2015 Division Series Preview: AFC South

This is part three of our eight-part division preview series. I will pose two questions per team, one about offense and one about defense, and then predict each team’s 2015 record and final standing within the division. The AFC East preview can be found here and the AFC North preview can be found here. Tune in each Sunday for a new part of the series! 

Houston Texans (9-7 in 2014, 2nd in AFC South)

Will Brian Hoyer or Ryan Mallett take the reins of Bill O'Brien's offense?

On March 11, 2015, the Houston Texans traded their starting quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, to the New York Jets for a late round conditional pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. That same day, the Texans signed quarterback Brian Hoyer to a two-year, 10.5 million dollar deal. The signing raised some eyebrows, as Ryan Mallet now had competition for the starting quarterback job. 

Mallet represents the prototypical franchise quarterback the team has been looking for for the better half of a decade. With his cannon of an arm, Mallet can make all the throws and provides excellent deep ball accuracy. However, Mallet has also been noted for his discomfort in the pocket and an inability to sense and perform under pressure. His slow drop-back is another cause for concern, as it results in him being suspect to pressure. 

Hoyer, on the other hand, has proven that he can succeed with a strong offensive line. In the five games he played before Alex Mack, the Cleveland Brown's starting center, went down, Hoyer threw for 1,224 yards, 7 TDs and 1 interception, and had a 59.98% completion percentage and had three positively rated games according to Pro Football Focus. After Mack went down, Hoyer threw for 2,102 yards, 5 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, and had a 54.28% completion percentage in nine games including just one positively rated game.

Hoyer has been touted as an excellent field general with a strong running game and is particularly proficient in play-action. However, the seventh year quarterback has never posted a season with a completion percentage above 60% when starting and lacks the physical tools and potential Mallet presents. 

Nevertheless, Bill O'Brien will most likely select Hoyer to lead the offense in 2015. O'Brien's offensive philosophy utilizes a diverse variety of short, intermediate, and deep passes that relies on quick throws from the quarterback, which Hoyer can provide.

O'Brien has been known for developing quarterbacks, helping Ryan Fitzpatrick post his best career year last year with the Texans, and with weapons like Deandre Hopkins, Jaelen Strong, and Arian Foster behind a capable offensive line, Hoyer should have little trouble becoming Houston's signal caller and improving one of the NFL's least watchable offenses

Did the Texans sufficiently address the outside linebacker and strong safety positions?

The Texans allowed Brooks Reed and D.J. Swearinger, both starters on the defense, to walk during free agency. As a result, the Texans were left with holes at both the outside linebacker and strong safety positions. 

Surprisingly, the Texans did little to address their need at outside linebacker, beyond selecting a project in Reshard Cliett from the University of Southern Florida in the sixth round of the draft. This is especially concerning given the fact that former #1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney is still recovering from a knee surgery and was put on the Physically Unable to Perform List before the start of training camp. The team resigned Whitney Mercilus, who developed into a solid run stuffer, and will most likely take over Reed's starting duties. 

The Texans were more aggressive in addressing the safety position, signing Stevie Brown and Rahim Moore. It has been a few years since Brown's high interception season as a free safety for the New York Giants, but him and Rahim Moore should be able to secure the position of free safety. Both players have a similar skill-set at the position, so the Texans m ight look to go for a rotation of Lonnie Ballentine and Eddie Pleasant to fill in the role of run defender.

Prediction: 10-6, 2nd in AFC South 

The Texans face one of the easiest schedules in 2015, with visits to Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, and Tennessee. However, with the Indianapolis Colts still securing a firm grip over the division, the Texans cannot afford to make any mistakes this year if they hope to return to the playoffs. With an improved defense and more consistency at the quarterback position, Houston will definitely be a player in the AFC this year. 

Indianapolis Colts (11-5 in 2014, 1st in AFC South)

Will Andrew Luck be able to elevate the offense into the top 5 next year?

