AFC South 2020 NFL Preview: Will Rivers bring Colts to new heights?

The NFL is back, and Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams in the lead-up to kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 10.

Today, we look at the AFC South. (Teams are listed in the order in which we believe they’ll finish in the 2020 standings.)

Indianapolis Colts

2019 finish: 7-9, missed playoffs

The good news: The team made several moves in a handful of key areas, the most notable being at quarterback. Tom Brady leaving New England for Tampa Bay overshadowed most other off-season moves but Philip Rivers joining the Colts after 14 seasons as the starter with the Chargers was also significant. After unexpectedly losing Andrew Luck to retirement on the eve of the 2019 season, the team wasn’t quite comfortable with Jacoby Brissett starting for a second straight year. Rivers is now reunited with Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich, who was his QB coach in 2013 and offensive coordinator with the Chargers in 2014 and 2015. More importantly, he joins a Colts team equipped with skilled young weapons and a competent offensive line that gave up the ninth-fewest sacks in the NFL one season ago.

Aggressive Colts GM Chris Ballard also sent the team’s first-round pick to the 49ers to acquire DeForest Buckner, which immediately helps the d-line. They also upgraded at corner with the signing of Xavier Rhodes.

The bad news: Whenever a team makes multiple substantial moves, you never know exactly how all the new pieces are going to fit together. On paper, all of Indy's acquisitions leave plenty of room for optimism -- yet if Rivers regresses at age 38, or if Buckner and Rhodes can’t perform at a Pro Bowl level like they have in the past, then it shouldn’t be surprising to see the Colts end up being a mere middling AFC squad.

2020 opt-outs: Marvell Tell, S; Rolan Milligan, S; Skai Moore, LB

Your new favourite player: Take your pick between 2020 second rounders Michael Pittman Jr. (34th overall) or Jonathan Taylor (41st overall). Pittman is a big target out of USC who should complement T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell and Jack Doyle in the passing game. Meanwhile, Taylor could end up being more effective than fellow running back Marlon Mack, who’s coming off his first 1,000-yard season.

Player you'll miss most: Adam Vinatieri wasn’t good last year but it was always nice seeing old reliable line up a kick. Vinatieri spent 14 seasons with the Colts and helped them win the Super Bowl in 2006.

Game you should be most excited about: Week 10, Nov. 12 at Tennessee. The Colts open the season against the Jaguars but then don’t face a division rival until mid-November when they take on the Titans in a Thursday night matchup. The division will still be up for grabs at this point in the season, plus Rivers has done well against the Titans historically, posting a 7-2 record, 17 TD passes compared to only four INTs, and a 109.0 QB rating.

Game you should be least excited about: Week 16, Dec. 27 at Pittsburgh. With potential playoff seeding on the line, it can’t be fun travelling to The Steel City to face a staunch defence in what could be the only cold-weather game the Colts play this season.

2020 season prediction: 11-5, winning the division and at least one playoff game.

Tennessee Titans

2019 finish: 9-7, upset Patriots and Ravens in playoffs then lost to Chiefs in AFC Championship

The good news: The Titans seem to be on an upward trajectory after a successful playoff run and should be among the most well-rounded teams in the AFC. They’ve been strong at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and that should remain true in 2020. Ten of 11 starters on offence are back, as is head coach Mike Vrabel, who will continue holding his players accountable. The team has finished 9-7 in each of the past three seasons but hasn’t had double-digit wins in 12 years.

The bad news: It’ll be difficult for them to replicate the success they had on offence. The odds of Derrick Henry repeating as rushing champ are slim. The last player to do it was LaDainian Tomlinson back in 2006 and 2007. The odds of Ryan Tannehill building on his career year that landed him a four-year, $118-million contract extension also appear unlikely.

2020 opt-outs: Anthony McKinney, OL

Your new favourite player: Rookie cornerback Kristian Fulton out of LSU was widely considered a first-round talent that fell to the Titans late in the second. Fulton, who is regarded as particularly strong in zone coverage, will be asked to help fill the void of the departing Logan Ryan. It might take him a while to adjust but Fulton could end up being an impact defender in the second half of the season.

Player you'll miss most: Jurrell Casey had been a mainstay on the Tennessee defensive line for the past decade but was traded to the Broncos in March after five consecutive Pro Bowl selections. Since he entered the league in 2011, Casey ranks fifth in tackles by a defensive lineman and second in tackle assists. Jeffery Simmons, the 2019 first-round pick, will be counted on to step up and become a leader on the field in Casey’s absence.

Game you should be most excited about: Week 8, Nov. 1 at Cincinnati. The Bengals have low expectations for 2020, despite drafting Joe Burrow in the spring, and were the worst team in the NFL against the run one season ago. The Titans should be able to brush off any bye week rust against a Cincinnati team that allowed nearly 150 rushing yards against in 2019.

