INDIANAPOLIS — With the Indianapolis Colts set to begin training camp soon at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, Ind., Colts.com takes a look at the major storylines surrounding the team's AFC South Division rivals:
» From Hunting To Hunted: The Jaguars in 2018 will find themselves in an unfamiliar position, as they are not only the defending AFC South champions for the first time since the division formed in 2002, but they are also the clear favorites to do it again. And after narrowly falling to the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, Jacksonville not only kept pretty much all of their key playmakers from 2017, but they added a few more, signing All Pro guard Andrew Norwell and former Colts wide receiver Donte Moncrief on offense and adding first-round pick Taven Bryan to an already-stacked defensive line. Let's see how the Jaguars respond now that they have the target on their back.
» Blake Bortles Is Back: Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles has been the subject of tons of outside criticism the last few years, but the simple fact of the matter is he managed the Jacksonville offense well enough last season to lead them to the brink of a Super Bowl appearance. Winning, and winning in the playoffs, is the bottom line in the NFL, and Bortles got it done in 2017. The team in February showed its trust in Bortles by extending his contract through the 2020 season with a reported three-year, $54 million deal. By adding the top free agent offensive linemen this offseason, and by continuing to feature a strong run game, it's easy to see why Bortles is expected to take yet another step forward in 2018. We'll see how he reacts now that he has some security — and some raised expectations — on his side.
» Scary Good Defense: The Jaguars in 2017 featured not only one of the league's top defensive fronts, but its secondary was hard to beat, as well. Jacksonville had six Pro Bowl selections from its defense: defensive ends Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue and defensive tackle Malik Jackson, linebacker Telvin Smith, as well as their top cornerback duo of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. All six of those players are back with the squad in 2018, and with the addition of Bryan in the first round up front, as well as the quality pieces of depth elsewhere the Jaguars had last season that are returning, could Jacksonville improve from the No. 2-ranked NFL defense in 2017 to the No. 1 unit in 2018?
» Welcome Back: The Colts were certainly besieged by injuries throughout the 2017 season, but the Texans were right up there in terms of key pieces going down throughout the year, as well. Two of their three sensational pass rushers, J.J. Watt (broken leg) and Whitney Mercilus (pectoral), each suffered season-ending injuries in the same early-October game against the Kansas City Chiefs; one of their top cornerbacks, Kevin Johnson, hurt his knee in mid-September and could never get back to 100 percent; and then sensational rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson suffered a torn ACL in a non-contact incident during practice in early-November. Couple that with the fact defensive end Jadeveon Clowney underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in January and missed the on-field portion of the offseason workout program, and the Texans have the bittersweet feeling of the unknown of waiting to see just where all of these key players are come training camp (bitter), but, once they do get back to full participation — look out (sweet).
» Slump Or Success? The aforementioned Watson enters Year 2 with a ton of expectations after bursting onto the scene as a rookie. After coming on in relief in Week 1, Watson would go on to start the next six games, completing 126-of-204 passes (61.8 percent) for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns to eight interceptions, while also running for another 269 yards and two scores on the ground. TO make matters worse for Houston and its fans, Watson's ACL injury came in practice the week after he threw for 402 yards and four touchdowns against the Seattle Seahawks. Watson's knee seems to be progressing well, and he has experience coming back from a torn ACL; he suffered one his freshman year at Clemson, and then led the Tigers to the National Championship game the following season. But this is the NFL, and defensive coaches don't need much film to start figuring out a quarterback's patterns and tendencies, so will Watson experience a sophomore slump, or sophomore success, in 2018?
» The Honey Badger: The Texans should see several key defensive players return from injury in 2018, but they utilized free agency during the offseason to bring in outside help on that side of the ball. Houston signed safety Tyrann Mathieu, who was a major playmaker in the Arizona Cardinals' defensive backfield his first five seasons, picking off 11 passes and defending 41 in all. But because of his significant injury history, and because the two sides couldn't work out a new contract, the Cardinals decided to release Mathieu in mid-March, giving "The Honey Badger" the opportunity to hand-pick his next NFL stop. Mathieu — a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection in 2015 — now adds his talents to a Houston defense that was already loaded up front, but was in need of a playmaker on the back end.
» New Leader: Despite making the postseason in 2017 — and despite the fact the team even won a game, on the road, in the playoffs — the Titans decided to go in a different direction heading into 2018, parting ways with head coach Mike Mularkey and replacing him with Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel. Vrabel, who turns 43 next month, brings a ton of intensity with him — the same intensity he showed as a key member of the New England Patriots' defense, where the former linebacker won three Super Bowl titles. And it's that attitude the Titans are hoping can wear off on their players — and the organization as a whole. But, like Frank Reich with the Colts, this is Vrabel's very first head coaching job in the NFL, so will the expectations be tempered at all to start?
» No More "Exotic Smashmouth?": Under an offensive-minded head coach in Mularkey, the Titans last season developed an identity on offense they liked to refer to as "exotic smashmouth," which, they believed, would feature a lot of pace and a lot of physicality. Whether or not that actually ended up being the case is up for others to decide, but there's no doubt that this is a "prove-it" type of year for many members of the Titans' offense. Marcus Mariota enters Year 4 in 2018 — can he be more consistent as a passer? With DeMarco Murray gone, can Derrick Henry be a three-down back? Corey Davis was somewhat a surprise pick at No. 5-overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, but after catching just 34 passes for 375 yards and zero touchdowns in his rookie season, can he start to live up to expectations in Year 2? If yes to all of these questions, the Titans should be in good shape; but if the same questions persist by the end of the season, then Tennessee might be looking to make some major changes on that side of the ball.
» New-Look Defense: Vrabel's impact certainly was felt at several points early in the offseason, as the team made several high-profile moves to get its once ho-hum defense back on the right track. The team added former Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler in free agency to join Logan Ryan and Adoree' Jackson. Then, in the draft, with Avery Williamson leaving, the team traded up to take two linebackers early on: Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry. Vrabel wants a physical, attacking style of defense, and it seems as though Tennessee has committed to getting the ball rolling on just that in 2018 and moving forward.