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AFC South 2013 Preview: How Safe Are the Houston Texans?
There probably isn't a more intriguing division than the AFC South. So much has changed for every team since just last January from big coaching swaps to unexpected roster moves. As was the case the past two seasons, the Houston Texans remain early favorites to repeat as division champions. Their hold on that crown, however, appears somewhat more tenuous than before. Which of their longtime rivals has the best chance to take it away from them this 2013 NFL season?
Jacksonville Jaguars - Gus Bradley seeing more than quarterback battle
All anyone could talk about from the get go when Gus Bradley took over as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars was how he needed to find a quarterback. While that was an important part of his job, Bradley learned from Pete Carroll in Seattle that having a talented quarterback won't mean anything until a talented roster is around him. That is the mission he set forth when he took over and it is how Jacksonville approached their off-season. They took Luke Joeckel with the 2nd overall pick in the draft to bolster a weak offensive line, then brought in a boatload of young secondary players including Jonathan Cyprien and Dwayne Gratz to bolster the defenses' size and speed. Much of the focus will stay on the quarterback battle between Blaine Gabbert, Chad Henne and Mike Kafka, which is fine. That competition will determine how the season goes for Jacksonville but Bradley is ultimately looking at the big picture. He knows improving the roster as a whole takes priority if he wants to get the Jaguars winning again. That may take time but it seems pointed in the right direction.
Tennessee Titans - Chance Warmack and Andy Levitre lead remade roster
No team had a quieter, more productive off-season than the Tennessee Titans. While other franchises pinpointed playmakers in their quests, the Titans retooled their roster from the ground up. By far their two biggest additions were guards Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack. Levitre was the highest rated free agent on the market at his position, known for his pass protection while Warmack was rated by many as the best all around player in the 2013 NFL draft. His calling card is power and dominant run blocking. The arrival of these two, in addition to some playmakers of their own like Justin Hunter, Delanie Walker, and Shonn Greene should makes thing remarkably easier for quarterback Jake Locker and running back Chris Johnson. The defense got some help too. Sammie Hill and Bernard Pollard bring some extra attitude to the unit while corner Blidi Wreh-Wilson can help improve a bad pass defense. Much of it will hinge on how Locker improves from his inconsistent past. Still, if Mike Munchak can control the line of scrimmage the way it appears he will be able to, then Tennessee has some pretty good chances.
Indianapolis Colts - Andrew Luck must get over Bruce Arians quickly
Nobody expected much from the 2012 Indianapolis Colts. What they got was a miracle run spurred by the inspiration of head coach Chuck Pagano. He fought off cancer to rejoin his team late in the season to finish 11-5 and make the playoffs. Leading the charge was star rookie quarterback Andrew Luck who set an NFL record for the most yards by a first-year passer in history. His Pro Bowl selection was validation that Indianapolis made the right choice by moving on from Peyton Manning. By the time the off-season rolled around their goals were clear: arm him, guard him and protect his leads. Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas will help up front while Darrius Heyward-Bey gives him a speedy target opposite Reggie Wayne. The real overhaul came on defense though, starting with safety LaRon Landry, linebacker Erik Walden and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin before scooping up talented defensive end Bjoern Werner in the draft. All told the Colts are much better on paper. The key for them is to get over the loss of offensive wizard Bruce Arians, who led the way with Pagano out. If they buy into new coordinator Pep Hamilton, there is no reason to think they're in danger of regressing.
Houston Texans - DeAndre Hopkins hoping to balance offense
At this point it's unlikely to think the Houston Texans are in danger. A number of key players are returning from injury, like linebacker Brian Cushing. All-Pro safety Ed Reed came over from Baltimore to bolster their secondary and mentor second round draft pick D.J. Swearinger. In spite of some unfortunate free agent losses the buzz around the team is high, especially regarding the offense. All of their key pieces are back in addition to a young receiver that coaches and fans continue to grow more excited over after every practice. DeAndre Hopkins earned praise for his consistent, playmaking ability at Clemson. It was this polished game that drew the Super Bowl hopeful Texans to him. They have high expectations that he can step in Day 1 to take immediate pressure off of star receiver Andre Johnson while giving quarterback Matt Schaub a long overdue second outside target. Between him and the return of backup running back Ben Tate, the Texans offense should look deeper and more explosive than last season. Whether that is enough to get them over the hump depends on how they stand against an improving division.