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AFC South

Houston Texans

Offensive Outlook

For the first time in his career David Carr finally has the collection of weapons needed to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. No quarterback has been more scrutinized than Carr over the past four seasons, and now if he still fails to succeed the scrutiny will be justified. The Texans have brought in offensive minded Gary Kubiak as the head coach, and he hopes to implement the offense he ran so successfully as the offensive coordinator in Denver. With a revamped offensive line, a healthy Andre Johnson and the additions of Eric Moulds and Jeb Putzier, Carr’s left arm should be the final piece Kubiak needs to successfully complete this transition. With Domanick Davis now sidelined for the entire season with a knee injury, the Texans will look to rookie Wali Lundy, Vernand Morency and newly acquired Ron Dayne to carry the load on the ground. Lundy, who has surprised many in the preseason, will start as the featured back and Dayne, who is already well versed in this offense from his days in Denver, will handle the short yardage and goal line carries. Moulds and Putzier should provide the perfect complements to Andre Johnson in the passing game, preventing defenses from continuing to double team him on a down to down basis. If Carr is every bit the quarterback I think he is, this offense should be one of the most improved in the league.

Defensive Outlook

The Texans defense will be transitioning from their 3-4 look of a year ago to a 4-3 look this season. Richard Smith was hired to become the defensive coordinator, a position he held in Miami last season. Anytime a coach can learn from Nick Saban, especially when it concerns defense, it has to be viewed as a huge learning experience in their careers. The talent on this side of the ball probably better suits the 3-4, and look for the Texans to use that front at times during the season. This is a fairly revamped unit as well, mostly for the better but the release of defensive tackle Robaire Smith (immediately was signed by Tenn.) is one I haven’t quite yet understood. Seth Payne now returns to the starting line up, but since joining the Texans he has managed to last a full season only once. With the first overall pick in this year’s draft the Texans selected Mario Williams in the hopes of improving one of the league’s worst pass rushes. The linebacking corps is young and a little undersized, but all are capable of becoming equally successful against both the run and the pass. Another one of this year’s draft picks, DeMeco Ryans, will start in the middle and I feel has the talent to compete for defensive rookie of the year honors. The secondary will remain somewhat of a weakness unless Phillip Buchanon can somehow return to the form he displayed in his rookie season in Oakland. Overall this should also be a much improved unit, and certainly will be good enough to remove itself from the bottom third in the league.

Overall Outlook

I really like the offseason moves this team has made, and although I liked Dom Capers as a head coach, Gary Kubiak has the experience and potential to bring this franchise to bigger and better things. They have a nice mix of players from last year’s team and new players, and I really feel this will be one of the more improved teams in the NFL this season. If David Carr is ready to step up and become the quarterback I know he can be they may even be competing for a playoff spot in late December. Prediction: 9-7

Indianapolis Colts

Offensive Outlook

In the offseason the Colts opted to let Edgerrin James go in free agency and go with veteran Dominic Rhodes and first round draft pick Joseph Addai instead. Thus far in the preseason it looks like they made the right decision, but if either will be able to hold up for the entire season is yet to be seen. Both have had injury issues in the past, but I think the Colts feel if they split the carries it will increase the likelihood that they will remain healthy for the duration. The passing attack will remain one of the league’s best with Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark all returning. Despite James’ absence this should still remain one of the league’s most explosive offenses.

Defensive Outlook

The Colts were one of the most improved defenses in the NFL last season, an improvement that came later than expected following the hiring of head coach Tony Dungy years ago. They run the same scheme Dungy ran in Tampa, which relies on pressure from the front four rather than blitzing and uses a cover 2 scheme in the secondary. Defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are perfect in this scheme as both are able to generate more than adequate pressure on their own. It will be tough for this defense to match last season’s output following the departures of Larry Triplett and David Thornton mainly because they didn’t do very much in the way of bringing in adequate replacements. Their secondary should remain a weakness as well with Nick Harper, who is average at best, remaining their top corner. The lack of talent in the secondary is somewhat masked with the use of the cover 2, a scheme that if implemented correctly prevents opposing offenses from pulling off the big play.

