2012 AFC South Preview (cont.)
What the Colts do best: Draft quarterbacks.
In 1998, the Colts selected Manning with the No. 1 pick in the draft. That worked out pretty well for them, what with Manning's unprecedented four league MVP titles and two trips to the Super Bowl, including a victory over the Bears after the 2006 season. But the glory run ended last year, and Manning and the Colts parted ways in the offseason. Now comes Andrew Luck, the first overall pick this year, who takes the baton from Manning. Luck has superstar written all over him. He played in a pro-style offense at Stanford, where he gained experience in the no-huddle and changing plays at the line, and appears to have the prototypical arm, size and technique of an NFL QB. This will be a season of growing pains for Luck and the Colts, but the future bodes well.
What the Colts need to do better: Defend the pass.
Few teams can match the 1-2 pass-rush duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, who have been moved to standup, outside linebackers in first-year coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense, but the secondary has been inconsistent. The Colts picked off only eight passes last season, last in the league, and linebackers accounted for two of them. At one time this preseason, Indianapolis had 10 cornerbacks in camp competing for the starting job opposite of Jerraud Powers. Finally, they acquired veteran Vontae Davis in a trade with Miami.
"He's one of those guys that can be a shutdown corner," Pagano told reporters after getting Davis. "So when you go and play different teams, you need to take a guy like Vontae and put him on their number one guy. If you choose to do that, he's got the ability to be able to go in and take a guy out of a game."
Which Colt needs to step up: Donald Brown, running back.
Brown set career highs in carries (134), rushing yards (645) and touchdowns (five) last season, but the former first-round pick still hasn't lived up to expectations. He split carries with Joseph Addai and Delone Carter last season as the Colts relied on running backs by committee. The Colts haven't had a consistently dominant rusher since Edgerrin James left after the 2005 season, opting to rely more on Manning and the passing game. This would be a good time for Brown to have a breakout season -- and help take some of the pressure off Luck in his rookie season.
Predicted finish: 4-12.
Other than the banners hanging in Lucas Oil Stadium, there's not much evidence left in Indianapolis of the power that dominated the AFC South for so long. After last season, Colts owner Jim Irsay gutted the team, parting ways with president Bill Polian, general manager Chris Polian, coach Jim Caldwell and, finally, Manning. Pagano and new GM Ryan Grigson take over a roster that has been overturned in several key spots. They do have Luck on their side, but Colts fans will need to be patient. It will take a few years for the team to become a contender again.
What the Jaguars do best: Get the ball to Maurice Jones-Drew.
No player accounted for more of his team's offense last season than running back Maurice Jones-Drew. He rushed for a league-high 1,606 yards and gained another 374 yards on receptions. That total of 1,980 was nearly half of what the Jaguars had for the season. And Jones-Drew scored 11 of the team's 21 offensive touchdowns (eight rushing, three receiving).
Unfortunately, MJD has been MIA this preseason in a protracted holdout. The longer Jones-Drew is gone, the less time he has to adjust to new coach Mike Mularkey's offense. Although Mularkey has been readying fourth-year back Rashad Jennings, who spent the entire 2011 season on the injured-reserve list, most expect Jones-Drew to report and be ready to play in the Sept. 9 opener at Minnesota.
What the Jaguars need to do better: Pass the ball.
The NFL has become a passer's league, but Blaine Gabbert experienced a rough initiation in his rookie season. After playing in a spread offense at Missouri, Gabbert struggled in most of his 14 starts. He completed only 50.8 percent of his passes, threw for 12 touchdowns compared to 11 interceptions, and his 65.4 passer rating was the worst of any starting quarterback. One of the things new quarterbacks coach Greg Olson needs to teach Gabbert is better instincts and awareness in the pocket. Last year, Gabbert sometimes felt pressure when there wasn't any.
Which Jaguar needs to step up: Justin Blackmon, wide receiver.
While it may seem unfair to put that kind of pressure on a rookie, Blackmon will be expected to help upgrade a passing game that ranked last in the league last year. That's why Jacksonville traded a fourth-round draft pick to Tampa Bay to move up two spots and take the former Oklahoma star wideout with the fifth overall selection. Blackmon is 6-1, 215 -- not necessarily huge, but he is regarded as a physical receiver, something the Jaguars have lacked for several years. Not only does Blackmon need to dominate on the field, but also he needs to keep a low profile off of it. He faces a possible suspension for a DUI incident in June -- his second such incident.
Predicted record: 2-14.
Once a perennial playoff contender under coach Tom Coughlin, the Jaguars have slipped off the postseason radar lately. In the last six seasons, they have had a winning record only once. Mularkey is going to need some time to make Jacksonville a contender again. We know new owner Shahid Khan has deep pockets. He's going to need a lot of patience as well.