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Examining The Odds: AFC South

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It’s the opening week of OTA, and as NFL teams around the league begin the long and arduous journey through the summer and into the season around the corner, we’re analyzing how each division across the league looks heading into the summer.

We began with the AFC East, where the Las Vegas oddsmakers are sticking with the Patriots, and pushing some pretty strong odds against the other three teams. In the AFC North, it’s a three-team race with just fractions separating the trio of Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and it’s anyone’s guess how that plays out.

Now it’s on to the AFC South, a division that, much like the AFC East, has a clear favorite in Indianapolis, followed distantly by a pair of other teams that are still distant from contention. But there is one team in reach of the crown in the South that could conceivably knock the Colts from their throne.

THE FAVORITE
Indianapolis Colts 1:5

No team in the NFL is more heavily favored to win their division than the Colts, and it’s for good reason. Indianapolis has dominated the South for the last two seasons. They won the division by four full games in 2013 and took it by two last season. They’re clearly a franchise on the rise, led by a vaunted offense and one of the league’s best quarterbacks, Andrew Luck.

Indianapolis ranked third in the league on offense last season, thanks to the league’s most productive passing attack. But that didn’t stop them from adding to Luck’s arsenal with the free agent signing of wide receiver Andre Johnson away from the division rival Houston Texans as well as the selection of wide receiver Phillip Dorsett, one of the fastest players in the draft. The duo will team with emerging star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, 2014 third round receiver Donte Moncrief and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen to create the deepest aerial attack in the NFL. The Indy offense was dragged down last season by a running game that could never get going, but they addressed that when they signed free agent Frank Gore. Gore will lead a committee that also includes Dan “Boom” Herron and rookie sixth round pick Josh Robinson. But for that group to produce, the Colts will have to get more out of their, especially offseason acquisition Todd Herremans, who has to stay healthy for the running game to have any more success in 2015.

The Colts also made some big moves to upgrade their defense in free agency, particularly up front where they added defensive tackle Kendall Langford and pass rusher Trent Cole. Those two should bolster a front seven that lacked push and led Indianapolis to rank in the middle of the pack against the pass and the run last season. On the back end of the Indy defense, cornerback Vontae Davis and strong safety Mike Adams are among the league’s best at their positions. Indy also added Dwight Lowery to steady the free safety spot. But while the Colts have depth in the secondary, they didn’t get the youthful infusion of talent many had projected for them in the secondary until the third round of the draft. That leaves their defense as one of the league’s oldest and most suspect.

By most accounts, Indianapolis has gotten better this offseason, priming them to continue on as a juggernaut atop the division. However, the age of their offseason acquisitions is a symptom of the major concern looming over the Colts entering a season when they’re expected to contend for a championship. Though they are spearheaded by arguably the best young quarterback-receiver duo in the league, Indianapolis is an old team and in a league where aging players fall off a cliff fast, that makes them vulnerable.

BEST CHANCE TO CHALLENGE
Houston Texans 7:2

While the Colts have been thriving over the last two seasons, the Houston Texans have been lingering behind them working to rebuild their roster in short order. The Texans are only two years removed from repeating as AFC South champions themselves in 2011 and 2012. Although a disaster of a season in 2013 saw them finish 2-14, rather than take years to rebuild as others in their division have, Houston quickly bounced back to serve as Indianapolis’ closest competitor last season on the way to a much improved 9-7 mark. Like the Colts, the Texans spent the offseason plotting ways to improve that mark and Houston appears to be positioned to make a run at reclaiming the AFC South title in 2015.

While the Colts are built on offense, defense is where the Texans thrive. That unit is led by the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, J.J. Watt. Any team with Watt is going to wreak havoc on an opposing offense, but Houston also has one of the best secondaries in the NFL, including two playmaking cornerbacks in Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. They bolstered their defensive backfield with the addition of safety Rahim Moore and first round corner Kevin Johnson, two moves that should make the league’s sixth ranked pass coverage defense and third ranked pass rush even better. The Texans did struggle somewhat against the run in 2014. However, they addressed that by bringing in one of the league’s best run stuffers, former Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. If Houston can also get 2014 first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney on track after a lost rookie season, they could have the league’s best defense in 2015

However, the Texans will be hard pressed to challenge the Colts for division supremacy without some major gains on offense in 2015. One thing they can count on is a potent ground attack. Running back Arian Foster gets the bulk of the credit for that, but the Houston offensive line deserves their fair share as well. The Texans front five, which remains mostly intact entering this season, was ranked fifth best in the NFL last season, including third in run blocking rating by PFF. They also ranked 12th in pass blocking, which doesn’t speak well of a Houston stable of quarterbacks that finished 24th in passing yards per game last season despite that protection. Those passing numbers won’t be aided by the departure of Johnson, one of the most consistently productive receivers in the league over the last decade. In his stead, DeAndre Hopkins will have to step up and be the top target Houston believes he’s capable of being.

