NFL Power Rankings: Is This the Year for the Houston Texans in the AFC South?
Peyton Manning and the Colts have absolutely dominated the AFC South ever since he entered the league.However, the window is closing on Manning's chances of a second Super Bowl win. He is getting older and the Colts aren't as scary a team as they used to be.
This slideshow examines each team's strengths and weaknesses and which has the best chance of winning the division.
AFC South Defenses: Jags Have the Edge
Let's be honest: none of the AFC South teams are known for their defenses. The Colts stop the run like a Pee Wee football player stopping Brandon Jacobs, and none of the other defenses are very efficient. But which one of these four teams will have the best defense in 2011? Let's examine each team:
We all know how terrible the Colts' run defense is (they gave up over 2,000 rushing yards last season), and they did nothing to help their situation by losing Clint Session and Bob Sanders, leaving them with much to be desired on the side of the ball without Peyton Manning. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis produce sacks consistently year after year, but they can't make up for a lack of talent around them.
5 out of 10
They did manage to bring in Johnathan Joseph and Daniel Manning to help the secondary, and J.J. Watt could prove to be a valuable player, but Houston's linebacking corps is a big weakness. Sure, Mario Williams will now be lining up as an outside linebacker, but he is a defensive end at heart so look for a drop in his numbers in 2011. For a team that is desperate to make the playoffs in 2011, the defense may be the one area holding them back.
4 out of 10
The Titans continue the AFC South tradition of mediocre defenses. Although their starting four in the secondary all registered 100 tackles or more last season, that isn't nearly as impressive as they sound. Tennessee gave up over 1,800 rushing yards and 4,000 passing yards last season, and this season it doesn't look like the Titans defense is going to be picking up any of the slack for what is sure to be a less-than-stellar offense.
4 out of 10
Let's cut to the chase: the Jags will have the best defense in 2011. They already had Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox in the secondary, and in the offseason they acquired Paul Posluszny, Clint Session, and Dawan Landry (plus Aaron Kampman will be healthy). So, due to some smart moves by the Jaguars management and the lack of any real competition, the Jaguars will have the best defense next year.
6 out of 10
AFC South Offenses: Texans Are the Undisputed Best
Peyton Manning is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He also still operates one of the best passing offenses in the league, which is highlighted by Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. However, Peyton's age is showing in his play, which has started to decline. The running game also leaves a lot to be desired. Donald Brown didn't prove that he could be the replacement for the injury-prone Joseph Addai, who can't hold a candle to any of the other running backs in the AFC South. So while the Colts can boast the best quarterback (by far) in the division, their offense has some holes.
8 out of 10
Arian Foster exploded last year, and who's to say he won't have another great season in 2011? Of course, Lawrence Vickers is a downgrade from Vonta Leech, but Foster is still a very capable running back who can shred a defense. And once defenses begin to stop Foster, Matt Schaub can heave a deep throw to Andre Johnson for the touchdown. The Houston offense has a bright future with guys like Johnson, Foster and Schaub at the helm. They can boast a solid quarterback, a top-five running back, the best wide receiver in the league and the best offense in the AFC South.
9 out of 10
The Titans are lucky that Chris Johnson can deal with being the only playmaker on a struggling offense. He will still be able to produce next season despite being the center of attention as Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker both struggle at quarterback. Hasselbeck may do alright, but he certainly won't get the Titans to the playoffs. The Titans have an incredible running back and a solid offensive line (and some good receivers) but they lack a quarterback good enough to raise them up above the Texans, Titans or Jaguars offensively.
6 out of 10
The Jaguars are in a similar (but not as serious) situation as the Titans. They did well last year and came shockingly close to winning the division mainly due to the efforts of one man: Maurice Jones-Drew.
He is pound-for-pound one of the strongest guys in the NFL and still has the speed to burn defenders down the sidelines. He practically carries the Jaguars on his back and will be the key to any success Jacksonville may have in 2011.
David Garrard is a capable starter who can win from time to time, but what the Jags lack this year is a No. 1 receiver. They have Marcedes Lewis at tight end and Mike Thomas as a solid number two, but he lacks the size to be a No. 1 receiver and potential deep threat (Thomas is 5'8"). The Jags could still pick up someone like Derrick Mason or Steve Smith in free agency, but if they don't then they really need one of their receivers to step up. Still, the Jags are looking good on offense going into 2011.
7 out of 10
AFC South Rookies: Texans Addressed Needs
The draft is the most important part of the offseason, and there is no lack of talent in the crop of rookies entering the AFC South. Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert and J.J. Watt are some big-name players coming to the division, but which team drafted the best? Let's examine each class:
Rd. 1 pick: Anthony Castonzo OL
Rd. 2 pick: Ben Ijalana OL
Rd. 3 pick: Drake Nevis DL
Rd. 4 pick: Delone Carter RB
Rd. 6 pick: Chris Rucker DB
The Colts definitely added some talented offensive linemen, which is extremely important with Peyton getting older, but they didn't take any linebackers, which is a position of need for them. The Colts had a solid draft, especially with the first two picks, but while they took a talented running back, they forgot about linebackers. Indianapolis will have some good rookies going into 2011, but they didn't have the best draft in the AFC South.
