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Key Games -- Week 3 at Ravens, Week 9 vs. Colts, Week 13 vs. Patriots, Week 15 at Colts, & Week 16 vs. Broncos
Breakout Player -- With the exception of J.J. Watt, no defensive player is as important to Houston’s success as linebacker Whitney Mercilus. The former first-round pick registered just six sacks in four starts a year ago, as he transitioned from college defensive end to pro outside linebacker. Watt accounted for 20.5 of the team’s 28 sacks, so they must find a complimentary pass rusher to the reigning defensive player of they year. Mercilus is their best hope.
Rookie Impact -- The Texans have long been searching for a No. 2 receiver to go opposite of star Andre Johnson. They finally believe they’ve fixed the weakness with DeAndre Hopkins. The former Clemson Tiger has been working with the No. 1 offense all summer and figures to be instrumental throughout the season.
Fantasy Stud -- Arian Foster sitting out of training camp is inconsequential. This happens every August. Foster misses a ton of practice time, and fantasy prognosticators advise a cautious approach. September rolls around and Foster entrenches himself as one of fantasy’s best players. In fact, since becoming a starter, Foster has run for over 4,000 yards and scored 47 touchdowns. He’s missed just three games over that span. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt.
Prediction -- Losers of three of their last four regular-season games, Houston’s flying under the radar in 2013. They may not possess an elite quarterback, but their offense is among the most balance in pro football. Gary Kubiak does a great job of using the run to setup the passing game, and the addition of Hopkins adds another layer to their arsenal. Of the elite AFC teams, the Texans may feature the best defense. Watt is already among the league’s best players, yet his game could get better with a complimentary pass rusher. Because they play in arguably the league’s worst division, the Texans feature a favorable schedule to go along with a stout defense and balanced offense. A year ago, many were predicting them to reach the Super Bowl. Perhaps such predictions were just a year too soon.
Key Games -- Week 6 at Chargers, Week 7 vs. Broncos, Week 9 at Texans, Week 14 at Bengals, & Week 15 vs. Texans
Breakout Player -- There’s not many people projecting T.Y. Hilton to have a better fantasy season than Wayne, yet the Colts are ready to expand his role after the second-year receiver had a terrific August. It’s unlikely he’ll catch a ton of passes, but a 1,000-yard season is looking more plausible by the day.
Rookie Impact -- Expectations are always limited for a defensive end transitioning to outside linebacker, but the Colts draft class has been hit with injuries this camp, so Bjoern Werner remains their best hope to contribute. The team expects their first-round pick to rush the passer in their nickel packages.
Fantasy Stud -- Last year’s explosion of young quarterbacks probably left Luck a little overlooked, but he still accounted for 28 touchdowns and 4,000-plus yards. He’s not yet ready to reach the same heights of an Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees, but he’s also too talented for a sophomore slump.
Prediction -- The Colts are still a year away from dethroning Houston for a division title. They don’t offer much of a running game, so Luck will have to carry the team on his shoulders. Their offensive line, while improving, remains a work in progress. A strong preseason has many excited about Indianapolis’ defense, but that’s putting a lot of stock into exhibition games. This is not a defense without holes. The secondary lacks an impact player and the pass rush needs improving. Their run defense should make strides, but their not physical enough to take on some of the elite rush offenses -- namely Houston, San Francisco, and Seattle -- on their schedule. Simply put, the Colts need another year before they’re ready for a deep playoff run.
Key Games -- Week 1 vs. Chiefs, Week 4 vs. Colts, Week 6 at Broncos, Week 12 at Texans, & Week 17 at Colts
Breakout Player -- Nobody blinked an eye when Jacksonville signed linebacker Geno Hayes to a two-year contract this off-season. However, the former Chicago Bear has had an excellent camp and will start. He’s displayed reliable coverage skills in practice, and despite his small size (226 pounds), he’s adequate against the run. Nobody will mistake Hayes for the next Derrick Brooks, but he’s positioning himself for a productive season with the Jaguars.
Rookie Impact -- The selection of Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel surprised many draft prognosticators. Most were thinking pass rush for Jacksonville, but they opted for the best player on their board. The Jaguars were right. Joeckel projected as an NFL-ready tackle and that’s exactly what they’re getting. Baring injury, he should make a huge impact in Jacksonville’s running game, while providing competent pass protection.
Fantasy Stud -- A healthy Maurice Jones-Drew should settle in as one of fantasy’s top No. 2 running backs. He has the upside to crack the top 10, but Jacksonville’s passing game strikes little fear into opponents, so he’ll constantly deal with teams stacking the line of scrimmage.
Prediction -- New head coach Gus Bradley will bring intensity to Jacksonville, but he’s got his work cut out for him. Despite a strong camp, quarterback Blaine Gabbert offers next to nothing as a starter. He can’t or isn’t willing to stretch the field with his arm. In addition, the Jaguars are without receiver Justin Blackmon for the first four weeks. On defense, they’ll rely on Bradley to scheme pressure, but you still need guys that can line up and beat the man across from him. That type of player isn’t on Jacksonville’s roster. The last five drafts have witnessed Jacksonville select within its top 10. This isn’t the year for that to change.
Key Games -- Week 2 at Texans, Week 3 vs. Chargers, Week 10 vs. Jaguars, Week 11 vs. Colts, & Week 14 at Broncos
Breakout Player -- Steady play as a rookie positions linebacker Zach Brown for a breakout ‘13 season. Known mostly for his range, the second-year linebacker is improving on his ability to get off blocks. As the game slows down for him, look for his natural instincts to kick in and elevate his play.
Rookie Impact -- When the Titans took Alabama guard Chance Warmack with the No. 10 pick, they knew they were getting a mauler capable of starting from day one. He’s been just that this August. Given their reliance on the run, he’s a significant piece to their overall plans in 2013.
Fantasy Stud -- After disappointing in 2011, Johnson bounced back in ‘12 with 1,243 rushing yards. He’s regained his coaching staff’s confidence and the team is once again ready to lean on him as their star player. He’ll have to overcome stacked defenses, however, as defensive coordinators will not respect Tennessee’s passing game.
Prediction -- The bubble is about to burst in Tennessee. The Titans have put their ship in quarterback Jake Locker‘s hands, and the third-year player is going to sink them. Locker has a big arm and outstanding athleticism, but his accuracy issues date back to his college days at Washington. Unless he fixes this ongoing problem, the Titans will be unable to muster up much offense, despite their solid ground game. In addition, the defense is a far cry of what it was under Jeff Fisher. The nastiness that made them so respected is gone. Firing Fisher was a decision I did not agree with and this projection reaffirms my opinion.