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AFC South preview: Nick Foles hopes to transform Jaguars into Super Bowl contenders

Nick Foles hopes to find success where Blake Bortles couldn’t in Jacksonville.
Nick Foles hopes to find success where Blake Bortles couldn’t in Jacksonville.
(Getty Images)

But now that he’s the unquestioned starter in Jacksonville, can quarterback Nick Foles replicate what he did in Philadelphia?

There, he stepped in for the injured Carson Wentz and, against long odds, helped guide the Eagles to their first Super Bowl victory.

When Foles left Philadelphia the first time, playing a season each in St. Louis and Kansas City, he was nowhere near the player he was with the Eagles.

But this could be different. He’s a seasoned player now and reunited with Jaguars offensive coordinator John DiFilippo, his former quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia.

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What’s more, Foles has the solid running of Leonard Fournette in his offensive arsenal, and a stout defense that lost some critical players in Malik Jackson and Telvin Smith but is still loaded with talent, including first-round pick Josh Allen.

Previewing the 2019 NFL season as the league celebrates its 100th year and the Rams and Chargers look to contend for the Super Bowl LIV title.

In 2017, the season the Eagles won the Super Bowl, they nearly faced the Blake Bortles-quarterbacked Jaguars. Jacksonville fell just short in the AFC championship game, however, suffering a 24-20 defeat at New England.

Jacksonville took a big step backward last season, going 5-11 and finishing last in the AFC South. Bortles tumbled back to earth, finishing with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions and sealing his fate with the team. He was released and the Jaguars signed Foles.

“We really think his best days are ahead of him,” coach Doug Marrone said when the Jaguars signed Foles in March. “He’s really played well of late and we’re excited to have him part of our team.”

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles prepares to put on his helmet before a preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles prepares to put on his helmet before a preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons.
(Getty Images)

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Once again, though, the odds are not in Foles’ favor. ESPN’s Michael DiRocco crunched the numbers and determined that it’s more likely that free-agent quarterbacks brought in to be the starter wind up flopping.

Since 2000, 13 other teams have signed a quarterback to multiyear deals with the intent of making them the immediate starter. Of those, Peyton Manning (Denver), Brett Favre (Minnesota) and Drew Brees (New Orleans) were smashing successes.

But, DiRocco notes, seven of the other 10 free-agent quarterbacks signed to multiyear deals failed to get their teams to the playoffs.

The remaining two quarterbacks never made it past the first month as the starter.

“I feel like I’m trying to get a little better every day, trying to get closer with the guys,” Foles told the Washington Post. “You develop those relationships to where when they come on the field and we play against someone, when we need to make checks or route adjustments or different line calls, everything is smooth.

“I feel good where we’re at. We’ve just got to keep progressing.”

There’s no question the division rival Indianapolis Colts are progressing, although losing Andrew Luck to retirement is no minor setback. They were a surprise playoff team last season, improving their regular-season win total by six in one year.

They have added receivers Devin Funchess and rookie Parris Campbell, who should draw some of the double teams away from T.Y. Hilton, and bolstered the defense with end Justin Houston and potential rising-star rookie cornerback Rock Ya-Sin.

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Houston was the first team since 1998 to reach the playoffs after an 0-3 start, but the Texans didn’t do a good job of protecting quarterback Deshaun Watson. He was sacked an NFL-high 62 times last season, so it was no surprise when the Texans used their first-round draft pick on Alabama State tackle Tytus Howard. They also added tackles Matt Kalil and Max Scharping.

Keeping scrambling Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota upright has been a challenge too, so the Titans signed guard Rodger Saffold, formerly of the Rams, as well as Ryan Tannehill, who gives Tennessee something closer to a prototypical quarterback if the franchise opts to head in that direction.

Houston Texans

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Deshaun Watson: It’s no wonder why the Texans used two of their top three picks on offensive tackles. Watson was sacked a league-high 62 times last season, and the team needed to beef up the protection. Still, he turned an 0-3 start into a division title.

RB Duke Johnson: With Pro Bowl player Lamar Miller sidelined for the season because of a torn ACL, it’s a good thing the Texans had acquired versatile Johnson from the Cleveland Browns. He’s never been the top guy before, however, and there are currently no reliable veterans behind him.

WR DeAndre Hopkins: If he’s not the best receiver in the league, he’s definitely in the conversation. His 528 receptions are the most by any players in his first six seasons in the league.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR Will Fuller: Getting deep and catching passes is no problem for Fuller, but staying on the field is. He has 11 touchdown catches in 11 games with Watson, but is coming off a torn ligament in his right knee.

CB Lonnie Johnson: Texans are rebuilding their secondary and Johnson figures to play a significant role in that. He’s young and raw but has shown potential in camp. Houston didn’t spend a second-round pick on the Kentucky standout for kicks.

