AFC South training camp capsules
HOUSTON TEXANS (10-8)
OPEN CAMP: July 26, The Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia
LAST YEAR: Houston overcame J.J. Watt missing all but three games with back injury to go 9-7 and win weak AFC South for second straight year. Emergence of 2014 top overall pick Jadeveon Clowney helped ease loss of Watt and allow Houston to lead NFL in yards allowed. After getting blown out by Kansas City in wild-card round in 2016, Texans were ousted in divisional round by New England largely because of another ineffective performance by quarterback Brock Osweiler. Osweiler was inconsistent throughout first season in Houston and after season team decided $72 million investment was mistake and shipped him to Cleveland.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Rookies QB Deshaun Watson, RB D’Onta Foreman, LB Zach Cunningham, linebackers coach Mike Vrabel promoted to defensive coordinator.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: QB Brock Osweiler, CB A.J. Bouye, S Quintin Demps, offense coordinator George Godsey.
CAMP NEEDS: Texans insist Tom Savage is starting QB, but it’s unlikely they would have traded up 13 picks to take Clemson standout Watson if they weren’t going to give him chance to win job. Watson has shown ability to thrive in big games in college, but to beat out Savage he must master coach Bill O’Brien’s offense quickly and build rapport with star receiver DeAndre Hopkins and rest of offense. Watt has declared himself fully recovered from back injury that required two surgeries; he participated in offseason workouts. Still, much of focus of camp will be on if he looks like d Defensive Player of Year in three of his four seasons before injury. Houston will also need young defensive backs such as 2015 first-round pick Kevin Johnson taking step forward and moving into starting roles left vacant when Bouye and Demps departed in free agency.
EXPECTATIONS: If Watt is healthy and back to form, Houston’s defense featuring him and Clowney should be among best. Question is if Savage or Watson can step up and provide consistent quarterback play after years of problems at position. If Houston finally gets its quarterback situation solved and RB Lamar Miller has another good season, Texans could contend for championship after failing to get out of divisional round of playoffs in previous four postseason trips.
TENNESSEE TITANS (9-7)
OPEN CAMP: July 28, St. Thomas Sports Park, Nashville, Tennessee.
LAST YEAR: Posted first winning season since 2011 and chased AFC South title until loss Dec. 24 in Jacksonville, where QB Marcus Mariota broke right leg. That extended franchise string without playoff berth to eight seasons. Titans still tripled win total from previous year in Mike Mularkey’s first full season as head coach, big improvement after winning NFL-worst five games in 2014 and 2015 combined.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: Rookie WR Corey Davis, rookie CB Adoree Jackson, WR Eric Decker, CB Logan Ryan, NT Sylvester Williams, S Johnathan Cyprien, S Brynden Trawick, LB Daren Bates, WR Eric Weems, OL Tim Lelito, CB Demontre Hurst, rookie WR Taywan Taylor, rookie TE Jonnu Smith.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: CB Jason McCourty, S Rashad Johnson, WR Kendall Wright, DT Al Woods.
CAMP NEEDS: Coordinator Dick LeBeau needs revamped secondary to jell quickly with Logan and Jackson as key pieces for how much Titans improve pass defense. LB Kevin Dodd expects to finally be healthy after surgeries on his right foot. DL Karl Klug also could be back after Achilles tendon injury in late December. WR Tajae Sharpe is recovering from surgery for stress fracture in right foot and now faces serious competition for roster spot with late signing of Decker.
EXPECTATIONS: End playoff drought by earning franchise’s first berth since 2008 and proving controlling owner Amy Adam Strunk made all right moves in hiring new general manager and head coach in January 2016. Mariota is poised for best season with potentially best receiving corps Titans have had in more than decade. He also is surrounded with roster featuring five Pro Bowlers, including running back DeMarco Murray. Combination should fill seats that have been empty past few years.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS (8-8)
OPEN CAMP: July 29, Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center, Indianapolis.
