Opening Drive 2019: AFC South

By Curtis Clayton
Jul. 31, 2019

Each team has one burning question that encompasses their 2019 season, and it's being asked here. Projected finish is in presentation order.

Which team are the Indianapolis Colts; the one began 1-5 and ended in the Divisional Playoffs, or the one that went 9-1 and burnt Houston in the Wild Card round? It was a roller coaster year for the Colts. Everyone, from the fans to the top of the organization, was buoyed with the return of Andrew Luck after losing all of 2017 due to a problematic shoulder injury. But a brutal start to the season threatened to derail Indy, unable to establish themselves offensively. Then, players starting stepping up. RB Marlon Mack turned into the primary rusher, netting 908 yards out of 12 games. Rookie LB Darius Leonard was a tackling machine, credited with 168 stops (111 solo) as he received recognition as a Defensive Rookie of the Year. Mack's emergence loosened things up for Luck, who found his groove en route to Comeback Player of the Year honors. The Colts went on massive tear, with 9 of their last ten games to punch their ticket into the playoffs, then proceeded to silence the Houston Texans in the Wild Card round 21-7 with 422 yards of total offense. The next week in Kansas City, however, they forgot what a football looked like, as they got drilled 31-13 by a superior team, at least on that day. The off-season was on the quiet side with two notable free agents in WR Devin Funchess (Carolina) and DE Justin Houston (Kansas City). But now that the Colts know their potential, the floor should come up as well as the ceiling for expectations. Indianapolis is poised to win the AFC South, and if they continue to improve (especially on defense), they could be in contention for the conference title.

Has this incarnation of the Houston Texans peaked? Like the Colts, the Texans began 2018 on the wrong foot by losing their first three games, making many wonder if quarterback DeShaun Watson was just a flash in the pan last year. Then, Houston fired up, winning 9 straight en route to winning the AFC South with an 11-5 record. The funny thing is the Texans were winning but were not dominant. Despite the fact that they were right behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the conference on paper, they still appeared to be light years behind Patrick Mahomes and Company in the AFC. Proof of that was made clearly evident in the team's lackluster effort versus the Colts during Wild Card Weekend. Can the Texans take it to the next level? Free agency was more about finding replacements, as FS Tyrann Mathieu was signed by the Chiefs and Houston got CB Bradley Roby from Denver as an example. Then, out of nowhere, general manager Brian Gaine was dismissed. Despite the Texans' best efforts to land New England Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, it ended in frustration. In the interim, head coach Bill O'Brien was named general manager to work in concert with Executive Vice President of Player Development Jack Easterby, who himself has no experience at this post. This became a consolidation of power for a head coach that least deserves it. Prior to Watson's emergence as the future quarterback and de facto on-field leader, O'Brien was flailing at the position and failing as a head coach. If Houston craters in 2019, O'Brien should be purged from the franchise. But there is enough talent on the roster to challenge for the AFC South crown, or at least be in the running for a wild card berth.

Is Nick Foles the answer for the Jacksonville Jaguars? Blake Bortels looked like he figured it out in 2017, at least in terms of leadership. Rookie running back Leonard Fournette became a force to be reckoned with, gaining 1040 yards to spearhead the Jags' offense to complement the second best defense in the league (4578 yds allowed & 268 points surrendered). But in 2018, the wheels came off. Bortels regressed back to his mistake addled form, in no small part correlated to the loss of Fournette's production due to injury, as his output was a fraction of what it was the year prior. The malaise plagued the entire offense, whose 29 giveaways (including an NFL worst 16 fumbles lost), would now act as an albatross around the neck of the D. The drama that enveloped the team throughout the campaign didn't help. The Jags' brain trust of executive vice president of football opoperations Tom Coughlin, general manager Dave Caldwell, and head coach Doug Marrone decided to move on from Bortels and put their money, both literally and figuratively, on recent Super Bowl hero QB Nick Foles. Foles would have been too steep of an investment as a backup quarterback in Philadelphia, so the Eagles let him walk. Foles signed a market value deal (4 years, $88 million) to put together this professional relationship. The catch is his best runs under center were with offensive coaches who worked with him, not just plug him in and let him go. While Jaguars offensive coordinator John DeFilippo has a work history with Foles, the signal caller's best times we're when his head coach took him under his wing, and it remains to be seen if Marrone will take on that type of mentorship role. If Fournette rediscovers his 2017 form and Foles plays to his standard of the last two years off the bench, then Jacksonville could be a candidate for a strong bounce back season. More than likely, there will be a period of transition to get Foles acclimated to his new surroundings, so the Jaguars will be in the wild card hunt and be a division contender if Houston or Indianapolis falter.

Does Marcus Mariota make his best case as the franchise quarterback for the Tennessee Titans? Quarterbacks in the NFL today are measured in two quantifiable arenas; individual passing statistics and team winning percentage. Mariota has put up decent numbers, but nothing that makes one stand up and take notice. Even his best year, which was 2016 (3426 yards, 26 TD's, & 9 INT's for a 95.6 passer rating), that was viewed by many as a growth season. In Mariota's defense, his head coaches, be it current one Mike Vrabel or his predecessor Mike Mularkey, subscribe to a run first offensive philosophy. With the focus on the ground game, that has left Mariota limited opportunity to learn and grow as a pro passer. When it comes to wins and losses, it requires some perspective. Yes, Mariota is 27-28 as a starter. However, his 3-9 rookie campaign in 2015 was amidst a 3-13 disaster that saw head coach Ken Whisenhunt get the boot midseason and Murlarkey handed the reins on an interim basis. Plus, as the numbers denote, Mariota was starting under center for all 3 Titan victories that year. Since then, Tennessee has posted 3 consecutive winning seasons with Mariota as the primary QB. However, Mariota has never played a full 16 games in a season. It's very difficult to put stock into a quarterback whose health and performance ask more questions than they answer. And general manager Jon Robinson will need to decide on what to do with their former #2 overall draft pick from 2015. Do they sign him to a market value deal to retain him, or do the Titans jump into the draft pool in 2020 to take another stab at finding a franchise quarterback again? It's a rough spot for the Titans to find themselves, and another middling season will make it that much tougher