NFL Draft Notebook continues its division previews by looking at the AFC South. This division will be led by one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL, Trevor Lawrence. We also will see the Tennessee Titans have a bounce-back year. In addition to taking a look at some AFC South predictions, this week’s article provides details on a loaded 2024 offensive tackle class, reviews a disappointing 2020 class, and much more.
AFC South Predictions
1. The Houston Texans will have their most successful season since 2019 as DeMeco Ryans aims to build a contender in the AFC South
The past three seasons have been tough on the Houston Texans fan base. The franchise has not won more than four games since 2019. Look for that to change this NFL season. A primary reason for optimism is new head coach DeMeco Ryans, one of the top young defensive minds in the game. The Texans’ offense should improve as well after finishing with the fewest yards per play the past two seasons. Running back Dameon Pierce is one of the most physical running backs in the NFL and should help C.J. Stroud ease in as a rookie.
2. Will Anderson Jr. will have at least seven sacks this year as a rookie in the AFC South
The Houston Texans gave up a lot to trade up at the 2024 NFL Draft for former Alabama defensive end Will Anderson Jr. — and he will be worth all the picks the team sent to Arizona. In new defensive coordinator Matt Burke’s system, the Texans will prioritize getting after the quarterback, which should allow Anderson to produce at a high level.
3. A true No. 1 receiver will sign with Houston next offseason, giving the AFC South another elite receiver
One of the biggest areas of weakness going into the season for Houston is wide receiver. The team lacks a true No. 1 receiver as neither Robert Woods nor Nico Collins is capable of filling that role. Thankfully, the Texans have plenty of cap space next year and will likely prioritize adding a high-quality receiver with some of the money. A couple of wide receivers who are currently scheduled to be free agents next year include Mike Evans, Tee Higgins, and AFC South standout, Michael Pittman Jr.
4. Anthony Richardson will lead all quarterbacks in rushing next year as he puts the AFC South on notice
Last season, as offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, new Colts coach Shane Steichen had the second leading rusher among quarterbacks in Jalen Hurts, who rushed for 903 yards. Now, he has an even more dangerous runner in Anthony Richardson, who figures to be a big part of Indy’s running attack. In fact, he will lead all quarterbacks in rushing for several reasons including being in a run-first offense, being an average passer, and the team’s offensive line being better at run blocking.
5. The Colts will draft Brock Bowers in the 2024 NFL Draft after stumbling through the AFC South in 2023
Another staple of Shane Steichen’s offense is the use of the tight end. Last season, Dallas Goedert finished sixth among tight ends in receptions with 71 in Steichen’s offense. Unfortunately, this is a position the Colts don’t have a high-quality starter at. Due to this, and the fact Richardson is an average passer who will struggle throwing the deep ball, look for Indianapolis to draft Georgia tight end Brock Bowers next April. Another freaky athlete heads to the AFC South.
6. Trevor Lawrence will have the best season of his career vs. weaker AFC South defenses
In the second half of the season, Trevor Lawrence proved he was worth the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. A couple of his outstanding games came in December when he threw for 368 yards and three touchdowns vs. the Tennessee Titans and four touchdowns in a shootout against the Dallas Cowboys. Overall on the season, he threw for 4,113 yards and 25 touchdowns with just eight interceptions. This season should be an even better year for TLaw now that he has been in Doug Pederson’s offense for a full season. Plus, he is also getting back Calvin Ridley who will be one of the team’s top wide receivers.
7. Jacksonville will win the AFC South again
One of the surest things in the NFL this season is Jacksonville winning the AFC South. The reason it will win this division yet again is the high-powered offense, which will likely finish in the top five in the NFL. The team’s defense is skilled at creating turnovers, finishing in the top 10 last year in terms of taking the ball away. The Jaguars will also see improved play from 2022 draft picks Travon Walker and Devin Lloyd.
8. The Tennesse Titans will have a winning record in the AFC South
Before last season, the Tennessee Titans had seven straight winning seasons, but last year’s 7-10 finish ended that streak. Look for the Titans to get back to their winning ways this season in the lowly AFC South. One of the main reasons for this is the team expecting better luck with injuries after leading the NFL in games missed last year. Another reason is the strong run defense, which led the NFL in both rushing yards per game and yards per carry. However, the biggest reason for predicting success in Nashville is the weak division the team plays in, netting the ninth-easiest schedule in the NFL.
9. The Titans will be much better vs. the pass this year, leading to increased success in the AFC South
One thing is for sure: It would be difficult to be much worse against the pass than Tennessee was last year. In 2022, the Titans allowed 275 passing yards per game, which ranked dead-last in the NFL. They also gave up 29 touchdowns, which was the second-worst mark. Thankfully, the Titans should be better in this area. The main reason is getting Harold Landry III back from a torn ACL, which cost him all of last season. In 2021, Landry had 12 sacks and overall in his four seasons in the NFL has a total of 31 sacks. His ability to get to the quarterback — along with Kristian Fulton and Caleb Farley being healthy — should be enough for the Titans to have at least a top-20 pass defense next year.
