2014 NFL Season Preview: AFC South

Indianapolis Colts

Additions: WR Hakeem Nicks, C Phil Costa, DE/DT Arthur Jones, ILB D’Qwell Jackson, S Mike Adams.

Draft Picks:

Rnd.  Pick# Pos.      Player                 College
2           59        OT        Jack Mewhort                Ohio State
3           90        WR      Donte Moncrief            Ole Miss
5           166       DE       Jonathan Newsome    Ball State
6           203      LB       Andrew Jackson           Western Kentucky
7           232       OT      Ulrick John                     Georgia State

Losses: RB Donald Brown, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, G Mike McGlynn, G Jeff Linkenbach, C Samson Satele, ILB Kavell Conner, CB Cassius Vaughn, S Antone Bethea.

Depth Chart

Analysis:

The Indianapolis Colts’ biggest issue last season was putting together an offensive line that could function in the run and pass game. They wanted to be a power running team but didn’t have the line or the running backs to do so. The trade for Trent Richardson appears to be a flop but it’s still a little early to tell, even if Richardson looked slow and plodding early this preseason.

For some reason, the Colts have decided they want to be a power running team. It’s hard to fault the philosophy because it’s one that the 49ers and Seahawks have had success with, but it seems that the Colts prefer to do it out of the I-formation and with 2 tight ends. The issue is that this invites heavier packages from the defense and sets them up for an “our guys vs. your guys” situation, and the Colts’ guys aren’t good enough to win that battle consistently. If they want to be like Seattle and San Francisco they need to figure out how to execute power runs out of 11-personnel and/or from the shotgun. They have to win in the run game with numbers, not with trying to bulldoze their way over opponents. The Colts did a little to address the OL this offseason, drafting OSU tackle Jack Mewhort in the 2nd round and adding veteran C Phil Costa, but they’re still not good enough up front to be bullies.

Andrew Luck performed admirably last season while under duress. He made a bad OL look better at pass blocking than it really was. His pocket awareness and manipulation kept him cleaner than many other QBs would have been in that situation. He was aggressive in his throws – a little too aggressive at times – and it was both profitable and detrimental to his team. Luck will sometimes see a tight window and make a risky throw instead of taking the easy completion for a first down. He gets away with it a lot but it’s really the only aspect of his game that needs significant attention.

The receiving corps of the Colts is deep. If Hakeem Nicks proves to be anything like he was a few years ago when healthy, Indianapolis will have 3 dangerous receivers starting in Hicks, Reggie Wayne, and T.Y. Hilton. There have been good reports on 3rd round pick Donte Moncrief, and if Da’Rick Rogers (I’m still not sold Rogers is worth the effort) continues to develop, the Colts could have good depth at WR. Throw in Dwayne Allen and Colby Fleener as receiving threats at the tight end position and Luck has an embarrassment of riches to throw to – if he has time, of course.

Shifting to the defense, the Colts weren’t bad on defense but they weren’t good last year either. They ranked 16th in defensive DVOA, according to Football Outsiders.

The linebacking corps is the strongest part of this defense. New addition D’Qwell Jackson should provide some consistency and clean up Erik Walden’s misses. Jerrell Freeman is a terrific young player that piles up tackles. Robert Mathis proved he’s still one of the better pass rushers in the game. There’s also good depth with 2nd year player Bjoern Werner and Kelvin Sheppard as backups.

The defensive line is adequate but deep throughout. New addition DT/DE Arthur Jones adds some good punch up front with Josh Chapman and Cory Redding. Ricky Jean-Francois and Montori Hughes provide terrific competition for the frontline and will push them for starting positions. The combination of depth and talent in the front-seven will create a lot of opportunities for defensive coordinator to mix and match his personnel to situations. There is a ton of flexibility here.

Vontae Davis is a very good man-cover corner. Greg Toler provides a great compliment opposite him. There are some concerns about the depth throughout the defensive backs. Darius Butler is a decent option as a 3rd corner but beyond him, there are question marks. The safeties are an interesting group. LaRon Landry played better as a strong safety than I anticipated last year. The major question for this defense is the free safety position. The importance of the FS position is dramatically increased when a team likes to play a lot of man coverage and blitz in front of it. The FS has to be able to diagnose quickly, get to the ball, and not miss tackles. As the last line of defense when playing the deep middle, if the FS misses a tackle it usually results in 6 points for the other team. In Delano Howell and Mike Adams, the Colts have 2 guys who are mediocre players. This is worrisome.

