AFC South Pre-Preseason What to Watch
What is the preseason? What is it’s value? For the fan, it is the sign of things to come. It’s the wonderful embrace of a new NFL season. Best of all, nobody knows how things will work out when the regular season kicks off. During the preseason, every team has hope and every team has a chance at the ultimate prize; the Super Bowl. Yeah, it’s mainly because backups play most of the game and general team depth is really what decides these games, but it also, more specifically, is a time where players must prove themselves. While the starters sit, the bench players fight for playing time, recognition, or a roster spot. These roster battles go well into the 4th Quarter while even the most die-hard fans struggle to remain focused. To counter that, I am providing what I will be watching this preseason, as our beloved sport makes it’s way to the regular season.
What to Watch: Houston as they prepare for a huge season – Yeah I know, everyone is planning for a big year, but Houston is probably going to spend this preseason trying to keep players healthy primarily. After all, they made it to the AFC Divisional Playoff round without their top two quarterbacks, without star pass rusher, DE Mario Williams (who is now in Buffalo) and they were missing WR Andre Johnson for a good chuck of the season as well. You can bet that Houston will work out the kinks of a very strong defense and work on finding a rhythm on offense, but all in all, this is a team that is trying to get through the preseason unscathed by the injury bug.
Short Term Question: Who is the #2 wide receiver? – Andre Johnson is a supreme talent who still has a couple years left of being a star in the league, but for years Houston has been lacking a solid #2. Do they finally have it? Time will tell. They drafted WRs DeVier Posey from Ohio State (3rd round) and Keshawn Martin from Michigan State (4th round). The two Big Ten products are both capable of filling in at that 2nd receiver spot. Posey has solid speed and is a quality route runner. Martin is more of a replacement for departed return specialist Jacoby Jones who is now with the Ravens. With all of this said, veteran Kevin Walter may ultimately get the nod if neither rookie steps up. We will be on watch this preseason.
Long Term Question: Are the Texans ready to be targeted? – Houston is a legitimate title contender with a solid, stingy defense and a high powered offense with QB Matt Schaub at the helm. While it may not be relevant in the preseason, the rest of the league knows that Houston is very talented and that brings the best of players. Questions about Houston’s readiness for the big time were asked last year too with Houston answering convincingly, but this year they are very much a favorite.
Rookie to Watch: DL Jared Crick – Houston took DE Whitney Mercilus in the first round and I do believe that Mercilus will be a very solid player, but for the preseason Crick is the guy to watch. Crick has drawn a lot of comparisons to last years first pick, J.J. Watt. Crick, like Watt, is a strong, physical player who never gives up on a play. He’s an effort guy. Down the road, he has a chance to be a contributor. Right now, he has a chance to be the reason we watch into the 4th quarter of the preseason. Ok, so you probably won’t stick around that long, but he is one to follow.
Veteran to Watch: RB Ben Tate – I’m putting Tate here because he has the talent to significantly contribute or start on a majority of the teams in the league. He’s good. So while RB Arian Foster sits most of the game, look for Tate to continue to make the 2nd team OL look good.
What to Watch: QB Andrew Luck – Honestly… what else were you going to watch during a Colts preseason game? Indianapolis is in full blown rebuild mode and it starts with the best QB prospect since the guy he is replacing in Peyton Manning. Indianapolis won’t play Luck entire games, but they will get him enough time to try and adjust to speed of the NFL game.
Short Term Question: How does the 3-4 work again? – Throughout the Manning era in Indy, one of the constants has been DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis wrecking havoc on opposing QBs out of their positions in the 4-3 defensive scheme. Enter a new regime, a new coach whose previous job was in Baltimore and you have a new defensive scheme. So, how does it work? At this point, Mathis and Freeney are to be OLBs which will still utilize their incredible pass rushing abilities and maximize their athleticism. In theory, it could be very effective. In practice… well… we’ll see in the next couple weeks.
Long Term Question: What sort of season for Andrew Luck? – I wish I could answer this perfectly, but I can’t. Luck is an incredible talent who, at this point, looks more NFL ready than Cam Newton did at this point last year (to be fair, Newton was dealing with the lockout offseason). Even in preseason, Newton looked like a first pick who would make one play that wowed you, and then make a play that reminded you that he was a rookie. Then, of course, the regular season kicks off and Newton dominates. I see Luck having a similar preseason with some growing pains and moments of brilliance. I also think that when the regular season kicks off, Luck will have a similar season to that of Bengals QB Andy Dalton, where he has a tremendous amount of success for a rookie, but still struggles at times. Plus, Luck doesn’t really have the players he needs to suddenly lead the Colts into playoff contention.
