NFL season preview – AFC South

 

1. Houston Texans

Well they finally got over the hump last season.  Peyton went down and the Texans rose up to win the division and win a playoff game.  Now they’re far and away the class of the division.  It’s bizarre that 2 years ago if you said they would lose Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans and be one of the favorites to go to the Super Bowl people would think you had lost it.  Such is life in the NFL. 

Obviously the big key for them getting anywhere in the playoffs are if Matt Schuab can finally stay healthy for a full season.  They will need home field in the playoffs, and as good as T.J. Yates was in relief last season he isn’t going to lead them anywhere.  I don’t love the depth of weapons he has to work with but Andre Johnson and the running combination of Foster and Tate is elite.  They released RT Eric Winston in a surprise move during the offseason so that could hurt the run game a bit seeing as how the O-line might be weaker. 

The big turn around last season for them was Wade Phillips coming in and transforming the defense and a lot of experts feel Wade has more pieces in place this season for his 3-4 scheme to be even more effective.  Say what you want about Phillips as a head coach in this league, but as a DC he is elite.  Brooks Reed looks like a flat out steal from the 2011 draft (2nd round pick), 1st round pick from 2011 J.J. Watt was an amazing pick as well and is on his way to becoming one of the top 3-4 D-ends in football, and even when he isn’t juicing Brian Cushing is an elite LB.  The secondary is solid not spectacular which again is a drastic turnaround from 2 years ago.  Adding Jonathan Joseph was huge for this franchise.  2 years ago teams were scoring on them at will, this season they might be the best defensive squad in the NFL.  

This team has Super Bowl aspirations this season but will need to stay healthy to have a legit shot.  The division title however looks like a lock at this point.  It would take a stunning performance from someone else combined with a disastrous season from the Texans.  Don’t see that happening. 

 

2. Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts PP (Post Peyton) era has begun, but they have a guy that will be elite taking over.  Absolutely amazing for the Colts fans that they get to go from one to another.  Weather or not Andrew Luck will be Peyton Manning is irrelevant, he will be one of the best of his era and that’s all the Colts fans should worry about for the next 15 seasons.  As wacky as Jim Irsay is, he is one of the best owners in the league.  I love the job he did cleaning house and starting fresh with new GM Ryan Grigson out of the Philadelphia, who then hired former Ravens DC Chuck Pagano as head coach, who then hired Bruce Arians fresh off being let go from the Steelers to be his OC.  All 3 guys coming from 3 of the most consistent organizations in football. 

I love the job Grigson did in the draft too.  Obviously Luck was easy, but then getting Coby Fleener in the 2nd round who was Luck’s TE at Stanford and the best TE in the draft, then getting Dwayne Allen in the 3rd round who may have been the 2nd best TE in the draft.  Obviously they recognize that a 2 TE system is the way things are trending in the NFL, and these 2 could be lethal in a few years with Luck running the show.  I’m expecting a bounce back season from Reggie Wayne, a good WR still needs someone to get him the ball and he definitely lacked that last season.  Still, they are thin at WR, but watch out for 4th round pick T.Y. Hilton out of FIU.  He is only 5’9, but he is a burner and could emerge as one of the top slot receivers in the league in addition to be a good return man.  Donald Brown emerged last season as a capable RB.  If he can continue to improve it would be huge for Luck to have the luxury of a dependable running game.

The defense is switching to a 3-4 this season and all eyes will be on Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis going from DE to OLB.  It may not seem like too drastic of a move as they will still be getting after the QB, but there now will be times that they have to drop into coverage and that will be a challenge.  It was a big swing for Grigson to deal next years 2nd round pick to the Dolphins for Vonate Davis, but I like the move. Davis is still young, very talented, and is experienced in the 3-4 scheme.  The secondary may have been the weak spot on an already below average defense soDavis can only help. 

