Saturday, September 1, 2012

2012 NFL Predictions - AFC South

1) Houston Texans

Key Gets – Whitney Mercilius (DE, Illinois), DeVier Posey (WR, Ohio State)

Key Gones – Mario Williams (LB, Bills), Jason Allen (CB, Bengals), Joel Dreessen (TE, Broncos), Jacoby Jones (WR, Ravens)

Key Games – wk3 @ Broncos, wk5 @ Jets, wk6 v. Packers, wk7 v. Ravens, wk10 @ Bears, wk12 @ Lions, wk14 @ Patriots

2011 saw the Houston Texans finish with the most wins in franchise history (10).  They also reached the postseason for the first time and won their first playoff game.  Things are pointing up right?  Well, a couple of key players missed time with injuries last year, and franchise defender Mario Williams left for Buffalo after six seasons as a Texan.  They’re clearly the class of the AFC South, but no one should hand them the division just yet.

Matt Schaub missed six games with a foot injury last season allowing rookie TJ Yates to get some NFL experience.  Schaub is ready to go this preseason and looks to repeat his ’09 and ’10 seasons where he threw for over 4,300 yards and 23 TDs.  I’m still a big fan and believe he’s as much a key to the offense as any other player.  Arian Foster didn’t match his 2010 breakout season numbers, but 1841 yards from scrimmage ain’t too shabby.  He received a $43.5 million dollar contract this offseason and is entering the prime of his career.  Foster remains the focal point of the offense, so there’s no reason to think he can’t exceed 2010’s 2,220 yards from scrimmage.  His #2, Ben Tate, might be the most valuable backup in the league.  Andre Johnson is their unquestioned go-to receiver, but he’s missed 12 regular season games over the last two years and suffered a minor groin injury this preseason.  The guy is still as dominant as they come when he’s on the field, but he’s no sure thing to do it wire to wire.  Up front the Texans were among the league’s best last year, but they’re fielding two new starters on the right side.  Left tackle Duane Brown and center Chris Myers are reliable veterans, but how the new group gels together will be worth watching given the Texans’ commitment to the ground game. 

The Texans are no longer one of the league’s punching bags on defense, and that will continue with or without Mario Williams.  Antonio Smith has found a home as a 3-4 end, and JJ Watt played like a season veteran during his rookie year, totaling 5.5 sacks and a team high 7 tackles for loss.  The Texans had to love seeing Watt tally 3.5 sacks in the playoffs, showing he can shine when the bright lights do.  Mike backer Brian Cushing is all over the field defensively, finishing far and away as the Texans leading tackler with 114.  I really don’t think they’re going to miss Mario.  Outside backers Connor Barwin and rookie Brooks Reed combined for 17.5 sacks.  Barwin is a tremendously athletic player who busted out in a big way and will continue building upon last year’s performance.  Like Watt, Reed came through in the playoffs as well with 3.5 postseason sacks of his own.  Veteran Bradie James gets the first shot at replacing DeMeco Ryans who was sent to Philadelphia.  Johnathan Joseph is one of the best lockdown corners in the league and proved to be a very wise pickup last offseason.  Kareem Jackson had a better sophomore campaign than his 2010 rookie year but still has a ways to go as a guy who will see plenty of attention opposite Joseph.  I like the back end of the secondary too.  Daniel Manning came to the Texans last offseason, and like Joseph, solidified the secondary.  Glover Quinn, a converted corner, is a hard-nosed playmaker.

It’s hard not to have high expectations for this team.  The defense is clicking, and they have All Pro talent at the skilled positions on offense.  Helping their cause is the league’s 4th easiest schedule as far as the preseason strength of schedule numbers go.  Anything less than a repeat shot to the division round of the playoffs will be a bitter disappointment. 

Team MVP – Arian Foster
Breakout Player – JJ Watt
Disappointment – Kareem Jackson

2) Tennessee Titans

Key Gets – Kamerion Wimbley (DE, Raiders), Steve Hutchinson (G, Vikings), Kendall Wright (WR, Baylor), Zach Brown (LB, UNC)

Key Gones – Courtland Finnegan (CB, Rams), Jason Jones (DE, Seahawks)

Key Games – wk1 v. Patriots, wk2 @ Chargers, wk3 v. Lions, wk4 @ Texans, wk6 v. Steelers, wk7 @ Bills, wk9 v. Bears, wk13 v. Texans, wk15 v. Jets, wk16 @ Packers

Mike Munchak’s first year as head coach of the Titans saw the team complete its first winning season since 2008.  White the Titans weren’t able to make the playoffs themselves, three of their nine wins came against playoff teams – Baltimore, Denver, and Houston.  Will they be able to narrow the gap and close in on the Texans this year?

