1. Tennessee Titans
coach: Mike Vrabel (fourth year-29-19 in the regular season, 2-2 in the playoffs).
Record for 2020: 11-5 (first in the AFC South; lost to Baltimore in the wild card game).
Defensive player: Shane Ball (first year).
Best Defensive Player/Best Newcomer: S Kevin Byard/OLB Bud Dupree. Ranked third in the league’s safe wage list (average of $14.1 million), Bayard has 18 interceptions and 431 tackles in 80 games. When his ACL was torn, Dupree was sacking Pittsburgh in double digits for the second year in a row.
Key statistics: 51.2%-Last year’s three-point defense was the worst in the NFL.
Why did they do it first: Because someone must win the AFC South. The Colts should not be taken so seriously, because quarterback Carson Wentz is not optimistic. The Titans will rely on NFL rushing champion Derek Henry (2,027 yards) and quarterback Ryan Tennyhill to pass the ball. But to compete in mid-to-late January, they need to get better defensively. They need more sacks and more three-pointers. The main candidate who lost the first round of the home playoffs.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
coach: Urban Meyer (first year).
Record for 2020: 1-15 (ranked fourth in the AFC South).
Defensive player: Joe Cullen (first year).
Best Defensive Player/Best Newcomer: OLB Josh Allen/CB Shaquille Griffin. It was an important year for Allen. He had 10 1/2 sacks as a rookie, but only 2 1/2 sacks in 2020. Griffin is Meyer’s first big free agent (three years, $40 million) in Seattle after intercepting 6 passes in 57 games.
Key statistics: 18-Dismissed last year, second to last in the league.
Why they won the second place: Because Indianapolis keeps losing players in training camp. This is the highest level of reconstruction work. They lost the last 15 games in order to select quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the first place overall. But the Jaguars’ offense will improve (30th in scoring). They used resources to acquire Griffin, defensive tackle Malcolm Brown and safety guard Rayshaun Jenkins.
3. Indianapolis Colts
coach: Frank Reich (fourth year-regular season 28-20; playoffs 1-2).
Record for 2020: 11-5 (AFC South ranked second; lost to Buffalo in the wild card game).
Defensive player: Matt Eberflus (fourth year).
Best Defensive Player/Best Newcomer: LB Darius Leonard/DE Kwity Paye. Three years, three professional bowls, and at least 121 tackles for Leonard in three years. This is the second round of discovery by South Carolina State University. As a first-round pick, Payer played four games (two sacks) for the Michigan team last year.
Key statistics: 90.5-The number of rushing yards allowed, the second-lowest in the league.
Why they won the third place: No one should be selected behind Houston. The Colts are flawed…then they lost the overrated quarterback Carson Wentz in an ankle surgery in early August. The same type of injury lost world-class guard Quinton Nelson. Wentz should be back, but it feels like the Colts’ season is doomed before the pad continues.
4. Houston Texans
coach: David Carley (first year).
Record for 2020: 4-12 (ranked third in the AFC South).
Defensive player: Lowe Smith (first year).
Best Defensive Player/Best Newcomer: LB Zach Cunningham / S Terence Mitchell. As a second-round pick in 2017, Cunningham was a tackle machine, including the best 164 in the league last year. Mitchell has only one full season as a starter (20 years in Cleveland), with 13 pass breakthroughs and 65 tackles.
Key statistics: Nine-last year’s takeaway, the least in the league.
Why they won the fourth place: The Texans have streamlined their roster and chose to start over with cheap signings. Coach Bill O’Brien left the organization in a flop, and the new head of personnel Nick Caserio did not trade quarterback DeShawn Watson before his legal issues. Houston will not lead 0-17; heck, it may beat Jacksonville in Week 1, but the Texans are the 32nd favorites in the league.