But for the Texans, success in 2015 season will come down to the production they can get out of the quarterback position. Houston knew they needed an upgrade at signal caller entering a campaign with playoff potential, and they did their best to get better by signing one of the top quarterbacks available in Brian Hoyer. Hoyer will compete with Ryan Mallett for the starting job and the Texans will need one of the two to at least be modestly productive to stand a chance of unseating Indianapolis in the South.

THE OTHER GUYS
Jacksonville Jaguars 20:1

The Jacksonville Jaguars have never won the AFC South and there is no reason to expect that to change this year. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be significantly better, making it more difficult on the teams ahead of them to dominate as they have in the past.

Jacksonville had the worst offense and the third worst defense in the league last year according to Pro Football Focus, but they took a few steps in the right direction through the addition of several high profile free agents and via the draft. Most notable among their free agent signings was tight end Julius Thomas, who gives second-year quarterback Blake Bortles a big target in the passing game to go with second-year receivers Allen Robinson and Marquise Lee. With a year under the belt of those two receivers and Bortles, some options in the running game in the emerging Denard Robinson and rookie T.J. Yeldon, and an improved offensive line, the Jaguars offense should take a significant step forward this season.

Defensively, the Jags have some pieces, but also plenty of work to do and they’ll have to overcome injuries to hit their ceiling. First round draft pick Dexter Fowler was expected to be a large part of their defense, but suffered a torn ACL and will miss the entire season. Last year’s breakout player on the Jacksonville defense, Sen’Derrick Marks is on his way back from a similar injury and his status for the start of the season is in doubt. The addition of underrated former Dolphins defensive lineman Jared Odrick should help, and the Jags also made some key moves to upgrade their linebacking corps and their secondary, which should keep them in games.

Jacksonville is currently in the midst of the league’s longest rebuilding process, 2014 marking their seventh straight year without a winning record. That’s thanks in large part to the franchise hitting the reset button on their initial rebuild after a particularly woeful 2-14 season in 2012. The franchise has been trending upward since the reset, under the guidance of general manager Dave Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley, though the team lost more games last year than in the first year under the two. With an improved offense and defense, the Jaguars should win a few more contests and make their matchups with Indianapolis and Houston more competitive, which could lead the gap between the haves and have-nots in the division to close up a bit.

DON’T TAKE THESE ODDS
Tennessee Titans 25:1

Like Jacksonville, Tennessee ranked near the bottom of the NFL last season in both offense and defense with a tremendous number of holes to fill. The Titans also exhibited a similar willingness to spend to improve this offseason, but they lack the direction and patience of the Jaguars. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt has seemingly been on the hot seat from the moment he took the job and now has to start from scratch on offense, which likely leaves them doomed to repeat at the bottom of the division, at least for this season.

How much the offense can improve, after ranking 29th in the league last year in yards per game, will depend on how quickly rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota adjusts to the NFL. Mariota does have some weapons in the passing attack with Kendall Wright, Justin Hunter as well as offseason additions Harry Douglas, Hakeem Nicks and draft pick Dorial Green-Beckham, but the Titans will need some major improvements on the offensive line and for someone to emerge out of the running game for Mariota and the offense to have a chance at success.

Tennessee’s outlook is slightly better on defense thanks to their best offseason acquisition, defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, who will give Titans some purpose on that end. Tennessee furnished Lebeau with some high profile signings for his defense, including the talented but oft injured linebacker Brian Orakpo and one of the league’s better strong safeties in Da’Norris Searcy. Re-signing Derrick Morgan to pair with Orakpo should help them get after the quarterback, but the defense is still weak in the trenches and up the middle, and Lebeau has his work cut out for him with this group.

With both the offense and the defense in the early stages of rebuilding and retooling, the best bet is to stay away from the Titans in 2015.

TAKE THESE ODDS
Houston Texans 7:2

Because the Colts are so heavily favored and the Jaguars and Titans are both still so far away, the only team worth taking a shot on in the South is Houston. Led by Watt, the Texans have the talent on defense to carry them a long way this season. The personnel is also there on offense. It’s  just a question of what they can get out of their quarterbacks, and in that regard they’re positioned more strongly with Hoyer than they have been in a few years. Remember, this a franchise that won back to back division titles with Matt Schaub as the quarterback. So while Indianapolis is likely to three-peat atop the South, take a long look at Houston this summer before making a final choice.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys