2012 NFL Division Preview: AFC South

HOUSTON TEXANS

Key Pickups: QB John Beck, K Shayne Graham

This is how quiet the Texans have been in free agency. They haven’t really gained anything of use from free agency this offseason. Instead, they’ve signed a lot of undrafted free agents and built through the draft. I DO like the pickup of Beck more than most because he’s a decent backup quarterback. If Schaub gets hurt like he did last season (every Texans fan better be knocking on wood right now), a backup that can at least moderately perform is key. Last year, when Schaub went down the proverbial keys to the car were handed to Matt Leinart, and he proceeded to sit down in the car and slam his arm in the door. Leinart was gone before Texans fans could ask “…Matt who?”. TJ Yates was next in line for a shot to lead the team. He didn’t do badly, but the Texans stumbled without Schaub. A good backup quarterback is important in case Schaub gets hurt again. the Texans better hope he doesn’t get hurt again.

Key Losses: DE Mario Williams, LB Demeco Ryans, T Eric Winston

Ouch. The Texans defense last year was straight up scary. Williams is widely considered as one of the best defensive ends in the league (which is probably why my Bills gave him a $100 Million deal) and Demeco Ryans is one of the leaders of that defense. According to sources, fellow players were not happy with Ryans being traded to the Eagles. I expect a drop off in defensive numbers this year because of these moves, which could end up costing them. Eric Winston was also a surprise release, but his release saved the Texans $4.5 Million this upcoming season, which is the only reason I could see them cutting him.

Draft picks and Grade- Whitney Mercilus, DE/OLB, Illinois. DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State. Brandon Brooks, OG, Miami (OH). Ben Jones, C, Georgia. Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State. Jared Crick, DE, Nebraska. Randy Bullock, K, Texas A&M. Nick Mondek, OT, Purdue.

Overall, I think the Texans had a very successful draft. They filled most of their needs and concerns and added some much needed depth. The player that I’m most excited to see is DT Jared Crick from Nebraska. He has the ability to play in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense and has a great motor. The Texans focused their offseason on the draft and on undrafted free agents, and it was a plan that they executed to perfection.

Grade- B+ 

Coaching Staff: The Texans coaching staff returns this season mostly intact. Stability in the coaching staff will be great for the team. Someone to watch is former Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips, who will be running the Texans defense again this year. It will be interesting to see how he responds to losing key players like Williams and Ryans and if it changes his game plan. Gary Kubiak trusts his guys a lot, saying ““I cross-reference with the coaches, I have defensive coaches study offense. I have offensive coaches study defense. I want to get everybody’s opinion on where we are.”
The coaching staff is definitely a strength of this team.

Offensive Player to watch: Andre Johnson, WR

The reason that I’m saying that he’s someone you’re going to want to keep your eye on has two reasons.
1) He’s one of the best in the league. Pure and simple. Despite having a down season last year (statistically the worst of his career) it would be downright stupid for ANY defense in the league to underestimate him. He’s a big, exciting, powerful wide receiver. I have a good feeling that he’ll be back in 2012.

2) He’s coming back from an injury plagued 2011. He only played in 7 games, recording 33 receptions for 492 yards and only two touchdowns. To add to that, he just had knee surgery and will miss the next 3-4 weeks. Even though it won’t he won’t miss any game time, it will be interesting to see if/how he bounces back in 2012.

Defensive Player to watch: Brian Cushing, ILB

Cushing was probably one of the best players in the league to NOT make the pro-bowl last season. He was a team captain, team MVP, and AP 2nd team all-pro in 2011. He finished 2011 with  114 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 pass deflections, 2 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles. This guy was a straight up beast last season. With the loss of Mario Williams and Demeco Ryans, Cushing will be seen as even more of a leader for this defense. It’ll be his job to lead this defense despite losing them some key pieces.

projected record: 11-5, wins the AFC South

TENNESSEE TITANS

Key Pickups: DE Kamerion Wimbley, OG Steve Hutchinson

After losing the Peyton Manning sweepstakes the Titans were left with, where do we go from here? While they were waiting for Manning to make up their mind, the lost out on Mario Williams, who ended up in Buffalo. However, the Titans did make some great moves, in particular, Kamerion Wimbley and Steve Hutchinson. Hutch, brings experience to the offensive line, and I don’t think anyone is happier to see him than Matt Hasselback. Wimbley brings his aggressiveness to a defensive line that can always use help; you can never have too many solid defensive lineman.

Key Loss: Cortland Finnegan

Every year players goes from one team to the next; this year is no different. This time it’s the Titans losing their muscle in the secondary Cortland Finnegan. When you are looking back in the 2012 off-season, this has to be the most disappointing for the fans. Finnegan was not only a great corner, but an intense. He would put fear in the hearts of receivers and without him in the secondary, the Titans secondary will struggle.