I’m sure there are more questions on the offensive side of the football than Munchak would like.  They’re doing everything they can to get Jake Locker to win the QB battle over Matt Hasselbeck, but the second year passer hasn’t exactly lit it up in the preseason.  Chris Johnson still ran for over 1,000 yards last year, but it was an ugly season that started with a holdout and saw him break the 100 yard game mark only four times.  Kenny Britt is one of the game’s most talented receivers, but he’s about to start needing to use his toes in order to count the number of times he’s been arrested during his professional career.  He’s sure to start the season suspended, but no specific punishment has yet to be announced.  Kendall Wright should bring more big play ability to the offense and help make up for the loss of Britt early in the year.  Up front, Michael Roos and David Stewart remain to very solid and unheralded bookends.  It’s in the middle of the offensive line where they had problems, where most of the blame for last year’s stagnant rushing game falls.  Veteran Steve Hutchinson should be a boost at LG, even if he is on the down side of his career. 

It’s not often that a team’s top four tacklers for the season are all defensive backs, but that was the case for the Titans last year.  They should get more production from their linebackers this season.  Will Witherspoon remains at WLB, but Colin McCarthy is now the starting MLB, having taken the job from Barrett Ruud last year, and Akeem Ayers looks to be a solid building block in his second season.  McCarthy will never be the most athletically gifted player on the field, but he always gives everything he has and does a good job of diagnosing the action to put himself in position to make plays.  Ayers is a true three down linebacker who the Titans plan on featuring more as a pass rusher this season.  You don’t get better on defense by losing a cover man like Cortland Finnegan, but the Titans were fairly deep at corner last year.  Alterraun Verner steps into Finnegan’s spot opposite Jason McCourty.  They’re solid deep too with Pro Bowl safety Michael Griffin and Jordan Babineaux.  The defensive line boasts some quality young talent as well, but they’ve got to do a much better job of rushing to the passer.  Backup defensive tackle Karl Klug led the team with 7 sacks.  Derrick Morgan hasn’t developed as expected at end, but he’s still the starter at LE.  Kamerion Wimbley was signed in free agency to help get after the QB from the RE position.   

As an optimist, this could be a really potent offense with the athletic Locker under center, a fresh and focus Johnson toting the rock, and a plethora of receiving weapons in Britt, Wright, Nate Washington, and Jared Cook.  They’re young and talented on defense and should build on last year’s success.  Anything less than a playoff berth will be a disappointment.

Team MVP – Chris Johnson
Breakout Player – Akeem Ayers
Disappointment – Kenny Britt

3) Indianapolis Colts

Key Gets – Andrew Luck (QB, Stanford), Coby Fleener (TE, Stanford), Cory Redding (DE, Ravens), Dwayne Allen (TE, Clemson), TY Hilton (WR, FIU)

Key Gones – Peyton Manning (QB, Broncos), Pierre Garcon (WR, Redskins), Jeff Saturday (C, Packers), Dallas Clark (TE, Bucs)

Key Games – wk1 @ Bears, wk5 v. Packers, wk6 @ Jets, wk11 @ Patriots, wk12 v. Bills, wk13 @ Lions, wk15 @ Texans, wk17 v. Texans

Talk about a season to forget.  The Colts went 2-14 last year which was the franchise’s worst season in 20 years.  Peyton Manning probably should have won the league’s MVP last year, and he didn’t play in a single game.  It just goes to show how much of a difference that guy made to this team.  Instead, Colts fans had to suffer through watching Curtis Painter, Kerry Collins, and Dan Orlovsky do their best impressions of an NFL QB. 

Things should get turned around in quick order thanks to the drafting of Andrew Luck.  The former Stanford slinger steps into the starting role in Indy and has been nothing but impressive thus far this preseason.  His first pass of the preseason went for a TD, and while, unlike some of the media, I’m not quite ready to send him to Canton, I’m absolutely buying this guy as a winning franchise QB.  They’ll have to rely on Luck’s arm quite a bit to get them wins because the run game doesn’t look any better than last year.  Donald Brown and Delone Carter look to be the backfield leaders, but neither has shown the ability to handle a full load on his own.  Reggie Wayne surprisingly resigned with the Colts, but Pierre Garcon chased the money to Washington DC.  They have big hopes for Austin Collie, and I like him as Lucks’ go-to guy in the intermediate game.  They’re starting fresh at tight end.  Dallas Clark is in Tampa, and Jacob Tamme followed Peyton Manning to Denver.  Taking their places are rookies Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, two terrific collegiate tight ends.  A young QBs favorite friend is a tight end with good hands, so why not give him the two best that the draft had to offer?  It doesn’t hurt that Fleener was Luck’s top target at Stanford.  Unfortunately, they can’t fix everything in one offseason.  Standing between Luck and opposing defenses is arguably the league’s worst offensive line.  Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is the best of the bunch, but they’re starting free agents in three of the other four positions.  Winston Justice was a pretty good add at right tackle, and they could have done worse than Samson Satele in replacing longtime center Jeff Saturday.  These guys have to keep Luck upright, or Colts fans haven’t seen ugly yet.

