by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Following is our preview of the AFC South, with teams as always presented in order of predicted finish.  Straight-up, pointspread, and "over/under" records for 2015 are included...

Chalk another up to super-agent Jimmy Sexton, whose stable of clients includes a near-quorum on SEC coaches. Plus several players, including QB Brock Osweiler, the key offseason addition for the Houston Texans (2015 SUR 9-8, PSR 9-8, O/U 8-8-1), who would surprisingly steal the AFC South last year despite a slow 2-5 break from the gate and starting four different QBs during the wild ride of 2015.

That, however, was before the offseason, when Osweiler was set to cash in on his stint as starting QB in Denver when Peyton Manning was sidelined for much of November and all of December. While most expected Osweiler to re-sign with the Super Bowl champion Broncos, Sexton was able to set the market price at a number that made John Elway blink. Not too rich, however, for Texans GM Rick Smith, who decided to bite on the 4 years at $72 million that Sexton was asking.


Now, the question is whether Houston, like many of those mega-rich owners at the annual Keeneland Yearling Sale, has greatly overpaid, not for a young colt but rather on a QB with only seven NFL starts under his belt. Still, whatever happens with Osweiler and the Texans, the winner in this deal was Sexton, whose status and reputation at the top of his profession was further burnished by the Osweiler negotiation.

While HC Bill O’Brien was able to slog through 2015 with Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden all starting games at QB, it was something neither O’Brien nor GM Smith wanted to endure again, especially after the Texans looked woefully deficient on offense with Hoyer (now with the Bears) at QB in a 30-0 Wild Card round loss to the Chiefs. So, rather than look to the draft for a longer-term answer at QB as did teams like the Rams and Eagles, the Texans opted for something pre-cooked in free-agency, where Osweiler was the biggest fish in a rather shallow offseason QB pond.

Note, however, that Osweiler was still a work in progress in Denver, and will prove an ongoing assignment for O’Brien, regarded as a shrewd QB tutor. But Osweiler, who passed for 1967 yards and 10 TDs in his seven starts, is hardly the only new face on the Houston roster. Indeed, many featured performers could have a different look, as besides Osweiler, RB Lamar Miller was lured from Miami in free agency and Notre Dame WR Will Fuller was Houston’s first-round pick in the draft.

Miller, on the Texans’ radar after running roughshod thru them with 185 YR, including an 85-yard TD run, in Miami’s 44-26 romp last October 25 (in retrospect the low-point of the Houston season), hopefully provides more stability and an upgrade at the RB spot that had to deal with Arian Foster’s many injuries in recent years. Miller’s speed will provide a nice complement to the power of ex-North Carolina Alfred Blue (698 YR LY) in what looks to be a very a capable 1-2 combo. Osweiler also has plenty of receiving targets, too, as the rookie Fuller looks to contribute as a secondary option opposite Pro Bowl WR DeAndre Hopkins, who caught a staggering 111 passes last season and might snag even more this fall if Fuller can draw some attention on the other side. Hopkins should also be a happy camper after inking an expensive new contract in the offseason.

O’Brien’s major concern at the moment is an OL that has run through a rash of injuries in preseason. Three projected starters (rookie C Nick Martin, a 2nd-round pick from Notre Dame, plus OTs Duane Brown and versatile Derek Newton, who can line up at every spot on the line except center) were all sidelined into late August. Martin’s high ankle sprain was considered the most serious injury and might require surgery. Along with the FA departures of G Brandon Brooks (to the Eagles) and C Ben Jones (to the Titans), the OL looms as O’Brien’s biggest worry entering the late stages of preseason.

Even with the various QBs and offensive turmoil last season, the Texans were able to get to the playoffs mostly because of their third-ranked defense, with vet coordinator Romeo Crennel adroitly moving players around the field as if they were pieces on a chess board. As usual, DE J.J. Watt, even battling thru groin, hand, and back injuries, was the headliner, but Houston’s pass rush had more bite thanks to long-awaited emergence of OLB Whitney Mercilus, who led the college ranks in sacks while at Illinois in 2011 and combined with Watt for 29 1/2 QB take-downs last season.

