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TGS 2014 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW...A LOOK AT THE AFC SOUTH
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Throughout the month of August, TGS will be previewing each of the NFL division races for 2014, as well as providing a QB depth chart for the preseason games that continue Thursday, August 21. Next up for our previews will be the AFC South, presented in order of predicted finish, with 2013 straight-up, pointspread, and "over/under" records included...

It can be effectively argued that the Indianapolis Colts (20-13 SUR 12-6; PSR 10-7-1; O/U 10-8) won last year?s AFC South by default. After all, each other division member finished beneath .500. While the road to the playoffs will not be paved as smoothly every year, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Indy might be able to back its way into the postseason if necessary...a nice safety net in case the team regresses from last year?s 11-5 regular-season mark.

The Colts, however, have bigger things on their minds than winning the AFC South. After making the playoffs as the final qualifier (and losing in the Wild Card round) two years ago, Indy would win the South last season and advance to the Division Round before running into a rampant New England. That sort of progression would suggest the Colts could be expected to advance to the AFC title game this fall.

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Of course, such season-to-season trends are dubious at best. But there is a lot for Indy to be excited about as it enters the third year of the Andrew Luck era at Lucas Oil Stadium. The next hurdle will be to prove that the Colts belong with the Patriots and Broncos as serious AFC Super Bowl contenders.

The ?Luck Show? continued last season in not only the second year for the ex-Stanford QB but also Year Two of the Chuck Pagano regime. Fortunately, Pagano and the Colts did not have to deal with the coach?s cancer treatments that disrupted much of the previous 2012 campaign. Along the way, Pagano has proven an awfully nice fit as a head coach, a transition that has not always proven easy for many decorated platoon coordinators (Pagano was a well-regarded d.c. with the Ravens before tanking the Indy job).

Unfortunately for the organization, it has run into more off-field difficulties since the conclusion of last season, although instead of the head coach?s health issues they would involve owner Jim Irsay, arrested on felony charges after being stopped on suspicion of drunk driving March 16. Subsequently entering drug and alcohol rehab, Irsay has turned day-to-day operation of the organization to his daughter Carrie as he awaits a court date, which has been pushed back to early October after originally scheduled for late August. Many around the league are keeping a close eye on proceedings and what, if any, punishment NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell might deem appropriate from league offices. Most eyes will be on Goodell to see if he treats Irsay?s indiscretions the same as he might for a player. Stay tuned.

Irsay, however, is someone the Colts could do without (really), and most believe his problems will not cause much disruption to the on-field operation. Irsay has much less to do with wins and losses than either Luck or Pagano, the real center pieces in the quick Indy reload from the Peyton Manning era.

Luck has been even better than advertised, a neat trick for a number one overall draft pick. A year ago, Luck mostly cut out the mistakes from his 2012 rookie season, when he tossed 18 interceptions, guilty of only nine picks in 2013, though he was victimized in the two playoff games when tossing a combined seven interceptions. The four tossed against the Patriots in the Division Round were too much to overcome; the three in the Wild Card Round vs. the Chiefs were not enough to prevent a breathless Indy rally from a 38-10 third-quarter deficit, as Luck would finish with 4 TD passes and 436 yards through the air as the Colts scored a remarkable 45-44 win.

AFC insiders, however, are correct to wonder about the direction of the offense under second-year coordinator Pep Hamilton, who arrived a year ago from Luck?s Stanford while replacing the sage Bruce Arians, who took the HC job with the Cards. Much like Stanford HC David Shaw, Hamilton wants to stress a power run game with the Colts, and it was not lost on observers that the Indy offense worked best when the Hamilton?s preferred style was ditched and the reins were taken off of Luck, as was the case in the playoff win over the Chiefs and rallying to within striking distance of the Patriots in the next round.

