NFL News & Analysis

Bold predictions for every NFL team in 2022 — AFC South

Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jackson Jaguars running back Travis Etienne Jr. (1) participates in training camp at Episcopal School of Jacksonville. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 NFL season is almost upon us, which means it’s time to make some bold predictions. While everybody is focusing on team win totals, I want to be a little more specific with some bold predictions and go out on a limb for each team, giving some takes that will be specific to PFF grades — and some that are more general.

Given the nature of bold predictions, the strike rate here is unlikely to be incredibly high, but these takes will be rooted in data — things that I think have a realistic shot of happening, not just craziness plucked from the ether.

The AFC East article can be found here, AFC North here. Now it’s time for the AFC South:

Houston Texans

1. The Texans will have two defenders with 50-plus pressures

The Houston Texans are still working from behind the curve, unable to really take advantage of the haul they got for trading away Deshaun Watson and having just been treading water on the roster up until that point. But one area they may be strong is at edge rusher, where a combination of veteran acquisition Jerry Hughes and the ascending Jonathan Greenard could transform things.

The Texans didn’t have a single player notch more than 38 pressures last season, but Greenard had 27 from just 215 rushes and earned an 89.2 PFF pass-rushing grade. That’s the kind of performance that should earn a much bigger workload. Hughes is almost 34 years old, but has averaged over 52 pressures over the last six seasons. He still has some pass-rushing juice to bring to the table.

2. Nico Collins will flirt with 1,000 yards

Whether he gets there will depend a little too much on things well outside of his control, but Collins could well emerge opposite Brandin Cooks to be a real secondary threat in the Houston offense. He flashed as a rookie, racking up almost 500 yards from just 59 targets, less than half the number Cooks saw sent his way. Collins spent most of his time lined up out wide and only dropped two passes as a rookie. He has impressive size and movement skills and represents the best chance of a second receiving option after Cooks this season.

3. Laremy Tunsil will be traded away

The Texans have yet to really start their rebuild under Nick Caserio. This season is likely about identifying longterm pieces of the project and finding out if there are any more assets that don’t fit that billing who could be traded away. Tunsil is a candidate.

It would create some significant dead cap money to move him, but the Texans may be willing to endure some short-term cap pain for long-term gain. Tunsil has been a quality NFL tackle but is coming off what was shaping up to be a bad season before he was shut down. At just 28, Tunsil may be part of the long-term plan, but at a significant price. He is one of only a few players that would have value to other teams.

Indianapolis Colts

1. The Colts win the AFC South

The way last season ended for the Colts was disastrous. They should have been a playoff team but weren’t able to beat a bad Jacksonville team late in the year to secure their spot and ended up on the outside looking in. With Matt Ryan at quarterback, they should be better at the most important position in the game, and they’ve added other important players as well, while Tennessee spent the offseason just trying to make lateral moves so as to not lose ground on the rest of the AFC. A slight decline in fortunes for the Titans combined with a better Colts team coild easily see the winner of the division flip.

2. Stephon Gilmore will be a top-five-graded cornerback

Carolina’s season unraveled last year, so the moves they made tend to look a little worse, but Stephon Gilmore quietly looked well capable of elite cornerback play still once he got back on the field. Gilmore allowed 10.3 yards per catch across 22 targets in eight games with the Panthers. He allowed a passer rating into his coverage of 80.7 and only had two penalties. The Colts play a different style of defense but one that could see Gilmore still perform at an elite level next season.

3. Matt Ryan will have his best season since 2016

Matt Ryan knows that his career is winding to a close, and he has little time left to make an impact and win a championship. Indianapolis gives him another team that plays indoors, and we will see a resurgence in Ryan’s play under Frank Reich. Ryan earned an overall PFF grade of 74.7 last season, his worst year since 2009, but he is only a year removed from that grade being 83.1. Ryan’s environment is improving across the board with the Colts and he will be playing in an easier division albeit in a tougher conference. He likely has one more strong year left.

