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AFC South projected starters: Colts look like SB contenders

With the 2020 NFL Draft and most of free agency in the rearview, Gregg Rosenthal will project starting lineups for all 32 teams because that's his idea of fun. Check out the AFC South breakdowns below.


Table inside Article
QB Deshaun Watson DE J.J. Watt
RB David Johnson DT Brandon Dunn
WR Brandin Cooks DE Ross Blacklock
WR Will Fuller OLB Whitney Mercilus
WR Randall Cobb ILB Zach Cunningham
TE Jordan Akins ILB Benardrick McKinney
LT Laremy Tunsil CB Bradley Roby
LG Max Scharping CB Gareon Conley
C Nick Martin CB Lonnie Johnson
RG Zach Fulton S Justin Reid
RT Tytus Howard S Eric Murray
  • Don't be surprised if Duke Johnson winds up playing more than David Johnson, whether due to injury or performance. Then again, I've been projecting Duke Johnson to have a bigger role than he's finished with for five straight years. David Johnson will get every chance to revive his career, based on his salary ($10.2 million base, per Over The Cap), but Duke Johnson's playoff game-winning efforts last season shouldn't be forgotten.
  • I don't understand the speculation about Kenny Stills getting cut or traded. The Texans' top three wideouts all have a history of durability issues. Will Fuller rarely stays healthy, Brandin Cooks has recurring concussions and Randall Cobb has topped 800 yards just twice since 2015, largely because of injuries. Stills may not be a complete receiver, but he has a valuable skill set and has only missed three games to injury in his entire career. They need him.
  • It was surprising that the Texans didn't try to upgrade their tight end tandem from Jordan Akins and Darren Fells, but perhaps they'll play with four wideouts more often.
  • Left tackle Laremy Tunsil may be worth all the money and draft picks. The Texans jumped from one of the worst pass-protecting groups in the league to a top-five unit, according to Pro Football Focus' overall team pass-protection grades. They were much better pass-blocking than run-blocking, which is a good trade-off for Deshaun Watson. Right tackle Tytus Howard mostly looked the part in his rookie year, when he was healthy.
  • Houston hasn't confirmed the signing of defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan, so he's not included here. One of the assets of second-round pick Ross Blacklock is his ability to play over the center or as a defensive end. The Texans will miss free-agent departure D.J. Reader, but they are still solid up front.
  • This is probably the last year Zach Cunningham and Bernardrick McKinney play next to each other. It's strange to pay two inside linebackers in today's NFL, and Cunningham is due to get paid as one of the best tacklers in football.
  • The Texans had one of the worst pass defenses in football last year. That's not all on the secondary -- their pass rush was iffy and linebackers didn't cover well -- but returning most of the same group isn't a recipe for success.


Table inside Article
QB Philip Rivers DE Justin Houston
RB Jonathan Taylor DT DeForest Buckner
WR T.Y. Hilton DT Denico Autry
WR Michael Pittman Jr. DE Kemoko Turay
WR Zach Pascal OLB Darius Leonard
TE Jack Doyle ILB Anthony Walker
LT Anthony Castonzo CB Rock Ya-Sin
LG Quenton Nelson CB Xavier Rhodes
C Ryan Kelly CB Kenny Moore
RG Mark Glowinski S Malik Hooker
RT Braden Smith S Khari Willis
  • There's no reason to believe that Jacoby Brissett will get traded before the season. He is among the best backup QBs in the NFL, and his salary is a sunk cost for the Colts, because they already guaranteed most of his 2020 pay. It's hard to imagine another team giving up a valuable pick for Brissett, even in an emergency like the one that brought him to Indianapolis in the first place in September of 2017.
  • On paper, this is one of the league's best offensive lines. The unit's probably better run-blocking than pass-protecting, but it could still be the best group Philip Rivers has ever played behind. Rivers and protection have rarely found each other.
  • I've seen assumptions that Michael Pittman Jr. will step right into a starting role, with Parris Campbell the likely option in the slot. Just don't discount Zach Pascal's chances to wind up second on this team in wideout snaps. He does a lot well. While Campbell didn't reach 200 snaps as a rookie in 2019, Pascal already has proven he's a legitimate NFL receiver with toughness and versatility.
  • Pittman Jr. adds a level of physicality that was needed in this group. He's another strong option for coach Frank Reich's beautiful buffet of red-zone plays.
  • The tight end group isn't flashy, but it could be effective, with different players fulfilling different roles. Jack Doyle is a great run-blocker who can play every down. Mo Alie-Cox is frisky. Trey Burton is a worthy buy-low pickup. And fullback Roosevelt Nix could handle some of a traditional tight end's blocking roles.
  • DeForest Buckner should elevate this defensive line from one that has sneaky good potential to one that has sneaky great potential. Denico Autry has turned into a steady performer and can play inside and out. Justin Houston remains ageless (at 31 years old and coming off an 11-sack season), and Kemeko Turay played like budding star before suffering an ankle injury last season. The depth is also better, allowing the team to rotate.
  • Anthony Walker is listed here at linebacker because he'll wind up with more snaps in the middle than Bobby Okereke is likely to have on the strong side. But Okereke is already this team's second-best linebacker, and I'm intrigued to see where he goes from here. If Darius Leonard takes another step up, this group can be special.
  • The secondary may be the position group with the most questions, especially if free-agent signee Xavier Rhodes can't reverse a dramatic decline that began in Minnesota. The Colts have a surplus of intriguing safeties, however, and they have shown they will use them a lot.
  • I've been bullish on Colts general manager Chris Ballard for years, and I haven't been alone on that. He was dealt a tricky hand inheriting Chuck Pagano and losing Andrew Luck twice, but this is Ballard's fourth year since taking over. The roster embodies his vision, and the offseason depth chart looks pristine. If Philip Rivers does his job, this team can compete for the AFC title.


