AFC South Over/Unders: Tepid Optimism for the Jaguars
NFL Offseason - Bryan: Welcome back to Football Outsiders' over/unders for 2022! We're continuing our speedrun through all eight divisions by jumping to the AFC South just in time for the Jacksonville Jaguars' appearance in tonight's Hall of Fame game.
Cale: We have our work cut out for us with this one as we look to make sense of an A.J. Brown-less Titans team that finished at the top of the AFC, pinpoint how much Matty Ice has left before he melts, and determine whether Jacksonville backing up the Brinks truck can actually translate to wins. Even the Texans feel like a slog here—we know they're bad, but how bad can they get? We're looking for gold splits on this AFC South run-through, so cue the Summoning Salt music!
Bryan: The AFC South is definitely the Glass Joe of the 2022 season—a division which simultaneously has the lowest ceiling and lowest floor. Nevertheless, we'll see at least one playoff team come out of the pack—I checked the bylaws, and apparently that's a rule—so let's break 'em down.
Houston Texans (4.5)
Cale: To backwards long-jump our way up the stairs of the AFC South, we have to start at the bottom. Enter the Houston Texans! The Texans are finally out of the holding period created by having Deshaun Watson on their roster. They operated as though they were kicking the can down the road until he was dealt before they really began their rebuild, and their roster shows. Their offense includes Brandin Cooks, second-year quarterback Davis Mills, and, uh, (checks notes) 32-year-old lead back Rex Burkhead. Yikes. That's what we're working with here? You were going to let Josh McCown run this offense?
Bryan: I'm astonished that Mills isn't my biggest concern, but he was arguably the second- or third-best rookie quarterback last season, depending on which stats you look at. The running game was a disaster, however, with the fifth-worst rushing DVOA we have ever recorded. Suffice it to say that I'm not sold on Burkhead, Marlon Mack, and Dameon Pierce being enough to actually provide support for a passing game which isn't strong enough to stand on its own merits just yet.
Cale: I don't trust the players running it, but Houston fans can at least take solace in the fact there will be improvement in who they're running behind. Laremy Tunsil will be returning after tearing a ligament in this thumb. Tytus Howard should gain some stability and earn more reps at left tackle, where he looked more comfortable last year. Rookie Kenyon Green projects to be a quality guard, and if you turn a blind eye to A.J. Cann's 5.3% blown block rate last year before his MCL injury, he's a solid add that should provide some depth and stability.
Gah, I'm really writing this much about the offensive line as a selling point?
Bryan: There's a lot of competency on the offensive line! That's a decent place to start finding credit for the Texans.
Actually, "competency" is a decent watchword for quite a bit of Houston's roster, especially if you precede it with qualifiers such as "short-term" and "veteran." For a team that should be rebuilding, there are not a lot of young, inspiring prospects on the roster, but they are better for the additions of Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison and players like that. Since seven wins guarantees a playoff spot, the strategy makes a lot of sense.
Wait, seven wins doesn't guarantee a playoff spot? In that case, I'm more confused. It feels like the Texans have constructed a roster without any massive, season-tanking holes, but they have done it with patchwork and spackle and "good enough" anywhere they can find. I'm not overly inspired.
Cale: I don't know if this team has what it takes to truly bottom out. Like you said, there are a lot of veteran players who, in the short term, put together a football team. Not every team in the league can say that. Players such as Hughes and Addison could help much better teams than the Texans. Derek Stingley and Jalen Pitre both really offer a lot of potential upside as rookies in this Texans secondary, and they could make already-decent players in Steven Nelson and Tavierre Thomas look even better. I mean, this team was even worse roster-wise in 2021, and they still outright beat the Los Angeles Chargers and almost beat the New England Patriots.
This team feels better on paper despite their reputation, already posted a half-game below their 2022 O/U last year, and has one of our easiest schedules headed into the season based on projected average opponent.
Am … am I about to go over on the Houston Texans?
Bryan: As we said yesterday, it takes a team utterly devoid of any sort of hope to go under a 4.5-win line; it's such a low bar to clear. The Texans are a team made up of spare parts and "eh, good enough"—but starting spare parts and "eh, good enoughs." With any luck, there's less of a circus surrounding them this season, and that can only help. I have no idea, no idea at all, what this franchise's plan is for getting back into respectability, but I don't think any one area of it is bad enough for me to be confident in picking them at 4-13 or worse. We're all in on the over for the, oh, 6-11 Houston Texans.
