2014 NFL Season Preview – Team breakdowns, impact additions and more

2014 NFL Season Preview – Team breakdowns, impact additions and more

Published on September 2, 2014

The 2014 NFL season is here. Will Seattle repeat as Super Bowl champion? Will the Denver Broncos return to the Super Bowl? Will there be a surprise team to reach the postseason? Below is analysis for each team and predicted order of finish for each division.

Aaron Rodgers, Packers. (Getty Images)

NFC NORTH

FANCY STATS
0.85%

Percentage of plays during which 49ers OT Joe Staley allowed a sack in 2013 (4 of 472).

9.5%

Percentage of pass attempts where Seattle's QB took a sack, the highest in the NFL last season.

242

Combined sacks, hits and hurries allowed by the Arizona offensive line, second most in the league last year.

654

Yards allowed after the catch when OLB Alec Ogletree was in pass coverage, the worst mark by a 4-3 OLB in 2013.

1. GREEN BAY PACKERS (2013 record: 8-7-1)

OUTLOOK
Can QB Aaron Rodgers stay healthy and remain in the lineup after missing seven games last season because of a broken collarbone? If so, and if Rodgers regains his form from the 2011 and ’12 seasons when he totaled 8,938 passing yards and 84 TDs with only 14 interceptions, the Packers could reclaim a spot among the league’s elite. But they need to protect Rodgers better and they need to improve on their 25th-ranked defense in 2013.
IMPACT ADDITION
Signed after being released by the Bears, LB Julius Peppers could provide some pass-rushing help, even at age 34. His seven sacks last season for Chicago were his fewest in a season since 2007, but he has reached double figures in sacks in four of the past six seasons.

2. DETROIT LIONS (2013 record: 7-9)

OUTLOOK
The Lions announced in late July they had halted contract talks with three-time Pro Bowl DT Ndamukong Suh, creating the possibility he will be an extremely intriguing free agent after the season. Will Suh enhance his potential worth on the open market with a highly productive season? If that happens, Detroit could have the best defense among the NFC North contenders. An offense led by QB Matthew Stafford, WR Calvin Johnson and RB Reggie Bush should be able to do its part.
IMPACT ADDITION
The 10th overall selection in the NFL draft, TE Eric Ebron could provide immediate help. He lined up at various spots in the offensive formation during the preseason, Jimmy Graham style, and could keep opposing defenses from putting too much of their focus on Johnson.

3. CHICAGO BEARS (2013 record: 8-8)

OUTLOOK QB Jay Cutler was signed to a seven-year contract extension in January worth as much as $126.7 million, despite one Pro Bowl and one playoff win. But Cutler is coming off a season in which he played well when healthy, with a career-best passer rating of 89.2 in 11 games. There’s talent around him on offense, and the Bears could join a tightly bunched race for first place with the Packers and Lions.
IMPACT ADDITION
Signed after releasing Peppers, DE Jared Allen is 32 but has remained highly productive as a pass-rusher, reaching double digits in sacks in each of the last seven seasons.

4. MINNESOTA VIKINGS (2013 record: 5-10-1)

OUTLOOK
RB Adrian Peterson is 29 and entering his eighth NFL season. His production dropped to 1,266 rushing yards last season after he ran for 2,097 yards in 2012. LeSean McCoy has been making the case that he, not Peterson, is the league’s top running back. Can Peterson re-establish himself as the NFL’s undisputed No. 1 runner?
IMPACT ADDITION
The Vikings used the final pick of the first round of the NFL draft on QB Teddy Bridgewater, who spent the preseason vying for the starting job before Coach Mike Zimmer decided to go with Matt Cassel to open the season. Bridgewater is likely to take over sometime in 2014, and Peterson certainly could use help from the Vikings’ passing game.

Colin Kaepernick, 49ers. (Getty Images)

NFC WEST

FANCY STATS
0.85%

Percentage of plays during which 49ers OT Joe Staley allowed a sack in 2013 (4 of 472).

9.5%

Percentage of pass attempts where Seattle's QB took a sack, the highest in the NFL last season.

