Sunday, February 19, 2012

NFL Off-Season Preview: AFC South Edition

The NFL season may be over, but the off-season is just getting started!

Starting with this Preview, I will be doing previews of each division this off-season. Expect me to pump out one of these a week. Depending on time I may be able to do two. I love writing about the NFL and I didn't want to stop during the off-season.

Our first preview takes a look at the AFC South. The tide finally turned in the division last year, with the Texans winning their first division title while the Colts, who were mainstays at the top, finished with a 2-14 record and earned the 1st pick in this year's Draft. But of course, the biggest question surrounding the Colts is the future of Peyton Manning. Is Manning healthy? Will he still be a Colt at the start of the year? No one really knows. Then there are the Titans and Jaguars. The Titans improved towards the end of the year but just fell short of the Playoffs and now face a QB controversy heading into the season. The Jaguars, meanwhile, hired Mike Mularkey to be their new coach and try to fix QB Blaine Gabbert.

I will be doing a team by team preview, with each team's pending big free agents as well as their biggest needs and questions facing them.

Houston Texans
2011 Record: 10-6

Many people thought the Texans would make a big step toward the Playoffs last year, and they did. The Texans won their first Division Title and made the Playoffs for the first time in Franchise history. They did all of that without their star pass rusher Mario Williams. They also lost WR Andre Johnson for most of the season to a hamstring injury and lost QB Matt Schaub for the year with a foot injury. The Texans jumped out to enough of a lead in the AFC South to clinch the division with two weeks to go. They easily handled the Bengals in the Divisional Round and held their own against the Ravens. If Matt Schaub had been in that game, the Texans might have won. T.J. Yates performed adequately in relief of Schaub, but there is no doubt this is Schaub's team. The Texans may experience a slight drop off this coming season, but I would still peg them as the favorites in the AFC South for the time being.

Biggest Question: Will Cap Issues Cause A Big Departure?
The Texans have a lot of free agents and not enough cap room to re-sign all of them. That could lead to a few tricky situations for the Texans. RB Arian Foster is a restricted free agent and the Texans will undoubtedly franchise tag him and ask for the max back if another team signs him to an offer sheet. If another team signs Foster, they will have to surrender a 1st round draft pick. While Ben Tate filled in nicely when Foster went down, he isn't the type of back Foster is.

The bigger issue facing the Texans will be whether or not they can keep DE/OLB Mario Williams. Williams missed most of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Teams will be throwing a ton of money at Williams. And as he showed in his brief time this season, Williams can play OLB in a 3-4 scheme or could easily transition back to DE in a 4-3 scheme. If you ask me, Williams is the crown jewel of the free agent market. That includes if Peyton Manning becomes available. Williams is a game changing pass rusher that makes any defensive front intimidating.

The Texans would like to re-sign two of their interior lineman: Chris Myers and Mike Brisiel. They also have K Neil Rackers to re-sign. It may take a hometown discount to re-sign Williams. He would like to remain a Texan, but of course, that always means at the right price. I see Williams walking to whoever offers him the most money and he feels is close enough to a contender so he can win a Championship. I guess I just listed most of the Texans big free agents so I can skip that part.

Top Needs
1. Wide Receiver
Maybe the Texans finally realize that Andre Johnson is very injury prone. When he went down last year, the team had to rely on Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones to carry the load for the team. When your secondary options can be covered in single coverage, that allows defenses to step up and stop your running game. The Texans could address this in free agency or in the Draft.

2. Nose Tackle
While the Texans defense was strong last year, nose tackle was a weak link of the front seven. Shaun Cody did not provide much of a presence up front for the Texans, only providing 23 tackles and one sack. The Texans would be best to address this position in the Draft. There are plenty of options available in the end of the first round for them to choose from.

3. Interior Lineman
If the Texans are unable to re-sign Myers or Biesiel, then they will need to find replacements for them. The Texans don't have a lot of depth on the offensive line. Wade Smith is also a weak link at LT and the Texans could use an upgrade there.

I think the Texans are still the favorites to win the AFC South next year. If they can find a way to re-sign Mario Williams, then they may be my favorites to win the AFC. The offense is fun to watch and the defense played surprisingly well in their first season in the 3-4 look.

Tennessee Titans
2011 Record: 9-7

The Titans surprised most people with their play this past year. They needed one more win to make the Playoffs, and I'm sure they are kicking themselves for losing to Indianapolis in Week 15. Lots of the Titans early struggles had to do with the slow start of RB Chris Johnson. Johnson held out for most of training camp and was clearly not in game shape come the start of the season. The Titans relied on Matt Hasselbeck at QB for most of the year, but Jake Locker looked ready to be the man in Tennessee at the end of the year. He filled in quite well for Hasselbeck when he went down with an injury. The Titans defense is in need of some changes. They ranked 31st in sacks and 24th in interceptions. They need to address that in the Draft, because they will lose some key defensive pieces in free agency.

