AFC South Divisional Preview

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The NFL offseason is a long and arduous one. While hope is on the horizon with the first game of the season coming soon in early September, there is still plenty of time to prepare for your fantasy team and your futures betting. Enter SumerSports.

In this series we will do a weekly preview of each division using our simulation, which iterates through the 272-game NFL schedule 10,000 times to produce each team’s estimated number of wins, likelihood of winning the division, conference, Super Bowl, and earn the number one overall pick. The team ratings that power the simulation are derived from a combination of market odds, previous results, roster changes, and other factors. Such power ratings will be available through SumerSports.com over the next few months.

Individual games are also handicapped using rest differential, travel, and familiarity. Team strengths are updated sequentially based on simulated game outcomes. That way, in simulations where a weaker team exceeds expectations or a solid one fails to meet theirs, they carry a commensurate form with them to their late-season games.

Here, we start with the AFC South. Per our simulation, the AFC South is projected to win a league low 31.2 regular-season games. The division is coming off a 2022 season where the division title was secured with a 9-8 record, and two teams earned spots in the top four picks in the draft. Three of the top four picks in the 2023 draft ended up going to the AFC South after Houston traded up to secure Will Anderson.

Add in the fact that three of the top four rookie quarterbacks from 2023, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson, and Will Levis, join 2021 first-overall pick Trevor Lawrence, and there is an optimistic case to be made about the division long term.

All odds are sourced from FanDuel and are subject to change, as are the results of our simulation.

Jacksonville Jaguars

2022 Record: 9-8

It has been a roller coaster two years for fans and observers of the Jacksonville Jaguars. From securing the first-overall pick from under the Jets during the 2020 pandemic season, to enduring a partial season of the Urban Meyer era, to earning their second division title of the millennium in 2022, Jags fans have seen a lot.

The 2022 Jaguars started 3-7 despite having underlying metrics that suggested they were underachieving. Coming out of their Week 11 bye, the Jaguars were 12th in our adjusted offensive passing game metric (more on that soon at SumerSports.com) and 10th in the rushing version of that metric with a positive point differential to boot. The underlying metrics continued along a similar path after the bye, but the results were much better as they won six of their final seven regular season games.

Their playoff win against the Chargers mirrored their season; the Jaguars had a slow start and a torrid finish while overcoming a 27-0 deficit to win 31-30. Their season concluded against the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium with a 27-20 loss.

Fast forward to the 2023 season, Trevor Lawrence’s third season and second for Doug Pederson with the Jaguars, and expectations are high. At -160, they are one of just four teams to be favored against the field in their own division. The Jaguars’ biggest addition was the 2022 trade for Calvin Ridley from the Falcons whose 1.73 adjusted yards per route run ranks 20th out of 87 qualifying receivers since 2018.

Ridley joins an offense that needed a star receiver to compliment Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Evan Engram who combined for over 2,700 yards in 2022. Travis Etienne was a true bell cow back in 2022, starting the final 13 games and earning 299 touches (including postseason). The running game was not necessarily the most efficient in the league though, finishing 20th in raw expected points added and 15th in success rate.

The Jaguars lost right tackle Jawaan Taylor in the offseason to the Chiefs but replaced him with first-round pick Anton Harrison, who Thomas Dimitroff and I evaluated here on the SumerSports Show. Offensive linemen often take longer to develop, so it will be something to monitor in an offense that otherwise is poised to threaten defenses once again.

Defensively, the Jaguars have some pieces in place in 2022 first-overall pick Travon Walker and 2019 first-round pick Josh Allen. Foye Oluokun and Devon Lloyd make for a solid linebacker group, while Tyson Campbell, the first pick in the 2021 second round, emerged as a solid cornerback in 2022. Secondary depth is a concern for every NFL team, but with the loss of Shaq Griffin, there is some fragility to their back end that could be a leak as the season progresses.

The Jaguars are, and rightfully should be, the favorites in the AFC South, as they have the best coach/quarterback combination of the bunch. Be that as it may, the price is incredibly steep for them in the market as a result.

Tennessee Titans

2022 Record: 7-10

The Titans, who in 2021 were the AFC’s number one seed, started the 2022 season 7-3. They lost their final seven games, though, including a Week 18 matchup that determined the division title and the lone playoff berth from the AFC South. It was during that losing streak that they fired their general manager after seven seasons and had to put Ryan Tannehill, who has generated the third-best EPA/CPOE composite among NFL quarterbacks since taking over for the Titans, on IR with an ankle injury.

After trading A.J. Brown to the Eagles in the offseason, the Titans did not have much firepower on the outside, with Robert Woods’ 53 receptions for 527 yards representing team highs. No Titans wide receiver scored more touchdowns than Nick Westbrook-Ikhine’s three scores. Woods is gone, and while they have had some conversations with DeAndre Hopkins, who we discussed in this article, as of now they plan to go into 2023 with 2022 first-round pick Treylon Burks leading a group that has failed to add difference makers on the outside. Second-year pro Chigoziem Okonkwo, though, appears to have some potential to move the needle after averaging 2.61 yards per route run in 2022, which was first among tight ends with more than 35 targets.

Unless they see significant jumps from Burks and Okonkwo, the Titans offense will center around Derrick Henry once again. After missing significant time in 2021 with a foot injury, Henry bounced back to be one of the best backs in football in 2022, earning 1,257 yards after contact. This figure was 101 yards more than the next best back in the NFL and more than all but seven running backs were able to amass total.

Henry will behind unfamiliar blockers this year as the Titans will be orienting a new left tackle in Andre Dillard and a new guard/tackle in Peter Skoronski, who we discussed in this video. They lose Nicholas Petit-Frere for the season’s first six games with a gambling suspension and no longer have Taylor Lewan, who was released after an injury that limited him to two games in 2022.

