NFL Preview 2012: Predicting the AFC South
The AFC South had long been dominated by Peyton Manning and company since his arrival in 1998. Last year, that reign ended when Manning sat out the season with spinal fusion surgery and now a new dynasty can begin in the division.
The Texans look like the team that will assume the controls after winning the division in 2011. Still, there is plenty of young talent to go around in a division that features three young quarterbacks in Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville), Jake Locker (Tennessee) and the heir apparent to Manning, Andrew Luck (Indianapolis).
The AFC South is not as feared as it has been in seasons past, but there should be interesting football thanks to all the young talent in the division. Here's a look at how things could shake out.
4) Jacksonville Jaguars
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If I were Maurice Jones-Drew, I would be trying to avoid Jaguars camp by any means necessary too.
Jones-Drew recently ended his holdout earlier this week by reporting to camp without a new contract, but in all reality he should have gotten one. Jones-Drew was the NFL's leading rusher (1,606 yards) in 2011 and is now about to be pounded into the ground by new head coach Mike Mularkey.
As an offensive coordinator in Atlanta, Mularkey's teams were one of the most run-heavy teams in the league as Michael Turner is finally starting to show the effects despite hardly being used in San Diego his first couple of seasons.
Then again, if I had one great talent on offense I would pound MJD into the ground too.
The Jaguars are a snoozefest on offense again this season despite adding a future stud in wide receiver Justin Blackmon. With Blaine Gabbert (50.8% completion percentage in 2011) throwing Blackmon the football, it doesn't seem like an air-it-out philosophy is in the future for the Jaguars.
On the bright side, their defense is filled with a bunch of guys you've never heard of (such as Paul Posluszny and Tyson Alualu) that ranked in the top ten in both passing (eighth) and rushing defense (ninth) in 2011.
The Jaguars were even sixth in the league in contributed points by their defense (kind of like a WAR stat for you baseball buffs) with 58.74.
The offense must come around for this team to surprise, but with a one-man show going on in Jacksonville, the Jaguars look destined for last place.
3) Indianapolis Colts
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Normally, a team with a rookie quarterback wouldn't be listed as a team that could surprise the rest of the league. However, there are few teams that have had a rookie with the accolades that Andrew Luck has earned during his career at Stanford.
As the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning, the Colts saw a golden opportunity to begin a new era when they received the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and sent Manning packing to Denver.
Now Luck gets to play with some of Peyton's leftover toys on an offense that has more talent than one would expect.
Reggie Wayne (960 yards, four TDs) could come back from the dead if Luck is more competent than Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky were in 2011, and Austin Collie (514, TD) could become his favorite target if he can recover from his fourth concussion in the past 21 months.
The Colts also added Luck's tight end from Stanford in Coby Fleener and another top tight end prospect in Dwayne Allen from Clemson.
The defense could still use some work, but Pat Angerer lead the NFL in tackles last season (146, but will be out six weeks with a foot injury) and the addition of Vontae Davis from Miami should help the pass defense if his head is screwed on straight.
Chuck Pagano has his work cut out for him, but the additions that new general manager Ryan Grigson has made so far should make year one a little bit easier for the Colts.
2) Tennessee Titans
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Jake Locker will be the starting quarterback for the Titans in 2012, one year after being selected eighth overall in the NFL Draft. Locker was able to outlast Matt Hasselbeck to win the job, but he'll have an advantage that Hasselbeck didn't have in 2011.
That advantage would be that Chris Johnson is going to be at his CJ2K form rather than what we've seen from him over the past two seasons.
Since Johnson got paid prior to last season, he hasn't run with the same intensity and burst that he had when he rushed for 2,006 yards in 2010. This preseason, he's looked different as he's given the Titans offense a ton of speed as they head into the games that start counting on Sunday.
Aside from Johnson, the Titans already have Nate Washington (1,023 with seven TDs in 2011) and first-round pick Kendall Wright to give the passing game a jolt. Oh, and Kenny Britt got off with a one-game suspension and could be one of the best receivers in the NFL if he stays away from trouble.
The defense will have to overcome the loss of Cortland Finnegan to the St. Louis Rams, but also could be a beastly unit lead by free safety Michael Griffin.
The Titans have sleeper potential and if Locker can overcome some issues with his accuracy, it could be the Titans that are on top of the division at the end of the season.
1) Houston Texans
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Last season, the Texans lost one of the best receivers in football, their starting and second-string quarterbacks, their top defensive player and even their running back for a couple of games...and still made their first playoff appearance in franchise history.
The Texans overcame major adversity last season, but now are almost completely healthy with Matt Schaub returning at quarterback. While Andre Johnson is already dealing with a groin injury, the Texans have became a run-heavy attack lead by Arian Foster and Ben Tate to overcome his absence.
Their defense also took a couple of blows during the offseason as Mario Williams left via free agency to Buffalo and DeMeco Ryans was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Texans still have impact players on defense, however as J.J. Watt could be a defensive player of the year candidate and Jonathan Joseph has quietly become one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
The Texans should be strong favorites to repeat as division champion in 2012 and have a good chance of heading to New Orleans come February.