2014 AFC South Preview: The Worst Division in Football?
Sometimes, it's better to be lucky than good. If you're a fan of any AFC South team, you are certainly the former, because your team is not the latter.
Every defense in the division finished 21st or worse in our Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (adjusted referring to adjustments made for strength of schedule) rankings last season, with the Jaguars and Texans sporting two of the three worst offenses in the NFL. In other words, the division is wide open for all the wrong reasons.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Chance of Winning Division: 5.4%
Offensive Rank: 32nd
Defensive Rank: 31st
Only two teams finished last season with an Adjusted Offensive NEP lower than -100. The Jaguars were one of them, and finished as our 32nd-ranked offense.
Only four teams finished last season with an Adjusted Defensive NEP higher than 100 (defensive metrics favor lower numbers, as a higher number means "allowing" more NEP to the opponent). The Jaguars were one of them, and finished as our 31st-ranked defense.
It's been rough for the Jaguars over the past few years, as they seek to rebuild an NFL franchise from the ground up. The numbers above indicate a team that finished 100 points off of the pace of what an expected defense would do in a similar situation on both sides of the ball, which speaks to the incredible lack of talent handed to relatively new head coach Gus Bradley.
Yet the Jags fought through and won a few games last season, finishing on a somewhat positive stretch of four wins in eight games. That's because the offense started to find a rhythm, with Chad Henne and Cecil Shorts emerging as the leaders of an offense without suspended Justin Blackmon and awful Blaine Gabbert.
The defense has been bolstered with some former Seattle talent along the defensive line, and there are promising young defensive backs in Jacksonville, too. If they can get good enough quarterback play (and sufficient healthy receivers for those passers to throw to), they could be a bit more respectable than their ranking indicates.
But with an expected loss to an average team of nearly 11 points, it's clear it's still quite the uphill journey to get the Jaguars back to where they want to be.
3. Houston Texans
Chance of Winning Division: 21.1%
Offensive Rank: 31st
Defensive Rank: 18th
Unlike the Jaguars, who ended last season on a high note, the Texans ended with a decrescendo of 14 straight losses, resulting in the removal of their head coach and a trip to the podium with the first pick of the 2014 Draft.
The offense was a total disaster, finishing 30th in the league, with Matt Schaub seemingly working as an undercover agent for opposing teams, turning the ball over far too often and failing to do anything positive when he missed the hands of opponents with his throws. Case Keenum didn't provide anything to write home about, either, so the Texans sought out a new starter in free agency.
Ryan Fitzpatrick will take over under center for the Texans, and he's gradually improved over the past few years, and is well ahead of either of Houston's signal-callers last season according to our metrics. Combine him with a hopefully healthy Arian Foster and a duo of solid receiving options in Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, and there's reason to be hopeful that the Houston offense isn't as bad as it seems.
The defense has similar aspirations to exceed expectations, as the best defensive player in the league, J.J. Watt, is joined by the best defensive player in the draft, Jadeveon Clowney, to form a ridiculous 1-2 punch in the front-seven of the Houston defense. But the rest of the defense leaves a bit to be desired, and must see improvement to help account for an offense that was near the bottom of the league last season.
Yet somehow, despite being ranked 30th in our overall rankings, the Texans have a one-in-five chance of winning the AFC South. A solid year from a few role players could see Houston go from worst-to-first quicker than many expected.
2. Tennessee Titans
Chance of Winning Division: 36.6%
Offensive Rank: 15th
Defensive Rank: 27th
The Tennesse defense finished 21st last season in our metrics, and that made it the best defense in the division. That speaks volumes about the quality of defending in the AFC South.
The Titans have lost Alterraun Verner from that bottom-half-of-the-league defense, and they don't have a ton of new talent to excite anyone about the prospects of improving on that side of the ball this season.
The offense does offer some interesting options, as Jake Locker assumes his starting role yet again, and hopes to pick up where he left off last season, when he was playing significantly better than he did in 2012.
But the 2013 Titans would finish 12th on offense thanks in large part to the aforementioned Fitzpatrick, who took over a team ranked 17th after Week 9 (the last full game Locker would play) and would improve them by five spots over the final two months.
So Locker must stay healthy (a tall order) and at least maintain (if not exceed) his 2013 pace to keep the Tennessee offense on track. He'll do so with better play at running back, however, as Chris Johnson finally departs, opening up opportunities for a back to get a fair chance at proving to Titans fans just how overrated Johnson was during his time with the team.
The Titans are a dead heat with the Colts to win the division despite a wealth of question marks on both sides of the ball. But a strong year from Locker and a stable of running backs more than accounting for the departure of Johnson could see the Titans' offense carry them to an AFC South title.
1. Indianapolis Colts
Chance of Winning Division: 36.9%
Offensive Rank: 11th
Defensive Rank: 24th
The Colts, like the other three teams in the AFC South, have a negative nERD, meaning they would lose to an average NFL team by about a point according to our metrics and algorithms. That makes the AFC South the only division in the NFL to feature four "below average" teams.
Indianapolis might seem a bit underrated, ranked 18th in our team rankings, but coming off of a season with a bottom-10 defense and an offense that wasn't quite good enough to compensate, it's not as outlandish as it seems.
The loss of Donald Brown means there are fewer viable running back options behind disappointing Trent Richardson, who was the third-worst player in our Rushing NEP statistic last season. Andrew Luck proved to be a fairly impressive runner when he decided to take off with the ball, but that isn't enough to keep the running game afloat in Indy.
Luck's arm didn't stand out as much as you might expect, either. His Passing NEP earned him a 15th place ranking among all quarterbacks last year, behind Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and Andy Dalton. Luck has undeniable talent, but the metrics don't match the scouting report quite yet for the promising young gunslinger.
The defense may be the real Achilles Heel for the Colts, however, as a talent-poor squad will face an uphill battle with Robert Mathis suspended for the first month of the season. By the time he returns, the Colts will have already faced two very tough offenses (Denver and Philadelphia) along with two division foes (Jacksonville and Tennessee).
There are good players on offense for Indianapolis, and that may be enough to win them the division by default. But they certainly have work to do to make up for the deficiencies on the defense, especially with Mathis sitting out a month to start the year.