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AFC South: 5 Big Questions For Every Team After Week 1

The AFC South has not had a Super Bowl champion in over 15 years, when Colts QB Peyton Manning brought the Lombardi Trophy to Indianapolis in 2006. This is the longest active Super Bowl drought of any division in the NFL. The Texans, Jaguars, and Titans have never won a Super Bowl. Could this be the year that a team from the AFC South finally ends the drought and wins a Super Bowl? After last week that may be hard to imagine, but there are 17 more weeks remaining so anything is still possible.

Last year, the Jacksonville Jaguars shocked everyone and won the division after finishing only 3-14 in the prior season. The Jaguars dream season finally ended in the Divisional Round in Kansas City following their thrilling comeback win against the Los Angeles Chargers in the Wild Card Round. Can they advance even deeper into January this season, or even into February in Paradise, Nevada? If anyone in the division can do that, it will probably be the Jags.

All four AFC South teams ranked outside the top 20 in offense by PFF last season, so it was not a surprise that three of the AFC South teams drafted new quarterbacks this year, with two of them drafted in the first four picks overall. Both of those quarterbacks will start in week 1.

Can the rookie quarterbacks become franchise players for their teams? Two teams hired new head coaches who have no prior head coaching experience. Can they lead their teams to success right away? They both lost their debuts, but there were some positives to build on from week 1.

These are just a few of the big questions facing each team following the first week of the 2023 season. In this article, we will look at five big questions facing each team in the AFC South for the rest of this season (and beyond).

Houston Texans

The Houston Texans are starting fresh again with a new head coach, DeMeco Ryans, who becomes their 4th head coach in the past 4 seasons after leading the San Francisco 49ers defense to the NFC championship each of the past two years. Can Ryans last longer than his recent predecessors and survive beyond this season?

The Texans have not won more than 4 games in a season since 2019 and they ranked in the bottom 2 for both offense and defense last season according to PFF, but they drafted two players in the first 3 picks of the 2023 NFL draft and are ready to turn their fortunes around. This may be a rebuilding year for the Texans (again), but there is plenty of reason for Texans fans to be hopeful for success in the future, which could arrive earlier than many people expect.

The Houston Texans are starting fresh again with a new head coach, DeMeco Ryans, who becomes their 4th head coach in the past 4 seasons after leading the San Francisco 49ers defense to the NFC championship each of the past two years. Can Ryans last longer than his recent predecessors and survive beyond this season?

The Texans have not won more than 4 games in a season since 2019, and they ranked in the bottom 2 for both offense and defense last season according to PFF. But they drafted two players in the first 3 picks of the 2023 NFL draft and are ready to turn their fortunes around. This may be a rebuilding year for the Texans (again), but there is plenty of reason for Texans fans to be hopeful for success in the future, which could arrive earlier than many people expect.

Question #1: Is rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud ready for the NFL?

The Houston Texans drafted C.J. Stroud with the #2 overall pick, making him the highest drafted quarterback by the Texans since David Carr was drafted #1 overall by the Texans in 2002. The last time Houston drafted a quarterback in the 1st round was in 2017 when they selected Deshaun Watson with the 12th overall pick.

Can C.J. Stroud become an elite player and lead the Texans to glory someday? That's a question for future seasons, but this year is expected to be a rebuilding season and the question for now is whether C.J. Stroud can make the adjustment from college to the pros.

Before last week, the last meaningful game that C.J. Stroud played in was the college football playoff against Georgia, where he put together an inspiring performance with 348 passing yards and 4 touchdowns and nearly pulled off the upset win. His poise in that game suggests he is ready for the spotlight, but his ability to perform in the NFL was put to the test right away.

C.J. Stroud had a rough start to the preseason but he improved significantly by the last game, when he finished with a strong PFF passing grade of 82.9. In week 1 at Baltimore, Stroud had some good moments and threw for 242 yards without an interception, but the Texans struggled to score. Stroud will be looking to build on this early experience as he tries to lead the Texans to a better season with at least 5 wins, if not more than 5 wins this year.

