AFC South preview: Not easy being a quarterback in this division

It was a mere blip of a performance compared with some he’s had, but it was a critical test for Marcus Mariota.

The Tennessee Titans quarterback, playing in a game for the first time since suffering a fractured right fibula last Christmas Eve, knocked some of that rust off in his preseason debut against the New York Jets this summer. He started and played two series, completing two of three passes for 15 yards and running once for six more.

“It felt great. It was a blessing,” Mariota told reporters afterward. “A lot of hard work was put into it, and I’m very blessed for the opportunity. The recovery process was a long one, and to be able to be out there with the guys meant the world to me.”

For his coaches, it was a chance to exhale — especially after Mariota popped to his feet after a sack by Jets defensive end Leonard Williams that, the quarterback said, helped him “get some of the cobwebs out.”

Hopes are high for Mariota and the Titans this season, especially in a division with quarterback uncertainty elsewhere.

In Indianapolis, shoulder surgery sidelined Andrew Luck for training camp and could keep him from the opener at the Rams.

Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles is coming off a season in which he had 16 interceptions to go with 23 touchdown passes and finished with a lackluster passer rating of 78.8. He had five multi-interception games and typically was a far cry from the quarterback who had five games with a 100-plus rating in 2015. That’s why Chad Henne is in town.

And the picture remains unfocused in Houston, where unheralded veteran Tom Savage is looking to hold off first-round pick Deshaun Watson as long as he can. Savage was installed as the starter without a quarterback competition after the Texans traded Brock Osweiler to Cleveland, but now Watson is pushing to take the job.

Asked how he’ll know when Watson is ready to claim the position, coach Bill O’Brien said: “I think, over time, it develops. You see it in practice. There’s certain things you think about that maybe somebody who doesn’t coach wouldn’t see, but as a coach, you’ve been through it. This is something [where] maybe this guy’s not ready yet or, yes, he is ready.

“He just redirected a protection or checked a run or got us out of a bad play, put us into a better play. And then he did it in a game, and he was able to function in a game.

“Then, it’s his demeanor, his poise under pressure, his ability to come out here and go against a new defense. How did he handle that? It’s all of those things.”

Though Luck entered the NFL only in 2012, as the No. 1 overall pick, he’s already the dean of the AFC South in terms of quarterbacks. He has taken a beating over those five seasons, absorbing 156 sacks, the most of any player during that span. Last season he was sacked 41 times, tying the career high set in his rookie year.

This summer it was journeyman backup Scott Tolzien who stepped in for him.

Luck was playing hurt all last season, yet he put up some impressive numbers, throwing for 4,240 yards with 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

“There were times when you play through pain, there were times when it felt great,” Luck said at the start of training camp. “The reality is everybody plays through pain in the NFL. I’ve played through pain every year. This was a little different beast from the standpoint of, as you guys know, my practice schedule was different and altered and certainly that made things difficult from a preparation standpoint.

“There were a couple of times during the year where I would get hit in an awkward position or an awkward way, and it wouldn’t feel great. And it would be a taxing effort to get ready for the next week and the next week. And it didn’t feel like I could go through that [in 2017] and be productive.”

Here is a capsulized look at each team in the AFC South in predicted order of finish:

1 | TENNESSEE

2016 | 9-7, 2nd in South

Last year in playoffs | 2008

Going all the way: Marcus Mariota looks healthy, and he has more offensive weapons around him. Two rookie receivers should make an immediate impact: first-round pick Corey Davis and third-rounder Taywan Taylor, plus savvy free agent Eric Decker. The Titans addressed special teams in free agency by signing former Raiders Daren Bates and Brynden Trawick, and drafting USC speedster Adoree’ Jackson. Special teams already have shown great improvement.

They’re doomed: The Titans are pretty solid at most positions but don’t have a lot of depth, so they’re an injury away from putting some inexperienced players on the field. Pass rushing is a vulnerability behind solid starting outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. While the Titans added Logan Ryan in free agency, they still have questions at cornerback.

Now hear this: “You have to be realistic. I mean, I ain’t going to do this forever, you know? I don’t want to stay too long, let’s put it that way.” — Dick LeBeau, legendary defensive coordinator, now with the Titans, via PaulKuharsky.com.

2 | HOUSTON

2016 | 9-7, 1st in South

Last year in playoffs | 2016

Going all the way: The Texans had the eighth-ranked running game last season, and it figures to be good again, especially with the emergence of rookie D’Onta Foreman. The defensive front seven might be the best in the league, with J.J. Watt recuperated from his back injury and Jadeveon Clowney and Brian Cushing expected to be in top form. Second-year nose tackle D.J. Reader could be terrific.

They’re doomed: Until the Texans prove they have a quality quarterback, either Tom Savage or Deshaun Watson, that spot is a question mark. The team needs a receiver to complement DeAndre Hopkins. Will Fuller is out for at least a month with a broken collarbone, Braxton Miller has ankle problems and Jalen Strong is suspended for the opener. Left tackle Duane Brown is holding out for a better contract.

Now hear this: “There’s a lot to build on. There’s a lot to correct. He knows that.” — Bill O’Brien, coach, on rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson.

3 | INDIANAPOLIS

2016 | 8-8, 3rd in South

Last year in playoffs | 2014

Going all the way: Quarterback Andrew Luck has a surgically repaired shoulder. If he can get back by mid-September, there’s a flicker of hope for the Colts. The Colts are getting production out of two players who are senior citizens by NFL standards: running back Frank Gore (34) and kicker Adam Vinatieri (44).

They’re doomed: For the most part, the Colts played their starting defense for the first half of a preseason game against Dallas and surrendered 281 yards in those two quarters. No team in the league has its fortunes more closely tied to its starting quarterback. If Luck doesn’t come back soon, the Colts are cooked. The schedule is conducive to a good start, but stand-in quarterback Scott Tolzien is 0-2-1 as a starter. The Colts don’t have much of a pass rush, and with a young secondary, that’s a toxic cocktail.

Now hear this: “There’s no timeline.” — Chuck Pagano, coach, on when Andrew Luck will come back.

4 | JACKSONVILLE

2016 | 3-13, 4th in South

Last year in playoffs | 2007

Going all the way: The arrow is pointing up on defense, where the Jaguars added lineman Calais Campbell and cornerback A.J. Bouye. Second-year corner Jalen Ramsey is their best defensive player, and Jacksonville is pinning its hopes on its secondary coverage being enough of a strength to give time for a pass rush. On offense, they want to run the ball with rookie Leonard Fournette and play smart.

They’re doomed: The quarterback situation is a mess, with Blake Bortles and Chad Henne both sub-par at best ... a lesser-of-two-evils situation. No. 4 pick Fournette has been hampered by a foot injury and hasn’t played much this summer. The offensive line is not the worst, but not very good.

Now hear this: “I think his issue at this stage is more that six inches between his ears than anything. I think it’s a mental thing now.” — Charlie Taaffe, former Central Florida offensive coordinator to SI.com, on his onetime quarterback Bortles.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesfarmer

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