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2022 AFC South

Published 6/13/2022

Houston Texans

Head coach Lovie Smith gets the in-house promotion from defensive coordinator, serving as the head coach of his third NFL franchise. Pep Hamilton joins Smith as the offensive coordinator via another in-house promotion from his position as the pass game coordinator a year ago, while Lovie is expected to call plays on the defensive side of the ball.

In total, the Texans made nine selections in this year’s draft, including four of the first 44 players off the board (more on this below). They started their draft at number three overall with the selection of cornerback Derek Stingley, Jr. and continued with fellow first-round selection offensive lineman Kenyon Green. The second round brought safety Jalen Pitre with the 37th overall pick and wide receiver John Metchie III with the 44th overall pick. Round three saw them select Christian Harris with the 75th overall pick, before running back Dameon Pierce was selected in the fourth with the 107th overall pick, defensive tackle Thomas Booker in the fifth with the 150th overall pick, tight end Teagan Quitoriano in the fifth with the 170th overall pick, and offensive tackle Austin Deculus in the sixth with the 205th overall pick.

The major news out of Houston this offseason was the absolute fleecing of the Browns in the trade market as the team secured three first-round picks amongst the six total picks in return for quarterback Deshaun Watson. Other than the Watson dealings, things were rather quiet for the Texans. They brought in three offensive linemen in Cedric Ogbuehi, Justin Britt, and AJ Cann, running back Dare Ogunbowale, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

Interpretation

Lovie Smith defenses are a bit of an enigma, as they’ve seen efficiency finishes basically spanning the width of the 32 teams in the NFL. As in, sometimes they’re rock-solid, other times they couldn’t stop a sneeze. Last season, with Smith serving as the defensive coordinator, the Texans allowed the sixth-most points, second-most total yards, and most passing yards per game in the NFL, but also finished top 10 in takeaways. Given what we know about Lovie Smith defenses, that last part is probably the stickiest from year to year. Smith’s defenses seem to always generate a lot of turnovers. From player testimonies, it is clear he preaches an aggressive, ball-hawking mentality, with players swarming to the football from multiple levels. This aggression can cause communication issues and coverage errors, which helps to explain the poor performance against the pass just a year ago.

The running back stable has been a head-scratcher for me this off-season as early drafters seem enamored with fourth-round rookie running back Dameon Pierce, who is currently coming off boards first of the four backs likely to see usage this season. That said, this team just paid a hefty price to secure Rex Burkhead’s services for the coming season ($2.1 million guaranteed) and brought in Marlon Mack and Dare Ogunbowale via free agency. The likeliest scenario has all four being involved and potentially seeing weekly usage in what should be a nasty timeshare. And that doesn’t even take into account that all four will be running behind what projects as a bottom-four offensive line. Full avoid in season-long formats, my friends.

2022 second-round wide receiver John Metchie III will likely join 2021 third-round wide receiver Nico Collins and Brandin Cooks in the starting lineup at wide receiver this season. Youngster tight end Brevin Jordan ascended to the top of the depth chart late last season and has the athletic profile and potential snap rate to make a splash for a team that is likely to be forced to the air heavily this season. Consider him an upside last-round Best Ball pick and someone to keep your eye on in redraft/dynasty leagues as a potential waiver wire addition. Offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton’s offenses have historically been built around a power run game and quick-hit short passing game and required elevated efficiency, hunting to control the time of possession battle. It remains to be seen how that plan will translate with an extremely young offense, but that is currently what we can expect to see to start the season. Brandin Cooks remains the alpha and seems to continually be slept on, although his early draft ADP is almost five rounds higher this year when compared to last. On this offense, with this offensive coordinator and head coach, I’m not searching for ways to go overweight Cooks in the early fifth round in the same ways I was last year when he was going in the ninth and even 10th rounds.

Indianapolis Colts

Frank Reich enters his fifth season as head coach of the Colts, joined by second-year offensive coordinator Marcus Brady and newcomer defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who comes over from the same position in Las Vegas a year ago.

The Colts didn’t make their first pick until their second-round selection of wide receiver Alec Pierce with the 53rd overall pick but ended up making eight selections when all was said and done. They followed with tight end Jelani Woods in the third (73rd overall), offensive tackle Bernhard Raimann in the third (77th overall), safety Nick Cross in the third (96th overall), defensive tackle Eric Johnson in the fifth (159th overall), tight end Andrew Ogletree in the sixth (192nd overall), defensive tackle Curtis Brooks in the sixth (216th overall), and cornerback Rodney Thomas II in the seventh (239th overall). The early selection of Pierce with the team’s first pick in the draft hints at the probability he begins the year as a starter, while all other picks should be thought of as depth and/or developmental players.

