Tuesday, August 12, 2008

AFC South Rundown

AFC South Rundown
Over the next week or so, I'm going to churn out one of these Rundowns for each of the 8 NFL divisions, which will be the beginnings of my NFL Preview. As the season gets closer, I will have some more in-depth coverage, including projected standings, and an in-depth Steelers preview. Part 3 of 8 can be found below. Enjoy.

The Colts have been the class of this division since its inception, and there is little reason to think that will change this year. Sure, the core of the team is aging and Peyton Manning is coming off of offseason surgery, but with their usual undersized, speedy defense, and the pass heavy attack, there’s little reason to think the Colts won’t be in the mix yet again in the AFC contender picture. One potential emerging star this year for the Colts could be WR Anthony Gonzalez who came on towards the end of last season and will be handed the slot receiver spot, one of Peyton Manning’s favorite safety nets on the field. Joseph Addai had another productive year last season, but the team is still expecting more from the third year running back, and he hopes to deliver this season. The O-Line is steady as ever, and youngster Tony Ugoh played admirably last season after Tarik Glenns stunning retirement, and he will be the star of this line before long. On the defensive side of the ball, Bob Sanders remains the best safety, and possibly best defender, in the game. Dwight Freeney has battled continuous health issues, but when he is on the field there are few more dominant players in football. The linebacking corps continues to be wildly undersized, a staple of the Colts for years, but their effectiveness cannot be questioned. And, of course, in close games, they have the ultimate weapon, Adam Vinatieri, waiting in the wings.

If anyone from this division can unseat mighty Indianapolis, it’s the Jacksonville Jaguars. From top to bottom, the Jags just may have more overall talent then their counterparts in Indy, but they continue to have major issues with the wide receiver position, and while David Garrard had a very good first year as the full-time starter, he is certainly not in Peyton Manning’s class, and likely never will be. What makes Jacksonville dangerous, though, is the potent running game they boast. The ageless Fred Taylor was once an injury-prone star in the making who could never make it through an entire season. Now, though, entering his 11th year, you have to wonder if maybe those injuries actually prolonged his career, as he made his first Pro Bowl this past season after a 1200 yard rushing season. Taylor is joined in the backfield by the small but incredibly powerful Maurice Jones-Drew (or MoJo for short). Jones-Drew gives the Jags the best 1-2 punch in football at the running back position, and will be a star when he finally wrests the full-time job from Taylor. As mentioned above, though, the Jags have had terrible luck at the wide receiver position, with several wasted high draft picks and free agent signings. They acquired not one but two career underachievers at this position in the offseason in Jerry Porter and Troy Williamson, and if even one of them pans out, the Jaguars will be ecstatic. Reggie Williams is a solid red zone target, but is mediocre on the rest of the field. The Jaguars defense was weakened by the loss of Marcus Stroud and John Henderson now stands alone in the middle. After failing to nail down a Jason Taylor trade, the Jags instead snatched a pair of pass rushers in the draft in Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves, but it is questionable as to whether either is ready to consistently make a difference at this level. CBs Rashean Mathis and Brian Williams may be two of the most underrated players in football. Mathis has garnered some attention as a ballhawk, but Williams may actually be the more technically sound and consistent of the duo. The defense as a whole will still be a major strength for Jacksonville, and they are a team built to win in the postseason with their strong running game. If they can find even one legitimate deep threat for Garrard this could be the most dangerous team in the AFC.

Yes, we all know the old spiel by now about how all Vince Young does is win football games. But, until the ultra-talented young quarterbacks learns to throw the ball consistently enough to be a threat, this team will not be a threat to win in January. With that said, it’s a testament to Young’s ability and skill set that this team is even as good as they have been the last season and a half under his guidance. For whatever reason, the Titans have opted to give Young next to zero weapons at the receiver position, and have insisted on drafting running backs when they have one of the best running QBs in NFL history. Burly RB LenDale White isn’t a threat to break any long runs, but he is a grinder and was effective enough last season to maintain the starting spot. The Titans need speedy Chris Johnson to step up immediately and take some carries away from the plodding White. Ideally, the Titans would probably like to keep White to 12-15 touches a game, instead of the 20 or so he got last season. If Johnson can play, he and White could be one of the most effective Thunder and Lightning tandems in the league. At receiver, young Roydell Williams has shown some promise and could be a scary deep threat if he continues to mature, but that’s a big if. The other receivers and tight ends can best be described as mediocre (and that’s being generous), and it amazes how they expect Young, who has below average passing skills to begin with, to grow as a passer when they give him next to nothing to work with downfield. On the defensive side of the ball, much like an offense, it all revolves around one man, Albert Haynesworth. He was probably the most dominant defender in football a year ago, and is a mixture of both a run-stopping giant and solid pass rusher. It will be interesting to see how Jevon Kearse plays now that he is back in Tennessee. There is no question that Kearse still has the talent to be a difference maker on defense, but he hasn’t been an elite player in years. Keith Bulluck is the emotional leader of the defense and is still a serious playmaker at age 32. The secondary is steady, led by emerging star Michael Griffin and certainly won’t hurt a very solid defense.

The Texans finally saw .500 last season, and they definitely got better once again this offseason, but I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelash to see that record slip just a bit this year. They played a bit over their head last season, and while they did get better in the offseason, the rest of the elite AFC squads got better as well, and their division is either the deepest or second deepest in football, depending on who you ask. Matt Schaub finally got his long awaited chance and was decent when healthy, but that wasn’t really that often. Schaub missed five whole games and parts of three others. He needs to stay healthy and make more progress in his second year as a starter if this team is to get beyond that .500 threshold. Schaub will be assisted by the spectacular Andre Johnson who is among the most talented receivers in football, but like Schaub has had health issues. Kevin Walter had something of a breakout year in ’07, and the team thinks he can be a legit threat opposite ‘Dre. TE Owen Daniels also had a surprising year with 63 catches and is a nice safety valve for Schaub. What isn’t helpful for the offense though is the Texans dreadful running back position. The fact that they are still relying on Ahman Green as a starter tells you everything you need to know about the Texans. Green was washed up three years ago. Backup Chris Brown had a bunch of opportunities in Tennessee but things never worked out for him on a long-term basis. He will steal some carries though, simply because there is no way Green will be healthy or good. The offensive line will not do this running game any favors, either, as they are an average group, but are made mildly intriguing by the hiring of the great Alex Gibbs as the OL coach this offseason. The defense is what makes this team go. Mario Williams may be the best defensive player in a division full of impact defensive stars, and is certainly the most talented around. Amobi Okoye showed signs of being a very good interior lineman last season, and teaming him up with Super Mario could be a terror for opponents for the next decade. DeMeco Ryans is one of the better linebackers in the AFC, an all-around player out of the Derrick Brooks mold. This team has poured money and high picks into the secondary, but so far have not had a ton of success back there. Dunta Robinson is coming off serious injuries after a promising start to last season, so he will be a major question mark. The rest of the defense should help the ailing secondary though, and it will be the defensive side of the ball that pushes the Texans toward respectability ever so slowly.

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