The Deadspin 2020 NFL Previews, AFC South: Who Will Emerge as This Year’s January Darlings?

The Deadspin 2020 NFL Previews, AFC South: Who Will Emerge as This Year’s January Darlings?

Illustration for article titled The Deadspin 2020 NFL Previews, AFC South: Who Will Emerge as This Year’s January Darlings?
Graphic: Eric Barrow

The AFC South likely will not be a division at the top of most people’s radars to start the year.

With Phillip Rivers leaving Southern California to join the Colts, and DeShaun Watson trying to make due with a depleted Houston receiving corps, this division on the surface is … not that exciting.

However, the run by the Tennessee Titans into the AFC Championship Game surprised many people this past season and followed the Jags’ shocking run to that same game in 2018. The Texans’ disappointing end to their season was bewildering in its own right. One takeaway from this division is any one of these teams could surprise you, and will in some good — and probably lotsa bad — ways.

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Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts

T.Y. Hilton
T.Y. Hilton
Photo: Getty

COVID Response: The Colts haven’t had any players test positive with COVID-19 since training camps started. “I think the new mindset for everybody that’s a part of the team is to try and make this thing work. If we take care of things individually, we’ll take care of the entire team,” wide receiver Parris Campbell said at the beginning of August. “I think everyone just wants to do this for each other so we can continue with the season, so everyone is together and on the same page.” Linebacker Skai Moore and safeties Rolan Milligan and Marvell Tell have opted out.

Outside the lines: The Colts canceled practice numerous times during the week of August 28 in response to the Kenosha, Wis., police shooting of Jacob Blake. “We understand that our job rewards us with a platform to pour into our resources, our relationships, to not only make change on a surface level, but to use relationships and the communication that we have with others that can help change, and deep-rooted the change,” Backup QB Jacoby Brissett said during a team presentation to the media on Aug. 28.

Areas the team will be focusing on:

  1. Voting registration and voting centers
  2. Community police engagement
  3. Concentrating on food insecurity for low-income families in Indianapolis
  4. Ensuring Indianapolis Public Schools have the resources and funding they need

Oh, he’s here now?: Phillip Rivers opted for some new scenery, after 16 seasons as the face of the Chargers, and has made his way to the Colts. Rivers is on a 1-year, $25-million dollar deal. Indy also grabbed Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor in the second round of the draft and he has impressed at camp.

Where’d he go?: Bryan Hoyer, the Colts’ former backup QB, is back where it all started for him, New England.

Fans in stands: There will be no more than 2,500 fans at their Sept. 20 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings.

What To Expect: Rivers will be reunited with head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni and joining the seventh-ranked run offense in the NFL, boding well for him at this age in his career. Rivers will have to develop a relationship with WR T.Y. Hilton to get the passing game rolling. According to early reports, a “bromance” is already forming. The Colts had a league-high of six extra-point kick misses, making camp extremely competitive for placekickers Rodrigo Blankenship and Chase McLaughlin.

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Houston Texans

Houston Texans

David Johnson
David Johnson
Photo: Getty

COVID Response: Defensive end J.J. Watt and his wife, NWSL star Kealia, donated $350,000 to the Houston Food Bank in March in light of COVID-19 and food insecurity. There haven’t been any reported positive COVID-19 tests at camp. Nose tackle Eddie Vanderdoes decided to opt out.

Outside the lines: Shortly after the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said that he was prepared to support his players if they chose to kneel during the anthem this season. He also offered to join them. “Yeah, I’ll take a knee. I’m all for it,” O’Brien said in June. “The players have a right to protest, a right to be heard and a right to be who they are. They’re not taking a knee because they’re against our flag. They’re taking a knee because they haven’t been treated equally in this country for over 400 years.”

WR Kenny Stills was also arrested in July while protesting for Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

Oh, he’s here now? They added Cardinals running back David Johnson (we’ll get to how in a minute). Also, Brandin Cooks has arrived from the Rams to help sure up a now weakened receiving corp (more on that as well). Veteran receiver Randall Cobb also joins the Texans, coming over from the Cowboys, and safeties Jaylen Watkins from the Chargers, Eric Murray from the Browns, and offensive tackle Brent Qvale from the Jets.

Where’d he go? The Texans unloaded one of the league’s best wide receivers in DeAndre Hopkins, shipping him to Arizona. Hopkins and head coach Bill O’Brien were at odds about a number of issues. The Texans received running back Johnson and a 2020 second-round pick and 2021 fourth round pick. It was a bad trade for the Texans and will leave a huge void on their offense this season. After the debacle against the Kansas City Chiefs in the postseason, Romeo Crennel is out as Texans defensive coordinator. He spent six seasons with the team.

Will there be fans in the stands? Not until further notice.

