Once thought to be the strongest division in all of football, the AFC South has taken a significant step back in recent years. The days of the AFC South producing two playoff teams every year are gone, and the division is clearly in a transition phase.
The Indianapolis Colts were the only team from the division to make the postseason, and they were a first-round exit.
The AFC South is in a full transition phase.
The Colts are dealing with an aging roster and most importantly an aging Peyton Manning. The Houston Texans will begin the tedious transition to a 3-4 defense this offseason. The Tennessee Titans have gotten rid of both their starting quarterback and their longtime head coach, Jeff Fisher. The division's biggest surprise of 2010 was the Jacksonville Jaguars, and they appear to have gotten a two-year head start on the transition phase.
In addition to the division being in transition, the AFC South will play a much more difficult schedule next season. They have opponents from the AFC North and NFC South in comparison to a 2010 schedule that included games against the AFC West and NFC East. With such a tough slate of games, 9-7 could conceivably win the division.
So how will the division play out in 2011? Does Manning have a couple of division titles left up his sleeve? Can the Jaguars take the next step in their development? Will Gary Kubiak and the Houston Texans finally live up to the hype? And how will the Titans look in the post-Fisher era?
All of these questions and more answered in this complete preview of the 2011-2012 AFC South.
Peyton Manning did not look like the Peyton Manning of old at times this season.
Much of that can be attributed to the injuries and relative lack of talent around him on offense. The Colts offensive line was a mess this season, and Manning had more pressure in his face than he has had in any season of his career.
Manning was also throwing to the likes of Blair White and Jacob Tamme due to injuries to Austin Collie and Dallas Clark.
The Colts need to add some weapons. Reggie Wayne is getting up there in age, Anthony Gonzalez is injury prone and Collie may not be able to play for much long with his concussion issues.
2011 will bring a healthy Colts lineup, but even healthy the offensive line is nowhere near where it needs to be.
If the Colts want to stay on top of the AFC South, they are going to need to protect Peyton Manning. Multiple upgrades are needed on an aging and mediocre offensive line.
The Indianapolis Colts run defense picked it up at the end of the season but was lackluster for the majority of the season.
A big reason for the inability to stop the ground attack was the lack of talent at the defensive tackle position. The Colts will need to address the defensive line at some point in the draft.
In addition, the safety position needs to be addressed. Bob Sanders is one of the best safeties in the NFL when healthy. The issue is he can't stay healthy due to the physical playing style he employs. Depth at the position has to be a priority this offseason.
Despite their shortcomings, the Colts boast the best stop unit in the AFC South at the moment.
For the first time in a while the Jaguars offense carried them throughout the 2010 season.
David Garrard, one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the NFL, had the best season of his career in 2010, completing 64 percent of his passes on his way to a solid 90.8 passer rating.
However, Garrard took his fair share of sacks this season, and his protection will need to improve if Jacksonville is going to continue to improve on offense.
They have a pair of bookend tackle prospects in Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton who showed flashes of brilliance at times this season. The continued improvement of those two players will be the key to the Jaguars offense in 2011.
The Jaguars should continue to be productive on the ground. Maurice Jones-Drew is in the prime of his career and will start the 2011 season completely healthy. Deji Karim and Rashad Jennings have also proven to be quality change of pace backs in their brief careers.
Jacksonville could use a young quarterback to groom under Garrard and another playmaking wide receiver. I doubt either of these needs are addressed early in the draft given the lack of talent on the defense.
Jacksonville Jaguars general manager Gene Smith has stated that the defense will be the primary area of focus in the offseason.
Jacksonville's secondary was one of the worst in the league in 2010. They have holes at every position in the defensive backfield and need to begin to accumulate talent at the defensive back position.
Putting pressure on the quarterback continues to be an issue for the Jaguars, as they accumulated just 26 sacks. Once Aaron Kampman went down, their pass rush was nonexistent.
Jeremy Mincey, Austin Lane and Larry Hart have all flashed promising play, but they need a true every down defensive end across from Kampman, especially considering he is coming off his second knee reconstruction in as many offseasons.
Linebacker is not exactly a strength for this issue either. Justin Durant is a free agent, and regardless of whether or not he is re-signed, they need to acquire depth at the position.
