AFC South is built around QBs
With Peyton Manning, Steve McNair, Byron Leftwich and David Carr, the AFC South is loaded at quarterback.
Even though the four head coaches in the division are former defensive coordinators, each has aggressive tendencies on offense. It's a division in which three-receiver threats thrive and each team strives to create bigger mismatches with those third wideouts. No easy chore for opposing defenses.
• Indianapolis Colts
Best move: Despite a tight salary cap, general manager Bill Polian brought more players back to the roster than expected. On offense, Polian locked up wide receivers Marvin Harrison and Brandon Stokley last season along with Manning. Polian spent more than $5 million a year to keep Ryan Diem at right tackle. On defense, cornerback Nick Harper couldn't find a big market and was re-signed. Linebacker Rob Morris is still a free agent and could be brought back if the Colts feel they need that option. With so much money tied up on offense, the Colts know they can't keep everyone. They have to plan for eventual departures. Keeping Diem prevented the Colts from re-signing guard Rick DeMulling. No problem. The Colts grabbed undrafted rookie Ryan Lilja off the Chiefs' waiver wire and found he was a steal after getting him on the field last season. The linebacking corps is always going to be in transition, which is why the Colts draft primarily on defense and allow Tony Dungy to coach them. The Colts have a tight cap, but Polian was still able to keep most of the team together.
Biggest surprise: The middle linebacking position is the most uncertain but apparently Dungy has confidence in Morris' replacements. The linebacking corps of David Thornton, Gary Brackett and Cato June might be the most anonymous in the NFL, so it was a little surprising the Colts didn't use a first-day draft choice on a linebacker. The Colts will test out the middle linebacking position and see if the young players work during the season, but don't be surprised if they bring in a veteran for insurance at some point. But Dungy didn't have a problem working with unknown linebackers at Tampa Bay, so there is no panic right now.
Bottom line: The roster is built for another 12-win season and should clinch the division again. As always, everything revolves around Manning, who is coming off an NFL record 49-touchdown season. Manning is in that same zone Brett Favre found himself in during the mid-1990s. He's in a period in which he could or should win MVP honors every year. Everything comes down to Manning's getting over the final hump and finding a way to beat the Patriots and get to the Super Bowl. Once that happens, the Colts could win one or two rings. Until that happens, though, the pressure will keep building. Fortunately, the Colts remain one of the league's youngest teams. They saved enough cap room this year that they should be able to do a contract extension for wide receiver Reggie Wayne, so the bulk of the offense should be together for several more seasons. While Edgerrin James might not be around for the long haul, he's expected to play this season, making just over $8 million as the Colts' franchise player. Dungy now has impact players on defense such as ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and safety Bob Sanders. Sanders is a big hitter who should come into his own this season. Mathis is one of the best secret weapons, coming off the bench to add to the pass rush.
2004 SEASON STATISTICS Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int 43 33 10 1 10.5 1
Best moves: While some may have scratched their heads watching the Jaguars give a $33 million contract to defensive end Reggie Hayward, it was a move of necessity. Last year, the Jaguars had major issues at defensive end. They had so many bad moves and so many injuries there that coach Jack Del Rio had to rely on linebacker Greg Favors to play most of the season at defensive end. The going rate for a pass-rushing defensive end during the first wave of free agency is $5 million a year, and the Jaguars didn't flinch at spending it on Hayward. Their hope is that Hayward, who had 10½ sacks for the Broncos last season, can do what former Bronco Bertrand Berry did for the Cardinals. Berry left the Broncos after the 2003 season and had 14½ sacks last year for the Cardinals. The Jaguars balanced the financial books by signing defensive end Marcellus Wiley on the cheap for $790,000. Wiley failed as a high-priced free agent in Dallas. The Jaguars hope he regains his hunger. The enticement for any defensive end to sign with the Jaguars is the interior presence of Pro Bowl defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson. Del Rio just hopes Hayward and Wiley can beat the single blocking they should see.
Biggest surprise: The drafting of wide receiver Matt Jones was a stunner. While most won't argue Jones, the former Arkansas quarterback, was one of the best athletes in the draft, the Jaguars were the last team expected to take him. They used a first-round draft choice last year on wide receiver Reggie Williams, who struggled as a rookie. In Jones, the Jaguars are swinging for the fences. He could be a home run or a strikeout. At 6-foot-6, Jones can play the slot and create major matchup problems for cornerbacks because of his height and speed. But can he make the transition from quarterback to wide receiver in one season? Jones has struggled with hamstring problems since the draft. As a quarterback, he should know where to position himself to give Leftwich good looks when he's into routes.
Bottom line: The Jaguars made a four-game improvement last season to finish 9-7. Are they ready to make the next step? A lot of question remain that could hold them back. The biggest question is the health of halfback Fred Taylor. Taylor had arthroscopic knee surgery at the end of last season and hasn't been healthy enough to practice this offseason. Stories have started to surface that the knee just isn't right. Del Rio said he's not worried about Taylor. Still, the Jaguars can't get to the 10-win mark without his 1,224 yards. The Jaguars also need production from their defensive ends. No division requires a big pass rush more than the AFC South because of the quality of the quarterbacks. Del Rio has established a winning attitude with the Jaguars. They have a chance to compete for a playoff spot.
