Who wins the AFC South in 2016?

The AFC South was a weak division in 2015; producing two teams with losing records and one team which should have finished with a worse record than it actually did. The Houston Texans finished with a 7-2 record after a 1-5 start to win the AFC South with nine wins. Will the Texans have the good fortunes to repeat in 2016? Will the Indianapolis Colts reclaim the division they have dominated for over a decade? Will there be a surprise champion in this season?

The “Luck” of the draw has the Indianapolis Colts winning the AFC South in 2016.

The Indianapolis Colts suffered from a disastrous 2015 season which saw regression in many different areas. The injury to quarterback Andrew Luck had the biggest impact on a team which relies on his talents to carry them to the promise land year in and year out. The offense suffered without Luck, the defense struggled to keep teams off the score board and Head Coach Chuck Pagano was on the hot seat after three consecutive 11-5 playoff seasons. Everything that could go wrong went wrong for Indianapolis in 2015, but the Colts will bounce back in 2016 as potentially one of the dangerous teams in the AFC conference.

Luck’s second half absence had a residual effect which plagued the offensive side of the ball in 2015, but he was not that spectacular in the first half anyways. Coming off easily the worst regular season of his career, Luck will bounce back with an MVP caliber season in 2016 assuming he does not suffer another major injury. The running game has been nonexistent for years, but veteran running back Frank Gore did rush for 967 yards in 2015. Gore is almost reaching his mid-thirties, and will start to take a step back this season, but Pagano has high expectations for rookie running back Josh Ferguson. It is debatable whether or not Ferguson has what it takes to take the starting spot from Gore, but Frank will be the starter for the time being until Josh is inevitably ready. Wide receiver T.Y Hilton had another good statistical season and  receiver Donte Moncrief improved from his 2014 rookie campaign. These are the two primary receivers for the returning Luck in 2016 as both have great opportunities to eclipse 1,000 yards. Veteran receiver Andre Johnson was a non factor and tight end Coby Fleener regressed in 2015. Johnson is now a member of the rival Tennessee Titans and Fleener is now a member of the New Orleans Saints. The offensive line needs to protect their quarterback better in 2016. This is not a very good unit, heading into the new season, but they need to pull together to avoid another bad injury to the franchise player. The Colts’ offense has the opportunity to bounce back in a major way this year and go back to being one of the top-tier units in the league.

The Colts’ defense was old and vulnerable in 2015. The starting defensive unit will field mostly veteran players in 2016, so speed and injury risk will be concerns with age catching up to these older players. The linebacker core appears to be the most alarming level of the defense; with three of the four starters all over 30 years old. The linebacker depth looks decent on paper, but that does not always transition to solid performances on the field. The secondary is also fielding older players, despite having cornerback Vontae Davis. Davis still provides an impact in the back four, but the rest of the group is prone to getting exposed if there is not an adequate pass rush from the front seven. A unit which ranked 26th in the National Football League in yards allowed, 25th against the run and 22nd in sacks does not appear to look good enough for significant improvements in 2016, but the resurgent offense will bail them out on many occasions.

Despite having a concerning defensive unit, Andrew Luck will return with a vengeance and his two primary receivers, along with a solid running game [finally], will spark an offense to lead the Indianapolis Colts back to the playoffs this season. Win-loss prediction: 10-6

The Houston Texans have a serious problem heading into the 2016 season.

The Houston Texans were not the pick of many NFL fans to win the AFC South in 2015, and a 1-5 start made that prediction all the more realistic, but the Texans were able to turn things around and prove everyone wrong by finishing with a 7-2 record to capture the division title with an overall 9-7 slate. The offense showed flashes of potential, but the defense buckled down and dominated the second half of the season. Despite getting annihilated by the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild card round, Texan fans have every reason to believe their team is in good shape heading into the new season.

Houston believes they solved their quarterback dilemma with the signing of former Denver Broncos starter/backup Brock Osweiler. Osweiler was instrumental in the Broncos’ run to the playoffs in 2015, before turning the reigns over to the now retired Peyton Manning. Brock comes to the Texans with some big game experience and a desire to prove that he can be a franchise quarterback. He has a top-flight wide receiver in DeAndre Hopkins to utilize in the passing game. Hopkins was one of the five best receivers in 2015 and will look to elevate himself to true elite status in 2016. Rookie receiver Will Fuller will look to prove himself this season by becoming the second option for Brock’s passing attack. Running back Lamar Miller will provide stability on the ground and balance out the Houston offense. The offensive line needs to hold up in pass protection because Osweiler is not very mobile. They need to keep a clean pocket for him along with providing running lanes for Miller up the middle. Talent exists on the Texans’ offense, but 2016 will be all about whether or not Osweiler is the answer.

The Texans’ defense was elite last season, with most of the attention centered around superstar defensive end J.J. Watt. The defensive side of the ball has talent in all three levels and is one of the most physical units in the National Football League. One major concern for the defense is the health of Watt. When he is healthy, the Houston defense is one of the feared units in the league. With the amount of injuries he has piled up, along with the fact that he has not missed a single start in his career, 2016 could be a pivotal year health wise for J.J. Third year outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney needs to prove he was worth the number one overall pick in 2014 by performing at a Pro-Bowl level in 2016. The linebacker core is deep, regardless, and the secondary is talented. However, the difference maker is J.J. Watt and whether or not he can maintain health throughout the entire season. The organization realizes how big of a year this is, but they also realize how rare it is to have a player as dominant as Watt and they don’t want to jeopardize his playing future. It will be interesting to see the ramifications of this developing story.

