X-Indianapolis Colts 8-8
The struggles of the Indianapolis Colts in 2015 reminded folks of the previous regime that was running the show for the team. When former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning missed the entire 2011 National Football League season following neck surgery, Indianapolis went from being a Super Bowl contender to being the worst team in the league. The Colts would then have the first overall pick at the 2012 NFL Draft which they used on quarterback Andrew Luck. In Luck’s first three years with the Colts, he led the club to an 11-5 record in each year with a trip to the postseason. But things unraveled for the Colts last year as Luck was injured while Indianapolis simply lacked cohesion. Pep Hamilton would be fired as the Colts offensive coordinator, while Chuck Pagano held on by a thread to remain as the team’s head coach. And now in 2016, the Colts are hopeful that they will be able to once claim the title of being the team to beat in the AFC South.
First and foremost Luck is healthy and looking to put 2015 behind him. Last year Luck was never right as he threw 12 interceptions in just seven games while his record was 2-5. Luck must get back to feeling comfortable in the pocket, but it also comes down to the team that is around him.
The Colts have been unable to provide Luck with a quality running game around him as you have to go all the way back to 2007 to find the last time that Indianapolis had a running back gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground. The Colts were 29th in rushing last year in the National Football League and they can’t rely on the legs of running back Frank Gore who is an 11-year NFL vet to hold up under the riggers of the 16-game regular season.
Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton is a burner at wide receiver, but the Colts receiving corps behind him are very weak as team general manager Ryan Grigson has not done a good job as far as putting play makers around Luck.
The same can be said about the Colts offensive line where there isn’t any star power which could make for a long season in Indianapolis in spite of the fact that Luck is returning to the team.
Defensive football is Pagano’s specialty, but the Colts were 26th in total defense last season, and it could once again be a struggle for this team.
The ability of Luck can keep the Colts afloat, but this is an organization that has not learned from how they assembled a team during the latter years of Manning’s time with the team.
Tennessee Titans 7-9
The Tennessee Titans franchise find themselves in the midst of a long dry spell. 2011 was the last year that the Titans were able to finish a National Football League season with a winning record, while 2008 was the last time that they made the postseason. And if you want to take it a step further, you have to go back to January 2004 to find the last time that the Titans were victorious in the postseason.
After taking over for Ken Whisenhunt during the 2015 National Football League season after he was fired, Mike Mularkey is looking to do things his way with the Titans. Mularkey went 2-7 in relief of Whisenhunt last year, but the Titans front office feels that he is the man that can turn things around for this franchise.
In 2015, the Titans used the second overall pick of the National Football League Draft to select quarterback Marcus Mariota. Mariota was coming off of winning the Heisman Trophy at the University of Oregon, and there was an adjustment period for him as he spent 2015 getting accustomed to a pro-style offense with the Titans. Mariota took his lumps as a rookie as he went 3-9 as a starter. But Mariota was able to throw 19 touchdown passes which included him a having a perfect passer rating of 158.3 in his first career game and he should be ready to assume a leadership role in Nashville.
Mariota and wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham were expected to be building blocks in the Titans offense for years to come. But Titans general manager Jon Robinson grew tired of Green-Beckham’s inconsistency in his route running and pass catching which led to him being recently traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. This will leave a void in the Titans passing game as Green-Beckham was expected to develop into a play maker. But Tennessee will now lean on veteran wide receiver Andre Johnson, along with a pair of youngsters at wide receiver in Justin Hunter and Kendall Hunter to step up and become consistent pass catching options for Mariota.
A young quarterback’s best friend is the running game, and after the Titans were 25th in the National Football League last season in rushing, they should be ready to improve here in 2016. Earlier in the off-season the Titans acquired running back DeMarco Murray from the Eagles. 2015 was a year to forget for Murray as he struggled in an offense that wasn’t suited for his running style. But now with Titans, Murray could once again regain some of the form that he had in 2014 when he led the National Football League in rushing as a member of the Dallas Cowboys. Aside from Murray, the Titans used a second-round pick on running back Derrick Henry. Henry won the Heisman Trophy last year as he helped the Alabama Crimson Tide win the national championship, and his physical running style should allow Tennessee to keep drives going.
The past four years have seen the Titans use three, first-round picks on offensive linemen. Guard Chance Warmack is entering his fourth year with the Titans, while offensive tackle Taylor Lewan is entering his third year. And offensive tackle Jack Conklin is looking to give Tennessee a pair of young bookends on their offensive line as this is going to be the unit that is going to generate flow for the Titans offense.
Dick LeBeau is entering his second year as the Titans defensive coordinator, but he brings with him a plethora of experience. LeBeau played 14 years with the Detroit Lions as a defensive back and his 62 career interceptions are the tenth most in National Football League history. LeBeau has also coached in the NFL since 1973 which includes winning a pair of Super Bowl Championships with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an assistant coach.
In 2015, the Titans were 12th in the National Football League in total defense in spite of the fact that LeBeau didn’t have the typical play makers needed to operate his blitz happy 3-4 defensive scheme. The Titans still don’t have those play makers, but they will still be a thorn in the sides of their opponents.
The AFC South is not expected to be overly strong this year, and the Titans could find themselves in the divisional title hunt until the very end.
