Preseason Watch List: AFC South

A detailed look at the key questions facing each team in the preseason

HOUSTON TEXANS

Bill O'Brien enjoyed success in his first season in Houston, taking the league's worst team (2-14) and finishing 9-7 in spite of a gaping hole at the quarterback position. The Texans enter camp feeling great about their defense -- a unit that ranked 7th in points allowed last year in spite of 1st overall choice Jadaveon Clowney missing most of the season. There's more work to do on offense as the team tries to find a new quarterback, find a suitable replacement for Andre Johnson and, most importantly, figure out a way to deal with the early camp injury to Arian Foster that will sideline him for a good portion of the regular season.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 15 -- San Francisco 8:00 pm
  • Aug 22 -- Denver 8:00 pm
  • Aug 30 -- @New Orleans 4:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @Dallas 8:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Will Hard Knocks be a distraction? -- HBO's award-winning series Hard Knocks is coming to Houston, and many fans worry the TV show will serve as an unwanted distraction. Every season is different, but last season it certainly didn't help the Falcons (6-10).
  • Brian Hoyer versus Ryan Mallett -- Mallett is the more talented, intriguing player; but his resume is limited and there's no indication he has done enough in the preseason to win the job. Hoyer may not have Mallett's physical gifts, but he has starting experience and is more capable of managing the team in adverse conditions. The early bet is on Hoyer winning the job, but the Texans should be rooting for Mallett to displace him. You know you're getting slightly above average quarterback play from Hoyer; Mallet could be much more (or much less).
  • Who steps in for Arian Foster? -- Foster hurt his groin in the first week of camp, and had surgery that will sideline him for a good portion of the season. The team has a bevy of running backs on the roster, but none profile as a capable full-time starter. Alfred Blue is the odds on favorite but must show more than last year's 3.1 yards per rush. Chris Polk is talented, but was considered expendable by the Eagles. The team has also worked out Pierre Thomas and may look at other veteran options.
  • The starter opposite Nuke Hopkins -- DeAndre Hopkins is the clear #1 with Andre Johnson's departure, but there is a wide open competition for the #2 and #3 roles between veterans Nate Washington, Cecil Shorts and rookie Jaelen Strong. Shorts is best suited for a slot role, while Washington is a traditional vertical outside threat.
  • Is Ben Jones ready to replace Chris Myers? -- Ben Jones was a top tier collegiate center but hasn't been asked to play the position in the NFL thanks to the presence of Chris Myers. This year, Jones is expected to step into the role and play at a high level. If Jones struggles in the preseason, we can start worrying about the effectiveness of the Texans ground game.
  • Will the outside linebackers deliver on their potential? -- Jadaveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus are both first round draft choices that have immense yet unrealized potential. If they can both stay healthy and contribute in the preseason, the Texans could have the league's best defense.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

The Colts finished 11-5 for the third consecutive season, but took an imporant step forward with two playoff wins and a trip to the AFC Championship game. The team's continued ascent is based in no small part on the maturation of Andrew Luck. The Colts had the league's top passing offense in 2014 and enter 2015 with an even better offensive cast. On defense there is more uncertainty. The team finished 19th in points allowed and added five rookies and four free agents in hopes of improving an uninspired unit.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 16 -- @Philadelphia 1:00 pm
  • Aug 22 -- Chicago 7:30 pm
  • Aug 29 -- @St. Louis 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- Cincinnati 7:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Is Frank Gore an offensive centerpiece? -- Ahmad Bradshaw was a top 10 fantasy running back last year before getting hurt, so it stands to reason Frank Gore can be an impact player in 2015. Yet, his age and career workload argue against him. A strong preseason will ameliorate fears and vault Gore solidly into the top two or three rounds.
  • How will the tight end reps be handled? -- With the depth at the receiver position, there is talk of using more 3- and 4-receiver sets, which means less snaps for Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. With both tight ends capable of fantasy stardom (if used enough), the preseason will shine a light on whether the circumstances warrant staying away from them on draft day.
  • Who is the 3rd receiver? -- T.Y. Hilton and Andre Johnson are the starters, but it's unclear whether incumbent Donte Moncrief or rookie Phillip Dorsett will handle the #3 spot. Whoever gets the coveted role will have fantasy impact given the potency of the passing attack.
  • Completely revamping the offensive line -- It's hard to believe the Colts had the league's top passing offense considering how bad the offensive line was, but 2015 will feature an (almost) entirely new starting five. Anthony Castonzo remains at left tackle but all other positions will be manned by new faces.
  • Getting Robert Mathis healthy -- Robert Mathis continues to rehab from an Achilles injury and has set a goal to be on the field for Week One. His presence is essential to improving the Colts defense.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Gus Bradley's second season at the helm didn't go according to plan. Rookie quarterback Blake Bortles was forced into action and floundered, as the Jaguars finished dead last (32nd) in points scored for the 2nd consecutive season. There is hope that new offensive coordinator Greg Olson can fix what ails the unit, but ultimately it comes down to personnel. Not only do the Jaguars have the league's worst offense over the last two seasons, but the defense needs work. Bradley and defensive coordinator Bob Babich need playmakers to fix a unit that finished 28th and 26th in the last two years, respectively.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 14 -- Pittsburgh 7:30 pm
  • Aug 22 -- @N.Y. Giants 7:30 pm
  • Aug 28 -- Detroit 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- @Washington 7:30 pm

