Once the stomping grounds for the Indianapolis Colts, the (back then) “not quite there yet” Houston Texans finally took advantage and now reign supreme in the division. The big news will be the new era for Indianapolis as they drafted Peyton Manning’s replacement in quarterback Andrew Luck. In a division full of young quarterbacks, the AFC South looks to be one of the worst divisions in football this year.
Houston Texans (10-6) – The Texans have always had a great offense with Matt Schaub under center, Andre Johnson at wideout, and Arian Foster in the backfield. The big issue has always been their defense, so Houston finally made it a priority by signing on Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator and Jonathan Joseph to start at cornerback.
With a beefed up defense, the Texans went 7-3 before Matt Schaub went down with injury. After the bye week, Matt Leinart started Week 12 to rewrite his bust legacy and lead Houston to their first playoff appearance in franchise history. Unfortunately for him, he went down with a broken collarbone and in came in third string quarterback, TJ Yates. Though he led the team to wins against the Jaguars, Falcons, and Bengals, the Texans stumbled into the playoffs losing three straight to end their season.
Houston beat the Bengals decisively and lost to the Ravens by a mere touchdown. So with key players coming back from injury, I would think the Texans are just a few steps away from making a Super Bowl run.
The only problem is the fact that they lost many key players due to free agency. Mario Williams is the big name, though the defense did not falter last season when he went down with an injury. Offensively speaking, losing offensive lineman Eric Winston and Mike Brisiel are huge blows to an offensive line that contributes to the Texans’ great run game.
If they can overcome these losses, then Houston can still have that deep playoff run. Even if they don’t, they’re still the team to beat in the AFC South. My Prediction: (11-5)
Indianapolis Colts (2-14) – It’s a new era in Indianapolis. Just like that, Peyton Manning is gone, along with many other key players such as Pierre Garçon, Jeff Saturday, Dallas Clark, Jacob Tamme, Joseph Addai and Anthony Gonzalez. On the defense, players such as Gary Brackett, Philip Wheeler, and Jamaal Anderson are gone.
This year, the Colts are a totally different team. There’s going to be a lot of growing pains but by drafting quarterback Andrew Luck, Colts fans should brace for a season with some hope.
Though they lost a ton of players via free agency, they also added a few. Players like Donnie Avery, Mewelde Moore, Cory Redding and Winston Justice look to contribute early on for a team with holes to be filled.
Defensively speaking, Indianapolis is going to be terrible. This offseason, they focused more on the offensive side of the ball through the draft and through free agency, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the Colts gave up a ton of points this season.
The Colts are rebuilding. It’s going to be a tough season. Can Andrew Luck become the savior Indianapolis wants him to be? Not this year. My Prediction: (4-12)
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11) – Priority number one for Jacksonville was to do everything they can to find weapons for young quarterback Blaine Gabbert. With a limited amount of draft picks, the Jaguars packaged their first and fourth round picks to move up two slots and draft wideout Justin Blackmon.
Jacksonville also signed receiver Laurent Robinson to further give Gabbert some weapons in the receiving corps. With Maurice Jones-Drew coming back from holding out, the Jaguars should be fine on that side of the ball.
Their strength was the defense, who looks to be a strong unit again this year. Though most of the defense ended up getting hurt, Jacksonville can get a little healthier this year than last, they should be great this season.
They aren’t going to be competing for a playoff spot this year. With a new owner and a new head coach, I don’t expect the Jaguars to make any leaps forwards (or backwards for that matter).
My only real problem with the Jaguars front office is the fact that they felt the need to use their third round draft pick on a punter. With holes that needed to be filled throughout the roster and only six draft picks (after trading up for Justin Blackmon), why would they use their third round pick on a punter? I hope Bryan Anger lives up to be the best punter ever. My Prediction: (5-11)
Tennessee Titans (9-7) – I never believed in the Titans last year. They proved me wrong by winning nine games, even with some turmoil in the quarterback situation. This year, Jake Locker takes the starting job and looks to lead this offense from one that was a rush-happy offense to one of which that will showcase his downfield passing skills.
By doing so, the pressure of running Chris Johnson too much will be alleviated and a fresher Chris Johnson will make for a better Chris Johnson in the long run. I don’t expect him to have another 2,000 yard rushing season, but that’s fine because the Titans aren’t going to need him to run 2,000 yards to win games.
Ever since the departure of Albert Haynesworth years ago, Tennessee’s pass rush has been abysmal at best. Their defense looks to improve from a bad year with the addition of linebacker Kamerion Wimbley to the defense and drafting defensive players with their second, third, and fourth round picks.
Losing cornerback Cortland Finnegan and linebacker Barrett Rudd will hurt, but hopefully those players that were drafted help replace the players that left via free agency.
The Titans are fortunate to be in a division that features a rebuilding Colts team and a not so great Jaguars team. Unfortunately for them, the Texans are still the real deal and Tennessee isn’t going to need all the wins they can get in the division to make the playoffs. My Prediction: (9-7)
Since the NFC South was founded in 2002, there has never been a back-to-back repeat division champion. If history repeats itself, then we can look at the Panthers, Falcons, or the Buccaneers as the new NFC South champion.
