Indianapolis Colts (Projected Record: 6-10)
Key Additions: Ryan Kelly (1st-Round Pick, 18th Overall), T.J. Green (2nd-Round Pick, 57th Overall), Stevan Ridley (Lions), Antonio Cromartie (Jets)
Key Losses: Andre Johnson (Titans), Jerrell Freeman (Bears), Coby Fleener (Saints), Dwight Lowery (Chargers), Matt Hasselbeck (Retirement)
I like Andrew Luck, I really do! I even like Frank Gore, T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and Dwayne Allen. Heck, you can even throw first-round pick Ryan Kelly into the mix, since he’s arguably the most NFL-ready draftee this year. I’m not being facetious when I commend this quality core of players. But let’s take a step back and be real for a second. Andrew Luck is coming off an injury-plagued season in which he started just seven games, and, quite frankly, did not play like a guy worth $122M ($47M guaranteed). Frank Gore is 33 years old, and if he underperforms Robert Turbin will likely takeover for the vet. Phillip Dorsett or Josh Boyce likely man the third receiver spot on the depth chart, and that’s just not good enough. Indy does have a respectable line, led by Jack Mewhort at left guard, rookie Ryan Kelly at center, and Anthony Castonzo protecting Luck’s blindside. Castonzo is not an elite left tackle by any means, but he’s serviceable enough to play great at times. The right side of the line is a bit more challenged with Hugh Thornton at guard, and Joe Reitz at tackle. Who?
The defense suffered a big blow with the loss of linebacker Jerrell Freeman, who signed with the Bears this offseason. I don’t see the Colts generating a quality pass rush with guys like Erik Walden, and aging players Robert Mathis (35) and Trent Cole (35 in October). Vontae Davis is still one of the best cornerbacks in the game, but the Colts have done little to make sure he has some help in coverage. Perhaps the selection of 6′-3″ safety T.J. Green will pay off as the rookie is currently listed atop the depth chart. The other three corners near the top of the depth chart? Patrick Robinson, Darius Butler, and Jalil Brown. Robinson is a vet, but the other two have not proven themselves in this league.
Ultimately, I see the Colts missing the playoffs this year. I believe they will split with each team in the division, but I don’t see them performing well in non-divisional games against Denver, Kansas City, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, New York Jets, Minnesota, and Oakland. For a team with so many holes, it’s hard to envision the Colts as an above average football team in 2016. The good news? Indy has plenty of good pieces to build around moving forward.
Update (8/29/16): The Colts signed cornerback Antonio Cromartie after Vontae Davis suffered a serious injury. Cromartie will bring experience to a group lacking that characteristic, but unless the NFL amends a rule allowing Cromartie’s children to lineup beside him, the secondary will still be outplayed this season.
Jacksonville Jaguars (Projected Record: 10-6)
Key Additions: Jalen Ramsey (1st-Round Pick, 5th Overall), Myles Jack (2nd-Round Pick, 36th Overall), Dante Fowler (2015 Injury), Chris Ivory (Jets), Kelvin Beachum (Steelers), Malik Jackson (Broncos), Prince Amukamara (Giants), Tashaun Gipson (Browns), Brad Nortman (Panthers), Arthur Brown (Ravens)
Key Losses: Stefen Wisniewski (Eagles), Brad Anger (Buccaneers)
The Jacksonville Jaguars have an the opportunity to takeover the AFC South this year. Jacksonville’s offseason additions resemble that of a video game, simply wheeling and dealing with seemingly infinite cap space. But we know it takes more than just throwing a hat in the ring to win football games. It takes chemistry, too. This roster has boom or bust written all over it.
Dante Fowler tore his ACL last preseason and missed all of 2015. Consider him a rookie with an additional year to learn the playbook and scheme. Jalen Ramsey could have been the first overall selection this year. He’s that talented. The same can be said of 2nd-round pick Myles Jack, whose knee injury suffered at UCLA dropped him outside the top ten of the first round. The Jags also added former Bronco Malik Jackson to a pass rush that should be much improved in 2016. The linebacking core looks strong with Telvin Smith on the outside, and Paul Posluszny in the middle. Prince Amukamara comes over from the Giants and will immediately slot in as the number one cornerback opposite of Davon House. Tashaun Gipson got the heck out of Cleveland and signed a deal to play free safety in Jacksonville. Jonathan Cyprien, who started 14 games for the Jags last season, is slated to start at strong safety.
How about on offense? The Jags played from behind almost exclusively in 2015, so Blake Bortles and the offense put up some gaudy statistics. We should not fault him for using the weapons at his disposal, and, in my mind, Bortles has elevated his game to that of a top fifteen quarterback in the NFL. With Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson on the outside, and Julius Thomas and Mercedes Lewis at the tight end positions, the core group of Jags is back and healthy. The franchise added former New York Jet Chris Ivory to the fold as a free agent signing. It remains to be seen how the running back snaps will be divided, but at this point we should assume T.J. Yeldon and Ivory will split 80% of the carries, with Denard Robinson and Jonas Gray getting opportunities in third down passing situations or goaline situations, respectively.
The offensive line isn’t a strength for the Jags, but it’s not a weakness either. They simply just need to play better, especially left tackle Luke Joeckel. Stefen Wisniewski left for Philadelphia, and that hurts. But they also signed versatile Kelvin Beachum away from the Steelers.
I’m going with boom for this squad. They will lose to Indy and Houston once, as well Green Bay, Oakland, Buffalo, and Denver. Otherwise, the Jags look like a 10-win football team to me. Again, there’s a lot of boom or bust potential here, so the Jags could easily fall back to single digit wins if injuries start to pile up and chemistry is hard to come by.