Jacksonville Jaguars

1. Travis Etienne wins comeback player of the year

The Urban Meyer tenure in Jacksonville was disastrous, and that colors everything that he left behind. But Travis Etienne is a talented player who has a lot to offer the team. He missed his entire rookie season with an injury, but Etienne has elite explosiveness and big-play ability as well as some cross-training at wide receiver that will help. Etienne could easily become a focal point of this offense and make enough big plays to put himself at the front of the Comeback Player of the Year running.

2. Trevor Lawrence improves his PFF grade by 20-plus points

It wasn’t a rookie season to admire from Lawrence in Year 1. He finished the season with an overall PFF grade of 59.6 and a passing grade that was even worse. The only two quarterbacks with worse grades were Taylor Heinicke and Zach Wilson. But Lawrence was billed not just as a great quarterback prospect but as the best to enter the league since at least Andrew Luck (2012) and maybe Peyton Manning (1998).

That talent didn’t evaporate just because he was in a toxic environment with little in the way of receiver help and a broken scheme around him. Lawrence has a vastly improved supporting cast this year, and a 20-point grade jump would take him to the kind of range that Mac Jones showed as a rookie.

3. Travon Walker finishes with an overall PFF grade under 70

Much was made about Walker this offseason and the unexpected leap he made to go No. 1 overall despite lackluster college production. Advocates will point out that there may never have been a prospect with his athletic profile and that Georgia’s scheme rarely asked him to pin his ears back and rush the passer. As true as that is, even when he was asked to do that, he wasn’t productive, and Georgia’s scheme didn’t hold back other players that were able to grade much better and generate more pressure.

Last season, Kwity Paye earned the best PFF pass-rushing grade among rookie edge rushers (71.3), and Gregory Rousseau was the only one to earn an overall grade above 70. Walker shouldn’t expect to outperform last year’s group despite better physical gifts.

Tennessee Titans

1. The Tennessee Titans miss the playoffs

There haven’t been many NFL offseasons like this one, where most of the contenders made massive moves to get better and cement their case for a Super Bowl run. In contrast to most of the AFC, the Tennessee Titans made a sequence of lateral moves. They traded away A.J. Brown rather than pay him big-money only to have to spend the first round pick they got for him on his replacement and hope that a combination of Robert Woods and Treylon Burks is as good as Brown and a broken down Julio Jones.

Tennessee was the No. 1 seed a season ago, but it always felt a little unsustainable, and I think the AFC is so strong this season that whichever team fails to win the AFC South will miss out on the wild card spots as well.

2. The Titans won’t have a double-digit sack player

Tennessee has big investment in their pass rush now, with Bud Dupree and Harold Landry in particular the obvious assets. Neither player earned a PFF pass-rushing grade above 56.5 last season despite all the pressure that Landry in particular racked up. Of his 69 pressures including the playoffs, 24 were clean up plays and 17 were unblocked entirely. Nearly 60% of his pressure was low-quality, expected pressure. Jeffery Simmons and Denico Autry each sacked the quarterback 11 times last season, with Landry at 14, but it wouldn’t take much for variance to swing away and all of that investment yield no double-digit sack player.

3. Treylon Burks replaces A.J. Brown seamlessly

The narrative around Treylon Burks has been on a journey! A first glance at his college tape shows a dominant playmaker, but then his workout numbers caused people to cool on their excitement. Eventually, second and third looks at the tape caused some to focus on the negatives, and reports of asthma when he first arrived at Titans camp only fed into the negativity.

Since then, Burks playing football looks a lot like Burks playing football at Arkansas — i.e. a dominant athlete capable of big-plays at any moment. That’s a lot like A.J. Brown. It’s a huge ask expecting a rookie to replace somebody as good as Brown, but Burks has the ability to manage it, and I suspect he’ll prove that the hysteria was largely irrelevant.


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