In this week’s Wiseguy Report, I’ll continue my summer series, breaking down one NFL division each week. This week, it’s time to take an in-depth look at the four teams from the AFC South, with some very early leans regarding their expected improvement or decline in 2016. As always, within the division, I’ll list the teams in alphabetical order (NOT in predicted order of finish).
The Houston Texans went 9-7 SU, 9-7 ATS and 9-7 to the Over last year. They won the AFC South for one reason and one reason only – Andrew Luck got hurt, allowing the Texans to dominate the rest of their division rivals with a 5-1 mark. They only beat two teams with a winning record – Cinci on a bad Andy Dalton day, and the Jets, when New York was slumping midseason in the midst of a 1-4 stretch. The Texans defense was clearly their strong point, finishing with the #3 stop unit in the NFL based on mainstream stats. It is worth noting how healthy that defense was, losing only eleven games from their starters all season!
Houston’s 2016 schedule is a good notch or two tougher than it was last year. Their first three road games come at New England, Minnesota and Denver. Then, the Texans get only one home game from Halloween through late December, playing four roadies in five weeks with a bye.
Let’s be real about grading the Texans offseason. They made one huge move – signing former Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler to a fat free agent contract. Denver saw what Osweiler could do and chose the unknown quarterback void over re-upping a player they had been around for four years. If Osweiler plays above replacement level, this team has enough skill position talent and defensive stardom to be a legit AFC contender. But if Osweiler crashes and burns, and or the defense can’t stay healthy, it might be a long year for Bill O’Brien and company.
The 2015 Indianapolis Colts were a true model of mediocrity, finishing 8-8 SU, 8-8 ATS and 8-8 Over/Under in their 16 ballgames. They went .500 despite some awful mainstream numbers: the #28 ranked offense, #26 ranked defense and a -5 turnover margin. The Colts compiled those numbers against a true league average slate of opponents, very comparable to this year’s schedule in terms of toughness.
Andrew Luck was riddled with injuries last year, playing behind a very suspect offensive line with mediocre skill position talent surrounding him. Luck enters his fifth NFL season with only one previous campaign where his QB rating was above 87. He’s completed more than 60% of his passes only once in those four years. Only once has he averaged less than an interception per game. And only once has he averaged 7.0 yards per pass or higher.
Most of those relatively mediocre numbers are not Luck’s fault. His offensive line is still loaded with question marks. The defense routinely hasn’t been able to get off the field. Indy’s skill position talent remains mediocre at best. They made no splashy free agent signings, still suffering salary cap woes from previous offseason spending sprees. Their schedule offers a legit possibility for a 5-2/6-1 type start, but things get much tougher down the stretch: at Green Bay, at the New York Jets, at Minnesota, and at Oakland in their last four roadies plus the Chiefs, Steelers and Texans at home. A hot start for Indy might not correlate with a hot finish.
After years of true bottom feeder status, the Jacksonville Jaguars showed some legitimate signs of improvement last year, despite finishing 5-11 SU with a losing record ATS. Their mainstream stats weren’t very good: #18 on offense, #24 on defense and -10 in turnovers, ranked #29 out of 23 NFL teams in that key category.
Head coach Gus Bradley is clearly on the hot seat as he enters his fourth season on the job. Jacksonville has ranked 20th or worse in DVOA (a key advanced metric defensive stat) in each of the last four years, even though Bradley – the original architect of the Seattle Seahawks stop unit – was brought in to fix this leaky defense.
On paper, that defense looks MUCH better in 2016. They signed impact defenders Malik Jackson and Tashaun Gipson in free agency. They drafted potential impact rookies with their first two picks in Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack. And they’ll get last year’s #3 overall draft pick Dante Fowler back, after he went out for the year in his very first practice with the team last summer. That’s a major talent upgrade for a team that is already loaded with young skill position playmakers.
There is one big red flag surrounding the Jags however – their schedule. Last year, they won only five games despite facing one of the weakest opposing slates in the league. This year, their schedule toughens considerably when you analyze based on the 2016 season win total numbers. In fact, only two teams have a greater year-over-year jump in strength of schedule than the Jags do – they could legitimately get better this year without having a .500 record to show for it.
And then there’s the Tennessee Titans, who finished with the worst record in the NFL in 2015, earning the #1 draft choice as a result. The Titans did the smart thing with that draft choice, trading it to LA and netting two #1’s, two #2’s and two #3’s over the next few years. That being said, this team had the worst record in the league last year for a reason – there are holes all over this roster, most of which were NOT filled this past offseason.
Tennessee's 3-13 record last year was nearly mirrored by their ATS mark, covering only four spreads all season. And none of their three wins was even remotely impressive, beating the Bucs when Tampa wasn’t ready in Week 1, the Saints in OT and the Jaguars by a field goal. Meanwhile, seven of their losses came by two TDs or more.
The Titans have a tougher schedule this year compared to last. They have room to improve on their -14 turnover margin, ranked #31 in the NFL, but with a young QB in Marcus Mariota, a very limited group of skill position weapons around him, and a bottom tier defense, it’s hard to picture this sorry team putting together a positive turnover margin in 2016.
The Titans retained interim head coach Mike Mularkey despite the fact that he’s gone 9-32 as a head coach in his last three stops since an inaugural 9-7 campaign with the Bills back in 2004. Tennessee can consider this a successful season if their upgraded offensive line -- drafted Jack Conklin #1, signed C Ben Jones from Houston, and now with a healthy Taylor Lewan in 3rd year at the other tackle spot –gels and allows Mariota to develop.
Next week? NFC South!