Monday, August 17, 2015

Joe & Daphne's Preview: The AFC South

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe) and Daphne Parello (@DaphnePup)

Daphne and I took a look at the NFC South last week, and we open this week previewing their AFC brethren. The AFC South boasts a Super Bowl contender and a bunch of teams searching for answers, as Andrew Luck's Colts hope to get over the top while Tennessee, Houston and Jacksonville just hope to avoid the Top-5 of the draft next year.

Can Indianapolis make it to Super Sunday, and which of the South's up-and-coming teams has the best chance of breaking through in 2015? Daphne and I investigate.
The Favorites

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts were only one game away from the Super Bowl last year, but that one game was a 45-7 blowout loss to longtime nemesis New England, and the Colts will also have to contend an improved field in the AFC as a whole.

Still, they have the one thing that can make all the difference in the NFL: A franchise quarterback.

Andrew Luck may be the most important player in football for the next decade. Luck will turn just 26 in September, and is already established as a Top-10 (perhaps Top-5) signal caller and guy that can carry his team to the brink of the Super Bowl.

To help Luck take the next step, Indianapolis gambled on a few veterans that could give the team a boost in the short-term. The Colts added former Texans receiver Andre Johnson to go with fellow Miami alum Frank Gore at running back. Indy also used its first round pick on another former Cane in receiver Phillip Dorsett, a speedster that should complement recently extended wideout T.Y Hilton (an FIU grad, but still, this is an all-Dade County wide receiver corps, so you know they'll have speed and swag).

The Colts do have some questions along the offensive line, which has struggled to create a push in the running game, but left tackle Anthony Costonzo has emerged as one of the game's best pass protectors, and a solid run blocker in space as well.

Defensively, the Colts are average to below average across the board, but corner Vontae Davis has shutdown potential, and veteran middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson does a little bit of everything. The pass rush wasn't as bad as you remember (tied for 9th in the league with 41 sacks), but no single rusher strikes fear in opposing offenses.

One player to watch is second-year linebacker Jonathan Newsome. The Ball State product quietly led the Colts with 6.5 sacks last year, and had a massive strip-sack of Peyton Manning in the Divisional Round of the playoffs to help Indianapolis win at Denver.

With veteran Robert Mathis out last season with a torn Achilles (and likely out until October of this season), Indianapolis will need Newsome and former first round pick Bjoern Werner to give Erik Walden a little help rushing the passer.

Can Indy overtake the Patriots, and hold off the Broncos, Chargers, Chiefs Steelers, Ravens, Bengals, Dolphins and Bills? It will take a solid year from their veteran additions, and some vast improvement across the board defensively. But, they've got the biggest piece of the puzzle in place; Andrew Luck.

The Question Mark

Why Can't Tennessee Be Decent?

Things started so well for Tennessee last year. The Titans blasted Kansas City 26-10 in a game where Jake Locker threw for 266 yards, 2 touchdowns and no turnovers, while Shonn Greene had a solid day on the ground, rushing for 71 yards on just 15 carries.

The defense held Chiefs' star running back Jamaal Charles to a measly 19 yards, and this team looked like one that might be a tough out for the rest of the year.

Then the bottom fell out, as Tennessee lost 14 of their next 15, Locker dealt with injuries and eventually retired, and the Titans finished tied for the worst record in football.

That led to Tennessee getting the No. 2 pick in the draft, and its apparent rebuilding will begin with former Hesiman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota at quarterback. The thing is, this team (like fellow 2-14 Tampa Bay) isn't that far away from being decent.

With a healthy Andy Levitre and a motivated and experienced Chance Warmack, the Titans should have a solid offensive line to protect Mariota and open up room for second-year running back Bishop Sankey.

On the outside, Justin Hunter should be ready to take a step, and Tennessee snagged hyper-talented, though troubled, wideout Dorial Green-Beckham to complement veterans Hakeem Nicks and Dexter McCluster.

Tight end Delanie Walker has been a rare bright spot, and the defense has potential with power rusher Derrick Morgan, hard-hitting safety Michael Griffin and all-around defensive lineman Jurrell Casey.

Is this a playoff team? With a rookie quarterback, probably not, but there are pieces there, and this division is far from murderers' row.

The Theme

Youth at Quarterback

Mariota won't be the only young quarterback making an impact in the AFC South. In fact, at the age of 27, former Patriots backup Ryan Mallett is expected to be the elder-statesman of the division as the presumed starter in Houston.

Still, Mallett's two career starts lag behind the 13 that second-year Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles had last year, and he obviously sits behind Luck who has started since being drafted No. 1 in 2012.

All that said, with Mariota and Mallett penciled in as starters, the average starting quarterback in the AFC South is currently 24.25 years old, and none have started an entire season other than Luck.

Nobody is expecting much from the other three, but Mallett need only be efficient and not screw things up with a Texans team that should be able to run the ball, even without Arian Foster for the beginning of the season. Bortles will need to be vastly improved after a 17 interception rookie year, and Mariota's early preseason reviews have been less than stellar. If either of them can find some consistency, their legs can bail them out and keep plays alive, perhaps making them viable in a division full of inexperience.

Daphne's Superlatives, by Daphne Parello

Daphne's Underdog
 Jacksonville Jaguars

Laugh at me if you will (the Jags have won 9 games the last three years), but I have a good feeling about this bunch. Blake Bortles looked like a rookie last year, but he has the athleticism and arm strength to take a big step this year, and if you don't love running back Denard Robinson, then you don't love fun. They even went out and drafted the physical T.J. Yeldon to compliment him. It's like the Jags have a plan or something!

Ok, we have to forget the fact that first round pick Dante Fowler has already torn his ACL and focus on the positives: The Jaguars added a weapon for Bortles in tight end Julius Thomas, one of Peyton Manning's favorite targets the last two years in Denver, and Allen Hurns showed some potential last year. If Marqise Lee can stay healthy, Jacksonville has what some people might consider a decent collection of weapons.

The Jaguars are far from a playoff team, but with some experience at quarterback, and some intriguing skill players, I don't see why they can't score a few surprise wins.

Daphne's Alpha Dog
 J.J. Watt, DE, Houston

Could it be anyone else? Seriously, just watch these.

In the Dog House
 Jadeveon Clowney, OLB, Houston

The Texans drafted Clowney, a man known mostly for nearly decapitating a dude from Michigan in some random bowl game, with dreams of he and Watt forming the most unstoppable pass rush duo in the league.

Heck, with what we all thought Clowney could be and what Watt was becoming, thinking this might be the best rush combination in league history wasn't that far fetched.

Unfortunately for Houston, Clowney missed 12 games last year with a knee injury and, after undergoing microfracture surgery, there is some fear within the organization that he may never be the same kind of explosive athlete again.

It's not quite "now or never" for Clowney, who's only entering his second season, but the Texans need to get something out of him before we start hearing "bust" talk.


Joe: 1. Indianapolis, 2. Houston, 3. Tennessee, 4. Jacksonville
Daphne: 1. Indianapolis, 2. Jacksonville, 3. Houston, 4. Tennessee

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