Sean Pendergast

Top Three Storylines for Each Houston Texans AFC South Rival

The Titans' addition of DeAndre Hopkins was one fo the biggest offseason stories in the AFC South.
The Titans' addition of DeAndre Hopkins was one fo the biggest offseason stories in the AFC South. Photo by Eric Sauseda
If you've been reading this space on a fairly frequent basis over the last four weeks or so, or been listening daily to my show  on SportsRadio 610 (which i also highly encourage you to do!), then you are up to speed on the main storylines for the Houston Texans as we embark on the 2023 season. You're well aware of the injuries on the offensive line, the excitement about C.J. Stroud and Will Anderson, and the anxiousness to see how DeMeco Ryans translates as a head coach.

Personally, I think the Texans will be better than most experts think. After months of flip-flopping their season win total between 5.5 wins and 6.5 wins, the oddsmakers have settled in at 6 wins forecasted for the Texans. My official season prediction will likely be a 7-10 record, when the time comes for me to get on the record.

Part of why I think the Texans can make such a significant jump from 3-13-1 in 2022 to more than double the number of wins in 2023 is, quite frankly, they play in an awful division. Jacksonville is the reigning champion, but they haven't had back to back winning seasons 2004 and 2005, so they are a "wait and see" champion for me. Tennessee and Indianapolis, the division's recent stalwarts, are both backsliding.

So, to help you get ready for life in the AFC South in 2023, here are the top three storylines for the Texans' division foes:

2022 Record: 4-12-1
2023 Vegas Win Total: 6.5 wins

3. Is this the end of the line for GM Chris Ballard?
Throughout the course of his tenure as Colts GM, Ballard has been widely viewed as one of the better talent evaluators in the league. Ballard has built a solid roster through a combination of drafting and selectively pouncing on other roster-building opportunities, like trading for DT DeForest Buckner. The issue has been finding a quarterback since Andrew Luck retired. The Colts have started a different one every season since 2018. We'll see if Anthony Richardson is the answer (more on that in a second), but with an erratic owner like Jim Irsay, and a first year head coach in Shane Steichen, Ballard has to feel like the next domino to fall will be him, if this next season isn't an improvement over 2022.

2. Is Anthony Richardson ready?
Speaking of Richardson, the Colts made the Florida product the fourth overall pick in the draft. Of the three quarterbacks taken in the top four picks — Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, and Richardson — the Colts rookie is viewed, by far, as the roughest around the edges. Richardson only started 13 games at Florida, and didn't win a ton of games. At this point, his draft status is based solely on his other worldly physical gifts than any sort of advanced grasp of quarterbacking. It's going to be rough early on for Richardson, which is good news for the Texans, who face him in Week 2!

1. What happens with JonathanTaylor?
Taylor, the NFL's leading rusher in 2021, has spent this year's training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, amidst a trade demand, and now begins the season on the PUP list having to miss a minimum  of four games. 2022 was as frustrating for Taylor as 2021 was scintillating. Taylor was banged up for most of the year, and had to have ankle surgery in the offseason. Taylor is looking for a top of market running back contract extension, and the Colts don't want to give it to him. The team had a trade offer on the table from Miami before the roster cutdown deadline last week, but they opted to hang onto Taylor. This could be a dark cloud hanging over the Colts all season, which again, is good news for the Texans!

2022 Record: 9-8 (won AFC South, lost in divisional playoff round)
2023 Vegas Win Total: 9.5 wins

3. Was last season a mirage?
After a 40-14 loss in Week 13 to the Detroit Lions, the Jaguars were sitting at 4-8, and it looked like another lost season. Then the next week, they showed some pluck, beating the Titans, 36-22. Then an overtime win over the Cowboys the following week, along with the Titans' continued slide, gave hope that maybe a magical run was in order. It turned out, it was. The Jaguars would win out the rest of the way, and the Titans would lose out the rest ofthe way, including a Week 18 showdown between the two for the division crown. The Jaguars would go on to complete an historic comeback in the wild card round, down 27-0 to the Chargers to win 31-30. The Jaguars have teased us before, like back in 2017 when they made the AFC title game, only to morph back into the "same old Jags" the next season. The presence of a great, young QB and an upper tier head coach make this run much mroe sustainable.

