| |Are the Indianapolis Colts still the cream of the crop in the AFC South? Or is this the year the Jacksonville Jaguars finally overcome their division rivals? The Tennessee Titans improved last season but can they take the next step? And what does the 2008 season hold in store for the Houston Texans? J J Pesavento takes an early look at the AFC South and gives his opinion on how the teams stack up thus far.
An early look at the AFC South
The Colts, despite predictions of gloom and doom from some experts, continue to win. And last season, they did so without two key performers. Defensive end Dwight Freeney and wide receiver Marvin Harrison both missed a good portion of the 2007 campaign due to injuries. Freeney played in nine contests while Harrison saw action in only five. But the Colts still won 13 games to take the division crown. Both players look to be on the way back to full health, which only makes the Colts a bigger problem for their division rivals. The one question mark will be how a shooting incident outside a bar owned by Harrison pans out. Harrison has talked to authorities but is not considered a prime suspect.
With basically all the key players returning on offense, there is no reason to believe the Colts will not have the best offense in the NFL. Peyton Manning is a machine. Running back Joeseph Addai is a solid performer and now he has veteran Dominc Rhodes to back him up. Indianapolis also drafted Mike Hart out of Michigan. With Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne and Harrison, the Colts have more weapons in the passing game than any quarterback could ask for. The Colts also have Anthony Gonzalez, who should be more of a factor in 2008 if he progresses. Tight end Ben Utecht has departed, but the Colts added Jacob Tamme in the draft. The offensive line will be without Jake Scott and Dylan Gandy, but it should still be solid. The Colts have suffered decimating injuries across the line at times in the past and have still managed to plug in the right combination and protect Peyton Manning. Don't look for that to change. And they added depth in the recent draft by taking three offensive lineman; Mike Pollak, Steven Justice and Jamey Richard.
With an offense led by Manning, the defense doesn't get a great deal of attention. But the Colts accomplished more than many think they did a year ago. Despite being without Freeney, as well as linebacker Rob Morris for much of the season, they allowed fewer points (262) than any other team in the NFL. Considering the fact that, more often than not, the only way to beat the Colts is to outscore them, that speaks volumes. With a healthy Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis at the ends, the Colts are in good shape. They also picked up Marcus Howard in the draft. Raheem Brock is their best player inside, but they need a little more from Ed Johnson, Quinn Pitcock or someone. Linebacker Rocky Boiman is gone and the Colts added Phil Wheeler in the draft for more depth. Gary Brackett returns in the middle with Tyjuan Hagler and Freddie Keiaho on the outside. The Colts appear set in the secondary with Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden at the corners and Antoine Bethea and NFL Defensive MVP Bob Sanders at the safeties. The one concern here may be quality depth if the injury bug hits.
In my opinion, the Colts are still the best team in the AFC South and the 2007 season only supported my opinion. To run off a six game winning streak down the stretch without the services of Harrison and Freeney showed how good they truly are. Until someone else knocks them off, they will remain atop the South.
According to a whole lot of people, this is the year the Jaguars finally take over the top slot in the division. If that truly is the case, then the Jags have to be more consistent week in and week out. In four of their five regular season losses a year ago, the defense failed them miserably. In those four losses opponents scored 140 points. That is not how a team knocks off the likes of the Colts or Patriots. So that is where we will begin.
Defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, defensive ends Bobby McCray and Shantae Orr and safeties Lamont Thompon and Sammy Knight are all gone. The Jags re-signed defensive tackle Rob Meier to a long term deal and added cornerback Drayton Florence and safety Pierson Prioleau. To reload up front, the Jags paid a large price to draft defensive end Derrick Harvey out of Florida in the first round. And then they drafted Quentin Groves from Auburn in the second round. With Henderson and Meier in the middle, the Jags should be okay. And Paul Spicer had a respectable 2007 campaign. But the Jaguars felt, and for good reason, that they needed more help in terms of rushing the quarterback. Enter Harvey and Groves. If Spicer and Reggie Hayward do not get the desired results, one of the rookies may see action sooner rather than later. Mike Peterson is flanked by Clint Ingram and Daryl Smith at linebacker. Thomas Williams from USC was added through the draft. Rashean Mathis will be back at corner, but who plays opposite him will be the question. Drayton Florence has the experience and the Jags also have Trae Williams, a late round draft pick as an option. Reggie Williams and Brian Williams will return at the safeties.
On the offensive side of the ball, veteran Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew power the running game for Jacksonville. The two combined for over 1,900 yards on the ground a year ago. Jones-Drew also makes an impact in the return game. And with Taylor in the latter stages of his career, the Jags added USC running back Chauncey Washington as insurance on draft day. Quarterback David Garrard will likely not win any passing titles, but in the Jacksonville offense, he is not expected to carry the offense. He may not throw a lot of touchdown passes, but he also won't throw a lot of picks either. He threw only three last year. Backup Quinn Gray is gone so he will be backed up by Cleo Lemon and Todd Bouman. There are no major changes on the offensive line to speak of. The biggest changes will be at wide receiver. Jerry Porter was picked up and the Jags traded for Troy Williamson. With the addition of the two vets, Matt Jones, Reggie Williams and Dennis Northcutt will be battling for playing time, if not their jobs.
