2013 NFL Season Preview: AFC South

Houston Texans

Overview

Looking back on the Houston Texans last season, it’s easy to forget that they finished with 12 wins. A rough end to the season prevented them from being even better. They lost three of their last four to New England, Minnesota, and Indy (who they had beaten two weeks earlier). A couple of overtime wins over Detroit and Jacksonville really didn’t improve that perception much. It could be argued that Houston overachieved but a win over a very good Cincinnati team in the playoffs solidified some respect for them.

There was a bit of turnover in personnel as RB Justin Forsett, WR Kevin Walter, TE James Casey, LB Connor Barwin, and S Glover Quin were all significant contributors in 2012 and all have new homes for 2013. The additions don’t stack up to the losses: FB Greg Jones, S Ed Reed, and P Shane Lechler. The Texans drafted WR DeAndre Hopkins who will start opening day and provides a great option opposite of star WR Andre Johnson.

The staff continuity will help this team but Matt Schaub had an up and down season. He was very good at times but missed a lot of reads late in the season. The Texans are in “QB purgatory” with Schaub at the helm as he hasn’t really asserted himself as a top QB but hasn’t been bad enough to bench either.

Strengths

The whole offense centers around the offensive line, the running backs, and the zone run scheme. Arian Foster and Ben Tate are both very good running backs while the offensive line may be one of the best teams at reach blocking in the league. LT Duane Brown and C Chris Myers may get all the recognition but this is a line that is good throughout. The defense is really where the strength of this team lies. JJ Watt may have had the best season of any defender every in the history of the game. 20.5 sacks by a 3-4 defensive end is unheard of. Tack on 69 tackles, 4 forced fumbles, and 16 pass deflections. Incredible. He’s the star but the linebackers behind him are very good as well and will get even better now that they have Brian Cushing back in the fold. The secondary is a strong point as well but lacks the depth they had last year.

Weaknesses

The Texans are one of those teams that might lack explosive names but they are good throughout the entire roster. There are some questions on the defensive line outside of JJ Watt. Earl Mitchell is average and Tim Jamison is slightly less average. This also means there’s a lack of depth there. At the safety position, Ed Reed is an addition but it’s unclear how good he’ll be at age 34. Danieal Manning is a decent football player but the Texans will need someone to step up in that safety position if Reed isn’t the player the thought they’d get when he signed.

Name To Know

DJ Swearinger – Swearinger is a fun player to watch. He’s always after the ball. He’s reckless with his body and has no concern for other’s safety as well. He’ll hit hard and he’ll go after the ball. Swearinger should be the guy to see snaps should either safety miss time.

Prediction

The Texans are an all around good football team with good coaches. But for some reason I just can’t wrap my head around how they were good enough to win 12 games last year. That certainly doesn’t seem feasible again in 2013 as they will face the NFC West this year. It seems like a lot of things went the Texans way last season and there’s regression in store for the Texans this year. The Texans need those draft picks to step into big roles this season and that’s a risky proposition. There are reasons for regression, but call this more on intuition: 8-8.

 

 

Indianapolis Colts

Overview

General Manager Ryan Grigson walked into a pretty good situation. Year one and he gets to draft QB Andrew Luck? Set for the next 15 years at QB. Grigson added some weapons at WR and TE for Luck to play with. Now all he needs is an offensive line that can keep Luck from having to run all over the place to stay clean. Grigson is still trying to clean up the mess from the previous regime and had a lot of turnover again this year.

The Colts added a phenomenal pass blocking RB in Ahmad Bradshaw which should help keep defenders off Luck. They also added veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck as insurance and Darrius Heyward-Bey as a potential deep threat for the offense. Trying to solidify the line, OT Gosder Cherilus and G Donald Thomas will both start. On the other side of the ball, incoming contributors include DE/DT Ricky Jean-Francois, DT Aubrayo Franklin, LB Erik Walden, LB Kelvin Sheppard, CB Greg Toler, and S LaRon Landry. This replaces the loss of guys like QB Drew Stanton, WR Donnie Avery, OT Winston Justice, C AQ Shipley, OLB Dwight Freeney, LB Jerry Hughes, CB Jerraud Powers, and S Tom Zbikowski. The Colts made out pretty well in the transition.

