Somehow this is the final weekend before our first NFL Sunday, and having take part in the Kickers Matter podcast-athon yesterday, the TWF Dynasty draft is in the home stretch and I think I have time to get the last previews up ahead of Thursday’s season opener.
It has been an odd pre-season given the state of the world and the lack of games so it almost feels weird that we’re going to get actual football this coming week, but here it comes so I had better get to it is as we go through the AFC & NFC South divisions.
The Texans are one of the stranger teams to assess in the league as every year there is plenty of criticism of head coach Bill O’Brien, particularly now he has personnel control and the trading away of star receiver DeAndre Hopkins this off-season has done nothing but encourage that criticism. However, O’Brien has only had one losing season in his six years in Houston, going to the play-offs four times so he has almost always kept the team competitive, even if he has not always had a top tier quarterback to work with. Now that he has a franchise QB, O’Brien will be relying on Deshaun Watson to run his offence without Hopkins, and it will be interesting to see how this goes as there did seem to be two Texans’ offences last year, depending on whether receiver Will Fuller was fit and able to stretch the field or not. To go 10-6 with an offence that only ranked seventeenth by DVOA and a defence ranked even lower at twenty-second is not something I think will be easily replicable so the Texans will be hoping to improve but having traded big names like Jadeveon Clowney ahead of last season, and Hopkins this year, fans will be worried. I have a feeling that given his track record, that O’Brien will manage to keep the Texans competitive and my love of JJ Watt is well documented but my hunch for who is going to win this AFC South is another team, and not the team who came second last season either, but more of that in a moment.
The Titans were one of the surprises of the 2019 season, and after a modest start where they went 2-4 with Marcus Mariota as their starting quarterback, the Titans switched to Ryan Tannehill and rolled all the way to the conference championship where they fell to the eventual Super Bowl champions. It was only Mike Vrabel’s second year as a head coach, and he only spent one year as defensive coordinator in Houston before that, but he’s gone 9-7 twice and after last season’s run the Titans will be looking to be good again this season. The issue with that could be they have had to let some players go as they handed big contracts to both Derek Henry and Ryan Tannehill. It is good to see Tannehill succeed after things never came together for him in Miami, but in truth we don’t know if last year was an aberration or if he can finally establish himself as a franchise quarterback. It is for this reason that I completely understand the big contract that they gave Derek Henry. It doesn’t always make sense to invest a lot of money in a running back, but given how central Henry is to their game plan and the fact that it is only guaranteed for two years, it’s an okay investment. They will also be hoping receiver AJ Brown can build on his great rookie season but whether they can stay top ten by DVOA I don’t know. The defence was tough but didn’t rank great last season but it feels like the Titans are one of those teams who have taken on the identity of their coach and so I am expecting them to be pushing for the division all season.
The Colts had a tough season where the shocks started before the opening game had taken place with their franchise quarterback Andrew Luck retiring at age twenty-nine, choosing to step away to do other things and given all the injuries he had fought through it did made sense to me, although that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The Colts season actually started promisingly, but fell flat down the stretch, not helped by Adam Vinatieri at age forty-seven having some health problems and missing some kicks that he hadn’t throughout his career. I have been really impressed by the job GM Chris Ballard has done in building the Colts roster in recent years, avoiding splashing in free agency and building a talented roster but the Luck retirement was clearly a huge blow. They have several QBs on the roster and Jacoby Brissett was able to do a job for them last season but the signing of Phillip Rivers could be a coup if he can regain his form behind an offensive line that will be able to give him the time that the Chargers couldn’t in recent years. It helps that Rivers is familiar with head coach Frank Reich’s offence, and Reich’s success with the Colts has made some wonder how much of the Eagles Super Bowl win was down to his work rather than Doug Pederson’s. In truth of course the answer lies somewhere in the middle but has Reich had success with the offence already and there looks to be potential for them to be really good this year. The defence will be hoping to be nearer to their 2018 ranking of eleventh by DVOA rather than the nineteenth that they were last season, but with Luke Kuechly’s retirement the Colts have probably my favourite linebacker in Darius Leonard so I’m sure I will be watching their defence at some point. I could be completely wrong, but as Dan is desperately trying to make me make bold predictions, I’m going to suggest that the Colts are my pick for the AFC South in 2020.
