by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2013, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games. Next up for our previews will be the AFC South, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2012 straight-up, pointspread, and “over/under” records included...

Destined to be like the San Diego Chargers of a few years back, good enough to make the playoffs and hint at a deep run in the postseason before inevitably falling short? Or a legit Super Bowl contender? We’ll find out more this fall with the Houston Texans (2012 SUR 13-5, PSR 10-8, O/U 8-10) after HC Gary Kubiak’s team has been good enough to get to the playoffs and past Cincinnati in the wild card round each of the past two seasons before stumbling on the road in the division round (2011 at Baltimore, 2012 at New England).

The Texans certainly didn’t blow up the operation in the offseason, staying mostly quiet on the free-agent front and addressing specific needs in the early rounds of the draft. But the moves they made were significant, especially the addition of ex-Baltimore FA safety Ed Reed, along with Ray Lewis the heart-and-soul of the many miserly Raven stop units in recent years. The fine tuning continued on draft day, when GM Rick Smith addressed the seemingly-annual question of finding another wideout to take some of the pressure off of the decorated Andre Johnson; through the first couple of preseason games, at least, Clemson first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins looks to be the one to finally address that void.

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All of this sense of calm in Houston is a far cry from a couple of years ago, especially for Kubiak, who was famously given one more chance to get things right by owner Bob McNair entering the 2011 campaign. The addition of the sage Wade Phillips in his more comfy defensive coordinator role helped fuel the resurgence two years ago, and Kubiak now appears one of the more-secure coaches in the AFC, if not the NFL.

At some point soon, however, the novelty of a playoff berth will not be enough for the Texans and their backers, who believe the Super Bowl is a realistic target. And to that end, there are still questions if QB Matt Schaub is really the guy to lead the Texans to the promised land.

Schaub has now been given a solid offensive line, a top-flight RB in Arian Foster (more on him in moment), a pair of productive tight ends in the underrated Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham, and what appears to be a dynamite WR combo if the rookie Hopkins is as good as he looks opposite Andre Johnson. We’ll find out more this fall if Schaub can elevate his play...or if he is the one who might be holding back Houston in the postseason.

The good news for Schaub is that the ultra-productive Foster, who accumulated nearly 400 touches last fall en route to his third straight season of gaining better than 1200 YR (1424 YR last year) and the acknowledged pivot point of the strike force, has been removed from the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list in late August after working through a strained right calf and sore back since late May. Regardless, Kubiak and o.c. Rick Dennison are likely going to be reducing the work load and wear-and-tear on Foster just a bit this fall, so look for more of the ex-Auburn Tiger Ben Tate on the field.

The key to making an already good offense even better, however, likely rests with the mercurial rookie WR Hopkins, who has demonstrated plenty of field-stretching ability in early preseason games. Having a legit deep threat opposite Andre Johnson suggests that the Texans might do even better this fall than their impressive 7th ranking in total offense stats last season.

The emergence of Houston as a playoff regular, however, really coincided with the arrival of d.c. Phillips and his 3-4 schemes two years ago. The addition of Reed, arguably one of the best safeties of all-time, could make a for a devastating secondary that already featured lockdown CB Johnathon Joseph. Meanwhile, there are featured performers at every level of the platoon, with NFL Defensive Player of the year DE J.J. Watt off of one of the most productive seasons in league history for a D-lineman with his eye-popping 20 ½ sacks, and Brian Cushing along-established force at ILB.

A key for Phillips’ defense will likely involve 2012's number one pick, OLB Whitney Mercilus, stepping into a role recently filled by Connor Barwin, who moved to the Eagles in free agency. Mercilus, college football’s sack leader at Illinois in 2011, can add some real impact to the pass rush and effectively complement Watt if he finally lives up to his rave reviews coming out of the Big Ten.

The pieces appear to be in place for the Texans to make a more-serious run at the Super Bowl this season. But if Houston slips a bit from its recent form, expect a lot more activity next offseason.

