The NFL season, if you can believe this, begins in about four weeks. We are 27 days away from official kickoff, with the Kansas City Chiefs traveling to take on the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. Thus, every Tuesday and Friday until kickoff, I'll be previewing the whole NFL, division-by-division. Obviously, much will change between now and the first week of the season, so just assume that I've taken all those future events under consideration in each of these previews. Let's go with that.
I've drawn on all sorts of resources in these previews, but like anyone who writes about football and wants to get it right, I've weighed heavily on Football Outsiders and their Football Outsiders Annual, which you should purchase if you really want to know what's going on.
So far: The NFC West.
Today: The AFC South.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars (projected record: 6-10)
First off, I'm not falling for the Jaguars again. I went out on a limb and predicted them to win the AFC South last year, and not for nothing: It did look like they had improved their talent level across the board. Hey, what can we say -- Gus Bradley had us sucked in. It turned out that the defense wasn't terrible, but Blake Bortles was, and Bradley was gone after a 2-12 start. Now Tom Coughlin has come back home -- or "home" -- to help point this franchise back, more than a decade later, in the right direction.
The defense once again should be solid, but, alas, 2017 may be about Bortles again. Even with Leonard Fornette in the backfield and the Jaguars trying to replicate that Ezekiel Elliott magic (but only the good parts), the Jaguars still need Bortles to be closer to the Bortles of two years ago than the trainwreck he was last year.
All told, the Jaguars aren't in the worst position. If Bortles somehow turns it around this year, hey, they didn't waste that first round pick after all; if he's even a league average quarterback, that's valuable, and suddenly this team looks like a potential challenger in this weak division. And if he's not, well ... that'll do it for Bortles, the team will finish with another high draft pick and they'll go get a quarterback to pair with Fornette for the next half decade. Either way: This year, you'll know.
But you can forgive Jaguars fans for being a little exhausted with "this will let us know what we've got for the future" silver linings. It has now been a decade since the last Jaguars winning season and the last Jaguars playoff game. They may be used to having to sit and wait for a more promising future. But like anybody else: They're sick of it.
3. Indianapolis Colts (projected record: 8-8)
As you'd probably suspect, this predicted record is a hedge. There is almost no way the Colts are going to finish 8-8. If Andrew Luck's shoulder is OK -- and it remains totally confounding the way the Colts have dealt with a shoulder injury to their franchise player over the last two seasons -- they will win more than 10 games. If it's not, they'll be lucky to win five. I'm splitting the difference.
That's of course the problem with doing any sort of the NFL prognostication: The quarterback position just makes too much of a difference. The Raiders didn't look like they'd be that great last year because we didn't know Derek Carr would be that good; when it turned out he was terrific, you couldn't project them in the playoffs because then he got hurt. The quarterback position in the NFL is becoming roughly the equivalent of a baseball team that has the same pitcher start every game: If you have Clayton Kershaw as that guy, your team is excellent; if not, you'll struggle a lot more. This has always been the case in the NFL, but never quite to this extent. It's the whole sport now.
That's why it is so impossible to really guess much of anything about the Colts. If Luck is OK, or at least OK by Week 2 or 3, this is a legitimate playoff team. If he's not, they'll finish last place in this division. Wanna guess? Please, feel free.
2. Houston Texans (projected record: 9-7)
Speaking of quarterbacks being everything, here's a team that has been excellent in pretty much every reasonable way for three seasons now and has still looked totally incompetent come playoff time, solely because of their QBs. Somebody should put together a jersey collection of quarterbacks who started a playoff game for an injured starter and fell apart in every possible way. Brian Hoyer. Ryan Lindlay. Brock Osweiler. Heck, even Tom Savage won one.
Savage is being listed as the early starter, but only because the Texans aren't ready to publicly give this job to Deshaun Watson … but they're of course giving this job to Deshaun Watson. In a world where Dak Prescott can do what Dak Prescott just did, how can you possibly not give the starting job to Watson, particularly when you've got a good team around him? It's still up in the air whether Watson can truly be that sort of top-tier quarterback, though. The arm strength is never gonna be there, and remember, there was a time when we all insisted that Johnny Manziel was a "gamer" too.
Watson's obviously no Manziel -- in every possible way -- but it's still asking a lot for him, just one guy with a middling arm and the sort of game that gets you knocked out early in the NFL these days, to be the savior for a franchise obviously desperate for a game-changing quarterback. Though I suppose we all know how this is probably going to work out. Watson will be Dak-like all year and lead the Texans to the division title … until he gets knocked out in Week 16. Ready for another run up the flagpole, Tom Savage?
1. Tennessee Titans (projected record: 10-6)
Wouldn't it have been more fun if the Titans had made the playoffs last year? No offense to those Texans, but c'mon: The Titans were a blast in a way teams in this division haven't been for a decade. Marcus Mariota -- who, ahem, wouldn't have played in that playoff game, so maybe ignore that previous assertion -- ascended to being the top-tier quarterback the Titans were counting on, and DeMarco Murray, oh yeah, led the AFC in rushing last year. (And he still might lose more carries to Derrick Henry this year.) The Titans spent most of the offseason getting more weapons for Mariota. This team will score.
They still need help on their defense, though you might not even notice it when they play against their weak division opponents, particularly if Luck isn't healthy. (Seriously, if Luck is hurt, who is the second-best quarterback in this division? Is it Watson, sight unseen?) The secondary was the major problem last year, but the upside to a rough secondary is, hey, more chances for the offense to score points. It's sort of nice to have an AFC South team that could win some a game 37-34 for once, isn't it?
As always, it comes down to quarterbacks. If Mariota takes another step forward and utilizes these new weapons, there's no one in this division that can match them, particularly on offense. This division needs some excitement. It needs the Tennessee Titans.
Tuesday: The NFC East
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