Matt Ryan, Photo by All-Pro Reels
We’re back with our seventh instalment in our series of NFL team previews as we prepare for the 2022 NFL season.
We’ve gone division-by-division with breakdowns and roster analysis of the East, West, and North divisions in both conferences. Today, we’re breaking down the AFC South!
Another year, another new starting quarterback in Indianapolis.
Matt Ryan may be past his prime, but he’s a considerable upgrade over Carson Wentz both on and off the field.
The Colts have one of the top backfields in the league led by Jonathan Taylor. Expect the Colts offense to feature a heavy dosage of classic under-center play action, working the intermediary middle of the field with their big-bodied group receivers.
The Colts have little pass-catching depth, but with Michael Pittman, they have a legit number one receiver. Second-round pick Alec Pierce is a big down-the-field threat, and the rookie has looked good in camp — but you can’t pencil a rookie in for production.
The story of Parris Campbell’s career has been his inability to stay healthy; the former second-round pick has played just 15 games in three seasons. Third-round rookie tight end Jelani Woods is still very raw and doesn’t appear ready to make an immediate impact.
Absent a proven wideout for the underneath passing game, Nyheim Hines will be an important weapon for Ryan receiving out of the backfield.
Outside of their thin pass-catching group, the other question for the Colts is the left tackle position.
Career backup Matt Pryor is set to start in week one, with third-round rookie Bernhard Raimann unready to claim that spot. Though this is a much better line than Ryan has played behind in recent years with Atlanta, they’ve really gambled with the left tackle position.
Frank Reich is one of the better play callers in the league, and even though the season imploded at the end, he got about as much out of Wentz as you can. He and Ryan will make a strong partnership, and Reich will maximize what Ryan can give them.
With Taylor and Pittman, this will an above-average offense, but Indy is counting on a few too many unknowns on the outside. They could really use a reliable possession guy.
On defense, we didn’t like the decision to hire former Raiders defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to replace Matt Eberflus as coordinator.
Bradley runs out the same coverage on virtually every play. The league favors teams with multiple defenses that can throw different looks at offenses and muddy the quarterback’s picture. We’re comfortable with the defensive personnel but uncomfortable with how inflexible Bradley has been with his scheme.
The single-high, Cover-3 scheme requires a do-it-all free safety, and it looks the Colts are relying on Julian Blackmon to be that guy — he’ll be a crucial player for this defense. It also requires at least one high-level corner, which will have to be free agent acquisition Stephon Gilmore, who has reportedly looked great in camp.
Bradley rarely blitzes, so his scheme relies on pressure upfront with four rushers. Under Bradley, the Raiders ranked last in the league in 2021 in the percentage of snaps they rushed five and 31st in snaps they rushed six.
While there’s no Maxx Crosby on this Colts roster, Yannick Ngakoue is a solid upgrade on one side, and Deforest Buckner is among the best interior defensive linemen in the league.
The linchpin player that can raise the ceiling of this defense is 2021 first-round pick, Kwity Paye. Indy needs Paye to step up and generate pressure consistently in year two. Ngakoue on the opposite side and Buckner on the interior, should help him take that leap.
Shaq (previously Darius) Leonard underwent back surgery earlier this summer and will miss the start of the season, which is worrisome, considering how much they rely on his playmaking. Leonard had eight forced fumbles and four interceptions in 2021.
Ultimately, the Colts will play well in games where they can create pressure up front with four, but better quarterbacks with decent protection could dice them up.
In 2021, the Chiefs offense sputtered in a bunch of games but looked like their vintage best in two matchups with Bradley’s Raiders, who Mahomes sliced for more than forty points in both games.
The Colts defense was also heavily reliant on turnovers in 2021, ranking second league-wide with 33 takeaways, a number sure to regress.
The AFC South will play an out-of-conference schedule that features the NFC East.
The Colts will face one of the easiest schedules in football in 2022, aided in part by the weakness of the division. Their toughest non-divisional games include the Chiefs, @Broncos, Eagles, @Vikings, and the Chargers.
It’s a credit to Mike Vrabel and the Titans organization that they somehow scratched out 12 wins and the top seed in the AFC in 2021.
But this is quietly a transition year for the Titans.
Ryan Tannehill carries the largest cap figure in the league in 2022; if they wanted to extend him and reduce that figure, they could have. They chose not to. When the receiver market exploded, they traded a 25-year-old star receiver, AJ Brown.
These aren’t the moves of a team that expects a deep playoff run. Still, none of this means Tennessee will be a bad team in 2022.
Derrick Henry averaged over 27 carries a game before fracturing his foot in Week 8 of the regular season in 2021. He might have one more true workhorse season in him – we wouldn’t bet against him — but we expect his performance to regress in 2022.
