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AFC South preview

Only a couple more days until the NFL season fires up for season 2015/16. Next up in his series of divisional previews, it's the AFC South, from the sharp mind of Ian Steven, @deevo82.

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AFC South

Indianapolis Colts

Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and John Elway are always in the conversation for the greatest of all time but do we now add Andrew Luck to that list? He is only in the infancy of his career in relative terms for the quarterback but already the Indianapolis Colts' signal caller is displaying the superb traits that saw him drafted first overall by the Colts out of Stanford after having a stellar college career.

Luck has progressed consistently every season as have Indianapolis, failing spectacularly at the championship game stage last season against the New England Patriots 45-7, the game which instigated the Deflategate scandal. The team from Indiana have tried to address their failings in the off-season, providing Luck with the weapons he needs to bridge that chasm and get to the ultimate game.

Future Hall of Famer Reggie Wayne was released by the club afte a legendary career in Indy, eventually signing with the New England Patriot, but the wide receiver was replaced by another future Hall of Famer in Andre Johnson. The courts already had TY Hilton as a speedster on the outside but they doubled their options with the drafting of Philip Dorsett from the University of Miami. It is just as well that Andrew Luck has a powerful arm because there is a severe risk that these two wide receivers could out run the ball for any average quarterback who is throwing it.

Indy continued with the veteran free agents route, ring and signed Todd Herremans from Philadelphia at guard, despite the fact that the majority of Eagles followers felt that the lineman was past his best. Frank Gore, the veteran running back also joins the franchise, after being released by the 49ers. Gore has quite a lot of tread on his tyres but he is an experienced veteran and he's been famed for getting a tough yards when it matters most. The speed of Dorestt and Hilton out side will force defences to respect he deep ball and that should open up holes for Gore to exploit.

Chuck Pagano elected to completely revamp his outfit on the defensive side of the ball. Eric Walden, D’Qwell Jackson, Trent Cole, Greg Toler and Mike Adams all join the franchise as free-agent signings. The Colts already had a solid front three on the defensive line but they have improved their ability to counter the running game, especially with Trent Cole joining, one of the best edge defenders in the game. The Colts were ranked 18th against the run last season and that is an area they have consciously tried to upgrade.

This is a team that is completely geared towards getting very deep into the play-offs. The front office has gambled by bringing in so many experienced free agencts and the question is, will that gamble payoff and can they get to the ultimate game in February?

Houston Texans

The Houston Texans have had an increased level of public consciousness this off-season thanks to the documentary Hard Knocks which has been following the Texas franchise during the preseason. The undoubted star of this program was definitely JJ Watt, the defensive tackle, who has displayed outstanding physical traits since entering the NFL out of Wisconsin. Hard Knocks illustrated that his work ethic is second to none and is considered the main man in the franchise. Watt is so talented that some people lobbied for him to be the NFL MVP last season which is almost unthinkable as only two defensive players have ever won the award in Alan Page and Lawrence Taylor.

The biggest question going into training camp and the preseason for Houston was who was going to be the starting quarterback. Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, both familiar to head coach Bill O'Brien when he was on the staff at New England, were vying for the starting job. Eventually Brian Hoyer was given the nod. The quarterback started the season well with Cleveland last year before succumbing to injury.

The main problem for the offense of Houston is the departure of two of its most premium blue-chip players. Andre Johnson moved to Indianapolis, removing a future Hall of Famer from the starting lineup. And top running back Adrian Foster succumbed to a groin injury during training camp which will limit his effectiveness during the start of the season. Alfred Blue has had to step up to take the place of Foster. The Texans drafted Jaelen Strong in an effort to replace Johnson but the rookie receiver has not progressed as expected during the pre-season and remains stuck down the depth chart. The good news for Brian Hoyer is that Duan Brown is his starting left tackle. Brown has quietly emerged into one of the premium pass protecers in the league.

On defense, the Texans are stacked. This could well be the best D in the league. We have already spoken about JJ Watt but he is joined on the defensive line by Vince Wilfork, as a free agent from New England. Wilfork is still listed at only weighing 320 lbs which is quite comical as he is clearly closer to the 400 range. But he is a big, stout man and difficult to shift out of the middle. Jadeveon Clowney returns to the starting lineup after having to endure micro-fracture surgery during his rookie season. If he can live up to his hype coming out of South Carolina as the first player selected in the draft in 2014, he could make Houston's pass rush the most explosive in the league.