Nobody from the Colts organization has labeled this year as "Super Bowl or bust", but the feeling of urgency is definitely present going into the 2015 NFL season. The team added to their already talented skills positions by signing Andre Johnson and Frank Gore, giving Luck the best supporting cast he has ever had around him. After leading one of the NFL's most watchable offenses last year, expectations are high for the fourth year quarterback. 

Questions still linger regarding the offensive line. Injuries plagued the unit, as the team fielded eleven different groups at the line last year. The team brought in Todd Herremans, Demarco Cox, and Joe Reitz in order to fix holes at the right guard and right tackle positions. Reitz offers excellent depth behind Anthony Castanzo and Jack Mewhort at tackle, and Herremans was expected to win over the right guard spot after being released by the Philadelphia Eagles. Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert indicated that there would be a competition at center between Khaled Holmes and Jonotthan Harrison for the spot. Barring an injury bug similar to the one that hit last year, Andrew Luck should see better protection in the pocket and be able to better utilize the variety of weapons around him. 

Has the defense improved enough to win the AFC?

In last year's AFC Championship game, the Colts defense was thoroughly shellacked by the New England Patriots, giving up 148 yards and 3 touchdowns to LeGarrette Blount on the ground. However, this poor performance against the run was not exclusive to one game: the Colts boasted one of the worst run defenses in the NFL, giving up an average of 4.3 yards per carry. 

The team retained Josh Chapman as the starting nose tackle, but failed to sign any additional run defenders during free agency. The Colts appear confident that Chapman will be able to improve on his performance from last year, in which he struggled to make an impact in either the run or passing defense. The team will most likely rotate in Montori Hughes and rookie David Parry to supplant Chapman when needed.

The Colts brought in veteran Trent Cole to lead the outside linebackers group with Robert Mathis and Kendall Langford to be the starting defensive end opposite of Arthur Jones. With a stout secondary led by Vontae Davis and a deeper front seven, this Colts defense appears to be more talented and deeper than that of last year.

Prediction: 12-4, 1st in AFC South

The Colts face the second easiest schedule in 2015, with visits to Tampa Bay, Tennessee, and Jacksonville. With an impro ved defense and healthier offensive line, the Colts should maintain their grip on the division and vie for one of the top seeds in the AFC.

Jacksonville Jaguars (3-13 in 2014, 3rd in AFC South)

Will Blake Bortles be able to take the next step as a signal caller?

The Jaguars were eager to rid themselves of Blaine Gabbert, trading the former ninth overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers for a sixth round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and a conditional pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Then with the 3rd overall pick, they selected quarterback Blake Bortles out of the University of Central Florida as the next franchise quarterback. 

Bortles struggled initially when named the starter, but finished his rookie campaign on a high note, throwing for 3 touchdowns and 841 yards with only 2 interceptions in his last five games. Much of Bortles' struggles stemmed from his offensive line: the Jaguars offensive line gave up the most sacks in 2014 with 71. His supporting cast was comprised primarily of rookies and second year players with Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, and Allen Robinson. Bortles received little help from his running backs. Toby Gerhart posted a disappointing season with 326 yards on 101 attempts and 2 touchdowns, providing Bortles little help in the ground game and leading to one of the five least watchable offenses in the NFL. 

Going into 2015, the franchise has tried to help Bortles by bringing in Julius Thomas, the former Denver Broncos tight end that scored 24 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Thomas should greatly help Bortles by providing him with a big target to look for over the middle of the field. With two playmakers in Marcedes Lewis and Thomas, the Jaguars should be leaning towards more two tight end sets next year. In addition to Thomas, the Jaguars brought in Jermey Parnell to shore up the right tackle position. Parnell stepped in for an injured Doug Free last year for the Cowboys and looked good. Both signings should help Bortles develop his confidence as a player and aid in his growth. 

How will the loss of Dante Fowler Jr. affect the defense?

