Monday, August 27, 2012

2012 NFL Preview: AFC South

The talented Tebow!
With just a couple short weeks until the opening kickoff of the 2012 NFL season, it’s finally time to make my official predictions, knowing full well they will be shot to pieces faster than Carson Palmer can throw 10 INT’s. Still, gotta fill the time somehow, right?

In case you missed them, here are the divisions we’ve already previewed:

AFC West
NFC West

Today, we’ll head south…except for when we head to Indianapolis, which isn’t even remotely in the South:

AFC South

I’m not sure what was weirder, the fact that Peyton Manning and the Colts did not win the division, or the fact that Gary Kubiak did win the division. Both shattered my worldview, to be honest. But just because Peyton Manning is gone and the Gary Kubiak has started his improbable reign as division dictator doesn’t mean things aren’t interesting in the South. Quite the opposite, in fact. With Andrew Luck in Indy, Jake Locker taking over in Tennessee, and Maurice Jones-Drew holding the line in Jacksonville, there’s plenty to talk about.

Here are my predictions for 2012:

1. Houston Texans: 13-3

Biggest Addition:  Matt Schaub – I don’t care who they added in free agency or the draft, the most important thing to happen to the Houston Texans is the return of Matt Schaub. At the time of his injury, Houston was arguably the best team in the AFC. Getting back a guy who was one of the five best QB’s in the NFL last year (fifth in DVOA) should vault them right back to that lofty status.

Biggest Loss:  Eric Winston – You might have guessed Mario Williams here, but you’d be wrong. Remember, the Texans played most of last year without Williams, and were one of the league’s top defenses. To me, the (surprising and weird) loss of Winston is much more damaging. Winston had started all 16 games at RT for the last five seasons and paired with Duane Brown to form one of the best tackle duos in all of football. I understand they had cap concerns going forward, but given how much priority they put on the running game, it strikes me as odd that Winston was the sacrificial lamb. After all, a closer look at the Texans rushing numbers reveals they had significantly more success running to the right side than the left. He’ll be a tough guy to replace.

X-Factor:  Rashad Butler and Antonie Caldwell – These two guys have big shoes to fill as they attempt to replace Winston and outgoing RG Mike Brisiel. The line was one of the league’s best last year, and the right side was exceptionally strong. Replacing them with two relatively unknown backups is a huge risk for the Texans, and could end up very badly for them. Definitely something to keep an eye on.

Biggest Question:  Who is the guy opposite Andre Johnson? Assuming Johnson stays healthy – and that’s another big question right there – he’s going to face insane amounts of double and sometimes triple teams if Houston can’t find a consistent threat opposite him. Kevin Walter will likely get the first crack, but don’t we already know what he is? Past him is a group of young, inexperienced rookies. DeVier Posey, a third round pick, has plenty of talent, but is kind of a knucklehead, and later round pick, Keshawn Martin, is likely just a special teams guy. Someone I keep hearing about is undrafted rookie free agent Lestar Jean. Apparently there’s some buzz surrounding him, and while I doubt he’s the next Victor Cruz, there’s always a chance he could wind up being a valuable guy.

Forecast:  The Texans have emerged from the shifting of the divisional tectonic plates as the unquestioned leader of the AFC South. With Schaub back, they might also emerge as the leader of the entire AFC. There are a few questions to be answered, but this is a complete team with a solid passing game, a dominant rushing attack, and an overwhelming defense. As long as their key players stay healthy, and that’s a big if, they should win their second straight division title and treat their fans to one, if not more, playoff home games.

2. Tennessee Titans: 7-9

Biggest Addition:  Kamerion Wimbley – The Titans managed just 28 sacks last season, with Karl Klug leading the way at 7 sacks. Clearly, Kamerion Wimbley’s ability to get to the QB will be valuable. He’s posted 16 sacks in his previous two seasons, and the Titans will be heavily reliant on him to consistently pressure opposing QB’s.

Biggest Loss:  Cortland Finnegan – No need to get cute with this one. Finnegan is a really, really good football player, and it’s going to hurt not having him there. Despite the lack of a consistent pass rush, Finnegan consistently held up in coverage and was a big reason why the bottom didn’t fall out of Tennessee’s pass defense. They better hope Wimbley gets the job done, because they no longer have that safety blanket out there.

X-Factor:  Derrick Morgan – A first round pick just two seasons ago, Morgan has struggled with both injury (2010) and ineffectiveness (2011). Now, two years removed from his injury and with his “rookie season” under his belt, it’s time for Morgan to fulfill his promise. He’s wildly talented, has the prototype build of a dominant pass rusher, and has Wimbley on the other side to draw blockers. No excuses. If he gets things going, the combination of him and Wimbley could totally transform this Titans defense into a fearsome, playmaking unit.

