Monday, September 2, 2013

2013 NFL Predictions - AFC South

1) Houston Texans

You might forget that the Texans were on their way to the #1 seed in the AFC last year before faltering down the stretch, losing three of their last four regular season games in ugly fashion.  They made it past the Bengals in the Wild Card round but were handled by Brady and company in the next round.  Last year Houston found out just how hard it is to stay on top in this league.  They took the figurative knockout punch and couldn’t get up off the canvas.  How will they respond in their next fight?

Matt Schaub has been a consistent presence under center in Houston, but they’d be a much more dangerous team if he could raise his game another level.  Teams fear Arian Foster and still respect Andre Johnson, but you don’t get the sense that a lot of extra game planning is focused specifically on Schaub.  I’m still a fan, but again, I wish he’d step his game up.  Foster had a down year by his standards, finishing just sixth in the league in rushing and posting a career low 4.1 ypc, and as I type this he has yet to get on the field at all this preseason because of leg and back injuries.  Johnson bounced back from two straight disappointing seasons and posted the second highest reception total of his career.  The stats are nice, but Johnson appears to have passed his prime as a game changing talent.  The Texans have needed a better #2 for a long time, but now they need to start grooming a new #1.  Enter DeAndre Hopkins.  I’m a big fan of this receiver (my second favorite in the draft behind Quinton Patton) and think Houston made an excellent selection.  He’s a big play receiver in a big play offense, and I think his quickness and footwork/precision are going to make him an instant contributor. 

If we play the word association game, and I say “Texans defense”, you’d be lying if you said JJ Watt was not your first thought.  Last year’s Defensive Player of the Year exploded for 20.5 sacks and an insane 16 defended passes.  If he’s not taking the QB to the ground, he’s swatting down his passes.  The guy is the best in the game at what he does, and there’s no reason to think he can’t or won’t get better.  I think they’re whole defense gets better this year.  Antonio Smith is a great talent in his own right and the perfect Watt compliment.  Brian Cushing returns from the ACL injury that limited him to five games last year, and Brooks Reed will man one of the outside linebacker spots.  The other one will be occupied by Whitney Mercilus, the second year player who registered a cool six sacks in his debut season.  If you’re going to have concerns about this defense, they’ll reside in the secondary.  Ed Reed replaces Glover Quin, but the former Raven doesn’t appear to be close to game-ready as the preseason winds down.  What will they get from him?  At corner Kareem Jackson had a really strong ’12 season, but Johnathan Joseph is coming off double sports hernia surgery.  Can’t say I’ve had that malady, but it doesn’t sound fun. 

Houston will once again win a lot of regular season games (especially in the division), but they’ve got to be able to perform when it matters most.  Anything less than an appearance in the conference title game would have to be considered a disappointment. 

MVP – JJ Watt
Breakout – DeAndre Hopkins
Disappointment – Ed Reed

2) Indianapolis Colts

It’s pretty clear that the Texans and Colts are the two best teams in the division.  Up next for the Colts is closing that gap between them and the Texans.  Indy was one of the surprise teams from ’12, transitioning from the “Suck for Luck” campaign to the “Win One for Chuck” theme of last year.  I won’t bore you with the numbers, but the Colts were statistically very fortunate last season.  Will the ball bounce their way as often in ’13?

Andrew Luck looked every bit the #1 pick last year, leading the previously 2-14 Colts to an amazing 11 win season and a trip to the playoffs.  As impressive as he was last season, Luck must be smarter with the ball and his body.  Enter Pep Hamilton, Lucks’ offensive coordinator his last year at Stanford.  I think Luck will have an even better ’13 season under Hamilton, cutting down on the low percentage plays that led to turnovers and not taking as many hits while making plays with his feet.  Reggie Wayne showed that rumors of his demise had been greatly exaggerated by finishing sixth in the league with 106 receptions.  The veteran and the rookie were clearly on the same page from the get go.  TY Hilton provides big play potential, and Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are plus talents in the middle.  I’m a big fan of the former as I think he has a chance to be one of the better all-round TEs in the game.  Ahmad Bradshaw and his funky foot were brought in to give the Colts their first 1,000 yard rusher since Joseph Addai eclipsed the mark by 72 yards six seasons ago, but he didn’t notch a single carry in the preseason.  Expect to see a lot of Vick Ballard again this year.   

As good as the Colts were at churning out yards on offense, they remained among the league’s worst in giving them up on defense.  I’m still not sure I like what’s going on with this side of the football.  Gone is longtime pass rusher Dwight Freeney who was replaced by perennial Packer disappointment, Erik Walden.  Robert Mathis is still here, and they drafted Bjoern Werner to eventually replace him.  While I love Werner’s game, I’m not sure this scheme maximizes his potential.  Perplexing pick.  It doesn’t appear that they’ll get to the passer with any more frequency this season, so the secondary will again be under constant fire.  They should be better equipped to respond this year.  Greg Toler was signed to compliment Vontae Davis at corner, and LaRon Landry was brought in to give them a presence at safety.  I liked Toler as a target for the Bucs, and Landry is as fierce as they come when healthy. 