Overall Outlook

Last year this Colt team looked like the team to beat in the NFL, especially following the improvements on the defensive side of the ball. Tragedy struck and this team never quite looked the same. The question now becomes can the Colts shake off the disappointment following their playoff loss to Pittsburgh and refocus to return to their form of the first half of last season. Under the guidance of Dungy and Manning I think they can and certainly at least claim another AFC South division crown. Prediction: 11-5

Jacksonville Jaguars

The biggest story in the offseason regarding the Jaguars was the retirement of receiver Jimmy Smith. Following his retirement Jacksonville not only lost its best receiver, but likely its offensive’s and possibly the franchise’s best player ever. The team will now look to a trio of young and very promising wide receivers in the hopes that they are ready to collectively fill the huge void left by Smith. Leftwich, who is returning from a season ending injury from last year, counted on Smith in many situations where the savvy veteran used his experience to find ways to get open. Experience the three youngsters lack in a big way. Tight end Mercedes Lewis was also drafted in the first round to help ease the transition, but he too is very young and very inexperienced. Fred Taylor returns determined to finally play a full season without injury, and it’s likely he’ll have to now that primary back up Greg Jones was lost for the year in the preseason. LaBrandon Toefield and rookie Maurince Drew would likely be called upon if Taylor were to go down, and only Toefield has any NFL game experience. Do their lack of a go to receiver it’s likely you’ll see more two tight end sets, and more of an emphasis on the running game. If Taylor can’t hold up there is now a significant drop off at running back. One of the receivers will have to step up early and gain the confidence of Leftwich in clutch situations, and if none of them do it could be a long season in Jacksonville.

Defensive Outlook

This is a unit that has been fairly conservative under Del Rio, but still one of the better units in the league. They prefer to implement zone blitzes and back that with zone coverages. This lack of aggression may change now that they’ve added Brian Williams to play alongside Reshean Mathis at cornerback. They still have one of the more talented defensive lines in the league, and this along with the fact that they should be playing more man to man this season will result in more all out blitzes from this usually bend but don’t break defense. Overall this still should be one of the better defenses in the league, but if the offense can’t get going early on they may be on the field for quite some time.

Overall Outlook

Last season everything clicked and the Jags were able to quietly win 12 games and become one of the better teams in the AFC. The additions on defense will keep that unit in the top ten in the league, and may even lead to improvement on that side of the ball. The loss of Jimmy Smith is a bigger one than people realize, mainly because I don’t think they have anyone on this roster even remotely ready to fill his shoes. They are counting on a very young group of receivers, and that coupled with a young quarterback in Leftwich could spell trouble for this team this season and believe it or not Smith’s absence just may be a difference of four games. Prediction: 8-8

Tennessee Titans

Offensive Outlook

The major story line in the offseason in Tennessee was the ending of the Steve McNair era and the beginning of the Vince Young era. Actually the Vince Young era has yet to begin, but if the front office gets its way it’s likely to begin sooner rather than later. Billy Volek was set to assume the reigns from McNair, but following the drafting of Young and the recent signing of Kerry Collins it’s quite evident this coaching staff has little faith in the career back up. There are not only question marks as to who the starting quarterback will be, but also as to who will start in the backfield as the team’s running back. Chris Brown was the starter last season, but there have been whispers that Travis Henry has quietly assumed the reigns and looming in the background is second round pick LenDale White. The starters at receiver seem to be set as well as at tight end, where Ben Troupe seems to have finally supplanted Erron Kinney as the starter. Troupe is in a contract year so expect big things out of him given the chance. The line has been revamped for the better and may be their best unit in quite some time. None of this will matter, however, if consistency cannot be achieved at the quarterback position, and given the questions that have already started to mount gaining that consistency seems highly unlikely.

Defensive Outlook

Many changes have been made on this side of the ball as well as the team attempts to rebuild their defense around perennial All Pro linebacker Keith Bullock. Joining Bullock at linebacker Peter Sirmon returns from injury along with David Thornton who was brought over from Indianapolis. Thornton is an athletic linebacker who is very effective when blitzing, and should improve the team’s ability to effectively blitz from that position. The secondary can still be considered the defenses most glaring weakness, but with the likely improvement of Pacman Jones and addition of safety Chris Hope (from Pittsburgh) it should be a better group in ’06. The line is led by sack master Kyle Vanden Bosch and former first round pick Albert Haynesworth, and must collectively improve against the run for this team to have any success. They just recently signed Robaire Smith to help achieve that improvement and he along with Haynesworth should make for a noticeable upgrade. Overall this unit should be improved, but inconsistency on offense may end up getting the best of them.

Overall Outlook

The Titans have made some nice additions to a team that had many holes following the ’05 season. Their overall lack of talent and adequate depth still remains, and until their front office and head coach get on the same page the inconsistency of this team is likely to continue. It looks like Kerry Collins will start the season at quarterback and when Vince Young will assume that role will solely be based on the team’s win/loss record. It’s likely he’ll become the starter at some point this season, spelling the end of Jeff Fisher’s career in Tennessee. An ending I’ll gladly welcome because as much as I respect him as a top coach in this league, his services would be better suited as the head coach in a different city. Prediction: 5-11