Question #2: Who will lead the Texans receiving corps?

The Houston Texans receiving corps is full of question marks this season. Former Michigan wide receiver Nico Collins appears to be the leading receiver after one week, but his performance in his first 2 seasons was underwhelming, with fewer than 500 receiving yards each season and only 3 career touchdowns, but he did lead the Texans in receiving yards in week 1. Can new quarterback C.J. Stroud turn Nico Collins into a top receiver for the Texans offense?

The other starting wide receivers for the Texans, Robert Woods and Noah Brown, have plenty of experience and Woods in particular had a decent game in week 1 with 6 catches, but it's unclear if they have much left in the tank at this point in their careers. On the other hand, three first-year receivers provide intrigue but uncertainty. Former Alabama receiver John Metchie returns to the Texans after missing his rookie season battling leukemia. Rookies Tank Dell (from the University of Houston) and Xavier Hutchinson (from Iowa State) were very productive in college and showed flashes of success during the preseason.

Can the first-year receivers complement the veterans to transform the Texans passing game behind Stroud into a productive part of their offense? They were mostly quiet in week 1, but the answer to that question will go a long way to determining the outcome of the Texans season this year.

Question #3: Can Dameon Pierce handle a heavy workload this season?

One of the best surprises for the Texans last season was the emergence of former Florida running back Dameon Pierce. Drafted in the 4th round, Pierce quickly scaled the depth chart to lead the Texans rushing attack, finishing with the 8th highest yards per carry of any NFL running back last season. Unfortunately, his season was derailed by an ankle injury, but he returns healthy this season and has locked down the starting job in the Texans backfield.

Pierce was used heavily last season, with 220 carries and over 900 rushing yards in only 13 games before his season ended prematurely due to the injury. Can he be the bell-cow running back for the Texans this season, or will they need to manage his workload and utilize the backup running backs, such as free agent signings Devin Singletary and Mike Boone?

Pierce shared the workload with Singletary in week 1, with Pierce tallying only 11 carries while Singletary added 7 carries. The Texans are probably a better team when Pierce is on the field, but he never had more than 106 carries in a single season in college so his workload will be something to monitor this year.

Question #4: Can rookie defensive end Will Anderson elevate the Texans defense?

The Houston Texans traded up to draft Will Anderson Jr. with the #3 overall pick, making the former Alabama star the highest drafted defensive end by the Texans since they selected Jadeveon Clowney with the #1 overall pick in 2014. Can Will Anderson follow the path of J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney to become the next elite defensive end for the Texans?

Anderson played sparingly during the preseason but he looked in form, finishing with an excellent PFF grade of 90.4. The Texans defense ranked in the bottom 3 of the NFL last season, but the addition of Will Anderson gives Texans fans hope that the defense will be better this season. Anderson had an impact in week 1 with 4 solo tackles and a sack, but it wasn’t enough for the win this time. The Texans hope that his impact will be even bigger against future opponents.

Question #5: Will Derek Stingley Jr. perform like a 1st round draft pick this year?

The Houston Texans passed on Sauce Gardner and drafted former LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. with the 3rd overall draft pick last year, but his rookie season was forgettable. Stingley struggled throughout the season and finished with the 12th worst cornerback grade in the NFL, according to PFF.

The Texans are hoping that Stingley can turn things around this year and turn into a lockdown corner for the Texans secondary. He played better at the end of last season, allowing only 8 receptions in his final 4 games, which provided a glimmer of hope that he could become a more impactful player this year. In week 1 against the Ravens, he allowed only one reception and improved his coverage grade compared to last year. Perhaps the addition of new head coach DeMeco Ryans is just what Stingley needs to bring his game to a higher level this season.

Indianapolis Colts

Let's face it, Colts fans. This is a rebuilding year. And that may be the best case scenario. The team is clearly in a transition period and the Colts may struggle to improve on their disappointing 4-12-1 record last season. But this year will be an opportunity to evaluate new players (and coaches) who could form the core of the franchise in the future.