Indianapolis will need to re-evaluate their offensive philosophy if they intend to make a big leap forward. Why have all of those receivers if they plan on running power with the player formerly known as Trent Richardson? Let the young QB air it out and use the run game as a compliment. The weapons are there and now it’s the coaches’ job to adapt to the personnel.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Additions: RB Toby Gerhart, WR Tandon Doss, G Zane Beadles, DE Red Bryant, DE/OLB Chris Clemons, DT Ziggy Hood, OLB Dekoda Watson.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd  Pick#  Pos.     Player                College
1          3           QB       Blake Bortles      UCF
2          39        WR      Marqise Lee        USC
2          61         WR     Allen Robinson    Penn State
3          93        G          Brandon Linder  Miami
4          114       CB       Aaron Colvin        Oklahoma
5          144       LB       Telvin Smith         Florida State
5          159       DE       Chris Smith          Arkansas
6          205      C          Luke Bowanko     Virginia
7          222      RB        Storm Johnson    UCF

Losses: 
QB Blaine Gabbert, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, RB Justin Forsett, G Uche Nwaneri, C Brad Meester, DE Jason Babin, OLB Russell Allen.

Analysis:

Shhh. The Jacksonville Jaguars are getting better. They’ve quietly ushered out a lot of untalented players and added some talented ones, especially on defense. Chris Clemons is going to have a major impact from week 1 for this defense. Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood will provide at least some depth up front on the defense, and some versatility, too.

Probably the largest issue of the Jaguars defense is going to be with their run defense. They are built to to get penetration and rush the passer. This leads to poor gap discipline and large holes for running backs. It will fall to Geno Hayes, Paul Posluszny, and LaRoy Reynolds to to fill the gaps and that is a major cause for concern. Hayes is a streaky play who can make a big play as easily as he can give one up. Posluszny is good enough but isn’t a special player. There are some young players behind them that could possibly challenge for starting spots, particularly Telvin Smith.

The pass rush of the Jaguars has looked vastly improved this preseason and that’s going to help the back end. The Jags’ secondary was a little too aggressive last season and that probably had a lot to do with youth and partly due to coaching. Winston Guy is a liability at safety, but Cyprien looks like a good young safety who really seemed to develop well at the end of last season. The cornerbacks lack a shutdown candidate but the scheme and pass rush will help to keep them from getting beaten deep too often. Allan Ball is decent enough, Dwayne Gratz and Will Blackmon are fair as 2nd and 3rd options. Gratz is still developing but looked better late last season.

On offense, it’s only a matter of time before rookie QB Blake Bortles takes over as the starting QB. His play has been impressive this preseason and he looks far ahead of schedule in his development. If he had Justin Blackmon (suspended) to throw to, this offense could actually be very potent because of it’s ability to attack defenses in multiple ways.  In its current state, there are still some weapons to be used but it lacks a true number 1 receiver. Cecil Shorts and rookie Marqise Lee are very good options as 2nd receivers but not ideal to lead the corps. Beyond those 2, the WR corps lacks explosiveness and experience.

Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch has more of a “line up and beat them” nature to it than a crafty one. This really puts limitations on how they use their weapons. It’s not really the best offense to be in for Denard Robinson, who would benefit from some creativity in ways to get him the ball in space. This also explains the addition of Toby Gerhart, who isn’t a special athlete but will run downhill and use his size to his advantage. He’ll challenge defenders to hit him straight up, and many seem afraid to. It’s just a personal preference that I’m not endeared to Gerhart’s type of player. He’s a big back who isn’t explosive both laterally or vertically. He offers good vision and is hard to tackle, so there are uses.

The offensive line will need to get better if the Jaguars intend on starting a young quarterback. They’ve given up pressure and missed rushers all preseason. This is likely the main reason that the Jaguars are keeping Chad Henne as the starter for now, not because of the play of either QB. Bortles has handled the pressure fairly well but it’s never a good thing for a rookie QB to start off his NFL career learning to speed up his internal clock.

