Rounding up training camp reports from around the AFC South

If you’re a regular at this site, you’re probably pretty up to date on the comings and goings at Titans training camp (if not, you can catch up here). However, you might not be quite as up-to-date on the latest with the division rival Colts, Jaguars, and Texans.

Of course, you’ve probably seen some of the big headlines — injuries in Indy, Trevor Lawrence hype videos out of Jacksonville, and, well… not much out of Houston — but we wanted to take a bit deeper look at the Titans division rivals. So we scoured reports from beat writers from those three teams to see what the general vibe is around the division. Here’s what we found:

Indianapolis Colts

Injuries

This is obviously the headliner from Colts camp. New starting quarterback Carson Wentz and All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson both suffered the same foot injury and underwent surgery earlier this week. The timeframe that Frank Reich provided for both players was a wide “5 to 12 weeks” range that could put these players back on the field anywhere between Week 1 and Week 8 of the regular season. This article from The Athletic cites a medical expert who said they would realistically expect an 8 to 10 week return time for Wentz.

When those two come back — and how effective they can be upon their return — will go a long way towards determining whether or not the Colts can contend in the AFC South in 2021. We’ll discuss their replacements below in a little bit more depth.

However, they’re also not the only ones dealing with injuries in Indy. Eric Fisher, the left tackle that the Colts signed to replace stalwart Anthony Castonzo, is on the PUP list as he recovers from the torn Achilles he suffered in January. It seems likely that he will miss at least a game or two at the start of the season as well.

Similarly, second-round defensive lineman Dayo Odeyingbo is on the NFI list with a torn Achilles. We’ll see when he’s able to make his NFL debut.

Also not currently practicing are star center Ryan Kelly, who suffered an elbow hyperextension and is expected to miss a couple weeks of camp, and Pro Bowl linebacker Darius Leonard, who is working his way back from an ankle surgery in June. Both players seem likely to be back before Week 1 and are established vets who don’t need a ton of training camp reps either way, but obviously any injury or surgery is less than ideal for your key starters.

Three more players are currently on the COVID list: starting corner Xavier Rhodes, a rotational defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, and one of the potential temporary starters at left tackle, Julién Davenport.

Who is standing out?

We’ll get to some conversation about the injury replacements shortly, but here are some guys that seem to get drawing positive reviews from Colts camp:

DL Grover Stewart

Stewart is a guy who has been on the rise for the last couple years, and he’s part of the reason that the Colts felt comfortable letting Denico Autry walk in free agency (though they did try pretty hard to bring Autry back). The big nose tackle is standing out at camp playing next to DeForest Buckner as reports have pretty consistently been that the defensive line is dominating the battle in the trenches, particularly with Nelson, Kelly, and Fisher all out.

Stewart’s continued emergence gives Indy one of the best interior defensive lines in the NFL.

LB Bobby Okereke

Another player who has been steadily rising since being selected in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Okereke has been around the ball frequently at Colts camps according to reports, with several writers calling him one of the best players on the field.

Like Stewart with Buckner, Okereke’s emergence just gives even more teeth to a Colts linebacking crew headlined by Darius Leonard.

DE Kwity Paye

Early returns on the first-round pick have been good. He tested like a freak athlete at his pro day and that athleticism is reportedly showing up early in camp. Word is that he will have a significant role right away in Indy’s defense.

Indy has spent a ton of resources building one of the most talented defenses in the NFL and Paye adds to that treasure chest of defensive talent in the front seven.

DE Ben Banogu

Despite being picked a round ahead of Okereke in the 2019 draft, Banogu has yet to really make an impact for the Colts defense. He’s accumulated just 2.5 sacks and 17 total tackles in two seasons in Indy and has found playing time difficult to come by. However, he’s been a regular in the backfield during Colts camp so far according to reports.

Zach’s tweet above is obviously a bit of an exaggeration and there is some track record of Banogu looking great in camp and then disappearing once the season arrives, but he’s at least someone to keep an eye on.

What’s the general vibe?

Well, you may have noticed a theme with the list of standout players listed above… they were all on defense. Reports from Colts media have been pretty consistent that the defense is dominating camp so far.

And they should be. They’re one of the best units in the league and they’re currently competing against a unit that is rolling out Sam Tevi, Chris Reed, Danny Pinter, Mark Glowinski, and Braden Smith to block for Jacob Eason. That’s not exactly an offensive group that strikes fear into the hearts of any defense, much less one as talented as Indy’s. Tevi and Reed may end up starting a game or several depending on the returns of Fisher and Nelson. Both backups have started games at the NFL level, but neither is anywhere close to the level of the former top-10 picks they’re replacing. With a rookie quarterback likely to be under center early, that could be a major problem.