The Colts sideline has a new look this season after hiring former Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen as the next head coach. This is Steichen's first time as an NFL head coach but he has a great track record with young quarterbacks, having coached Justin Herbert as a rookie for the Chargers and then coaching Jalen Hurts the past two seasons. Can he continue his coaching success with a new rookie quarterback in Indianapolis?

Going into the offseason, the big question for the Colts centered on who would be the next quarterback in Indianapolis. With the Colts holding the #4 overall pick in the NFL draft, it was a foregone conclusion that they would select a top quarterback prospect. But as preseason approached, new events overshadowed the quarterback selection, as the status of a core player in the offense was suddenly put into question.

Question #1: Will Jonathan Taylor ever play another snap for the Colts?

There may be no bigger question for the Colts than what will happen with Jonathan Taylor. After an offseason full of frustration, Taylor was placed on the PUP list and will miss the first 4 games of the season. Amid rumors of contract discontent and health issues, Taylor's future with the Colts has become very uncertain. Will he return to the field later this season? If that happens, will it be in Indianapolis, or will he be traded to another team this season?

The Colts running game looks very different without their former 2nd round draft pick and leading rusher for the past 3 seasons. Zach Moss is dealing with a forearm injury and rookie Evan Hull, who was drafted in the 5th round from Northwestern, has been placed on injured reserve after a knee injury in week 1. The Colts backfield now features Deon Jackson and recent signing Jake Funk. It remains to be seen if Jackson and Funk can be productive this season, but the Colts don't have other options at running back for now. It appears that their leading rusher may come from a different position instead.

Question #2: Is Anthony Richardson the franchise quarterback for the Colts?

After two futile trades for veteran quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan, the Colts decided to take a quarterback in the 1st round of the 2023 NFL draft when they selected former Florida signal caller Anthony Richardson with the #4 overall pick. This was the first time the Colts drafted a quarterback in the 1st round since 2012 when they selected Andrew Luck #1 overall. In week 1, Richardson became the 7th different quarterback in the past 7 years to start the season for the Colts.

Can Richardson follow the path of Peyton Manning (also drafted in the 1st round, as the #1 overall pick in 1998) and Luck to become the next franchise quarterback for the Colts? There will likely be growing pains in his rookie season, but Richardson is a dynamic playmaker with the tools to potentially become an elite NFL quarterback. Will he be the next Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen? That remains to be seen, but Colts fans will be watching closely all season to see if Richardson shows signs that he can lead this team to success in the future.

Richardson's preseason games were inconsistent and he finished with a PFF grade of only 52.9. We can expect more of the same from him this season, with rookie mistakes mixed in with occasional dynamic plays. Keep in mind that even Mahomes and Allen threw more interceptions than touchdowns in their first seasons, so patience is warranted. But the new 6-4 250 lb Colts quarterback will look to gain experience and improve at the NFL level throughout the season.

Richardson had some impressive moments in his first NFL game, as he finished with 223 passing yards and 2 touchdowns (1 passing and 1 rushing). Unfortunately, he also struggled at times and threw one interception that hurt the Colts chances of winning the game. But if Richardson continues to improve throughout this season, he could give Colts fans plenty to cheer about this season.

Question #3: Will Michael Pittman finally become an elite NFL receiver?

After selecting Michael Pittman from USC with the 34th overall pick in 2020, the Colts had high hopes that he would become a dominant NFL receiver. He has become the top receiver in Indianapolis, leading the team in receiving yards the past 2 seasons. But he has yet to reach the level that many expected to see, finishing last season as the 39th-ranked NFL wide receiver according to PFF.

Pittman has been a very good NFL player, but he has yet to break into the elite level of NFL wide receivers. Can he finally reach that level with new quarterback Anthony Richardson and new head coach Shane Steichen at the helm? The answer will be a big factor in determining the future success of the franchise in upcoming years. He had a strong performance in week 1 with 8 catches for 97 receiving yards and a touchdown. If he provides a high level of production this season that will be a big boost for the Colts this season.

Question #4: Can the Colts offensive line be a top-10 unit this season?

