AFC South Divisional Preview
The AFC South was one of the weakest divisions in the NFL last year.
While they had bright spots like the 12-4 Houston Texans and 11-5 Indianapolis Colts, the bottom two teams of the division were some of the worst teams last season.
The Tennessee Titans improved from 2011 by putting up a 6-10 record with their mediocre squad, while the Jacksonville Jaguars only managed to win two of their sixteen games.
Can the Texans three-peat the division? Can Andrew Luck continue to improve without offensive coordinator Bruce Arians there to help him out? Does Jake Locker have a breakout season in him? Where can Jacksonville find stability and consistency in their lineup?
All these questions and more will be answered in my AFC South Divisional Preview.
1. Houston Texans
The Houston Texans will remain the cream of the crop in the AFC South with a successful offseason in 2013.
Houston boasted a top-10 offense and top-10 defense on the way to their an impressive 12-4 record last season.
Part of Houston’s problems in the past couples years is not having a No.2 receiver to line up across from Andre Johnson. However, QB Matt Schaub will have Clemson product DeAndre Hopkins to throw to this year (who is a huge step up from Kevin Walter).
Hopkins, a 6-foot-1 dynamite receiver, will certainly take some pressure off of Johnson after he put up 18 touchdowns at Clemson last year.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Texans are still as dominant as last year — if not better.
At safety, while they did lose Glover Quin, the organization brought in long-time Raven Ed Reed and rookie D.J. Swearinger to improve their depth. Reed, on top of his elusive ball-hawking skills, will bring a form of leadership that he showed in Baltimore on and off the field. Swearinger will bring in a youthful prowess while he shows off his talents in coverage.
And while it might not look like a huge signing now, punter Shane Lechler has been one of the greatest punters of all-time in his time with the Oakland Raiders — look for him to have a huge impact.
If Houston can continue to have consistent play from their star power on both sides of the ball, the Texans will certainly repeat as division winners. And with the new additions, maybe they will finally win a playoff game that isn’t against the Cincinnati Bengals.
2. Indianapolis Colts
Key Additions: Signed QB Matt Hasselbeck, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, OT Gosder Cherilus, G Donald Thomas, DT Ricky Jean-Francois, OLB Erik Walden, CB Greg Toler, S LaRon Landry; traded for LB Kelvin Sheppard; drafted OLB Bjoern Werner, G Hugh Thornton, C Khaled Holmes
The Colts were the feel-good story of the 2012-13 season when they cruised to a 11-5 record behind their rookie QB Andrew Luck and Head Coach Chuck Pagano’s lovely storyline of recovering from cancer.
But don’t expect the 2013-14 season to be a breeze for the Indianapolis Colts.
Last season, Luck and the Colts had no pressure on them after Indianapolis had a poor 2-win 2011-12 season. While this season, we will see how the team plays under the pressure with the expectation level set high due to success last year.
The Colts focused their offseason on improving their offensive line — which they were successful in doing.
Management brought in offensive lineman Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas in free agency to bolster a line that lead the rushing unit to only 22nd overall in the league. And while big bucks were used to land these two big men, the money was put to good use.
Not only did the organization bring in his college coach at Stanford for the offensive coordinator position, but they got former Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw and former Raiders first round draft pick Darrius Heyward-Bey to improve Luck’s toys to play with.
On the defensive side, the Colts brought in two key players to help improve a team that ranked 26th in yards allowed last season — those being safety LaRon Landry and DT Ricky Jean-Francois. Both players bring talent that was being lacked in their two positions.
One player that will certainly be missed by the Indianapolis Colts and their fans, will be outside linebacker Dwight Freeney. While he wasn’t fitting well in the 3-4 defense set, the Colts lose a key presence that could lead on and off the field.
The Colts must prove that they can keep up with the elite talents — due to only having 3 wins against teams that made the 2012-13 playoffs.
Luck should be improved in his sophomore season and the offensive unit has all the right players to be headed for success.
If the defense can prove that they are better than last season and Luck leads the offense the same was as last year, Indianapolis could give Houston a run for their money.
3. Tennessee Titans
Key Additions: Signed QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Shonn Greene, WR Kevin Walter, TE Delanie Walker, G Andy Levitre, G/C Rob Turner, DT Sammie Lee Hill, LB Moise Fokou, S Bernard Pollard, S George Wilson; drafted G Chance Warmack, WR Justin Hunter, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, OLB Zavier Gooden, G/C Brian Schwenke
After three years in the pros, people are wondering if Jake Locker will finally have a breakout season with the Titans.
But it isn’t that fair to put all the blame on a young guy who was injury plagued in his first season as starting quarterback.
But finally, Locker and RB Chris Johnson will finally have some room to make a play.
