Before the start of the regular season, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains an AFC South breakdown of each offense position-by-position. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.
2017 AFC South Breakdown by Position: The Offense
The Best: Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck has had the title of best quarterback in the AFC South since the day he was drafted in 2012 and not much has changed in the ensuing five years. Even while sitting out nearly half the season in 2015 with a torn shoulder labrum and lacerated kidney, there’s no denying Luck has the most natural ability of all of the quarterbacks in the division (and the best winning pedigree). While Luck will miss the first (and possibly second) game of the 2017 season, he will most likely still be the most successful quarterback in the division. Expect him to be near the top of the league in per game averages in yards, touchdowns, and interception ratio this year if the Colts offensive line can keep Luck healthy and upright.
Right on the heels of Luck is the Titans young signal caller Marcus Mariota, who should have a breakout performance this year after the Titans added first round pick Corey Davis in the NFL Draft and redzone monster Eric Decker in free agency. Coupled with a dominant running game led by DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, and you’ve got a recipe for a complete and balanced offense that will wreak havoc on defenses both in and out of the division. While Luck’s position at the top of the quarterback rankings is assured for this season, a phenomenal campaign by the Titans could vault Mariota over him in next year’s rankings.
Blake Bortles of the Jacksonville Jaguars comes in third on this list, if only by his experience starting in the NFL. Bortles is not by any means an elite quarterback (some would say he’s merely serviceable), but his familiarity with the offense and bevy of weapons keeps him at least above replacement level. Bortles racked up big time numbers last year while the Jaguars were trailing, but I expect a young and explosive defense to keep the Jaguars in much closer games than they participated in last season. Bortles is effectively playing for his job this season, so I would venture to guess that he’ll do as much as he can to cut down on turnovers and prove his worth as an NFL starter.
The Houston Texans bring up the rear of this list due to the questions that surround their quarterback situation to start the season. Veteran journeyman Tom Savage will start the season for the Texans under center, but don’t expect for him to retain that position for too long. With a schedule that includes two divisional foes (Jacksonville, Tennessee) and the perennially difficult defenses of Cincinnati, New England, and Kansas City, you can wager rather confidently that first round pick Deshaun Watson will most likely get the starting nod at or around week 6. Depending on how well Watson adjusts to the NFL, the Texans could easily move past the Jaguars in these rankings next season.
The Best: Tennessee Titans
The Rest: Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts
The Tennessee Titans boast one of the best 1-2 combinations in all of the NFL when it comes to the backfield. With DeMarco Murray leading the way and Derrick Henry spelling him, the Titans have a set of running backs which will take a ton of pressure off of Marcus Mariota during the season. Murray, who finished the 2016 season third in the league in total rushing yards, can be expected to post similar production this season. Derrick Henry added another 490 yards on the ground and is as dependable of a spell back as you can find anywhere in the NFL. Coupled with one of the best young offensive lines in the league and you’ve got the makings of a frighteningly balanced offensive attacks.
Lamar Miller signed with the Houston Texans following a five-year stint with the Miami Dolphins that saw him emerge as one of the better three down running backs in the NFL. Since signing with the Texans last year, Miller has reinforced his reputation in that regard, posting a 1,073-yard season in his first year with the new Bill O’Brien offense. While Miller will continue to be expected to be the leading rusher for the Texans in 2017, third-round selection D’Onta Foreman out of Texas will make an excellent complement to Miller in the backfield.
The Jaguars haven’t had a true bell cow at the running back position since Maurice Jones-Drew became a free agent at the end of the 2013 season (as a shell of his former self). To alleviate this concern, the Jaguars used their first-round pick (fourth overall) in the 2017 NFL Draft to select running back Leonard Fournette out of LSU. Fournette posted over 3,800 yards rushing during his time at LSU and will be expected to match – or outpace – that production in the NFL.
Five years ago, any list of running backs that had future Hall-of-Famer Frank Gore at the bottom would have been considered ludicrous. Today however, Gore is 34 years old and not nearly as dominant as he used to be. While he did post another 1,000 yard season last year, you can tell that he has lost a step with age. The Colts have tried to alleviate the pressure on Gore to perform by selecting Marlon Mack out of the University of South Florida in the 2017 draft, but Gore will still be expected to take the lion’s share of reps at the position. At this point in his career, Gore is playing mostly for posterity, as he only needs 620 yards this season to become fifth in all-time rushing yards (supplanting Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson).
The Best: Tennessee Titans
The Rest: Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Tennessee Titans begin the season with the best wide receiving corps in the division, and for good reason. Last year’s receiving leader, Rishard Matthews, most likely will be taking the number two spot after the Titans used the fifth overall selection in the draft to select Corey Davis out of Western Michigan. Davis, a 6’3” juggernaut who led all of Division I football in receiving yards during his four-year career, looks to be a steady compliment to an already loaded offense. Coupled with free agent signing Eric Decker and Tennessee suddenly has a very formidable three receiver set. While the Titans may not have the best overall receiver in the division, the sheer number of excellent targets available to Marcus Mariota makes their group the best in the AFC South.
While the Titans boast the best receiving corps in the division, the title of best receiver remains with the Indianapolis Colts and T.Y. Hilton. Hilton, who led the NFL with 1,448 receiving yards last year, is just about the only steady target on a Colts roster that has endured significant turnover at the wide receiver position in the past few months. Fourth year man Donte Moncrief has locked up the number two spot and will be playing for a new contract in 2017. Former first round selection Phillip Dorsett has been shipped off to New England for backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett and has been replaced by free agent signing Kamar Aiken and undrafted free agent Chester Rogers. Hilton’s dominance alone keeps the Colts in the number two slot here though, as without him the Colts would assuredly be at the bottom of the division.