2. Is Calvin Ridley still an elite WR?
Back in 2022, in free agency, the Jaguars went and paid a premium to bring in Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Evan Engram as targets for Lawrence. It was the rare free agency splurge where all three signings worked out. Now, in 2023, the Jaguars are going to add an actual number one WR to the mix, after trading a couple Day 3 draft picks to Atlanta for Calvin Ridley. Ridley was suspended for the entire 2022 season for gambling on NFL games back in 2021. He has been reinstated, and has been extremely contrite about his transgressions and open about his mental health struggles. When he is feeling right, Ridley is a borderline top 10 wide receiver in the NFL. This acquisition might be the difference between another 9-8 season and flirting with the top seed in the AFC.

1. Is Trevor Lawrence ready to fulfill his promise?
Lawrence wasn't just a number one overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. he was one of those number one overall picks that had been earmarked for that status from the time he set foot on a college field as a freshman at Clemson. In other words, Lawrence was seen as a generational talent. His rookie year was a struggle, but who wouldn't struggle with Urban Meyer as his head coach? Last season, it took a while to get it in gear, but that five game winning streak to close out the season was fueled by Lawrence's high level of play. In those five games, Lawrence had an 8/2 touchdown to interception ration, a passer rating of 101.3, and he averaged 8.03 yards per attempt, all elite numbers. Year 2 with Doug Pederson as his head coach should only be better.

2022 Record: 7-10
2023 Vegas Win Total: 7.5 wins

3. How much does Derrick Henry have left in the tank?
We all know that running backs age worse than any other position in football. The typical frontline NFL running back begins to fall off precipitously in performance at the age of 28 years old. Henry is 29 years old. Henry has led the league in carries three of the last four seasons, and the one season that he did not (2021), it was because he missed eight games with injury. In that season, he was on pace for well over 400 carries, which would have been a career high. In short, Henry is going to break down at some point. If this is the year it happens, then the roof might cave in on the Titans.

2. Are the Titans getting anything close to peak DeAndre Hopkins?
That said, the Titans did go out and get some help for their quarterbacks and Henry, signing DeAndre Hopkins to a two year contract. On a per game basis, Hopkins has been nearly as good the last two years as he ever was during his peak run as a Houston Texans. The problem has been availability — Hopkins has begun to break down physically, and in 2022, he served a six game suspension for PED's. He's missed 15 of the Cardinals' 34 games the last two seasons. Hopkins is easily the best receiver on the Titans' roster, and it shouldn't matter who is throwing him the ball. He's always been somewhat "QB proof," when it comes to being productive. However, like the running back position, wide receivers have a specific age where THEY fall off, too, and Hopkins, who is 31 years old, is right at that age.

1. What the hell is going on at quarterback?
For now, the starting quarterback is still Ryan Tannehill, the 35 year old veteran who rediscovered himself when he became a Titan in 2019. Tannehill has kept the Titans a consistent playoff team during his time in Tennessee, but he hasn't gotten them over the hump, and in 2022, they fell out of the postseason picture with a dismal December and January. If you're wondering what the Titans' confidence level is in Tannehill, just know that they've used a third round pick in 2022 (Malik Willis) and a second round pick in 2023 (Will Levis) on quarterbacks. The Texans play the Titans in Weeks 15 and 17, so there is a good chance that it will be Willis or Levis under center for those games, if the Titans are out of the playoff hunt, which I except they will be. It's not a good football team.

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Sean Pendergast is a contributing freelance writer who covers Houston area sports daily in the News section, with periodic columns and features, as well. He also hosts the morning drive on SportsRadio 610, as well as the pre-game and post game shows for the Houston Texans.
Contact: Sean Pendergast