Colts facing an uphill battle in the AFC South
The Indianapolis Colts have a long history of dominating the AFC South, but after big offseasons by the other three teams, the division is no longer Indy’s to win.
Since it’s inception in 2002, the AFC South has been dominated by the Colts. They’ve won the division nine times in it’s 14 year history. The Houston Texans own three titles, the Tennessee Titans have won it twice and the Jacksonville Jaguars have yet to take home a division banner.
2015 saw a two year streak of AFC South dominance end in multiple ways for the Colts. The Texans not only took home the title, but also won in Indianapolis for the first time in franchise history. The Colts also lost to the Jaguars (in embarrassing fashion) for the first time since 2012. Only the Titans were unable to defeat the Colts (thanks in large part to a brilliant fourth quarter from Andrew Luck with a bum shoulder).
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The division wasn’t that strong last season, as evidenced by the Texans 9-7 record and subsequent blowout loss to the Chiefs in the playoffs. The Colts managed a .500 record at 8-8 but were running on fumes and their fourth starting QB of the season by Week 17. The Jags and Titans managed to keep their streak of top 10 picks in the draft alive with 5-11 and 3-13 records, respectively.
As the season ended it seemed as if the Colts merely needed Luck to get healthy, make some tweaks to the roster, and they’d be the favorites in the AFC South once again. But the moves the other three team’s in the South have made in free agency and the draft make the division one of the more competitive in the NFL.
It was bound to happen at some point in time. You can only whiff on top draft picks for so many years. The Jaguars and Titans simply won’t be able to do much worse than they have over the past three years.
The key for all of these teams? Finding a quarterback.
The Texans signed Brock Osweiler, and while we can debate whether or not his limited action in Denver was really that impressive, he does represent a clear upgrade over the elephant graveyard of QBs the Texans have been playing will since…well, forever. This team has been a quarterback away from greatness for years now and if Osweiler can just put together an average season (which he did in Denver) they’ll be looking at a 10-win season easily.
The Jaguars QB struggles seem to be over with Blake Bortles. Bortles tossed 35 touchdowns last season behind a turnstile line that saw him get sacked 51 times. They just need to protect him a bit better and improve the defense to take that next step. The young talent infusion on defense could turn into a scary trio with Dante Fowler, Jalen Ramsey, and Myles Jack (health will be a big issue for all three, however).
The Titans are in the worst shape, but Marcus Mariota put together an impressive rookie campaign despite a terrible line, no weapons, and dealing with a knee injury. Now the Titans have two exceptional running backs in DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry to take the pressure off Mariota and have Jack Conklin to watch his blind side. The only question here is: why build a power run team with a spread QB?
In contrast, the Colts were extremely quite in free agency. Making small incremental moves and letting a few players walk in free agency. Of course all of this was dictated by Luck’s impending contract extension. The Colts spent four picks on offensive linemen and are hoping that throwing warm bodies at the protection problem will solve all their woes.
Center Ryan Kelly will start right away, but how much of an impact will he really make in 2016? Does this addition suddenly give Luck more time in the pocket or a consistent run game? Maybe. It definitely doesn’t help the defense which is old, slow, and doesn’t have anything resembling a pass rush.
The prevailing thought has been that a healthy Luck puts the Colts at the top, which could in fact be true. Luck definitely is more talented than the other three QBs in the division, but the Colts roster is less talented than the Texans or Jaguars to say the least.
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Early projections have the AFC South in a tight race. Football Outsiders projects the Texans to win with a 8-8 record, and the other three at 7-9. Those projections don’t account for Luck’s injuries last season, but neither do they account for the rookie additions to all four teams.
The Colts won’t have any easy outs this season when the face the AFC South. They’ll finally have to compete to win their 10th division title in 2016.