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J.J. Watt's return will make Houston, AFC South that much tougher for Colts

INDIANAPOLIS -- At this time last year, the thought was that the Indianapolis Colts' absence from the top of the AFC South would be just a one-year situation because quarterback Andrew Luck would be back for the 2016 season after missing nine games in 2015.

Luck’s return this season didn't move the Colts up in the division. They finished in third place, even though their 8-8 record wasn't because of how he played.

You’d like to think there would be optimism that the Colts can get their act together to make a run at overtaking the Houston Texans at the top of the division next season.

There’s not necessarily the case.

The Colts, as proven by their indecisiveness regarding what’s going on with the front office and coaching staff, aren’t in a better position today than they were this time last year.

This is while the two teams that finished in front of the Colts in the division, Houston and Tennessee, are in position to be even better next season.

The Texans won the division for the second straight season and advanced to the divisional round of the playoffs despite not having defensive end J.J. Watt (back) for the final 13 games of the season and having inconsistent play at quarterback. Who knows how the quarterback situation will play out between Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage next season, but Watt will be back on a defense that finished first in the NFL during the regular season.

Luck – and his skittish offensive line – will have to deal with Watt, who was the premier defensive player in the league, Whitney Mercilus (7.5 sacks) and Jadeveon Clowney (6.0 sacks) coming after him.

The Titans are building a solid foundation around franchise quarterback Marcus Mariota with running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry and solid offensive line. Tennessee will be able to add more pieces because it has the No. 5 pick in the April draft.

The Colts aren’t in any position to squander away the more than $60 million they have in salary cap this offseason or in the draft in which their first pick will be No. 14 or 15, depending on the tiebreaker with Philadelphia.

The first step for Indianapolis, though, is determining if Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson will be its coach and general manager, respectively, next season.