10. Derrick Henry will get fewer carries in 2022 as age begins taking a toll on the AFC South standout
Last season, Derrick Henry had the second most carries in his career, carrying the ball 349 times and leading the NFL. This large workload wore down Henry, as he had five of his last eight games where he averaged less than four yards per carry. The team now has a capable backup in Tyjae Spears, who will likely take some of the load off of Henry. In his final season at Tulane, Spears rushed for 1,581 yards and averaged an impressive 6.9 yards per carry. The 2023 NFL Draft pick also caught 22 passes out of the backfield. The AFC South must watch out for this dynamic duo.
2024 NFL Draft Offensive Tackle Class Preview
Top Player: Olumuyiwa Fashanu, Penn State
Not very often do you find a player who has only started nine games, but carries a top-ten grade; that is the case with Penn State offensive tackle Olumuyiwa Fashanu. Last season, Fashanu started the first eight games of the year before suffering a season-ending injury. In those eight games, he was dominant, not allowing a single sack and consistently opening up running lanes. When looking at the traits, Fashanu possesses massive size, coming in at 6-foot-6 and 323 pounds. He also moves extremely well for a player his size and is one of the stronger tackles in the 2024 NFL Draft. This combination should allow him to play either left or right tackle in the NFL, and his high football intelligence should allow him to start at either spot on day one of his NFL career.
Guy I Would Stand on the Table for: Joe Alt, Notre Dame
Normally I pick a day two or three prospect in this spot, but there is no way I can leave Notre Dame offensive tackle Joe Alt off this list. Like Fashanu, both of these players will be viewed as franchise left tackles in the 2024 NFL Draft. Both of these players have the size, strength, and quick feet to play the most important position on the offensive line and show the upside to be All-Pro players.
Overrated: Amarius Mims, Georgia
Georgia offensive tackle Amarius Mims has only started two games during his college career, yet some people are talking about him being a top-five pick. This is absurd, especially when you watch the game film of Mims and see several things scouts will have concerns about. The first one is his high pad level, which negates his power as a blocker. He tends to fall off his blocks by lunging at the defender and only exhibiting average hand use. On the positive side, he does have good length at 6-foot-7, and shows solid athletic ability for someone 330 pounds. However, that is not enough to overlook the concerns I have with Mims, which is why he currently carries a fourth-round grade on my 2024 NFL Draft big board.
Sleeper: Mason Richman, Iowa
Iowa had one of its worst offensive lines in recent memory by giving up three sacks a game and ranking 103rd in the nation. One player who has the talent to change that in 2023 is Mason Richman. What stands out about Richman is his athletic ability. He does a good job sliding in pass protection and also has the mobility to easily get to the second level. Another thing that will surely stand out to NFL Draft scouts is his high intelligence, making the Dean’s List four times. However, despite this intelligence, he does make some mental mistakes on the football field and needs to refine his technique. One other area he needs to work on is his strength and using this power in the run game. Overall, Richman is a player who shows the potential to develop into a future NFL left tackle.
Biggest Risk: Jordan Morgan, Arizona
The reason Jordan Morgan is a risky prospect is his long injury history. He suffered a season-ending knee injury last year, which also caused him to miss spring ball. In addition to that injury, Morgan had a season-ending injury in 2020, too. While he will definitely draw some red flags due to his injury history, he is still someone who goes into the season with a second-round grade. The main reason for this grade is his athletic ability. The Wildcat standout has some of the best feet in this class of offensive tackles and has all the physical traits to play left tackle in the NFL.
Breakout Player: Josh Fryar, Ohio State
Ohio State’s Josh Fryar has seen limited playing time his first three years at Ohio State, being a backup each year. However, this season he will be starting at the most important position on the Buckeyes offensive line — left tackle. He replaces Paris Johnson Jr., the first offensive tackle drafted in the 2023 NFL Draft. While Fryar is nowhere near the athlete Johnson is, he does show good strength and has the versatility to play either tackle or guard in the NFL.
Top Five Offensive Tackles from the 2020 NFL Draft
It usually takes three years to evaluate a draft class, so over the next few months NFL Draft Notebook will be looking back at the 2020 draft class. This week we look at the offensive tackle position.
1. Tristan Wirfs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Despite being the fourth offensive tackle taken in the 2020 NFL Draft, former Iowa Hawkeye Tristan Wirfs is the top tackle from this class. Wirfs was named to the PFWA All-Rookie team in 2020 and has twice been named an All-Pro. This year he will make the switch from right tackle to left tackle, which will make him an even more valuable player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
2. Andrew Thomas, New York Giants
A player who overcame a slow start to his NFL career is Andrew Thomas. This past season he made the All-Pro team for the first time in his career and only gave up four sacks all season. Going into the 2023 campaign, he is primed to be one of the top offensive tackles in the NFL and also one of the highest-paid.