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DE Charles Omenihu: A fifth-round pick from Texas, Omenihu has been shadowing J.J. Watt’s every move. He could work his way into a situational rotation and be a fixture down the road.

BURNING QUESTION

Can Watson stay healthy enough to put together a full season and lift the Texans back into the ranks of playoff contenders?

2018: 11-5, first in division

Last year in playoffs: 2018

Indianapolis Colts

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

RB Marlon Mack: Consistency is the key for Mack, who was very up and down last season. When he’s rolling, he takes a lot of pressure off quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who is now the starter. Mack needs to be more of a receiver out of the backfield.

S Malik Hooker: At Ohio State, Hooker was a big-play ballhawk. The Colts need him to assume that role in their Tampa 2 scheme and create some turnovers. He has five interceptions in two seasons.

WR Devin Funchess: The Colts cannot survive on T.Y. Hilton alone. He didn’t practice for the final month last season, hobbling on a bum ankle, and ran out of gas in the playoffs. So Funchess provides another sure-handed target for Brissett.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

LB Ben Banogu: Drafted as a linebacker, Banogu likely will be used as a pass rusher, especially while defensive end Jabaal Sheard is recovering from offseason knee surgery.

CB Rock Ya-Sin: The team’s top pick in this year’s draft, Ya-Sin has looked terrific in training camp and at some point has dominated every receiver but Hilton. He could wind up being a star.

DT Denico Autry: He has had the best camp of anyone on the team. He had nine sacks in 12 games last season — and that was from the difficult defensive tackle spot. The Oakland Raiders moved him around the line; the Colts are keeping him at tackle.

BURNING QUESTION

Frank Reich made a splash in his first season as head coach, but his quarterback-coaching abilities will be put to the test with the sudden retirement of Andrew Luck and evelation of Brissett to starter.

2018: 10-6, second in division

Last year in playoffs: 2018

Jacksonville Jaguars

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Nick Foles: He was the answer in Philadelphia, but can he be the same in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars have struggled for years to find the right player at that crucial position? At least he should have a strong ground game to help.

RB Leonard Fournette: When he’s healthy, Fournette is a force. But he has been banged up, playing in only 21 of 32 possible games. The Jaguars plan to move him around a bit this season so opponents can’t just load up with an extra defender in the box.

LB Myles Jack: This is a contract year for Jack, the former UCLA star who calls the defense through the middle linebacker spot. He’s got a sideline-to-sideline role, and it’s time for him to be Jacksonville’s Bobby Wagner.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

DE Josh Allen: Defense wasn’t Jacksonville’s top priority heading into the draft, but Allen was too enticing to ignore. A knee contusion kept him out of most offseason workouts, although coaches like what they see in him now.

DL Taven Bryan: Once known as the “Wyoming Wildman,” Bryan was pretty tame as a heralded rookie last season, finishing with 13 tackles, seven assists and one sack. Coaches are expecting more from the first-rounder this year.

TE Josh Oliver: A third-round pick from San Jose State, Oliver could be a big help catching passes from Foles, especially down the field. Now he just has to work on his blocking.

BURNING QUESTION

As great as he was as a Philadelphia fill-in, Foles flopped with the Rams. Can he take his skills on the road and turn defense-minded Jacksonville into a contender again?

2018: 5-11, fourth in division

Last year in playoffs: 2017

Tennessee Titans

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Marcus Mariota: At his best, Mariota is fantastic and has a slew of big plays on his resume. He also has been injured every year, however, and that’s why the Titans acquired former Miami starter Ryan Tannehill.

RB Derrick Henry: In the last month of the 2018 season, Henry ran for 585 yards and seven touchdowns. His first 12 games underscore his inconsistency, though, as he had 474 yards and five touchdowns. So which Henry will start the season?

DT Jurrell Casey: For six seasons in a row, Casey has had at least five sacks. That’s through a lot of coaching and scheme changes, and it’s not easy to do from the tackle position. The Titans are counting on him to keep it up.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

WR Corey Davis: He made a drastic improvement from his first to second year, and coaches are expecting a similar step forward. Zero touchdowns as a rookie, four in his second season, and this year …

S Amani Hooker: A fourth-round pick from Iowa, Hooker is versatile enough to play all over the field, whether it’s dropping into the deep third of the field, or coming up to support the run. He’s not a typical rookie.

OT Jack Conklin: Had an All-Pro rookie season in 2016 but sat out offseason workouts while recovering from a torn ligament in his left knee. He’s ready to lock down the right side of the line.

BURNING QUESTION

Can the Titans harness their considerable talent on offense and put together an effort that tops last season’s lackluster 25th ranking?

2018: 9-7, third in division

Last year in playoffs: 2017


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