There are some offensive players who are garnering positive reviews. Second-year players Johnathan Taylor and Michael Pittman are both getting plenty of glowing reports from Colts media. Those guys are absolutely critical to this offense. One other positive on offense… while Colts reporters are quick to dispel any notion of a battle with Eason, early reviews of rookie QB Sam Ehlinger have been exceedingly positive.

However, there is significant concern about the performance of Jacob Eason. If the Colts end up in a situation where he has to start games, things could be pretty ugly on offense in general. One writer joked that Eason’s favorite target so far has been linebacker Bobby Okereke, who has several picks on throws over the middle from the young quarterback.

There has been the predictable speculation about quarterbacks that the Colts could trade for — Nick Foles, Marcus Mariota, Gardner Minshew, etc. — but all reports out of Indy seem to indicate that Reich’s plan is to give Eason a chance for as long as Wentz is unavailable. Given their tough early-season schedule getting out of the gates with five straight games against 10-plus win teams from 2020 — vs Seahawks, vs Rams, at Titans, at Dolphins, and vs Ravens — a slow Eason start could put their season in serious jeopardy before Wentz can even get settled into his new offense.

Overall, I think there is real concern about the offense right now. With Fisher, Wentz, and Nelson all in serious jeopardy of missing games at the start of the season, it’s hard to see how Indy’s offense could function at a high enough level to compete with quality opponents without that many key cogs. The defense looks like it is going to be excellent once again, but this is an offense-driven league.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Injuries

The Jaguars have largely avoided major injury issues so far, though they have seen some key players such as recent first-round picks C.J. Henderson and Taven Bryan going on the COVID list early in camp.

Who is standing out?

QB Trevor Lawrence

The coverage of Lawrence has, obviously, been pretty breathless from both local and national outlets so far. That’s pretty much what you would expect for a guy who has been anointed as the “next generational QB prospect” ever since his Clemson Tigers beat Alabama to win a national championship as a true freshman.

However, virtually all reports are that Lawrence looks to be as-advertised so far in his first training camp. Urban Meyer is still carrying on the charade of a “competition” with Gardner Minshew, but we all know that the No. 1 overall pick is going to be behind center when the kickoff Week 1 in Houston.

Obviously, looking good in camp — against the league’s 31st-ranked scoring defense from 2020 no less — is one thing. Carrying that over into regular-season action is another. Also, it’s not like he’s been perfect. Lawrence had a rough day on Monday, starting team periods 1-for-6 with three interceptions. However, the consensus is certainly that Lawrence has been good and he absolutely makes the Jaguars offense much more intriguing heading into 2021 than it has been in a looooong time.

OT Walker Little

Little was picked in the second round by the Jaguars and is quickly making an impression in Jacksonville. The Jaguars picked up the fifth-year option for starting left tackle Cam Robinson and still have former high second-round pick Jawaan Taylor at right tackle, but Little seems to be at least making the seats a little warm for the Jaguars starting tackles.

Some exaggeration here too, obviously, but Little has been a pretty consistent positive in Jaguars reports.

WR Laviska Shenault

Shenault had a solid rookie year, but it sounds like the versatile receiver is primed to take another step heading into year two. He’s reportedly shown a good early connection with Lawrence.

S Andre Cisco

Lots of rookies making this list should be somewhat telling about where the Jaguars are as a whole right now, but Cisco — Jacksonville’s third-round safety out of Syracuse — has consistently stood out in camp according to reports. He’s pushing to earn a starting role right out of the gates across from veteran Rayshawn Jenkins in the Jags revamped secondary.

What’s the general vibe?

I’d say that the easiest way to sum it up is optimism for the future. While I wouldn’t quite rule out the possibility that the Jags could contend for a playoff spot in 2021, I think it’s still very safe to say that this team is building towards 2022 and beyond right now.

Injecting Trevor Lawrence into a pretty talented offensive group should at least make Jacksonville interesting to watch. A solid offensive line with lots of experience together and an intriguing set of weapons — D.J. Chark, Laviska Shenault, Marvin Jones, James Robinson, Travis Etienne — is a better starting point than most highly drafted quarterbacks get when they come into the league.

However, this is still a very young team overall which usually means inconsistency. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Jaguars pull an upset or two against playoff-caliber teams this year, but I also wouldn’t be shocked to see them drop games against the Texans and other cellar dwellers.

