The AFC South is all set to be one of the more interesting divisions in the NFL this season. It was not that long ago that the division was the biggest joke, at least in the AFC. However, now it is loaded with talent. You have three really good quarterbacks and one of the best defenses in the entire NFL. So how is this division likely to turn out in 2018? Monday I took a look at the Indianapolis Colts and Tuesday it was the turn of Houston Texans. Now it is the turn of the Tennessee Titans.
Marcus Mariota will enter his fourth year as a pro hoping to continue the progression that has seen the Titans close in on double-digit wins the last two seasons. One of the issues for Mariota is his consistency, and there have been times in his career where he has gone missing. If the Titans are to make a run for the playoffs in 2018 he will need to improve on that this season. On the plus-side he has a ton of talent surrounding him, which should help him to perform well in 2018.
The Titans made a splash this year when they added Dion Lewis from the Patriots. Lewis and Derrick Henry should make for a fascinating one-two punch this year. Surprisingly last year Lewis saw a large amount of his snaps on first and second down. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how the Titans utilize these two. Lewis has demonstrated the ability to be effective catching the ball out of the backfield with the Patriots so right now he is the favorite for the third-down role. Behind these two is a guy named David Fluellen, who has four career rushes and one career target, so Lewis and Henry will absolutely handle the bulk of the rushing this season.
This is a fascinating group. Rishard Matthews enters the year as the number one but would not be surprised if come the end of the year Corey Davis was the consensus one for this unit. Davis flashed his ability last season and the fifth overall pick will be hoping to build on it this year to become one of Mariota’s most trusted targets. Behind those two is a lot of solid if unspectacular guys. Taywan Taylor saw just 28 targets last year, but I expect that to rise this season, and Tajae Sharpe missed all of 2017 after a decent rookie year in 2016. My expectation is Sharpe wins this number three job in the first part of the season and then we will see a solid unit of Davis, Matthews and Sharpe week-in week-out.
Delanie Walker remains the headline act once again, especially given he just signed a two-year extension. Prior to that extension I thought this was going to be the year that Jonnu Smith stepped up. I still expect to see Smith involved plenty this year but ultimately Walker is the play maker in this group, so expect the Titans will look to get the ball in his hands as much as possible.
This entire group is returning again in 2018, which is always a good sign. Last year, they kept Mariota upright slightly better than the league average and given his injury niggles they will need to do that once again. With the power of Henry and the elusiveness of Lewis in the backfield this offensive line could be made to look very good in the run game. If they can keep Mariota clean and just give the running backs time to get moving this could end up looking an extremely effective unit come the end of the season.
This unit should be really interesting to watch this season. Mike Vrabel is a defensive-minded head coach who did solid things with Houston and Dean Peas is a really good defensive coordinator, who spent a lot of time with the Ravens. They used two high picks on linebackers this year which shows their commitment to this unit but has also provided them with great depth. They are not quite the Jacksonville Jaguars defense but they should at least be solid.
Jurrell Casey is the star of the show here but he ranked jsut 50th among defensive linemen according to roster resource in 2017. Casey is not a sack machine but I expect him to be somewhere in the region of five this year, as well as being the leader of the group. Bennie Logan joins this group as the nose tackle and DaQuan Jones returns after starting 12 games last year. Casey should draw most of the attention on this line and the other two need to make the most of any one-on-one matchups they get.
This group now looks to have a ton of depth after they drafted Rashaan Evans to partner Wesley Woodyard at middle linebacker. Woodyard ranked 12th among all linebackers last season and Evans has the potential to be every bit as good. The arrival of Evans has pushed Will Compton into a backup role. Compton missed a big chunk of 2017 but he was a very effective for the Redskins in 2015 and 2016. Derrick Morgan is currently penciled in as the starter on the left side of this group, and therefore the main rusher. However, his offseason surgery means he is doubtful for week one. It would not surprise me if the rookie out of Boston college, Harold Landry, starts week one and never looks back.
This is a superstar group. Kevin Byard was a first team All-Pro last season and Logan Ryan was good enough in his first year to remain a starter. They also added Malcolm Butler from the Patriots, who, despite not having a great 2017, is a good corner. Given that he was benched by the Patriots for the SuperBowl he will enter this season with a chip on his shoulder and the Titans should reap the benefits from that. This group would have been elite had they of returned Johnathan Cyprien at safety. However, a knee injury has ended his season before it even began. To cover for that they signed Kenny Vacarro, who was surprisingly still a free agent late into the offseason. With Adoree’ Jackson as the slot corner this could be an extremely effective group in 2018.
The Final Word
This is a really solid team who have now moved away from questionable coaching to a new group. The promising thing is that they made the playoffs last season despite that questionable coaching. My concerns here surround their depth on offense, especially at the wide receiver position, and their lack of real pass rush. If Landry can be effective off the edge they have a chance to win this division. However, their defense just cannot match up to the level of the Jaguars and I think that is ultimately the difference in this extremely competitive division.
Projected Finish: 2nd (9-7)
Picture credit: Mark Zaleski/AP