Eight in the Box: AFC South camp issues

What are the three key camp issues facing each AFC South team?


Offense: The offensive line

The right side of the Texans’ line was a huge problem a year ago, but I expect that to improve in 2013. Houston drafted Brennan Williams, a great fit for this zone-blocking scheme, and I expect him to surpass Derek Newton and start at right tackle. At right guard, Houston often rotated Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks, both rookies in '12. Expect one of these two, most likely Brooks, to grab the full-time job in training camp.

Defense: Safety Ed Reed’s impact

Honestly, on the field, I think going from Glover Quin to Reed is a step back. But the Texans have a very talented secondary and should have an improved pass rush, so they should get away with it. Plus, Reed remains a fantastic ball-hawking, deep-middle player. But what Reed does bring is postseason success experience -- and the Texans are light on that. The future Hall of Famer should have immense value behind the scenes with his new team.

Wild card: Receiving corps

Will another receiving option step up? As it stands, I am leaning toward DeAndre Hopkins as my prediction for offensive rookie of the year. He should see plenty of early playing time and many favorable coverages with Andre Johnson and the Houston running game garnering the majority of the attention from opposing defenses. The NFL-ready Hopkins should seize such an opportunity.


Offense: The overall scheme

With former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians gone, how much will the passing attack change? We should expect Indianapolis’ new offensive staff to stress getting the ball out of Andrew Luck’s hands much more quickly than a year ago. Of course, the Colts will still go deep with regularity -- and Luck’s protection should also be improved -- but the franchise quarterback took far too many hits in his rookie season. Expect this attack to now be much more West Coast oriented.

Defense: Lack of difference-makers

Where are the difference-makers on this side of the ball? This is a valid concern. Dwight Freeney, now in San Diego, isn’t what he once was, but he was a formidable presence off the edge. Robert Mathis has always been a very fine player, but he has benefited from Freeney’s presence. Can rookie defensive end Bjoern Werner make an immediate impact? What other potential stars are there on the Colts’ defense?

Wild card: Running back Ahmad Bradshaw

What impact will Bradshaw make? I predict a sizable one. He is outstanding in protection, which should not be overlooked. He is an excellent receiver out of the backfield and is a far more dynamic and talented runner than Vick Ballard, who is a backup at best. This offense could be lethal, and the addition of Bradshaw, if healthy, will be a major reason why.


Offense: Uncertainty at quarterback

Is either Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne their solution? The short answer is probably no. Henne is the superior player at this stage of their careers, but he’s too inconsistent and mistake-prone. Gabbert has shown little since joining the league to suggest he is the answer, but for the greater long-term good of the team, he could be handed the starting role. In the end, expect the Jaguars to be very interested in quarterback prospects such as Teddy Bridgewater very early in next year’s draft.

Defense: Pass rush

The Jaguars’ secondary was abysmal in 2012, which really wasn’t shocking, but it did surprise me that Jacksonville was so feeble in sacking opposing quarterbacks. Its interior defensive linemen are mostly plugger types, although former first-round pick Tyson Alualu does have the ability to penetrate versus the pass. The outside trio of Jason Babin, Jeremy Mincey and youngster Andre Branch are collectively better pass-rushers than they showed during the Jaguars’ dismal 2012 season.

Wild card: Lack of positives

What does this fan base have to get excited about? I contend that Jacksonville’s roster rivals Oakland’s for the worst in the NFL, but looking on the bright side, the team does have a new coaching staff in place. The Jaguars also found a gem in wide receiver Cecil Shorts, and Justin Blackmon appears to be a legitimate go-to wide receiver. The Jaguars are also loaded at offensive tackle and the young secondary has some very solid prospects to build around. And, well, Jaguars fans can look forward to yet another very early draft pick next year.


Offense: Running back Chris Johnson

Expect Johnson to post a very impressive season in 2013. It often went unnoticed, but he improved dramatically as the 2012 season went along after a dreadful start. The Titans’ coaching staff began to play to his strengths and should now have a firm grasp of how to utilize him. Also, the interior of the offensive line, which was just terrible in 2012, could end up as the best trio of center and guards in the NFL this year.

Defense: Lack of star power

It has been a long time since Tennessee has had one dominant player on defense. The Titans don’t always have gaping holes on this side of the ball, but a true perennial Pro Bowler -- at any level of the defense -- could go a very long way for this franchise. Is there anyone currently on the roster capable of stepping up and becoming such a player? It is possible, I suppose, that Derrick Morgan or Zach Brown makes such a step, but I fear the reality of it is that Tennessee once again will lack true star power on defense.

Wild card: Quarterback Jake Locker

Is the third-year quarterback ready to emerge? Locker is physically gifted, with size, arm strength and great athletic ability. But he remains wildly inconsistent with his mechanics, recognition of defenses and especially accuracy. The Titans did an exceptional job of surrounding Locker with weapons and greatly improved their offensive line. Will Locker respond in a positive manner? That is the biggest question surrounding this franchise as it heads into training camp.