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NFL Division Preview: AFC South

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While the AFC South offers the weakest division in the NFL top to bottom, it also offers the top young quarterback in the league. Andrew Luck and the Colts are the measuring stick for the AFC South.

John Grieshop

The AFC South is the weakest and possibly least talented division in all of the NFL and I don't see a single Super Bowl contender in this division. The Colts look to be the class of the division while the rest will simply be fighting to finish around .500.

Is the Indianapolis defense good enough to allow the Colts to take the next step? Can Houston rebound from one of the worst seasons in NFL history? Can the Titans step out of mediocrity? Can the Jaguars show they are on the right track to becoming an NFL franchise again?

1) Indianapolis

2014 Prediction: 10-6

2013 Record: 11-5, 1st Place

Confidence in Pick: 60%

Key Losses:

  • Donald Brown, RB (SD)
  • Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR (Pit)
  • Jeff Linkenbach, OT (KC)
  • Mike McGlynn, G (Wash)
  • Ricardo Mathews, DE (Hou)
  • Kavell Conner, LB (SD)
  • Cassius Vaughn, CB (Det)
  • Antoine Bethea, S (SF)
  • Tashard Choice, RB

Key Additions:

  • Hakeem Nicks, WR (NYG) - should start
  • Arthur Jones, DE (Bal) - should start
  • D'Qwell Jackson, ILB (Cle) - should start
  • Mike Adams, FS (Den) - will compete for a starting position
  • Jack Mewhort, OT (2nd Rd, Ohio St)
  • Donte Moncrief, WR (3rd Rd, Miss)

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • Robert Mathis, DE/OLB (4 games)

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Andrew Luck - Luck will be a special QB in this league - if not this year, soon. He has the arm, the mental makeup, work ethic, size and mobility to be one of the best that the NFL has seen. As a rookie, Luck took a 2-14 team - who lost their coach to cancer treatments - and lead them to 11 wins and a trip to the playoffs. In his second year, he lead the Colts to the second biggest playoff comeback in NFL history. The 2014 Colts may not have the best weapons, but they are good and they are the best set of weapons Luck has had since entering the league.

Chuck Pagano - I wasn't sure about the hiring of Pagano and thought the team may take a step back in 2013 after the emotional rally in 2012. I was wrong on both fronts. This team really rallies around Pagano and battles for him.

Wide Receivers - Hilton, Wayne and Nicks provide the Colts with three 1,000 yard receivers and are the best group the Colts have had since the days of Harrison, Wayne and Stokely. Personally, I believe the best of the bunch is actually Hakeem Nicks and I look for him to have a big year with Luck.

Division - The two worst divisions in football reside in the AFC - the South and the East. However, the top of the East, aka the Patriots, are better than the top of the South and the bottom of the East (Bills) are also better than the bottom of the south (Jaguars) and that means favorable things for the Colts.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Defense - Andrew Luck is good enough to get the Colts back to the playoffs in 2014, but, the defense is not good enough for a deep run. In 2013, the Colts defense was 20th overall (yards) and 26th against the rush. They were 13th against the pass and ninth in PPG (21.0), but they also played in the worst division and got to play the Texans, Titans and Jaguars twice. They also will be without Robert Mathis for the first four games due to a PED suspension.

Mathis accounted for 19.5 of the team's 42 sacks - no other Colts player had more than 5.5. It is also fair to wonder if Mathis's 2013 performance was not boosted by his PED use. Prior to 2013, Mathis never had more than 11.5 sacks, then at age 32, without Freeney on the other side, he gets 19.5? Outside of Mathis, I don't see any play-makers on this defense.

Running Back Situation - I still think Trent Richardson can be a productive NFL back, but he looked really bad in 2013, so until he shows me otherwise, I have concerns about him in the backfield. Ahmad Bradshaw has been a productive NFL back when healthy, but that seems like a rarity in recent seasons.

O-Line - The line kept Luck upright in 2013, but they didn't do a good job opening holes for the run game. While some of that blame has to go to Richardson, watch the tape - Richardson had nowhere to go.

Lack of Dominant No. 1 Receiver - Reggie Wayne was a great No. 1 receiver, but at 35 and coming off an ACL tear, I don't see him as a No. 1 any longer. Hilton is a very good receiver with good speed, but at 5'9" 178 lbs, I don't see him as a #1 either. I do like Nicks and believe he can be a #1, but he has had problems his whole career with staying healthy. On paper, this looks like a very formidable group. On the field, I would list it as TBD.

Overall:

The Colts have the best young QB in the game and are the best team in a bad division. I have little doubt that they win the division, but I do not see them as a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Unfortunately, the Colts have constructed another team much like they had in the days of Manning. Without Manning, many of those teams were 4-5 win teams. The current Colts are the same. If Luck were to go down, this is a 4-5 win team at best. In any other division in the NFL, this would be a 2nd or 3rd place team.

2) Houston

2014 Prediction: 8-8

2013 Record: 2-14, 4th Place

Confidence in Pick: 50%

Key Losses:

  • Ben Tate, RB (Cle)
  • Matt Schaub, QB (Oak)
  • Owen Daniels, TE (Bal
  • T.J. Yates, QB (Atl)
  • Andrew Gardner, OT (Phi)
  • Earl Mitchell, DL (Mia)
  • Antonio Smith, DE (Oak)
  • Terrell McClain, DT (Dal)
  • Bryan Braman, LB (Phi)
  • Joe Mays, LB (KC)
  • Darryl Sharpton, LB (Wash)
  • Willie Jefferson, LB
  • Evan Frierson, LB
  • Brice McCain, CB (Pit)

Key Additions:

  • Jadeveon Clowney, DE (1st Rd, SC)
  • Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB (Ten) - likely the starter
  • Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG (2nd Rd, UCLA)
  • Louis Nix III, DT (3rd Rd, ND)
  • Tom Savage, QB (4th Rd, Pitt)
  • Andre Brown, RB (NYG) - roster depth
  • Ricardo Mathews, DE (Ind) - roster depth
  • Jerrell Powe, DL (KC) - could start or may just rotate in
  • Chris Clemons, FS (Mia) - should start

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • None of note

Coaching Changes:

  • Fired - Gary Kubiak, HC (OC, Bal)
  • Fired - Rick Dennison, OC
  • Fired - Wade Phillips, DC
  • Hired - Bill O'Brien, HC (HC, Penn State) - will call offensive plays
  • Hired - Romeo Crennel, DC (HC with KC)

Reasons for Optimism:

Defense - This should be a very good defense in 2014. In 2013, the Texans were seventh in total defense and now they add Jadeveon Clowney and Louis Nix III. The thought of Clowney and Watt on opposite sides is scary and could cause Indianapolis problems. The Texans possess the most dominant DE (Watt), one of the best MLBs (Cushing) and the most talented rookie to come out of college in recent memory (Clowney). If they can get to the quarterback, they have a chance in any game.

Arian Foster - When healthy, Foster is a top 5-10 running back. From 2010 to 2012 Foster averaged 127 all-purpose yards, 3.5 receptions and 1+ TD per game. In 2013, Foster had some nagging injuries that limited him to just 8 games. If he can stay healthy in 2014, he can carry the offense.

Receiving Corps - At 33 years old, Johnson is not the player he once was...but he still had 109 catches for 1,407 yards in 2013. One thing Johnson has never had is a true No. 2. The Texans believe they have found that No. 2 in DeAndre Hopkins, the 2012 first round rookie from Clemson. Johnson and Hopkins, combined Arian Foster, make up a potent group of weapons, and while Ryan Fitzpatrick is a below average starter, he is solid enough to get the ball into the hands of his play-makers.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Quarterback - Hard to believe that a QB who threw for 4,008 yards in 2012 was benched and released within a year of doing so, but that is what happened with Schaub. The key to the Texans season will be their quarterback play. They have a good enough defense and good enough weapons to be a playoff contender as long as Fitzpatrick doesn't turn the ball over. The pickup of Ryan Mallett could turn out to be a good pickup, but it won't do any good for 2014.

Coach - Bill O'Brien is highly thought of and has success in the NFL (former Patriots OC), but he is still a rookie NFL coach and rookie NFL coaches, like rookie NFL players, are a crapshoot.

Foster's Health - Foster is 28 years old and coming off a season-ending back injury and back injuries for an NFL running back are a huge concern. To make matters worse, Foster already has a sore hamstring.

Overall:

Outside of the quarterback position, the Texans are a very solid and well-balanced team. A very good defense and good weapons on offense. The problem is that the missing link on this team (QB) is the most important position in the NFL. Teams with good QBs win in the NFL - teams without a good QB do not. The Texans do not have a good QB.

3) Tennessee

2014 Prediction: 7-9

2013 Record: 7-9, 2nd Place

Confidence in Pick: 40%

Key Losses:

  • Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB (Hou)
  • Chris Johnson, RB (NYJ)
  • Alterraun Verner, CB (TB)
  • Kevin Walter, WR
  • David Stewart, T
  • Adewale Ojomo, DE
  • Rob Bironas, K
  • Kenny Britt, WR (Stl)
  • Damian Williams, WR (Mia)
  • Zac Diles, LB (Cle)

Key Additions:

  • Taylor Lewan, OT (1st Rd, Mich)
  • Michael Oher, OT (Bal) - should start
  • Bishop Sankey, RB (2nd Rd, Wash)
  • Charlie Whitehurst, QB (SD) - will back-up QB Jake Locker
  • Dexter McCluster, RB/WR (KC) - starting receiving back, mostly out of the slot.
  • Michael Oher, OT (Bal) - should start
  • Wesley Woodyard, LB (Den) - should start
  • Shaun Phillips, LB (Den) - roster depth

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • None of note

Coaching Changes:

  • Fired - Mike Munchak, HC (O-Line, Pit)
  • Fired - Dowell Loggains, OC (QB coach, Cle)
  • Fired - Jerry Gray, DC (Secondary coach, Min)
  • Hired - Ken Whisenhunt, HC (OC, SD)
  • Hired - Jason Michael, OC (TE coach, SD)
  • Hired - Ray Horton, DC (DC, Browns)

Reasons for Optimism:

Healthy Locker - Locker is a borderline starter, but he is better than Ryan Fitzpatrick. Prior to his season ending injury, Locker was off to a respectable start, 8 TDs to 4 INTs and above 60 percent completion (60.7%) for the first time in his career. Given his receiving weapons, Hunter, Wright, Washington and Walker, I think Locker can have a decent year.

