AFC South preview: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans

The wait is nearly over and the new NFL season is almost upon us!

The action begins on Thursday, September 10 when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Houston Texans, live on Sky Sports.

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Before then, it is time to assess 2020’s contenders.

We are previewing all eight divisions, and here you can find our views on the AFC South…

Tennessee Titans

Head Coach: Mike Vrabel

Key Man: The Titans’ offense struggled until the introduction of Ryan Tannehill as the starting quarterback. However, Derrick Henry was truly the difference maker. The former Alabama running back was a powerhouse last season, leading the league in rushing attempts (303), rushing yards (1540) and rushing touchdowns (16).

He carried on this regular season dominance into the playoffs. In the wildcard round, Henry punctuated a brilliant performance by picking up all 75 yards and a touchdown on a drive just before half-time, racking up 204 yards from scrimmage by the end of the game. In the next round, he picked up 195 yards on 30 carries as well as throwing a touchdown pass to Corey Davis as they beat the Baltimore Ravens 28-12.

The Titans rewarded Henry in the off-season by handing him a four-year, $50m contract. They will need him to continue at the level that saw him earn Pro Bowl honours last season if they hope to win their division and return to the playoffs.

Major additions: Former Atlanta Falcons pass rusher Vic Beasley, who signed on a one-year deal in March, has proven his ability to get after the quarterback. The Titans will need him to help create turnovers for a defense that has lost a number of key players, including Jurrell Casey and Logan Ryan. On the offensive side of the ball, they will be hoping that first-round pick Isaiah Wilson can come in and help lessen the blow of losing their 2016 All-Pro tackle Jack Conklin, who signed with the Cleveland Browns this off-season.

Last season: The Titans made it four years in a row finishing with a 9-7 record, which saw them sneak into the final wild card spot. It was a rollercoaster of a season as Vrabel undertook the decision to bench former first-round pick Marcus Mariota in favour of Tannehill. They upset the New England Patriots and Ravens before being beaten by the eventual Super Bowl Champions Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship game.

Prospects: There are some gaps to fill on the defensive side of the ball for the Titans after losing Casey and Ryan. Beasley will have to wreak havoc in the backfield, while on offense, Tannehill must prove he is worthy of the four-year $118m contract. They will again be leaning heavily on the ground game, led by Henry, if they are to win their division this season.

Prediction: 1st (10-6)

Indianapolis Colts

Head coach: Frank Reich

Key man: Newly-acquired quarterback Phillip Rivers will be the key to unlocking a Colts offense that struggled down the stretch. Jacoby Brissett was tasked with leading the unit after Andrew Luck shocked the NFL by deciding to retire last pre-season.

Brissett did a solid job, amassing 18 touchdowns against six interceptions. However, Rivers is a clear improvement in the most important position in football. That said, last season he recorded 20 interceptions against 23 touchdowns. The Colts will be hoping the eight-time Pro Bowler can return to his best as they push for the playoffs.

Major additions: Former San Francisco 49er DeForest Buckner signed for Indianapolis in the off-season. He joins from a front line that dominated for the 49ers on their way to Super Bowl LIV and promises to add some extra power to a defense led by linebacker Darius Leonard.

Rookie wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr will be a great addition to an average wide-receiver corps. T.Y. Hilton only played in 10 games last season, registering his lowest number of receptions (45) and receiving yards (501) since he entered the league. Pittman Jr could help take the pressure off. The big-bodied receiver proved to be a real asset for USC’s Air Raid offense last year and his ability to seemingly catch anything will suit Rivers.

Last season: The Colts were rocked before the 2019 season started, when Luck announced his retirement. Despite the setback they stormed out of the gates, jumping to a 5-2 start. Inconsistencies on both sides of the ball started to surface, though. They ended up ranking 30th in passing offense and 25th overall. Defensively they were a middling team ranking 16th, with those struggles seeing them win just two of their final nine games for a 7-9 record.

