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Schultz: Breaking down the AFC South heading into the season

Chris Schultz
8/8/2014 4:06:20 PM
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TSN football analyst Chris Schultz breaks down all the teams and each division in the NFL leading up to the regular season. Next up, the Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, and Jacksonville Jaguars in the AFC South.

Indianapolis Colts

Over the last five years the Indianapolis Colts have won 14 games, 10 games, two games, 11 games and 11 games. When they only won two games was the year Peyton Manning was injured and the last two years, when they won 11 games each, was when Andrew Luck emerged. The value of excellence at quarterback can never be discounted.

How good is Andrew Luck? No other quarterback has passed for more yards (8,196) in their first two seasons in the history of the NFL. And he doesn't have a strong supporting cast. The offensive line is average, the Colts lost Reggie Wayne for the year, and Trent Richardson did not produce as anticipated after being the third overall pick after Luck and Robert Griffin III in the 2012 Draft. Richardson averaged 2.9 yards per carry.

Luck is the obvious talent for the Colts but the hidden talent going into this year is going to be the linebackers. In their 3-4 defence their linebackers should be Eric Walden, a former Green Bay Packer, D'Qwell Jackson, a former Cleveland Brown, Jerrell Freeman, a former Saskatchewan Roughrider, and Robert Mathis who is going into his 12th year. Linebacker is strong for the Colts.

And you have to acknowledge the approach of Chuck Pagano. I have never really bought into the whole “Football Family” attitude and approach that coaches use to get a team to work together, rely on each other, and perform. But Pagano seems extremely genuine and his players respond.

The best asset for Pagano this year is they play in a week division. There are new coaches in Houston (Bill O'Brien) and Tennessee (Ken Wisenhunt), and a second year coach in Gus Bradley with a rookie quarterback in Blake Bortles. The division is there for the taking.

If Luck were to have an off year it would have been last year, his sophomore campaign. But now in his third year with the same Pep Hamilton playbook, he might create a new record for most passing yards in the first three seasons in the history of NFL football. This one is easy. The Indianapolis Colts, first in the AFC South because of Andrew Luck.

Tennessee Titans

The Tennessee Titans are my dark horse team in the AFC this year. A lot will depend on the consistency of Jake Locker's performance at quarterback, who is in his final year of his rookie contract. Now, he knows that if he can go from average to really good he will benefit immensely monetarily. Basically a once in a lifetime opportunity that he can control through his own effort and even though he will not receive Rogers, Brady, Manning, Kaepernick or Dalton money, it is still good enough to set him up for life. This is a big year for Locker.

And he may have the right personnel around him to make it happen. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt coached Ben Roethlisberger to a Super Bowl when Roethlisberger was 23, and coached Kurt Warner to one when he was 37. Locker is only 26.

And the people protecting him could develop into one of the best groups in football. Chance Warmack and Taylor Lewan are both first round picks. Andy Levitre is a highly paid free agent that has 80 consecutive starts from last year and Michael Roos is a nine-year left tackle that is proven. And Michael Oher from Baltimore is an excellent addition constantly overshadowed due to his biographical movie. Oher is an excellent player at guard or tackle, the only unknown is at center.

It will also be interesting to see Leon Washington and Dexter McCluster on the same offence with the power of Shonn Greene and the youth of Bishop Sankey. Washington and McCluster are both 5'8 and about 180lbs; guys who are great punt and kick returners and third down backs. When you look at personal with Tennessee, offensive coordinator Jason Michael and Wisenhunt have a lot to work with.

On the opposite side of the ball, Tennessee goes from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and time will tell if they have the linebackers to play that style of defence. They do have an underrated player up front in Jerrell Casey who stands 6' 1 and 305 pounds. All 3-4 defences need defensive linemen that never get knocked off the ball, that is Casey.