Practically everyone save DE Jared Crick (who signed with Denver) returns on the platoon that was able to benefit greatly from a healthy ILB Brian Cushing, who played his first full season in five years and contributed 110 tackles. Now, if former first overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney can ever shake his own injury demons, he could be the force many once envisioned of him at OLB, though he’s running out of time to prove his durability. Meanwhile, second-year Mississippi State product Bernardrick McKinney appears on his way to becoming a destroyer at ILB. Thick NT Vince Wilfork, a key FA signing last year from the Patriots, might be slowing down and is only a 2-down player at this stage of his career, but provides needed leadership. The pass defense ranked 3rd in the league a year ago and still features CBs Johnathon Joseph and Kareem Jackson, now entering their sixth season together.

A situation to watch involves Watt, who was still recovering from offseason back surgery in August and was not expected to play in the preseason, hoping to be ready for the regular-season opener on Sept. 11 vs. the Bears. Also note that O’Brien fired special teams coach Bob Ligashesky after spotty coverage on his units last season and allowing a long kick return TD by the Chiefs in the playoff loss. To replace Ligashesky, O’Brien has hired former Pro Bowl special teams ace Larry Izzo, which should at least keep the kicking game on its toes.

O’Brien, who has proven a shrewd hire by owner Bob McNair, looks to have more to work with than either of his first two editions, which both finished 9-7. With his defense likely the best platoon in the division, Houston appears a good bet to repeat in the AFC South, especially if Osweiler proves the upgrade expected at QB. We would also look “over” the posted season-win total of 8.5; note a comprehensive NFL season-wins preview will be our featured story in the TGS No. 2, available September 5.

Last December, lots of NFL insiders were giving Chuck Pagano about as much chance to remain as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts (2015 SUR 8-8; PSR 8-8; O/U 8-8) as were Usain Bolt’s competitors in the recent 200 meters race at the Rio Olympics.

But when the dust finally settled on a topsy-turvy campaign, and the Colts had fought back to .500, even as they finished the season with Josh Freeman and Ryan Lindley at QB, Pagano was rewarded with a new contract from unpredictable owner Jim Irsay. Which appeared unlikely late last season when rumors surfaced of deep rifts between Pagano and GM Ryan Grigson, and Irsay's reported failed courtship of Saints HC Sean Payton. Which makes Pagano (who had rejected a series of one-year contracts prior to 2015) seem like an NFL version of LSU's Les Miles heading into 2016.

Indeed, another bumpy ride like last season, which beyond the injuries and in-fighting would also include dismissing o.c. Pep Hamilton and his predictable play-calling at midseason, might be too much for even Bill or Hillary Clinton to survive, much less Pagano, contract extension or not.

Of course, just getting QB Andrew Luck back from the lacerated kidney that KO’d him last year at midseason would be a plus, though Luck endured an erratic term (partly due to other nagging hurts) before his 2015-ending injury. Ex-Browns HC Rob Chudzinski, promoted to o.c. midway last season after the dismissal of Hamilton, should certainly benefit from a healthy Luck.

Considering that Luck, plus backup QBs Matt Hasselbeck and Charlie Whitehurst, were all KO'd last fall, better protection is necessary, so upgrades along the OL (which could also spark a 29th-ranked infantry) were a priority in the draft for GM Grigson, who made Alabama C Ryan Kelly the first-round Indy pick. The third-round pick, massive Texas Tech OT La’Raven Clark, might also find his way into the lineup sometime this fall, and fifth round pick OT Joe Haeg from North Dakota State and seventh-round C Austin Blythe from Iowa are expected to make the roster as well. All part of adjustments made in the new offense installed by Chudzinski, who was forced to make do with a hybrid system thanks to all of the injuries after taking over from Hamilton early last November. New OL coach Joe Philbin, most recently the Dolphins' HC, will help implement the altered blocking schemes and tweaks in the passing game (including more underneath throws to let the speedy WRs have a chance to run with the ball), all part of the updated package that Chudzinski, who served as the HC of the Browns in 2013, brings to the table.

