Can Peyton Manning win another AFC South Crown?
by Nick Sero
With the 2010 NFL season fast-approaching, Fantasy Football Sportal is all over the season previews for all eight NFL divisions, while covering all 32 NFL teams.
In our division-by-division breakdown, we took a close look at every team, and give our insight on how 2010 could shape-out for each squad.
The AFC South saw the Colts go on to their second Superbowl in four years. The 2008 AFC South Champion Tennessee Titans couldn’t return to the top, yet had a 2,000 yard back that could do it again. The Texans had their first winning season in the team’s nine year history yet missed out on the playoffs. The Jaguars fared the worst yet still recorded seven wins with one of the most dynamic back in the game as well. Who will take the crown this year, and who will fizzle out in the AFC South?
Read on for expert football analysis:
Indianapolis Colts (1)
When Head Coach Jim Caldwell took over there were many raised eyebrows. Despite taking over a team that has been a powerhouse for the past decade, Caldwell came in making changes. Despite shaking up the defense by changing the defensive and special teams coordinators, the Colts excelled at both areas and returned to the Super Bowl. An exciting, yet heartbreaking, loss to the Saints in the Super Bowl ended Caldwell’s rookie season. The AFC South is getting stronger, and again the Colts have made coaching changes. Offensive line Coach Howard Mudd retired after 13 seasons with the Colts. The Colts offense will now be run by assistant head coach Clyde Christenson, with Tom Moore as a senior offensive assistant.
The fact is that Peyton Manning will be running that offense, though. After winning his record fourth NFL MVP Award in 2009, there are no complaints from anyone in that front office about his power. I don’t thing there is any need to discuss Peyton’s background since he may the most revered quarterback in football history. Manning had off season neck surgery to relieve a pinched nerve, but shouldn’t miss any time. No matter how great your starter is, however, this is football and there are injuries. Long time backup Jim Sorgi is no longer with the team, currently backing up the younger Manning in New York. In the case that Manning were to miss any time, the Colts could be in serious jeopardy. Backup Curtis Painter struggled in the 2009 regular season, and hasn’t looked any better in this preseason. There will be some shakeup on the offensive line this year, starting with the loss of right guard Ryan Lilja. Charlie Johnson was Peyton’s best left tackle last season but Tony Ugoh isn’t quite out of the running just yet. One thing is for certain, the Colts need to keep Peyton healthy and that will only happen if the line meshes well.
Joseph Addai could feel backup Donald Brown breathing down his neck last season. After a few seasons hampered with injuries, the Colts drafted Brown in the first round as a future replacement for Addai. Brown didn’t win the job after suffering a shoulder injury that hampered his 2009 season. Addai returned to form, averaging 3.8 yards per rush and 10 touchdowns. If Brown can get healthy and improve his blocking ability, he could still end up taking over by seasons end.
The Colts have arguably the deepest, and most skilled receiving corp. Reggie Wayne is always great, notching another 100 catches and 10 touchdowns. Pierre Garçon exceeded everyone’s expectations by taking over the #2 spot and routinely beating defenses. The most impressive receiver on the team however was Austin Collie who took over a tough slot position in his first season and added 676 yards and 7 touchdowns. Collie has been working on being a receiver on the outside this off season and word on the street is that he is doing it seamlessly. The Colts drafted Anthony Gonzalez in the first round after winning the super bowl in 2006, despite his talents Gonzales hasn’t been able to stay healthy and could find himself as the fourth receiver.
Peyton’s favorite target is his tight end, Dallas Clark. Clark is one of the best receiving tight ends in the league, but isn’t known for his blocking. The Colts finally have a true blocking tight end in fifth round pick Brody Eldridge this season which means Clark could get even more opportunity to show off his strengths.
The Colts drafted the talented Jerry Hughes from TCU as Raheem Brock’s replacement. Brock was able to play on the interior when not subbing in for Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Hughes isn’t built to play inside however, which could hurt the Colts on their inside run defense. The starting linebackers - Gary Brackett, Clint Session and Philip Wheeler - all return and are very good at what they do. As good as the defense was last year, they could be even better this year with the return of strong safety Bob Sanders. Sanders greatly improves the Colts run defense ... when he is able to stay healthy.
