2015 AFC South Preview: Can Anyone Keep Up With the Indianapolis Colts?
Finding a franchise quarterback is the dream of every NFL organization. Stability at the most important position on the field often keeps you in playoff contention for a decade, something the Colts are very well aware of.
For Indianapolis, the transition has been relatively seamless between Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and potential future Hall of Fame quarterback Andrew Luck, and the team has had almost 15 years of ongoing success.
But for other teams within the AFC South, the search has been ongoing, and for quite a while. In recent years, we've seen first round draft picks like Blaine Gabbert, Jake Locker and Vince Young attempt to become franchise quarterbacks, yet all three failed to live up to the hype. Now young guns like Marcus Mariota, Blake Bortles and perhaps even Ryan Mallett will look to provide hope for their new franchises and provide competition for the greatness that is Andrew Luck.
It wouldn't be a stretch to say they have their work cut out for them.
To see who may have a shot to unseat the Colts, I'll take a look at the data on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball using numberFire's signature metric, Net Expected Points (NEP), in order to gain a better understanding of how these teams might improve (or decline) from what we saw in 2014, a baseline for where the teams were when we last saw them, and how their 2015 squad might improve upon or regress from that baseline. NEP measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average player would be expected to perform in each scenario using historical data, and a player’s or team's NEP indicates how they performed relative to that expectation. You can learn more about NEP here in our glossary.
So after an offseason of rebuilding and retooling, the Texans, Jaguars and Titans have hope that perhaps 2015 is their year, and that the two-year reign of Andrew Luck and the Colts will come to end. But can any of them really provide a challenge in the AFC South?
4. Tennessee Titans
It's back to the drawing board for the Tennessee Titans, who started three different quarterbacks in 2014 on their way to ranking 30th in the NFL in total points.
Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst and Zach Mettenberger all proved to be below average players, winning only two games combined. Their struggles allowed the team to select Marcus Mariota with the second pick in the 2015 draft, and their future depends on his ability to adapt from the college spread to an NFL offense.
Unfortunately, he will be working with a collection of underperforming skill position players,
Kendall Wright was utilized primarily as a possession target, averaging just 12.5 yards per reception and posting a Reception Success Rate percentage of 71.93%. That was eighth worst in the NFL in 2014. His Reception NEP per target was a pedestrian 0.56 (and just 0.58 in his "breakout" 2013 season), which put him in the same range as Robert Woods (0.56) and Jerricho Cotchery (0.57)
The team's attempt to feature Justin Hunter was a flop, with Hunter converting just 28 of his 67 targets. In addition, only Brandon Lloyd and Travis Benjamin posted a lower catch rate than his 41.79%. He was also arrested a few weeks ago for assault, although that investigation is ongoing. On the bright side, on the rare occasion that he did catch one of his targets, he was extremely productive with a 96.43% Success Rate (fifth in the NFL).
The team's most effective target ended up being 30-year-old tight end Delanie Walker, who led the team with 63 catches for 890 yards. But his catch rate of 60% was fourth worst in the NFL for tight ends with more than 50 targets, and his Reception NEP per target of 0.61 was comparable to Heath Miller.
In an attempt to surround Mariota with more talent, the team spent a second round pick on the talented yet raw Dorial Green-Beckham, who has the skill set of a dominant receiver if he can put it all together. The team also signed veteran slot receiver Harry Douglas, who seems a bit redundant to the role Kendall Wright plays.
While the team has invested in their offensive line, they were just the 28th ranked unit according to Pro Football Focus and struggled to create lanes for underwhelming rookie running back Bishop Sankey. He likely leads a platoon backfield with fifth-round pick David Cobb and change-of-pace back Dexter McCluster, but there's probably not much to see here.
While there's talent on this team, it's likely optimistic to think that any player will produce on a consistent basis. If Mariota can adapt to the NFL quicker than expected, then perhaps Walker and Wright will be viable starters, but this could be another difficult year for the Titans offense. .
The Titans were not much better defensively, ranking 31st in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and 29th in points allowed. In terms of Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP they were tied for 30th in the league with 0.18. Only Tampa Bay (0.19) and Washington (0.27) were worse.
To improve those marks, the team went out and signed pass-rusher Brian Orakpo, who is great when healthy, but has missed 24 games the past three seasons. If he can stay on the field, he will combine with Derrick Morgan to provide a strong pass rush outside stud defensive lineman Jurrell Casey.
The Titans secondary was pushed around last year by opposing offenses, leading the team to sign free agent corner Perrish Cox from the 49ers and safety DaNorris Searcy from Buffalo. Both are solid additions and upgrades at their respective positions.
