1) Indianapolis Colts
(2008 Record: 12-4, 2nd place, Wild Card)
I see this as the most competitive division in football, headlined by the Indianapolis Colts. They may be under new direction, but they’re returning #18 under center. He’s been sharp as ever this preseason, and the fact that he’s going under the radar behind guys like Drew Brees and Tom Brady will surely be a silent incentive. I see another 4,000 yard and 30 TD season with a possible 4th MVP award……….Manning may be without Marvin Harrison, but he still has Reggie Wayne. The former Cane is still one of the game’s best, most consistent performers, and I see him making a run at his career high of 12 TDs. He’s about as reliable as they come. Replacing Harrison is Anthony “I love you Chunk” Gonzalez. He catches everything thrown his way, but he’s not going to break many long ones. 70 catches isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Austin Collie, the rookie from BYU, has been tearing it up this preseason and will start the year as the 3rd receiver. At first glance, you’d think that they could use another veteran receiver, but I think Collie will work. Additionally, they re-signed pseudo WR Dallas Clark, albeit at a steep price. He’ll again draw plenty of targets from Manning……….Joseph Addai had an unimpressive junior campaign, watching his rushing total be cut in half from the previous year. He dealt with knee and shoulder injuries last year and is coming off knee surgery, but I’m going against public opinion expecting him to regain some semblance of his ’07 form. I’m not calling for 1,000 yards, but 750 should be realistic. As insurance, the Colts drafted Donald Brown in the first round, and he’ll see the field plenty this season. Should Addai flop again, Brown can handle the load. I don’t know if he’s ready to be a 3 down NFL back, but it wouldn’t be for lack of effort. This should be a productive backfield……….Tony Ugoh is currently listed as second on the depth chart at LT, but I’m guessing that’s a temporary thing. He’s been injured and underperforming, but he’s got too much talent to sit. For now at least, Charlie Johnson is responsible for protecting Manning’s backside. The Colts are better with him as a reserve. Ryan Diem isn’t anything spectacular at RT, but he’s far from the worst RT in the game. He’s strong and has good run blocking technique. If Ryan Lilja’s knee problems, which caused him to miss all of ’08, are behind him, they’re looking good at LG. At RG is second year versatile lineman Mike Pollak. I’m interested to see how he does in a starting role. That could be the start of something good or a failed experiment. Reliable Jeff Saturday is back, the recipient of a 3 year deal this offseason.
On the other side of the ball, Indy’s poor run defense got two big boosts in rookies Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor. Both rookies excelled at clogging up running lanes in college. Antonio and Ed Johnson are currently listed as starters, but expect the rookies to be worked in early; especially with Ed suspended for the first game of the season. If the interior proves to be stout, that should open things up outside for Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. That’s kind of scary when you consider that the duo combined for 21.5 sacks and 2 Pro Bowl births last season. Imagine the numbers they could put up if offenses couldn’t run up the middle on this defense. Raheem Brock is a really good DT/DE backup who could start. He’ll probably see most of his time at end this year……….Gary Brackett once again mans the middle of the linebacking crew. He might be able to set a career high in tackles if the guys up front do their job. Second year linebacker Phillip Wheeler is their best backer in coverage, and he’s starting the year as their SLB. In combination with that move, last years SLB, Clint Session, moves to WLB, where he can use his speed and pursuit skills to make more plays……….At corner, Kelvin Hayden parlayed a solid 10 game performance into a new 5 year deal. He’s easily their best corner and has great ball skills. I can’t say the same for the starter opposite him, Marlin Jackson. He’s failed to live up to expectations since the Colts took him in the first round of the ’05 draft, and he’s coming off a torn ACL. Tim Jennings, Daymeion Hughes, and 3rd round pick Jarraud Powers will battle it out for the third corner spot. They could be better here. The Colts are being quiet about Bob Sanders’ health, and I think he’s going to be at less than full speed early, if he’s even on the field. Matt Giordano would start in his place, and the drop off in production is sizeable. Antoine Bethea mans the FS spot, and he’s noticeably better when Sanders is on the field. He’s also currently dealing with a broken hand; not a great injury for a DB.
The defense still has its question marks, but I like the addition of two big bodies in the middle. My only offensive gripe is the left tackle situation. That shouldn’t slow down Manning or the rest of the offense as they return to the top of the division in ’09.
