The 2022 season acted as a changing of the guard in the AFC South. The Tennessee Titans and their running back Derrick "King" Henry manhandled the division from 2020-2021 with a hard-nosed style of play emblematic of head coach Mike Vrabel, a man who played 14 seasons in the league at linebacker. Henry bullied the entire AFC South, but no team more so than the Jacksonville Jaguars.
No one has scored more rushing touchdowns versus a single opponent since 2010 than King Henry's 15 against Jacksonville. However, with the AFC South title on the line in Week 18 last season, the Jaguars stood tall against their tormenter, limiting Henry to 3.6 yards per carry, allowing 109 rushing yards on 30 rushing attempts. They also kept him out of the end zone in their 20-16 division-clinching win. Entering 2023, the Jaguars and the emerging Trevor Lawrence, their No. 1 pick-quarterback who is showing all the promise he had as a prospect is real after receiving actual NFL coaching under head coach Doug Pederson, are poised to take control of the division.
Meanwhile, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who missed five games with an ankle injury, turns 35 in June and is entering the last year of his contract. Tennessee didn't do much to improve his pass-catching group after bolstering its offensive line with the signing of offensive tackle and the 2023 draft selection of Northwestern offensive lineman Peter Skoronski with the 11th overall pick. How poor are the weapons for Tannehill or rookie Will Levis, whom the Titans traded up eight spots for from 41 to 33 in Round 2 to select, you ask? Well, Vrabel, who also lined up as a trick-play tight end in addition to linebacker duties with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, has more receiving touchdowns (10) than everyone else currently on the Tennessee roster. The 2023 version of the Titans will likely resemble who they were in the back end of 2022, a team that lost seven in a row, than who they were to start that season -- a 7-3 club.
As for the division's last-place team in 2022, the Houston Texans will likely be much-improved, but they won't be pulling off the worst-to-first feat the Jaguars did a year ago. Quarterback C.J. Stroud, the 2023 NFL Draft's second overall pick, and defensive end Will Anderson Jr., the 2023 NFL Draft's third overall pick, are nice foundational pillars, but they're still missing some talent at defensive line, linebacker and receiver under first-year head coach DeMeco Ryans and first-year offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik, both imports from the San Francisco 49ers.
There's one other team in the AFC South that could pose a legitimate threat to a Jaguars repeat, and it's a team that still has the bones of a playoff team from a few years ago in the Indianapolis Colts. With better health and fresh coaching, they could come back to life in 2023.
Without further ado, here's a look at how the Jaguars and Colts could each finish the 2023 season as the king of the AFC South.
The primary reason why the Jaguars are the prohibitive favorites to repeat as AFC South champions is because of Lawrence's continued growth under Pederson. Going from having Urban Meyer as his head coach to Pederson launched his production into another galaxy. Lawrence threw 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, the third-worst TD-INT ratio in the entire NFL, which led to a 71.9 passer rating, the second-worst in the entire NFL as a rookie in 2021. Following the signings of receivers Christian Kirk and Zay Jones, plus tight end Evan Engram in addition to Pederson's arrival, he became a top-10 quarterback with a top-five touchdown-to-interception rate (25-8, tied for the fifth-best) and the 10th-best passer rating (95.2).
Lawrence's dramatic progression is historic among quarterbacks who have been in his shoes: his passer rating increase of 23.3 points is the second-highest jump among first overall pick passers from their first to second seasons in NFL history. Only Hall of Famer and four-time Super Bowl champion Terry Bradshaw progressed more quickly than Lawrence from his first to second season.
Largest passer rating increase of 1st overall pick from Year 1 to Year 2
Now, imagine how much better Lawrence could be with system continuity in regards to the playbook entering Year 3 with Pederson, plus the addition of Calvin Ridley, a 28-year-old receiver who ranked top five in receiving yards (1,374) back in 2020 (the last full season he played). Ridley only played five games with the Atlanta Falcons in 2021 before stepping aside to focus on his mental health, and he was suspended for the entire 2022 season because of a gambling suspension. Before the essentially two-year layoff, Ridley was one of the league's best pass-catchers. Entering the 2021 campaign Ridley was in a six-player club of guys with at least 3,000 receiving yards and at least 25 receiving touchdowns from 2018 (his rookie year) to 2020. His contemporaries in this group were Davante Adams, Travis Kelce, Mike Evans, Tyreek Hill and Tyler Lockett.
Early on in Jacksonville, he's wowing coaches and showing he can still be a top-tier WR1.
"I've been really impressed with Calvin," Jaguars offensive coordinator Press Tayloron May 22. "I've watched every snap Calvin's played in the NFL, just like a lot of our guys have. So we're very confident in the player we're getting. And then to be able to meet him in person, we've had a lot of people that vouched for him, obviously going back to when we acquired him, but the work he's put in this offseason has been impressive just in terms of meeting the extra work he does. And you can tell he is doing it because he comes in the next day, he's got his list of questions, and they're very thought-out. You can tell he's peeked ahead of the install or just looking a couple of days ahead as we go on. So he's done a great job, just intermixing with the group and making his own role."
A revived Ridley alongside an ascending Lawrence could lead to a prolonged run of Jaguars dominance in the AFC South if they can click quickly when the lights come on in the regular season.
What makes the Indianapolis Colts different from the Houston Texans or the Tennessee Titans is the high-level talent spread across multiple areas of their roster. They have multiple Pro Bowlers on their offensive line (left guard Quenton Nelson and center Ryan Kelly), a 24-year-old NFL rushing champion (running back Jonathan Taylor), and multiple All-Pros in their front seven (defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and linebacker Shaquille Leonard). Arguably the top-two players from that group, Taylor (ankle) and Leonard (back), both dealt with nagging issues in 2022 that should be fully repaired by Week 1 of 2023 after surgical procedures. There's also a full complement of skill sets in the Colts' receiver room with big-bodied possession receivers Michael Pittman Jr. (6-foot-4, 223 pounds) and Alec Pierce (6-3, 211 pounds) and burners who can take the top off a defense (Isaiah McKenzie and Josh Downs).
That's a strong support system around rookie Richardson, the 2023 NFL Draft's fourth overall pick and the NFL Combine's freakiest quarterback. The 6-4 quarterback compared his play style to that of "Baltimore Ravens MVP quarterback Lamar Jackson and former NFL MVP quarterback Cam Newton." aka a mixture of
Cam Newton vs. Anthony Richardson
|Vertical Jump||35" ||40.5"* |
*Combine records for QBs
Richardson is also well-equipped on the sidelines as well as on the field thanks to the Colts hiring former Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator and play-caller Shane Steichen. He played a significant role in 2022 NFL MVP runner-up Jalen Hurts' development, helping his offenses evolve from a to . Read-option and play-action plays involving Richardson and Taylor could be deadly early on. If Richardson surprises the league with being further along in his development than many prognosticated during the 2023 draft process, then the Colts have enough to make a run at winning the AFC South.