1. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts are coming off of a 11-5 season where they had an aging, non-mobile quarterback in Philip Rivers, who is now retired. Earlier this offseason, the Colts traded for Carson Wentz, who had been struggling with the Philadelphia Eagles for a couple of years. Wentz should be an upgrade over Rivers, and I expect the offense to be a well-oiled machine. The Colts possess one of the best offensive line groups in the league, and Indianapolis’ defense is no joke.
When looking at Indianapolis’ 2021 season schedule the first thing that jumps out is the team’s first five weeks. In those weeks, the Colts play Seattle, Los Angeles (N), Tennessee, Miami and Baltimore. Not the best schedule for a team with a new quarterback, but the Colts are capable of picking up three to four wins in this span. The reason that this team is so trustworthy is because they can rely on the rushing attack with Jonathan Taylor, and the defense should be able to hold up. This is a team that should be able to manage the clock and take long drives, but also has the capability of putting points up in bunches.
The only question to this puzzle is how well Wentz plays. If Wentz can return to his MVP-caliber self, the Colts ceiling is exponentially high. Rivers was limited as a quarterback and the team still managed to win 11 games. Wentz should have great protection, and Frank Reich will help out his quarterback with the play-action. The receivers are not fantastic, but they are formidable. Michael Pittman Jr. should be the clear number one option on the team, and has the capability of breaking out this season. This is even more apparent now that T.Y. Hilton is set to miss most, if not all, of the season. The 31-year-old wideout had neck surgery and was placed on the injured reserve. Frank Reich said the team is optimistic Hilton will return at some point this season. Not a good sign for Hilton to see the field this season. Pittman Jr. will be the WR1 for the Colts this season.
The AFC South is a very weak division, and Indianapolis clearly has the best roster from top to bottom. The Colts may not have the most prolific offensive weapons or a great amount of superstars, but the team has no glaring holes on its roster.
Record Prediction: 11-6
2. Tennessee Titans
Tennessee enters the 2021 with the potential to be a top-five offense in the league. After trading for Julio Jones in June, the Titans will have a wide receiver core led by Jones and A.J. Brown. Do not forget about 2020’s league rushing leader, Derrick Henry. Henry finished the 2020 season with 2,027 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill proved his worth last season by throwing for 33 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Since taking over as the starter in week seven of the 2019 season, Tannehill has thrown for 55 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Tennessee will be a team that will challenge for the AFC South, and is a team that no one will want to see in January. However, there are concerns and reasons to doubt that this team will be able to keep up its recent performance over the last two seasons.
Tannehill has put up great numbers over the last couple of seasons, but that was with Arthur Smith as the offensive coordinator. Smith left the Titans when he was hired by Atlanta Falcons earlier in the offseason. The former Tennessee offensive coordinator was influential in how this offense ran. Utilizing Derrick Henry in the running attack opened up the middle of the field for the play action pass, and I do not expect the Titans to be as well-balanced. That does not mean this offense will totally flutter out, but it could take a step back this season.
Another reason for concern is the wear and tear Henry has on his body from heavy workloads in recent seasons. The running back is entering the season at 27 years old, and that is the age where we see most running backs start to slow down. There is a possibility that this is not the season when the wheels fall off, but it will happen based on history. If Henry was to hit a wall this season, the Titans offense would suffer greatly. Last season, the 27-year-old running back averaged 5.4 yards per attempt, leaving defenses on edge. This hesitancy by the defense would either allow Henry to have open holes past the line of scrimmage or open up passing lanes over the middle. I am not saying that Henry is going to fall off a cliff this season, but if he hits a wall, the Titans will have a problem on their hands.
The last concern for this team is the lackluster defense. Tennessee’s defense last season was non-existent in the pass rushing department, only getting to the quarterback 19 times, ranking 30th in the league. The Titans added a pass rusher in Bud Dupree, but overpaid the former Steeler with a five-year, $82 million contract. In the draft, the Titans got one of the steals in the first round with Caleb Farley falling to them at pick 22. Tennessee would continue to focus on the defensive side of the ball by using four of its next six picks on defenders. The picks may work out in the long run, but it could take time for this defense to gel, and it is still not going to be a great unit.