Young Wide Receivers - While they lack the big name, the Titans have talent at the WR position. Few people realize that Kendall Wright had 94 receptions and 1,079 yards in 2013 and Nate Washington was just 81 yards away from giving the Texans a second 1,000 yard receiver. And Justin Hunter, though he had a disappointing rookie season, can be a future stud. At 6'4" with incredible leaping ability, Hunter will be a big part of the Titans offense in 2014.

Bishop Sankey - He is not Chris Johnson, but at this point in their careers, he may be a more consistent and productive back. Sankey is an exciting rookie with good speed and vision and can catch the ball out of the backfield.

Defense - The Titans do not have a great defense, but they were solid in 2013 and are good enough to keep them in most games (14th overall, 11th pass, 20th rush and 16th PPG).

Division - As I have said before, this is the worst division in football which means even a team as mediocre as the Titans could have a shot.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Jake Locker - Locker has missed 14 of his possible 32 starts, has never made it through an entire NFL season and while he was showing some improvement in 2013, his career numbers are still just 22 TDs, 15 INTs and a 57.2 percent completion percentage. Locker is playing for his starting life and a contract in 2014, and if the Titans come to the conclusion he is not their long term QB, they won't hesitate to insert Mettenberger to give the rookie some experience.

Lack of Proven Offensive Weapons - Wright and Washington had solid 2013's, but nothing special, and Hunter and Sankey are essentially unproven players with lots of "potential." Which also means lots of risk.

Defense - While the defense was ok in 2013, it was nothing great (14th overall, 11th pass, 20th rush and 16th PPG) and they did lose their best player (Verner) and didn't do much to address the defense in the offseason.

Overall:

The Titans are good enough to surprise teams and make a run at a wildcard in a weak AFC, but they're inexperienced and inconsistent enough to finish last and severely disappoint. I believe they will be somewhere in the middle.

4) Jacksonville

2014 Prediction: 5-11

2013 Record: 4-12, 4th Place

Confidence in Pick: 75%

Key Losses:

  • Maurice Jones-Drew, RB (Oak)
  • Blaine Gabbert, QB (SF)
  • Jason Babin, DE
  • Justin Forsett, RB (Bal)
  • Brandon Deaderick, DT (NO)
  • Kyle Love, DT (KC)
  • Dwight Lowery, DB (Atl)
  • Brad Meester, C (retired)
  • Uche Nwaneri, G (Dal)
  • Will Rackley, G (Bal)

Key Additions:

  • Toby Gerhart, RB (Min) - should start
  • Blake Bortles, QB (1st Rd, UCF)
  • Marquis Lee, WR (2nd Rd, USC)
  • Tandon Doss, WR (Bal) - will fight for kick return duties with Ace Sanders.
  • Zane Beadles, G (Den) - should start
  • Ziggy Hood, DT (Pit) - roster depth
  • Red Bryant, DE (Sea) - should start
  • Chris Clemons, DE (Sea) - should start
  • Dekoda Watson, LB (TB) - should start

Suspensions/Injuries:

  • Justin Blackmon, WR

Coaching Changes:

  • None of note

Reasons for Optimism:

Toby Gerhardt - He has never been a full time back and never carried the ball more than 109 times, but he averages 4.7 YPC for his career - including a 7.9 YPC for his 36 2013 carries - and can catch the ball as well.

WR Duo - I liked the pick of Marqise Lee and think he will be a solid #2 and Cecil Shorts has proven to be a productive receiver with Chad Henne.

Reasons to be Cautious:

Quarterback -I am not sold on Bortles, but I know for sure that Chad Henne is not a starting NFL quarterback. For a team with no legitimate playoff aspirations, Bortles should be the starter for this team. Either way, no matter who starts, the Jaguars will always have a disadvantage at the QB position in 2014.

Lack of Dynamic/Proven Play-Makers - Cecil Shorts and Toby Gerhardt have shown flashes of brilliance, but neither has put together a full season. Shorts has never had more than 66 receptions  and Gerhardt has never carried the ball more than 109 times in a season.

Defense - Despite playing in a weak division, the Jaguars defense ranked t-27 overall, t-25th against the pass, 29th against the run and 28th in PPG. The additions of Hood, Bryant and Clemons should improve the defense, but this is still a bottom half defense.

Overall:

The Jags have improved as an organization and a team over the past few years, but they are still a team lacking elite players. This team is at best a 4-6 win team.