Training Camp Stories: AFC & NFC South

Both of these divisions sent 3 teams to the playoffs in 2017. Highly competitive and loaded with offensive and defensive talent, the South in both the AFC and NFC are divisions to watch for the upcoming season.

AFC

Jaguars – Can Jacksonville, with perhaps the strongest defense in the league, challenge for AFC supremacy with a bottom 10 quarterback? Jacksonville was one game away from advancing to the Super Bowl, surprising much of the NFL as a team that always had potential, and finally put it all together last year. Backed by an all-world defense lead by defensive end Calais Campbell, dynamic safety Jalen Ramsey, and athletic linebacker Myles Jack. A top 5 defense last year, the Jags look to continue their defensive dominance by adding first round pick Taven Bryan. As dominant as the Jaguars were on the defensive side of the ball, their achilles heel was the play of their quarterback. Blake Bortles has never lived up to the expectations of his draft position as a former top five pick. Quarterback play often viewed as the most important part of an offense and despite that team weakness during the season,  Bortles played the best ball of his career during the playoffs, and coupled with a strong run game lead by Leonard Fournette, the Jags made a playoff run that almost saw them playing for the Lombardi trophy. The question this year is if has Bortles has evolved as a passer, or was last year’s playoff performance just a fluke? Bortles will still have the same strong run game but will not have two of his top three receivers this year as Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns have both found new homes. Adopting the “Next Man Up” mentality, the Jags hope a step forward for Bortles and the emergence of one of their young receivers (Westbrook, Cole, or Chark) combined with a healthy Marqise Lee will keep defenses honest as they focus on primarily stopping Fournette and the run game as Jacksonville is now considered a darkhorse contender in the league.

Texans – Can Watson return to the form that had the Texans believing that they finally had a franchise quarterback? Houston has been a team that been on the cusp for the last few years. A team with a dominating defense, led by J.J. Watt, a true number one receiver who continues to evolve into a force in DeAndre Hopkins, and a solid running game lead by veteran back Lamar Miller. 2017 was a promising season, even with an injury severe enough to sideline J.J. Watt for the year. Then rookie quarterback Deshawn Watson emerged as a leader and added a dynamic level to the Texan offense. Unfortunately, injury cut short Watson’s season, and with him, any chance the Texans had at a playoff run. This year brings new vigor and excitement as the Texans go into ’18 with a loaded deck. Houston will rely on its defense once more with hopes J.J. Watt can return to form after a year off and battling injury the last few seasons. Helping Watt on the front line are hyper athletic but oft injured Jadeveon Clowney, and underrated linebacker Whitney Mercilus. Supporting the guys upfront are the new look Texans secondary, with versatile chess piece Tyrann Mathieu in the mix, his presence hopes to take pressure off slot corner Kevin Johnson as he tries to take a step forward this year to become a solid starter alongside Aaron Colvin and newly transformed safety Kareem Jackson. Offensively, Deshawn Watson is the fuel that makes the Texans motor run. Accurate on the run and mobile inside and out of the pocket, Watson is an exciting player to watch, and has shown flashes of why the Houston faithful are excited for the future but has also shown his inexperience by forcing some of his throws instead of throwing the ball away, resulting in untimely interceptions. One of the most important parts of Watson’s success has been the evolution of DeAndre Hopkins to a top 5 receiver in the NFL. Strong, speedy, and vice grip hands make Hopkins a handful for any cornerback. Houston’s question marks relate to their running game. The Texans have two capable backs in Lamar Miller and D’onte Foreman, but unfortunately both come into 2018 with much risks, as Lamar Miller showed the tendency to fade when carrying a full load for a full 17 games, and Foreman is coming off a season cut short by an achilles injury and is still on the PUP. Houston is a team with all the pieces to the puzzle, but it remains seen if they can put them together, if so, they could end up at the top of the division and potentially further.

 Titans – The 2017 season ended for the Titans with a trip to the divisional playoffs. While some would praise such a feat, the Titans organization fired their coach Mike Mularkey after what they deemed an unsuccessful tenure. It’s a fresh start for the team in 2018 with new head coach, Mike Vrabel. Vrabel, who played in the league under Belichick takes his first head coaching gig in the NFL. Vrabel inherits a talented roster to contend for a playoff spot for the second year in a row. Young quarterback Marcus Mariota will lean on veteran all pro tight end Delanie Walker and his running game with the two headed monster of bruiser Derrick Henry and free agent signing, the lightning quick receiving back Dion Lewis. The wide receiving corps hopes to make an impact as Corey Davis looks primed for a breakout year. Defensively, linebacker Brian Orakpo looks to continue his position as defensive leader and pass rusher with the support of Jurrell Casey on the line and a formidable secondary starting ball hawk safety Kevin Byrd and newest addition Malcolm Butler. With a new coach and the experience gained by the young Titans team from the previous year, Tennessee could be ready to make noise in the AFC and eventually find Their way back into the playoffs for another post season run.