The 11-5 finish by the Colts last season surprised many in what was an emotional season as their new Head Coach Chuck Pagano battled cancer and missed most of the season. Assistant Head Coach Bruce Arians steered the ship to what can be considered a Cinderella season for a team that many expected to win six or seven games, at most. This season, Arians has moved on to his own head coaching job and Pep Hamilton takes over as the play caller. It will be interesting to see if the Colts were just on an emotional high or if they’re going to be a legit contender for years to come.

Strengths

Quarterback is obviously a strength. The Colts have young phenom Andrew Luck at the helm and have a very capable backup in Matt Hasselback should they need to call on him. Indy has two good tight ends in Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener that both can do everything fairly well. Reggie Wayne, TY Hilton, and Heyward-Bey provide some decent options to throw to as well. The defensive line starters look stout in Cory Redding, Aubrayo Franklin, and Jean-Francois. The cornerbacks may not be deep but Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, and Darius Butler will cause some headaches for opposing receivers. LaRon Landry and Antoine Bethea aren’t bad options at safety either.

Weaknesses

The offensive line is still a major concern. If not for Andrew Luck’s supreme pocket presence, pocket tolerance, and his ability to move in confined spaces while keeping his eyes downfield, the Colts would have serious issues trying to throw the ball. The linebacker unit is a group to keep an eye on. Erik Walden was paid big bucks but there are a ton of people who think he’s just a guy. Rookie Bjoern Werner should push him for playing time. Pat Angerer can be a liability in coverage.

Name To Know

Jerrell Freeman – This is a guy more people should know. He’s a smooth and smart play who piles up tackles. Freeman is a young guy that should start for a very long time for the Colts.

Prediction

The AFC South as a whole really doesn’t provide great teams. The Colts are probably best suited to come out of the division with a playoff berth. If the fixes to the defensive line and offensive line don’t pan out, it could be a long year. If they do, this could be another 11-win team simply because of the lack of competition within the division. The Colts overachieved last year and they didn’t seem to improve much either. 9-7 seems like another good prediction for them.

 

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Overview

The Jaguars have been the punch line of a lot of NFL jokes for a few years. Drafting a QB who resembles “Sunshine” from Remember the Titans only contributed to that. But don’t get it wrong. This is a passionate fan base that will let you know immediately that blackouts in Jacksonville are an ESPN contrived myth. And now adding Thomas Dimitroff protégé, David Caldwell from the Falcons and fiery and passionate head coach Gus Bradley from the Seahawks, there’s brains and brawn in the offices in Jacksonville. Jaguars players and fans suffered through 2-14 last season but will feed off of Bradley’s energy. Throw in a newly developed analytics department, headed by Tony Khan, and the Jags might be putting together something special that mixes cold hard calculations with good talent evaluation and a coach who will get the most out of his players.

Jacksonville is another team that had a roster purge with the entry of the new staff. Among the litany of guys who left town: RB Rashad Jennings, FB Greg Jones, WR Laurent Robinson, OT Guy Whimper, G Eben Britton, DT Terrance Knighton, CB Derek Cox, CB William Middleton, CB Aaron Ross, and S Dawan Landry. There are a couple of significant players there but overall, most of these guys were expendable. The Jags added some good guys at important positions: RB Justin Forsett, DT Roy Miller, DT Brandon Deadrick, LB Geno Hayes, and CB Alan Hall. This is a team that is building for the future and appears to be making some very intelligent moves to improve what was a very bad roster.

Strengths

The front office seems to be making some moves to provide a solid core of players to surround the QB with. The skill positions are loaded with young talent. Justin Blackmon, Cecil Short, Ace Sanders, and offensive weapon Denard Robinson provide some great options for the QB to throw to. Number two overall pick Luke Joeckel and the vastly underrated Eugene Monroe bookend an offensive line that has been a rebuilding focus. There are some interesting things going on with the defensive line and looks to be a much improved unit. I like the move of Tyson Alualu out to defensive end.

