The Southern Division of the American Football Conference has seen a few shifts in power over the course of the 2000’s until now. At the beginning of the century, the Titans were to team to beat with Steve McNair. Then, the Colts had a decade long run of dominance until the exodus of Peyton Manning in early 2012. Things appeared to be on a downward trend for the Colts, which meant the Texans were able to capitalize by winning back-to-back AFC South divisional titles. However, the Colts managed to surprised most of the football world by reaching the playoffs in 2012. Looking at the 2013 season and another year of Andrew Luck and some improvements by the Texans and Titans, the AFC South appears to be in good position again as one of the tougher divisions in the NFL.
Let’s analyze from top to bottom how the division may unfold this season.
Mike Munchak and Jake Locker have been tied together for the last two seasons since they both respectively debuted as coach and quarterback of the Titans. Munchak has a terrific background in coaching offensive linemen, having worked in that capacity for the Oilers/Titans franchise since 1994. Locker has shown flashes of terrific ability in small spurts. In his first season in the league, he played 4 games passing for 542 yards and 4 touchdowns with no interceptions, however his passer rating was below 52%. Last year was more of a struggle with Locker dealing with shoulder issues and missing over a month of action. He finished the season with a quarterback rating of 74 and over 2000 yards, 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions: Pedestrian numbers to say the least that must be improved for the Titans to make a legitimate playoff push.
I mention both of them as being tied together as this will need to be a big year for Locker in order for Munchak to stay on as coach with the Titans. Skill wise, he has it all; A terrific arm and great athleticism, which can allow him to make plays inside and outside the pocket. The issue is his accuracy and ability to stay healthy. As with most young quarterbacks as well, decision-making could improve as well, but most importantly, it will be imperative to stay injury free so he can play a full season, which will only do wonders for his development.
Of course, Locker cannot perform to his best abilities if he is not getting top-flight production from his receivers. Gone is Jared Cook, but the addition of Delanie Walker will factor in to the pass blocking and run blocking game, special teams and passing. As a tight end, he does a great job of getting open but at times suffers from mediocre hands. He showed in the Super Bowl that he could be a playmaking tight end and a focal point on offense.
More importantly for Locker to have a big season will be the improvement of Kenny Britt, not only on the field but off it as well. Whether it is missing time due to disciplinary reason or due to injury, Kenny Britt being off the field is a detriment to the Titans. There are very few receivers in the league that can combine his physicality as a receiver and speed. When he is on, he is a dominant force. Last season was an average season for Britt playing 14 games but only catching 45 balls for 589 yards and 4 touchdowns. This will be the year, like many Titans players, where Britt will need to stay healthy and elevate his game to the elite level that he has to potential to do.
The rest of the receiving corps is good enough to support a player of Britt caliber, as long as Britt can play a dominant role. Kendall Wright and Nate Washington are solid players, but better suited as 2A and 2B receivers. Wright had a fine rookie season with over 600 yards receiving and 4 touchdowns. Wright is showed the capability to be one of the better slot demons in the league and is a player the Titans can run various types of drag and option routes to create rooms.
Nate Washington is still one of the most underrated players in the league and picked up the slack in games when Kenny Britt was either ineffective or injured. He remains a bona fide deep threat averaging over 16 yards per reception last season.
The player I am keeping my eye on is Justin Hunter. As a rookie out of Tennessee, Hunter stands tall at 6-4, 196 lbs. with the ability to run a dazzling 4.35 40-yard dash. Hunter could end up being a stretch receiver with his terrific size and speed combination. Some scouts considered him a better prospect than his Tennessee teammate Cordarrelle Patterson who went 5 picks before him in the first round (29th overall).
In the backfield, although he did not get back to his ‘CJ2K’ ways, Johnson improved on his 2011 total of 4.0 yards per carry by average 4.5 yards per tote. It appears like him attending training camp in 2012 after bypassing it in 2011 due to a contract dispute was beneficial to his success. With the addition of Shonn Greene who will be spelling Johnson in the backfield, some in Tennessee are saying there may be a 50/50 split in the backfield. Ultimately this type of strategy will keep Johnson fresh and potentially prolong his career. The bottom line is he remains their best running back and 15-20 touches are the minimum that he should be getting. Greene, I have always felt lacked the talent to truly be a feature back and the Jets felt the same by not extending his contract. He is a plodding back who is an imposing force when you look at him, but not when he lowers his shoulder or runs up the middle. Paired with Johnson who is a top-flight back, may re-invigorate his career and the Titans running game.
The offensive line has been improved tremendously with the additions of Andy Levitre and the drafting of Chance Warmack. Levitre was renown by many scouts as one of the better guards last season, which prompted him to get a big deal from Tennessee. Warmack is an imposing player out of Alabama and can move relatively well. He is an absolute mauler and will fit in right away under the tutelage of former offensive lineman Mike Munchak. The addition of these two players will help Michael Roos at left tackle that should re-emerge as one of the better tackles in the game, which he was a few years ago.
