The AFC South is in an interesting place right now. You have the Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts, who are working in new quarterbacks and new head coaches, the Jacksonville Jaguars, who won the AFC South last year for the first time since 2017, and then there's the Tennessee Titans, who are not rebuilding despite the rumors that surrounded them this offseason.
This division is more wide open than you think. The Jaguars are the preseason favorites, but are the Titans really that far behind? It's also possible the Colts or Texans could surprise with their talented young quarterbacks. If you haven't noticed by now, the NFL is rather unpredictable.
With training camp here, it's time to preview the 2023 season. Below, we will examine three questions each AFC South team must answer before the start of the year.
1. Has C.J. Stroud earned the job?
Stroud will likely start Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens, but I want to know if he's truly earned the job. That's something everyone will be looking for in training camp, and through the preseason. Stroud was the early betting favorite to go No. 1 overall to the Carolina Panthers before they ultimately landed on Bryce Young. When you look at the top quarterbacks from the 2023 class, you can make the argument Stroud is the safest player. He's more polished as a passer than Anthony Richardson, and isn't 5-foot-10 like Young.
Stroud led an Ohio State offense that was No. 1 in the FBS in points per game (45.0) and yards per game (526.0) over the past two seasons. He also threw the most passing touchdowns in a two-year span in Big Ten history with 85. There were some rumblings about his "football IQ" because of his alleged scores on the S2 test. I didn't put too much stock into those reports, and I don't think you should either. The bottom line is that the Texans need a franchise quarterback, and Stroud's chance to fill that void begins now.
2. Will DeMeco Ryans improve the defense immediately?
The Texans made what could be a great hire in former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. He led a defense that finished last season first in points per game (16.3), first in yards allowed per game (300.6) and tied for first in interceptions (20). Houston needed a guy like this, because the Texans did not have a good defense in 2022.
Statistically, the Texans defense ranked third-worst in the league last season (379.5 yards allowed per game), and had the worst rushing defense (170.2 rushing yards allowed per game). In fact, Houston had the worst net rushing yardage margin (-1,418) since the winless 2008 Detroit Lions. There's good reason to believe that should change in 2023.
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Apart from Ryans taking over, the Texans signed several free agents like Jimmie Ward, Sheldon Rankins, Shaquill Griffin and Denzel Perryman. Plus, Houston drafted pass rusher Will Anderson Jr. with the No. 3 overall pick -- who was seen by many as the best player in this entire class. The Alabama product ranks first in the FBS over the last three seasons in pressures, QB hits, tackles for loss and sacks.
The Texans defense is expected to be improved this season, but how improved?
3. Who is the center?
The offensive line is important for any rebuilding team -- especially a rebuilding team with a rookie quarterback. Giving that young signal-caller all the time he needs to throw the football will expedite his development, and the Texans have an interesting offensive line to say the least. Laremy Tunsil is one of the best left tackles in the game, Tytus Howard is a legitimate right tackle and the Shaq Mason trade at guard was a great move. Now, for the other two positions. Former No. 15 overall pick Kenyon Green did not have a great rookie season at left guard (but is expected to improve), and then we don't know who will be playing center.
The Texans drafted Juice Scruggs out of Penn State in the second round, and then Jarrett Patterson out of Notre Dame in the sixth round. Both are interior linemen with center experience, but Houston also has Scott Quessenberry, Michael Deiter and Jimmy Morrissey. My guess is that one of the rookies will win that center job, but which one?
1. How ready is Anthony Richardson?
This question isn't "will Anthony Richardson start right away?" because it seems like he will. This is more about 1) Is he actually ready? and 2) What can the Colts do over the next month to prepare him even more? Richardson is an athletic freak, but that's not what's most important when it comes to quarterbacking. As a prospect, he wasn't lauded for his ability as a pocket passer. His 13 college starts are tied for the fewest by a first-round quarterback since 2000 (Mitch Trubisky in 2017), and he had the worst career completion percentage in college (55%) by a first-round quarterback since Jake Locker in 2011.
I don't say all this to demean Richardson, I'm just predicting that some growing pains are coming. One thing I will say is having Shane Steichen as head coach should have Colts fans optimistic about Richardson. He has experience working with young quarterbacks and getting the most out of them. I believe he's the one who turned Jalen Hurts into a legitimate star with the Philadelphia Eagles.
2. Is the offensive line good enough?
The Colts' offensive line is not "bad," but there are obviously some question marks. Indy is hoping left tackle Bernhard Raimann can make a big second-year jump, so the front office can feel comfortable at the position for the first time in years. The other question mark is at right guard. I'm actually very surprised the Colts didn't sign someone in free agency or draft someone relatively high to compete with Will Fries, but here's another opportunity for him to prove he's a legitimate starter inside.
3. Will Shaquille Leonard be Shaquille Leonard again?
One of the top linebackers in the game played in just three contests last season due to a back injury and concussion. Leonard had to deal with a nerve issue, which is always scary. That's not something that always heals 100 percent correctly. This Colts team is much better with him in the lineup, and we are going to see how he fares through training camp and the preseason. Leonard is confident he will be back to his regular self in 2023.
"As of right now, I have zero doubt in my mind that I will be back to being me," Leonard said in January. "I know that I will and I can't wait to come back out here, compete and prove everybody wrong. I love this game, I love to compete, I love to play and I love to prove everybody wrong. I'm looking forward to that opportunity."
