The AFC South is a constantly morphing division, where each of the four teams seem poised to head in one direction, and turn around and do the exact opposite. For years, the Indianapolis Colts were the toast of the teams, with Peyton Manning consistently making his division rivals pay for their lack of comparable quarterbacking. With his departure for Denver, the division finally felt wide open for the consistently good (and occasionally great) Houston Texans to finally get their day in the sun. Well, they have won the South for two consecutive seasons, but the Colts have quickly turned around a 2-14 embarrassment in 2011 and rode into a wildcard spot last year on the strengths of rookie phenom Andrew Luck and strong inspirational support from their ailing head coach Chuck Pagano. With all the drama surrounding these two teams, it’s easy to forget the likes of the Tennessee Titans, who have made some key improvements since last year. The lowly Jacksonville Jaguars appear to be headed in the right direction, but are most likely a year or two away from competing with the rest of the division.
1) – Houston Texans
Back-to-back division championships were quickly cut short by early exits in the postseason. For too many years now, the rallying cry in Houston has been “So good…so what?” This is a team that desperately needs to take the next logical step, which at this point can be no less than a Superbowl appearance. Luckily for them, they have a roster stacked with the kind of talent that championship teams are made of.
While his inconsistencies have cost the Texans more than a few hard fought losses in the past, Matt Schaub is not even close to being a liability at the QB position. His TDs have dipped some over the last 2 seasons, but he’s ability done an admirable job of keeping his turnovers to a minimum. Of course, Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison know their offense is geared almost solely on the abilities of Arian Foster, one of the league’s best. Andre Johnson has been a top-5 WR for years, and despite his age is still capable of making defenses pay for stacking the box. The Texans have to hope that 1st round pick DeAndre Hopkins (already being referred to as Andre2 in certain circles) can help expand a passing attack that can become stagnant if that other Andre is limited. The Texans also happen to sport one of the league’s best offensive lines, anchored by the perennially underrated Duane Brown and supplemented inside by Probowlers Chris Myers and Wade Smith. Overall, you’re looking at one of the most well-rounded offenses in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, the emergence of J.J. Watt as an absolute powerhouse was more than welcomed. His 2012 numbers suggest NFL MVP-caliber ability, and he was a constant disruptive force, even throughout nagging injuries. His presence, along with some new blood and familiar faces fresh from injuries, should make the Texans defense more formidable in 2013. Brian Cushing is this unit’s heart and soul, and he needs to stay on the field to make the defense truly click. Inconsistencies in the secondary may be shored up with the addition of veteran Ed Reed, whenever he happens to make it onto the field. His experience and field vision will no doubt help his fellow DBs in adjusting to opposing offenses’ attacks. More than anything, the Texans are going to have to depend on healthy and improved play from their linebacking corps, generating enough pressure to help mask inefficiencies in the back 4 that have cost the team more games than they’d care to admit.
Causes For Concern:
It’s hard to really put your finger on what prevents the Texans from winning certain games, or from progressing further than just a playoff team and into a championship one. The talent is there at almost every pivotal position, but for whatever reason things seem to inevitably unravel. There’s been a fair share of talk regarding Gary Kubiak’s outcoaching himself, and certain special teams deficiencies dropping them into holes they can’t dig themselves out of. More than anything, opposing offenses managing to exploit DC Wade Phillip’s blitz-happy schemes has to be a problem the team addresses. The Patriots laid the blueprint for this in last year’s divisional round, and you can be sure the NFL took notice. It’s up to Wade Phillips to adjust his scheme to counteract the susceptible portions of his defense.
No doubt in my mind. One of the best offensive teams in the NFL would have to drastically drop off their production, or have their defense falter, in order to miss playing late into January. We’re not talking about a shabby defense here, either. On paper, the Houston Texans have a team that is as capable as any in the AFC at eventually representing the conference in the Superbowl. All they have to do is take that next big step, and show up prepared and healthy in the postseason. Easier said than done.
2 – Indianapolis Colts
The surprise team of 2012, the Colts managed to turn around a disastrous 2011 campaign, fighting their way into the postseason as a wildcard. All the hype surrounding Andrew Luck seems to have been justified, as he consistently made highlight reel deep passes and more than once rallied his team to come-from-behind victories. With a nucleus of young talent growing into the NFL together, and a handful of role players added during free agency, the Colts should at the very least compete for a playoff spot once again in 2013.