There is not much sentimentality among sports book insiders who care little about the heartwarming storylines. And those “sharps” are notorious to “sell” on teams that came out of nowhere to succeed the previous year. The prime example of such thinking in 2013 is the Indianapolis Colts (2012 SUR 11-6, PSR 10-7, O/U 6-11), who have already been discounted by several so-called insiders who expect the guys with the horseshoes on their helmets to regress this fall after a wild ride in 2012 behind rookie QB Andrew Luck and the disruption caused by HC Chuck Pagano, who was forced to take an extended leave of absence to treat leukemia.

And the skeptics are in force; the Colts’ season win total has been posted at a very modest 8 ½ at the majority of Las Vegas sports books. Might the “sharps” be outsmarting themselves this summer in regard to the Colts?

The good news beyond that unexpected surge to a wild card berth a year ago is that Pagano returned to work late last season and is clear of those immediate health concerns, with the illness in remission. Although the fellow who stewarded the Colts so ably in Pagano’s absence, o.c. Bruce Arians, has moved to Arizona as the Cardinals’ new coach.

Pagano, however, figured to make the transition to a new o.c. as smooth as possible for QB Luck by hiring one of his college coaches, Stanford o.c. Pep Hamilton, to the same job with the Colts. The hiring of Hamilton also signaled a clear move by Pagano toward the West Coast system, as the new Hamilton offense will employ many of those concepts this fall. The fact that it is basically the same attack that Luck ran in college should eliminate any unnecessary rough spots in the road, too.

Oh yes, Andrew Luck. Don’t let his modest-looking stats from 2012 (54% completions, 23 TD passes and 18 picks) fool you. For a rookie, Luck performed beyond the call of duty, and was able to deliver many big plays in the clutch as the Colts went on a joyride last fall when winning 9 of their last 11, many of those in white-knuckle fashion with Luck and his uncanny playmaking sense at the controls.

Indeed, it was the close manner of many of the Indy wins last season that has lots of Vegas sorts questioning that surprise wild card berth, but to those we warn to underestimate Luck at your own risk. We suspect there will not be much, if any, “sophomore slump” for Luck this fall.

Mostly, however, Luck’s quick emergence mostly quieted the many Peyton Manning fans in Indy who were enraged that owner Jim Irsay had decided to go in a different direction after the 2011 campaign. Although Manning still casts a large shadow at Lucas Oil Stadium, there are few in Colts Nation who are still questioning the franchise’s decision with its QBs.

The Colts, however, are hoping to get a bit more mileage out of their infantry diversion that only gained 104.4 ypg in 2012 to rank a subpar 22nd in league rush stats. To that end, ex-Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw was added in free agency; if he can get beyond a nagging foot injury, he should prove an upgrade, while holdovers Vick Ballard and Donald Brown figure to get their share of carries while being expected to improve upon last year’s 3.9 ypc for each.

Free agency also saw Indy try to bolster its so-so offensive line, adding RT Gosder Cherilus (via Detroit) and LG Donald Thomas (via New England) in the offseason while also addressing the OL concerns with two of its top three draft choices (Illinois G Hugh Thornton and Southern Cal C Khaled Holmes, though both have been plagued by nagging hurts in the summer). Any expected improvements up front should translate into added pop for the ground game.

The Colts were also buyers at the wide receiver spot in free agency when inking ex-Raider Darius Heyward-Bey to a pricey one-year deal with hopes that he can take some pressure off of the ageless Reggie Wayne, now 34 but off a resurgent 2012 when catching 106 passes. Early preseason work, however, suggests that second-year T.Y. Hilton, a surprise contributor last year out of Florida International who caught 50 passes and served as a feared kick-return threat, might be ready to emerge as another go-to target for Luck.

The Colts also think they upgraded on defense in free agency, especially SS with LaRon Landry, who had 100 tackles last year with the Jets. DTs Ricky Jean Francois (ex-49ers) and Aubrayo Franklin (ex-Chargers) are going to be expected to bolster what was the NFL’s third-worst rush defense last season.