Help from the infantry is always welcome, but there are plenty of questions being asked about RB Trent Richardson, the former Brown who cost Indy a first-round draft pick last September and proved quite ineffective in his debut at Lucas Oil, gaining just 2.9 ypc. The departure of leading rusher Donald Brown (FA Chargers) gives Richardson a chance at more carries and an opportunity to prove last year?s flop was just a fluke. In case it wasn?t, however, ex-Giant Ahmad Bradshaw is now around the provide effective cover in the backfield.

No one is calling WR T.Y. Hilton a fluke, however, after he heroically stepped into the breach following Reggie Wayne?s season-ending knee injury and proceeded to catch 82 passes for nearly 1100 yards. The return of a healthy Wayne, along with FA signee Hakeem Nicks from the Giants, suddenly makes the wideout position one of strength and provides extra outlets for Luck, who isn?t complaining. Despite not having Wayne for much of 2013, as well as injured TE Dwayne Allen (who when healthy forms a nice 1-2 at the position with Luck?s former Stanford buddy Coby Fleener), Luck still increased his completion percentage in 2013. And, as mentioned earlier, also cut his regular-season interception total in half. Better play from the interior OL, however, will be a must if o.c. Hamilton rellly wants to develop the ground game as an effective diversion for Luck.

A reference back to those playoff games last January, however, uncovers the real concern for the Colts ascending to the elite level of the AFC. It?s defense, or lack thereof, painfully exposed in the playoffs by Kansas City and New England and still not breathing the sort of fire that many envisioned when Pagano was hired two years ago. Rush defense, in particular, has been very ginger, ranking 26th and 29th, respectively, the past two seasons.

To that end, GM Ryan Grigson actively recruited potential upgrades in the offseason, enlisting ex-Browns LB D?Qwell Jackson and ex-Ravens DE Arthur Jones to hopefully fortify the front seven. Grigson has been looking for better fits to Pagano?s 3-4 scheme that puts more of a premium on size up front and pressure from the linebackers than in the old 4-3 looks that Colt defenses had been running for years. Some improvements were noted last season, especially OLB Robert Mathis, whose 19 ½ sacks led the NFL. Mathis, however, will be sidelined by league suspension due to banned substances, for the first four games this September, which at the outset will put more pressure on former Florida State Seminole Bjoern Werner, still adjusting to his new OLB role after playing DE in college and having struggled in his rookie campaign.

The secondary bears some of the responsibility for the defensive collapse in the playoffs, too. Re-signing CB Vontae Davis was considered an important move, though he and vet FS LaRon Landry could use some help. If new DE Jones can provide added pass rush pressure, as expected, that could solve some of the problems.

Even with those defensive concerns last season, Indy galloped away almost Secretariat-style in the South. Unless a challenger emerges within the division, much the same could happen this fall. We suspect we?ll find out in January if the defense has improved enough to make a deeper playoff run than the past two years. With Luck, we already know Indy has enough offense to beat anybody.


Perhaps as an ode to late owner Bud Adams, the Tennessee Titans (SUR 7-9; PSR 6-9-1; O/U 10-6) honored the memory of their former patriarch by switching coaches almost as soon as Adams passed last October. Just over two months later, HC Mike Munchak was dismissed, much as Adams used to do to his coaches with regularity while the franchise was known as the Houston Oilers. Though, to be fair, in his later years Adams was not nearly as impatient with his employees, and in fact kept Jeff Fisher employed as coach for 17 years.

(The Titans organization is now controlled by Adams? offspring, a consortium of daughter Susan and her husband Tommy Smith, who serves as CEO, daughter Amy Adams Strunk, and grandson Kenneth Adams IV.)

A new era of Titans football was thus christened in January with the hiring of Ken Whisenhunt, most recently the o.c. of the Chargers but previously the HC of the Cardinals between 2007-12 (and before that the o.c. with the Steelers). While in Arizona he was the only coach to lead the Bidwills to a Super Bowl, and indeed looked to be on his way to a secure future in the Valley of the Sun before the operation began to unravel after the retirement of QB Kurt Warner. Whisenhunt, who had turned to Warner almost in desperation after his inherited QB, Matt Leinart, proved such a flop, never got the QB equation right thereafter, contributing to the demise of his regime in the desert. Whisenhunt, though, remains well-regarded, and was the subject of a bidding war in the offseason as the Lions and Browns also actively recruited the Georgia Tech alum.