So last, and actually probably least in this division if not the league we have the Jacksonville Jaguars who were a pretty rotten 6-10 last season, but held on to head coach Doug Marrone despite racking up double-digit losses for the second season in a row. Additionally, after grievances were upheld against the franchise over the excessive use of fines, a scathing letter was released by the NFLPA announcing that more than twenty-five percent of all grievances filed by players in the entire league were filed against the Jags and that players might want to consider this when selecting their next club. The visible reaction to those of us outside of the team was the firing of Tom Coughlin, but GM David Caldwell was retained despite a number of high profile players being moved on and the Jags once again being in rebuild mode. On the field it did not help that their new Super Bowl winning quarterback Nick Foles was lost to injury after four games, but their sixth round rookie QB Gardner Minshew II manage to lead them to a 6-6 record in the games he started giving the Jaguars some life and endearing himself to fans in the process. Minshew now has the chance to prove what he can do, but the trade moves continued with pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue being moved on this off-season to join players like Jalen Ramsey as highly drafted young players who are no longer on the roster. In fact the defence already looks very different to the Sacksonville Jaguars defence of 2017 that carried the team to the conference championship game. The ugly truth for GM David Caldwell is that through the seven years he has been in charge that 2017 team are the only ones to reach the play-offs, in fact they are the only team that didn’t amass double digit losses in a season. The Jaguars need to find out if Minshew can be consistently competitive and if they have found a gem in the sixth round that will set them up for success, but they have already held on to one supposed franchise quarterback for too long considering their on-field results. The Jags have not made life easy for themselves in building a roster given that they selected running back Leonard Fournette fourth in the 2017 draft, ahead of franchise QBs like Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, and have not even given Fournette a second contract. In fact they cut the running back after his most productive season so didn’t even get anything back for him. You can’t hope to succeed with this kind of roster churn and I expect the Jaguars to struggle this season. If they can progress with Minshew as quarterback then there could be hope for the Jaguars, but there’s been precious little success over the last decade and I can’t help but wonder when the Jaguars will be truly set themselves up to be a winning franchise.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints were one of three NFC teams to win their division with a 13-3 record in 2019, but for the second time in three years lost to the Vikings in the play-offs, this time not making it out of the wild card round. There has been a consistent push to maximise the Saint’s chances of winning a Super Bowl before Drew Brees retires and last season’s success was all the more remarkable considering that Brees missed five weeks with a torn ligament in the thumb of his throwing hand and the Saints went 5-0 with backup Teddy Bridgewater. The Saints have made some big moves in the draft but with players like Alvin Kamara, Michael Thomas and Marshon Lattimore they have built a roster to compete and this offseason seems to be no exception. Brees has returned for another shot at getting back to the big game, and whilst Teddy Bridgewater has moved on to division rivals the Panthers, they signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jameis Winston to be the backup this season. Winston will be hoping that a season under the tutelage of Brees and head coach Sean Payton will help his development and lead to a chance to start next season, be it for the Saints or another franchise, although the Saints will be hoping the former first overall pick will be sat all season. The front office of the Saints really had done a great job of keeping the Saints relevant in the last few years, but the clock is ticking for forty-one year old Brees and the Saints will be hoping that given the history of old quarterback’s level of play declining rapidly when it does go, that Brees can continue to defy age and they can once again push for the Super Bowl. They certainly could be helped with the continuity of their squad and with Sean Payton trying to get as many players as he can living in a hotel to mimic a bubble I think that it is likely the Saints will be successful in their aim as long as Brees can get somewhere near the level he has reached in recent seasons.