And while Cox will start outside, it's still noteworthy that opposing quarterbacks had a 110.8 passer rating when throwing at incumbent starter Blidi Wreh-Wilson last year, and he is currently receiving first team snaps at slot corner back.
This is a team that has upgraded their roster in many ways, but that still is likely to struggle on both offense and defense. Look for them to be basement dwellers again in the AFC South.
Projected Record: 6.2-9.8
Division Probability: 6.5%
Playoff Probability: 11.9%
3. Jacksonville Jaguars
It was a miserable start to the Blake Bortles era last year after he was thrust into action despite preseason assertions from coaches and the general manager that he would sit on the bench for a season and learn. A fantastic preseason led coaches to rush Bortles into action, but with inexperience and average talent around him he proved to be overwhelmed from the beginning.
The rookie quarterback posted an NFL worst -0.18 Passing NEP per drop back, and he was sacked 55 times in just 13 games. And with only 11 touchdowns to 17 interceptions, the team struggled to score the ball, ranking last in the NFL in points-per-game at just 15.6.
In addition to the struggles they had up front, Bortles was also throwing to three rookie wide receivers in Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee and Allen Hurns. While all three had moments, their inexperience certainly didn't help Bortles progress, and the team will need all of them to step up moving forward.
The good news is the team parted ways with the ineffective Cecil Shorts, who posted an abysmal 0.30 Reception NEP per target, worst in the NFL for receivers with more than 35 targets.
While the three rookies struggled at times last year, each was more efficient than Shorts and the word out of Jaguars camp is that Robinson looks fantastic coming off of his season ending foot injury.
Jacksonville also made significant upgrades to the offensive line, spending a third-round pick on AJ Cann and signing Stefen Wisniewski and Jermey Parnell in free agency. The team is also hopeful that former number two overall pick Luke Joeckel will improve and become the franchise left tackle they drafted him to be.
Thomas was catching passes from Peyton Manning, but he still provides an athletic and talented target for Bortles, especially in the red zone. This is a player who has 24 touchdowns in his last 27 games.
The team also upgraded its running back position by drafting all-purpose back T.J. Yeldon in the second round, and he will move the ineffective Toby Gerhart to the bench and Denard Robinson to more of a change-of-pace role. The hope is that the rookie will add a more consistent and powerful presence to their ground attack, opening up the play action passing game for Bortles.
But perhaps the most important addition for this team was offensive coordinator Greg Olsen, who coached Josh Freeman to a fantastic season in 2012 and has worked wonders with many quarterbacks not named Blaine Gabbert. While he may not be the best coordinator in the NFL, he certainly provides more expertise than Jedd Fisch.
This is a young offense that needs a lot of players to develop in order to improve. However, amidst the disaster that was the Jaguars 2014 season were flashes of greatness from Bortles, Hurns and Robinson. Perhaps time is all they need to develop into competent NFL starters.
The Jaguars showed signs of improvement on the defensive side in 2014, but still finished just 26th in points allowed per game (25.8) but 17th in our Adjusted Defensive NEP per play.
Any optimism, however, has been tarnished due to injury, with the third overall pick Dante Fowler Jr. tearing his ACL on the first day of rookie camp and dominant defensive tackle Sen'Derrick Marks still recovering from a torn ACL from Week 17 of last season. 34-year-old Chris Clemons is the likely fill-in for Fowler at the important Leo position in this defense.
The team returns linebacker and leader Paul Posluszny after a pectoral injury sidelined him for most of the 2014 season. But heading into his age-31 season and with significant injuries on his resume, it remains to be seen how effective he can really be.
The Jaguars also added defensive lineman Jared Odrick, a former first-round pick of the Dolphins who has underwhelmed but has talent. He could ease the loss of tackle Red Bryant and play a strong role next to Marks when he returns.
At defensive back, the team gets an infusion of talent with the additions of corners Davon House and 2014 fourth-round pick Aaron Colvin, who is returning from injury. House is young and has the length that head coach Gus Bradley prefers coming from that Seahawks system, and Colvin was thought by many to be a first round talent last season before he tore his ACL in the Senior Bowl and dropped in the draft.
Jacksonville also drafted safety James Sample in the fourth-round and signed Sergio Brown from the Colts to fill in until the rookie is healthy. They will split time alongside former second round pick Jonathan Cyprien, who continues to develop into a reliable playmaker in the defensive backfield.
Without Marks and Fowler, however, there aren't many great players on this defense, and they should be expected to struggle once again in 2015.