The front seven, already looking different with the additions of Fas Francois and Franklin, will also be proceeding minus long-time stalwart Dwight Freeney, who left in free agency for San Diego. It is hoped that top draft pick Bjorn Werner (Florida State) will be able to goose a pass rush will have a different look from his projected OLB position and form a nice bookend with the impactful Robert Mathis on the other side. Meanwhile, LCB Vontae Davis proved well worth the second-round draft pick it cost to acquire him a year ago, and appears to be a piece to build around in the secondary. Another FA, ex-Ram Greg Toler, is penciled into the corner opposite Davis.

Still, that’s a lot of new faces (at least five projected into the starting lineup) for Pagano to be counting upon with his rebuilt defense.

Replicating the emotion and positive chemistry from last season might prove a challenge in Indy. But that is not enough to project a big drop-off at Lucas Oil, either.

There was a time when Bud Adams could have been regarded as one of the most impatient owners in the NFL, running coaches in and out the door for his Houston Oilers. In one five-year post-merger span in the early ‘70s, Adams went though five different coaches (Wally Lemm, Ed Hughes, Bill Peterson, Sid Gillman, and Bum Phillips, though Lemm and Gillman officially retired from their positions). Bum continued his hiring and firing ways into the mid ‘90s before the Jeff Fisher regime would span the franchise relocation from Houston to Nashville (with a brief stopover in Memphis) and become the longest-tenured coach in the NFL.

Adams, it seemed, had finally mellowed.

But maybe not completely, as ‘ol Bud would eventually hit the eject button on Fisher after the 2010 season. And even as he hit his 90th birthday this year, hints of the Adams of old were being mentioned all around Music City in regard to his latest coach, Mike Munchak, who is going to have to do a lot better with this year’s Tennessee Titans (2012 SUR 6-10, PSR 7-9, O/U 9-7) to be invited back for a fourth season in 2014.

Ah, with another coach on the hot seat, it feels like old times again with Bud Adams. (Although, as far as we know, Adams has made few if any player personnel recommendations since insisting that Fisher and then-GM Floyd Reese select Texas QB Vince Young with the top pick in the 2006 Draft.)

Indeed, many thought Adams might give Munchak the boot after a disappointing 2012, but 'ol Bud instead gave his former lineman and longtime assistant one more chance to get it right in 2013. Yet give Munchak and GM Ruston Webster some credit for not panicking and instead addressing the roster’s infrastructure, rather than adding any splashy free-agent signees, in the offseason.

Signing and drafting guards aren’t the kinds of moves that usually generate much buzz from the fan base, but they were exactly what the Titans needed to do in order to upgrade a subpar position group on the roster. More investment was also made in the secondary, a prime area of need on defense.

But it’s the apparent upgrading of the Titan OL that has opened some eyes around the league. Not only did Webster and Munchak ink the best available free-agent guard in Buffalo’s Andy Levitre, they also took the top-rated guard in the draft, Alabama’s Chance Warmack, with their first-round pick. More depth was added up front in free agency with ex-Bears C/G Chris Spencer and ex-Ram G/C Rob Turner. Moreover, the offense upgraded at TE by adding ex-49er Delanie Walker, also considered a good blocker for his position and finally ready to make some contributions after sitting out much of camp and early preseason games after having his knee scoped.

Those guys you see smiling in the background are QB Jake Locker and RB Chris Johnson.

Getting Johnson (no longer embroiled in a salary dispute) and another FA addition, ex-Jet Shonn Green, to run through some of the many holes the supposedly-upgraded OL should be a boon for Locker, whose second year in the league (and first as a full-time starter) was hardly a smooth ride and interrupted by a shoulder injury that kept him out of five games entirely and required offseason surgery. Whatever, Locker never seemed comfy a year ago when tossing 11 picks compared to just 10 TD passes. Vet Matt Hasselbeck (now in Indy) is also no longer around as an insurance policy at QB, with ex-Bill Ryan Fitzpatrick now Plan B should something go amiss again with Locker.

