2021 AFC South Breakdown by Position: The Offense

AFC South Offense Breakdown
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During the month of August, the Last Word on Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a breakdown of the AFC South offense positions. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2021 AFC South Offense Breakdown by Position


The Best: Houston Texans

The Rest: Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars

If this had been written last month, the Titans would have been in the first spot due to the uncertainty surrounding Deshaun Watson. And there is still no guarantee that he won’t be traded or be otherwise unable to play. But he’s reported to camp and the civil suits are not expected to be addressed until next year, so for now we will assume he is playing. Regardless of all this confusion, when/if Watson is available, the Texans have the best quarterback in the division. If not, they slide down to third or fourth with Tyrod Taylor as the next man up.

Ryan Tannehill of the Titans is a bit closer behind than one might expect. He has been on a tear ever since he joined the team in 2019 and replaced Marcus Mariota. In 26 regular season games, he has passed for 55 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, plus 11 rushing touchdowns.

The bar goes a bit downhill from there. The Indianapolis Colts have Carson Wentz now, who is coming off the worst season of his career – and may miss the start of the season due to foot surgery. Jacob Eason and rookie Sam Ehlingher are fighting for the top backup spot, and neither of them have taken regular season snaps yet. With all of that said, Wentz has a good history with Frank Reich, who was the offensive coordinator of the Eagles the year they won the Super Bowl. If Wentz can be fixed, Reich is as good a candidate to do it as any.

Maybe it’s a little unfair to put the Jacksonville Jaguars here at the bottom given how good Trevor Lawrence is expected to be, but the fact is he is still a rookie that has not played in the NFL yet. The issue here isn’t lack of talent or even depth (considering Gardner Minshew is the backup), it’s an issue of lack of experience. But if Lawrence is half as good as has been promised, he’ll move up this list quickly.

Running Backs

The Best: Tennessee Titans

The Rest: Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans

This one is fairly easy, given that the Tennessee Titans starter at running back – Derrick Henry – just rushed for over 2,000 yards, being only the eighth halfback to do so. This guy has been terrorizing defenders with his downhill style of running that wears one down as the game goes on. And of course, there is the chance that he will just shove you out of the way, literally. The Titans admittedly do not have much depth beyond Henry, though. Brian Hill is the main candidate to get some work, though that may mostly be as a receiving back, given that is Henry’s one big weakness.

The Colts have a very solid rushing attack of their own. That is due in part to the elite-tier offensive line, but it doesn’t hurt when a rookie running back like Jonathan Taylor rushes for over 1,000 yards. It also helps to have depth like Marlon Mack (who is coming off a torn Achilles), who was the starter before Taylor came along. Then there’s Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins to help round out the backfield. While the Titans have the superior running back by a long shot, the Colts have the best depth of the bunch.

The Jaguars have a promising backfield of their own as well. James Robinson had a strong rookie season despite the team going 1-15, but they still decided that was not enough and added Travis Etienne into the mix in the first round of the Draft. It’s not clear who is going to be the lead back here, but Etienne has been lining up as a receiver as well, allowing for the possibility of both being on the field at the same time occasionally. Carlos Hyde rounds out the depth and is not a half-bad option to have.

The Texans have the depth as well – but their problem is they do not exactly have a clear starter. David Johnson returns from last year, but he’s on the wrong side of his career – as are Mark Ingram and Rex Burkhead, who aren’t even necessarily locks to make the roster. Phillip Lindsay probably has the most upside of the bunch at this point (he’s also the youngest), but if he’s going to be playing in a committee, then that would seem to cap the upside of this shaky group further.

Wide Receivers

The Best: Tennessee Titans

The Rest: Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts

The Titans admittedly do not have a ton of depth at this position, but that is easily overlooked by the fact that the new wide receiver duo of Julio Jones and A.J. Brown is the deadliest in the NFL, to the point where some are probably questioning how that is even fair. Their likely third receiver, Josh Reynolds, is no slouch either and a very solid extra option to have.

The Jaguars have a good balance with one veteran that’s not a show-stopper but still has plays left to make (Marvin Jones) and two young receivers with a lot of promise (D.J. Chark, Laviska Shenault). And as far as #4 wide receivers go, one can do a lot worse than Phillip Dorsett. Overall, this lineup of receivers is a good situation for Trevor Lawrence to be coming into.