(We suspect Whisnhunt?s wife Alice might have had a bit to do with the eventual choice of Nashville and its appealing Cool Springs Mall, while Whisenhunt?s accountant didn?t have to remind the coach that there is no state income tax in Tennessee, either.)

AFC South observers have been quick to note a difference in the Titans camp, which has been a lot more organized with Whisenhunt than it was for predecessor Munchak. Indeed, Munchak was learning on the job in his first head coaching assignment, with several bumpy patches along the way. Insiders and scouts are unanimous in their belief that the entire Tennessee football operation seems to be operating more smoothly for Whisenhunt.

Now, can that translate to wins?

Much depends upon the health of oft-injured QB Jake Locker, who has found it difficult to stay in one piece throughout his career, both in college at Washington and with the Titans. Locker started just 18 of 32 games over the 2012 and 2013 seasons, as injuries to his foot, hip and shoulder kept Jake out of the lineup almost half the time. Those recurring maladies (a risk of Locker's fearless, physical, RB-like mentality and style) and the coaching change suggest that Locker is running out of chances in Nashville, which is one reason his contract hasn?t been extended beyond 2014, as the club has declined to exercise an option for 2015. If Locker is to be the long-range QB answer for the Titans, he has to prove so this fall.

That might not be easy. An offense that has relied on the athleticism of Steve McNair, Vince Young, and Locker over the past decade now shifts to the Whisenhunt model of balance, precision passing, and limiting of turnovers. Locker remains a superior athlete, good improvisor, and on-field leader. But back to his frosh college season at Washington in 2007, only once has he completed better than 60% of his passes in a season (60.7% in limited work a year ago). He?ll have to improve those numbers considerably, and prove he can stay healthy, for the Titans to reinvest in him. Already, strong-armed LSU rookie Zach Mettenberger, a possible steal in the sixth round of the draft, is looking like a possible long-term fit for the Whisenhunt offense after impressive preseason work that included 20 completions in 25 attempts vs. the Saints on August 15. With Ryan Fitzpatrick off to Houston, and journeyman FA addition Charlie Whitehurt a short-term alternative at best, the Mettenberger era might be coming soon to Nashville.

Locker will also have to proceed without RB Chris Johnson, a longtime staple of Titan offenses, who was released in the offseason before landing with the Jets. A committee of backs, led by a former Jet, Shonn Greene (check status after nicking his knee in the Aug. 15 game vs. the Saints), who disappointed in limited work last season, is expected to handle the infantry chores that will also likely feature another ex-Washington Husky, rookie Bishop Sankey, who can dance between the tackles, as well as ex-Chief Dexter McCluster, one of Tennessee?s featured FA signings who could be used much the way Whistenhunt utilized Danny Woodhead, who caught 106 passes for the ?Coach Wiz? offense in San Diego last season.

The receiving targets are mostly familiar, with Kendall Wright (94 catches last season) and Nate Washington (58 receptions in 2013) still in the fold. Whisenhunt will be looking for both to make their catches count a bit more after combining for only 5 TDs on their 142 receptions a year ago.

Improvement along the OL will also be mandatory if the Titans want to get back above .500, and GM Ruston Webster focused much of his offseason activity on OL upgrades, inking decorated RT Michael (?Blind Side?) Oher from the Ravens as well as tabbing Michigan T Taylor Lewan with the 11th pick in the first round of the draft after RG Chance Warmack was selected with a first-round pick in 2013. They?ll be expected to revamp the run blocking and solidify the pocket for Locker. Without those upgrades, it is doubtful Tennessee can improve upon its 7 wins from last season.