Houston Texans (Projected Record: 6-10)
Key Additions: Will Fuller (1st-Round Pick, 21st Overall), Braxton Miller (3rd-Round Pick, 85th Overall), Brock Osweiler (Broncos), Lamar Miller (Dolphins)
Key Losses: Arian Foster (Dolphins), Brian Hoyer (Bears), Rahim Moore (Browns), Brandon Brooks (Eagles), Nate Washington (Patriots)
This offseason Houston acted like a team that needed to make moves for the sake of making moves. I like the acquisition of Lamar Miller. I think he’s a tremendous running back, and many people forget that he’s still just 25 years old. Their highest profile signing comes in the form of Super Bowl champion, Brock Osweiler. While he did not appear in a single playoff game, he is still responsible for much of Denver’s success in the regular season. In the end, I believe the Texans will come to regret the signing of Osweiler. He doesn’t seem to have the accuracy required nowadays, but maybe that will come with more experience. His release is also a little slow due to his large frame, and that could hurt him if the Texans fail to provide him with enough time to throw.
I absolutely love the 2016 selections of receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller to pair with DeAndre Hopkins, Cecil Shorts, and Jaelen Strong. Miller is one of the top athletes in this year’s draft class, and should have an impact in a variety of roles this year. The tight end position appears to belong to C.J. Fiedorowicz. I guess there are worse options in the league.
We know the true strength of the Texans is their defense, led by superstars J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork. Watt is arguably the most dominant player at any position in the league. He’s astute at deflecting passes at the line of scrimmage, in addition to creating constant pressure and drawing double teams. Wilfork stuffs the run, and he’s been doing it better than anyone else for years. Should anyone get past Wilfork up the middle, they’ll meet Brian Cushing, who registered 110 total tackles last year, his seventh season with Houston. Constant pressure from guys like Whitney Mercilus and Jadaveon Clowney aids a secondary that is still developing. The cornerback group is led by veterans Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson, but the position lacks significant depth. Quintin Demps and Andre Hal are positioned to start at the safety positions.
Again, the challenge for Houston is the offensive line. After losing Brandon Brooks to the Eagles, Duane Brown is the best lineman on the team, and he’ll be protecting Osweiler’s blindside. Xavier Su’a-Filo, Nick Martin, Jeff Allen, and Derek Newton are average players that will need to step up in a big way and stay healthy all season for the Texans to have a real chance. I like the moves the Texans made, but I’m not a believer in Osweiler yet. Perhaps he can manage games and let a stout defense take him to the Super Bowl again, but I have this team finishing 6-10 now and I hope I’m wrong.
Tennessee Titans (Projected Record: 4-12)
Key Additions: Jack Conklin (1st-Round Pick, 8th Overall), Kevin Dodd (2nd-Round Pick, 33th Overall), Austin Johnson (2nd-Round Pick, 43rd Overall), Derrick Henry (2nd-Round Pick, 45th Overall), Demarco Murray (Eagles), Rishard Matthews (Dolphins), Brice McCain (Dolphins), Jace Amaro (Jets)
Key Losses: Michael Griffin (Vikings), Zach Brown (Bills), Dorial Green-Beckham (Trade with Eagles), Justin Hunter (Dolphins), Bishop Sankey (Patriots)
Much like the Texans, the Titans reshaped their roster through the draft, trades, and free agency. I love the acquisition of Demarco Murray for a team that struggled to run the ball in 2015. I view him and second-round selection Derrick Henry as huge upgrades over the 2015 committee of Bishop Sankey, Antonio Andrews, and David Cobb. Murray and Henry should run well behind a line that has improved much over the last two years. Taylor Lewan and first-round pick Jack Conklin will be the starting tackles this year, with Ben Jones at center and Chance Warmack at right guard. Quinton Spain leads the depth chart at left guard right now. The signing of Rishard Matthews should help a maligned receiving core. I don’t view the addition of Andre Johnson as significant, but I see him serving more as a mentor and instructor to the young receivers on the team. Harry Douglas still has some gas left in the tank, but I’m hoping Kendall Wright and Dorial Green-Beckham play much better this year. Of course, leading the offense is versatile sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota. He’s such an electric player to watch, and a nice guy to root for. His passing ability and read of defensive schemes are still developing, but his ability to make plays with his feet is rivaled by only Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. His favorite target by far is tight end Delanie Walker, who’s coming off a 2015 campaign in which he hauled in 94 passes in 15 games.
The Titans pass rush could be very good this year. The selection of Kevin Dodd in the draft is very underrated, and he should slot in nicely in a rotation with defensive end DaQuan Jones or outside linebacker Derrick Morgan. Jurrell Casey is one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL, and is a player the Titans will continue to build around. Edge rusher Brian Orakpo is not the same player he was with the Redskins, but he’s still better than most. Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson form a solid duo as middle linebackers, who will be aided in the run game by safeties Rashad Johnson and Da’Norris Searcy. The weak point of the defense, and the Titans overall, is the lack of depth at the cornerback position. Jason McCourty, Perrish Cox, and Brice McCain should be the top three corners on the team, and that isn’t saying much. McCourty is better off playing safety, but Tennessee needs him to match up against top wide receivers each week.
Overall, the Titans should play much better in 2016. If they can run the ball and control the clock, Tennessee will certainly win more than four games. But, if they play from behind like they did for much of 2015, I don’t see their passing attack and secondary as prolific enough to win high-scoring affairs consistently. The Titans are better off becoming a hard-nosed football team with a strong run game and formidable pass rush. 2016 will not be Tennessee’s year, but the future looks much brighter now after a strong offseason.
Update (8/29/16): The Titans gave up on DGB, trading him to the Eagles for offensive lineman Dennis Kelly. DGB was not receiving targets, and was taking developmental repetitions away from others during practice.