Rookie to Watch: TE Coby Fleener – The Colts are young so there are many players who could fit in here from Fleener and TE Dwayne Allen to WR T.Y. Hilton. Starting with Fleener, he is from Stanford so he instantly has a connection with Luck. It will be interesting to see how Fleener and Allen are used to keep Luck comfortable. Hilton will be fun to watch as preseason games progress. He is a very quick, and fast player who could be electrifying with the ball in his hands on offense or in the return game.
Veteran to Watch: DE/OLB Dwight Freeney – They won’t play him long, but the idea of him playing up as an OLB in the 3-4 will be something to watch. He has tremendous athleticism and should be more than capable at making the transition. Still, it will be interesting to see this preseason as him and running mate, Robert Mathis, make the switch.
What to Watch: Blaine Gabbert – NFL teams, in most every case, only will go as far as their QB takes them. If last season was any sign of what Gabbert will do in Jacksonville, this team won’t go much of anywhere. This year Gabbert needs to play better. No way around it. It all starts with the preseason where he will need to find a groove heading into the regular season.
Short Term Question: Are the wide receivers set? – Short answer to that question at this moment in time is… no. Justin Blackmon can be a great WR and Laurent Robinson found quite a bit of success last season in Dallas, but both have concerns. Blackmon has already reinforced concerns about his off the field antics and Robinson has never had the impact he had on Dallas and Dallas already has two talented WRs to draw coverage. Beyond that, you have Mike Thomas from last season and a bunch of unproven wideouts. This preseason will be needed to work out the receivers.
Long Term Question: What can Jacksonville’s offense do? – The short term plays into the long term. Without a solid receiving core, Gabbert is essentially left out to dry in his second year of development. RB Maurice Jones-Drew is left to shoulder the load, again, and that’s assuming he doesn’t continue to hold out for a new contract, missing time during training camp. Best case, Blackmon turns into a very reliable receiver for Gabbert and with MJD in the fold, the Jacksonville offense is respectable.
Rookie to Watch: DE/OLB Andre Branch – Branch has impressive physical abilities and is an explosive pass rusher. He could/probably will be contributing early in the regular season and this preseason will be his first opportunity to demonstrate his abilities. Blackmon is another obvious choice as his physicality should present problems for some CBs in the coming weeks.
Veteran to Watch: QB Chad Henne – Henne is not a terrible NFL QB. He isn’t great, but he isn’t terrible. What I’m getting at, is Henne could challenge Gabbert if Gabbert struggles. It may not happen in the preseason, but if Gabbert doesn’t show any development in his limited playing time this preseason and Henne plays to the best of his ability in his chances, Jacksonville could be left with a decision to make.
What to Watch: QB competition – Matt Hasselbeck vs. Jake Locker. Hasselbeck started last year as the raw talent (Locker) held the clip board and learned the game from a far. When Locker finally did get his opportunity, he played well and now, going into year 2 with these two QBs, the competition is once again up in the air. Locker is exciting and intriguing as a young, promising QB, but Hasselbeck is the solid veteran who may be more reliable for a team that feels like they can push for the playoffs.
Short Term Question: Which Chris Johnson is showing up? – RB Chris Johnson got his $53 million extension at the end of last offseason and then he pretty much dropped off the face of the earth. He was nonexistent. Just the year before, he was considered one of the most explosive, dynamic and dangerous runners in the league and suddenly he was hardly doing anything for Tennessee. Some said that it was because he suddenly had his money, others said he was out of shape after missing training camp waiting for his extension. Either way, Tennessee hopes to have the Johnson back that terrorized opposing defenses week in and week out.
Long Term Question: Is Tennessee good enough to get to the playoffs? – This isn’t really fair. In reality, every team in the league is asking this same question and each one is working to get to the playoffs. With Tennessee, I feel that it is a necessary question. Tennessee is considered to be the second best AFC South team behind Houston, for good reason. Then you factor in the top three teams in the AFC North fighting for the division title/Wild Card spots and Tennessee could miss out on the playoffs again despite having a better record. Tennessee has talent, but may not have enough of it to jump into the grouping of top tier teams.
Rookie to Watch: WR Kendall Wright – The Baylor product is a fast, shifty receiver who should help blow the top off of defenses. He should also get plenty of playing time in the preseason as he competes with Nate Washington, Damian Williams and Lavelle Hawkins for starting snaps at WR. Another guy to watch is DT Mike Martin from Michigan who is feisty enough to get playing time and contribute heavily this preseason.
Veteran to Watch: RB Javon Ringer – Ringer was the go-to guy last season when Chris Johnson was struggling. Ringer is a strong back that is capable player. He will play plenty this preseason as he tries to get more playing time, especially if Johnson is back to form. Also keep an eye on TE Jared Cook who is a very athletic TE. He was considered “raw” as of last year, but his physical tools could mean he gets a bigger role as he heads into the regular season.