LAST YEAR: Statistically, Andrew Luck had best season of career. RB Frank Gore and K Adam Vinatieri continued moving up NFL’s career lists, and WR T.Y. Hilton led league in yards receiving. It still wasn’t enough to get Indy into playoffs. Owner Jim Irsay responded to Colts’ second straight playoff absence by retaining coach Chuck Pagano and firing GM Ryan Grigson in hopes of easing conflict inside team complex. Franchise sacks leader Robert Mathis retired, former Pro Bowlers Mike Adams and D’Qwell Jackson were released and team sacks leader Erik Walden walked away in free agency. Results: First-time GM Chris Ballard began transition to rebuild defense with younger, faster, less expensive players. Inexperienced offensive line struggled early, allowing Luck to be sacked career-high-tying 41 times in 15 games. It showed significant improvement over final month of season, enough to give Colts hope they may have solid unit to protect Luck.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DT Johnathan Hankins, LB Jabaal Sheard, rookie S Malik Hooker, LB John Simon, NT Al Woods, rookie DE Tarell Basham, P Jeff Locke, LB Sean Spence, LB Barkevious Mingo.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: Mathis, Adams, Jackson, LB Erik Walden, P Pat McAfee, TE Dwayne Allen, CB Patrick Robinson.
CAMP NEEDS: As usual, Luck will be center of attention. This year’s big question: Will Luck throw at Colts’ first practice, July 30? If not, when? Luck attended team’s offseason workouts but was restricted because of surgery for partially torn labrum in throwing shoulder. It’s still unclear when he might return. Pagano and Colts have, understandably, played it safe with franchise QB; it’s doubtful they rush him back at camp even though they need him on field. If Luck isn’t ready, Scott Tolzien will take bulk of snaps. Colts also are seeking successor to Gore and more improvement from offensive line. Defensively, Indy is looking to fill six more starting spots. Training camp will be first real time for newcomers to get acclimated to second-year defensive coordinator Ted Monachino. Colts also are hoping Locke is adequate replacement for McAfee, Pro Bowl punter who handled kickoff duties. McAfee retired unexpectedly.
EXPECTATIONS: Making playoffs is annual expectation for Colts, and Irsay believes they should make postseason in 2017. If Luck is healthy, offensive line continues to improve and defense can finish in top half of NFL, Indy could make run at another AFC South crown. If not, Pagano faces uncertain fate in January.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (3-13)
OPEN CAMP: July 27, Jacksonville, Florida.
LAST YEAR: Stumbled out of gate again (1-13 in September in last four years) and finished with double-digit losses for sixth consecutive season. Offense was one of worst in league, with third-year starter Blake Bortles showing few signs of being franchise QB behind shaky offensive line. Defense was solid at times, but forced measly six turnovers and allowed 25 points per game. Special teams were debacle. So season that started with high expectations for floundering franchise ended with coach Gus Bradley being awkwardly fired following ninth straight loss, which came at Houston in mid-December. With NFL-low 17 wins last four years, many believed owner Shad Khan would opt for complete makeover. Instead, he promoted offensive line coach Doug Marrone to head coach and brought in former Jaguars and Giants coach Tom Coughlin to oversee football operations. Jaguars also retained offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and defensive coordinator Todd Wash, moves that indicate Khan and general manager Dave Caldwell believe Bradley and always-positive approach were more problematic than scheme and personnel.
IMPORTANT ADDITIONS: DE Calais Campbell, CB A.J. Bouye, SS Barry Church, LT Branden Albert, rookie RB Leonard Fournette.
IMPORTANT LOSSES: DT Sen’Derrick Marks, TE Julius Thomas, DE Jared Odrick, OL Luke Joeckel.
CAMP NEEDS: Marrone and Coughlin are trying to build tougher, more physical team, and it starts with offensive line. They seek one of league’s top rushing attacks, which is why they traded for veteran Albert, drafted Fournette fourth overall and added offensive lineman Cam Robinson in second round. Belief is better ground game will ease burden on Bortles, who has averaged 37 passes per game in first three seasons. Progress will best be measured in full pads and maybe more so during joint practices with New England and Tampa Bay early in training camp.
EXPECTATIONS: Hard to envision Jaguars making significant turnaround in Marrone’s first year. Even Marrone acknowledges it takes time to implement new culture and develop chemistry. Ultimate goal for 2017 will be deciding whether Bortles is long-term solution or if Jaguars need to find replacement in free agency in what appears to be deep QB draft class.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL