Changes in the AFC South

A year ago, three out of four AFC South teams finished with a .500 record or better, including the Indianapolis Colts who went 12-4, and finished second in the division to the 13-3 Tennessee Titans. What changes are in store for the division?

Although there have been several key personnel changes to each team in the division, the entire AFC South will likely remain ultra-competitive, something which may be less than good news for the only team in the division that finished under .500, the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Jacksonville has struggled mightily with their division rivals, as they've posted a winning division record just once since the AFC South was created back in 2002. Still, the team has completely renovated the wide receiver position and added talent to the offensive line, and that could bode well for the team this fall.

"I really feel like Coach (Jack Del Rio) and Gene Smith have done a great job of bringing in talent here to help us get back to the playoffs," Quarterback David Garrard said.

Although it appears that most of the "bad apples" have been removed from this year's Jacksonville Jaguars squad, the team will still certainly have it's work cut out for them if they're going to compete for a playoff spot.

Starting at the top of the division, the Tennessee Titans rode the strength of a physical running game and a stifling defense to a 13-3 record a year ago. Their outlook for the 2009 season may not be quite as rosy as they lost Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to Washington via free agency. The team tried to make up for the loss of their two-time All-Pro tackle by signing free agent Jovan Haye from Tampa Bay, as well as drafting Auburn DT Sen'Derrick Marks in the second round. Still, it remains to be seen how much of a setback the league's seventh-ranked defense from a year ago will endure.

The Titans certainly appeared to get better on the offensive side of the ball as they inked speedy wideout Nate Washington from Pittsburgh, and drafted former Rutgers wide receiver Kenny Britt in the first round. Add in former South Carolina tight end Jared Cook, and quarterback Kerry Collins should have a considerably better set of targets to throw to, to go along with the league's seventh-ranked rushing attack from 2008.

"I thought we played good team football and pretty much did that throughout the entire season," Kerry Collins said. "We ran the ball well, we took care of the ball, we didn't turn it over a lot and we obviously played good defense and good special teams. We had the formula and we stuck to it week in and week out and it allowed us to put together a really good regular season."

Change appears to be an accurate term to describe the Indianapolis Colts offseason, but not so much on the projected 53-man roster. Longtime head coach and all-around good guy Tony Dungy decided to call it quits following the season, and just recently offensive line coach Howard Mudd and offensive coordinator Tom Moore decided to move on as well. For the first time since 1995, future Hall of Fame receiver Marvin Harrison will not be split out wide for Indianapolis, and that could have an affect on their prolific passing attack.

Still, the Colts have one of the game's best quarterbacks in Peyton Manning, and he will begin this season healthy, unlike last year when all he did was win league MVP honors. Indianapolis will likely depend more on the ground game as they drafted former Connecticut running back Donald Brown in round one to tandem with former first-round pick Joseph Addai. Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark are still in the prime of their careers, and the NFL's sixth-ranked pass defense from a year ago will now line up a healthy Bob Sanders at safety.

"From Jacksonville to Houston, who's up and coming, to Indy with Peyton Manning, that stacks up as one of the best divisions," Titans Pro Bowl corner Cortland Finnegan said. "So we've got our hands full in the South."

Perhaps the most intriguing team in the AFC South could be the Houston Texans. Houston is tantalizingly good on offense, as they finished with the number three ranking in the NFL a year ago, even with quarterback Matt Schaub missing five starts. Houston keeps mostly the same cast on offense, as they added blocking tight end Anthony Hill in the fourth round of the draft (N.C. State), and utility tight end James Casey (Rice) just one round later.

The offense certainly wasn't the reason that the Texans finished with an 8-8 record a year ago, it was their 22nd ranked defense. To remedy a lack of a pass rush outside of Mario Williams, the team decided to pluck former Arizona Cardinals defensive end Antonio Smith in free agency, and spent a second-round draft pick on former Big East defensive player of the year, Connor Barwin (Cincinnati). The team spent their first-round draft pick on former USC linebacker Brian Cushing, who will fit in well next to DeMeco Ryans and the now healthy Zac Diles. The Houston secondary will have a healthy Dunta Robinson to start off the season, but there will still be some question marks at safety, as the team will likely start veterans Eugene Wilson and Nick Ferguson.

"It's really tough," Titans signal caller Kerry Collins said about the division in an exclusive interview following the Pro Bowl. "The Colts are good every year, they're at the top of the division, and I think Houston is going to be a team that came on late at the end of the year last year and is going to be much improved. They are looking for big things. Jacksonville had a down year last year and they'll be back. It's tough, it's got to be one of the most competitive divisions in all of football."

Although Jacksonville will certainly have more team chemistry this season, the argument can be made that they are still the fourth-best team in their own division. With a history of coming up short in division games, as they've posted a cumulative 13-23 record since moving to the AFC South, 2009 certainly doesn't appear to be anything near a cakewalk in putting together a playoff run.

Charlie Bernstein is the Editor-in-Chief of Sports Media Interactive, covering multiple teams in the National Football League, NCAA, and National Basketball Association. Charlie is a regular syndicated contributor to FoxSports and Sirius NFL Radio, and has been featured on the NFL Network. Charlie is also a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Feel free to contact him -HERE- with questions or comments.

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