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Jay Castro’s 2012 AFC South Preview

AFC South

1:  Houston Texans: 13-3

2:  Tennessee Titans: 6-10

3:  Indianapolis Colts: 5-11

4:  Jacksonville Jaguars: 3-13

Houston Texans: Skill Positions: QB: Matt Schaub, WR: Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, RB: Arian Foster, Ben Tate, TE: Owen Daniels, Notable DEF/ST: Jonathan Joseph, Connor Barwin, J. J. Watt, Brian Cushing, Danieal Manning

Here’s reason #1,230 why I include a disclaimer at the top of my previews—I’ve had a habit of picking the Houston Texans, fantasy football’s top juggernaut in the last three or four years, to win the wild card. During much of that time period, their record ranged from 6-10 to 8-8, with nary a sniff of the big dance. That changed last year, when they finally made the postseason by winning a weak AFC South division (and if you had told me it would happen without Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Arian Foster for long stretches, I would have slapped you silly and called you Susan). I did have them atop that division last year, and am doing so again. By a big margin.

The Texans are the best team in this division. Period. Tell me what you want about their age, or their injury history, but no other team is stable enough or deep enough to compete. I might even take their skill position backups over what the rest of the AFC South has to offer—T. J. Yates looked pretty good at the controls, Ben Tate showed what he could do if given the opportunity to be a feature back, and tight end Garrett Graham is making some preseason noise.

I’m not going to tell you anything you don’t already know about Schaub, Johnson or Foster. Or Kevin Walter, who’s usually good for about 45 or 50 catches with an average of about 12 yards per catch, or Owen Daniels, who is a solid pass-catching tight end. If you play fantasy football, you know these names. What I want to talk about is their offensive line—for years, an embarrassment of riches that nobody knew about, because…well, they’re offensive linemen. There should be only two times in an offensive lineman’s career his name gets heard…draft day and his Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Canton; any other time means trouble. But for the record, their line has taken a couple of hits with the loss of right tackle Eric Winston (free agency) and a season-ending injury to Rashad Butler, whom the team had hoped would take his place. Losing right guard Mike Briesel leaves them having to enter the season with unprovens Antione Caldwell and Derek Newton protecting their right side. Luckily, the right-handed Schaub will still have his blind side protected by Duane Brown, one of the top left tackles in the game. Center Chris Myers and left guard Wade Smith are no slouches either.

The loss of veteran linebacker Mario Williams on their defensive side sounds worse than it actually is—Williams only played in five games last year, and the Texans drafted Whitney “Ming the” Mercilus (I’ve been waiting to make that joke since draft day!) 26th overall to take his place. He helps to strengthen a base 3-4 unit that was ranked 2nd overall last season; they were 3rd in run stoppage and 4th against the pass, so both components worked tremendously. Kudos to Wade Phillips for turning that defense around…he may not have been the best head coach the league has ever seen, but he’s a damn good coordinator. And if you haven’t heard of special teamer Trindon Holliday…trust me, you will. I expect to see some highlight reel returns from that guy come September.

And come January, I expect to see the Texans take their act deeper into the playoffs. This is a veteran team that has slowly pushed its way into the Super Bowl conversation, and I can’t think of a reason why they can’t get there if they stay healthy.

 

Tennessee Titans: Skill Positions: QB: Jake Locker, Matt Hasselbeck, WR: Kenny Britt, Nate Washington, Kendall Wright, RB: Chris Johnson, Javon Ringer, TE: Jared Cook, Notable DEF/ST: Kamerion Wimbley, Colin McCarthy, Jason McCourty, Akeem Ayers

At present, a lot is being made of Chris Johnson’s renewed commitment to conditioning and the positive impact it will have on the Titans. “Incredible shape” is one description I’ve read. “Added muscle” is another. “Lockout,” “contract holdout,” “offensive line” have all been brought up as reasons for his ineffectiveness last year.

Let’s face it…if they had the Chris Johnson we saw in 2009, the Titans could have competed with the Texans for the divisional crown last year. However, they got a dud instead of a stud, and wound up missing the playoffs entirely. Not that they would have gone far anyway.

