AFC South Over/Unders: The Houston Texans and the Legion of the Adequate
Bryan: Welcome back to Scramble for the Ball, Thursday edition! As always, another Thursday sees us turning to the AFC, which means we get to look at the AFC South and ... well. I mean, I suppose the quality of teams in this division does fit our general ethos fairly nicely. When you have the team with last year's worst record in your division, and a different team is the odds-on-favorite to finish with the fewest wins in the league this year, you know you can look forward to some quality football-type action in your future.
Andrew: Remember back in our first of this series, when you claimed the NFC East is the worst division in football and I said I wasn't so sure? This is exactly the division I had in mind. The NFC East has its flaws. None of those teams is about to start, potentially, Tyrod Taylor or Jacob Eason at quarterback.
Bryan: You make a strong argument there. I'd call the AFC South the division with the lowest ceiling in the league. I think there's more of a chance that those NFC East teams can crumble and be absolute disasters, but they also have realistic shots of being decently competitive in most cases. But the AFC South? I find it difficult to drum up a ton of optimism for anyone. The two "good" teams don't feel like Super Bowl contenders, and the two terrible teams are, well, terrible, with very little hope for 2021, and not a ton more for 2022 if I'm honest.
Andrew: The hilarious beauty of this AFC South offseason is the fact that two of these teams could fit into either of those buckets, depending just how much weight you place on the identity of the person receiving the ball from the center. We'll get to that debate shortly. Before we do, however, we must traverse the fabled Pit of Despair.
Note: "Last Over" and "Last Under" below list the last time each team went over this year's over/under number. Yes, that's awkward with the shift from 16 games to 17. Somehow, we'll get through this together.
Houston Texans (4)
Last Over: 2019 (Head Coach: Bill O'Brien; Quarterback: Deshaun Watson)
Last Under: 2013 (Head Coach: Gary Kubiak/Matt Schaub)
Andrew: There are literally no words to describe what has happened to this football team in the past 12 months. Even longer, really, going back to the death of Bob McNair, the arrival of Jack Easterby, and the resultant weird power dynamics.
Bryan: This was a fun team to joke about last year, starting with the DeAndre Hopkins trade and the gradual unravelling of a team that, in January of 2020, had held a 24-0 lead over Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs in a playoff game. Their subsequent collapse was entertaining in a sort of schadenfreudetistic sense; watching Deshaun Watson run around and put up big numbers on the way to yet another loss is good times, especially for Scramble writers who tend to focus on the bottom half of the league for longer than the FDA's recommended daily intake. Finding joy in terrible football is kind of a baseline requirement for this job!
I don't think this team is going to be very fun to joke about in 2021.
Andrew: It certainly hasn't been so far. The Deshaun Watson situation is about as dire as dire gets for way more people than I need to name here. Regardless of whether Watson plays a down this year, and regardless of whether that down is played in Houston, what has emerged this offseason has been dreadful. This column being what it is, we really need to focus on the on-field impact, but no good has come of Watson's offseason by any measure.
Regardless of how the legalities and the contract dispute plays out, it sure looks like the Texans will be choosing between Tyrod Taylor and Davis Mills as their starting quarterback, on a roster that Rivers McCown wonderfully but somewhat hyperbolically described in the Almanac as a Madden Free Agent pool that plays games. 18 months ago, they had Deshaun Watson throwing to Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins while J.J. Watt crushed the pocket on defense. Now, they have none of those players, and nothing that looks remotely like an adequate replacement either.
Bryan: It's that offseason philosophy that has me the most worried about this line. In our free agency cost-benefit analysis article, the Texans came out with the most surplus value gained this offseason, with 23 players coming in on deals just above the veteran's minimum and almost none making any kind of serious money. That's all well and good, but it doesn't help you to generate value for the sake of generating value; the idea is that you take that surplus $14.5 million and you go and sign some top players. The 2021 Texans are built from spare parts and castoffs—well-researched and well-budgeted spare parts, but spare parts notwithstanding. It's like you made an entire team out of players slightly above replacement level. And since all of these players are on one-year deals, the Texans aren't going to get any benefit if they play well; they'll just be more expensive next year and Houston won't be able to re-sign them all. It's a strategy almost custom-designed to produce low-ceiling outcomes, but it might raise the floor above this four-win line, which would be terrible—they need high draft picks! They gave all their last ones away!