What We're Watching

  • Implementing Greg Olson's offense -- Olson has been a chameleon as an offensive coordinator, with varying degrees of success. He's been saddled with young and mediocre (at best) quarterbacks and has vacillated between a conservative, horizontal attack and an aggressive, vertical attack. Olson has been accused of using a too simplistic (and predictable) playbook, but simplicity may be exactly what this young offense needs.
  • Will the Jaguars regret rushing Blake Bortles? -- Management made it clear when selecting Bortles in the 1st round of the 2013 draft that they planned on sitting him for a long time -- quite possibly the entire season. Unfortunately, strong preseason play and desire to give an ailing fanbase something to root for led the team to put Bortles into the lineup and the results were disastrous. New OC Greg Olson has been working on Bortles' mechanics in the early days of camp, but the real test will come once preseason games get underway.
  • Is T.J. Yeldon the real deal? -- The Jaguars struggled with the ground game last year, but believe rookie T.J. Yeldon can step into a workhorse role immediately. If Yeldon shows well in the early preseason, fantasy owners will likely vault him into the RB2 category -- and with good reason.
  • Deciphering the young receiving corps -- Allen Robinson is the #1 and has star potential. What's less clear is who starts opposite Robinson. By pedigree it should be Marqise Lee but the 2nd year player struggled mightily last season. Allen Hurns, another 2nd year player, is an option but his ceiling is limited.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Ken Whisenhunt is on the hot seat after just one season thanks to a 2-14 finish (which came after the firing of Mike Munchak and a 7-9 record in 2013). Offensively the team went from bad to worse (30th in points and 29th in yards) but there is hope thanks to the arrival of quarterback Marcus Mariota. Defensively the team was equally inept (29th in points allowed and 27th in yards) but the addition of Brian Orakpo should provide a much needed boost to the pass rush.

Preseason Game Schedule

  • Aug 14 -- @Atlanta 7:00 pm
  • Aug 23 -- St. Louis 8:00 pm
  • Aug 28 -- @Kansas City 8:00 pm
  • Sep 3 -- Minnesota 8:00 pm

What We're Watching

  • Tracking Marcus Mariota's progress -- The weight of the franchise is on the rookie, who should start right away. Mariota is smart, high character and has all the physical attributes needed to succeed at the NFL level. But he played in an unconventional college offense and must learn to call plays in the huddle and play under center. If he looks reasonably comfortable in the preseason, it goes a long way to giving the Titans relevance.
  • Bishop Sankey versus David Cobb -- Bishop Sankey struggled as a lead back (569 yards and 2 TDs) but has the edge entering camp on retaining the lead role. Rookie David Cobb should factor into the mix, but must prove he's more than a two-down inside rusher to have a significant role.
  • Untangling the receiver depth chart -- Kendall Wright is locked in as a starter and the Titans have high hopes for rookie Dorial Green-Beckham, but Green-Beckham will be brought along slowly. What's unclear is how Justin Hunter's recent missteps impact his future, and how veterans Hakeem Nicks and Harry Douglas fit into Ken Whisenhunt's plans.
  • Can Dick LeBeau fix the ailing defense? -- Ray Horton remains defensive coordinator but Dick LeBeau will have a major role in scheme this year. Lebeau is one of the forefathers of today's hybrid, zone-blitzing scheme and that should suit the Titans personnel well.

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