The AFC South is primed to be one of the toughest divisions in football this season. While a lot could change, and major injuries often shift the landscape of football over the course of the season, this seems like a turning point for the oft-maligned division. As this better and stronger division emerges, it makes sense to take a look at the teams and see where their strengths lie and how the Colts compare with their divisional opponents. We will look at the offensive skill positions, beginning today with quarterback and running back.
Quarterback is absolutely the most valuable and important position on any roster. If you don’t have a quarterback, the rest of your team has to be perfect, and there is no room for error. Even then, you still might not be able to win it all.
In this competition for the top spot, it is an easy decision. Andrew Luck stands head and shoulders above the rest as the best quarterback in the division. He was a top five quarterback in 2016, while playing with a torn labrum and handicapped by a terrible offensive coordinator.
Now he has been paired with the offensive mind that allowed a team to win a Super Bowl with their backup quarterback. He has a man in Frank Reich who understands the quarterback position calling the plays and crafting the playbook to meet his strengths. Given the improvements along the offensive line and play calling, it wouldn’t surprise me if Luck has an MVP type of season in 2018. While he may start off dealing with rust, I don’t expect that to last long.
Next in line is Deshaun Watson for the Texans. Watson is a major question mark. When he played last season he was electric. He had a similar transformative effect on the Texans offense that Luck has for the Colts. However, there are a few things that should concern Texans fans heading into 2018.
First, Watson tore his ACL and ended his season back in November of 2017. Even if he is available to start the 2018 season, it is likely that he doesn’t look quite like himself until next season, as that is often the time it takes to feel normal when recovering from an ACL tear. Watson’s effectiveness derived from his being more of the new school QB threat. Like Luck, he is able to challenge defenses that leave him unchecked by scrambling for first downs. However, he can make some truly impressive throws, and showed the preference to strike that way in the few games he did play.
Sophomore seasons tend to be tough for quarterbacks, and I expect that will be the case for Watson. I think his future is bright, but coming back from injury could make it tough for him to recreate the magic he had in 2017.
The Titans’ Marcus Mariota is next, and he is sort of an enigma. With a new coach, perhaps he can be more than he has so far, but thus far he is just the guy who can’t stay healthy and doesn’t consistently perform at his top ability. When he is on he is very talented, but he has a career of up and down performances that leave you wondering if he is more floor or ceiling.
Last, and deservedly so is Blake Bortles. Bortles is a backup quarterback who has somehow convinced the Jaguars that he is a starter. While he isn’t asked to do much, and the Jaguars’ prolific defense doesn’t put a lot of pressure on him to win games, it is hard not to think he is the single thing limiting this Jaguars team from getting over the hump.
While they bring up the rear at quarterback, the Jaguars have the very slim lead at the running back position. Leonard Fournette is the most talented back in the AFC South, and while he didn’t quite live up to the hype placed on him during the draft, he still managed to net a 1,000 yard rushing season despite only playing 13 games. The room behind him is pretty sparse though with T.J. Yeldon as the only back with significant experience. These two are likely to see significant success additionally because without the talent at quarterback, they’ll rely on the running game as their primary source of offense.
The field behind the Jaguars is murky. While the Jags will likely use Fournette as a bell cow back, the other three teams will use a more committee style approach where the running game is concerned. Given the whole picture, I’m awarding the second spot to the Colts.
That might seem like blatant homerism, but let me explain my reasoning. The Colts have invested heavily in the running game this offseason. They added quality competition to the offensive line both through the draft and free agency. Additionally, they spent two draft picks on running backs, grabbing the speedy Nyheim Hines and the patient bigger back Jordan Wilkins. They also have second year player Marlon Mack returning after a season where he was poorly utilized and played through a torn labrum for much of the year. Despite that, he was still a major home run threat pretty regularly. Also, you can’t totally sleep on Robert Turbin, who has always been an effective short yardage back.
When you factor in the addition of an innovative offensive mind like Frank Reich, the legendary Tom Rathman as the running backs coach, and the return of Luck at quarterback, the Colts running back room has plenty to be optimistic about.
The Titans closely follow the Colts as a team that will likely depend on its running game. They have the offensive line to get it done, but Derrick Henry will have to play better than he has to reach their potential. Additionally, Dion Lewis is a major question mark. He got the lion’s share of the carries for New England last season and didn’t top 1000 yards. What’s more, this was by far his most productive season going into his 7th year as a pro. Lewis will turn 28 this season, and the cupboard is bare behind him. That puts a lot of pressure on the unproven Derrick Henry.
The Texans bring up the rear in this category. Their offensive line was ranked dead last by Pro Football Focus last season, and they didn’t have the draft picks to remedy that. Signing middling free agents was their tactic to fix it (See the Grigson method) and as Colts fans we know how well that typically works. With Lamar Miller as their primary ball carrier, they will be likely to struggle. Miller is on the wrong side of his prime and simply doesn’t have the talented supporting cast to overcome their offensive line problems. Short of having an undrafted free agent running back break out, this team won’t be terrorizing many defenses on the ground.
Tomorrow – Wide Receivers and Tight Ends