Projected Record: 6.4-9.6
Division Probability: 8.1%
Playoff Probability: 13.7%
2. Houston Texans
While the Arian Foster injury has forced me to go back to the drawing board with a Houston projection, it no doubt hurts the Texans more than it has hurt me. Foster was once again positioned to be the centerpiece of a run-heavy offense that simply lacks the talent at quarterback to compete on a week to week basis.
In 2014 and with Foster for the majority of the season, the Texans finished 14th in points per game (23.2) and 24th in Adjusted NEP per play (0.01). Meaning they were barely scraping by on offense on their way to a 9-7 record, relying heavily on their top ranked defense (more on them later).
With Foster sidelined for potentially a significant chunk of the season (if placed on PUP his earliest return date would be Week 10), the team will presumably turn to a committee approach with Alfred Blue as the lead back.
The team added former Eagles back Chris Polk this offseason, but he was used sparingly in Philadelphia and it remains to be seen if he can have any value for this team. It looks extremely likely that the Texans will add a veteran back to their roster in the days ahead, but even as a committee it will be tough for them to even attempt to replicate the value that Foster produced.
The injury news does not bode well for the chances of quarterbacks Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer, who are locked in a mediocre competition for the starting job. While neither was inept, we didn't see much in 2014 that would make us optimistic for this coming season.
Hoyer posted comparable passing numbers to Kyle Orton and Cam Newton, with all three posting a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.04. While Newton makes up any passing deficiencies with his ability on the ground, Hoyer and Orton are more journeymen players with average arm talent. They likely need an elite supporting cast in order to be effective.
Mallett has a huge arm, but had only 76 pass attempts and struggled to add any value to the Houston passing attack. While the early expectation is that Hoyer would win the job, the team clearly would like the younger and more "flashy" Mallett to become their starter.
Whoever wins the job will be throwing to ascending third year receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who will likely dominate targets if the team struggles on the ground without Foster. Hopkins was 16th in the NFL in Reception NEP at 96.06 and is still only 23 years old.
Unfortunately for them, Cecil Shorts was the worst receiver in the NFL last season according to our metrics, recording a -27.32 Target NEP, which is eighth worst at the position since the 2000 season. He really hasn't been very good since a breakout sophomore season in 2012.
Nate Washington looks to be in the drivers seat to start alongside Hopkins, and he's been an effective role player throughout his career.
Neither Garrett Graham nor CJ Fiedorowicz did much to distinguish themselves at the tight end position last season, and neither looks to be a major target in the passing game.
Either way, this an offense that looks poised to struggle without their best player, making it difficult them to push Indianapolis for the division title despite a tremendous defense.
NFL Defensive Player of the Year and MVP candidate J.J. Watt led the most impressive defense in the NFL according to our metrics, with an Adjusted Defensive NEP per play of -0.05, despite a mediocre offense. They ranked seventh in the NFL in points allowed per game with a mark of 19.2, and that was without the number-one overall pick Jadeveon Clowney playing the majority of the season.
In 2015, this unit could be even better, especially if Clowney and ILB Brian Cushing can return from injury to be the dominant forces they are capable of being.
The team also signed massive nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who at 34 may not possess the pass rushing prowess he once possessed, but is still a beast against the run when healthy.
Gone are the top three safeties from the depth chart in 2014 (Kendrick Lewis, D.J. Swearinger and Danieal Manning), but most would consider them to have been average at best on the back end. The team replaced them with Stevie Brown, who is an upgrade when healthy (another IF), and Rahim Moore. They should provide stability and playmaking ability on the backend.
The Texans also invested a first round pick in cornerback/safety Kevin Johnson, who is already impressing in camp and will be a great addition to an already strong position alongside Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson.
In the second round Houston nabbed inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who should start alongside Cushing and may eventually replace him in the center of this defense.
While there are a lot of additions with recent injury issues, on paper this unit could be special! It's unfortunate that they won't have the help of a functional offense, or this could really be a team on the rise. As it is the defense should be able to keep them in games, although a playoff birth seems farfetched with Arian Foster watching from the sidelines.
Projected Record: 8.6-7.4
Division Probability: 36.5%
Playoff Probability: 52.3%
1. Indianapolis Colts
As with most elite quarterbacks, Andrew Luck is able to cover a lot of warts on the team around him. Surrounded by subpar talent up front, on defense and at running back, the Colts star player has found a way to elevate a flawed team to back-to-back division titles and a likely third title in 2015.