Table inside Article
QB Gardner Minshew DE Josh Allen
RB Leonard Fournette DT Taven Bryan
WR D.J. Chark DE Yannick Ngakoue
WR Chris Conley OLB Myles Jack
WR Dede Westbrook ILB Joe Schobert
TE Tyler Eifert OLB K'Lavon Chaisson
LT Cam Robinson CB CJ Henderson
LG Andrew Norwell CB Rashaan Melvin
C Brandon Linder CB D.J. Hayden
RG A.J. Cann S Jarrod Wilson
RT Jawaan Taylor S Ronnie Henderson
  • Gardner Minshew should be thrilled that Andy Dalton chose to join the Cowboys and not the Jaguars, even if Jacksonville offensive coordinator Jay Gruden (who worked with Dalton in Cincinnati) is not. Having Dalton looming as a potential addition was bad for Minshew's job security. Having Gruden call plays, on the other hand, has helped plenty of quarterbacks with similar attributes to the second-year pro.
  • Leonard Fournette wouldn't still be in Jacksonville if another team had taken him off the Jaguars' hands. He also might have been released if not for the unproven depth behind him in Ryquell Armstead and Devine Ozigbo. A veteran pickup is still an option, as is an in-season trade of Fournette.
  • The Jaguars will find ways to get second-round pick Laviska Shenault the ball. I worry about his transition to the NFL, but he adds to an intriguing receiver group. The wide receivers have not been the problem in Jacksonville for a few years now.
  • Shenault may play more than any of the tight ends. Tyler Eifert knows Gruden from their time together in Cincinnati, and he figures to lead a group that didn't have a player top 350 snaps last year.
  • The offensive line has done as much as the quarterback position to short-circuit most of GM David Caldwell's tenure. Jacksonville has poured draft capital and money into the group, and only center Brandon Linder (a third-round pick in 2014) is a plus starter. The tackles, who are both former second-round picks, could hold Minshew's hopes in their hands.
  • The defensive line isn't at peak 2017 levels, but it's not bad at all. There are three legit edge rushers and even capable depth in the middle behind Taven Bryan.
  • Caldwell is right about Yannick Ngakoue, who doesn't have a lot of options after requesting a trade this offseason. Ngakoue will roughly equal his career earnings by Week 3 if he plays under the franchise tag, so it would be shocking if he missed time.
  • First-round pick K'Lavon Chaisson is listed as a linebacker in the alignment above, but he should be on the field plenty as an edge rusher and off-ball linebacker. The Jaguars' defense was shockingly bad last season and needed to make changes, but the front-seven talent remains strong.
  • The secondary is the clear weakness of the defense. The team needs No. 9 overall pick CJ Henderson to make an immediate impact -- otherwise, the group will just be hoping to get by. Tre Herndon could start over Rashaan Melvin, but that doesn't change much.


Table inside Article
QB Ryan Tannehill DE Jeffery Simmons
RB Derrick Henry DT DaQuan Jones
WR A.J. Brown OLB Harold Landry
WR Corey Davis ILB Rashaan Evans
WR Adam Humphries ILB Jayon Brown
TE Jonnu Smith OLB Vic Beasley
LT Taylor Lewan CB Adoree' Jackson
LG Rodger Saffold CB Malcolm Butler
C Ben Jones CB Kristian Fulton
RG Nate Davis S Kevin Byard
RT Dennis Kelly S Kenny Vaccaro
  • The Titans were compelled to run it back with Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, a decision that looks even wiser, given the advantage of maintaining continuity during this abbreviated offseason. Tannehill's familiarity with the system should allow coordinator Arthur Smith to expand on what the offense showed in 2019, even if Tannehill can't be expected to hit deep shots with such electric efficiency.
  • Henry is on the franchise tag. If he shows signs of wearing down after nearly 400 carries last season (including the playoffs), it wouldn't be a surprise if the Titans moved on from him after 2020.
  • There aren't many offenses that underwent less change this offseason than the Titans. Many of the players moving on (Marcus Mariota, Delanie Walker, Dion Lewis) were all non-factors by the stretch run last year.
  • The major change comes at right tackle, where first round pick Isaiah Wilson will eventually pass longtime Titan Dennis Kelly on the depth chart in the wake of Jack Conklin's departure in free agency.
  • I was a little surprised the Titans didn't add depth to their receiver room, especially considering they didn't pick up the fifth-year option in Corey Davis' contract. They have stopped waiting for a breakout from the fifth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but they could desperately use one. Slot receiver Adam Humphries also should produce better playing a full season with Tannehill, but this is a thin group beyond the starters.
  • The Titans, like the Patriots, have so many fewer true down linemen than the Patriots' defenses that head coach Mike Vrabel played on. The league has changed, and the Titans' fifth linebacker (Kamalei Correa) and fifth defensive back are likely to play more snaps than the team's third true defensive lineman.
  • Even if the defensive line is de-emphasized, this Titans team is going to miss Jurrell Casey, the five-time Pro Bowler who was traded to Denver this offseason. An injury to Jeffery Simmons or DaQuan Jones would expose a thin group.
  • Vrabel and friends are gambling they can get more out of Vic Beasley than the Falcons could over the last few years. The former first-round pick's $9.5 million salary guarantees he'll start opposite Harold Landry.
  • The Titans are built back-to-front, but their secondary still has questions. Malcolm Butler's 2019 was an improvement until he got hurt, but he hasn't lived up to his contract. Rookie Kristian Fulton is slated to play a big role. In cornerback Adoree' Jackson and safety Kevin Byard, they have two excellent young players to build around.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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