Ranking AFC South QB Supporting Casts

NFL: Houston Texans at Indianapolis Colts
Jenna Watson-USA TODAY Sports

The AFC South teams have dedicated a lot of resources to helping their young Quarterbacks thrive in 2024. Which team has the best support around their QB?

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The AFC South is perhaps the most fascinating division to watch in football in regards to young Quarterback play. Every Quarterback in the division will be 25 years old or younger during the 2024 season. Each of the Quarterbacks is in a unique position of needing to prove themselves:

  • The Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence is the most experienced, entering year 4 of his career after being heralded as the most impressive QB prospect since Andrew Luck, but has yet to live up to that hype (though still being an above average Quarterback).
  • Texans’ QB CJ Stroud had perhaps one of the most impressive rookie QB seasons we have ever seen last year, at bare minimum since Justin Herbert in 2020. The question is whether he can enter into another stratosphere of Quarterback play in Year 2.
  • The Colts’ Anthony Richardson started the year off with flashes of dominance as a dual threat QB, but injuries cut short his very promising rookie season early. The 22 year old QB enters Year 2 looking to stay healthy and build upon his rookie year improvements.
  • Will Levis had a rookie debut record 4 passing TDs in his 1st game, but struggled mightily the rest of the season in a terrible situation in Tennessee before injuries ended his rookie year as well. The oldest QB in the division is looking to prove that his struggles were more related to the roster’s shortcomings rather than his own developmental curve.

As such, every team in the AFC South dedicated resources to helping their young Quarterback progress in 2024. How do each of their supporting Casts stack up against each other?

1st Place: Houston Texans

Divisional Offensive Line Rank: 2nd

Divisional Wide Receiver Rank: 1st

Divisional Tight End Rank: 2nd

Divisional Running Back Rank: 4th

CJ Stroud is a very happy man. The Texans have given him an embarrassment of riches to throw to and his Offensive Line is one of the most underrated in the NFL. Adding Stefon Diggs to a room that already had big breakout Nico Collins and a strong rookie in Tank Dell is ridiculous. Collins is a 6’4 behemoth with 7.7 Yards after the Catch and Dell is a slippery route runner in the slot who had 700 yards and 7 TDs as a rookie. If they can manage Diggs’ personality (having forced his way out of 2 teams), this will be a dangerous trio in 2024. Beyond that they still have Robert Woods and John Metchie III. Woods is still a reliable possession receiver, and Metchie III is a high potential wildcard now that he is further removed from his cancer recovery.

The Texans Offensive Line in pass protection could have some significant promise. In the 1st 11 weeks of 2023 they were 4th in pass protection efficiency and allowed just 92 pressures. However injuries caught up to the unit, with 10 Offensive Lineman taking 200+ snaps last year. Should the unit stay relatively healthy, Stroud could have comfy pocket.

The Texans Tight Ends are sneaky good. Dalton Schultz is one of the better receiving Tight Ends of the last 4 years, ranking 8th in yards, 5th in catches, and 4th in Touchdowns in that span. Brevin Jordan has had flashes as their receiving Tight End #2. In the draft they added Cade Stover in Round 4, and while he isn’t a high end athlete at the position, he is a reliable possession Tight End with chemistry with Stroud and a sound blocker.

At Running back the Texans added Joe Mixon this offseason. Mixon is a good receiving back and short yardage back, but as the Bengals bellcow back he hasn’t gone over 4.1 yards per carry since 2018. Their backup RB Dameon Pierce also regressed significantly in 2023 after a promising rookie year to just 2.9 yards per carry.

Outside of the Running back room, the Texans offensive core around CJ Stroud looks highly impressive. A plethora of weapons as well as a Offensive Line that if healthy should be effective in pass protection is a strong support system for a pocket passer like CJ Stroud. There are high expectations for this offense in 2024, and deservedly so.

2nd Place: Indianapolis Colts

Divisional Offensive Line Rank: 1st

Divisional Wide Receiver Rank: 3rd

Divisional Tight End Rank: 3rd

Divisional Running Back Rank: 1st

Anthony Richardson’s supporting cast has been upgraded from the cast of players he had for the first 5 weeks of 2023. However these upgrades are less to do with adding new players, and more to do with returning players.

Jonathan Taylor shared the field with Anthony Richardson on just 2 plays in 2023. The 2021 NFL Rushing Champion is a career 5 yards per carry runner who is steadily bouncing back to his career peak. After a rough 2022 campaign due to a nagging ankle injury, regressed line, and the worst play-calling of his career, Jonathan Taylor had another slow start to 2023 due to a new system, no offseason reps due to that same injury and a contract dispute, and later a finger injury causing him to miss a month. However in his final stretch of games, Taylor looked like his prime self, dominating with 300 total scrimmage yards in the last two games on just 54 touches. If Taylor is back and stays healthy, the duo of him and Richardson is poised to be one of the most lethal rushing duos in the NFL.