One of the biggest strengths of the Jacksonville Jaguars, on either side of the ball, is the interior defensive line. Tyson Alualu proved to be a slam dunk by Gene Smith with the 10th pick in the NFL Draft. Alualu is joined on the defensive line by Terrance Knighton, who shined in his second season in the league. D'Anthony Smith is another solid prospect who spent the year on injured reserve but has the potential to be a contributor when healthy.
Alualu and Knighton might be as good, if not better than the John Henderson-Marcus Stroud combination within the next couple of seasons.
If the Jaguars can take a step forward on defense in 2011, they have a legitimate chance at winning the AFC South Title.
The Houston Texans added a new dimension to their explosive offense with the emergence of the NFL's leading rusher, Arian Foster. With a formidable running game, the Texans employ one of the most explosive offenses in the AFC.
One major issue facing the Texans offense is the inability to stay healthy. Andre Johnson has had issues staying on the field throughout his career, and Matt Schaub has not fared any better in that department. In addition, it took Owen Daniels until the final four weeks of the season to fully recover from his torn ACL.
Aside from the injuries, an upgrade is needed across from Andre Johnson, as Jacoby Jones and Kevin Walter cannot get it done.
The Texans will enter next season healthy with the usual "this is the year" hype that tends to surround this team. Until they can prove that they can stay healthy and win the big games, they cannot be trusted to do any damage in the AFC South.
Houston's defense is the worst in the AFC South. Considering the other teams in the division, that is an embarrassing title to hold.
The pass defense was a sieve, allowing 267 yards a game through the air. The rushing defense wasn't impressive either, as it let opponents run for four yards a carry.
So what's the master plan to fix the Texans defense? Transition to a 3-4 defense, a system Houston has very few pieces for.
In the 2011 NFL draft the Texans will need to find a nose tackle and a pair of capable pass-rushing linebackers—not to mention the numerous holes they have in their secondary.
There is a lot of work to be done on the defensive side of the ball in Houston before the Texans can think about clinching the first playoff berth of their existence.
The Tennessee Titans officially have to rebuild. Titans owner Bud Adams was supposed to have to choose between his disgruntled quarterback, Vince Young, and his veteran head coach, Jeff Fisher. Instead, Adams got rid of both, leaving the team to start from scratch.
The one positive on the offensive side of the ball is obviously Chris Johnson. The emergence of Kenny Britt this season can also be seen as a plus.
Outside of that, however, this team has some work to do. They need a franchise quarterback and some weapons to go with him.
The Titans could go after Blaine Gabbert with the eighth overall pick, or they could wait until later in the draft and grab a Christian Ponder-type prospect.
Long story short, the Titans have a ways to go before they are ready to compete again.
The Titans defense is in a better position than the offense. However, they could be in some trouble if Jason Babin and Stephen Tulloch don't return to the team in 2011, which would open up holes at inside linebacker and defensive end.
In addition to those two potential areas of need, the Titans need secondary help as well as a big body on the interior of the defensive line. They allowed 252 yards a game through the air and compiled a decent, but not great, 40 sacks for the season.
Similar to the offense, the Titans defense has some pieces in place, but a major reconstruction is still in store.
A transition is occurring in the AFC South, and with it could very well come a shift of control. This transition is happening at a perfect time for the Jacksonville Jaguars. They begun their transition period two season ago, while the Texans and Titans are just now beginning to rebuild.
The Colts, of course, still have the upper hand because their window of opportunity will remain open as long as Peyton Manning can continue to perform at a high level.
Jacksonville is a year or two away from becoming a consistent playoff contender, and Indianapolis is three or four years away from one of the most painful transitions a franchise can endure: replacing a franchise quarterback.
The division is going to be up for grabs in 2011 given the schedule all of these teams have to play. As previously mentioned, the AFC South champion will more than likely have just nine or 10 wins.
Without further ado, here are the projected standings...
As mentioned in the previous write-ups, the Titans are about to go through a roster reconstruction, the results of which could be painful. They should once again find themselves in the basement of the AFC South.
Given the injury history of this team and the switch to a 3-4 defense, I don't see any way they make the playoffs.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are not quite there yet. Until they make significant improvements to the defense, they are not going to be able to compete with Peyton Manning. The arrow is definitely pointing up in Jacksonville though.
Peyton Manning is going to have his full arsenal for the start of the 2011 season and should carry the Colts. He still has a handful of productive seasons left in him, but this is team is not the Colts of old, and Manning has taken a step back as well.
9-7 and a division title is not too shabby.