Indianapolis Colts (10)
Bryan: Welcome, Matty Ice! Matt Ryan should be an upgrade over Carson Wentz under center, and probably about the same level as Philip Rivers was two years ago. No, Ryan's no longer the same passer he once was, but with a better supporting cast around him, I think we'll see a significant bounce-back in his numbers. Jonathan Taylor and the running game is any quarterback's best friend, the offensive line should be healthier and better, and the receivers…
… uh, did the Colts forget to sign a receiver corps for this season? Because I'm seeing a depth chart filled with Michael Pittman and, uh, not much else. Parris Campbell? Second-round pick Alec Pierce? Is it possible Ryan had better pass-catchers in Atlanta, at least pre-Calvin Ridley's departure?
Cale: That's absolutely a possibility. I can't really make sense of that move. Maybe they really like Ashton Dulin, who had the second-best receiving DVOA among Colts wide receivers last year (seeing a whopping 22 targets). Maybe they're betting on Mo Alie-Cox at tight end, despite him finishing 30th among tight ends with 10 DYAR despite seeing a career-high in targets. Or maybe they're hoping to ride Jonathan Taylor for another year after an incredible season, and we all know leaning on lightning to strike twice at the running back position is very consistent and reliable. Any way you slice it, it feels like Indianapolis is setting up Matty Ice for an uphill battle. Hey, at least this is probably the best protection he has had in a few years.
Bryan: Probably, although that says more about the Falcons than it does about the Colts. We're still not sure on who will play left tackle, and neither Matt Pryor nor Bernhard Raimann exactly has me doing backflips. And pretty much everyone else is coming back from nagging injuries which limited their effectiveness last season. Honestly, Ryan might help them just as much, if not more, than they help Ryan. I think the Colts will likely be more consistent on offense than they were last season, but there are too many question marks here for me to call them good.
And our defensive projections are actually worse, which surprises me. Any defense with DeForest Buckner, Kenny Moore and Shaquille "don't call me Darius" Leonard seems like it should be solid, at a minimum, but our projections have them 24th.
Cale: Yeah, that definitely surprises me. Not only do they have a strong foundation in Buckner, Moore, and Leonard, but they also added Yannick Ngakoue and Stephon Gilmore. Asking Brandon Facyson, Rodney McLeod, and third-round safety Nick Cross to fill the shoes of Rock Ya-Sin, Andrew Sendejo, and Khari Willis is a tall task, but not impossible.
I also think there is at least some upside in Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo, especially with Odeyingbo getting a full offseason after he tore his Achilles training for the draft last year. I understand there is a ton of turnover here, and there are a lot more bets on improvement than one should probably feel comfortable with, but bottom-10 feels extremely harsh with the amount of top-end talent leading the way on this roster.
Bryan: I think it's fair to have questions about the secondary as a whole, but I think we're on the same page here—the defense feels like it's going to be the better of the two units, and somewhere approaching respectable.
But respectable enough to go 11-6 to hit the over on this line? Goodness gracious, no. I get where it's coming from—the Colts were 9-8 last year and theoretically upgraded at quarterback—but I just don't see Indianapolis getting anywhere close to 11 wins. I'd be a little hesitant to take the over on 8.5, much less 10. Under for me all day long.
Cale: On top of the uncertainty with a lot of this roster, there are just too many scheduling pitfalls for me to map out a world where this team sees fewer than seven losses. Their first game at home is against Kansas City. They head to Denver on a short week. Their five-game slate headed into their bye is at New England, at Las Vegas, hosting the Eagles and Steelers, then at Dallas. Even if we're being aggressive, finding 11 wins in here is a tough task. The offensive passing game—even with maybe the best quarterback they have had post-Andrew Luck—is too much for me to overcome. I still think nine or 10 wins could land you the AFC South, so I don't think an under ticket and a Colts division win are mutually exclusive. Might even make for a spicy parlay.
Jacksonville Jaguars (6.5)
Cale: The Jaguars are already better off in 2022 than they were in 2021, if only by getting rid of Urban Meyer. Addition-by-subtraction can sometimes be the best move for a franchise. That being said, how much better did this team actually get this offseason?
