There’s little doubt that the AFC South comes into 2014 as one of the weakest divisions on paper. Outside of the defending division champion Colts, there’s not a whole lot of faith that the AFC representative in Super Bowl XLIX will come out of this quartet. Still, there’s plenty of potential loading the rosters of the three also-rans. As we’ve seen plenty of times before, the NFL is a league fueled by parity. So, it should come as no shock to the pundits if any of the Titans, Jaguars, or Texans emerge as playoff contenders behind their young, hungry rosters.
The one true constant for the better part of the last 15-years (with the exception of 2011) is that the Indianapolis Colts will sit near the top of the South standings come January. QB Andrew Luck (pictured) has certainly lived up to the hype that saw him become the #1 overall pick in 2012 out of Stanford. The former Cardinal gunslinger improved in nearly every facet of his game during his sophomore campaign with Indy, cutting his interceptions in half (from 18 to 9) and increasing his completion percentage considerably (from 54% to 60%).
Indianapolis made an effort to improve the weapons that Luck has to utilize this season, signing free agent WR Hakeem Nicks away from the Giants to join T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener as Luck’s go-to-guys. Nicks, injury plagued during his final few seasons in The Big Apple, showed up to camp in great shape and has really impressed during the preseason. His addition, along with a full season of RB Trent Richardson, should easily give Indy the best offense in the division.
Defensively, the Colts desperately wanted to improve their run defense. After resigning CB Vontae Davis, they achieved that goal by signing free agent LB D’Qwell Jackson away from Cleveland. Jackson was a captain and leader for nearly a decade by the coast of Lake Erie, and should give Indianapolis the muscle in the middle that they’ve lacked ever since Mike Peterson departed. Indianapolis may not have had a first round pick (Richardson deal). But, they certainly made the most of the offseason by landing impact talents at bargain basement prices. They should once again patrol the top of the mountain once the postseason begins in just over four months.
One team that has teetered between mediocrity and misery over the last five years is the Tennessee Titans. Under new coach Ken Whisenhunt (formerly of the Arizona Cardinals), Tennessee will look to build around their homegrown talent, with their sights set on 2015 as the year where they’ll truly contend for a division title. QB Jake Locker (pictured) was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft. Expectations have yet to be met, as Locker has spent more time on the infirmary report than he has under center. There’s no doubting his athleticism and talent. But, the former Washington Huskies’ last chance is upon him. If Locker can’t stay on the field in 2014, Whisenhunt will have no choice but to address the position next offseason.
Two of the longest tenured Titans, RB Chris Johnson and CB Alterraun Verner, packed their bags in the offseason. Johnson made his way to the Jets, while Verner signed a large free agent deal in Tampa. Tennessee is likely to feel the impact of Verner’s departure harder, as the team drafted rookie Bishop Sankey and signed former Chiefs’ speedster Dexter McCluster to cushion the impact of Johnson’s departure. Both of those players should combine to give Tennessee a talented duo behind Locker.
However, the loss of Verner could cause some problems in an uber-passing league like the NFL. Jason McCourty remains on one end. But, the team is going to be forced to rely on second year project Blidi Wreh-Wilson to start opposite him. The Malden, MA native was a 3rd round pick in 2013, so the team has faith in his talent. Still, cornerback is one position where youth is not ideal, and the Titans could have a big issue on their hands against the better aerial teams (see, Indianapolis).
While Tennessee does have a bright future ahead, there’s still too many questions to consider them anything more than the second best team in a weak division. If Locker can stay healthy, 8 or 9 wins is possible. Anything more than that is a pipe dream during Whisenhunt’s first season on the job.
For the Jacksonville Jaguars, success has been a long time coming. Now 15-years separated from the days of Mark Brunell and two AFC Championship appearances during the franchise’s first five years, Jacksonville continued their rebuilding process under coach Gus Bradley this spring. First round pick QB Blake Bortles (pictured) showed definite flashes of brilliance during the team’s preseason. But, the Jaguars aren’t expected to rush Bortles under center like they did with his predecessor Blaine Gabbert. Instead, Jacksonville is content with letting QB Chad Henne handle the lion’s share of the snaps in 2014. Bradley and Co. know that Bortles is much more raw than most first round signal-callers. Despite his unrivaled athletic prowess, Bortles still needs to learn how to be a quarterback in the NFL, so throwing him to the wolves with an offense devoid of firepower would likely do more to hurt the former UCF star than anything.
