This third day of the Four Questions Tour sees the team focusing on the AFC South and finding some consensus. That agreement stretches no further than their playoff predictions, though, as they name an array of potential breakout players and rookies who’ve captured their attention.
Will the South be Houston’s to lose? Is that No. 1 overall pick the division’s rookie to watch? Will any unit be more intriguing than the Tennessee defensive line? Our analysis team weighs in.
How do you see it all shaking out?
Who is the one player from this division you see having a breakout year?
Sam: I’m going out on a limb a little with this one because we didn’t see it for that long in 2011, but Derrick Cox put up some truly ridiculous coverage numbers and looked like he finally had the light go on. When I say ‘truly ridiculous numbers’, what I mean is that his name is the only one around or ahead of Darrelle Revis when you set the snap threshold low enough for 2011. Essentially, for the time he was playing last year he was putting up numbers that were right there with the best corner in football. Now, it’s by no means a sure thing that he returns to that level of play this year, but I’m looking for him to at least show that it was no fluke.
Khaled: I’m torn here. There are two Titans defensive tackles I think are primed for big things, but I’m going with the one who I think can make more splash plays. That man is Karl Klug who reminds me of Geno Atkins for his ability to get off blocks and get up field. Now I don’t think he’ll have the same impact as Atkins did in 2011, but I could see him picking up an awful lot of pressure.
Neil: You can take your choice of any one of three people from the Tennessee defensive line. Karl Klug and Jurrell Casey will form the best young tackle combo in the business, but I’m saying that, in his first opportunity ever as a regular 4-3 DE, Kamerion Wimbley will make huge waves as a pass-rushing end. The sobbing noise you will hear is from Raiders fans despondent their team let him go.
Ben: Down in Tennessee they have a promising pair of young corners and whilst Jason McCourty was just rewarded with a shiny new contract, I think it will be the man starting opposite him, Alterraun Verner, who will emerge as a star. Verner is back in a starting role this season and over the course of his two seasons in the NFL, as a starter and sub package corner, he has never shown anything other than being a quality cover man. The Titans need stability after the loss of Cortland Finnegan, and Verner has shown he can be that guy.
The over/under lines for season win totals in the division have been set at: Houston 10; Tennessee 7; Indianapolis 5.5; Jacksonville 5.5. On which team would you put your theoretical $100?
Sam: I hate agreeing with the odds makers, but I struggle to find a serious fault with their over/under figures for this division. I think the Jaguars are a much better team than 5.5 wins suggests, but I also think Blaine Gabbert is just that bad that the line is exactly where it should be. Conversely, Andrew Luck might be a better QB than 5.5 wins even as a rookie, but the rest of that Colts roster isn’t good enough to join him there. That means I have to choose between Tennessee at seven wins–which is about right in my eyes, especially with the prospect of major Locker playing time–or Houston at 10 wins. I’ll say the Texans should be higher than that, as in my opinion, they were the best team in football in 2011 before injuries to QBs torpedoed their chances of a postseason run. They’re worth an improvement on 10, but I wouldn’t be confident in the bet.
Khaled: The Jaguars won five games last year and did so with a rookie quarterback who may have had one of the worst seasons by any QB ever. But you know what, Blaine Gabbert isn’t looking like the deer in the headlights he was in 2011. That doesn’t mean he’s going to be a star–or even above average–but if he’s simply not half as bad as he was last year, that defense and an offensive line on the rise should see them improve. Over for me.
Neil: I think the Jaguars will win more than 5.5 games, but not many more. As long as defenses allow Blaine Gabbert to play at “his pace” (quick, one read, high percentage throws) he’ll be OK, but once they figure this out he’ll have to sink or swim. In the end, I decided to take a little flyer on the Titans. Quietly I like what they’ve done on both sides of the ball and think they have the firepower to do better than seven wins.
Ben: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Andrew Luck will lead the Colts to at least six wins this season. Maybe I’m drinking the Kool-Aid and getting carried away with what I’ve seen in preseason but if he is that good the Colts will win their share of games, putting them immediately on a par with the Jaguars and not far behind the Titans. That makes them a threat in four games and they’d only need to be competitive in a handful of non-division games to make that mark. It’s simple math!
Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in action?
Sam: So several of the top picks in the draft are in this division, including the No. 1 overall selection and supposed face of the franchise for the next decade. How could I look beyond them? I don’t know, but I have, and even crazier than that, I looked to a punter! Yeah, so I’m nuts, but I can’t wait to see how Brian Anger looks given the storm that draft pick created, and with Blaine Gabbert leading the offense we should get plenty of opportunity to see him. The Jags took a lot of ridicule, but punters can legitimately make a huge difference to a team that hasn’t had a good one in a while. Adding 10 yards in your favor to every change of possession is huge for a team that struggles to move the chains. Let’s see how crazy they look after the season.
Khaled: Andrew Luck is the obvious choice, but I want to see how the Texans use Whitney Mercilus. I have a theory the Texans get pressure more through scheme than talent, and would like to see if Mercilus is the kind of guy who can beat a good tackle without Houston needing to blitz like crazy to create confusion.
Neil: Taking Andrew Luck seems a little passé, so I’m going to tell you how impressed I’ve been with Justin Blackmon to date. He’s shown an ability to get open underneath (which means he’ll catch a lot of balls) and he’s got an elusiveness to him that makes him fun to watch too.
Ben: I think it should be taken as read that everyone is excited to see Andrew Luck and whether he can live up to the hype surrounding him as the number one overall pick. From what I’ve seen of him in pre-season he certainly seems ready to jump in and play some excellent football straight away for the Colts. However I’m just as interested to see his pairing of “tight ends”, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. Have the Colts got a two tight end pairing with the versatility of Gronkowski and Hernandez? Or have they got two big receivers with neither a good enough blocker for them to use both at the same time without damaging their running game?
Who is going to make the playoffs and who is going to win it all?
Sam: Houston should enter the season as the prohibitive favorites in the AFC South–just as they did last year when it became apparent that the Colts were to be Manning-less for the forseeable future, and what turned out, the rest of his career. This season the Texans should be looking to make a run at a Championship. They have the tools, and now they have some postseason experience and legitimate studs on the roster. Tennessee may make a push at a Wild Card, but they’ll need some wins to fall for them. The other two sides I think are also-rans.
Khaled: This is the easiest one to predict, right? Maybe not, because in Luck, Gabbert, and Locker there are three variables that leave me intrigued by how this division develops. I’ll err on the side of caution and say all three have their moments but largely struggle while the dominant Texans defense carries them to a first round bye. They’re good enough to win it all but they’ll just miss out.
Neil: It’s impossible to see beyond the Texans here. Perhaps I should have gone with them for more than 10 wins too, but I wanted to be “clever” with my Titans pick–we’ll see just how clever that turns out to be. The team is stacked at all positions, have shown they can make it without their QB, and I’m struggling to see why I don’t see them getting past the divisional round again. Maybe it’s the dearth of proven talent behind the fragile Andre Johnson at receiver or maybe I don’t quite trust Matt Schaub when the pressure really starts to take hold.
Ben: This division strikes me as a one horse race with the Houston Texans clearly being the best team in the division and likely to win this by a margin of between two and four wins. Their defense should be as good as it was last season and the offense is built well to work with that defense. The other three teams don’t strike me as playoff teams and I wouldn’t be at all surprised that if Andrew Luck is as good as advertised from Week 1 that the Colts could mix it up with the Titans and Jaguars for second place in the division at around or below the 8-8 mark.