The contract to Christian Kirk practically broke the Internet and literally broke the wide receiver market for a few months. With the top overall draft pick, the Jaguars elected to bet on a toolsy yet unproven edge rusher in Travon Walker despite more proven options sitting atop big boards. There's a lot of guesswork we have to do about Jacksonville's offseason, but we can all agree it's at least better than whatever last year was.
Bryan: Nothing like a little Urban renewal to make things feel a little better, right?
I do believe the Jaguars are one of the most improved teams, at least on paper. You'd hope so, considering they handed out nearly $150 million in guaranteed contracts this offseason, overpaying for guys such as Kirk, Brandon Scherff, Foyesade Oluokun, Foley Fatukasi, Cam Robinson, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Also, and I know this is projection, I don't think any of them are going to be regularly belittled by a head coach in way over his head, so that's got to be a plus as well.
The problem is, they were so, so bad last year, at basically anything and everything. This offseason wasn't about building a roster; it was FEMA coming in after a natural disaster just to find what little was salvageable. Trevor Lawrence's rookie season is basically a write-off, surrounded by a staff who didn't know what they were doing and putting players around him who were not up to NFL standards for the most part. Really, they wasted his rookie season entirely, and we're starting from Square 1.
Cale: Building an entire offense from scratch is a tall task. Especially when you have to overpay them to come there. That being said, I am tepidly optimistic for what this offense can do. We saw flashes that made Trevor Lawrence a transcendent prospect coming into the 2021 draft, albeit without anyone around him to really do anything about it. Kirk, Marvin Jones Jr., and Zay Jones are a bunch of WR2s all playing starting roles, but it's by no means the worst receiver corps in the league. Travis Etienne is back from injury, and pairing him alongside James Robinson is a dynamic young one-two punch at running back. The offensive line, while still a little weak, is adequate when you combine it with Lawrence's veteran pocket navigation. The process in how all these guys got here—drafting Etienne in the first round despite the success of James Robinson as a UDFA, overpaying Kirk, tagging Cam Robinson—is bad, but now that they're all here, this isn't an awful unit.
Bryan: See, my tepid optimism is on the other side of the ball. I like the potential of Travon Walker a lot; I think he'll be a versatile piece to move all around the defense sooner rather than later. Depth was added basically everywhere, shoring up the foundation, especially in the middle of the defense at off-ball linebacker. The cornerbacks should actually get to play in their preferred positions, rather than shunting Tyson Campbell into the slot and asking Shaq Griffin to win by himself in man-on-man coverage. I'm not sure there are superstars here, but I think the pieces are better than they were last season and they'll be used more effectively. If the Jaguars have one good unit this season—and it would be a surprise if they did—I'd suspect it would be the defense, not the offense, that fights through the growing pains first.
Combine both our takes, and we'd have an easy over, I think. And yet…
The Jags haven't topped 6.5 wins since the one-off #Sacksonville year in 2017; before that, you have to go back to 2010 and the years of David Garrard. Maybe I'm letting franchise muck overwhelm my opinion of this season as a standalone complex, but I'm having a hard time seeing Doug Pederson shake all of the problems present in Duval for over a decade in just one year. I think it's entirely possible the Jaguars are headed in the right direction for the first time in … well, quite a while. But I don't think it's enough to get them to 6.5 wins just yet; I'm taking the under.
Cale: It wouldn't be called gambling if we didn't take a few risks. 6.5 is steep, and I'd feel way more comfortable at 5.5 or even getting the push with 6, but I'm going over. It feels dirty. This is a team starting from the absolute basement. But we have spoken too much about tepid optimism to persuade me into actual optimism. After everything we have said about the Texans and Colts, I can see a world where Jacksonville strings some wins together.
I think some level of normalcy, coupled with some solid weapons, a good coach, a decent foundation on defense, and a newly motivated quarterback, will be enough to propel this team from worst in the league to middle-of-the-pack. The AFC is tough, but the AFC South isn't, and a fifth-easiest -1.5% projected average opponent DVOA can help this thing cash.
