NFL Season Predictions Part 6: The AFC South

AFC South

The Houston Texans

So close, yet so far

Record Prediction: 12-4 (5-1)

Peyton Manning is no longer in the division and the Texans are taking full advantage of the young quarterbacks in this division. After finishing 12-4 in the 2012 season, it is not difficult to see them repeat that mark in the 2013 campaign.

What to like: 

The Texans are one of the few run-focused teams in a pass-happy league. They lean Arian Foster to lead their rushing attack, a method that seems to be working based on Foster’s league leading 41-rushing touchdowns since he took over the starting job in 2010.  Anyone who plays fantasy football knows the calf and back issues that Foster has fought with over the summer, but he appears to be ready to continue his success at the start of the season. Critics look at the decline Foster has had in his yards-per-carry, dropping from 4.9 in 2010 to 4.1 last season, but the simple fact is Foster remains the best goal-line back in the league and maybe one of the best in NFL history.

Teams can’t count on wearing out Foster in hopes of getting to his backup, because Ben Tate is an above average running-back in his own right. Tate’s numbers were modest last year, getting only 65 carries for 279 yards and two touchdowns, but he missed a chunk of the year due to injury. In his two year career, Tate has averaged 5.1 yards-per-carry, so he is more than capable. The way rosters are constructed these days, many teams are looking to have a two-back system, spreading out the rushes and keeping their guys healthy.  The Texans are writing the book on this strategy.

The Texans are known for their run game, often overshadowing  the ability of Matt Schaub. There really is not anything exciting to say about the way Schaub plays, but in this offense he thrives. The Texans are one of the best play-action teams in the league. This is an obvious result of their threatening running-backs, but in order for it to be successful a team also needs an accurate quarterback that stands tall in the pocket.

Schaub threw for 4,008 yards last year, competing 64.3 percent of his throws and throwing 22 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. Nearly 1,600  of those passing yards went to Andre Johnson, the 10 year-vet. Johnson had a bounce back season in 2012, playing in all 16 games and leading the team with 112 receptions. At 32, Johnson is getting a bit up there in age, but his six-foot-three-inch, 223-pound body continues to be a matchup problem for defenders.

Schaub is not the only one who benefits from one of the league’s best receivers. Johnson is tutoring the rookie wide-out DeAndre Hopkins (Clemson). Hopkins is supposed to give the Texans that second threat they have been missing over the past few years and if he lives up to the Roddy White comparison many draft experts are giving him, he should be able to do just that.

Concerns:

From a personell standpoint there really is no issue with the Texans. They have an above average defense, an elite running game an improved passing game. The regular season has been a non-issue for the Texans and as long as they stay healthy they should be able to get into the playoffs again. The question is whether or not they can take advantage of the home-field and first-round bye. If they can get over that hump and get into the AFC title game, they have as good a chance as any to get to the Super Bowl.

Bold Prediction:

J.J. Watt gets his wish, getting a chance to play on offense and he scores a red-zone touchdown.

Hopkins leads all rookie receivers in receiving yards. (OK, I will admit this one is more me hoping that he helps my fantasy football team)

The Indianapolis Colts

The #ChuckStrong hangover

Record Prediction: 9-7 (4-2)

The Colts were one of the best story lines in the NFL last year. The team played inspired all season long as they prayed for Chuck Pagano to fight through his cancer treatment and join them on the field again. They finished the season 11-5 and got into the playoffs. I think this team outperformed itself a bit last year. A 9-7 finish seems about right. They will be in the hunt for a Wild Card spot.

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What to like: 

Andrew Luck, the number one pick in the 2012 draft kind of took a backseat to RGIII and Russell WIlson throughout the season, but still had a very good first season. Luck elevated a roster that finished 2-14 in 2011 to 11 wins in 2012. He threw for 4,374 yards, leading all rookies and trailing his predecessor (Peyton Manning) by 80-yards.

Luck is primed to take a huge leap forward this season, with the help of his favorite receiver; Reggie Wayne. Wayne had 106 receptions for 1,355 yards last season, after only 75 catches the previous year. Other than Wayne, Luck had to work with a group of young receivers like T.Y. Hilton (50 receptions for 861 yards and 7 touchdowns), Coby Fleener (26 receptions for 281-yards and two touchdowns), and fifth-year man Donnie Avery (60 receptions for 781-yards and three touchdowns).

Avery is gone, but the Wayne, Hilton, Fleener combination returns with more chemistry with their young quarterback.

The Colt’s offense threw the ball a ton last season. Only Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees, Tony Romo and Tom Brady threw the ball more than Andrew Luck, who threw it 670 times. In Chuck Pagano’s offense, that is not ideal. The team went out and got Ahmad Bradshaw in the offseason to help take some pressure off of Luck. If Bradshaw can stay healthy, he should give the offense a solid 900 to 1,000 yards rushing, opening up the passing game.

Concerns:

The Colts are not strong in the trenches. Both their defensive and offensive lines have major holes. The defense was ranked 29th in the league against the run, giving up an average of 137.5 yards a game. The offensive line struggled, causing Luck to get sacked 41 times (4th worse in the NFL). Both of these are glaring issues.