242

Combined sacks, hits and hurries allowed by the Arizona offensive line, second most in the league last year.

654

Yards allowed after the catch when OLB Alec Ogletree was in pass coverage, the worst mark by a 4-3 OLB in 2013.

1. SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (2013 record: 12-4)

OUTLOOK
Is it their time? The 49ers have reached the NFC title game three times and have made a Super Bowl appearance in Coach Jim Harbaugh’s three seasons. Now, after an offseason that included speculation of a possible coaching trade of Harbaugh to the Browns, they try to take the final step and secure a Super Bowl triumph. The defense must withstand the early-season absences of LBs NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith. But their expected returns to the lineup could produce late-season improvement, and the 49ers are well-equipped to win on the road in the playoffs if needed.
IMPACT ADDITION
S Antoine Bethea was signed as a free agent. He steps into the lineup to replace Donte Whitner, who left via free agency, and start alongside second-year standout Eric Reid.

2. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (2013 record: 13-3)

OUTLOOK
The defending champs pursue a repeat after a memorably dominant defensive performance in their Super Bowl victory over the Broncos. There were some offseason losses in the secondary with the departures of CBs Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond. But plenty of talent remains, and the Seahawks are fully capable of winning another title. It will be interesting to see if Seattle remains a run-first team on offense or if the passing of QB Russell Wilson becomes more prominent.
IMPACT ADDITION
A second-round pick in May, WR Paul Richardson is a speedster who adds big-play capabilities to the offense. Playing time may be spare in a wide receiver group that includes Percy Harvin, Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. But if he can stretch defenses, Seattle’s other receivers and its running game will benefit.

3. ARIZONA CARDINALS (2013 record: 10-6)

OUTLOOK
The Cardinals are coming off only their second 10-win regular season since a string of three straight such seasons ended in 1976. They didn’t reach the playoffs, but rookie Coach Bruce Arians showed a magic touch. What can he do for an encore? Things don’t get any easier in a loaded division, with the Seahawks and 49ers still among the league’s best and the Rams building toward respectability.
IMPACT ADDITION
Arizona signed LT Jared Veldheer, formerly of the Raiders, to a five-year, $35 million contract in free agency to take over at left tackle. He protects QB Carson Palmer’s blind side in a division with some of the NFL’s top pass-rushing teams. His performance, and Palmer’s health, could prove pivotal to the Cardinals’ playoff chances.

4. ST. LOUIS RAMS (2013 record: 7-9)

OUTLOOK
The Rams are done getting players from the 2012 trade that enabled the Redskins to draft QB Robert Griffin III. St. Louis ends up with six possible starters from the deal: DT Michael Brockers, CB Janoris Jenkins, LB Alec Ogletree, WR Stedman Bailey, RB Zac Stacy and T-G Greg Robinson. It’s a young, talented team, but the Rams play in football’s toughest division and they lost QB Sam Bradford to another torn ACL in the preseason.
IMPACT ADDITION
OL Greg Robinson was the draft’s No. 2 pick and was the final piece added from the Griffin trade. He has practiced at guard rather than at tackle and reportedly has struggled at times. The Rams can afford to be patient with him, but his position in the draft was based on him being, at least eventually, a top-tier tackle.

LeSean McCoy, Eagles. (Getty Images)

NFC EAST

Fancy Stats
51.2%

Percentage of the Philadelphia Eagles' 2013 offensive plays that were “no huddle,” 14.5 percent higher than the next highest team, the Denver Broncos.

20.1%

Percentage of offensive drives ending in a turnover, the worst mark in the NFL.

25.3

Average starting position on offense for the Washington Redskins in 2013, worst in the NFL.

26

Rushing plays on third down by the Dallas Cowboys, tied with Atlanta for fewest in the NFL.

1. PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (2013 record: 10-6)

OUTLOOK
Chip Kelly came to the NFL from the college coaching ranks last season and brought along his revved-up offense. NFL defenses didn’t have immediate answers, as the Eagles ranked second in the league in total offense last season and QB Nick Foles had 27 TD passes while throwing only two interceptions. But now, with an entire offseason to study what Kelly did, have defensive coordinators figured out how to slow down his offense?
IMPACT ADDITION
Obtained in a trade with the Saints, RB Darren Sproles gives the Eagles a third down pass catcher out of the backfield who creates significant matchup problems for practically any defense. He figures to be a major asset if he shows, at age 31, that he hasn’t lost too many steps.

