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NFL Season Preview: AFC South

Posted by Jack Tumen

Moving right along, we reach the AFC South division; one of the weaker groups in the NFL.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

Bob Levey/Getty Images

We begin with Houston; the biggest disappointment in the NFL last season. Gary Kubiak was fired before it was even all said and done while Matt Schaub seemed to be playing for the other team every week. They still owned a top-10 defense but it didn’t matter much; the injury bug bit early and often as major players like Arian Foster, Ben Tate, Owen Daniels, Danieal Manning and Brian Cushing all ended the season on injured reserve. Andre Johnson still managed to be Andre Johnson, finishing 3rd in the league with 109 receptions for 1,407 yards on the second-most targets (181) only behind Pierre Garçon’s 184. However, the star receiver voiced his displeasure with the team this off-season as whispers circulated that he wanted to be traded. But like a good little receiver, Johnson showed up to training camp and they all lived happily ever after.

Bill O’Brien was hired to bring the Texans back to life after seemingly doing the same thing for the heavily-sanctioned Penn State football program. An offensive-minded man and quarterback whisperer, O’Brien’s first task as new head coach was making the first overall selection in this year’s draft; easy, just take the most hyped up, freakishly freakish athlete to ever come to the NFL since Bo Jackson – check – next, find a quarterback to revive the franchise…ok so that’s still on the Texans’ to-do list, but in the meantime, Ryan Fitzpatrick will do some calculus while O’Brien finds out what he has in hyped-up, 4th-round rookie, Tom Savage.

Elsewhere, this roster is patchwork but has potential to grow. There’s a curious mix of depth below Andre Johnson; DeAndre Hopkins has all the tools to become a stud wideout but his production will naturally rely on the quality of quarterback play. Mike Thomas, by all rights, should win the third receiver spot; then it’ll be between DeVier Posey, Keyshawn Martin and the fascinating rookie, Kofi Hughes, to scrap it out for fourth.

The only thing that truly matters for this offense to have success is Arian Foster’s health. If he goes down again, the only emergency parachute remaining is Andre Brown; that’s a parachute with multiple patch jobs.

Other Notables: Young guns on defense like LB Whitney Mercilus and S DJ Swearinger will be counted on to make big plays; Rookie TE, CJ Fiedorowicz, excels in blocking but has an underrated receiving game that could be tapped into; Rookie LB, Max Bullough, has the tools to provide quality depth for this linebacking corps; JJ Watt is the best defensive player in the NFL.

The Indianapolis Colts are lucky…very lucky.

They’re lucky because they play in the worst division in football; a division they swept last year.

They’re lucky because they defeated the three best teams in the NFL last season; the 49rs, Broncos and Champion Seahawks.

But they’re especially lucky because they have…well, Luck.

But it didn’t always feel so lucky. Last season the Colts were average – at best – on offense; On defense? They were below-average at just about everything. They lost starting running back, Vick Ballard, to a torn ACL, then made an atrocious trade by giving up a first-round pick for Trent Richardson, who was out-rushed by 4 other NFL quarterbacks and Bobby Make-It-Rainey. In addition, TY Hilton was asked to do more than he could handle in the wake of Reggie Wayne’s ACL tear with little to no depth behind him.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

But Luck prevailed; Andrew Luck that is. The prodigy’s play was up-and-down at times but he was able to single-handedly carry his team to 11 wins and a divisional playoff berth. He’ll only continue to get better; but that doesn’t mean the same goes for the rest of the team.

In my post-draft write up, I pegged the Colts as the definite “loser” of the 2014 draft. Other than picking WR, Donte Moncrief, they picked only their nose. They seriously would have been better off trading all 5 of their picks to move up and take a franchise-caliber player. In a cant-miss draft, they missed everything.

What remains is a not-so-impressive roster that’s top-heavy at just about every position. Hakeem Nicks was brought in to start opposite Reggie Wayne and move TY Hilton back to where he succeeds the most; in the slot. Tight end, Dwayne Allen, returns to the starting lineup after missing all of last season with a hip injury. He’ll play ahead of Andrew Luck’s college bud, Coby Fleener, who’s career has been unfulfilling since being a 2nd-round pick in 2012. Vick Ballard is once again a goner: this time with a torn achilles. Phillip Tanner was signed for depth and will play the Donald Brown role behind T-Rich.

Their defense consists of Robert Mathis, D’Qwell Jackson, LaRon Landry and Vontae Davis. To be nice, I’ll throw in Cory Redding and Greg Toler. That is IT. There is NOTHING else on that defense. After being a first-round pick last year, Bjoern Werner had one of the most forgettable rookie seasons in recent memory, racking up a grand total of 18 tackles. You kidding me? Puh-thetic.

Other Notables: WR Da’Rick Rogers should take advantage of his athletic ability to see increased playing time; Ahmad Bradshaw just doesn’t do it for me in that backfield; The offensive line is still suspect at this point; QB Matt Hasselbeck is extending his career as Luck’s backup; Rookie kicker, Cody Parkey, was quite good in college and is learning from the best in Adam Vinetiery.

The 2014 season marks the return of Ken Whisenhunt as an NFL head coach; this time, he’ll get his chance with the Tennessee Titans.

This is a young roster that’s in need of much rebuilding and refinement. With only nine players on the wrong side of 30, experience is the main concern for this team. Jake Locker was off to a nice start last year and had the Titans at 3-1 until his season was ended by a foot injury; not only leaving the team in a hole but losing nearly an entire season of crucial development time as well. Since being the 8th-overall pick in the 2011 draft, Locker hasn’t progressed the way many expected him to. He’s on his last life with a new head coach and a GM that didn’t draft him.

