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2024 AFC South race: Can Jaguars, Colts or Titans hold off ascendant Texans? Reasons why each could rise up

The AFC South division is home to the two teams with the largest win improvements from 2022 to 2023 in the entire NFL: the reigning division champion Houston Texans and the division runner-up Indianapolis Colts.ย 

Houston jumped from three wins in 2022, which landed them the No. 2 overall and eventual 2023 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year quarterback C.J. Stroud, to 10 wins thanks to Stroud’s and 2023 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year edge rusher Will Anderson Jr.’s — the third overall pick of the 2023 NFL Draft — efforts for rookie head coach DeMeco Ryans, a former Texans player himself. Stroud and Anderson Jr. became only the fourth pair of teammates to take home both rookie of the year awards in the same season joining the New York Jets 2022 duo of wide receiver Garrett Wilson and cornerback Sauce Gardner, the New Orleans Saints 2018 combo of running backย 

They defeated Indianapolis, who went 9-8 in Year 1 under new head coach Shane Steichen despite going 4-12-1 the previous year, 23-19 in Week 18. The Colts simply being in position to win the division down until the game’s final possession is incredible with 2023 fourth overall pick quarterback Anthony Richardson (missed 13 games including final 12 after season-ending shoulder injury) and 2022 First-Team All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor (missed seven games, including first four) both missing significant time.

The Jacksonville Jaguars‘ 9-8 record in 2022 was good enough to win the AFC South that year, but a 28-20 loss against the Tennessee Titans in Week 18 despite being 3.5-point favorites eliminated them from both division and playoff contention. That capped a 1-5 finish to the Jaguars’ 2023 following a promising 8-3 start, which made Jacksonville only the sixth team of the 21st Century to miss the postseason after an 8-3 start.ย 

Tennessee enters 2024 in an era centered around second-year quarterback Will Levis and his rocket launcher arm after firing defensive head coach Mike Vrabel and replacing him with Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan.

While both the Colts and Jaguars finished just a game behind the 10-7 Texans, Houston is the prohibitive betting favorite with +100 odds to take home the crown, according to Caesars Sportsbook. Likely factored into those odds is the fact that the 2024 Texans are the first team in NFL history to add a player coming off a season with 100 or more catches (wide receiver Stefon Diggs, via trade with Buffalo Bills), 1,000 or more rushing yards (running back Joe Mixon, via trade with Cincinnati Bengals) and 10 or more sacks (edge rusher Danielle Hunter — two-year, $49 million contract in free agency and Denico Autry — two-year, $20 million contract in free agency) in the same offseason.

Even though Houston is the favorite, the AFC South continues to prove year after year that the unexpected can be expected. Here is how each of the four teams could take home the division crown in 2024.ย 

Houston Texans

How great was Stroud in 2023? Well, he became only the third quarterback in the last 50 seasons to lead the NFL outright in passing yards per game (273.9) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (23-5), joining Tom Brady (2007, won NFL MVP) and Joe Montana (1989, won NFL MVP). Stroud’s 4,108 passing yards were the third-most ever by a rookie, trailing only Andrew Luck’s 4,374 in 2012 and Justin Herbert’s 4,336 in 2020.ย 

Texans general manager Nick Caserio went to work bolstering Stroud’s supporting cast, trading a 2024 seventh-round pick to the Bengals for running back Joe Mixon — whose 37 scrimmage touchdowns are the third-most in the NFL the last three seasons — and a 2025 second-round pick to the Bills for four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Houston averaged 96.9 rushing yards per game last season, tied for 22nd in the NFL, but the addition of Mixon should improve that area.ย 

Adding a four-time Pro Bowler to a wide receiver core that already had Nico Collins — whose 3.1 yards per route run ranked as the second-most in the NFL behind only Tyreek Hill (3.9) — and Tank Dell — one of only two rookies, along with Puka Nacua, to have 140 or more receiving yards in multiple games last season — gives Houston the best receiver trio in the NFL.ย 

Defensively, Anderson Jr. is already gushing about learning from Danielle Hunter, whose 16.5 sacks ranked as the fifth-most in the league in 2023, and dreaming about how offenses will struggle to figure out which one of them to double team.ย 

Houston’s reigning rookies of the year being provided with even more playmakers while entering 2024 with a whole year of NFL experience is a great recipe for back-to-back AFC South titles.ย 

Indianapolis Colts

There’s a case to be made that simply better health from both Richardson and Taylor in 2023 would have resulted in Indianapolis winning the division. Richardson joined Daunte Culpepper (2000), Cam Newton (2011) and Robert Griffin III (2012) as the only players in NFL history with three or more passing touchdowns and three or more rushing touchdowns in their first four career games.

Taylor caught fire at the end of the season with touchdowns in each of his last six games of 2023, including season-highs in both rushing yards (188) and carries (30) in the Week 18 loss against the Texans. Retaining Michael Pittman Jr. (signed a three-year, $70 million extension), whose 109 catches were the fifth-most in the NFL last season, and adding the 2023 Big 12 receiving touchdowns leader Adonai Mitchell (11) from the Texas Longhorns as a second-round pick in the 2024 draft ensures Richardson’s growth as passer should continue to trend upward.

