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Training Camp

AFC South training camp preview: Titans well-rounded; Colts deep

With training camps scheduled to begin this month, it's time to get up to speed on all 32 NFL teams. Below, Michael Baca has the lowdown on position battles, strengths, weaknesses and newcomers in the AFC South:

Houston Texans
2019 record: 10-6

Most important position battle: Strong safety. Tashaun Gipson, the Texans' starting SS and interception leader in 2019, was cut this offseason, just one year into the three-year, $22.5 million deal he signed a year ago. Jahleel Addae, Gipson's backup last year, was not re-signed this offseason. Who replaces Gipson in 2020 isn't all that clear. Eric Murray and Michael Thomas, veteran free-agent signees, are expected to duke it out for the starting role alongside free safety Justin Reid. Neither Murray nor Thomas have managed to carve out a consistent starting job in their careers. The Texans also signed Jaylen Watkins this offseason for depth, but outside of Reid -- whose brother, Eric, remains a free agent -- the Texans' situation at the position could be simply average, and that would be a relief.  

Biggest strength on roster: Quarterback. Let's not overthink this. Deshaun Watson is the straw that stirs the drink in Houston, and he's willed the Texans to two consecutive playoff appearances, despite an overall roster that hasn't drummed up big expectations. The Texans know how important Watson is to their success, and they've spent the last two seasons shoring up an offensive line that is steadily improving going into 2020. Watson accounted for 34 of the Texans' 44 offensive touchdowns last year (26 passing, seven rushing and one receiving) and nearly eclipsed 4,000 yards passing for the second year in a row. Though he will certainly miss DeAndre Hopkins this season, it's tough to doubt Watson can make it work with the array of qualities Will Fuller, Brandin Cooks, Kenny Stills and Keke Coutee present. Not to mention the Texans' depth in pass-catching tight ends (Jordan Akins, Darren Fells and Jordan Thomas), who are frequently targeted by Watson in the red zone. Where Watson goes, the Texans go, and that will be the case entering 2020 and beyond.

Biggest weakness: Defensive line. First-year defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver will have his hands full with this Texans defensive line, which lost D.J. Reader via free agency and has to properly fill the void Jadeveon Clowney left upon his trade last August. The Texans ranked in the bottom eight in both passing and rushing yards allowed last season, finished in the bottom six in sacks, was second to Washington as the league's worst defense on third down, and finished dead last in red-zone defense. It's a wonder how the Texans even made the playoffs last year (SEE: Watson, Deshaun), but it's no shock they blew a 24-0 lead to the Kansas City Chiefs in the Divisional Round. Pressure up front has been a glaring issue, and it's affecting the rest of the defense. Returning starters Angelo Blackson and Eddie Vanderdoes will be pushed for their jobs this training camp. Charles Omenihu and second-round rookie Ross Blacklock will be those candidates to play alongside future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt, who was constantly double-teamed amid another injury-laden season. Unfortunately, Watt's clock is ticking, too, and this could become an even bigger problem if someone doesn't step up now.  

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: David Johnson, running back. There will be plenty of pressure on Johnson to produce after the Texans acquired him in the deal that sent fan-favorite star wideout DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals this offseason. It wasn't all that long ago that Johnson was considered one of the best all-around RBs in the game, but two head coaches, two systems and multiple injuries later, the 28-year-old was benched for midseason acquisition Kenyan Drake. Perhaps a change of scenery was needed for Johnson, who enters Houston with a clean bill of health. Coach Bill O'Brien, who also serves as the general manager, hand-selected Johnson to become the Texans' featured back -- a role that hasn't been properly filled since Arian Foster's retirement. It's not hard to imagine O'Brien trying to prove himself correct when it comes to using Johnson in 2020, and although Texans fans may be irked about letting Hopkins go, if Johnson can be a reliable, consistent playmaker in the backfield, pressure will be off their most valuable player at QB.

Indianapolis Colts
2019 record: 7-9

Most important position battle: Kicker. There are a few battles for the Colts, namely 1) rookie Michael Pittman Jr. vs. the field of young wideouts angling for the No. 2 receiver spot behind T.Y Hilton, and 2) who starts where at cornerback. Great depth will be the result, whatever the outcome, but when it comes to the kicker position, it's loser leaves town. Chase McLaughlin and undrafted rookie Rodrigo Blankenship will be dueling kicks this training camp, and it will be important for a team that saw six games decided by three points or less in 2019. McLaughlin was claimed midway through last season after Adam Vinatieri's bad campaign was abbreviated by injury. With the Colts expected to be a run-heavy, clock-managing team with an improved defense, a reliable kicker will be a key component. The only question remains: Who will that be? The 24-year-old journeyman or the rookie in Rec Spec goggles?

