Houston TEXANS (10-6)
Strengths: Houston’s defense ranked No. 2 (285.7 ypg) and set franchise record with 44 sacks in 2011. OLB Mario Williams bolted for big money in Buffalo and LB DeMeco Ryans was dealt to Philadelphia, but Texans think they filled gaps with first-round pick Whitney Mercilus and veteran Bradie James, who played for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in Dallas. Two-time Pro Bowl RB Arian Foster signed five-year contract, and team bolstered receiving depth behind Andre Johnson with development of Lestar Jean and by drafting DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin. QB Matt Schaub has looked sharp in preseason.
Weaknesses: Right side of offensive line has two new starters. Antoine Caldwell, who made three starts last year, is the likely pick at right guard; Derek Newton, a seventh-round pick, has edged Rashad Butler at right tackle. Houston ranked fourth in rushing defense (96 ypg) in 2011, but 110 yards rushing per game in preseason.
Expectations: Another AFC South title, at very least. Texans felt like injuries were all that kept them from making Super Bowl run, and all key pieces are back this year.
Tennessee TITANS (9-7)
Strengths: Titans protect quarterback as well as any team, a key with Jake Locker stepping in as starter in second season. Signed five-time All-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson to upgrade unit that allowed only 24 sacks in 2011. RB Chris Johnson spent offseason working with team determined to erase memories of worst pro season last year after big contract extension. First-round pick Kendall Wright has impressed since stepping on field.
Weaknesses: WR Kenny Britt (three knee surgeries since tearing right ACL and MCL last year) has been suspended for the opener after his eighth incident with police (DUI arrest in July). Youth on defense, where seven projected starters have three years of experience or less, and depth in secondary behind CB Jason McCourty. S Michael Griffin untested.
Expectations: Survive tough early portion of schedule, with playoff berth the goal. Missed wild-card spot by a tiebreaker to Cincinnati last season.
Jacksonville JAGUARS (5-11)
Strengths: Jaguars return 10 of 11 starters on defense that ranked sixth in league last season. Drafted Clemson DE Andre Branch in hopes of beefing up pass rush that tallied 31 sacks; added nickel CB Aaron Ross. Key, though, is health of DT Tyson Alualu, DT Terrance Knighton, CB Rashean Mathis and LB Paul Posluszny. All recovering from surgeries.
Weaknesses: QB Blaine Gabbert has no excuses in second season. Starting offensive line is intact, and WRs Laurent Robinson and first-round pick Justin Blackmon give QB kind of playmakers he sorely needs.
Expectations: With new owner, new coach, new offense and running back Maurice Jones-Drew still holding out, Jaguars expect some growing pains. But they need to show improvement to energize fans who have grown tired of watching their team miss playoffs 10 times in last 12 seasons.
Indianapolis COLTS (2-14)
Strengths: Owner Jim Irsay gutted team and started almost from scratch after last season’s collapse, so biggest strength may be all new faces including QB Andrew Luck. Offense looks good enough to score points. Colts have bigger defensive front and will be more aggressive after switching from 4-3 defense to 3-4 hybrid, move that could play in team’s favor.
Weaknesses: Cornerback and offensive line are big concerns. Still trying to find starters at guard and hope Winston Justice and Anthony Castonzo play up to expectations. Injured CB Jerraud Powers solid and finally added bona fide second starter with trade for Vontae Davis. New cornerback has first-round talent but lost starting job in Miami and is hoping new locale helps. With so many new players, will take time for everyone to get on same page.
Expectations: Things can’t get much worse after dismal 2-14 season that led to Manning’s release. But how many more wins can Colts expect? Weak schedule against plenty of bad teams, many with new QBs may help Colts post decent record. If Luck and other young players stay healthy and make progress, four or more wins would mark successful start of new era.