Biggest Question: Who Starts at QB Week 1?
Matt Hasselbeck will be 36 at the start of the season and has been injury prone the past few years. While he helped the Titans finish with the record they did, he is also declining in ability and is clearly not the future of the franchise. The Titans drafted Jake Locker in Round One last year. In three real game appearances, Locker threw for 4 touchdowns and looked solid in the pocket. Locker played quite well in relief of Hasselbeck against New Orleans. I'm sure training camp will be used to determine who will be the starter, but I'm pretty sure Jake Locker will be under center for the Titans in Week 1. Locker has more mobility and can make more plays than Hasselbeck will be able to.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. CB Cortland Finnegan
Finnegan is a very good CB but also has a temper and can be a boatload to handle at times. While he is valuable to the Titans, they may not want to deal with his behavioral problems on and off the field. Most people expect him to reunite with his old coach Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.

2. S Michael Griffin
While Griffin finally put together a solid season last year, he still struggled with consistency before this year and there is no guarantee he can repeat the success he had last year. Griffin will probably ask for money based on this year's performance, but the Titans will more than likely not want to give him that kind of money.

3. DT Jason Jones
Jones played well for Coach Jeff Fisher in his defensive scheme, but struggled last year under Mike Munchak's new one. Jones is a wide nine technique, so he would fit well in a place like Philadelphia. He is still young and can still turn into a starting caliber defensive end.

Top Needs
1. Defensive Line
If the Titans want to compete for the AFC South crown they will need to improve their pathetic pass rush. I don't know if they will be players for Mari Williams or Cliff Avril, but they will need an overhaul from somewhere. There are a boatload of pass rushers in this year's Draft and the Titans will try to grab one of them.

2. Cornerback
There will be a big drop off in the secondary if Finnegan leaves. They don't have another corner on their roster capable of replacing his play making ability. A weak secondary and pass rush is a bad combination.

3. Interior Lineman
Eugene Amano is not a very good center, and RG Jake Scott is aging and a free agent. If the team wants Chris Johnson to rebound from an off year, they will need to find interior lineman who can create holes for him. Improving the offensive line will also help Jake Locker under center.

If the Titans can improve their defense, they may be one of those fringe Wild Card candidates again this year. Getting Kenny Britt back will be huge for this team. He was having a monster year before his injury. Chris Johnson should return to the CJ2K of 2010 with a full off-season of preparation. The Titans season will depend on how Jake Locker. If he played like he did for those flashes in 2011, the Titans will be in good shape. How Locker handles the pressure of being a starting NFL QB will determine the Titans season.

Jacksonville Jaguars
2011 Record: 5-11

The Jaguars fired Jack Del Rio just after the midway point of last season. They were looking for an offensive mind to replace him, and they got one with the hiring of Mike Mularkey. Mularkey was the offensive coordinator in Atlanta and had a previous head coaching gig in Buffalo. Being from Buffalo, I can tell you Mularkey got a pretty raw deal here. He got the Bills the closest they have been to the Playoffs in the last decade. Mularkey has a good offensive mind and is a good choice to help mold Blaine Gabbert into a decent NFL QB. The Jaguars are missing a lot of pieces and are not close to contending for a Playoff spot. They have one solid asset, and that is running back Maurice Jones-Drew. He is a workhorse in the backfield.

Biggest Question: Can Blaine Gabbert Turn Into An NFL QB?
The Jaguars drafted Blaine Gabbert to be their franchise QB. They dumped David Garrard before the start of the season and handed the keys over to Gabbert in Week 3. Gabbert never looked comfortable the whole season. Gabbert would look intimidated anytime he saw pressure coming at him. Often times he would thrown off his back foot when faced with a pass rush, something an NFL QB should not do on a regular basis. The problem was that the Jaguars had no one else to turn to. Luke McCown wasn't the answer. He's a free agent this off-season and won't be back. Look for Jacksonville to sign a veteran back-up that will help mentor Gabbert. Mike Mularkey has the task of turning Gabbert around. The first thing he needs to do is get him some better weapons at WR. Gabbert also needs to improve his accuracy in the pocket. Any chance the Jags have this season rests on Gabbert's shoulders.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Jeremy Mincey: Defensive End
Mincey surprised many people last year with a strong performance. He had eight sacks and 57 tackles, and even forced four fumbles. Mincey was the Jaguars best pass rusher and they need to re-sign him, otherwise they have another need to fill.

2. William Middleton: Cornerback
Middleton played rather well when he stepped in to fill in for the injury-riddled Jaguars secondary. At the age of 26, Middleton is still young and has a lot of potential.

