Houston Texans (8-8)
Key Additions: LB Brian Cushing, DE Antonio Smith, DE Connor Barwin
Key Subtractions: RB Ahman Green, QB Sage Rosenfels
Andre Johnson was the key part of the fourth best passing attack in football last year, and if Matt Schaub can stay healthy, there's no reason that ranking can't move up. Of course, that's no sure thing, given that he's only played in eleven games in each of his first two seasons in Houston. RB Green would be a more notable subtraction if Steve Slaton hadn't developed into a high caliber option at tailback. The major concern though, is getting into the end zone. Even with the third most total yardage in football, the Texans were just 17th in points scored. Slaton has to help that, but TE Owen Daniels also carries a responsibility to be a red zone receiving option. He had just two touchdowns last season.
The defense looks to still be a year away from making any big strides, but there's plenty of talent in line to produce. Veteran safety Eugene Wilson is the centerpiece of a defense mostly comprised of players drafted between 2006 and 2009. If the youngsters mature quickly, this defense could get better in a hurry. If not...well, Texans fans had better hope that 4,400 yards passing was a floor for this offense.
Projected 2009 record: 9-7
Indianapolis Colts (12-4)
Key Additions: RB Donald Brown, DT Fili Moala
Key Subtractions: WR Marvin Harrison, RB Dominic Rhodes
As the old saying goes, "If it's not broke, don't fix it." That's the story with the Colts, who won at least ten games and made the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year, coinciding with Tony Dungy's tenure as head coach. Following such success puts a lot of pressure on new head coach Jim Caldwell, but the talent is all there for another successful season.
Peyton Manning recorded his ninth career season with at least 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns. Yes, by the way, it is time to start talking about him among the all-time great quarterbacks. Dominic Rhodes was replaced by rookie Donald Brown out of Connecticut, who has been wowing people in camp and preseason. Joseph Addai is still the starter, but it's obvious that Brown will play a considerable role in the offense. The loss of Harrison isn't as big as it seems, as his production had slipped considerably last season. At age 37, it's unlikely he'll see any major bounceback, so the time had come to move on. Anthony Gonzalez will never be as good as Harrison or Reggie Wayne, but he'll be good enough to keep this offense chugging along.
The defense, meanwhile, continues to be what it's been for years: great pass rush, good pass defense, inept run defense. The advantage comes when the offense and defense both act like themselves in the same game. When Manning puts up points, he forces opponents to pass the ball, playing into the Colts defenders' hands. Dwight Freeney remains an elite pass rusher, but the other defensive end, Robert Mathis, has quietly become just as productive, averaging ten sacks per season over the past five years. So, like always, the game plan against the Colts is, "Don't let Peyton Manning beat you." Good luck.
Projected 2009 record: 12-4
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
Key Additions: WR Torry Holt, S Sean Considine, OT Eugene Monroe
Key Subtractions: RB Fred Taylor, WR Matt Jones, S Gerald Sensabaugh
Okay, so I was a year early when I predicted the Jaguars would be terrible in 2007. Let's not dwell on the past. And what I mean by that is, let's not dwell on the old Jaguars defense that was so good, and let's instead look at the new Jaguars defense, which isn't that good. They've got a high-caliber, big-play secondary, but the front line isn't nearly what it used to be. Nobody on the team had more than 4.5 sacks, and cornerback Brian Williams led the team in tackles. Swapping out Sensabaugh for Considine isn't a big change in talent or syllables.
The offense is going to have to all go through RB Maurice Jones-Drew. With Taylor moving north to New England, MJD has the whole backfield to himself, and he'd better produce, because there's not much else to get excited about here. Holt should still be productive, but how can you get excited about him when he's not even better than Matt Jones, the guy he's replacing? David Garrard threw an absurdly low three interceptions in 2007, and the team won 11 games. He threw a more normal 13 picks last year, and the team finished 5-11. I expect more of the latter this year.
Projected 2009 record: 5-11
Tennessee Titans (13-3)
Key Additions: WR Kenny Britt, WR Nate Washington
Key Subtractions: DT Albert Haynesworth, WR Brandon Jones
The Titans were one of the big surprises last year, and that was due in no small part to the emergence of rookie running back Chris Johnson, and his ability to perfectly complement LenDale White in a speed/power combo. They each found the end zone at least ten times last season, and combined for over 2,000 yards rushing. This ground game allowed Kerry Collins to stay within himself, and he was able to do so perfectly, turning the ball over just 8 times. More impressive, however, is the fact that he was only sacked 8 times as well, an obscene number for any starting quarterback. The additions of Nate Washington (if he can get healthy) and Britt give Collins a more skilled receiving corps, so who knows, maybe the offense could be more balanced this season.
Haynesworth's departure leaves a huge space in the middle of the defensive line (literally and metaphorically). The Titans still have six players who had at least three sacks last season, and their starting secondary had 18 INTs between them last season, so the pass defense should be up to the task. But Haynesworth was a huge body and a big factor in stuffing the run, and that could get opened up with him out of town.
The reality is that Tennessee got a lot of breaks last season, and executed a lot of performances that they're unlikely to repeat. I've always been a fan of Jeff Fisher, and I like a lot of Titans players. That's why I'm sure they'll be disappointing.
Projected 2009 record: 9-7
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