1) Houston Texans
(6-10, 3rd in ’10)
Key Gets – Jonathan Joseph (CB, Bengals), Daniel Manning (S, Bears), Lawrence Vickers (FB, Browns), JJ Watt (DL, Wisconsin), Brooks Reed (DE/OLB, Arizona), Brandon Harris (CB, Miami), Rashad Carmichael (CB, Virginia Tech),
Key Gones – Vonta Leach (FB, Ravens), Bernard Pollard (S, Ravens), Amobi Okoye (DL, Bears), Dan Orlovsky (QB, Colts)
Key Games – wk1 v. Colts, wk3 @ Saints, wk4 v. Steelers, wk6 @ Ravens, wk10 @ Bucs, wk13 v. Falcons, wk16 @ Colts
Maybe I was just a year early, but I expected the Texans to take a big step forward last season. Now they’re everyone’s surprise team, so will this be the year? Can Arian Foster really repeat last year’s jaw dropping performance? I say he ends up a couple hundred yards off last year’s 1,616 mark. Some of it will be due to the sheer correction of numbers, and some of it will be due to the underrated loss of Leach. Don’t get me wrong. Foster is legit, but he’s not Adrian Peterson and was pretty unknown this time last year. Matt Schaub has put up back to back solid seasons, and there’s no reason to think this won’t be a third. Make no mistake. Andre Johnson is the offense’s most talented player, but they really missed Owen Daniels when he was out last year. Both Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones have failed to step up as a #2 receiver, and the Texans didn’t do anything this offseason to improve in that area. That’s a concern. Wade Phillips is here to fix the defense, and he brought his 3-4 alignment with him. Okoye exits an enormous disappointment, but I love the additions of Joseph, Watt, Reed, and Carmichael. They gave the secondary the extreme offseason attention it needed, and I think it will show. Joseph is one of the game’s elite corners, and Manning is an underrated difference maker. Those two moves alone are huge. I’m big on Watt and think he’ll be a serious contributor on that DL, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up one of the top Defensive ROY vote getters. I think they’re still lacking a true NT. One thing worth following will be Mario Williams’ transition to one of the league’s largest linebackers. As long as they let him focus on what he does best, getting at the passer, he should be just fine.
The Texans go on a 6-0 run after their bye week to dethrone the Colts, and they clinch the division in week 16 at Indy.
Team MVP – Andre Johnson
Breakout Player – Connor Barwin
Disappointment – Kareem Jackson
2) Indianapolis Colts
(10-6, 1st in ’10)
Key Gets – Jamaal Anderson (DL, Falcons), Ernie Sims (LB, Eagles), Tommie Harris (DL, Bears), Anthony Castonzo (OL, Boston College), Benjamin Ijalana (OL, Villanova), Drake Nevis (DL, LSU), Delone Carter (RB, Syracuse),
Key Gones – Kelvin Hayden (CB, free agent), Bob Sanders (S, Chargers), Clint Session (LB, Jaguars)
Key Games – wk1 @ Texans, wk3 v. Steelers, wk4 @ Bucs, wk5 v. Chiefs, wk7 @ Saints, wk8 v. Falcons, wk13 @ Patriots, wk14 @ Ravens, wk16 v. Texans
What’s up with Peyton Manning’s neck? The Colts went out and added Kerry Collins because Curtis Painter apparently isn’t up to the task if needed. If either Collins or Painter has to start three or four games, this team isn’t winning the division. At this moment, Manning was recently activated from the PUP list, and it would probably be a surprise if he didn’t play week one. Upgrading his protection was priority one this offseason, and I absolutely love the additions of Castonzo and Ijalana. Those two should be foundational pieces of their next OL era. Joseph Addai was a big disappointment in ’10, but the Colts brought him back anyways. Donald Brown’s inability to prove himself had a lot to do with that. Watch out for Carter. He’s the most physical back on Indy’s roster and showed the ability to handle the load at Syracuse. The offense could get several boosts with healthy returns by Austin Collie, Dallas Clark, and Anthony Gonzalez, but I think Reggie Wayne starts to regress. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are still capable pass rushers, but they really need Jerry Hughes to step up in his second year. So far this preseason, he’s not showing much improvement. The Colts are still looking for a plug in the middle of their defensive line. Does Harris have anything left? I’m impressed by what I’ve seen (in limited action) this preseason. At linebacker, the guy I really like is Pat Angerer; had him mocked to the Bucs in last year’s draft. He exceeded expectations last year and looks to be a foundational piece of the defense. Will Sims find a permanent home with the Colts? Can the secondary stay healthy and untoasted? Bob Sanders is more of a loss in name than talent at this point, and Kelvin Hayden was on the injured list as often as he was active. Still, I don’t like the talent left behind and think secondary play will be a big reason the Colts finish second.
Saying the Colts will only go as far as Peyton Manning leads them is obviously stating the obvious. They’ll end up on the wrong side of just enough breaks to finish second to the Texans and possibly miss out on the playoffs altogether.