Tennessee overhauled this offseason on their offensive line and to good measure. At guard, the starting duo will be long-time vet Andy Levitre and Alabama sensation Chance Warmack.
It gets better — Rob Turner and Chris Spencer are their back-ups. So if they lose a guard to injury, like they always do, another starting talent will be brought in to take their place.
The improvement at guard will give Chris Johnson, who was devoid of any blocking the past two seasons, the chance to get back to his old days as one of the best running backs in the league.
Some other great moves will really help an offense that finished 26th overall in yards per game in the 2012-13 season.
Bringing in former Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick will give the Titans a solid back-up if Locker goes down. RB Shonn Greene will prove that it was not his fault that the Jets offense was so bad. WR Kevin Walter and TE Delanie Walker will give Locker some targets for their loss of Jared Cook at tight end.
Jared Cook will be the biggest subtraction for the team this season. Delanie Walker, the Titans new tight end, had 40 catches in the past two seasons with the 49ers. While who he was replacing, Jared Cook, had 44 catches just last year. Big shoes to fill — if I say so myself.
The Titans defense, which gave up the most points per game in 2012-13, will be looking to improve from last year.
Other than stealing safety Bernard Pollard from the Ravens, Tennessee is looking to have a repeat of last season — unless a miracle happens.
A lot rides on the offense of the Titans this year. Chris Johnson and Jake Locker will be looked at to lead this team. With questions on defense, Tennessee will have to settle for mediocre this season.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Key Additions: Signed RB Justin Forsett, WR Mohamed Massaquoi, DT Sen’Derrick Marks, DT Roy Miller, OLB Geno Hayes, CB Alan Ball, CB Marcus Trufant; drafted OT Luke Joeckel, S Johnathan Cyprien, CB Dwayne Gratz, WR Ace Sanders, RB Denard Robinson, S Josh Evans
The Jacksonville Jaguars had one of the worst seasons that anyone would’ve ever imagined.
While ranked 30th in offense and 29th in defense, the Jaguars struggled to obtain their 2-14 record last season.
But with the new head coach Gus Bradley and an excellent draft, Jacksonville is hoping to improve their record as they rebuild their franchise.
While talking about their rebuilding stage, let’s touch on how the Jaguars utilized the 2013 NFL Draft to their advantage.
First of all, the organization made the right choice by drafting offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, 2nd overall pick, to sure up the line for the Jags.
Later during the second round, management lucked out by getting safety Johnathan Cyprien — who was being hyped by many scouts as the best safety choice in the draft.
Jacksonville also improved their secondary more with the picks of Gratz and Evans. Then, they decided to go after two offensive weapons in Ace Saunders and Denard Robinson — who both have impressed in camp.
The future is looking bright for the Jaguars — especially after they received word that Maurice Jones-Drew is healthy and will play during the preseason.
Jones-Drew, who has been injury-plagued for the past two seasons, will look to improve on the Jaguars’ 30th ranked rushing yards per game (85.6).
The only glaring issue for Jacksonville on offense is at quarterback — especially with anybody on the team as a possibility. Could constantly questioned Blaine Gabbert take the reins? How about veteran Chad Henne? Or maybe young studs Mike Kafka and Matt Scott? Will Denard Robinson take some snaps behind center? Not even I can answer these questions — so we will have to wait and see.
On defense, the Jaguars will mostly rely on their veteran players and young talent to make something happen this season. With little to no improvement on the defensive line, the Jags are looking at another unsuccessful season on the defensive side of the ball.
While all signs are pointing towards a positive future in Jacksonville, the team and management will be realistic in their goals as they try to improve their record in a rebuilding season.
Offensive Impact Player: Kendall Wright, WR for Tennessee Titans
Kendall Wright was pretty successful in his rookie campaign with the Titans — although he had a up-and-down season that featured impressive games followed by questionable performances.
Reports have said that Wright has lost 15 pounds this offseason and is looking faster than ever at training camp.
With a year already on his belt and stableness at starting quarterback this year, Kendall Wright will certainly improve his stats from last year.
The Baylor product who had 626 yards and 4 touchdowns last season will show the world that he is ready to take on the role as Jake Locker’s go-to receiver.
Defensive Impact Player: Whitney Mercilus, LB for Houston Texans
Mercilus put up 25 combined tackles, 6 sacks and even chipped in 2 forced fumbles for the team last year.
While most seem to think that Mercilus has no room to improve, the absence of Connor Barwin in the defense will most likely take the sophomore player to double digit sacks next season.
Mercilus has no mercy on the field and quarterbacks will be watching out for him on the blitz in 2013-14.
Mercilus is hoping that he can impact the team so much that they can win the division for the third time and finally make noise in the playoffs — which I believe he can do.