Andrew: The general perception of the Texans as being akin to an expansion roster is, to me, more accurate. These players aren't really roster flotsam so much as 53 C+ role players. Whitney Mercilus, Shaq Lawson, and Jordan Jenkins isn't any worse than whatever the Falcons are trying to deploy. Bradley Roby, Justin Reid, and Eric Murray are three-quarters of a pretty good secondary, and Desmond King is quite a good nickel defender. Anthony Miller and Chris Conley are veteran multi-year starters, and Brandin Cooks is famous for his first-round travels. David Culley is absolutely unknown as a head coach, but he can lean on the experience of Lovie Smith if he needs to.
There is absolutely nothing to get excited about here, and I suspect that even getting enthusiastic about potential draft position is a bridge too far. They'll pick in the top 10, for sure, but this line is the over/under on them picking in the top three.
Bryan: A four-win line is punishingly low. Yes, someone bombs out every year, but asking if any one specific team is going to hit that mark is asking a ton. All those C+ players give the Texans a baseline of ... competence is a stretch, but a professionalism that is going to be able to capitalize if a subpar opponent has a bad day, as subpar teams often do. The Texans have the fifth-easiest schedule in the league by our numbers; it's not too hard to find eight or so games where they have at least a puncher's chance. Finding 14 losses to hit the under certainly isn't out of the question, but there's so little wiggle room under this line...
Andrew: I guess the question, for me, is can I find enough teams that could be worse? The Jets, for sure. The Lions, though I think Detroit will be better. Cincinnati. Uh, that's about it.
Bryan: They also get two games against the Jaguars, coming off of a 1-15 season themselves.
Andrew: The Jaguars hinge on Trevor Lawrence and have a line 2.5 wins higher than the Texans. I'm fairly confident that, unless the Texans get Watson on the field or Lawrence is shockingly bad considering his pedigree, the Jaguars will be better. The Jets? No. The Bengals? No. The Lions? I think they will be better too. So let's say the No. 3 overall pick, assuming no Deshaun Watson in 2021. I think that's just bad enough to hit the under, but boy would I be tempted to push. They'll scrape their way to 4-13, and I'll be frustrated. Under.
Bryan: See, I think that the Legion of the Adequate will be enough. Someone's going to have a quarterback injury; some coach is going to get fired halfway through the year; someone's rebuild is going to fail. The Texans don't have enough moving parts to fail. They're going to bumble through the year, third- or fourth-worst everywhere you look, and pick up some victories against teams that just don't have it that day. Easterby and company will spin it as Competition Overcoming All. The rest of us will view it as some of the worst games of the year. Over.
Indianapolis Colts (9)
Last Over: 2020 (Frank Reich/Philip Rivers)
Last Under: 2019 (Frank Reich/Jacoby Brissett)
Bryan: This line, of course, went spiraling downwards with news of Carson Wentz's foot injury; plummeting all the way down to nine wins from, uh, 9.5.
Andrew: Whether it should have been as high as 9.5 even with Wentz under center is a different question entirely, although the two are not unrelated. If the Texans are the advertiser-supported Legion of the Adequate, I view the Colts as the paid-subscription version. This roster is packed with above-average players. Their best two are a guard and an off-ball linebacker. They were better off with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback, when that Luckless team was two Brian Hoyer appearances away from 9-7. This team is two Sam Ehlinger appearances away from 5-12.
Bryan: At least I can understand why the Colts went with Wentz, even if I don't agree with the decision. Indianapolis wasn't in a position to grab a rookie quarterback, so we can't play the Justin Fields game. Wentz at least has a history of being successful, so I have to respect his potential more than that of Sam Darnold. And he is reuniting with a coach who had him when he was a quality player. I would have stuck it out with Brissett, but I can at least see the logic, in a "we don't have a ton of options" sort of way. You say the Colts' roster is packed with above-average players; being above-average everywhere is well above average from a team's perspective. If they can dig up a time machine somewhere and bring back Wentz Classic, this team could contend.