Whisenhunt used his old Arizona connections to fill out his staff. Fortuitously, that would include d.c. Ray Horton, who held the same position for Wiz in the desert and when last seen was working magic with the Cleveland defense last season before being part of the latest purge of the Browns coaching staff by impetuous owner Jimmy Haslam. Horton, a longtime devotee of 3-4 looks, will thus change the Titan scheme that has been 4-3 dating to the franchise?s later days in Houston.

Fortunately for Horton, LBs Shaun Phillips (FA Denver) and Kamerion Wimbley have spent much of their pro careers standing up on the edge. It is also hoped that Akeem Ayers, who thrived in the 3-4 during his college days at UCLA, will adapt quickly to the new alignments after injury problems the past few years. Former DE Derrick Morgan will shift to an OLB spot for the first time in his career. At the inside LB spots, another FA via the Broncos, former Kentucky star Wesley Woodyard, could also provide an upgrade and is expected to help the run defense. The shift to a 3-4 also slightly changes the dynamics for DT Jurrell Casey, who was disruptive as an interior pass rusher in 2013 when recording 10 ½ sacks, but will have to assume a role of tying up more blockers in Horton?s 3-4 scheme.

Horton also inherits a pass ?D? that was slightly above average a year ago but must replace playmaking CB Alterraun Verner, who moved to the Bucs in free agency. The battle for Verner?s vacated RCB spot opposite Jason McCourty on the other side of the field has been one of the featured battles of training camp, with holdovers Coty Sensabaugh and Blidi Wreh-Wilson back-and-forth in the fight for a starting job. The other secondary positions remain set from 2013, featuring hard-hitting safeties Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin.

Whisenhunt is also auditioning new kickers after longtime PK Rob Bironas, who effectiveness beyond 40 yards had been in decline, was released. Whisenhunt will be likely watching the waiver wire closely in the next two weeks if last year?s camp leg, ex-South Florida. Maikon Bonani, or FA rookie (and another Washington Husky) Travis Coons don?t impress in the remaining preseason games.

There are several question marks regarding the Titans, beginning with Locker?s durability, making it risky to forecast them as a playoff contender. But we view Whisenhunt as an upgrade from Munchak on the sidelines, and the nucleus of talent (especially a healthy Locker) suggests a breakthrough is not impossible. Which is why we like Tennessee more than the Jags or Texans...though Nashville folk are likely to be watching Vanderbilt basketball rather than any Titans playoff action come January.


At this time last year we and many others were talking about the Houston Texans (2-14 SUR 2-14, PSR 4-12, O/U 9-7) as a serious Super Bowl contender. And why not, after the Texans had won the AFC South and qualifying for the playoffs each of the previous two years, winning their first postseason game (both vs. the Bengals) in each season? But last year?s Houston Super Bowl projections turned out to be as off the mark as the those of Rudy Giuliani as a one-time shoe-in for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008.

Instead, the bottom would drop out of the Texans season in the NFL equivalent of the 1929 stock market crash. After winning their first two games, Houston dropped a staggering 14 in a row. In the process it fired longtime head coach Gary Kubiak but did receive one benefit with the first pick in the May draft at Radio City Music Hall, an honor nobody thought would belong to Houston prior to last season. More on that in a moment.

Some believe that the Texans? 2013 season could have taken a completely different course had Houston held on to a late 20-13 lead in Week Four at home vs. the Seahawks. Instead, QB Matt Schaub was victimized for a pick-six by notorious Seahawk CB Richard Sherman, and the Texans would lose the game in overtime. Things were never the same thereafter, especially for Schaub, who would endure a disastrous campaign filled with similar costly mistakes. Along the way, Kubiak would even suffer a mild stroke on the sideline when the Texans had one last chance to salvage their season in a midseason Sunday night game at Reliant (now NRG) Stadium against the Colts. But a 24-6 halftime lead would vanish in a 27-24 loss and the Texans kept losing the rest of the way. Kubiak would return to coaching duties a few weeks later, but after a desultory Thursday night loss at Jacksonville in early December, owner Bob McNair put compassion aside and canned Kubiak before the destruction of the season was complete.