Among other issues last season were the aforementioned ground game that went nowhere even with FA addition Frank Gore, who was a mild disappointment (only 6 TDs) as the only credible overland threat. Gore remains the featured back but it is hoped offseason additions Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman, who have been fairly productive in early preseason work, can provide an extra spark.

Luck’s various injuries and the eventual merry-go-round at QB wreaked havoc with the passing game last fall, especially for TE Dwayne Allen, a red-zone force with 8 TD catches in 2014 but only one score a year ago. With Luck’s Stanford friend Coby Fleener off to New Orleans, Allen (who has missed 21 games the past four seasons due to injury) now has a shot to become the featured TE. Though Luck’s main targets likely remain explosive T.Y. Hilton, a likely beneficiary of the new Chudzkinski offense and a good bet to improve upon his 5 TDs last season, and the blossoming Donte Moncrief, the Ole Miss product who doubled his receptions (32 to 64) from his first to his second season.

Meanwhile, in case Luck goes down again, serviceable Scott Tolzien was signed as the backup and the successor to the veteran Hasselbeck, who retired.

Pagano’s defense also had injury issues a year ago, which had something to do with falling to a 26th overall ranking. Coordinator Greg Manusky was replaced by Ted Manchino, familiar to Pagano from the days both were on John Harbaugh’s staff in Baltimore. With Pagano’s blessing, Manchino is going to preach the old Ravens-style attack-attack-attack philosophy, and will likely do so out of the 3-4 looks utilized by Manusky but able to switch to 4-3 tendencies with various positional flexibility with most of his linemen. One of those, 4th-round pick Hassan Ridgeway from Texas, could play a variety of roles and also provide another impact element, which the “D” needs as vet LB Robert Mathis (at least 7 sacks in his last 11 full seasons, which does not count 2014) is the only established pass-rush force.

Speaking of Mathis, he’s still ticking at age 35, but the LB corps, while still relatively productive a year ago, is more than a bit long in the tooth, with four of the top five older than 30 (Mike Adams-35, Trent Cole-33, D’Qwell Jackson-32, plus Mathis), and leading tackler ILB Jerrell Freeman having moved to the Bears. There are some openings in the secondary after the departures of S Dwight Lowery & CB Greg Toler, though Indy does return Pro Bowlers at one corner (Vontae Davis) and strong safety (Mike Adams). Former Charger Patrick Robinson was added to fortify one corner spot, and 2nd-round pick T.J. Green, a free safety from Clemson, had already moved into the starting lineup.

Note, however, that a spate of preseason injuries at CB, including Robinson (groin) and Davis (ankle, could miss early regular-season action), prompted the emergency recent signing of ex-Jet CB Antonio Cromartie, a four-time Pro Bowler.

If there is an unquestioned strength on the team, it is the kicking game, where ageless PK Adam Vinatieri was as good as ever last season when connecting on 25 of 27 FG attempts, while P Pat McAfee remains state-of-the-art, with 28 punts downed inside of the opponent’s 20-yard line, and 67 of his 74 kickoffs good for touchbacks.

There are still some issues we see on the roster, including lack of balance on offense due to an iffy infantry diversion, and age creeping up on key members of the defense. Plus the fact that much looked wrong with Luck last season even before he was sat down for good due to the various injuries. A few have conjectured that Luck sometimes plays the game at such a high-tech speed that it is often works to his detriment, but if healthy should more resemble his 2014 form. Then there is HC Pagano, who is not entering 2016 on the firmest of footing. If the Colts miss the playoffs again, and don’t have an injury excuse as a year ago, the rumor mill is going to be whirring once more at Lucas Oil Stadium in December.

