NFL Preview: AFC South

NFL Preview: AFC South

1. Houston Texans (12-4)

This one seems too easy, but I’m taking the bait anyway. The Houston Texans are completely loaded. Andrew Johnson continues to be a beast at wide receiver, and the newly drafted star from Clemson Deandre Hopkins has arrived to finally add a second receiving threat in Matt Schaub’s arsenal. Schaub has always been a quarterback that never seemed to fit into the elite, but always seemed to hang around. Last year, he finished 9th in QBR, finishing ahead of Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Tony Romo. He may not be the person you want to bet on against Tom Brady in the playoffs, but he’s as reliable as they come in the regular season, taking Houston to the playoffs each of the last two years with only one losing season in its last six. At runningback, Arian Foster has proven himself one of the best in the league, and even if (probably when) he gets injured, Ben Tate has the skills necessary for a competent starter.

On defense, J.J. Watt is ironman. I know he’s told a sweetheart story that his arm brace is so his grandma can pick him out on TV, but you can’t prove to me that his arm brace doesn’t give him the superhuman powers of Ironman. In 2012, J.J. Watt made 20.5 sacks as a 3-4 defensive end, a position normally difficult to get sacks from due to being outnumbered in the gap between the guard and tackle. He also had the most tackles for a loss, 24, in the league (second was 16) and the most QB knockdowns at 47 (second most was 33). Antonio Smith, also known as the “Ninja Assassin,” offers a threat if offensive lines over-commit to Watt. Around the freak, the Texans defense should be stabilized by a healthy Brian Cushing filling back into the middle linebacker position, where he has proved elite. Behind it all the Texans boast a great secondary with Danieal Manning and Jonathan Joseph staying closer to receivers than their shadows. Now they have added Ed Reed to float about and make huge plays that have become his custom. In a weak division, Houston is the obvious favorite.

2. Tennessee Titans (7-9)

The fate of the Tennessee Titans largely relies on the all-in bet they placed on the Jake Locker/Chris Johnson combination. Like we’ve seen on other teams with gambles on the building blocks (Chicago, for one), the front office makes moves to eliminate excuses for those building blocks and gain certainty. Two new guards were added this offseason, Andy Levitre from Buffalo and Chance Warmack out of Alabama. Blocking specialist tight-end Delanie Walker was also added to clear the lanes for CJ2K. While most talking heads fervently insist the league is a passing league, the old-school approach by the Titans is something I appreciate. Even more modern than the passing revolution is the affinity for the read option/Wildcat approach, and the athletic Jake Locker and lightning fast Chris Johnson are perfect for that plan. If they do need to pass, the return of a healthy Kenny Britt will do wonders for the offense, along with the continued improvement of 2012 draft pick Kendall Wright.

On defense, the optimistic person will say they have a lot of room for improvement. In 2012, they allowed a league-worst 29.4 points per game. They hope safety Bernard Pollard (cue to Patriots fans cringing) will add toughness and experience to their unit. Lions backup to Suh, Sammie Lee Hill, looks to sure up the inside of the defensive line.

Improvements to the defense were minor, but that’s why they build their offense around keeping their defense off the field. Look for Chris Johnson to have a bounce back year and Locker to make enough plays to hover around .500.

3. Indianapolis Colts (6-10)

I know what you’re thinking, Andrew Luck is only going to get better for a team that made the playoffs last year. And for the first two weeks (against Oakland and Miami) I’ll probably look stupid. But their subsequent six games include trips to San Francisco and Houston with home games against Seattle and Denver. That stretch will reveal the true colors of the Colts, who by all accounts greatly overachieved last year. The 11-5 Colts were the first 11-5 team in league history to post a negative point differential, being outscored by 30 points over the season. To put that in perspective, negative point differentials are commonly associated with 7-9 teams. Fueled by “Chuckstrong” motivation, they were an unbelievable 9-1 in games decided by seven points or less (typically 50% for any team). On top of that, last year, they played the league’s easiest schedule, with 9 of their games against teams that earned top-10 picks in the draft. These things have a tendency to regress toward the mean.

Andrew Luck will be better. He has gotten his old coach, Pep Hamilton, from Stanford who knows how to build a winning offense around the superstar. But the offensive coach from last year, Bruce Arians (now HC at Arizona) was excellent with Luck and the limited group of receivers. Although Reggie Wayne (34) and Robert Mathis (32) are the notable names on either side of the ball, Indianapolis is very young and the players should improve individually.

With that said, there’s a huge disconnect between the talent on the roster (besides Luck) and the expectations around this team. They are poised for future success, but in 2013, expect them to hang with the competition weekly but be relegated to mediocrity in the standings.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (4-12)

Jacksonville should have signed Tebow. I will forever be bitter about this. Instead of the hometown disciple coming to save the city, they have some long-haired hippie who once was so panicked by the rush he turned around and threw the ball backwards with his left hand. Blaine “Yo Gabba” Gabbert has shown zero promise since college. This year, he will have former rushing champion Maurice Jones-Drew back after he missed 10 games last year. Drafting Luke Joeckel at the top of the draft should provide enough protection to help MJD somewhat return to form and keep Yo Gabba Gabbert from having Nam-like freak outs in the pocket. They are missing 2012 first rounder, Justin Blackmon for the first 4 games, but when he returns, he has shown flashes of playmaking. Yet no matter the contributions of other players on the Jaguars offense, they are doomed by surfer-bro Yo Gabba Gabbert.

Jacksonville has fixed the problem at the top, replacing their dismal front office with personnel man Dave Caldwell from Atlanta. He’s already gotten rid of pathetic contracts of Laurent Robinson and Aaron Ross. This year, the defense will ride out one more year of overpaid mediocrity with Paul Posluszny, Jeremy Mincey, Uche Nwaneri and Jason Babin likely being kicked out the door after the season. The worst case scenario would be if the Jaguars are too good that they cannot reload with Teddy Bridgewater at the top of the 2014 Draft.

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