The Jaguars are getting better. They still may not be ready for the spotlight but this is an up and coming team that has all the right people in place. Gus Bradley is an exceptional motivator and his background is going to give this team the right attitude moving forward.

Houston Texans

Additions: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Andre Brown, ILB Akeem Dent, S Chris Clemons, S Kendrick Lewis.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd  Pick# Pos.    Player                         College
1          1          DE       Jadeveon Clowney     South Carolina
2          33       G         Xavier Su’a-Filo         UCLA
3          65       TE       C. J. Fiedorowicz        Iowa
3          83       DT       Louis Nix                    Notre Dame
4          135     QB       Tom Savage                Pittsburgh
6          177     DE       Jeoffrey Pagan            Alabama
6          181     RB       Alfred Blue                  LSU
6          211     FB        Jay Prosch                  Auburn
7          216     CB       Andre Hal                    Vanderbilt
7          256     FS        Lonnie Ballentine      Memphis

Losses: QB Matt Schaub, QB T.J. Yates, RB Ben Tate, WR Lestar Jean, TE Owen Daniels, DE/DT Antonio Smith, NT Earl Mitchell, DT Terrell McClain, DE/OLB Bryan Braman, ILB Daryl Sharpton, ILB Joe Mays, CB Brice McCain, S Danieal Manning.

 Analysis:

It’s pretty unbelievable that 2 players like Jadaveon Clowney and JJ Watt are going to get to play side by side on the same defense for at least the next 4-5 years. These could possibly end up being the 2 best defensive linemen over that span. Opposing offenses will have to devote a lot of resources to blocking just these 2 players. Really, the only thing that may hold these 2 back is their own defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel. Crennel essentially neutralized a good KC Chiefs defense at his last stop as their head coach.

As long as Brian Cushing stays healthy, the Texans’ group of linebackers should be sufficient behind Watt and Clowney. They’ll have opportunities to clean up broken plays and disrupted passes. It’s important to not forget that if the light can click on for him, the Texans still have Whitney Mercilus who could provide addition pass rushing presence in sub packages.

The secondary should see the same benefits as the linebackers. Time to throw by opposing QBs will be reduced to minimal amounts. Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph are good corners and should be able to take advantage of it. Brandon Harris and AJ Bouye are the backup cornerbacks and Bouye has played well in the preseason. There are safety concerns with DJ Swearinger being young and way too aggressive. He flies to the ball but lacks discipline and can be manipulated by good quarterbacks. Kendrick Lewis wasn’t particularly great as a free safety in Kansas City, but the Texans are going to give him a try. It’s possible that Chris Clemons, the safety added from Miami, is the best option at either free safety or strong safety. He would provide some stability next to a player like Swearinger but can also show some versatility with more discipline in place of him at strong safety. If Clemons isn’t starting at some point during the season, that’s a good sign for the Texans as it means the other 2 are doing a good job. Don’t be surprised to see some 3 safety packages from the Texans on defense. If offenses figure out how to block Clowney and Watt, they’ll have a lot of deep shots available. Swearinger and Lewis will see to it.

The Texans’ wide receivers are a talented group. Andre Johnson is still one of the better receivers in the league and DeAndre Hopkins isn’t a 1-year wonder. DeVier Posey is a long, lanky receiver who can stretch the seam or play on the outside while Hopkins moves into the slot. The biggest issue with this group of receivers is that they lack a very good quaterback to throw them the ball.

The current depth chart at QB reads: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum, Tom Savage. Fitzpatrick’s sole job will be not to turn the ball over and let the defense and run game do its job. He hasn’t been very good this preseason. Keenum jumped out to a hot start last year but when teams got enough film on him, he began to regress in his productivity. He has tools but he needs to develop faster to prove he can play in the NFL. He also hasn’t looked good this preseason. Savage is a strong armed rookie out of the University of Pittsburgh that had some scouts raving. He’s very rough around the edges as a passer and probably isn’t ready for the big leagues yet, but he does have potential. He also hasn’t looked very good this preseason.

The offense will rely on the run game to hit paydirt. This is a veteran offensive line that is still very good. Arian Foster will be the bellcow back this year and should handle a large amount of carries. His health and production will mean a lot to this team. Without a good run game, the Texans could be picking in the top 5 again next season.