There was some initial concern that Houston's drafting of rookie Vernand Morency could hurt Domanick Davis' fantasy value, but the rookie's presence could actually help Davis. Last year, Davis was overworked as a runner and receiver. Using Morency to keep Davis fresh could mean Davis could be less of an injury risk in 2005. And a few extra breathers for Davis per week won't cut heavily into his overall totals. The departure of Marcus Pollard means Dallas Clark should assume more of a prominent role in the Indianapolis offense this year. This could be Clark's big breakthrough season in fantasy. There is much talk about the potential of Jacksonville rookie WR Matt Jones. But he could be too raw of a project to contribute much in fantasy leagues in his first year. Steve McNair has lost weight and is determined to have a rebound year in Tennessee. But Drew Bennett is his only dependable target, and must show last year's heroics were no illusion. Even if McNair can stay healthy, it is possible he could sputter statistically because of a questionable receiving corps.
-- Scott Engel, associate editor of Fantasy Games
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Best move: First-round pick Travis Johnson was a much-needed young addition to the defensive line. Coach Dom Capers asks a lot of his 3-4 defensive linemen. For whatever reason, things didn't work out last year. They ranked 23rd on defense and 13th against the run. To make the playoffs, a 3-4 defense needs to rank in the top 10 against the run, which is probably the reason the Texans tried to get younger and add a little more speed on defense. Capers quietly shook up a lot of things on defense. He brought in Phillip Buchanon at cornerback for veteran Aaron Glenn. He moved Kailee Wong from outside to inside linebacker and signed Morlon Greenwood from the Dolphins to also play on the inside. Gone are Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman. Critics weren't sure Johnson was the right choice for the Texans, but the team fell in love with him. With Johnson, Gary Walker, Seth Payne and Robaire Smith, the Texans have invested heavily along their defensive line. Johnson can learn from the veterans in front of him and gradually gain more playing time as the season progresses.
Biggest surprise: Greenwood wasn't a star on the big-name Miami Dolphins defense, so it was a little surprising to see him as the key offseason acquisition to fix the interior of the Texans' defense. Greenwood doesn't have the bulk of most inside linebackers in the 3-4. Apparently, the Texans liked his range and speed. Still, he replaces a popular player in Sharper, who has been productive since joining the Texans in their inaugural season. If Greenwood is the right choice and Wong does well in the middle, the Texans should have more range at inside linebacker. For that to happen, Jason Babin and Antwan Peek need big seasons on the outside.
Bottom line: The expansion years are gone. The Texans are coming off a 7-9 season and it's time for them to step up as a contender. The plan is to run the ball more to take some pressure off Carr, who was the victim of 49 sacks last season. The Texans worked with him on releasing the ball quicker to prevent the sacks. He got his completion percentage up to 61.2, but he still takes a pounding. The Texans are a dangerous team. If their offseason renovation works on defense, they will easily improve on their No. 23 rating from last year. Carr has the talent around him at wide receiver and in the backfield to compete at a playoff level. The table is set for the Texans to contend. But if the defense isn't improved, it will hold back the development of this season. On paper, though, things look good.
• Tennessee Titans
Best move: Adam "Pacman" Jones wasn't the biggest cornerback in the draft, but he has the makeup speed to be a shutdown corner. Most outsiders thought the Titans would go for a bigger cornerback, such as Antrel Rolle, who went to Arizona. However, the Titans felt Jones had more speed and more potential to be a Pro Bowl cornerback. No doubt the Titans had to take a cornerback. They didn't re-sign Andre Dyson and they had to release Samari Rolle to get under the $85.5 million salary cap. Coach Jeff Fisher asks a lot of his corners. He has so many pressure defensive schemes that are dependent on a cornerback who can blanket a receiver for three or four seconds. Once again, their tight salary cap situation didn't allow them to be big players in free agency. They had to make the sixth pick in the draft their focal point of the offseason. Jones was their man.
Biggest surprise: The release of wide receiver Derrick Mason might have been the biggest surprise of the eight players cut for cap purposes. Wide receiver is one of the Titans' thinnest position, and Mason has been McNair's go-to receiver. He was coming off a 96-catch season and at the age of 31, he was in his prime. But cutting him saved $4.7 million, and the Titans needed to make sacrifices. They opted to keep four of the five starters along the offensive line, leaving Mason in a vulnerable position. Drew Bennett is a big target, but so much of the success of the passing offense will depend on whether Tyrone Calico develops. Calico is a tall, fast receiver with tremendous potential, but had his '04 season interrupted after being brought down by one of Roy Williams' horse-collar tackles.
Bottom line: Like the Ravens a few years ago, the Titans accepted the fact that this was going to be another tough offseason. To get under the cap, the Titans released Mason, Kevin Carter, Robert Holcombe, Shad Meier, Fred Miller, Eddie Berlin, Joe Nedney and Rolle. That's a lot of leadership and playmaking ability to replace. The Titans are young. Albert Haynesworth's the "old'' man on the defensive line and he was drafted in 2002. The Titans need big seasons from cornerbacks Andre Woolfolk and first-round choice Jones. McNair talked about retirement toward the end of last season but he has returned in great shape. He's also excited about new coordinator Norm Chow's offensive changes. However, expectations are low for the Titans. They are coming off a five-win season. Still, Fisher is an amazing coach. He gets a lot out of his players. Opponents who take the Titans for granted could be surprised. The Titans have drafted well the past several years, and now those draft choices have to step up and play well. If they do, it's not out of the question for the Titans to put together a seven- or eight-win season.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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