Gus Bradley has been with the Jacksonville Jaguars for one season, and he’s already the second-longest tenured current head coach in the AFC South.
The collapse of the Houston Texans over the final 14 weeks and a fifth consecutive year in which the Tennessee Titans failed to reach the playoffs caused a shakeup in the coaching ranks that will likely have more of an impact than anything which happened in free agency. But unless Bradley, Bill O’Brien or Ken Whisenhunt can pull off a magic act, all three teams will be hard-pressed to dethrone the Indianapolis Colts, who have the advantage of a quarterback situation free of uncertainty or controversy.
Andrew Luck increased his completion percentage and cut down on the number of interceptions thrown from his rookie season, and he’s got the benefit of an amazing group of receivers. While Houston’s Andre Johnson might be the top wide receiver in the division, he’s asking for a trade after the best the Texans could do about upgrading the quarterback position was to sign ex-Titan Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tennessee is banking on Whisenhunt to do with the oft-injured Jake Locker what he accomplished previously with Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner, and the Jaguars are leaning on Chad Henne to be a caretaker of the offense until rookie Blake Bortles is deemed NFL-ready.
While both the Texans and Colts made the playoffs in 2012, it’s tough to envision someone other than Indianapolis getting in again this season.
Here’s a look at how Jacksonville’s division rivals look entering training camp:
Key free-agent additions: DE Arthur Jones (Baltimore), WR Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants), LB D’Qwell Jackson (Cleveland).
Key free-agent losses: RB Donald Brown (San Diego), FS Antoine Bethea (San Francisco), OT Jeff Linkenbach (Kansas City), LB Kavell Conner (San Diego), G Mike McGlynn (Washington), WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (PIttsburgh), CB Cassius Vaughn (Detroit).
Rookies: T Jake Mewhort (second round, Ohio State), WR Donte Moncrief (third, Mississippi), DE Jonathan Newsome (fifth, Ball State), LB Andrew Jackson (sixth, Western Kentucky), T Ulrick John (seventh, Georgia State).
Analysis: In a conference where Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have been the gold standard for more than a decade, Luck is on the precipice of similar greatness. Nicks joins Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton in an impressive collection of targets, and running back Trent Richardson ought to finally live up to the expectations placed on him coming out of Alabama now that he’ll be with the Colts for a full season.
On defense, the pass rush could be a concern during the first four weeks while sacks leader Robert Mathis serves a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. Depending how quickly Jones and Jackson jell, that point could be rendered somewhat moot. The secondary needs to find a way to replace Bethea, who hadn’t missed a game the last six seasons. It doesn’t help matters that the Colts open the season at Denver against Manning and the Broncos.
Getting past the rest of the division shouldn’t be much of an obstacle for the Colts. Getting to the conference championship game and beyond is another story.
Key free-agent additions: LB Wesley Woodyard (Denver), OT Michael Oher (Baltimore), LB Shaun Phillips (Denver), RB/PR Dexter McCluster (Kansas City).
Key free-agent losses: RB Chris Johnson (New York Jets), CB Alterraun Verner (Tampa Bay), WR Kenny Britt (St. Louis), QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (Houston).
Rookies: T Taylor Lewan (first round, Michigan), RB Bishop Sankey (second, Washington), DT DaQuan Jones (fourth, Penn State), S Marqueston Huff (fourth, Wyoming) LB Avery Williamson (fifth, Kentucky), QB Zach Mettenberger (sixth, LSU).
Analysis: Johnson is gone after leading the Titans in rushing for each of the past six years, although his average of 3.9 yards a carry last season was the lowest of his career. But don’t expect the Titans to feature a steady dose of Sankey and Shonn Greene, if Whisenhunt’s history is any indication.
McCluster is as much of a threat as a receiver as he is a runner, if not more. When paired with Kendall Wright, who caught 94 passes in 2013, he could open things up considerably. Of course, that best-case scenario depends on whether Locker, their former first-round draft pick, can stay healthy and avoid becoming the Titans’ version of Blaine Gabbert.
Defensive end Jurrell Casey had 10.5 sacks a year ago, but getting either Coty Sensabaugh or Tommie Campbell to make up for the loss of Verner might be unrealistic.
Key free-agent additions: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (Tennessee), S Kendrick Lewis (Kansas City), DT Jerrell Powe (Kansas City).
Key free-agent losses: TE Owen Daniels (Baltimore), RB Ben Tate (Cleveland), DT Earl Mitchell (Miami), DE Antonio Smith (Oakland), S Danieal Manning (Cincinnati), CB Brice McCain (Pittsburgh), LB Darryl Sharpton (Washington), LB Joe Mays (Kansas City).
Rookies: LB Jadeveon Clowney (first round, South Carolina), G Xavier Su’a-Filo (second, UCLA), TE C.J. Fiedorowicz (third, Iowa), NT Louis Nix (third, Notre Dame), QB Tom Savage (fourth, Pittsburgh), DE Jeoffrey Pagan (sixth, Alabama), RB Alfred Blue (sixth, LSU), FB Jay Prosch (sixth, Auburn), CB Andre Hal (seventh, Vanderbilt), S Lonnie Ballentine (seventh, Memphis).
Analysis: How a team with Johnson, Arian Foster and J.J. Watt can crash and burn like it did flies in the face of logic. A September schedule that includes games against Washington, Oakland and Buffalo should help, but as the Texans know all too well, getting off to a good start is no guarantee of success further down the road.
Clowney’s conversion from defensive end, the position he played in college, could be slower in coming than hoped after he had surgery to repair a sports hernia. He’ll line up opposite Watt in an arrangement which has the potential to give opposing quarterbacks fits — including perhaps Matt Schaub, if he’s the starter for the Raiders against the Texans in Week 2.
For as much flak as Schaub received in a season which resulted in the firing of Gary Kubiak, does Fitzpatrick represent an upgrade? The reputation O’Brien had as an assistant coach in the NFL and a head coach at Penn State was of someone who leaned on run-heavy offenses, which should be good news for Foster if his body can withstand the rigors of a full season.