In 2021, the Titans ranked first in the league in first down runs, third in first half runs, first in runs on second and long, and first in runs when behind in the second half. Even after Henry got hurt, the Titans stayed committed to running the football.
Tennessee never stops running, and there’s no reason to expect them to stop now.
At quarterback, we know who Ryan Tannehill is at this stage, and we saw his limitations last year when the supporting cast eroded.
Though Tannehill has struggled under pressure throughout his career, within the structure of their run-centric play-action passing offense, he’s been terrific. Just don’t ask him to drop back 50 times, hurl it around, and win you a shootout.
Tennessee used the pick they received in the Brown trade to draft receiver Treylon Burks and Burks has drawn comparisons to Brown, due to their physical similarities.
But short term, there’s no chance he’ll be filling Brown’s sizable shoes. Robert Woods, acquired in a trade with the Rams, is an excellent fit in the Titans’ offense, though he is coming off a serious injury. Tennessee did make a needed upgrade at tight end with Austin Hooper. But behind Woods, there are mostly unproven commodities on the receiver depth chart.
The offensive line is the Titans’ most pressing concern.
Long-time left guard Roger Saffold and tackle David Quessenberry (who both joined the Bills) were great run blockers. Aaron Brewer appears set to take over at right guard, while the right tackle position is an open competition between the unproven Dillon Radunz and rookie Nicholas Petit-Frere. That Radunz, a second-round pick in 2021, hasn’t locked down that job is worrisome.
On the defensive side of the football we’re much more optimistic.
The Titans’ defensive front was one of the best in football in the second half of 2021, culminating with their nine-sack performance in the playoffs against Cincinnati. That group is led by Jeffery Simmons, who emerged as one of the most disruptive interior penetrators in the league in 2021, along with Harold Landry (12 sacks) and Denico Autry (9 sacks) coming off the edge.
Under new defensive coordinator Shane Bowen, the Titans implemented a two-high defense with greater frequency, anchored by their terrific pair of safeties, Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker.
Tennessee has a young, talented exciting cornerback.
Kristian Fulton should become a household name in his third season, 2021 third-round pick Elijah Molden played well in the slot in his rookie year, and 2021 first-round pick Caleb Farley has to prove he can stay healthy coming off a torn ACL. Tennesee also added corner Roger McCreary in the second round this year.
If this group develops quickly, it raises the ceiling of the Titans’ defense.
Tennessee has a first-place schedule in 2022, and will face several challenging road games. They’ll visit the Bills in Week 2, the Chiefs in Week 9, the Packers in Week 11, the Eagles in Week 13, and the Chargers in Week 15. They will also see the Broncos and Bengals at home.
After finally moving on from Deshaun Watson this offseason, the Texans are in the early stages of a ground-floor rebuild. Receiver Brandin Cooks is the only veteran on this team signed past 2023.
Quarterback Davis Mills demonstrated good pocket poise and arm strength in his rookie season, and we’re interested to see how he develops in year two with modest improvements to his supporting cast. Mills was a third-round pick in 2021, and while many observers do not expect him to be the long-term answer in Houston, we’re not as quick to dismiss him.
Though Mills isn’t particularly mobile, he has NFL tools.
Much like last year, Houston chose to sign a bunch of veterans on the cheap to short-term deals, headlined by the ageless Jerry Hughes and cornerback Steven Nelson; they also resigned many of their own players.
With their massive haul from the Watson trade, Houston made four draft picks in the first two rounds, grabbing LSU corner Derek Stingley third overall, guard Kenyon Green with the 15th pick, and safety Jalen Pitre early in the second round.
Stingley immediately has to step in and be their number one corner, and Green will start from day one at left guard.
Laremy Tunsil is healthy after missing most of last year due to a thumb injury, and his presence kicks Tytus Howard over to his best position at right tackle. If Green plays well immediately, this offensive line has a chance to be serviceable and give Mills a chance to operate.
Next to Brandin Cooks (who’s still very good), second-year receiver Nico Collins is a big target with big play potential. Second-year tight end Brevin Jordan also flashed receiving upside in his rookie year before his season was cut short by injury.
The Texans’ backfield got a much-needed upgrade this offseason. Fourth round rookie Dameon Pierce out of Florida has a bowling bowl-type build and has emerged as an immediate starter.
This is still a below-average group of weapons, but it’s an improvement over last year.
On defense, with Lovie Smith now the head coach, you can expect the Texans to play a ton of zone.
Houston was equally mediocre against the run and pass last year, ranking 22nd in DVOA in both categories. Based on their acquisitions this offseason, we should see a modest uptick against the pass.
