Is this the year the Colts relinquish their five-year stranglehold on the AFC South crown?
That's the thought running through the minds of the Jaguars, Titans and Texans after learning of Peyton Manning's knee surgery on Monday. Manning, who had an infected bursa sac removed during the procedure, could miss up to six weeks while recovering from the surgery. Though he is expected back in time for the regular season opener against the Bears, his injury means the Colts will have five starters (Marvin Harrison, Bob Sanders, Dwight Freeney, Tyjuan Hagler and Manning) on the sidelines when training camp opens next Friday.
"Anytime that you have injuries at your core positions you become weaker due to potential time loss or continuity," said an AFC scout.
While the Colts have downplayed the significance of having several key members on the injury list heading into training camp, the loss of four Pro Bowlers to injury should not be underestimated as each has been considered one of the best at their respective positions.
Freeney and Sanders have been the backbone of a unit that has risen from the bottom of the league to ranking in the top five in total defense. Although the defense overcame the loss of each during last season (Freeney missed nine games with a foot injury and Sanders sat out one with a rib injury) to finish third in total defense, it is highly unlikely the defense could duplicate the feat without its premier pass rusher and most dominant run defender on the field in 2008.
Despite finishing as last season's top-ranked offense, the Colts never fully recovered from the loss of Harrison, who missed the final 10 weeks of the regular season. The eight-time Pro Bowler teams with Reggie Wayne to form the league's top receiving tandem, and their presence on the field makes the Colts' dynamic offense nearly impossible to stop. Although Wayne has probably surpassed Harrison as Manning's top option, the loss of Harrison would allow defenses to roll their coverage in Wayne's direction and clamp down the Colts' underrated running game.
However, it is the potential loss of Manning that truly opens the door for the rest of the AFC South. "We all know how important Manning is to their win-loss record," said an AFC scout. Manning, who has started in 160 consecutive games, has helped the Colts win at least 12 games in each of the past five seasons on the way to the five division titles, two AFC Championship Game appearances and a Super Bowl victory. As one of the most accurate passers in NFL history, Manning relies on impeccable timing and precision route running to carve up defenses. Without Manning's ability to develop the chemistry with his receivers during the preseason, the Colts offense may start out slow as the unit works out the kinks during the first few weeks of the season. That could pose a problem for an offense facing a formidable trio of defenses (Bears, Vikings and Jaguars) during the first month of the season.
The Colts' run to the sixth consecutive AFC South title appeared to be challenging due to vast improvements within the division, but the biggest roadblock to the division crown may be their mounting injury list.
The Bears' signing of Kevin Jones provides the team with more than an insurance policy at running back. The former Lion possesses exceptional quickness, and is still regarded as a talented runner within league circles. "He has the tools to be productive in the league," said a NFC scout. "He doesn't possess explosive speed, but has good footwork and quickness in the hole."
Jones, who has rushed for 3,067 yards in his four-year career, is an ideal fit in the Bears' power scheme and has a running style reminiscent of former Bear Thomas Jones. With the Bears' running game featuring an assortment of isolations and leads, Kevin Jones' skills as a downhill runner should flourish. "He won't overwhelm defenses with his power," said a NFC scout. "But he could become a fairly productive grinder in their scheme."
Though Jones has repeatedly been beset by injuries and has never completed a full season, he should benefit from playing as a complementary player alongside Matt Forte and Adrian Peterson. Without having to endure the pounding associated with being a workhorse, Jones should be able to produce several explosive runs while remaining fresh over the course of the game.
But don't underestimate Jones' ability to carry the load. Out of the 11 games in his career with 20 or more carries, Jones has produced six 100-yard games and averaged 82 rushing yards a contest.
Matt Jones' recent arrest will likely end his disappointing tenure with the Jaguars. The former first-round pick never developed into the big play receiver the team envisioned, and his inability to transfer his outstanding athleticism into production was surprising to several league observers. "He is a phenomenal talent," said an AFC scout. "It's hard to find an athlete with his size, and combination of physical skills. It's a shame to see a talent like that wasted."
As one of the top athletes in his draft class, Jones had most observers thinking he would have an instant impact as a red zone receiver for the Jags. With nine touchdowns in his first two seasons, Jones appeared to be on his way to becoming the impact receiver the Jaguars envisioned when they selected him with the 21st pick. However, he appeared to regress last season, and his questionable work habits led the team to reduce his role. "He is such a great athlete that the game has always come so easy to him," said a Jaguars' official. "But he needs to improve his work ethic if he wants to be successful in this league."
Although Jones' career has been plagued by inconsistencies, some scouts believe the Jags haven't done enough to tap into his potential. "He was a former college quarterback and basketball player who is still relatively new to the position," said an AFC scout. "Yet, they put him in the slot and have him run routes over the middle. That is a big adjustment for a kid who has never been hit."
While the Jaguars attempted to exploit mismatches by placing Jones in the slot against smaller sub-package players, his imposing size and leaping ability makes him a more viable threat on the outside or in the red zone. By using Jones on the perimeter, the Jaguars would have been able to create a number of favorable jump ball situations for Jones on an assortment of fades and fade-stops. In addition, the use of Jones on the outside would allow the team to take advantage of his speed on vertical routes off play-action.
Regardless of whether Jones has been used correctly or not, the fact he has only five career starts and has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout his career left him squarely on the bubble even before his recent brush with the law. The team's offseason additions of Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson upgraded the talent of the receiving corps, and they join key contributors, Reggie Williams and Dennis Northcutt, ahead of Jones on the depth chart. Thus, Jones enters camp locked in a battle with Mike Walker, John Broussard and others for the final roster spot.
Unless the ultra-talented Jones dazzles during the preseason, the odds are against him suiting up for the Jaguars in 2008.