As training camp approaches, we take a look at the players on each team who will be most heavily scrutinized. The list contains a fair number of quarterbacks — no stunner there — but we tried to highlight as many non-QBs as we could. The players who are featured range from rookies to veterans with 10 or more years of experience.
In the third of an eight-part series, we look at the AFC South from the 2011 order of finish:
Texans QB Matt Schaub
You’ve no doubt heard or read it this offseason: “If the Texans had Schaub healthy last season, they might have won a Super Bowl.” It’s a great what-if game to play, but now we get a chance (assuming his foot is good to go) to see what the results will be. The Texans are division favorites but also have lost several key pieces, including OLB Mario Williams, ILB DeMeco Ryans and ORT Eric Winston. But with a full season with both Schaub and WR Andre Johnson, the offense could help ease the heavy lifting that the defense took on last season. Schaub needs to stay healthy — he has missed time in three of the past five seasons — in a contract year that will partially determine his future in Houston.
Other Texans worth mentioning: CB Kareem Jackson, C Chris Myers.
Titans RB Chris Johnson
The Titans finished an amazing 9-7, perhaps most remarkable because of Johnson’s seesaw season with three games of 130-plus rushing yards but a stunning 12 contests with 64 or fewer. They found other ways to win, but that might not last, especially if second-year QB Jake Locker takes over as starter for Matt Hasselbeck. The reason the team paid Johnson $30 million guaranteed was for him to replicate the playmaking ability he displayed in his first three seasons. Last season, it appeared that Johnson was soft and didn’t like to be hit — and that’s not something that will sit well long term with head coach Mike Munchak.
Others worth mentioning: DE Derrick Morgan, WR Kenny Britt.
Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert
Only one season into his career, Gabbert has gone from top-10 pick to national whipping boy. After being thrust into the starting role too early after Luke McCown couldn’t cut the mustard, Gabbert predictably struggled, and Jack Del Rio and most of his staff lost their jobs. Now Gabbert must fight a lot of outside forces predicting he will be a bust, and he is learning a whole new offense under the tutelage of head coach Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and QB coach Greg Olson. But Gabbert must make tangible strides in Year Two with the help of first-round WR Justin Blackmon in order to instill confidence in Gabbert going forward.
Others worth mentioning: Blackmon, DT Terrance Knighton.
Colts OLT Anthony Castonzo
Saying that Andrew Luck will be in the spotlight this season is a bit obvious. He’s the most hyped draft pick in franchise history since Peyton Manning, whom Luck is trying to replace. But right up there on the importance totem pole is Castonzo as Luck’s new blind-side protector. He had a shaky rookie season last year while Luck enjoyed some of the best OL play in all of college football at Stanford. Castonzo must play well in order to help the rookie QB this season in Indy. He has the size, pedigree and talent to make a big jump in Year Two.
Others worth mentioning: Luck, OLBs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis (both switching from defensive end).