The AFC South seems pretty clear-cut this coming season, doesn't it?
The Texans are coming off a great year, with an even brighter 2012 season ahead. The Titans are looking strong but aren't ready for the next level, the Jaguars will be fielding a top-10 defense but have a lot of question marks and the Colts are in a total rebuild.
Pretty clear pecking order right? Not really.
Every season, about half the teams that made the playoffs the year before miss them the following year, and about half the teams in the playoffs any given year were not there the year before. Factor in the dynasties like the Colts and Patriots of the 2000s, and the turnaround is even more haphazard.
There are questions all around the AFC South, and things could end up being completely different than we think. Let's compare each team by looking at their projected starting lineups, position by position.
I'm starting with defensive line, but I'll move on to linebackers, defensive backs, offensive line, receivers, running backs, quarterbacks and special teams as we get closer to the start of the season.
The Texans are strong pretty much everywhere right now, but their front three is one of their few areas that could stand an upgrade. J.J. Watt is already a top 3-4 defensive end, and Antonio Smith is a great player too, but Shaun Cody is a little small to play the nose position at an elite level.
Who will have the best defensive line in the AFC South?
The Texans added depth in the draft this season with the addition of former top prospect Jared Crick, who could end up being a very good backup or even an eventual replacement for Smith, so that helps them in the event of an injury.
The Texans' defensive line is by no means bad, but considering how strong the rest of the team is (outside of the wide receiver position), it's actually one of their weaker areas. Of course, if Cody continues to anchor the middle better than a man his size should, there's no reason for them not to be comfortable with their lineup.
The Colts will be transitioning to a 3-4 defense this season, and they are full of question marks up front. Cory Redding is a solid end, but Drake Nevis and Fili Moala (the two leading candidates for the other starting spot) may not transition well into the defensive end position.
Then there's the nose tackle spot. I fully expect Josh Chapman to end up as the starter, but for now, Antonio Johnson will likely hold the spot down. It'll be interesting to see how either of them do, but both are essentially unknowns for now.
The Colts could surprise people by having a decent front to their defense, but it looks unlikely to me.
Like most of the rest of the team, the Jaguars' defensive line has some question marks. Jeremy Mincey has gotten consistently better as a defensive end for the last few years, but that's their only certainty. Andre Branch will likely make an impact, but you never know with rookies.
At the defensive tackle position, they have Tyson Alualu, who was great as a rookie but didn't make a big leap forward last season like he was expected to. Terrance Knighton isn't a bad player, but he's not one you want to rely on at crunch time.
With two good players and no terrible ones, the Jaguars ought to have a pretty solid defensive line this season, if Branch contributes like he's expected to. If he makes a big impact and no one else slips, they could be elite.
The Titans' defensive line also has some question marks on it. On the one hand, they have a great defensive tackle in Jurrell Casey, who's coming off of a fantastic rookie season. Karl Klug also looks like a force as an interior pass-rusher.
Kamerion Wimbley has been a consistent pass-rusher since he was drafted by the Raiders in 2006, and there's no reason to expect that he won't stay that way.
After that, it's up in the air. Derrick Morgan has been plagued by injuries and looks like a bust; the second defensive tackle position will be open. It will probably fall to third-round pick Mike Martin.
The Titans finished 31st in sack totals in 2011. This year, the pressure is on the defensive line to fix that. Wimbley ought to at least be a band-aid.
Texans. Houston's line, like I said, isn't the best on the planet, but it's the best in the AFC South. J.J. Watt should only improve from his rookie season and may turn into the next Justin Smith. Shaun Cody is small, but he held down the position last season; when you have ends like Watt and Antonio Smith, you can be undersized and still deliver.
That said, both the Titans and the Jaguars have new faces in their fronts. If those rookies make a bigger impact than expected, either of them could suddenly have an elite group in the trenches.
But, since that's just speculative at this point, for now, I'm giving the Texans the benefit of a doubt.