The offense ranked sixth in the NFL in Adjusted Passing NEP and also sixth in points per game at 28.6 last year, despite below average performances from significant contributors in the passing game and being tied for 28th in the NFL in Adjusted Rushing NEP.
Perhaps recognizing some of those flaws, the team jettisoned ineffective offensive players like Hakeem Nicks, Trent Richardson and Reggie Wayne, who was a shell of his former self due to injuries and age. The team also did not resign the more effective Ahmad Bradshaw after nagging injuries continue to cut into his potential.
Johnson projects as an immediate starter next to T.Y. Hilton, although it remains to be seen if his ineffectiveness last season was due to poor quarterback play in Houston or just regression as he approaches his mid-30s.
While Johnson's 3.71 Target NEP is better than anything Nicks (-3.74) or Wayne (-0.99) accomplished, it is still incredibly subpar for a receiver with over 100 targets. Consider that Kelvin Benjamin, hardly an efficient receiver himself, posted a 36.98 Target NEP on one fewer target than Johnson. At best he has the look of a solid possession target, as his paltry 0.38 Reception NEP per target demonstrates a lack of big play ability last season.
That being said, big-play ability is not missing in this offense, with Hilton, Dorsett and Donte Moncrief providing explosive athleticism and ability for Andrew Luck to utilize.
In addition, both Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener have shown flashes of being effective weapons at the tight end position, although both posted catch rates under 60%, which you'd like to see them improve. Fleener especially has struggled to catch the ball in traffic (or sometimes when he's wide open), but has the skill set to be a great weapon. Allen just needs to stay healthy, having missed 15 games in 2013 and three this past season.
At running back, neither Trent Richardson or Ahmad Bradshaw were particularly effective on the ground, with the duo posting Rushing NEP per rush totals of -0.09 and -0.05, respectively. Richardson was about as effective as Bishop Sankey.
Where the team will miss Bradshaw most is as a receiver, where he was one of the most effective running backs in the league. Only Eddie Lacy and Le'Veon Bell had a higher Target NEP than Bradshaw (23.55), and his Reception NEP was only 3.07 points less than Matt Forte's despite 62 fewer receptions.
In steps Frank Gore, who was rarely used in the passing game during the Jim Harbaugh years, but was a solid weapon in the five years preceding that.
While his 2014 season was below average in many respects (he was about as effective as Terrance West or Alfred Morris on a per carry basis), many predict he will finally see favorable fronts playing for a dominant quarterback, something he has never had during his career.
While I'm not nearly as optimistic that we will see Gore return to his glory days (he is 32, has had below average efficiency over the past two years, and doesn't have the benefit of the read option attack or threat of a running quarterback anymore), there is no doubt that he is an upgrade over Trent Richardson.
My affection for rookie Josh Robinson is already well documented, and I own as many dynasty shares of him as I possibly can. Should Gore falter, he would be in line for a significant workload as the power compliment to Dan Herron.
At the end of the day, this is an offense you want shares in. They seem primed to exceed their fantastic totals from 2015, and have made significant improvements across the board.
In contrast to their high-flying offense, the Colts defense was limited and decidedly average, ranking 19th in points allowed at 23.1 per game and 16th in adjusted Defensive NEP per play. Their mediocrity was especially evident in the AFC Championship game where they were blown out by Tom Brady and his deflated balls.
Sack master Robert Mathis, who had 19.5 sacks in 2013, hopes to return from an Achilles injury that forced him to miss the 2014 season, but remains on the active PUP list at the start of training camp. 33-year-old Trent Cole was signed as insurance if case his recovery doesn't go as planned.
The team also added solid veteran players like defensive end Kendall Langford, linebacker Nate Irving and safety Dwight Lowery. None project to be major contributors, but all can provide stability at positions of need.
It has been a relatively slow transition from a 4-3 defense to the 3-4 Head Coach Chuck Pagano prefers, but each year they continue to add (via free agency and the draft) players who fit the system. While it is unlikely that they make a significant jump as a unit in 2015, they should once again be good enough to allow the Colts to capture another division title.
Projected Record: 9.1-6.9
Division Probability: 48.9%
Playoff Probability: 62.0%
The Battle for the AFC South
While there was optimism that perhaps Houston could push the Colts for the division title, that hope appears to be as damaged as Arian Foster's groin. While Marcus Mariota and perhaps even Blake Bortles have the potential to improve and become great weapons in the NFL, neither can hold a candle to the player that Andrew Luck is for the Colts.
And without effective quarterback play for those teams, it is almost a certainty that Indianapolis will run away with this division once again in 2015.