Colts – Another NFL team plagued with injuries, the Colts limped their way across the finish line and into offseason last year. There are mummers of possible resurgence with the return of quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck, who was out all 2017 season with a shoulder injury, is healthy and ready to lead the Colts. However, the AFC South has become one of the tougher divisions in the NFL. The Jaguars, Titans and Texans are different teams from the last time Luck took a snap. They’ve become competitive and each team make it into the playoffs. Luck also has a different team from 2016; the roster is younger and less experienced. He’ll have to rely on his go-to receiver T.Y. Hilton and tight end Jack Doyle to make big plays if they want to stay relevant in the AFC South. Gone is mainstay Frank Gore, replaced by young and explosive, but unproven back Marlon Mack. To help take pressure off T.Y. Hilton, the Colts signed Eric Ebron to pair with Jack Doyle. The Colts continue to look for a solution to their offensive line, a weakness that resulted in an injury severe enough ton shelf franchise quarterback Luck for a year. Continuing to build in the draft, Quintin Nelson is hoped to be stabilizing force on the line for years to come, seen as a generational talent level lineman. The defense is a question mark as the young group tries to find an identity in 2018.  Good news is that safety Malik Hooker is healthy and back to step into what will be an important pass defense role. The Colts are not a team most people project having a successful ’18 campaign, but with Luck back in the fold, there is reason for optimism in Indy. The offense is in a position to succeed and if the defense is able to make plays, the Colts could be in a position to surprise a lot of teams and make some noise in the AFC.

NFC

Carolina The Panthers are a few years removed from a Super Bowl and look to enter the 2018 season with a strong running attack lead by Christian McCaffrey and free agent signee C.J. Anderson. With the added threat of Linebacker sized Newton taking off on designed runs or improvising out of the pocket, Carolina boast one of the strongest running games in the league. This ability to run the ball frees up the play action pass and adds sure handed tight end Greg Olsen to mix as their main receiving target. Unfortunately, there has not been much consistent support outside Olsen the last few years as the Panthers haven’t had a consistent pass threat since the days of Steven Smith. Carolina will look to young target Devin Funchess and veteran signing Torry Smith for vertical aid as the Panthers look to continue the trend of keeping Newton in the pocket and limiting his run plays to preserve his body prevent injury. The defense continues to be one of the top defenses in the league, with the play of star linebacking trio Shaq Thompson, Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly. The defensive line is productive with disruptors Kawann Short and Dontari Poe inside and the ageless Julius Peppers on the end. Carolina hopes it’s secondary can galvanize as corner was a major point of concern for the Panthers last year. James Bradberry and Da’Norris Searcy will attempt to hold their own against a division with numerous skilled receivers to face off with on Sundays. The Panthers are a Dangerous team that looks to mask its weaknesses with its strengths, however, if things click for this team, another trip to the big game is within reach.

New Orleans – Brees and the boys are back and looking to take their much-improved defense and a still dynamic offense led by Hall of Fame bound QB Drew Brees. The Saints have been known for their high scoring passing game but can attribute most of the 2018 success to then rookie Alvin exploding on the scene as a change of pass back sharing carries with former Heisman winner Mark Ingram. Suspended the first couple games of the season, If Kamara proves he can sustain a full load by himself, then Ingram could potentially see a trade to a new team before the end of the trade deadline. The Saints passing attack is ready to reload by joining new receiver Camron Meredith with burgeoning star Michael Thomas and vertical burner Ted Ginn. On the opposite side of the ball, the Saints vastly improved defense can be attributed to coordinator Dennis Allen and him maximizing the scheme for d-line stars Cameron Jordan and Sheldon Rankins. The play of corner Marshon Lattimore has solidified the secondary and the arrival of exciting defensive Marcus Davenport has the ‘Nola buzzing. One heartbreaking play from last year’s NFC championship, New Orleans is primed for another run at the trophy.

Tampa Bay – There is disarray in the bay. Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston off the field behavior has created on the field issues as the franchise QB will see a suspension and miss game to start the season. A leader in the locker room and on the field, back up Ryan Fitzpatrick will slide into a role he’s familiar with when Winston went down with injury last year. “Fitzmagic” and his beard will have the advantage of throwing to one of the best receivers in the game, Mike Evans. Evan’s combo of hands, height and strength make him almost impossible to stop, and opposite of Evans is speed slot receiver Desean Jackson. Tampa Bay has been a productive redzone team with the size and athleticism of not only Evans but tight end threats OJ Howard and Cameron Brate. In a division that has Drew Brees, Cam Newton, and Matt Ryan, pass rush is essential for survival and the Bucs have improved their rush with free agent signing Jason Pierre- Paul and deceptively quick space eater in draft pick Vita Vea. These additions will join one of the best defensive tackles in the game in Gerald McCoy, the Bucs have created a line that will look to constantly pressure the quarterback. A team each season has high expectations but consistently fall short, expectations have been tempered for this team, which puts them in the perfect position to surprise any division rival that overlooks this still dangerous team.

Atlanta – The Falcons are in a projected race for the top of division against the Panthers and Saints. Matt Ryan and company come into 2018 with a dangerous offense that can turn the game into a track meet with running backs Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Add one of the most physically gifted receivers in the game in Julio Jones. Atlanta hopes that tight end Austin Hooper can develop further and contribute as the Falcons haven’t had major tight end contribution since the retirement of Tony Gonzales. Offensively the Falcons are a team that constantly ranks in the upper half of the league in production and scoring, unfortunately, the Falcons rank at the bottom in stopping other teams from scoring. Atlanta is searching for playmakers on defense and are leaning on the continued growth of Linebacker Vic Beasley as a sack machine and sideline to sideline player. Atlanta hopes to build up the defense with the signing of young players on the defensive side of the ball in hopes that investing in young talent now will pay dividends in the future. The Falcons are one of the most offensively talented teams in the league, and if the defense is able to catch up and prevent the mental lapses that have caused them trouble in the past, another trip to the Super Bowl is not out of the question.

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