With the regular season bearing down on us, let’s take a look at the 2014 AFC South Predictions.
The AFC South teams have to play the AFC North and NFC East this season in addition to their divisional schedule.
I am making predictions as if injuries did not occur unless otherwise specified and each projected finish is from looking through each game over the course of the season and predicting each winner from each matchup.
For playoff predictions and award predictions, check out Football Fan Source’s 2014 NFL Season Preview!
1. Indianapolis Colts
Projected Finish: 10-6
Indianapolis appears to be a team to stay with Andrew Luck at the helm. The question this season is if they can go to the next level and be considered a strong contender for a Super Bowl appearance. While I think they can take the division, greater than that may still be beyond their grasp.
Luck is a game-changing quarterback. He has lived up to the hype and is on the fast-track to be being one of the best in the league. His ability alone makes Indianapolis a pretty safe pick for the AFC South crown. The Colts don’t come without their lumps though. Their running game is… well… nobody knows for sure. Running back Trent Richardson was awful last season, which didn’t make much sense given his talent and this preseason hasn’t looked any different. Ahmad Bradshaw is the guy to benefit if Richardson can’t come into his own. Last season, we heard all about how the trade for Richardson didn’t allow him to fully learn the offense, but that excuse won’t work this season and without a run game, Luck may be looking to throw a little too often. On the outside, I like the addition of Hakeem Nicks. He was practically always hurt with the Giants, but on the off-chance he was healthy, he was a star. That should help Luck along with getting Reggie Wayne back after he was lost for the 2013 season a couple weeks in. You have to wonder what Wayne has left, but T.Y. Hilton is a solid talent at receiver as well. The offensive line took some heat for not opening running lanes a year ago, so we will see if they can this season.
The defense in Indianapolis isn’t really much to talk about. It’s not that they are bad, but they are more likely to get the Colts into shootouts than close, low-scoring victories. The linebackers are an interesting group to watch as the long-time Browns starter D’Qwell Jackson comes over and lines up next to Jerrell Freeman. Freeman made a bit of a name for himself last season with his speed and tenacity. On the backend, Laron Landry still plays like an incredible athlete when he is healthy. Cornerback Vontae Davis has been an above-average corner thus far in his career. I think he still could take his play to another level, but we will need to wait and see.
Indianapolis is a quality team, but I still can’t see them being a legitimate contender for a Super Bowl run. Luck is a great player and there is still a lot of talent on this roster, but I think their record will be more a result of playing in the AFC South and matching up with the weak NFC East on their schedule and not so much because they are a great team.
Player to Watch: WR Reggie Wayne – Wayne is one of the great receivers to play in a Colts uniform and while Indianapolis is happy to get him back from injury, I’m interested to see what he can still do. An ACL injury is hard to come back from, but even harder when you are a wide receiver at 35 years of age.
2. Tennessee Titans
Projected Finish: 8-8
I like Tennessee this season as I think their offense will be much improved and their defense will be good enough to keep them in games. Tennessee is currently sitting on a number of young guys who could be stars by the end of the season.
It all starts, on offense, with quarterback Jake Locker. He enters his third year with an “up and down” career to this point. He still is very athletic for the position and has the pure arm strength to make every throw, yet his accuracy has been lacking and he hasn’t really had the opportunity to carry a team from Week 1 through the end of the season due to injuries or the coach’s impatience. This year, I expect Locker to make a huge leap with Ken Whisenhunt as the new offensive coordinator after Whisenhunt resurrected Philip Rivers’ career in San Diego. It also doesn’t hurt that Tennessee seems to be stacked with young talent like rookie running back Bishop Sankey. Chris Johnson is gone, which is a good thing for Tennessee, allowing Sankey and Shonn Greene to take over in the run game. In the air, Kendall Wright looked good last season and should only be better with Whisenhunt in the fold. Nate Washington is still the other receiver, but second-year pro Justin Hunter should be the guy as the season progresses. Hunter has the size and athleticism you look for in a number one receiver, so it’s only a matter of time before he makes an impact. The offensive line is also improved and healthy, which certainly won’t hurt the Titans offense.
The big news on defense is the addition of Wesley Woodyard. Woodyard, a former Bronco, has exceptional speed and quickness for an inside linebacker, which will allow Tennessee to cover backs out of the backfield with Woodyard. Shaun Phillips is another guy from Denver who accumulated 10 sacks last season. He now is listed as second on the depth chart behind Derrick Morgan at rush linebacker, but could be a factor in passing situations. In the secondary, Tennessee lost Alterraun Verner in free agency, but still have Jason McCourty as their top corner with Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin at safety.
