Few NFL divisions present as many questions in 2022 as the AFC South. No team in the South has won the division for more than two consecutive seasons since the Colts held the title from 2003-2007, when Peyton Manning reigned supreme. Beyond that, each of the four contenders underwent significant changes this offseason. Indianapolis has a new face under center yet again. The Jaguars are on their third coach in three years. The Texans are in the same boat. And the Titans, despite three straight playoff runs, are facing key changes on offense.
With training camps underway, here are three questions each team must answer before the 2022 season:
- How much does Matt Ryan have left? This might be more easily answered throughout the year, but Ryan’s mental and physical readiness could determine exactly how Frank Reich designs the offense. While the longtime Falcons QB should be a steadier hand than Carson Wentz, he was far more serviceable than special in his last few years in Atlanta. Can he be trusted to air it out if needed? Is he best suited for the Philip Rivers-style attack, with almost exclusively quick strikes? We’ll see.
- Which offensive line is going to show up? The Colts’ trenches have been nationally heralded for years, but their reputation didn’t translate to playoff-caliber pass protection for chunks of 2021, particularly in the infamous late-year losses that sealed Wentz’s departure. Now right guard Mark Glowinski is gone, replaced with Danny Pinter, and Matt Pryor is taking over at left tackle despite making just five starts a year ago. They’ve still got elite names, but are they still reliable?
- Is there really enough out wide? At this point in his career, not even T.Y. Hilton returning again will move the needle much. Michael Pittman Jr. has been a solid big man on the outside, but the Colts are banking on rookie Alec Pierce to make an instant impact, considering Parris Campbell has yet to play more than seven games in a season. Yes, the offense runs through Jonathan Taylor on the ground, but at some point, Ryan’s going to need more than one guy to target downfield.
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- What is expected of Trevor Lawrence? After an expensive offseason and a coaching overhaul, what is the internal standard for the former No. 1 overall pick? What do the Jags need to see from Lawrence in order to avoid serious concern about his prospects of reaching his once-hyped potential? The answer to that may well — and should — adjust on the fly, but the reality is everyone in and around the organization wants more from the ex-Clemson star in 2022.
- How will Travis Etienne be used? Few Jaguars have gotten as much buzz this spring and summer. Now what do Doug Pederson and Press Taylor actually have planned for the running back? His deployment could be key to Lawrence’s growth as a safety valve both in the backfield and out wide, especially as James Robinson recovers from his own injury. Pederson successfully utilized running back tandems in Philadelphia; he needs to find the proper role and usage for Etienne here.
- What’s the plan for the new defensive toys? One of Pederson’s more crucial hires, Mike Caldwell, is a first-time defensive coordinator. Fans are hoping the longtime linebackers coach knows how to get the best of guys like Travon Walker, Devin Lloyd and Foye Oluokun, who all offer tantalizing upside in varying roles across the front seven. Walker, in particular, will be under the limelight after going No. 1 overall over more proven pass rushers like Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux.
- What does Lovie Smith need to do to stick around? Houston brass wasted no time axing David Culley despite the longtime coach seemingly bringing solid temperament to a slow-burn rebuild. Smith is similarly an older, respected leader, but he’s also stuck with a roster full of castoffs. And his own resume, which hasn’t seen a winning record since 2012, isn’t necessarily on the upswing. Frankly, this points to a bigger issue: what, exactly, is the Texans’ long-term vision?
- What does Davis Mills need to do to prevent a QB search? The Texans — a little inexplicably — are letting the former third-rounder enter 2022 unchallenged as the starter, with no real Plan B in place. The question is, what can he do, with another underwhelming supporting cast, to ensure team leadership doesn’t totally reset the position in 2023? Is it even possible? That feels like an important question to be answered before he’s thrown into another potential fire this fall.
- What is happening at running back? The Texans tried hard to incorporate the run game in 2021, to no avail. It seems likely Lovie Smith will also lean on the ground game as he trusts his old-school, defensive-minded approach. But what is the plan there, where Marlon Mack, Rex Burkhead, Dameon Pierce and Royce Freeman are set to “headline” a crowded backfield?
- Is Derrick Henry capable of carrying the load again? We aren’t here to cast doubt on King Henry’s willpower, and there’s little doubt he remains one of the game’s most imposing, explosive ball-carriers. But you wonder how much longer Tennessee can keep feeding him like the workhorse he is, without it taking a further toll. Even with an injury sidelining him for half of 2021, he’s totaled 900 carries the last three seasons. Perhaps Hassan Haskins‘ entry will help lighten the load.
- Does Ryan Tannehill have adequate weaponry? Ever since the Titans traded No. 1 A.J. Brown to the Eagles on draft day, it’s been a glaring concern. And while rookie Treylon Burks possesses the physical tools to be a similar weapon, his spotty availability this offseason puts more pressure on ex-Rams starter Robert Woods to emerge as a new go-to. This is a make-or-break year for the pricey Tannehill, who was already more dependent on his supporting cast than some other playoff QBs.
- Is there enough at cornerback? This is a carryover concern from 2021. The Titans do boast one of the game’s top safeties in Kevin Byard, and former second-rounder Kristian Fulton improved as a cover man in his second season. Their front, led by Jeffery Simmons, might also offset secondary issues. But Caleb Farley is currently set to replace Janoris Jenkins on the outside, and he’s been battling a serious injury history since college.