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Offensive Outlook

Every year the Falcons swear by Michael Vick and promise he is ready to become an elite quarterback in the NFL and every year they and he let us down. In Vick’s defense they seem to change the offense on a yearly basis making it impossible for not only him, but for any quarterback to be successful in this league. This will be his third season in the current offense and if he fails to get it this year it’s likely he never will. The Falcons have always relied heavily on their running game, an approach they are likely to continue in the upcoming season. TJ Duckett is gone as the back up running back, so now more than ever they will rely on Warrick Dunn to take on possibly his biggest role yet in the offense. I’ll be interested to see how the 31 year old holds up, as the team has no real experience behind him. In the end the key will be Vick’s ability to stay healthy along with the much needed improvement in his accuracy passing the ball. Roddy White and Michael Jenkins seem ready to break out, and this along with the acquisition of Ahley Lelie leaves Vick with no more excuses regarding this progression. An even scarier thought is if they were to lose Vick’s most reliable target, Alge Crumpler, who is coming off of offseason knee surgery.

Defensive Outlook

The Falcons made some very nice additions to their defense in free agency and in the draft, but none of those changes addressed the unit’s biggest problem last season: stopping the run. John Abraham is one of the league’s best pass rushers and paired with Patrick Kerney makes for a fierce duo at defensive end. The problem is both are undersized and struggle against the run, and due to their lack of size do not command double teams on rushing downs. Grady Jackson was recently added to help them on this front, but if teams are able to double team him then his effectiveness will be limited. Not to mention that over the past few seasons he has shown that his dedication is lacking, and usually wears down earlier than defensive coordinators would like. The secondary has one of the league’s best shutdown corners in DeAngelo Hall, and they brought in veteran Lawyer Milloy to help in defensing the run, but at 32 years old it’s unknown how effective he will be. If this defense can fix their woes in stopping the run it has the potential to be the one of the league’s best, if not given the run first oriented division they’re in, it’s likely to be a long season in the dirty south.

Overall Outlook

Every year the so called experts pick this team to become one of the league’s best and every year they fall flat on their face (except for two seasons ago of course). I think it all starts with head coach Jim Mora Jr., who is just another one of those hires that I have had a hard time understanding over the years. He has a hard time keeping his cool during games, and this floods over onto his team resulting in multiple miscues as well as personal foul penalties. As long as Michael Vick continues to struggle with his accuracy and this defense struggles stopping the run I just don’t see this team as a team that can vie for a spot in the playoffs. Especially in a division that fields two of the best teams in the conference, and three that focus heavily on running the ball offensively. Prediction: 6-10

Carolina Panthers

Offensive Outlook

The Panthers made probably the quietest, yet one of the most significant, additions on offense of any team in the league. By adding Keyshaun Johnson they now have a perfect complement to the speedy Steve Smith, and if both can keep their heads should together work wonders in Carolina. Johnson brings the possession option lacking in this offense, as well as effective downfield blocking at the position. Even though Jake Delhomme lacks the ability to effectively check down on his reads, when 3rd and 4 comes around even though the defense will know where the ball is going, Johnson has the body control and great hands to still make the play. Another great addition via the draft was bringing the NCAA’s all time leading rusher DeAngelo Williams to back up DeShaun Foster, a back who even when splitting time has had trouble staying healthy. These additions along with one of the league’s best offensive lines, should make for an offense not even Delhomme’s tunnel vision can screw up.

Defensive Outlook

Unlike the offense little was needed to improve this unit, and in fact the only real problems they had last season was keeping their starters healthy. Kris Jenkins returns from a season ending injury a year ago, and along with Julius Peppers, Mike Rucker and Ma’ake Kemoeatu make up one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. The only major departure from last season’s defense was linebacker Will Witherspoon, who the Panthers brought in Na’il Diggs to replace. The secondary has the talent to also be one of the best in the NFL as starting corners Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas have the talent to be two of the league’s best. If Diggs is able to adequately replace Witherspoon and the secondary progresses as expected, there is no reason to believe that the Panthers won’t be one of the elite defenses in the NFL.

Overall Outlook

This is clearly one of the conferences best teams going into the season, and with the additions made on offense they have the ability to become one of the league’s best and most balanced attacks. The only thing getting in their way of becoming an elite group is themselves. It is still yet to be seen if Keyshaun and Steve Smith can coexist in this offense and although I don’t think Key could become the cancer that TO has been, I have my doubts about Smith who seems like he may just be capable of coming close to that. Usually winning cures all and as long as this team does as expected than no hiccups are likely. If for some reason, however, they do manage to start slow the possibility of a meltdown by either of them is certainly a possibility. Given the defense and the leadership on this team all of that is unfortunately highly unlikely. Prediction: 11-5

New Orleans Saints

Offensive Outlook

Following the additions made by the Saints on this side of the ball in the offseason this offense has to potential to again become one of the league’s most potent attacks, and given the state of the current defense it will have to be for this team to be successful at all. Drew Brees was brought in to bring more consistency and leadership to the quarterback position, and Jamie Martin was signed to become the primary back up. Joe Horn will try to bounce back from a season marred with injuries, but starting opposite him will likely be a player with very limited NFL game experience. The key to this offense’s improvement will not solely lie on Brees’ shoulders (or should I say shoulder), but also on new head coach Sean Payton’s ability to use both Deuce McAllister and first round pick Reggie Bush in the offense. If he can effectively use the two of them the way Bush and LenDale White were used at USC, the sky is the limit for this offense. The offensive line is below average at best, but the potential is there for improvement as the season goes along and the unit is allowed to gel. There are several “ifs” surrounding this offense’s chances at becoming a successful one (Drew Brees health, Joe Horn health, emergence of a second receiver, offensive line), but given the right circumstances the potential is certainly there.

