Sunday, August 10, 2014

AFC SOUTH PREVIEW AND PREDICTIONS

      By: Connor Glowacki

     With football season right around the corner, it's time to go and make predictions on how well each team will fare during the regular season. Today we will be focusing on the AFC South, where the four teams range from being irrelevant to potential Super Bowl contenders. Led by quarterback Andrew Luck, the Indianapolis Colts made the playoffs for the second year in a row after a 2-14 season in 2011 and are poised to take the next step in establishing themselves as one of the elite teams in the NFL. After a successful 13-3 season for the Houston Texans in 2012, Houston was decimated by injuries and poor quarterback play. These would lead to a dreadful 2-14 season and the worst record in the NFL. Meanwhile, both the Tennessee Titans and the Jacksonville Jaguars are both searching for relevancy again within the league. Let's take an early look at where these teams could finish up based upon their offseason losses and acquisitions.
courtesy of bleacherreport

1.) Indianapolis Colts: The Colts continued to make big strides last season by finishing the regular season with an 11--5 record, going undefeated against all other teams in the AFC South and mounting an improbable comeback against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card game that propelled them to the Divisional round.  The offense ranked in the middle of the pack last season finishing 17th in passing, with 232.8 yards per game ,and 21st in rushing with 108.9 yards per game. 
     The offense will once again be led by Luck who finished a successful 2013 season throwing for 3,822 yards and 23 touchdowns compared to just nine interceptions. He did a much better job at limiting turnovers after throwing a high amount of interceptions in his rookie campaign. Luck also continued to show his athleticism as he ran for four touchdowns last season and 377 yards on 63 carries.        He'll have multiple weapons in his arsenal to throw to this season as wide receivers T.Y.Hilton (82 catches, 1083 yards, 5 TDs), Reggie Wayne (38 catches, 503 yards, 2TDs) and tight end Coby Fleener (52 catches, 608 yards, 4TDs) all return, as well as the addition of wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (56 catches, 896 yards) from the New York Giants. 
     The defense offered mixed results last season, finishing 13th against the pass (231.9 yards per game), but 26th against the run (125.1 yards per game). Linebacker Robert Mathis was one of the best defensive  players in the league last season after a career year with 19.5 sacks. Cornerbacks Darius Butler and Cassius Vaughn combined for seven interceptions and linebacker Jerrell Freeman added 5.5 sacks. 

Big Questions: Will the running game improve this season for Indy? The Colts had just ONE running back who ran for over 500 yards last season and that was Donald Brown (102 carries, 537 yards, 6TDs). After acquiring Trent Richardson from the Cleveland Browns early last season, it was expected that the combination of Luck and Richardson would lead this team's offense for years to come. However, Richardson stalled in Indianapolis, rushing for for just 458 yards on 157 attempts and three touchdowns. That's an average of 2.9 yards per carry, ranking near the bottom in the league. 
      With Brown leaving in free agency, can Richardson and running back Ahmad Bradshaw create a consistent rushing game to help out Luck and the Colts offense? Also, in the playoffs Luck was not nearly as consistent as in the regular season, throwing seven interceptions compared to six touchdowns. Can he continue to improve at limiting turnovers? Can the defense improve against the run and find another playmaker to go with Mathis? 


courtesy of indystar.com
Bottom Line: The passing game should be dominant this season for the Colts. The additions of guard Jack Mewhort and wide receiver Donte Moncrief, through the draft, should improve the offense that much more. Signing linebacker D'Qwell Jackson was an underrated move and should allow the Colts to use different defensive blitz packages so that Mathis isn't double teamed every time he reaches the line of scrimmage. 
     Head coach Chuck Pagano has done a great job at commanding respect from the team and appears to be the answer to the Colt's search for a long-term coach. The running game will have to improve in order to give Indianapolis a legitimate shot to make it out of the AFC, with the likes of the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, and make it to the Super Bowl. 

Prediction: (11-5). In a weak division like the AFC South, the same record from last season will likely be enough to win it again. The first two games of the season will be challenging with games at Denver and at home versus the Philadelphia Eagles. But the four games after that all feature teams with below .500 records from last season, including Jacksonville, Tennessee, Houston and the Baltimore Ravens. This should allow the Colts to get off to a strong start and be able to hold on to the lead in the division for the rest of the season. 