From the smoldering wreckage of 2013 comes a new era under the guidance of former Penn State HC Bill O?Brien, whose NFL chops were established in a previous role as Bill Belichick?s o.c. at New England. O?Brien kept the Nittany Lions afloat in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal and Joe Paterno dismissal, earning accolades from all over the gridiron map.

The decision to move Schaub (10 TDP and 14 picks in 2013) to Oakland after last year?s debacle was not unexpected, although some believed that O?Brien and GM Rick Smith would be a little more aggressive in their search for a new QB instead of settling upon former Bills and Titans warhorse Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose limitations have been demonstrated repeatedly (such as being guilty of 81 turnovers the past four seasons) and serves as little more than a serviceable option at this stage of his career. Smith and O?Brien did not select a QB in the draft until the fourth round when they tabbed Pitt?s Tom Savage, a clear developmental project. Holdover Case Keenum, who started five games in place of an injured Schaub last season, is the next option beyond Fitzpatrick, though there has been recent speculation that Keenum could be targeted elsewhere by a team (perhaps Baltimore, where Gary Kubiak has surfaced as the o.c.) looking for backup QB help. In any event, the QB spot does not look to be a position of strength for the Texans.

With his offensive expertise, however, O?Brien is going to be expected to immediately jump-start an attack that scored only 17.2 ppg (ranking 31st) a year ago, and sources say he believes Fitzpatrick can execute the sort.of scheme (including a heavy dose of play-action) that the new coach envisions. It would help if RB Arian Foster would return to his former All-Pro form, but after averaging 373 touches from 2010 thru 2012, Foster finally broke down last season, suffering a back injury so severe it prompted talk of retirement. Foster is back for another go but has been limited by hamstring issues this summer, creating an opening for sorts such as ex-William & Mary star Jonathan Grimes and LSU rookie Alfred Blue (6th round) to make an impression.

Foster?s status is important because the focus of the O?Brien offense is a physical infantry component, based upon power blocking techniques and multiple TEs that are a departure from the zone-blocking schemes of the Kubiak years. The additions of second-round G Xavier Su?a-Filo (UCLA) and third-round blocking TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (Iowa) are consistent with this philosophy. It was no surprise that long-time TE Owen Daniels, known more as a receiver than a blocker, was allowed to walk in the offseason (eventually reuniting with Kubiak in Baltimore).

There is potential menace in the WR corps led by vet WR Andre Johnson, who shows little sign of slippage at age 33 and off his fourth 1400-yard receiving season a year ago, and ex-Clemson homerun threat DeAndre Hopkins, who flashed plenty of upside in his rookie campaign with 52 catches a year ago despite the Texans having severe QB issues.

There are fewer questions about a defense that would rank 7th overall for Wade Phillips last season and welcomes a new coordinator, Romeo Crennel (like O?Brien from the Bill Belichick tree), who will retain Phillips? 3-4 alignments. Although it was a collapse of the offense that was more responsible for last season?s meltdown, coaxing more big plays from the stop unit will be a priority for Crennel after the platoon forced just 11 turnovers, by far the lowest number in the league. Coupled with the 31 turnovers committed by the offense (which often resulted in bad field position situations for the defense), the resultant -20 TO margin made it almost impossible for the Texans to function effectively a year ago.

Still, the possibilities are tantalizing for an already-capable ?D? that added South Carolina?s Jadeveon Clowney with the first pick in the draft. Clowney and his NBA-like wingspan will be deployed at an OLB spot in the Crennel defense, and his potential as a significant irritant for opponents from the edge was confirmed in the second preseason game vs. Atlanta, as Clowney more than hinted at his possibilities as a destructive force when harassing QB Matt Ryan and disrupting the Falcon offense. With All-Pro DE and sackmeister J.J. Watt (who sat out the Falcon game but will return to action before the end of the preseason) providing pressure from the other edge, the potential for a frightening tandem exists. There will also be added benefit for 2012 first-round pick (Illinois) OLB Whitney Mercilus, who might not face a double-team all season.