2) Houston Texans
(2008 Record: 8-8, 3rd place)
Matt Schaub is my breakout player of the year, so I’ve got to have fairly high hopes for his team, right? If (the biggest if of the year IMO) the guy can stay healthy, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll end the year as one of the league’s top passers. Problem is he’s missed over 30% of his team’s games the last two years. Most of his time missed in ’07 can be blamed on a dislocated left shoulder, and last year’s absence can be chalked up to a questionable (at best) hit by Jared Allen. Schaub is off to a great start this preseason, and with karma on his side, I expect him to have an eye-opening season. The Texans better keep their fingers crossed because backing up Schaub is Dan “running out of the back of the endzone is a safety” Orlovsky and Rex Grossman……….Steve Slaton is a guy I wasn’t high on coming out last year. I thought he was too soft and wouldn’t succeed as a primary RB in the NFL. Well for at least one year he sure proved me wrong. Slaton totaled nearly 1,700 yards from scrimmage and had double digit TDs. I never doubted his pass catching ability, just his propensity to shrink under pressure. They’ll need him to stay healthy because backups Chris Brown, Ryan Moats, and Andre Hall should be given as few snaps as possible. If both he and Schaub stay healthy, there’s no reason why Slaton can’t improve upon those numbers. Sometimes, I don’t mind admitting I was wrong……….At first glance you may think I’m crazy, but aside from the guys in Arizona, there may not be a better 1-2 WR combo in the league than the one in Houston. Andre Johnson is in the top 3 (if not #1) in conversations about the best receivers in the game. The man had 115 catches and nearly 1,600 yards receiving, and that’s without Schaub throwing him the ball for 5 games. He’s going to have another HUGE season. I’m a big fan of his counterpart as well. Kevin Walter is the ideal #2 receiver. He never complains about his number of targets, he catches everything thrown his way, and he’ll run any route in any situation. I think he tops 70 catches and 1,000 yards this year. David Anderson, Andre Davis, and Jacoby Jones are decent backups, but they could use a stronger #3 receiver. Fortunately, Schaub also has Owen Daniels at his disposal. Daniels is a real threat in the receiving game, evidenced by his 70 catches and Pro Bowl selection. I’m predicting a lot of catches from these guys, but I don’t see it being a reach with as explosive as I’m expecting this team to be……….Given their horrid history up front, the Texans have to be happy about the direction they’re headed. Last year was the first time any Texans’ team had all 5 lineman start all 16 games. I really like their LT Duane Brown, a guy who ended up a really high riser in last year’s draft. He entered the league really raw with all the skills (speed, athleticism, quick feet) and just needed to work on getting stronger and improving his technique. He’s still not there, and hopefully ’08 will prove to be a stepping stone to better things. Former Cane Eric Winston mans the right side and has started all 16 games the last two seasons. Like Brown, he could stand to work on his pass blocking. Dependable Chester Pitts still occupies the LG spot, and Mike Brisiel is passable on the right side. In the middle, the Texans drafted Antoine Caldwell to push/replace Chris Myers.
The defense has its bright spots too. Mario Williams has become a beast at DE, making the Texans look like geniuses for passing on Reggie Bush and Vince Young. He’s totaled 26 sacks over the last two years, and with the help of the talent added this offseason, those numbers should go up. The Texans brought over Antonio Smith from Arizona to play the side opposite Williams, giving them a very strong run defender. He’s never been an elite pass rusher, so to help in that area, the Texans drafted Connor Barwin from Cincinnati (a pick I love). He’ll become an immediate situational pass rusher and work his way into regular playing time. Travis Johnson is their best interior player, but he’s currently recovering from a sports hernia. Deljuan Robinson has taken his place in the lineup and is making his case for a full time job. Amobi Okoye needs to put it together this year. I’ll give him a break because he just turned 22, but Okoye has yet to reach Houston’s expectations; especially with last year’s 24 tackle and 1 sack totals. Shaun Cody’s looking for a fresh start away from Detroit, and Frank Okam was added in last year’s draft……….At the next level, DeMeco Ryans is one of the best in the game. He’s a solid general in the middle of the defense. The Texans brought in the very active Brian Cushing from USC to flank him on one side, and he’s already won the SLB job. Cushing is an intense, instinctive, and versatile defende who should fit in great next to Ryans. The Texans hope Xavier Adibi solidifies the weak side, but he’s having a hard time holding off Zach Diles. Adibi spent more time on the sidelines last year than the Texans had liked, and he’ll be key to their continued progression in ’09. Cato June is currently recovering from a broken forearm and is a ways away from being a contributor on defense……….Those who’ve paid attention know I like Dunta Robinson. Their top corner is playing under the franchise tag and will look to break the bank next offseason. He’s still holding out, so he’ll need to get on the field first. Jacques Reeves had a nice ’08, but he’s starting this season with a broken left leg. Fred Bennett looks to be the third corner, but he figures to start if Robinson’s hold out continues. Deltha O’Neal and Antwaun Molden provide depth, as do draft picks Glover Quin and Brice McCain. Eugene Wilson and Dominique Barber return at safety, and the Texans are pleased with what they have in both of them. Wilson’s a versatile veteran who was cut by the Bucs last preseason, and Barber was a 6th round pick last year.
