by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We continue our TGS NFL previews with a look at the AFC South.  As always, teams are presented in order of predicted finish, with 2017 straight-up, spread, and "Over/Under" (O/U) recornds included. 

In the world of good and bad steps, with Neil Armstrong’s first on the Moon being on the top end (though we have always liked Apollo 12 Pete Conrad’s “that might have been a small step for Neil, but it was a big one for me!” when he stepped on the Moon in November, 1969, as a close second), Deshaun Watson’s flukey practice injury in which he tore an ACL with a bad step last November 2 would rank near the bottom. At that point, the Houston Texans (2017 SUR 4-12; PSR 7-9; O/U 7-9) were the talk of the league and Watson was tearing up the NFL just like he did the ACC when at Clemson, having thrown 19 TDP in just 7 games (6 starts). Two of those losses were near-misses on the road at New England and Seattle in the last seconds when the defense failed. Along the way, Watson had put the fear of God into both Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll the way he did when torching Nick Saban’s Alabama defense in the previous two FBS title games. Not to mention helping the Texans drop an earlier 57-point bomb on the Titans. But after Watson’s injury, Houston would lose 8 of its last 9, with reliever Tom Savage less effective than the Baltimore Orioles bullpen, tossing just 5 TD passes in Watson’s place. Combined with a rash of injuries elsewhere on the roster, Houston was ready to set up a Red Cross annex at NRG Stadium. The various ailments proved a life-raft of sorts for fourth-year HC Bill O’Brien, said to be on a bit of thin ice with owner Bob McNair, who could not really justify jettisoning an entire staff after the squad had been so strafed by injuries.

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The good news for Houston fans is that Watson has reappeared in the preseason and has looked beyond any lingering effects of his knee injury, which is also a welcome development for fantasy football owners who thought they had struck gold with the Clemson man last fall as well as some of Watson’s supporting cast like WR Will Fuller, who looked to briefly emerge as one of the league’s best deep threats until Watson went down. Make no mistake, keeping Watson (who was en route to a staggering 43 TD passes in his rookie year before getting hurt) on the field keys everything this year in Houston, from the Texans making a playoff run to O’Brien keeping his job. Working from the shotgun and creating backfield action helped Watson put inordinate stress on second-level defenders, none of whom seemed able to figure him out in those six starts. Will those defenses do better this fall?

A healthy Watson means the Texans should again be able to stretch enemy defenses with a homerun gorup of wideouts led by big-time DeAndre Hopkins (another 96 catches last year) and the aforementioned Fuller, who became a lethal long-ball threat and caught 7 TDs with his 28 receptions, almost all of those before Watson was hurt. The infantry was functional and has a similar look with Lamar Miller and D’Onta Foreman back in the mix. In the offseason, GM Brian Gaine made sure to address OL deficiencies with a variety of free agents and draft picks; G Zach Fulton (via Chiefs), T Seantrel Henderson (via Bills), and G/T Senio Kelemente (via Saints) could be among four new starters surrounding holdover C Nick Martin, another one of those on the injured list (ankle) last fall.

Perhaps that injury theme has repeated a bit too often in Houston to wonder if it is random; the “D” has been annually hit as hard or harder than the “O” the past couple of years, with DE deluxe (when healthy) JJ Watt recovering from his latest malady, a broken leg, that ended his 2017 prematurely. Another playmaker, sackmaster OLB Whitney Mercilus, is also coming back from a torn pectoral that KO’d him a year ago. A healthy Watt and Mercilus, along with hybrid OLB/DE Jadeveon Clowney, gives the Texans as much push from the edge as any team...when all hands are on deck, that is. In the offseason, GM Gaine also moved to revamp a secondary that leaked last fall, inking CB Aaron Colvin from the Jags and S Tyrann Mathieu from the Cards while bringing back vet CB Johnathon Joseph on a new 2-year deal.

Indeed, GM Gaine had a pretty productive offseason despite being hampered by no first-round pick (used to move up in trade with the Browns for a chance at Watson in the 2017 draft) or second-rounder (used as bait for the Browns again to offload unwanted QB Brock Osweiler last summer). Gaine also reportedly has a better rapport with O’Brien than previous GM Rick Smith. Most of the pieces have to stay in place (especially Watson) for Houston to make a serious run this fall; if they do, here could be your Super Bowl sleeper.

Spread-wise, like almost everything else in Houston last year, results were tied to Watson; in games he started the Texans covered 5 of 6, in games he didn’t, they dropped 8 of 10. Houston will probably be looking forward to its first crack (Oct. 21) at Jacksonville, which bullied the Texans twice by a combined 74-14 last fall...both of those in games that Watson didn’t start.