courtesy of businessinsider
2.) Houston Texans: The Texans will finish second in the AFC South by default, due to the lack of talent on the other two rosters. Injuries plagued Houston last season and were one of the main contributors that led to a disaster of a 2-14 season in 2013. That being said, Houston has changed course this offseason by hiring head coach Bill O'Brien from Penn State University and selecting defensive end Jadeveon Clowney with the number one overall pick in the draft back in May. 
     The defense was surprisingly terrific against the pass finishing 3rd, giving up only 195.2 yards per game. Cornerback Jonathan Joseph led the team with three interceptions. Despite finishing 23rd against the run last season, giving up 122.4 yards per game, the front seven remains filled with talent. Defensive end J.J. Watt still recorded 10.5 sacks and 80 tackles. Linebacker Whitney Mercilus and defensive end Antonio Smith combined for 12 sacks last season as well. 
     The offense was inconsistent last season finishing 15th in passing with 138.3 yards per game and 20th in rushing with just under 109 yards per game. Quarterback Matt Schaub left in free agency and quarterback Case Keenum was spotty in the games he played in last season, so the Texans signed Ryan Fitzpatrick who played with Tennessee last season, throwing for 2,454 yards and 14 touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions. Star wide receiver Andre Johnson will be back once again for Houston after posting excellent numbers last season (109 catches, 1407 yards, 5TDs). 

Big Questions: There are many questions for the Texans heading into this season. Can Fitzpatrick lead this team to a winning record? His career stats are pretty good, throwing for 106 touchdowns compared to 81 interceptions, and he has a carved out a niche for himself in the NFL as a guy who can either be a great backup or a guy who can fill in, when need be, as a starting quarterback. 
     Running back Arian Foster was hampered by injuries last season and ran for only 542 yards on 121 carries and only one touchdown. With leading rusher Ben Tate leaving in free agency, can Foster stay healthy enough to be the star running back once again in Houston? And, how fast will Clowney succeed in the NFL with the Texans? He's already garnered comparisons to all time great linebacker Lawrence Taylor. Can he stay healthy and produce at a high level in his rookie season?
courtesy of tabletmag.com

Bottom Line: The defense should improve this season. Linebacker Brian Cushing and cornerback Kareem jackson will return from injuries that kept them out for most of last season. If Clowney stays healthy, he will have the perfect guy to learn from in Watt. If Clowney develops to his FULL potential. The combination of himself and Watt will be undeniably scary and the perfect counter to Luck in Indianapolis. 
     Fitzpatrick will have to utilize his offensive weapons as much as he can. Johnson is dependable and will continue to step up for Houston, but they could potentially have a second 1,000 yard receiver this year in DeAndre Hopkins, after he caught 52 passes for 802 yards last season. Houston also picked up running back Andre Brown from the New York Giants in the offseason, which should give Foster help in the running game. Left tackle Duane Brown and rookie guard Xavier Su'a-Filo will have to play their best in order to give Fitzpatrick a fighting chance at success. 

Prediction: (7-9). The Texans potentially have four wins simply against Tennessee and Jacksonville. But they also have games early in the season against the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills that give them a chance to get off to a decent start. If Fitzpatrick over-performs, Houston could be a team that could get to a .500 record by the end of the season. 

3.) Tennessee Titans: With the amount of injuries the Titans had last season, it could still be considered somewhat of a success due to finishing with a 7-9 record. The offense was inconsistent last season, ranking 21st in passing with 218.5 yards per game and 14th in rushing with 118.4 yards. 
courtesy of blog.titansonline.com
     The narrative will focus around fourth year quarterback Jake Locker, who has battled injuries throughout his career and has failed to stay on the field. In just five games last season, Locker threw for 1,256 yards and eight touchdowns compared to four interceptions. He also ran for 155 yards on 24 carries and two touchdowns, but also had three fumbles. 
     Leading rusher Chris Johnson ran for over 1,000 yards last season and six touchdowns, but he left in free agency to play for the New York Jets leaving running back Shonn Green (77 carries, 295 yards, 4TDs) to be the featured back. Wide receivers Kendall Wright (94 catches, 1079 yards, 2TDs) and Nate Washington (58 catches, 919 yards, 3TDs) enjoyed nice 2013 seasons, despite all of the fluctuations at quarterback. 
     On defense, the Titans were 11th against the pass (225.8 yards per game), but 20th against the run (112.2 yards per game). Cornerback Alterraun Verner arrives from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a career year with five interceptions last season. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and defensive end Derrick Morgan combined for 16.5 sacks last season and are back with the Titans in 2014. 

Big Questions: First, is this Locker's last chance to prove to the Tennessee Titans that he is still their franchise quarterback of the present and the future? Locker has only played in 23 games since being drafted in 2011 and has completed just 57.2 percent of his passes throwing 22 touchdowns compared to 15 interceptions. Before he got hurt last year, it seemed he was making real strides towards improving his mechanics on the field. 
     Can Greene stay healthy enough on the field to be a workhorse back for the Titans this season? He was able to do so early in his career with the New York Jets, so that is not out of the realm of possibility. And will the defense be the unit that carries this team in 2014?

