Projected Starters

AFC South projected starters: Colts betting big on Carson Wentz; Titans in trouble?

With the 2021 NFL Draft and most of free agency in the rearview, Gregg Rosenthal will project starting lineups for all 32 teams because that's his idea of fun. Check out the AFC South breakdowns below.

Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Tyrod Taylor DE Whitney Mercilus
RB Phillip Lindsay DT Charles Omenihu
WR Brandin Cooks DT Ross Blacklock
WR Randall Cobb DE Shaq Lawson
WR Chris Conley LB Kevin Pierre-Louis
TE Jordan Akins LB Zach Cunningham
LT Laremy Tunsil CB Bradley Roby
LG Max Scharping CB Terrance Mitchell
C Justin Britt CB Desmond King
RG Tytus Howard S Justin Reid
RT Marcus Cannon S Lonnie Johnson Jr.
  • There's a lot of guesswork on the offensive depth chart beyond Laremy Tunsil and Brandin Cooks. Even Tyrod Taylor's status as the presumptive QB1 is clouded by the sexual assault allegations against Deshaun Watson that have put Watson's career in limbo.
  • The Texans picked up over 30 veterans this offseason, nearly all on low-cost deals. Even in a league where teams are always changing, this is an unprecedented overhaul. I leaned toward giving new guys starting jobs because the new regime, led by general manager Nick Caserio and coach David Culley, has no loyalty to bad old contracts.
  • That's why Phillip Lindsay is my pick as the starting running back over David Johnson and Mark Ingram. Johnson may have more guaranteed money, but that's only because of Bill O'Brien's ludicrous DeAndre Hopkins trade. Lindsay, 26, is a better runner at this stage of his career than the 29-year-old Johnson.
  • Randall Cobb is another player who probably wouldn't be on the roster if it wasn't for the guaranteed money in his contract ($8.25 million in 2021, per Over The Cap). The Texans could still possibly cut him if they like Keke Coutee, rookie Nico Collins and free-agent pickup Chris Conley better.
  • No one seems to know where the Texans will play Marcus Cannon, acquired in a March trade from the Patriots. He and Tytus Howard figure to form the right side of the line, with one of them moving inside to guard.
  • The offensive line doesn't look so bad, but this is the worst collection of skill-position players in the league. Tyrod Taylor is fighting an uphill battle yet again and will mostly be asked to avoid turning the ball over, which is his superpower. Taylor was once one of the best pure runners in football at any position, but that's not his game anymore at age 31.
  • The Texans' defense was even harder to project than the offense. Whitney Mercilus, Justin Reid and Bradley Roby were the only three players that I was absolutely sure had a starting job locked up. (Roby has one more game to serve on a six-game PED suspension that began last season.)
  • The bright side to the uncertainty: There will be a lot of position battles to watch if you head out to Texans training camp!
  • New defensive coordinator Lovie Smith is expected to run a 4-3 attack, which is why Mercilus is listed as a defensive end. The Texans would love to get something out of Ross Blacklock, who barely played as a rookie after being drafted 40th overall last year. Maliek Collins is another option there.
  • The Texans brought in no fewer than seven off-ball linebackers this offseason. If they wanted to bench Zach Cunningham for his coverage lapses, they could start Kevin Pierre-Louis and Kamu Grugier-Hill and lead the league in hyphens.
  • Here's a gentle reminder that the Texans were coming off back-to-back division titles with a top-five quarterback just entering his prime at this stage a year ago. If a roster can collapse that quickly, it can be built back up quickly as well. Just not this year.
Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Carson Wentz DE Kemoko Turay
RB Jonathan Taylor DT DeForest Buckner
WR T.Y. Hilton DT Grover Stewart
WR Michael Pittman Jr. DE Kwity Paye
WR Zach Pascal LB Darius Leonard
TE Jack Doyle LB Bobby Okereke
LT Eric Fisher CB Xavier Rhodes
LG Quenton Nelson CB Kenny Moore
C Ryan Kelly CB Rock Ya-Sin
RG Mark Glowinski S Julian Blackmon
RT Braden Smith S Khari Willis
  • The Colts are one snap away from handing over their season to second-year quarterback Jacob Eason. If it wouldn't be so weird to again pair Nick Foles with Carson Wentz, it would make sense for Frank Reich to take Foles off the Bears' hands.