1. Is Trevor Lawrence ready to push into super-stardom?
Lawrence's passer rating going from 71.9 in 2021 to 95.2 in 2022 is the largest increase in NFL history for any quarterback who threw at least 400 passes in each of his first two seasons. It's also the since Terry Bradshaw of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who did not throw 400 passes in his first two seasons. Some see Lawrence as a dark horse MVP candidate, but we only have a small sample size when it comes to his success -- and no, I'm not talking about his rookie season.
Lawrence went 2-6 to start the 2022 season, and threw 10 touchdowns compared to six interceptions. Then, he found a rhythm. The former No. 1 overall pick went 7-2 to finish out the regular season with 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions. His 104.6 passer rating over those last nine games ranked second in the NFL in that span. Lawrence played his best football at the end of the regular season, and then pulled off that remarkable comeback against the Los Angeles Chargers in the playoffs. It's fair to wonder if he's about to explode in 2023.
Lawrence has several things working for him: Ability, weapons and head coaching. This season could be fun in Duval County.
2. Who are the pass-rush replacements?
The Jaguars have their starting pass rushers in Josh Allen and Travon Walker, but as we learned last year, having more than just two guys makes a pass-rush unit successful. Jacksonville lost two of its three sack leaders this offseason in Dawuane Smoot and Arden Key. The former tore his Achilles in late December, and then Key landed with the rival Titans.
The players to watch at pass rusher are Jordan Smith, K'Lavon Chaisson and rookie Yasir Abdullah. Smith didn't play at all last year, Chaisson has three career sacks in three years and then again, Abdullah is a rookie.
CBS Sports NFL Draft expert Chris Trapasso gave the Jags' fifth-round selection of Abdullah a "C+" grade:
"Body of a big LB but was essentially an EDGE-only in college. Exudes explosiveness. Moments of stunning power. No counters right now. Adding a tools-y EDGE at this stage of the draft is smart for Jaguars. He is a project type though."
One of these guys is going to have to step up.
3. Are both offensive tackles ready for their promotions?
The Jaguars will have new starters at left and right tackle entering 2023, as Cam Robinson was for violating the NFL's PED policy, while Jawaan Taylor is now with the Kansas City Chiefs. Walker Little, who has played 425 career snaps at left tackle, figures to start on that side, and rookie Anton Harrison is viewed as a prospective franchise right tackle.
A four-game suspension for Robinson isn't as bad as it could have been, but Jacksonville's first four games are important. The Jags have two divisional opponents, the Chiefs and a matchup with the Atlanta Falcons in London. Then, they host the Buffalo Bills in London again the very next week when Robinson returns. As we start training camp, I'll have an eye on the Jaguars offensive tackles.
1. Who are the starters on the offensive line?
It appeared the Titans had upgraded the offensive line this offseason, but then came the news of Nicholas Petit-Frere's six-game suspension for violating the league's gambling policy. Now, the Titans . Will the new right tackle be Daniel Brunskill, and then someone else fills his spot at right guard? Could first-round pick Peter Skoronski or free-agent pickup Andre Dillard flip to the right side? Will the Titans sign an available veteran like George Fant?
The right tackle position is on everyone's minds, but I'm also interested in what Tennessee does at left tackle. Is Mike Vrabel going to give Skoronski a chance to battle for that starting spot, or is that Dillard's job? At No. 11 overall, I expected a franchise left tackle, not a franchise left guard.
2. How different will the Titans' offense be?
The Titans' 2023 season hinges on two things: Tim Kelly, and health. We'll talk about the latter in a second, but let's discuss the Titans' new offensive coordinator.
The promotion of Kelly was not the sexiest move the Titans made this offseason. Especially with names like Eric Bieniemy and Matt Nagy floating around. But it was probably the Titans' most important decision -- apart from tabbing Ran Carthon as the new GM. With Kelly, expect the offense to look different. Hope this offense looks different.
Tennessee had the third-worst offense in the league last year (296.8 yards per game), and the third-worst passing offense (171.4 passing yards per game). With Kelly and the addition of DeAndre Hopkins, I would expect that to change. Expect some up-tempo concepts thrown in this year, and keep an eye on rookie running back Tyjae Spears to be a receiving threat. I don't think the Titans are going to run on every single first down anymore.
on 1st downs Tennessee had the #2 highest run rate— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) June 21, 2023
despite Ds stacking the box at the #4 highest rate
unsurprisingly the runs ranked #4 worst in efficiency
but nothing stopped them from running into loaded boxes
not even the fact that 1st down passes ranked #3 in efficiency
3. Can Tennessee change its injury luck?
This is more of an abstract topic, but there has to be something the Titans can do regarding injuries -- their biggest issue over the last two years. Vrabel's squads historically have been tough, and "next man up" has been a theme for this franchise. Remember, the Titans grabbed the No. 1 seed in the AFC in 2021 without Derrick Henry and with A.J. Brown having his worst NFL season. In 2022, however, there was just too much adversity for the Titans to overcome.
Tennessee went from 7-3 to 7-10, as the Titans lost seven straight games while the roster fell apart. It's still impressive they built such a lead for themselves in the division that the Week 18 matchup vs. Jacksonville was a win-and-you're-in situation! Tennessee placed a league-high 34 players on IR through Week 17 last year, per Titans Wire.
There is definitely luck involved when it comes to avoiding injuries, but something has to change for the Titans. If I'm Vrabel/Carthon, I'm demanding a presentation from the strength and conditioning staff explaining how we can and will be better than years past. Last year's big injuries for the Titans started before the regular season. Can they get through a preseason without an important starter going down?