Culture of Hoops

2015 NFL Season Preview: AFC South

Image courtesy of Erik Daniel Drost/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Erik Daniel Drost/Flickr.

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Position Lists: Top 20 By Position List | Top QBs to Target | Top RBs to Target | Top WRs to Target | Top TEs to Target | Top Ks to Target | Top Team D/STs to Target
Sleepers | Shouldn’t Drafts | Rookies | Breakout Players | Draft Strategy

After winning the division last year, but losing to the Patriots amid what was later deemed Deflategate, the Colts are coming into this season looking to repeat as champions in the AFC South, but there are three other teams looking to improve on what last season had to offer. Each franchise in this division is in different stages of their development, but all feel as if they’ve done what’s necessary to compete for the AFC South crown and a playoff berth. Without further ado, here are some key points that will be critical to predicting what happens within the AFC South this season.

Most Important Player: Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans
If Foster could put together a full 16-game season without injuries, he could very easily be the best and most productive back in the league. That hypothetical has already been answered by Foster being required to go through groin surgery, forcing him to miss the start of the season. Recently reports have stated that Foster will be back in time “at least” for the second half. That being said, let’s assume Foster only plays the last eight games of the season. Based on recent history, the Texans haven’t faired too well without Foster playing. In the past two seasons he has played 20 out of a possible 32 games. In the 12 games without Foster, the Texans have compiled a 1-11 record. Granted 9 of those games were in the dismal 2013 season and now the Texans of Bill O’Brien are moving them in a better direction, but the stats cannot be overlooked. With that track record and the uncertainty of all the new players this season, Foster’s importance is as prominent as ever. The news regarding Foster returning no later than the second half of the season means the Texans will be pushing for him to get back on the field even sooner in order to be competitive for the division crown.

The need for Foster to return sooner than later is crucial with two young receivers leading the way, Jaelen Strong and DeAndre Hopkins, along with an inconsistent quarterback Brian Hoyer who is battling Ryan Mallett to start the season under center, meaning the running game will be needed to drive the offense. Alfred Blue has been solid in his playing time, but he isn’t Arian Foster. The Texans are the closest team to compete for the division title with the Indianapolis Colts. Foster is the key to making the Texans a legitimate threat to win the division.

X-Factor: Tennessee Titans Offensive Line
The success of this team rides on the development and growth of Marcus Mariota, who in turn will rely on the O-Line to keep him on his feet so he can stand in the pocket and make throws, or to open running lanes for both him and second year back Bishop Sankey. The better the offensive line is for the Titans, the better chance there is for Mariota to develop and become a productive quarterback. Last year the Titans quarterbacks were sacked 50 times and Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked the Titans offensive line 28th in football and, more specifically, 29th in pass blocking and 31st in penalties. Those numbers will need to improve drastically in order for Mariota and the rest of the offense to put points on the board. The awful ranking in penalties just slows down the progression of the offense and puts them into more passing downs. With the just as poor pass blocking rating, it sure doesn’t help being in that situation many, many times a game.

Best Team: Indianapolis Colts
Coming off of an 11-5 season with a division championship and a berth to the AFC Championship game, and seem poised to exceed last year’s success. The Colts are definitely the team to beat going into the season and there isn’t much within the division to make me think differently. Both the Jaguars and Titans are still rebuilding while the Texans have a lot of uncertainty going into the season. Even with the Texans finishing in their best case scenario, I don’t see them stealing the crown for the Colts.

Team That Could Surprise: Jacksonville Jaguars
No, I’m not going to say Jacksonville will pull off winning the division, or even finish second, but there is a strong possibility of the Jags being a very competitive team this year, stealing a few wins in the process. Blake Bortles is in his second year in the NFL and should see steady improvement. During the offseason, the O-Line was upgraded by adding Stefan Wisniewski and Jermey Parnell to give Bortles more time in the pocket. The additions of Julius Thomas via free agency and T.J. Yeldon through the draft will be more weapons for Bortles to use along with his emerging wide receivers. We will see an improved team on the defensive side of the ball even with their number three overall pick Dante Fowler Jr. on the IR. A few offseason signings and another year together for the returning group will benefit the Jaguars.

Bold Prediction: Marcus Mariota will win Offensive Rookie of the Year
It’s going to be hard for Mariota to do enough to win games on the field at 5′ 11″; however, he won’t be the reason why the Titans don’t finish even .500 this year. Mariota is already in the driver seat as far as winning the award. He will have control of the ball on every play, and has the ability to make plays with both his arm and legs. He was able to limit turnovers and extend plays with his legs during his collegiate career. Mariota will be able to compile enough total touchdowns this year to win Offensive Rookie of the Year this season. To solidify my prediction more, I see Mariota scoring a total of 25 touchdowns this season and throwing no more than 15 interceptions while throwing for more than 3,000 yards. Do those numbers seem lofty for a rookie on a team that doesn’t appear like they’re heading for greatness? Good, that’s what bold predictions are all about.

Offensive Player of the Year: Andrew Luck, QB, Indianapolis Colts
For an offense that led the league in passing yards last season, on top of the additions of Andre Johnson and Phillip Dorsett, expect more of the same this season with more weapons at Luck’s disposal. Honestly, there isn’t a ton of competition here with Foster missing time. He would be the only one to threaten Luck, but I believe that Luck will throw for over 40 TDs and threaten 5,000 yards passing. If he does that, it would be very hard to argue with him being the division’s offensive player of the year.

Defensive Player of the Year: J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Not only will J.J. Watt be the division’s defensive player of the year, but also the best defensive player in the entire league. There is a very real chance that he breaks the NFL record for sacks this season because teams will also have to deal with the threat of Jadeveon Clowney rushing from Watt’s opposite. Watt has been a Pro Bowl player and put up phenomenal numbers while being the only pass rusher coming off the ends for the Texans. With teams worrying about Clowney’s potential, this will be the year that Watt sets a new NFL sack record.

Final Standings:
1. Indianapolis Colts: 13-3
2. Houston Texans: 9-7
3. Jacksonville Jaguars: 6-10
4. Tennessee Titans: 5-11


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