The Colts had been the frontrunners in this division for almost the entire career of Peyton Manning, but 2012 will see them enter the Andrew Luck era and the Houston Texans have emerged as the new team to beat in the South.
Jacksonville finds themselves relying on a major improvement from Blaine Gabbert, and the Titans are still expecting to start Matt Hasselbeck as they look to eventually transition to Jake Locker as their quarterback.
So what are the key training camp battles to focus on?
Position: Outside linebacker
The Players: Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus
The Battle: Last season the Texans made waves by moving to the 3-4 and asking Mario Williams–stud 4-3 defensive end–to give playing outside linebacker a shot and remain productive. He looked like he was well on his way doing that before injury struck him down and they had to turn to Brooks Reed to fill the void. Reed finished the season with seven sacks (10, including playoffs) and his long mane of hair showing a constant motor during games made him into something of a fan, and commentator, favorite. The trouble is, Reed wasn’t actually that efficient with his pass rushing over the season. He rushed the passer 471 times in total, which is a lot of snaps, and the production he notched doesn’t quite live up to the amount he rushed. While raw numbers might suggest he is locked in, he’ll likely face serious competition from Mercilus for his starting spot.
Mercilus was the top pick for the Texans (at the tail end of the first round) and led the nation last season as a junior with 16 sacks. Mercilus was brought in to add some legitimate athleticism and pass-rushing ability, depth, and another option to a front that was relying largely on two players for its edge rush; Reed and Connor Barwin. Reed himself would likely benefit from having his workload reduced and being kept fresher to improve his rushing efficiency.
The Verdict: Houston didn’t spell their outside linebackers much last season, but then they didn’t have the option to do so for much of it. In truth ,the best option might be to platoon the three players, Reed, Mercilus, and Barwin, rather than rely on two of them entirely. Reed played well against the run last season, but his pass-rush play was less exciting than the sack numbers suggest. Mercilus might be able to take snaps from him in sub-packages and pass-rushing downs, but it unlikely to begin the season as the starter.
The Players: Tom Zbikowski and Joe Lefeged
The Battle: The new look Colts will look more foreign to people on defense more than anywhere else, with the traditional Tampa-2 being ousted in favor of Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 brought with him from Baltimore. Pagano has poached a few players from that defense in Baltimore and one of them, Tom Zbikowski, figures to have a good shot to start at safety. That will feel a familiar story to Zbikowski, who thought he was in line to start this time last season for the Ravens, before being beaten out by Bernard Pollard. He ended up playing fewer than 250 snaps over the season and will be looking to grab hold of the starting spot firmly this time.
His competition this year comes in the form of Joe Lefeged who saw 417 snaps last season as part of a dismal Indianapolis secondary. He had a few good games in 2011, notably against three capable offenses in the shape of Pittsburgh, New England and Tennessee, but overall he finished with a -4.7 grade for the year, thanks to some ugly games in the middle of the year. He showed more than enough promise, however, to be a serious contender in the battle for the starting spot, so the position will not simply be Zbikowski’s to walk into.
The Verdict: This–more than most–is a competition that is there to be won by either player. Zbikowski has the edge in terms of knowledge of the system, but Lefeged is coming off a season with more snaps and had some good games against good opposition for a team that was little more than a punching bag last season. I would give the edge to Zbikowski because of his ties to the coach and system.
The Players: Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne
The Battle: This is an interesting battle, because it’s one that Chad Henne should have no part of, if the Jaguars have any long-term hope for Blaine Gabbert. Last season Gabbert looked as poor as I can remember a quarterback looking, even by rookie standards. To be fair, he had a long list of mitigating circumstances–no offseason, a big adjustment from Mizzou’s offense, a shoddy, at best, receiving corps–but that doesn’t come close to explaining all of his bad play away. Watching Jaguars games last year, you usually saw a pass, one pass, during the game that made you sit up and say “Oh, OK, that’s what they saw when they drafted him”, but it was hidden in amongst 40 others that were terrible.
The Jaguars brought over Chad Henne, who was once seen as the answer in Miami, before they decided that his ceiling was low enough that they could move on and look for a better option. Henne, though, never played as poorly as Gabbert did last season, and has a legitimate shot of winning the job on merit unless Gabbert can demonstrate some pretty significant strides forward while he has the majority of the reps.
The Verdict: Based on what we have seen so far, this job should be Henne’s without question, but Gabbert is about what he can do, not what he has done, and the Jaguars need him to turn into the player they thought he could be when they drafted him. If he can’t, they are back in a hole, so Gabbert will be given every opportunity to succeed, before he hangs himself. I still suspect that it’s only a matter of time before Henne starts, even if the job isn’t won in camp.
Position: Defensive Tackle
The Players: Sen’Derrick Marks, Shaun Smith, Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug
The Battle: The Titans are a team that like to rotate their defensive line, especially on the interior, so all of these players figure to see some significant playing time. The question becomes who starts and at what position? They tend to use a nose tackle and a 3-technique under tackle in their attack, and their problem comes from the fact that their best two players might both be seen as 3-techniques in this system.
Last season the starters were usually Sen’Derrick Marks and Jurrell Casey, but Karl Klug, coming off the bench, dramatically outperformed Marks, actually ending the season with more snaps than the starter. Casey figures to start ahead of Klug but I suspect the Titans would be best to play them alongside each other. Casey finished the season with the highest grade among the group with +14.0, but almost all of that came from his work as a run defender. He is well capable of manning the nose tackle position in this defensive front leaving Klug (+5.8 as a pass-rusher, by far the best grade of the group in 2011) to man the 3-technique beside him.
The Verdict: All of the players mentioned figure to see significant time in the Titans rotation, and in truth they are likely to start 2012 the way they finished 2011, with Casey starting alongside Marks in their base defense, and Klug forcing his way onto the field in the rotation and on pass-rushing snaps. Shaun Smith is limited to a run-stuffer role and so will only be worked in on early downs. Likely a better option is for Casey and Klug to start alongside each other and Marks become the rotation player, but that will only happen if the pair show up big in camp.