Rank #1 Tennessee Titans
Projected record 10-6
Many have the Colts in the top spot in this division, but until they prove to me they can stop anyone, I`ll put my money on a healthy Titans team, with one of the NFL`s best coaches, Jeff Fisher. After getting off to a rough start in 2002 and enduring a rash of injuries, the Titans held opponents to 15 ppg in their last 11 games, and if the offense and QB McNair would have been injury free, they could have done some real damage.
On offense, Steve McNair is the real deal, and had a career high in passing yards and TD`s. He needs better receivers and getting rookie Calico out of Middle Tennessee State was a good draft pick in round 2 and with Drew Bennett and a host of others who were hurt in 2002, he should improve his numbers. With a healthy Eddie George, the blitzes will be fewer and back up rookie Chris Brown is a great RB out of Colorado if Eddie George falls again, along with Robert Holcomb who is a solid veteran backup. Depth at RB is deep this season but I expect Eddie George to return to his old form, minus a half step, which is still better than 80% on the RB`s in the NFL. The offensive line is solid and better than average.
Defense starts and ends with Javon Kearse, who will be back after missing last year basically. While the defense needed little improvement they drafted well, and should shore up some weak spots, especially with CB Andre Woolfolk out of Oklahoma. Team speed needs to improve in pass coverage but Samari Rolle was awesome in 2002 and will get better this year. Special teams are solid with Joe Nedney at Kicker and Hentrich at punter, who can boot it a long way. All in all, this is a solid, well rounded, and well-coached team with loads of talent. They should fight it out with Indy for the division and at worst be a wild card team in 2003. This is agreat road team and is worth a look laying small points on the road against beatable teams. They covered 3 out of their last 4 on the road last season.
Rank #2 Indianapolis Colts
Projected record 9-7
Many writers love the Colts and Tony Dungy`s new defense this season, I do not. The defense is still in development and lacks the speed to contend with good teams.
On offense, it is once again the Peyton Manning show, backed up by a healthy Edgrin James at RB. Picking up Tight End Dallas Clark out of Iowa was a great draft pick, and he will impact as the season goes along. The Colts spent two draft picks on the OL, which needs help and size. Marvin Harrison heads up a solid cast at WR, with Stokley and Reggie Wayne. No overwhelming speed here but some good hands. The Colts should be more balanced on offense and back up RB Rhodes did a nice job last season filling in for James, who is a big threat out of the backfield.
The defense is young, but has some talent. Dwight Freeney, Chad Bratzke are both solid and big play makers, but the rest of the cast has trouble stopping people. The basic cover-2 defense solely relies on speed and it is not there right now. A developing defense that has question marks and missed opportunities is not one that I rank high, and is average at best. The pass coverage is below average and Walt Harris is the only star in the bunch, and once again teams throwing underneath the coverage will have success. The Special teams are good as always under coach Dungy with one of the best kickers in the NFL with an accurate long leg.
Overall this is a good football team, but defense wins championships and big games, you cannot expect the offense to carry you, and if Manning goes down Brock Huard is not the answer. Too many intangibles and an "also ran" in 2003, I see a possible wild card berth if they play to their full potential, and James has to have a huge year for the Colts to make a mark.
Rank #3 Jacksonville Jaguars
Projected record 7-9
Old school, hard-nosed football player Jack Del Rio takes over the helm this season, and should be a player`s type coach. He will have his hands full this season in a tough division and a very tough schedule opening at Carolina, whose defense once again and team overall will surprise many in the NFL this year. A true test to start out with for sure.
Many off-season trades were made to bring in some much needed talent and experience here, and drafting Byron Leftwich will cause some controversy at QB if Mark Brunell struggles again. Oh my, what a first year coach wants. The offensive line was a problem in 2002, and no trades were made to beef it up in the off-season, which is a huge concern given Fred Taylor`s injury bug every year, although he played in all 16 games last year. This offensive line is this teams weakness, even with all the talent in the world at QB and RB, this unit is key to the Jags success and I see no improvement. The receivers are not as good as one would think, Jimmy Smith is not super fast but has good hands. They banked on WR Donald Hayes who was a dud in New England in free agency, and have a no name cast headed up by Kevin Lockett, who is average at best. They need to pick up a veteran in training camp to shore this unit up.
John Pease is gone as defensive coordinator and Mike Smith is in. Jack Del Rio will have his hands all over this defense, and I expect a tough nosed, aggressive unit headed up by free agent Hugh Douglas. A pass rush is sorely needed, and I think this crew will improve overall, as the defense is average at best, so someone needs to step it up and set a tone in 2003. The season hinges on this happening. Getting the Colts top guy, Mike Peterson in free agency was a great addition to LB`s and will improve a soft middle but once again the DB`s are small and average at best. Special teams were horrible last year and hopefully Bill Bates from Dallas Cowboy fame can heat things up on special teams. A trough first year for Del Rio, but one in which this team should compete.
Rank #4 Houston Texans
Projected record 6-10
I like this team and they will cover numerous spreads this season. David Carr was as good as advertised and Dom Capers did an excellent job last season. That being said, reality strikes hard, and this team has a brutal opening schedule with games on the road at Miami, New Orleans and then home against a good Kansas City team. The defense returns nearly all their players, which carried the team last season, and the young but talented offense now has some experience.
On offense the QB position is solid with Carr, Tony Banks and draft pick Dave Ragone out of Louisville. A solid and cheap pick in round 3. Stacey Mack was picked up in the off-season for some backfield experience, and Andre Johnson at WR out of Miami was their top draft pick and a good one. He will start, and his speed and talent will cause numerous problems, even as a rookie for many defenders, if Carr is given time to throw it to him. They need a big time RB to complement the attack and throw to as well. This will be their weakness along with a young offensive line.
The defense will have to carry this team again, and they should do a decent job again. They run a 3-4 defense stressing the linebackers, and they have some good ones, but depth is a problem on defense, so if this unit can stay healthy, they should shut some people down. They are quick and aggressive. Coleman and Glenn are very good DB`s and cover deep well with speed and are big hitters for little guys. Kris Brown is a solid kicker and will be counted on to win some games. A year of struggles, but improvements. The offense has to get better before they contend for the divisions elite spot.
By Tony George www.sportsaudioshows.com