Floors and Ceilings for the AFC South
By Lee Wakefield
Welcome back into Floors and Ceilings! Apologies for the break last week, let’s dive straight back in with another division with the AFC South.
I’ve written three times in the previous articles in the series that I feel a certain division could lay claim to being the best in football. I don’t think that the AFC South is the best in football, it certainly is one of the most intriguing. It is certainly a division where the arrow is pointing up for at least three of the teams. None more so than the first time on my agenda…
Throughout their short history, the Jaguars haven’t had it easy. Often the basement dwellers of the AFC South, recently having to endure one of the worst hires in NFL history and even with back-to-back first-overall selections in the 2021 and 2022 drafts.
However, the Jaguars are now the creme of the AFC South, they won a playoff game last year and look like they are on the cusp of something really good. This year could be the year when they go from playoff hopefuls to being genuine contenders.
I can say this with confidence – The Jags are good. With additions like Calvin Ridley, who gives them a legitimate number one receiver, they’re probably only going to get better! It’s no wonder pre-season mock drafts have them picking in the 20s.
The floor feels high. The schedule isn’t super-demanding, with both the AFC and NFC South divisions. The roster looks strong and isn’t over-reliant on young talent having to contribute right away. Only Anton Harrison is listed as a rookie starter at the time of writing. Plus, I’d expect a step forward from Doug Pederson and Trevor Lawrence.
I almost want to say the floor is hitting nine wins again. However, I think the Colts and Texans are better (in some respects) than what people are giving them credit for. So, I’ll take a win off and say 8-9.
In year one under Doug Pederson, this team managed to win the AFC South by two clear games. They also authored one of the greatest playoff comebacks in NFL history. This before falling to the eventual Superbowl champions, by one score, on the road.
Pederson appeared to install an offense that worked for the personnel that they had. This helped to bring the best out of Trevor Lawrence.
Whilst things couldn’t be worst than they were previously under Urban Meyer, things really didn’t take long to take off under the new regime.
Could things get even better in 2023? I think that is a distinct possibility! The ceiling is the AFC Championship game, where they could get a chance to avenge Myles Jack being ruled down. To get there, the Jags could go 12-5 in the regular season.
Much like the question I asked about the Vikings, I find myself in a similar spot about the Titans. I ask myself, what is it exactly that they are aiming for in 2023?
Under Mike Vrabel, they’re not going to tank. Vrabel simply won’t abide it. He will have this team playing hard to the echo of the final whistle of week 17.
But do they have the horses to make any serious waves this season?
This team is two years removed from having the #1 seed in the AFC, they are making moves like signing DeAndre Hopkins and they did win 7 games last year.
But the roster just isn’t good. It lacks star power – Jeffrey Simmons and Derrick Henry notwithstanding. The offensive line is a mess. And the QB situation is about as confusing as you’ll find around the league. Should they must admit that they’re in need of a rebuild?
The offensive line really affects things here. I feel good in saying that Peter Skoronski is the best player in the starting five. Which is ludicrous since he’s not taken an NFL snap yet!
But let’s examine things here…
Andre Dillard would still be in Philadelphia if he was good. Aaron Brewer is going to be a first-time starter at center. Brewer is a former undrafted free agent, who played at guard last year, to boot. Daniel Brunskill was the weak link in the 49ers’ offensive line last year. And to finish off, I had honestly thought that Chris Hubbard retired.
This is not a good situation. Especially when they will, once again, be relying on Derrick Henry to be the life and soul of the offense.
If Henry misses serious time, or even just isn’t as effective as he has been, they may be in serious bother.
4-13 floor and the AFC South basement.
Outside of the offensive line, the ceiling is similarly limited due to a lack of star-level talent on both sides of the ball.
Jeffrey Simmons is the one, genuine superstar on the team. But where does that get you?
Harold Landry could be a nice piece. Chig Okonkwo has mountains of potential. Roger McCreary could continue to develop into a CB… But what else? This team just needs more.
As I alluded to earlier, the talent level isn’t great but Vrabel isn’t going to allow them to have a top-5 pick. I feel like they’re destined for a record with anywhere between 7 and 9 wins.
The around-500-purgatory. The worst place for an NFL team to be.
Just turn the keys over the Malik Willis or Will Levis and start again.
As mentioned, the ceiling is an uninspired 9 wins.