Much of their ability to return to the postseason hinges on Andrew Luck, of course. He pretty much lived up to the massive amount of hype coming into 2012, posting very impressive numbers in ex-offensive coordinator Bruce Arians’ deep-ball offense. Emerging as a great complement to the experienced capabilities of Reggie Wayne was young T.Y Hilton, who averaged over 17 yards per catch and made some dazzling plays amongst his 50 receptions and 7 TDs. Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener could be the next great TE tandem in the NFL, as Allen in particular showed clutchness and the ability to split defenses. Darius Heyward-Bey arrives after a mostly frustrating few years in Oakland, and if he can stay healthy, should prove to be more effective in Indianapolis as another piece instead of the focal point of the passing attack, which remains Reggie Wayne.
While the offense has real potential to turn into an NFL powerhouse, the defense must depend on a smaller quantity of playmakers. Robert Mathis experienced some growing pains in the team’s switch to a 3-4 base defense, but still managed to produce 8 sacks and should be able to get back into double-digits with a year at OLB under his belt. It’s too early to tell, but top draft pick Bjoern Werner definitely has both the athleticism and track record to help improve the pass rush. The Colts also hope newcomer Aubrayo Franklin (previously in San Diego) can help solidify the pivotal position of nose tackle. Overall, the front seven needed improvement, and the combination of newcomers and the improved health of Robert Angerer at ILB should meet those expectations to some degree.
Causes For Concern:
Generally speaking, the offensive line is going to have to improve their play across the board. The Colts overpayed Gosder Cherilus to defect from Detroit, and need Anthony Constanzo to step up his game. Andrew Luck was sacked 40 times in 2012 to go along with 27 turnovers, and you can attribute a majority of both numbers to lackluster line play. With a change in offensive philosophy and more emphasis on getting rid of the ball faster, masking the issue may be the best course of action, because it’s hard to see much improvement on paper from 2012.
The running game isn’t where it needs to be, and it’s a crapshoot on whether Ahmad Bradshaw can turn it around. The Giants obviously had had enough with the constant injuries and perhaps also with Bradshaw’s stubbornness and emotional outbursts, but a career revival in Indianapolis feels like a long shot. Vick Ballard should still see his share of carries, but apart from a couple of great games, he’s little more than a spellback at this point in his career.
By far the most dangerous issue for this team is their secondary, which was widely regarded as one of the absolute worst in the NFL last year. Vontae Davis was expected to help shore things up, but he brought his penchant for being burned along with him from Miami. The scariest thing is that he is probably the best CB on the team. LaRon Landry is coming off of an impressive come-back season with the Jets, and may be the key acquisition of the Colts’ offseason, especially if he can avoid the injury bug that has limited him for most of his career. The team surprised a lot of people by not selecting a DB until the 5th round of the draft, and beyond the hope of some depth players stepping up, this unit may end up being their Achilles’ heel once again in 2013.
In my mind, the Colts and Dolphins are going to be the two teams fighting for the last wild card slot. The team that triumphs will be the one who can best overcome the weakest parts of their roster; for Indianapolis, the equation seems to be to score more points than your secondary gives up. A dangerous game, but one that can be won, especially if the young budding skill position players step their games up another notch and turn the offense into the juggernaut it appears capable of becoming. Of all the 32 teams in the NFL, this year’s Colts are one of the most intriguing in recent memory.
3 – Tennessee Titans
Since their outstanding 13-3 2008 season, and sad loss to the Ravens in the Divisional round of the playoffs, the Tennessee Titans have been fighting to return to relevancy. A mixed bag of draft picks over the years have left the roster in that uneasy limbo between potentially something and potentially nothing. Looking forward to 2013, it is more than a little challenging to predict better things for a team that did little to upgrade after a disappointing 2012 season. Their are a handful of key jobs at stake, from HC Mike Munchak to former first rounder Jake Locker, whose inconsistencies have been a big part of the team’s recent woes. A small bump in consistency all-around, and big contributions from the newcomers, and the Titans may surprise the NFL in 2013.