Under an up-and-coming defensive coordinator in Shane Bowen, the Titans defense had their moments a season ago including a game where the Super Bowl champion Chiefs needed 91 offensive plays and overtime to get to 20 points in a heartbreaking loss for Tennessee. Overall, though, they struggled, finishing 22nd in overall EPA per play during the regular season, including 28th against the pass.

The Titans will get Harold Landry back a year into a five-year deal worth over $87 million to pair with the recently extended Jeffrey Simmons to offer a dynamic one-two punch along the front four. Former 49er Azeez Al-Shaair, long a darling of the film community, comes over to replace David Long and should provide some versatility at the second level. The secondary is led by Kevin Byard, who has been one of the most valuable defensive players in the NFL for as long as he has been in the league with 28 interceptions since 2016.

Taken together, the market is fair on the Titans this season. If Tannehill holds off Will Levis and Malik Willis (or if the young quarterbacks overachieve), Henry continues to play at a high level, and the young receivers emerge, they can be competitive in the AFC South alongside a defense that has quality pieces.

Indianapolis Colts

2022 Record: 4-12-1

The 2022 Indianapolis Colts season was one of the more perplexing in recent memory. They opened the year favored to with the division with the backing of many sharp people in the market. Matt Ryan struggled, Shaq Leonard missed much of the season with an injury, Frank Reich was replaced by former Colts center Jeff Saturday, and by season’s end, they were surrendering the biggest comeback win in NFL history to Kirk Cousins and the Vikings.

Enter new head coach Shane Steichen and quarterback Anthony Richardson.

We talked about both Steichen and Richardson on the SumerSports Show, with our discussion of Steichen here and Richardson here. From the perspective of the ceiling of this team, there might not be a better marriage from which to re-start the franchise. Steichen was the offensive coordinator of the 2020 Los Angeles Chargers when Justin Herbert set a record for touchdown passes in a rookie season and won the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Steichen then moved on to Philadelphia where he oversaw Jalen Hurts emerging from a second-round pick to leading an offense to the most points ever in a Super Bowl loss.

Richardson, although raw, combines some of the arm talent of a Herbert with the movement skills and toughness of a Hurts. With a supporting cast that includes 2021 rushing champion Jonathan Taylor, the very capable Michael Pittman, and an offensive line with talent, this could be a bounce-back offense in 2023.

Indianapolis’ defense in 2022 was in the top half of the league in terms of EPA but lost cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the Dallas Cowboys in a trade and linebacker Bobby Okereke via free agency to the Giants. Leonard, DeForest Buckner, and Kenny Moore are very good pieces, but to compliment an offense with a lot of potential, the Colts will need players like Kwity Paye, who amassed just 73 pressures during his first two years, to emerge on that side of the ball.

Of the teams in the AFC South, the Colts offer the most value against the market as initiating both a rookie coach and a rookie quarterback is a tough sell for most. That said, they have an easy schedule – the fourth easiest in football and the second easiest in the AFC – and a combination in Steichen and Richardson that could have a higher floor than imagined even in year one.

Houston Texans

2022 Record: 3-13-1

It is hard to believe that just a few years ago this franchise had Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, and the Kansas City Chiefs down 24-0 in their own building.

And here we are.

First, it was Hopkins, then O’Brien, then Watson. O’Brien was succeeded by David Culley and then Lovie Smith. Smith’s final game as the head coach for the Texans dislodged them from the first-overall pick in 2023 draft via a 32-31 win over the division rival Colts. Eleven wins in three seasons and it was time for change (again).

Enter the centerpieces of the future in Houston: C.J. Stroud, Will Anderson, and DeMeco Ryans. Stroud, who at one point was the favorite to go first overall to the Carolina Panthers, was the Texans pick at second overall. He had a very prolific career at Ohio State, threw 85 touchdown passes the last two years, and concluded his college career by putting the defending-champion Georgia Bulldogs on the ropes in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.

Stroud has been described as the quarterback with the highest floor in this draft class with a ceiling that may not be as high as Richardson and first-overall pick Bryce Young. He will have to deal with receivers that are not nearly as accomplished as what he had at times with Ohio State, with veteran Robert Woods heading over from the Titans to lead a group that lost Brandin Cooks in a trade this offseason.

Anderson was the more controversial acquisition, as the Texans traded several picks to move up from 12 to 3 to acquire him. The value of those picks added up to more than the first-overall pick according to our internal charts.

Anderson heads to a defense that, while not overly weak at any one spot, needed a blue-chip player to wreak havoc on offenses. Anderson is that player, having generated 207 pressures, 109 stops, and being involved in 37 sacks in three years at Alabama. Adding him to a defense that includes 2022 third-overall pick Derek Stingley, emerging defensive back Jalen Pitre, free agent acquisitions Jimmy Ward and Denzel Perryman, and veterans Steven Nelson and Jerry Hughes should lift the floor for this team moving forward, especially against a division with many young and unproven signal callers.

The leaves the final building block, DeMeco Ryans. A linebacker for the team over a decade ago, Ryans comes over from the 49ers after leading that defense to league-leading marks in EPA allowed. While a skeptic could say that the personnel drove a great deal of what was happening in San Fran, his predecessor, Robert Saleh, has built a solid defense in New York in just two short years, so the blueprint is there. Having Anderson and Stingley, two third-overall picks at premium positions, is a great start.

Marketwise, the prices for the Texans are fair, baking in both improvement in their win total as well as their chances to win the division for the first time since the aforementioned 2019 campaign.

Next up, NFC North.

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