The summer time is for ceiling fans, molted skin, big open mouth kisses, and of course, NFL predictions. On the ramp up to the 2019 NFL season, everyone who participates in this very serious journalistic operation made predictions. I took it one step further, wrote a lot of things, and typed out an AFC South season preview in which I boldly proclaimed the fate of the Texans, Titans, Colts, and Jaguars.
Lately I’ve been walking down the same halls again, opening those old doors, dusting the blinds, bathing in lint, you know, revisiting things; one of which is that previous AFC South Season preview. To continue the 2019 season review, let’s take a quick look back on what I got right and wrong when I put on my floppy hat and read palms last summer.
Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10): Prediction—10-6
I thought a lot of positive things would happen for Jacksonville last year. They’d have a great offensive line, a mediocre offense, a great power rushing attack, and a top five defense once again.
The changes are slight, and from a talent perspective, with Allen and Harrison entering the starting lineup, the defense should be even better. Entering the 2019 season, the Jaguars were projected to have the second best defense in football according to Football Outsiders, and that was before the Texans traded Jadeveon Clowney for a third round pick and spare change. The Jags should have at least a top five defense this season.
That would be the best side of the ball in the AFC South this season. If the offensive line and Fournette stay healthy and DeFillipo can navigate the skill position issues, the Jaguars’ offense should be at least competent and finish around 16th in DVOA, similar to what they did in 2017.
The Jaguars are the the same cat with slightly different spots. With Foles, the ceiling and floors are raised like a beach house on stilts. This is Jacksonville’s chance to make another run before Foles’ cap hit bumps up to a very scary $22+ million, the type of contract that requires your quarterback to be better than a cog in the system. That doesn’t matter this season. In the long run, 2017 and 2019 could be aberrations. For this season, however, the Jaguars should pounce back and win the AFC South.
These things didn’t happen. The Jaguars were really bad. They won 6 games, were 27th in point differential at -97, and were 28th in DVOA. The offense was bad. The defense was bad. Everything was bad.
A lot of the reasons they were bad were impossible to predict: how could one know Jalen Ramsey would feign injury, stop playing, and be traded to the Los Angeles Rams; that A.J. Bouye would be fighting injuries, Cam Robinson would start the season injured leading to Will Richardson starting at offensive tackle, Andrew Norwell would become one of the worst guards in football, Nick Foles would snap his collarbone in week one, and the coaching staff would cower and not allow Gardner Minshew to throw the ball down the sideline until they fell behind and were desperate.
These things were all part of that murky thing called the future. That being said, the one thing I absolutely whiffed on was the impact losing Telvin Smith would have. Myles Jack was a horrendous middle linebacker. He was beat in coverage, had terrible run fits, and was easy to block on the interior. Smith’s absence lead to Austin Calitro, Najee Goode, Leon Jacobs, Donald Payne, and Quincy Williams starting four, four, seven, five, and eight games at linebacker. I thought playing behind Abry Jones, Marcel Dareus, and Calais Campbell would be easy. It was not for these below replacement level players. Jacksonville allowed 5.1 yards a carry (31st) and had a run defense DVOA of 9.6% (31st). Yes, the Jaguars’ run defense was even worse than Kansas City’s.
2017 is the aberration. I was wrong. You were right. The Jags are a bad and rebuilding team. They are over the cap, but will save $20 million once they decline Dareus’s option, and they could also cut Bouye to save $11.4 million, Norwell to save $5.5 million, Jake Ryan to save $6 million, and Geoff Swaim to create $4.05 million. They could create around $40 million in space to improve for 2020. The Ramsey traded netted them the 20th overall pick in this year’s draft, and most importantly, they may have a team building cheat code in Garnder Minshew if they can continue to ride his mustache.
That being said, this looks like a team that will take 2020 off, net players for the future, and build for 2021 once the Foles can be traded or released with a positive cap savings and they can fully reap the benefits of the Ramsey trade.
Poor kitty. Sad kitty.
