Wednesday, August 13, 2014
2014 NFL Divisonal Previews - AFC South
1. Indianapolis Colts
2013 Record: 11-5, 1st place AFC South
Head Coach: Chuck Pagano (3rd season Indianapolis, 14-9 career)
Key Additions: LG Jack Mewhort, WR Hakeem Nicks, DE Arthur Jones, ILB D'Qwell Jackson
Key Losses: RB Donald Brown, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, G Jeff Linkenbach, CB Cassius Vaughn, S Antoine Bethea
2014 Outlook: Andrew Luck managed to cut down on his interceptions during the 2013 regular season but once the playoffs hit, Luck turned into an interception machine, throwing 7 picks in just two games. The lack of a consistent running game and the Colts trailing for most of those two games certainly contributed, but entering the third year of his career, Luck has to show a lot more smarts when it comes to trying to force the issue. The Colts are hopeful that with a full off-season under his belt, RB Trent Richardson will perform much better than he did last season. They showed strong faith in him by letting Donald Brown exit via free agency. Ahmad Bradshaw will serve as Richardson's backup after missing most of last season due to injury. Another Colt returning from injury is WR Reggie Wayne. Wayne tore his ACL and is 35 years old, so the Colts added some insurance at the position by signing Hakeem Nicks. Nicks was once one of the fastest rising starts in the league but injuries and dissatisfaction with contract situation in New York have really limited his production the last few years. The Colts hope a fresh start will revitalize Nicks career. Big things are also expected out of T.Y. Hilton. Hilton really stepped up his game when Wayne went out with injury and he was thrust into the number one receiver slot. With Wayne back and the acquisition of Nicks he goes down to #3 on the depth chart, possibly giving the Colts one of the best wide receiver trios in football. TE Coby Fleener has shown flashes of promise and the Colts are hopeful that his third season will be a breakout year. Offensive line is a question mark for Indianapolis, and is a group that is sometimes made to look better than they actually are because of Luck's ability to evade pressure. The Colts line is mostly a bunch of no names and RT Gosder Cherilus is the only one I could honestly say I know much about. Defensively, the Colts have their issues and those issues might be exacerbated by the absence of LB Robert Mathis for the first four games of the season. Mathis was suspended for taking some sort of fertility drug. People remain skeptical as Mathis saw a huge increase in production last year, earning 19 1/2 sacks. Without Mathis for those first four games guys like DE Ricky Jean-Francois and DE Arthur Jones will need to step up their games. Free agent signing D'Qwell Jackson will also need to make an impact immediately and Bjoern Werner will likely get thrust into Mathis' role despite being in just his second season. Safety LaRon Landry can't manage to get through a season unscathed from injury so David Sims will need to be ready to play at a moments notice. Vontae Davis is a premiere cornerback, while Greg Toler on his opposite side is just average. K Adam Viniatieri appears to be ageless as he has remained reliable as ever despite being 42. Punter Pat McAfee makes more headlines off the field than for anything he does on the field. Despite some of their question marks the Colts are clearly the class of a very bad AFC South. They managed to go undefeated against the division last season and could be in line to that again this year. I think the Colts can manage to get a playoff bye almost by default because of their easy schedule, but I think they aren't good enough defensively to go far in the playoffs.