Might be a shock to some of you that I have the Colts in front of the Titans in this division.  I have been on the Andrew Luck bandwagon for a long time now.  This kid is legit and I believe could be even better than Cam Newton was last season as a rookie.  There for 7-9 if not 8-8 is in my mind very possible for this team.

 

3. Tennessee Titans

They offered Peyton Manning the franchise in the offseason!  Ok, only part ownership in the franchise.  And they struck out.  Manning aside, this team didn’t pursue much in terms of free agency, and didn’t make much noise at the draft either and it has them very much so under the radar coming into this season. 

As you have noticed by now when starting these previews off I start by talking about the QB, but with the Titans it’s all about Chris Johnson.  Can CJ 2K get back to being one of the league’s top backs?  If he can then they might challenge Houstonfor the division title.  But if he can’t this team is in trouble.  I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the middle.  Meanwhile the QB position is now owned by 2011 1st round pick Jake Locker.  My take on Locker is that he has the talent but could be a guy that always leaves you wanting more.  Before Andrew Luck’s stock went through the roof in 2010, Locker was “the guy”.  But he had a disastrous senior season at Washington and his stock plummeted.  He has all the tools including the leadership abilities, but he is inaccurate as a passer, much like Brady Quinn was and could never over come that.  They took Baylor WR Kendall Wright in the 1st round who is a total burner on the outside.  If Kenny Britt can stay out of trouble off the field and stay healthy on the field then whoever the QB is will have one of the league’s top tandems at WR. 

The defense has always been in the top half of the league and that won’t change.  They got a gem at MLB in Colin McCarthy, the D-line is solid and both Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley at DE have the ability to end the season with double digit sack totals.  The secondary however took a blow in losing Courtland Finnigan in free agency.  They’re suspect at corner, but Michael Griffin is one of the most underrated safety’s in the NFL. 

I really have a tough time getting a feel for this team seeing as there has been so much turnover the last 2 years.  It might be too early to turn the team over to Jake Locker.  It’s a big roll of the dice and I believe they will take a step back this season in doing so.

 

4. Jacksonville Jaguars

I thought hard about putting this team in 5th in the division.  They are the least sexy franchise in the NFL.  Nothing they do gets attention or yields great results.  That was fine when they were silent killers who would punch you in the mouth and get in the playoffs, but now they don’t punch you in the mouth.  At best they scratch you on the arm.  New coach Mike Mularky is a different coach than Tom Coughlin and Jack Del Rio.  He is an offensive guy that is going to spread it out and air it out a lot more than the Jags have in the past. 

I personally had no idea Blaine Gabbert would look THIS bad so soon.  I wasn’t a big believer in him coming out of Missouri, but I thought he was going to be a kid that had all the tools but just didn’t have the leadership abilities.  He has no confidence in the pocket.  I heard Colin Cowherd describe it best last season in saying he doesn’t have “physical confidence”.  He doesn’t appear to be a guy that is willing to take a hit, not willing to stand in there to make a big throw for his team in fear of being hurt.  The good news for Jags fans is that he has looked good in the preseason, so perhaps there is hope he can turn it around.  Not many weapons for him either, although Justin Blackmon will be a total beast.  At worst Blackmon will be a Plaxico Burress type…and no he won’t shoot himself.  But Plax was always a guy that maybe couldn’t beat you deep, but he would overpower corners.  But other than him, MJD has ended his holdout.  But I don’t think anyone expects a big season out of the normally very reliable running back.  Think about how holding out hurt Chris Johnson last season. 

They used to be a team that would dominate both the offensive and defensive lines, but they aren’t that anymore either.  The defense isn’t bad but it’s not that good either.  Paul Posluszny at MLB is as close to a star player as they have on that side of the ball.  I don’t see anyone on the d-line that can get double digit sacks this season, and the secondary has a lot of guys that are solid, but nobody that should be feared. 

This team is the favorite to be picking 1st overall next April, and I would say by December there will be a ton of talk of moving toL.A. as attendance will continue to drop.

 

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