The Jags showed a lot of aggressiveness adding players that they felt could put them over the top. They may have paid too steep a price for Derrick Harvey, and they may also have reached signing Porter and trading for Williamson. Only time will tell if that is the case. But the bottom line is that the Jaguars will have to find a way to beat the Colts to take over the division and they haven't done so as yet. Jack Del Rio is 3-7 against the Colts and his Jaguars have lost three of the last four meetings with Indianapolis. Until they can reverse that trend, nothing in the South will change much at the top.
The Titans defied the odds and fought their way into the playoffs in 2007. Now the question is how much more can be expected from this team. One thing is for sure. Don't take your eyes off the television when the Titans are playing. Half their games were decided by seven points or less in 2007.
Quarterback Vince Young didn't set the world on fire in 2007 as he threw 17 picks as compared to a meager nine touchdown passes. But his mobility gives the offense another dimension. His passing prowess will need to be as potent for him to be an effective quarterback in the league. Running back Chris Brown was expendable after LenDale White rushed for over 1,100 yards in 2007. So now it will be White, Chris Henry and rookie Chris Johnson carrying the ground game for Tennessee. Tight ends Ben Troupe and Ben Hartstock and wide receiver David Givens are all gone. But the Titans reloaded by adding tight ends Alge Crumpler and Dwayne Blakley and wide receiver Justin McCareins. Crumpler should pay immediate dividends for the Titans. McCareins will join Roydell Williams and Justin Gage at receiver. The Titans will be without guard Benji Olson, who has retired. Jacob Bell also moved on. The Titans added Jake Scott from the Colts to fill the void left by the loss of Olson.
On defense, the biggest question will revolve around defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Haynesworth was tagged by the team but wants a long-term deal. The Titans lost defensive ends Travis LaBoy and Antwan Odom, but signed Jevon Kearse and drafted Jason Jones and WIlliam Hayes to help offset the losses. Opposite Kearse will be Kyle Vanden Bosch, who may be one of the more underrated defensive ends in the business. Linebacker Gilbert Gardner has departed but the Titans added Josh Stamer to provide depth at the position. Keith Bullock, David Thornton and Ryan Fowler all return at linebacker. Pacman Jones will be the most notable loss in the secondary, but the Titans also lose cornerbacks Kelly Herndon and Mike Waddell. Nick Harper and Cortland Finnegan will be at the corners with Michael Griffin and Chris Hope at the safeties. Chris Carr came over from the Raiders, but his presence will be felt more on special teams than in the secondary. And with Rob Bironas booting the football, the Titans get an edge in the close games.
The Titans probably accomplished more than most people expected them to in 2007. Now they have to take the next step. LenDale White will play a big role in that but Tennessee needs more from the passing attack. The Titans scored only four more points than they allowed in 2007. That will have to change if Tennessee wants to be a contender in the South.
The Texans found ways to score points in 2007, but they also gave up far too many. They also were -13 in takeaway/ giveaway differential, which placed them next to last in the NFL.
It looks as though Matt Schaub has finally cemented himself as the starter in Houston after being relegated to being a clipboard carrier in Atlanta. Schaub has the protection that David Carr never had in Houston. What he needs now is a healthy Andre Johnson. Johnson missed seven games in 2007 due to injury. With a healthy Johnson and more production from Kevin Walter, Jacoby Jones or Andre Davis, his numbers will improve despite the loss of Jerome Mathis. Ahman Green is still expected to be the feature back for Houston, but the Texans also added Chris Brown from the Titans and drafted Steve Slaton for more depth. Mike Flanagan and Steve McKinney are both gone from the offensive line. The Texans traded for Chris Myers and took Duane Brown in the first round of the recent NFL Draft to shore up the line, but the group with Chester Pitts, Eric Winston, Ephraim Salaam and Fred Weary performed well in 2007 allowing a total of only 22 sacks the entire season.
The defense will need to improve if the Texans plan to make their presence felt in the South. The Texans allowed over 114 yards per game rushing and picked off only 11 passes last season. Much of that will depend on the defensive line. Anthony Weaver, Mario Williams, Travis Johnson and Amobi Okoye are the foundation up front. Houston also has some depth and added more by drafting Frank Okam. There will be many new faces in the back seven for the Texans. Shawn Barber, Danny Clark, Charlie Anderson, Michael Boulware and Von Hutchins are all gone. Kevin Bentley, Nick Ferguson, Jacques Reeves and Chaun Thompson have all been added. DeMeco Ryans and Morlon Greenwood will return with Bentley, Thompson and the recently drafted Xavier Adibi in the mix. In the secondary, having Dunta Robinson, who missed seven games in 2007, back will make a huge difference in pass defense. Fred Bennett could be on the other side. But Reeves and Demarcus ***gins also figure into the mix, as does third round draft pick Antwaun Molden. C.C. Brown, Will Demps, Nick Ferguson and Glenn Earl will be battling for reps at safety.
The AFC South is the toughest division in the NFL. The Colts have won at least 10 games in eight of the past nine seasons. No other team in the NFL has been as consistent. So despite some rumors of their possible demise, the road to the AFC South title goes through Indianapolis.