2010 NFL Preview: AFC South Predictions

Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning throws a pass against the Buffalo Bills during the first half of their NFL preseason football game in Toronto August 19, 2010.  REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

2010 NFL Division Previews & Predictions: AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West | NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West | 2010 Question Marks Series

For over a decade, the Colts have been the models for consistency in the NFL. But will things change that the Texans and Titans are strong? Can guys like Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson of Houston, and Vince Young and Chris Johnson of Tennessee help their respective teams overcome Peyton and the Colts?

We’ll find out soon.

Here’s how I see things shaking out in the AFC South this season. Be sure to check out the link entitled “2010 Question Mark” under each team’s preview, which is a breakdown of one or two potential weaknesses that could derail that squad’s hopes in 2010. (If no link is provided, check back because one will be before the start of the season.)

1. Colts

What to Like: First Name: Peyton. Last Name: Manning. As long as Peyton Manning is still playing football, the Colts are going to be contenders – I don’t care if he has to use a walker to get out to the field. The Colts retain a top 3 offense led by Manning, who has a slew of playmakers at his disposal in Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Anthony Gonzalez, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. The offensive line isn’t the best running blocking unit in the game (or the best in pass protection, for that matter), but it plays well collectively and Manning masks any weaknesses. Defensively, the Colts own two of the best pass-rushing ends in the NFL in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Gary Brackett and Clint Session are solid from their linebacker positions and the return of Bob Sanders (if he can stay healthy) will dramatically help the run defense.
What Not to Like: The defensive tackle position is a huge concern. Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson are weak as the starters and rookie Fili Moala failed to impress as a rookie. Their play is masked thanks to the ends, but the interior of the Colts’ line is soft and could become a problem come playoff time. At cornerback, Kelvin Hayden struggled with injuries but the bottom line is that quarterbacks were able to complete 65.8 percent of passes on him last season. There’s no excuse for that. On the other side, Jerraud Powers is expected to start but he had surgery to repair his foot in February and missed the final two preseason games.
Keep Your Eye On: Philip Wheeler
The 25-year-old out of Georgia Tech has the physical ability to start at the outside linebacker position – now he just has to prove he can stay there. He enters his first full season as a starter and coaches have already remarked how much he’s improved in his defensive reads. He’ll have the fortune of playing alongside quality veterans like Sessions and Brackett.
The Final Word: Another 10-plus win season is on the horizon for the Colts, who only play five playoff teams from a year ago. The interior of the defensive line, cornerback and special teams are this team’s greatest weaknesses, but the Colts have remained the most consistent team in the NFL for over a decade. They know how to win and with Manning under center, they’re going to challenge for the AFC title once again. That said, they will get pushed by the Titans and Texans in the division.

Indianapolis Colts 2010 Question Mark: Defensive Tackle

2. Texans

INDIANAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 8: Andre Johnson #80 of the Houston Texans runs with the ball during the NFL game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 8, 2009 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts defeated the Texans 20-17. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

What to Like: The passing game will once again be explosive and this is a top 10 unit with Matt Schaub under center. He was outstanding last season and as long as he stays healthy, he certainly has enough weapons in the offense to tear up the stat sheet once again. Speaking of those weapons, Andre Johnson is the best wide receiver in the game and it was great to see the team reward him with a contract extension this offseason. If Owen Daniels is fully recovered from knee surgery, then he’ll return as one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the league. If he doesn’t, then Schaub still has Kevin Walters, Jacoby Jones and David Anderson in the passing game. The Texans also have two young backs in Arian Foster and Steve Slaton to help keep the offense balanced. Defensively, this team has a solid young core in Mario Williams, Amobi Okoye, DeMeco Ryans and Zavier Adibi, as well as two playmaking corners in Glover Quin and rookie Kareem Jackson.
What Not to Like: The offensive line still has issues, especially at left tackle in third-year player Duane Brown. He was horrendous as a rookie and while he was very good at the start of ’09, he regressed and is now facing a pivotal third year. Staying on that side of the ball, Daniels’ health is still a major concern. I know he’s expected to be ready by Week 1, but he underwent massive reconstructive surgery on his knee and usually players need a year and a half to recover before they’re effective again. He’s a great player and easy to root for, so I hope he bounces back but questions still remain. Defensively, Quin and Jackson are intriguing young talents but it’s usually never wise to pin so much on a young corner (not that the Texans had a choice after Dunta Robinson signed with the Falcons). The interior of the defensive line is also a concern, especially considering how easy offensive linemen pushed around Okoye and Shaun Cody last season.
Keep Your Eye On: Kareem Jackson
After losing Robinson in free agency, the Texans knew they had to address their cornerback position through the draft. That’s why they targeted Jackson at the No. 20 overall pick and after a great spring and summer, he’ll start on the right side. As I mentioned above, you shouldn’t expect too much out of a rookie too soon, but it’s hard not to love Jackson’s potential. He was a playmaker at Alabama and while he’ll get tested right away in Week 1, it’ll be fun to see how he reacts. He certainly has the talent.
The Final Word: Are the Texans knocking on the door of a playoff berth? Absolutely. Will it be this season? Ehhhh…I don’t think so. I know that’s tough for the Houston faithful to read (not that my opinion will damper their excitement), but I just don’t have enough faith in their defense. Opponents are going to find ways to move the ball through the air and if the Texans are down late in the game, teams are going to be able to wear down that defensive line too. That said, this offense will once again be explosive and if the Texans can score early and often, then the defense does have enough playmakers to be aggressive and force turnovers. But when I look at the rest of the AFC, I don’t see the Texans earning a Wild Card spot and I don’t see them overtaking the Colts in the division. Maybe next year…(cue Houston fans throwing up).