Technicians will note that Indy was 8-8 across the board last season...straight up, vs. the spread (including 4-4 both home and away), and over/under. No trendlines there!

What is the most important thing we have learned about the Jacksonville Jaguars (2015 SUR 5-11; PSR 7-9; O/U 10-6) from the first two preseason games? Well, if it’s not that the team is in big trouble if something happens to QB Blake Bortles, you’ve got quite a scoop.

To wit: In the Jags’ first two exhibitions, Bortles has played approximately 2 ½ quarters. And with him on the field, Jacksonville has outscored the Jets and Bucs by a combined 27-7. But in the 5 ½ quarters in which Bortles was not in the games, the Jags have been pounded by a combined 44-7 count. And those 7 points for J’ville were not scored by the offense, rather by the defense on an interception return. Safe to say, then, that backup QBs Chad Henne and Arkansas rookie Brandon Allen are not going to get their names called in many upcoming fantasy drafts.

So, while it can be argued, rightly so, that preseason results usually don’t mean anything, in some cases they do. And in the Jags’ case, they confirm that Bortles is obviously their strength...and the QB position is also the team’s Achilles heel should anything happen to the former UCF star.

On the plus side, barring injury (heaven forbid!), Bortles figure to be in the games all of the time once the regular season begins. Which is good news for fourth-year HC Gus Bradley, now feeling real heat from owner Shad Khan to deliver some positive results after three years of rebuilding. With only twelve wins since 2013, however, Bradley has used up all of his mulligans with the mustachioed owner, who has been known to be impatient with his sports franchises, as he was a few years ago with his English soccer side Fulham, which went through three different managers in Khan’s first year as the supremo. The win-now edict also applies to GM David Caldwell, like Bradley in his fourth year on the job.

While the offense figures to be fine as long as Bortles, and not Henne or the rookie Allen, takes the snaps, the fates of Bradley and Caldwell likely rest upon improvement from a defense that finished far up the track in most relevant stat categories last season, including the all-important points allowed, when only the Saints conceded more than the whopping 448 points scored by J’ville opponents. The Jags also ranked 31st in third-down defense; ranking 31st in points allowed and third-down conversions is not a combination that suggests a playoff run.

Thus, GM Caldwell’s assignment in the offseason was rather well-defined as he looked long and far for upgrades to his defense. The Jags, who have whiffed on some of their free agent signees in recent years, would no surprise invest more heavily in the offseason on the stop unit, though did have enough salary room to sign OT Kelvin Beachum from the Steelers and RB Chris Ivory from the Jets. The major FA prize was ex-Broncos DT Malik Jackson, who scored the first TD in Super Bowl 50, but could not be protected by Denver, which franchised LB Von Miller instead (before inking Miller to a long-term deal in the summer). After already addressing the DL (Jackson) and secondary (ex-Giant CB Prince Amukamara) in free agency, Caldwell continued the “D” theme at the draft, going defense with his first five picks, including potential immediate impact performers Florida State CB Jalen Ramsey with the number five overall pick and UCLA LB Myles Jack, who projected high in the first round prior to a knee injury last season, early in the second round. Along with 2015 top pick DE Dante Fowler, Jr., who didn’t play at all last season due to an ACL tear, there is certainly more blue-chip talent at the disposal of new d.c. Tom Wash, promoted from DL coach after Bob Babich was relieved of duties following last year’s defensive mess.

Health, however, is going to be a key for the platoon, with the returns of Fowler and Jack from last year’s knee injuries bearing scrutiny. Top pick Ramsey also tore a meniscus in offseason work and was held out of early preseason action, though is expected to be ready in September. Ex-Auburn DT Sen’Derrick Marks also missed most of last season with a torn triceps. Also, note that CB Aaron Colvin will miss the first four games due to suspension, so it remains to be seen if and when Wash will have all hands on deck in the fall.