Prospects: Rivers’ history with Frank Reich should prove invaluable for the Colts, while Hilton staying healthy for 16 games would also be a boost. The introduction of Buckner to the defensive line should help create turnovers by unleashing edge rusher Justin Houston. However, it could take a while for their reworked secondary to really gel and a lot of the pressure at the receiver position will fall on the shoulders of second-round pick Pittman Jr.

Prediction: 2nd (9-7)

Houston Texans

Head coach: Bill O’Brien

Key Man: Quarterback Deshaun Watson will have the weight of the Houston Texans’ offense on his shoulders in the upcoming season. The two-time Pro Bowler has made a great transition to the NFL from college, using his legs to not only devastate defenders when scrambling upfield, but also keeping plays alive. Just look at his touchdown pass to Darren Fells against the Raiders last season.

Bizarrely, Bill O’Brien decided to trade away Watson’s best weapon in DeAndre Hopkins. He will now have to rely on Will Fuller, who can take the top off of a defense, but has not completed 16 games since he was drafted. Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb will also be expected to chip in.

While he may have registered fewer rushing attempts (82) and rushing yards (413) last year than the season before, Watson scored seven touchdowns on the ground. The most in a single season so far for the 2017 12th overall pick. It is these skills in the run game that will help keep defenses off balance and hopefully create opportunities for him to push the ball downfield.

Major additions: Between Cooks, Cobb and Fuller, the loss of Hopkins is one the Texans will need to find an answer to. The addition of David Johnson from the Arizona Cardinals at the running back position could prove to be a good one – provided the 2016 Pro Bowl selection can stay healthy for a full season.

Defensive tackle Ross Blacklock was the Texans’ first selection in the 2020 NFL draft. He will combine with Brandon Dunn to help fill the void left behind by veteran space eater D.J. Reader. The Texans also added Eric Murray and Jaylen Watkins to a leaky secondary that ranked 29th in passing defense, giving 33 touchdowns through the air in the process.

Last season: Last season was encouraging but unfulfilling for the Texans. They finished 10-6 and edged past the Buffalo Bills in overtime of the Wildcard round of the playoffs, before being beaten 51-31 by the Chiefs in the Divisional Round after blowing a 24-0 lead.

Prospects: Coach O’Brien has failed to fully address a leaky defense that ranked 28th overall last season after seeing Reader, Tashaun Gipson and Jonathan Joseph all make way. They will struggle to reach the offensive level required to make the wildcard round without an elite receiver, especially one of Hopkins’ quality. The continuity along the offensive line is the one true positive from this off-season.

Prediction: 3rd (8-8)

Jacksonville Jaguars

Head coach: Doug Marrone

Key man: Gardner Minshew replaced Nick Foles when he went down injured last season and did a solid job. For a young quarterback to succeed they need a solid ground game and a good tight end. That is why Leonard Fournette is the key man for the Jaguars this season.

The team decided to decline the running back’s fifth-year option, meaning the former LSU Tiger is playing for a contract this year. Injuries have hampered the 2017 fourth overall pick and he is yet to complete 16 games in a season.

However, in the two years he has played over 10 games he has been a 1,000-yard rusher. Last season in 15 games he picked up 1,152 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, adding a further 522 yards receiving. With a lot to prove, Fournette could once again top 1,000 yards and help his quarterback out in a major way.

Major additions: Joe Schobert joined the Jaguars from the Browns, where he was a do-everything linebacker. He showed his versatility with 133 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, nine pass defences, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and four interceptions.

Rookie cornerback C.J. Henderson should see plenty of time on the field this season. Over the last three seasons at Florida he produced 66 solo tackles, four sacks, six interceptions and 20 pass break-ups in 26 starts. While there are concerns about his tackling, Henderson has proven he can step up and make a big stop when needed and his college tape suggests he can become a number one cornerback at NFL level.

Last season: It was another difficult year for the Jaguars. They traded for Nick Foles who got hurt early, paving the way for Minshew. The rookie quarterback was a one of very few bright moments, completing 60.6 per cent of his passes for 3,721 yards with 21 touchdowns and six interceptions. That did not stop them finishing 6-10 as they mustered 13 points or less in seven different games, leaving them 26th in the league last season.

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