The two big losses last year were home and away to the Indianapolis Colts as Andrew Luck played come-from-behind football to win. This year, September 28th and December 28th are key dates for the Titans. Previous head coach Mike Munchak was 6-12 in the AFC South so what needs to change is clear. But Wisenhunt is a former successful player and coordinator and took the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl. He did it before, maybe again. Tennessee will finish second in the AFC South.

Houston Texans

I think it is just a matter of time before Bill O'Brien is successful as a head coach with the Houston Texans. His background with the New England Patriots gives him a foundation for success and what he was able to create in his time at Penn State, considering the limitations and atmosphere, was remarkable. The Texans have talent everywhere and even though they lost 14 in a row to finish 2-14, nine of the losses were by a touchdown or less.

The key component will be Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback. Now in his 10th year he has been with five different teams so something is missing. He will not be asked to win games but there will be moments in games that he has to be the reason for a win. Andrew Luck is the best quarterback in the division by far while Jake Locker, Blake Bortles and Fitzpatrick are all similar: mostly unknown over 16 games.

On defence, Romeo Crennel is the new coordinator and with his five Super Bowl rings, he can't be questioned. JJ Watt amazed with his explosive effort and polished technique, and if Jadeveon Clowney lives up to expectations Houston could have one of the best defensive front sevens in football.

On offence, Arian Foster has to have a bounce back year. In 2012 he scored 17 touchdowns and is still only 28 so time and success history is on his side. I can say almost the same thing for Andre Johnson at wide receiver. His frustration with the organization is understandable on a personal level and if you look at it from his perspective. At 33, his time is limited. As a player he has accomplished everything possible to achieve except for a Super Bowl ring. Now comes O'Brien with new everything; attitude, playbook, evaluation. Are the Texans going to win a Super Bowl in the next two years? Unlikely. And in two years Johnson will be 35, one step slower, and a salary cap stress. His time is now, the Texans time is the future.

The 14 losses in a row was one of the most unusual stories of last season and will not happen this season. But with everything new and an unknown at quarterback, Houston will improve but not enough to be a playoff team. They'll finish third in the AFC South.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Even at 4- 12 last year the Jacksonville Jaguars won-loss record was deceiving. They were 0-7 against teams that made the playoffs last year and the four wins were over Tennessee, Cleveland and Houston twice.

Gus Bradley as a head coach has a long was to go but comes from the Seattle Seahawks tree of success in 2012, his last year there, so you know what he is trying to duplicate: a high energy team that has exceptional pass rushers to dominate on third down and maturity at quarterback.

In what is a very interesting move, coach Bradley has already committed to Chad Henne as his starter and expressed he will bring Blake Bortles along as the reserve throughout the year. Usually those types of procedures are kept quiet, but it will be interesting to see if he can keep his commitment when times get tough or when injuries happen.

A lot has to happen for Jacksonville to be a surprise playoff team. Left tackle Luke Joeckel has to be a consistent 16 game starter and go unnoticed. Toby Gerhart needs to be a 1,000-yard running back and establish himself as dominate in all areas of running, pass catching and blocking. To be a 1,000-yard back you only need to average 62.5 yards per game and that is a realistic goal. Gehart does not have a lot of carries as Adrian Peterson took care of that while he was in Minnesota, so the Jaguars have a fresh running back going into his fifth year.

And the defence overall has to improve from 29th against the run and 27th on third down to anywhere around 15th in both categories. Given Bradley's background, that is more likely to happen than other aspects of improvement.

A reason I say that free agency was good for Jacksonville the last year was because of two key defensive lineman that fit, Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. Jacksonville may also have the most underrated linebacker in football in Paul Posluszny.

All NFL schedules are difficult but Jacksonville's is reasonable. The Division is not dominant and they play the four NFC East teams, which you never know how will develop. Houston has a better defence, Tennessee has a better overall team, and the Colts have Andrew Luck. Jacksonville will finish fourth in the AFC South.

Chris Schultz

Chris Schultz

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