NFL Training Camp Preview: AFC South

The NFL recently announced that training camps will proceed as planned as of July 28. That is subject to change as the NFL continues to closely monitor the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as of now, teams are preparing for training camp as planned. This is the second installment of an 8-part series that will cover every division’s strengths, weaknesses, position battles, and more leading up to the projected start of training camp. The next division to break down is the AFC South.

Houston Texans

The Houston Texans finished first in the AFC South last season with a 10-6 record. Then, they lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Kansas City Chiefs. The biggest Texans story from the offseason is the trade of superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The Texans received running back David Johnson, a second-round pick and a 2021 fourth-round pick from the Arizona Cardinals in exchange for Hopkins and a fourth-round pick. This trade was a net negative for the Texans even if David Johnson is 90% of the player he once was in Arizona.

Bill O’Brien has yet to make much of a positive impact in Houston as the de facto GM. The Texans don’t seem like a playoff team this year. They may need to start a rebuild around Watson soon so they don’t waste his career.

Position Battles

Cornerback

The Texans lack a clear starter at the cornerback position. The three starters are locked in but the order seems up in the air. Gareon Conley, Bradley Roby, and Vernon Hargreaves are the big three but it remains unclear who will shadow the opposing team’s number one receiver. All are rather disappointing former first-round picks. Roby and Hargreaves have experience operating in the slot. Both saw at least 25% snaps in the slot in 2019 which means to figure Conley will be the primary outside corner. But Hargreaves has the skills to be the #1 corner too. He just needs to be able to put it all together, like everyone in that cornerback group. It could be one of the league’s best if all three reach their potential but also has the potential to completely crash and burn.

Strengths

Front Seven

The Texans front seven is the best part of the team and it always will be with JJ Watt. Watt, Whitney Mercilus, and rookie Blacklock are the best pass rushers. Linebackers like Bernardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham are talented in pass coverage, which is perfect for middle linebackers in a 3-4 scheme. That unit has all it needs and has been a proficient defense for years regardless of who they plugin. There’s a reason Romeo Crennel has been the defensive coordinator there for as long as he as and is seeing work as an assistant head coach as well.

Weaknesses

Offensive Line

The Texans have added Laremy Tunsil at tackle but the offensive line has always been a concern there. Deshaun Watson was sacked less in 2019 than in 2018 thanks to Tunsil’s help but Watson was still sacked the most of any quarterback in 2019. Obviously Watson is mobile enough to avoid sacks but the offensive line still needs to help keep the pocket clean and open holes for David Johnson to let the offense work the way it’s expected to.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans snuck into the playoffs as a wild card team at 9-7. Then they became a dark horse Super Bowl contender after knocking off the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens. Their run eventually ended after meeting the eventual champion Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship.

The question for the Titans this season rests in quarterback Ryan Tannehill and running back Derrick Henry. Tannehill got the nod to start over Marcus Mariota in Week seven. Since then, he threw for 2742 yards, 22 touchdowns, and six interceptions and led the team to a 7-3 record. The offense was revitalized under his lead after starting 2-4. Henry was the focal point of the offense and led the NFL in rushing attempts, yards, and touchdowns in 2019. He went on a tear in the playoffs amassing 446 yards on 83 carries and two touchdowns in three games. As long as the offense can keep that same power in 2020, with AJ Brown growing as a receiver, they should have no problem getting off to an immediate hot start.

Strength

Secondary

It’s tough to choose just one part of the Titans defense to showcase. They’re a pretty star-studded unit and their linebacking core with Harold Landry, Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown and Vic Beasley were a strong contender for the strongest position group. However, All-Pro safety Kevin Byard is what gives the edge to the secondary. Along with Byard, the secondary boasts young standout Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler. Jonathan Joseph is also a talented veteran that can take some pressure off of the rest of the bunch and fill in when needed. Joseph allows Jackson to play in the slot and outside, whenever needed. Draft pick Kristian Fulton also adds depth to the unit and if he’s as talented as he looks, he can help come in when called upon. Lastly, safety Kenny Vaccaro rounds out the impressive starting secondary in Tennessee.