The Texans have the virtue of having the third-best receiver in the division in Brandin Cooks, who continues to make plays no matter which team he’s on. There’s a hodgepodge of players after him, some with more promise than others – and it’s not entirely clear how the depth chart will shake out. Anthony Miller has the highest upside of the bunch, and Chris Conley’s a solid depth piece as well. Keke Coutee and Alex Erickson are a little shakier but have some upside as well. The issue is a lack of players with a high ceiling after Cooks and maybe Miller.

The Colts have a couple of promising young receivers that haven’t quite truly broken out yet. Michael Pittman Jr may be the future of the corps, though. Parris Campbell is more of a question mark due to him being injury-prone. T.Y. Hilton’s best days are behind him. Zach Pascal is a solid depth receiver, but he seems to have already reached his ceiling. This corps has some promise (particularly in Pittman), but they are not quite there yet.

Tight End

The Best: Indianapolis Colts

The Rest: Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars

Let us just put this bluntly: the AFC South is a wasteland in the tight end department. No one currently in the division even crossed 500 receiving yards last year. That said, out of this bunch, the Indianapolis Colts have the best depth. They have Mo Alie-Cox and Jack Doyle, which by themselves are not great (though Alie-Cox did show some promise last year). But together, they make for a halfway decent duo; once you get in the red zone, there’s at least half a chance that one of them will get open.

The Titans lost Jonnu Smith in the off-season, putting Anthony Firkser in the driver’s seat. He had a few quite solid outings last year when filling in for Smith, and as such may actually have the highest ceiling of the lot. However, the Titans offense is unlikely to rely much on the tight ends anyway. After Firkser are just a couple of veteran backups (Luke Stocker, Geoff Swaim) who are not really there to catch many passes.

The Texans have their proven starter in Jordan Akins, who has put up 400+ receiving yards two years in a row. Those are not noteworthy numbers, but they are at least consistent. Unfortunately, they do not have much depth at all after Akins. It’s not a good thing when the most recognizable name after Akins is Ryan Izzo.

In the case of the Jaguars, it’s not even clear who is going to be the starter. James O’Shaughnessy has the largest resume of the bunch, and he only had 262 receiving yards last year and no touchdowns, so it’s hard to see him being the starter if there’s anyone else that’s better. The other options are Chris Manhertz (who has 12 career catches) and fifth-round rookie Luke Farrell, who does come from Ohio State and is thus reuniting with Meyer.

Offensive Line

The Best: Indianapolis Colts

The Rest: Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars

In an era where many teams do not seem to be properly investing in their offensive lines anymore, the Colts have been bucking that trend and been building their line better than almost anyone else in the league. The results have seen them having general success both passing and rushing the last year or two, led by the likes of center Ryan Kelly, left guard Quenton Nelson, and right tackle Braden Smith. This year they signed Eric Fisher to be their new left tackle, and once he’s fully healthy, he should be a strong addition as well. Their weakest point would be Mark Glowinski at right guard, but the greatness of the rest of the group seems to be compensating for that.

The Titans offensive line isn’t as heavy on accolades, but they are clearly doing something right if Derrick Henry can run for as many yards as he does. On the left side of the line, Taylor Lewan and Rodger Saffold do have some Pro Bowl/All-Pro appearances in their past, and Ben Jones and Nate Davis appear to be stable starters as well. The big problem is the question mark at right tackle, where it’s either Dillon Radunz (a second-round rookie) or Kendall Lamm, who has almost always been purely a depth piece.

The Texans are a bit shaky on the offensive line, but they do get boosted a bit by having Laremy Tunsil at left tackle, who has been a Pro Bowler each of the last two years. They did add Marcus Cannon and Justin Britt this off-season, but neither of them played last year (though Cannon was a COVID opt-out). The rest of the expected returning starting line – Tytus Howard and Max Scharping – unfortunately does not inspire much confidence. There’s some upside here beyond Tunsil, but putting that much faith in two guys who did not even play last year seems questionable.

The Jaguars are the only team in the South to have zero offensive linemen with any Pro Bowlers in their history. It would seem that’s the case for a reason, as center Brandon Linder is the only expected starter who has a score higher than 70 on Pro Football Focus. These things do not bode well.

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