The most notable loss for the Jags this offseason was the departure of longtime workhorse Maurice Jones-Drew. Once considered a top-five back in football, injuries and age have brought Jones-Drew’s career to a standstill. He hitched his wagon and headed west for Oakland this spring. Replacing him will be former Minnesota backup Toby Gerhart, who mired behind Adrian Peterson for five years before finally getting his shot in The Sunshine State this fall. Gerhart is a bruising back, and should help take the load off of Henne early on while the young offensive line continues to gel. May draft picks Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson should provide depth at receiver, though exactly what type of impact the rookie WR’s have this season remains a mystery.
On defense, Jacksonville saw plenty of turnover. Their additions on the front-four of DE Chris Clemons and DT Ziggy Hood should provide depth for Bradley, who was considered one of the best defensive tutors in the game during his time in Seattle. MLB Paul Posluszny returns to anchor the heart of the D’. Second year safety Jonathan Cyprien continues to mature into one of the better young secondary players in the league. If Jacksonville’s defense continues to progress under Bradley’s leadership, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Jacksonville emerge as the second best team in this division.
Finally, we have the Houston Texans. My, how swiftly Gary Kubiak’s reign in The Lonestar State went up in smoke. Hired prior to the 2006 season as the second coach in franchise history, Kubiak led the Texans to their first two postseason berths in 2011 & 2012 (both division titles). Unfortunately, that success was short-lived, as the precipitous decline of QB Matt Schaub (who set a record for the most consecutive games with a pick-six in 2013) and the alarming lack of depth across the roster left an injury plagued Houston franchise at the depths of the NFL’s despair. Following back-to-back wins to begin their campaign, Houston lost 14 in-a-row to finish it off, leaving them with the worst record and first overall pick in May’s draft.
Despite clamoring to the contrary, Houston ignored their need under center and grabbed perceived generational talent Jadeveon Clowney with that #1 overall selection. The former South Carolina superstar has shown exactly why Houston made that decision. The defensive end’s ability to change the game with his talent was far too impressive to overlook, and new coach Bill O’Brien knew this when he grabbed him this spring. Speaking of O’Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator takes over for Kubiak after a two-year stint in Happy Valley as head coach at Penn State. Considering the rubble with which the program was left following the Jerry Sandusky scandal of 2011, the football world was gaga over O’Brien’s ability to turn that disaster into success with the wave of his figurative magic wand. He will be one of the bigger stories of the season, as he tries to turn the Houston sink hole into a success story overnight.
On offense, O’Brien brought in former Buffalo and Tennessee gunslinger Ryan Fitzpatrick to be his veteran leader in the short term. The Harvard graduate is one of the brightest players in the league. While he won’t wow anyone with his physical tools, Fitzpatrick has enough experience and talent to be a successful stopgap in the short-term while Houston finds their QB of the future. It’s possible that mid-round draft choice Tom Savage of Pitt is that guy. But, that remains to be seen. Surrounding these signal callers will be a still electrifying offense. Future Hall-of-Fame WR Andre Johnson returns to the only team he’s ever known despite rumbles to the contrary this offseason. He’s joined on offense by second year phenom DeAndre Hopkins and workhorse RB Arian Foster (pictured). The latter is expected to enjoy a rebound campaign after an injury riddled 2013 saw backup RB Ben Tate outgain the former. Tate is now in Cleveland, so Foster is the unquestioned #1 runner on a team likely to pound the rock more than anyone else in the division.
On defense, Houston was a mess a year ago. Their acquisition of Ed Reed backfired tremendously, as the future Hall-of-Fame safety was released before the end of November. Still, plenty of talent remains from the defense that ranked near the top of football in 2012. J.J. Watt returns as one of, if not the best 3-4 defensive end in the game. With Clowney and the return of Brian Cushing from injury, one could reasonably expect Houston to finish the season with a top-10 defensive unit. The secondary, which features Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson at corner, is suspect, and easily should be considered the weak point of the unit.
All in all, Houston should be considered a dark horse contender in 2014. While they don’t have a championship caliber QB at this time, Fitzpatrick has never enjoyed the amount of talent that he’ll have around him on the Texans once the regular season commences in two weeks. Contending with Indianapolis at the top might be a reach. But, expecting anything less than 2nd place out of these Texans is underrating them, especially considering their peers.
Clearly, this is a division on the rise. The Colts are still young, and are already a Super Bowl contender behind Luck. Meanwhile, the other three franchises that continue to chase them are hungry and exploding with talent. Come 2016, it shouldn’t be a shock to see the AFC South returning to the glory it experienced when it was still the AFC Central and teams like Jacksonville and Tennessee ruled the landscape with an iron fist.