Defensive Outlook

Regardless of the several changes made on this side of the ball this offseason and preseason the Saints still look like they will be one of the worst defenses in the NFL. In fact at this point it looks like it has the potential to be even worse than it was a year ago. The defensive ends are by far the unit’s best players, but given the lack of talent at the tackle positions both see numerous double teams throughout the game. The trade for Hollis Thomas will help in this regard, but Thomas is now 32 years old and his best days are behind him. The starting linebackers are all new, and two of the three likely starters were acquired only a week ago. The team’s failure to draft, sign or trade for an elite talent at the position will again be the difference in finishing at the middle of the league defensively or at the bottom. The secondary has the potential to improve, but throughout the preseason failed to even defense a pass. This unit still is in need of a run stuffing defensive lineman, a shutdown corner, and talent at linebacker. Until they find any of those the Saints will remain in the league’s cellar against both the run and the pass.

Overall Outlook

There has been significant turnover on this roster in the offseason, but the majority of it doesn’t really seem to be adding up to put a better product on the field. The additions of Drew Brees and Reggie Bush on the offense are obviously positive ones, and this along with a healthy Joe Horn and Deuce McAllister at least gives them a chance to be productive on that side of the ball. Inexperience along the offensive line and at receiver may get the best of them at times, but overall this should be a much improved offense in the end. The defense has also made several changes, but none of them outside of the addition of Hollis Thomas really strikes me as productive as there is still a significant lack of talent at linebacker and in the secondary. If the offense can reach it’s potential early in the season it’s likely the Saints will find themselves in a handful of shootouts throughout the year, a couple of which they may be able to win. The only reason I’m giving them the total number of wins that you’ll see in my prediction is because there is a real decent chance this team could start 3-0, and then maybe ride that confidence into some more wins. Probably, but likely only three. Prediction: 6-10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Offensive Outlook

The key to this offenses success will depend on the improvement of starting quarterback Chris Simms. Simms no longer will be looking over his shoulder and now has not only the confidence of his head coach, but of his locker room as well. The Bucs made improving the offensive line their top priority in the offseason, and this along with the experience gained by several reserves last season means it’s no longer a weakness in the offense. Now that Simms has some experience under his belt in this offense, Gruden can implement his entire offense and by doing this should be able to attack defenses with a more balanced look. Cadillac Williams has still yet to prove his durability, but in his defense no back ran the ball in the first four games more than he did last season. With a healthy Michael Clayton, the resurgence of Joey Galloway and a better understanding of the offense, Simms will now be able to take the pressure off the undersized back and lessen his carries. This along with the improvement along the line should give Gruden the pieces he needs to have one of the better offenses in the conference.

Defensive Outlook

Not much has changed on this defense from a year ago, a defense that led the NFL in total defense last season. This is an aging unit, however, but under Monte Kiffin’s guidance should remain in the top ten defensively. They are an aggressive defense that runs very well and rarely gives up the big play in their cover 2 scheme. Due to the solid play of the front four they rarely have to blitz, leaving more players in space to create turnovers. There are concerns about the depth along the defensive line, and injuries that they suffered last season were a big part as to why they ultimately were not able to advance in the playoffs. Although the window is closing on this veteran group they certainly have another season in them of top ten defense.

Overall Outlook

Although they may not quite be as good as the Panthers in this division they are still one of the conferences top four teams and given Gruden’s command of the offense should find no trouble returning to the playoffs for the second year in a row. Chris Simms seems to have the confidence he lacked in years past (even at UT), and his understanding of the offense will allow Gruden to fully utilize every aspect of his attack. Michael Clayton’s return is huge as well, as it gives Simms a very nice safety valve along with tight end Alex Smith that paired with Galloway’s ability to stretch a defense should enable this offense to be in the top half of the league in passing. Cadillac will have to prove he can stay healthy before he’s considered one of the league’s best backs, but if he were to go down Michael Pittman is a nice option to go to especially if it doesn’t end up being long term. If Simms improvement can continue they’ll battle Carolina all year for the division, but at this point I have then coming up one game short. Prediction: 10-6

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