With the dawn of a new NFL season almost upon us, we're going division by division to highlight the players and storylines to watch in 2018. Nick Shook tackles the AFC South below.
Most significant changes from 2017
Despite sending two teams to the playoffs last season, half of the AFC South features new head coaches.
In Tennessee, the defensive-minded Mike Vrabel replaces Mike Mularkey, and with new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, the team aims to remove the offensive restrictions it often played with under the former head coach. That begins with Derrick Henry as the lead back following the retirement of DeMarco Murray and extends to the Titans' passing game, which finished 23rd in yards a year ago but still managed to qualify for the playoffs and score an upset win over Kansas City. Perhaps LaFleur can maximize the talents of a receiving corps led by second-year wideout Corey Davis (who needs to take a big step of his own) and Rishard Matthews. Talented wideout Taywan Taylor also seems like he might be on the verge of something better than his production as a rookie -- 16 catches, 231 yards and one touchdown.
Indianapolis was left at the altar by Josh McDaniels, but recovered in time to tab Frank Reich as the team's new coach. Reich steps into a team that was in desperate need of better protection for its quarterback and more talent on both sides of the ball. The latter can't be addressed in one season -- Indianapolis is rolling with a backfield of Marlon Mack, Robert Turbin, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins -- but the Colts have spent resources on their offensive line in an attempt to keep Andrew Luck on the field. Reich is taking a fairly aggressive approach to the season when addressing the media, but on paper, looks as though it might still struggle, especially in the secondary. Outside of second-year emerging star Malik Hooker, who's rookie season was cut short due to a major knee injury, the Colts look rather thin in that department, placing more of the responsibility on Reich's offense. Fresh off a season in which he coordinated the offense that won the Super Bowl, Reich is faced with an even larger task in Indianapolis.
We saw some notable players move around, too. Tyrann Mathieu is now patrolling the secondary for Houston, and Malcolm Butler has left his inexplicable Super Bowl benching in New England for greener pastures in Tennessee. The AFC South quarterbacks will have new defenders to keep an eye on (or throw away from) this season, with Mathieu's role serving as an important one for a defense that is hoping to improve vastly from a 2017 season that saw it allow 237.4 yards per game through the air, which ranked in the bottom third of the league.
And what about the reigning division champions? Jacksonville returns one of the league's best defenses, and off-field newspaper clippings aside (looking at you, Jalen Ramsey), the Jaguars appear set to replicate such a performance in 2018. The onus again falls on the shoulders of Blake Bortles, who is playing behind an improved line thanks to the addition of guard Andrew Norwell. He'll face an uphill climb with his targets after the loss of Marqise Lee to injury, though the Jaguars also showed last season they can still find success with lesser-known players (Keelan Cole and Jaydon Mickens, anyone?). The big change in that department is the addition of rookie receiver DJ Chark (more on that later), and Donte Moncrief also exists as a potential go-to target. The Jaguars face another challenge from a Titans team that should be better in 2018, and Deshaun Watson lurks with a Texans squad that is somewhat flying under the radar at this point.
One player to watch on each team
TENNESSEE TITANS: Derrick Henry, running back. 2018 will be the first season in which Henry will be the chosen bell cow back for the Titans -- which to some (including this writer) was long overdue. When Tennessee needed ground yards late, it always turned to Henry, who frequently got the job done. It was frustrating to watch Mularkey's offense turn to Murray early when it was clear Henry was the better option, but those days are over. How will Henry handle the role? He has some help in terms of spell backs with former Patriots standout Dion Lewis joining the team this offseason. Lewis provides an excellent option in the passing game and serves as a scatback to complement Henry's downhill running style. Tennessee's ground success will begin with Henry, though, making his play more important than ever and a key player to watch behind one of the league's better offensive lines.
HOUSTON TEXANS: Deshaun Watson, quarterback. Watson was on his way to one of the best seasons for a rookie quarterback in league history when a torn ACL left us wanting much, much more. He returns healthy and ready to pick up where he left off, as does defensive end J.J. Watt, who's returning from a broken leg. Watson is an easy pick for this section because of his position and his potential to smash through the invisible barrier of poor quarterback play that has plagued an otherwise strong Texans team for years. He'll do it with a slightly thinner backfield after Houston placed D'Onta Foreman on the PUP list to start the season, but it won't be as noticeable with Lamar Miller still lining up behind him. He also has De'Andre Hopkins to throw to, and well, I'm salivating just writing this. The Texans shouldn't fade into the background like they did after Watson went down, with 100 percent of the reasoning landing on the quarterback's shoulders.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: DJ Chark, receiver. We mentioned the loss of Lee above, which is precisely why Chark is suddenly extra important to Jacksonville's offense. They did fine without an injured Allen Robinson (ACL) last season so it's not unfathomable to see the Jaguars weathering the storm at the position, but Bortles will eventually need to develop a reliable target (Moncrief could also help here). Could that be Chark, the rookie who blew folks away with his combine workout? The 6-foot-4 LSU product is the ideal target for a play-action-heavy offense, making him the ideal fit for an attack that is predicated on the ground game success of Leonard Fournette. We won't jump out of our seats and predict a 1,000-yard season for Chark, but he looms as an instant-impact rookie for a team that has its eyes on another deep playoff run.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Quenton Nelson, guard. The Colts finally took a step toward protecting their franchise quarterback by selecting the best guard in the draft with the No. 3 overall pick, but it's difficult for the average fan to measure how well such an investment performs. The lone measure of it is an overly simplistic look at end-of-season accolades. Will Nelson be a Pro Bowler right out of the gate? That's a high bar to set for anyone. But what folks should be paying attention to is the effectiveness of the Colts' offense in two aspects: rushing yards gained per carry (Indianapolis ranked 27th in that category in 2017), and how well the line can keep Luck upright. Indianapolis failed to do so in recent years, so much that Luck missed all of 2017 due to injury and it wasn't his first. Much like the rest of the league, the Colts' fortunes depend on the play of their quarterback. Keeping Luck healthy, protected, available and providing ample time to throw will directly affect how they play in 2018 and beyond. Nelson will have an immediate opportunity to help accomplish those tasks.
What we'll be talking about at season's end
The Texans were this close to a playoff berth, but big brother (Jacksonville) sent them back to the kids table in Week 17. Watson narrowly missed out on MVP but brought home Comeback Player of the Year honors, edging Odell Beckham Jr., but Houston proved it's still a step away from unseating the true AFC powers. Jacksonville is again befallen by an inability to get a first down through the air in a key playoff moment, but the defense finishes in the top three for the second straight year. Is Jacksonville's window starting to close? Tennessee again sneaked into the playoffs, but couldn't replicate the first-round upset, despite holding its opponents to 20 points on the road. Indianapolis showed improvement and promise but needs another offseason to get closer to contending with the rest of a suddenly strong division.
Follow Nick Shook on Twitter @TheNickShook.