Houston Texans- After winning 11 of their first 12 last year the Texans slumped to lose three of their last four which cost them not only the top seed in the AFC but also a first round bye in the playoffs. For the second straight year they defeated the Bengals in the wildcard but were then comprehensively beaten by the Patriots in the divisional round. The schedule looks a notch tougher in 2013 but the Texans are a deeply talented team and should again expect to be in the race for the first seed in the AFC.
A balanced offense which ranked seventh overall in 2012 should again be a top 10 unit. Quarterback Matt Schaub made his second pro-bowl last year but still needs to do more in the really big games, whether it is scheme or Schaub himself the Texans seem to become more conservative in the clutch, a habit that must end if they are to become real contenders. The Texans added wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins in the first round to complement Andre Johnson. Johnson a 10 year veteran is still as dominant as ever and he remains one of the league’s most feared receivers, Hopkins should finally offer a legitimate threat opposite and in the future will be expected to move into Johnson’s role. Depth is a worry at receiver after Kevin Walter departed for Tennessee, largely unproven wideouts will be expected to make an impact but tight end Owen Daniels should take some of the burden, he is a crafty, versatile veteran who knows how to get open. All-pro running back Arian Foster should again be in the 1500 yards rushing vicinity, as an all round back he has few peers but the Texans mustn’t over rely on him in the big ones. Pro bowl left tackle Duane Brown is Houston’s best lineman but this is an excellent, underrated unit, the biggest question mark ahead of 2013 is the health of right tackle Derek Newton, the Texans drafted Brennan Williams in the third round as insurance. The health of Johnson, Foster and Schaub is key to the Texans due to a lack of depth but if the trio stay fit the offense is good enough for a deep playoff run.
When you think of Houston’s defense one man stands out; defensive end J.J. Watt. The reigning defensive MVP is the most dominant offensive lineman in football, his brute strength; incomprehendable speed and nonstop motor make him the most feared defender in the league. Veteran Antonio Smith is solid opposite him whilst nose tackle Earl Mitchell fits what Wade Phillips likes at the position in an undersized effort guy who doesn’t take plays off. The loss of middle linebacker Brian Cushing last October was a body blow, one of the league’s best; Cushing is healthy again and makes a huge difference to this defense. Brooks Reed will move inside alongside Cushing leaving last year’s first round pick Whitney Mercilus to start as chief blind side rusher; the strong side is likely to be occupied by rookie Sam Montgomery. Future hall of fame safety Ed Reed was a huge acquisition for the Texans defense, his unique playmaking ability from the spot should help a unit which struggled at times against the pass last year. Corners Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph are solid cover men who weren’t aided by poor safety play last year, both will be stronger for Reed’s presence behind them. The Texans drafted strong safety D.J. Swearinger in the second round and he will press Danieal Manning for a starting berth. Few defenses can boast an elite lineman, linebacker and defensive back but the Texans trio of Watt, Cushing and Reed gives them three game changers. A unit which ranked seventh last year could easily be stronger if Reed can help their vulnerability to the deep pass.
2013 Predicted wins- 11-12
Playoff Prediction- Few teams are as strong as Houston on both sides of the ball and the Texans ought to make a serious push for the AFC Championship. It’s time to prove the doubters wrong and show that they are genuine contenders.
Indianapolis Colts– One of the biggest surprises of 2012 was the Colts bounce back year which saw them win 11 games en route to the playoffs. Their schedule offers encouragement that they can contend again but this is still a roster in the middle of a rebuild and lacking talent at a variety of positions.
That the best player on the Colts roster is quarterback Andrew Luck is one of the main reasons for optimism in Indianapolis. The second year standout was advertised as the best prospect in a decade and he didn’t disappoint in his rookie year. Rookie quarterbacks have been more successful than ever before in the last decade but often suffer with the dreaded ‘sophomore slump’ Luck however is a more diverse and complete player so should instead progress again. Wide receiver Reggie Wayne enjoyed a renaissance under Luck’s excellent quarterbacking, the veteran should again have a good season but the Colts need free agent pickup Darrius Heyward-Bey to produce more than he ever did in Oakland, he certainly offers a legitimate deep threat. Third round pick T.Y. Hilton had a fine rookie campaign, leading the Colts in touchdowns and gaining over 800 yards receiving, the undersized sophomore will hope to outperform Heyward-Bey to get the start. Tight end Coby Fleener, a college teammate of Luck struggled with injuries throughout his rookie year and is likely to miss the start of 2013 with another knock. In his absence, fellow rookie Dwayne Allen got the start and impressed, the Colts like two tight end sets but Allen now looks the number one. To continue the theme it was a rookie who led the Colts in rushing in 2012 too, Vick Ballard gaining over 800 yards on the ground. Former first round pick Donald Brown has been a bust so Ballard should again carry the load but the Colts who ranked 22nd in rushing are unlikely to improve on that. Emphasis was placed on improving an offensive line which struggled to protect Luck in 2012 this offseason, a smart move. Tackle Gosder Cherilus and guard Donald Thomas were picked up in free agency and should start while guard Hugh Thornton and center Khaled Holmes were both drafted with an eye on the future. A unit built around Luck is unlikely to again manage a top 10 finish but limiting turnovers can help make up for that, key is getting production opposite Reggie Wayne.
