08/06/2012 06:39 PM
Texans Expected To Dominate AFC South Division
The Houston Texans are expected to win the AFC South running away in 2012.
Never mind the midterm elections in 2010; the recent changing of the guard in the AFC South more resembles an overthrow of a banana republic in Central America.
That’s because the days of the Indianapolis Colts’ domination of the division ended abruptly last fall when Peyton Manning was sidelined for the entire 2011 campaign with neck problems. How important was Manning to Indy’s fortunes? Consider that the Colts didn’t win a game without him until December, and for a while looked a good bet to match the Detroit Lions’ ignominious 0-16 mark from 2008.
Now, the new dictator, or should we say dominator, of the South looks to be the Houston Texans, who last season took advantage of that wide-open lane created by Manning’s absence to charge through and win the franchise’s first-ever division title and playoff berth. Entering the 2012 campaign, the Texans are the most prohibitive division favorite in the NFL. Not even teams such as the Patriots, Packers or 49ers come close to the 2/11 prices being quoted on Gary Kubiak’s Texans to defend their division crown.
Thus, the questions entering this fall in the AFC are: 1) if the Texans should really be such a heavy favorite, and; 2) if anyone else looks up to the challenge, even remotely so, or providing opposition in the division.
Our initial reactions are yes and probably no. Considering that rebuilding Indianapolis and Jacksonville both have new coaches and are regarded among the longest shots on the board in the entire NFL, only Tennessee, itself in a period of adjustment under second-year head coach Mike Munchak, appears capable of giving the Texans an argument.
For illustrative purposes, note the long prices being offered on the non-Houston entries to win the division; Titans at 5/1, Jaguars 20/1, Colts 28/1. Conference win prices also illustrate the apparent gap between Houston and the rest in the South; whereas the Texans are being quoted at 4/1 (behind only new England) to win the AFC, Tennessee is at 28/1, Indy at 60/1 and Jacksonville at 100/1. Super Bowl win prices follow the same pattern (Texans 10/1, Titans 60/1, Colts 150/1, Jags 200/1).
So, is it really a one-horse race in the South? A quick overview of each division entry, accompanied by season-win prices, follows.
Houston (season-win total 10)
Remember, the Texans had already sewn up the South in early December last season, but also recall that Houston ended up doing so with its third-string QB (rookie T.J. Yates) while also missing key contributors such as WR Andre Johnson and DE Mario Williams, each for more than half of the regular season, due to injuries.
Along the way, Kubiak rewarded the faith put in him by owner Bob McNair, who had been close to pulling the plug a couple of times in preceding years. But by adding sage assistant Wade Phillips to the coaching staff as defensive coordinator, Kubiak filled the one important gap he needed to address on his staff, and the rest was history a year ago.
The thought process of most AFC South insiders is that the stop unit, which improved from 30th-ranked to 2nd-ranked, can only get better in its second season of utilizing Phillips’ aggressive 3-4 schemes. Even with Williams (who missed 11 games last season) departing to Buffalo in free agency, Phillips thinks he has filled that gaps nicely with the addition of rookies Whitney Mercilus (Illinois) and Jared Crick (Nebraska).
Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks a year ago, could be used as a hybrid by Phillips, with the ex-Illini force expected to at least be on the field in all passing-down situations, either as a weak-side DE in nickel packages or as an attack force from the edge as an OLB. As for Crick, he can play in three-man fronts or move inside and become part of the rotation in passing situations.
If anything, Phillips might have more flexibility with these new additions to the platoon, which also features several returning playmakers such as OLB Connor Barwin, who had 11½ sacks of his own in 2011 and can play a stand-up role on the edge when Phillips decides to rush five and drop ILB Brian Cushing into pass coverage.
