AFC South preview: Vulnerable Colts still have the upper hand
There are different ways to assess overall divisional strength, but pretty much any way you slice it, the AFC South was the NFL's weakest division in 2013. It was the only division in which just one team posted a .500 winning percentage or better. The South's 24 overall wins were by far the lowest for any NFL division last year. The division's point differential of minus-312 was the league's worst, also by a fairly comfortable margin. The Colts were the only team in the division to post a positive overall team efficiency, per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics -- and that was just barely. Indy also benefited from Tennessee's general malaise, Houston's complete unraveling and the fact that Jacksonville's organizational rebuild, though well-directed and well-intentioned, is still a few years away from fruition.
The Colts have posted back-to-back 11-5 seasons, making them the bastion of stability in a division that seems to blow in the breeze quite frequently. Are they in for a stiffer division race in 2014? It's pretty likely that the Texans won't lose their final 14 games as they did last year. The Titans expect to start a healthy and more efficient Jake Locker with a better defense. The Jaguars could take several steps forward with an exciting rookie quarterback in Blake Bortles and an underrated defense. And Indy does have weak spots that can be exploited. Thus, the AFC South is open for business in 2014 -- and there's no outright dominant force among the four teams.
The favorite: Indianapolis Colts
As long as the Colts have Andrew Luck under center, however, they'll be the favorite. Coming into his third season, Luck has been tasked to run his team's offense from Day 1 like few young quarterbacks have. Last year, with an inconsistent rushing attack and a depleted receiver corps, Luck threw for 23 touchdowns and nine picks in the regular season and engineered Indy's amazing comeback over the Chiefs in the wild-card round of the playoffs. The hope is that Reggie Wayne will be healthy all season, that T.Y. Hilton will continue to develop and that the tight end duo of Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener can stay on the field. If that all happens, the Colts' passing offense should be good enough to overcome the fact that general manager Ryan Grigson tied a huge anchor to the franchise's future when he traded a first-round pick for running back Trent Richardson last September. The defense should remain solid enough to keep the Colts ahead of the pack, but Indianapolis is not without its flaws.
Dark horse: Tennessee Titans
Yes, many are assuming that the Texans will bounce back from a 2-14 record that wasn't representative of their overall talent in 2013, but let's wait and see what their quarterback situation looks like first. Tennessee's Jake Locker was having his best season to date before he went down with a Lisfranc injury in November, and he appears to be fully healthy and ready to go. The Titans refused to exercise the fifth-year option on Locker's rookie contract, making 2014 a proverbial make-or-break year.
Rookie running back Bishop Sankey has what it takes to be a most-downs back, if not an every-down one right away. The offensive line is reasonably solid, and new head coach Ken Whisenhunt has been tasked with engineering the same uptick in efficiency for Locker that he did for Philip Rivers last season as San Diego's offensive coordinator. New defensive coordinator Ray Horton will certainly bring a multiplicity of looks on that side of the ball. The Titans were 4-2 in the six games Locker played in full last season; we'll see if a new staff and some new blood will provide enough spark to challenge the Colts.
Most important player: Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Houston Texans
When the Texans (smartly) decided to move on from Matt Schaub after last season's series of pick-six disasters, new head coach Bill O'Brien wound up with veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had replaced Locker in Tennessee when Locker was hurt. Fitzpatrick has never been a spectacular player; he's league-average at best and fatally flawed if a team asks him to do too much.
“He [Fitzpatrick] did a good job,” O’Brien said the day after the Texans rolled to a 32-7 win over the Falcons in their second preseason game. “I feel like that’s how he has to play for us. I felt like he played smart; he was comfortable. We had three timeouts on that last drive. When you have three timeouts and over a minute to go in a drive, you can check the ball down the field. They may play a prevent type of coverage and if the back is open, just check it down and let the back gain 10 yards and keep going because you have timeouts. That is a good example of him understanding the situation and being comfortable with our offense.”
Fitzpatrick has thrown 38 touchdowns to 28 interceptions in his last two seasons. If he remains a decent enough caretaker, the Texans could bounce back to a .500 mark. But O'Brien's team probably won't go any further than that without a more dynamic quarterback.
Rookie to watch: Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston Texans
This isn't exactly a choice out of left field, but Clowney could help alter the balance of power in the division. Through two preseason games, the No. 1 overall pick has a sack, two major tackles for loss and a few quarterback hurries in 29 defensive snaps, and he's already proven that his insane speed off the snap is completely transferable to the NFL.
“He’s a very good player," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said of the rookie after the Texans' win over the Falcons. "We knew that in the practices we had this week. He lives up to it. He’s a big, athletic guy; very quick and had two plays that threw us off. The sack and the tackle for a loss in the running game, so I’m very impressed.”
Clowney will have to develop more moves as he goes along, and he benefited from some really "interesting" blocking assignments against the Falcons (hello again, Mike Tice), but so far, he's been legit. And his addition to a Texans defense that ranked 18th in FO's Adjusted Sack Rate metric in 2013 -- and had just 20.5 sacks by players not named J.J. Watt -- will be of major benefit to new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and the team overall.