Tennessee is a team that you either seem to believe in or you doubt. I tend to think the Titans offense will come together this season and we will finally be able to see how good Locker can be. This is another team where the defense won’t win games on their own, but if the offense plays well enough, they can win string together some wins.
Player to Watch: WR Justin Hunter – He dropped to the second round a year ago because of concerns over durability, but his skill alone was as good as any receiver at the time. He has the athleticism and skill to be a dynamic receiver if things fall right.
3. Houston Texans
Projected Finish: 6-10
I was torn with Houston. On one hand, they really earned the first overall pick in this spring’s draft and they still don’t have a real quarterback solution, but on the other hand, Houston had a sudden fall into the worst record, meaning the talent is still there for a quick revival.
The stars are still there in Houston. Andre Johnson still plays wide receiver and Arian Foster still carries the rock, but the quarterback situation still needs some help. Matt Schaub was run out of town last season leaving Case Keenum as the starter. Keenum didn’t even make final cuts leaving Houston with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their starter and Tom Savage as the perceived future starter. Houston also recently went about adding Ryan Mallett to the fray from New England. The NFL has figured out how to play against Fitzpatrick as he doesn’t do enough to take a team to the “next level”, but is good enough to earn a starting job. Savage is very raw and Mallett didn’t look good in his limited action with New England this preseason, despite immense upside from an arm strength perspective. So… it’s really just all a mess. Foster is still a solid player if he is healthy, as is Johnson. Second-year receiver DeAndre Hopkins has a lot of a potential, but it still all resides on who can get them the ball. I expect Fitzpatrick and maybe Mallett to see the field this season. Mallett has more upside and might be more fun to watch. Quarterback is key in Houston. If they get great play, or even average play, they can be a factor. If not? The defense can’t do much to help.
Speaking of the defense, the pass rush will be nasty this season. J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are going to be forces. Linebacker Brian Cushing is back and hopefully healthy throughout the season. The secondary still possesses Johnathan Joseph at corner and Kareem Jackson on the other side. Houston’s defense could be as formidable as it was when they made playoff appearances in 2012 and 2011 or it could struggle as it did last season. I expect the former with Clowney and Watt on the field.
Player to Watch: LB Jadeveon Clowney – He is was the top pick this spring. I want to see what he can do, especially if he is motivated.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected Finish: 4-12
I love what rookie quarterback Blake Bortles brings to the Jaguars and I continue to believe he will be playing pretty early in the season, but I can’t trust Jacksonville to make a run, even with the promising quarterback at the helm.
Bortles has looked fantastic in the preseason. He has outperformed Chad Henne, in my book, and clearly gives Jacksonville the best chance to make some noise this season. At the very least, Bortles is something exciting and there is something unknown about him while we pretty much know what Henne is capable of. I still expect to see Bortles in Week 2, maybe 3. Probably sooner. Running back Toby Gerhart is going to be the workhorse back this season. He has been waiting in Adrian Peterson’s shadow for years in Minnesota, but now has the shot to showcase what he can do at the pro level. I don’t think he will be a game-changing back, but he has elusive athleticism and was a Heisman runner-up during his days at Stanford. Rookie receiver Marquise Lee figures to also be leaned on heavily. Cecil Shorts, rookie Allen Robinson and undrafted rookie Allen Hurns all figure to factor into the passing attack. Hurns was big in the preseason with Shorts and Robinson out with injuries. It will be interesting to see if Hurns can contribute in the regular season.
On the Jacksonville defense, middle linebacker Paul Posluzny is the best you have likely never heard of at the position. He makes this defense go. I’m excited to see what happens with former Seahawks Red Bryant and Chris Clemons at the defensive end positions. Head coach Gus Bradley used to be the defensive coordinator at Seattle, so you know he has a plan for these guys. I’m also a big fan of Johnathan Cyprien at safety.
Jacksonville is moving in the right direction, but lacks the depth of talent to make a legitimate push. Now, Bortles is the big question mark here. If he takes over, anything can happen. He most certainly will have rookie struggles, but he is a talent who seems capable of leading a team now, so he could help the Jaguars surprise some people if he gets the chance.
Player to Watch: QB Blake Bortles – Like I said above, if he plays, he is worth watching. Jacksonville may have found their promising franchise quarterback.