Indianapolis Colts (7-9): Prediction—7-9
Ballard was a coward this offseason. He didn’t take enough risk to add top talent. Instead he hung back and bet on his young roster improving after another year of maturation. Progression is rarely linear though. NFL windows are narrow, and typically only last for two to three seasons. Ballard had the rare opportunity to fill in the cracks, go all in, make a run at the damn thing, and fully take advantage of Luck’s prime. He chose to skimp out on in it entirely.
Life is strange. The narrative reversed. Luck’s decision salvaged Ballard’s offseason. Indy is still flexible, and most importantly, they aren’t stuck with an expensive roster with an enormous unknown leading their offense. They can figure out what they have in Brissett this season. If it doesn’t work out, they’ll have the resources to move up in the draft, or grab the best quarterback on the open market. This isn’t, however, a great roster no matter who the quarterback is, especially considering the opportunity the Colts had.
Indy should be better this season. The young players should improve. But this isn’t a complete roster or a dominant team, that can win without great quarterback play. It’s a roster that can occasionally, but can’t consistently, and will depend on the mystical Brisett, in an entirely better position, to lead this team against a more difficult schedule.
If Brissett is good the Colts can compete with the Jaguars and Texans and Titans in the always wide open AFC South, and then pray to be knocked out and squashed in the Divisional Round once again. If he isn’t, the Colts will win six to eight games and have a pick in the teens. This won’t be a bottom out season. The Colts will be decent no matter what. There’s enough talent here. The roster is deep. But this isn’t the type of team that can beat great teams without great quarterback play.
The Colts had $106 million in cap space and 4 top 100 draft picks entering the 2019 offseason. They, hmmmmm, let’s see here, signed Justin Houston, Devin Funchess, and Spencer Ware, and traded out of the first round so Washington could take Montez Sweat, and then drafted Rock Ya-Sin, Ben Banogu, and Bobby Okereke. The Colts had an opportunity to revolutionize their roster and they decided not to.
They made these decisions before Andrew Luck’s decision to retire. Luck’s leaving the NFL to read YA vampire novels, change diapers, and sleep in the jungles of South America, ended up working out for Chris Ballard. Opting against investing into a roster with Luck is a vile and impossible to defend decision. Opting against investing into a roster with game managing Jacoby Brissett isn’t.
Brissett was whatever in 2019. He has some mobility, but isn’t fast. He doesn’t make ridiculous decisions or take negative plays. But he also doesn’t push the ball downfield and have the ability to lead a tremendous offense. The anti-Jameis Winston, he’s a second floor closet. The floor is high, but you have to stoop to walk around this room. With T.Y. Hilton out for a large chunk of the season, and Brian Hoyer replacing Brissett when he dealt with his own injury, the Colts’ passing offense ranked 25th in pass offense DVOA.
The offensive line was great once again, the rushing attack was great, but like last season, the defense was mediocre. This was Ballard’s big fault. He flexed his biceps and stared in the mirror while he pumped in the draft room. He fell in love with his ability to evaluate talent, and thought he could improve the defense through the draft alone. He didn’t. In a macro sense, the draft is a lottery, and can’t be expected to consistently produce like Ballard’s first draft class did in 2018. Ballard isn’t a divine and supreme being. He’s made out of breath and clay like the rest of us. The Colts’ had an offense that would have won more games with a dominant defense. The Colts didn’t have this. They had a slightly below average one.
Like last offseason, the Colts have the resources to improve, and become the thing they envision themselves as. They have $86 million in cap space. Their notable free agents are Eric Ebron (who they don’t want), Devin Funchess (who played one game), Anthony Castonzo (who may retire after the best year of his career), Jabaal Sheard (I would LIVE LAUGH LOVE for him to play in Houston), and replacement level wide receivers Zach Pascal, Carles Rogers, and Dontrelle Inman. They have 4 top 100 draft picks once again. And they could save $9 million in cap space if they move on from Jacoby Brissett, and hop on the frog, or the unicorn, and ride the quarterback carousel by making a run at a guy like Philip Rivers, or Teddy Bridewater.
