By TERESA M. WALKER AP Pro Football Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons has never even thought of his Tennessee Titans as rebuilding, especially not under coach Mike Vrabel.
“I want to win, and I know Vrabes and them want to win,” Simmons said. “So I’m sure it’s never crossed their mind.”
The Jacksonville Jaguars are the defending AFC South champs, and it’s a title that the Tennessee Titans want back as soon as possible. The Titans lost out to their oldest division rival in the final minutes of the regular-season finale on a scoop and score while starting a quarterback signed around Christmas.
That was the seventh straight loss to end a season where Tennessee still had a chance at a third straight AFC South title despite leading the NFL in most players used because of injuries.
The Jaguars see a bright future for themselves with Trevor Lawrence after his first season with coach Doug Pederson.
So what if they squeaked into the postseason with a five-game winning streak? They then beat the Chargers and stood toe-to-toe with the eventual champs before losing 27-20 to the Chiefs in the divisional round. There’s a huge comfort level, especially with wide receiver Calvin Ridley now on board.
“It’s just encouraging for everybody, everybody feels like they can go play free,” Lawrence said. “I like where we’re at right now.”
THIRD TIME THE CHARM?
The Titans have led the NFL in most players used each of the past two seasons because of injuries with 137. They placed 31 on injured reserve after the final roster cutdown in 2022, and quarterback Ryan Tannehill missed five games himself. They tied for third in the NFL with rookies playing 145 games.
Tennessee has a new general manager who cleared a bunch of salary cap space by cutting Titans who couldn’t stay healthy. That’s why Vrabel will have new offensive line with Aaron Brewer the only returning starter, and he’s moved right a spot to center.
Ran Carthon also signed three-time All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins before training camp. Now Tannehill and three-time Pro Bowl running back Derrick Henry, both in the final year of their contracts, have some help for an offense that was 30th in passing last year.
The Jaguars go into their second season with Pederson along with 21 returning starters. Now the defending AFC South champs must prove they can stand up to the attention and schedule that goes to a division winner after going 9-8 last season.
They get to host the Chiefs, 49ers, Cincinnati and Baltimore. But they visit defending AFC East champ Buffalo after flying home from London and a “home” game against Atlanta. They also visit Pittsburgh, and the regular-season finale will be in Tennessee — a place they’ve won just twice in the past 11 games.
Jacksonville also has to give Lawrence and the offense some help. The Jaguars managed only 35 sacks last season, better than only six other teams. They need much more from Travon Walker, the No. 1 overall pick last season, and it could help that Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson are in contract years.
Houston is starting over once again, this time with DeMeco Ryans making his head coaching debut as the Texans’ fourth different coach in as many seasons.
At least Ryans is very familiar with this franchise where he started his NFL career as a linebacker. He also has C.J. Stroud, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft and the starter at quarterback. Ryans also has the third pick overall in defensive end Will Anderson Jr. from Alabama to help anchor the defense.
REVOLVING QUARTERBACK DOOR
Richardson won’t have Jonathan Taylor’s help in the backfield for at least the first four games starting Sept. 10 when the Colts host Jacksonville. Indianapolis placed the 2021 NFL rushing leader on the reserve/physically unable to perform list Tuesday.
Taylor not only wants to be traded or a pricey new contract with his rookie deal paying him only $4.3 million this season, he needed offseason surgery on an injured ankle that kept him out of six games last year when he had his worst season yet as Indy went 4-12-1.
Richardson and first-time head coach Shane Steichen certainly could use Taylor as a big piece in their rebuilding project.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
Titans, Jaguars, Texans, Colts.