After a torturous decade of building and rebuilding, the Texans are suddenly the undisputed powerhouses of the AFC South. Their reign, however, may be short-lived. Age and cap constraints threaten to tear the Texans' nucleus apart before it even enjoys a satisfying post-mitosis cuddle and cigarette.
The rest of the division isn’t exactly sitting on its hands, either. The Titans clamored to a winning record last year and threaten to be pesky again. The Colts have enough talent and enthusiasm to be spoilers during their rebuilding cycle. Even the Jaguars appeared to be headed in the right direction until camp started and they became the Jaguars again. The Texans should still triumph, but they must make the most of this opportunity; the road will not rise up to meet them as readily next year.
Tweet-sized Preview: Zone stretch until the home stretch, but age and injuries could cut-block the Texans at crunch time.
Biggest Change from 2011: The Texans suffered several major free-agent losses, including pass rusher Mario Williams and 40 percent of the best run-blocking offensive line in the NFL. On the plus side, Matt Schaub is back after missing the team’s playoff run with a Lisfranc injury, and rookie Whitney Mercilus adds danger to a defense that got along well without the injured Williams last year.
Overblown Story: Arian Foster, vegan. The star running back has some superficial similarities to Ricky Williams: his Twitter Dharma, his kinship with unicorns (see the ESPN The Magazine cover photo), and his recently announced preference of quinoa and bean sprouts to steak and eggs. But the fact that a player doesn’t fit the mold doesn’t make him flighty. Foster just dares to have ideas and interests beyond football. Have a tofu turkey leg ready when the Texans face the Lions on Thanksgiving.
Undersold Story: In addition to Williams and linemen Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel, the Texans lost a pair of important second-tier receiving weapons in Joel Dreessen and Jacoby Jones. Jones was inconsistent and fumble-prone, and Dreessen was only a half step quicker than the typical second tight end, but both diversified a passing game that must always be ready for life without Andre Johnson. Rookie Keshawn Martin, the favorite to replace Jones, needs to be ready to play a large role, while James Casey could become the Last of the Often-Used Fullbacks.
Telling Stat: The Texans used play-action on 33 percent of their passes last year, the highest figure in the NFL. When T.J. Yates replaced Schaub, that figure went up to 40 percent. As you would expect from a great running team (though it doesn’t always happen), the Texans were excellent at play-action, averaging 10.0 yards per pass attempt.
Breakout Player: Martin had a terrific camp; the fourth-round pick from Michigan State has exceptional speed and performed well in first-team reps when Johnson was banged up. Also, keep an eye on rookie kicker Randy Bullock, who went 29-of-33 on field-goal attempts in his senior year at Texas A&M and is battling veteran Shayne Graham.
Bottom Line: The Texans' playoff window finally opened last year, but it could close just as quickly due to their age, health history and cap issues. Still, in the AFC South, quarterback stability and proven schemes on offense and defense go a very long way. PREDICTION: 10-6.
Tweet-sized Preview: With an injured center and untested receiving corps, this offense could go from CJ2K to MST3K.
Biggest Change from 2011: Most of the big changes occurred last year: Mike Munchak replaced Jeff Fisher after a 17-year tenure as head coach, coordinator Chris Palmer opened up the passing game (even Chuck Knox could have opened up that passing game), and Matt Hasselbeck squeezed out a few more drops of veteran moxie as the Titans became surprise contenders. Jake Locker replaces Hasselbeck as the opening-day starter this year, but judging by Locker’s preseason performance, we’ll be seeing Hasselbeck again before the leaves turn. Kamerion Wimbley improves a pass rush that registered just 28 sacks last year.
Overblown Story: Chris Johnson is the Titans’ most recognizable star, but he spent most of last season getting bowled over by slight breezes and passing insects. Johnson was out of shape and uncomfortable with the new offense, but even if his decisiveness and desire have returned, it's foolish to expect 2,000-yard super-heroics, or even 1,500-yard heroics. For the Titans to get better, they have to decrease their reliance on CJ2K and get more mileage from the passing game.
Undersold Story: The loss of center Eugene Amano was a huge blow for an otherwise solid offensive line. Fernando Velasco replaces Amano, which means Leroy Harris (the weak link of last year’s line) won’t be pushed by Velasco. Remember that if Locker does not make great strides from his preseason performance, this line will be entrusted with the safety of the 37-year-old Hasselbeck.
Telling Stat: Hasselbeck tied Michael Vick for the most passes tipped at the line last year, with 19. Locker may not be accurate, experienced or frankly ready in any conceivable sense, but he can escape the pocket and get the ball downfield.
Breakout Player: Kendall Wright, wide receiver. Wright, Robert Griffin III’s favorite target at Baylor, has blinding speed and is wise beyond his years when it comes to setting up defenders or exploiting zone coverage. He should develop into DeSean Jackson without the brain cramps.
