With that in mind here's the first installment in my division by division look at American football at the professional level:
Part the First: AFC East (Same Old, Same Old)
Part the Second: AFC North (One of these teams is not like the others)
Part the Third: AFC South (The Changing of the Guard)
Team By Team:
1. Jacksonville Jaguars. This is probably my most risky projection of the season. But I truly believe that this is the year things start to work for the Jags. Bortles is proving to be an OK QB, and I think that the improvements on the offensive line will help him cut back on turnovers. Plus, Jacksonville's newly retooled defense should help him not have to throw the ball 50-60 times per game. Not that his targets are bad. The Allens (Hurns and Robinson) are the best 2-WR tandem in the division, and running back Yeldon is a player from which I'm expecting a huge year. Marquise Lee is nothing to sneeze at at WR3. The O-line appears solid, and TE Marcedes Lewis should be just fine. Last year the defense was awful, but talent infusions via free-agency and the draft should help immediately. the D-line of Fowler/Jackson/Miller/Odrick should be solid, if not spectacular, as should the LB corps. My biggest question is in the defensive backfield, where House and Amukamura must play better than recent history, and 1st round draft pick Jalen Ramsey must be as good as we all think he can be. The biggest thing going for the Jaguars is this: They are currently playing in a dumpster fire of a division.
2. Houston Texans. There is a lot of optimism among Texans fans and for the life of me I cannot figure out why. Maybe it's because the team "finally" spent some money on a quarterback? But that's not right because they spent money on Matt Schaub as well. Is it because they "finally" have a running back and talent at WR? No, because they had Arian Foster and Andre Johnson before Lamar Miller and Deandre Hopkins, although I do think that Braxton Miller is a unique talent of the likes hasn't been seen in Houston, he's currently languishing 3rd on the WR depth chart behind Hopkins and Shorts. At O-line there is no cause for optimism. Sua-Filo is looking 100% like a bust, Duane Brown and Derek Newton are hurt, and draft pick center Wight is going to likely be out all year due to recently completed ankle surgery. So you have an immobile QB in Osweiler who is likely going to find himself under extreme pressure all year long. Ah but defense you say, the team will shine on defense. Well, maybe, but JJ Watt is hurt and Wilfork and Cushing are old(er) and the team is one (likely to occur) Jadveon Clowney injury away from having John Simon start at OLB. Add to this the fact that O'Brien is currently known more for his Hard Knocks cursing than actual in-game coaching and you have all of the ingredients for another 7-9 season. Unfortunately, I live in Houston, so I'll be stuck watching it all.
3. Tennessee Titans. This is another team that I think finds itself on the ascendancy, but is not yet at the level of the Jaguars. Like Jacksonville I think the Titans have an above-average QB in Mariota, but are weaker in every offensive area except RB, where DeMarco Murray has proven himself to be the real deal while at Dallas. The WR combination is young, and unproven and contains both Andre Johnson and Harry Douglas, both of whom almost qualify for the NFL version of AARP cards, and the offensive line is talented, but will need a stand-out season from Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan if Mariota is to survive the season sans injury. Defensively this team is solid, if not spectacular. They have a lot of 6-8 year veterans who are, supposedly, in the prime of their careers which doesn't bode well for improvement. Also, they will be playing CB Brice McCain as their likely nickle corner. If you've been paying attention the last few years that situation is what's known in NFL circles as "a bad thing". The biggest issue that I have with the Titans however is their head coach Mike Mularkey, who I believe is no where near a head coach at the NFL level. Mularkey has promised that the Titans are going to play a 90's brand of professional football in the 10's. Which is like Army refusing to employ the forward pass after Notre Dame roasted them with it back in the leather helmet days. This team is getting better, but I don't think they pass the Texans until they find and hire a quality head coach.
4. Indianapolis Colts. This team can be summed up in two words: Andrew Luck. The problem is that they still don't have anything on offense (outside of T.Y. Hilton) to go along with him. The O-line might (again) almost get Luck killed, and RB Frank Gore is looking more and more like a back with too much tread taken off the tires. This means that Luck is going to be running like mad from angry d-linemen anxious to knock that neck-beard right off of his head. If he makes the half-way point of the season healthy I'll be surprised. On defense, the Colts have been, and should continue to be, pretty damn awful. They lack overall defensive speed, strength and strategy. Which brings us to the Colts biggest deficiency, head coach Chuck Pagano. While #ChuckStrong was a heartwarming story, it also brought to the front the elephant in the Colts coaching room. Namely, when this team was good under Luck, it was the assistant coaches (then OCs Bruce Arians and Pep Hamilton) that were responsible for a majority of the team's success. The Colts however, learned the wrong lesson and kept Chuck Pagano. The team has paid for that ever since, and will continue to pay for it, and horrible personnel decisions, this year.
For a while now the two best teams in this division have been the Indianapolis Colts, and the Houston Texans. This year I'm starting to get the feeling that the guard is changing, possibly has already changed. I think in terms of pure talent both Jacksonville and Tennessee find themselves at the top of the pile. While I think Andrew Luck is certainly still the best QB in the league, I think Jacksonville and Tennessee dominate all of the other position groups save D-line, where I think the Texans still have the advantage, if only due to JJ Watt. (when he's healthy). In addition to all of that, I think this is the 2nd worst division in football (behind the NFC lEast) but I believe the Jaguars will take the crown this year.