The AFC South is a division in transition. Since the divisional realignment, it has been a division dominated by one team, and more specifically one player, Peyton Manning. You have the Tennessee Titans, a team soon to transition from Matt Hasselbeck to Jake Locker at quarterback. And there’s a team that wasn’t around in 2000, the Houston Texans, and one that didn’t exist before 1995, the Jacksonville Jaguars, that are going in vastly different directions. What was once the Indianapolis Colts’ division to lose year after year is now arguably the weakest division in football, where the NFL’s newest team, Houston, made their first postseason in franchise history last year and looks to advance even further this year.
The weakling AFC South plays the AFC East and the NFC North, which are conversely two of the strongest divisions in the NFL. Here are the top five questions concerning the Texans, Colts, Jaguars and Titans in their 2012 training camps.
5. Will Chris Johnson play more like CJ2K or CJ1K in 2012?
In 2009 he got the yards – 2,006, to be exact. Last offseason he held out till September 1. And in the 2011 season his production dropped to a career-low 1,047 yards. Rushing for a thousand yards is no longer a great single-season achievement for running backs, particularly backs who are coming off a 2,000-yard season two years ago. Johnson admitted “I was in shape, but I wasn’t in football shape” due to missing training camp. Johnson is still the main guy in the Titans’ backfield, but if he continues to underwhelm, maybe back-up Javon Ringer should start to get more carries.
4. How will number one overall draft pick Andrew Luck fare in his rookie campaign in Indianapolis?
There is more hype surrounding number two pick Robert Griffin III’s rookie year in Washington, because the Redskins have more talent around him to work with than Luck has in Indy. I think too much is being made of following Peyton Manning; the guy’s been in Denver for months now, and Colts fans are ready and eager to start the Luck era. After last season, they know anybody is better than Curtis Painter. But the Colts still have a dismal defense, and Reggie Wayne and Austin Collie are the only holdovers at receiver from the Peyton era. (Pierre Garcon will be catching balls from RGIII in DC.) There are questions at running back – Donald Brown is backed up by Mewelde Moore and Delone Carter – and the offensive line is young and still developing. It’s gonna be a while before Luck and Indianapolis can get back to the top of the AFC South.
3. How bad are the Jacksonville Jaguars?
This is a team, like others in the league, with a quarterback competition, but the competition is between second-year Blaine Gabbert, who didn’t impress in his rookie campaign, and Chad Henne. Maurice Jones-Drew led the league in rushing last year (because the Jags had nothing else in offense, and still don’t), so naturally now he’s holding out. Really high 2011 draft pick? Used on wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who chalked up the first DUI of his career before his rookie contract was signed. When he finally did sign, he was the last of the first-round picks to do so, and he missed a lot of his rookie training camp as a result. Defense? Actually gave up the sixth-fewest yards per game in 2011, but it didn’t matter, as the Jags D allowed 20 or more points in eight games, while the O scored 20+ in just two. The Jaguars saving grace is that they have two possibly-winnable games against the Colts, as well as opportunities against the Vikings and Dolphins. But they still won’t have the better quarterback in those games. Despite there being plenty of bad teams coming into the season – Cleveland, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis – my preseason money says that come April, Jacksonville will be on the clock first.
2. How good are the Houston Texans?
I’m not completely sold on the Texans being Super Bowl contenders, but people (including myself) forget that before QB Matt Schaub’s season-ending injury last year, Houston was one of the best teams in the AFC. Arian Foster has emerged as a star running back. Wide receiver Andre Johnson is still among the elite receivers in the league, but he always seems to get nicked up. This defense can hang with the best of the best in the NFL, but they will miss pass rusher Mario Williams, who left for Buffalo in free agency. So there are tremendous positives, with a few “buts” and caveats. That’s why I’m surprised that people have been asking “Is this team a lock for the AFC Championship Game?” Ambitious! That isn’t even asked about the Patriots every year. I think the Houston Texans can go 6-0 in their division, but the question is whether they can go pound for pound with teams like New England, Green Bay, Chicago, Baltimore, and even Detroit, the Jets, and Buffalo. They’ll lose enough of those games to be a 3- or 4-seed come playoff time.
1. When will Jake Locker take over as the starting QB in Tennessee?
The biggest question in a division doesn’t have to be about the best team in the division. Tennessee is the only team that can challenge Houston for the division title, although they play nearly the same schedule with a less talented squad than Houston has. The big question for the team, and the division, will be at starting quarterback. Matt Hasselbeck threw for 3,571 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, and was tenth in the league in completion percentage (61.6%). But towards the end of the season he slowed down, and rookie Jake Locker replaced him on the field, even throwing for 282 yards and a touchdown in one game against the Saints, albeit in a losing effort. Now the two QBs are splitting first-team snaps equally in training camp, and Hasselbeck is starting the Titans’ first preseason game because they’re playing the Seahawks, his former team, in Seattle, where he’s still beloved. (Funny, though, because Locker played his college ball at University of Washington in the same town…) If Locker is not named the Titans Week One starter, he’ll become the starter by midseason. Hasselbeck is showing signs of age, and after a year of watching and learning, it’s Jake Locker’s time to step in and show what he can do as the official first-stringer. If he does it well, and the aforementioned Chris Johnson gets back to his best form, the Titans may be looking at sneaking past Houston, if they don’t stay healthy and lose all their important games, or at least tiptoeing in as a 6-seed.