They’re a young team headed in the right direction, and I’ve got high projections for a lot of their players. I’ll be shocked if they aren’t a contender the entire 16 games, but they’re probably a year away from being serious.
3) Tennessee Titans
(2008 Record: 13-3, 1st place, NFL’s best record)
I’ve got Tennessee slipping a bit because I don’t see Collins being as efficient in ’09. I’m not saying he was all smoke and mirrors last year, but they went 13-3 while he finished with a 12-7 TD-INT ratio. Prior to last year, Collins had only played in 10 games in ’06 and ’07 combined. That said, Vince Young doesn’t appear to be any closer to breaking the lineup. He’s got a better chance of losing the second string job to Patrick Ramsey than he does of passing Collins……….I love Chris Johnson. In his second year, he’s already one of the game’s most explosive weapons. The Ravens had no answer for Johnson in their playoff matchup. No telling how the game would have turned out had Johnson not missed the second half with an ankle injury. I remember that well because he was on my fantasy team (rrrrrrrrr). Fat LenDale White returns a bit slimmed down, a result of laying off the Patron this offseason. Will he maintain his focus? Javon Ringer is a “good but not great” back who will be a fine 3rd runner for the Titans. He can do everything well (run, catch, block), but he’s not a game changer. Chris Henry may be on the outside looking in……….Nate Washington received a nice deal to leave Pittsburgh, and while he’s being counted on to provide the receiving game with a field stretcher, he just went down with a hamstring injury and is questionable for the start of the season. I like him as a compliment to a #1, not as a #1 himself. Kenny Britt, the rookie from Rutgers, looks to take his place. He’s a big, tough dude with nice hands who should, at a minimum, give Collins a force in the red zone. Britt’s not likely to win many sprinting contests, and he battled inconsistency at Rutgers. Given the other names on the roster, he’s going to be even every chance to succeed early on. Justin Gage set some high expectations with a nice ’07, but he couldn’t build upon it. Whether it’s Collins or Gage’s own inconsistency, he’s entering his 7th year as a pro and needs to either shit or get off the pot at some point. I liked LaVelle Hawkins a lot at Cal where he played opposite DeSean Jackson, but he wasn’t a factor last year. Hopefully he takes some steps this season. It’s a tale of three TEs in Tennessee. Bo Scaife is the most well-rounded guy of the bunch, and he’ll see most of the time on the field. He set a career high in receptions (58), but I don’t like his chances of repeating that mark. Alge Crumpler found all of LenDale’s lost weight, and he’s predominantly a blocker at this stage of his career. The Titans took Jared Cook in the 3rd round of the draft, and he’s purely a pass catcher. He’ll see the field quite a bit; one of the reasons I don’t see Scaife repeating ’08……….I like the offensive line, but I think they could have addressed depth sooner than the 135th pick in the draft with tackle Troy Kropog. LT Michael Roos is one of the finest offensive lineman no one has heard about. He’s got nice size (6-7), excellent footwork, and is one of the best pass protecting tackles in the game. RT David Steward is no slouch himself. He’s as big as Roos, and what he lacks in technique he makes up for with very strong run blocking. Center Kevin Mawae is still a productive, well-rounded lineman, but he’s 38 and spent most of the preseason on the PUP list. Kropog might push Eugene Amano at LG, but I think he’s better suited as an NFL tackle. He’s not physical or enough at this point, and his footwork/technique would be of more value on the outside. RG Jake Scott proved to be a wise addition from Indy. He’s not among the best at his position, but he makes few mistakes and is big on effort.
On the other side of the ball, the Titans are minus one big man in the middle. Albert Haynesworth may not have been worth the money he received by the Skins, but Haynesworth > Jovan Haye. Jason Jones was a big bright spot in his rookie season, and the versatile lineman will be counted on even more in Haynesworth’s absence. I’m not a fan of DT Tony Brown, and making matters worse is that he’s got huge shoes to fill. Haye adds to the rotation, but he needs to put up more sacks this year than my 2 year old. I’m not a big fan of draftee SenDerrick Marks, but he’s working into the rotation too. Jevon Kearse was their only DL to start all 16 games in ’08, but he’s not getting any younger. Kyle Vanden Bosch is coming off his worst year in 4, and he’s in a contract season. David Ball is a fine backup and will see plenty of snaps at DE……….The rest of the defense looks solid, if not imposing. Keith Bullock and David Thornton are still going strong at the OLB spots, and Stephen Tulloch is the MLB. He might not get as free this year without Haynesworth in front of him. They’re an unspectacular but steady group……….Courtland Finnegan and Michael Griffin are two of the best young DBs in the game. Finnegan is a solid cover guy with tremendous ball skills. Nick Harper isn’t bad, but he’s 34 and has already peaked. Look for Cary Williams to see the field a lot. Ryan Mouton from Hawaii was added in the draft, and despite taking a Josh Freeman INT to the house in the preseason, he’s a ways away from contributing. Griffin has tremendous range and ball skills. Like Finnegan (and to a higher degree) Griffin is ready to really take off. He and fellow safety Chris Hope both made the Pro Bowl last year. Hope took 7 years to get there, but he’s adjusted quite well to life as a Titan.
I don’t see a big drop in performance from the Titans in ’09, but I think less balls will bounce in their direction this year. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
4) Jacksonville Jaguars
(2008 Record: 5-11, 4th place)
The Jags finished at 5-11 last year and as a result have a pretty significant roster turnover this season. There are too many questions with this team. David Garrard did throw for over 3,500 yards, but he had a pedestrian 15-13 TD-INT ratio. Points are worth more than yards, and with a lack of weapons, he’s facing an uphill battle to increase his scoring total this year. With Todd Bouman as the #2, they’re in poor shape should Garrard miss time……….Maurice Jones-Drew is one of the most entertaining players in the game as a multi-purpose threat, but he’s entering his first season as a starter. How will he respond to an increased workload and the security of a new fat contract? With franchise star Fred Taylor moving on to New England, the Jags are lacking the 1-2 punch of previous seasons. I love Rashad Jennings from Liberty, and while they still have Greg Jones too, the running game could stall a bit this year……….At receiver, the Jags cut ties with underachievers Matt Jones and Reggie Williams as well as Dennis Northcutt. In response, they brought in Torry Holt and three rookies, Mike Thomas, Jarrett Dillard, and Tiquan Underwood. Holt, the Rams long time star who’s coming off a really disappointing ’08, will be counted on to be Garrard’s #1. I think he still has some good football left in him, but he doesn’t separate nearly as well as in the past. Mike Walker’s currently dealing with an injury and despite some preseason highlight plays (I’m talking to you Ronde Barber and Sabby Piscitelli) Troy Williamson hasn’t done anything as a pro. I think Marcedes Lewis is an underrated weapon in the passing game, and he should be heavily-used in ’09……….I loved that the Jags spent their two first picks on tackles, as Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton should be long time fixtures on the ends of Jacksonville’s offensive line. Tra Thomas is a nice stopgap to Monroe on the left side. I’m not a fan of RT Tony “10 yard penalty” Pashos and expect Britton to push him early on. Brad Meester is the best center they have, but he’s had a bunch of injury issues. At guard, if healthy, are two stout dudes in Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams.
On the other side of the ball, John Henderson is a mountain of a man, but he’s entering his 8th season and doing so with a separated shoulder. Rob Meier returns next to him, but they need an upgrade at that position. Undersized Derek Landri is a rotational guy, and the Jags spent a 3rd round pick on sleeper DT Terrence Knighton from Temple. I really like that guy as a prospect; very raw with nice size and aggression. At DE they need second year guys Quentin Moses and Derrick Harvey to be regular contributors, and of the two, I’ve got higher hopes for Harvey. Reggie Hayward is a nice contributor, but they’re not any better with him starting……….Longtime Jag Mike Peterson was sent packing last year for, among other things, not getting along too well with Jack Del Rio. What’s left behind ain’t too shabby. Justin Durant is a potential stud at MLB. He was an extremely active sleeper pick out of Hampton, and I think he’s got quite a future in this league. Daryl Smith is solid as WLB, and Clint Ingram may be the “worst” of this bunch, but he’s a quality starter……….Rashean Mathis has been one of the most underrated corners in the game during his 6 year career, but they’re not in great shape opposite him with Brian Williams. There’s zero depth too. Reggie Nelson can’t do it alone in the back of the defense, and Sean Considine looks to start at SS despite just coming off the PUP list and not being very good.
Again, too many questions for a team in what should be an ultra-competitive division. 2009 is going to be a long one in Jacksonville.
MVP – Peyton Manning
Offensive POY – Andre Johnson
Defensive POY – Mario Williams
Rookie of the Year – Donald Brown