Team MVP – Peyton Manning
Breakout Player – Delone Carter
Disappointment – Reggie Wayne
3) Tennessee Titans
(6-10, 4th in ’10)
Key Gets – Matt Hasselbeck (QB, Seahawks), Barrett Ruud (LB, Buccaneers), Anthony Smith (S, Packers), Jake Locker (QB, Washington), Akeem Ayers (LB, UCLA), Jurrell Casey (DL, USC), Jamie Harper (RB, Clemson)
Key Gones – Vince Young (QB, Eagles), Stephen Tulloch (LB, Lions), Jason Babin (DL, Eagles), Randy Moss (WR, retired), Kerry Collins (QB, retired), David Thornton (LB, retired), Bo Scaife (TE, Bengals)
Key Games – wk2 v. Ravens, wk5 @ Steelers, wk7 v. Texans, wk8 v. Colts, wk11 @ Falcons, wk12 v. Bucs, wk14 v. Saints, wk15 @ Colts, wk17 @ Texans
Jeff Fisher’s reign as the longest tenured NFL coach ended this offseason in an ugly spat with owner Bud Adams, of which Young was a non-innocent bystander. The Titans hope Hasselbeck can bridge the gap to the Locker era and will once again be riding the lighting fast feet of Chris Johnson, assuming his contract situation doesn’t get any uglier. As of late August, Johnson hasn’t blinked and isn’t showing any signs of doing so. If Kenny Britt can keep his head out of his ass, he’s going to be one of the league’s best receivers, but based on past history, consistent appropriate behiavior is far from a sure thing. Neither Nate Washington nor Justin Gage should be starting on any NFL team, but I like Damian Williams to step up in his sophomore season. Another guy to keep your eyes on is Jared Cook, the third year TE from South Carolina. He’s an athletic mismatch this team sorely needs. The defense continues their plunge into the NFL’s basement with the losses of Babin and Tulloch, and I don’t like their attempts to improve. It’s no secret I’m not a fan of Ruud, so that will tell you what I think of his signing, and I wasn’t an Ayers fan when he was at UCLA. I think that front seven is in for a long year of punishment. Their best cover man, Courtland Finnegan, is pissed about his contract and walked out of camp early this preseason. How will that play out over the course of the season, assuming he survives his next run-in with Andre Johnson?
The only reasons to watch this team are Johnson, Britt, and Cook. The rest will be ugly. If Johnson sits out any substantial time, I hold the right to change my prediction and put the Titans in the basement.
Team MVP – Chris Johnson
Breakout Player – Jared Cook
Disappointment – Barrett Ruud
4) Jacksonville Jaguars
(6-10, 3rd in ’10)
Key Gets – Paul Posluszny (LB, Bills), Clint Session (LB, Colts), Matt Roth (DL, Browns), Dawan Landry (S, Ravens), Blaine Gabbert (QB, Missouri), William Rackley (OL, Lehigh), Cecil Shorts (WR, Mount Union)
Key Gones – Mike Sims-Walker (WR, Rams), Justin Durant (LB, Raiders)
Key Games – wk2 @ Jets, wk4 v. Saints, wk6 @ Steelers, wk7 v. Ravens, wk8 @ Texans, wk10 @ Colts, wk12 v. Texans, wk13 v. Chargers, wk14 v. Bucs, wk15 @ Falcons, wk 17 v. Colts
If David Garrard wasn’t feeling unwanted before, he probably should be now. This past April the Jaguars drafted his successor, and the handing of the torch may come sooner rather than later depending on how quickly Jacksonville’s season goes into the crapper. Their star ball carrier, Maurice Jones-Drew, finished the year with a knee issue and is still at less than full health. Something tells me that they’re going to need to lean on Rashad Jennings a bit this year, and he won’t disappoint. I loved him coming out of Liberty a few years ago and think he can be a big time performer. I like Mike Thomas a lot and think he has the potential to showcase his quickness and elusiveness this year with the amount of targets he should see as their #1, but #2 Jason Hill shouldn’t be starting in the NFL. I loved Jarrett Dillard coming out of Rice, but he can’t stay healthy as a pro. Besides Shorts (potential, watch out for him), there’s not much behind those guys. Getting Posluszny should be a boost to the defense, but I’m surprised they didn’t put more focus on upgrading their horrid secondary. I think it’s going to continue getting worse at corner. Rashean Mathis is in decline mode, and Derek Cox wouldn’t keep getting second chances if there was any talent behind him. I’m not sure Landry is enough of an addition on his own to make a significant difference back there. Tyson Alualu is a great penetrator, and Terrence Knighton absolutely shuts down run lanes. Not quite Stroud-Henderson 2.0 yet, but they’re far from this team’s biggest problem. Did someone say problem? At end, Aaron Kampman is past him prime, and Austen Lane is unproven. Jeremy Mincey? Matt Roth? Woof.
If they don’t finish with their fourth straight non-winning season, I’ll be shocked.
Team MVP – Mike Thomas
Breakout Player – Rashad Jennings
Disappointment – Rashean Mathis
1) Houston Texans
2) Indianapolis Colts
3) Tennessee Titans
4) Jacksonville Jaguars
Division MVP – Andre Johnson
Division Breakout – Rashad Jennings
Division Disappointment – Barrett Ruud