Jelani Woods is back with the Colts after missing all of 2023 with injuries to both hamstrings. The 3rd year Tight End is one of the biggest X factors of this offense, as his incredible size, speed, and fluidity makes him a matchup nightmare. His threat is most notable in the Red Zone, where he as a rookie was able to take over games (see his 2 TDs vs. Kansas City).

Woods rejoins a crowded Tight End room that is incredibly deep. Kylen Granson is one of the better separators at the position league-wide. Andrew Ogletree is a fun former Wide Receiver with good route running and receiving ability while also a surprising amount of blocking utility. Will Mallory is an exciting 2nd year move Tight End with a ton of juice (fastest TE in the 2023 Draft). Mo Alie Cox remains as a weapon in the run game and uses his immense size and power as one of the better Yards After the Catch threats at TE. The Colts heavy rotations limit cumulative stats for any individual Tight End and thus league-wide notoriety, but this position remains among the deepest in the NFL.

The Wide Receiver trio of Michael Pittman Jr., Josh Downs, and Alec Pierce return yet again as well. Pittman remains a strong all around Wide Receiver with hands, Yards after the Catch, size and strength for contested catches and blocking, and deep ball ability (even if seldom used in that way due to last 2 years of QB play). Downs enters year 2 as one of the better route runners in the league and highly reliably hands and ball skills from the slot. Alec Pierce hasn’t been able to be properly utilized as a downfield specialist, but his deep speed, size, and strength at the catch point and run blocking are useful as the X.

Adding to this unit, rookie Adonai Mitchell will compete with Pierce for snaps at X. Mitchell is almost the same size as Pierce, but with more route running fluidity, faster speed, and reliable hands. If he can be consistent in his effort levels and develop as a blocker, Mitchell will emerge as a strong starting X Wide Receiver. Add to this the return of backup slot Ashton Dulin as a gadget speedster and the addition of rookie Anthony Gould in that same role (with return ability too) and this young unit is looking like a promising core for Richardson to use and grow with in 2024 and beyond.

However the biggest asset for Anthony Richardson’s support system is his Line. The Colts Offensive Line returned to elite status in a huge bounceback year in 2023 thanks to new OL coach Tony Sparano Jr. Veterans like Guard Quenton Nelson, Center Ryan Kelly, and Right Tackle Braden Smith returned to their top 5-10 level of play that Colts fans had grown accustomed to seeing them in 2018-2020. 2nd year Left Tackle Bernhard Raimann emerged as a top 10 Left Tackle in the NFL with a big breakout. Will Fries was a pleasant surprise at starting Right Guard.

As a unit the Colts ranked 4th among all OLs according to PFF. The Starters allowed just 10 sacks and 106 Pressures in 2023 while also averaging a 72.5 Run Block grade to jump start the Colts rushing attack.

The Colts also boast a strengthened depth on their Line. Blake Freeland endured a trial by fire against some of the best pass rushers in the NFL last year (Aaron Donald, Josh Allen, Trey Hendrickson, Myles Garrett, TJ Watt, and Brian Burns) when filling in at both tackle spots at various points as a rookie. He did have his struggles at times, surrendering a team high 44 pressures, but the coaching staff was impressed by his growth as the season went along. Danny Pinter is back from IR after previously being the Colts top backup along the interior the previous 3 years. The Colts also further addresses their depth in Rounds 3-4 of the 2024 draft with versatile Pitt OL Matt Goncalves and a multi-positional freak athlete interior OL Tanor Bortolini. With this amount of young and versatile depth behind the Colts star Offensive line, the Colts feel very good about their short and long term outlook up front.

With a Offensive line resembling a bunch of Clydesdales, a deep young arsenal of passing weapons at Wide Receiver and Tight End, and one of the best RBs in the NFL sharing the backfield, Anthony Richardson is surrounded by a ton of talent. Shane Steichen calling the shots with his pedigree of QB development (Justin Herbert and Jalen Hurts) and ability to scheme up top 10 Offenses annually certainly helps.

3rd Place: Jacksonville Jaguars

Divisional Offensive Line Rank: 3rd

Divisional Wide Receiver Rank: 4th

Divisional Tight End Rank: 1st

Divisional Running Back Rank: 2nd

The Jaguars are a bit of an enigma, as depending on when you asked them about their supporting cast throughout the 2023 season their answers would swing wildly to either extreme of optimism or pessimism.

Inconsistency, suspensions, and injuries littered their offensive roster at no position worse than offensive line. On paper, their low pressure percentage indicated a good offensive line. However this was masked by 2 factors:

  1. Lowest Blitz Rate in NFL: Trevor Lawrence was the least blitzed QB in the NFL in 2023 with 20.4% blitz rate. Defenses were only sending 4 or less rushers to him most of the time.
  2. Trevor Lawrence’s Fast Release: Lawrence had a 2.54 second Time to Throw, the 4th quickest release speed among starting QBs (behind only Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones, and Joe Burrow)

Cam Robinson (78.8, 17th/86 Ts) and Brandon Scherff (78.7, 4th/82 Gs) remained their 2 best offensive lineman in pass protection. However the rest of the offensive line was below average at best. Ezra Cleveland (57.4, 51st/82 Gs) and Tyler Shatley at Guard (51.3, 62nd/82 Gs) were rough to watch in the interior. Anton Harrison (60.7, T60th/86 Ts) struggled as a rookie at starting RT and Walker Little (62.6, 54th/86 Ts) underwhelmed in Robinson’s place at Left Tackle when called upon. Luke Fortner held down the fort at Center, but that fort looked like it was made out of pillows at times with his rough pass pro with his 22nd graded pass pro. In comes Buffalo Bills Center Mitch Morse to stabilize the Center spot with his consistent pass pro chops (6th in 2023, has never had a season below 70.1 in Pass Pro Grade).

If Cleveland, Shatley, or a new 4th round pick Javon Foster can stabilize the Left Guard spot and/or Anton Harrison develops at Right Tackle, this Offensive line could be quite improved in pass protection. But the unit as a whole had 0 linemen with a 70+ PFF Grade however due to rough run blocking, which is moreso a detriment to RB Travis Etienne than Trevor Lawrence. Still a rough ranking from last years 2023 final Offensive Line Rankings (27th) and only Morse changed as a Center upgrade limits the units optimism. But the better pass protection than run blocking helps the unit in this exercise.

The Jaguars Receiving corps has undergone a radical transformation. Gone is Calvin Ridley after only 1 season of play post-trade and gambling suspension punishment as their big swing as the top outside WR. Gone is inconsistent WR3 Zay Jones. Gone is special teamer and wide receiver Jamal Agnew.

In is Round 1 Rookie Brian Thomas Jr. as their big swing at a top outside weapon. In is Gabe Davis as their inconsistent WR3. In is Devin Duvernay as their special teamer and WR.

The more things change, the more they stay the same amiright?

However each has a different playstyle from their predecessor. Calvin Ridley was one of the best Route Runners in the NFL, but struggled with drops and was rough after the catch. Brian Thomas Jr has a sensational deep threat skillset and was good in yards After the Catch, however his route tree was very limited (deep routes and intermediate hitches coming back to the QB after selling a vertical route), and struggled with drops at times. Still the highly athletic WR has a huge upside in spite of his limitations. Gabe Davis also projects as a vertical threat and struggled with drops. Devin Duvernay is a a gadget type playmaker in the short game as their new potential 4th or 5th WR.

At Tight End the Jaguars have the best starting TE in the division in Evan Engram. The TE led the team in targets in 2023 while being used primarily in the short and intermediate game, displaying reliable hands and strong YAC threat. While he did capitalize in the endzone much, he was able to give Trevor Lawrence a reliable weapon in the middle.

At Running back, the Jaguars have one of the most dangerous multipurpose weapons in Travis Etienne. Despite being on a offense boasting one of the worst run blocking units in the NFL (highest negative run rate in NFL at 25% and one of the bottom 6 lowest 3rd and short run conversion rates), the multipurpose weapon had a season worthy of being the only non Christian McCaffrey RB to get a Offensive Player of the Year vote. With 1,484 total

yards and 12 total touchdowns, the dual threat runner was one of the most reliable pieces in the Jaguars offense. He even had 0 fumbles on 325 touches. The Receiver and runner, is a silky smooth operator in space and in route running, with reliable hands and an evasive moveset. While the depth behind him leaves something to be desired, the 2nd best RB in the division commands a sizeable workload, limiting their impact game to game anyways.

The Jaguars have an intriguing offensive core led by Etienne and Engram at non premium positions. Christian Kirk is a highly reliable slot WR + Brian Thomas Jr and Gabe Davis offer big play ability. Should the OL improve with the reliable Morse in the fold, Trevor should have a decent shot in 2024 of bouncing back from his 2023 regression.