2. NEW YORK GIANTS (2013 record: 7-9)

OUTLOOK
The notion that QB Eli Manning can complete 70 percent of his passes, the Giants’ stated goal for him, might be overly ambitious. First of all, it would rank as one of the six best single-season marks of all time. That’s before you consider Manning completed 57.5 percent of his throws last season. His career completion percentage is 58.5, and his best mark is 62.9. But even if he doesn’t reach the 70 percent figure, Manning clearly must be more reliable than he was in an 18-touchdown, 27-interception 2013 season.
IMPACT ADDITION
The Giants signed CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a five-year, $35 million contract in free agency as part of a makeover of the secondary. The overhaul also included the addition of fellow CB Walter Thurmond. The Giants are hoping the result is a deep and talented defensive backfield.

3. WASHINGTON REDSKINS (2013 record: 3-13)

OUTLOOK
Which is the real version of QB Robert Griffin III: the dynamic player who was the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year in 2012 or the far-less-breathtaking one who failed to duplicate his rookie-year exploits as he returned from knee surgery last season? The Shanahans, Mike and Kyle, are gone after a controversy-filled, three-win 2013 season, and first-year Coach Jay Gruden’s primary task is to bring out the best in Griffin. There are other playmakers on offense, should Griffin and a retooled offensive line come through, but the defense remains a question mark.
IMPACT ADDITION
Former Eagles WR DeSean Jackson teams with Pierre Garcon to give the Redskins two wideouts who topped 1,300 receiving yards last season. That will be formidable if each stays healthy and remains happy with the number of passes thrown his way.

4. DALLAS COWBOYS (2013 record: 8-8)

OUTLOOK
QB Tony Romo is 34 and returning from back surgery. He was very good last season, with 31 TD passes and only 10 interceptions, but the Cowboys might need him to be even better this season to compensate for their defense. Dallas ranked last in the NFL in total defense last season, then lost LB DeMarcus Ware and DT-DE Jason Hatcher in the offseason and saw LB Sean Lee suffer a season-ending knee injury in OTAs.
IMPACT ADDITION
The Cowboys chose OG Zack Martin with the 16th overall choice in May’s draft  — with QB Johnny Manziel still available. Martin wasn’t a big-splash pick. But Martin has joined an impressive collection of young talent on the Cowboys’ offensive line that could be the team’s strength — and help keep Romo upright.

Drew Brees, Saints. (Getty Images)

NFC SOUTH

Fancy Stats
6.1

Plays per offensive drive for the New Orleans Saints, second highest in the league in 2013.

20

Touchdowns scored from the red zone by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, third fewest in the NFL last season.

290

Dropbacks under pressure by Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan last season. His previous high was 94.

132

Passing plays on third down by the Carolina Panthers, fewest in the NFL in 2013.

1. NEW ORLEANS SAINTS (2013 record: 11-5)

OUTLOOK
The NFL has made enforcement of illegal contact in the secondary and holding by pass defenders a point of officiating emphasis for this season. Saints QB Drew Brees could be one of the main beneficiaries. He has had four of the eight 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history; no one else has had more than one. The Saints might not be the NFC’s best team, but they might have the best chance to be the conference’s top postseason seed, playing in the comparatively weak NFC South while the Seahawks, 49ers and Cardinals beat up on one another in the West.
IMPACT ADDITION
Brought in from Buffalo on a six-year, $54 million contract, S Jairus Byrd  could be a defensive playmaker in the Saints’ secondary. Byrd had 22 interceptions and forced 11 fumbles in his five seasons with the Bills.

2. TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (2013 record: 4-12)

OUTLOOK
Hopes are high as Coach Lovie Smith takes over. Smith rang up nine or more wins five times in nine seasons in Chicago before getting fired after a 10-victory season in 2012. QB Josh McCown assumes the starting role after his 13-TD, one-INT showing last season in Chicago. The Bucs have talent around McCown on offense. They have a potentially imposing defense. The issue is whether the offensive line will do its part, and the preseason trade with New England for G Logan Mankins helps considerably.
IMPACT ADDITION
After four seasons in Tennessee, CB Alterraun Verner could be a standout in the Buccaneers’ secondary. He had five interceptions and 23 passes defended last season with the Titans and he should help the Buccaneers move up from the middle of the pack in the NFL’s pass defense and total defense rankings.

3. ATLANTA FALCONS (2013 record: 4-12)

OUTLOOK
Things fell apart in Atlanta last season as the Falcons plummeted to a 4-12 record after nearly reaching the Super Bowl after the 2012 season. Coach Mike Smith faces his first rebuilding project after beginning his stay in Atlanta with five straight winning seasons and four playoff appearances. Can he get the Falcons back into playoff contention? Probably not right away. The defense, in particular, appears to still need some work.
IMPACT ADDITION
The sixth overall draft pick, Texas A&M OT Jake Matthews should establish himself immediately as a mainstay on the line. An injury to starter Sam Baker will force Matthews to start his NFL career at left tackle, which will be a challenge — particularly on a unit that allowed QB Matt Ryan to be sacked 44 times last season while contributing to the Falcons’ league-worst rushing offense.

4. CAROLINA PANTHERS (2013 record: 12-4)

OUTLOOK
Carolina was one of the NFL’s success stories last season as QB Cam Newton and the league’s second-ranked defense led the Panthers into the playoffs. But building on that could be difficult after an offseason in which the offensive line, the WR corps and the secondary were hit hard by retirements and departures via free agency. Notably, WR Steve Smith was released after 13 seasons in Carolina.
IMPACT ADDITION
The Panthers may need WR Kelvin Benjamin, selected with the 28th overall choice in the draft, to not only start but perhaps be their No. 1 wideout. The team’s top veteran options at the position are free agent additions Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery, so there clearly is a need for reinforcements in the receiving corps.

Andy Dalton, Bengals (Getty Images)

AFC NORTH

Fancy Stats
14

Touchdown passes targeted 20 yards or more downfield by Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, tied for second most in the league.

5.2

Points per game the average rushing attack would be expected to score over the Baltimore Ravens’, assuming the same down, distance and yard line for each play.

50.5%

Percentage of yards that came in the air before the catch for Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, fourth-lowest among QBs.

4.93

Adjusted net yards per attempt, which factors in sacks, for Cleveland Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer in his career. That ranks 47th out of 74 active QBs with at least 100 career passing attempts.

1. CINCINNATI BENGALS (2013 record: 11-5)

OUTLOOK
Some eyebrows were raised when the Bengals signed QB Andy Dalton, who was the league’s 15th-rated passer last season and has a career playoff record of 0-3, to a six-year contract extension in August worth as much as $115 million. But the truth is it is a manageable deal without guaranteed annual salaries and it enables the Bengals to walk away from the contract if things don’t work out. The Bengals have won 30 games in three seasons with Dalton as their QB. Now it’s up to Dalton, newly promoted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and Coach Marvin Lewis to get the team further in the postseason.
IMPACT ADDITION
Lewis praised CB Darqueze Dennard, a first-round selection in May, during training camp. Cincinnati already is relatively deep at the position, but Dennard should break into the playing rotation at some point.

2. BALTIMORE RAVENS (2013 record: 8-8)

OUTLOOK
QB Joe Flacco followed his Super Bowl MVP performance capping the 2012 season and the six-year, $120.6 million contract that came soon thereafter with a 19-TD, 22-interception performance last season. The Ravens fell to 8-8 and missed the playoffs. Flacco and the Ravens hope for a bounce-back season with the help of new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. The former Texans head coach was hired to replace Jim Caldwell after Caldwell was hired as the head coach of the Lions.
IMPACT ADDITION
WR Steve Smith was signed by the Ravens soon after being released by the Panthers following 13 seasons in Carolina. It probably would be unreasonable to expect Smith, at 35, to be the sort of top-shelf wideout he was for the Panthers. But all the Ravens need from him is to be a reliable complementary receiver.