Defensively, the Titans will have to make some major improvements from a team that finished in the bottom third in passing and rushing defense. Jason McCourty and Alteraun Verner form a solid albeit unspectacular cornerback duo. Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray wants to instill a more physical defense and more press coverage, which may not necessarily fit the Verner’s skill set. As such, Verner is getting looks at nickel corner and free safety. Ultimately, I think Verner gets the second starting cornerback job as he has experience, but I would not be surprised if 3rd round draft pick, Blidi Wreh-Wilson or Tommie Campbell get extra first team reps as they are big and can move. McCourty will be a fixture as a starter at corner as he has improved every season he has been in the league. He needs to continue to improve and provide more consistent player for the Titans to improve their defense
Michael Griffin has Pro Bowl ability at safety, however one issue he had last season was being juggled between both safety positions. Griffin is less of a force in the box and more of a player with great range and ball skills. He was tied for the team lead in interceptions, despite the fact that he was asked to play a predominant role in stopping the run. As such, the Titans brought in Bernard Pollard so Griffin can solely man the free safety position and worry pre-dominantly about passing situations. Pollard is one of the best players at making a beeline towards a ball carrier and dishing out punishing blows. Very few players have that intimidating factor that receivers or runners worry about when they are crossing the middle of the field or getting into the second level of the defense. Pollard dishes out the lullabies as well as anyone in the league, as you all will remember from the disembodiment of Stevan Ridley.
The rest of the defense features young players that you may not know about, but are definitely worth keeping an eye on in the upcoming season. Zach Browns and Akeem Ayers are 2nd and 3rd year outside linebackers that both can rush the passer while and have the athletic ability to be stout against the run. Both players will need to improve their coverage skills as they struggled in those situations last season for the Titans. Zavier Gooden is a third round draft pick out of Missouri who has the athletic ability, unlike his counterparts on the outside, to cover mobile tight ends and bigger receivers in the slot. His addition will add versatility to their linebacker corps.
The defensive line features the likes of Jurell Casey who was ranked as the 7th most productive defensive tackle in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus. Casey is stout against the run, but has enough acceleration and speed to be disruptive as a pass rusher. Sammie Hill, Mike Martin and Ropati Pitoitua, round out an interior defensive line that is very big and has the potential to be one of the better run stuffing groups in the league. The Titans have embarked on a mission to increase the size of the team overall and the physicality of their defensive line. Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wembley round out the entire line and while they are not as stout due to their smaller stature, they will complement the defensive tackles adequately as speed rushers who should be freed up with the middle of the line being a big force.
The special teams are again spearheaded by Rob Bironas who has continuously been one of the more accurate kickers in the AFC (4 seasons in the league with at least 87% field goals made). Brett Kern manages the field position game well with 30 punts inside the 20 and an average of over 47 yards per punt.
The Titans will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs with at least two teams clearly better than them in the division. What will keep Mike Munchak afloat will be improvement from the offensive line and most notably from his quarterback, Jake Locker. For Locker to have a great season, he will need big years from his young receivers, Kenny Britt among the most important.
The Texans are coming off back-to-back postseason trips, matchups with the Bengals and subsequent exists in the divisional round. They seemingly have most of the tools to be a contender in the league and they showed that with an 11-1 start last season. However, they faltered late in the season and finished with a still respectable 12-4 record. Wherein lie the issues with the Texans?
Matt Schaub has been a solid contributor at quarterback for the Texans over the last half decade. His numbers have gone down with the advent of one of the best rushing attacks in the league. While he has shown an ability to get the team to the playoffs, he is tied with as many playoff wins (1) as T.J. Yates, his backup quarterback.
Schaub’s issues come in the clutch and in big moments. He can look really good in games in week 1 or against weaker opponents, but when the competition increases, he has not always played up to par, or showed the necessary cut-throat attitude that most of the elite quarterbacks have. A prime example was the Wild-Card game against the Bengals where he had multiple opportunities to virtually make the game out of reach, but he would either overthrow the ball, make the wrong reads or even get sacked. Against the Patriots, he threw key a key interception and was only able to lead his team to a 26% percentage on 3rd down conversions. That is simply not enough to get the Texans above the hump. Is there a current quarterback out there without a team that can supplant Schaub? I would venture to say, absolutely not. He is still a borderline top 12 quarterback and posts very respectable numbers. However, he needs to improve his performance in clutch situations, against the better opponents and most importantly in the playoffs.