  • Then again, it's just as scary that the Colts are zero snaps away from Wentz taking over their team. Reich is a top-five play-caller and quarterback-whisperer, so his belief in Wentz is instructive. I trust his evaluations more than mine!
  • Eric Fisher is listed as the starting left tackle even though he's unlikely to be ready for Week 1. He should still return from his torn Achilles tendon in time to lead the team in snaps at the position. In the meantime, former Charger Sam Tevi is in line for the gig.
  • This is not necessarily a top-five offensive line, even if Fisher recovers quickly. They placed seventh in Pro Football Focus' end-of-2020 rankings, before Anthony Castonzo retired. It's a good group, but they aren't the 2017 Eagles O-line, which helped Wentz look so good while holding the ball for so long. They can't necessarily carry an offense if the rest of the group doesn't improve.
  • I'm not as worried about the wideout group as others are, but this roster, like every roster, would look a lot sweeter with Julio Jones on it. GM Chris Ballard has spent four years building this depth chart, and the Colts should be all in on winning.
  • T.Y. Hilton got open more often than his numbers showed last year, even if the 31-year-old is not a true No. 1 anymore. Michael Pittman, like Hilton, also looks like a quality second receiver. Parris Campbell isn't listed as a starter above, because he's only stayed healthy enough to play 265 snaps in two years.
  • Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox split time at tight end last season, which figures to be the approach again in 2021.
  • The Colts' zone coverage defense relies on the front four creating pressure. That means rookie Kwity Paye is under pressure to deliver, as are homegrown players Kemoko Turay -- who hasn't been healthy since mid-2019 -- and Al-Quadin Muhammad. This is as unproven an edge rush group as the Colts have had in years.
  • The edge rushers should look better, though, because they are playing next to DeForest Buckner and underrated defensive tackle Grover Stewart. Buckner was a beast in his first year with the Colts last season.
  • The Colts' system has helped nearly all the members of their secondary beat expectations, including 2020 free-agent pickup Xavier Rhodes. But will they look as good if the defensive line isn't applying the same heat as usual?
  • This is the first year since the Ballard era began in 2017 in which the Colts don't appear to be ascending. It's a good roster, but there's reason to believe it's not as good as it was a year ago, including at quarterback.
Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Trevor Lawrence DE Roy Robertson-Harris
RB Travis Etienne DT Malcom Brown
WR D.J. Chark OLB Josh Allen
WR Laviska Shenault LB Myles Jack
WR Marvin Jones LB Joe Schobert
TE Chris Manhertz OLB K'Lavon Chaisson
LT Cam Robinson CB C.J. Henderson
LG Andrew Norwell CB Shaquill Griffin
C Brandon Linder CB Tyson Campbell
RG A.J. Cann S Rayshawn Jenkins
RT Jawaan Taylor S Jarrod Wilson
  • Gardner Minshew remains on the roster. I don't see the point in trading him for a late-round draft pick just to protect Trevor Lawrence from having to share the QB room with someone who's sold a few jerseys. Backup quarterbacks are important, and Minshew is a better option than C.J. Beathard. It's not like fans are going to be chanting for Minshew if Lawrence throws a couple interceptions.
  • I'm aware James Robinson ran for 1,000 yards as an undrafted rookie last season, while Travis Etienne was taking snaps at wide receiver in rookie minicamp -- but I'd still expect Etienne to lead the running back room in snaps. New coaches play their hand-selected players over the previous regime's success stories, especially players with the pedigree of 25th-overall-pick Etienne.
  • Finding a pass-catching tight end will have to wait until next season for the Jaguars. For now, they have the appropriately named blocking specialist Chris Manhertz.