At this time last year we were talking about the Jacksonville Jaguars (2017 SUR 12-7; PSR 11-8; O/U 9-10) in Browns-like terms. It had been a decade since the Jags had made the playoffs, hardly coming close in the interim. Bringing back original coach Tom Coughlin in a personnel supremo role seemed a stab in the dark. A brief trial for HC Doug Marrone at the end of the previous 2016 campaign was scant evidence he could forge a quick turnaround. Blake Bortles had yet to show a lot of progress at the QB spot. And then there was the status of the franchise, with rumors persisting that mustachioed owner Shad Khan would eventually move the team to London, where one of his other sports properties, Fulham FC, has just been promoted back to EPL. (That was all before Khan’s company finalized the purchase of the new Wembley Stadium, so we might not have heard the last of this one.) But, along the way in 2017, a funny thing happened, as Jacksonville suddenly got good and ended up winning the AFC South plus a couple of playoff games. A couple of minutes from their first-ever Super Bowl visit, the Jags would let a late lead slip away at New England in the AFC title. Still, when the smoke cleared, it was a dizzying ascent. Is Jacksonville really a new power in the AFC?

At the risk of sounding a bit snarky, we’d like to see the Jags do it again in 2018. Yes, many of the pieces seem in place, including on the attack end where Jacksonville zoomed to a number six ranking on total offense. Bortles, who looked to have one foot out of the door at various times the past couple of years, did enough a year ago to warrant a 3-year contract extension at $54 mill, though many onlookers wonder if the Blake-ster has hit his ceiling and is really a much better option than new backup Cody Kessler, over from the Browns. The attack perked up last season behind the franchise’s first top-tier RB since Fred Taylor, LSU rookie star Leonard Fournette, who was taking the league by storm until a midseason ankle injury slowed him and the infantry down the stretch. Jacksonville still led the NFL in rushing, and Fournette gained 1040 yards, but the ground game dropped off by over 50 ypg the final six weeks of the season. Which is why the most important offseason addition might have been to sign pounding 325-lb. LG Andrew Norwell from the Panthers. In further free agency news, Coughlin did not mind letting longtime wideouts Allen Hurns (to the Cowboys) and Allen Robinson (to the Bears) walk in free agency with Marqise Lee and Keelan Cole emerging as capable targets a year ago, and LSU rookie 2nd-round pick DJ Clark another potential deep threat. Coughlin also added ex-Jet TE Austin Sefarian-Jenkins in free agency after the deaprture of another longtime staple, Marcedes Lewis.

If the Jags get back to where they landed a year ago, however, it will likely mostly be the work of the defense, which ranked at or near the top in most relevant categories and should be just as good this fall even with the retirement of key MLB Paul Posluszny, not to mention the inflammatory recent comments by CB Jalen Ramsey, who seemed to anger more NFL players than Trump with his pointed criticisms of several opponents. (Wonder how the no-nonsense Coughlin reacted to all of that bulletin-board material?) Training camp has also not been as peaceful as a walk on Ponte Vedra Beach, as Ramsey and DE Dante Fowler would then get hit with a one-week suspension in August for a post-practice altercation (some old Florida vs. Florida State hate, perhaps?), and Fowler is already dealing with a one-game suspension that will keep him out fo the opener vs. the Giants, not to mention missing offseason workouts due to an upper-body injury. Meanwhile, DT Marcell Dareus is dealing with an assault charge that was filed in July. Not a dull moment with these Jags! Even with these various distractions, the stop unit is loaded with various playmakers entering the prime years of their career, and as if the platoon needed another potential future Pro Bowler added to the mix, first-round DT Taven Bryan from Florida could make an immediate impact.

Ascending teams often take a “pause” after arriving a bit early, so we would not be surprised to see the Jags slip a bit this fall. Remember how the Patriots missed the playoffs in 2002, the year after their first Super Bowl win. And last we checked, Bortles is no Tom Brady. Moreover, just as we were getting used to the splash of colors on the J’ville unis and their two-toned helmets, the Jags have gone back a straight black-and-teal look from their early years. And we were finally getting to like those costumes with the splash of colors!  On the field, however, what should be a tougher AFC South will make a playoff return tricky.