The Colts gave up cornerback Rock Ya-Sin to the Raiders in return for defensive end/linebacker Yannick Ngakoue, signed cornerback Brandon Facyson, lost guard Mark Glowinski to the Giants and tight end Jack Doyle to retirement, let Carson Wentz walk, and brought in quarterback Matt Ryan to replace him. In all, the Colts return the vast majority of their roster.

Interpretation

Gus Bradley’s defense has morphed into one with a heavier emphasis on Cover-3 than that which was seen through his time coaching the “Legion of Boom” in Seattle, heavily focused on playing fast and physical with a ball-swarming and hawking defense. The good thing, for Bradley and the Colts at least, is that he has much more talent, athleticism, and speed at his immediate disposal than he did a year ago in Vegas, meaning we should see better results than his defense provided a year ago (allowed 25.8 points per game, 26th in the league). But again, having DeForest Buckner, Kenny Moore II, and Darius Leonard amongst the tools at your disposal will do that. Expect a defense built to maximize that talent, with zone principles and athleticism the driving forces.

Reich and Bradly combined to design an offense built around the players on their roster in 2021, riding a power run game and quick-hit passing game built around the short-to-intermediate areas of the field. Based on what we’ve seen from them this offseason, I expect that scheme to remain static while they look for improved efficiency, processing, and decision-making from their new quarterback. The three potential changes most likely to influence this offense in 2022 are the change at quarterback, Reich’s hint at Nyheim Hines regaining a more prominent role in the offense, and the addition of rookie wide receiver, Alec Pierce. A passing game built on timing and crisp cohesion are likely to see a potential boost under the tutelage of Matt Ryan, while Hines (and his robust contract) gives this team a mismatch down low for opposing defenses to have to handle. Pierce should immediately step into a starting spot on the perimeter opposite Michael Pittman, Jr., leaving Parris Campbell to his more natural slot position in an offense that utilized 11-personnel an above-average 64% of the time a year ago.

Reich’s own words hint at Nyheim Hines regaining a semi-featured role in this offense, and it doesn’t take a lot to push the “I believe” button considering Hines is being paid as the 12th highest-paid running back in the league. In what form those snaps and touches come is the hard part. As in, do the Colts take electric running back Jonathan Taylor off the field, or do they run more than the 6% 21-personnel they ran a year ago? Regardless of where those opportunities come from, Reich’s words combined with Hines’ contract and the change at quarterback from anti-checker-downer Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan are enough for me to remove Taylor from the top overall draft position in season-long formats. The Colts’ offensive line has also been in a steady decline over the previous three seasons as they head into 2022 with the league’s 13th-ranked unit.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Man, what a ride this team had in 2021. Just kidding. The good news is there are likely better days on the horizon. Doug Pederson was hired as head coach after a one-year hiatus between being fired by the Eagles. Press Taylor (younger brother of Bengals coach Zac Taylor) is technically the offensive coordinator but Pederson is expected to call offensive plays. Mike Caldwell comes over from his position as the linebackers coach of the Buccaneers to serve as the defensive coordinator.

Picking first overall for the second consecutive year, the Jags kicked things off by selecting edge Travon Walker, followed by linebacker Devin Lloyd in the first as well (20th overall). Interior offensive lineman Luke Fortner was next off the board for the Jags in the third (65th overall), followed by running back Snoop Conner in the fifth (154th overall), cornerback Gregory Junior in the sixth (197th overall), and cornerback Montaric Brown in the seventh (222nd overall).

Newcomers linebacker Foye Oluokun, guard Brandon Scherff, defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi, wide receiver Christian Kirk, cornerback Darious Williams, and tight end Evan Engram should all immediately step into starting roles, while wide receiver Zay Jones is likely to serve as a depth addition.

Interpretation

The Jaguars are proud custodians of the 27th-ranked offensive line heading into 2022, which should serve as the starting point when trying to break down what this team will look like moving forward. It’s quite simple – when you combine a weak offensive line with a young quarterback, it typically doesn’t end well unless your offensive scheme is simple, creates easy reads, and keeps your offense out of long down-and-distance to go situations. But that’s exactly what I expect Pederson to do with his system this season.