If the defense figures to be fine, so does the offense, especially if QB Matt Schaub can be kept upright. Before his season-ending foot injury last fall, Schaub led the Texans to a 7-3 record and 27.3 ppg. Now the Texans know they can win with Schaub or backup Yates, who showed plenty of moxie when leading the team to four wins, including the wild card-round pasting of the Bengals. The WR corps will be scary again, especially if Andre Johnson is beyond the hamstring woes that sidelined him for nine games last fall.
There are a few questions to be answered along the OL, especially on the right side which saw a couple of key contributors (RT Eric Winston and RG Mike Brisiel) depart in free agency. But expect Houston to be able to move the ball on the ground again behind RBs Arian Foster and Ben Tate after gaining 153 ypg and leading the league in time of possession a year ago.
Kubiak’s team was also a pointspread force last season, covering 13 of 18 decisions vs. the line.
If all goes to plan, exceeding 10 wins looks to be very much within the Texans’ reach.
Tennessee (season-win total 7)
The Titans would have to consider their 9-7 mark a year ago quite a success in Munchak’s first year on the job. With a new coaching staff, not getting new QB Matt Hasselbeck into camp until the summer lockout ended, and a long holdout by RB Chris Johnson, the Titans could have easily disappeared last season but instead found some traction and stayed on the margin of the playoff chase into December.
The offseason, however, has been distracting, first with more off-field problems for key WR Kenny Britt (who could be facing league-imposed sanctions), and the shocking news of the apparent suicide of WR O.J. Murdock at the end of July.
Most AFC South sources, however, believe that Munchak will have a hard time replicating last year’s W-L record. Britt’s potential absence could throw a monkey wrench into the passing game that was expecting him to return from a mostly-lost 2011 and team with Nate Washington as a pair of productive wideouts. The interior of the offensive line, though bolstered by the offseason addition of ex-Vikings G Steve Hutchinson, remains a big question mark. Chris Johnson’s production has also dipped alarmingly since his 2,006-yard rushing title in '09. The defense still lacks playmakers and is going to be younger on the corners after vet Cortland Finnegan’s departure to the Rams (and ex-Titans head coach Jeff Fisher) in the offseason.
Moreover, there are the issues at QB, where Hasselbeck and second-year Jake Locker will battle for the starting role throughout preseason. Though not among the league passing leaders in 2011, Hasselbeck nonetheless enjoyed his most-productive season since 2007, but he’s now 36 and has taken considerable punishment. Locker, who flashed upside in brief looks as a rookie, is poised to take over soon, but some wonder if he’ll be ready to take over full-time in 2012, especially if forced into the lineup should Hasselbeck go down.
Despite the somewhat-surprising 9-7 mark last season, Munchak’s first Titans team was only 6-9-1 vs. the line, and just 2-6 as a favorite. Tennessee was also 'under' 10-6 a year ago.
Surpassing seven wins looks doable if all of the pieces fall into place. Collaring Houston, however, appears unlikely unless the Texans implode.
Indianapolis (season-win total 5)
It really was like a military coup d'état after last season at Lucas Oil Stadium, when the Peyton Manning-less Colts plummeted to 2-14. The old regime, consisting of longtime team prexy Bill Polian (and son Chris, a front-office aide) and head coach Jim Caldwell, that was apparently partial to bringing back Manning, was relieved of duties by owner Jim Irsay, who alone made the decision to plot a new course beginning this fall with the number one pick in the draft, Stanford QB Andrew Luck, leading the way.
The new Colts brain trust now consists of GM Ryan Grigson, most recently the Eagles’ director of player personnel, and head coach Chuck Pagano, recently the defensive coordinator for the Ravens.
Pagano wasted no time installing the hybrid 3-4 defensive system he utilized in Baltimore, and along with Grigson recruited three ex-Ravens (DE Cory Redding, NY Brandon McKinney and SS Tom Zbikowski) to aid in the transition.
But transition it will be for the Indy stop unit, which hasn’t aligned in 3-4 looks since the early 1990s. The Colts have also been focusing more on smaller and quicker defensive types for the past several seasons, running counter to the big, physical linemen and linebackers that Pagano would prefer in his version of the 3-4. The adjustment phase for the platoon could last into 2013.