Even with improvements on both sides of the ball, I think the Colts will be fortunate to repeat least year’s win total.  It should still be plenty good for a second place finish, but with teams like the Bengals, Dolphins, and Chiefs making noise in the conference, will they win enough to get back to the postseason? 

MVP – Andrew Luck
Breakout – Dwayne Allen
Disappointment – Darrius Heyward-Bey

3) Tennessee Titans

It seems like forever ago that the Titans were relevant, but they’re just five seasons removed from a 13-3 season.  That’s what happens when you come off a season with, seriously, only one meaningful win (week 6 v. Pittsburgh).  The combined wins of the other five teams they beat was a whopping 25.

Chris Johnson is an enigma.  It feels like he’s been around forever, but this is just his sixth season.  He’s a big name player who has put together two disappointing seasons in a row, but if you really look at things, aside from the huge ’09 season where he totaled over 2,500 yards from scrimmage, he’s been unspectacular.  The Titans invested heavily in upgrading his blocking this offseason, adding guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack and three other veteran linemen.  The time is now for Johnson to show that he’s still a special talent.  It’s also time for Jake Locker to figure it out or take a seat.  Entering his third season as a pro and second as starter Locker hasn’t shown much progression and is still far too inaccurate for this level.  They’ve got a nice, not great, stable of receivers for him to work with, including Kendall Wright, Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, and Justin Hunter.  Wright had an impressive rookie season and is Lockers’ primary target at this point.  Britt, disappointingly, can’t get over his knee issues. 

There’s a bit to like on the defensive side of the ball.  Derrick Morgan looked to be coming into his own, finally, as a pass rusher late last season, registering four sacks in his final four games.  They brought in Sammie Lee Hill to go with Jerrell Casey, giving them a pair of run stuffing tackles.  I like their young linebacker trio – Zach Brown, Colin McCarthy, and Akeem Ayers.  Both Brown and Ayers showed a well-rounded game last year; making plays against the run, against the pass, and getting after the passer for a combined 11.5 sacks.  Things should get better in the secondary with scheme and personnel changes.  Moving to a press man scheme will make better use of Jason McCourty’s skills and get Tommie Campbell on the field more.  Michael Griffin has been awful at free safety, but he’s still the starter.  They’ve been working Alterraun Verner there some, so maybe he’ll take the spot soon.  Bernard Pollard looks to have the strong safety spot over fellow free agent signing George Wilson. 

I can’t get excited about this team until Locker resembles a professional passer for a decent stretch of games.  Will that happen?  Will Johnson be rejuvenated with better blocking?  We’ll find out soon enough. 

MVP – Chris Johnson
Breakout – Zach Brown
Disappointment – Jake Locker

4) Jacksonville Jaguars

The Mike Mularkey experiment didn’t last too long did it?  Out after 16 games (2 of them wins), the Jaguars are looking for their third coach in three seasons.  Enter Gus Bradley.  The talent on the roster didn’t change drastically this offseason, but Bradley brings an impressive scheme and background to Jacksonville.

‘Dysfunctional’ may not be the best way to describe the Jaguars, but that’s the word that comes to mind when I think of them.  Blaine Gabbert has been pathetic in his two years in Jacksonville and apparently hasn’t gotten any better if his play this preseason is any indicator.  Oh, and he’s entering the year with an injury to the thumb on his throwing hand.  How bad must Chad Henne be to still be sitting behind this guy?  Maurice Jones-Drew suffered the first significant injury of his career last season, limiting him to just six games and a single rushing touchdown.  It seems like he’s been around forever, but MJD is just 28 years old.  As long as his foot is healed, I like his chances to bounce back as a lethal weapon, despite the lack of surrounding talent.  Justin Blackmon hasn’t figured out how to be a pro yet.  In addition to starting the year on suspension, he can’t even behave on the sidelines as an observer.  Stay hot young man.  Cecil Shorts is the best receiver on the team.  He had five games with at least six receptions and totaled at least 100 yards four times.  If only he had a quarterback. 

Last year only the Bills and Saints surrendered more rushing yards per game than the Jaguars.  No one registered less sacks.  Bradley has nowhere to go but up with this defense.  Who are his key pieces?  Well, not Ezekiel Ansah.  Not Dion Jordan.  Nope, no pass rusher needed here.  The Jaguars thought it would be in their best interests to take a right tackle with the #2 pick in the draft rather than a pass rusher.  Tyson Alualu led the way last year with 3.5 sacks.  That’s sad.  Jason Babin will probably be their most successful pass rusher, but that’s not saying much.  Backing up a pathetic pass rush is a sorry secondary.  Derek Cox wasn’t great, but he was easily the best corner on the roster last season.  I like Dwayne Gratz, but he’s a rookie.  Teams will throw all over Alan Ball.  There’s no point discussing this group any further.  Moving on. 

These guys should once again be in the race for the first overall pick.

MVP – Maurice Jones-Drew
Breakout – Cecil Shorts
Disappointment – Justin Blackmon

Division MVP – Andrew Luck
Division Breakout – DeAndre Hopkins
Division Disappointment – Jake Locker

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