Tennessee Titans

Additions: QB Charlie Whitehurst, WR/KR Dexter McCluster, OT Michael Oher, G/C Eric Olsen, NT Al Woods, DE/OLB Shaun Phillips, ILB Wesley Woodyard.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd   Pick#  Pos.    Player                        College
1          11          OT       Taylor Lewan             Michigan
2          54         RB       Bishop Sankey            Washington
4          112        DT       DaQuan Jones            Penn State
4          122        S          Marqueston Huff       Wyoming
5          151         LB       Avery Williamson      Kentucky
6          178        QB       Zach Mettenberger    LSU

Losses: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Chris Johnson, WR Kenny Britt, WR Damian Williams, OT David Stewart, CB Alterraun Verner, K Rob Bironas.

Analysis:

QB Jake Locker looked much better than I had ever anticipated last season before injury. He was about to make a believer out of me before, like has happened too many times already, he hit the shelf with another injury. Locker has picked up where he left off this preseason. He seems sharp, smart, and pretty accurate with the football. If he continues to be able to show this level of play, the Titans could be a good team. If the inevitable happens and Locker gets hurt, he has Charlie Whitehurst and rookie Zach Mettenberger backing him up.

The offense is retooled a bit under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt. The offensive line looks pretty beefy on paper and even has some good depth with rookie Taylor Lewan currently on the depth chart as a backup. The problem is that it’s not yet a cohesive unit in that they’ve never all played together. Shonn Greene and Bishop Sankey should have some room to run behind Levitre and Warmack, while the 2 Michaels – Roos and Oher – anchor the edges. Locker hasn’t been pressured much in the preseason because of the good showing by this OL so far.

Delanie Walker is a very good do-it-all tight end but there isn’t much depth behind him at the position. The same goes for the Titans’ receivers. Nate Washington is technically the #1 receiver. Kendall Wright is the #2 but displays more of the physical skills that a team wants in a receiver. Justin Hunter is a promising prospect but still is raw and has some learning to do, though he’s probably been the best looking receiver of the bunch. Beyond those 3, the position is made up of mostly special teamers.

The real gem here is the defense. Under new Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton, this should be a very versatile and multiple defense. They lost stud corner Alterraun Verner to the Buccaneers but Jason McCourty has shown he’s capable of being a shutdown-type. Coty Sensabaugh and Wreh-Wilson aren’t ideal as #2 and #3 corners but I think the pressure that the front line can generate can make them even better. The safeties, Michael Griffin and Bernard Pollard are a good fit and should have good seasons within Horton’s scheme – that is, if Pollard can stay on the field and not end up suspended because of illegal hits.

Jurrell Casey is a guy that every fan should know. He’s the anchor of this defense much the way Vince Wilfork was back in the 2000’s for the Patriots. He allows the rest of the defense to be better because he’s so good. Sammie Hill has looked terrific this preseason at DE. The Titans signed Wesley Woodyard from the Broncos to be a leader in the middle of this linebacking corp. Derrick Morgan is a good at just about everything he does while Kamerion Wimbley is likely going to serve as a pass rushing OLB.

Overall, this is a team that looks to be able to play good defense and run the ball effectively. They aren’t going to be able to compete in shootouts with the good teams but if they can keep scores low, they’ve got a shot to be solid.

Division Outlook:

Indianapolis Colts (9-7)

Having Andrew Luck at QB makes all the difference, but I am not as high on Indianapolis as most seem to be. A weak division saves them. The winner of this division may finish 8-8.

Houston Texans (6-10)

Like the 2 teams below them, will have to rely on defense and run game. Texans’ defense and run game is slightly better than the rest.

Jacksonville Jaguars (6-10)

An improved team heading in the right direction. Taking it slow with Bortles is the right thing to do, but he’ll be in sooner rather than later.

Tennessee Titans (5-11)

The Titans could end up being really good if Locker plays well. Or really bad if he doesn’t. Based on injuries and previous performances, it really isn’t smart money to bet on him.

On a side note, it would not surprise me to see any team in this division win it. So many question marks and only 1.5 good QBs (Bortles is a half because it’s too early to tell).

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