1. Houston Texans
I’m not quite as sold on the Texans as some, but they should win this division purely on talent.
The offense boasts arguably the game’s best running back (Arian Foster), and one of its best wide receivers (Andre Johnson).
Plus an offensive line coming off of an impressive season and a productive starting quarterback in Matt Schaub.
However, there are cracks in the armor.
All three of the aforementioned stars missed time with injury last season.
Houston managed to hold on to its playoff berth and won the first playoff game in franchise history thanks to an admirable performance from backup quarterback T.J. Yates.
Nevertheless, the team needs Schaub to be healthy if they are to fulfill this season’s lofty expectations.
Most troubling is Johnson’s recent injury history, especially when considering that Kevin Walter is the only other receiver on the roster with an NFL reception on his resume.
The offensive line also might regress a little, as the right side of the line left via free agency. The defense had a great turnaround last season. After a disappointing 2010, the defense was one of the best in the league last year.
Led by ferocious linebacker Brian Cushing, the defense is loaded with young play-makers such as J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed.
The defense didn’t skip a beat when it lost Mario Williams for most of last season and its unlikely to suffer too much from that free agency loss. The one concern might be secondary depth, as the talent level in the secondary drops off a bit after cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
2. Tennessee Titans (Wild Card)
The 2011 Titans quietly finished with a winning record and have made improvements that could vault them into contention this year. The big story going into this season is the emergence of last year’s first round pick, Jake Locker.
After performing well as a rookie in spot duty for veteran starter Matt Hasselbeck, Locker has been named the starter for this season. Tennessee has been known more for ground-and-pound rushing offense than explosive down-field passing, but Locker actually has a decent arsenal of weapons this year.
Wide receiver Nate Washington is coming off of a 1,000-yard season and rookie Kendall Wright has the ability to step in and contribute at the pro level. Question marks surround receiver Kenny Britt and tight end Jared Cook, but these two have flashed elite ability during their time with the Titans.
Running back Chris Johnson had a down season in 2011 but is expected to bounce back this year. Bolstered by a solid offensive line, this group could be one of the better offenses in the league. The defense lost cornerback Cortland Finnegan, but added a desperately needed pass rusher in Kamerion Wimbley.
The defense lacks big name players but was decent in 2011 (excluding an awful two-game stretch against Pittsburgh and Houston, they gave up an average of 17 points per game).
Consistently holding opponents to around 20 points should be enough to win with this offense. Obviously much is on the shoulders of Locker, but he has shown he has the talent to be an excellent dual-threat as a pro quarterback. Tennessee will return to the playoffs in 2012.
3. Indianapolis Colts
I am not as high on them as Merril Hoge, but I think the Colts will be competitive under the direction of Andrew Luck. This will likely only translate to 4-6 wins, but Indy will no longer be an easy win for most teams.
Of course, everything about this season centers around the development of Luck. He has shown the ability that had him considered the best quarterback prospect since Elway this preseason, making several “wow” throws, stepping up in the pocket and showing the ability to escape pressure and throw on the run.
The offense should be vastly improved simply with the upgrade Luck represents from the likes of Dan Orlovsky. His weapons include Reggie Wayne, Austin Collie and the team’s two talented rookie tight ends (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen).
The running game is in the hands of former first round pick Donald Brown, who has yet to consistently translate his talent into on-field production. While this isn’t a great group of skill guys, it’s not terrible either, especially when considering the ability Luck has shown to make his teammates better.
The defense (like the offense, and the entire franchise for that matter) is a work in progress, but there are some pieces in place. Long-time pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis remain to help the transition to new coach Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defense.
That transition will also be aided by the addition of several solid veterans who played for Pagano in Baltimore: Cory Redding, Brandon McKinney and Tom Zbikowski. Like the offense, this won’t be a great unit, but it shouldn’t be awful either.
Indy lacks depth and will need an offseason or two to build up its overall talent level before it can be seen as a legit contender.
However, this is a young team full of players hungry to establish themselves in the pros. That kind of a healthy attitude, coupled with some Luck, will lead to several upsets in the first season of these new-look Indianapolis Colts.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Things aren’t all bad in Jacksonville. They return a defense that was among the league’s better units in 2011. The much maligned Blaine Gabbert has looked improved this August. Rookie receiver Justin Blackmon has flashed the physical talent that made him a top-five pick.
Nonetheless, the negatives far outweigh the positives here.
The team’s best player, running back Maurice Jones-Drew, remains a holdout and doesn’t seem to be returning soon. Gabbert still is a huge question mark due to his horrendous rookie season.
Gabbert’s weapons aside from Blackmon are lacking. Laurent Robinson, a free agent acquisition, had a solid season in Dallas last year but has disappointed in camp and benefited from the attention paid to his more heralded teammates with the Cowboys.
Other than that, it’s a pu-pu platter of disappointment, including the likes of Mike Thomas, Brian Robiske and Demetrius Williams.
If Gabbert pulls a complete 180 and begins to display confidence from the pocket, he and this team could sneak up on teams. The running game should be solid even if MJD misses some time and the defense will continue to be very good.
However, it is nearly impossible to win in today’s NFL if you can’t make plays throwing the ball down-field, something Gabbert has yet to prove he is capable of.