We will preview an NFL division each day for eight days, before presenting final standings, fantasy and statistical leaders, award winners, playoff results and power rankings. This analysis is part of a broader endeavor with FOXSports.com's Fantasy Football.
Rosters and depth charts are up-to-date and as accurate as possible as of June 9, 2009. A schedule of upcoming NFL preview content including links to other previews that have already been posted is located here.
Also, we account for players with injury histories who are considered likely to miss games despite currently being healthy by randomly taking them out of what the analysis dictates is the correct number of games throughout the season.
Today we preview the AFC South.
Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
Tony Dungy and Marvin Harrison are gone. Howard Mudd and Tom Moore left and then came back in lesser roles. And no veterans who will see the field were brought in. But these are still Peyton Manning's Colts and they will still make the playoffs.
The Colts average 23.7 points per game (#7 in the NFL) and allow 20.0 points (#12) against a schedule featuring five games against teams who made the playoffs in 2008.
Absolute Record: 13-3
Most Significant Newcomer: Donald Brown, RB—Outside of the draft, the Colts signed guard Brandon Barnes, linebacker Adam Seward and two kickers in the off-season.
Clearly we have to focus on the draft for significant newcomers. Fortunately, as is often the case under Bill Polian, the Colts had a fantastic draft, placing five players in our Top 100 Impact Rookies for 2009 despite not picking until 27 in the first round.
That first round pick, Donald Brown of Connecticut, is the most impactful player of a draft class that will rely on other rookies like defensive tackle Fili Moala and wide receiver Austin Collie. Knee issues and other injuries have derailed Joseph Addai's career to the point where he should only be serving in a complimentary role. Brown had an extremely productive college career and fits the Colts personality well.
An improved running game will only help Peyton Manning and the passing offense on play-action. This offense covets the all-around ability and injection of energy that Donald Brown will give it. While we project Addai to touch the ball a few more times (229 to 220), Brown outgains (1020 to 883 total yards) and outscores (nine touchdowns to six) Addai.
Biggest Strength: Peyton Manning—Manning will not have his head coach, favorite receiver, offensive coordinator or offensive line coach. While each of those individuals has been influential in Manning's career, he is past the point where he needs them to succeed.
Manning is still the smartest and most accurate quarterback in the league. He is fully capable of carrying a team to a division title—and will do so in 2009.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Special Teams—The running game was last in the NFL in yards-per-carry in 2008, yet should drastically improve in 2009 with Donald Brown and more experience on the line.
The Colts were atrocious last season on special teams. In 2008, Indianapolis finished 30th in opponents net punting, 24th in opponents kick returning, 28th in kick returning, 24th in field goal percentage and dead last in the NFL in punt returning.
Losing the field position battle on special teams can put an offense in a hole that Peyton Manning may not always be able to overcome. As success on special teams is often considered a matter of coaching and effort, new head coach Jim Caldwell will need to focus on them in the offseason.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Austin Collie/Pierre Garcon, WR—The winner of the battle to be the third wide receiver behind Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez in Indianapolis will have significant fantasy value.
Right now, the two players appear to be fairly even. Collie, who made 106 catches last season playing for BYU, has sure hands and was productive at the highest level of college football. Garcon, in his second season out of D-III Mount Union, is a player the Colts seem to love who has similar physical size and tools to former Colt Marvin Harrison.
The two may split time during the season, but it is more likely that Peyton Manning becomes comfortable with one of them and that player starts all year. We just don't know who that will be yet.
Collectively, we project the third wide receiver for the Colts to catch 68 passes for 794 yards and five touchdowns.
Closest Game: Tennessee Titans (Week 13)—This is the final game of a tough stretch that also includes the Patriots, Ravens, and two games with the Texans. After this, three of the Colts' last four games are against teams we predict below .500.
With the Colts typically resting starters toward the end of the season, a win over the Titans may help secure the division early so Peyton can watch most of the last few games from the sideline.