After the Matt Ryan experience, surely the only way is up from now for the Colts?
Shane Steichen has a resume with includes getting the best out of both Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts. Surely, he can coax the best out of Anthony Richardson?
By drafting Richardson, the Colts have at least attempted to step off the endless QB carousel that they have found themselves on over the past few years.
Richardson is raw, but all signs point to Indy being all-in on him. He’s already been named the starter and has received practically all starting reps throughout training camp.
It could be uneven, especially in the beginning but even if Richardson shows promise, it is at least the start of the next permanent era in Indianapolis. In the event that Richardson goes nuclear, you better drop our friend Jack Brentnall a follow on Twitter. He’s been the driver of Richardson’s hype train from the start.
I don’t expect Anthony Richardson to be an elite passer of the football from day 1. He wasn’t that in college, and despite flashy videos, it’ll take a year or so for him to come along in this regard.
However, considering he’s the most athletic QB to ever pass through the combine, his rushing ability gives them an X-factor. An X-factor that Shane Steichen has first-hand experience of using considering he’s just helped Jalen Hurts to a career season and a Superbowl appearance.
Of course, rushing QBs aren’t a new phenomenon in 2023. However, they change the math in the run game and cause defenses headaches. They are doing so to the point where according to EPA-based metrics, this skillset alone can accumulate enough points on a per-play basis to win games when used correctly.
The Colts also have enough playmakers on both sides of the ball to be at least competent. They’ll win at least 8 games.
In the event that Richardson is ahead of the curve as a thrower, things get interesting when thinking about the Colts’ ceiling.
Due to the rushing upside, Richardson doesn’t need to throw for anything close to 4,000 yards or anything like that. But if he can read the defense and deliver the ball consistently, he’s going to be a problem.
Steichen will surely simplify things early, he’ll look to use Richardson’s mobility and look for explosives with the likes of Alec Pierce. If all of this comes together the Colts could be a super-exciting offense to watch.
Outside of Richardson and the offense, overall, it appears that Indy have invested draft picks in basically just taking the best athletes that they can find.
Gus Bradley wants guys who can fly. He always wants to run a simple defense so that players have to think less, and can play on instinct. Using their natural talents to flourish.
This might be a bold take but the Colts have it in them to win 11 games and win the AFC South this year.
The Texans have been a sham of a franchise for a couple of years now. That said, like the Jaguars and Colts, it appears that the arrow is pointing upward again.
After the David Culley and Lovie Smith hires, both of whom felt like short-term Head Coaches, it feels like the Texans are ready to be a serious franchise again.
DeMeco Ryans is a budding star as a leader, having led one of the league’s best defenses in San Fransisco. They hope that they have just drafted their franchise QB for the next decade-plus, in C.J. Stroud. The Texans also made an extremely bold move to move up in the draft and take their defensive cornerstone with the very next pick.
I loved the Will Anderson move, it said that Houston is serious about trying to summit the AFC South sooner rather than later.
After the bad times they’ve endured over the past few years, I feel like the Texans’ floor is higher than most are giving them credit for.
A lot will bare on how C.J. Stroud performs but the pass catchers are competent and the offensive line is seriously underrated in my opinion. On defense, they have Ryans and a very multiple secondary that he should be able to have fun with, as well as Will Anderson up front who should be able to pin his ears back and get after the QB.
Will they be shooting for the playoffs in year one of Ryans’ reign? Probably not. But there should be green shoots of something new for Texans fans to get excited about. This team will be no worse than 6-11.
As much as I think that the Texans could surprise a lot of people this year, I have to seriously question myself when thinking about their ceiling.
I’m a positive guy and I can talk myself into being glass-half-full about most teams. But I have to ask myself: How much further can I push Houston’s ceiling when their floor already has them doubling their win total from last year?
In the long run, their young players need to develop and they need a sprinkling of further stardust in order to continue on their growth spurt.
If everything falls right, and their easy schedule proves to be just that, perhaps we can stretch to an 8-win season. Which would be stupendous for this team.
Feature Image Credit: NBC Sports
NFL, CFB & NFL Draft
Lee Wakefield IS A defensive line enthusiast, Chargers Sufferer, and LONG-TIME writer and podcaster with a number of publications. Find his Chargers content over at Bolt Beat. @Wakefield90 on twitter