It's July, the slowest month of the year for the NFL. So what better time to start breaking down the upcoming season? From July 6-27, FanHouse will take an in-depth look at each division to help prepare you for training camp. We're calling it our Summer Scramble.
Coming July 20: NFC South Players to Watch
How will the Texans' running game sort itself out?
The three main candidates at this time at running back are third year player Steve Slaton, second-year player Arian Foster and rookie Ben Tate. Slaton is coming off a season where he looked tentative making decisions at the line, fumbled the ball and eventually underwent neck surgery to relieve a nerve issue. Foster looked good in the last few games of the season. Tate was drafted in the second round likely because Slaton's post-surgical neck X-rays include screws (the squeamish shouldn't click on that link). The uncertainty at running back doesn't help fantasy football players much, but whomever survives camp healthiest and is practicing the best will be the running back that sees time on the field.
With a before-camp guess, I'm thinking Slaton and Foster are the tandem that starts the season with Tate getting more time as he gets more accustomed to protections, filling in for whichever running back ahead of him that gets hurt or under-performs.
Will the Colts' contract situations be a distraction?
The Colts got to the Super Bowl, and the players want to be paid. Peyton Manning smartly won't comment on it, and has shown up in the offseason, but he wants to be paid big and Indy intends to pay him -- though when is the question. After skipping voluntary OTAs, and mandatory minicamp, Wide receiver Reggie Wayne has made noise about skipping training camp. Defensive end Robert Mathis also skipped minicamp and wants to get paid, too. Manning is likely going to get paid because his deal is up after this season but Wayne and Mathis have two years left. Maybe some of this talk will get Colts fans riled up, but this isn't going to be a distraction to the team. As long as they have Manning on the field, they will be the same old Colts.
Can the Jacksonville Jaguars regain their defensive mojo?
The best Jaguar teams have been those that dominated on defense. The Jaguar defense appears to have lost its direction after former defensive coordinator Mike Smith left to take the Atlanta Falcons job in 2008, and the defensive stars of the dominant teams got old. Jacksonville did more of a 3-4 last year, but didn't really have the personnel to make it work and the Jaguars are going back to the 4-3 this year. In 2005, the Jaguars had 47 sacks. Last year, they were at the bottom of the league at 14. The Jaguars have drafted some promising players on defense, but they miss the sturdy presence of the in their prime John Henderson and Marcus Stroud holding down the middle of the defensive line. The Jaguars have struggled getting teams into obvious passing downs, and last year it showed with the Jaguars being ranked last in stopping opposing teams on third down. Will defensive end Aaron Kampman and linebacker Kirk Morrison make a difference to this team, or is this going to be another year of the Jaguars trying to find a defensive philosophy to suit the players they have on the field?
Can the Tennessee Titans regain their defensive mojo?
Apologies for the repetition, but the best Titan teams have been those that dominated on defense. The best Titan defenses have been able to get extreme pressure with just a four-man pass rush, and out-physical opposing offenses. With the departure of Albert Haynesworth last year, the Titans defensive line has become light. Take a look at the Titans roster. There's no one of Haynesworth's
How do you make bold predictions in a division with so much relative stability compared to the rest of the league? Here's an attempt:
• Expect more injuries throughout the AFC South. The Jaguars and Titans are no longer as physical as they've been in past years, and the Colts and Texans have never been physical teams. The division is facing the NFC East this year instead of the NFC West.
• Texans rookie Ben Tate will have the most yards out of all the Texans running backs. The team didn't draft him in the second round to sit on the bench. Gary Kubiak doesn't give jobs to high-pick rookies; he makes them earn it, but he also wants high round picks to be immediate impact players. I am guessing that Tate's rookie year may be similar to the rookie ones by second-round pick Clinton Portis and third-round pick Steve Slaton. Tate doesn't get the first game start but gets more action as the season progresses. The running game improves with the addition of Rick Dennison as offensive coordinator -- Dennison was Kubiak's first choice as OC.
• Linebacker Brian Cushing's four-game absence due to PED suspension will have no effect on the Texans defense. Nope, I can't make that bold prediction. It will have a significant effect, along with the youth in the secondary trying to find its way. The Texans defense is not a system defense that succeeds because of scheme. It's a straight up 4-3 with no surprises that depends on the athleticism and ability of individual players. Cushing was a playmaker last year, and I pity the teams that play Weeks 5-17 because he is going to take his suspension out on them.
• The Colts are one year older, fought through serious injuries and have contractual issues with key players. No bold predictions on the Colts, or their "playoff window closing" because for years you could always see flaws with the Colts and they managed to keep winning. It helps when you have a quarterback who can get record-breaking numbers and fourth-quarter comebacks.
• Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson come back to earth. Do their teams have substantially more offensive weapons? No, not really. But you wonder if relying on them so heavily to carry their teams is going to catch up to them in 2010. So some fantasy owners are going to be really happy or really unhappy with them.
• Facing a hard schedule, the Titans will miss their departed team leaders. Jeff Fisher is perhaps one of the best coaches in the league in dealing with player chaos and in-season problems, but despite his protests to the contrary, he will miss leadership on both sides of the ball.
• Vince Young will have his best season as a pro going into his third year with offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. It may not get much attention unless his defense improves.
• The Colts will get their double-digit win season with the Texans, Titans and Jaguars to round out the division. No surprise there, but this is the year of the Jaguars implosion. Jack Del Rio is great at scraping together wins when his team is outmatched but this year his luck runs out.