We now continue our series of NFL previews with a look at the AFC South. This division has been owned recently by the Colts, who have won the last four division titles. They have a combined record of 50-14 in that span, and they haven't won fewer than ten games in a season since the division was created in 2002. Is this the year that someone topples the Colts atop the division?
1. Indianapolis Colts
Last year: 12-4 (3-3 vs. AFC South)
Playoffs: Beat Kansas City in AFC Wild Card; Beat Baltimore in AFC Divisional Playoff; Beat New England in AFC Championship; Beat Chicago in Super Bowl XLI
Magic found the Colts at the right time last year. Safety Bob Sanders returned from injury, and suddenly they had a run defense for the postseason. After being one of the worst run defenses in the league during the regular season, Indianapolis was outstanding in their four playoff victories. Now, as they embark on their title defense, the Colts have a number of issues that could derail their drive for a repeat.
1. How will the Colts recover from the losses on defense? They re-signed star DE Dwight Freeney, which was great news. But they lost CBs Nick Harper and Jason David and LB Cato June to free agency. Also gone is safety Mike Doss, but he didn't play much last year due to injury. Obviously, the Colts will lean heavily on Freeney and Sanders, along with LB Gary Brackett. Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson are the new starting corners, which attacks Indianapolis' depth more than their talent. These guys can play. The issue in the secondary surrounds who will be on the field when opposing teams go three- and four-wide? The Colts drafted Cal's Daymeion Hughes (now known as Dante Hughes, by the way), but it's not yet known when he'll be ready to contribute significantly.
2. Will Peyton Manning ever slow down? He now has his championship, but there is no indication that Manning intends to stop at one title. The Colts may have needed their significant improvements on defense in order to win it all last year, but Manning's leadership was a key, too. When the game was on the line against New England, Manning led his team down the field for the eventual game-winning score. He was nearly flawless in leading the Colts past the Bears in the Super Bowl, despite awful throwing conditions in Miami. The receiver depth was attacked a bit this offseason, with Brandon Stokley departing, but the Colts pounced quickly by drafting Ohio State's Anthony Gonzalez in the first round. While Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne are the stars, TE Dallas Clark has emerged as a favorite of Manning's, and he's an important piece to the offense. When Clark was forced to miss time with a knee injury, the Colts were just 1-3. He may not have caught as many passes as fellow TE Ben Utecht, but Clark's presence will be of great help to Manning.
3. How much will the offensive line be hurt by the retirement of LT Tarik Glenn? The Colts need to replace a guy who was a fixture on one of football's best offensive lines for years. There's no way this will be easy. For now, the job belongs to rookie Tony Ugoh, the Colts' second-round pick out of Arkansas. Glenn and C Jeff Saturday were the two best parts of the Colts' line last year, and losing one of them is a potential disaster. But Ugoh is a capable player who has done nothing in training camp to make the Colts terribly concerned about this position. That said, replacing a veteran rock with a rookie stud could lead to problems, especially for a quarterback who has not needed to worry much about his offensive line over the years.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
Last year: 8-8 (2-4 vs. AFC South)
Despite the fact that he started all four preseason games, the Jacksonville Jaguars decided late last week to bench starting QB Byron Leftwich in favor of backup David Garrard, who got the chance to start last year when Leftwich was injured. With the team coming off an exceptionally uneven 8-8 season, is this the spark the Jaguars need to make a run at the playoffs this year?
1. Is the decision to go with Garrard the right one? PFP makes a great point about Garrard and his supposed mobility. The public perception was that Leftwich just stood there like a statue and invited sacks with his immobile nature and goofy throwing motion. PFP disputes by looking at the Adjusted Sack Rates for Leftwich and Garrard last year. Surprisingly, Garrard's was noticeably higher than Leftwich (6.5 percent to 5.3).
The man is not a gazelle, but when we look at the results, it is clear that Byron Leftwich's mobility is not a significant problem.Garrard threw costly interceptions in losses to Houston and Tennessee last year. The numbers don't lie: It just doesn't appear that this is a huge upgrade for Jacksonville. In fact, with their depth at quarterback in question at the outset of the season, it may rate as a huge mistake for them. Frankly, looking at their performance, I'm perplexed at Jack Del Rio's decision. It strikes me as being almost as much a personal issue as a performance one. Del Rio and Leftwich never really got along famously, and this was Del Rio's chance to rid himself of a conflict.
2. What went wrong last year? The Jaguars outscored their opponents by a rather healthy margin, weren't blown away in giveaway/takeaway ratio (-1), and beat the living crap out of the eventual Super Bowl champions. So how, exactly, did this team lose games to Houston (two!!), Washington, and Buffalo? They can run the ball, they have talented receivers, and they have a potentially great defense. Seriously, how were they just 8-8? Luckily for me, I don't have to have an answer to this. That's Del Rio's job.
