The Jaguars were arguably one of the three best teams in the AFC during the regular season last year, only to have the misfortune of playing in the same division as an Indianapolis team that had the best record in football. Still this young club is loaded and only figures to get better, and we would not be surprised if it pulls off an upset in the playoffs out of the wild card spot this season.
Quarterback Byron Leftwich missed much of last season, but he is healthy again now and should develop into one of the best signal-callers in the league. He has all the physical tools, and looked mature beyond his years as a rookie two years ago. Now he did lose one of his favorite targets when Jimmy Smith announced his retirement, but the Jaguars do have some nice depth at the receiving spot. Matt Jones, Reggie Williams and Ernest Wilford are all competing for a starting job, and all three have shown flashes of brilliance in their brief careers. Jacksonville also added a luxury it never had before in the draft, a pass-catching tight end with good speed in Marcedes Lewis of UCLA, taken in the first round. The running game is in capable hands, as the duo of Fred Taylor and Greg Jones each performed well last season. Jones is a star of the future, while Taylor has adapted nicely to sharing the workload with Jones, thus keeping himself fresher and avoiding the nagging injuries that plagued his career early on. The defense was the strength of this team ranking seventh in the NFL last year, and we see no reason why it cannot repeat that performance again. The Jags added some nice depth with the acquisitions of a couple of free agents, linebacker Nick Greisen and defensive back Brian Williams. Also do not discount to draft selection of Maurice Drew in the second round, as he can be one of the best kick returners in the league right away. It is a shame that the Jacksonville Jaguars are in the AFC South as they are good enough to win any other division, but we do see them nailing down another wild card spot.
Prediction for 2006: 2nd Place AFC South, Wild Card
The Colts actually peaked to soon last season, as they opened the year at 12-0 and did not have any meaningful games in December. Thus they were in effect coming off of a month-long bye for their playoff encounter with Pittsburgh, and the rustiness showed as they fell quickly behind and were unable to recover.
We think that Tony Dungy and the coaching staff learned a valuable lesson there, and we look for the Colts to keep the foot on the gas all year this season, even playing their regulars more late in the season if they clinch early again. Granted they lost Edgerrin James to free agency, but Indianapolis got some great value when running back Joseph Addai dropped to them at the 30th pick of the draft. The Colts know that Addai has more quickness and explosiveness than James, so they really not that eager to meet James' contract demands. We look for Addai to crack the starting lineup early in the year, instantly becoming a bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate. Of course there is absolutely no concern about the passing game, as the Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison combination is easily the best in football, and Reggie Wayne is also the best second receiver around.
While the Indianapolis offense has always been prolific, it was not until the defense improved last season that this team became a legitimate Super Bowl contender. This unit brings back most of its starters from last year, and it also added two more speedballs in the draft in cornerback Tim Jennings and linebacker Freddie Keiaho. Finally the Colts also signed the best clutch kicker in football in Adam Vinatieri, who unlike the departed Mike Vanderjagt is a proven commodiry in the post-season. THIS is the year that the Indianapolis Colts finally reach the Super Bowl!
Prediction for 2006: 1st Place AFC South, AFC CHAMPION, Super Bowl Runner-up
The Texans "earned" the top pick in the draft by winning just two games last season, and they created waves by selecting defensive end Mario Williams over Reggie Bush. While Houston was universally chastised for that selection, we actually have no problem with it as a weak pass rush has always been the biggest problem for this team, and they do still have a couple of nice running backs on the roster.
Do not forget that Domanick Davis was a 1000-yard rusher two years ago, and Jonathan Wells filled in quite nicely while Davis was injured last season. As great as Bush is going to be, we feel that upgrading the pass rush was simply a higher priority for the Texans if they want to become more competitive. In actuality we feel that Houston had one of the best drafts of any NFL team, taking what will probably be four instant starters with the first four picks! Quarterback David Carr has spent most of his NFL career on his back behind a porous offensive line, and Houston addressed this need by selecting Charles Spencer and Eric Winston with its two third-round selections. Winston was actually projected to be a Top 10 pick before blowing out a knee last year, so getting him as late as the Texans did could be a real coup. As for veteran help, the Texans acquired wide receiver Eric Moulds from Buffalo, which moves incumbent Andre Johnson to a more suitable complimentary role.
Now the Houston defense ranked 31st out of 32 teams last year, so there is really only one direction to go. Besides Williams, the Texans also upgraded the linebacking corps by taking DeMeco Ryans of Alabama in the second round. They also made some fine veteran additions such as defensive end Anthony Weaver and linebacker Sam Cowart, so we think it is a virtual certainty that the defense will be vastly improved this season. We feel that should be enough for the Houston Texans to finish third in the division, escaping the cellar for the first time in team history.
We have the utmost respect for Steve Fisher as a head coach, but we do not think even he could prevent the Titans from finishing dead last in the division this year.
Tennessee traded away former MVP Steve McNair to Baltimore, leaving the quarterbacking duties in the hands of Billy Volek. Now Volek has always done a nice job coming off the bench, but it is totally different when you are the starting QB, and we are not sure Volek is up for that challenge. That may mean that Vince Young may get a shot to show what he can do as early as late this season when the Titans are out of the playoff hunt. Personally we feel that Matt Leinart would have been a much better selection with the third pick in the draft, as we think that Young will be another in a long line of quarterbacks that was great in college, but whose game did not translate well to the pro level. Young is a better runner than passer, and he passing mechanics leave much to be desired. The disgruntled Chris Brown is still the first string running back for now, with Travis Henry and second round draft pick LenDale White of USC adding some decent depth. Brown is the best blocker of the trio, which is key since the Titans do not have a true third-down back. The receiving corps is adequate at best, putting even more pressure on the quarterback position.
As bad as the offense looks, the defense should be even worse! This unit was horrible to begin with last season, and it now lost two starters in linebacker Rocky Boiman and safety Tank Williams. Given that this team plays in a division with two of the best teams in the AFC, and with even Houston improved this year, we project the Tennessee Titans to finish in the AFC South cellar in 2006.
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