All in all, this was a slam dunk prediction that sent tectonic plates surfing along the mantle, rained glass like some HGH diamond jaw third person shooter, and detonated with enough power and enough fury to extinguish the dinosaurs. I was right. The Colts were wrong. This wasn’t a for sure 12-4 team with Luck. This wasn’t a for sure 10-6 team without him.
So let’s hear it one last time.
Tennessee Titans (9-7): Prediction—8-8
The Titans did it again. 9-7. The common NFL constant. The difference this season was a legitimate playoff run. They knocked New England and Baltimore out before the Chiefs tossed them off the bed of a Nissan and into the Logan’s Roadhouse fryer.
My BIG preseason prediction was the Titans needed to become great at something in order to improve in 2020. Always mediocre at everything, they needed something to carry them past this. My guess was that it would be Henry and the rushing attack.
“The question for the Titans this season is if they can go from mediocre to good, and maybe, just maybe, if enough things break right, a good team can turn 9-7 into an overachieving 11-5. For this to happen they’ll need a component or two of their team to blossom into something that can be described as dominant. The most likely candidate to climb the stairs to the third floor of this cowboy bar is—you’ve heard this a hundred times before—their rushing attack.
Last season the Titans finished 11th in rush offense DVOA at -2.3%. This does come with some major caveats though. Derrick Henry was 2nd in rushing DVOA at 23.1%. He had 215 carries for 1,059 yards, 12 touchdowns, and he was T-6th in the league in broken tackles with 55. Dion Lewis had a rushing offense DVOA of -20.1%, which ranked 43rd. Lewis had 155 attempts and averaged 1.6 less yards a carry then Henry did.
The bright spot for this run offense was Henry, and new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith will look to carry what he did for the last four weeks of the 2018 season into 2019. To end the season Henry had 87 carries for 585 yards, 7 touchdowns, and averaged 6.72 yards an attempt, including an absurd 99 yard touchdown run where three consecutive stiff arms took him across the universe.”
Henry carried the Titans to a top rushing attack. Tennessee ranked fifth in run offense DVOA, and most importantly, once Ryan Tannehill took over, Henry morphed to even something more monstrous. He had 273 carries for 1,570 yards, which is 5.75 yards a carry, and 14 touchdowns. With Tannehilll pushing the ball downfield and moving defenders back some, it created more space for Henry to work. And with Taylor Lewan back from suspension, the left side of the Titans’ offensive line was one of the league’s best run blocking units.
Their weakside outside zone run game had me feeling all sorts of ways.
His backup this season is Ryan Tannehill. The Titans will no longer have to resort to Gabbert, Matt Cassel, or Zach Mettenberger when his bones ache. The investment is now over. This is the last year of Mariota’s contract. If he misses a game this season, he may never get the chance to be the supreme leader of blue jean nation again, if Tannehill wins a singular game, and breaks open the offense with the same deep pass success he showed at times in Miami.
Mariota was never hurt. He was benched against Denver. This is one of the most sublime box scores you’ll ever see. 7/18 (38.89%) for 63 passing yards, 0 touchdowns to 2 interceptions, 3.5 yards an attempt, 3 sacks taken, including one against a 2 man rush. One of these interceptions was something that would even make Jamies Winston blush.
Out came Mariota. In came Tannehill. The Titans finished fifth in passing offense DVOA despite five and a half games with Mariota.
Tennessee’s play action passing game excelled with Tannehill. They averaged 11.3 yards per play action passing attempt. The best mark in the league. They’d use it on 2nd and 10 or 3rd and 6, bizarre downs where play action is rarely used, and it worked. Tannehill was especially great at throwing to the deep middle after a playfake. He couldn’t miss.
Mariota never got another chance. Now the Titans have to decide if they want to keep the 32 year old breakout QB for the long term.
If the Titans have a top five rushing attack, they should compete for a playoff spot, but it won’t guarantee them one. The passing attack is vague. Mariota is injury prone and has never done it, and the same can be said for his backup. They have a new offensive coordinator yet again. The defense will probably skitter around mediocre. And to top it all off, the Titans are projected to play the 11th toughest schedule this year. Luck will need to shine on the Titans in their quest to erupt from mediocre to good.
