AFC South Preview and Predictions
Houston Texans (2015 record: 9-7): People calling Brock Osweiler a franchise QB need to relax just a bit. Sure, even a trained gibbon would be better than Brian Hoyer was (especially in that brutal playoff loss to the Chiefs), and Osweiler will have some fantastic receivers at his disposal – but we need a bigger sample size. If Brock can be the savior, then the Texans will be a force in the AFC. But Houston scored a much bigger offensive weapon when the signed Lamar Miller away from Miami. He was sorely underutilized by the Dolphins and has the ability to really blossom in Texas. WR DeAndre Hopkins and rookies Braxton Miller and William Fuller will rival what Brock had in Denver. Hopkins is one of the top three receivers in the league and will benefit from fewer double teams. The line should be better as well; it added G Jeff Allen and drafted C Nick Martin in round two. A better, more consistent offense will only help make the defense that much more dominant.
The team needs to spell the best defensive player on the planet a little more frequently. JJ Watt entered the offseason battered, and will barely be ready to start 2016. Unfortunately, there is no help on the line, so Watt will be counted on to play more downs than he should. The linebackers and secondary should be fantastic once again, with the former mercilessly punishing quarterbacks and the latter providing excellent coverage and run support. Another playoff appearance should be in the cards, if Brock can handle a full time role.
Indianapolis Colts (2015 record: 8-8): If anyone needed proof as to how important Andrew Luck was to this team, look no further than last season. He’s returning healthy, and he’ll have some new faces in front of him to help keep him upright. The Colts finally addressed their horrible line issues by drafting C Ryan Kelly and T Le’Raven Clark. While Clark isn’t quite ready to start yet, Kelly will immediately anchor the squad. Adding injury to insult, two projected starters – T Joe Reitz and G Jack Mewhort – are already hurt, with the latter out for nearly a month. FB Jack Doyle may be called upon for additional pass protection at this point, certainly not his strong suit. RB Frank Gore is 33, and suffered through the least productive year of his career. Robert Turbin and undrafted rookie Josh Ferguson are the uninspiring backups. TY Hilton leads a solid group of very young receivers; no real concerns here.
The defense, however, has plenty of concerns. Losing LB Jerrell Freeman stings and they did nothing to replace him. Zach Kerr and David Parry man two-thirds of the line, meaning that only one-third of the line is decent. The LB unit returns old timers like Trent Cole and Robert Mathis; both saw better days years ago. One CB was great last year, and Vontae Davis should be tremendous again. If FA Patrick Robinson can continue to improve, the Colts should have a solid secondary. In an improving division, it is vital for the Colts to protect Luck this season. Any injury to him will be disastrous.
Jacksonville Jaguars (2015 record: 5-11): The record might not show it, but the Jags are a vastly improved team on the verge of contending for a playoff spot. They needed to make some upgrades on defense and they certainly brought in some talent in CBs Jalen Ramsey & Prince Amukamara, LB Myles Jack, DL Malik Jackson, and S Tashaun Gipson. Ramsey, Gipson, and Jackson will start and make an immediate impact. Jack won’t be far behind, as ILB Paul Posluszny has seen much better days. Add last year’s top pick Dante Fowler to the line (he missed 2015 with a torn ACL) and it’ll be a whole new unit in Jacksonville. It’ll take a bit for the new squad to gel, but this has the makings of a top fifteen defense if everyone stays healthy.
The offense is what kept the Jags in games last year, and Blake Bortles showed some return on the investment that the team made in him. He has been blessed with some great weapons, none greater than Allen Robinson (80 catches for 1,400 yards and 14 TDs). Allen Hurns and the inconsistent Julius Thomas give Bortles some high quality options. The team overspent on RB Chris Ivory, but TJ Yeldon is still on the roster and will replace Ivory nicely when he eventually flames out. The line is good, but not great. They picked off Kelvin Beachum from the Steelers; he’ll be a nice improvement on Bortles blind side and move super-bust Luke Joeckel to the guard slot. If he can resurrect his career, this could be a very good squad. They may still be a year away, but they aren’t pushovers any longer.
Tennessee Titans (2015 record: 3-13): We expected the Titans to be bad last year, but nobody expected them to be this bad. While it’d be easy to place the blame on a rookie QB, much of it can be placed at the feet of the defense, which was borderline wretched. Not much was done to improve the unit, though 2nd round pick Kevin Dodd will add depth at the DE/OLB position behind Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. They also drafted beefy NT Austin Johnson who will push for the starting spot over the inadequate Al Woods. The secondary should have been nicknamed ‘marmalade’ because they were toasted frequently. They added some free agents, but nothing really worth mentioning. A full season from Jason McCourty would help, especially if he swallows his pride and moves back to safety.
As for the offense, the Titans were a two-man show last season; QB Marcus Mariota and TE Delanie Walker. Mariota had some growing pains and was overshadowed by Jameis Winston, but he did a nice job of playing within the offense and keeping his mistakes to a minimum. He needs to play all 16 games, though, and improvements in the run game and on the line would help. OL Jack Conklin, their top draft pick, will be a big help and will move Jeremiah Poutasi to the guard slot; a position he’s better suited for. The run game will be bolstered by DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. The former has a lot to prove after last year’s abomination in Philly; the latter has a chip on his shoulder after falling in the draft. The receiving corps behind Walker is thin, though Kendall Wright and Rishard Matthews have promise. If all goes right, .500 is definitely in reach for this improving squad.