Our NFL preview continues today with the preseason power rankings of the AFC South:
1. Houston – The Texans have become consistent leaders of the AFC South, and there are a lot of reasons to think that trend will continue in 2013. Matt Schaub hasn’t proven to be one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, but he’s good enough with the supporting cast he has around him, which includes running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson. Tight end Owen Daniels is also a big part of the offense and the addition of rookie wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins should give Schaub plenty of options in the passing game.
On defense, Houston has the reigning defensive player of the year in J.J. Watt, as well as one of the league’s top linebackers in Brian Cushing. They’ll have to find a way to make up for the loss of Connor Barwin, whose absence could hurt their pass rush; however, the Texans are hoping that Ed Reed will give their secondary a boost, and give them a pass defense that’s above average. Houston has the most balanced roster in their division, with big-time playmakers on both sides of the ball, so they should be able to stay atop the AFC South, but if they want to move closer to reaching a Super Bowl, both sides of the ball will have to show improvement from last season.
2. Indianapolis – The Colts made incredible progress last season, winning 11 games and going to the playoffs, doing so mostly on the back of quarterback Andrew Luck. Luck could be even better this year, but Indianapolis is going to need to become a more balanced team if they expect to continue that success. They’ve added Ahmad Bradshaw and Darrius Heyward-Bey on the offensive side of the ball to put more weapons around Luck, but the offensive line remains a place of concern. Defensively, Indianapolis made wholesale changes, hoping to fix a unit that was atrocious last season. Nearly half of the starters on defense weren’t in Indianapolis last season, which means there was a great infusion of talent on that side of the ball, but little continuity, which could mean a period of adjustment.
On the one hand, it’s hard to envision the Colts being able to improve upon their 11 wins from a season ago, but on the other hand, there’s no denying that their roster is much stronger, and that they have a quarterback with almost limitless talent. While they begin second in the AFC South in the preseason power rankings, they should be considered a threat to challenge the Texans for the division crown.
3. Tennessee – It’s an important year in Tennessee: for head coach Mike Munchak, starting quarterback Jake Locker, and the Titan’s franchise. The Titans have done their best to surround Locker with what he needs to win games, improving the offensive line in front of him, replacing the departed Jared Cook with Delanie Walker at tight end, and drafting Justin Hunter to give him another big receiving target. Tennessee also brought in Shonn Greene to give their running game a boost. Those additions should be enough to give Locker adequate support, and the rest will be up to him.
Defensively, there could be some problems, especially among the front-7 and when it comes to stopping the run, but the secondary got an upgrade with the addition of safeties Bernard Pollard and George Wilson. Tennessee’s roster appears to be stronger than it was last season, so there should be some improvement from last year’s 6-10 record, but there is a big gap between where they are and where Houston and Indianapolis are, and the responsibility for closing that gap falls on Locker’s shoulders; whether he’s capable of doing that remains to be seen.
4. Jacksonville – The Jaguars are not only deep in the basement of the AFC South, but also deep in the basement of the NFL, as new head coach Gus Bradley takes over and begins what could be a long rebuilding process. Jacksonville wasn’t able to re-sign many of its top free agents during the offseason with the exception of Brad Meester, who should lead a solid offensive line that will get help from first round pick Luke Joeckel. Once Justin Blackmon returns from suspension, the Jaguars will have an intriguing group of skill players with guys like Cecil Shorts, Denard Robinson, Ace Sanders, and of course Maurice Jones-Drew as a workhorse running back.
However, Jacksonville still doesn’t have a suitable quarterback in place unless Blaine Gabbert surprises everyone, which is unlikely. If Gabbert plays well, it would make the offense interesting to watch, but that won’t matter too much because the defense is a mess. Jacksonville was terrible on defense last year, and they could be even worse this season, as they could be starting two or three rookies in the secondary with no stand out pass rushers to help out up front. Jacksonville actually has a good group of rookies and a promising set of offensive skill players, which means Bradley could have them pointed in the right direction. But there may not be too many signs of improvement this season, and if there’s a team out there that could benefit from winning the top overall pick in next year’s draft and getting Jadeveon Clowney, it’s probably the Jaguars.