Let's say I have my doubts.
Andrew: The issue with Wentz is that it isn't just a matter of time. It's also circumstance, and confidence, and the mental aspects of being a Franchise Quarterback, combined with a fair bit of luck and randomness.
Everything I said about the Panthers applies here. Sure, it's Kwity Paye enhancing the pass rush instead of Jaycee Horn augmenting the coverage, but all of the talent around the quarterback is in place. I love their receiving corps, their offensive line should still be good despite some losses, their backfield is as good as any outside maybe Cleveland and New Orleans, and they have the best defense in the division by a country mile (not, it should be noted, a high accolade in this particular division). But they're hoping to start a reclamation project at quarterback, said reclamation project is already hurt like he has been every year of his career, and said attempt at reclamation is likely to doom the entire project.
The injury is critical, because the Colts are about to play Seattle, the Rams, and possibly a tough three-game in-conference road trip with Jacob Eason or Sam Ehlinger at quarterback. An 0-5 start is well within reach, and this squad is not getting back to nine wins from 0-5.
Bryan: They could, but it would require a Carson the White to arise in October, and Wentz's history is more written by George R.R. Martin than J.R.R. Tolkien.
The Colts are a great example of why I think this is the division with the lowest ceiling. The roster is good enough to pave over the long-term rebuilding projects such as the Texans, the Jets, the Jaguars. If they had a Kirk Cousins or a Jimmy Garoppolo under center, they'd be my favorites to win the division, and wouldn't be a crazy choice as a dark horse Super Bowl contender. But they don't. They have Wentz, and Eason, and Ehlinger, and they're happy with that. 8-9 or 9-8 feels like the right tags to put on this team, and the Wentz injury with that tough early schedule, is enough for me to go under. I would call this the toughest line in the division, but I just don't see much room for the Colts to be great with that quarterback situation.
Andrew: I wonder whether the contract extensions for Chris Ballard and Frank Reich are, on some level, a recognition that this is likely to be a difficult season that needs to be seen in the context of a longer-term plan. The Colts don't need questions about the staff to overshadow what will be a difficult season unless Wentz enjoys a Warner-in-Arizona-level comeback. They'll start, at best, 1-4. They'll go, at best, 7-5 the rest of the way. That's not going to clear a nine-win line. Under.
Jacksonville Jaguars (6.5)
Last Over: 2017 (Doug Marrone/Blake Bortles)
Last Under: 2020 (Doug Marrone/Gardner Minshew)
Andrew: If Trevor Lawrence is anything like the prospect he has been touted as, there is a lot to like about the potential of this Jaguars team. Am I crazy? I feel like that's the sort of thing a crazy person would say.
Bryan: Well, that depends. Are we talking about liking the potential of the Jaguars rising to the heady heights of 7-10? Because then I could maybe get on board, if I dig out my teal-colored glasses. Otherwise, well, uh...
Andrew: If Lawrence is any good—and I'm not asking for him to be first-year Andrew Luck good, though that potential is present—then 7-10 might be a realistic floor for the Jaguars, sure. Hear me out. DJ Chark is legitimate, a much better receiver than his quarterbacks have allowed him to show, and a genuine No. 1 for many teams. Marvin Jones isn't an elite player, but he's a reliable veteran, and Laviska Shenault and Phillip Dorsett give them pretty solid No. 3 and No. 4 targets. The offensive line isn't outstanding, but there are some good players here anchored by one of the best centers in the game. James Robinson is a reasonable starter between the tackles, and Travis Etienne can be a very good receiving back. This can quite realistically be a top-half offense.
On defense, Josh Allen is a very good edge rusher, Malcolm Brown helps the interior a great deal, Myles Jack is back to his best after a dodgy 2019 season, and the secondary is improved from last year. They'll benefit from regression toward the mean. The rest of the division, Tennessee aside, could be very bad. They play Houston twice, Cincinnati, the Jets, and mostly a bunch of mid-tier sides rather than the elite teams such as the Chiefs and Bucs. I'm not saying they're a playoff contender, but they shouldn't be picking in the top five again either.