The Houston Texans look poised to continue developing into a legitimate AFC contender. They have talent on both sides of the ball and Head Coach Bill O’Brien has proven he can make the necessary adjustments to immediately change a season’s fortunes. The Texans will be one of the most competitive teams in the conference in 2016, but the return of the Colts to division prominence will ultimately push Houston down to wild card status this season. Win-loss prediction: 9-7

The Jacksonville Jaguars are improving, but are one year away from breaking out.

The Jacksonville Jaguars have dramatically improved since the 2013 season. 2015 was a year of true progression and development for one of the National Football League’s youngest rosters. Head Coach Gus Bradley is doing a good job of assembling quality players into the program and the improving performance and statistics are an indication of that. The offense and defense both took steps forward, despite the 5-11 record, and look to continue building for an even better 2016. Despite being one year away from a true breakout season, this year will be another important one for a franchise that hasn’t seen prosperity for a long time.

The offense took tremendous steps forward in 2015 with the continual development of quarterback Blake Bortles. Bortles provided the much needed quarterback spark that Jacksonville fans have not seen in a while, finishing with over 4,400 passing yards and 35 touchdowns last season, and has the look of being the true franchise player for the Jaguars organization. Rookie running back T.J. Yeldon flashed full-time starter potential in 2015 with over 700 yards on the ground. Yeldon, along with the newly acquired running back Chris Ivory, will provide stability and balance in the run game which will allow Blake to continue progressing. Wide receiver Allen Robinson put together a spectacular performance last year with 1,400 receiving yards. Robinson will be the primary target for Bortles in the passing game, but up and comers Rashad Greene, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee are looking to make an impact and prove themselves as quality pass catchers. The tight end position is older with veterans Mercedes Lewis and Julius Thomas getting the action in 2016. The offensive line is actually very solid and looks formidable in both pass protection and run blocking heading into the new campaign. The young talent within the Jacksonville offense will continue to develop as this unit is one more year from a true breakout.

The Jaguars’ defense improved in 2015, but 2016 will see dramatic improvements with this unit. The front seven added youth, talent and depth during free agency and the NFL Draft. The pass rush and run defense will improve this season with the depth at both defensive line and linebacker. The secondary is young, talented and has depth at both corner and safety. Expectations to improve in the back four are there in 2016, in both pass coverage and forced turnovers.

The Jacksonville Jaguars will not make the playoffs this season, but they are still an appealing team in the sense that they are one year away from becoming a legitimate wild card contender. Division hopes might be reserved for two years down the line, but the Jaguars are moving their way up the ranks. Win-loss prediction: 8-8

The Tennessee Titans’ season is going to be an indicator for the franchise’s future.

The Tennessee Titans finished the 2015 season with a 3-13 record, but progression was made within an organization that lacked excitement for years. Last year was all about the development of quarterback Marcus Mariota as the future franchise player for the Titans organization. With more target options around him, both at running back and wide receiver, Mariota’s continual development will be the primary focus for Tennessee in 2016.

Mariota is a threat in the pass and run game. His ability to pose as a dual threat makes him one of the most interesting players to watch in 2016. The running game will consist of former MVP candidate DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry. Murray and Henry combine to provide the best rushing attack in the AFC South, but this depends on whether or not Murray can bounce back from his bad performance with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2015. The wide receiving core on paper looks to be good enough for Mariota to continue progressing as a passer at the NFL level. The receiving duo of Rishard Matthews and Tajae Sharp will be the two primary targets for Marcus along with veteran tight end Delanie Walker. The offensive line looks strong at right guard and left tackle, but center, left guard and right tackle need to improve in run blocking and pass protection in 2016. The line is one of the NFL’s youngest and cohesion is developing among the players within the unit.

The Titans’ defense has holes on all three levels. The starting defensive unit will field mostly veterans in 2016 and the depth does not look all that impressive. Despite having some talent on the line, in the linebacker core and in the secondary, there is not enough to see dramatic defensive improvements this season. The Tennessee defense did finish 12th in the National Football League in yards allowed in 2015, but ranked 27th in the league in points allowed. While they were in the upper-half in yards allowed, they were one of the worst units when it came to keeping opposing offenses out of the end zone. The Titans’ pass rush is solid and will continue to be solid in 2016, but the run defense might take a small step back because of the inadequate depth in the front seven. This defense will mostly like finish in the middle of the pack this year.

The Tennessee Titans are all about one thing in 2016: Marcus Mariota. His development is the most important thing to this organization. Building up the running game and adding more options in the receiver core will allow Mariota to continue his development. The defense is middle of the pack, at best. New Head Coach Mike Mularkey will have his work cut out for him, and the hiring was questioned among the fan base and media, but the future is starting to look brighter for the Titans. Win-loss prediction: 6-10

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