FILE — In this Aug. 27, 2017 file photo, Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota (8) passes against the Chicago Bears in an NFL football preseason game in Nashville, Tenn. Mariota broke his right leg Dec. 24 in a loss at Jacksonville. Now fully recovered, Mariota provides a big confidence booster for a team trying to follow up a 9-7 record. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski, File)
By Teresa M. Walker, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — The Tennessee Titans might be the AFC South’s most optimistic team thanks to quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Yes, Houston coach Bill O’Brien has picked Tom Savage as his starter with the Texans looking for a third straight division title, and Indianapolis has the always dangerous Andrew Luck — maybe. The Colts are running out of time to activate Luck and his surgically repaired shoulder off the physically unable to perform list.
Jacksonville’s gone back to Blake Bortles for lack of a better option after benching him this preseason.
Then there’s Mariota, 2015’s No. 2 pick overall who had the Titans in control and chasing their first AFC South title since 2008 until breaking his right leg Dec. 24 in a loss at Jacksonville . Now fully recovered, Mariota provides a big confidence boost for a team trying to follow a 9-7 record by knocking off the Texans and Colts in the division they’ve taken turns dominating.
“We have a great one in Marcus,” Titans Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Orakpo said. “We’re going to let him lead the way.”
Tennessee general manager Jon Robinson, who couldn’t fix the entire roster his first offseason, revamped the wide receiving corps and secondary in the latest overhaul.
Now it’s up to coach Mike Mularkey to help a young roster take the next step after a six-win improvement last season. Mularkey has five returning Pro Bowlers and venerated coordinator Dick LeBeau coaching the defense in a combination that has the Titans targeting their first playoff berth since Jeff Fisher coached this franchise.
Here are some things to know about the AFC South:
The biggest question remains when will Luck be ready to play after surgery in mid- January to repair a partially torn labrum originally hurt in a September 2015 win over Tennessee. The Colts must decide whether to activate Luck or keep him on the PUP list to start the season, a move that would keep the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback out the first six weeks. Even if Luck is on the active roster, Scott Tolzien with three career NFL starts still could start Sept. 10 against the Rams.
“We’re not going to put a timetable on it because we will not — will not — put any pressure on this decision,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said Aug. 13 on deciding Luck’s return.
Whoever starts the season at quarterback won’t have center Ryan Kelly, out indefinitely after having foot surgery . His possible replacement, Brian Schwenke, only returned to practice Aug. 23 himself.
The Texans have their three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year back on the field and healthy . J.J. Watt played only three games last season before his second surgery in three months to fix his back. Now the Texans finally can pair Watt with defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who blossomed with a career-best six sacks in Watt’s absence on a defense that gave up the fewest yards per game in the NFL.
Houston shed Brock Osweiler and his contract in March trying to bolster an offense that tied for 28th with 17.4 points per game. O’Brien has picked Savage, with five career starts, to go behind center despite Deshaun Watson making a good impression . Watson is the quarterback the Texans traded up to No. 12 overall to draft out of Clemson.
The Titans had the NFL’s third-best rushing offense thanks to Pro Bowl running back DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry last season. So they focused on helping Mariota and the passing game by making Corey Davis of Western Michigan the first wide receiver drafted at No. 5 overall before selecting Taywan Taylor of Western Kentucky and tight end Jonnu Smith in the third round. Tennessee also signed veteran wide receiver Eric Decker in June after he became a salary cap casualty with the Jets. They join Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker and receiver Rishard Matthews.
“We have more options to attack people, and that’s what we’re always looking for,” Mularkey said.
MONEY FOR SOMETHING
Tom Coughlin and coach Doug Marrone now are overseeing the latest rebuild for a team with an NFL-worst 17 wins over the past four years. Bortles has been there for three of those seasons, and the Jaguars even picked up his fifth-year option in May. The option is guaranteed only for injury.
The Jaguars want to ease the pressure on Bortles and keep him from throwing as much by running the ball more. They drafted running back Leonard Fournette fourth overall , followed by left tackle Cam Robinson in the second round, trying to fix the offensive line. But all the millions spent on cornerback A.J. Bouye and defensive end Calais Campbell to bolster the defense won’t help if Bortles can’t cut down the turnovers.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Titans, Texans, Jaguars, Colts.
AP Sports Writers Michael Marot and Mark Long contributed to this report.
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