Weakness

Pass Catchers

Brown is entering his second year in the NFL. He broke out late last year, ending the season with 1051 yards and eight touchdowns on 52 receptions. He’s the strongest of the group and the drop-off below him is steep. Corey Davis was a first-round pick that never lived up to expectations. Adam Humphries has been impressive for an undrafted free agent but he has never been a game-changer either. Jonnu Smith is an athletic, talented tight end but he’s unproven. He’s been improving every year for 3 years but he still needs to take the next step to be a productive pass-catching tight end.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were heralded as a playoff favorite at the start of the year and ultimately disappointed finishing 3rd in the AFC South with a 7-9 record. The Colts entered the season confident in quarterback Jacoby Brissett, giving him a two-year $30 million contract extension but he didn’t live up to the lofty expectations set for him. By the season’s end, he had only managed 2942 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, and six interceptions. It’s not all his fault. He could’ve used some help in terms of wide receivers. But despite that, the Colts decided to go in a new direction in 2020 and signed veteran leader Philip Rivers to a one-year, $25 million deal. They also drafted former Washington Huskie quarterback Jacob Eason to potentially develop behind them as a future quarterback.

The Colts run defense put on a show in 2019 but they struggled against the pass. This is due largely in part to a young secondary still learning the ropes. The addition of veteran cornerback Xavier Rhodes should be a huge help to Rock Ya-Sin and Kenny Moore.

Strength

Offensive Line

It may be true that no average fan wants to hear about offensive lines but the Colts offensive line is one of the best in the NFL. Anchored by generational guard Quenton Nelson, the line has a knack for opening up holes for running backs, so much so that the Colts finished in the top ten in rushing yards per game and rushing touchdowns last year. Not to mention, Brissett was sacked only 27 times in 2019, 23rd in the NFL. The offensive line played a large part in that. With all 5 starters from last year returning, there’s no reason to believe it won’t be just as dominant in 2020.

Weakness

Pass Catchers

The Colts leading receiver in 2019 was Zach Pascal. This is due, in part, to TY Hilton’s injury causing him to miss time. Regardless, Pascal only put up 607 yards and 5 touchdowns. Even for a team that was in a rough quarterback situation, those numbers need to improve. This unit is one that can be primed for improvement. The Colts expect Parris Campbell to take a jump in 2020 and second-round draft pick Michael Pittman Jr. has lofty expectations to meet as well as the presumed starter opposite Hilton.

Position Battles

Running Back

The Colts enter the 2020 season with at least two starting-caliber running backs and two more that are very capable in a committee. Second-round pick Jonathan Taylor ended up in a very favorable situation. Odds are he won’t get overused which helps quell the fears regarding how heavily he was used in college. Taylor may also see sparse usage early on while he tries to learn Reich’s playbook which may prove a challenge in the new offseason format that teams have been adjusting to. Marlon Mack will likely take lead-back duties to take the pressure off of Taylor and Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins will see work in limited roles.

Kicker

This position battle felt like something that needed to be addressed even though it’s pretty low-scale. With Adam Vinatieri gone, the Colts find themselves with a kicker battle between Chase McLaughlin and Rodrigo Blankenship. McLaughlin spent his rookie season on three teams and he made 18 field goals on 23 attempts and was perfect on extra points. It’s worth noting that all of McLaughlin’s misses came from 40-49 yards. Blankenship went his whole career at Georgia without missing a single extra point on 200 attempts. He also went 80/97 on field goals over four years as a starter for the Bulldogs. Blankenship also received the 2019 Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best kicker.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars finished 4th in the AFC South in 2019 with a 6-10 record and the biggest story to come out of that team last year was the emergence of quarterback Gardner Minshew. Minshew came in as a relief to an injured Nick Foles. He then usurped the veteran and ended up starting 12 games and posted 3271 yards, 21 touchdowns, and six interceptions. Minshew has a decent receiving core to get by within 2019 with DJ Chark and explosive rookie Laviska Shenault Jr., but it starts to fall off after those two. 2020 proves to be a make-or-break year for Gardner Minshew and if the Jaguars finish as bad as the public thinks they will, they’ll have their pick at quarterback in the 2021 draft.

Strength

Front Seven

The Jaguars have a knack for finding talent upfront. They applied their franchise tag to Pro Bowl edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue. Yet, Ngakoue is still seeking a trade out of Jacksonville and has been since March. Behind Nagakoue is Josh Allen who recorded 10.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles in 2019. The Jaguars also brought in Joe Schobert from Cleveland, who was a productive linebacker in coverage and drafted edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson 20th overall who figures to round out a strong front seven.

Weakness

Secondary

The Jaguars lost cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and AJ Bouye heading into this season and have replaced those two with less than suitable options. They drafted CJ Henderson ninth overall as the second-best corner in the draft and signed Rashaan Melvin in free agency. Even if Henderson turns out to be the star the Jaguars want him to be, Melvin hasn’t proved he deserves a starting job since entering the league in 2013. The Jaguars safety tandem isn’t very good either. Jarrod Wilson and Ronnie Harrison are suitable enough but this unit doesn’t have any surefire star power entering 2020.

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