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NFL Training Camp Preview: AFC South

On the day Carson Wentz injured his knee in Los Angeles last season, the last thing anyone in the NFL expected was that the Philadelphia Eagles would win the Super Bowl. But they did, didn’t they?
The thing is, you can never tell during the season where or when the next surprise is coming from. That’s what keeps the fans coming, the machine rolling.
Soon, the 2018 season will kick off and there’s always hope that your team will be in the middle of it when it ends. Here is a look at the AFC South as NFL training camp gets set to begin:

Houston Texans

If you want to know when it unraveled for the Houston Texas, refer to the post-practice report of Nov. 3, confirming quarterback Deshaun Watson had sustained a season-ending knee injury. That’s when the steam escaped.

What else would you have expected after the loss of a rookie who had set an NFL record with 19 touchdown passes in his first seven games. Eight losses in the next nine games followed resulting in a 4-12 finish.

AFC South preview

Jonathan Ferrey / Getty

But Watson’s return isn’t the only medical matter on Houston’s mind. The often-injured J.J. Watt, a three-time defensive player of the year, is set to return after missing 11 games with a tibial fracture. That’s one year after missing 11 games with a bad back.

No Watson, no Watt? No wonder things went south in the AFC South

Still, that was just the tip of this chipped iceberg. Thirteen starters eventually found themselves on injured reserve last season.

Working with a four-year contract extension, coach Bill O’Brien begins to rebuild with one new major addition, safety Tyrann Mathieu, who comes over from Arizona, signed for just one year ($7 million). The Texans also signed free-agent corner Aaron Colvin (Jacksonville).

Houston’s offensive line is expected to have at least three new starters after guards Zach Fulton and Senio Kelemete and right tackle Seantrel Henderson were signed away as free agents. And DeAndre Hopkins is back after becoming an All-Pro by catching 96 passes for 1,378 yards and 13 touchdowns, which led the NFL.

The defense will again be led by Romeo Crennel, the former associate head coach. He was named coordinator after Mike Vrabel was named Tennessee’s head coach.

Indianapolis Colts

You may have heard that Josh McDaniels, the heralded Patriots offensive coordinator, was supposed to be the next coach of the Colts. He isn’t. Sore subject for general manager Chris Ballard. But life goes on.

The Colts’ new head coach, Frank Reich, is considered one of the best offensive minds in football, as he demonstrated last season by helping the Philadelphia Eagles win the Super Bowl as their offensive coordinator.

AFC South preview

Andy Lyons / Getty

And now he is paired with quarterback Andrew Luck, considered perhaps the most gifted QB in the league.

But whatever success they might enjoy is purely conceptual. Luck hasn’t played since New Year’s Day in 2017 because of an injured shoulder. Still, the Colts expect him to be back by Week 1 and that immediately makes them a better team.

It looks like the Colts are going to have a young team, one built around their last two No. 1 picks, safety Malik Hooker (2017) and guard Quenton Nelson. But Hooker is still recovering from a knee injury.

Nelson’s development is especially critical, considering the beating quarterback Jacoby Brissett (56 sacks) took. In fact, if the line does not develop, there’s a good chance, even with Luck, the Colts could be ranked 30th again in points scored.

Frank Gore is gone to the Dolphins, replaced by Marlon Mack. And the receiving corps will be led by Pro Bowlers tight end Jack Doyle and wideout T.Y. Hilton.

The Colts defense will be without nose tackle Johnathan Hankins, who was cut, and linebacker Jon Bostic was lost in free agency.

If all else fails, the Colts will always have Adam Vinatieri, who made 29-of-34 field goals last season and turns 46 in December.

Jacksonville Jaguars

How do you think New York Giants’ fans felt watching Tom Coughlin’s administrative brilliance help turn the Jags into a powerhouse?

However, don’t remind Coughlin that the Jags blew a 10-point lead at New England in the AFC title game.

This all happened with a constant cloud circling over quarterback Blake Bortles, perhaps the least appreciated signal-caller in the league. Even though he had wrist surgery in January, Jacksonville spurned other QBs this offseason to give Bortles a three-year, $54 million deal.

Whatever Bortles couldn’t do, rookie halfback Leonard Fournette could. Despite playing in only 13 games, he gained 1,040 yards and scored nine touchdowns. He was the big reason the Jags led the NFL in rushing yards per game (141.1).

Two of their top receivers, Allen Hurns (Dallas) and Allen Robinson (Chicago) have left, but leading receiver Keelan Cole will return. The Jags also signed All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell ($66 million) away from the Panthers.

The league will see if the Jags can make the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1996-99 when Coughlin was their coach.

But the Jags really were about defense last season. The unit was second in the league in fewest yards allowed and sacks. They were first in fewest points allowed and passing yards allowed per game.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans are the latest franchise hoping a disciple of Bill Belichick can revitalize their team. Welcome to town, Coach Vrabel.

But Vrabel is defensive mind and the Titans are likely going as far as quarterback Marcus Mariota can take them. And he is coming off his worst season, throwing 15 interceptions and 13 touchdowns.

Despite never playing a complete season because of various injuries, the Titans reinvested in Mariota in the offseason by picking up his option for the 2019 season.

AFC South preview

Maddie Meyer / Getty

Mariota will have Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker to throw to again along with wideout Rishard Matthews. New to the mix is former Patriots halfback Dion Lewis, who got $19.8 million over four years to sign.

Tennessee’s new offensive coordinator is Matt LaFleur, who helped turn the Falcons (quarterback coach) and Rams (offensive coordinator) into top-flight units. And getting halfback Derrick Henry to be more productive might be on top of his list.

Another former Patriot, cornerback Malcolm Butler, whose benching in last season’s Super Bowl caused much commotion, was signed for $61 million over five years to help fortify the secondary.

The defense will no longer be run by Dick LeBeau, who retired at age 80. But it hopes No. 1 pick Rashaan Evans of Alabama is as good as he looked in college.