LionsFans.com 2004 NFL Preview
Part One: AFC
Part Two: AFC South
In two years, the power structure in this division could completely flip-flop. The Texans and Jaguars are two of the most promising young teams in the NFL; while the Colts and Titans are fighting to squeeze through their respective windows of opportunity before they close. Any of these four teams are capable of capturing the division crown in 2004.
1. Indianapolis Colts (Projected Finish: 10-6)
It's been a long, long time since a Colts' offense has been as powerful as this current unit. Now if they could only find a few Gino Marchetti's, Art Donovan's and Bobby Boyd's to play defense and they could start engraving the Hoosier State's first Lombardi Trophy.
Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James are the Colts' best 1-2-3 scoring-punch since the glory days of John Unitas, Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore. There is no reason to believe that their production will slow down anytime soon. RB Dominic Rhodes, WR Reggie Wayne, and TE's Dallas Clark and Marcus Pollard would be go-to guys on most other squads. The offensive line is one of the league's finest, anchored by LT Tarik Glenn and C Jeff Saturday. Offensive Coordinator Tom Moore is one of the best offensive minds in NFL history, and head coach Tony Dungy gives him and Manning the freedom to attack the defense as they see fit.
All that separates the Colts from becoming the Patriots is their defense. Tony Dungy and his defensive coordinator Ron Meeks have performed wonders with the Colt-D since they took over the program in 2002. While Dungy's Cover-2 Scheme is the NFL definition of "Old School," with the right personnel it is still a nightmare for offensive coordinators to crack. However, until the Colts find a few more game-breakers like 3rd-year standout DE Dwight Freeney they will have a hard time getting out of the AFC and into the Big Game. One youngster with promise is WLB and the team's 2003's leading tackler (145 stops) David Thornton.
As of this writing, the Colt secondary looks to be in trouble due to injuries and holdouts. If the season started this week, the Colts would be forced to start backups Cory Bird at SS and Anthony Floyd at FS. Last year's starting SS, Mike Doss, has had an Achilles flare-up late in camp and FS Idrees Bashir hasn't practiced in two weeks because of torn rib cartilage. Nickel CB Joseph Jefferson has a sore knee and starting RCB Donald Strickland has a shoulder problem which has limited his action. If that wasn't enough, the team's talented 2nd round pick, former Iowa Hawkeye FS Bob Sanders, just joined the team this week after a contract dispute. University of Michigan coach Lloyd Carr called Sanders the best defensive player in the Big Ten last season. Sanders will have a lot of catching up to do.
With Mike Vanderjagt kicking, Hunter Smith punting, Brad Pyatt returning kicks and Troy Walters fielding punts, the Colts special teams will continue to be an asset.
The Colts will contend once again; but as the old saying goes, "Defense Wins Championships." Indianapolis will again fall short of the ultimate prize this season.
2. Houston Texans (Projected Finish: 10-6)
In the next five seasons everyone may be talking about this franchise, which is entering just the third season of its existence, as being the best expansion team in NFL history. Head Coach Dom Capers and General Manager Charlie Casserly have built this team, through a combination of youth and low-priced free-agents, into not only a playoff contender this season, but into one that could be making noise for years to come. It might not be too long until Houston's football fans could be celebrating their first pro championship since the days of the AFL's Houston Oilers.
One major reason that this team's future looks so bright is quarterback David Carr. After a brutal rookie season where he was sacked an NFL record 76 times, Carr showed flashes of greatness in his sophomore season. No one doubts anymore that the team made the right choice by picking the former Fresno State star first overall in the 2002 draft. David's backup, veteran Tony Banks did a fine job during his three-game stint in relief of an injured Carr last year, while Dave Ragone will hold the clipboard once again as the 3rd QB.
HB Domanick Davis was maybe the steal of the entire 2003 draft, as the fourth round selection led the Texans in rushing with 1,031 yards in 10 starts after the team gave up on Stacy Mack, who was subsequently released in the offseason. He is a great inside runner and has the strength to break tackles. Davis is also a quality receiver, collecting 47 passes to place second on the team in that category. The speedy Tony Hollings will backup Davis, while FB's Jarrod Baxter and Maron Norris will share lead-blocking duties.
WR Andre Johnson is a star in the making; he caught 69 passes for 976 yards and four TD's as a rookie last year. He is a tackle breaker and a great downfield blocker. If he can become more disciplined and stay focused on the details, the sky's the limit. Jabar Gaffney has great hands and runs precise routes, but only so-so speed. Corey Bradford has great speed and good hands, but is a poor route runner and has trouble reading defenses. Both receivers will need to improve their games if the Houston aerial game is to become a real threat. TE's Billy Milner and Bennie Joppru should catch more passes this season, especially if Gaffney and Bradford struggle.