What To Expect: Without Hopkins this year, the Texans’ offense will look much different. QB DeShaun Watson, who just signed a $177 million four-year extension this month, will be launching darts, but it’s still unclear who will be catching Hopkins’ share. Can Cooks account for those catches? He did haul in 80 passes for 1,204 yards back in 2018. They still have returning pieces in Kenny Stills and Will Fuller. Defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver, formerly the team’s defensive line coach, is expected to shake up their defensive scheme this season. The team ranked 19th in total defense last year. However, they ranked second on run defense. Regardless of what Weaver lays out as the team’s defensive foundation, J.J. Watt will be wreaking his usual havoc, if he can stay on the field, of course.

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Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville Jaguars

Gardner Minshew
Gardner Minshew
Photo: Getty

COVID Response: There haven’t been any COVID-19 positive tests at camp. OTL Lerentee McCray, CB Rashaan Melvin and DT Al Woods have opted out, and DE Aaron Lynch decided to retire.

Outside the lines: Jaguars owner Shahid Khan wrote in a column in June: “Racism, in all its forms, will kill. It kills people; it kills communities; it kills dreams; it kills hope. For many Americans, now is the moment. Never has that been clearer. I don’t want to waste this moment.” A few days later, the team led a march in Jacksonville.

Oh, he’s here now? Former Washington head coach Jay Gruden was brought in to run the Jaguars offense. He was an offensive coordinator before he joined Washington in 2014. Tyler Eifert at tight end and ex-Browns linebacker Joe Schobert should improve their respective sides of the ball.

Where’d he go? Leonard Fournette, who was released by the Jaguars after three seasons, signed a one-year contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason. QB Nick Foles is now on the Bears and wide receiver Marqise Lee is now on the Pats.

Fans in the stands: The Jaguars plan to have 25 percent of stadium capacity at all eight home games. All fans will be required to wear a mask.

What To Expect: Over the 2011-2017 drafts, Jacksonville’s first-round picks have either been released or traded. And with Fournette’s recent release, the franchise is facing some significant setbacks. Expectations are meager and the Jags will likely not win many games this season. They will possibly be looking for a stud quarterback in next year’s draft unless Gardner Minshew and his ’stache shines brighter than anyone thinks he will. The Jags could eye Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields, but there are so many holes in this roster that there will be plenty of needs when the time comes.

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Tennessee Titans

Tennessee Titans

Jadeveon Clowney
Jadeveon Clowney
Photo: Getty

COVID Response: According to a recent report by Casino.org, 22 percent of Titans fans said they would not attend games due to coronavirus — the highest percentage among any fanbase.

“NFL football is a game meant to be played in front of a loud, cheering crowd, and no one desires that outcome more than us,” Titans President Burke Nihill said earlier this summer. “However, these are not normal times, and as civic leaders in this great city, we understand and support Mayor John Cooper and Metro Nashville Public Health Department’s decision today to delay welcoming fans into Nissan Stadium.” OT Anthony McKinney has opted out.

Outside the lines: The Titans released a video on June 29 inviting a conversation on race. General Manager Jon Robinson ended the video with a message of hope: “That cohesiveness that exists within our team, if the entire country can have the same kind of love and same respect and same feel for each other, we will end racism.” Following the Milwaukee Bucks’ strike, the Titans players canceled practice the next day. They had a series of meetings about the climate of the country before arriving at that decision.

Oh, he’s here now? Jadeveon Clowney finally settled on where he will play this season and that’s with the Titans. Clowney is back in the AFC South where his career began six years ago with the Houston Texans. Defensive end Vic Beasley comes over from Atlanta.

Where’d he go? Former first-round pick Marcus Mariota is now a Raider. Defensive lineman Jurrell Casey, defensive back Logan Ryan and linebacker Wesley Woodyard are notable losses on defense, along with coordinator Dean Pees, who retired.

Fans in the stands: Not until further notice.

What To Expect: The Titans turned many heads last season, clawing their way to the AFC Championship Game. With second-year head coach Mike Vrabel leading the way, Tennessee’s expectations have been bumped up a tier this season. RB Derrick Henry returns from a monster season in which he led the league in yards (1,540) and TDs (16) and yards per game (102.7). The concern will be whether or not his league-leading 303 carries was too much for the 5th-year back. His previous high in carries was 215. And can QB Ryan Tannehill build on whatever it is he found in Nashville, where is completion pct. went up and his INTs went down after six middling seasons in Miami? The Titans have 10 of their 11 starters returning on offense from last season returning, but the defense undergoes a major shakeup after the losses of Case, Ryan, Woodyard and Pees, so nothing is guaranteed.

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Elsewhere

Elsewhere

Check out the rest of our NFL previews for this strangest of seasons:

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