Bottom Line: Tennessee has talent at certain positions. By acquiring offensive tackle Michael Oher, the Titans have a solid offensive line that already had tackle Michael Roos and guard Chance Warmack. They also have a solid receiving corps with Wright, Washington and tight end Delanie Walker (60 catches, 573 yards, 6TDs) that can help Locker make plays. 
courtesy of fanspeak.com
     But if Tennessee struggles to establish a running game and it forces Locker to escape from the pocket and make plays, the risk for an injury increases. Locker needs to stay on the field and show some success this season to warrant remaining the starting quarterback. 

Prediction: (6-10). Tennessee might have a chance for second place against Houston. The defense will keep them in games, but unless Locker improves as a passer, I don't think Tennessee will improve record-wise from last season. They have three early games in the season on the road against Kansas City, Indianapolis and the Cincinatti Bengals. If they start 0-3 or 0-4, I don't think they'll be able to recover. 


courtesy of sportingnews.com
4.) Jacksonville Jaguars: The last time the Jaguars made the playoffs was back in 2007 when they posted an 11-5 record and lost in the Divisional Round. Since then Jacksonville has gone 31-65, including a dreadful 4-12 season last year. 
     Head coach Gus Bradley endured a tough first season as the team stumbled to an 0-8 start. Jacksonville's offense was near the bottom of the league throughout the entire season as they finished 22nd in passing, averaging just over 215 yards per game, and 31st in rushing, averaging just under 79 yards per game. They used their top four picks in this year's draft to address the offensive side of the ball and shocked many by taking Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles with the third overall pick. Jacksonville also made it important to draft wide receivers Marquise Lee, out of USC, and Allen Robinson, out of Penn State, in the second round, and University of Miami guard Brandon Linder in the third round. 
     After trading, former first round pick, quarterback Blaine Gabbert to the San Francisco 49ers, Bortles will likely be the backup this year to incumbent Chad Henne. Henne a decent, but inconsistent 2013 campaign where he threw for 3,241 yards with 13 touchdowns compared to 14 interceptions. Long time running back Maurice Jones-Drew left during free agency, but Jacksonville signed Toby Gerhart (36 carries, 283 yards, 2TDs) as a replacement. The defense was even worse last season, finishing 26th against the pass (247.6 yards per game) and 29th against the run (131.8 yards per game). Linebacker Paul Posluszny (162 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions) and defensive end Andre Branch (6 sacks) are the top playmakers returning and will try to improve a defense that ranked near the bottom in almost every statistical category last season. 

Big Questions: This is another team that is just FILLED with questions coming into this season. Jacksonville declared that Henne will be the starter going into the season with Bortles ranked number two on the depth chart, hoping that Bortles can learn from the sidelines during his rookie season. Ultimately though, injuries happen frequently in the NFL. If Henne gets injured during a playoff game, will Bortles be ready to step in and lead this team? According to local reports, he's done a great job of earning respect from other Jaguars' teammates, so only time will tell. 
     Can Gerhart and Jordan Todman (76 carries, 256 yards, 2TDs) improve the running game of Jacksonville to take pressure off of Henne and the passing game? And will the Jaguars defense improve? They have some nice pieces in Posluszny, Branch, defensive end Chris Clemons, and linebacker Geno Hayes. But after losing defensive end, and sack leader, Jason Babin to free agency, who else can step in to make an impact on the defensive side of the ball?
courtesy of jacksonville.com

Bottom Line: Jacksonville Jaguars fans will have to accept that this will be another rebuilding year. This is a year to have Bortles learn the ropes of being a young quarterback in the NFL. BUT this team has put together nice building blocks that could allow this team to contend again in a few years. In addition to Bortles, last year's number two overall pick, offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, will essentially have his first full year this season after missing all but five games last season due to a fractured ankle. Talent-wise, he could be Jacksonville's left tackle for the next ten years. And the receiving corps is filled with potential. Cecil Shorts III (66 catches, 777 yards, 3TDs) will again be the number one target for Henne and/or Bortles. And if Lee and Robinson can make a positive impact this season, it'll make the disappointment of former top 10 pick Justin Blackmon start to fade away slightly. 


courtesy of post-gazette.com
Prediction: (2-14). If they didn't draft Bortles or any other quarterback for this season, I'd say 'Let's tank for Jameis Winston!'. Jacksonville should and will fight hard to win games this season, but they just don't have the talent yet to compete with the better teams in the NFL and avoid being the cellar dwellers this year in the AFC South. 
     I like several young players on this roster, including Bortles, Joeckel and Lee. I'd say with another good draft or two, Jacksonville could make a run for relevancy and even potentially a playoff berth. 2014 just won't be that year. On the bright side, those pool side cabanas look insanely sweet!

Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comment section below!

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