3. PITTSBURGH STEELERS (2013 record: 8-8)

OUTLOOK
The Steelers have held off on conducting contract talks with QB Ben Roethlisberger, who has two years left on his current deal, but have expressed confidence that an extension will be completed at some point to enable him to finish his career with the team. The two-time Super Bowl winner has continued to play well the past two seasons, totaling 54 TD passes and 22 interceptions, but the Steelers are only 16-16 over that span and haven’t reached the playoffs.
IMPACT ADDITION
Formerly of Carolina, S Mike Mitchell signed a five-year, $25 million contract in free agency. He replaces departed veteran Ryan Clark in the lineup alongside Troy Polamalu. The two must work to quickly develop chemistry because playing with Polamalu can be demanding, given his all-over-the-field style.

4. CLEVELAND BROWNS (2013 record: 4-12)

OUTLOOK
Rookie QB Johnny Manziel’s arrival in Cleveland has been one of the league’s main story lines since the Browns passed him over then traded back up to get him in the opening round of the NFL draft. Manziel’s partying habits and his on-field progress have been chronicled with equal zeal, and Brian Hoyer clearly was the “other” QB in the Browns’ preseason competition for the starting job. Hoyer opens the season as the starter, but Manziel’s chance almost certainly will come at some point and it still will be all about Manziel, all the time in Cleveland, at least until LeBron James and the Cavaliers take the court.
IMPACT ADDITION
Aside from Manziel, the Browns also added another first-round pick in May in CB Justin Gilbert. The Browns believe that Gilbert’s pairing with Pro Bowler Joe Haden will make for a formidable CB duo.

Peyton Manning, Broncos. (Getty Images)

AFC WEST

Fancy Stats
33.4

Average starting position on offense for the Kansas City Chiefs, best in the NFL.

47.5%

Percentage of Denver Broncos drives ending in an offensive score, which led the league.

12.7

“Expected points” per game, based on down, distance and yard line, of the San Diego Chargers’ passing plays, second highest after Denver.

5.3

Plays per offensive drive for the Oakland Raiders, the second-lowest average in the NFL in 2013.

1. KANSAS CITY CHIEFS (2013 record: 11-5)

OUTLOOK
Andy Reid’s first coaching season in Kansas City began with unbelievable promise — nine straight victories — but ended on a down note, with six losses in eight games, including a fall-from-ahead playoff defeat at Indianapolis. The late-season struggles obscured a remarkable turnaround, with Reid having taken over a team that went 2-14 in 2012. But now more is expected, and Reid and the Chiefs will attempt to overtake the Broncos in the AFC West and go further in the postseason.
IMPACT ADDITION
The Chiefs used a first-round draft pick on LB Dee Ford, clearly not an immediate position of need with Tamba Hali and Justin Houston starting on the outside. But the Chiefs perhaps can break in Ford with small doses of playing time as a situational pass rusher, and he provides long-term insurance if the team is unable to re-sign Houston and Hali in the next few years.

2. DENVER BRONCOS (2013 record: 13-3)

OUTLOOK
QB Peyton Manning turned 38 in March. It wasn’t so long ago that he was working his way back from a series of neck surgeries that had some wondering if he ever would play again. And now he’s coming off a Super Bowl appearance — albeit a dismantling against Seattle. The bar is set high, with Manning having set single-season NFL records last year with 5,477 passing yards and 55 TDs. But the playing field perhaps has been tilted even further in favor of NFL QBs and receivers, with the league having made enforcement of illegal contact by pass defenders and defensive holding a major point of officiating emphasis.
IMPACT ADDITION
DE-LB DeMarcus Ware was signed after being released by the Cowboys, part of a defensive retooling in free agency in which the Broncos also added CB Aqib Talib and S T.J. Ward. Ware had only six sacks in his final season for Dallas. But he had 11 or more sacks in each of the seven seasons prior to that.

