Wednesday, September 3, 2014

NFL 2014: The Sports Savant's AFC SOUTH Preview

Welcome to Part III of my 2014 NFL Divisional preview!  I've covered the AFC EAST and AFC NORTH but today, it's a preview and record predictions for the AFC SOUTH!

The AFC SOUTH is a division that since its inception in 2002 has been mostly dominated by the Indianapolis Colts.  The Colts have won this division 8 out of the 12 years it has been in existence.  This was largely due to one Peyton Manning who has already solidified himself as one of the greatest QB's of all time.  With no more Peyton in this division after he was released by the Colts a couple of years ago, the division has been more wide open though still won last year by Peyton's successor, QB Andrew Luck, and the Colts once again.  Reloaded and more experienced, the Colts look like a favorite again, but can they hang on and stave off the Texans, Titans and Jaguars?  Read on to find out!

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jacksonville Jaguars and Head Coach Gus Bradley have a lot of work to do over this year and the years to come to make this team a contender once again.  In 2013, the Jaguars were one of the AFC's worst teams and they Jags haven't finished better than 29th in total offense in the last three years.  This team has nowhere to go but up, but the climb up the NFL ladder, if it happens, will be a slow and arduous one.

The Jaguars are chock-full of deficiencies on both sides of the ball.  So many, in fact, its hard to know where to begin trying to improve their roster.  The Jags did make a few additions this off-season through the draft and in free agency, but no amount of drafting and free agent signing could pull this team from the doldrums in 2014.

After the failed experiment that was their #1 draft choice in 2011(10th overall), QB Blaine Gabbert, was finally discarded to the San Francisco 49ers for a 6th round pick, the Jags took another gamble on a 1st round QB, Blake Bortles of UCF, and thus far in the preseason it appears the Jags could have drafted a winner.  Bortles has had a blistering preseason going 32 of 51 for 521 yards, 2 TD and 0 INT.  The Jags have stated that their plan is to sit Bortles for the entire season to learn behind veteran QB Chad Henne, but with the way Bortles played, they may have no choice but to see what this rookie can do once the Jags fall hopelessly out of contention for the division.

Another welcome addition that should help sure up the defense was the signing of free agent DE Chris Clemons from the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks.  He is one of the best DE in the league and really knows how to get after the QB.  But, again, it fills a hole where there are so many more that need talented players.

On offense, we are going to get a look at RB Toby Gearhart as a full-time starter for the first time in his career.  Gearhart, a Stanford product, has backed up All-World RB Adrian Peterson with the Minnesota Vikings since he was drafted a few years ago.  He's shown signs of quality production when filling in for Peterson when Peterson has been injured, so he was a natural and inexpensive fit for the recently departed RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who took off for the Oakland Raiders this off-season.  Gearhart could have a nice breakout season for him personally, but they don't have the surrounding talent to make his contributions turn into wins this year.

In Jacksonville, almost the entire roster is learning on the job whether it be because they are young and inexperienced or came from other teams where they were backups to other talented players.  There's no reason to believe this team can fair much better than their 4-12 season of a year ago.  Jags fans, you've got another forgettable year ahead of you, but there are reasons to be hopeful for an eventual turnaround with the young players they have going forward.

Savant Record Prediction: (4-12, 4th place)

Houston Texans

In 2013, the Houston Texans were the NFL's biggest disappointment by a long shot.  Some sports pundits had this team making a Super Bowl appearance last year and with just 2 wins, they wound up with the worst record in the entire NFL.  Enter Head Coach Bill O'Brien, a descendant of the Bill Belichick coaching tree, he was an offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots before coaching a year as the HC of Penn State University last year.  The Texans are hoping he can bring some of that Patriot magic with him to Texas, and I believe he will... but not this year.

With that said, however, I do think this team will improve under his direction and the sheer fact that this team so woefully underachieved in 2013.  They may not have actually been a Super Bowl contender last year, but with their current roster, they certainly are not a 2 win team either.