Weaknesses

Everyone knows about the struggles at the QB position for the Jags. Blaine Gabbert did show a little progress in the offseason towards being capable of managing the game but still showed he has some major strides to make as well. Chad Henne is a known commodity but really offers no upside except as an acceptable backup. The linebacker unit is a pieced together group that will likely be revised all season long and a point of emphasis in the offseason. Geno Hayes flashes but not nearly enough and is inconsistent in play. Paul Posluszny is a decent enough player but not a world beater. The secondary got better by adding Ball and drafting Jonathan Cyprien and Dwayne Gratz. It’s a young and inexperienced unit that will be tested often.

Name To Know

Johnathan Cyprien – Cyprien may have been the best all around safety in this year’s draft. He’ll be an important cog in this defense for a long time. He’s quick, reactive, and has tremendous range. He’ll take chances with careful calculation and will play with good physicality.

Prediction

The Jags are trending up. They have a major question mark at quarterback but this is a team that has found some good players and Gus Bradley will figure out a way to put them in a position to succeed. He’ll also provide them with all the motivation they can handle. While the Jags won’t contend for a Super Bowl, they’ll be better than people think and may shock a couple of teams throughout the year. 5 wins is probably the sweet spot. Optimistically, 6 wins is possible.

 

 

Tennessee Titans

Overview

The Tennesse Titans endured a 6-10 season in 2012 while starting QB Jake Locker was hurt for much of the season – and really his entire two year career. He’s battled injuries ever since entering the league and it’s affected his progression. Locker is still essentially the same QB he was coming out of Washington.

The interesting part is that the Titans have some decent players scattered throughout the roster. The issue is filling in the gaps in between and finding something to glue it all together. Many times, a roster with holes in it can be hidden via good QB play and good scheming. The Titans haven’t really gotten either and we’re left with some bright spots on what has not been all together a poor showing.

Tennessee added veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick for insurance against Locker’s continuous injuries. They also added one of my favorite players in TE Delanie Walker who is a Swiss Army knife that can do a little bit of everything very well (he could use some time on a Juggs machine, though). Tennessee also added RB Shonn Greene, WR Kevin Walter, G Andy Levitre, DT Sammie Hill, S Benard Pollard, and S George Wilson. That’s a pretty solid haul but the Titans did lose some important contributors in TE Jared Cook, G Steve Hutchinson, G Deuce Lutui, LB Will Witherspoon, and S Jordan Babineaux. Admittedly, many of those guys didn’t play well.

The Titans made a concerted effort to beef up the offensive line by adding Levitre and drafting G Chance Warmack. This seems to point to more running by Chris Johnson, who after rushing for 2,000+ yards in 2009 has seen his average yards per carry dip from 5.6 to 4.5. Tennessee will need Johnson to be successful on the ground to take the heat off of Jake Locker.

Strengths

On paper, the offensive line looks dominating. LT Michael Roos is one of the better unknown tackles in the league and adding Levitre and Warmack inside will add a punishing element to this offense. The Titans generated a very solid pass rush last year with Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley. Sammie Hill will add to that but this isn’t a deep unit. Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner are solid corners and hold up very well against solid receivers but this is another area where there are depth concerns.

Weaknesses

The linebacker corps isn’t really a weakness but it is lacking true play makers. With the Titans now having three capable safeties on the roster, don’t be surprised to see more nickel packages with three safeties in the game, especially since that was the area where the LBs struggled the most.

Name To Know

Ryan Fitzpatrick – Everyone probably already knows who Fitzpatrick is. The point here is that he’s going to eventually end up the starting QB for Tennessee, either through injury or poor play by Jake Locker.

Prediction

Unfortunately for the Titans, good quarterback play is a necessity to win in the NFL in today’s game. The problem is that Jake Locker needs to improve in a lot of areas, especially in his accuracy. Accuracy is a hard thing to correct, if it’s even correctable at all. Poor QB play and a coaching staff that doesn’t seem to have a true plan going into games will torpedo what could be a very average team. This season is going to be a rough one for Titans fans. Optimistically, there are 4-6 winnable games on the schedule. Reality is that the Titans will win 3 of them.

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