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First order of business for Colts is regaining footing in improved AFC South

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 03: Jacoby Brissett #7 of the Indianapolis Colts throws the football in the second half of their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field on December 3, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The return to relevance began with the exit of Chuck Pagano and soon-to-be entrance of Josh McDaniels.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The road ahead for the Indianapolis Colts appears to be long and challenging. And we’re not necessarily talking about a return as a legitimate, year-after-year NFL contender.

No, first things first, and that’s resurfacing as a contender in a neighborhood they once dominated – the AFC South. No longer is the division a convenient punch line.

The once-downtrodden Jacksonville Jaguars wilted under the fourth-quarter pressure and presence of Tom Brady in Sunday’s AFC Championship game, but the makeup of their roster portends continued success. The Tennessee Titans, which earned their first playoff slot since 2008, also seem to be structured for long-term viability.

Houston? The Texans and Colts finished 4-12, but the Texans were relegated to AFC South cellar-dwellers after being swept by Indy. However, Houston’s residency in the basement could be brief if three of its top four players return from season-ending injuries that rocked the franchise: quarterback Deshaun Watson (knee), defensive end J.J. Watt (leg) and linebacker Whitney Mercilus (torn pectoral muscle).

That brings us to the Colts. You remember, the erstwhile bullies of the AFC South. It seems a lifetime ago they set an NFL record with 16 consecutive victories within the division. It wasn’t. It was 2016. The streak ended with a 51-16 throttling at the hands of the Jaguars in week 14, and started the Colts on a 6-9 slide inside the AFC South.

Since the Colts reached the 2014 AFC Championship game, Houston has reached the playoffs twice and the Jaguars and Titans once each. All have won at least one playoff game. The Colts are 20-28.

Again, the return to relevance must begin with a return to prominence in the division. A capsule look at the AFC South moving forward:

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS:

  • 2017 record: 4-12. The Colts lost at least 10 games for just the third time in 17 seasons and have missed the playoffs in three consecutive seasons for the first time in nearly a quarter century.
  • Changes: McDaniels is the presumptive successor for Pagano, a move that’s on hold until after the Patriots’ Feb. 4 appearance in Super Bowl LII. It’s been reported Dallas linebackers coach Matt Eberflus will serve as his defensive coordinator and Oakland quarterbacks coach Jake Peetz his offensive coordinator.
  • Projected 2018 cap space: More than $82 million, according to overthecap.com. That’s the third-most cap space behind San Francisco ($114.9 million) and Cleveland ($110.5 million).
  • First-round draft pick: Third overall.
  • Significant free agents: PK Adam Vinatieri, RB Frank Gore, CB Rashaan Melvin, S Darius Butler, G Jack Mewhort, WR Donte Moncrief, CB Pierre Desir, LB Jon Bostic, LB Barkevious Mingo, DE Margus Hunt.
  • Reason for optimism: Andrew Luck insisted he’ll be ready for the Colts’ offseason work after missing all of last season because of his balky right shoulder, and a source confirmed his rehab since returning from the Netherlands last month has gone well. When Luck’s under center and on top of his game, he’s good enough to compensate for deficiencies elsewhere. GM Chris Ballard has the necessary resources to address the flawed roster – oodles of cap space, an owner willing to spend in free agency and high picks in every round of the draft, including No. 3 overall.
  • Reason for concern: Where do we start? Anxiety will remain – should remain – until we learn whether Luck’s right shoulder can withstand the weight of playing the position. And while Ballard has the resources, he’s got to maximize them. Any misstep would prove detrimental. Fair or not, he can’t miss on McDaniels being the right coach, can’t miss on free-agent signings and can’t miss in the draft, especially near the top of round 1.

HOUSTON TEXANS:

  • 2017 record: 4-10. The Texans were unable to recover after Watson suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice prior to their Nov. 5 home game with the Colts. They lost seven of their last eight games, including the final six.
  • Changes: The team signed coach Bill O’Brien to a four-year extension and replaced general manager Rick Smith with Brian Gaine. Defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel was named Tennessee’s head coach and his vacancy was filled by assistant head coach Romeo Crennel.
  • Projected 2018 cap space: $57 million.
  • First-round draft pick: None (traded to Cleveland).
  • Significant free agents: CB Johnathan Joseph, S Marcus Gilchrist, RB Alfred Blue, G Xavier, Su’a-Filo, G Breno Giacomini, QB Tom Savage, QB T.J. Yates.
  • Reason for optimism: There’s every reason to believe Watt, Mercilus and Watson will make full recoveries. That immediately impacts a defense that allowed an NFL-high and franchise-record 436 points and an offense that lost its potency without Watson.
  • Reason for concern: At what point does Watson regain his “A’’ game? DeAndre Hopkins would like to know. And should we worry about Watt’s long-term health? The NFL’s three-time Defensive Player of the Year has been on the field for just eight games the last two seasons while dealing with serious back and leg injuries.

TENNESSEE TITANS:

  • 2017 record: 9-7. The Titans posted consecutive winning records for the first time since 2007-08 and reached the playoffs for the first time since ’08.
  • Changes: The team fired coach Mike Mularkey and replaced him with Vrabel. Also, it has been reported defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau will not return.
  • Projected 2018 cap space: $50.7 million.
  • First-round draft pick: 25th overall.
  • Significant free agents: WR Eric Decker, G Josh Kline, WR Harry Douglas, QB Brandon Weeden, LB Avery Williamson, LB Erik Walden, CB Brice McCain, PK Ryan Succop.
  • Reason for optimism: The offensive foundation seems in place with bookend tackles (Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin), running back Derrick Henry and quarterback Marcus Mariota. The defense was middle of the NFL pack last season, but has promise.
  • Reason for concern: The main criticism of Mularkey seemed to be his inability to develop Mariota. So management gives that job to the defensive-minded Vrabel. Okay. Vrabel’s most important hires will be his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS:

  • 2017 record: 10-6. The Jaguars finally quieted their critics after nine consecutive non-winning seasons.
  • Changes: None.
  • Projected 2018 cap space: $17.5 million.
  • First-round draft pick: 29th overall.
  • Significant free agents: WR Allen Robinson, WR Marqise Lee, G Patrick Omameh, LB Paul Posluszny, LB Lerentee McCray, S Peyton Thompson, S Aaron Colvin, QB Chad Henne.
  • Reason for optimism: Management has parlayed several seasons of effective drafting (Leonard Fournette, Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee, Cam Robinson, Marcedes Lewis) with hitting on expensive, impactful free agents (Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, Malik Jackson, Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson) to form a solid roster. The Jaguars might be built for a long run.
  • Reason for concern: Two words. Blake. Bortles. Despite an effective postseason – 49-of-85, 594 yards, three TDs, zero interceptions – questions remain whether he’s the long-term answer. It’s a question management must make sooner rather than later. The fifth-year option of his rookie contract — $19 million – becomes guaranteed in mid-March. The third overall pick in the 2014 draft is 21-40 as a starter.

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