The Texans running game, as we know, is lead by Arian Foster. Foster has been an absolute stalwart since being given the starting job in 2010. His skillset as a runner, which features elite vision, terrific cutting ability and his pass catching ability are perfect for Gary Kubiak’s zone read offense. Foster often times looks like he is gliding on the football field when he gets the football, reads his blockers in conjunction with the way the defense is leaning and makes a one-cut burst for 10 yards. He does as good a job as any running back in the league of saving his body from hits and diving forward at the right moment to not only gain an extra yard or two, but to also avoid taking any big hits. He carries went upwards last season, with 351 and his yards per carry was at a career low of 4.1 and at times the Texans run game stalled slightly. With Ben Tate back and healthy, this will alleviate Foster taking too much of a pounding, getting worn out and ultimately reducing his effectiveness. Regardless, you can peg Foster to have another 1300 yards + season with over 10 touchdowns.
The wide receiver corps has finally added to youth to the group. For years Andre Johnson has been virtually entrenched as the main cog of that group, with the likes of Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones only offering pedestrian contributions. This is finally the year where the number 2 wide receiver position may actually offer legitimate production. First round pick and 27th overall selection DeAndre Hopkins has as much ability as anyone in this draft at his position. Hopkins combines solid straight-line speed and a big frame to fend off smaller corners and can beat you deep or in the intermediate game. Owen Daniels had another strong season for Houston with 716 yards receiving and 6 touchdowns. He remains one of the most underrated tight ends in the league. The loss of tight end/h-back/fullback James Casey will be a tremendous loss however. Daniels is not a great blocking tight end, which made Casey’s role so valuable. He could play a multitude of positions and had good pass catching skills as well. They will need either Garrett Graham and Ryan Griffin to step in and fill a void in the number 2 tight end spot that is very useful in the Texans offense.
The above cast of characters are integral in the Texans having the best play-action offense in the league, thanks to factors such as Matt Schaub’s ball skills, their elite running game, receivers selling their routes perfectly, but also one of the more underrated offensive lines in the league. If your offensive line cannot initially sell that run game and then transition into pass protection, your play-action will be rendered useless, ineffective and basically a segway into for your quarterback to be sacked.
The Texans big maulers do not get enough credit, but it was good to see at least one player, Duane Brown, being recognized by his peers as one of the top 100 players in NFL Network’s list. Whether it is as a pass blocker or from a run-blocking standpoint, Brown grades as an elite tackle. As Lance Zierlein wrote in a recent blog post for the Houston Chronicle, you have to be strong on the edges with regards to the zone read offense. If the Texans offensive line owns the outside and can secure the edge, it will easily allow their running backs to cut inside or bounce runs back outside. We know how solid Duane Brown is, but his counterpart on the right side (the running side of the offensive line), Derek Newton, Brennan Williams or Ryan Harris, the three tackles vying for the right tackle spot in training camp, will need to have a big seasons.
Defensively, the Texans will be happy to see the return of Brian Cushing to Wade Philip’s 3-4 defense. Cushing was having such a solid season until he tore his ACL. When he is on and healthy, there are very few linebackers who combine the sideline-to-sideline speed, coverage skills and instincts that Cushing has. His return is integral to the Texans defense and what Wade Philips does in his 3-4 defense as Cushing is terrific as a run stuffer and also a good A gap blitzer. Just to put things in perspective, Cushing played in the first five games of the season and during that span, the Texans allowed a minuscule 85.4 rushing yards per game. After the 5 games Cushing had played and his subsequent loss for the rest of the season, they allowed 103 rushing yards per game. Obviously there are other factors that are in play, but the year prior when Cushing was healthy, Houston was the second best run defense in the league and they dropped down to 6th in 2012.
Despite the return of Cushing, there are some key losses along the linebacker corps and defensive line, in Connar Barwin and Shaun Cody will desperately need to be replaced. The cast of characters that will be assigned to be cornerstones in stepping up for the two key departures will be Whitney Mercilus and Earl Mitchell. Mercilus is a young rush linebacker that was taken in the first round of the 2012 draft in the hopes that he would be able to eventually provide the type of production Mario Williams did. Despite starting only a handful of games and playing pre-dominantly in passing situations and special teams, he was still able to record 6 sacks and 2 forced fumbles. He has great speed and a strong motor, but will need to increase that production and become more consistent in 2013.
Earl Mitchell played quite a bit last season after Cody suffered broken ribs in week 9. This experience as well as added weight, bulking up from 287 to over 300 lbs., will allow him to truly withstand the rigors of playing the zero technique position (nose tackle) in a 3-4 defense. Mitchell has good speed and is known as more of a pass rusher at that position than a guy who is to simply occupy space and be an immovable force, which was what Cody was.
At the 5-technique spots, you have Antonio Smith who has been a solid contributor not only as a player who can contain the edge and keep outside rushers clean, but can also provide his own pass rushing, to the tune of 6.5 and 7 sacks over the course of the last two seasons respectively.