3. Josh Scobee: Kicker
A kicker you say? Scobee was the Jaguars most reliable weapon for points last year. He went 23-for-25 last year and 5-for-6 from 50+ yards. If Gabbert continues to struggle, having a solid kicker will help the Jags put points on the board.

Top Needs
1. Wide Receiver
If Justin Blackmon somehow falls to the Jaguars at the 7th pick they will be sprinting to the podium. It is tough to get free agents to come to Jacksonville. They will more than likely look to add a WR in the 2nd Round and might try to get a veteran free agent or two if possible.

2. Cornerback
Even if the Jaguars re-sign Middleton, they also have Rasheed Mathis who is a free agent. Mathis is 32 and might not want to come back to a young and re-building Jags team.

3. Defensive End
There are a boatload of options for the Jaguars at the #7 pick in the Draft if they want a pass rushing end. The Jaguars need to have more than one pass rusher that can get to the QB and cause some pressure.

The Jaguars are a young, re-building team that doesn't show any signs of being competitive this year. Even if Gabbert does improve, I don't think they have any shot of finishing over .500 barring some big off-season acquisitions. Jacksonville will go through some pains this season and will probably not be too fun to watch. But that shouldn't be a worry for the 50 or so fans they actually have.

Indianapolis Colts
2011 Record: 2-14

We apparently found out this past season that one player can mean that much to a team. When Peyton Manning couldn't go this season, the entire team struggled. The offense had no leader and could not score points. The defense was then put in a bad situation and they suffered as a result. The defense also suffered through a handful of injuries at the linebacker and cornerback position. That resulted in the Colts getting the 1st overall pick in this Year's Draft, and the right to draft QB Andrew Luck. That obviously creates a dilemma with Luck and Manning. Luck isn't the type of prospect that you want sitting for a couple of years. Luck is ready to play now. The Colts also have a new coach in former Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano. Pagano will bring a new attitude to the Colts, much different than the bland and boring Jim Caldwell.

Biggest Question: Do I Even Have to State It? Two Words: Peyton Manning!
Everyday there is a different story out regarding Peyton Manning. Some days he is back to 100% and ready to play. Other days he can't throw a ball for the life of him and has to retire. Then Peyton and Colts owner Jim Irsay are negotiating, then they aren't. Peyton Manning is one of my favorite athletes ever, but even I am starting to get sick of all of the Peyton talk. They key date is March 8. That is when Peyton is due his $28 million roster bonus. If Manning can't prove that he is healthy, there is no way the Colts pay him that. The Colts know what they are getting with Andrew Luck, and they won't hesitate to cut or trade Peyton if he isn't 100%. My gut tells me Peyton won't be a Colt next year. It is just way too much money to commit to a QB who may never be fully healthy ever again.

Top 3 Free Agents
1. Reggie Wayne: Wide Receiver
Wayne has been the go to WR for Peyton ever since Marvin Harrison left. Wayne is going to be 34 at the start of the season and while he says he would come back to be a part of the re-build, I find it highly unlikely the Colts retain him. Wayne will catch on with a Championship caliber team.

2. Pierre Garcon: Wide Receiver
Garcon turned out to be the Colts most valuable WR last year. He lead the team in receiving yards and receptions. He is a speed WR who can burn defenders and would help Luck greatly.

3. Robert Mathis: Defensive End
Dwight Freeney is the Colts top pass rusher, but Mathis isn't too shabby either. He is over 30 but still has the speed to get to the QB and will attract some attention this off-season. I doubt Mathis comes back to Indy if they are re-building, but it will be interesting to see if Mathis can produce on a consistent basis without Dwight Freeney on the opposite end of him.

Top Needs
1. Interior Lineman
Center Jeff Saturday and Guards Mike Pollack and Ryan Diem are all free agents. Saturday will more than likely follow Peyton wherever he goes. Even if the Colts re-sign one or both guards, they still need to get better upfront, otherwise Andrew Luck won't have much of a career in the NFL.

2. Secondary
The Colts cornerbacks and safeties may be the worst starters in the league. They were consistently burned on a regular basis all year. Teams could pick them apart with ease. Somehow they need to get better, especially at the cornerback position.

3. Wide Receiver
Along with Wayne and Garcon, Anthony Gonzalez is also a free agent. That would leave Austin Collie and Blair White as the team's starters. Some WRs might look forward to playing with a young phenom like Andrew Luck, but those types probably wouldn't help the Colts win. Luck needs weapons though if he is going to be good in his first year.

The Colts are a re-building team, but the future will be bright with Andrew Luck. Luck will be under center for this team for years, very similar to Peyton Manning. If the Colts build around him right then they will be back to the top of the league in the next five years. But Luck needs a strong supporting cast, and that has to start with a strong Draft class this year.

There you have it. The first of eight Division previews. Don't know which Division will be next, but look for it during the middle of next week.

Until Next Time,
Justin C
Follow Me On Twitter @JCWonka

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