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Old 05-07-2004   #1
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Default Closing the gap in the AFC South (PFW)

Good article on the AFC South on PFW's website about how this division is getting tighter and tighter. The Colts and Titans better watch out, because those foot prints are about to squash them!

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Texans, Jaguars making push, closing gap on Titans, Colts

The Jaguars and Texans believe they have made adequate personnel maneuvers to bolster their rosters and make a run at Indianapolis and Tennessee atop the AFC South.

PFW: Two months before training camp, how would you handicap this division?

Reynolds: The free world seems to be choosing the Colts as the favorite in the AFC South. They are the defending champions and did win 14 games last season with an average defense. But, for our money, the Colts must first answer a groundswell of defensive questions before we pencil them in for the Super Bowl in Jacksonville. They did little to quell concern about a lack of talent at strong-side linebacker, the position Marcus Washington vacated to bolt for Washington. Two of the Colts’ top three cornerbacks — David Macklin and Walt Harris — also are gone. Nick Harper played well in spots, but either Donald Strickland (he played mostly safety in 2003) or Joe Jefferson, a small-school product yet to catch up to NFL speed because of injuries, has to perform. Rookie Jason David, a 5-foot-8 speed merchant, could be the best of the lot by midseason. We like the Colts’ offense — who wouldn’t? — and can see them rolling up 10 or more wins without much help from the defense.

The Titans did a fine job restocking in the draft. Travis LaBoy or Antwan Odom will step right in and start, and with Kevin Carter moving inside, there should be little concern about the NFL’s top run defense showing up again this year. The Titans still don’t have a proven commodity at nickel cornerback. Andre Woolfolk, who missed most of his rookie season with a dislocated ankle, is back on the field, but he’s not at full strength. Tony Beckham is out with another injury, and rookies Rich Gardner (Penn State, third round) and Michael Waddell (North Carolina, fourth round) are raw. Beyond that, the Titans must prove they can run the football. Eddie George remains a candidate to be cut post-June 1. With George, the Titans are likely to throw the ball 500 times this season rather than get 2.9 yards per pop out of their 31-year-old back.

Jacksonville, even according to Jeff Fisher, is a team to watch. Its defense was the best in the league against the run (average gain per rush) and second in rush yards allowed per game. The Jaguars also ranked 12th in total offense — this with a rookie quarterback. RB Fred Taylor is emerging as a perennial Pro Bowl performer and shaken the “soft” label he earned early in his career. Jacksonville has an underrated offensive line, and WR Jimmy Smith showed up at minicamp ready to compete for the No. 1 WR job — Smith was down almost 10 pounds and “as fast as I’ve seen him,” according to one coach. As per norm with young teams, the Jaguars must learn to win on the road. They open the season with a rough four-game stretch that will tell us just how far Del Rio’s bunch has progressed — at Buffalo, vs. Denver, at Tennessee and vs. Indianapolis. We’re not sure the secondary is that much better with Juran Bolden instead of Fernando Bryant at left cornerback and FS Deke Cooper replaced by Deon Grant. In addition, the special teams will improve under veteran Pete Rodriguez, but will they improve enough?

The Texans, quietly, had a fine offseason. Early free-agent scores of DT Robaire Smith and ORT Todd Wade improve Houston on both sides of the ball. Smith played defensive end at Michigan State and, along with first-round draft choices Dunta Robinson and Jason Babin, improve the defense and its versatility (head coach Dom Capers wants to mix defensive fronts, from 3-4 to 4-3, at times, and Babin and Smith are keys to making the change on the fly). On offense, QB David Carr is in his third year and finally has a stonewall offensive line to protect him along with a potent running game. We have our doubts that Domanick Davis can hold up for a full season, as do the Texans, but Tony Hollings and Jonathan Wells are good depth, and insurance, should Davis break down. WR Andre Johnson has an extremely bright future and could easily be in the Pro Bowl in February. Johnson has the speed, size and drive to become the second-best wide receiver in the division (behind Marvin Harrison) by season’s end.

In the long run, it may be too much to ask upstarts like Jacksonville and Houston to overtake heavily talented veteran favorites like Indianapolis and Tennessee this season, but both "young" clubs are headed in the right direction. We've seen rapid turnarounds before; Capers took Carolina to the NFC title game in his second season as head coach, and John Fox (Panthers), Bill Belichick (New England) and Joe Gibbs (Washington, 1982) are examples of coaches who took their teams to the Super Bowl in their second seasons as head coaches, giving Del Rio something to strive toward.
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