If you thought that was good production from a 5-technique, just look at J.J. Watt and the season he had a year ago. When you talk about a player recording 20.5 sacks (from an interior defensive lineman), 69 solo tackles, 4 forced fumbles, 23 stuffs and a whopping and ridiculous 16 passes deflected, you realize not only how good Watt was and why he was easily defensive player of the year but as well how dominant he may be for a longer period. Watt is a transcendent player and his types are very rarely seen in the league on a consistent basis. What is so incredible as mentioned, is that 93% of his rushes are as an interior lineman, which means very few edge rushes. Watt’s overall game is a delight to watch. Not only can he bull rush you with superb strength and power, but he also uses it to set up a terrific swim move. Watt’s season was so good, that he received the highest grade ever from Pro Football Focus of a 100+. Expect Watt to have another monster season for the Texans.
The secondary will suffer a little with the loss of Glover Quin to the Lions who acts as an intimidating force on the back end. He is not a one trick pony like other safeties, however as he possesses good coverage skills and a knowledge of the game that allows him to make all the calls in the secondary.
Of course, that loss was supposed to be easily offset with the signing of Ed Reed, but his surgically repaired hip has not come close to healing and there is virtually no timetable for his return. When Reed is healthy, he can still provide more than yeoman’s work and is still regarded as one of the better free safeties. Having said all of that, Reed’s game has diminished a little. While he is still a terrific baiter of quarterbacks making them think a receiver is open, although his closing speed is not what it used to be to enable him to bait and go for picks. To that point, no one has read offenses better at that position over the last 10 years than Reed. Do not expect him to be a force against the run as he missed a lot of tackles last season, however his leadership and overall knowledge of the game cannot be questioned. It will be a devastating blow for the Texans if the loss of Quin cannot be offset by the signing of Ed Reed, due to his inability to return from a hip injury.
The rest of the secondary features the likes of Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson at both corner spots, and Danieal Manning at the strong safety position. Joseph is one of the most underappreciated corners in the league, possesses great recovery speed and does not get beat too often. Jackson is in his fourth year in the league provides similar type of coverage and like Joseph, is a solid tackler as well. Manning is better suited to play free safety which may end up being the case if Ed Reed is unable to play to start the season. Watch out for rookie D.J. Swearinger out of South Carolina. He surely will get the nod if Reed cannot play early in the season. Although he is of small stature, he combines a solid frame, with terrific athleticism and plays with a lot of physicality. It would make sense to move Manning at the free safety spot and Swearinger at strong safety where he can drop down and provide intimidating run support with his physical style.
On Special teams, Randy Bullock who was the 2011 Lou Groza Award winner (given to the NCAA’s best kicker) returns from a groin tear in 2011 that cost him his rookie season. He is known as a kicker with great accuracy and good ability to hit them from within 45-50 yards. Shane Lechler comes over the Raiders and over his 10 plus year career has always been considered one of the best punters in the league. Pairing a terrific defense with a 7 time Pro Bowler at the punter will always be a recipe for success in the field position game.
For the Texans to finally make it to the AFC championship game, they must get better play from quarterback Matt Schaub. At the very least, their running game has to return to the dominance that it achieved in the 2010 and 2011 seasons as it tailed off only slightly in 2012. The defense is still strong and there are some young players waiting in the wings to replace veterans who were jettisoned to other teams.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are a long ways away from rekindling their success from the mid to late 90’s where they were perennial playoff participants. At this moment, just reaching a near .500 record would be an impressive feat for a Jags team that has a combined 7-25 record over the past two seasons. Despite their shortcomings, some moves that were made this offseason are a sign that the team has the pieces to turn the corner in the future.
The new black and gold matted helmets were not the only new addition that was made this spring. Gus Bradley was a terrific hire for the Jaguars. Bradley was one of the main architects of a Seahawks defense that improved every season and was top 10 in 2011 and top 5 in 2012. He is a young and fiery leader who gets the most out of his players. He runs a fast and attacking scheme, which is needed as the Jaguars had less, sacks last season than J.J. Watt (20 versus 20.5).
The Jaguars were quite woeful in all facets of the game, as they ranked as 29th on offense and 30th on defense respectively last season. Much of their struggles can easily be attributed to Maurice Jones-Drew amassing a career low in games played and rushing yards, due to a foot injury that sidelined him for a lion share of the 2012 season. All signs point to ‘MJD’ being a lock to start training camp with no holdouts as opposed to last season where he sat all of camp ion hopes of a new long-term contract. When healthy, Jones-Drew’s acumen as a top-flight runner cannot be denied. He is an absolute load to deal with due to his low center of gravity and he can outrun a vast majority of defenders with his terrific speed and quick feet. He is a true all-purpose back with great passing skills, the ability to pick up a variety of blitzes and pass coverage calls and he does not concede his spot as a goal line runner to anyone. The Jaguars will continue as a bottom barrel offensive team if they do not get a healthy ‘MJD’ in 2013.