2. Tennessee Titans
2013 Record: 7-9, 2nd place AFC South
Head Coach: Ken Whisenhunt (1st season Tennessee, 49-53 career)
Key Additions: QB Charlie Whitehurst, WR/KR Dexter McCluster, RT Michael Oher, LT Taylor Lewan, ROLB Shaun Phillips, ILB Wesley Woodyard
Key Losses: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Chris Johnson, WR Kenny Britt, CB Alterraun Verner, K Rob Bironas
2014 Outlook: The Titans got off to a pretty hot start a quarter into the season at 3-1. But then Jake Locker remembered he was fragile and missed time due to injury and the Titans finished 4-8 the rest of the season, earning coach Mike Munchak a pink slip. Locker has one last chance to show the Titans that he is a franchise quarterback and Tennessee is hopeful that new coach Ken Whisenhunt can kickstart Locker's career the way he helped revitalize Philip River's career last season. The Titans are also starting over at running back, letting Chris Johnson go and turning over the starting reins to Shonn Greene. The plan eventually will be to turn the running back position over to 2nd round draft choice Bishop Sankey out of Washington. The Titans quietly have put together a better receiving corps than at first glance people might think. Nate Washington is still listed number one on the depth chart, but Kendall Wright led the Titans in catches last season with 94. However, Wright scored just two touchdowns last season, something he needs to improve upon to be considered an upper echelon receiver. Delanie Walker had a strong season as the starting tight end for Tennessee and gives Locker another reliable option. In an effort to keep Locker healthy the Titans invested some money this off-season in the offensive line. They drafted Taylor Lewan in the first round and signed Michael Oher away from Baltimore. Left guard Andy Levitre is one of the best in football, while the Titans are hoping a second season proves more successful for RG Chance Warmack. Defensively, the Titans are switching to a 3-4 scheme. That means it could take a few seasons for the defense to reach its peak as the Titans try to find the right personnel to match the scheme. Jurrell Casey will have to adjust to playing defensive end this year, after securing 10 1/2 sacks as a defensive tackle last season. Two former Broncos will now team up in Tennessee in the Titans linebacking corps with the additions of Wesley Woodyard and Shaun Phillips. Both are getting up there in football years though so how much they can contribute remains to be seen. The Titans have major questions at cornerback with the loss of Alterraun Verner. Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Jason McCourty are the starters and Andrew Luck is probably licking his chops at the prospect of facing those two. Safety wise, the Titans get steady production from Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin. The Titans released longtime kicker Rob Bironas and still haven't settled on who their field goal kicker will be this season. Travis Coons and Maikon Bonani are battling for the job. Punter Brett Kern doesn't get a ton of distance but has accuracy when it comes to pinning opponents inside the 20. Leon Washington will serve as the punt and kick returner, and if he has anything left in the tank the Titans will be the beneficiaries. It seems inevitable that Locker will go down this year at some point which means Titans fans should load up on Charlie Whitehurst highlights. That might only take them about 25 seconds. Questions about Locker and the switch to the 3-4 on defense will equal a long season in Tennessee.
3. Houston Texans
2013 Record: 2-14, last place AFC South
Head Coach: Bill O'Brien (1st season Houston, 0-0 career)
Key Additions: DE/OLB Jadaveon Clowney, NT Louis Nix, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, S Chris Clemons
Key Losses: QB Matt Schaub, QB T.J. Yates, RB Ben Tate, TE Owen Daniels, DE/DT Antonio Smith, NT Earl Mitchell, DT Terrell McClain, ILB Daryl Sharpton, ILB Joe Mays, S Danieal Manning
2014 Outlook: When you are in the prediction business you are going to get things wrong. Honestly, you are likely to get more things wrong than right. However, I have never been more wrong than last season when I picked the Texans to reach the Super Bowl. Instead, Matt Schaub forgot how to throw it to his own team and the Texans limped to a 2-14 record and the #1 pick in the draft. That finally brought the Gary Kubiak tenure to an end and also saw the end of Schaub's time in Houston. Houston passed on taking Johnny Manziel with the first pick and instead focused on defense. That leaves Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starting quarterback. Fitzpatrick is really just a backup at this point so the Texans appear to be conceding this year and perhaps hoping they can take their quarterback of the future in next year's draft. Arian Foster is still one of the best running backs in the league, but he has a hell of a time remaining healthy. His longtime backup Ben Tate was allowed to leave via free agency and the Texans had brought in former Giant Andre Brown as his replacement. However, the Texans cut Brown a few days ago so the depth behind Foster is a huge question mark. Longtime wide receiver Andre Johnson was not happy about the prospect of being part of another rebuilding effort in Houston and skipped OTAs. However, he did show up for training camp and it seems that new coach Bill O'Brien has gotten Johnson on board. DeAndre Hopkins is entering his second season