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Projecting AFC South hierarchy for 2024 NFL season: Who will win rising division? Strengths/weaknesses?

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. In today's installment, he examines a previously dull division that is oozing with intrigue heading into the 2024 season ...

As the NFL ushers in a new era with young quarterbacks taking center stage, the AFC South has emerged as a fascinating division on the rise. All four teams offer inarguable allure at the game's most important position.

C.J. Stroud took the league by storm last season, earning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors following one of the most transcendent debut campaigns for a quarterback in NFL history. With Stroud leading the way, the Texans went from worst to first in the AFC South and logged a spectacular playoff win. Meanwhile, Trevor Lawrence suffered through an injury-riddled 2023, but he's only one season removed from a breakout year of his own. In the 2022 campaign, Lawrence made his first Pro Bowl, guided the Jaguars to the top of the division and directed one of the greatest postseason comebacks ever. Lastly, don't forget about traitsy second-year signal-callers Anthony Richardson and Will Levis, who are generating plenty of excitement around the Colts and Titans, respectively.

Now, in the interest of transparency, I'd like to remind/inform everyone that I am employed as a Jaguars sideline reporter during the season. But that job gives me the opportunity to focus on Jacksonville and the division as a whole. It is an enchanting assignment these days. While the AFC South might have left something to be desired in the recent past, that is certainly not the case as we head toward the 2024 season. This is a compelling quartet of teams, with rivalries already heating up months before kickoff. Stroud just clapped back at some hostile comments from Colts linebackers Zaire Franklin and E.J. Speed: "Indy hates me already, and I love it."

Three of the four AFC South teams (Houston, Indianapolis and Tennessee) completed mandatory minicamp this week, while Jacksonville will check that box this coming Monday through Wednesday. So, this feels like a perfect time to explore the divisional hierarchy heading into the summer.

NOTE: Caesars Sportsbook & Casino's division title odds are current as of 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday, June 7.

Rank
1
Houston Texans
2023 record: 10-7
  • Odds to win AFC South: +100
  • Last division title: 2023


WHY HOUSTON COULD WIN THE AFC SOUTH: The Texans took everyone by surprise last season, but that won't be the case this fall. Last year's upstart darlings will head into the 2024 campaign with high expectations, and rightfully so. With 22-year-old star C.J. Stroud entrenched as the franchise quarterback for an offense loaded with premier talent on the perimeter, Houston has enough firepower to win a shootout against any squad in the league. As the defense continues to progress under DeMeco Ryans' leadership and tactics, the Texans could cement themselves as an emerging superpower in the AFC.


BIGGEST OFFSEASON ADDITION: A trio of accomplished veterans. The Texans added three decorated vets with big-game experience in WR Stefon Diggs, RB Joe Mixon and DE Danielle Hunter. Not only does each player boost the roster at a marquee spot, but they all provide the kind of seasoned savvy that this young team needed in order to build on last season's trip to the Divisional Round.


POTENTIAL ACHILLES' HEEL: The hype around the Texans could disrupt the chemistry of a rising team attempting to take the next step after a breakthrough season. With a locker room full of big personalities and young stars looking to make their mark as blue-chip players, Ryans must guard against complacency and keep everyone pulling in the same direction.


BIGGEST OFFSEASON LOSS: Jonathan Greenard, defensive end. The breakout star's departure in free agency could alter the chemistry of a defensive front that produced a respectable 46 sacks in 2023. Greenard paced the squad with 12.5 sacks, displaying outstanding quickness, power and explosiveness as a relentless pursuer off the edge. Without the homegrown pass rusher in the fold, the Texans will need their veteran D-linemen (Hunter, Denico Autry and Derek Barnett) to complement second-year stud Will Anderson Jr. in the pass rush.

Rank
2
Jacksonville Jaguars
2023 record: 9-8
  • Odds to win AFC South: +285
  • Last division title: 2022


WHY JACKSONVILLE COULD WIN THE AFC SOUTH: After falling apart down the stretch last season, Jacksonville could re-emerge as the top dog in the division if Trevor Lawrence and Co. regain their magic as one of the most dynamic offenses in the AFC. Lawrence faltered in the second half of the 2023 campaign when injuries suppressed his superpowers from the pocket. With No. 16 healthy and surrounded by a diverse cast of playmakers, the Jags could ride their franchise quarterback back to the top of the South.


BIGGEST OFFSEASON ADDITION: A pair of dangerous wideouts. Free-agent signee Gabe Davis and first-round pick Brian Thomas Jr. could give Jacksonville's offense the big-play element it lacked in 2023. Davis is a proven deep threat, boasting a career average of 16.7 yards per catch. In four regular seasons with the Bills, he notched 27 touchdowns, with 17 of them coming on passes that traveled 20-plus air yards, per Next Gen Stats. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder teams with Thomas (6-3, 209 pounds) to give the Jaguars more size, speed and athleticism outside, which should create more space for WR Christian Kirk and TE Evan Engram to work between the hashes. If BTJ plays like the home-run hitter who finished his final season at LSU with an FBS-best 17 receiving scores, the Jaguars' new perimeter playmakers could help the offense regain its explosiveness in 2024.


