2013 NFL Previews: AFC South

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Houston Texans

Somehow the Texans managed to have their best season in franchise history last year, which included one of the greatest individual defensive performances ever by J.J. Watt, while finishing the year as if they hadn’t made any progress at all. They stumbled their way through their first round victory over the Cincinnati Bengals and were handled with ease by the Patriots in Foxboro in round two. The Texans may have had a better shot if that game was in their building, but they cost themselves homefield advantage by losing three of their last four games including a 23-6 home loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

Houston’s biggest off-season acquisition is Brian Cushing, who is recovering from a torn ACL that he suffered in October. Cushing’s fill-ins were passable at times, but when you lose someone as terrific in both facets of the game as Cushing, getting a passable contribution in his place takes your team down a peg. Cushing is going to have to be brilliant this season as Houston hopes to replace stud Connor Barwin and Bradie James (a very good pass defender) with some young and unproven talent. The talent is plentiful, though. Few edge rushers possess more potential than Whitney Mercilus, and the Texans are giving him a big role this season in the wake of Barwin, though he’s going to have to make a difference in the run game to have a successful season. If Mercilus struggles against the run, expect rookie Sam Montgomery to get some run, as he displayed great instincts against the run at LSU. I’m also expecting big things from Jared Crick, who shows great power and feel when guarding the run.

Cushing’s return also helps the Texans’ pass defense because he’s very good at covering the middle of the field, but Houston is also counting on another return this season to help out their passing game: Jonathan Joseph. Joseph was deeply affected by injuries last season and it had a large impact on Houston’s scheme. If Joseph is healthy, the Texans can go back to putting Joseph at the line of scrimmage rather than giving receivers a cushion to make up for his inability to turn his hips and get up field. A healthy Joseph combined with the much-improved Kareem Jackson makes for one of the best cornerback duos in the league, and if Ed Reed has any more plays left in his tank to make, it will be tough finding open gaps in the Texans secondary. The one question mark will be how Glover Quin is replaced. Going by the numbers, Quin was the best coverage man on the team last season, and rookie D.J. Swearinger will be asked to hold his own in coverage and as a thumper at the line of scrimmage.

Offensively the Texans aren’t a ton different than they were last season. They lost James Casey to the Eagles and long-time WR2 Kevin Walters is with the Titans. The biggest addition for Houston would be DeAndre Hopkins, who they selected with the 27th overall pick in this year’s draft. Hopkins isn’t a burner but he has nice size and hands and will give Andre Johnson, still a top three receiver in the game, the most dynamic partner he’s ever had. Is that enough to boost Houston’s average offense from 2012 to new heights in 2013? I don’t know, and I’m not entirely sure that Arian Foster is still good enough to carry an offense. Foster had guady touchdown numbers in 2012, but he was very average on a per play basis, and highly regarded back-up Ben Tate wasn’t much better.

And then there’s the question about Matt Schaub’s viability as a Super Bowl quarterback. This is always the hardest pill to swallow when I try to talk myself into the Texans being a title contender, and if he couldn’t outduel Tom Brady in Foxboro last season, what’s going to change that this season (aside from the defense bailing him out)? Houston’s defense is going to keep them in virtually every game they play in, but it’s been over a decade since a team with a “good” quarterback won it all. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but if it happens, it’s going to be on the shoulders of J.J. Watt, not on the arm of Schaub or the legs of Foster.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, A repeat of last season with the veterans staying healthy throughout

Worst-case scenario: 9-7, Schaub takes a stepback and Watt misses time

Prediction: 10-6, Another tremendous season for a once downtrodden franchise, but will they ever reach the next step?

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were the benefactor of some very odd happenings last season. From Andrew Luck leading the league in dropped interceptions to the #ChuckStrong movement that helped Indy capture a couple of wins that had just as much to do with emotion as it did with the talent level of their team. If, say, the Titans had put together an 11-5 season under the exact same circumstances as the Colts did last year, I’d be forecasting regression, but with this Colts team, I can’t help but see them maintaining the pace that they set last season.

Though his 11 wins matched Russell Wilson’s and one-upped Robert Griffin, Luck really wasn’t on the same level as his fellow rookies last season in terms of overall production. An seemingly obvious reason for that would be that Luck didn’t threaten defenses with his legs the same way that Griffin and Wilson did. While it’s true that Luck didn’t punish defenses the same way that Luck and Griffin did – with that hip read-option – Luck was every bit as good as both in the run game last season. According to Football Outsiders, Luck ranked third in the NFL amongst QBs in DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) behind Wilson (2nd) and in front of Griffin (5th).

No, the reason that Luck was a little behind Griffin and Wilson last season was because he wasn’t as good with his arm. Luck only completed 55% of his passes, flirted with a healthy dose of completions to the opposition and ended up with 17 picks, the fourth most in the league.

