2013 NFL Preview: AFC South
With training camps about to begin, we take a division-by-division look at where each team stands heading into the 2013 season.
The AFC South lost a considerable chunk of its identity when Peyton Manning sat out the 2011 season with a neck injury. This had been the Colts' division in the decade or so prior to that, with Manning's teams winning seven of eight division titles and a Super Bowl.
Indianapolis' Manning-less slide did open the door for the Houston Texans, who captured the AFC South crown in '11, then repeated the feat last year. They had to fend off a charge from the rapidly restocked Colts for the latter title, as rookie Andrew Luck led Indy to a surprising 11-5 record and a playoff berth.
So, is this division set to be a two-team race for the foreseeable future? It all depends on how close the Titans are to breaking a four-year playoff drought and how long Jacksonville's own rebuilding project will take.
This year's AFC South outlook:
Signed FB Greg Jones, S Ed Reed; drafted WR DeAndre Hopkins, S D.J. Swearinger, OT Brennan Williams, OLB Sam Montgomery, OL David Quessenberry
WR Kevin Walter, TE James Casey, OLB Connor Barwin, S Glover Quin
Where they got better: Wide receiver. No offense to steady Kevin Walter, who averaged 46.5 catches per year for the Texans from 2006-12, but it was one of the NFL's worst-kept secrets that Houston was jonesing for a legit No. 2 receiver. DeAndre Hopkins will try to succeed where 2012 draft picks DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin, to this point, have not. Hopkins, a 6-foot-1 Clemson product, caught a staggering 18 touchdown passes last season and should -- should -- take some heat off Andre Johnson in the passing attack. If all goes according to plan, Hopkins will be a Rookie of the Year candidate.
Where they got worse: Safety, with an asterisk. The Texans replaced departed free agent Glover Quin, an underrated player, with ex-Baltimore superstar Ed Reed and ultra-talented rookie D.J. Swearinger. Net gain, right? Well, maybe. Reed could miss some of the regular season following hip surgery, which he underwent after signing a three-year deal in Houston, much to the chagrin of the Texans' front office. His absence could force Swearinger into the lineup early. There are likely to be some highs and lows there, especially since the Texans' other safety starter, Danieal Manning, like Swearinger, is better in the box.
Breakout player: Whitney Mercilus, OLB. Mercilus registered six sacks last season as a rookie. Now, with Connor Barwin out of the mix, he'll jump into the starting lineup. He should be a double-digit sack guy there, provided he can handle the rising expectations and playing time.
Where they stand: It has been a slow climb for the Texans franchise, which waited 10 seasons for its first playoff berth and now, after back-to-back AFC South crowns, is seeking a postseason win over someone other than the Bengals. Houston boasted a top-10 offense and top-10 defense last season, en route to a 12-4 record. If Hopkins is everything the Texans dream him to be, they could be even better in 2013. The Texans have been on the brink for the past two seasons. They're a Super Bowl contender again, but can they get over the top?
Signed QB Matt Hasselbeck, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, OT Gosder Cherilus, G Donald Thomas, DT Ricky Jean-Francois, OLB Erik Walden, CB Greg Toler, S LaRon Landry; traded for LB Kelvin Sheppard; drafted OLB Bjoern Werner, G Hugh Thornton, C Khaled Holmes; hired O.C. Pep Hamilton
WR Donnie Avery, WR Austin Collie, OT Winston Justice, C A.Q. Shipley, NT Antonio Johnson, DE/OLB Dwight Freeney, CB Jerraud Powers
Where they got better: The offensive line. Indianapolis allowed 41 sacks of Andrew Luck last season (though, some of those were on Luck). In an effort to improve on that number and bolster the league's 22nd-ranked rushing attack, the Colts spent big bucks on tackle Gosder Cherilus and guard Donald Thomas. Cherulis' knees have plagued him, but he played well in Detroit last season; Thomas stepped up when called upon in New England and brings some much-needed versatility to the interior of the line. Oh, and don't overlook the addition of RB Ahmad Bradshaw, a stellar blocking back who's capable of slipping out as a receiver.
Where they got worse: Outside linebacker. Sure, Dwight Freeney was not the best fit as a stand-up pass-rusher in Indianapolis' new 3-4. But Freeney's departure still removes a key presence, on and off the field, from this roster. First-round pick Bjoern Werner is not a great 3-4 match on paper, either, though the Colts will work him into the lineup at least on passing downs. The verdict at this position falls on ex-Packer Erik Walden, whom the Colts seemingly overpaid to the tune of four years and $16 million. Indianapolis needs him to be more productive than he ever was in Green Bay.
Breakout player: Coby Fleener, TE. Fleener could be one of the big beneficiaries of Indianapolis' Pep Hamilton hiring -- Fleener averaged 19.6 yards per catch and scored 10 touchdowns in college in 2011, Hamilton's first year calling plays for Stanford. His 26-catch rookie season could pale in comparison to what he does in Year 2.
Where they stand: Did last season re-establish the Colts as an AFC power or was it a smoke-and-mirrors job? There is evidence to both arguments. Indianapolis notched only three wins in 2013 over teams that made the postseason, and the defense was 26th in yards allowed. On the flip side, Luck should be much improved in his second year, and the offense may better play to his strengths. Bradshaw and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey give Luck more weapons to work with, too. The Colts may have what it takes to challenge Houston in the South ... but a slight regression, aided by Bruce Arians leaving for Arizona, cannot be ruled out, either.