The Colts had the highest-paid offensive line last season but underperformed and will look to bounce back with a better season anchored by left guard Quenton Nelson, right tackle Braden Smith, and center Ryan Kelly, who each rank in the top 20 at their position according to PFF. They are tasked with protecting new quarterback Anthony Richardson, and their performance will play a key role in the overall success of the Colts offense this season. The Colts allowed 4 sacks in week 1 as the offensive line tries to adjust to the style of play from the new quarterback.

Question #5: Will the Colts defense stop anyone this year?

The Colts defense was one of the few brighter spots last season, but there are a lot of questions about the unit going into this season. The defensive line will be anchored again by DeForest Buckner, who was graded as the 8th best interior defensive lineman in the NFL by PFF. Buckner already added a highlight to begin this season with one of the most improbably fumble recoveries you will ever see. Star linebacker Shaquille Leonard missed most of last season due to injury but returned healthy in week 1 to give the defense a boost.

The Colts defense has some holes to fill though. They lost their sacks leader from last year, Yannick Ngakoue, to free agency and they also big holes to fill in the secondary, after cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Rodney McLeod left Indianapolis in free agency. The performance of the Colts' inexperienced cornerbacks and safeties could have been better in week 1, and their performance in upcoming games will be a big factor in the outcome of the Colts season.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jacksonville Jaguars hired a real NFL head coach last season after the Urban Meyer experiment in 2021, and the results were impressive. Doug Pederson immediately turned the Jags around from their 3-14 record in 2021 to a winning record of 9-8 last season and a dramatic win in week 18 against the Titans to claim the division title.

The drama continued in the playoffs, when the Jaguars overcame a 27-0 deficit to mount a shocking 31-30 comeback win against the Chargers in the Wild Card round. They fell short in the Divisional Round losing 27-20 against the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, but it was certainly a season to build on. Unlike last season, the Jags enter this season with high expectations.

Can Doug Pederson earn a 2nd Super Bowl ring, this time as the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach? As implausible as that seemed last year, it's not out of the question this year. They had the best offense in the division last season, and there are reasons to expect an even better offense this year. But the Jags will need to improve in several areas if that outcome is to become a reality.

Question #1: Can Calvin Ridley continue to be a dominant receiver?

Calvin Ridley was one of the best receivers in the NFL going into the 2021 season. He had 40 explosive plays of 15-plus yards in 2020, more than any other NFL wide receiver. He finished with 1,374 receiving yards, the 5th most highest among all NFL wide receivers that year. Many expected him to climb even higher in 2021, but a foot injury ended his season prematurely, then he missed the 2022 season due to a gambling suspension.

Now, Ridley enters the 2023 season reinstated, healthy, and rested. There were questions about whether he could regain his form that put him in the top tier of receivers back in 2020, but those doubts were put to rest after a tremendous performance in week 1. Ridley looked superb and finished with 8 catches for 101 receiving yards and a touchdown in his first game with the Jags. After week 1, there is plenty of reason to expect that the 28-year-old Ridley can continue to be an elite receiver and help Trevor Lawrence and the Jags offense be even more productive this season.

Question #2: Can Trevor Lawrence become a more consistent quarterback?

Trevor Lawrence made major strides last season, improving from his 12 TDs/17 interceptions ratio in 2021 to a much better 25 TDs/8 interceptions last season. The former #1 overall draft started to show why he was expected to be the franchise quarterback, but he still needs more consistency to become an elite player who could lead a team to a Super Bowl.

The Wild Card game was a clear example. Lawrence was awful in the 1st half, throwing 4 interceptions as the Jags fell behind 27-0. But then Lawrence put together an incredible performance in the 2nd half, finishing with 288 passing yards and 4 TDs to lead the comeback win.

If Lawrence can consistently play at the level he did in the 2nd half of the Wild Card game, he would be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and have a legitimate shot of taking his team to the Super Bowl. Can he reach that level this season? Jags fans certainly hope so. His performance in week 1 was good enough to win this time but he will look to be even more consistent in upcoming games.

Question #3: Can running back Travis Etienne be a bellcow running back?