The big problem for the Texans is the lack of playmakers on offense, especially with Foster out of the lineup. Most of the games will be close because they are so good on the defensive side of the ball, but they just do not have the ability to play catch up if they fall behind.

One point to note – Houston’s kicker is called Randy Bullock. Seriously, a parent actually gave their child that name!

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are showing signs of gradual improvement as “London’s Team” battle to escape the basement of the NFL. After years of struggling to find a signal caller that could perform close to mark Brunell’s heroics when the Jags made the AFC title game under Tom Coughlin, it finally looks like they have their man in Blake Bortals. The UCF grad has had an impressive pre-season after the predictable tough rookie initiation in 2014 and looks to expand in his sophomore year.

The big issues for the Jags is who will Bortles throw too. Justin Blackmon looks like he may have played his last game in the NFL due to repeated issues with substance abuse. This is a shame as Blackmon has the skill set to rival a player like AJ Green and is undoubtedly wasting his talent. Whilst Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee can be expected to turn up to games sober, both fit into the “potential” bracket and have yet to demonstrate their worth as a consistent target.

Head coach Gus Bradley loves physical football and that trait is no more transparent than in the drafting of TJ Yeldon to be the bell cow in the Jags’ backfield. Yeldon is a big bruiser coming out of Alabama and should team up well in a 1-2 punch with the equally physical Toby Gerhardt.

The defense was dealt a massive blow when top draft pick Dante Folwer injured his knee in mini camp. The Florida linebacker was expected to enhance a weak pass rush after testing well coming out of college.

The Jags should be able to beat last season’s total of just three victories but they are still a few key player short of breaking the .500 barrier. The question is whether owner Shahid Khan has the patience to let Gus Bradley gradually improve his investment.

Tennessee Titans

The speculation surrounding the Titans second overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft was fascinating – with rumours of mega trades swirling around the NFL like seagulls harrying a discarded haggis supper. Reality was much less exciting than fantasy but importantly; it should prove to be more lucrative as well as Tennessee elected to anoint Marcus Mariota as their new signal caller.

Mariota is a clean cut, All-American type of player who ran the spread offense out of Oregon and has great mobility coupled with an NFL calibre arm. The knock on Mariota was that he was not used to running a pro offense and would take time to adjust. Those worries have been unfounded however as Mariota has played well in the pre-season and appears initially to have been a sensible investment.

Mariota has a good offensive line to player behind with Taylor Lewan, Brian Schwenke and Chance Warmack manning the trenches but it is with the skill positions that the Titans struggle.

Running back Bishop Sankey is never likely to give opposing linebackers nightmares in the same mold as an Adrian Peterson or LeSean McCoy. And having Kendall Wright as the only consistent target at receiver will not help Mariota boast spectacular passing numbers.

One player to watch out for is Dorial Green-Beckham who is likened to Randy Moss cue to his size and speed but who has had a variety of runs is with the law in college. If the receiver was clean cue, he could well have been a top five selection on ability alone. DGB has been described as “a beast” by cornerback Jason McCourtney but the receiver has been hobbled with niggling injuries in the pre-season so it remains to be seen what impact he could have.

On defense , the Titans were pretty abysmal last season, leaking rushing yards like an incontinent colander. Sammy Hill was brought in at nose tackle from Detroit in an effort to plug some gaps whilst Brian Orapko arrived from Washington to solidify the edge. Whether that is enough off an overhaul remains in the laps of the football gods but Whisenhunt’s men will definitely be more enjoyable to watch with Mariota behind centre in 2015.

Verdict

The Colts are the clear favourites as they tick nearly every box. Chuck Pagano’s men are loaded with talent and looked geared to make a run at a top seeding going into the playoffs. Houston would come closest to knocking the Colts off their perch but they do not have a franchise signal caller and are oft without glass-crotched running back Arian Foster so moving the sticks could be a problem. Tennessee and Jacksonville could claim a couple of unexpected scalps but another season of famine awaits. Best odds are 1.29 for Indy to win the division with Skybet. Not much value here. You can get 3.00 on Houston making the playoffs but the injury to Foster makes me wary, especially with San Diego, Miami and Kansas City looking very potent.

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