Houston Texans (2)
The Texans will be looking for their first playoff appearance in the team’s nine year history in 2010. They came very close last year and it earned head coach Gary Kubiak an extension through 2012. The Texans always seem to start the season poorly, which could ultimately be their playoff demise again this year. The Texans lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shannahan to Washington (yes, that Shannahan relation) and added Rick Dennison from Denver. Interestingly enough, Dennison was promoted to offensive coordinator in Denver instead of Kubiak.
The Texans have a true rising star in Quarterback Matt Schaub. We have all known this for the past few years, but Schaub wasn’t able to stay healthy to live up to our expectations. In his first full season as starter, however, Schaub shattered are current expectations by notching 29 touchdowns. If the Texans can develop a running game it would keep the heat off of Schaub and hopefully keep him healthy.
The Texans were hoping to improve that running game with the addition of Auburn running back Ben Tate in the second round of the draft. Unfortunately for the Texans, Tate suffered a season ending leg injury and will have to wait until 2011 to get his chance in the Texans’ zone-blocking offense. Steve Slaton had a very poor season in 2009, despite leading the team in rushing yards. A case of Fumbilitis early on in the season caused Slaton to miss reps. Arian Foster took some time as the teams top back but really didn’t show all that much more potential. Slaton’s speed and agility make him a better fit in the Houston system but he will have to win back the favor and trust of his coaching staff.
Andre Johnson is, quietly, one the best receivers in the league. Johnson was the only offensive weapon to emerge for the Texans in 2009. There was no running game to keep the defense honest, and #2 Kevin Walter didn’t really impress (only 611 yards, two touchdowns). Despite defenses knowing the ball was going to Johnson, he still found a way to rack up over 1,500 yards. Walter is reliable but won’t do anything spectacular, the Texans would love to see the break away speed of Jacoby Jones turn him in to a serious homerun threat this season.
The Texans have a very good receiving tight end in Owen Daniels. Daniels missed a large chunk of 2009 with an injury but should be good to go by the start of the season. The addition of Pittsburgh Tight end Dorin Dickerson in the draft is a nice addition and could make their two tight end sets very scary.
The Texans were just straight nasty against the run last season, allowing an average of only 80 yards rushing over the last ten games in 2009. Mario Williams is a stud at defensive end but he will need opposite end Amobi Okoye to have finally matured (only 20 years old when drafted in 2007) in order to stay consistent throughout the season. The Houston linebackers are very good. Demeco Ryans is as good of middle linebacker as any team could want and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing could be even better. Cushing will miss the first four games thanks to a performance enhancer suspension (Cushing says he was just training too hard ... Ha!). The defenses biggest weakness was the secondary. Losing Dunta Robinson to free agency won’t make them any better.
Tennessee Titans (3)
Titans’ head coach Jeff Fisher has been with his team longer than any coach in the NFL. Fisher helped make the Titans’ the AFC’s best team in the regular season in 2008 but finished 8-8 in 2009. After 13 seasons it would be weird to see the Titans give up on Fisher just yet, but another season like last year and another Super Bowl missed could put Fisher on the hot seat. The Titans started last season 0-6 before starting Vince Young at quarterback. The Titans will be building on a very strong second half of the season, in which they went on to win eight of ten. Young’s stats are ugly (ten touchdowns to 7 interceptions) but he does what quarterbacks are supposed to do, he wins. Another year under offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger will help Young, who is a better fit in that offense that stresses the run and a quarterback that can roll out. Kerry Collins will be the backup to start the season after a disastrous 2009, and isn’t best fit for the Tennessee offense, but is a proven quarterback and a solid backup.
Running back Chris Johnson eclipsed the 2,000 yard rushing mark last season and vows that he will do it again, and he could. Johnson was even dynamic as a receiver out of the backfield. The loss of LenDale White means the Titans will be without a true short yardage runningback and will look to Javon Ringer and rookie LaGarrette Blount to play backup and run in between the tackles. Ringer is currently listed as #2 on the depth chart and will likely stay there, don’t sleep on Blount just yet though. Blount has really impressed so far this preseason and could end up being the goal line knockout punch (okay, okay ... some pun intended).