and showed plenty of promise in year one despite the revolving door at quarterback that the Texans had last season. Ryan Griffin, Garrett Graham and C.J. Fiedorowicz are battling for the starting tight end position. Despite their struggles as a team, the Texans have a pretty strong unit on the offensive line. LT Duane Brown, RG Brandon Brooks and C Chris Myers are all coming off strong seasons. The Texans have some of the top talent in the league on defense in some areas but also some gaping holes, leading to an inconsistent mess on that side of the ball. DE J.J. Watt is an absolute beast but is coming off a down season by his standards, registering just 10 1/2 sacks. Former Cornhusker Jared Crick will start at the other side and has a world of potential if he can stay healthy. The gargantuan Louis Nix was taken in the 3rd round and could be the starting nose tackle sooner rather than later. The Texans took Jadaveon Clowney with the #1 overall pick and will line him up at LOLB in their 3-4 scheme. Playing next to him will be Brian Cushing, another player that is great when on the field but has been beset by injuries and steroids. Fellow linebackers Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus are question marks. The Texans are alright in the secondary but way too often gave up the big play. They are hopeful that S Chris Clemons, acquired in the offseason can help with some of those issues. CBs Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph will need to improve their games this season. Randy Bullock was a mess to start off the season at kicker for the Texans but seemed to find his way toward the end of the season. Shane Lechler isn't the premiere punter he once was but is serviceable. The Texans have pieces of talent but with a new coach and the question marks in key positions it is looking like another down year for the Texans. Houston once looked like they were on the cusp of being perennial contenders but now are back to the rebuilding days of the early years of their franchise.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
2013 Record: 4-12, 3rd place AFC South
Head Coach: Gus Bradley (2nd season Jacksonville, 4-12 career)
Key Additions: QB Blake Bortles, WR Marqise Lee, RB Toby Gerhart, LG Zane Beadles, DE Red Bryant, DE Chris Clemons, DT Ziggy Hood, OLB Dekoda Watson
Key Losses: QB Blaine Gabbert, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, RB Justin Forsett, G Uche Nnwaneri, C Brad Meester, DE Jason Babin
2014 Outlook: The Jaguars really hired the perfect man for the job when they hired Gus Bradley last season. Only Bradley could see the positives in leading a franchise as inept as Jacksonville. Even when the Jags got off to an embarrassing 0-8 start last season, where they lost each game by double digits, Bradley was still smiling. The Jags recovered in the the second half of the season, even winning four out of five games at one point before ending the season on a three game skid. Then they shocked everyone by taking Blake Bortles with the third pick in the draft, a move many considered a major reach. That was after Jacksonville decided to end the Blaine Gabbert experiment, another quarterback that they drafted way too high a few years back. The plan for now is to start Chad Henne at quarterback and slowly bring Bortles along. However, after looking strong in the Jags first preseason game the pressure is already mounting to hand over the team to Bortles. Maurice Jones-Drew had turned into a shell of his former self, so he is gone, replaced by the newly acquired Toby Gerhart. Gerhart has never really had a chance to show off his skills playing behind Adrian Peterson in Minnesota, so he is looking at this opportunity with Jacksonville as his big break. Suspensions have had a major impact on the Jaguars receiving corps. They have lost both Justin Blackmon and Ace Sanders to suspensions. Blackmon probably won't play at all this year, while Sanders is eligible to return in Week 5. That leaves Cecil Shorts and the newly drafted Marqise Lee as the Jaguars starting receivers. Marcedes Lewis is back at tight end but years removed from being a factor in the passing game. The offensive line is a mess and a strong reason for Bradley to stick to his plan of not throwing Bortles to the wolves. Time and time again young quarterbacks have flamed out because they were treated like rag dolls because of porous offensive lines. The Jags are hoping a switch for Luke Joeckel to left tackle will get his career on track after a tough start to his career last year. To try to help the Jags on the defensive side of the ball Bradley brought in a couple of his former players from the Seahawks, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. The signing of Bryant was basically a concession by Jacksonville that Tyson Alualu is a bust. They are hoping that Clemons can replace some of the pass rushing ability that Jason Babin had brought to the team. Besides LB Paul Posluszny the rest of the Jaguars defense is filled with a bunch of guys that I know little to nothing about. I do know that Jacksonville stunk on defense though and with most of their personnel returning they are going to have to hope for some major improvements. I think if Jacksonville is patient with Bradley he is the guy that could lead them back to the playoffs in the next few years. He is going to take his lumps in the beginning though but maybe him and Bortles are the Tom Coughlin/Mark Brunnell combination they have been searching for.