Several of those mentioned are potential building blocks for the defense, as are key holdovers such as LBs Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith and SS Jonathan Cyprien, who combined for over 350 tackles last season. By adding DT Jackson and CB Amukamara, the Jags have what looks like the makings of a competent stop unit in which over half of the starters could be free agent signees, rookies, or near-rookies (in the case of Fowler).

Still, a lot of heavy lifting is expected to be done by the offense, in particular the promising Bortles, whose 35 TD passes last fall ranked behind only Tom Brady. Entering his third season, Bortles appears on the verge of achieving elite-level status if he can cut down on his mistakes, especially the interceptions (35 over his first two seasons, 18 of those a year ago).

The weaponry, especially the receiving corps, is playoff-quality. Wideouts Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, like Bortles entering their third years, combined for 144 receptions and 24 TDs a year ago. Another third-year target, ex-Southern Cal Marquis Lee, is the best deep threat on the roster if he can stay healthy, which has been tough the past two seasons when he missed a combined nine games. Ex-Bronco Julius Thomas and vet Marcedes Lewis provide one of the best TE combos in the AFC.

Meanwhile, the Jags added last year’s top rusher in the AFC when inking ex-Jet Ivory, who motored for 1070 YR in 2015, and provides the other half of what should be a potent 1-2 combo with second-year ex-Bama T.J. Yeldon (740 YR as a rookie in 2015). Like the rest of the offense, the line is also maturing, but must accelerate its progress after allowing 51 sacks a year ago. The signing of ex-Steeler LT Beachum was the only significant offseason addition along the OL, though Beachum is still working his way back from ACL surgery with the hope of being available for the opener vs. the Packers.

Add it up, and the Jags rate as a chic darkhorse in the AFC. If the pieces fit together a playoff run is not out of the question. But if J’ville flounders again, don’t be surprised if some coach other than Gus Bradley is pulling the strings in 2017.

There has not been much to cheer about for several seasons with the Tennessee Titans (2015 SUR 3-13; PSR 6-10; U/U 10-6). Also known as AARP's favorite team, with HC Mike Mularkey's coaching staff mostly eligible to begin receiving Social Security benefits before the end of the year.

Just one of several curiosities of the Titans, whose control has bounced between various heirs of Bud Adams since the franchise patriarch passed away in 2013, and now prompting the NFL to subtly seek new leadership in Nashville. Which in the near future could possibly include Peyton Manning as part of a new ownership group. Stay tuned for further developments.

Meanwhile, new GM Jon Robinson (with front office experience in New England and Tampa Bay) seems to be acting responsibly and engineered quite a deal before the draft, trading away the top pick to the Rams, flip-flopping with L.A. in the first round and adding a haul of picks in later rounds plus the Rams’ top choice in 2017. The Titans, who were not desperate for a QB (as were the Rams) after picking Oregon Heisman winner Marcus Mariota with the top pick in 2015, thus seemed to do a good bit of business, with four of the top 45 picks in the 2016 draft (more on some of those selections in a moment).

Well before the draft, the appointment of Kevin Costner look-alike Mularkey as head coach raised a few eyebrows and brought into focus some of the questions the league brass has about the current ownership in Music City. Mularkey took over as the interim HC for the dismissed Ken Whisenhunt (not even given 1 ½ years on the job) just prior to the midway point of last season and promptly qualified for breakfast on the house at the famous local Pancake Pantry when upsetting the Saints in his first game before dropping 7 of 8 to close the season, hardly the sort of audition that should have qualified for consideration to take the job on a full-time basis. Especially since Mularkey, given little chance by most AFC observers, has seemed the quintessential career assistant, having developed a good reputation as an offensive coach but failing in two previous head-coaching assignments with the Bills and Jags. The Adams heirs, however, were apparently fond of the personable Mularkey and decided that the third time might be the charm and that he should remain in charge after a brief but intriguing courtship of Chip Kelly, who was the coach at Oregon when Mariota began his college career. (Kelly, dismissed late last season by the Eagles, would land with the 49ers shortly thereafter.)