Beyond offensive consistency, there are a ton of question marks remaining on defense. The Jaguars probably feel pretty good about linebackers Myles Jack and Joe Schobert. Josh Allen remains a dangerous pass rusher despite a down year in 2020. Free agent signing Shaquill Griffin has mostly received positive early reviews. Outside of those four, there isn’t a lot to fear (and frankly, none of those four are truly elite defenders).

The two 2020 first-round picks — cornerback C.J. Henderson and edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson — are not off to great starts in camp. Henderson has been out on the COVID list and Chaisson has been struggling (and it sounds like he’s going to be more of a rotational player behind starter Jihad Ward across from Josh Allen).

There is hope in Jacksonville with a new regime coming in and an elite quarterback prospect under center. Will this rebuild be different than the last few for the Jaguars? We will see.

Houston Texans

Injuries

Let’s start with the story from Texans camp… Deshaun Watson. Obviously, his situation extends far beyond the “injury” category, but an injury has now become a part of the greater saga. After reporting to camp to avoid being fined by the team, Watson participated in practices in Houston for the first few days, though not in his usual role as the starting quarterback. He worked with the fourth team at quarterback and even lined up at safety during some walk-through portions.

On Tuesday, that routine changed with Watson suddenly missing from practices with a “foot injury”. There are questions in Houston about whether or not Watson — who has barely done anything strenuous at camp — actually has an injury or if he’s just using that as an excuse to remove himself from the team while he continues to push for a trade.

There was a report last night from CBS Sports’ Chris Trapasso that trade talks between the Eagles and Texans for Watson were “heating up”, though the Houston Chronicle’s Aaron Wilson and PFT’s Mike Florio disputed that claim shortly thereafter. However, one thing that I think is pretty clear right now is that Watson will not be behind center for the Texans anytime soon.

In actual injury news, the Texans are relatively healthy through one week of camp. The exception being two offensive lineman. Marcus Cannon — the 33-year old long-time Patriots right tackle who the team traded for this offseason — has missed all of camp after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. He’s expected to miss most (if not all) of camp.

Lane Taylor, another veteran offensive line addition, is still working his way back from an ACL injury suffered early last season. He’s expected to compete for one of several open starting jobs on the Houston offensive line when healthy.

Who is standing out?

S Justin Reid

No surprise here. Reid is one of a very small number of Texans with an established strong track record of play. He’s continuing to build on that strong foundation early in camp.

WR Nico Collins

Rookie receiver Nico Collins has drawn strong reviews throughout camp. While the Julio Jones trade certainly takes some of the heat off of this narrative, Titans fans will probably keep a close eye on Collins in comparison to Dez Fitzpatrick and Monty Rice over the course of their careers. Collins was one of the top receivers on the board when Tennessee traded down from pick 85 in the third round, later taking Rice at pick 92 before coming back up to select Fitzpatrick early in the fourth. The Titans were rumored to be interested in Collins pre-draft and early returns from Houston are that he’s looking like a steal.

The Texans need help at receiver after losing Will Fuller in free agency and trading Randall Cobb back to the Packers. Brandin Cooks is the only returning pass-catcher who tallied more than 500 yards receiving last year.

CB Vernon Hargreaves

There have been some… ahem… struggles at the quarterback position which we will get to in a moment, but Hargreaves has taken advantage of those errant throws consistently.

What’s the general vibe?

I think this generally toggles between distracted and dread. The distraction is obviously Watson, whose legal issues and trade demands linger over this entire organization and soak up an inordinate amount of the media coverage coming from Houston. In fact, I found it somewhat difficult to find information on the Texans camp due to the overwhelming amount of media content dedicated to Watson.

Dread would be the word I’d use to describe the general outlook for the 2021 season. This Texans team will be virtually unrecognizable from the group that won the AFC South just 20 months ago. The stars of that 2019 Texans team — Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, J.J. Watt, and Will Fuller — are all either out the door or on their way out.

Tyrod Taylor is expected to be the starter at quarterback as rookie Davis Mills has struggled mightily according to reports. A logjam of veteran running backs including David Johnson, Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, and Rex Burkhead is long on numbers, but light on excitement. Brandin Cooks headlines an exceedingly unaccomplished wide receiver corps.

The Texans’ home opener against the Jaguars looks to be a good barometer on exactly how bad this thing could get in Houston. If you can’t get a home win against a Jaguars team that went 1-15 last year and is breaking in a rookie starting quarterback, it’s probably going to be a long season.

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