Biggest Question:  Is Jake Locker ‘the guy?’ This is the question that will define the Titans’ 2012 campaign. They’ve invested a lot in him, they went out of their way to develop him, and now it’s his time to show what he can do.

Forecast:  I wouldn’t say this is an overwhelmingly talented roster, but there’s enough here to make the playoffs if Locker holds up his end. As much as I like him, though, it’s not hard to see growing pains in the very near future. Questions on the offensive line and a possible (likely) suspension for Kenny Britt threaten the fabric of the offense, while a brutal early season schedule (New England, Detroit, Houston, Pittsburgh in first six weeks) provides less than ideal conditions for transitioning in a young QB. They should see light at the end of the tunnel by end of the year, but too many losses will have mounted by then.

3. Indianapolis Colts: 5-11

Biggest Addition:  Andrew Luck – Probably don’t need to explain this one, do I?

Biggest Loss:  Pierre Garcon – There’s any number of ways you could go here, but I chose Garcon because of his age and because he’s the guy they did the worst job of capably replacing. I understand not wanting to give him the type of money he got, but it would have been a huge luxury to have a Wayne/Garcon pairing in place for Luck. Not saying they would have won anything, but the offense could have been extremely dangerous from day one. Instead, they’re left with ‘The Walking Concussion’ and a couple late round rookies.

X-Factor:  Vontae Davis – OK, so he’s not Darrelle Revis or any of the other superstar names linked with the “TRADE WINDS ARE BLOWING” tweets. Kind of a letdown, but hey, when was the last time an NFL trade didn’t end up as a letdown? Still, it’s not as if the Colts newest acquisition is dog food. Davis, a former first round pick, is a legitimately talented player and immediately becomes the Colts #1 CB. That’s not exactly boasting, however, considering what else the Colts have back there. What’s more important to Indy is Davis’ value going forward. They gave up an extremely valuable pick to get him, and they need the 24 year old to become an important piece of their future. That means staying out of trouble and finally living up to his potential.

Biggest Question:  Can the secondary stop anyone? First of all, let me just say that I have no questions about Andrew Luck. None. It isn’t a matter of if he will be good; it’s a matter of how good he will be. So no, no questions on that end. As for the secondary, however, I have some questions. A lot of questions. This unit ranked 27th in pass defense last season and really didn’t do enough to improve, even taking the Vontae Davis trade into consideration. The other two changes they made, Tom Zbikowski at SS and Cassius Vaughn/other random crappy player at CB are either lateral moves or downright upgrades. Either Davis is going to have to morph into Darrelle Revis, or some of these young guys in the secondary are going to have to start stepping up.

Summary:  There’s going to be losing this year, but it won’t be nearly as bad as 2011. In fact, there’s no reason why the Colts can’t be this year’s version of the Carolina Panthers; the plucky young team with the stud rookie QB that scores a bunch of points, hangs around in most of their games, and even pulls out a few surprising upsets. As long as Luck and the young skill players make strides and stay competitive, the season has to be considered a success. Since I’ve seen Andrew Luck play, I have no doubt they’ll do exactly that.

4. Jacksonville (and London) Jaguars: 4-12

Biggest Addition:  Justin Blackmon – You mean, a real live professional WR?! In Jacksonville?! Is this even allowed under the new CBA??? Seriously, this is the first legit #1 type guy Jacksonville has had since Jimmy Smith was catching passes from Mark Brunell nearly a decade ago. Now if only they could find the next Mark Brunell…

Biggest Loss:  Maurice Jones-Drew – Maybe the holdout lasts into the season, maybe it doesn’t. We don’t know at this point, so until we do, he’s easily the biggest loss this team faces. No player in the NFL accounted for a larger percentage of their team’s yards last year (100%, to be exact) and not having him on the field would be catastrophic.

X-Factor:  Chad Henne – Because he’s the back-up. And because BADGAB is the starter.

Biggest Question:  Is BADGAB any good? He was quite possibly the worst QB on the planet last year, single-handedly destroying any chances Jacksonville had at being competitive. However, he’s looked much better through two preseason games – even good at times! Granted, its preseason, so it means absolutely nothing, but any kind of progress is something when you’re so awful that a blogger actually calls you BADGAB. Last year was his grace period, but if he doesn’t perform this time around, the Jags will have to go QB shopping yet again.

Summary:  Not much to like here, apart from a strong defense. Still, you have to score points to win football games, and I just don’t see how they’re going to do that. A couple solid preseason showings just aren’t going to sway me on BADGAB. He’s going to have to do it in real games until I remove the title of “Worst QB Alive,” and he might have to do it without MJD. Of course, even if MJD comes back, he may not be the same. As we saw with Chris Johnson last year and Darrelle Revis the year before, these holdouts rarely work well for the player. It’s just too difficult to stay in football shape when you aren’t playing football. So yeah, this team is totally screwed. Bottoms up, Justin Blackmon!

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