Fantasy Notables (fantasy rank at position in parentheses): Peyton Manning (2) 3,885 yards, 26 TDs, 13 INTs; Donald Brown (26) 1,020 total yards, 9 TDs; Joseph Addai (40) 883 total yards, 6 TDs; Reggie Wayne (5) 78 receptions, 1,243 yards, 8 TDs; Anthony Gonzalez (39) 67 receptions, 803 yards, 5 TDs; Dallas Clark (4) 57 receptions, 698 yards, 6 TDs; Adam Vinatieri (7) 41/41 XPs, 26/30 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|7||@St. Louis Rams||85||29-17|
|8||San Francisco 49ers||62||24-19|
|10||New England Patriots||46||23-23|
|16||New York Jets||54||22-19|
Houston Texans (9-7)
Congratulations to the Houston Texans, who make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
Better yet, with great young players like Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Steve Slaton and even Andre Johnson just coming into their primes, Houston could be an AFC South force for years to come.
The Texans average 23.7 points per game (#6) and allow 22.0 points (#19) against a schedule featuring five games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 10-6
Most Significant Newcomer: Antonio Smith, DL—Rookies Brian Cushing and Connor Barwin are intriguing and should both end up with more impressive numbers than Antonio Smith, but Smith's experience and versatility should be a major factor for the Texans' defense.
Smith is a better run stopping end than he is a pass rusher, yet can move inside to play tackle in passing situations to give Barwin, who led the Big East in sacks last year in his first season focusing on defense, some additional playing time.
A rushing line of Smith, Barwin, Mario Williams and Amobi Okoye will be very scary for the opposition and should help take pressure off of what is a relatively weak secondary.
Biggest Strength: Passing Offense—A great deal of the Texans' success is predicated on the health of Matt Schaub, who has missed five games in each of the last two seasons.
Schaub is a tremendously accurate passer, completing 66.2% of his passes as the Texans' starting quarterback. He is aided by freakish wide receiver Andre Johnson, solid number two wideout Kevin Walter, tight end Owen Daniels and surprising receiving threat Steve Slaton.
Those four players combined to catch 295 passes for 3,713 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2008. All four and Schaub are 27 years old or younger, so they should acutally improve after another year of experience, not to mention a decent running game to open up the passing game some more.
With Schaub assumed to miss another five games due to injury—randomly chosen as Weeks 2-6—he throws for 2,777 yards, 19 TDs and 11 interceptions. Johnson finishes the year with 108 catches for 1,465 yards.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Passing Defense/Backup QB—In the weeks that Schaub plays, Houston fans should expect shootouts. In the weeks that he does not, they should take cover.
Even though this is a playoff team, multiple weaknesses warrant discussion because they are so obvious. Dan Orlovsky and Alex Brink are Matt Schaub's backups at quarterback. The gap between starter and backup is far too great for a team with a fragile starter.
Schaub is very likely to get hurt, so the Texans playoff chances—and their likelihood of success in the playoffs if they make it—could have a great deal to do with the timing of Schaub's injury.
On defense, the pass-rush is upgraded and a good group of linebackers should be healthy. All the pressure will be on the secondary that gave up 7.64 yards-per-attempt last season and was not addressed in the off-season.
Houston will have to find a way to limit big plays in the passing game as it progresses into a consistent playoff team.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Steve Slaton, RB—Some prognosticators may have Steve Slaton as a first round pick in fantasy, but few have him as high as we do. Our projections of 299 touches for 1,655 yards are actually slightly lower than his production from 2008.
The 13 touchdowns in our analysis are what vault him toward the top of the overall fantasy rankings. Slaton should be "the man" in the backfield for the Texans from Week One and there are no goal-line backs/vultures around to steal his scores.
Second-year feature backs Slaton, Chris Johnson and Matt Forte are the new faces of fantasy football. Be sure to draft at least one of those guys if you can (if you can't get Adrian Peterson).
Closest Game: @ Indianapolis Colts (Week 9)—We predict that Houston will win a berth in the playoffs as a Wild Card. To ensure success and break ties for spots in the post-season, teams must beat other teams with their division and conference.
This game is the first of four straight within the AFC South and will be a big test for a young team looking to make a stand on the road.
Fantasy Notables: Matt Schaub (16) 2,777 yards, 19 TDs, 12 INTs; Steve Slaton (3) 1,655 total yards, 13 TDs; Andre Johnson (1) 108 receptions, 1,465 yards, 9 TDs; Kevin Walter (33) 54 receptions, 824 yards, 6 TDs; Owen Daniels (8) 58 receptions, 678 yards, 4 TDs; Kris Brown (8) 41/41/ XPs, 27/32 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|1||New York Jets||57||23-19|
|7||San Francisco 49ers||61||25-19|
|15||@St. Louis Rams||84||31-20|
|17||New England Patriots||47||24-23|
Tennessee Titans (8-8)
No coach consistently gets more out of his players than Jeff Fisher of the Tennessee Titans.
