The AFC South is arguably the most wide-open division in the NFL right now. Houston and Tennessee tied for the division lead at 9-7 last season, with the Texans winning the tiebreaker and making the playoffs over the rising Titans.
The Texans dealt Brock Osweiler to Cleveland but traded up to take Deshaun Watson with the 12th overall pick in this year's draft. However, the Titans also have retooled, with Marcus Mariota healthy and ready to lead a dynamic offense in Nashville. The Jaguars upgraded at running back by drafting Leonard Fournette, with 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. looking to return from injury and exhibit the athleticism he showed off at Florida. And of course, never count out Andrew Luck and the Colts who, if they can find a capable offensive line, are in line for success.
In order to get an accurate assessment of how the AFC South breaks down entering the 2017 season, Athlon asked NFL scouts to talk anonymously about the Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from NFL scouts and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
“The Texans have a proven playoff-caliber team. But it is amazing that GM Rick Smith and head coach Bill O’Brien have been given a free pass on their handling of the quarterback position. They creatively found a way to escape the Brock Osweiler contract, then gave up their 2018 first-rounder to move up for Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.”
“No matter what they say, Tom Savage won’t be the quarterback of this team by mid-October.”
“Running back Lamar Miller was a quality signing for them last year, and their expectation on offense is that Nick Martin will improve the interior of the line, while wideout Will Fuller should increase his consistency and Braxton Miller comes to life as a slot receiver.”
“DeAndre Hopkins is up for an extension, and his play would be even more impressive with a real NFL quarterback.” “The defense is their calling card and had an amazing year in 2016, despite J.J. Watt missing basically the entire season.”
“In the meantime, Jadeveon Clowney finally hit his stride as a third-year pro, and Whitney Mercilus has quietly become a pass rusher who must be accounted for by the opposing offense.”
“Benardrick McKinney has been a good find as an inside linebacker, but his lack of speed shows up in coverage, hence their selection of Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham as a combo inside/outside backer.”
“Houston lost A.J. Bouye to the Jaguars in free agency, but they still believe in corners Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph. The Kevin Johnson selection two years ago looks like a wise choice now.”
“Still, everything here rides on Watson, who was the most mature and experienced signal caller available in the draft. After Tony Romo retired and was unavailable to them, Smith and O’Brien are hoping Deshaun can be their Dak Prescott in 2017 and beyond.”
“The media and fans ridicule Jim Irsay, but the people within the Colts’ program not only respect him, but admire his football acumen.”
“The reality for this team is that Andrew Luck has been injured since 2015, and the defense could not make a play to save its life during that time.”
“Luck had offseason shoulder surgery and is expected to return by training camp. The organization still believes he is capable of leading them to multiple Super Bowls, but he has to play better and cut down on his turnovers.”
“Opposing coaches marvel at the career Frank Gore has put together. He still runs with a forward lean, great instincts and finishes every play.”
“They should be set at receiver with T.Y. Hilton leading the way and Donte Moncrief showing signs of being a solid No. 2.”
“The offensive line has stabilized with Ryan Kelly at center and should be better with more experience. It’s still not a strength.”
“[New GM Chris] Ballard paid $30 million over three years to defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins in early April, which might prove to be the best of his 14 free-agent signings.”
“Ohio State free safety Malik Hooker was their first-round pick, and he is a rangy center fielder with exceptional ball skills.”
“Punter Pat McAfee retired and blasted [former general manager] Ryan Grigson on his way out the door. Jeff Locke was signed from the Vikings to fill his role.”
“Their obvious problem is Blake Bortles and a subpar offensive line. This is a make-or-break year for Bortles, who must prove that he can play effectively early in games rather than just building stats in garbage time.”
“They jumped all over Leonard Fournette at pick No. 4 with the belief he can make an immediate impact.”
“They traded for left tackle Branden Albert to protect Bortles’ blindside and chose Cam Robinson in the second round as a possible tackle or guard.”
[Editor's note: Albert announced on July 31 that he was retiring.]
“The Jags traded tight end Julius Thomas to Miami and added Mychal Rivera (Raiders) to complement Marcedes Lewis.”
“Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns fell off in 2016 due to injuries and defenses adjusting to their styles, so they both need to respond in their respective fourth seasons.”
“Tom Coughlin continued the Jaguars’ willingness to spend big in free agency when they added defensive end Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye.”
“On paper, this side of the football has vast potential, but they must create more pressure to increase their interception production.”
“With Bouye and Jalen Ramsey on the corners and veteran safeties Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church patrolling the middle of the field, the Jaguars should be comfortable in building eight-man fronts and blitzing when necessary.”
“Everything is riding on Bortles, and everyone in the league knows it, so the scrutiny will be unrelenting from opening day.
“Everything went according to plan under first-year general manager Jon Robinson until the Game 15 fibula fracture suffered by franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota. The idea going into 2016 was to build the offensive line and develop a ground game to take some pressure off their second-year signal caller. It worked to the tune of Tennessee finishing third in the league in rushing, third in third-down percentage and first in red-zone scoring via touchdowns. Mariota has remarkably thrown 33 touchdowns in the red zone against zero interceptions — so he truly values the football.”
“DeMarco Murray enjoyed a bounce-back season, and look for Derrick Henry to get more touches this year, too.
“In the draft, Robinson chose Western Michigan’s Corey Davis at No. 5 overall to become Mariota’s first option.”
“The line is set with Ben Jones at center and Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin at the tackles.”
“On defense, the Titans added Sylvester Williams (Broncos) in free agency.”
“Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan combined for 19.5 sacks from their outside linebacker posts, while Avery Williamson turned in another solid season from the inside.”
“After being 30th in the NFL in passing yards allowed, they signed cornerback Logan Ryan from the Patriots and strong safety Johnathan Cyprien from the Jaguars, plus drafted Adoree’ Jackson.”
“The Titans improved their turnover margin from minus-14 to even in 2016. If they can get that number to the plus side, this team is better than a legitimate playoff contender.”