Game you should be least excited about: Week 11, Nov. 22 at Baltimore. The Ravens will have revenge on the mind after last year’s playoff result. Luckily, the Titans will be well rested for this one coming off a Thursday nighter against the Colts.

2020 season prediction: 9-7, will battle for a playoff spot.

Houston Texans

2019 finish: 10-6, lost to Chiefs in divisional round after blowing 24-0 lead

The good news: When you have Deshaun Watson, you have a chance. The team added Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb to a receiving corps that also boasts Will Fuller and Kenny Stills. If Cooks, Cobb and new running back David Johnson can stay healthy it gives Watson many quality options. Houston has the potential to be a high-scoring offence.

The bad news: Bill O’Brien remains both head coach and general manager. He has made plenty of puzzling decisions on and off the field, so that won’t instil confidence among the fan base. The Texans have standout left tackle Laremy Tunsil but the interior of the offensive line leaves much to be desired. The biggest concern -- on paper, at least -- is the weak defensive backfield. Unless the pass rush exceeds expectations and helps make the DBs' jobs easier, the secondary has the potential to be exposed on a regular basis.

2020 opt-outs: Eddie Vanderdoes, DL

Your new favourite player: Brandin Cooks is not DeAndre Hopkins. He is, however, a highly skilled wide receiver and now has something to prove. Cooks is coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued 2019 after ranking sixth in the NFL in total receiving yards from 2015 to 2018. During that time, he averaged 1,149 yards per year and adding 29 touchdown receptions (also sixth most in the league) while splitting time between the Saints, Patriots and Rams.

“I’m just on a mission right now to being a great receiver (and) coming in and proving a lot of people wrong,” Cooks told the NFL Network in August.

Player you'll miss most: Easy. It’s DeAndre Hopkins. This was the most shocking off-season transaction seen across the league as the Texans traded the three-time All-Pro wide receiver and a fourth-round pick to the Cardinals for running back David Johnson and a second-round pick (used to select TCU defensive lineman Ross Blacklock) plus a 2021 fourth-rounder.

Since Hopkins entered the league in 2013 after being drafted 27th overall, no WR has started more games (110) or been targeted more times (1,048). His 8,602 receiving yards ranks third behind Julio Jones and Antonio Brown, while his 632 receptions ranks third behind Brown and Jones. His 54 receiving touchdowns is second to Brown’s 68, yet Hopkins’s 31 TDs in the past three seasons leads all WRs during that time.

Game you should be most excited about: The Texans have a tough schedule to start the year with early-season matchups against the Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers and Vikings, so Week 5 against the Jaguars at home could be a game used to reset. The Jaguars are expected to finish at the bottom of the AFC South standings again and Houston has gone 10-2 against Jacksonville over the past six seasons.

Game you should be least excited about: The scheduled season opener against Kansas City could end up being a scary reality check for Houston. The embarrassing playoff collapse will be fresh in the minds of many Texans players. As mentioned above, the team’s defensive backs are a relatively weak unit and Patrick Mahomes leads the most dominant air attack in the league.

2020 season prediction: 7-9. Watson will singlehandedly win them a few games but they are one or two defensive injuries away from this season being a complete disaster.

Jacksonville Jaguars

2019 finish: 6-10, finished below .500 for eighth time in past nine years

The good news: The Jags are legitimate contenders to land Trevor Lawrence with the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Jacksonville is expected to finish at or near the bottom of the standings according to most pre-season prognostications and the team’s recent moves support the notion that ownership does not care to win many games this season.

The bad news: You’re likely going to have to suffer through some miserable football in Duval County during the 2020 season. The team is rolling with Gardner Minshew as its starter and the odds are stacked against the sophomore QB. Minshew has a decent, young receiving corps with which to work but not much else. With the release of running back Leonard Fournette earlier this week and, Yannick Ngakoue being traded to the Minnesota Vikings, little remains of the team that made it to the AFC Championship in 2017.

2020 opt-outs season: Rashaan Melvin, CB; Lerentee McCray, OLB; Al Woods, DL

Your new favourite player: It’ll be one of the two defensive studs they drafted in the first round. Cornerback CJ Henderson and edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson were considered strong picks and integral to a rebuild.

Player you'll miss most: It’s a long list to ponder, but Calais Campbell is one of the easiest players to cheer for in the entire league and he’s now in Baltimore. Not only was he consistently dominant on the field – and selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his three years in Jacksonville – but he was named Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2019.

Game you should be most excited about: Week 17, Jan. 3 against the Colts. It’s the final game of the season and their draft position will be known.

Game you should be least excited about: Take your choice. This season is going to be ugly. Speaking of ugly, they play the Dolphins in a Thursday game. If each team wears their Colour Rush uniforms it could be a sight that makes your eyes sore.

2020 season prediction: 3-13, finishing as a bottom-three team in the NFL and ending up with one of Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence or Ohio State’s Justin Fields.

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