Of course, the headlines in the offseason involved allowing Manning to leave in free agency and effectively replacing him with Luck, of whom many sources believe arrives as precooked into the NFL as any rookie QB since...Peyton Manning. New offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was a longtime Steelers assistant who once upon a time tutored another rookie QB, Ben Roethlisberger, who led Pittsburgh to the playoffs that 2004 season.
Still, it will take time for wideouts Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie to learn a new way of running pass routes, and game-breaking WR Pierre Garcon left in free agency to the Redskins. Tight ends Dallas Clark and Jacob Tamme also left town in free agency.
Pagano will be looking to reverse a recent negative pointspread trend that began late in the 2010 season; the Colts are just 8-15 vs. the spread their last 23 games on the board.
We are enamored of the possibilities with Luck, however, and suggest the Colts might not be as bad as some believe this fall.
Jacksonville (season-win total 5)
After head coach Jack Del Rio hung on past his sell-by date, he was finally jettisoned before last season was complete, signaling another rebuild in Jacksonville that is complete with a new owner, colorful Shad Kahn, whose mustachioed visage makes for popular placards at EverBank Field.
Some AFC observers, however, believe Kahn might have shanked his first drive as Jags owner into the rough by hiring retread Mike Mularkey as the new head coach. Though a respected offensive assistant, Mularkey’s one head-coaching adventure in Buffalo ended in failure a few years ago. Perhaps Kahn thinks Mularkey has learned from his mistakes.
After contemplating switching away from 2nd-year QB Blaine Gabbert and either moving up in the draft to take a shot at RG III, or perhaps taking a new signal-caller with their own high draft pick, Mularkey decided to stick the course with Gabbert and instead provide him with some better receiving targets in his second year as the starter. Free-agent additions thus focused on wideouts (ex-Bills and Ravens Lee Evans, and ex-Cowboy Laurent Robinson), and the first draftee was Oklahoma State’s deep-threat WR Justin Blackmon, taken with the fifth overall pick.
On the surface, this would appear to upgrade the aerial component, but where Gabbert rests on the learning curve is open to debate. Mularkey’s offensive background, however, suggests that he might be able to coax improvements with the ex-Mizzou star as soon as this season, which can’t be any worse than a year ago when the Jags ranked last in NFL passing (as well as last in total offense).
Still, the offense figures to revolve around RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who was close to a one-man gang last year when leading NFL rushers. All of that without much of a passing game diversion and mostly-spotty work along the offensive line.
The defense, however, ranked sixth overall in the league a year ago, and respected defensive coordinator Mel Tucker (who took over as interim head coach after Del Rio’s ouster) is back to coordinate similar 4-3 looks this season. The addition of free-agent CB Aaron Ross (Giants) figures to be a plus for the secondary, but most AFC South observers are keeping a close eye on the recoveries of DE Tyson Alualu from offseason knee surgery and DT Terrance Knighton from a an off-field incident (nightclub brawl).
Not surprisingly, the Jags were an 'under' team last season (11-5) as the offense labored.
Despite all of the distractions and the rookie QB last season, the Jags still won five games. But exceeding that total in 2012 might be a tall order unless Gabbert progresses significantly this fall.
Top Newcomers In The Division
Andrew Luck, QB, Colts: He’s replacing a legend in Indianapolis, but is only part of a complete rebuild by an entire organization.
Whitney Mercilus, DE/OLB, Texans: Effectively replaces the departed Mario Williams in the Houston defense. Will be expected to replicate Williams’ playmaking bent (though we note that Williams missed more than half of last season).
Kamerion Wimbley, LB, Titans: Tennessee needs defensive playmakers to step up and Wimbley was the highest-profile offseason addition on that side of the ball.
Justin Blackmon, WR, Jaguars: The Jags desperately need an upgrade in their receiving corps and Blackmon will be expected to provide as much.
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