AFC South 2014 Preview
Peyton Manning, David Garrard, Matt Schaub, and Vince Young. These were the four starting quartebacks for the AFC South in the 2010 season. All of them seemed to have plenty of job security on their respected teams, but we now know that wasn't the case. Since this past March, all four of these quarterbacks are out of the division, and two of them aren't even in the league anymore. Today, the AFC South now has younger passers that are either already starting or on their way of taking over as the leader of their franchises. With that in mind, let's take a peek at what this division could be looking like at the end of the regular season.
1. Indianapolis Colts (2013 Record: 11-5)
It would be difficult for any team to move on from Peyton Manning, unarguably one of the best quarterbacks of all-time. However, the Colts drafted college superstar Andrew Luck, so the transition hasn't been as painful as anticipated. So far, Luck has been looked at as one of the biggest up-and-comers in the league. Don't get me wrong, he's been incredible so far, but when will he take the next step to become one of the NFL's top-tier QBs? I truly think that his time could be coming very, very soon.
As for the rest of the team, 3rd-year Head Coach Chuck Pagano has done an outstanding job of transitioning the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and making it a fearsome one in the process. GM Ryan Grigson has also received two thumbs up for adding and retaining talent to make Indy a now-Super Bowl contender. One move, though, that has been questioned is the Trent Richardson trade last season. Richardson never played at the first-round level that the Colts expected, but they'll expect a lot from the former number three overall pick. Overall, the Colts look ready to make a decent run in the playoffs, and if they are able to get some good matchups, we may be looking at the 2014 AFC Champions.
Projected 2014 Record: 11-5
2. Jacksonville Jaguars (2013 Record: 4-12)
As of right now, second place in the AFC South is a crapshoot because none of the other three teams have proved themselves worthy. Still, I went with Jacksonville because they seem to be farther in the rebuilding process than Tennessee and Houston. Head Coach Gus Bradley and GM David Caldwell have actually done great work in such a short amount of time despite only winning four games in 2013. Even though they don't plan on playing him this season, First-Rounder Blake Bortles seems to be their quarterback of the future, based on his strong performances in the preseason. They've also made key acquisitions for players that could make a difference for a long time, like Toby Gerhart, Red Bryant, and Chris Clemons.
Do I think that Jacksonville could be in the playoff picture? If they are, I would be shocked. Yes, Bradley and Caldwell have done the best that they could so far, but they still have a ways to go. However, if the Jags have another good draft class, pick up some other big-name free agents, and see some progression in Bortles's game, they could start posting winning records in 2015.
Projected 2014 Record: 6-10
3. Tennessee Titans (2013 Record: 7-9)
I was actually very surprised when Tennessee posted a 7-9 record in 2013 because they played more like a 5-win team. However, it was probably right of them to fire Coach Mike Munchak and hire former Arizona Cardinal Coach Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt has experience of winning in the playoffs and he helped develop one of today's best quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger. His next project: Jake Locker. Locker is on the last season of his rookie deal, so 2014 will most likely be his last chance to establish himself as the franchise quarterback. The Titans have been nonetheless patient with Locker, so they're hoping that Whisenhunt can retool the young QB for years to come.
After releasing former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson, Tennessee drafted Bishop Sankey out of the University of Washington in hopes of him taking over at running back. They've also rebuilt their offense line, using their last two first round picks on Guard Chance Warmack (2013) and Tackle Taylor Lewan (2014). They've also finally found a replacement for Albert Haynesworth at Defensive Tackle, Jurrell Casey, whom they just gave a 4-year, $36 million extension to. The Titans may be on the right track for re-gaining success, but if Jake Locker isn't able to perform against the best defenses, they may have to look elsewhere at quarterback.
Projected 2014 Record: 5-11
4. Houston Texans (2013 Record: 2-14)
Even though the bone-crushing Defensive End J.J. Watt had another stellar season, the Houston Texans ended last season as the worst team in the league, finishing 2-14. Obviously, things have changed since then. The biggest move was hiring Bill O'Brien as their new Head Coach, who was in the process of rebuilding Penn State. Perhaps an even bigger headline in the media was when they drafted South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney with the first pick in the draft; Clowney's build, speed, and pure athleticism has possibly made him the number one defensive prospect in the past decade. I can't even imagine what the Watt-Clowney duo could look like in the next year or two.
Aside from O'Brien and Clowney, the Texans also added three different quarterbacks: Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick through free agency, Rookie Tom Savage in the draft, and former Patriots Backup Ryan Mallett in a recent trade. Fitzpatrick was named the starter even before training camp, but either Savage or Mallett will most likely be their answer at quarterback for years to come. I'm going to be honest, it will take a while for Houston to get back on their feet and into the playoffs; the days of Andre Johnson and Arian Foster dominating the league are more-than-likely over, so Houston fans must turn over a new leaf and get used to the Bill O'Brien era.
Projected 2014 Record: 4-12
AFC South Projected Awards
MVP: Andrew Luck, Colts
Offensive Player of the Year: T.Y. Hilton, Colts
Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, Texans
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Bishop Sankey, Titans
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Jadeveon Clowney, Texans
Comeback Player of the Year: Brian Cushing, Texans
Fantasy Sleeper: Toby Gerhart, Jaguars
Coach of the Year: Gus Bradley, Jaguars
The part about Indianapolis becoming the AFC Champions wasn't a fluke on my part; I really do believe that Andrew Luck could have a good enough season to elevate the Colts above Denver, New England, and the rest of the conference. As for the rest of the AFC South, they're more focused on changing their images than thinking about the playoffs. However, every team has to eventually go through a rebuilding stage, which is what makes this league so intriguing.