3. SAN DIEGO CHARGERS (2013 record: 9-7)

OUTLOOK
The Chargers just slipped into the playoffs last season with a 9-7 record, giving the West three of the six teams in the AFC’s postseason field. The Chargers won their final four games, and QB Philip Rivers had a superb season with 32 TD passes, 11 interceptions and a passer rating of 105.5. He would have been a viable MVP candidate if not for Manning’s record-setting exploits in Denver. A 5,000-yard passing season certainly seems within reach for Rivers with this season’s rules emphasis.
IMPACT ADDITION
San Diego used a first-round selection in the draft on CB Jason Verrett after ranking 29th in the NFL in pass defense and 23rd in total defense last season. Verrett could have an opportunity to contribute immediately.

4. OAKLAND RAIDERS (2013 record: 4-12)

OUTLOOK
The Raiders traded for QB Matt Schaub and hoped the change of scenery would help Schaub rebound from his 10-TD, 14-interception miseries last season in Houston. Schaub was a productive passer for much of his stay with the Texans, with three seasons in which he topped 4,000 yards. But if he struggles early, few in the league would be surprised to see the Raiders turn to rookie Derek Carr, a second-round draft pick in May.
IMPACT ADDITION
The Raiders landed LB Khalil Mack with the fifth overall choice in the draft after there was some pre-draft speculation he was under consideration to be the top selection. Many in the league expect Mack to be an immediate standout, but he is making a sizeable leap after playing in college at Buffalo.

Tom Brady, Patriots. (Getty Images)

AFC EAST

Fancy Stats
3.36

Average time in seconds it took defenses to sack New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, shortest in the NFL.

31

Run stops by Miami Dolphins DT Randy Starks, third most in the league among defensive tackles.

4.2

Adjusted net yards per attempt for the New York Jets’ passing game, lowest in the league.

14.2%

Percentage of Buffalo Bills red zone plays ending with a touchdown, lowest in the NFL.

1. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (2013 record: 12-4)

OUTLOOK
QB Tom Brady was 27 when he won his third Super Bowl title in tandem with Coach Bill Belichick in the 2004 season. Now Brady is 37 and he and Belichick continue to chase a fourth title, having lost two Super Bowls and three AFC championship games since then. This season’s Super Bowl bid would be greatly bolstered if TE Rob Gronkowski remains healthy and in the lineup, and if the reworked secondary makes the defense more formidable.
IMPACT ADDITION
The Patriots signed CB Darrelle Revis to what amounts to a one-year contract after he was released by the Buccaneers. With Revis and another CB newcomer, Brandon Browner, in the fold, the Patriots potentially have a secondary that could slow down opposing passing games even in a season in which the rules again seem to favor receivers and QBs.

2. MIAMI DOLPHINS (2013 record: 8-8)

OUTLOOK
The Dolphins are trying to put last season’s locker room bullying scandal aside and contend for a playoff spot. They lost their final two games last season to finish 8-8 and hope for better this time around. The key is the continued development of third-year QB Ryan Tannehill. He made significant improvement last season to throw for 3,913 yards with 24 TDs and 17 interceptions. If Tannehill takes another step and the Dolphins remain turmoil-free, securing a playoff spot is a realistic goal.
IMPACT ADDITION
OT Branden Albert takes over at left tackle after being signed to a five-year, $47 million contract in free agency. The Dolphins have remade their offensive line after Tannehill was sacked 58 times last season, and Albert and rookie RT Ja’Wuan James, a first-round pick in May, are the keys.

3. NEW YORK JETS (2013 record: 8-8)

OUTLOOK
The Jets have gone 22-26 over the last three seasons after reaching the AFC title game in each of Coach Rex Ryan’s first two seasons. Ryan’s job security has become a frequently raised topic in New York, along with the team’s uncertainty at QB. The Jets added Michael Vick in the offseason to give them a veteran alternative if Geno Smith doesn’t improve on last season’s 12-TD, 21-interception performance as a rookie.
IMPACT ADDITION
Added as a free agent after totaling 172 catches for 2,352 yards and 24 TDs the past two seasons with the Broncos, WR Eric Decker joins the Jets. But the question is whether Decker can succeed without Peyton Manning.