Record Prediction: 10-7
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Urban Meyer-Trevor Lawrence era is set to be underway this season, and the Jaguars should finally be set at the quarterback position. Jacksonville has been an organization that consistently finds itself in disarray. This season will be another year where the team struggles to win, but the franchise has a lot to look forward to in the future.
The Jaguars’ 1-15 record from a season ago warranted them receiving the first pick in the 2021 draft. It was a no-brainer decision to draft Lawrence. Jacksonville is used to sitting atop the draft, but the Jaguars seem to screw it up most of the time. With Lawrence sitting there for Jacksonville, the right pick was there on a platter.
The Jaguars added Lawrence’s college teammate Travis Ettiene, which was pretty confusing when James Robinson was spectacular as an undrafted rookie last season. Unfortunately, Etienne broke his foot in Jacksonville’s preseason game against the Saints and will miss the entire 2021 season. In the passing game, Lawrence will have D.J. Chark, Laviska Shenault Jr., and Marvin Jones on the outside. This offense should be fun to watch, but it is an extremely young team with an underwhelming defense. Expect the Jaguars to play a lot of catch up ball this season.
Meyer is also in his first season as a head coach in the NFL after spending last season as a college football analyst. Meyer has felt like a splash hire from day one. There were many other candidates who would have been better for a young quarterback. Eric Bienemy or Brian Daboll are just a couple of names who have helped develop quarterbacks the last few seasons. Pairing a rookie quarterback with a coach who has no experience in the NFL is a head-scratching decision.
Meyer has already made a couple decisions that have had the sports media world shaking their heads. He hired Chris Doyle as the director of sports performance despite allegations against the former Iowa strength and conditioning coach. Doyle was accused of racist comments and behavior towards African-American Hawkeye players. Meyer would face heavy criticism and Doyle would resign two days later.
Jacksonville also signed Tim Tebow to play tight end for the Jaguars, and Meyer definitely pushed for that to happen. Meyer coached Tebow at the University of Florida, and the two have always been close. It felt like Meyer was rewarding the former first-round pick for his play in college. Tebow was a disappointing quarterback at the NFL level and has not played a snap in over eight years. It also does not send a healthy message to the locker room when there is a player present who has not played baseball more recently than taking a snap in an NFL game.
This could be a situation where the Jaguars are doing a coaching search in a couple of years.
Record Prediction: 4-13
4. Houston Texans
The dumpster fire of the NFL is the Houston Texans. Ever since they traded DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals, the Texans have slipped into oblivion. Bill O’Brien can be credited with that. It seemed that the Texans could move onto a different coach who would see eye-to-eye with their franchise quarterback, but the Texans refused to hear Deshaun Watson’s preference on the coaching hire. The dysfunction led to Watson seeking a trade from the organization early in the offseason.
For months, the Texans were reluctant to take calls for the 25-year-old quarterback, but eventually came around to the possibility. However, accusations came out against Watson of sexual harassment from multiple masseurs. Up to this point, there are 22 cases against Watson, and his trade market is stalled because of the uncertainty surrounding the player. It has been as disastrous of an offseason as it gets.
Entering the 2021 draft, the Texans had multiple positions to address, including quarterback. Houston used their first pick of the draft, which was a third rounder, on quarterback Davis Mills. Houston also signed Tyrod Taylor to add to the quarterback room. All signs point to Watson being traded for a package of draft picks, so the Texans have entered a state of rebuilding.
In addition to probably losing Watson, the Texans lost Will Fuller in free agency when he signed with the Dolphins on a one-year, $10 million deal. He was a weapon that Watson wanted Houston to retain, but like everything else, the organization simply ignored. Houston also obliged J.J. Watt’s wishes of being let go, allowing him to sign with the Arizona Cardinals earlier in the offseason.
There is not much to say about the Texans. Barring a miracle that Watson becomes happy with the organization, it will either be Mills or Taylor starting. This team will have no offensive firepower and no defensive backbone. This will be the worst team in the league, and Houston will be on the clock for the 2022 NFL Draft when the season ends.
Record Prediction: 1-16