The defense was just as bad as the offense last year, and they hope moving to a 3-4 defense will help turn things around.  Stalwarts Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are still around, but they’re both (grudgingly) learning new positions.  They’ll be the starting linebackers in this defense.  I really like Pat Angerer, the young leader of this defense, but he’s going to be sidelined to start the season after breaking his foot in their preseason opener.  Veteran Cory Redding follows his former defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano, to Indy and looks to give them some stability on the defensive line.  I’m not too hopeful for the other starters, Antonio Johnson and Fili Moala.  They need second year player Drake Nevis to make a real push for playing time.  He’s too talented to sit behind Moala.  It’s not pretty in the secondary.  Free safety Antoine Bethea is a tackling machine, but strong safety Tom Zbikowski is more known for his boxing.  The Colts weren’t comfortable with projected starting corners Justin King and Jerraud Powers, so they traded for Vontae Davis.  It’s a great move for the Colts as long as Davis leaves his attitude in Miami

The Colts went 3-13 in Peyton Manning’s first year as a pro, so while Colts fans are looking for an instant return to glory, they must remain patient.  I love Luck and his future as a pro, but this isn’t happening overnight.  Baby steps Colts fans, baby steps.

Team MVP – Andrew Luck
Breakout Player – Coby Fleener
Disappointment – Donald Brown

4) Jacksonville Jaguars

Key Gets – Justin Blackmon (WR, Oklahoma State), Chad Henne (QB, Dolphins), Laurent Robinson (WR, Cowboys), Aaron Ross (CB, Giants), Andre Branch (DE, Clemson)

Key Gones – None

Key Games – wk2 v. Texans, wk5 v. Bears, wk8 @ Packers, wk9 v. Lions, wk11 @ Texans, wk13 @ Bills, wk14 v. Jets, wk16 v. Patriots

Oomph.  Somehow this team won five games last year.  They’re not terribly talented, and their best player is holding out this preseason for a new contract.  Looking good huh?

I trashed Mark Sanchez and Blaine Gabbert more than any other QBs in the league last season.  Sure Gabbert was a rookie, but he looked like a terribly soft rookie last year.  You can’t teach guts, and this guy often looked like he left his in Missouri.  It’s not easy to consistently lead your team on scoring drives when you’re constantly anticipating pressure.  The coaching staff is talking him up this preseason, but I’ve got to wonder how much of that is truth and how much of it is to help the psyche of their QB.  If/When Maurice Jones-Drew shows up he’ll look to repeat as the league’s rushing leader.  After totaling a whopping 954 carries over the last three seasons, I’d be a bit hesitant too in giving him a new deal.  I’m still a huge Rashad Jennings fan, and I’d love to see him get a chance to be the feature guy.  Justin Blackmon was drafted to be Gabbert’s #1 target, but his professional career started the undesirable way with a DUI and a holdout.  Can they count on him?  Laurent Robinson was brought in after a solid season with the Cowboys, but will he repeat last year’s output in a much weaker offense?  Left tackle Eugene Monroe and center Brad Meester are easily the team’s best offensive linemen.  They should be a ton better with Eben Britton healthy and relegating Guy Whimper back to the bench.  Gabbert should be tossing and tucking a lot less this year. 

Jacksonville was surprisingly one of the league’s better defenses statistically last year.  There isn’t a star among the group, but they played well as a unit.  Paul Posluszny may be as close to a star as they get, and he returns as the anchor at MLB.  SLB Daryl Smith returns for what seems like his 100th year with the Jags.  Jeremy Mincey tallied a career high 8 sacks last season, and seeing as how the next most productive returning pass rusher had 2.5 sacks, they’re counting on him replicating that this season.  Rookie Andre Branch is locked into the starting RE spot.  Tyson Alualu was that guy with the 2.5 sacks, but the staple of his game is stuffing the run.  The Jags would like to see him get to the passer a bit more, but there’s no griping about his run defense.  Terrence Knighton and his 335 pounds do a solid job of occupying blockers for the guys around him to make plays.  Rashean Mathis is still locked in at one corner spot, and Derek Cox will start opposite him when healthy.  Starting safeties Dwight Lowery and Dawan Landry leave a lot to be desired.

They should be a more consistent and productive team overall this season, but does that necessarily mean they’ll top last season’s five win total?  I’m not optimistic. 

Team MVP – Rashad Jennings
Breakout Player – Justin Blackmon
Disappointment – Jeremy Mincey

Division MVP – Arian Foster
Division Breakout Player – JJ Watt
Division Disappointment – Kenny Britt

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