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The strongest position group for Tennessee might be its receiving corps. Kendall Wright is coming off an under-the-radar season in which he finished 7th in the league with 94 receptions, ahead of Megatron, Demaryius Thomas and Dez Bryant among others. Second year man, Justin Hunter, received much flak from his position coach last year but is now being hyped as the guy who can put this offense over the top with his 6’4″ frame and leaping ability. Not too far behind stands savvy vet, Nate Washington, who brings a calming presence along with much-needed experience to the position.

Running back was possibly the Titans’ greatest position of need going into the off-season. They addressed that by selecting Bishop Sankey in the second round of May’s draft, also making him the first running back off the board. He’ll immediately play a key role in the Titans’ offense with the underwhelming Shonn Greene playing the bell-cow role. Dexter McCluster is a name to watch also, as he returns to his college position of running back after spending his first four seasons as a wideout for the Cheifs. He’s ticketed for the Danny Woodhead role in Ken Whisenhunt’s offense.

I wasn’t a fan of the Taylor Lewan selection at 11th overall in this year’s draft. Offensive line was not a position of need for the Titans as Michael Roos is one of the most solid left tackles in the game and Michael Oher was acquired in the off-season to play right tackle. They had the chance to grab a big-time game-changer like Aaron Donald but curiously passed. It’s one of those moves that doesn’t help this team win now.

This was a middle-of-the-road defense in 2013. Their top corner is Jason McCourty, with Coty Sensabaugh and Tommie Campbell as his backups. Apart from Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan, the big name up front is Jurrell Casey, who’s in the market for a long-term contract extension after a 10.5-sack season. The linebacking corps is a relative strong suit with veteran additions Shaun Phillips and Wesley Woodyard playing alongside up-and-coming Zach Brown, who’s played in every game since being drafted in 2012 out of UNC. Safety isn’t too shabby either with tackling machine, Bernard Pollard and long time Titan, Michael Griffin, holding down the back side.

Other Notables: TE Delanie Walker will be a focal-point on offense; Rookie QB, Zach Mettenberger, might get his chance sooner than later; Rookie DT, DaQuan Jones, should get opportunities to showcase his skills.

There’s no telling what 2014 will have in store for the Jaguars, who have combined for only 11 wins since 2011. The hope is that things will eventually get better under second-year coach, Gus Bradley; but it’s going to be a long process.

Phil Sears / USA TODAY Sports

Phil Sears / USA TODAY Sports

Jacksonville’s roster is even younger than Tennessee’s, with only four players age 30 or older; the oldest of which is DE, Chris Clemons, who was a member of Seattle’s historic championship defense last season. He’s joined by another former Seahawk defensive end, Red Bryant. The two of them will bring some much-needed championship experience to an abysmal defense. A lone bright spot in 2013 was LB, Paul Posluszny, who was second in the NFL with 162 tackles in 2013. Second-year safety, Johnathan Cyprien, will be counted on to take the next step after racking up 104 tackles as a rookie.

The Jaguars offense is much more promising at this point in time than the defense. They shocked the NFL by selecting UCF quarterback, Blake Bortles to be the future of the franchise with the third-overall pick in May’s draft. Although they say he won’t start immediately, we can expect him to get a few under his belt before season’s end. They wisely surrounded him with young weapons as well, using two second-round picks on stud wideouts, Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson. This might have been one of the smartest moves of the entire draft. The shorter Lee brings explosiveness and swagger to the position while the taller Robinson is a jump-ball machine with a sticky set of mitts who can own the red-zone. The two were also my 4th and 5th-favorite receivers in this year’s loaded draft class. It’ll be a balanced attack that could be fun to watch in a year or two.

With the MJD-era over with, one player with loads of promise is running back, Toby Gerhart. He’ll finally get a chance to show the league that he can handle an NFL workload after backing up AP for the first four years of his career in Minnesota. He’s been pegged as the team’s “bell cow” throughout training camp. He was a bowling ball at Stanford and will be an interesting player to follow this season.

Other Notables: QB Chad Henne will essentially be playing for another contract to stick around as Bortles’ backup in the not-so-distant future; Rookie RB, Storm Johnson, brings an athletic dimension to this backfield; RB Denard Robinson needs to start showing he’s an NFL-caliber player; WR Cecil Shorts will be the top option in the passing game as long as he stays healthy; TE Marcedes Lewis is an underwhelming starter in an underwhelming position group for Jacksonville; Sucks about Justin Blackmon.

Final Standings:

  1. Indianapolis: 10-6

  2. Houston: 7-9

  3. Jacksonville: 6-10

  4. Tennessee: 2-14

This is the weakest division in the NFL. Every team is young and going through a transition in some way or another. With the always-tough NFC East and AFC North on the schedule, don’t expect any wild-card teams to emerge from this division. I’m not a fan on the Colts roster but Andrew Luck and Chuck Pagano are a wonderful QB/coach duo and can single-handedly carry this team to a second straight division title; Houston could be a pleasant surprise. I don’t think Ryan Fitzpatrick will be that awful, but he certainly won’t be good enough to carry this team to the playoffs. Any improvement is good improvement as Bill O’Brien starts his tenure off on a decent note; Jacksonville certainly won’t be good, but they won’t be as bad as last year. They’ll be much more fun to watch in a few years from now; The Titans have no depth and no leaders. They’re a young squad that lacks experience with a shaky quarterback that’s coming off a season lost to injury. Sure, Ken Whisenhunt took the Cardinals to the Super Bowl, but he had Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald too. The Titans have always been one of my favorite teams, but the first-overall pick is what Tennessee need to get back in the game.

Next up: AFC West