POTENTIAL ACHILLES' HEEL: Jacksonville's O-line woes forced the offense to play uphill for most of 2023. The unit's ineffectiveness at the line of scrimmage resulted in the offense finishing with the second-most runs (120) of zero yards or negative gains, . With the team unable to create room at the point of attack, the Jaguars faced too many long-yardage situations that exposed their lack of chemistry and cohesion in pass protection. Lawrence took 35 sacks in 16 games. Bottom line: The Jags must improve in the trenches to resurrect their title chances.


BIGGEST OFFSEASON LOSS: Calvin Ridley, wide receiver. Losing Ridley to the division-rival Titans was a double whammy for the Jaguars. After a prolonged layoff from football due to off-field issues, Ridley returned to action last season and immediately led the Jags in receiving yards (1,016) and receiving touchdowns (eight). Though communication issues between the veteran playmaker and Lawrence led to some costly blunders, Ridley could have taken another big step forward in Duval. But alas, he's gone. Now it's on Davis and Thomas to really hit the ground running in Jacksonville. That's definitely possible, but it's no guarantee.

Rank
3
Indianapolis Colts
2023 record: 9-8
  • Odds to win AFC South: +320
  • Last division title: 2014


WHY INDIANAPOLIS COULD WIN THE AFC SOUTH: Despite playing without their QB1 for more than three-quarters of the season, the Colts still entered their Week 18 game with a chance to take the division title. A narrow loss to Houston knocked Indianapolis out of the playoffs entirely, but it was still a highly impressive effort in head coach Shane Steichen's debut campaign. With Anthony Richardson returning to the lineup, the Colts can befuddle foes with a mix of runs and passes that keeps defenders guessing. If Steichen fully taps into the unique talents of his freakish trigger man while maximizing the explosive playmakers around him (Jonathan Taylor, Michael Pittman Jr., Josh Downs and rookie Adonai Mitchell), Indy could roll through the division with the second-year coach operating like the mad scientist on the sidelines.


BIGGEST OFFSEASON ADDITION: Laiatu Latu, defensive end. Thanks to a record-setting run of offensive selections in Round 1 of the 2024 NFL Draft, Colts GM Chris Ballard had his pick of the defensive litter at No. 15 overall. In Latu, he snatched up the most polished pass rusher in the prospect pool. The UCLA standout tallied 23.5 sacks over the past two years for the Bruins, displaying a combination of quickness, power and skill that made him nearly impossible to block off the edge. In Gus Bradley's "see ball, get ball" scheme, which enables edge rushers to attack with speed, Latu could dominate as a designated pass rusher in a loaded defensive front.


POTENTIAL ACHILLES' HEEL: Richardson's inexperience and injury history ultimately could derail the Colts' chances at the division title. The second-year pro missed 13 games as a rookie and also struggled with health issues during his college and high school days. Though the Colts added reigning NFL Comeback Player of the Year Joe Flacco to serve as QB2, it'd be hard to count on a 39-year-old passer to serve as a long-term replacement if Richardson were to miss time.


BIGGEST OFFSEASON LOSS: Zack Moss, running back. Despite the presence of Jonathan Taylor as the Colts' RB1, the loss of Moss looms large for a team that wants to punish opponents between the tackles. The veteran held it down for the Colts last season when Taylor was sidelined, finishing the year with nearly 800 ground yards as a super sub in the backfield. Without Moss to fill in as a spot starter, the Colts will need Taylor to answer the bell each week in order to keep the offense humming with a young quarterback in the lineup.

Rank
4
Tennessee Titans
2023 record: 6-11
  • Odds to win AFC South: +1000
  • Last division title: 2021


WHY TENNESSEE COULD WIN THE AFC SOUTH: In the NFL, surprise teams emerge as playoff contenders every season. The Titans could take on that role in 2024, with general manager Ran Carthon and new head coach Brian Callahan revamping the roster to field a more competitive squad. The arrival of several key veterans could upgrade an offense poised to start a talented second-year quarterback with an unpolished game in Will Levis. If WR Calvin Ridley, RB Tony Pollard, slot Tyler Boyd and C Lloyd Cushenberry III add some stability around the quarterback and the defense rises up under new coordinator Dennard Wilson, the Titans could shock the football world with a worst-to-first rise.


BIGGEST OFFSEASON ADDITION: Calvin Ridley, wide receiver. Tennessee's offensive makeover was spearheaded by the Titans stealing Ridley away from a bitter division rival. The smooth playmaker gives Levis a proven threat opposite DeAndre Hopkins, which will force opponents to make tough decisions when determining which pass catcher to double in crucial situations. Moreover, Ridley's playmaking skills and polished route-running should help Levis improve his effectiveness and efficiency as a passer from the pocket.


POTENTIAL ACHILLES' HEEL: Despite his flashes, Levis remains an unproven commodity as a QB1. In Year 1, he completed just 58.4 percent of his passes while logging only one 300-yard game. On the plus side, many players make their biggest improvement as a pro between Year 1 and Year 2. Tennessee needs the soon-to-be 25-year-old to level up, as Levis' performance will ultimately determine whether the Titans vie for a division crown this season.


BIGGEST OFFSEASON LOSS: Derrick Henry, running back. The departure of "King Henry" robs the Titans of their blue-collar identity. The two-time NFL rushing champ set the tone for Tennessee with his rugged running style and consistent production as a downhill runner. Without the 247-pounder in the lineup to bludgeon opponents between the tackles, the Titans will need Tony Pollard to help them win by utilizing finesse over force as a runner.

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