Biggest strength on roster: Running backs. In this current age of the NFL, you will not often see one of the more expendable positions featured in this section, but the tremendous talent in the Colts' backfield shouldn't be ignored. Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and rookie Jonathan Taylor will be the three-headed monster behind an offensive line that thoroughly enjoys run-blocking. Mack will have plenty of incentive to follow up his first 1,000-yard season as he enters a contract year. Nipping at his heels will be the rookie out of Wisconsin, who set three Division I FBS records for rushing yards through his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons. Hines, a pass-catching specialist, may be poised for the biggest breakout, with Philip Rivers now at quarterback. Ask Austin Ekeler, Darren Sproles, Danny Woodhead, etc.

Biggest weakness: Secondary. The Colts went 1-5 over the last six weeks of the 2019 season and missed the playoffs as a result. The inability to stop the pass was a glaring problem down the stretch. GM Chris Ballard hopes a change of scenery will revitalize Xavier Rhodes, a former All-Pro who's struggled the past two seasons. The Colts also signed veteran T.J. Carrie, who should make up for Pierre Desir's absence. Kenny Moore and Rock Ya-Sin round out the main corps, but the secondary issues aren't limited to the cornerbacks. Safeties Malik Hooker and Khari Willis have been established starters but struggle with consistency. Yet, there is one X-factor that could change the overall perception of a squad with talent ... 

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: DeForest Buckner, defensive tackle. Rivers, who came aboard this offseason after 16 years and eight Pro Bowls with the Chargers, is an obvious answer here, but when reading into the glowing buzz from defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, it's hard not to get excited about how Buckner impacts this Colts defense. Elite three-technique defensive tackles don't come around often, and the Colts jumped at the chance to attain one by giving their 2020 first-round pick to San Francisco in exchange for Buckner. With Buckner playing the role of a disruptor between the gaps, his lasting effect won't always show up on the stat sheet, but it will be felt by the rest of the defense. Play-making linebacker Darius Leonard will have a new best friend in Buckner. So will pass rushers Justin Houston and Kemoko Turay, among others, and the shaky-looking secondary will surely appreciate the pressure Buckner applies to QBs up the middle. Buckner is expected to be a game-changer for the 2020 Colts. Perhaps just as important as the one under center -- except Buckner will be the one giving hell to opposing centers.

Jacksonville Jaguars
2019 record: 6-10

Most important position battle: Slot receiver. There should be a fascinating competition between Dede Westbrook and Laviska Shenault Jr. for the Jaguars' slot position. Westbrook, who could also compete for Chris Conley's job on the outside, has been a serviceable speedster who caught 66 balls in each of the past two seasons. Entering the final year of his rookie deal, however, Westbrook may feel the heat from an explosive first-year pro. Shenault was used in virtually every way at Colorado, and deploying him could become the latest thrill for new Jaguars offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Shenault's big-play capabilities have come after the catch, from the backfield and on special teams. While Westbrook will have the advantage in experience and route-running, Shenault could be the big-play threat that has been missing in Jacksonville; don't be shocked if he flashes downfield. With D.J. Chark emerging as a big No. 1 wideout and, more importantly, developing an intuitive rapport with quarterback Gardner Minshew, the wideout group is in good shape.  

Biggest strength on roster: Defensive end/linebacker. There's a stipulation to this answer, given Yannick Ngakoue's ongoing situation. The 25-year-old, who held out for a portion of camp last year, has yet to sign his franchise tag or sign a long-term deal with the team ahead of Wednesday's deadline. A trade isn't out of the question, but, as of now, Ngakoue is the best pass rusher on a team that tied for seventh in the NFL in total sacks last season. Josh Allen benefited from playing opposite Ngakoue, setting the team's rookie record for sacks in a season (10.5) and becoming the first Jaguar ever to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Second to that duo, the Jags' linebackers are shaping up to be a talented bunch, and 2020 first-round pick K'Lavon Chaisson has a knack for being a QB disruptor. Myles Jack will also welcome Joe Schobert to the LB corps. Schobert's arrival, as you will soon discover, benefits the Jaguars in more ways than one. 