Part of that 29th ranked offense could be due to the fact that the Jaguars have continuously struggled at quarterback. Blaine Gabbert simply does not make sound reads from the pocket at this stage of his career. He gets hurried far to easily and when there is even a little hint of pressure, he ends up throwing the ball either to the opposing team, or in a failed attempt to rush a pass, a wild incompletion. Chad Henne faired slightly better at times in relief of Gabbert which will lead to an open competition at the position during training camp, but the Jags would be best served, once and for all, figuring out if Gabbert, who was selected 10th overall in the 2011 draft is indeed the quarterback of the future.
The receiver position looks to be in solid hands, as long as Justin Blackmon can get his act together. He is a big receiver that can manhandle smaller corners and has enough speed to beat you deep, although he is not a burner. He had a solid rookie season with over 800 yards on 64 receptions, although 236 of those yards were in one game, albeit against a very good Texans defense. He looked to be in better sync when Henne took over during the second half of the season. Despite the outlier game against the Texans, Blackmon ended the season averaging 83 yards per game with 20 catches and 2 touchdowns. That looked like a classic springboard end of the season that typically catapults young players in great seasons the next year, but Blackmon unfortunately was pushed for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and will subsequently miss the first four games. Ultimately Blackmon can be a number one receiver and maintain close to a 1000 yard per season average, but he will need to make sure he stays on the field and when he is on it, improve his pass catching and route running.
At the opposite side of the field, Cecil Shorts had a surprisingly terrific season. The third year player out of Mount Union led the team in receiving yards with 979 yards on 55 catches with 7 touchdowns. Shorts, unlike Blackmon is indeed a burner and he showed that by catching touchdown passes of 39,80,42,67 and 59 yards. His 17.8 yards per catch was second in for wide receivers who qualify for that statistic and he was behind on Vincent Jackson (19.2). Shorts is adept at catching balls in traffic and finding the open spaces to run to the end zone for big scores. Not only is Shorts proving to be an up and coming receiver but he is always showing development as a leader by leading his group of receivers to workout in Minneapolis with his quarterbacks in order to gain chemistry. Shorts and Blackmon can co-exist as a tandem, but Blackmon must show the work ethic and leadership that Shorts has displayed or he will be finding a new team next season. Jordan Shipley and the underachieving Mohammed Massaquoi round out the top 4 receivers in this group and one of the latter will need to step up in Blackmon’s absence.
Mercedes Lewis has been a solid two-way tight end for the team over the span of his 8-year career. Lewis over the past two seasons has been featured more as a blocker than a receiver. However, with the hiring of Jedd Fisch, who was the offensive coordinator for the Miami Hurricanes, running a pro-style offense, look for Lewis to re-establish himself as a solid safety valve for Gabbert and or Henne and to take some pressure off Cecil Shorts, with the absence of Justin Blackmon for the first four games due to suspension.
The offensive line has been in flux for a few years but with the drafting of Luke Joeckel to be paired with left tackle Eugene Monroe, the Jaguars finally have two sets of tackles that can be cornerstones for years to come. Along with veteran center Evan Meester who has been a mainstay on the line for some time for the Jags and young linemen Will Rackley and Uche Nwaneri, who are both big maulers with upside, the Jaguars line should be much improved.
On the defensive side of the football, there is much work left to be done for Gus Bradley to mold this unit into one that fits his scheme, however there are some pieces for him to work with.
I absolutely love the pick of Jonathan Cyprien out of Florida International. Cyprien, who many scouts considered the best in a class of deep safeties, was an absolute steal in the 2nd round (33rd pick). He possesses very good size at 6-0 217 lbs. with a strong and thick build. He is an explosive in-the-box type of safety who will be able to provide good run support. As for many rookie safeties, however, he will need to improve his coverage skills, as he does not have elite level range. Gus Bradley had a similar battering ram type of safety in Seattle with the imposing presence of Kam Chancellor. Many thought Chancellor was too slow to play safety, yet he became a Pro Bowler in 2012. Cyprien is much more athletic and has a good base in which to work with to improve his coverage skills.
At the free safety position, Dawan Landry is slated to play there but like Cyprien, coverage is not his strong suit. They may be better suited to have the likes of Josh Evans or Antwon Blake man that position or else Cyprien and Landry will be eaten alive in coverage.
The corners are very inexperienced apart from the aging Marcus Trufant. The former Seahawk has lost a step at this point of his career and is better suited as a nickel corner. He provides an added bonus of a player who is used to Gus Bradley’s scheme having played for him the last two seasons. He can still provide average coverage abilities for this Jaguars team, simply because there is far too much uncertainty with their current crop of corners. Someone will need to step up between Alan Ball, 7th rounder Jeremy Harris or undrafted rookie Marcus Burley.
Regardless of who gets the proverbial nod at each position, we know from his time in Seattle, that Bradley will always favor a bigger secondary. They will play a lot of press-man coverage and push the buttons as much as they can with regards to contact with receivers.