Spread-wise, J’ville covered more games as a favorite last season (seven) than it had the previous five years combined, when it was only favored a total of eight times. The upgraded defense also triggered a change from recent “over” seasons as the Jags went “under” more often than not a year ago; Jax was 22-11 “over” into last season.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Indianapolis Colts (2017 SUR 4-12; PSR 8-8; O/U 6-10) at full strength. We certainly didn’t a look a year ago, when QB Andrew Luck never got on the field due to a lingering shoulder injury which some believed was jeopardizing his career. And that was just the latest in a series of maladies that have kept Luck out of 26 games the past three seasons. Moreover, the offensive line was a sieve, though ex-Patriot and NC State QB Jacoby Brissett, acquired on the eve of the regular season, performed near heroically under the circumstances to get the team to four wins, which was probably four more than the team might have recorded if it stuck with Scott Tolzien as the option to Luck. Though circumstances suggested he might have been due a mulligan, HC Chuck Pagano was not granted another, which was no surprise as owner Jim Irsay had changed GMs the previous year, and Chris Ballard was always expected to be allowed to hire his own man. Sources believe Ballard might have lucked out with second (third?) choice Frank Reich, recently the Eagles’ o.c. after Patriot o.c. Josh McDaniels changed his mind about taking the job. AFC South onlookers, however, have been impressed by what they have seen from Reich, who despite a calm exterior has been running the most-physical camp in Indy memory this summer.

Of course, having Luck at 100% (which we’re not quite sure he is at quite yet, though he has played extensively in the first two preseason games to work off the rust) completely changes the dynamics for the Colts. In a best-case scenario, Luck becomes the game-changer he was earlier in his career when Indy was a playoff regular. Ballard immediately addressed the OL deficiencies in the draft when drafting Notre Dame destroyer G Quenton Nelson with the sixth overall pick and adding another road-grader, Auburn G Braden Smith, in the second round (two of the league-high 11 picks in the draft; Nelson’s slot in the first round and others coming over from the Jets, who moved into the Colts’ slot to take QB Sam Darnold). Reich will be trying to mimic the Eagles offense as best he can, down to rotating RBs, though he could have depth issues at the outset with Marlon Mack limited by a hamstring strain in August and Robert Turbin suspended until the fifth game. NC State rookie Nyheim Hines, a versatile 4th-round pick, will get a chance to strut in September. A shoulder injury has slowed top wideout TY Hilton in August, but it is not expected to keep him out of the opener at Cincinnati on September 9. Meanwhile, inking ex-Lion TE Eric Ebron to go along with underrated holdover Jack Doyle (team-best 80 catches LY) should allow Reich to replicate the various double-TE sets he used in Philly. And if all else fails, there’s still ageless PK Adam Vinatieri, now in Morten Andersen territory for length of service (into his 23rd year!) and still good enough to hit 29 of 34 FG tries last fall, not to mention a 57-yarder this August vs. the Ravems.

With the no-Luck “O” laboring last season, the “D” got little help and would eventually wear out by the end of most games. But that was last year. New d.c. Matt Eberflus, hired by Reich off of Jason Garrett’s Cowboys staff, is switching alignments to a more-traditional 4-3 after Pagano’s preference for the 3-4. Still, a lot of draftees from recent years are going to need to grow up in a hurry; in the case of 2017's first-round pick, ex-Bama S Malik Hooker, it’s more about staying healthy after missing almost all of 2017 with injury. If Hooker is at 100%, some believe he could become Ed Reed-like in the secondary. Another former SEC DB, second-year CB Quincy Wilson (ex-Florida), is expected to move into the lineup after Ballard discarded last year’s corners Vontae Davis and Rashaad Melvin. Free agents such as ex-Eagles MLB Najee Goode (familiar to Reich from Philly) and ex-Raiders DE Demico Autry are expected to be plugged right into the lineup. It’s a mostly-new defense, which was not a bad idea for a platoon that ranked 30th overall a year ago.

In past years, a healthy Luck, in combination with struggling Jacksonville and Tennessee and up-and-down Houston, was good enough to win the South, but it’s a tougher neighborhood these days with the Jags and Titans both off of playoff years, and the Texans expected to rebound. If Luck is at 100^%, Indy will have a puncher’s chance to recover, but a lot has to fall right for Reich in his first year to get the Colts close to the playoffs.

Spread-wise, with a mostly-healthy Luck in the first three years of his career, the Colts were a pointspread overachiever, notching a 29-17-2 reg.-season spread mark. Which has dipped the past three seasons as Luck has missed more than half of Indy’s games. Just in case Luck goes down again, however, note that the resourceful Brissett actually led the Colts to a winning mark vs. the line (8-7) in his starts.

