Summer Scramble: AFC South Burning Questions and Prediction
It's July, the slowest month of the year for the NFL, and it's driving you nuts. You need a fix. A hit. Anything NFL to pull you through the dog days. FanHouse is here to help with an in-depth look at each division that should have you plenty prepared for training camp. We're calling it the Summer Scramble, and today we look at some burning questions in the AFC South and offer a ridiculously early prediction.
Is it too much change too fast in Indianapolis?
Lots of the furniture is going to look different when the Colts open camp. Longtime wide receiver mainstay Marvin Harrison is gone. Super Bowl champion coach Tony Dungy is gone. Venerable assistants Tom Moore and Howard Mudd...well, they'll be around, but they're consultants now, stripped of the hands-on, day-in, day-out coordinator and coaching duties in which Colts longtimers were accustomed to seeing them. That's a lot of change in a place that's had a lot of stability, and it's fair to wonder what kind of effect it will have on the Colts' chances.
Harrison's loss isn't likely to be devastating, as Reggie Wayne has been Peyton Manning's go-to guy for a while now. Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez are the top two wideouts, and somebody from the Austin Collie/Pierre Garcon/Roy Hall group is likely to emerge as a reliable third WR option. The running game will improve with the help of top draft pick Donald Brown, and personnel-wise the offense should be fine. The questions in Indy are about leadership, and whether new head coach Jim Caldwell and all the other new personnel can continue to set the winning tone that has become the hallmark of this organization. Having Manning in place will help, but these questions can't be answered until the season gets underway and we start to see how the team handles its ups and downs under the new staff.
Can the Texans' defense step up in support of one of the league's top offenses?
The Saints and the Broncos were the only two teams in the NFL that outgained the Texans in 2008. They have an elite receiver in Andre Johnson, a star-in-the-making running back in Steve Slaton and a quarterback, Matt Schaub, who's as reliable as it gets when he's able to stay healthy. Assuming that health, the Texans shouldn't have a problem moving the ball or scoring points. It's the defense that always lets them down. Year in and year out. And in spite of the brilliant young talent of Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans, there are question marks all over the defense. Newcomers Antonio Smith and Connor Barwin should help the line, and rookie linebacker Brian Cushing looks like he could be an impact talent, but they're counting on a lot to go right in the front seven, and they're really holding their breath in the secondary -- especially if Dunta Robinson continues to pout about his contract. The frustration in Houston will only end once the defense is good enough so that the offense doesn't have to do it all on its own. That should happen one of these years, and 2009 could be it.
Will the Titans be able to open up the offense? Will they want to? Should they?
The biggest issue facing the Titans is how to replace Albert Haynesworth on defense. There are people in place on that side of the ball to try, but one thing that would help is if the Titans could find ways to score more points. There is potential for the passing game to be more dynamic this year, with Kerry Collins set at quarterback and Nate Washington and Kenny Britt added to the receiving corps. They could also look for ways to utilize Chris Johnson's speed at running back by getting him into open space more. But the Titans thrive on a conservative approach that protects the ball, and loosening things up on offense could put that at risk. The question is whether Tennessee will try it if it has both the ability and the need to score points quickly.
Can an old WR and a couple of young offensive linemen fix the Jaguars' offense?
The hope is that veteran Torry Holt will help quarterback David Garrard to flourish. The concern is that Holt is 33 and not as good as he used to be. The hope is that top draft picks Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton will help solidify the offensive line. The fear is that they're both rookies, and may not be able to make the transition smoothly while they learn on the job. The hope is that Maurice Jones-Drew is ready to handle the running back load as the only option in the absence of veteran Fred Taylor. The fear lies in reducing depth at such a key position. Jones-Drew is likely to be the strength of the offense, but that leaves a lot of question marks on the offense overall. And that doesn't even address the issues on the defensive line, where Jacksonville has to be solid or else it will sink.
RIDICULOUSLY EARLY PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Colts (10-6): They can make all the changes they want, but as long as Peyton Manning is there, they're still a playoff team.
2. Texans: (9-7): They don't need the defense to be great -- just good. The guess here is that it's good enough to get Houston a wild card spot.
3. Titans (8-8): Tough team to doubt, but Albert Haynesworth is just too big a loss.
4. Jaguars (5-11): Too many question marks on both lines.
Tuesday: NFC West Position Battles
Wednesday: NFC West Burning Questions and Prediction
Thursday: AFC West Position Battles
Friday: AFC West Burning Questions and Prediction