2015 NFL Preview: AFC South

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The AFC South is a division in transition as there are not too many teams ready to take that next step in the division.

In fact that is how this division has played out since the start of the division as there is only one team that has shown any true consistency.

The Indianapolis Colts have simply owned this division since the division was formed in 2002 winning a total of nine division titles.

Those wins included a five-year winning streak where nobody really came close to winning the division.

The Colts have clearly had one major advantage over the rest of their division and it marks a complete opposite of where their partners in the NFC are.

The NFC South is a division full of quarterbacks and that became only more real this year with the addition of Jameis Winston to the division.

The AFC South is a quarterback poor division as there have rarely been any superstar quarterbacks for most teams.

The only exception to that rule is in Indianapolis where the Colts have enjoyed a great quarterback succession.

When the Colts won their five straight division titles they did so with future hall of famer, Peyton Manning.

Now they are a two-time division champion and they are doing it with Manning’s replacement and one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL in Andrew Luck.

The Colts are the team that every other AFC South team as none have had the level of talent that the Colts have had under centre.

The Tennessee Titans may be the closest to the Colts in terms of their QB talent over the years with some glimmers of hope.

Steve McNair led them to the first ever division title in 2002 and a wild card berth in 2003 and is remembered as a good quarterback.football-sidebar

After McNair it was a constant change with good seasons from various pivots that include Vince Young, Kerry Collins, Matt Hasselbeck, and Jake Locker.

All had good seasons but none lasted for much longer than a few years as a true starting quarterback in the NFL.

This year they hope that the search is done with the addition of Marcus Mariota, the #2 pick in this year’s draft.

The Houston Texans began their time in the NFL in 2002 with David Carr who was fairly successful with an expansion team.

They then moved on to Matt Schaub who led them to new heights in helping them win the division in 2011 and 2012.

Carr and Schaub are not going to get any NFL Network specials when they retire and since Schaub left the Texans have been trying to find their next leader.

The Jacksonville Jaguars may be the team with the worst QB record as they have had plenty of pivots with mixed success.

Mark Brunell wasn’t terrible but he wasn’t good enough to make an expansion team a competitor.

Byron Leftwich and David Garrard are the fan favourites in Jacksonville as both brought the Jags to the playoffs via the wild card but neither are considered close to the elite level.

Young quarterbacks have been the theme for them lately with Blaine Gabbert and Blake Bortles taking time since 2011 and neither doing much yet.

The AFC South is a division where one team seems to get the best of the best and the rest of the teams need to make do.

That can be a tough thing to deal with when you’re not the team that seems to just continue their success.

Still every team in the South has made some changes recently to try to compete with the Colts and they may just work out.

A second year coach in Houston hopes to continue their improvement while young quarterbacks in Jacksonville and Tennessee are trying to turn things around.

The South may have been a one horse race but if any of the new improvements for the other three teams can work out it may just make a better race in 2015.

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The Houston Texans seemed like they were on the way to becoming the next dominant team in the South after winning division titles in 2011 and 2012. Then the 2013 season happened and the 2-14 record ended their rise in dramatic fashion. That season brought about change in the organization as the Texans hired the man responsible for guiding Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Bill O’Brien. With a new coach the Texans snapped back in a big way finishing 2014 with a 9-7 record and just narrowly missing the playoffs. Houston will now enter the second season under O’Brien and there are still some major questions that could haunt them throughout the season. The one thing that is sure in Houston is that the defence will once again be the best part of this team. J.J. Watt leads a line that now includes veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork and is sure to be great. The linebacking corps is led once again by Brian Cushing but will love to see 2014 first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney return as an edge rusher after a knee injury ended his rookie year in Week 1. The coverage does not need to be great with their rush but Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, and new addition Rahim Moore provide the coverage needed to be effective. The defence is solid and there is little concern that they won’t hold up but the offence is another question. After an off-season QB battle Brian Hoyer has been named the starting quarterback beating out Ryan Mallett for the role. Hoyer’s stats aren’t great but he played on a Cleveland team that didn’t help him out much last year. He is not among the top ten in the league but he is good enough if there are players around him. The problem for Hoyer is that the Texans have lost some of those weapons that he needs to be successful. Franchise leading receiver Andre Johnson is gone leaving DeAndre Hopkins as the main target. Hopkins is a great target but Cecil Shorts III is not as big a distraction as Johnson meaning he will need to deal with a lot more double coverage this year. Arian Foster is once again hurt before the season begins leaving Alfred Blue to lead the run game. Foster may return within the first few weeks of the season and the Texans hope he does because a balanced attack is what they will need to be successful. Without Johnson in the pass game the Texans need to make defences think of another aspect and a healthy Foster can do just that. The Texans defence is one of the best but the offence needs a lot of work as the playoffs are possible if Hoyer can manage the offence well enough to beat high-powered offensive teams.

