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Have Colts made up enough ground in pursuit of AFC South?

Jim Irsay

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Jim Irsay lacked complete tunnel vision as the NFL Draft ran its course last weekend.

The attention of the Indianapolis Colts owner certainly was focused on his team’s eight-player yield – six of the eight addressed defensive deficiencies – but it also kept track of what was going on around him.

More to the point, Irsay noticed what appeared to be another affirmative step taken by the Colts’ AFC South brethren.

He noticed the long-downtrodden Jacksonville Jaguars – their last winning season was in 2007 – used their latest lottery pick on LSU’s Leonard Fournette, the draft’s top-rated running back.

“He’s a helluva football player,’’ Irsay said. “It’s tough to have to play against that guy. He’s a force. When you see that, you say, ‘Hey, you’d better have defensive front-seven guys that are ready to mix it up.’

“This is going to be a physical guy who’s going to be running it down our throats if we don’t stop him.’’

We’ll tap the breaks before anointing Fournette the next AFC South back who’ll have his way with the Colts’ run defense. The list, as everyone knows, is long. Since realignment in 2002, 14 different AFC South backs have combined for 34 100-yard rushing games against Indy.

Rookie general manager Chris Ballard has spent the offseason taking a wrecking ball to a Colts defense that for too long has been an eyesore. Eight of his 12 veteran free-agent acquisitions and six of his draft picks, including the first three, added defensive talent.

There’s no question the defense will be better this season and help ease the enormous weight the offense has had to carry. But will that be enough for the Colts to return to prominence?

A stat we’ll wear out: the last time the Colts missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons was when it endured a seven-year drought from 1988-94.

Irsay is optimistic his franchise is headed in the right direction on the heels of back-to-back 8-8 records.

“We’re not sure how good we can be, but we sure are looking to be playing in January,’’ he said. “That’s our hope and I don’t think that’s unrealistic at all.’’

It all begins with regaining control of the AFC South, which has followed Houston’s lead the past two seasons.

A look at the status of the division following free agency and the draft:

COLTS

  • Draft picks: S Malik Hooker (round 1/15 overall); CB Quincy Wilson (2/46); LB Tarell Basham (3/80); OL Zach Banner (4/137); RB Marlon Mack (4/143); DT Grover Street (4/144); CB Nate Harrison (5/158); LB Anthony Walker (5/161).
  • Re-signed: TE Jack Doyle, S Darius Butler, RB Robert Turbin.
  • Key additions: NT Johnathan Hankins, LB Jabaal Sheard, LB John Simon, LB Sean Spence, P Jeff Locke, WR Kamar Aiken.
  • Key subtractions: LB Robert Mathis (retired), OT Joe Reitz (retired), P Pat McAfee (retired), TE Dwayne Allen (traded to New England), S Mike Adams, LB Trent Cole, LB Erik Walden.
  • com power ranking: No. 20.
  • Comment: OK, we’ll climb out on a limb. If Andrew Luck is ready for the Sept. 10 opener against the Rams, we’re going with the Colts to unseat the Texans and leapfrog the Titans in the division. But it’s a ginormous “if.’’ It’s entirely possible the local media won’t see concrete evidence of Luck’s successful rehab from January shoulder surgery until training camp opens in late July. Maybe he throws out of the sight of the media at some point during the team’s offseason work. Maybe he doesn’t start serious throwing until the month between the end of offseason work and camp. Maybe Luck opens camp on the physically unable to perform list (PUP). We just don’t know.
    A year ago, this bunch went 8-8 with a defense that was one of the worst in franchise history and lost twice to Brock Osweiler and once to Blake Bortles. Ballard’s renovation of the defense will take time, but the initial phase should be sufficient for them to return to playoff-contender status.

 HOUSTON

  • Draft picks: QB DeShaun Watson (1/12), LB Zach Cunningham (2/57), RB D’Onta Foreman (3/89), OT Julie’n Davenport (4/130), DT Carlos Watkins (4/142), DB Treston Decoud (5/169), C Kyle Fuller (7/243).
  • Key additions: None.
  • Key subtractions: QB Brock Osweiler (traded to Cleveland), CB A.J. Bouye, LB John Simon, S Quintin Demps.
  • com power ranking: No. 16.
  • Comment: Say hello to Watson, the Texans’ latest QB of the Future. Ownership believes it finally solved its most pressing need, but it’s anyone’s guess whether coach Bill O’Brien will be comfortable enough coming out of training camp and align himself with the 12th overall pick in the draft or go with Tom Savage. Houston took a big offseason hit with Bouye signing a massive free-agent deal with the Jaguars, but its defense remains elite. Let’s not forget J.J. Watt, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, returns after missing the bulk of ’16 with back surgery.

TENNESSEE

  • Draft picks: WR Corey Davis (1/5), CB Adoree’ Jackson (1/18), WR Taywan Taylor (3/72), TE Jonnu Smith (3/100), LB Jayon Brown (5/155), OL Corey Levin (6/217), LB Josh Carraway (7/227), OT Brad Seaton (7/236), RB Khalfani Muhammad (7/241).
  • Key additions: CB Logan Ryan, S Johnathan Cyprien, NT Sylvester Williams.
  • Key subtractions: TE Anthony Fasano, LB Sean Spence, G Chance Warmack, NT Al Woods, WR Kendall Wright, QB Matt Cassell, G Brian Schwenke.
  • com power ranking: No. 12.
  • Comment: It’s hard not to applaud GM Jon Robinson for how he’s building the Titans. He used free agency to reinforce the league’s 20th-ranked defense, then addressed the one-dimension offense in the draft. Marcus Mariota, on the mend from a broken leg, already had a physical running game behind DeMarco Murray. The draft added a pair of intriguing receivers (Davis and Taylor) and a tight end (Smith).

JACKSONVILLE

  • Draft picks: RB Leonard Fournette (1/4), OT Cam Robinson (2/34), DE Dawaune Smoot (3/68), WR Dede Westbrook (4/110), LB Blair Brown (5/148), CB Jalen Myrick (7/222), FB Marquez Williams (7/240).
  • Key additions: CB A.J. Bouye, DE Calais Campbell, S Barry Church, G Earl Watford, OT Branden Albert.
  • Key subtractions: DE Tyson Alualu, CB Prince Amukamara, OT Kelvin Beachum, S Johnathan Cyprien, CB Davon House, DE Jared Odrick.
  • com power ranking: No. 26.
  • Comment: On paper, the Jaguars boast one of the most impressive rosters in the league. It was further enhanced as owner Shad Khan again was active in the veteran free-agent market. The 230-something-pound Fournette should offer a thunderous complement to Blake Bortles, and keep Bortles from having to do too much.
    But we’ll believe the Jaguars have turned the corner when they, you know, turn the corner. Two facts we can’t shake: Since 2008, Jacksonville is 42-102 (.291) and Blake Bortles is 11-34 was a starting QB.

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