AFC South preview: A beacon of consistency, Colts again the favorites
In the AFC South, the Colts are the souls of consistency. Indianapolis has posted an 11–5 regular-season record in each of the last three years, which lines up rather nicely with the three years the Colts have had Andrew Luck as their quarterback. Without a consistent pass rush, multiple elite receivers or any running game at all, the Luck-led Colts have returned to what they were in Peyton Manning's earlier days: perennial AFC contenders.
For the rest of the division, though, things are far less consistent, and this is par for the course. The Texans—who actually won the South in 2012 with a 12–4 record and have arguably the league’s best player in J.J. Watt—haven’t been able to break the postseason barrier since. They bottomed out in 2013 with a 2–14 record and improved to 9–7 last year, but they remain a team without a top-tier quarterback. Last year, it was a fight between Ryan Fitzpatrick, Case Keenum and Ryan Mallett for that role, and none of those signal-callers proved up to the task.
Now, coach Bill O'Brien has named former Browns starter and Patriots backup Brian Hoyer as the projected starter, with Mallet—also a former Patriots backup—serving as backup. Problem is, neither of them have shown anything resembling week-to-week starter potential, and until O’Brien gets a legit quarterback in that seat, this franchise will be treading water.
The Titans may very well have their franchise quarterback in second pick Marcus Mariota. The rookie has impressed through two preseason games with all the things experts insisted he’d struggle with at the next level. Operating under center, calling audibles, reading defenses—Mariota has shown a preternatural ability to grasp the elements of the position he didn’t really employ at Oregon.
But the problem in Tennessee is that there isn't much else to brag about. Defensive lineman Jurrell Casey may be the only true Pro Bowl-level player on the roster right now—everyone else appears to be too far on the upward or downward curve to provide any definitive results. That’s why Tennessee plummeted to 2–14 last season, and with little to show in free agency, the Titans will have to hope their 2015 draft yields serious dividends.
As for the Jaguars ... well, few teams in the NFL know more that this is a quarterback-driven league, and in this case, Jacksonville knows that for all the wrong reasons. After missing spectacularly on the evaluation of Blaine Gabbert a few years back, a new front office took a more sabermetric approach and rolled the dice on Central Florida's Blake Bortles. The original plan with Bortles was to sit him for his rookie season, but when the team proved shorter at the position than originally anticipated, Bortles was thrown in the fire—and that’s exactly how he looked. No starting quarterback had a lower ranking in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics at the position, and Bortles was set upon for a league-high 55 sacks behind a ridiculously inefficient offensive line.
Jacksonville has been trying to rebuild over time, but that plan took a huge hit in early May, when 2015 first-round pick Dante Fowler Jr. suffered a torn ACL and was sidelined for his entire rookie season as a result. Fowler may have been the best defensive player in his draft class, but the Jags will have to wait and see what he can do in the NFL. There’s been a lot of waiting in Jacksonville for a team without a winning season since 2007.
Unless one of the three underling teams surprises pretty seriously, it looks like smooth sailing for the Colts once again.
Not only are the Colts the runaway winner at the game's most important position with Luck at the helm, they got a lot better in free agency, at least in the short term, with the additions of ex-Texans receiver Andre Johnson and former 49ers running back Frank Gore. At the very least, the 34-year-old Johnson gives Luck the big, aggressive possession target he hasn’t had to date. Johnson caught 85 passes for 936 yards and three touchdowns in a highly unstable offense; imagine what he can do with Luck throwing him passes. And Gore got out of the fire sale in San Francisco in the nick of time.
He landed with a Super Bowl contender, and if he can keep up his remarkable consistency (eight 1,000-yard seasons in the last nine years), he’ll be a big reason for that contention. The Colts also grabbed former Eagles pass-rusher Trent Cole to augment their front seven. All in all, if the draft picks pan out, it’s hard not to look at the Colts as the AFC favorite to challenge for the Lombardi Trophy.
Dark horse: Texans
It's all up to Hoyer and/or Mallet if the Texans are to rise up and take the division, or at least grab a wild-card spot. The defense is solid, the run game could be good even with Arian Foster’s injury concerns and DeAndre Hopkins has as much potential as any receiver in the league. But without that top-tier quarterback, it’s safe to say that the franchise’s near future—and Watt’s window as one of the best defensive players we’ve ever seen—is eroding.
