Today we continue discussing where the NFL is going in 2022 with a look at the AFC South. Our NFL projections are based on a forecast of team performance and a subjective assessment of each team’s quarterback’s storylines.
The team win forecast is primarily driven by a new advanced QB metric called QB Wins. The preview is intentionally QB centric. These players disproportionately drive on-field success, fan interest, and salary cap issues. The NFL is the dominant sports league across just about every demographic group, and the QBs are the stars. We will publish a new division each week. See last week's AFC North division preview here.
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1. Tennessee Titans and Ryan Tannehill
I have sympathy for the Titans. The Titans won 12 games last year, but the Fan Base rankings put the Titans in 31st place. It was a different era, but a move from Houston to Nashville still strikes me as questionable (not the worst move – Seattle to Oklahoma City?). Two decades as the Titans and minimal brand identity. There are no prominent compelling storylines at this point. The Titan’s QBs over the past decade have included Jake Locker, Zach Mettenberger, Marcus Mariota, and Ryan Tannehill. The Titans highlight the need for a franchise QB to build an NFL brand.
The data says that Tannehill was a 1.36 QB Win in 2019, a 1.19 win in 2020, and a – 1.14 win in 2021. Tannehill is a journeyman on a very good team. This is a dangerous place for a franchise. A very good team with a non-elite QB. The Titans project out to a ten-win season and division crown. It feels like there should be more excitement.
On the contract front, Tannehill is two years away from UFA. The Titans need to start thinking about an extension or a change. But it’s hard to change when you win 11 or 12 games a year. The other fun fact is that the Titans have the most expensive QB room in the NFL this season, as the cap hit for Tannehill is $38.6 Million.
Titans’ Forecast 10.3
Titan’s Fan Base Ranking: #31
Media Narrative Grade: D
2. Indianapolis Colts and Matt Ryan
The coverage of the Matt Ryan trade from Atlanta to Indianapolis focused on whether the trade made Indianapolis a Super Bowl contender. This makes Matt Ryan 2022’s version of Matthew Stafford. It’s a potentially exciting narrative, but a narrative that needs to build.
In terms of the data, Ryan is a slightly above-average NFL QB with QB Win scores over the last three years averaging about .4 wins. Last year Carson Wentz's score was -.35 wins while Ryan’s was also -.35. The prediction is that the Colts will end up the same or slightly better in 2022. The forecast of 9.75 games shows how thin the margins are in the NFL as the Colts are projected to be within striking distance of the Titans. If the Colts win the division the Ryan trade is a success.
Ryan’s contract is also notable. Ryan’s cap hit is low this year (~18 million) but goes to $35 million next year (when Ryan turns 38).
Colts’ Forecast: 9.75 wins
Colts’ Fan Base Ranking: #21
Media Narrative Rating: C-
3. Jacksonville Jaguars & Trevor Lawrence
This one may go under-reported but the Jaguars and Trevor Lawrence are one of the most intriguing fandom stories of 2022 (but not exciting?). Lawrence was, if not the most heralded QB in the last decade, at least in the top few. In contrast, the Jaguars are one of the biggest strugglers amongst NFL brands. Drafting Lawrence number one was the team’s best opportunity to start building something. However, year 1 was a complete disaster. Lawrence struggled on the field, and Urban Meyer brought nothing but trouble to the franchise.
As Lawrence begins season 2, the question seems to be, can he put it together and elevate the Jags, or will he get sucked into the morass. There is a critical point, that often goes unmentioned in sports, organizational culture matters. Somehow things seldom work in places like Jacksonville, Cleveland, or the Jets side of New York; but things usually work in New England, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. Trevor needs to be great to make the rest of the organization start to believe (Ted Lasso, season 1). Lawrence’s QB Win contribution last year was -2.89. Let’s say the new Jags environment gets him a 1 game improvement. Improved play by Lawrence and an “easy” schedule yield a 7-win season. The narrative here will be that TL is making progress.
Trevor Lawrence is a fascinating story for hard-core fans but an afterthought for casual fans.
Jaguars’ Forecast: 7.1 wins
Jaguars’ Fan Base Ranking: #30
Media Narrative Grade: C+
4. Houston Texans & Davis Mills
The biggest story in Houston is that DeShaun Watson is playing (or serving a suspension) in Cleveland. Houston won 4 games, and Davis Mills earned a -1.2 QB win score in 2021. The QB Win score isn’t awful, but it will not lead to much on-field success. The coach even seems like a placeholder. It’s doubtful that there is much of a storyline coming from Houston.
Davis Mills doesn’t get much attention among the 2021 rookie class. Maybe he should, as his QB Win score was second among his class of QBs.
On the positive side, there are two first-round picks and a workable schedule. The forecast is for about 5 wins.
Texans Forecast: 4.9 wins
Texas Fan Base Rankings: #14
Media Narrative Grade: D
AFC South Summary:
Based on the historical fandom rankings and the forward-looking projections, I don’t see much media and marketing excitement coming from the AFC South teams in 2022. There is some potential – Trevor Lawrence reaching stardom or a rejuvenated Matt Ryan taking the Colts on a playoff run, but these would be surprises (based on the forecast).
Check out our other divisional projections here:
All Divisional Projections
Stream the podcast discussion of the preview on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.