Credit Mularkey, however, for apparently putting in motion what appears to be a throwback element after last year’s impotent strike (out?) force ranked a lowly 30trh in total offense, barely gaining 300 yards per game. But if early preseason action is any indicator, Mularkey appears to have adopted a ground-and-pound philosophy on the attack end featuring a “Thunder and Thunder” new backfield of ex-Cowboy and Eagle DeMarco Murray (acquired via offseason trade with Philly) and Bama Heisman winner Derrick Henry, who might end up being quite a steal after being taken with Tennessee’s third pick in the second round, and 45th overall. The new backs promptly spearheaded a 288-yard rushing onslaught in the preseason opener vs. the Chargers, with Murray providing the highlight-reel play of the night with a 71-yard TD run. Things weren’t quite as productive in the subsequent 26-16 loss to the Panthers but the new blueprint is no secret, as the Titans are going to be hellbent on establishing the run in the fall.

While Mularkey seems to have the runners to play smashmouth, we’re not sure he has the OL. Though GM Robinson, in other shrewd offseason moves, sought to upgrade the forward wall by signing FA C Ben Jones from the Texans and taking Michigan State OT Jack Conklin, who has already claimed the starting RT position, with the first-round pick in the draft at the Rams’ former 15 spot. Still, there is a long way to go for a line that might have been the NFL’s worst a season ago, when among other things it could not protect QBs Mariota or Zack Mettenberger (who has since moved to San Diego) surrendering a whopping 54 sacks. (Should Mariota go down again as he did for a time last fall, vet Matt Cassel was signed as an upgrade for the backup QB role.)

As for Mariota, he flashed plenty of upside during his first season but remains a work in progress after throwing 19 TDP and 10 picks as a rookie. It is hoped that a modest receiving corps received a boost by signing FA WR Rishard Mathhews (43 catches LY) from the Dolphins, though the staff has given up on once-touted Dorial Green-Beckham, traded to the Eagles in August. Underrated TE Delanie Walker, with 94 catches LY, remains the most reliable target.

The defense is now the full responsibility of sage vet coordinator Dick LeBeau, who gets to call all of the shots this fall after sharing the stage with Ray Horton, who moved to Cleveland as the d.c. for Hue Jackson’s new staff. The first order of business in the offseason was overhauling a secondary which picked off only 11 passes a year ago. A couple of CBs with past LeBeau connections, Antwon Blake and Brice McCain, were added in free agency to compete with holdovers Jason McCourty, who missed all but four games with a groin injury last year, and Perrish Cox, who has been nursing a sprained ankle in August. Ex-Card Rashad Johsnon was signed in free agency as a short-term fix at FS after long-time S Michael Griffin was released.

LeBeau figures to be full-steam ahead with his patented zone blitzes that should be a boon for a LB crew featuring pass-rush specialists Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan from the edge. ILBs Avery Williamson and Wesley Woodyard led the team in tackles last season. LeBeau also got plenty of mileage in his 3-4 looks a year ago by moving productive Jurell Casey to a DE spot and hopes that third-round pick NT Austin Jackson from Penn State can emerge an effective run clogger in the middle.

While the Mularkey experiment with an old-style offense intrigues, this smashmouth approach might prove no more effective than the Wing-T that Marv Levy briefly utilized in the late ‘70s with the Chiefs. The NFL is even more of a QB league than it was four decades ago, and we are not sure how far the Titans can advance unless Mariota and the passing game function at modern levels. For the moment, we remain unconvinced, and while Tennessee might be more interesting to watch than a year ago, the playoff drought that extends back to the Jeff Fisher era in 2008 will likely continue for at last another year in Nashville.

Spread-wise, note that the Titans have offered little spread value the past few years, with a lowly 9-27-1 mark vs. the number since late in the 2013 season (Mularkey was only 2-7 vs. the line in his nine games last season).


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