Biggest weakness: Cornerback. The Jaguars used their first of two 2020 first-round picks on cornerback CJ Henderson at No. 9 overall, and they will need the rookie to contribute as soon as possible. The Florida product will join veterans D.J. Hayden (arguably Jacksonville's best corner), Rashaan Melvin (a free-agent signing this offseason) and Tre Herndon in a secondary that finished in the bottom five in the NFL in interceptions (10) a year ago. The Jags are thin at the position, and both Hayden and Melvin enter their eighth year at the age of 30. Henderson could turn things around should he prove himself ahead of a sensible schedule for a rookie, but reality is destined to strike for a unit that had Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye a year ago at this time. 

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: Joe Schobert, linebacker. The Jaguars' biggest signing this offseason should have multiple repercussions. Schobert, who signed a five-year, $53.75 million deal, is expected to be a reliable presence at middle linebacker, something unseen in Jacksonville since the days of Paul Posluszny. It's been a struggle to find his replacement the last two years. Myles Jack tried his hand at the MIKE position, but it ultimately led to this. Schobert quietly grew a strong reputation as a durable, sure-tackling linebacker in his first four years in Cleveland. Not only are the Jaguars filling a need with this signing, but Jack can now move over to the outside where we saw the best of his play-making ability.

Tennessee Titans
2019 record: 9-7

Most important position battle: Right tackle. With Jack Conklin headed to Cleveland via free agency, the Titans have set up a competition for his absence. Veteran Dennis Kelly and 2020 first-round pick Isaiah Wilson will duke it out for the starting job. Kelly, 30, has been a great value since the Titans acquired him from the Eagles in exchange for wideout Dorial Green-Beckham in 2016, and they rewarded him this offseason with a three-year extension. The Titans decided to add to one of their strengths, roster-wise, with the drafting of Wilson, but even if the rookie doesn't beat out Kelly for the starting job, having both provides great depth for a squad that cleared the way for the NFL's leading rusher in 2019. Speaking of ... 

Biggest strength on roster: Derrick Henry, running back. Instead of singling out a corps of players on the Titans' roster, we're taking this question literally. As we saw in the playoffs, the Titans are tough to beat when their rushing attack is humming. Henry flourished last season with a career-high 1,540 yards at 5.1 YPC and 16 touchdowns, and he added another 446 yards and two TDs in the playoffs. What's remarkable about Henry's performance was that opposing defenses knew he was about to get the ball, and the bruising 6-foot-3, 247-pound back didn't hesitate to plow forward. Tackling Henry takes a toll on defenses by game's end, and that's an advantage for the Titans in the fourth quarter, where they averaged 8.4 points in 2019 (fourth best in the NFL). Not to mention, Henry's mere presence in the backfield also sets up Ryan Tannehill to sling it deep in play action. His value can't be understated, and whatever happens between Henry and the organization after he was given the franchise tag this offseason, he should remain the team's biggest strength, both literally and figuratively, in 2020. (UPDATE: The Titans and Henry agreed to terms on a four-year deal worth $50 million right before Wednesday's deadline, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported.)

Biggest weakness: Edge rusher. It's not easy to find a weakness on the well-rounded roster constructed by GM Jon Robinson, but there's plenty of reason behind their rumored interest in Jadeveon Clowney. The Titans are taking a flier on Vic Beasley by signing the veteran to a one-year deal, but Clowney, who can also help stuff the run, would be a nice pairing alongside Jeffery Simmons. Harold Landry led the team in sacks last year with nine, but the Titans haven't had a double-digit sack leader since Brian Orakpo in 2016. So perhaps they'll pull the trigger on a big free-agent signing.

Newcomer/player returning from injury to watch: D'Andre Walker, outside linebacker. While Beasley will get immediate playing time as a newcomer, Walker will enter his second season with little to no fanfare. I'm here for him. Walker, who was selected in the fifth round out of Georgia, spent his entire rookie year (preseason included) on injured reserve (groin) as the Titans enjoyed a memorable run to the AFC Championship Game. Meanwhile, fellow rookies Simmons, wide receiver A.J. Brown and guard Nate Davis earned significant roles for the Titans in 2019. Having to patiently watch that run during a long year of rehab can add motivation to a young player. He will join arguably the team's most talented group (Landry, Rashaan Evans, Jayon Brown). Perhaps, he, too can earn a role on the Titans' defense, which needs a disruptor, and become another example of the Titans' stellar 2019 draft class.

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