The two most important things that can result in on-the-field success for this team will be to keep All-Pro RB Arian Foster healthy and productive for a full season and the efficiency of newly acquired QB Ryan Fitzpatrick in this offense.  Fitzpatrick was brought in after QB Matt Schaub was unceremoniously departed but you can't consider Fitzpatrick an upgrade considering the totality of his journeyman career in the NFL.  Something to keep an eye on will be to see if Fitzpatrick can keep his job over the recently traded for QB Ryan Mallet, who has thrown only a handful of NFL passes backing up the legendary QB Tom Brady in New England.  Mallet has a huge arm and the pedigree to succeed but just hasn't had a chance to show what he can do.  It may not be long before Mallett is under center for the Texans considering HC Bill O'Brien's familiarity with him from his days as the Patriots' OC while Mallett was there.

Also important is the mental state of their All-World WR Andre Johnson, who has expressed serious interest in a trade from the team.  Johnson has spent his entire career with the Texans and is tired of losing.  He's had a very serious fall-out with the team after he expressed an urgency for them to pick-up a veteran quality QB to throw him the ball.  When the team opted for Fitzpatrick, Johnson started demanding a trade or even sit out the entire season.  It looks now as if Johnson will put his focus on playing, but this is something that could fester should the Texans get off to a bad start.

The most talked about acquisition for this team, however, is the team's #1 overall draft pick, LB Jadeveon Clowney, who has been called a "once-in-a-generation" type of player.  He's already drawing comparisons to the most feared linebacker of all-time, LB Lawrence Taylor.  With his presence opposite the defensive player of the year candidate, DE J.J. Watt and the return of ILB Brian Cushing from knee surgery on a torn LCL that caused him to miss most of last season, this pass rush could be highly formidable and keep opposing offenses from staying on the field too long.

There's no reason to believe that this team could possibly repeat as the worst in the NFL this year, in fact, I think they make a marked improvement, but it's only going to be enough to come up just short of a playoff berth.  With some development from Mallett, because he is clearly a better future option than Fitzpatrick, this team could be in the playoff mix in 2015.  Until then, expect a very average season from the Houston Texans.

Savant Record Prediction: (7-9, 3rd place)

Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans were a team on the verge of a breakout season in 2013 until a season ending injury to starting QB Jake Locker derailed their hopes of being a playoff contender.  Now, with Locker back healthy and a cast of players similar to the team fielded last year, they look to capture the playoff berth that almost was last year.

The most notable of losses from last year's roster was the departure of RB Chris Johnson, who just a few years ago eclipsed the improbable 2,000 yard rushing mark.  After that year, he held out for a giant, 50+ million dollar contract, which he got and then began to steadily decline.  The RB formerly known as CJ2K for his 2,000 yard feet, was hardly playing like CJ1K, as he barely passed the 1,000 yard rushing mark at a meager 3.9 yards per carry and 67 rushing yards per game.  With his production diving and his contract bloating the books, Johnson was released and picked up by the New York Jets.

With the departure of Johnson, the team decided to draft an electrifying RB in the draft named Bishop Sankey from University of Washington.  Sankey is competing with veteran RB Shonn Greene for the starting position and is expected to eventually take it over considering Greene's injury history.  Sankey could be a real difference maker like Johnson was before him in Tennessee.

One of the more under-rated moves of the off-season was the signing of All-Pro left tackle Michael Oher.  Yes, that Michael Oher, the subject from which the movie The Blind Side was based on.  Despite his Hollywood story, Oher is one of the more dominant tackles in the NFL.  The real issue that the Titans have had over the last two years has been keeping their rising star QB healthy.  Oher will be an important cog in providing the protection that Jake Locker needs to play a full season and could prove incredibly critical to the team's success.