Sometimes it’s best not to rock the boat. Such as with coaching changes...were the Mets really better off this season with Mickey Callaway than Terry Collins, who had reached the playoffs two of the last three years, and qualifying for the World Series in one of those? We wonder about a couple of NFL equivalents this season, one of those with the Tennessee Titans (2017 SUR 10-8; PSR 8-9-1; O/U 10-8), off of their first postseason appearance in a decade, back to the long-gone Jeff Fisher regime. Although we weren’t huge fans of the recently-defrocked Mike Mullarkey, he did lead the Titans to the playoffs last season, and was able to forge a bit of an identity in Nashville with a ground-and-pound style of offense. Now, the fact Mullarkey was even retained following the 2015 campaign, in which he replaced Ken Whisenhunt halfway thru, was likely more an indicator of the post-Bud Adams leadership void with the franchise that has passed thru various Adams heirs.

But Mullarkey did win a playoff game last season, and we’re hardly convinced replacement Mike Vrabel is going to be an improvement. Though not a direct coaching disciple of Bill Belichick, the connection is clear, dating back to playing days with the Patriots and on the recent staff of the Texans, working alongside d.c. Romeo Crennel, himself one of Belichick’s “guys” and one of many of those who failed in their head coaching adventures. This will also be the first such assignment at any level for Vrabel, who enjoyed a decorated 14-year playing career. Those sorts, however, have not always transitioned successfully to the HC role. Which remains a topic of discussion at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, the Pancake Pantry, and other renown Music City eateries.

Offseason indicators seemed positive, especially for the offense, as Vrabel immediately hired Greg LaFleur off of Sean McVay’s Rams staff to coordinate the attack and hopefully straighten out fourth-year QB Marcus Mariota, whose career has begun to flounder amid a series of injuries that have prevented him from ever playing a full 16-game schedule. Mariota endured perhaps his worst season last fall, tossing more picks (15) than TDs (13), though he was bothered by a nagging hamstring pull and an on offseason spent mostly in rehab from a broken leg. Expect LaFleur to more tailor the new-look “O” to Mariota, with more spread formations, tempo, play-action, and run-pass options in an attack that functioned better a year ago when Mariota was running the no-huddle. Former Bama Heisman winner Derrick Henry (744 YR) takes over as the featured RB following DeMarco Murray’s departure, while versatile ex-Patriot Dion Lewis looks like he could flourish in a more-jazzy Titan strike force. Indeed, many are more skeptical how Henry performs in an “O” that won’t simply be plowing ahead as in the Mullarkey years. There is also hope that 2017 first-round draftee WR Corey Davis picks up the pace after some encouraging work late last season, though underrated TE Delanie Walker (74 catches LY) likely remains Mariota’s favorite target. (Rishard Matthews, a semi go-to target in the past, has been dealing with an undisclosed injury and remained on the PUP list into late August.) Still, GM Jon Robinson did not do much upgrading to the receiving crps in the draft or free agency, suggesting he believes plenty of upside still exists with Davis and others, though we’re not as sure. The OL is veteran, but was not as effective a year ago as in 2016, and will be adjusting to a new zone-blocking scheme this fall. Early preseason work suggests the strike force will continue to be a work in progress into September...if not longer.

Vrabel’s personal specialty, however, has been defense, and his move to lure respected d.c. Dean Pees from the Ravens could prove a shrewd piece of offseason business (though if Pees will be an upgrade from the sage Dick LeBeau remains to be seen). The pass defense (ranked 25th a year ago) was identified as an area of need by GM Robisnon, who went out and signed one-time Super Bowl (not last year, however) hero CB Malcolm Butler from the Patriots. Along with holdovers Logan Ryan and last year’s first-round pick, Adoree’ Jackson, the Titans are stacked at the corners, and Robinson moved up three times in the draft to pluck defenders, including a pair of LBs with the first two picks, Alabama’s Rashaan Evans and BC’s Harold Landry. After the Titans ranked 4th vs. the run and 5th in sacks last year under LeBeau, it’s a tough act to follow for Pees, who nonetheless has plenty of credentials of his own, including a reputation for producing high-pressure stop units like the ones recently on display at Baltimore.

Though off of a wild card win at Kansas City, the Titans backed into the playoffs last term after a three-game December losing streak to NFC West entries had jeopardized postseason hopes. And the 9-7 regular-season mark was modest. If the Colts and Texans improve as we suspect with now-healthy QBs, the AFC South also gets much tougher this fall. There is no guarantee that in his first year on the job, Vrabel fares as well as his predecessor Mullarkey, especially if Mariota’s progress really has stalled. Though we do admit to liking the new-style Tennessee unis, complete with a new helmet look (it’s now blue instead of the former white)!

Spread-wise, Tennessee has developed a home-road pattern, hard to beat at Nissan Stadium (where they’re 9-1-2 vs. the number since mid 2016), but almost a polar opposite 3-9-1 vs. the points their last 13 away.

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