  • The Jaguars' wideout group is sneaky good! D.J. Chark has No. 1 receiver traits and had the production to match in 2019 (73 catches, 1,008 yards). Marvin Jones is steady, and Laviska Shenault Jr. showed enough last season to believe he can be Jacksonville's answer to Deebo Samuel.
  • The offensive line quietly improved to respectable last season, and everyone was brought back, including Cam Robinson on the franchise tag. It's a stretch to call this group a strength, but the line shouldn't be a huge problem. If Urban Meyer is as good as his contract suggests, Trevor Lawrence has a chance to succeed right away.
  • New defensive coordinator Joe Cullen takes over for Todd Wash, who held the job for five years. The team is expected to transition to a base 3-4 defense, although that designation means less every year. With a new scheme and new players, there is competition throughout the defensive end, defensive tackle and safety positions.
  • Linebacker is mostly set. The development of Josh Allen and K'Lavon Chaisson as edge players could make this defense frisky, even if it looks a year away overall. Myles Jack was terrific last season and is playing next to a steady veteran in Joe Schobert.
  • The cornerback group also has a high ceiling, with former top-10 pick CJ Henderson and big-ticket free-agent signing Shaquill Griffin on the outside. The team is expected to move second-round pick Tyson Campbell inside to the slot, where he didn't have much experience in college.
  • Even if the cupboard isn't barren on defense, I'm more optimistic about the Jaguars' offense improving in Year 1 under Meyer. Approaching mediocrity on defense would be a victory.
Table inside Article
OFFENSE PLAYER DEFENSE PLAYER
QB Ryan Tannehill DE Denico Autry
RB Derrick Henry DT Jeffery Simmons
WR A.J. Brown OLB Harold Landry
WR Josh Reynolds ILB Rashaan Evans
TE Anthony Firkser ILB Jayon Brown
TE Geoff Swaim OLB Bud Dupree
LT Taylor Lewan CB Janoris Jenkins
LG Rodger Saffold CB Caleb Farley
C Ben Jones CB Elijah Molden
RG Nate Davis S Kevin Byard
RT Dillon Radunz S Amani Hooker
  • Ryan Tannehill, A.J. Brown and Derrick Henry's jobs figure to get tougher. They have less help around them and will have to shoulder a bigger burden.
  • The lack of depth behind each one of Tennessee's stars is a concern, too. Tannehill's backup quarterback is Logan Woodside. The backup running back is Darrynton Evans. The No. 2 receiver is former Rams reserve Josh Reynolds, and their No. 3 receiver spot is a mystery with a scant resume. The Titans have to add a veteran pass catcher or two, even if they can't get Julio Jones.
  • Tight end is another position the team could try to upgrade. I listed two starters at the position because the Titans like to play big, and because they don't appear to have a slot receiver ready for action.
  • The return of Taylor Lewan from a torn ACL will give a boost to an offensive line that held up well a year ago, considering his injury and Jack Conklin's departure last offseason. It's a group built to mash, with the team's heavy play-action passing attack helping to cover up its pass protection struggles.
  • The defensive front seven looks solid, especially if Bud Dupree can recover from his torn ACL in time to help in Week 1. Jayon Brown and Jeffery Simmons are ascending, underrated players.
  • Mike Vrabel has had enough talent on his Titans' defenses the last three years, but those groups have added up to less than the sum of their parts.
  • The secondary could be a lot of fun to watch. Veteran signee Janoris Jenkins and first-round pick Caleb Farley are boom-or-bust players. Third-round pick Elijah Molden could also start as a rookie in the slot. It's an impressive group on paper, considering all the roster turnover.
  • After this exercise, I liked Tennessee's defense more than I expected to -- and I liked the offense less.
  • Henry and Tannehill are both in their primes, but this feels like a transition year for the Titans. They have two new coordinators, at least six new starters on defense and diminished weapons on offense. The relative weakness of the AFC South is their best path back to the playoffs.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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