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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Matt Verderame

AFC South Report Cards: Jaguars the Clear Favorite Despite Mediocre Grade

The AFC is loaded. The AFC South is not.

Looking at the division, it seems to be the Jaguars and everyone else. However, intrigue abounds in the South, with C.J. Stroud and Anthony Richardson taking over the Texans and Colts, respectively, while the Titans are potentially transitioning to Will Levis no later than 2024.

But how did the division fare this offseason? We tried to evaluate each based on free agency, trades, drafting and new hires. Here’s our report card:

Houston Texans

The Texans drafted two big pieces in the first round, taking Stroud and Will Anderson Jr. 

Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

Key additions: QB C.J. Stroud, OLB Will Anderson Jr., OG Shaq Mason, TE Dalton Schultz, S Jimmie Ward, WR Robert Woods

Key subtractions: WR Brandin Cooks, DE Mario Addison

Where they stand: Houston isn’t going to threaten for the playoffs unless Stroud is unbelievable, but the Texans appear headed in the right direction. For the first time since Deshaun Watson was dealt away to the Browns, Houston has a franchise quarterback in first-round pick C.J. Stroud.

The big question is whether the Texans have a coach. DeMeco Ryans comes over from the 49ers after serving as defensive coordinator the past two years. Ryans was an excellent linebacker with the Texans and showed he can command an elite defense, but as the fourth coach in as many years in Houston, this is a unique challenge.

Then there’s Stroud and his maturation. Barring a surprise, the Ohio State product is going to start from Week 1. Is there enough around him after the trade of receiver Brandin Cooks to the Cowboys? There’s a lot of pressure on Stroud to create in the passing game without ample help.

Luckily for the Texans, this is a division where they should find a few wins. And after winning a grand total of 11 games over the past three years, Houston finishing even 5–12 or 6–11 would represent real progress.

Projected win total: 5.5

Odds to win the AFC South: +700

Final grade: B+

Overall, the Texans are still a subpar team, but there’s hope. Stroud is a potential answer at the sport’s paramount position, and Ryans appears a long-term solution after the one-year trials of David Culley and Lovie Smith. Additionally, rookie edge rusher Anderson should anchor a front seven that has been adrift since the halcyon days of J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus.

For Houston, a successful season isn’t about wins and losses. It’s about Stroud playing well, Ryans being an asset on the sideline and Anderson destroying offenses. If those three things happen, there’s a path to success in the near future for the Texans.

Indianapolis Colts

After having four starting quarterbacks in as many seasons since the August 2019 retirement of Andrew Luck, the Colts are hoping they have their guy in Richardson.

Kim Klement/USA Today network

Key additions: QB Anthony Richardson, WR Isaiah McKenzie, CB Julius Brents

Key subtractions: QB Matt Ryan, QB Nick Foles, CB Stephon Gilmore

Where they stand: Ultimately, 2023 in Indy will come down to Richardson and coach Shane Steichen. Richardson’s talent is immense, but he’ll need an experienced hand to guide him, and, while Steichen has never been in the top job, he showed his ability with Jalen Hurts as Eagles offensive coordinator. If those two thrive, the win-loss record will be better than expected, but more importantly an indicator things are changing with the Colts.

As for the remainder of the team, Indianapolis entered the offseason with a ton of cap space but didn’t do much. General manager Chris Ballard is typically quiet in March and that was true again. The Colts traded away Gilmore and replaced him with Brents, who they selected in the second round. They also released quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Nick Foles, filling their overwhelmed shoes with Richardson.

After having four starting quarterbacks in as many seasons since the August 2019 retirement of Andrew Luck, the Colts are hoping they have their guy in Richardson. Paired with Steichen, Indianapolis is banking on a new power couple in the Hoosier State.

Projected win total: 6.5

Odds to win the AFC South: +500

Final grade: B

The good news? The Colts have an exciting, young prospect in Richardson who enters the league as an elite athlete ideally suited for today’s game. Steichen also has a great track record with dual-threat quarterbacks as aforementioned. This should be a good long-term pairing, but how does the first year look?