Bottom Line: With Locker beating the mummified Hasselbeck by default, inexperience at wide receiver, injuries on the offensive line and the defense in transition, the Titans would be a third-place team in most divisions -- but you really have to dredge to get to the bottom of the AFC South. PREDICTION: 7-9.
Tweet-sized Preview: Maurice Jones-Drew and 21 guys named Daryl Smith. And that’s the best-case scenario.
Biggest Change from 2011: Auto-parts tycoon Shahid Khan claims to be as committed to winning as former owner Wayne Weaver was to selling, but a training camp full of contract squabbles ended the ownership honeymoon early. The back-and-forth coaching convoy along I-75 from Atlanta to Jacksonville kept on truckin’, with Mike Mularkey replacing Jack Del Rio as head coach. For once, more talent arrived than left in the offseason; by Jaguars standards, receiver Laurent Robinson and cornerback Aaron Ross represent a bumper free-agent crop.
Overblown Story: The Jags’ season-ticket woes have been a punch line for years, but they aren't appreciably worse off than the Dolphins, Bengals and other teams struggling to fill seats. Khan turned down the league’s television blackout relief plan (which sounded like it was conceived by the guy who dreamed up the European austerity measures), and appears committed to staying put and investing in the team.
Undersold Story: The Jaguars played hardball with both Jones-Drew and first-round pick Justin Blackmon, while Mularkey took a Belichick-level hard line on players discussing injuries with the media. These are either the growing pains of a team trying to change its culture, or evidence of insecure executives flailing to assert their authority. Until the Jaguars earn some benefit of the doubt, many of us will assume the latter.
Telling Stat: The Jaguars’ defense held opponents to 5.1 yards per offensive play, the eighth-best average in the NFL. A couple of meetings with the Colts kept that figure low, but Mel Tucker’s defense is stout enough to make the team respectable if the offense can get out of its own way.
Breakout Player: Rashad Jennings, running back. Jennings averaged 5.5 yards per carry as MJD’s change-up before suffering a knee injury last preseason. He had an outstanding camp, started preseason games in MJD's absence and was named the Jaguars' starter for Week 1. He should play a major role in a run-heavy offense even when the endless holdout finally ends.
Bottom Line: The optimism of spring quickly evaporated because of MJD’s holdout, Blackmon’s late start and Blaine Gabbert’s early camp inability to walk and chew gum at the same time. Gabbert and the offense started to come together in the preseason, so there is hope that 16-10 losses and tarped-over stadium seats may soon be things of the past. PREDICTION: 6-10.
Tweet-sized Preview: This is the dawning of Jim Irsay’s Age of Aquarius, and Andrew Luck has everything to do with it.
Biggest Change from 2011: You name it. Luck is the quarterback. New head coach Chuck Pagano is overseeing a move to a 3-4 defense after more than a decade of Dungy-2 orthodoxy. Only a handful of familiar faces remain from the Manning-Dungy-Caldwell era. The few who survived the wrecking ball must adapt to new roles; Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis have moved from defensive end to linebacker, and Reggie Wayne must adapt to Bruce Arians’ offense, which is radically different from the old nod-at-Peyton system.
Overblown Story: Pagano and defensive coordinator Greg Manusky aren’t fools; they are working Mathis and Freeney gradually into the new 3-4 system. The bookend pass rushers were seen dropping into coverage now and again in preseason, but they spent most of their playing time with their hands in the dirt and their focus on sacking the quarterback. So stop worrying about Freeney-vs.-Bruce Gradkowski mismatches up the seam.
Undersold Story: The Colts actually drafted some return men! T.Y. Hilton returned four kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns at Florida International. LaVon Brazill brought back four punts for scores at Ohio. The Colts as a team haven’t averaged more than 10 yards per punt return since 2007, and they settled for a staggering 1.97 yards per return (counting fair catches) last season. No one noticed that when Peyton Manning was at quarterback, but when he got hurt, those lost yards added up in a hurry.
Telling Stat: No Colts linebacker has recorded more than one sack in a season since David Thornton picked up two in 2005. (Safety Bob Sanders did register 3.5 sacks in 2007.) That will obviously change this year, and not just because Mathis and Freeney have new job titles.
Breakout Player: Vick Ballard, running back. The fifth-round pick runs well between the tackles, a must in Arians’ system. Ballard will start the season behind Donald Brown, but Brown is better suited to a change-up role. Brazill is also worth watching; he was pushing for a role in the offense even before Austin Collie was injured against the Steelers.
Bottom Line: Luck will keep the Colts interesting during a rebuilding year, but preseason injuries to the linebacker corps will hamper the team's attempt to stay competitive. Irsay will display the patience for mishaps and sometimes-directionless noodling that comes naturally after a lifetime of Grateful Dead fandom. PREDICTION: 5-11.
All stats provided by Football Outsiders.