The front seven has the potential to be special not just because of Clowney, Watt, and Mercilus, but also ILB Brian Cushing, who has missed 20 games over the past two seasons due to injury. A healthy Cushing seems to be the key ingredient for the Texan defense that allowed only 268 ypg when he was in the lineup last season, and 356 ypg in the nine games after he broke his leg. Cushing hasn?t been rushed into duty in the preseason but should be ready for the opener vs. the Redskins on September 7. Another rookie like Clowney, Notre Dame NT Louis Nix, figures into DL rotation.

The secondary underwent a bit of an overhaul in the offseason despite a deceiving No. 3 ranking in pass defense; too many big plays allowed, however, were reflected in a more-revealing No. 23 position in passer rating. Starters Kareem Jackson and Johnathon Joseph (held out early in preseason while recovering from a toe injury but likely to be ready for the opener vs. the Redskins) return for their fourth season together on the corners but will be working alongside a couple of new safeties, ex-Dolphin Chris Clemons and ex-Chief Kendrick Lewis, whose familiarity with the Crennel defense from their days together in Kansas City could be a plus.

Houston is a bit of a tough read, and we have our doubts about QB Fitzpatrick actually leading a revival. Still, there is no way as many things could go wrong as a year ago, and the defense could be a dominant, or near-dominant, platoon. Last year?s Super Bowl talk is a distant memory, but we would be surprised if the Texans wind up in the AFC South basement once more.


The future might be arriving sooner than expected for the win-hungry Jacksonville Jaguars (2013 SUR 4-12, PSR 6-10, O/U 8-7-1), who were threatening into last November to challenge the 2008 Detroit Lions' infamous 0-16 mark. But the Jags rallied to split their last eight games and confirm much of the promise that many see in well-regarded HC Gus Bradley, who moved to Jax after a stint as d.c. on Pete Carroll's Seattle staff, as well as GM Dave Caldwell, the former Falcons personnel chief who arrived in tandem with Bradley last year after mustachioed owner Shad Khan had hinted at much unpredictably when assuming control of the franchise in 2011.

Oh, about that ?future is now? stuff. We?re referring to first-round draftee (and third overall pick) QB Blake Bortles, who has long reminded us of a modern-day Roman Gabriel, and expected to eventually become the Jags? headliner. Conventional theory has suggested that holdover QB Chad Henne, retained instead of another ballyhooed draftee from a few years ago, Blaine Gabbert (now in San Francisco), would be keeping the signal-caller seat warm for Bortles until the former UCF star was ready to take the reins...whether that be midseason, late in the season, or maybe 2015.

Early preseason work, however, has suggested that Bortles (who completed 18 of 29 throws, displaying a rocket arm and velvet touch, without a pick, in his first two exhibitions) might be ready sooner rather than later. Though Bradley and o..c. Jedd Fisch are still not wavering from their plan to start Henne, there is a groundswell of support among Jacksonville backers to get Bortles into the lineup ASAP while also demanding more air time for girlfriend Lindsey Duke, who threatens to break all ?honey shot? and Instagram viewing records when the TV cameras locate her in the stands at Jags games this fall (let the race begin between Lindsey and A.J. McCarron?s now-wife Katherine Webb.) Interestingly, Bradley has been giving more first-team reps to Bortles as training camp and preseason have progressed. At some point, the QB job will belong to Bortles, as the Jags look forward to their first true franchise QB (unless one wants to consider former Jacksonville pilots Mark Brunell and/or David Garrard in that category).

Henne, however, has done nothing to lose the job in the summer, reportedly has the support in the clubhouse, and remains a serviceable alternative for the time being. Until further notice, he remains Bradley?s QB choice. Still, many shrewd observers would not be surprised to see Bortles in the starting lineup before Columbus Day...and for Lindsey Duke to begin gracing the covers of magazines and tabloids shortly thereafter.