Tennessee Titans (9)
Bryan: The No. 1 team in the AFC! ... by win-loss record. The No. 10 team in the AFC by DVOA. I'll let you guess which one of those facts affects Tennessee's line more. It does feel like the Titans were aware that they weren't all their record said they were, as they didn't go all-in in an attempt to maximize their chances this season at the expense of the future. Instead, we're set up for what may be the last year of Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry as the engines running this offense. Assuming, of course, Henry's engine doesn't explode from the uber-heavy workload the Titans pin on him.
Cale: The engine at least started to sputter last year. At least there was historical precedent as to why. No player who has ever rushed for 2,000 yards has come close to repeating it the year after. Either their production falls off dramatically, or they're unable to finish the year due to injury. For Henry, it was the latter. That being said, Henry was astonishingly on pace to repeat had he not been sidelined in Week 9. Hopefully, Tennessee can go back to leaning on him as the bell-cow back now that he has had time to recuperate.
And oh boy, will they need to, because the receiver room in Tennessee looks barren. A.J. Brown was shipped out of town during Day 1 of the draft. Left in his stead is Treylon Burks, whose most ideal comp is … A.J. Brown. Behind him is, who, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine? I touted the 2020 UDFA as Tennessee's best-value player in 2021, but seeing him as a WR2 is a bit rich for my blood.
Bryan: So, the Titans start the year without Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 7 in targets from last season, with Brown being joined by the loss of Julio Jones, Chester Rodgers, Anthony Firkser, and Jeremy McNichols. Obviously, not all those losses are made equal, but that's a lot of targets out the door. Robert Woods should help, but he's 30 years old, coming off a torn ACL, and shouldn't be a top option on a team anyway. We blasted the Colts receiver room earlier on, but the Titans might well be worse.
… in fact, considering the state of all four teams, the Colts may well have the best receiver corps in the division, which is a little bit terrifying, but that's neither here nor there.
Cale: And the Texans may have the best receiver in the division in Brandin Cooks. This is a bizarre timeline we have crossed into. I'm scared, Bryan.
Bryan: The AFC South features in many of our nightmares, though normally that's just J.P. Acosta after watching film of his Jaguars last season.
Cale: What should help Titans fans sleep at night is their defensive roster. Jeffrey Simmons broke out last year in a big way, springing from three sacks and 21 hurries in 2020 to 8.5 sacks and 34 hurries in 2021. With Harold Landry, who boasted a career-high 12 sacks and 36 hurries, and Bud Dupree, who will hopefully return to form after his injury-hobbled 2021 season, this Titans defensive line has the potential to be one of the most formidable in the AFC. This doesn't even mention a secondary led by Kevin Byard and Kristian Fulton, whose breakout 2021 afforded Tennessee the ability to release Jackrabbit Jenkins.
Bryan: Normally, our projection system would hate a team that jumped from 29th to 12th in defensive DVOA, making the Titans a perfect Plexiglass Principle potentiality, but I think Shane Bowen's work last season and the personnel added means that most of the improvement was legitimate, as opposed to just year-by-year fluctuations. And yeah, with Dupree back, I could see the Titans sneaking into the bottom of the top 10 in DVOA, if not too much higher than that.
I'm just very skeptical about the offense. I suspect Henry won't rebound to his pre-injury self, and I have negative faith in the passing attack. The division is absolutely there for the taking again, but I don't think the Titans have gotten any better than they were last season, and they won't be as lucky as they were last year, either. Their record will be more in line with their DVOA, which doesn't bode well for them!
I guess that means I'm going with the under for the third team in the division. Someone has to win this thing, but that might well be a race to nine wins! I do think the Titans are more likely than the Colts to hit their over, and not just because their line is a full game shorter, but I just can't find it in me to back this version of Tennessee getting to double-digit wins.
Cale: I think I have to go under. There is a track record of Tennessee defying expectations: they punched way above their weight last year and secured the top seed despite missing games from Henry, Brown, and Jones. I just don't think they have the players to compete with top-end talent. It really helps that the AFC South gets to square off against the NFC East this year. There's a world I can see the Titans going over, but the offensive pitfalls this team has to get over to keep up with teams such as Buffalo, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Dallas, and the Chargers is just too much. And if it falls in line with my overs on Houston and Jacksonville, those two would probably have a chance to at least pick up a game against Tennessee.
That being said, this feels like another spot where Vegas knows this team too well. The push on nine wins feels right on the money here. 9-8 to win the division feels gross, but right. Exactly what the AFC South deserves.