4. BUFFALO BILLS (2013 record: 6-10)

OUTLOOK
The future of the franchise is at stake with the team being sold by the estate of late owner Ralph Wilson. Fans fret about whether the new owner will be committed to keeping the franchise in Buffalo. In the meantime, it would be nice to win a few games. The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since the 1999 season and haven’t had a winning season since 2004.
IMPACT ADDITION
The fourth overall choice in the NFL draft, WR Sammy Watkins showed signs in training camp that he might be ready for immediate stardom. Will Watkins and second-year QB EJ Manuel be the foundations of the offense for the next decade or more?

J.J. Watt, Texans. (Getty Images)

AFC SOUTH

Fancy Stats
6.9%

Percentage of Indianapolis Colts offensive drives ending in a turnover, lowest in the league.

31.1%

The Jacksonville Jaguars' third down conversion percentage, worst in the NFL in 2013.

85

Sacks, hits and hurries by Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, most among defensive ends playing in a 3-4 scheme.

43.8%

Percentage of games Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker has missed the past two seasons because of injury.

1. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (2013 record: 11-5)

OUTLOOK
QB Andrew Luck secured his first career postseason win last season before the Colts lost an AFC divisional playoff game to the Patriots. Another member of the 2012 QB class, Russell Wilson, won a Super Bowl before Luck did. So Luck has some catching up to do, and the Colts have surrounded him with plenty of dependable receivers. The key could be improvement by a defense that ranked 20th overall in the NFL during the regular season, then was overrun during a postseason in which the Colts allowed 87 points in two games.
IMPACT ADDITION
WR Hakeem Nicks arrives to join T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne and form a potentially potent WR trio for Luck. Nicks had a pair of 1,000-yard receiving seasons for the Giants, although he failed to reach even 900 yards in either of the last two seasons.

2. JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (2013 record: 4-12)

OUTLOOK
The former would-be franchise QB, Blaine Gabbert, is gone and the new potential franchise QB, Blake Bortles, is in place. The Jaguars surprised many by taking the Central Florida product with the third overall selection in the NFL draft, making Bortles the first QB chosen ahead of Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater. Bortles was impressive in the preseason even as the Jaguars preached patience with him and kept Chad Henne in place as a caretaker of the starting job until Bortles is given his chance.
IMPACT ADDITION
The Jags signed DE Chris Clemons to a four-year, $17.5 million contract after he was released by the Seahawks. Clemons totaled 38 sacks over the last four seasons in Seattle and should greatly bolster the Jacksonville pass rush. The Jaguars ranked last in the league in sacks in each of the last two seasons.

3. HOUSTON TEXANS (2013 record: 2-14)

OUTLOOK
The Texans opted against taking a QB and went with LB Jadeveon Clowney as the top overall pick in the draft. He should have an immediate impact as a pass rusher. He has eye-catching natural ability, and opponents won’t be able to focus on him too much with J.J. Watt also in the Houston lineup.
MPACT ADDITION
He is on his fifth NFL team after stints with the Rams, Bengals, Bills and Titans, but now QB Ryan Fitzpatrick will lead the Texans. He has a career passer rating of 77.5 and is no one’s idea of a top-tier NFL starting quarterback. Yet, after the Texans signed him and opted against taking a QB with the top draft choice, Fitzpatrick very well could be Houston’s best option at the position, ahead of Case Keenum and Tom Savage.

4. TENNESSEE TITANS (2013 record: 7-9)

OUTLOOK
Ken Whisenhunt takes over as the coach, and Jake Locker gets another chance to establish himself as the team’s unquestioned starter at QB. Now entering his fourth NFL season, Locker is yet to make more than 11 starts in any season. He’s yet to reach 2,200 passing yards in a season and he has career totals of 22 TD passes and 15 interceptions. It’s about time for a QB of the future to begin to resemble a QB of the present, if it’s ever going to happen.
IMPACT ADDITION
The Titans chose OT Taylor Lewan with the 11th overall choice in the draft but already have Michael Roos and Michael Oher penciled in to start at the offensive tackle spots. It’s a very solid offensive line but it stands to reason that Lewan will make a push for playing time at some point.

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