Bryan: Alright, I hear your argument, and you're not alone. Ex-Outsider Bill Barnwell listed the Jags as the most likely team in football to go worst to first, in part because of the state of the AFC South in general, but in part because of Lawrence. Lawrence is considered in some circles to be the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck; Luck turned a 2-14 team into an 11-5 team in his first season, so why not the Jags?
Luck-esque turnarounds are difficult, unsurprisingly. In the DVOA era, there have been 62 quarterbacks taken in the top 10, going to teams who presumably were not be the easiest situations to step into. Only nine of them won seven or more games as a rookie. It's tough to get that instant turnaround even if you are the top quarterback prospect in the league.
Offensively, I am much lower on the Jags' offensive line than you are. Jawaan Taylor is not a starting-quality player and Cam Robinson isn't much better. Your tackles are a mess. The Jags don't have a tight end, and that's not even intended as a Tim Tebow joke.
Bryan: I will spot you the receivers, but Lawrence is going to be running for his life. Maybe the other first-round pick, Etienne, can convert to left tackle, as the Jags have made noise about using Etienne everywhere except running back over the course of this offseason.
But for as down as I am about the offense, I'm even lower on the defense. If Shaquill Griffin has as bounce-back season, the Jaguars have one professional-caliber cornerback. K'Lavon Chaisson's rookie year went about as bad as you could fear, and he'll need to take a massive leap to be adequate as the second pass-rusher behind Allen—who, I should mention, managed just 16 pressures in eight games last season, with a 13.3% missed tackle rate. He'll need to get back to his rookie form to be worth the "very good" praise you gave him. Jack is OK, their safeties could be worse, but I don't see how the Jags stop anyone from passing whatsoever.
I also have no faith in general manager Trent Baalke after watching what he did in San Francisco. He's already back to his tricks of drafting every torn ACL he can find. And Urban Meyer? Dubious, at best. I have not been impressed with his efforts to this point transitioning to the professional level.
Andrew: Ah, yes, I too balked at that GM appointment. I'm very consciously not a follower of college football, so I'm not sure what to make of Meyer, but he seems like the type of appointment who'll be good for getting the team back to a competitive level while he retains his enthusiasm for the job. Mainly, I think Lawrence, even in Year 1, raises the floor significantly. Sure, they only won one game last year, but that was with a defense that will not be as terrible this time out, and with a bizarre cocktail of quarterbacks that was only ever going to result in nausea. They'll be better, and the rest of the division other than Tennessee will be worse. While "better" for the Jaguars is relative, in my opinion this is the worst division in the league. A below-average Jaguars team can pull off a half-dozen wins.
That said, a half-dozen wins is not over a 6.5-win line. Outside the division, they still have to play the NFC West, Buffalo, a Denver side that could be very tough defensively, and experienced Falcons and Patriots teams that are way closer to contention than the Jaguars are. Add in Tennessee, and that's 10 losses without even having to look very hard. They aren't sweeping their inferior opponents. This is a Jaguars team with a lot of potential, but this line is a game too high and a year too early. Under.
Bryan: Justin Herbert, last year's offensive rookie of the year, went 6-10 with a better roster than the Jags have. Peyton Manning and Baker Mayfield had two of the 10 best DYARs we have counted for rookies; neither hit seven wins. (Heck, Peyton was 3-13.) Lawrence and crossed fingers are not enough to get me over the top here. It's not impossible to get to the over, but you can see impossible from here. Under.
Tennessee Titans (9)
Last Over: 2020 (Mike Vrabel/Ryan Tannehill)
Last Under: 2015 (Mike Mularkey/Marcus Mariota)
Andrew: I have been under on three of the four teams so far. You have only been over on the Texans because four wins is such a low line. We're both undoubtedly taking the Titans to win the division, and nobody wants that to happen with a losing record. So we're both taking the over here, and going home, right?
Bryan: I'm not sure what part of "low ceiling" isn't coming across here.