Draft picks/Grade: WR, Kendall Wright, OLB Zach Brown, DT Mike Martin, CB Coty Sensabaugh, TE Taylor Thompson, S Markelle Martin, DE Scott Solomon, Draft grade= B

For the most part, the Titans needed to upgrade their roster, and they did that. The one pick that stands out to me is Kendall Wright a wide receiver from Baylor. He will get some playing time on the field with the recent injuries of Kenny Brit. Wright is a speedy receiver and with a benefit both Hasselback and Locker, whoever ends up playing quarterback.

Coaching Staff:

The coaching staff is locked and loaded for a breakout year; they have a solid group of great coaches and this season they will have a shot to make an impact. It is always easier the second season to make an impact with your system. I expect the Titans coaching staff to make some great decisions of the players they have.

Offensive Player to watch: RB Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson doesn’t have a choice; he must have a great year. Two years ago, he broke records. Last year, He broke Titans’ fan’s hearts. Johnson has the most talent whom we have seen in a running back since Barry Sanders, but last year it was lost. Was it lost with a new contract? A new coaching staff? Or, a new quarterback? Who really knows, I expect Johnson to have an outstanding year, and to be back as an elite running back in this league. The Titans will go as far as Johnson will carry them, and expect that to be improved from a year ago, because of Johnson.

Defensive Player to watch: LB Colin McCarthy

McCarthy is ready to lead the Titans into the 2012 season. McCarthy is a fairly unknown linebacker by most NFL fans outside of Tennessee, however, expect him by the end of next season to be well-known. He had an impact as a rookie last year with 68 tackles, one interception and two forced fumbles. He was also named defensive player of the week, during the year. Except McCarthy to have a great year, and to be named to the Pro Bowl in 2012.

Projected Outcome: 10-6

Jacksonville Jaguars

 

Key Pickups: WR Laruent Robinson, QB Chad Henne, CB Aaron Ross
The Jaguars arguably had the worst receiving corps in the league. Of course not all of this is the wide recievers fault, the fact that they had a startled rookie quarterback tossing them the ball cuts them a little slack. Rookie quarterback or not, the Jags needed a lot of improvment at the receiver position and it looks like they found it in Laurent Robinson. Robinson did big things in Dallas, in fact, he caught more touchdown passes than any Dallas Cowboys receiver in 2011. The Jaguars also inked a primary back-up for their 2nd year quarterback Blaine Gabbert by signing Chad Henne. Henne is by no means going to win you a super bowl, but he is definitely going to be a solid back-up for a quarterback who is definitely in need of some support. Ross brings leadership to Jacksonville’s secondary, as he just came off a Super Bowl win with the Giants, he’ll be able to motivate these players for the ultimate goal.

Key Losses: DT Leger Douzable
Not much to report here, the Jags haven’t released too many players this season. Douzable compiled 38 total tackles and 1 sack for the Jaguars last season and recently signed with the Titans.

Draft Picks/Grade:  WR Justin Blackmon, DE Andre Branch, P Bryan Anger, LB Brandon Marshall, DB Mike Harris, DT Jeris Pendleton
How do I describe the Jaguars 2012 Draft? I’d say hit and miss. The Jags took WR Justin Blackmon out of Oklahoma State fifth overall. Makes sense since wide receiver is one of the teams biggest needs, and Blackmon was considered the best receiver of this year’s draft class. Even though Blackmon is a little smaller than the elite receivers in the NFL today (Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall) he shows great potential and can always build some size. I really liked the Jags taking DE Andre Branch in the second round. Branch shows the power to get to the quarterback and is sure to do that for the Jaguars starting day one. After round 2, the Jaguars were looking like they were having one hell of a draft, then came Anger, no not that anger, the punter out of California Bryan Anger. A punter in the 3rd round? Who approved this?! Well whoever it was must have seen something in Anger that nobody else did. The 3rd round is just way too early to be looking at punters. Overall, the Jaguars draft wasn’t too bad. They selected two instant starters in Justin Blackmon and Andre Branch, but the punter thing still has me confused.

Final Draft Grade, C+

Coaching Staff:

After a unsurprising less than productive start to the 2011 season the Jaguars fired their 9 year head coach Jack Del Rio mid-season. The Jags would go on to also fire their Offensive Coordinator  Dirk Koetter. Then after shifting and switching of coaches, the season ended and Jaguar fans were at a loss for words.The Jaguars main concern in finding a new head coach, was finding someone to work with Blaine Gabbert. In the 2012 off-season, the Jaguars would hire Mike Mularkey as their new head coach. Mularkey was the previous Offensive Coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons and had good success with the team. The Jaguars probably saw that Mularkey worked well with former high draft pick Matt Ryan and eventually helped him to a pro-bowl. The Jags would also go on to name Bob Bratkowski as thier new offensive coordinator. Bratkowski coached the quarterbacks for the Atlanta Falcons in 2011.

