AFC South burning questions: How much of an upgrade is Matt Ryan? Can Ryan Tannehill bounce back?

The AFC South figures to be an interesting division to watch in 2022. We have two potential contenders in the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans, and then two rebuilding teams in the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans. Still, with how crazy this offseason has been, there’s no telling who could end up on top in the AFC South.

All four teams will be forced to answer burning questions in 2022 – answers that could decide how the season pans out. Is Davis Mills a franchise quarterback? Can Jonathan Taylor and Derrick Henry carry their respective offenses? How quickly can Doug Pederson get the Jaguars back on track? Let’s examine four more burning questions in the AFC South.

Texans: Is Lovie Smith the guy?

Deshaun Watson is gone, and now it’s time to focus on the rebuild in Houston. The Texans have shown by the decisions they have made in free agency over the past two offseasons that they are going to complete the rebuild their way. They didn’t chase prized free agents and didn’t try to reset the market with anyone. They instead just re-signed players on both sides of the ball who they are confident in, like Brandin Cooks and their three leading tacklers from last year: Kamu Grugier-Hill, Desmond King and Christian Kirksey.

One interesting decision they made was promoting Lovie Smith to head coach. He certainly has the resume, as the 2005 NFL Coach of the Year won the NFC North three times with the Chicago Bears and took them to the Super Bowl. Smith had just three losing seasons during his nine years with Chicago, and also spent time with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Illinois. The thing is, Smith didn’t even look to be a finalist for this job.

The three supposed finalists were Brian Flores, Josh McCown and Jonathan Gannon. Then, it was narrowed down to Flores and McCown. The Texans seemed enthralled with McCown despite him having no coaching experience, and many were already preparing for the backlash that would come if the Texans were to hire him over a more qualified Black coach. Instead, Houston suddenly changed direction and landed on Smith.

It begs to be asked: How confident are the Texans really in Lovie Smith? And how long of a leash is he going to have? David Culley did much better than people thought he would in 2021, and he was still fired! An important part of any rebuild is getting the right head coach in place. All eyes will be on Smith in 2022.

The Colts decided to move on from Carson Wentz this offseason, and I can understand why. He didn’t have a statistically poor season, but he also never established himself as the franchise quarterback of the future. Watching him lose to the Jaguars in a stadium full of clowns in a win-and-you’re-in postseason situation was absolutely painful.

Indy is again starting over at quarterback with a veteran in Matt Ryan. The 37-year-old threw for 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last season, posting a career-low QBR of 46.1. He did suffer behind a bad offensive line and with a low-end wide receiving corps, so he can’t shoulder all the blame for Atlanta’s failures in 2021.

I caught up with “Matty Ice” last month, and he truly seems rejuvenated with this change of scenery. He wants to compete, and he’s going to have a good chance to do so with this roster. Plus, head coach Frank Reich has loved what he’s seen from Ryan so far. The question is, will his play be enough to take the Colts from 9-8 to Super Bowl contenders? Or will Indy’s offense be up and down like last year?

Jaguars: Can Trevor Lawrence make a jump in Year 2?

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft threw for 3,641 yards, 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in his rookie season while going 3-14 as the starter. It wasn’t a good start to Lawrence’s NFL career, but the Clemson product had to deal with an unfair amount of outside noise that mostly had to do with Urban Meyer. Now under Pederson, he should be hopeful about the future.

Pederson obviously has experience getting the most out of his quarterbacks, but I’m also excited to see how Lawrence will play with his new set of weapons. Jacksonville brought in Christian Kirk, Zay Jones and Evan Engram to help the Jaguars take that next step forward. Plus, Travis Etienne is set to make his NFL debut after missing last year due to injury. Jacksonville has better receivers, a better offensive line, a better defense and hopefully more organizational stability entering 2022. All of this should help Lawrence, who has been tasked with escorting this franchise into the future.

Nashvillians are still trying to process January’s playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. The No. 1 seed Titans had so much going for them entering the divisional round: a first-round bye, home-field advantage and Derrick Henry coming back from injury. Despite the defense sacking Joe Burrow a record-tying nine times, Tannehill threw three costly interceptions that sent Tennessee home early.

In speaking with reporters earlier this month, Tannehill called his performance against the Bengals “a scar” that he will carry with him for the rest of his life. He also talked about going to therapy to get out of the dark place he was in. Overcoming that failure is obviously tough, but Tannehill will also now have to deal with the loss of AJ Brown and a new young, dual-threat quarterback behind him on the depth chart. The soon-to-be 34-year-old is not a spring chicken anymore, but he’s been capable of top-10 quarterback play before. He’s a big reason the Titans have won the AFC South in each of the last two years and made the playoffs in three straight seasons. Still, he’s not exactly a fan favorite in Music City right now.

We can talk about Henry and we can talk about Treylon Burks, but the real burning question for the Titans is will Tannehill be able to overcome these mental hurdles and bounce back in 2022?

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