The linebackers are not elite, but you could do a lot worse than this unit. Similar to in Seattle, the linebacker corps in Gus Bradley’s scheme is not the most important aspect of the defense. Paul Posluzny is a solid tackling machine who has recorded over 100 solo tackles in 2 of his last 3 seasons. He is good at engaging blockers and finding the running back and he can hold his own against the pass. Russell Allen, who was never drafted, had a surprisingly really solid season last year for the Jags posting 107 solo tackles to lead the team. He will not dazzle with terrific coverage skills or pass rushing instincts, but he is a serviceable player who Bradley will love coaching. Geno Hayes and Julian Stanford are outside linebackers who could make an impact as they have the athleticism to cover slot receivers and contain runners on the edge.
The defensive line is where Bradley will have the most talent on his defensive unit. Tyson Alualu is an absolute load and is getting better every single season. He can hold lineman up and use quick moves to close the gaps or he can add some decent pass rushing ability for an interior lineman. The Jaguars will be moving Alualu to the defensive end position in situations to take better advantage of his ability to be a dual threat defensive lineman. Along with Jason Babin, who had 18 sacks two seasons ago, this could form into a solid pairing of defensive ends. Babin is one the downside of his career, but will still be able to add 7-10 sacks. Roy Miller and Jeremy Mincey will complete the rest of the defensive line.
One aspect that Bradley loves utilizing is a 3-4 defense in rushing situations. Typically in Seattle on rushing downs, Bradley would line up his big defensive tackles in Alan Branch, Red Bryant, and Brandon Mebane and a speed rusher would hang on the outside as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. That is where young players like Sen’Derrick Marks and D’Anthony Smith who are both over 300 lbs., could play a big role in this defense. In passing situations, you will see this team most likely sending out a wide line and edge rusher all across the line. Who will step up, as the edge rusher will remain to be seen, however.
Josh Scobee will lead this special teams unit, as he remains one of the best long-range bombers in the game today. Bryan Anger had a terrific and busy rookie season for the Jaguars; finishing 6th overall in average yards per punt with 47.8 as well as 31 punts in the 20-yard line.
The resurgence that the Indianapolis Colts went through last season was absolutely history. To go from a two win team, to a 10 win team is a feat that is incredibly hard in the NFL. Full marks need to go to Chuck Pagano for implementing a system and attitude in training camp prior to the regular season. We all know his emotional ride battling cancer and missing games and his amazing return on the field was a joy to watch. During his absence, Bruce Arians was absolutely integral in ensuring that the team stayed afloat, did not waver nor make sure they used Pagano’s absence as an excuse. He was by far the correct choice for coach of the year, both from a schematic and emotional leadership standpoint. Arians also did a standup job with the development of Andrew Luck. Luck had some struggles, but when you orchestrate 7 overall comebacks, including four in the 4th quarter, it displays immediately a level of confidence among his teammates and leadership beyond his years.
Luck did indeed struggle with accuracy (54% completion) and interceptions (18). Many of those struggles were due to having the 5th most pass attempts in the league, with 627 of them. If we dig deeper, 27% of Luck’s passes were longer than 15 yards, which would qualify as ‘deep passes’. Stats aside, if you watched a few Colts games and know anything about the type of offense Arians ran in Pittsburgh, you know that the Colts go deep and they did so more than most teams in the league last season. With this philosophy, it was no doubt that Luck would struggle with accuracy but make no mistake about it, from a raw skill standpoint, Luck has the necessary touch and ability to be one of the more accurate passers in the game.
Another aspect that cannot be ignored was Luck getting sacked 41, hit more than 105 times and pressured 203 times, according to Pro Football Focus. What does that tell us? Obviously the offensive line needs to do a better job of being stout in front of Luck but it also shows us that stats do not tell the story with a quarterback. Luck was still able to pass for over 4,300 yards and 23 touchdowns. What was also impressive were his 5 rushing touchdowns and the surprising amount of athleticism he can show outside of the pocket, which allowed him to save himself from possibly more sacks. Internal improvement by Luck is without a question. He has the work ethic and the intelligence to improve his performance on his end and the he is obviously talented enough to take his game to that proverbial ‘next level’. The Colts and new offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who coached Luck in the same capacity at Stanford, will need to make it a priority to keep their prized possession healthy.
There are virtually a whole new cast of characters on the offensive line, which be somewhat worrisome for a quarterback if they all do not gel and grow accustomed to each other in a hurry. On the onset, they do have a talented line with the likes of Gosder Cherilus, who was acquired from Detroit and should be a mainstay at the right tackle spot. Ben Ijalana is another player who can be a fixture at the right tackle spot. He was picked in the second round in last season’s draft and is a player that has potential to be a starter in the league. The key will be for him to stay healthy as he’s dealt with two major knee injuries in his very young career.