The Titans did have luck. They scored a redzone touchdown greater than 80% of the time with Tannehill at quarterback. They kicked only two field goals. They were able to maximize their point total and make up for the sometimes stagnant offense by making the most of their opportunities. The Titans deserved this redzone performance with Henry’s brutality, Tannehill pin-pointing, and Arthur Smith taking everything he learned from those days in the desert meth house with Mike Mularkey, but redzone performance tends to vary year to year, just ask the 2018 iteration of this exact same team.
The 2020 offseason is more vital for Tennessee than for most teams. They have to decide on if, and how much, they’ll use to pay out Tannehill, Henry, and the purple potion drinking rejuvenated Jack Conklin. Logan Ryan is fine, and is also a free agent. Tennessee can also create space by cutting Cameron Wake, Malcolm Butler, Delanie Walker, and Dion Lewis. None of them were contributors to their 2019 playoff run.
The Titans’ 2019 season seems like a spat of magic and wonder right now, not a foundation of long-term success. They’ll have to improve this offseason, but even then, they’ll probably just end up 9-7 once again.
Houston Texans (10-6): Prediction—8-8
I’m a hater and loser. I’ve never experienced a genuine emotion. The feeling of the soul lifting out from the carapace that is flesh and bone is unknown to me. I am absence. I am nothing. Someone make me feel something.
I picked the Texans to go 8-8 because I hated their offseason. I didn’t think they did enough to improve their pass defense even when Jadeveon Clowney was still technically on the roster, and they’d even miss Kendall Lamm last season, because Laremy Tunsil wasn’t traded for yet. They would play a tougher schedule against teams with great quarterbacks, who didn’t end up being as great as expected. And they wouldn’t be able to win close games like they did in 2018.
In 2019 the Texans can’t expect to go 11-5 again by winning low scoring one possession games. They’ll need to average 28 points a game or so, and win enough games 34-31 games to compete for the division. They’ll need so many things to happen for this to happen. Watson has to jump another level and play at a MVP level, the offensive line needs to ensure he isn’t murdered, Hopkins and Fuller have to stay healthy, Watt and Clowney (who first has to actually play for the Texans) need to set fire to offenses every week and stay healthy, and O’Brien needs to call a completely different aggressive and overwhelming offense.
Sure, the top end talent is on the roster, and all these things can happen. But we are talking likeliest outcomes here. The Texans didn’t make the offseason moves they needed to that would’ve improved their chances to survive the upcoming hellacious schedule. As a result, they are needing to rely on Watson to carry them, and for their coach to run an offense that will allow him to. This has only happened in spats. They’ve never consistently put it together. There’s too many enormous holes, too tough of a schedule, and too many ifs to feel confident in Houston to make the playoffs this season.
Watson was a fringe top five quarterback and the reasons why he wasn’t a definite one was because of the ESTABLISH THE RUN nonsense and the playcallers sticking to offensive principles that stopped working weeks ago. Houston went 9-3 in one score games after starting 3-3 in such instances. The close game fortune continued into 2019. Houston was able to replicate what it did in 2018; just in a slightly different way. The difference was that in 2019 the one score record was the result of Watson transforming the ridiculous into mundane, instead of an all-time great run defense liquefying the spines of running backs and skittering out wins against quarterbacks like Nathan Peterman.
My big mistake was I didn’t fully comprehend Watson’s talent, and I don’t think I ever will. I came to during a reign of terrible quarterback play, and the little bit of Matt Schaub I really remember and cherish happened during a two year run that broke my diseased heart. I used to love teams that minimized quarterback play. Now that Houston has one I realized how stupid and grotesque I once was. With Watson at quarterback the Texans are never out of any game. They can pull of anything. I know this now. It will never be forgotten. Until I write this in August again and all of this will be forgotten.
2019 is not a foundation to build upon. The Texans must get better this offseason to beat off the demons of regression. This is a sentence I’ll type and say in dozens of different ways over the next six months. Deshaun Watson can carry Houston on his own to make the postseason. The Texans have enough top end talent, but for the Texans to do something more than flail and drown in the bathtub that is the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs, they’ll have to improve their pass defense dramatically this offseason.