Jacksonville Jaguars 7-9
It is no secret that the Jacksonville Jaguars are in the midst of a rough patch. The Jaguars have not had a winning season since 2007 which was also their last trip to the playoffs. Since then the Jags have had six seasons in which they’ve lost at least 10 games including each of the last five. And with the Jaguars struggles, it was a bit surprising that team owner Shahid Khan decided to retain the services of head coach Gus Bradley for a fourth year. But Khan and Bradley are hopeful that the Jags young nucleus will be able to gel here in 2016.
The Jags feel that they have their franchise quarterback in Blake Bortles who is coming off of setting a single-season franchise record in passing yardage (4,428), and passing touchdowns (35). As Bortles continues to progress as a quarterback, he must work on developing his pocket awareness as he has been sacked 106 times in two years, while also throwing 18 interceptions last season which was tops in the National Football League.
In front of Bortles, the Jaguars have a young offensive line that is anchored by left tackle Luke Joeckel as it is time for the training wheels to be taken off of this group if Jacksonville expects to contend for a playoff berth.
If the Jags offensive line is able to give Bortles enough protection, they have play makers at the wide receiver position in Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson. Last year Hurns and Robinson became the Jaguars first duo of wide receivers since Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith in 2001 to each gain at least 1,000 yards receiving as they should once again ready to cause problems for the secondaries of the AFC South.
But if Jacksonville’s offense is going to become consistent in 2016, the running game must improve. Last year the Jags were 27th in the National Football League in rushing with running back T.J. Yeldon being the team’s leading ground gainer at 740 yards. This off-season has seen the Jaguars sign veteran running back Chris Ivory who gained a career-high 1,070 last year as a member of the New York Jets. The Jags must be more committed to the ground game as it will take some pressure off of Bortles, while also cutting down on his sacks.
This year’s Jags defense could be all about “high risk, high reward”. In 2015, Jacksonville used the third overall pick of the National Football League Draft on defensive end/outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. But in Fowler’s first practice with the Jaguars, he suffered a torn ACL that ended his season before it started. This year the Jaguars used a second-round pick on outside linebacker Myles Jack who missed the majority of his final year at UCLA with a knee injury. Both Jack and Fowler are healthy now and if they are able to live to the hype, they could become pleasant surprises in Northern Florida.
In 2013, the Indianapolis Colts used a first-round pick on defensive end Bjorn Werner. Collegiately at Florida State, Werner was the 2012 Atlantic Coast Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, along with being an All-American. But when the Colts drafted Werner, they insisted on making him an outside linebacker in their 3-4 defensive system and he was never able to adjust. The Colts cut ties with Werner this off-season and as the Jaguars picked him up off of the scrap heap, a return to Northern Florida, along with going back to his original position as a 4-3 defensive end could be just what the doctor ordered for him.
Werner’s collegiate teammate in cornerback Jalen Ramsey was Jacksonville’s first-round choice this past spring, and the combination of him and former New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara should be help to solidify the Jaguars secondary.
The Jaguars are very close to breaking through and becoming a playoff team, but they have to start winning the games that they are expected to win, along with defeating the good teams.
Houston Texans 6-10
In each of Bill O’Brien’s two years as the head coach of the Houston Texans, he has led his team to a record of 9-7. But unlike 2014, O’Brien was able to get the Texans to the postseason in 2015. The Texans won the AFC South last year for the first time since 2012 and although that their season didn’t end in the fashion that they wanted to as they were blown out 30-0 at home by the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Wild Card Game, Houston is looking to build off of last year’s trip to the postseason in a very weak AFC South.
But the Texans will begin the 2016 National Football League season with a huge disadvantage as they’ll more than likely be without the services of defensive end J.J. Watt. Watt is a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and in five seasons with the Texans, he has registered 74.5 sacks. Watt underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disc in July, and although that he could be ready to go in Week 1, it’s difficult to expect him to be the same player immediately. Aside from what Watt can do, his presence on the field makes his defensive teammates better due to the matchup nightmares that he can cause for opposing offenses.
Aside from Watt, the Texans have a very active defensive front seven that includes nose tackle Vince Wilfork, outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus, and inside linebacker Brian Cushing. But if Watt isn’t going to be 100%, it’s time for outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney to begin living up to the hype. Clowney was the first overall pick of the 2014 National Football League Draft by the Texans, and after being a two-time All-American in college, he has been unable to become the dominant edge rusher that most people expected him to be. And if there was ever a time for Clowney to figure it out, that time is now.
However the Texans biggest issues have recently come on offense which is what has held this team back. Last year Houston was 19th in the National Football League in total offense as they went through four different starting quarterbacks. In the off-season the Texans would sign quarterback Brock Osweiler to a four-year deal that is worth $72 million. Osweiler spent the first four years of his career with the Denver Broncos and he was expected to be the heir apparent there to Peyton Manning. But unlike the Texans, the Broncos were unwilling to pay Osweiler $18 million per season. In four year with the Broncos, Osweiler only started seven games and he is still very raw as a quarterback as it very tough to gauge what he can do.
The Texans possess one of the best wide receivers in football in DeAndre Hopkins who’s numbers have increased in each of his three seasons in the National Football League. The Texans were 15th in the NFL last season in rushing, but they still need to be more effective as for the second time in the last three years, they failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher.
The word of 2016 for the Texans will be continuity as they must find some of it if they expect to be in contention to win the AFC South.