After coming so close to winning the division last season the Jaguars look to be contenders again this year. I know that the Colts are always considered the favorites (deservedly so), but I feel the Jaguars should have the advantage right out of the gate. Let me explain by taking a closer look at all the AFC South teams to shed some light on the reason for my increasing confidence that Jacksonville will win the division.
COLTS: Besides the mammoth contract that they'll have to pay Peyton Manning, thus preventing them from being able to sign or keep all their free agents, the biggest hurdle the Colts will be facing is the loss of Offensive Coordinator Tom Moore. Moore leaves big shoes to fill. Will the offense run as smoothly without Moore at the helm? Injuries hit the Colts pretty hard last season. RB Joseph Addai, WR Austin Collie & TE Dallas Clark all lost significant time due to injury. Will they be able to return to the same level of play they’re used to? If not, that’s a big part of Indy’s offense that could cause them to fall within the division. Also, long time center Jeff Saturday is 36 and might be playing his last season. LB Clint Session is a free agent & CB Melvin Bullitt & OG Charlie Johnson couldn’t seem to stay healthy. Add to that the holdout of DE Robert Mathis and the Colts look like a team that has an uphill battle from the get-go. All that being said, the Colts should never be counted out. They will fight and they will contend, but they will ultimately finish 2nd in the AFC South.
TEXANS: The biggest concern with the Texans is the fact that they are switching from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense. How will this help or hurt players like Mario Williams & Demarco Ryans? Will new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips be able to get everyone on the same page in a shortened off-season? They also have free agent issues with FB Vonta Leach, TE Owen Daniels & DT Shawn Cody. Demarco Ryans is coming off an injury that landed him on IR last season. Finally, can LB Brain Cushing play at the same level without using steroids? The Texans are a up & coming team and should get it together to make a run, but struggles early in the season will keep them at 3rd in the division for one more year.
TITANS: The Titans have all kinds of problems to deal with. First, star running back Chris Johnson wants more money (and rightly so) and could hold out. Jeff Fisher is Gone. It just sounds strange to talk about the Titans and know that he won’t be roaming their sideline rockin’ that 70’s stache. Collins finally had enough and retired and we all know how the Vince Young situation ended. Can Jake Locker survive his trial by fire? They have a new head coach in Mike Munchak & have parted ways with offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger due to his on-going battle with cancer. Free agents like LB Stephen Tulloch, DE Jason Babin & TE Bo Scaife still need to be addressed. Then theres the fact that WR Kenny Britt can’t stay out of trouble with the law. Oh yeah, and Randy Moss did absolutely squat to help Tennessee out last season and will probably end up somewhere else. This once proud team has indeed fallen on hard times. The Titans will again be in the basement of the AFC South, but they will continue to rebuild and should be back in contention in a few years. For now they’re still be 4th in the division.
JAGUARS: The biggest plus for the Jaguars is that they're returning all their coaching staff, including my favorite, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Sticking with the same plan will only help young players develop faster. They will definitely resign Marcedes Lewis to a much-deserved long-term contract. Mel tucker will be calling all of the defensive plays this season, which can’t be a bad thing. Plus, he’ll get more sacks from Joe Cullen’s D-line led by a healthy Kampman. Sims-Walker and his hands of stone are gone along with his inability to stay healthy, opening the door for Thomas or Hill to assume the #1 WR role. Jones-Drew will be back at 100% from his knee injury. By all accounts David Garrard isn’t showing any ill effects from his finger injury to his throwing hand. Zach Miller had a concussion last season, is healed now and should see significant time in 2 TE sets this season, which will undoubtedly cause major mismatches against opposing defenses. Scotty McGee should be back returning kicks. LB Kirk Morrison could be resigned, while Justin Durant won’t be. Hopefully some other players from the secondary can be replaced/upgraded by free agents and draft picks. $30 million under the cap for Gene Smith to play with will help out with that to say the least. The Jags have depth on both lines and are only getting younger, no offense to Brad Meester. So, in a year that owner Wayne Weaver has called a “playoffs or else” type of season, Del Rio and company will reach their goal by winning the AFC South. The best part of this whole scenario is that even if the Jaguars don’t keep Garrard or Del Rio around for another season they’ll have a QB of the future in Blaine Gabbert, a head coach in waiting in Dirk Koetter and a solid core of young players to keep them in contention for even more than just the division title for the foreseeable future. One more thing, they have the best GM in the business in Gene Smith leading them to 1st place in the AFC South.
Though I truly think the Jaguars will win division and get into the playoffs, I also think that Del Rio and Garrard will both be moving on next season. Garrard will be traded & even with the Jaguars making the playoffs Del Rio could be shown the door to make room for Koetter to take over. A new head coach & a new starting QB makes sense to me. Out with the old, in with the new. Rebuilding should be from top to bottom of the franchise with no exceptions. Let me make it clear that in no way do I think the Colts will just fade away or just hand over the division championship. The Jaguars will earn it all season long. The Titans, Texans & Colts will make sure of that.