There is a different look to the J?ville offense from recent years beyond the possibility of Bortles taking over at the QB spot. Longtime star RB Maurice Jones-Drew departed in free agency for Oakland, creating an opening in the backfield that will be filled at the outset by former Viking RB Toby Gerhart, a one-time Heisman runner-up from Stanford who has been stuck behind Adrian Peterson in Minnesota for the past few years. Durable and functional, many believe Gerhart can be a reliable every-down back, though he lacks much of MJD?s noted flair. Bortles? backfield mate at UCF, fellow rookie Storm Johnson, could also figure into the mix while Bradley and Fisch also devise more ways to get ex-Michigan QB Denard Robinson?s hands on the ball.

Bortles in the wings or not, there is still much improvement needed from an offense that ranked last in points scored (just 15.4 ppg) and almost last in yards (31st at 293 ypg) a year ago, is now minus MJD, and remains without once highly-touted and former first-round draftee WR Justin Blackmon, a deeply troubled sort who remains on indefinite league suspension (and highly unlikely to wear a Jags or any NFL uni this fall).

Bradley and Caldwell began to further re-shape the roster in the offseason, focusing upon several free agents from winning organizations whose exposure to the playoffs and Super Bowls, so the thought goes, could hopefully rub off on other Jag players. While remaking a leaky OL, Caldwell focused upon one such sort in ex-Broncos G Zane Beadles, who figures to provide an upgrade to the forward wall along with last year?s top draft pick, Luke Joeckel, who missed most of 2013 due to injury and has switched from RT to LT. Interestingly, only one OL starter from the beginning of 2013 (Joeckel) remains on the roster. Beyond Beadles and the position shift of Joeckel, look for 3rd-round pick Brandon Linder (Miami-Fla.) to move into the LG spot opposite Beadles. Upgrades along the line, especially in pass protection, are a must if the team is to progress much beyond last year?s four wins.

Addressing Blackmon?s absence, Caldwell tabbed a couple of wideouts in the second round of the draft, Southern Cal?s Marqise Lee and Penn State?s Allen Robinson, while holdovers Cecil Shorts and Ace Sanders (combined 117 catches last season, though for only3 TDs between them) are functional targets. Marcedes Lewis has been a consistent force at TE for the past several years, but is likely to be asked to contribute more as a blocker than receiver this fall. If the Jags can move into scoring position more often than a year ago, PK Josh Scobee (who has hit 91% of his FG tries since 2011) should ensure few empty trips, though he attempted only 25 FGs last season due to the sluggish offense.

Keeping the offseason theme of recruiting players from winning organizations, GM Caldwell went to Bradley?s old Seattle team to help the defense by adding ex-Seahawk DEs Red Bryant and Chris Clemons while signing DT Ziggy Hood away from the Steelers. All figure in a new-look DL that retains edge rusher Jason Babin and hopes to continue improvement with the pass rush, which upgraded its sack total from a sickly and NFL-low 20 in 2102 to 31 a year ago, which was still tied for last in the league with Chicago. But Bradley now has a better rotation of linemen to utilize.

Last year, Caldwell and Bradley hit the bulls-eye with rookies CB Dwayne Gratz and SS Jonathan Cyprien, who along with CB Alan Ball and Will Blackmon form a nice backbone to the defense in the secondary. If there is one position group on the platoon that causes concern it could be at LB, where MLB Paul Posluszny emerged as a Pro Bowler last year but could use help on the edges, where Dekoda Watson and Geno Hayes are fleet but smallish and apt to get overpowered at times.

There is a consensus among knowledgeable league observers that the Jags are on the upswing, but they remain a work in progress and could even slip a place in the South standings if Houston recovers to something resembling its pre-2013 form. Still, Jacksonville looks a lot more menacing than it did at this time a year ago, and does not figure to be an easy touch as it was for at least the first half of last season.. Come 2015, we might even be mentioning the ?p word? (playoffs) in our next Jags season preview.


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