The Colts acquired four defensive free agents and drafted three more defensive cogs in coordinator Greg Manusky’s wheel. Five departures were headlined by Dwight Freeney the Colts all time sack leader who didn’t fit Manusky’s 3-4 defense. Upfront, Aubrayo Franklin and Brandon McKinney will compete at nose tackle, while Ricky Jean-Francois is a player with upside slated to start at defensive tackle and journeyman Cory Redding at end. The Colts have a mass of veteran defensive linemen so competition should be stiff and rotation heavy. Of the linebackers Robert Mathis managed eight sacks in his new position and was always undersized to play on the line anyway, he will be the prime pass rusher whilst free agent pickup Erik Walden is strong against the run and should start on the strong side. First round draftee Bjoern Werner was a productive pass rusher at Florida State and should spell Walden on passing downs. Inside, solid pros Pat Angerer and Jerrell Freeman start. Greg Toler arrived from Arizona to replace underachiever Jerraud Powers at corner, Vontae Davis starts opposite but the jury is out on the depth players and this unit will be targeted. Newly acquired LaRon Landry is a hard hitting, athletic safety who stayed healthy in 2012; something he had struggled to do latterly in Washington, veteran Antoine Bethea is the second longest standing defender in Indianapolis and remains a solid starter. To summarise, this unit should better fit Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 scheme but lacks the kind of talent he had in Baltimore. They ranked 26th in total defense last year and just couldn’t stop the run. They have invested in a whole raft of players expected to improve that but their secondary and pass rush look average so even if they force teams to pass there’s no guarantee that they can stop them in the air.
2013 Predicted wins– 8-9
Playoff Prediction– Nobody saw the Colts making it last year, they again have it to do in ’13 but should be thereabouts with a friendly schedule, they will however have to get a couple of upsets to get in.
Tennessee Titans– Four seasons have elapsed since the Titans last made the playoffs although 29 wins in those four years shows that by no means have they been whipping boys. They fell back to 6-10 last year under new starting quarterback Jake Locker and it is a pivotal year for the former first round draft choice and third year head coach Mike Munchak who selected him.
Tennessee’s offense which ranked 26th overall in 2012 simply must be better and GM Ruston Webster certainly placed a high emphasis on it in the offseason. The Titans look ready to be a top 10 team in rushing with Chris Johnson, famous for his 2000 yards rushing in 2009 still an elite running back. Although his numbers haven’t got close to those since that career year he is still one of the most dangerous runners in the league, his explosive speed unmatched at the running back position. New accomplice Shonn Greene had two 1000 yard seasons with the Jets and he should complement Johnson well. Greene, a downhill, north-south power runner offers a very different proposition to Johnson. Upfront at last the Titans look to have the kind of unit to utilise Johnson’s open field skills, adding former Buffalo guard Andy Levitre, one of the top free agents on the market and first round pick Chance Warmack, one of the most polished prospects in the draft should offer a huge upgrade inside. Right tackle David Stewart and left tackle Michael Roos, a former pro bowler are an extremely strong pair of bookends and on paper this now looks a very solid line. Quarterback Jake Locker has the physical gifts to succeed but his passing accuracy is his Achilles heel, a 56.4% completion rate is unacceptable and gave the defense way too much playing time last year. A better offensive line and potent rushing attack could be just the tonic for Locker, a strong armed quarterback who excels in deep passing rather than rhythmic short passing focusing on consecutive completions. His running skills mustn’t be underestimated; he is well capable of a 500 yard season on the ground. Star receiver in Tennessee is Kenny Britt, an elite talent who at times is unplayable but spends much more time injured and in trouble off the field, you sense patience is running low with him. Second year receiver Kendall Wright had a nice rookie year, leading his team in receptions and second round pick Justin Hunter is a big bodied receiver, possibly Britt’s replacement in 2014. Free agent addition Delanie Walker is an upgrade at tight end and as an excellent blocker further enhances the claims that this rushing attack should be hugely improved. With that in mind and Locker likely to benefit from more experience this offense should be a top 16 unit in 2013.