Offensive player to watch: QB, Blaine Gabbert

The Jaguars 2011 10th overall pick was thrown into the starting role in 2011 and struggled tremendously. He had no idea what he was doing, he looked startled in the pocket and when the pressure came, he crumpled up. Gabbert had no weapons, and if it weren’t for their superstar running back Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jags probably wouldn’t have won a single game in 2011. Now Gabbert doesn’t only have an outstanding running back, he has a solid receiver in Laurent Robinson and a promising rookie receiver in Justin Blackmon. The team built their coaching staff around progressing Gabbert and whether the Jags want him to or not, Gabbert is going to be under a lot of pressure to produce.

Defensive Player to watch: DE Jeremy Mincey
After almost losing him to the Bears this off-season, the Jaguars inked their premier defensive end Jeremy Mincey to a four year deal. Mincey finished with a career-high eight sacks last season and was close to many more. He has played in 40 games, with 24 starts, since signing with the Jaguars in December 2006. Originally a sixth-round draft pick by New England in 2006, Mincey’s early career was plagued by injuries. But he has started to find his niche in the last two years. Now, he feels he can be a double-digit sack guy for years.

“Yeah, I never doubt myself,” Mincey said. “I do this to prove my ability. I’ve got a lot of getting better to do. Last season was just a brief description of who I am and what I bring to the table. Like I said, I got a long way to go. Keep climbing up the hill ’til I get there.”

 Projected Outcome- 6-10

 

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Key Pickups: WR Donnie Avery

Based on the inactivity in free agency it’s obvious general manager Ryan Grigson and the Colts are looking to build from the ground up. But picking up the former Rams wideout could be a low risk, high reward pick up. After missing all of 2010 and a brief stint in Tennessee, Avery will look to resume his career with a bang in Indianapolis.

 

Key Losses: QB Peyton Manning, TE Dallas Clark

We know the situation with Peyton Manning. Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last year and a half. For nine seasons Dallas Clark was a true professional and playmaker for the Colts, and now he’s gone. After nine seasons, 427 receptions, 4,887 yards the Colts decided to part ways with the former Iowa Hawkeye in another attempt to show fans the old Colts that we’ve been known to watch and love  will no longer be around.

Draft Picks/Grade: QB Andrew Luck, TE Coby Fleener, TE Dwayne Allen, T.Y. Hilton, DT Josh Chapman, RB Vick Ballard, WR LaVon Bazill, T Justin Anderson, DE Tim Fugger, QB Chandler Harnish

With the first pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Indianapolis Colts select Andrew Luck. And with that, a new era began. What’s important is to bring you franchise quarterback weapons to throw to and the Colts did just that. The next three rounds two tight ends and a wideout were selected. The Colts had a decent draft on the offensive side of the ball. But the Colts failed to bring in defensive players that would fit the new 3-4 defense Chuck Pagano plans to run.

Grade: B

Coaching Staff: An entire new coaching was brought in along with a new front office. After a disastrous season in 2011, Jim Caldwell was shown to the door only 2 seasons removed from a conference championship. Enter in Chuck Pagano, former Ravens defensive coordinator. Pagano had a very successful run in Baltimore going all the way back to 2008. Running the offense will be former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians who had a great run in Pittsburgh as Ben Roethlisberger’s one hand man. Arians bring championship pedigree to the staff, winning two rings with the Steelers. And former Chargers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky will run the defense. After a terrible 2011 in San Diego(ranked 22nd in points allowed), Manusky was let go after only season at the helm.

Offensive player to watch: QB Andrew Luck

Look for offensive coordinator Bruce Arians to run a conservative offense for Andrew Luck. Like Carolina and Cam Newton, the Colts will not try to force feed Luck too much and just let him play. This offense is many pieces away from being any close to what we’re used to in Indy, but giving Andrew Luck time to develop and not rushing the process will be key.

Defensive player to watch: DE Dwight Freeney

In 2009, former Packers defensive end Aaron Kampman switched from end to linebacker when Dom Capers came to Green Bay and installed the 3-4 defense. Kampman never got accustomed to playing with his hand out the ground and was gone after that year. Dwight Freeney will look to prevent that same scenario ocurring as new head coach Chuck Pagano looks to implement the 3-4 as well. This Colts defense will go as far as Dwight and Robert Mathis can take them.

Projected outcome: 5-11

Follow us on Twitter! @Downanddistance





NFL List
Top 10 NFL Quarterback Wonderlic Test Scores (since 2000)
The Top 10 Wonderlic scores at the quarterback position in recent years
Top ten most successful NFL/CFL careers
With the news of Chad Johnson working out for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes, we take a look at the top ten players who succeeded on both sides of the border