The Texan offensive line has come a long way from their brutal season of 2002. They are led by veteran G Zach Wiegert and C Steve McKinney. The addition of free agent RT Todd Wade (Dolphins) should help make this line even more formidable.
Injuries destroyed the team's defensive line last season, as LE Gary Walker and NT Seth Payne missed a combined 26 games. Walker is now 100%, but Payne may not be ready by the season opener. The team pulled a fast one on a division rival this year by signing DE/DT Robaire Smith from the Titans. He will start at RE, but can move inside to NT if Payne's return is delayed. Houston runs a 3-4 alignment and their linebackers are top notch with twin-ILB's Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman leading the charge. Sharper led the NFL in tackles last season while Foreman is the chief signal-caller. The team was hoping that rookie first-rounder (27th overall) Jason Babin would be the opening day starter at strong-side-LB, but he has struggled, so Kailee Wong, last year's strong-side starter will remain there for the time being. Wong was expected to play on the weakside but with Babin's troubles, top-reserve Antwan Peek will play there.
Rookie Dunta Robinson, Houston's top draft pick (10th overall), will be expected to perform from day one. He will play opposite of veteran Aaron Glenn, who will serve as Dunta's personal tutor this season. The swift Marcus Coleman, last year starter at CB, will move to FS and provide the range needed to play the position. SS Eric Brown brings the lumber from the secondary and has a keen nose for the football.
Houston's special teams are strong, which is a must if this team is to make the playoffs. Kicker Kris Brown and Punter Chad Staley are two of the league's most underrated players at their positions; while the return teams should improve with rookie Vontez Duff, a standout return man at Notre Dame, expected to handle both KR and PR duties.
Houston is one of the NFL's most exciting young teams. If David Carr, Domanick Davis and Andre Johnson can stay healthy, and the defense can improve from last year (when it ranked 31 overall) this team will find its way into the postseason.
3. Tennessee Titans (Projected Finish: 9-7)
Is the window closing on the Titans? This will be the year we find out. The team gutted much of its veteran core, allowing DE Jevon Kearse (Eagles) and DT Robaire Smith (Texans) to sign free agent deals. They also traded number two receiver, Justin McCareins, to the Jets and released RB Eddie George, who is now with Dallas. Tennessee had 13 picks in last April's draft, and most of them are expected to be on the opening day roster in some fashion. Jeff Fisher and Steve McNair are entering their 10th season together and remain one of the best Head Coach/QB duos in the NFL.
For my money, Steve McNair is the best quarterback in the game today. No one else the combination of accuracy, mobility, leadership, guts and guile. He has improved his play in every one of his nine previous seasons. If he could ever lead his team to a championship, he would likely one day find his way into the hallowed halls of Canton.
As sad as it was, Eddie George and the Titans had to part ways. He is not the dominant player he once was, and the punishment he has taken over his career has zapped him of his speed and agility. Chris Brown, and the former Patriot Antowain Smith will share the bulk of the carries, running behind the blocks of talented and versatile FB Robert Holcombe.
Since their Super Bowl season of 1999, the Titans' offense has underwent an evolution; from the smashmouth ball-control days of George's prime, to the McNair-led wide open passing attack of the present. Always a skilled punt returner, Darrick Mason has become one of the NFL's finest receivers. Last season, Drew Bennett became McNair's favorite 3rd down option, and he will move into McCareins old starting spot. To fill the void of the retired TE Frank Wycheck, the Titans drafted former Florida Gator Ben Troupe with the 40th overall pick. The offensive line is solid and led by LT Brad Hopkins and C Justin Hartwig.
The departures of Kearse and Smith along the defensive line will be tough to fill. Veteran Kevin Carter, who split time nicely between DE and DT last season, will move inside full time. To replace Kearse, the team spent 3 of their first 6 picks in April's draft on DE's Travis LaBoy, Antwan Odom and Bo Schobel. As the new season dawns, injuries (LaBoy and Schobel) and rookie inexperience (Odom) have hindered that task. Injuries have also hurt the linebacking corps, most notably when talented OLB Peter Sirmon was lost for the season with a torn left ACL.
