Somewhere along the way in 2018, the Houston Texans turned a nine game winning streak and firm control of the AFC South into the perception that their brief hold on the division was over, and it would be the Indianapolis Colts controlling things going forward. Honestly, it's not hard to identify the turning point. It started with the Colts ending that nine game winning streak in Week 14 at NRG Stadium, and then providing the exclamation point a month later in a 21-7 rout of the Texans in a playoff game, also at NRG Stadium.
Now, with the 2019 season a few months away, it is the Indianapolis Colts who are the media darlings of the AFC South, with a revived Andrew Luck, a young and imposing offensive line, and a general manager that appears to know what he is doing (we miss you, Ryan Grigson!), the Colts are one of the top half dozen teams in line to win the Super Bowl, according to the oddsmakers.
It's tough to argue the case that the Houston Texans should be favored over the Colts in the AFC South, especially given the way the postseason ended in 2018. However, if you are a fan of the Pro Football Focus player grades (which are polarizing, but fun, in my opinion), you should take some solace that the Texans at least appear to have the horses at the upper end of their roster to retain their division title (and hopefully do more) in 2019.
PFF recently posted graphics for all 32 NFL teams indicating how many players they have in their starting lineups that graded out with an overall grade of 80.0 or more (essentially an elite or near-elite grade in PFF's world). This is an exercise that, in the AFC South, actually went very well for the Houston Texans. Let's look at each team in the division, in ascending order via the number of "80.0 or greater" players each has:
My, my, my, how the mighty fell so very quickly! The Jaguars were a few minutes away from a Super Bowl berth in 2017, and in 2018, the bottom fell out, in large part because they were relying on Blake Bortles to "just not screw it up, Blake!" again. Well, he screwed it up, and the locker room became toxic, and now it's the Nick Foles Show. Only two players cracked the 80.0 Club on the Jags, and they play right next to each other on the defensive line, Marcell Dareus and Calais Campbell. Obviously, they have some high end talent on defense that had down seasons (for them) in 2018, Jalen Ramsey in particular. The lack of a single player cracking this graphic on the offensive side is real, and an indicator to Foles that he is clearly not in Philly anymore.
Go figure! The darlings of the 2019 offseason in the AFC South are only third in the division in players fitting the criteria for recognition. Unfortunately for the rest of the NFL, Andrew Luck is one if the four Colts to make this list, and unfortunately for the Texans specifically, T.Y. Hilton is another. (Hilton owns the Texans, averaging around 100 yards per game against them in his career.) Second year LB Darius Leonard is no surprise, and newly acquired edge rusher Justin Houston is the fourth and final Colt. Where this graphic is very deceiving is in the fact that no Indy offensive lineman cracked the list. We all know Quentin Nelson, Braden Smith, and Ryan Kelly are all good players. Nelson is great! So yeah, maybe this graphic is a tad deceiving when it comes to Indy.
Oddly enough, the team that scares me the least in the division is in second place in "high end" talent. The Titans have some players on the defensive side of the football, with Jurrell Carey, Cameron Wake, Kevin Byard, and Jayon Brown making the list. Unfortunately, for Tennessee fans, the only offensive player with an 80.0-plus grade was running back Derrick Henry, which is an accurate indicator, given some of the turmoil on the offensive line, the unsteady QB play, and the lack of explosive playmakers on the outside.
Now we get to the Texans, where seven of their starters graded out above 80.0, including QB Deshaun Watson, the one guy that they MUST have playing at that type of level, if they're going to compete against this schedule in the upcoming season. This graphic is really an homage to how successful the Texans have been in selecting players in the first round, as their first round picks from 2011, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2017 are among the seven players recognized. Hell, even the gap in 2015's first round (what's up, Kevin Johnson?) is backfilled by their second round pick that season, ILB Bernardrick McKinney, making the list. The gaping lack of average players (let alone 80.0-plus players) along the offensive line is quite real, and quite scary.