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AFC South preview: Tennessee Titans poised to take the throne?

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As we hurtle toward the regular season, check out our division-by-division primers highlighting players and storylines to watch in 2017. Marc Sessler tackles the AFC South below.

Most significant changes from 2016

Spoken fervidly about last offseason as a division on the rise, the AFC South is a suspicious beast heading into the 2017 campaign.

The problems begin at quarterback.

Though Andrew Luck was removed from the PUP list over the weekend, he is out for Week 1. Whatever ends up happening, his elongated return from shoulder surgery has been a hot-button drama for the Colts. Unlike most starting passers, he hasn't spent a second with his receivers or backs in live-game action. Making matters worse, his talented young center, Ryan Kelly, is likely to land on IR recall following August foot surgery. Without Luck, the Colts have looked like the worst team in football outside of the sinkhole-inducing J-E-T-S. No wonder the team felt compelled to ship former first-round pick Phillip Dorsett to the Patriots for backup passer Jacoby Brissett.

It's no better in Jacksonville, where Doug Marrone has already benched and un-benched Blake Bortles. With nothing but Chad Henne behind the struggling former first-rounder, the Jaguars -- despite a frisky defense -- appear headed for a lost season.

Houston made a draft-day splash by trading up for quarterback Deshaun Watson, but the rookie failed to beat out incumbent Tom Savage. We're bound to see both signal callers play for a team that again will lean heavily on its ferocious defense.

The beaming hope under center is Marcus Mariota. The Titans' third-year passer -- if he can stay healthy -- has the chance for a breakout campaign with Tennessee, a team that has been crafted into a hard-hitting, power-style whirlwind under general manager Jon Robinson. A quick start in Nashville could finish off the rest of the work-in-progress South.

One player to watch on each team

HOUSTON TEXANS: D'Onta Foreman, running back: Houston's rookie running back spent the bulk of the preseason toiling behind starter Lamar Miller and castmates Tyler Ervin and Alfred Blue. Coach Bill O'Brien has emphasized that Foreman has a long way to go, but the third-rounder was fascinating to watch in August, running hard for chunk yardage and taking a pair of catch-and-runs for 66 yards against the Patriots. You have to be fully sold on Miller to believe that Foreman doesn't get a long look on the ground. I expect the rookie to earn starts by midseason.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Marlon Mack, running back: Let's pinpoint another rookie runner, shall we? During a dreadful summer for the Colts, Mack -- the fourth-rounder out of South Florida -- drew praise from coach Chuck Pagano as a "special player" in the making with "great athleticism [and] great vision." Pagano went on to say the rookie "reminds you of Jamaal Charles." While ex-Redskins runner Matt Jones is now a part of the mix behind 34-year-old starter Frank Gore, Pagano's raging man-crush on Mack is a factor here. The rookie will be given a chance to contribute for a Colts team desperately searching for a spark.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, cornerbacks: Enough about Blake Bortles. There is hope in Jacksonville on defense, where behemoth Calais Campbell joins a formidable front seven led by Malik Jackson, promising pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue and linebacker Telvin Smith. The Jaguars also boast a pair of talented young corners in Ramsey and Bouye. Ramsey was a joy to watch in Year 1, as he played a fearless style of defense that furnished the Jaguars with some much-needed attitude. Adding Bouye from the Texans gives Jacksonville one of the NFL's top corner duos, something this team will need when the offense flatlines.

TENNESSEE TITANS: Corey Davis, wide receiver: One of the draft's most talented wideouts missed the entire preseason with an uncooperative hamstring that chilled expectations for the fifth overall pick. It's easy to forget that the same thing happened to this guy named Odell Beckham Jr. a few years back. Davis can do it all when healthy, displaying rare quickness for a 6-foot-3, 209-pound pass catcher. The challenge will be earning consistent snaps alongside Eric Decker, Rishard Matthews and third-round upstart Taywan Taylor. When his body gets right, Davis has the chance to be a special player.

What we'll be talking about at season's end

Are the Titans the AFC's next great power? Find me a general manager who has done more to grow his team in just two years on the job than Jon Robinson. While other franchises talk about creating culture and building identity, Robinson -- a longtime student of Bill Belichick -- has already flipped the switch on a Titans squad that no longer doubles as a weekly punching bag. With Marcus Mariota upright, my crystal ball -- a vaguely reliable instrument -- has Tennessee winning the division and a home-field playoff bout before dialing up an old-guard/new-guard showdown with the Patriots. They'll lose that affair, but only after sending a sharply worded message to New England: The clock is ticking on your precious, untouchable kingdom.

Follow Marc Sessler on Twitter @MarcSesslerNFL.

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