For me, the Titans may be the most difficult team to rank of them all. They could go 12-4 or 4-12. Chris Johnson is not the only reason why, but serves as a microcosm of what could go right or wrong for the team. Many of their players are like this…case in point, Kenny Britt. An uber-talented, yet self-destructive wide receiver on his way to a career year until injuries and trouble with the law put everything in jeopardy. Like CJ2K, he has oodles of talent but needs to keep his nose clean and his body in one piece before his game-changing abilities can be realized. If he can’t do it, promising rookie Kendall Wright gets a shot on Nate Washington’s other side.

And then there’s Jake Locker. In a limited role last season, Locker showed flashes of upside at the QB position—throwing four TDs without turning the ball over. He’s expected to be the starter this season over Matt Hasselbeck, and what he lacks in experience is made up by raw talent. The Titans also acquired longtime Viking guard Steve Hutchinson to help out the interior part of the line—head coach Mike Munchak was a Hall of Fame lineman himself with the Oilers and coached the unit under Jeff Fisher, so he knows what he’s doing.

The defense is even less predictable. Half of their 2011 starting secondary has gone on to other pastures, and what remains will need to be coddled by playmaking from their 4-3 front until they gel. They draw New England in week 1, and new starting CB Altarraun Verner has toast written all over him. Their ability to stop the run and get to the quarterback is still suspect, although adding pass rusher Kamerion Wimbley could be a boon. With a deadly September schedule (New England, @San Diego, Detroit, @Houston), I see no (Chris) Hope for them.

And after that, what? With such a difficult early schedule and so many questions, I cannot endorse this team no matter how talented they may be. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them start 0-4. I can see them getting seven or eight wins after that, but it would take more teamwork and less self-destruction to get there.

 

Indianapolis Colts: Skill Positions: QB: Andrew Luck, WR: Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie, Donnie Avery, T. Y. Hilton, RB: Donald Brown, Mewelde Moore, TE: Coby Fleener, Notable DEF/ST: Dwight Freeney, Pat Angerer, Robert Mathis, Antoine Bethea

And here’s reason #1,231 for the disclaimer—I had the Indianapolis Colts finishing 10-6 last year. So what if they lost Peyton Manning? Weren’t they still a playoff-caliber team? And no one man makes a team, especially one with as much talent as the Colts? Yeah, right.

No one was more shocked than I was to watch the implosion that swallowed the 2011 Colts’ season. The mass ineptitude in the organizational decision-making (Curtis Painter an NFL starting quarterback? Are you serious?) became painful to watch after several weeks. Suddenly, I gained a greater respect for Peyton Manning than I’d ever had before—only the greatest quarterback in NFL history could turn such a rag-tag group of ne’er-do-wells into perennial Super Bowl contenders.

So, what did Indy’s brass decide to do once the season was over? Show nearly everyone the door. A peculiar housecleaning job, no doubt, and perhaps a necessary one…but what’s left isn’t going to be strong enough to see January for a good while.

Many comparisons are being made between Andrew Luck and his predecessor. Much is being said of his natural and uncanny accuracy, work ethic, and intuitive qualities. And while those gifts do exist, he lacks the one thing that allowed Manning to hide a poor offense from the rest of the league…NFL experience. A few weeks against mostly second-rate squads not yet in game shape is one thing; Indy starts their season in Soldier Field against the Bears and sees Houston twice, Green Bay, the Jets, Cleveland and their highly regarded pass defense, Detroit, and improved defenses in Buffalo and New England. Everyone will be studying game tapes and making sure they have something to throw at him he’s never seen before. And while he at least has Pro Bowl WR Reggie Wayne and former Stanford teammate Coby Fleener to rely on, everyone else is suspect—Austin Collie may be one hard hit away from oatmeal, Donald Brown (a “bell cow” according to new head coach Chuck Pagano) has mostly shit the bed since being drafted 27th overall in 2009, and the NFL’s injury report is calling out to Donnie Avery. All while being protected by an offensive line expected to be one of the league’s worst.

Defensively, the Colts have a few standouts but no cohesive unit. Veteran pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are still around, but are being moved from the defensive line to the outside linebacker positions; they will join Pat Angerer (when healthy) and Kavell Conner in transitioning to a 3-4 defense. Former Dolphin Vontae Davis has been brought in to shore up the secondary. They should probably give free agent safety Bob Sanders a call; while never healthy, the former Pro Bowler and team leader always gave Indy’s defense a jolt when he stepped on the field.

