By SAM SPIEGELMAN
In early July, it feels as if we can already correctly predict the AFC South standings for January.
The Indianapolis Colts are the clear-cut favorites to repeat as the division champs, and could very well take another step forward in the conference race. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Houston Texans are all in beginning rebuilding phases. And maybe not coincidentally, all three of those teams have major questions concerning the quarterback position.
Here are the 10 burning questions for the AFC South in 2014:
1. Is the AFC South the worst division in the NFL?
Though the Colts are one of the premier AFC teams, from top to bottom there probably isn't a four-team division worse in the NFL. The Texans just picked first in the NFL draft. How often are the Jags picking in the top five? Doesn't it feel like Tennessee has been .500 the past six years?
2. Will Andrew Luck become "elite" this year?
The third year could be "the year." The Colts' front office has supplied Luck with even more weapons, making it an even easier task. The issue with Luck last season was that he went invisible for stretches last year. You don't forget about Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers for stretches of time. That'll be what Luck needs to improve upon.
3. How many quarterbacks will get starts for Houston?
Ryan Fitzpatrick is currently set to start Week 1. Barring injuries, Case Keenum could be the No. 2 option should Fitzpatrick struggle. Or if the team falls to 2-7 by their bye week, maybe it'd be time to throw rookie Tom Savage into the fold.
4. What should be expected out of Jake Locker?
All indications out of Titans OTAs are that Locker is having a terrific offseason. Locker was on track for a breakout year in 2013 before injuries yet again took a toll. Under quarterback whiz Ken Whisenhunt, Locker has a strong shot of reaching his potential. If not, his future in Tennessee is likely over.
5. Is Toby Gerhart going to lead the league in carries?
There are whispers that Gerhart - "White Thunder" - is going to be a bell-cow for the Jags, much like Michael Turner was for the Falcons a few years ago. Gerhart is still relatively fresh, considering he's been backing up Adrian Peterson for some time. Running back shelf lives are usually small, so why not grind out Gerhart for what he's got.
6. Will Trent Richardson finally live up to his first-round status?
If not now, then when? I can understand Richardson struggling in his first year with Indy. He didn't know the playbook, and backs have more to do than simply take a handoff and run. A year in the system to digest the playbook and develop chemistry with his teammates should be enough for Richardson to finally return to form.
7. Will Andre Johnson be a season-long distraction?
Johnson isn't that kind of player. He may hold out during OTAs and minicamp - maybe into training camp - but he isn't the Chad Johnson, Terrell Owens diva kind of receiver. He's a professional, and whether he likes or not, he'll be a member of the Texans in 2014.
8. What will the Titans look like without Chris Johnson?
I believe Whisenhunt is going to transform the Titans into a more vertical-passing offense. But in terms of a running game, expect the rookie Bishop Sankey to get the first crack at starting. He'll be used in single-back formations to keep defenses on their toes. It wouldn't surprise me if he led all rookie running backs with touches, too.
9. How many games can the Jags win?
Jacksonville is 11-37 over the last three years and is coming off a four-win season in 2013. Still, I have some faith is Gus Bradley. After analyzing the strength of their schedule this season, I can see the team finishing 5-11. It's not a drastic improvement, but the team is still a ways away from contending - even in the AFC South.
10. What impact will the Robert Mathis suspension have?
The Colts' top pass-rusher is suspended the first four games due to violating the league's PED policy. It's a major loss for an already questionable defense. Last year's first-rounder Bjoern Werner will start in his place. Indy opens the season with Denver and Philly before dipping into the AFC South, and I believe Mathis' absence could be the difference against the Eagles. That's one game I could see the Colts losing that they may have been able to win with Mathis rushing the passer.
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