Donald Thomas who will be playing at left guard was acquire from New England and started 7 games for the Patriots. He has experience and is a solid player who will be an improvement for that unit.
Samson Satele has started virtually his entire career with Miami and Oakland and started in all 11 games he played last season before suffering an injury. He provides a big presence especially for a center and as long as he is healthy, will be another fixture on that line.
Anthony Castonzo, who was drafted in the first round last season, graded very solid as a rookie. He will need to take the next step and as a former first rounder, he will be expected to be one of the better left tackles this season.
Clearly there has been a lot of change on the offensive line and from a talent perspective; it has been for the better. From a size perspective, the Colts will be one of the bigger units in the league and this should translate in their pass protections and rushing ability.
At the receiver position, not enough words can be said about how good Reggie Wayne was. He truly was ‘Master Wayne’ last season. This, again, can be attributed to Bruce Arians who challenged Wayne to get in better shape in order to be moved in a multitude of positions. Not only did he line up at his usual split end (strong side receiver position), but he was moved a lot the flanker and slot positions, lining up near tight ends and on the right side of the offense, which was opposite of where he typically was in his first 12 seasons in the league. Obviously that was a trait of the Peyton Manning offense in which all players line up at exactly the same position and adjust on the fly depending on Manning’s calls.
The new alignments for Wayne came to fruition and produced another fantastic season for the future hall of famer, to the tune of 106 receptions and over 1,300 yards. While it is a concept that makes sense, to have your best skill position player play in a multitude of alignments, it is not an easy proposition, but Wayne adjusted beautifully to it.
T.Y. Hilton may have been the best rookie receiver last season with his 890 yards and 7 touchdowns. His 17.8 yards per catch was tied for second in the league. He fit the offense perfectly with the amount of deep balls Luck threw and his terrific speed. As he got more experience, he expanded his game and was not solely a deep threat for the Colts. Look for Hilton to possibly eclipse the 1000 yard plateau this season and show that he is not just a one trick pony as the offense will go away slightly from the ‘bombs away’ barrage of deep passes from last season.
Another addition to the offense was Darrius Heyward-Bey. He could not find consistency with his route running and hands in Oakland, but in a system that should utilize some form of deep passing, which Luck was accustomed to, Heyward-Bey should still prove to be a useful cog in the offense. He has never had the opportunity to play with a veteran, let alone hall of fame receiver and often times in Oakland, he was counted on to be the on and off the field leader of that receiving unit. That was simply too much to ask from a young player and he will now step in as a 3rd option with the opportunity to revive his career. A solid signing to add depth and good production out of the opposite split end position which could cause a lot of havoc with two speedsters in Hilton and Heyward-Bey. Also, keep an eye out for Lavon Brazil who can also fly and be the benefactor of some big plays on the offense.
The tight ends are young and they complement each other perfectly. Although Coby Fleener was supposed to step in and be the better of the pass catchers, he had a below average season with just over 280 yards on 26 receptions. Conversely, Dwayne Allen who was also selected in last season’s draft, although 2 rounds later, finished with 45 catches and 521 yards with 3 touchdowns. The shocking aspect of that was Allen is known more for his blocking skills and was tremendous last season recording a blocking grade of +10.1, according to Pro Football Focus, which was third best among all tight ends. As a rookie that is spectacular provides enough credence to believe he will continue to be an elite blocker and above average receiving threat, similar to a Jason Witten. The Colts, even with Peyton Manning have always tried to operate with two solid tight ends, one of them being more of a receiver (Dallas Clark) and the other providing excellent blocking (Marcus Pollard or Ben Utecht). Look for Fleener to increase his receiving production by quite some margin this season and for Allen to continue to improve in all aspects.
At the running back position, the Colts received terrific production from Vick Ballard after the Donald Brown experiment proved to be a failure as his body simply cannot withstand the rigours of being an every down back. Ballard does not have elite talent, but he is a big back who can move piles, find holes and give you solid yardage, albeit on a high volume of carries. His 814 yards on only 211 carries proves that he does need a lot of tokes to get his yardage, although he did have some solid games where his yards per carry was above 4.5 (4.9 against Tennessee and 5.8 against Houston, both with 94 and 105 rushing yards respectively). The addition of Ahmad Bradshaw will make this one of the more underrated running back tandems in the league. Bradshaw is as tough as they come, despite his diminutive size and he lays down for no one. Because of his small stature, yet tough running style, it does lead him to injuries, more so than other backs. Regardless, he has only missed 8 games in the past 4 years and if you know anything about the bone spur injuries he has had to endure on his ankles, you would know that is quite a low amount. With a legitimate number two running back in Ballard, Bradshaw should be fresh enough to withstand a whole season and he has a chance to achieve his 3rd 1000-yard season in the last four years. Look for Bradshaw to be a complete runner and help protect Andrew Luck adequately. As Eli Manning will be able to attest to, Bradshaw is one of the best pass protectors at his position in the league. Pro Football Focus noted that he has allowed only 3 quarterback sacks since 2008.
