We’re onto what might be the weakest division in the NFL in our latest roundtable: the AFC South. The Houston Texans put together another one of their steady, 9-7 seasons to win the division last year. With the additions of Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller to their offense, Houston could certainly repeat. However, the Colts and Jaguars may have something to say about that. Indianapolis is a year removed from an AFC Championship appearance and has the division’s best quarterback in Andrew Luck. Meanwhile, Jacksonville may be ready to break out with the help of one of the league’s more explosive offenses and an emerging defense. Even Marcus Mariota and the Titans could make some noise, especially after adding DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry to their backfield. This division is truly up for grabs.
So who will win the South in 2016? Mando and Fronte make their picks.
As much as I wanted to go bold and take the up-and-coming Jaguars or even the Titans, those teams were too far behind both offensively and defensively in 2015 for me to justify picking them to win the AFC South this year. So my decision came down to the Texans and Colts.
One similarity I noticed between these two teams is that their defenses far outpaced their offenses last year. Houston only finished 24th in offensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders but ranked 8th in defense. Indianapolis, on the other hand, was 30th in offense and 13th in defense. I expect both offenses to be better in 2016: Brock Osweiler will be an upgrade over the four starting quarterbacks Houston trotted out last year and the presence of a healthy Andrew Luck alone will allow the Colts offense to return to respectability.
What tips the scale in favor of the Texans is their defense. Even though Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric indicated that the Texans and Colts had fairly comparable defenses, other metrics say otherwise. Houston finished tied for fourth in the NFL in opponent yards per play in 2015; in contrast, Indianapolis finished tied for 26th. Moreover, Pro Football Focus ranked both Houston’s front-seven and their secondary among the top ten in football heading into this season while they only project the Colts to have the league’s 26th and 20th best front-seven and secondary respectively. Denver showed us last season that defense still matters. That’s why I give the Texans the slight edge in the AFC South.
Bold Prediction: Marcus Mariota finishes in the top seven in Total QBR
When healthy, the former Heisman winner looked very good in his rookie campaign, finishing tenth in yards per attempt. He’ll take another step forward in 2016 now that he has an improved running game and more of a rapport with his receivers.
The Texans narrowly edged out the Colts last season to win one of football’s weaker divisions at 9-7. While I’m predicting a better showing from the Colts and Jaguars this season, I believe that Houston will repeat as division champs.
Offense proved to be Houston’s achilles heel last season. That shouldn’t come as a surprise when you acknowledge the fact that they were forced to start the likes of Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallet, and T.J. Yates at quarterback. But that’s all in the past because this offseason the Texans invested $72 million in Brock Osweiler. The 25-year-old showed he has the potential to be a successful NFL quarterback last season with the Denver Broncos, as he helped the Super Bowl champs win five games during Peyton’s absence. At the very least, he will be an upgrade over the QB’s Houston was forced to start last year. Moreover, by acquiring Lamar Miller in the offseason, the Texans will have a more consistent ground attack, something they were devoid of with the injury prone Arian Foster. And with Will Fuller shining during the preseason and Braxton Miller having the ability to do things like this, Osweiler will have no shortage of options lining up alongside DeAndre Hopkins.
There’s a lot to praise about the Texans defense as well. They ranked third in the league last year in total defense (310.2 yards per game) and seventh in scoring defense (19.6 points per game). With no major personnel losses, this defense looks to build off their 2015 success. In fact, the only scare that the Texans defense had this season was the possibility of losing J.J. Watt for several weeks due to injury (he should be ready to go by Week 1). All the pieces to the puzzle are there for this Texans D to take their team to the next level.
Bold Prediction: Lamar Miller finishes top 3 in the league in rushing yards.
Miller excelled in Miami even after being undervalued. Now in a run heavy offense, he’ll be given the touches he needs to place himself among the league’s premier backs.
Robinson photo courtesy of USA Today Sports