As we put the draft in the rear view mirror, it’s time to look ahead at the AFC South and begin to try to predict how the division will break down in the upcoming season. To do that, we’ll take each position group from each team and pit them against each other, ranking them from worst to best.
To clarify how I’ll be arriving at these rankings, I will be taking various factors into account for each position group. For example, simply having the best running back doesn’t make a group the strongest if they have to run behind a cardboard cutout offensive line. The totality of the situation will be considered before arriving at a ranking.
We will start with the offensive side of the ball, and what better place to begin than with the most important position in the game, quarterback?
Jacksonville Jaguars – Nick Foles
The Jaguars have lived in the basement in terms of quarterback play for as long as I can remember. Whether it was management, or simply being too mediocre to get a crack at the top guys in a draft class, this team just hasn’t been able to put it together.
For that reason, I’m sure many Jaguars fans are excited to get Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles as their starting QB in 2019. Unfortunately, he is still a thoroughly underwhelming option at the position. Is it true that Nick Foles led the Eagles to a Super Bowl win over the Patriots? Certainly. It is equally true that he did so under the direction of a stellar coaching staff, and surrounded by one of the most loaded teams in recent memory.
Where is his Alshon Jeffery? What about Zach Ertz? How about a stable of running backs that can pound the rock when needed? The truth is that the surrounding talent for Nick Foles is dramatically weaker on this Jaguars offense. Foles has a track record in the NFL, and there is a reason he wasn’t a starter. He is a very good backup quarterback, which makes him an upgrade from Blake Bortles, but it takes very good coaching and being surrounded by quality skill position players to get that production out of him, and getting it consistently is unlikely.
Behind Foles are Cody Kessler and rookie Gardner Minshew. While the rookie is a relative unknown, it is tough to see this team doing much of anything at all should Foles miss time, and they’ll need a lot to go right with him on the field. The good news is, the defense should be good enough that he won’t need to score a lot to win games.
Tennessee Titans – Marcus Mariota
The Titans have done a lot to help out Marcus Mariota this offseason. They upgraded both guard positions, added Adam Humphries in free agency, and drafted A.J. Brown to fill a need at wide receiver. If Delanie Walker can return, there is a whole slew of weapons available for Mariota to throw to.
The problem remains that Mariota’s playing style, paired with his size, has made him an injury waiting to happen. No one can say he isn’t tough. Mariota has gutted out injuries and played through pain on many occasions. However, he has missed games as well, and cost his team because of it. While that is true of all three of the top QBs in the AFC South, Mariota lacks the game-changing ability of the other two.
When he is well contained, Mariota is a far less effective quarterback, because he relies heavily on extending plays on the ground. He doesn’t have the accuracy or velocity to throw into tight windows on longer throws, and relies on scrambling to buy his receivers time to get more space or simply to get yards on the ground. That style also gets him hit a lot.
The best thing going for Mariota is that he should be able to rely on play action this season, with a revitalized offensive line and two solid running backs in Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry. Whether he can capitalize on all his new weapons will be a matter of if he can stay healthy or not. If he can’t, we’ll see the Titans’ newly-acquired backup Ryan Tannehill, who should perform quite well in that role if needed, but is no world beater. All in all, the Titans have set Mariota up to succeed, and if he can’t, it will likely spell a change next season.
Houston Texans – Deshaun Watson
Just barely edging out the Titans are the Texans. I really went back and forth on the order here, because the Titans have the depth, while the Texans have the talent advantage. Deshaun Watson is a far better quarterback than Marcus Mariota, and ultimately I gave the nod to talent over depth.
Watson is a very talented player. His connection with DeAndre Hopkins has been truly impressive, and he proved over the course of last year that he can read defenses and handle the before-snap responsibilities of a franchise passer with no problem. He also has the ability to extend plays with his legs, and he usually does it with the intent of letting his receivers get open, not simply scrambling for yards.
The primary issues that trip Watson up are in terms of his tendency to throw up 50/50 balls because he feels pretty confident making any throw. It is tough to fault him for doing this, because with a guy like DeAndre Hopkins, that can often be pretty effective. It isn’t an ideal way to operate, however. This is not a debilitating flaw in Watson’s game, and he very well may have improved even more coming into this season.
The biggest problem he has is that he is playing behind an offensive line that might be actively trying to get him killed. They allowed 62 sacks last season, and while they drafted offensive linemen with their first two picks, not every rookie duo works out as well as Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith. It is a lot to ask two rookies to be a major factor from day one, and it often ends badly.
What’s more, the skill position has been left relatively unchanged, which means it is likely we will see more Watson to Hopkins, and Texans fans will have to hope that Will Fuller and Keke Coutee are able to stay healthy, or see the offense become very one-dimensional.
Colts fans know that the pairing of a top level quarterback and top level receiver can result in a lot of games won, but we also know that it gets tough to win the big games when you can’t protect that quarterback and your receiving options are limited.
Indianapolis Colts – Andrew Luck
Andrew Luck answered all the questions about his shoulder last season, racking up 4,593 yards, 39 touchdowns and having a career year in terms of his completion percentage, finishing at 67.3. It certainly didn’t hurt that he was working behind an excellent offensive line, or having plays called by an innovative offensive mind like Frank Reich, either.
Luck has the ability to make every throw on the field, and he has done so under significant duress throughout his career. His pocket presence is otherworldly, and his accuracy and anticipation are top notch. While other quarterbacks in the division are often noted as being very mobile, that is a part of Luck’s game that is often underrated. He has the ability to scramble for first downs, or to buy time with his legs, which he used to deadly effect in 2018.
While his past injuries cannot be simply overlooked, a renewed dedication by Chris Ballard to bolstering the offensive line has meant a player who stays upright more often and avoids putting himself in harm’s way. That Manning-Era mentality from the line that defensive players don’t hit their QB is back, and so it seems as though this team is ready to put that part of Luck’s career solidly behind them.
What’s more, should Luck miss time with injury, they find themselves in possession of a backup quarterback, in Jacoby Brissett, who could very likely have himself a starting job in 2020. Having a solid backup behind Luck is reassuring, and while no one wants to see Luck miss time, knowing that everything wouldn’t fall apart in his absence is encouraging.
With more weapons in his arsenal, a second year in the same offense, and an offseason spent preparing rather than rehabbing, it is fair to expect that 2019 will be Andrew Luck’s best year yet.
2018 AFC South QB Stats
|Quarterback||Games Played||Completions||Comp. %||Passing Yards||TDs||INT||Sacks|
|Quarterback||Games Played||Completions||Comp. %||Passing Yards||TDs||INT||Sacks|
How would you rank this position group?