Still, 2008 was a bit of a mirage. After losing defensive cornerstone Albert Haynesworth to the Redskins in free agency, Tennessee takes a couple steps back in 2009, finding itself out of the playoffs. The Titans average 21.2 points per game (#15) and allow 20.3 points (#13) against a schedule featuring six games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 6-10
Most Significant Newcomer: Jovan Haye, DT—Haye was signed as a free agent from Tampa Bay in the offseason. He will be asked to step in for the departed Albert Haynesworth at tackle. Haye is a decent player, but has not exhibited near the level of play of Haynesworth.
In the past, the key to Tennessee's pass rush and ability to stop the run has been up front with tackles who can take on multiple blockers and still get into the backfield. Without a player like that, the productivity of ends Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jevon Kearse and Jacob Ford will suffer and too much pressure will be put on the linebacking corps to minimize big plays.
If Haye (or Tony Brown or Jason Jones) can consistently do that, this team could win a few more games than our projection. As it stands, the loss of Haynesworth makes a big difference.
Biggest Strength: Turnover Margin—In 2008, Tennessee finished second in the NFL with a plus-14 turnover margin, forcing 31 turnovers—also second in the league—to just 17 turnovers on offense.
Haynesworth or not, with players like Cortland Finnegan, Michael Griffin, Chris Hope and Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Titans should still be adept at forcing turnovers.
As long as 36-year-old Kerry Collins is starting at quarterback and is not required to make many plays deep, the Titans will be in good hands on offense as well. If Collins gets hurt, or the team eventually decides to go with the athleticism of Vince Young at QB, mistakes will ensue and what is now a strength—winning the turnover battle—may become a weakness.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Passing Offense—The defense has regressed to the point that the team no longer makes the playoffs, but it still should not be considered a weakness for this team.
Instead, it is the inability of the passing offense to pose a threat to the defense that is the team's biggest concern. While we just sang the praises of Collins and he has a strong arm, he is definitely not at his best when required to make big plays.
Last season, Tennessee finished 25th in the NFL in passing yards-per-attempt. They brought in Nate Washington from Pittsburgh and rookie Kenny Britt to address the issue and they will help, but there are still not enough explosive weapons and Collins still cannot be trusted to air it out.
The Titans don't give up sacks or interceptions. They just struggle to move the ball and make big, game-changing plays.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Chris Johnson, RB—Tennessee has several offensive players like Nate Washington, Kenny Britt and Jared Cook who could breakout in 2009 and Johnson is the best bet to join the fantasy elite.
Johnson is a blazing-fast back who is capable of playing every down and far outshines his competition (LenDale White). Playing in 15 games, we expect Johnson to breach 300 touches with 279 rushes and 43 receptions for 1,687 total yards.
Johnson's 2009 performance is good enough to rank him just behind fellow AFC South running backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Steve Slaton as the fourth best fantasy option at this position.
Closest Game: Indianapolis Colts (Week 5)—The Titans won the division last year and would likely need to beat the Colts at home to have any hope of repeating. This game will also serve as a good test leading into a visit to New England the following week.
Fantasy Notables: Kerry Collins (18) 2,846 yards, 17 TDs, 9 INTs; Chris Johnson (4) 1,687 total yards, 13 TDs; Nate Washington (36) 56 receptions, 859 yards, 5 TDs; Kenny Britt (47) 44 receptions, 616 yards, 4 TDs; Bo Scaife (13) 47 receptions, 467 yards, 3 TDs
Projected 2009 Results:
|3||@New York Jets||39||16-21|
|6||@New England Patriots||34||16-24|
|9||@San Francisco 49ers||46||20-22|
|14||St. Louis Rams||88||31-13|
|16||San Diego Chargers||45||20-20|
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
For so long, Jacksonville has been led by its physical defense that typically embodied the fiery spirit of head coach Jack Del Rio. In 2009, that defense disappoints, while its Del Rio's coaching seat that is on fire.
The Jaguars average 18.7 points per game (#30) and allow 25.0 points (#28) against a schedule featuring just five games against 2008 playoff teams.