The defense also lost Dwight Freeney to the San Diego Chargers. This is a defense that just looked outmatched against the Ravens in the playoffs last season. Not sure this team is well-rounded enough to make any sort of noise in the playoffs.

Bold Prediction: 

T.Y. Hilton leads the Colts in reception yards this season. Reggie Wayne has to start slowing down at some point and with this exciting young receiver on the team it very well could be this season.

Tennessee Titans

Easily overlooked

Record Prediction: 5-10 (2-4)

The Titans finished 6-10 last season and they have made some improvements on both sides of the ball. This has been a hard team to get excited about for a few years, but it also has been a team that has avoided hitting rock bottom. This team is probably good enough to win a few games most people will not see coming. Five wins may be a bit low, 7-9 sounds a bit safer.

What to like:

Matt Hasselbeck is gone and Jake Locker is entering his second year as a starter. There is not much about Locker’s stat-line that jumps out at you and screams that he is going to make it in this league, but the eye test see something there. In his 11 starts of 2012, Locker completed 56.4 percent of his passes. He threw for a mediocre 2,176 yards on his way to 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

The reason this stat-line is deceiving is because the offense in Tennessee was pretty boring overall. The front office identified some of the issues on the offensive line and Locker should enjoy the comfort of what appears to be a rejuvenated Chris Johnson. If the offensive line can open up the holes, Johnson can look much more like his 2009-self where he averaged 5.6 yards-per-carry. Johnson has always been a speed guy, he is not going to plow people over in a Adrian Peterson-like fashion, but if he gets to the second level, there are not too many players in the league who are going to catch him.

Johnson is not going to be asked to run for 2,000 yards this season (though I’m sure he would love to do so). The offense should open up a little bit, with the young receivers Kendall Wright and Kenny Britt.  Britt has big play ability and if there is a 1,000 yard receiver on this team it’s going to be him. He finished last season with 45 receptions for 589 yards and just four touchdowns, but fantasy owners will likely remember the monster year he began in 2011, where he had 17 receptions for 289 yards and three touchdowns in just three games. The reports from Titans’ camp were all encouraging and he seems poised to get back to that level of production.

Wright is entering his second year in the league, having had a respectable first year with 64 catches for 626 yards and four touchdowns. His success is tied in with Locker’s but he has the ability to be the leading reception leader on this team, lining up in the slot and on the outside.

Concerns: 

This team is so dependent on inconsistent players. Jake Locker seems to be stepping in the right direction, but there really is no evidence to prove that he couldn’t fall off in the other direction. Chris Johnson has been the league’s best running-back before, but has been really inconsistent over the past few years. The defense just does not have any exciting or intimidating players. More than any other NFL team, the Titans are just boring. There is not anything to say about them and if you asked me to name all of the NFL teams on the spot, they would probably be the one name I struggle to find.

Bold Prediction: 

Chris Johnson loses his gold teeth and proceeds to up his up his yards-per-carry average by half a yard.  (Hey we can hope right? He looks ridiculous).

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Jacksonville Jaguars 

Bringing Moneyball to the NFL

Record Prediction: 2-15 (1-5)

Did I mention how boring the Titans are? Well the Jaguars are pretty much as boring, only with the added bonus that they have been all-around terrible for a few years in a row. I have almost convinced myself that I like the Jaguars better than the Titans this season and a 2-14 season seems a bit on the harsh side. On of these two teams is going to get to 7-9 or so. There is one major reason why I chose the Titans over the Jaguars.

What to like:

The Jaguars are trying to get ahead of the game by using Analytics and Statistics to find the right guys for their roster. Owner Chad Kahn’s son Tony has taken a role, analyzing situations, specifically situations that allow players to do a wide variety of things that can help you win. Jaguar fans and Moneyball experts hate when this is compared to what the Oakland Athletics did in the MLB, but on the surface it seems like a similar thing. Basically the owner is trying to use statistics to get ahead of other teams, so he must be doing it in a way that has not been done before. I get the difference between baseball and football, but I am going to continue to compare it to what was done in baseball.

Anyways, the only player I feel like mentioning in this section is Maurice Jones-Drew, who is finally healthy and is in a contract year. If I was MJD I would run my heart out so that I put myself in a good position to find a contending team after this season. MJD only played in 6 games last season, but he appears to be healthy and should be 70 percent of this team’s offense.

Concerns:

Somehow Blaine Gabbert has won the starting job yet again and any team that has Gabbert as their best option at quarterback is in deep trouble. I have not read about this system of analytics and statistics, but the one thing I heard about it was the “revelation” that quarterbacks are better when they have time to throw the ball. Is this supposed to be some shocking news?

Apparently Gabbert is a better passer when his offensive line is able to block well enough for him to throw the ball. Who knew? Pretty sure any quarterback will throw better when he has time to do so, the problem is even when Gabbert does have time, he is just not that good. I would expect to see Chad Henne at some point this season, just like we saw last year. If we are still talking about Gabbert winning the starting job at the beginning of the 2014 I will be shocked.

Bold Prediction: 

MJD does not sign with the Jaguars next season.

I took a while to get this one done, but I will get these done before the kickoff on Thursday. Next up: the NFC South.

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