The tools certainly seem to be there with Locker, whose ability to run and escape enemy defenders was a big part of his appeal coming out of the University of Washington. Thus far, however, we’ve only seen brief glimpses of that sort of star-like form; much improvement from Locker is going to be needed for the Titans to make a serious run at .500 and a possible playoff berth that might be needed to save Munchak’s job.

Locker would seem to have the supporting cast to push him over the hump, especially if explosive Tennessee rookie WR Justin Hunter (2nd-round pick) contributes to the cause. Hunter might be called upon a bit more than expected if the knee injury suffered by holdover Kendall Wright in the preseason loss at Cincinnati. sidelines him for any extended period of time. Keeping the explosive Kenny Britt, beleguered in the past by injury and legal problems and nursing a sore knee in the preseason, on the field this fall will also be crucial to Locker’s success.

Early indicators in preseason, however, suggested that the revamped Titans might still look a lot like the old version from last year....especially on defense. Secondary upgrades or not, the Tennessee defense spent much of the first two preseason games missing tackles, being sloppy in pass coverage and spotty in the pass rush. An inability to get off of the field on third downs, exacerbated when the Bengals converted several third-and-long plays, looked a lot like some of the lowlights of 2012, a year in which the Titans allowed the most points in franchise history and ranked in the bottom third in most major defensive categories.

It was hoped on the offseason that the addition of ex-Raven Bernard Pollard and ex-Bill George Wilson (both fighting for the SS job) would solidify a pass defense that has not been the same since terrier-like CB Cortland Finnegan left to join ex-coach Fisher in St. Louis and ranked a poor 28th in the league a year ago, but there are other question marks on the platoon. Such as generating a consistent pass rush, still absent in the preseason. Although DEs Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley and LB Akeem Ayers all had six sacks last season, the Titans still lack a marquee pass rusher.

The strength of the platoon, such as it is, appears to be in a young and frisky LB corps that features the non-stop Ayers, while ex-Lions DT Sammie Lee Hill should help plug the defensive interior. But d.c. Jerry Gray might be under even more pressure than HC Munchak to get things right with his platoon that allowed far too many big plays a year ago.

We’re not too bullish on the Titans’ prospects, and suspect that if it’s still the old Bud Adams pulling the levers, we might see the franchise merry-go-round at the coaching position rev up again in the offseason.

Once in a while, we also like to play fashion critic at TGS. So it goes with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2012 SUR 2-14, PSR 7-9, O/U 7-9) , who have undergone yet another transformation of their jerseys after the latest modification just a few years ago.

By us, there was nothing wrong with the former teal blue and black combo, which looked especially good in most combinations. But the new look and style have almost completely eliminated the teal component and added splashes of gold into the mix, including a two-tone helmet in the chic matte style. Our opinion is that while a teal shirts-black pants combo might pass the test, the all-black versions of the uniform now look a bit garish. And the Jags seem to have eliminated their tasteful white shirts-black pants combo for an unappealing all-white uniform with the new helmet.

Thumbs down, if you want our opinion.

We’re talking about the uniforms at EverBank Field because we’re not sure there is much to mention about the on-field product except that it can’t get much worse than a year ago. Which was merely the latest in a disappointing run for the Jags that has not abated since the colorful, Pakistani-born Shad Khan bought the team in 2011. Khan has since expanded his sports holdings to overseas and Fulham of the EPL. (The Jags, by the way, will be featured in one of the NFL’s London games for each of the next four years, beginning this October 27th vs. San Francisco).

At least Khan was able to recognize that he made a mistake when hiring Mike Mularkey as his head coach a year ago. Mularkey, a respected offensive tactician but a failure as an HC in an earlier stint at Buffalo, was ostensibly hired to upgrade the offense and in particular young ex-Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert. Yet nothing worked last season in a painful collapse to two wins that prompted Khan to do a complete housecleaning by not only canning Mularkey after one year but also GM Gene Smith, on the job the previous four years.