The Titans made a great pick with Kenny Britt in the first round of last year’s draft. Britt earned himself the starting receiver spot this season and should build on his 701 receiving yards. The Titans also have the uber athletic Nate Washington as the team’s second receiver. Washington can go up and get it and has agility to boot, Washington did hurt the team with too many dropped balls last season.
Bo Scaife will continue to be the team’s best receiving threat at the tight end position, but the departure of Alge Crumpler will leave the team without any proven blocking tightend.
The Titans’ defense was their biggest crutch in 2009. The team did so poorly without Albert Haynesworth even tried to work a trade for his return. The team now has lost veteran leader Kyle Vanden Bosch via free agency. The drafting of end Derrick Morgan gives them their first outside speed threat since Jevon Kearse in his prime, but the line won’t be too much better. The interior of the line is very underrated, however, with Tony Brown and Jason Jones being a devastating combo. The defense lost a leader with Keith Bullock not leaving, and the group of linebackers they have now isn’t very good. Will Witherspoon will take over Bullock’s job, but a healthy Bullock may have ended up as a better fit. There were injuries in the secondary and that will be the team’s main excuse, but they won’t be able to use that excuse this year when the secondary continues to let the team down.
Jacksonville Jaguars (4)
No coach may be on the hot seat more than Jack Del Rio. Ownership made it very clear that the Jaguars need to win this season, or Del Rio will be gone. The Jaguars have one playoff win the past seven years under Del Rio, but it can’t be Del Rio who takes all the blame. General Manager Gene Smith is in his second year of rebuilding the franchise that has more black out games than televised. Smith publicly criticized former player personnel VP James Harris and his drafts over the past few years. This year the team drafted Tyson Alualu, a defensive tackle from Cal that many think could have been drafted in round two or even three. So have things changed too much?
The once turnover proof David Garrard will be feeling the same heat as Del Rio this season after a 2009 that saw him throw ten interceptions to 15 touchdowns. His own head coach called him “middle-tier” and Garrard has fought back by improving his work ethic. The Jaguars will likely be taking a hard look at next year’s quarterback class and will even give backup Luke McCown a thought at quarterback.
The Human Bowling Bowl, a.k.a Maurice Jones-Drew, is still an elite rusher and one of few runningbacks that doesn’t need to share carries. That doesn’t mean he won’t need some help. Jones-Drew has taken many hits over his career and averaging 300 carries a season can take a large tole on your body. Jones-Drew hasn’t had any real injury concerns over his career, but defenses are keying on him more and more since there aren’t any other play makers on the offense.
The only proven receiving threat on the team is Mike Sims-Walker. The Jaguars neglected the receiver position in the draft, adding only Kassim Osgood via free agency. Osgood has a chance to break the starting lineup but will compete with both Mike Thomas and Troy Williamson. Thomas fared pretty well in rookie debut catching 48 balls, but his play was indicative of the entire receiving staff: uninteresting.
Marcedes Lewis is a very good blocker and has helped to keep Jones-Drew healthy and productive. His production as a receiving threat hasn’t been what the team has hoped for, and added Zach Miller in free agency. Miller is a decent receiving target which means Lewis will likely be asked to block more than catch.
The Jaguars spent their first four draft picks on the defensive line because they ranked last with only 14 sacks in 2009. The line could end up being better if first round pick Alualu can live up to the billing as John Henderson’s replacement. Defensive end Aaron Kampman signed with the Jaguars after an ACL tear landed him on the IR in Green Bay. Kampman has proven to be a very strong pass rusher in the past and the team is hoping he can bounce back from injury. The Jaguars want even more for former first round draft pick Derrick Harvey to stop disappointing and be the pass rushing defensive end he was in college. The linebacking corp is thin and mediocre. Kirk Morrison is a big upgrade to the group but that doesn’t say a lot. The cornerback position is pretty strong when healthy but there are question marks at safety. Reggie Nelson was benched at the end of the season after a strong start to his career.