With the struggles up front, the secondary will be counted on to pick up the slack. Samari Rolle is one of the league's best man-to-man corners and Andre Dyson is his underrated bookend. Tank Williams is a future Pro Bowler at SS, while talented veterans Lance Shulters and Lamont Thompson will compete for the FS spot.
Kicker Joe Nedney, who tore his ACL last season, has recovered fully. Craig Hentrich remains one of the best "coffin corner" punters in the business. The youth movement from this years draft will be counted on to improve the team's speed on their coverage teams; while Jeff Fisher hopes that rookie 4th rounder Michael Waddell can perform double duty as returner so that Derrick Mason can concentrate on catching McNair's passes.
If the Titans' defense can weather the early injury bugs and the offensive line can move the pile and keep McNair out of sickbay; Tennessee will fight once again for a division title. If the Titans go deep into January, Jeff Fisher will find himself in the running for Coach of the Year honors.
4. Jacksonville (Projected Finish: 8-8)
This is another team that is on the rise. Head Coach Jack Del Rio took plenty of lumps in his first season as an NFL skipper. However, through the struggles of 2003, he found a franchise QB in Byron Leftwich and a suddenly durable franchise RB in longtime Jaguar Fred Taylor. In the last nine months, Del Rio has gutted this team of many of former coach Tom Coughlin's players, including QB Mark Brunell, DE Tony Brackens, and CB Fernando Bryant. In addition, they wasted little time this pre-season by releasing the disgruntled and out of shape DE Hugh Douglas, who was one of Del Rio's first free agent additions in 2003. Douglas was an embarrassment last season (3.5 sacks) and with a $6 million signing bonus to absorb this year via the cut, the team took a big hit by parting ways with him so soon. The Douglas' saga made one message perfectly clear however . . . produce or you'll be gone.
Leftwich may one day make Jag fans forget Brunell. He is already a team leader, and his accuracy and decision-making are far beyond what you'd expect from a QB entering just his second season. He is also a student of the position, arriving at Jacksonville's practice facility at 6 a.m. daily to fire up the video machine. Leftwich's understudy, 3rd year pro David Garrard, was pursued by many teams this offseason through trade offers. Jacksonville said no to them all because he is so talented.
Believe it or not, Fred Taylor hasn't missed a start in the past two seasons. He seems to have fully shed the injury-bug that plagued him early in his career. He also gained a career-best 1,572 yards in 2003. Del Rio has demanded that his friend, and pass-happy offensive coordinator, Bill Musgrave center to offense around Taylor instead of Leftwich; thereby taking some pressure off his young signal-caller. The coach hopes the move makes both Taylor and Leftwich more productive. WR Jimmy Smith is now 35 and on the decline, but with first-round rookie Reggie Williams now in the fold Smith should remain a threat. Veteran Troy Edwards is a good third option for Leftwich.
The Jags O-Line is a major strength, anchored by C Brad Meester and G's Chris Naeole and Vince Manuwai. The group allowed a franchise record-low 28 sacks last season. The free agent signing of OT Ephraim Salaam makes this unit even stronger than last year. The defensive line is tough in the middle, with DT's Marcus Stroud and John Henderson among the best young duo's in the league. The DE's however are unproven, as Lionel Barnes and Paul Spicer will have to replace the departed Tony Brackens and Hugh Douglas.
The linebacking core is fast and full of athletes. MLB Mike Peterson led the team in tackles and interceptions in 2003. WLB Akin Ayodele is one to watch, while vets Greg Favors and Tommy Hendricks will compete for the SLB job. The secondary got a major overhaul this offseason. Last years starting CB's, Fernando Bryant and Jason Craft are gone. The team's starting LCB spot will be fought for by Dwayne Washington and Juran Bolden, while Rashean Mathis will enter his second season at RCB. SS Deon Grant and the disgruntled FS Donovin Darius will start at the deep spots. Darius is likely gone after this season due to the team naming him their franchise player the past two years; keeping him off the open market and thus continuing to underpay one of the NFL's best free safeties.
The special teams got an overhaul as well. Pete Rodriguez and Bob Ligashesky are the new coaches. Rookie Josh Scobee is the new kicker; while punter Chris Hansen's non-kicking leg has fully recovered from his lockeroom mishap last season. The accident occurred when he attempted to impersonate Paul Bunyan with an axe that Del Rio had placed in a tree stump as a motivational tool.
If the defense can maintain its Top 10 ranking (last season it was 6th) and Leftwich can get production from Jimmy Smith and the rest of the receiving corps, the Jaguars might just live up to the playoff expectations that many observers have placed on them. In this tough division though, I still think they are a year away.