The Almanac has the Colts, not the Titans, as divisional favorites. I think the Titans have a little bit more potential in them due to the not-having-Carson-Wentz factor, but I don't think I disagree with our projections in general. The Titans are top-heavy as heck, they're flirting with the Curse of 370, and the defense is ... well, it exists. They are planning on having 11 players on the field, to the best of my knowledge.
Andrew: See, I think the Titans defense could be markedly better this season. Last year was the worst DVOA they have recorded since they went 2-14 under Ken Whisenhunt, and they still finished 11-5. They have added Denico Autry and Bud Dupree to a previously atrocious pass rush and brought in Janoris Jenkins to replace Malcolm Butler at cornerback, and while that's not exactly a facelift, it bumps other players into roles that I think gives the defense a healthier overall outlook. Nobody's going to mistake them for the 2000 Ravens, but they can easily overcome the likes of Tyrod Taylor and Zach Wilson.
On offense, Julio Jones is way better than Corey Davis. They'll be OK if Derrick Henry breaks down—he was nothing special until Ryan Tannehill arrived. And I think we have seen enough to give Tannehill the benefit of the doubt despite the loss of Arthur Smith. They haven't fallen below nine wins in five years. They'll at least reach that mark again this time out.
Bryan: I appreciate that the Titans have spent a ton of money trying to fix their defense. It was the right thing to do if they wanted to try to compete this year, and they needed to do something to improve the 29th-ranked defense from a year ago. Our projections don't like it at all, as we give the Titans the worst defensive projection in the league, but I think the Titans had to make the attempt, and goodness knows they have made a habit of defying our projections in the past couple years. I'm not optimistic in any sense of the word, but I prefer teams to have a plan I don't agree with rather than to be doing things apparently at random, so the Titans are ahead of the bar in this division by a comfortable margin.
But ... do we give Tannehill the benefit of the doubt in an Arthur Smith-less world? We blamed Adam Gase for keeping him down; might it not also be possible that Arthur Smith kept him up? New offensive coordinator Todd Downing doesn't have the world's greatest track record, though he also never had a passer like Tannehill to work with.
Andrew: I think we saw enough of Tannehill even in Miami for it to be clear that Gase was keeping him down.
Bryan: More than fair. It's more me being skeptical of Downing than skeptical of Tannehill, I suppose; I think losing Arthur Smith is going to hurt the offense, although that will be at least somewhat offset—and perhaps entirely outweighed—by Julio Jones coming in.
Andrew: Josh Reynolds isn't a world-beater, but he's a solid enough No. 3 too. The biggest loss, in terms of personnel, might be Jonnu Smith. Geoff Swaim is not exactly a like-for-like replacement.
Overall, I don't see much reason to expect the Titans to be any different from what they have been in recent seasons. They're well-led and well-coached (which are two slightly different things), they have better personnel overall than last year, and they should be a safe bet for a nine-win floor. They're unlikely to make any noise in the postseason, but they should at least get there. Over.
Bryan: I think assuming a postseason berth for the Titans is a bit premature. It's certainly a reasonable proposition, don't get me wrong, but the defense makes me wary, as does the potential offensive regression. I think that on average, this is an eight-win team, just with a wider range of results than the rest of the division. When I went game-by-game—which is not the best way to do this, but it is good fun—I had the Titans and Colts tying at eight wins a piece atop the division. Odds are one or both will exceed that, but I'd think for a team I was sure would make the playoffs, there would be more obvious gimme wins on the schedule. I'm going with the under here; they have a very interesting October schedule (at Jets, at Jags, Buffalo, Kansas City, at Colts) that I think will tell the tale of what kind of football team this is. They could easily be 6-2 or 2-6 at the end of that stretch, and I'll have a much better grip on what kind of team they actually are when Autumn comes around.
Andrew: Two disagreements in the same division! My, aren't we cantankerous today?
Bryan: We'll have a midday ESPN argument show in no time at this rate.
Bryan and Andrew return next week to wrap up the northern divisions, starting in the NFC. Does Bryan still think the Vikings are the team to beat? Can we get any perks from our bosses by pulling an Aaron Rodgers? And what to do with Baron Adelbert Gruner, shameless philanderer and murderer? These questions and fewer answered next week, same Scramble time, same Scramble channel.