There’s a reason every terrible Thursday Night Football game often involves an AFC South team. It’s by far the most baffling, weird, and historically insignificant division out there.
Think about it. Every other division in the NFL has at least one mainstay franchise that is integral to the ethos of the league. The New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, and the San Francisco 49ers possess the three greatest dynasties in the sport. The AFC West has risen up with consistent success from the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, and (kind of) the Los Angeles Chargers over the past two decades. The NFC North and NFC East have some of the biggest name-brand values in the sport. Really only the NFC South division comes close to the AFC South in total weirdness and irrelevance.
The Indianapolis Colts are football nomads that have bounced between cities and divisions. Most NFL fans would say they preferred the Houston Oilers over their reincarnation as the Tennessee Titans. The Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars are quite literally the two most recent expansion teams in the current NFL. Everything about the AFC South is strange.
And what do you know, the AFC South is set up to do another bizarre thing with the 2023-24 season approaching—it could be the first-ever four-team division to have three rookies as the primary starting quarterbacks for the season.
With C.J. Stroud in Houston, Anthony Richardson in Indianapolis, and Will Levis in Tennessee, three of the first four quarterbacks that went off the draft board last weekend ended up in the AFC South. Stroud and Richardson are all but guaranteed to take the first snap in week one given their reputations as top-four selections and the quality of the other quarterback options on their respective rosters.
Levis’s case, however, is a bit more dicey for obvious reasons. His draft-night fall was the most pronounced and talked about amongst media, as he went from favorite to be the second overall pick to the second pick of the second round. At first glance, it appears the brass in Tennessee likes Levis and wants him to be the starter in time (unlike 2022’s quarterback selection Malik Willis, who I’m pretty sure Mike Vrabel would rather suplex than ever start in a game again), but Ryan Tannehill has been the guy there during their run of contention for the last four years. He’s a respected veteran who has won before and is in all likelihood currently better at the job right now than Levis is.
But just because the Titans think they can win right now doesn’t mean they will. Derrick Henry—while still the king of all running backs—has finally started to rack up enough body blows that his health is no guarantee. The offensive line was decimated in the past few years and is now banking heavily on first-round pick Peter Skoronski to fix their shortcomings. A hilarious game to play right now is “1980s sitcom side character or 2023 Tennessee Titans wide receiver?” Seriously, what exactly is a Racey McMath?
Titans have the worst WR room I’ve ever seen post-NFL Draft
Treylon Burks about to register 70% target share
— Curtis Patrick 🥇 (@CPatrickNFL) May 3, 2023
Unless the Titans’ defense can turn in a generational performance this season, all signs are pointed toward another losing campaign in Nashville. Say Tennessee’s season immediately goes awry and Vrabel’s squad starts 1-5 while Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars come out of the gate swinging at either 4-2 or 5-1. One would have to think there’s a discussion about pivoting to the franchise’s long-term goals with the current season likely lost, which would mean 10 to 11 games as a rookie starter for Levis as the Titans go into a full rebuilding year.
Three rookie starters (not to mention just a third-year starter in Lawrence who is three months younger than Levis) in one division is new ground. Scouring the depths of the Stathead database, since the Super Bowl era, a division has pretty much never had more than two rookies as the starting signal callers for the incumbent teams, and even that is a rare occurrence. By my best estimate, these are the only six times that a division has had two rookies lead their teams throughout the season.
- Mac Jones and Zach Wilson in the 2021 AFC East.
- Trevor Lawrence and Davis Mills in the 2021 AFC South.
- Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson in the 2018 AFC North (and it would be fair to not count Lamar given how late he truly took over the job).
- Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz in the 2016 NFC East.
- Blake Bortles and Zach Mettenberger in the 2014 AFC South (and Mettenberger only led that year’s Titans squad in QB starts with six total as Tennessee rolled to a 2-14 record).
- Geno Smith and E.J. Manuel in the 2013 AFC East.
It should come as no surprise that all of these are within the past decade. Expecting a rookie quarterback to start in his first year is a recent development that just wasn’t the norm in the old NFL. The Packers waited three whole years before letting Aaron Rodgers see the field. Steve Young sat behind Steve DeBerg in Tampa Bay before taking over in 1985. Heck, just five years ago, the 2018 Browns waited until their fourth game of the season to give No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield the starting gig. “Wait your turn”’ was the old motto for developing young quarterbacks. Now, it’s “don’t waste a year while they’re still on their cheap rookie contract.”
It’s still very possible that one of these rookie gunslingers doesn’t get the opportunity as the primary starter for the whole year. Even though it should be clear and obvious that Davis Mills is not great and has no business starting over Stroud, that doesn’t mean more people won’t talk themselves into Mike Glennon 2.0. Richardson needs starting reps more than anything for his development, but that doesn’t mean the decision-makers in Indianapolis will be overly worried about his current state of play and revert to one of Gardner Minshew, Sam Ehlinger, or even Nick Foles instead. I literally wrote a piece weeks ago about how quarterbacks picked in the second round are supposed to be backups (though the one exception was early picks in the 30s), and as bad as the Titans’ current roster looks, Vrabel has done nothing but win since he’s been there, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone in the slightest if he and Tannehill have one last division-winning campaign in them.
Predicting the 2023 AFC South to be the first-ever division with three rookies as the starting quarterbacks is no shoo-in, and it would go against how we’ve generally understood the NFL and its decision-makers up to this point. But this is the AFC South we’re talking about. Since when has that division ever been afraid to do something out of the ordinary?
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