7 out of 10
Rd. 1 pick: J.J. Watt DE
Rd. 2 pick: Brooks Reed DL
Rd. 2 pick: Brandon Harris DB
Rd. 4 pick: Rashad Carmichael DB
Rd. 5 pick: Shiloh Keo DB
Rd. 5 pick: Taylor Yates QB
Rd. 7 pick: Derek Newton OL
Rd. 7 pick: Cheta Ozougwu DL
Here it is. The Texans knew exactly what they needed to address in the draft, and they stocked up on a lot of talented players. Houston doesn't have an issue on offense, and only two of the Texans' eight picks were used on offensive players. They took a talented defensive end in J.J. Watt and some great defensive backs in Keo, Carmichael and Harris. Houston's defense was pretty atrocious last year, but they used the draft to really stock up on potential playmakers and attend to weaknesses. None of the other teams in the AFC South can boast a draft class as impressive as Houston's.
9 out of 10
Rd. 1 pick: Jake Locker QB
Rd. 2 pick: Akeem Ayers LB
Rd. 3 pick: Jurrell Casey DL
Rd. 4 pick: Colin McCarthy LB
Rd. 4 pick: Jamie Harper RB
Rd. 5 pick: Karl Klug DL
Rd. 6 pick: Byron Stingily OL
Rd. 7 pick: Zach Clayton DL
Rd. 7 pick: Tommie Campbell DB
Don't let the fact that the Titans chose Jake Locker with the eighth overall pick (and over Blaine Gabbert) throw you off: they actually had a solid draft afterwards. Taking Ayers, Casey and McCarthy were smart moves to help a defense that would be lucky to be called mediocre. The Titans almost made up for wasting a valuable pick on a project QB, but not quite, and so they do not get the honor of having the best draft in the AFC South. The quarterback class this year was not very impressive, and next year's class will boast talent like Andrew Luck, Denard Robinson and Kellen Moore. The Titans are not built to win the division this year anyway, so it would've been smarter for them to wait to take a quarterback next year.
6 out of 10
Rd. 1 pick: Blaine Gabbert QB
Rd. 3 pick: William Rackley OL
Rd. 4 pick: Cecil Shorts WR
Rd. 4 pick: Chris Prosinski DB
Rd. 5 pick: Rod Isaac DB
Taking Blaine Gabbert wasn't necessarily a bad pick, but they could've made a better one. Although David Garrard is a good quarterback, he will never be great and the Jags were looking for a quarterback of the future, so taking Gabbert makes sense. However, great defensive ends were still on the board when they picked Gabbert; taking someone like Ryan Kerrigan could've been more beneficial. Besides that, it was a solid draft by the Jags.
5 out of 10
So, after rating the teams on offense, defense, and the draft, who has the best shot at winning the division? Let's get some final notes down.
Peyton will be working in overdrive this season because he knows the clock is winding down for him. Meanwhile, the receivers should all be healthy for the start of the season and additions to the offensive line should help make sure that the passing game doesn't suffer. The main questions, however, are issues surrounding the run on both sides of the ball. The Colts may have one or two division titles leftin them, but with teams like Houston on the rise, it could be too late.
Gary Kubiak's back is against the wall, and he knows it. The Texans have a great-looking offense going into 2011 and they had a great draft, but it is up to Johnathan Joseph, Mario Wiliams and the rookies to make sure the defense can hold its own. If the new defensive additions can live up to their expectations, the Texans shouldn't have much of a problem making the playoffs. However, if any of the Texans isn't on their best game, then they could have to say goodbye to a playoff berth and their head coach.
I don't see the Titans even achieving an 8-8 record this season. Kenny Britt has been having some issues with the law, the defense is average at best, and who knows what's going on with the quarterbacks. The only reliable players on the Titans right now are Chris Johnson, Michael Roos and the secondary.
The Jags really cashed in during free agency with players like Paul Posluszny, Dawan Landry and Clint Session, so defense shouldn't be too big of an issue with them besides some questions on the defensive line. MJD and Rashard Jennings can be counted on to produce in the backfield, but the main issue for the Jags could be the passing game. They lost Sims-Walker and although Mike Thomas and Marcedes Lewis are reliable targets, the Jags need another receiver to step up opposite Thomas and a quarterback to rise to the occasion and lead them if they want to make the playoffs.
AFC South Projected Standings
There is no doubt that the AFC South will be extremely competitive in 2011, and whoever ends up winning the division will have won a long, hard fight. This is what the standings will most likely resemble at the end of the season:
1st: Texans (9-7 division, 11-5 overall)
2nd: Colts (9-7, 11-5)
3rd: Jaguars (7-9, 9-7)
4th: Titans (4-12, 6-10)
I can't say if the Colts will make the playoffs or not due to teams like the Jets, Pats, Ravens and Steelers in other divisions, but I am willing to bet that the Texans will finally make the playoffs that have eluded them for so long.