3. Jedrick Wills Jr., Cleveland Browns
Another player who had a strong year as a rookie was Jedrick Wills Jr., who like Wirfs was named to the PFWA All-Rookie team. This was quite an accomplishment for him since he made the switch from college right tackle to NFL left tackle. After that breakout rookie season, he has only had an average career. This will be a big season for the soon-to-be free agent offensive tackle.
4. Mekhi Becton, New York Jets
A player who has been a disappointment is Mekhi Becton, who was the 11th overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. The main reason for this is injuries the past two seasons, which have allowed him to only play in one game. In 2023, Becton could lose his job as one of the starting offensive tackles for the Jets if he suffers yet another ailment.
5. Austin Jackson, Miami Dolphins
Another player who hasn’t lived up to his NFL Draft position is Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Austin Jackson — the 18th overall pick. This past season, he battled injuries most of the year and only played in two games. Miami is not sold on his future either, passing up his fifth-year option. Unfortunately, none of the other offensive tackles taken after the first round have had stellar NFL seasons, which is why Jackson and Becton rank so high.
— In an interview with MLive, Michigan running back Blake Corum says he should be ready for preseason camp after suffering a season-ending torn meniscus and sprained MCL. Last season, Corum rushed for 1,463 yards and 18 touchdowns. He was also named the Big Ten’s running back of the year despite missing the end of the season. Going into the new year, I currently have a fourth-round grade on him.
— The top right tackle in the 2024 NFL Draft is yet another player who is one of the top ten players in the class. That prospect is J.C. Latham of Alabama. Several positives stand out with Latham, with his first one being his 6-foot-6 and 335-pound size. He uses this size and his impressive strength to control defenders at the point of attack. Another positive with him is how well he moves for someone his size, easily getting to the second level and preventing edge players from beating him on the outside. One area he will need to improve on is keeping his feet moving when run blocking, as he tends to fall off his blocks at times.
— After not having a player taken in the 2022 or 2023 NFL Draft, look for Duke offensive tackle Graham Barton to be the first Blue Devil drafted in two years. While the school has several other prospects who could be drafted, none will go as high as Barton, who currently carries a late first-round grade. What stands out with Barton is how well he run blocks. He shows tremendous power in this area and is one of the better finishers in this class. As a pass blocker, his strength helps him as well, but he does need to continue to develop his technique in this area. If he can improve here, and tests well at the NFL Combine, look for him to be the first Duke Blue Devil drafted in the first round since Daniel Jones went to the New York Giants in 2019.
— Michigan’s LaDarius Henderson is a player I could see improving his stock significantly this year. He should be starting at left tackle for the Wolverines after playing guard at Arizona State previously. From watching his tape, he has all the skills to excel at this position. Henderson has naturally quick feet and should have no problem preventing defensive ends from getting the edge on him. In addition to being an impressive athlete, he also has long arms and ideal NFL size (6-foot-6, 310 pounds). One area he can improve is his strength, as he can be beat by bullrushes and struggles at times in the run game due to this.
— A player who is widely viewed as a first-round prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft by media members, but only carries a day-three grade from me is Kingsley Suamataia of BYU. While there is no doubt he is a physical player with good strength, I have concerns with his flexibility and mobility. In terms of flexibility, he doesn’t sink his hips at all as a blocker, which causes him to play with a high pad level. As far as his mobility, Suamataia lacks the quick feet to play left tackle in the NFL and also struggles getting to the second level as a blocker. These concerns make me question his NFL potential and proves why I have such a hard time seeing him as a possible first-round pick.
— In last week’s NFL Draft Notebook, we named Stanford tight end Benjamin Yurosek as the biggest sleeper in this year’s tight end class. The main reason for this was how good of a receiver he is, and how he can stretch a defense. Another thing working in his favor is his new head coach Troy Taylor, who loves to feature the tight end in his offense. The past two seasons, while Taylor was leading the Sacramento State program, a tight end led the team in receptions and touchdowns. This included last year when Marshel Martin led the team by 19 receptions and also had 12 touchdowns. This combination of Taylor and Yurosek should allow Yurosek to be one of the most productive tight ends in college football next season.
— Look for Cincinnati Bengals rookie running back Chase Brown to get plenty of carries this season. He will likely back up Joe Mixon next year and could be the team’s go-to running back in a year or two. Brown should be up to this task, having rushed for 1,643 yards in his final season at Illinois. As a runner, he shows good patience and has the power to consistently break arm tackles.
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Prediction of the Week
Nebraska will make its first bowl game since 2016.