The third of eight divisional looks ahead at the upcoming NFL season.-----HOUSTON TEXANS (10-6, 1st in AFC South, in 2011)
The good: You normally look at the linebackers as the stars of a 3-4 defense, and most do the same with the Texans, but I'm particularly enamored with their front three. J.J. Watt, Shaun Cody and Antonio Smith are an underrated reason the Texans were fourth in the NFL in points allowed (17.4 per game). ... Yeah, the LBs, especially ILB Brian Cushing, should be pretty solid, too. Former Illinois star Whitney Mercilus gives Wade Phillips' scheme another pass rusher. ... I'd never have paid Arian Foster as Houston did, but you know he's going to put up numbers in the its zone-blocking offense, provided he's healthy. If he doesn't, Ben Tate will.
The bad: To me, an awfully lot went right for the Texans to do what they did defensively in 2011. Connor Barwin, who entered the year with 3.5 career sacks, got 11.5. CB Jonathan Joseph made the Pro Bowl. And the other quarterbacks in the division were a rookie version of Blaine Gabbert, a 36-year-old Matt Hasselbeck and the Colts' Pu-pu Platter of awful. It's not that I'm expecting a bad defense, but I'm not solid it'll be a great one. ... I think the Texans may miss Mario Williams and even DeMeco Ryans more than they seem to expect. ... The injury statuses of WR Andre Johnson (who's likely past his prime anyway) and QB Matt Schaub could make this a below-average passing offense.
The verdict: Approximately 99.999999 percent of America expects the Texans to waltz to a second straight divisional title. I agree they're the best team on paper. They were the best team on paper for several years before 2011 and didn't get it done. The finish: 8-8, 2nd in AFC South
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (2-14, 4th in AFC South, in 2011)
The good: Anything this side of Caleb Hanie would be an upgrade over what the Colts trotted out at quarterback last season. With the usual disclaimers about how the preseason means nothing, based on everything I've seen and heard so far, it looks like rookie Andrew Luck will be an upgrade of the signficant variety. ... Moving two aging 4-3 ends to outside linebacker in a 3-4 is an interesting experiment, but Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney probably will still find ways to get to the quaterback. ... Almost all of the familiar receiving corps has been gutted, but Reggie Wayne remains, giving Luck at least one proven target.
The bad: Beyond Wayne, the Colts are counting on underachiever Donald Brown, the health of Austin Collie and a whole bunch of unknowns, along with an almost entirely new offensive line, to give Luck a chance. He's good, but he's probably not good enough to turn this into an explosive offense. ... I referenced Mathis and Freeney as strengths, but there's a lot of square-peg-in-round-hole feel to this defense. How will Pat Angerer, who had 148 tackles as a 4-3 MLB in 2011, react to sharing the middle? ... Cassius Vaughn (or maybe Justin King) and Jerraud Powers are the starting cornerbacks. I'm going to guess Indianapolis will seem a long way from Revis Island this season.
The verdict: You can't luck, pun intended, into a better place to start a rebuild than the Colts did thanks to their terrible 2011. The roster is pretty poor around him, but Luck makes them better, starting this fall. The finish: 5-11, 3rd in AFC South
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (5-11, 3rd in AFC South, in 2011)
The good: I'll admit general ignorance when it comes to advanced football stats, but this story alerted me to the fact that, according to Football Outsiders, the Jags made one of the 10 biggest single-seasoon leaps in defensive efficiency in the last 20 years last year. That sure sounds impressive, and it's reflective of a defense that didn't get enough credit for its strong play. ... My favorite part of the defense is the secondary. Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox, Dawan Landry and Dwight Lowery hold their own well behind a front seven lacking in star power. ... If Maurice Jones-Drew would end his foolish holdout (you have two years left on a contract you signed, man), he, Justin Blackmon and Lauren Robinson would give the Jags more skill-positon talent than they've had in years, and maybe ever.
The bad: Blaine Gabbert has supposedly played well this preseason. His receivers are light years better than the group he had in 2011. But I saw enough of Gabbert last season to be skeptical that he won't erase any chance they have of competing. ... The Jones-Drew holdout itself must be listed under the bad category. The team was gaining a little momentum, drafting Blackmon and signing Robinson, and now its best player and the face of the franchise is screwing it all up? Sounds about right for the Jaguars. ... I have serious doubts that a team that didn't rush the passer very well last season (its 31 sacks were tied for the seventh-lowest total in the NFL in 2011) and was brutal the year before can avoid a steep defensive drop-off.
The verdict: The Jaguars added talent, but defensive regression and poor quarterback play should nullify whatever impact Blackmon makes. I'd be more positive if not for the Jones-Drew situation, but it's ugly and doesn't seem likely to end. The finish: 4-12, 4th in AFC South
TENNESSEE TITANS (9-7, 2nd in AFC South, in 2011)
The good: There's a lot of youth in the front seven of this defense. I'm especially intrigued by second-year LBs Akeem Ayers and Colin McCarthy. Plus, Kamerion Wimbley strikes me as a guy who could benefit from a change of scenery. If the Cortland Finnegan-less secondary holds up, this could be among the NFL's most improved defenses. ... RB Chris Johnson seemed like such a special player prior to 2011 that I'm willing to give him a mulligan. ... It's a superstar-devoid receiving corps, but it's a deep one. TE Jared Cook and WRs Nate Washington, Damian Williams and Kendall Wright are all capable of making plays. If only Kenny Britt could get his head straight.
The bad:The secondary could very well be bad enough to keep this defense from succeeding. In addition to Finnegan, the Titans also lost S Chris Hope. ... There are some familar names (Steve Hutchinson, David Stewart, Michael Roos) on this offensive line, but they didn't exactly excel at opening holes for Johnson in 2011, and they're not getting younger. ... The Titans' success is largely dependent on Johnson being consistent, QB Jake Locker playing at a high level and Britt being healthy and not being suspended. Those are scary things to have to count on.
The verdict: There aren't a great many areas in which I expect the Titans to be great, but then, there aren't too many glaring holes, either. Decent across the board is plenty to hold your own in the AFC South; I think it's enough to win it. The finish: 9-7, 1st in AFC South