The running game projects as the offense’s best chance at success, and for good reason. Chris Johnson is more than effective, he still has the capability to do great things, and Shonn Greene’s defection from the Jets offers a spellback with good experience. Signing stud guard Andy Levitre away from Buffalo, and drafting Chase Warmack, should solidify the interior of the O-line and further the running game.
Bringing in bountygate centerpiece Gregg Williams as a defensive “consultant” raised some eyebrows, but considering the less than stellar effort that side of the ball gave last year, his motivational attitude and attacking schemes should at the very least act as catalysts. Bernard Pollard is probably the biggest on-field addition to the defense, and while he’s always been suspect in pass defense, his aggression and imposing presence are more than welcome. Blidi Wreh-Wilson was an absolute steal in the 3rd round, and should, along with former-Bill George Wilson, add to a rotational defensive backfield that can be no worse than it was in 2012. The Titans have no established, dominant pass rusher, but bring solid pressure from across the front seven…something Gregg Williams will no doubt look to take full advantage of.
Causes For Concern:
When is Jake Locker going to become The Guy? Nobody knows, and you can be sure that if the Titans have to resort to yet another former Bill in Ryan Fitzpatrick, the position is going to have to be addressed yet again next offseason. Nate Washington isn’t a terrible receiver, but if Kenny Britt or 2nd round pick Justin Hunter don’t provide the sort of solid targets Locker desperately needs, this offense could become painfully one-dimensional.
Apart from the solid Jason McCourty, the secondary is a guessing game of newcomers that have to step up. The Titans were solid against the run last year, but one real concern is the injuries piling up on stud LB Colin McCarthy, who has the tools to be one of the best at his position.
Not likely, but possible. If this year’s Tennessee Titans are going to be playing into January, Jake Locker is going to have to play like a postseason-caliber QB, and there have been too few signs of that so far. The typical questions of health concerns, depth, and potential not translating that haunt almost every NFL team are all there, but it all hinges on Locker first and foremost: if he tanks, he’ll be wearing a different uniform in 2014, and you can be sure a good chunk of the staff, including the head coach, will be looking elsewhere for work.
4 – Jacksonville Jaguars
I’ve never been a fan of the term “rebuilding”; you’re always patching up a roster, whether you’re trying to fill a few spots or the majority of your team. “Rebuilding” sounds like you’ve just jettisoned your entire team, from the staff down to the special teamers…but this isn’t far from the truth in Jacksonville. New ownership, a new GM and a new head coach in Gus Bradley are attempting to totally 180 the attitude and popularity of Florida’s least loved football team. It won’t happen in 2013.
Offensively, beyond Maurice Jones-Drew (if he’s not injured) and a strong offensive line, there is little to be excited about. Blaine Gabbert has been nothing short of disappointing to date, and if Chad Henne somehow wins out the competition and is starting at QB week 1…well, it doesn’t quite matter either way, this position is inevitably going to have to be addressed again in 2014. Drafting Luke Joeckel wasn’t a terrible move, but taking a right tackle at #2 overall, with needs aplenty across the roster, may have been the wrong choice. Still, him and LT Eugene Monroe should be amongst the best bookends in the league. They just won’t get the attention they deserve considering what will most likely be going on around them.
The biggest hope the Jaguars’ defense has of improving this year is Gus Bradley, and the knowledge he brings as the former D-coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks. Finding anyone amongst the projected starters to call a “strength” is a stretch. Jason Babin was a disappointment in Philadelphia, and did little when he was brought on board midway through 2012. He, or Tyson Alualu (Jacksonville’s sack leader in 2012, with a whopping 3.5 of them) or somebody needs to step up and bring the pash rush. The linebacking corps looks horrid, but there’s some hope that Bradley’s presence will ignite something in Paul Posluszny and bring some of that potential out to shine.
Causes For Concern:
Once this team cuts itself down to a 53-man roster, I’ll go out on a limb and say that 90% of it will be a cause for concern. That’s about all that needs to be said.
Not going to happen. The most Jaguars fans can hope for at this point is subtle progress, and that the new staff can show they know how to get the most out of one of the NFL’s most lackluster rosters. Jacksonville is an offseason or two away from bigger things, and the most problematic part of it all is that the most important position on the field is void of anyone to truly claim it. Gabbert is a career backup, Henne is essentially Gabbert, and this is going to be a tough year to be a fan of the Jaguars no matter how you slice it.