The bad news? The Colts were almost comically inactive during free agency. When the roster is a bottom-five group and there’s cap space to use, it should be spent to a reasonable degree. Instead, Ballard stood pat. Furthermore, Richardson is a worthy gamble, but he threw fewer than 900 passes between high school and college. Translation? It could take some time.

Tennessee Titans

If Levis proves to be a plus starter, this will be one of the more productive offseasons for the Titans.

Jordan Prather/USA TODAY Sports

Key additions: OT Andre Dillard, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, OL Peter Skoronski, QB Will Levis

Key subtractions: LT Taylor Lewan, OG Nate Davis, OLB Bud Dupree, WR Robert Woods, LB Zach Cunningham

Where they stand: The Titans are undergoing a facelift with first-year general manager Ran Carthon. Carthon cleared out a ton of salary with Lewan, Cunningham, Woods and others all being released to free up cap space both now and into the future. Tennessee also got younger, essentially starting over while still employing veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill for one more year.

Not surprisingly, Carthon didn’t make major moves in free agency, instead allowing his roster to settle. The low-cost, high-upside potential of Dillard and Murphy-Bunting are quality signings, but this is a team that will win based only on Derrick Henry’s everlasting legs and the coaching of Mike Vrabel.

In the draft, Tennessee took a chance on Kentucky’s Levis in the second round, giving him a year behind Tannehill before presumably turning over the job to him. If Levis proves to be a plus starter down the line, this will be one of the more productive offseasons the Titans have had in some time. Tennessee is also working on rebuilding the offensive line, starting with Skoronski, its first-round pick who can play either tackle or guard.

The returns might take a year to fully see, but the Titans should feel good about their process.

Projected win total: 7.5

Odds to win the AFC South: +380

Final grade: B-

This is a transition year, and Carthon has the Titans set up nicely.

Yet for this season, don’t expect the Titans to change their identity. They’ll continue to grind games out and try to win on the margins.

Defensively, the group will be anchored by tackle Jeffery Simmons, who signed a four-year, $94 million extension in April. It’s the kind of move that shows Carthon will reward great play in house, instead of trading everyone in an effort to remake the entire team in his image, as so many other GMs do.

It could be a frustrating season in Nashville, but if the draft picks work out and the roster overhaul leads to more opportunities down the line, it’s worth it.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Lawrence has the Jaguars thinking Super Bowl after last year's 9-8 mark and playoff win.

Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Key additions: OT Anton Harrison, TE Brenton Strange

Key subtractions: RT Jawaan Taylor, CB Shaquil Griffin

Where they stand: The Jaguars come into 2023 as the clear AFC South favorite. After rallying to win the division last year with a 9–8 record, Jacksonville secured an all-time wild-card win after a 27–0 deficit. Now in coach Doug Pederson’s second year, the Jaguars have real expectations, but general manager Trent Baalke didn’t do much to help in that regard.

Jacksonville did very little in free agency, largely because it spent lavishly the year before on talents such as tight end Evan Engram, linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, and others. Ready to take the next step, progress will be left to Pederson and third-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

And for the Jaguars to truly compete with teams such as the Chiefs and Bengals atop the AFC, it starts with Lawrence continuing to become a star. As a rookie, Lawrence threw for 12 touchdowns and a league-high 17 interceptions while completing 59.6 percent of his attempts. Last year, those numbers improved to 25 touchdowns against eight interceptions with a 66.3% completion rate.

It’s a new day in Duval, even with a very quiet offseason.

Projected win total: 10.5

Odds to win the AFC South: -150

Final grade: C

Frankly, the offseason grade would be lower after a substandard draft and no upgrades, but so much work was done in 2022 that Baalke couldn’t be very aggressive. Of course, that’s also on the front office, but Jacksonville has gone from afterthought to contender, so credit where credit is due.

The big question is whether the Jaguars can compete with the league’s best despite not adding significantly to their defense. The offense should score plenty, especially with the end of receiver Calvin Ridley’s gambling suspension. But there are questions regarding whether Jacksonville did enough to vault the AFC competition. 

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