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The Colts are a team that is used to being at the top of the division year after year and despite a brief down period they have done just that. It is all thanks to one of the most successful transition periods in the NFL with a young QB taking over for a legend very successfully. Now they are done with that transition and the Colts have become a contender after moving to the AFC Championship last year, a game they lost to the New England Patriots. Andrew Luck is looking to continue his development at quarterback and as he goes so to do the Colts. He leads a good passing game but one that will be without the franchises’ leading receiver as Reggie Wayne will play for New England this year. That loss will hurt but not as much on the field as off as the addition of Andre Johnson gives Luck another weapon to go along with T.Y. Hilton, Colby Fleener, and Dwayne Allen. The passing game is in good hands with Luck having plenty of weapons to work with but they have always struggled on the ground. There has rarely been a great back in Indy but this year they hope to change that as Frank Gore will lead the way. The running game improvement should provide the balance that they need to open up a passing game and put up plenty of point. The defence is good but not great as they have a great group in the defensive backfield but it gets much weaker closer to the line. That line will miss the presence of Ricky Jean Francois and Cory Redding. New addition Kendall Langford hopes to fill in well while another new signee, Art Jones, tries to recover from ankle surgery in time to play near the end of the year and provide another veteran on the line. This is the weakest part of the team by far as the run defence is nowhere near good enough. The linebacking corps will need to get in the act at stopping the run as well but will need to do so without Robert Mathis for the start of the season. Trent Cole should fill in well to replace Mathis until he returns from his injury and he should help to stop the run. The passing defence is in good hands as Vontae Davis leads a talented group that should see an upgrade with the addition of Dwight Lowery. The defence is good but it is not great and unless the rushing defence can improve they have a glaring weakness. That weakness is not enough to take them out of the division lead though as they will still take the South and earn a spot in the playoffs. Past that it will be a challenge as better teams will find their weaknesses and a Super Bowl, although not entirely unthinkable, may be just out of their reach.

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The Jaguars have struggled to find any answers to their long down period as they have not been back to the playoffs since 2007. The biggest issue has been their long look for a quarterback which they haven’t been able to find essentially since the franchise started. Their latest attempt has been the second year man from Baylor in Blake Bortles who they hope is the solution under centre. He started 13 games last year and had some growing pains with an 11-17 TD to INT ratio. He will try to develop this year and will have a brand new weapon to work with that could help him in a big way. Julius Thomas is one of the top tight ends in the game and his addition to the passing game of the Jaguars is an immediate upgrade, although he will miss up to a month after he elected to undergo surgery after injuring his finger. Expect the Jags to run a lot of two tight end sets as Marcedes Lewis marks the second best option in this offence and they will need the veteran presence on the field. The receiving corps has no player with over two years of experience as Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns will be the leaders, all are entering their second year. In the running game the Jags are going young as well after drafting T.J. Yeldon in the second round this year. A product of the Alabama machine Yeldon will provide an upgrade while Denard Robinson will likely play the relief role. On defence the Jags are in some serious trouble after injuries have depleted their young group. Dante Fowler Jr. was the third overall pick in the draft this year and brought a legitimate pass rusher to the line but a torn ACL in rookie camp has him out for the year. Along with the loss of their top pick they lost their best pass rusher in Sn’Derrick Marks who is trying to recover from an ACL tear he suffered at the end of last year. The group still includes Chris Clemons and Ryan Davis who put up over five sacks each last year. The linebacking group is good but very shallow as Paul Posluszny leads the way alongside Telvin Smith who was a revelation for the team in his rookie season. The defensive backfield has had the most changes as the additions of Davon House and Sergio Brown are immediate upgrades to go along with the team’s leading tackler last year Jonathan Cyprien. The team is slightly better than last year and might win more than three games but probably not that much more as there are still holes in this team and Bortles hasn’t proven anything yet. Aside from a breakout season from Bortles the Jags will end up at the bottom of the division once again and far from the playoffs with changes likely coming in the off-season.

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The Titans had an embarrassing season last year and that was both on and off of the field where issues dominated the headlines. The passing of Bud Adams left the Titans’ ownership divided up among his children. That structure turned out to be problematic as disagreements over the controlling owner and the president still leaves the Titans in an unknown ownership situation. As they tried to figure it out off of the field Ken Wisenhunt’s team could not figure it out on the field as everyone seemed to have down seasons leading to only two wins all year. They hope some moves in the off-season will bring some stability on the field including the drafting of a new face of the franchise. The drafting of Marcus Mariota brings to mind the most successful time of the Titans years when Vince Young was drafted to change the fate. The Titans are just hoping that this new era is a little more consistent than the Young era. Mariota has some work to do as he has never played in a pro system but he has the leadership ability and the athletic ability to make plays when he needs in order to be successful. He will have some weapons on offence as Delanie Walker will provide a good outlet as the tight end while Kendall Wright provides a good downfield threat for the young QB. The additions of Harry Douglas and Hakeem Nicks deepen the pool of potential targets giving Mariota options when he can stay in the pocket. In the backfield the Titans have some questions as Bishop Sankey did not turn out as they had hoped in his rookie year and Dexter McCluster was almost forgotten in their scheme last year. This year the Titans will need to use both of these backs effectively to help take the pressure off the passing game and if they can’t Mariota is going to have a tough first year. On defence the Titans had a tough go in switching to Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme but another year in the new system should help. They are hoping that DaQuan Jones can step up in his second year while Sammie Hill and Jurel Casey continue to adjust to a new system. The linebacking group gained a big boost in the signing of Brian Orakpo who will provide some help the line in rushing the QB while Avery Williamson will be asked to improve after a successful rookie year. The secondary is also improved with the signings of Perrish Cox and Da’Norris Searcy to bring some more experience in the group. The Titans are a better team but they seem to be headed for a year of growing pains with Mariota trying to learn the NFL game and a defence continuing to adjust. It won’t be a two win season but it also won’t be a season where they miss the playoffs for another year.

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Prediction:
The AFC South is a division that might see improvement if a lot of things go right but the fact is it remains a one-horse race. Nobody will catch the Colts again this year and Andrew Luck will lead them into the playoffs where they hope to earn a Super Bowl bid. The Texans are going to be better but their offence has too many questions to compete for the division. They may still find themselves in the wild card hunt on the back of their defence though as playoffs are possible. The Titans and Jaguars are going through too much changes to be effective this year as they continue to try to find the pieces to compete. This year will be telling though as improvements this year could mean promise for the future of both teams.

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