Another big piece of this offensive puzzle is the return of running back Travis Etienne, who didn’t play a snap in his rookie year after suffering a foot injury in the preseason a year ago. That gives Doug Pederson a massive mismatch piece to utilize out of the backfield and I expect he and newcomer wide receiver Christian Kirk to be the focal points of this offense. Finally, when dissecting potential influences on the offense, we must also consider their defense. The Jags enter 2022 with a bottom 10 on-paper defense after going through a complete overhaul a few years ago. When you add up the individual pieces, we’re left with an offensive unit that should be required to remain aggressive throughout games – a solid spot for the fantasy prospectus of its key offensive pieces.

Tight end Evan Engram was brought over by the new regime to add an athletic element over the middle of the field, and it will be interesting to see how he is utilized, particularly after seeing how Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz were utilized Pederson in Philadelphia. That leaves Marvin Jones, Jr., whom I expect to operate primarily in the intermediate areas of the field in addition to being a large-bodied red zone threat. This is an offense (and team and coaching staff) that I will be looking to target early in the season in addition to in early season-long drafts.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans are running it back with their coaching triad from a year ago, with Mike Vrabel set to serve in the head coach position for the fifth consecutive season, and both offensive coordinator Todd Downing and defensive coordinator Shane Bowen entering their second season in the respective decisions.

After the team traded away offensive superstar A.J. Brown, they used their first-round pick on a replacement with the selection of wide receiver Treylon Burks with the 18th overall pick. They split up their remaining picks between the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, selecting defensive back Roger Creary in the second round (35th overall), offensive tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere in the third (69th overall), quarterback Malik Willis in the third (86th overall), running back Hassan Haskins in the fourth (131st overall), tight end Chigoziem Okonkwo in the fourth (143rd overall), wide receiver Kyle Phillips in the fifth (163rd overall), defensive back Theo Jackson in the sixth (204th overall), and linebacker Chance Campbell in the sixth (219th overall).

The Titans were also forced to address their lack of wide receiver depth through free agency following the release of Julio Jones, electing to bring in Robert Woods to help fill the void. They also brought in tight-end Austin Hooper, linebacker Dylan Cole, and linebacker Ola Adeniyi. Of the newcomers, both through the draft and free agency, only Robert Woods and Treylon Burks are expected to serve as starters this season for a franchise that remains committed to building from within.

Interpretation

With no major offseason moves outside of the changing of the guard at wide receiver, we should have a fairly accurate idea of how this team will approach the game of football this year. Things start with the defense with this team, and their defense should once again flirt with top-ten status in 2022. Mike Vrabel, the former linebacker, coaches as he played – with extreme intensity and high demands of his players. This focus and passion highlight how the Titans try and win games, which is primarily through ball control, preventative defense, and an offense built around a power run game. Based on the continuity on defense, there’s no reason to expect the respective decline in performance that would prohibit this team from running a more conservative offense. Tennessee finished the 2021 season ranked sixth in points allowed per game at just 20.7, a marked difference from the 27.0 they allowed per game in 2020 under a different regime.

The offense, as alluded to above, is built around the offensive line and power run game through Derrick Henry. Henry continues to defy both age and the number of repetitions on his body, with the stud running back showing the first signs of breaking down this past season, where he missed nine total games with a broken foot following Week 8. Those are the exact reasons that make him such a risky pick in the first round of season-long drafts. The running back depth chart is rather sparse behind Henry, leading to the team’s decision to draft rookie Hassan Haskins in the fourth round of this season’s draft. He is immediately expected to fill the backup/change of pace role behind Henry. The 6’ 1”, 220-pound running back doesn’t have the same frame as the 6’ 3”, 247-pound Henry, but his balance and bruising running style led to him amassing 3.09 yards per carry after contact at the collegiate level in 2021.

Austin Hooper and Geoff Swaim should form a tight end tandem for a team that ran 11-personnel on only 58% of their offensive snaps a year ago. That trickles down to a likeliest scenario where Robert Woods and incumbent Nick Westbrook-Ikhine see the most snaps on the perimeter for the Titans, with electric and crisp rookie wide receiver Treylon Burks serving as the slot wide receiver in addition to seeing snaps in certain packages out wide. The wide receiver depth chart behind those three is sparse, at best, highlighted by guys like Racey McMath, Dez Fitzpatrick, and Cody Hollister. Robert Woods has every opportunity to lead this team in both receptions and production, with health being the biggest detractor. Treylon Burks brings the type of athletic profile that can really succeed in this system but it is likely he starts the season in more of a part-time role.


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