Alongside the Stingley pick, they added serviceable veteran Steven Nelson at cornerback, and Tavierre Thomas emerged as a competent slot corner in 2021. Houston let safety Justin Reid walk in free agency, so they will need rookie Jalen Pitre, a versatile safety in college, to come in immediately and contribute.
This defense is largely a collection of young players and guys on short-term deals looking to prove themselves. Jonathan Greenard, who registered eight sacks in 2021, is probably their best defensive player.
Texans GM Nick Caserio seems to have a relatively coherent plan for rebuilding the roster, but the same can’t be said for his coaching staff decisions.
The Texans fired David Culley after a season because he refused to make changes to his offensive staff and then botched their head coaching search this offseason, ending a protracted process by hiring 64-year-old Lovie Smith, the team’s defensive coordinator a year ago.
Though Houston will again be among the worst teams in the league, this roster has improved, and they showed some scrappiness a year ago, upsetting the Titans and Chargers. They’ll likely scratch out a few wins against their mediocre divisional counterparts.
The AFC South faces an in-conference schedule featuring the AFC West, which makes the 2022 schedule challenging for the Texans. Houston will also visit the Cowboys and Dolphins and meet the Browns after Deshaun Watson returns from suspension.
The Jaguars cleared out the toxic stink of Urban Meyer and hired a respectable professional football in coach Doug Pederson.
And while much maligned GM Trent Baalke spent millions in free agency to upgrade this roster, no single move will have a more positive impact than the removal of Meyer.
Nothing matters for the Jaguars in 2022 other than setting Trevor Lawrence up to be successful, so let’s start there.
Jacksonville signed Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and tight end Evan Engram to bolster their anemic pass-catching group. Kirk is an excellent slot receiver, and he and Jones will provide a downfield threat for Jacksonville. Though we wish they drafted another receiver, at least they gave Lawrence a functional baseline of pass catchers.
We aren’t alarmed by Trevor Lawrence’s 17 interceptions in 2021. The guy was set up to fail, was behind in every game, and was taking risks to make stuff happen.
Travis Etienne has gotten significant buzz in training camp after losing his entire rookie year to injury. Etienne, a first-round pick last year, was known at Clemson for his explosive play potential in both the run and pass. Running mate James Robinson is also coming off a season-ending Achilles tear, though he’s expected to be ready for Week 1. If healthy, this is an exciting backfield pair.
The Jags also paid Brandon Scherff handsomely in free agency to play right guard.
Their best lineman last year, center Brandon Linder retired, and they’ll bank on third-round rookie Luke Fortner to step in as a day one starter. We’re underwhelmed by the offensive line across the board, but Lawrence has the athleticism and mobility to allude to pressure. Pederson also likes to play with heavier personnel which can help any deficiencies as well.
On defense, Baalke spent big in free agency.
He signed linebacker Foye Oluokun from the Falcons, defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi from the Jets, corner Darious Wiliams from the Rams, and Arden Key from the Niners. Jacksonville needed to add functional NFL players to this defense, and they’ve done that. Oluokun is a strong tackler, Fatukasi will help against the run, and Williams and Key give them versatility at their positions.
The Jags made Travon Walker the first pick in the draft almost entirely based on his rare physical traits and added rangy linebacker Devin Lloyd late in the first round.
The Jags have some talent and rotational depth in the front seven, though the individual pieces have to prove themselves as consistent performers.
Defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell (who comes over from Tampa) will dial up the pressure with Josh Allen, Dawuane Smoot, Walker, Key, and the rest of this group.
We’re less confident in the back end of this defense, though better coaching and schematic changes will help this group.
The Jags were 28th in pass DVOA and 31st in EPA per dropback in 2021. They should improve in 2022 – maybe to as high as the 20th – but how much they improve will depend on the development of two second-year players.
2021 second-round pick, cornerback Tyson Campbell, is getting a lot of camp buzz. Campbell played well down the stretch in his rookie year but needs to step up in year two. 2021 third-round pick, safety Andre Sisco barely played in his rookie campaign, and the Jags need him to emerge in an uninspiring safety group.
Even if we don’t agree with, or even see the plan here in Jacksonville, their aggressive spending in free agency has upgraded the roster, and the upgrades to the coaching staff can’t be overstated.
In a weak division with a young quarterback primed for a breakout, this will be a much more competitive team in 2022.
The Jags will see about a league-average schedule in 2022. Between Week 8 and Week 12, the Jaguars will face a tough stretch that includes the Broncos, Raiders, Chiefs, and Ravens, with their bye week sandwiched in.