AFC South training camp storylines to watch

The AFC South is one of the worst divisions in football, but by no means does it lack training camp storylines. From a “what to watch” perspective, this is the most riveting division in the NFL. The division-winning Tennessee Titans traded for arguably the best receiver in the league. The 11-win Indianapolis Colts saw their quarterback retire and immediately traded for the reclamation project of the century. The Jacksonville Jaguars should already have someone starting a documentary on them, and the Houston Texans…well.

AFC South training camp storylines

The Texans dominated the AFC South from 2015-2019, winning four of the five division titles. Those days are long gone, as the roster resembles the desolation of the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia. These days it’s a two-team race between the Titans and the Colts.

Houston Texans

The biggest AFC South training camp storyline is the vastly complicated Deshaun Watson situation. After a flurry of over 20 sexual misconduct allegations, it remains unclear whether Watson will play in 2021 amid the scandal. He’s ramping up for the start of the season as if he will be. Since June, he’s trained with his QB coach Quincy Avery and is now working alongside Justin Fields and Jordan Love.

Last season, Watson proved that QB wins are a stat that should be thrown by the wayside. He led the league in passing, yards per attempt, and yards per catch. He also led the entire league in completion percentage above expectation.

His tape from 2020 was otherworldly. He did everything he could to will the Texans to victory despite their many shortcomings, but it was not enough. Now, we can’t even be sure he’ll play in 2021. If he doesn’t, this team might be primed for that illustrious winless season. They’d make history as the first team to ever finish 0-17. That would be quite the accomplishment.

David Culley gets his first crack at a head coach position after spending over 40 years in the game. The 65-year-old coach began his career at age 22 as the running backs coach at Austin Peay State University. Luckily, Lovie Smith’s tenure at Illinois ended prematurely, and Culley found a landing spot as the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator in Houston. He brings some important experience to the staff.

The other training camp storyline for the AFC South’s Texans is the mystery of what young player can step up and stand out on a bad football team. Can Ross Blacklock show us something from the defensive interior? Can Tytus Howard or Max Scharping round into form and improve this offensive line?

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts’ biggest storyline is their new quarterback Carson Wentz. Head coach Frank Reich takes on an immense reclamation project with Wentz. He was outstanding in 2017, but his success stemmed from ridiculous third-down production. The high-end potential is there for Wentz, but he’s never put it together consistently in the NFL.

His 2020 was a nightmare. In just 12 games, Wentz took 50 sacks, which was the most in the NFL. Outside of Dwayne Haskins, Wentz had the lowest CPOE in the NFL, completing 4.1% fewer passes than he should have. Mechanical failures and what appeared to be a lack of confidence caused the steep decline. Fortunately, Sports Illustrated’s Zach Hicks spent the offseason analyzing those mechanical deficiencies and speaking to experts about possible improvement.

Non-Wentz training camp storylines for the AFC South Colts

The Colts have one of the best coaching staffs in the NFL. Having finished in the top-10 in DVOA last season, their defense is well-coached. They did that with reclamation project Xavier Rhodes as their primary outside cornerback alongside Rock Ya-Sin. Kenny Moore is one of the best cornerbacks in the league in the nickel, which obviously helps.

Justin Houston made the most of his opportunities in 2020, but the Colts desperately need a long-term complement to the talented DeForest Buckner. Can Michigan’s Kwity Paye be that guy in Year 1, or will it take time to mold his game technically?

The Colts certainly have a lot in their offensive arsenal. The Athletic voted Parris Campbell a breakout candidate in 2021. If he stays healthy (big assumption), Campbell certainly has the potential to be a weapon in the slot. However, Zach Pascal is a fantastic insurance policy for the Colts. Michael Pittman Jr. played relatively well for a second-round rookie in 2020, and T.Y. Hilton still has enough juice as a downfield weapon.

The other big intrigue for the Colts in training camp is their offensive scheme. It’s largely been a quick-hitting attack that utilized their backfield talent well. How does the offense itself change with the integration of Wentz?

Jacksonville Jaguars

If the NFL hadn’t gone with the obvious option of the Dallas Cowboys for “Hard Knocks,” I hope they’d have reached out to Jacksonville to see if they’d accept. This could be an absolute dumpster fire, or it could be a team that surprises everyone.

There’s no debating the merits of Urban Meyer as a head coach. His success at every program he’s been to is undeniable. He also, however, has a past that doesn’t necessarily breed much confidence in the cleanliness of his process. He already flubbed one chip from off the green when he hired disgraced strength coach Chris Doyle, who promptly resigned less than two days later.

Trevor Lawrence is the big-ticket item for the Jaguars. If he can find success as a rookie, then Jacksonville should find some success as well. They have a plethora of offensive weapons at receiver and running back. They don’t have any help at tight end, but Tim Tebow comes to town to bring starpower to the position — in namesake, anyway. The cameras will certainly be on the Florida Gators’ great as he changes positions from unemployed quarterback to tight end.

Defensively, they have multiple young pass rushers in Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson that provide intrigue. They also have young cornerback C.J. Henderson paired with Shaquill Griffin this season. Can Henderson take a step forward after only playing eight games in 2020?

Tennessee Titans

One of the biggest AFC South storylines to watch for in training camp is what the Titans’ offense looks like with the addition of Julio Jones. Still, what might be just as important is the loss of offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who became the head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.

Smith’s offenses overperformed, given the offensive talent on the roster. They finished top five in 2019 and 2020, despite making a quarterback change seven games into the season. Can Todd Downing replicate that production?

The Titans lack talent and depth at cornerback, which is probably why the defense struggled so mightily last year. Furthermore, they couldn’t buy a sack, but those two things go hand in hand. They attempted to upgrade the secondary by selecting Caleb Farley and Elijah Molden in the 2021 NFL Draft. Molden might play safety in the NFL, but he should still find himself playing man coverage in the slot quite often.

If the Titans’ passing defense improves in 2021, there’s a good chance they come away with the division.

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