The Texans have the only receiver who could compete with Hilton for the “best overall” title in fifth-year man DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins, who posted a down year in 2016 with only 954 yards and four touchdowns, recently signed a five-year, $81 million contract extension with the Texans. Hopkins is joined by second year receiver Will Fuller who was chosen with the 21st overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Fuller, who finished 2016 with 47 receptions for 635 yards and two touchdowns, will look to improve in his second year with new starting quarterback Tom Savage (and eventually Deshaun Watson). Former Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller rounds out the number three receiver spot. Much like the Colts and T.Y. Hilton, the Texans hold down the number three spot solely due to the value that DeAndre Hopkins brings to the table.
The Jaguars finish the receivers list at the bottom, but there is room for them to move up this year based on their available personnel. While the Jaguars number one receiver, Allen Robinson, posted a career year in 2015, his production declined significantly last season. Finishing with only 883 yards and six touchdowns, Robinson was a far cry from a legitimate number one threat at receiver. Robinson is joined on the wings by fourth year receiver Allen Hurns, who also had a disappointing 2016 campaign, finishing with less than 500 receiving yards and only three touchdowns. Some of that production was moved over to the Jags other fourth year man Marqise Lee, who had the best season of his career in 2016 with 851 yards and three touchdowns on 63 receptions. In order for the Jaguars receiving corps to move out of the basement this season, they’ll have to post significant increases across the board by these players.
The Best: Tennessee Titans
The Rest: Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Titans come out on top in the tight end category, leaving them with the best position group in three out of four categories so far. 11-year NFL veteran Delanie Walker leads the Titans at the position, continuing to be an incredible production machine in the Titans run-first offense. Posting a career year in 2015 and breaking every single Titans record for tight ends, Walker built upon that campaign last season by posting 800 yards and seven touchdowns on 65 receptions. With the next closest tight end in the division barely coming close to those numbers, it’s easy to see why the Titans are at the top of this list.
If you looked at the Colts 2012 draft class, you’d expect to see them at the top of this list. Selecting two tight ends in the first three rounds with Stanford’s Coby Fleener and Clemson’s Dwayne Allen, it looked like the Colts were set to emulate the two-tight end set that New England made famous a few years ago. Instead, both players have since been relocated, with Fleener signing with the New Orleans Saints before last season and Allen being shipped to New England for a 2017 fourth-round draft pick. With them gone, everyman Jack Doyle starts at the top of the Colts depth chart for the 2017 season. Doyle was something of a security blanket for Andrew Luck last season, posting 584 yards and five touchdowns on 59 receptions, narrowly edging the Texans C.J. Fiedorowicz for second in the division.
Speaking of Fiedorowicz, he and the Texans come in third at this position. Entering his fourth NFL season, Fiedorowicz had a breakout campaign in 2016, posting 559 yards and four touchdowns on 54 receptions. Recently signing a three-year contract extension, it’s obvious that the Texans see value in Fiedorowicz and expect him to continue to be a valuable asset in their growing offensive stable.
The Jaguars continue to be the caboose on this train, again finishing in last place for this position group. 12th-year tight end Marcedes Lewis is looking at the end of a long career in Jacksonville and there isn’t much behind him when it comes to depth. Lewis, an almost-guaranteed ring of honor candidate for Jacksonville, is backed up by third year tight end Ben Koyack who had 161 yards and one touchdown in 14 games last season.
The Best: Tennessee Titans
The Rest: Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans
It’s no surprise that the Titans are the favorites to win the AFC South coming into the 2017 season. With the best running back, wide receivers, tight end, offensive line, and second-best quarterback in the division, this is an offense that is brimming with talent and should turn a lot of heads (and win a lot of fantasy matchups) in 2017. Second year right tackle Jack Conklin pushed and shoved his way to All-Pro honors last year as a rookie, while fourth year left tackle Taylor Lewan was selected to his first Pro Bowl following an equally excellent campaign last year. Stealing Ben Jones from the Texans proved to be a great choice, offering protection and intelligence at the interior of the line for quarterback Marcus Mariota. With two above average guards in Josh Kline and Quinton Spain, the Titans have everything they need to continue to push production both in the running and passing games.
The Jaguars are going to need to protect quarterback Blake Bortles if they expect for him to continue to be their answer at quarterback. Too often at times last year, the Jaguars found themselves in games where the offensive line was asked to hold their blocks in pass protection while Bortles threw the ball in desperate attempts to keep the team competitive. The Jaguars attempted to alleviate their issues on the line by selecting left tackle Cam Robinson out of Alabama in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Center Brandon Linder remains the stalwart on this line, while veteran Jermey Parnell will look to pave the way for rookie running back Leonard Fournette this season.
The Colts have begun to invest significant resources in their offensive line, and this season should begin to bear fruit on those investments. Last year’s first round selection Ryan Kelly has solidified himself at center (even though he will miss the first few games with injury), and third year left guard Jack Mewhort has emerged as the best overall lineman on this unit. Combined with left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who has shown flashes of excellence during his first six years in the league, and the Colts have the beginnings of a steadfast protecting unit for Andrew Luck. Questions remain on the right side, but management has shown that they are aware and are making moves to alleviate concerns by spending significant draft capital there.
The Texans have the worst offensive line in the division, period. Left tackle Duane Brown can be excellent, but is unhappy with his contract and may not be with the team past this season. Right tackle Derek Newton was lost for the season due to injury (two ruptured patellar tendons), and center Nick Martin will be starting for the first time after losing his entire rookie season to an ankle injury. Given the amount of questions and uncertainty all along this line, it’s no question why they place at the bottom of the list.
Check out the AFC South positional breakdown on defense and special teams.