Hoyer has shown flashes of potential—he threw five touchdowns against three picks for the Browns in 2013 before he was injured, and he led the NFL in yards per completion last season. But there’s still too much inconsistency, which O’Brien knows. If the franchise goes through another year of quarterback purgatory, you can bet it’ll look to fix that early in the 2016 draft. O'Brien’s habit of bringing in Patriots backups can only work for so long.
Division MVP: Andrew Luck, QB, Colts
In his first three seasons, Luck has proven beyond all doubt that he can do all that is required of a franchise quarterback. In his rookie season, he took hold of Bruce Arians’s complicated vertical playbook and didn’t miss a beat. Over the last two seasons, he’s worked with an average offensive line, one top receiver in T.Y. Hilton and a run game that would embarrass a Division II school. He throws too many interceptions in streaks (16 in 2014), but put that up against his 40 touchdown passes in the regular season alone, and it's less of a concern.
Adding Johnson to the receiver corps, Gore to the backfield and Miami speedster Phillip Dorsett via the draft makes a capable offense very dangerous. The questions about Luck’s future have been more about those around him, and with many of those questions answered, he appears poised to ascend into truly rare air in 2015.
Breakout Player: Dwayne Allen, TE, Colts
Allen was one of two tight ends the Colts took in the 2012 draft, along with Luck’s former Stanford teammate Coby Fleener. Fleener has been inconsistent at best, and Allen has been the better blocker and pure receiver. Still, he’s missed 18 total games in the last two years due to injuries, which appears to be the main thing stopping him from really adding to this passing game. In 2014, he caught eight touchdown passes in just 13 games, and he's slimmed down from 268 pounds to 255 to be more dynamic.
“My role is pretty much the same,” Allen said earlier this month. “I’m a guy who can play all three downs, who will play all three downs, who can also help out in the pass protection game, the run blocking game, but stretch the field and that’s the way I’ve been utilized so far this camp. We’ll see as we begin to game plan for different teams in preseason and regular season, how that role actually plays out.”
Rookie to watch: Kevin Johnson, CB, Texans
Houston is set pretty well at the cornerback position with Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph for the time being, but it was still a smart move to pick Johnson out of Wake Forest with the 16th overall selection. The 6'0", 188-pound Johnson is a lean, athletic, aggressive cover man who has inspired the faith of his new coaches.
He’s already played 71 snaps in two preseason games, and has allowed an opponent passer rating of 39.6, with two catches on seven targets. Joseph is still playing well, but he’s 31, and that’s an age when a lot of elite pass defenders start to lose their edge. Expect the Texans to start Johnson out in nickel and dime packages, but he could do more quickly under the right circumstances.
Coach with most to prove: Gus Bradley, Jaguars
When the Jaguars hired Bradley away from Seattle after the 2012 season, the understanding was that the franchise was undergoing a long-term rebuilding process. Nearly totally bereft of talent, new general manager Dave Caldwell (who was hired around the same time Bradley was) built from the bottom up, but the results haven’t matched anyone’s expectations.
Jacksonville won just three games in 2013 and four in '14, and though those with the power to hire and fire in the organization say all the right things about understanding that Bradley can only do so much with what he has, another dismal season—especially in such a weak division—could have the decision-makers thinking differently.
Must-watch divisional game: Houston at Indianapolis, Week 15
If the Texans are able to parlay either Hoyer or Mallett into a serious competition with the Colts for the South crown, this Week 15 matchup could be for all the marbles. This is another example of the Texans’ need to reverse their fortunes—they’ve had no answer for the Colts going back to their inception in 2002, with a 4–22 mark against Indianapolis in their history as a franchise.
Last year’s Colts sweep featured a couple of close games, though: a 33–28 Colts win in October in which the Texans nearly pulled off a furious comeback after the Colts moved out to a 24–0 early lead, and a 17–10 Texans loss in mid-December that saw the Colts take the division title. The Texans are fully aware that their postseason prospects will go as far as Houston can go against Luck’s team, and this matchup will be crucial in that regard.