Absolute Record: 2-14
Most Significant Newcomer: Torry Holt, WR—The Jaguars have not had a receiver breach 800 yards since Jimmy Smith's 1,023 yards in 2005.
Torry Holt is a decent bet to exceed that performance in 2009. However, for Holt to be an effective player for quarterback David Garrard and this offense, he must be able to reckon his "Greatest Show on Turf" days of 1999-2004 when he averaged over 14 yards-per-reception.
One hundred catches for 1,000 yards will not help this team move the ball passing or running like a receiver with game-breaking ability could. Holt will be 34 when the season starts and appears to have lost a step, so Jacksonville may have to look to Mike Walker or one of the three (short) rookie receivers (Jarrett Dillard, Tiquan Underwood or Mike Thomas) to be that guy.
If Holt can do it, this offense gets a dimension it has sorely lacked for a long time. If no one can be that guy, the offense will sputter again. The odds favor the latter.
Biggest Strength: Rushing Offense—With Fred Taylor's release, Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars most efficient and versatile running back, is the clear number one and face of the franchise in Jacksonville.
Add in athletic and powerful upgrades at tackle through the draft in Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton and 235 pound rookie RB Rashad Jennings and the Jaguars may ultimately have one of the more feared rushing attacks in the league in 2009.
In the last six games of 2008, including matchups with top NFL defenses in Baltimore and Minnesota, Jones-Drew touched the ball 113 times for 606 total yards. Over a 16-game season, that projects to 301 touches for 1,616 yards—and half of those games included a healthy Fred Taylor splitting time in the backfield with Jones-Drew.
The Jaguars as a team rush for 1,724 yards on 406 carries.
Most Exploitable Weakness: Passing Defense—Yes, the Jaguars face Peyton Manning and Andre Johnson each twice a year, but the simulation discounts for schedule bias and still identifies the 2008 Jaguars as one of the worst defensive teams against the pass in the league.
While Jacksonville brought in Torry Holt to address its issues in the offensive passing game, Sean Considine and Marlon McCree were the off-season answers to aid the team's defensive woes—and that was just because they lost former safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Pierson Prioleau in free agency.
That's actually a bit of a downgrade from 2008.
The Jaguars also let leading tackler Mike Peterson go and cut second-leading sacker Paul Spicer. While those are not big losses, the Jaguars are not in a good position to try and defend the potent air attacks like Indianapolis (twice), Houston (twice), Arizona, New England and Buffalo on its schedule.
Possible Fantasy Sleeper: Justin Durant, LB—Jarrett Dillard and Mike Walker are tempting to put here, but Durant has to be mentioned. Each time we ran our projections between the draft and this preview, Durant's numbers stood out.
In 2008, he made 62 solo tackles in 14 games, mostly by filling in at middle linebacker and providing time for Mike Peterson to rest. The third-year, former second round pick from Hampton now has the spotlight to himself with Peterson gone.
The projections rank Durant among the top ten overall individual defensive players with 95 solo tackles and 134 total tackles.
Closest Game: Kansas City Chiefs (Week 9)—After winnable games at Seattle in Week Four and at home against St. Louis in Week Six, the Jaguars get a bye and then travel to Tennessee in Week Eight.
A win at the Titans is highly unlikely, but the team may be able to pull off the upset with the extra week of preparation. If that is the case, Jacksonville could need a home win against Kansas City to get to 4-4 on the year and have some hope.
Until a Week 17 game against Cleveland when the game will already be meaningless, the schedule stays tough, so the Kansas City game may not ultimately mean much, but it could be enough to keep Jack Del Rio employed until the end of the year.
Fantasy Notables: David Garrard (12) 2,731 yards, 16 TDs, 10 INTs; Maurice Jones-Drew (2) 1,788 total yards, 12 TDs; Torry Holt (24) 78 receptions, 981 yards, 5 TDs; Marcedes Lewis (15) 26 receptions, 458 yards, 2 TDs; Josh Scobee (31) 31/32 XPs; 21/28 FGs
Projected 2009 Results:
|6||St. Louis Rams||65||27-19|
|9||Kansas City Chiefs||39||22-23|
|10||@New York Jets||18||13-25|
|12||@San Francisco 49ers||27||17-26|
|16||@New England Patriots||14||13-28|