The Falcons are coming of their second consecutive losing season and have been searching to recreate the formula that took them to the Super Bowl in the 2016 season. The Falcons have had seven winning seasons with GM Thomas Dimitroff in charge and they chose to stay the course with head coach Dan Quinn after he brought the Falcons back to 7-9 after a 1-7 start. In fact the Falcons went 6-2 after the bye week where Quinn and his coaching staff found something to get the Falcons going. To be fair there were a lot of injuries to the defence, but at thirty-five quarterback Matt Ryan will be hoping to get back to the Super Bowl if he can to make up for the tough loss to the Patriots. There are certainly big names on this roster including one of the best receivers in the game in Julio Jones, and with Dirk Koetter remaining offensive coordinator there is a good chance that the offence can improve on their ranking of fifteenth but it is the defence that has not come together in recent years. Some of this is down to health but my concern would be the cover-3 style brought over from the Seahawks by Quinn, which has been great if you had top class talent but hasn’t really been as successful anywhere else and Quinn has struggled to make the defence consistently good in Atlanta. However, this is another team with a good degree of continuity, and I can see them competing for the division this season if they can build on their performance in the second half of last season. However, it is not hard to see things going the other way either so it could be a tough season for the Falcons, but at this point there is definitely hope and we shall just have to see if that survives initial contact with the season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
It has been an off-season of excitement and frustration in Tampa Bay as after head coach Bruce Arians could only get the Bucs to seven wins in his first year, the Bucs let their 2015 first round draft pick Jameis Winstone walk after he threw thirty interceptions to go with his thirty-three touchdowns and signed Tom Brady to be their new franchise quarterback, if only for however many seasons Brady (now forty-three) has left. The problem is that they are trying to integrate Brady into a new team in the year of Covid and so whilst Brady has been holding plenty of throwing sessions with his receivers before training camp started, he only took his place in the Bucs’ huddle for the first time a couple of weeks ago. In Mike Evans and Chriss Godwin the Bucs have two Pro Bowl receivers that gained over a thousand yards last season, and with Rob Gronkowski coming out of retirement and Brady apparently coaching up OJ Howard there are options at tight-end although who knows how productive they will be. There have been some very bold predictions this off-season, but whilst I am not prepared to write them into the Super Bowl just yet, I do think that a defence that finished sixth by DVOA last season and an offence helmed by Brady with a better selection of skill players than he has had in a long time means the Bucs do have a lot of potential. I also have a lot of faith in Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles is overly qualified to be a only a defensive coordinator so I expect them to compete but it will be a magical season if Brady takes them deep into the play-offs or to what would be only the second Super Bowl in the franchise’s history.
It is all change for the Carolina Panthers in the off-season as having fired Ron Rivera during a disappointing 5-11 season they let franchise quarterback Cam Newton go as the Panthers embraced a rebuild. They hired college coach Matt Rhule to be their new head coach and gave him a huge contract of $62 million over seven years. The off-season also saw the retirement of standout linebacker Luke Kuechly who in his eight seasons went to seven Pro Bowls and was name First-Team All-Pro five times. Kuechly never dropped below one hundred tackles despite loosing a number of games to concussions and other injuries so as much as I would have loved to see him play for longer, I’m happy he is getting out now. However, the Panthers have had a lot of change this off-season and having signed Teddy Bridgewater to be their starting quarterback this season and handed Christian McCaffrey a four year contract extension they drafted seven defensive players. It should be an exciting time for fans of the Panthers, Rhule hired Joe Brady who was the passing game coordinator at LSU and was credited with having a large part in the turnaround in Joe Burrow’s play last season to be offesnive coordinator. However, with so much change, a head coach brand new to the NFL and coordinators hired from the college game it could take time for potential to turn into results. As good as Bridgewater looked last season for the Saints in the five games he started, it has been years since he was the starting quarterback for a franchise and this is not a one year rebuild. The positive thing from my point of view is that in the contract that owner David Tepper gave Rhule demonstrates a commitment to a long term project, but as ever in the NFL we shall have to see if that commitment survives the results on the field. It will be a year to see progression for the Panthers and we shall have to see how that manifests, but the Panthers are definitely a team I am looking forward to watching this season regardless of their record.
DVOA is Football Outsiders statistic for measuring a team’s success on every play versus the league average and you can read more about it and other football topics at https://footballoutsiders.com.