Former 1st round draft pick Travis Etienne finally made it onto the field last season after missing his rookie year due to a Lisfranc injury. Etienne became an offensive contributor right away and took over the starting job from James Robinson, finishing the season with 1,125 rushing yards and 316 receiving yards.

This was a good output for a first-year running back, but there were some areas of concern. Etienne only scored 5 touchdowns and struggled in short yardage situations. He finished the season ranked #21 among NFL running backs, according to PFF, which is not bad but lower than one would hope for a first round draft pick.

The Jags added depth behind Etienne this season, drafted former Auburn running back Tank Bigsby in the 3rd round and signing former Browns running back D'Ernest Johnson. Neither of those players are a threat to Etienne's hold on the starting job, but they will have a complementary role in the offense. Will Etienne dominate the touches, or will he be part of a running back committee?

Etienne’s performance in week 1 was encouraging, with 77 yards on 18 carries including an impressive 26-yard burst to the endzone to seal the game in the 4th quarter. However, Tank Bigsby also rushed 7 times, including a goal-line carry for a touchdown. Bigsby may have a complementary role, particularly in short yardage situations, but Etienne is the clear leader in the Jags backfield and could see a lot of usage this season.

Question #4: Can rookie offensive tackle Anton Harrison succeed right away?

The Jaguars drafted former Oklahoma offensive tackle Anton Harrison with their first selection of the 2023 NFL draft, at the #27 overall pick. The 6-5 315 lb lineman will be tasked with protecting franchise quarterback Trevor Lawrence, along with new left tackle Walker Little.

With Cam Robinson suspended for 4 games for violating the performance-enhancing drug policy, Harrison and Little will be key players on the offensive line right away. The Jags are counting on Harrison to succeed early on at the NFL level, and his performance will go a long way toward determining the success of the Jags offense this season. He struggled at times in week 1 and allowed a sack but there is hope that his performance will improve as he gains more experience.

Question #5: Can Josh Allen carry the Jaguars defense this season?

Josh Allen was clearly the best defensive player on the Jags last season, finishing 10th among all edge rushers in the NFL, according to PFF. The defense overall was more average, finishing 15th in the league. Can Josh Allen continue to lead the defense despite holes in other areas?

Cornerback Tyson Campbell is also expected to be a key player after finishing 7th at his position last season. The Jags are hoping that other players on the unit can also step up their game this season. If the defense can improve this year and become a top-10 unit, that would go a long way toward making the Jags a Super Bowl contending team this season.

Allen and Campbell were huge factors in the Jags week 1 win. Allen was in dominant form again, finishing with 8 solo tackles and 3 sacks. Campbell also had a terrific game, with 6 solo tackles, a pass defended, an interception, and a forced fumble. If Allen and Campbell continue to play at that level, it bodes very well for the Jags this season.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans entered the season with the most senior head coach in the division, as Mike Vrabel coaches his 6th season in Tennessee. The Tennessee Titans entered last season as favorites to win the AFC South for the 3rd consecutive season, but a tough loss against Jacksonville in Week 18 cost them the division and kept them out of the playoffs.

They are looking to bounce back this season and regain the division title. To do that, Tennessee will count on their excellent defensive unit to keep opponents in check. But will their offense score enough points to win this year? In week 1, that answer was no as they lost to the Saints 16-15. Going forward, the Titans are counting on several key veteran players to boost their production in upcoming games.

Question #1: Is Derrick Henry still the King?

After Derrick Henry missed several games with a foot injury in 2021, there were rumors that his career was in decline. However, reports of King Henry's demise were premature. He returned to form last season with 1,538 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns, finishing 2nd and 3rd in the NFL in those categories. Henry carried the ball over 300 times for the 3rd time in the past 4 seasons, and he enters the 2023 season in full health.

But the big question is how much longer can the 29-year-old keep up this production? At some point in the future, Henry won't be able to maintain his bellcow usage and elite production, but will that happen this year? The Titans are counting on Henry to help carry the offense again this season, and his production and availability will be a key part of the Titans chances to retake the division title.