In early January, Khan would tab former Falcons Director of Player Personnel David Caldwell as the new GM. Shortly thereafter, Caldwell and Khan enlisted Seahawks d.c. Gus Bradley as the new head coach. The Jacksonville position will be the first head coaching job for Bradley, who spent almost half of his coaching life at alma mater North Dakota State before moving into the NFL on Jon Gruden’s Bucs staff in 2006.

Without a track record as a head coach, it is difficult to project how Bradley might fare, although considering what he is inheriting with the Jags, it might be a while before we get an accurate read. Moroever, the Jags did not make many significant lineup changes in the offseason, including at QB, where holdovers Gabbert and Chad Henne will again be the main options (with Gabbert, despite a hairline fracture of the thumb on his throwing hand, recently named the starter for the opener vs. the Chiefs on September 8).

Bradley has authorized new o.c. Jedd Fisch (recently with the Miami Hurricanes) to make some radical adjustments on the attack end, implementing a fast-paced, no-huddle attack. Unfortunately, the Jags are going to begin the season without one of their few homerun threats, 2nd-year WR Justin Blackmon, suspended for the first four games of the campaign. In his absence, the explosive Cecil Shorts (almost 18 yards per catch on 55 receptions a year ago) figures to be the go-to receiving target...if, that is, he stays healthy after missing some summer work with a strained calf.

While Blackmon is out, however, the Jags have welcomed back their former focus point of the offense, RB Maurice Jones-Drew, who missed much of 2012 with a foot injury. That absence robbed the Jags of their best playmaker and effectively doomed the Mularkey offense; just having a healthy MJD will change the equation and force enemy defenses to attack J’ville differently. His loss was incalculable a year ago. Another plus should be first-round pick Luke Joeckel, a huge RT from Texas A&M and the second overall pick in the April festivities at Radio City Music Hall.

The first Caldwell/Bradley draft also emphasized speed, with later-round picks like South Carolina WR/KR Ace Sanders and former Michigan QB Denard Robinson, being auditioned at RB this summer, potentially adding a more exciting element to the offensive mix.

Still, even with the availability of Jones-Drew, the only optimism for this offense is of the cautious sort, especially considering the QB situation. Rest assured that if Gabbert and/or Henne don’t show much improvement this season, the QB position becomes a main focus of upgrade next offseason.

Disturbingly, however, the Jaguars No. 1 offense won't play together until the fifth game of the regular season. That's the earliest it could happen after the news of Gabbert’s thumb injury that will keep him out of the last two preseason games. That means key ingredients of the offense (including Jones-Drew, Shorts, TE Marcedes Lewis, C Brad Meester, RT Joeckel, and Gabbert) will be missing not only in each of the four preseason games but also into October. With Blackmon suspended for the first four weeks of the regular season due to violation of the league's substance abuse policy, it won't be until Oct. 6 when the Jaguars play at St. Louis that the offense could be totally together on the field for the first time this season.

J’ville’s problems weren’t limited to the offensive side of the ball a year ago when the “D” also allowed the third-most yards in the NFL. Yet if there is one area where Bradley’s expertise might be expected to pay early dividends, it’s with the defense after Gus coordinated one of the league’s most-electric and aggressive stop units a year ago in Seattle.

The remake of the platoon commenced on draft day when a couple of DBs, 2nd-round S Jonathan Cyprien from Florida International, and 3rd-round CB Dwayne Gratz from UConn, were tabbed with expectations they could start right away.

But there are plenty of other issues, including what was the lowest sack total in the league (a mere 20) a year ago. Little seems to have been done to improve the pass rush which did receive a bit of a spark from ex-Titan and Eagle Jason Babin, who was added late last season. But outside of Babin, it’s hard to identify where extra pressure might originate.

Bottom line in Jacksonville? The Jags figure to improve at least a little from last season (not asking much after a 2-14 train wreck), as long as Jones-Drew is on the field. But that hardly suggests the team is ready to make a move up the AFC South table, where a lot of space still seems to separate the Jags from the rest.


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