Signed RB Justin Forsett, WR Mohamed Massaquoi, DT Sen'Derrick Marks, DT Roy Miller, OLB Geno Hayes, CB Alan Ball, CB Marcus Trufant; drafted OT Luke Joeckel, S Johnathan Cyprien, CB Dwayne Gratz, WR Ace Sanders, RB Denard Robinson, S Josh Evans; hired head coach Gus Bradley, O.C. Jedd Fisch, D.C. Bob Babich
RB Rashad Jennings, FB Greg Jones, WR Laurent Robinson, OT Guy Whimper, G Eben Britton, DT Terrance Knighton, DT C.J. Mosley, OLB Daryl Smith, CB Derek Cox, CB Aaron Ross, S Dawan Landry
Where they got better: The secondary (eventually). In Landry, Cox and Ross, the Jaguars lost a combined 37 starts from their 2012 secondary. Jacksonville's still set up for a brighter future at cornerback and safety, thanks to the arrivals of rookies Jonathan Cyprien, Dwayne Gratz and Josh Evans plus veterans Marcus Trufant and Alan Ball. This team is now deeper and more dynamic in the defensive backfield, particularly thanks to Cyprien, a favorite of many draft experts heading into April. Both he and Gratz could be in the starting lineup when the regular season rolls around. There may be some growing pains, but the Jaguars ought to be better off in the long run.
Where they got worse: The pass rush. Technically, the Jaguars' situation there hit the skids when Daryl Smith, the franchise's all-time leading tackler, suffered a groin injury just before the regular season. He never made it back to 100 percent health, and the Jaguars finished 2012 with a league-worst 20 sacks. They really did very little to improve their stock there this offseason. Ex-Bear Geno Hayes will take over for Smith at outside linebacker, but Jacksonville mostly will rely on defensive ends Tyson Alualu, Jason Babin and Andre Branch to all raise their games following disappointing seasons.
Breakout player: Alan Ball, CB. Though those young guns may buoy the secondary in years to come, this group could struggle mightily in 2012. Hence, Ball, a player with three starts combined in 2011-12 and all of three career interceptions, looks to be the top cornerback. He's big (6-2) and aggressive, necessary components to thrive in Gus Bradley's coverages.
Where they stand: The rebuilding process began in earnest this offseason, so it may take a bit for the Jaguars to really challenge in the AFC South. They ranked 30th in offense and 29th in defense last year, so the resulting 2-14 record hardly qualifies as a fluke. A few more wins, experience for the rookies and, most importantly, an answer on the question of Blaine Gabbert's potential at QB would make for a successful season. Set the bar at 5-11 and appreciate the work Bradley is doing to lay the groundwork for his team.
Signed QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Shonn Greene, WR Kevin Walter, TE Delanie Walker, G Andy Levitre, G/C Rob Turner, DT Sammie Lee Hill, LB Moise Fokou, S Bernard Pollard, S George Wilson; drafted G Chance Warmack, WR Justin Hunter, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, OLB Zavier Gooden, G/C Brian Schwenke
QB Matt Hasselbeck, RB Javon Ringer, TE Jared Cook, G Leroy Harris, G Steve Hutchinson, G Deuce Lutui, DT Sen'Derrick Marks, LB Will Witherspoon, S Jordan Babineaux
Where they got better: Guard. This might be one of the most substantial upgrades for any team's position group league-wide. The Titans went from having all sorts of issues along the interior of their line to a starting duo of Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack, with Rob Turner and Chris Spencer as backups. That's a strong two-deep group, with the potential for greatness if Warmack can maul the way he did at Alabama. These upgrades are of particular significance for a team that wants to pound the ball between the tackles with Chris Johnson, who on more than one occasion last season bemoaned a lack of blocking.
Where they got worse: Tight end. That is, tight end as a weapon in this offense. Delanie Walker can do a lot of things on the field, specifically as a movable blocking piece. What he cannot do -- or, rather, has never done in his NFL career -- is create problems in the passing game. Walker has just 40 catches over the past two seasons; Jared Cook, the man he's replacing in the lineup, had 44 last season. The Titans never fully took advantage of Cook (and Cook never really gave them consistent effort), but for a passing attack that's struggled under QB Jake Locker to be anything more than mediocre, the loss of Cook's pass-catching abilities will be felt.
Breakout player: Kendall Wright, WR. Wright reportedly lost about 15 pounds this offseason and appears primed to build on an up-and-down rookie campaign. There will be a battle for targets, with Nate Washington, Kenny Britt, rookie Justin Hunter, Johnson and Walker all available. Britt has as good a chance as any to be Locker's go-to guy. Where they stand: The notion that this entire Titans' season rests on Locker is unfair to the third-year QB. And yet ... without Locker improving on a 10-touchdown, 11-interception, injury-plagued showing in his first year as a starter, the Titans will be hard-pressed to improve on a 6-10 record. There is not a lot separating Tennessee from, say, Indianapolis in this division. But the Colts know who their franchise quarterback is. The Titans have yet to figure out if Locker is the right man for the job. Until they do, raising the bar too high feels like a roll of the dice.