2013 AFC South: Four Questions, Four Analysts
There’s not long to go now before the meaningful action begins with the start of the 2013 NFL season. To give you an idea of what our team is thinking heading into the season we’re asking four of them four questions, for every division.
It’s our Four Analysts, Four Questions season preview.
The analysts are Khaled Elsayed, Sam Monson, Steve Palazzolo and Ben Stockwell, so let’s see what they’re looking forward to see heading into the year.
1. Which player from the division do you see having a breakout year?
Khaled: I’m not sure if they overspent on him in free agency, but I’m extremely interested to see how Ricky Jean-Francois plays for the Colts. He rarely got a chance to demonstrate his talents in San Francisco as they were loathe to take their starters off the field. He’s flashed some talent during preseason and it will be interesting to see how he handles a full load.
Sam: There was no bigger detractor of Terrell McClain when he was in Carolina than msyelf. I wasn’t blaming him, but never looked vaguely capable of standing up to NFL-caliber linemen when he was thrust into a starting role. I always wondered whether he would look better after a full offseason in an NFL strength and conditioning program, but apparently the Panthers were so displeased by his response to their unreasonable ask of him that they cut him loose. This preseason with the Texans he does look capable of attacking NFL-caliber linemen. He has started down the depth chart but in the Houston attacking scheme he has been beating up on backups. I think he’ll earn himself a legitimate role within the Texans defensive line rotation this year and do some damage with it.
Steve: A pair of second-year players are on my radar, not necessarily for Pro Bowl honors, but to at least become important contributors to their respective teams. For fear of oversaturating this section with Texans talk, I think Jared Crick will be one to watch up front as he looks to get involved a lot more this season. We’re not talking J.J. Watt-type production, no matter how similar they look on the field with matching arm braces, but Crick should build upon his +2.5 rookie grade. Another player to watch is Titans Coty Sensabaugh who flashed as a slot cornerback at times last year, but was still finding his way as a rookie.
Ben: Is Arian Foster a fading force at running back for the Texans? Last season was certainly a down year where he profited from the sheer volume of carries to boost his yardage totals. Whether or not Foster bounces back this season I think we’re sure to see Ben Tate take a large share of carries for the Texans. Back in 2011, Tate forced more missed tackles (30) than Foster (25) in spite of carrying the ball 103 fewer times. Tate also topped Foster comfortably in terms of yards after contact, collecting 3.3 yards per carry after first contact compared to Foster’s 2.5 which was almost the entire reason for their yards per carry difference (5.4 for Tate, 4.4 for Foster). Tate is sure to get more carries this year and while he is unlikely to push Foster aside you may see Tate getting close to a job share with Foster as the season goes on.
2. The Over/ Unders are Houston 10.5, Indianapolis 8.5, Jacksonville 5 and Tennessee 6.5? Which team would you put your theoretical $100 on?
Khaled: I thought the Colts were lucky to make the playoffs last year. This year? I think they’ll earn their wins in more convincing fashion. I’m liking their free agency moves more and more as fitting into what they’re trying to do, and I truly believe Andrew Luck will be more consistent this year. That will lead to a 9 or 10 win season.
Sam: I applaud the Vegas odds with this division, because I don’t like any of the bets possible, which suggests they’ve got them pretty close. If I have to put my $100 at risk (and I’m informed in no uncertain terms that I do) I’m going to say the Texans are a better play (in the regular season at least) than 10.5 wins. They’ll take the division with a dozen or more before we get to see what they’re really made of.
Steve: There’s some reason for optimism in Jacksonville with the new regime and a major roster overhaul. Just the new enthusiasm alone could net a couple wins, combined with the fact that the Jaguars have sneakily accumulated some playmakers on offense. The defense may need time to gel, and perhaps that’s a multi-year project, but head coach Gus Bradley has a number of new players that fit his system and I think they have a shot to surpass the five wins Vegas predicts for them.