Dallas Clark. Joseph Addai. Pierre Garcon. Jeff Saturday. Ryan Diem. Gary Brackett. These are just a few of the longtime Colts who will not be suiting up for the team. We know who’s going to replace Peyton Manning, but who will replace these guys? And considering the team’s poor showing last year, does it matter? Considering their relatively welcoming schedule, I see them getting five wins, but no more.

 

London Jaguars: Skill Positions: QB: Blaine Gabbert, WR: Justin Blackmon, Laurent Robinson, Mike Thomas, RB: Maurice Jones-Drew, Rashad Jennings, TE: Marcedes Lewis, Notable DEF/ST: Paul Posluszny, Daryl Smith, Jeremy Mincey, Bryan Anger

In case you haven’t heard, team owner Shad Khan signed the Jags up to play one home game a year at Wembley Stadium for the next four years. For a franchise that refuses to pay the league’s top rusher what he’s worth and drafted punter Bryan Anger in the third round, this doesn’t surprise me, or strike me as one of the worst moves they could have possibly made (I’ll go with the drafting-a-punter move). “My ambition is to make the Jaguars one of the signature franchises in the NFL and to see Jacksonville realize its full potential as a destination for commerce, tourism and living,” said Khan after the deal was made. Sounds like a whole lot of hooey to me, but when you can’t fill the seats, drastic measures must be taken.

For a franchise that has seen relative success over the years, the lack of an apparent fan base in Jacksonville is appalling (I, for one, have never met a person who declares him/herself to be a Jaguar fan). So, what now that the franchise has tanked?

Poor front office decision-making seems to be at the heart of this thing. Saving money appears to be more important than putting a good product on the field, and for this reason, Maurice Jones-Drew is not expected to suit up in a Jaguar uniform anytime soon (I hope you have a hand on the telephone, Mr. Jerry Reese). Rashad Jennings has been given the starting nod, and while he seems to be a decent enough back, he doesn’t put the fear of God into opposing defenses like MJD can.

And neither does Blaine Gabbert. How Jacksonville managed to win five games last year with this guy at the controls confounds me; he plays the quarterback position like he doesn’t want to get his uniform dirty. If he’s afraid to be hit, he needs to find a new profession…I hear there are openings for cat caressers in my area. The Jags probably should have been more bullish about acquiring Tim Tebow (who had a better passer rating than Gabbert last year)—at least he would have put butts in the seats. To be fair, the receiving corps wasn’t much to write home about—MJD caught just one less pass than Jacksonville’s top WR threat, Mike Thomas. This should change with the additions of Justin Blackmon (1st round pick) and Laurent Robinson (free agent), but won’t if Gabbert keeps throwing backwards passes. If he does, Chad Henne is waiting in the wings; while Henne should never be mistaken for aCanton candidate, at least he showed improvement before an injury ended his Dolphin career last year.

On the other side of the ball, the Jags’ defense actually finished 6th overall last year. But it was a pretty empty and unsatisfying 6th, only picking off 17 passes, recovering 11 fumbles, and scoring 3 touchdowns. While serviceable, they were boring to watch. But with standouts such as former Bill Paul Posluszny, CB Rashean Mathis, ex-Jet Dwight Lowery, and a decent defensive line that adds rookie pass rusher Andre Branch to the mix, they could build on last year’s five win season if they at least stay as stingy as they were.

But I’m not counting on it. The Colts (who gave Jacksonville 40% of their 2011 wins) are improved, and their out-of-division matchups include games against the four NFC North and AFC East teams as well as Cincinnati, and a trip to Oakland (Gabbert might want to bring a favorite stuffed animal for that one). Lack of playmaking on defense will expose their crappy offense, and they will wind up securing another high draft pick, which will undoubtedly have the blokes in Britain jonesing for a trip to Florida in the near future…

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About Jason E. Castro
Jason E. Castro isn’t here to govern your Caribbean island, sell your convertible furniture or sing you a top 40 hit. He is a writer from New York City and you can find more of his work online at literary websites such as Danse Macabre or Mediavirus Magazine. And while you're at it, feel free to check out his full length novel, "Rowdies", or his on-line novella, "Cricket for Souls"; both are available from Amazon.

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