There’s a lot of talent in the South in terms of quarterback play with Cam Newton’s monster rookie year in Carolina, Matt Ryan’s great play in Atlanta, young gunslinger Josh Freeman (though he struggled last year) is a threat in Tampa Bay, and of course Drew Brees, who broke the single season passing record last season.
Atlanta Falcons (10-6)- The Falcons have fallen again in a terrible postseason game. During the regular season, the Falcons high flying offense was successful with Matt Ryan under center, Michael Turner as their running back, Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez as the pass catchers. That doesn’t matter to fans when the Falcons are 0-3 in playoff games under general manager Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Mike Smith.
By keeping their own free agents, this Falcons team looks to pick up where they left off last regular season. Due to the trade up to get Julio Jones, the Falcons were without a first round pick in the 2012 draft.
To add more weapons to the team, Dimitroff saw an Eagles team willing to give up a Pro Bowl corner and traded a seventh round pick for Asante Samuel. Other than this acquisition, the Falcons didn’t add very more players through free agency.
It seems this offseason, the Falcons haven’t moved forward as a team. Julio Jones can prove to be worth the risk of trading all of their draft picks but other than him, it doesn’t seem as if the Falcons have improved. Unfortunately for them, the Panthers are on the rise and the Buccaneers are maturing. Staying put can mean a missed playoff spot in this division. My Prediction: (8-8)
Carolina Panthers (6-10) – As a guy living in North Carolina, I can feel the excitement this state has in Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
Many believe that the Panthers can (and will) make the playoffs while others (though delusional) believe the Panthers will win the Super Bowl this year. Though a Super Bowl bid seems much, I am with fellow Carolinians to believe that Cam Newton is the real deal and the Panthers can fight for a playoff run.
Offensively speaking, I don’t see a viable wide receiver for Cam Newton to throw to other than aging receiver Steve Smith. The addition of tight end Greg Olsen last year was huge and I expect a big year for him this year. David Gettis’ return from injury and adding a fourth round pick receiver can help this receiving corps, but I still see wide receiver as a big hole in this team.
Signing Mike Tolbert and extending Jonathan Stewart’s contract seems puzzling to me because of the way it clogs up the backfield now with DeAngelo Williams there as well. After all, there are holes elsewhere and that spending can be used somewhere else.
I’ve always been a fan of the Panthers defense, and with Ron Edwards returning from injury, the pass rush should improve this season. Drafting linebacker Luke Kuechly (who will be competing for the Defensive Rookie of the Year award) will definitely strengthen the Panthers once weak linebacker group.
With a much improved defense and an explosive offense under Newton, look for the Panthers to not only compete in the NFC South but actually fight for a playoff spot. My Prediction: (8-8)
New Orleans Saints (13-3) – The Saints sure were in the news a lot during this offseason. I’m not going to get into the lawsuits, accusations, punishments, appeals, and other nonsense that don’t effect on the field play. Rather, let’s stick with what we do have on the field.
Drew Brees is still the best quarterback in the division (hell, I’ll put him at third best in the NFL behind Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady), the pieces of the defense that are gone won’t kill this team, and the offense is still top notched.
Starting with the offense, even though wideout Robert Meachem and lineman Carl Nicks are gone, the Saints offense shouldn’t regress immensely. Of course, I don’t expect New Orleans to produce at the level they set last year. After all, Brees set the NFL record for passing yards, which was previously set 25 years ago.
It’ll be really tough to match that. But by adding guard Ben Grubbs via free agency, the offensive line will be fine and the offense itself won’t lose a step.
Defensively, though the Saints lost corner Tracy Porter and defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, adding Brodrick Bunkley and Curtis Lofton will improve the terrible pass defense. It all starts with a good pass rush, and the Saints will definitely have a good one.
I laugh at many of those who are counting out New Orleans. This bounty scandal is huge news, but it’s not one that cripples the on the field production. My Prediction: (11-5)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-12) – To sum up 2011, the Buccaneers gave up on their coach. There’s talent on the team, but for some reason, they couldn’t put it together to get wins.
This offseason, Tampa Bay cleared out the front office and added quality pieces to the team via free agency. It’s going to be tough to compete in the NFC South, but if they can get back to their 2010 form where quarterback Josh Freeman looked like a young player ready to prove he’s a truly elite talent, they should be in the clear.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Buccaneers were busy by adding Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson, and Dallas Clark. Josh Freeman has a legitimate deep threat with Jackson. By drafting running back Doug Martin from Boise State, I’m excited to see this offense go to work against mediocre defenses.
On the defense, Tampa Bay drafted safety Mark Barron and signed corner Eric Wright to improve the secondary. I’m still not convinced the defense will be great, but they are an improved unit.
Though the Buccaneers look better, this is still a rebuilding project. In a division where quarterbacks Brees, Newton, and Ryan rule, Tampa Bay still looks like the fourth place team in the South. My Prediction: (5-11)