General manager Chris Ballard also bolstered his team’s already effective pass rush, a must in a division with young, up-and-coming quarterbacks. Indy totaled the fifth-most sacks (51) in 2023, and four players had at least eight sacks, all of whom remain on the roster in 2024: Kwity Paye, DeForest Buckner, Dayo Odeyingbo and Samson Ebukam. The team’s sack rate of 8.2% was stellar, the eighth-best in football, but their pressure rate was a disappointing 32.3%, 26th out of 32 teams.ย 

Selecting college football’s best pass rush in UCLA’s Laiatu Latu 15th overall should help solve that problem. He had the best quarterback pressure rate (21.4%, minimum 250ย  pass rushes) and the most sacks (23.5) in the country in 2023. A consistent pass rush pressure presence who knows who to finish plays with sacks could help take the Colts’ defense up a few levels.ย 

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars made quarterback Trevor Lawrence tied with Joe Burrow for the title of the highest-paid player in the NFL after signing him to a five-year, $275 million contract this offseason, and Jacksonville made use of that contract’s ability to spread out his cap hits to bolster the roster around him.ย 

Jacksonville re-signed two-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Josh Hines-Allen to a five-year, $141.25 million extension, which makes him the No. 2 highest-paid edge rusher in professional football behind just 2022 NFL 2022 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa (five-year, $170 million deal). Hines-Allen’s17.5 sacks tied for the second-most in the NFL, trailing only T.J. Watt’s 19.0, and his 90 quarterback pressures were the fifth-best in the league.

Now, Hines-Allen has Bosa’s longtime pass rush partner Arik Armstead lining up next to him after signing the former 49er to a three-year, $43.5 million contract ($28 million fully guaranteed) in free agency. All of Bosa’s four Pro Bowl seasons came alongside Armstead, so perhaps his presence lifts Hines-Allen’s production to new heights.ย 

Lawrence’s offensive line improved with the signing of former Chiefs and Bills center Mitch Morse to a two-year, $10.5 million deal, which is critical since Lawrence dealt with a laundry list of injuries last season, causing the Jaguars to stumble to a 9-8 record.ย 

Trevor Lawrence injuries last season

  • Week 6 Knee sprain
  • Week 13 High ankle sprain
  • Week 15 Concussion
  • Week 16 AC joint sprain

Morse may also help running back Travis Etienne become more efficient. Etienne racked up another 1,000-yard rushing season, and he led the league with 89 tackles avoided. However, his efficiency fell off from his rookie season, dropping from 5.1 in 2022 to 3.8 in 2023. Some or much of that blame could be laid at the feet of the Jacksonville offense whose 40.6 Pro Football Focus grade ranked as the second-worst in the NFL.ย 

Jacksonville also ensured Lawrence will have bigger bodies to throw to in 2024 with the signing of wide receiver Gabe Davis (6’2, 225 and averaged 16.7 yards per catch across the last four seasons — the second-most in the NFL), the re-signing of tight end Evan Engram (6’3, 240 pounds and his four games with 10 or more catches were tied for the second-most in the NFL) and the drafting of LSU wide receiver Brian Thomas Jr. 23rd overall (6’4, 205 and led college football with 17 receiving touchdowns in 2023).ย 

Better health for Lawrence and some improvements along the margins could have the Jaguars looking much more like their 2022 squad that made the Kansas City Chiefs sweat in the divisional playoffs, a squad that won the AFC South.ย 

Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans are undergoing a foundational shift this offseason. Longtime head coach Mike Vrabel is gone. Face of the franchise running back Derrick Henry and quarterback Ryan Tannehill also departed in free agency.ย 

Head coach Brian Callahan oversaw big free agent spending, particularly on offense to help out second-year quarterback Will Levis. Tennessee signed the Jaguars’ top receiver Calvin Ridley on a four-year, $92 million contract, Dallas Cowboys starting running back Tony Pollard to a three-year, $21.75 million contract, Denver Broncos center Lloyd Cushenberry III to a four-year, $50 milllon deal and Bengals longtime slot man Tyler Boyd to a one-year, $2.4 million deal. The Titans also drafted Alabama All-American offensive tackle JC Latham seventh overall.

All of those moves were in an effort to get more efficient play out of Levis, whose 10.5 air yards per pass attempt were the highest in the NFL last season, but to the detriment of his completion percentage, which was a league-low 58.4%. After throwing four touchdowns in his NFL debut against the Atlanta Falcons, tied for the most in NFL debut ever, Levis threw only four more in his final eight games to go along with four interceptions. A trio of DeAndre Hopkins, Calvin Ridley and Tyler Boyd should help remedy this issue.ย 

Tennessee’s defense also got a boost in free agency, signing two-time Super Bowl champion cornerback L’Jarius Sneed, whose 4.7 yards per pass attempted allowed was the best in the NFL among the 53 players with at least 75 passes thrown their way, to a four-year, $76.4 million contract.ย 

Callahan oversaw a massive turnaround in Cincy once Joe Burrow got healthy and had weapons around him. This isn’t to say the Titans are going to the Super Bowl in 2024, but they could have much more of a puncher’s chance in the AFC South than one might think.ย 

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Author: Garrett Podell
July 11, 2024 | 8:56 am

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