I did this with the NFC North in a much longer article, but figured I'd give this division a shot, as Bernard Pollard is, without a doubt, one of my favorite athletes of all time.
The trend in the NFL is for coaches to make the postseason within their first two seasons with their new teams, so long as that team had made the postseason within the past 8 years prior (thus, why Mangini/Shurmur/Jauron/Gailey aren't shocking in their absence).
Tony Sparano, John Harbaugh, John Fox, Mike Tomlin, Pete Carroll, Mike Smith, Jim Harbaugh, Rex Ryan, Norv Turner and Chuck Pagano were playoff coaches in their first seasons. Leslie Frazier, Todd Haley, and Ken Whisenhunt coached their teams to the postseason Year 2.
If that trend continues (and it only continues if the owners are operating with near or equal thoroughness and discernment in their hiring processes), both the Titans and Jaguars would be in line (the Titans last made the postseason in 2008, the Jaguars last made the postseason in 2007). In Gus Bradley's case, maybe setting the bar low in Jacksonville in 2013 will ensure his employment for a long and steady rebuild.
The two changes that stand out to me over this AFC South off-season are the Texans adding my #1 wide receiver from this year's draft, DeAndre Hopkins, and the major mentality shift Pollard and consultant Gregg Williams give the Titans defense. Other major factors include Jake Locker's down-field /accuracy and the Colts O-line and secondary (bringing in FS LaRon Landry, CB Greg Toler, whilst re-signing corners Darius Butler and Cassius Vaughn).
Andrew Luck often carried the Colts last season, as he had almost half of his team's rushing TDs, the team averaged only 3.8 yards per carry, and the defense was 32nd in fumble recoveries and 20th in INTs despite facing Ponder, Gabbert, Locker, Fitzpatrick, Quinn and Sanchez.
In a division with perhaps more new starters than any other division in the NFL, here are the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the AFC South.
Best-Case Scenario: DeAndre Hopkins flourishes in Gary Kubiak's play-action offense, Ed Reed stays healthy and brings a few INTs batted by Watt to the house, Cushing comes back strong, and the Texans at 12-4 prove they are just a cut below the elite three teams in the AFC (Patriots) by losing a close AFC Championship Game to one of them. Pundits were proven wrong after saying again and again the Ravens couldn't win the Super Bowl. I'm not saying the Texans can't win it, but this is the most realistic best-case scenario. Two advantages they have - beyond having the second-best defensive player in the NFL (I believe Bengals DT Geno Atkins is the best) and the best all-purpose running back in Arian Foster - is they could go undefeated in a young South, and they have stability at the OC and DC positions. The New England Patriots are the only opponent on their schedule that has the same offensive and defensive coordinators as it did week 1 last year. On the other hand, the Texans likely face SIX of the top 10 WRs in yds/reception: Danario Alexander, Cecil Shorts (2X), Torrey Smith, TY Hilton, Nate Washington (2X), Chris Givens.
Worst-Case Scenario: They stumble out of the gate against the explosive Ravens, the Titans and a rejuvenated Philip Rivers, start 0-3 and only recover to 9-7 and miss the postseason in 3rd place in the South.
Best-Case Scenario: Pep Hamilton and Andrew Luck pick up where they left off at Stanford, Chuck Pagano turns around the defense with Bjoern Werner proving to be an upgrade over Dwight Freeney, they make Schaub uncomfortable in a sweep on their way to an 11-5 record, division win, and advancement to the second round of the postseason.
Worst-Case Scenario: Another year without a great run D, the O-line stumbles as it often did in 2012 (an NFL-worst 268 pressured drop-backs allowed on Andrew Luck) and doesn't turn their limited possessions into points, they get taken behind the woodshed by high-powered offenses and finish 6-10 in a new, improved South.
Best-Case Scenario: Jake Locker thrives in the play-action game, the pass rush builds on their sacks from last season, Chris Johnson taps into some of the swagger of the defense and the Titans take a 12-4 record with them into a second-round home win over the Ravens, then get knocked out by the Patriots or Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
Worst-Case Scenario: The 32nd-ranked defense in points given up continues to struggle, Jake Locker doesn't progress, Mike Munchak doesn't adjust and ends up fired after a 6-10 campaign. With their run offense, I can't see them winning fewer than 6 games. The only run defense they face that allowed more than 4.5 yards per carry last season is the Colts.
Best-Case Scenario: Another WR steps up while Blackmon's out, the Jaguars' 53 develop a feisty edge from a contentious training camp, Jedd Fisch uses Denard Robinson and Marcedes Lewis for mismatches, Jason Babin cashes in his $5.95m salary with a 10.5-sack season, and the Jaguars get a respectable 2 wins in the division and finish 6-10 overall.
Worst-Case Scenario: Hahahaha. Blaine Gabbert's on-field implosion from last year turns into a crisis situation where his poor play brings the rest of the team down, Blackmon Maurice Jones-Drew gets hurt again, Gus Bradley (DC of the top defense in points allowed last season) is unable to get anything out of a defense filled with journeymen and late-rounders (since 2009, Jacksonville has spent 2 2nd rounders on defense, but - with Tyson Alualu - only one of their 5 first-rounders on that side of the ball), the unheralded corner tandem gets scorched regularly by receiving corps in the South that added Justin Hunter and they finish the season 2-14.
When I watch clips on TV of Justin Hunter (who was recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee when he played last season), Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright...I see an aerial assault that has 1998 Vikings, 2007 Patriots, 2010 Packers kind of down-field explosiveness. The run game is a lock to improve, even if Chris Johnson were to get hurt. The line will open up holes, thus opening up the play-action bombs. If Locker can get the ball there (and in other deep shots), this could be spectacular. However, if he can't, they will lose a few 27-14 type of games with teams going after Titans corners and getting big enough leads that they gotta get away from the run game.
Moreover, with it being difficult to project how healthy Ed Reed will be (along with how much freelancing he'll implement), the new Texans secondary and blitz-happy scheme could result in big games for the Titans passing attack.
I'm predicting 11-5 and a division win for the Texans, 9-7 and just missing a Wild Card for the Titans, 8-8 for the still-rebuilding Colts, and 3-13 for the Jaguars (maybe playing spoiler against the Titans and/or Colts weeks 16 and 17).
What do you think? How confident are you in this Tennessee Titans squad heading into training camp in 3 weeks? Do you agree that DeAndre Hopkins and the new, aggressive Titans defensive mentality are the two biggest changes in the division? Do you think this team has a pretty certain trajectory if they stay healthy? Let me know in the comments.