I only paint this grim picture of Luck’s otherwise tremendous rookie season to illustrate how much better he can be in this upcoming season. The Colts had a merely average offense last season and they made moves this off-season to bolster their depth. First and foremost, Indy went out and improved their awful offensive line, which had a lot to do with Luck’s rushed decisions last year. The Colts signed guard Donald Thomas away from the Patriots and inked former Lions tackle Gosder Cherilus to a lucrative deal before drafting tackle Hugh Thornton and interior lineman Khaled Holmes in the third and fourth rounds respectively.

At the skill positions the Colts added Darrius Heyward-Bey to add an explosive vertical threat to a group of talented receivers and running back Ahmad Bradshaw to give them a number one back. Bradshaw was quietly tremendous last season and is exactly the kind of back that can thrive in Indy’s spread out offense. The Colts played with four wide outs and in singleback sets as much as anybody last season and they threw the ball a ton. Bradshaw is capable of making a difference in the passing game and he’s great on draw runs, which are the kind of plays that Indy will throw in there to change up the pace. With Vick Ballard now acting as Bradshaw’s back-up, a more natural role for him, the Colts will have quality depth at running back to go along with their loaded cast of pass catchers at receiver and tight end.

Provided Luck makes a leap forward this season, the defense is the only thing that will hold Indy back from having a huge year. Provided they can stay healthy, the Vontae Davis and Greg Toler cornerback combo will give the Colts a much better duo on the outside than they had to begin last season, and LaRon Landry will be a massive upgrade if, you know, he can stay healthy. Indy also added two very good defensive tackles in Ricky Jean-Francois and Aubrayo Franklin that will give the Colts a strong inside presence against the run, but the rest of their font seven is still iffy.

Best-case scenario: 12-4, The offense becomes elite and the defense improves marginally

Worst-case scenario: 6-10, Those dropped interceptions are caught this time around, and the defense continues to struggle

Prediction: 11-5 and back-to-back post-season appearances for Andrew Luck

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville will have a very interesting decision to make in a few months from now between Teddy Bridgewater, Jadaveon Clowney and perhaps Tajh Boyd if he plays well enough to become a top prospect. That’s pretty much the only thing that matters for the Jaguars this season. On the field, management has to be hoping that Blaine Gabbert doesn’t have a fluky season and somehow wins five games. This season is all about clearing cap, setting Justin Blackmon straight and preparing to select a franchise player in the first round of next year’s draft. They desperately need a quarterback, but Clowney is the kind of gamechanger that can anchor a defense for a decade, so deciding on Clowney isn’t so bad if they follow it up with another dreadful season in 2014 that allows them to go after Brett Hundley or Marcus Mariota in the 2015 Draft.

Best-case scenario: 0-16 and the number one overall pick

Worst-case scenario: 5-11 and the seventh overall pick

Prediction: 3-13 and the number two overall pick

Tennessee Titans

If there’s a quarterback in the league that needs to have the read-option implemented to make him a valuable quarterback, it might be Jake Locker. It is clear that Locker will never be an elite passer, but he’s not even a good one at this point, so allowing him to take advantage of the athletic ability that made him such a good player at Washington would be a smart idea, and the Titans even have a speedy running back in Chris Johnson that could gash defenses that fall for the misdirection. Unfortunately, outside of some elements of the pistols potentially being added to the playbook, the Titans don’t appear to making the read-option a staple of their offense, which seems like a missed opportunity to me.

Tennessee won’t get the most out of its offense until Locker shows he can win with his arm (or his legs), so this might be yet another down season for CJ2k. On the brightside, the Titans went out and added Chance Warmack, Andy Levitre and tight end Delanie Walker, three very good blockers that should help open up rush lanes for Johnson, who was often tackled in the backfield on plays that had no chance from the get-go last season. Outside of Johnson getting in the open field, though, the Titans offense is going to lack excitement and production. With an inexperienced front seven and an iffy secondary, this is going to be a bad year for the Titans, and they’ll need to make a splash in next year’s draft to become a good team anytime soon. Assuming the off-the-field stuff scares other teams off, may I suggest Johnny Manziel to quarterback this team? At least then they’d have to start running the read-option.

Best-case scenario: 4-12 and a top five pick

Worst-case scenario: 7-9 and Locker fools the front office into giving him another shot

Prediction: 6-10 and mediocrity in a year when they’d rather be awful

Mark Travis is a 22-year old sportswriter that is currently majoring in Sports Media at Oklahoma State University. He started his own website, But The Game Is On, in 2008 as an outlet for his praise of Michael Crabtree and has since been credentialed by major organizations like the NBA, NFL, MLB, Nike and Team USA Basketball. He also covered the past two NBA Finals for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.