3. If they can solve issues at safety, how good will this pass defense be? Corners Brian Williams and Rashean Mathis are both capable of playing at a high level. The other safety position is held down by veteran Sammy Knight, who should be solid. Gerald Sensabaugh is listed as the starter at free safety, but rookie Reggie Nelson has to be considered the future starter. With Deon Grant having moved on, the Jaguars are concerned about the middle of their secondary, but the talent is there to take care of those concerns. With all the other star power on this defense, it really shouldn't become a serious issue.
3. Tennessee Titans
Last year: 8-8 (4-2 vs. AFC South)
Memories of a 0-5 start went away quickly when Vince Young took over the offense. While the Titans were far from dominant, Young showed a great grasp of Norm Chow's offense, which Chow did a super job of tweaking to benefit Young. Young also showed a flair for the dramatic, leading dramatic wins over the Giants, Indianapolis, Houston, and Buffalo as he led the Titans to an 8-8 finish. However, it's worth noting that the Titans were indeed far from dominant, and such close wins do not tend to repeat themselves from season to season, especially when the team involved had a poor offseason.
1. So who's going to catch the ball now? Top receivers Drew Bennett (St. Louis) and Bobby Wade (Minnesota) are both gone, leaving the job to - wait for it - Eric Moulds. Moulds didn't impress in Houston, and he may yield to youngster Brandon Jones as the Titans' top receiver. For Young, it will help greatly to have top TEs Bo Scaife and Ben Troupe back, and another offseason working with Chow should increase his understanding of the system. It also gives Chow more time to construct ways to make Young successful, even though the top targets from last year are gone.
2. That's not the only problem. Who's going to run the ball? The Titans enter the season with LenDale White, Chris Brown, and Chris Henry as their top three backs. White is listed as the starter for the opener, but he only has 62 NFL carries (0 touchdowns) to his name. Brown has had injury issues, and Henry is a rookie. Last
year's leading rusher, Travis Henry, now plays for Denver after a 1,200-yard season in Tennessee. The running game is a serious issue for the Titans, because it can't all revolve around Young's mobility.
3. What to do with the defensive backfield? The suspension of Pacman Jones is a serious concern, even with the signing of former Colt Nick Harper. He'll start at one corner, with Cortland Finnegan listed as the starter on the other side. Rookie Michael Griffin should be of great help by mid-season. Finnegan will also work in Jones' place as the club's top kick and punt returner. Jones, for all his off-field faults, was really beginning to round into his own as a cover cornerback and kick-return threat. Harper and Finnegan are nice players, but they don't have anything close to Jones' upside.
4. Houston Texans
Last year: 6-10 (3-3 vs. AFC South)
The talent does appear to be improving in Houston. The Texans have had some whiffs in the NFL Draft, but WR Andre Johnson, CB Dunta Robinson, and DL Mario Williams and Amobi Okoye look like keepers. Houston has a solid coach in Gary Kubiak, who managed to coax six wins out of a pretty bad team last year. Now, Kubiak is charged with transitioning to a new QB and RB, along with trying to rebuild a defense that has the aforementioned young talent, but is wrought with disappointing players and depth concerns.
1. Is Matt Schaub the right choice? After another disappointing season, the Texans jettisoned their first-ever starting quarterback, David Carr, instead deciding to bring in former Atlanta backup Schaub. The move came after Carr was sacked 272 times in five seasons, and it didn't come without some debate among the "experts". Some said Carr was never going to work out as an NFL starter, while others decried Schaub's anointment, given his career completion rate of just 52 percent. Personally, I'm willing to see how Schaub develops as an every-week starter, something he's never been in the NFL.
2. Do the Texans have enough skill-position help for Schaub? They signed RB Ahman Green, who topped 1,000 yards last year but appears to be in decline. The depth there is solid, with Green, Ron Dayne, and Samkon Gado all available. The depth at WR behind Johnson is atrocious. Kevin Walter should start on the other side, and former Brown/Cowboy Andre Davis is the third receiver. Unheard-ofs Jacoby Jones and Jerome Mathis will also see playing time. Much like the Bills, Houston missed out on a chance to upgrade this position, but in their defense, it just wasn't a favorable year to do so.
3. Who fills the many holes on defense? Robinson is the only solid talent in the secondary. One can safely assume that the other starting corner, currently listed as Demarcus Faggans, will be picked on a bit. Last year's first overall pick, Williams, and this year's first-rounder, Okoye, are joined on the line by Travis Johnson and Anthony Weaver. DeMeco Ryans comes off a solid rookie season at MLB, but there are issues at both outside positions. The best player of that bunch appears to be Morlon Greenwood.