4th Place: Tennessee Titans

Divisional Offensive Line Rank: 4th

Divisional Wide Receiver Rank: 2nd

Divisional Tight End Rank: 4th

Divisional Running Back Rank: 3rd

The Titans decided to go “all in” in 2024 despite Will Levis’ glaring inconsistencies as a rookie. They prioritized short term moves at WR, invested in a new RB to replace Derrick Henry, and attempted to patch up two different gaping holes on their Offensive line by investing a high 1st round pick and a lot of money respectively.

Adding Ridley gives them one of the better route runners in the NFL. However his limits in yards after the catch and inconsistent hands can minimize his impact, as well as worse QB play. Boyd is coming off the worst year in terms of route running separation, but still has solid YAC and reliable hands. DeAndre Hopkins last year was the Titans best WR, especially with his strong hands and contested catch ability to win at the top of routes, but his limits in separation and after the catch can cause inconsistency. These 3 represent the oldest WR trio in the NFL by a good margin, with each being at least 30 in 2024.

While the Titans did upgrade this WR group with the additions of Ridley and Boyd, instead of Chris Moore and the still retained 1st Round bust Treylon Burks, this unit is only a short term one with Hopkins and Boyd are on expiring deals. Still for 2024 at least, this unit is a bright spot if they can stave off Father Time (an issue past Titans WR reclamation projects have struggled with).

Chigoziem Okonkwo is a middle of the pack starting Tight End, ranking at or below average in nearly every statistical category for the position in each of the last 2 years. His biggest weaknesses are unreliable hands (10% drop rate). He does have athletic upside as the fastest TE of the 2022 class, but still needs to round out his game as a more efficient receiver and blocker. Josh Whyle could be promising as their TE2, but a low usage role as a rookie doesn’t offer much insight in his skillset.

The Titans Offensive Line was arguably the worst in football in 2023, as PFF ranked it dead last. The entire unit finished last in pass pro efficiency. Round 1 rookie Peter Skoronski had an up and down season as a rookie but showed some flashes at LG. Aaron Brewer was one of the better run blocking C in football, but his pass protection was among the worst. Brunskill was an average RG. Both tackle spots were turnstiles, with Andre Dillard not panning out in his first year outside of Philly and being one of the worst pass pro LTs in the NFL, rookie Jaelyn Duncan being even worse than Dillard, and Dillon Radunz regressing to be the most promising of the trio but still bottom 20 among 86 Tackles. The new additions of Lloyd Cushenberry off of a career year (1st as an arguable top 10 center), and 7th overall pick JC Latham bring optimism that newer is better. Latham is shifting from Right Tackle to Left, where he played 0 snaps in college, but the Titans seem confident in new OL coach Bill Callahan in his ability to mold the raw and grabby (one of the highest penalty rates in draft class) Latham into a franchise LT with his immense physical gifts. While Callahan has a strong pedigree as a 25 year OL coach, the young Offensive line unit has a lot of mistakes to clean up. There is no guarantee results happen overnight for the unit, and as it stands they still have at least 2 upgradeable holes on their OL on the right side. We will wait and see on the development on the left duo of 1st round picks.

At Running back, the Titans let franchise cornerstone Derrick Henry walk in Free Agency. With Henry now a Raven, the Titans opted to shift from the power back to a more finesse runner in Tony Pollard coming off a career worst efficiency season. Pollard has been at his best in a low usage role, averaging 5.2-5.5 yards per carry in 3 of his first 4 years in the league with 84-193 carries as the RB2 (only 6 starts in that span). However in 2023 Pollard got the fulltime bellcow role. He struggled in short yardage situations behind the powerful Cowboys OL, and got worn out quicker with a 4 yards per carry average. He even averaged his worst receiving stats of his career efficiency wise, worrisome for the change of pace back. However he did rebound as the season went along and he and his offensive line got healthier.

The Titans also seem to have a very similar RB archetype on the roster in Tyjae Spears who played a similar role to Pollard’s previous 2019-2022 seasons in changing the pace. Their size, receiving ability, quickness, and struggles in short yardage are eerily similar. However Spears had younger legs with 0.5 more yards per carry in 2023 and 1.7 more yards per catch. Spear’s legs are a problem with the lack of cartilage in his knees causing him to develop arthritis, which could limit his workload and career longevity.

Both Spears and Pollard need to manage each others workload, and potentially have Hassan Haskins spell both for short yardage work. While Cushenberry isn’t the run blocker Brewer was, he is still around average at the position, and Latham projects to be a more powerful road paver than Dillard, who struggled in 2023. Can Pollard regain his efficiency while still being a lead back with a worse set of blockers? How efficient can Spears be with a bigger workload than 100 carries? Will they both cannibalize each others workloads due to a similar skillset? This odd duo will need to answer these questions in 2024.

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Title: Ranking AFC South QB Supporting Casts
Author: Jay.Robins

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