NFL division races: AFC South
A look at the strengths, weaknesses, rehab issues and what to expect in the AFC South, as provided by SN's NFL correspondents:
The strength: QB Matt Schaub(notes) is the one player the Texans can't afford to football jerseys
lose. He has emerged as an elite player but must stay healthy again. He's in command of the offense. He has the confidence of his teammates and coaches. He's blessed with terrific receivers.
The weakness: The running game ranked 30th last season and averaged 3.5 yards a carry. Arian Foster(notes), who started one game as a rookie, is now the featured back. He averaged 6 yards a carry in preseason. Steve Slaton(notes) must stay healthy as the change-of-pace back who'll touch the ball 10-12 times a game.
The rehab: TE Owen Daniels(notes), Schaub's second-favorite target, has been practicing for two weeks and will take 15-20 snaps against Indianapolis in the opener, his first action since tearing his ACL on Nov. 1. Barring a setback, he should regain his Pro Bowl form.
The key addition: Rookie CB Kareem Jackson(notes) lines up across from All-Pro WR Andre Johnson(notes) in every practice drill. Jackson had a good camp and preseason. He is physical against the run, and gets a good jam at the line and can turn and run with receivers. The coaches aren't afraid of his inexperience.
The bottom line: The Texans usually are slow starters and fast finishers, and they have the league's toughest schedule. They better start fast with Indianapolis and Dallas the first two home games. If they're 4-2 entering the bye, they should make a serious run at the franchise's first playoff berth.—John McClain
The strength: QB Peyton Manning(notes) has won the past two league MVP awards and is the only player with four. He's 34 but showing no signs of slowing down. To further complicate matters for opponents, Manning might be surrounded by his best-ever cast of skill players. WR Reggie Wayne(notes) and TE Dallas Clark(notes) are Pro Bowlers. WRs Pierre Garcon(notes), Austin Collie(notes) and Anthony Gonzalez(notes) are quality players. RBs Joseph Addai(notes) and Donald Brown(notes) are capable.
The weakness: The offensive line might be in tatters when the season opens. Pro Bowl C Jeff Saturday(notes) missed all four preseason games after arthroscopic knee surgery but should play in Week 1. It's uncertain whether LT Charlie Johnson(notes) (foot) or backup Tony Ugoh(notes) (toe) will be available. If each is out, the task of protecting Manning's blind side likely goes to undrafted rookie Jeff Linkenbach(notes). If Manning's protection falters, so does the offense.
The rehab: S Bob Sanders(notes) started two games last season because of a knee injury and a ruptured left biceps tendon. Now, he's as healthy as he's ever been. Melvin Bullitt(notes) is a capable safety, but Sanders is a difference-maker. Sanders is a ferocious hitter and a tenacious tackler. If he stays on the field, the defense could be one of the league's best.
The key addition: TE Brody Eldridge(notes) (6-5, 265) is expected to shore up the run blocking in short-yardage and goal-line situations. While Eldridge's strength might be blocking, he showed good receiving skills in preseason. He could be a nice two-dimensional sidekick to Clark.
The bottom line: It's beyond monotonous, but get used to it. Barring injury, the Colts appear primed to make a run for another 12-win season, another playoff berth and another Super Bowl appearance. An ninth consecutive playoff berth will tie the Cowboys for the longest streak in league history. The Colts went 14-2 in '09 because it chose not to go 16-0. The bulk of Minnesota Vikings jersey
that team is back, and Gonzalez and Sanders return from injuries.—Mike Chappell
The strength: The Titans rolled the dice by parting ways with veteran C Kevin Mawae(notes) in the offseason, but the unit hasn't slipped. With OTs Michael Roos(notes) and David Stewart(notes), the Titans are solid on the perimeter. But the interior remains a strength as well. Long-time backup Leroy Harris(notes) has been strong at left guard, and Eugene Amano's(notes) switch to center gives the team even more brute strength alongside RG Jake Scott(notes).
The weakness: The Titans remain unsettled at linebacker. The team said goodbye to veteran Keith Bulluck(notes) and recently placed David Thornton(notes) on the PUP list and Gerald McRath(notes) is suspended for four games. Veterans Stephen Tulloch(notes) and Will Witherspoon(notes) are solid, but questions surround them.
The rehab: DT Jason Jones(notes) is a beast when on the field—nine sacks in 20 games—but injuries have derailed each of his first two NFL seasons. Jones is now recovered from offseason shoulder surgery and was a force in preseason. If Jones can stay healthy, he should make a big impact.
The key addition: Witherspoon should help settle down a young defense on the field and in the locker room. The Titans need Witherspoon in a big way. He plays with the sideline-to-sideline style the coaches crave, and he's a good tackler.
The bottom line: With All-Pro RB Chris Johnson, the Titans have the potential to be dangerous on offense. So much hinges on QB Vince Young(notes), however. On defense, there are questions on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary, where the team will be breaking in a new cornerback. With so many questions, a realistic goal might be 8-8. With a few breaks, though, the Titans could be a surprise.—Jim Wyatt
The strength: It's undoubtedly the running game with Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), who had 1,391 yards rushing last year despite the team abandoning the run during five blowout losses. The line is fortified with veteran Vince Manuwai(notes), a seven-year starter, now the backup guard. Look for significant improvement from second-year OTs Eugene Monroe(notes) and Eben Britton(notes). With a blocking beast like TE Marcedes Lewis(notes), the Jaguars have a good shot at being a top-five rushing unit.
The weakness: There are several question marks on defense, particularly the secondary, where safety play has been an issue for two years. Second-year CB Derek Cox(notes) has also looked more vulnerable than during his rookie season. While the line should improve with all the infusion of talent, depth across the board is a concern because there's a serious drop in talent at six or seven backup spots.
The rehab: Two months ago, the biggest worry was the slow progress of DE Aaron Kampman(notes), who had surgery for a torn ACL last December. Kampman now looks close to recapturing that explosive first step, which allowed him to accumulate 47 sacks the past five years in Green Bay. KR Deji Karim(notes), who underwent thumb surgery Aug. 24, still has a brace on and might be questionable for the first couple games. If the Jaguars aren't comfortable with him fielding kicks, that means PR Scotty McGee(notes) likely will pull double duty.
The key addition: It's a toss-up between rookie DT Tyson Alualu(notes), who should be a force in the middle with Terrance Knighton(notes), and Kampman. Given the Jaguars' horrific pass rush that produced a league-low 14 sacks last year, the spotlight is on Kampman. The Jaguars have pile movers in the middle to collapse the pocket. With Kampman back in a 4-3 defense that best fit his skills, a double-digit sack season for him is reasonable.
The bottom line: This is a team in its second year of Indianapolis Colts jersey
rebuilding under G.M. Gene Smith, who has upgraded the roster of both lines. The problem is QB David Garrard(notes) remains inconsistent and coach Jack Del Rio is at a career crossroad. Smith's strategy is to put enough good pieces around Garrard so that they still can win with him. But this franchise likely is still a year away from being a playoff team. The Jaguars have exceptional special teams and good chemistry, which could allow them to finish 8-8.