One year after selecting Blake Bortles with the third overall pick, the Jaguars used the third overall pick in this year's draft to select Dante Fowler Jr., a defensive end from the University of Florida. Nine days later, Fowler tore his ACL on the first day of mini camp and the team reported that he would miss the entire season. 

The selection of Dante Fowler Jr. was an important part of the rebuilding process for Jacksonville because he helped rejuvenate an enervated front seven devoid of talent. Fowler was intended to help take some of the pressure off of Sen'Derrick Marks in rushing the passer and stopping the run. Now with both players injured, the Jaguars are forced to call the next men up to replace their best defensive ends.

The Jaguars were among the ten worst teams in run defense and pass defense last year according to Pro Football Focus, but the selection of Fowler means the team will most likely be unwilling to commit to any long term options at defensive end next offseason as long as they have Fowler under contract. With both Marks and Fowler being signed this year, the Jaguars will want to see if their investments in them pay off before adding another expensive piece to the front seven. 

Prediction: 4-12, 4th in AFC South

The Jaguars face an easier schedule this year, but the holes in the front seven and little change in the secondary and line-backing corps gives reason to believe the defense hasn't improved from last year. While Bortles and co. may present a more formidable threat in the offense, the team as a whole does not seem to be near playing in January any time soon. 

Tennessee Titans (2-14 in 2014, 4th in AFC South)

How will Marcus Mariota perform as the starting quarterback in 2015?

With the second overall pick, the Titans selected quarterback Marcus Mariota out of Oregon. Mariota presents the physical tools, college resume, and off-the-field maturity to fit the role of franchise quarterback. 

While at Oregon, Mariota relied primarily on a combination of his excellent presence in the pocket and ability to evade pressure to make plays for the Ducks. He demonstrated the ability to make off balance, difficult throws and consistently play with solid mechanics. However, Mariota struggled with learning the field and making anticipatory throws against defenses that quickly adjusted to Oregon's game plan. In the NFL, everyone is bigger, faster, and stronger than the players at the college level, so it becomes difficult for players to rely on their feet alone to make plays (see Johnny Manziel). 

Mariota will most likely experience growing pains his rookie year, but he is surrounded by a solid support system in wide receivers Kendall Wright, Harry Douglas, and Dorial Green-Beckham and running backs Bishop Sankey and David Cobb. The Titans have a decent offensive line around Mariota, but most importantly, Mariota will be coached by Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt is known for developing quarterbacks such as Ben Roethlisberger, Kurt Warner, and Philip Rivers, and Mariota is one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks he has ever coached. Expect Mariota to improve each week as he grows more comfortable to the NFL. 

What effect will Dick Lebeau have on the Titans defense?

Dick Lebeau left the Pittsburgh Steelers this year, where he had a special track record for excellence, helping lead the notorious black and gold to three Super Bowl appearances over the last 11 years. Lebeau joins his friend, Ray Horton, in running the Titans defense. The Titans shrewdly improved their front seven by retaining outside linebacker Derrick Morgan while signing Brian Orakpo. With those two securing the outside and a highly underrated Jurrell Casey at defensive tackle, the front seven should be formidable enough to allow Lebeau to be creative with his signature zone blitzes. 

Lebeau will be able to help Zach Brown get back up to speed after missing the 2014 season with injury. Brown will be especially beneficial to Lebeau's zone blitzes, as he has the ability to effectively cover the middle of the field and any tight end that might come his way, allowing Morgan and Avery Williamson to blitz the passer. Lebeau should help bring a diverse variety of pass rushing plays for the Titans and ease the team more successfully into a 3-4 defense.

Prediction: 5-11, 3rd in AFC South

In the age of instant gratification, it may seem disappointing if Mariota does not immediately set the NFL on fire like Andrew Luck, Russel Wilson, or Robert Griffin III did back in 2012. However, the Titans are currently in a rebuilding mode, and this season will most likely serve the purpose of being a segue to future success. 

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