But week 1 suggested that he may get more help this year. Rookie Tyjae Spears, who was drafted in the 3rd round from Tulane, replaced Henry on every 3rd-down snap and played more snaps overall. Spears only had 3 carries compared to 15 carries for Henry, but it’s clear that Spears will be a key contributor to the offense and may continue to help share the workload with Henry in future weeks.

Question #2: Will Ryan Tannehill still be the starting quarterback at the end of the season?

Ryan Tannehill enters his 5th season as Titans quarterback, nearly as long as Vrabel has been the Titans head coach. Tannehill finished last season 19th among NFL quarterbacks in PFF grade, with his lowest score since 2018. The Titans offense was ranked 22nd in the NFL last season, and Tannehill's trendline is going in the wrong direction. Tannehill played poorly in week 1, finishing with 3 interceptions and failing to reach the endzone as the Titans settled for 5 field goals and lost the game by 1 point.

There are signs that the Titans are looking to move on from Tannehill in the near future, after drafting quarterbacks in each of the past two years. Former Liberty quarterback Malik Willis was unable to earn the starting job from Tannehill last season, but he returns with more experience.

Former Kentucky quarterback Will Levis was selected by the Titans early in the 2nd round of the 2023 NFL draft and will continue to compete with Tannehill and Willis for the starting job this season. Like Willis, Levis has a learning curve to adjust his game to the NFL level, but he brings the tools to eventually become a very good passer in the NFL level. The Titans will be looking for improvement in their quarterback play this year, and if Tannehill continues to struggle in the next few weeks we may see a change at that position sooner rather than later.

Question #3: Does DeAndre Hopkins still have anything left in the tank?

The biggest news in Tennessee during this offseason was the acquisition of free agent wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. At one point in his career, Hopkins was considered one of the best receivers in the NFL, if not the very best in the league. After catching passes from Deshaun Watson in Houston and Kyler Murray in Arizona, DHop enters the season as the top receiver on a Titans offense that has not prioritized the passing game in recent years.

Can DHop quickly become a dominant #1 receiver for the Titans offense? Or will he follow the path of Julio Jones as a once-great receiver struggling through his final years past his prime? Hopkins still looked sharp in limited usage over the past two years, but injuries and suspensions have significantly curtailed his playing time. 2nd-year player Treylon Burks will also be a key part of the receiving corps, but the Titans are hoping that DHop can regain his old form and take the offense to new heights this season.

In week 1, Hopkins was heavily targeted with 13 pass attempts but finished with only 65 receiving yards on 7 receptions. Burks was even quieter, with only 56 yards on 2 receptions. The lack of production may have been affected by the quarterback struggles, but the Titans will need a more effective passing attack to win upcoming games.

Question #4: Will rookie offensive guard Peter Skoronski live up to his high draft pick?

The Titans selected former Northwestern offensive guard Peter Skoronski with the #11 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft and they have high hopes that he can anchor an offensive line that will no longer feature Taylor Lewan. Skoronski brings his 6-4 and 313 lb frame to the Titans lineup after achieving an impressive 89.5 PFF grade last season. He allowed one pressure but no sacks in week 1 and finished with an above average grade according to PFF. The Titans are counting on Skoronski to continue improving his game in upcoming weeks.

Question #5: Can the Titans defense finish as a top-5 unit?

The Titans defense finished #10 in the NFL last season according to PFF, and they have high hopes for an even better finish this season. They returned key players on their elite defensive line, led by Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry who both finished in the top 20 among all NFL interior defensive lineman, according to PFF. Simmons and Autrey returned to form in week 1 with each player recording several tackles and a sack.

The weakest area of their defense may be at cornerback, but there is hope that the 2nd round draft pick from 2022, Roger McCreary, can become a reliable defender this season. He allowed only 2 receptions for 17 yards and he had a good overall coverage grade in week 1 according to PFF. If he continues to improve this season, opposing teams may find it very difficult to score points against the Titans. The performance of the defensive unit was a bright spot in week 1, and they will be a big factor in the outcome of the Titans season and the entire AFC South.


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