries. Foreman is expected to excel between the tackles. Tyler Ervin, a change-of-pace back in his second season, should become a weapon out of the backfield.
The receivers should be happier with Savage because he can throw any route. DeAndre Hopkins never seemed to click with Osweiler, finishing with 78 catches for 954 yards and four touchdowns. Hopkins seems to have a good on-field rapport with Savage. Hopkins has terrific hands and an impressive catch radius that’ll help the quarterback’s accuracy. Savage should benefit from expected improvement by two second-year receivers, Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, first- and third-round picks last year. Fuller is a tremendous deep threat but drops too many passes. He’s got to improve his route running. With a year to learn, Miller is expected to contribute in the slot.
For the first time under O’Brien, the tight ends figured prominently in the passing game. C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin combined for 104 catches for 1,001 yards and six TDs. At 6’5″ and 6’6″, respectively, Fiedorowicz and Griffin are inviting targets who prefer to run routes down the middle, and they don’t shy away from contact.
Andrew Luck, the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, suffered a torn labrum in 2015 but put off the surgical procedure until the painful situation became unbearable. After taking 41 more sacks in 2016, bringing his five-year, 70-game total to 156, Luck relented to having his injury fixed.
Beyond that injury, do the Colts have enough weapons to take the pressure off Luck? Pro Bowl wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is one of the NFL’s best deep threats. The next-best skill returnee is tight end Jack Doyle, a hard-working overachiever and hometown-hero who was rewarded with a $19 million contract. New general manager Chris Ballard rid himself of tight end Dwayne Allen’s overpriced contract by trading him to New England. Donte Moncrief, the No. 2 wide receiver, had seven TD catches but also missed seven games due to injury. Phillip Dorsett, a 2015 first-round pick, has caught only 51 passes and scored three touchdowns in his two seasons. He is on the verge of becoming a bust.
Running back Frank Gore became the first running back 33 or older to rush for 1,000 yards since John Riggins in 1984. But Gore is in the final year of his contract, and the Colts need to be looking for a long-term ball carrier. Robert Turbin rushed for 164 yards in a reserve role in his first season in Indianapolis. The team used a fourth-round pick on Marlon Mack, who will have an opportunity to be the number 2 back.
Former New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin was hired in January by owner Shad Khan to resuscitate the entire organization… just not as the head coach. Coughlin’s title is executive vice president of football operations, and he has final say on roster decisions, taking that responsibility away from GM Dave Caldwell. Doug Marrone, the offensive line coach from 2015-16, got the incumbent coaching job.
Since 2008, when the Jags’ current playoff drought began, their 18.3 points-per-game average is third worst in the NFL. And since 2012, a year after Maurice Jones-Drew won the rushing title, the Jaguars’ per-game rushing average of 92.1 yards is the league’s worst. The Jaguars are counting on Leonard Fournette — who rushed for 3,830 yards in three seasons at LSU — to impact both categories. The Jaguars selected Fournette fourth overall, and running backs taken that high have turned into Barry Sanders and Marshall Faulk — but also Trent Richardson and Darren McFadden.
A one-man wrecking crew since he was in high school, Fournette will have to do the Jaguars’ heavy lifting, because Bortles proved last year he wasn’t ready for that task. Bortles had his 2018 contract option picked up on May 1, but it is guaranteed only for injury, meaning this remains his make-or-break season. If he wants to remain the Jaguars’ starter beyond this year, he must commit fewer turnovers (51 interceptions in 46 games) and be more accurate (58.8 career completion percentage). The Jaguars didn’t draft a quarterback, which can be viewed as a vote of confidence or a sign Coughlin is merely waiting until 2018 to take one.
The Jaguars believe they have provided Bortles with ample weapons. Now entering their fourth year, receivers Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee have shown flashes of consistent play, just not at the same time. Robinson and Hurns eclipsed 1,000 yards in 2015, but their numbers dipped because of extra attention (Robinson) and injuries (Hurns). Lee hasn’t been able to use his speed to stretch the field. Although they enter as the top three receivers, rookie Dede Westbrook could become an option operating from the slot. After a rather ordinary junior season at Oklahoma — his first after transferring from junior college — Westbrook exploded for 80 catches for 1,524 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior. His 19.1-yard average was the best in college football for players with at least 75 catches.
Getting more production from the tight ends would help matters on the outside. The Julius Thomas experiment failed. They’ve shipped him to Miami in exchange for a seventh-round pick. The Jaguars want their tight ends to be equally effective as receivers and blockers. The team believes that former Raider Mychal Rivera can be an efficient receiver. Question is still up in the air about his blocking ability.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota built upon his rookie season with an outstanding 2016. He completed 276-of-451 passes for 3,426 yards. This makes him the first Titan since Matt Hasselbeck in 2011 to top the 3,000-yard mark. His 26 TD passes were most by a franchise quarterback since the team moved to Tennessee 20 years ago. The only downside was that for the second straight year, Mariota was not able to finish the season due to an injury. He broke his right fibula on Christmas Eve. The injury required a plate to be surgically placed into the leg to help the healing process. Mariota might not do much in OTAs as the Titans will be careful regarding his recovery. Veteran Matt Cassel was re-signed to be the backup.
While the Titans will go as Mariota goes, the running game also has a big say in the team’s success. DeMarco Murray came over from Philadelphia and led the AFC in rushing with 1,287 yards while scoring nine touchdowns. Tennessee also has Derrick Henry to bolster the backfield. The 2015 Heisman Trophy winner added 490 yards and five scores in spot duty behind Murray. That formula should continue in 2017, with Murray being the workhorse and Henry spelling him as a power and short-yardage back.
The Titans overhauled the wide receiver position, spending two of their first three draft picks there. They chose Corey Davis of Western Michigan fifth overall and are hopeful that he can develop into the true No. 1 receiver that has been missing for many years. The Titans also drafted Taywan Taylor, a shifty speedster from Western Kentucky. He replaces the departed Kendall Wright in the slot and has deep route ability.
Those two will mix in with Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharpe, as well as former Jet Eric Decker, to make up the core of the unit. Matthews, a free agent from Miami, had a banner season in 2016, catching 65 passes for 945 yards and nine touchdowns. He is ideally a number 2 receiver but was the top target a year ago. Sharpe started all last season as a rookie fifth-round pick and caught 41 passes. He will have to work hard to stay ahead of Davis and Taylor. Decker was part of the Jets’ offseason veteran purge and is looking to bounce back strong after playing in just three games last season because of a torn labrum in his shoulder and a lingering hip injury. If healthy, Decker could provide a big boost to an otherwise young and inexperienced receiving corps.
Tight end Delanie Walker was a Pro Bowler for the second straight season. Walker tied for the team lead with 65 catches and is still going strong at age 33. The Titans drafted his potential long-term replacement in Jonnu Smith, using a third-round pick on a player who had been compared to Walker in draft evaluations.