AFC South preview
Texans well placed for repeat triumph
By Graeme Mair - Twitter: @gmair 1. Last Updated: 07/09/12 9:14am
There was a marked turnaround in the AFC South last season as the Houston Texans claimed their maiden title and the Indianapolis Colts brought up the rear.
The Colts ruled the division for much of the previous decade but struggled without Peyton Manning and have since released Manning and moved into a new era with number one overall pick Andrew Luck at quarterback.
The Tennessee Titans showed signs of promise in head coach Mike Munchak's first year in charge and have handed the keys of the offence to Jake Locker, while the Jacksonville Jaguars are hoping a change of owner and head coach can prompt a change in fortune.
Houston Texans (10-6)
Star Man: Andre Johnson
The NFL's newest franchise ended their decade-long wait for a play-off trip last season despite being hit hard by injuries to key players.
Quarterback Matt Schaub, his back-up Matt Leinart, top receiver Andre Johnson and pash rusher Mario Williams were all sidelined as the Texans held on for the division title.
Third-string quarterback TJ Yates stepped into the breach and his cause was helped by a superb running game, led by Arian Foster's 1,224 rushing yards.
With Schaub having recovered the broken foot that kept him out from week 10 onwards, scoring points does not look like it will be a problem.
The defence ranked second in the league in their first year under co-ordinator Wade Phillips and, even without former number one draft pick Williams who has gone to Buffalo as a free agent, they remain comfortably the best unit in the division.
Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Star Man: Chris Johnson
The Tennessee Titans narrowly missed out on the play-offs in head coach Mike Munchak's first season in charge and have made a change at quarterback in an effort to make further improvement.
Jake Locker, the eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft, will take over from veteran Matt Hasselbeck after winning a training camp battle between the two signal callers.
Even taking into account Kenny Britt's disciplinary and injury problems (Britt is coming off knee surgery and is suspended for the opening game after his latest brush with authority), the Titans have an impressive group of receivers and have added another playmaker in the form of first-round pick Kendall Wright.
But they need much more from a running game that ranked 31st out of the 32 teams, in particular the onus is on Chris Johnson to return to form and justify the big contract he was handed after holding out prior to last season.
While the offence appears on an upward curve, the defence has lost starting cornerback Cortland Finnegan and defensive lineman Jason Jones to free agency. The arrival of defensive end Kamerion Wimbley at least adds extra depth to the pass rush.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
Star Man: Maurice Jones-Drew
Jacksonville have a new owner and head coach but, instead of talk of a bright new era, their pre-season has been dominated by Maurice Jones-Drew's contract holdout.
The running back led the league with 1,606 rushing yards in 2011, not enough to persuade Shahid Khan to restructure the final two years of his existing deal.
He finally returned to the fold with a week to go until the opening game, hardly ideal preparation for an offence that, Jones-Drew apart, struggled badly under rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert.
A moribund passing game is the most pressing concern for head coach Mike Mularkey, whose work as Atlanta's offensive co-ordinator over the last three years convinced Khan he was the right man to succeed Jack Del Rio on a permanent basis.
First-round draft pick Justin Blackmon and free agent pick-ups Lee Evans and Laurent Robinson provide Gabbert with an upgraded corp of receivers to work with.
The defence ranked sixth in the league last season and the addition of cornerback Aaron Ross from the Giants is a shrewd acquisition.
Indianapolis Colts (2-14)
Star Man: Andrew Luck
The only way is up in Indianapolis after they compiled an NFL-worst 2-14 record last season, a major comedown for a franchise that had won a minimum of 10 games in each of the previous nine campaigns.
Owner Jim Irsay decided it was time for big changes, firing Bill and Chris Polian from their front office positions and releasing quarterback Peyton Manning, who missed the entire season with a neck injury.
Irsay appointed Ryan Grigson as general manager and Chuck Pagano as head coach before the Colts used their first overall pick in the draft on Manning's replacement, Stanford standout Andrew Luck.
Luck is arguably the best prospect to emerge from college since, well, Manning himself in 1998 but he cannot be expected to be an instant saviour given the weakness of the supporting cast.
Pagano built his reputation as defensive co-ordinator in Baltimore and his most pressing issue is to improve the Colts' leaky run defence.