The Titans also poached key defensive players LB Wesley Woodyard from the Denver Broncos and LB Shaun Phillips of the San Diego Chargers, both with a history of quality linebacker play in the NFL.  These two should help improve a defense that finished a sub-par 22nd in total defense last season.  What also can't be underestimated is the signing of RB/PR Dexter McCluster from Kansas City.  McCluster didn't do much in the Chiefs offensive scheme, but new Head Coach Ken Wisenhunt has a special role for a player like McCluster just as he did when he had RB Danny Woodhead, a similar but inferior player to McCluster, that excelled him to a 1,000 yard from scrimmage season in San Diego last year. That's not even to mention the contributions McCluster can add to the Titans' punt and kick return game.

The only real question mark for this team is at the cornerback position where star CB Alterraun Verner left a vacancy after signing a big deal with the Tampa Bay Bucs this off-season.  No one they have on their current roster can fill those shoes, so this team took a bit of a hit in their pass defense, but overall this team has made improvements over last year.

Provided the key players mentioned, most notably Jake Locker, can stay healthy this year, this team will see gains from last year's season lost to injury.  Their playoff hopes will ride on the performance of teams from other AFC divisions, but look for them to be on the cusp or possibly in the playoffs in 2014.

Savant Record Prediction: (9-7, 2nd place)

Indianapolis Colts

The Indianapolis Colts seek yet another division title in the AFC SOUTH in 2014 which would make them division champs 9 of 13 seasons since the AFC SOUTH inception in 2002.  Most of those titles came under the management of Head Coach Tony Dungy and QB Peyton Manning, but its Head Coach Chuck Pagano and QB Andrew Luck who have began their own tradition of winning in Indianapolis these days.

The ascension of Andrew Luck continues year-by-year and he is expected to make huge gains in his third year as a starter.  Luck is looking to make that leap into the elite QB discussion as he was knocking on the door of the lite club just last year in his 2nd season.  I see no reason why Luck doesn't take a monumental leap this year and even contend for a league MVP in 2014.

Part of the reason for my belief in Luck's ascension is because of the nice receiving core he has to distribute the ball to.  No one works harder in the off-season than legendary WR Reggie Wayne and even at his accelerated age, he shows no sign of slowing down in 2014.  Add the always reliable Wayne to deep-threat WR T.Y. Hilton and the newly acquired WR Hakeem Nicks and that rounds out a nice trio.  That doesn't even mention their two pass catching TE's Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.  With all of those good targets, this team is designed to air it out.

The only question mark on offense remains the production of RB Trent Richardson, who was a highly touted RB out of Alabama just a few years ago.  Indy traded a 1st round pick to the Cleveland Browns to acquire him and he has yet been even close to worthy of that value.  He just doesn't seem to have the horizontal cutting ability to be more than a plowing back, which will never net a back more than 3.5-4.0 yards per carry.

 If the offensive line can be special this year and create some holes, Richardson has the power to do damage, but he has to get up to speed first and that takes him a few steps.  If he can't produce, they'll be missing RB Donald Brown's contributions from last year  Brown took his talents to San Diego in the off-season.  Though Brown will be missed, don't dismiss the potential contributions of former RB stud, Ahmad Bradshaw, who missed almost all of last year with a neck injury.  Even if this team can run the ball mildly effectively, it will be enough to create the space Luck and the receivers need to take big chunks of yards in the passing game.

The Colts will be without their leading sacker and All-Pro LB Robert Mathis for the first 4 games due to a PED suspension and their thin secondary is still looking like last year's squad who struggled against the pass, but this team can hang on during Mathis' absence and though they will give up big plays on defense, the offense will be so good, they will overcome those weaknesses.

No doubts about this one.  The Colts will easily be your AFC SOUTH Champions with a potential 1st round bye in the playoffs as the #2 AFC seed and a potential date with Peyton Manning and the Broncos in the AFC Championship.

Savant Record Prediction: (12-4, 1st place)

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