Entering the third season of burgeoning super star QB Andrew Luck’s career, the Indianapolis Colts are again poised to benefit from playing in one of the worst divisions in the NFL. That’s not to take away from what Luck’s done in his first two years. But it’s certainly helped that the Texans, Titans, and Jaguars have combined for a dismal 32-64 record over the last two seasons (2-10 against Luck). Getting back a healthy Reggie Wayne, and adding Hakeem Nicks won’t hurt either. In Tennessee, it’s a make or break year for 4th year QB Jake Locker, who showed promise last season, but again struggled to stay healthy. Jacksonville believes they’ve found their franchise QB in rookie Blake Bortles (who admittedly looked far more impressive in preseason than I expected). Time will tell if they stay true to their stated goal of a redshirt season behind starter Chad Henne, but I wouldn’t bet on it. In Houston, either Head Coach Bill O’Brien knows something about QB Ryan Fitzpatrick the rest of us don’t, or they’ll be drafting in the top 5 again this year, despite what should be a dramatic improvement on defense.
1. Indianapolis Colts (13-3):
General Manager Ryan Grigson didn’t do nearly enough to bolster an offensive line that gave up 32 sacks on Andrew Luck last season, made worse by the lingering injury to projected starting C Khaled Holmes. And I would have liked to see more significant improvement at safety than acquiring Mike Adams, who Denver let go for a reason. But ultimately this is a QB driven league, and Indy’s got the best signal caller outside of the big four of Manning, Brady, Brees, and Rodgers. Yes, I’d rate him that highly in just his 3rd season. Adding WR Hakeem Nicks on a one-year contract (so essentially a contract year), will certainly help, taking the pressure off Reggie Wayne to be dominant and moving T.Y. Hilton to the #3 slot (much better suited than as a primary target). But more than anything the Colts have the easiest schedule in the NFL, with six near guaranteed (as much as anything in the NFL can be) wins in the division, and favorable match-ups against a substandard NFC East.
2. Tennessee Titans (5-11):
It’s almost definitely the fan in me talking, but I’m cautiously optimistic the Titans could be much better than this. But not confident enough to predict as much, given questions over how a middle-of-the-pack defense will transition into the 3-4. I loved the hiring of Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt who lead the Arizona Cardinals to a Super Bowl appearance in 2009, and revived Phillip Rivers’ career in San Diego as their Offensive Coordinator last year. If Whisenthunt can work his QB magic on Jake Locker, and help him continue to build on what was a promising season last year, the Titan’s could well steal a few close games and contend for a wildcard slot. The offensive line is one of the league’s best, and rookie RB Bishop Sankey will make a perfect lightning to veteran Shonn Greene’s thunder. Free agent acquisition Dexter McCluster will fill the same role Danny Woodhead did in Whisenhunt’s offense last season, when he totaled 1,034 total yards and 8 total TDs.
3. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13):
A number of NFL analysts seem to be hopping on the Jaguar’s bandwagon, as a dark horse to make the playoffs. Well, I’m gonna calmly sit over here and watch them ride that sucker right off a cliff. To his credit, General Manager David Caldwell correctly identified both the offensive and defensive lines as major causes for concern. They ranked 31st in rushing offense and 29th against the run last season. Adding former Pro Bowl OG Zane Beadles from Denver will help, but three fifths of their offensive line is still composed of a couple of journeyman backups and a rookie 3rd rounder who was a bit of a reach in OG Brandon Linder. The defensive line should see marked improvement against the run adding Red Bryant and Ziggy Hood from Seattle and Pittsburgh respectively, as well as veteran pass rusher Chris Clemons (also from Seattle). But that is all of the good news. Chad Henne, is still Chad Henne, and will likely give way to rookie Blake Bortles sooner than Head Coach Gus Bradley would have us believe. And I think they’ll be sorely disappointed with RB Toby Gerhart, whose career 4.7yds/car average will plummet behind this o-line, and without Adrian Peterson wearing down defenders before he sees the field.
4. Houston Texans (3-13):
All of the arrows are pointing up in Houston. Just not at QB, and not this season. I’m projecting another dismal season, but there are 4 or 5 games that could really go either way. It’s easy to forget that this is largely the same roster that went 12-4 just two years ago, but the team’s failure to get a quality starting QB (easier said than done) means I still don’t favor them in close games. Ryan Fitzpatrick is serviceable, but they can just ask division rival Tennessee about whether or not he’s taking them to the playoffs. The good news is the defense should be drastically improved with new Defensive Coordinator Romeo Crennel; number one overall pick OLB Jadeveon Clowney; and the return from injury of All-Pro ILB Brian Cushing. Rookie RB Alfred Blue will be able to step in for the departed Ben Tate (Cleveland) to spell starter Arian Foster, who’s played all 16 games just twice in his 5 years in Houston.