Houston Texans 2010 Question Mark: Cornerback

3. Titans

SEATTLE - AUGUST 14: Running back Chris Johnson  of the Tennessee Titans rushes during the preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks at Qwest Field on August 14, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

What to Like: After losing their first six games last season, the Titans rattled off five in a row and won eight of their final 10 games to finish a respectable 8-8 on the year. Most of that was do in large part to the play of Vince Young, who replaced an ultra-brutal Kerry Collins as the starter heading into the team’s Week 7 bye. Thanks to the backfield of Young and dynamic playmaker Chris Johnson, the Titans should have a top 15 offense. Nate Washington and Justin Gage aren’t going to keep defensive backs up at night, but they’re certainly serviceable and Kenny Britt proved last year that he could be a playmaker in the passing game. The offensive line is solid both in run blocking and pass protection, so this offense should move the chains plenty in 2010. Defensively, Tony Brown has made people forget about Albert Haynesworth with his outstanding overall play (especially as a pass rusher). The linebacker corps is also above average, with veterans Will Witherspoon and Stephen Tulloch accompanying youngster Rennie Curran.
What Not to Like: Johnson is a phenomenal player, but I wonder if he’s going to eventually wear down after heavy workloads in his first two seasons. The other question about the offense is whether Young will regress after impressing last season. Don’t forget that he nearly quit football two years ago because he couldn’t handle the expectations and pressures of being a starting quarterback in the NFL. As mentioned above, the offensive line certainly isn’t a weakness but tackle Michael Roos struggled with edge rushers last year, which isn’t good considering he plays in the same division as Dwight Freeney and Mario Williams. The other tackle, David Stewart, is also coming off a rough 2009 and will need to pick up his game as well. Defensively, the team’s biggest weakness is the secondary. Michael Griffin regressed mightily after a solid effort in ’08 and the entire unit failed to make plays last year.
Keep Your Eye On: Kenny Britt
This might seem like an odd choice considering Jeff Fisher recently threatened to deactivate him on game days if he doesn’t start focusing, but keep in mind that Britt is only 21-years old and is going to have some majority issues being that young. Plus, this kid made some plays last year that had most people believing that he can be a No. 1 at some point soon. If he can get out of Fisher’s doghouse, then the sky is the limit.
The Final Word: I was pretty close to putting the Titans second and the Texans third, but Tennessee’s defense scares me. The front seven is pretty good, but the pass defense is a major question mark and like I briefly mentioned above, who knows if Young will soar or once again fail to live up to expectations. That said, this team will be competitive and I wouldn’t be shocked if they headed into the second half with playoff aspirations. If they had a couple of more playmakers on defense, I may have been more inclined to give them the second spot.

4. Jaguars

PHILADELPHIA - AUGUST 27:  Maurice Jones-Drew #32 of the Jacksonville Jaguars runs the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles during the preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field on August 27, 2009 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

What to Like: Although his knee has scared most of the people in the Jacksonville area over the last couple of weeks, running back Maurice Jones-Drew returns as the team’s best overall player. And even though he’s well known, he still doesn’t get the credit he deserves as an all-around player and one of the most gifted backs in the game today. He benefits from having a solid run-blocking unit, led by guard Uche Nwaneri and left tackle Eugene Monroe. I realize that David Garrard isn’t the flashiest quarterback and he’s not going to set the world on fire with his play, but the guy is efficient. He’s good under pressure, he can keep the chains moving if he has time to throw and he’s a good complement to MJD. If the front office spent more time getting him some pass protection or more weapons to throw to and less time trying to dump him, then maybe the offense wouldn’t be so ineffective. Defensively, I love the addition of underrated middle linebacker Kirk Morrison, who has been one of the most productive defenders the last couple of seasons (but who has largely been forgotten playing on a bad Oakland team). And speaking of underrated – how good has outside linebacker Daryl Smith been over the years? I love this team’s linebacker corps of Morrison, Smith and Justin Durant.
What Not to Like: The pass protection last year was brutal for Garrard, which is one of the reasons why I don’t get why the front office and coaching staff is always trying to replace him. For as good as Monroe was as a run-blocker, he struggled keeping Garrard upright and fellow youngster Eben Britton was just as bad. Defensively, the Jags finally gave up on former first round pick Reggie Nelson, but that doesn’t mean they have a good replacement for him. Sean Considine struggled with injuries last year and Anthony Smith has done nothing to prove that he should be the full-time starter at free safety.
Keep Your Eye On: Mike Sims-Walker
The 25-year-old out of Central Florida has developed into Garrard’s go-to guy and should be in store for a solid season if the O-line can give the quarterback time to throw. The problem is that he has struggled with injuries in the past and suffered from a shoulder problem before the Jags’ final preseason game. That said, he caught passes of 35, 22 and 7 yards from Garrard in that final exhibition game, so there should be nothing to worry about. Sims-Walker could hit the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the first time in his young career if everything breaks right this season.
The Final Word: As with most teams projected to finish in last place in their division, the Jags lack overall talent. The offense could use another playmaker in the passing game and the O-line will dramatically have to improve its pass protection so Garrard isn’t running for his life every down. The defense’s strength resides at linebacker, but guys like Considine, Smith and rookie DT Tyson Alualu have to make big impacts if this team wants to contend this year. When I look at the Jags, I see a team without an identity and this could be Jack Del Rio’s final year in Jacksonville if the team under whelms again.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

Related Posts