Still, let us not forget Brown, who when healthy is still the most explosive of all the runners, however he needs to read his blocks and holes better and of course, stay on the field.
The defense for the Colts was ranked 21st and despite being a playoff team, had a negative point differential of 30. While the pass defense was inconsistent and produced some good and bad games, the run defense was generally woeful. A second year in Chuck Pagano’s base 3-4 defenses, along with some key additions will surely improve this unit.
I like the three down linemen that that will be deployed for this 3-4 scheme. Ricky Jean-François is a player at the 5 technique that has made strides over his career and but has played sparingly for the 49ers in a backup role. He is accustomed to playing the 5-technique in a 3-4 scheme and will come in right away and produce immediately. He has good strength and leverage to contain the edge and enough quickness to be disruptive in pass rushing situations.
The rest of the defensive line will feature veterans Corey Redding and Aubrayo Franklin, who is coming from the Chargers. They are okay players, but the Colts will need to infuse some more youth with the likes of Josh Chapman, who was a very good player from the Alabama Crimson Tide. Chapman fell in the 2011 draft due to an injury. Montori Hughes, drafted in the 5th round of the 2013 draft has tremendous size and strength and should factor in at the zero technique spot (nose tackle).
The linebackers will feature Erik Walden, who was a reserve player for the Packers that played good football while Clay Mathews was injured. Walden can rush the passer at a decent clip and he is adept at covering linebackers and tight ends on the outside.
Bjoern Werner was the Colts first round pick of defense and many believed that he would be a top 15 selection. Werner will never be confused for a speed rusher; instead he combines terrific strength and leverage to be a bull rushing pass rusher. His skill set will be perfect to be a 3rd down pass rusher who can put his hand on the ground and go after quarterbacks in obvious passing downs. Walden and Werner will be vying for the starting left outside linebacker position. Walden has the edge and seems to be the likely starter with his signing this summer of a 4-year $16 million. Walden has also played the position longer and has superior pass coverage skills, which is where Werner may likely struggle as he transitions from a 4-3 defensive end, to a 3-4 outside linebacker
Conversely on the other side of the defense, Robert Mathis is still going relatively strong despite getting up there in age. With the defection of Dwight Freeney, Mathis moves to the strong side outside linebacker position, which is more suited to simply rushing the passer and worrying less about the run. Recording 8 sacks last season, he should still be a solid option as a rusher during obvious passing downs.
Jerell Freeman had a big year at the middle linebacker position with 90 solo tackles and is an excellent bargain as an undrafted player. We will see how Pat Angerer plays after an injury-plagued season. In 2011, he totaled 148 total tackles and had a very solid season He does not possess great talent, but he has a good understanding of the game and with the tutelage of Pagano, who has coached some fairly good linebackers in Baltimore, Angerer should learn and develop well at that position. Kavell Conner will provide good depth at the middle linebacker position as another instinctive player.
The secondary received a big boost when they traded for Vontae Davis last season. While he has a propensity to get beat deep, his speed at the position allows him to recover from some of his mistakes and he is still a solid cover corner. More consistency will be needed out of him.
Greg Toler was signed out of Arizona and not enough people know about him, let alone the very good season he had. He fits in perfectly as a number two corner, is a very good tackler and willingly to play press coverage on any corner, regardless of size. Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com provides terrific analysis of Toler and his skillset.
Cassius Vaughn and Darius Butler are improving players who should provide good depth in a pass defense that will be much improved.
At safety, you have to love the addition of Laron Landry, who will provide an imposing presence on the back end. Do not expect Landry to make any type of plays in coverage as he is purely an in-the-box safety asked to provide run support and the occasional big hit on a wide receiver coming across the middle. And that alone, is as big an impact as any pass deflection or interception in coverage. The sheer thought of Landry out at the safety position, is enough for receivers to think twice when they cross the middle of the field. From purely an attitude and leadership standpoint, it was a good signing, but the Colts got eaten up on pass defense last season.
Antoine Bethea is back for another season and has consistently been one of the better tacklers at the free safety position. He was only average on pass coverage but with the addition of Landry, he should be asked to provide more of an impact in coverage than in the running game. Bethea should be due for a bounce back season in 2013.
Adam Vinetari had a career high 7 made field goals of 50-yards or more, which shows that the old dog still has some legs. If the Colts plan on playing further into January, expect Vinetari to potentially play a big role as one of the most clutch kickers in the league. Pat McAfee had a great season with a 48.2 punting average and 26 inside the 20.
The return game should be explosive with T.Y. Hilton as your main punt returner. He has speed to run any kick back and had a very respectable 11.5 yards per return.
The Colts’ fortunes will depend on improved play of Andrew Luck and the Colts offensive line and better play all around from a defense that was in the bottom 10 of the league.