Ben: I’m not a gambling man so I’m inherently conservative and that conservative nature leads me to saying the Texans will top 10.5 wins this season. They have a formula that is set up to win in the AFC South and I just don’t see any of the other teams in the division as a legitimate threat to the Texans this season. The offense is “old school” in its run first philosophy but they make it work and they should at least maintain the status quo in the passing game with Andre Johnson carrying the load. Anything else that the likes of rookie DeAndre Hopkins can add would just be the icing on the cake.
3. Which rookie are you most looking forward to seeing in regular season action?
Khaled: I’m not a huge college football fan so I’m fascinated to see how offensive weapon Denard Robinson does and what kind of role the Jaguars have in store for him. He has the kind of explosion when he runs that might lead to more than a few highlight reel plays, so while others go for linemen, I’m looking to see how many touches he gets and what he does with them.
Sam: DeAndre ‘Nuke’ Hopkins. The hype surrounding this guy is huge. Maybe it’s just the length of time that Houston fans have been looking for that second legit receiver to take the pressure (and attention) away from Andre Johnson, or maybe it’s the highlight reel plays he’s already made, but they’re all over Hopkins before he’s even played a regular season snap. Color me intrigued. I’d love to see someone finally emerge in that spot too.
Steve: I’ll be watching the Jaguars’ Luke Joeckel closely for a number of reasons. First, I really liked him as a prospect, perhaps as much as Matt Kalil. I think Joeckel provides a bit more pop in the running game, though it will be tough to duplicate Kalil’s pass protection from a year ago (12th among tackles, +15.5). The other selfish reason is the small part we had in the Jaguars’ decision process that led Joeckel to Jacksonville. It will be interesting to see if he takes to the right tackle position and gives the Jaguars two top-notch bookends.
Ben: Who doesn’t like a big road grader? Whether the Titans thought they were getting one when they signed Andy Levitre I don’t know, Levitre’s good but he’s not that kind of guard. First round pick Chance Warmack on the other hand is purported to be one and I’m interested to see just how good he can be having been mentioned in some quarters as the best player in this draft if you weight all positions equally. What type of a guard is he going to be? Is going to be another Davin Joseph, all hype and not enough substance to match that hype ? Is he going to be in the Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans mold of a big road grading guard with the nimbleness of foot not to get caught out in pass protection and with the ability to consistently make blocks on the move? We should all get a pretty good idea this season.
4. Who will make the playoffs and can they win it all?
Khaled: I’m souring on the Texans. I don’t know if they’ve peaked with the guys they have right now and lack a big game quarterback to be the difference maker when it matters. A winning season? Yes. I’m going to go with the Colts to improve just enough to pip them to the division. In a close AFC, both teams probably have enough to make it to the playoffs. However both have the look of one and done teams if they’re competing with some of the powerhouses.
Sam: I think Houston wins the division relatively comfortably but then the real game starts. Their offense seems to be far too conservative to hold up in the playoffs when things can tend to become a shootout in a hurry. They need Brian Cushing and the rest of their defense to stand up and be counted when it matters most to prevent their offense from having to do more than it is prepared to. I think this time they have a legitimate shot of getting to the big dance in the AFC. Indianapolis might fight for a Wild Card, but I wouldn’t bet the family jewels on it.
Steve: The Texans remain one of the favorites to win the AFC and they’re certainly in the driver’s seat for the division crown. The Colts should be right behind them, but it’s hard to gauge just how much they overachieved last year. That matters little, however, as I expect QB Andrew Luck to become one of the best 8 or 10 quarterbacks in the league this year and his development may very well coincide with another Colts playoff run. The Titans and Jaguars are a step behind in talent, and question marks at the quarterback position will be hard to overcome.
Ben: The Texans will win the division and will be right in the mix to take a bye week. They were right to let Connor Barwin walk for a contract that he wasn’t worth so their pass rush should improve. The return of Brian Cushing (assuming he lasts the year) improves a defense that is quick to jump to its dime package, immensely. The Colts’ playoff spot flattered them last season and I don’t see them repeating while the best the Jags and Titans can hope for is chasing .500. Even that may be beyond both teams this season even if I see the Jags competing week-in-week-out to the extent they’ll beat a few teams you wouldn’t expect them to.