Defensively the Titans look a unit low on talent and you sense that like last year they could give up big points and big yards regularly. Upfront first round flop Derrick Morgan and undersized journeyman Kamerion Wimbley are a modest pass rushing duo while defensive tackle Karl Klug is an average starter, third year pro Jurrell Casey is the best lineman on the team and could emerge as a pro bowler in 2013. The linebacking corps are low on experience but high on athleticism, Colin McCarthy is an explosive player and his return will help, Zach Brown had a fine rookie campaign and shows a real eye for the ball, this unit could easily take a major step forward this season. Corners Alterraun Verner and Jason McCourty were constantly burned last year yet look likely to start again unless rookie Blidi Wreh-Wilson is more ready than his college tape suggests. Safety Michael Griffin is one of the better defensive players on the roster but faced a thankless task on the backend of this unit last year. Former Raven Bernard Pollard, a big hitting, in the box safety should add physicality to the secondary and provides an upgrade. There is defensive talent on this roster, I like the looks of the young linebacking group and see further potential in Casey upfront but the cornerbacks look amongst the league’s weakest and they won’t get much help from the pass rush. Tennessee ranked 27th in total defense in 2012 and although they could be better against the run it’s hard to envisage this defense being top 20 overall.
2013 Predicted wins– 6-7 wins
Playoff Prediction– The Titans must beat the Colts twice you feel to have a chance. Any success must be built on the rushing attack but with such a poor defense it will be tough to control the game by rushing alone and Locker will lose more shootouts than he will win.
Jacksonville Jaguars– Pretty much everything has changed in Jacksonville, pretty much everything had to change in Jacksonville. A 2-14 season saw the Jags with the joint worst record in the NFL, the result is a new regime, GM, head coach, coordinators, schemes, you name it, it’s changed. The good news for new GM Dave Caldwell and head coach Mike Mularkey is they don’t have to do much to improve things.
Offensively quarterback Blaine Gabbert is ready for his second full year as starter but the jury is very much out on him. In any normal year the Jags would surely have drafted his successor but in a draft devoid of quarterback talent they instead took offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, an NFL ready prospect. Joeckel will start at right tackle opposite Eugene Monroe, a dependable blind side protector. The interior of the line was chaos in 2012 and it was a surprise that the Jags neither drafted nor signed anyone to aid this. Guard Will Rackley was sorely missed with injury, he returns but the interior of this line is still cause for concern. Franchise running back Maurice Jones-Drew missed the last 9 games in 2012, a crippling blow to a unit so low on talent. Jones-Drew, who led the NFL in rushing in 2011, is the linchpin of this offense and his return should benefit everyone. At wideout there is talent, Justin Blackmon, the team’s first round pick in 2012 is a big physical receiver capable of winning one on ones and Cecil Shorts is an electric deep threat who led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns a year ago. Blackmon misses the first four games through suspension and he is one more violation away from a year’s ban, his conduct is a real concern. Journeymen Mohammed Massaquoi and Jordan Shipley along with a pair of talented draft projects complete the wide receivers and Marcedes Lewis a one year wonder in 2010 is the starting tight end. Maurice Jones-Drew’s return is reason for some optimism but there are question marks over all eleven starters and a unit that ranked 29th overall in 2012 is unlikely to be a great deal better in 2013.
With such little talent on offense you could be forgiven for thinking there must be plenty on defense, you’d be wrong, past regimes left little behind for the new team to work with. They have overhauled the roster but getting real quality in free agency is tough, it’s the start of a massive rebuild in Jacksonville you feel. Former Buccaneer Roy Miller and Tyson Alualu a modest former first round draft choice will start at tackle, Jason Babin who was poor in 2012 for the Eagles and Jaguars and second year vet Andre Branch must improve immensely in a scheme where the defensive ends need to get constant pressure. Linebackers Russell Allen and Paul Posluszny both missed time in 2012, their return helps but the third linebacker spot is to be fought out by players who don’t look NFL calibre starters. At corner, ten year veteran Marcus Trufant is still a solid performer and looks one of the Jags better free agent acquisitions, rookie Dwayne Gratz should beat out journeyman Alan Ball and second year pro Mike Harris to start opposite. Hard hitting rookie Jonathan Cyprien will start at strong safety while reliable pro Dwight Lowery returns at free safety. The Jags welcome back a couple of starters, expect more from a few others, added a few free agents and should start at least two rookies. Plenty of change then but little reason for too much optimism, the bottom line is this unit is devoid of elite talent and is set to start several backup calibre players, this could well be the worst defense in the NFL.
2013 Predicted wins– 2-3
Playoff Prediction- Inconceivable that they are anywhere near the playoffs.