The AFC South is often touted as the worst division in the NFL, and seen as easy to win. I’ve undertaken the task of naming the best player in the division at each position. It’s not as bad as we make it out to be.
QB: Andrew Luck (IND)
Ever since he was selected #1 overall following Peyton Manning’s departure in 2012, Andrew Luck has been a top tier quarterback in the National Football League. Though his ability to escape the pocket aids him, Luck makes his money picking apart defenses in the pocket. His size and strength make him hard to bring down for a sack.
Luck’s achilles heel, however, has been his propensity to turn the football over. In 2015, he threw an interception on a over 4% of his pass attempts, something that does not bode well for team success.
It is hard, though, to make good decisions with the football when you’re constantly being pressured thanks to playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in football. Luck was sacked on 7% of his dropbacks this season. If the Colts ever hope to make it back to the AFC Championship, they’ll need to better protect their star signal caller.
RB: DeMarco Murray (TEN)
A year after being one of the least productive players in football for the Eagles, DeMarco Murray is heading back to the Pro Bowl the AFC’s leading rusher. A true pro in every sense of the word, Murray showed that he still has plenty left in the tank in his first season with the Titans.
Murray is the definition of a complete running back. He can make you miss in the hole, run over you, pass protect, and catch the ball out of the backfield. His production spearheaded the Titans resurgence in 2016.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Murray is his team first attitude, which fits in perfectly with the identity GM Jon Robinson has built. Murray always deflects praise, and he played half the season with a torn plantar plate, an injury that can, in some cases, keep a player sidelined for up to a month.
WR: DeAndre Hopkins (HOU)
Though his production dropped in 2016 thanks to dismal production from QB Brock Osweiler, DeAndre Hopkins remains one of the NFL’s most talented wide outs. Last year, he became the first player in NFL history to have four 100 yard receiving games with a unique quarterback.
He isn’t the biggest or fastest guy around, but what makes Hopkins special is his intelligence and ability to make contested catches. Hopkins is a technician in his route running, and has used his experience to learn crafty ways to get open. He’s also the kind of guy that can catch the ball if it’s anywhere near his vicinity, an ability that helps when your quarterback is one of the most inaccurate in the NFL.
Considering what Hopkins has been able to do during his career thus far with inferior quarterback play (Brock Osweiler, Tom Savage, Ryan Mallett, Brian Hoyer, Brandon Weeden, T.J. Yates, Ryan Fitzpatrick & Matt Schaub), it’s scary to think what he could do with even a decent QB.
Honorable Mentions: Allen Robinson (JAX), T.Y. Hilton (IND)
TE: Delanie Walker
There is no doubt in my mind that, other than Rob Gronkowski, Delanie Walker is the best TE in the National Football League. You could call me biased, considering he is the only guy I’ve had conversations with and the tight end I get to watch in person the most But, here’s the truth:
Delanie Walker runs routes just as well as Jordan Reed, makes contested catches just as well as Travis Kelce, leads his teammates just as well as Greg Olsen, and blocks just as well as Zach Ertz and Tyler Eifert.
Usually when someone talks about a balanced or “all around” tight end, they talk about someone who does a little bit of everything. Walker doesn’t just do a little bit of everything: he does everything supremely well. It’s no puzzle why his peers have voted him to his second straight Pro Bowl.
T: Taylor Lewan (TEN)
Duane Brown of the Texans and Anthony Castonzo of the Colts are both very solid tackles, but neither of them had a better year than Taylor Lewan, who is heading to his first Pro Bowl.
Prior to the 2014 NFL Draft, in which Lewan was selected eleventh overall by the Titans, analyst Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com wrote that Lewan “Is not a gritty, physical finisher.” I have never watched one of Lewan’s games from his Michigan days, but from the first day I watched him in training camp his rookie year, the opposite of that narrative has been true.
Lewan is a physically imposing stone-wall that uses his incredible athleticism to create mammoth sized holes in the running game and to keep QB Marcus Mariota upright. If he continues to keep his emotions under control, he will become one of the best tackles in football.
Also, keep an eye on his contract situation. 2017 is the last year on his rookie deal, and he’s likely in for a big payday from the Titans sometime in the near future.
Honorable Mentions: Jack Conklin (TEN), Duane Brown (HOU)
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C: Brandon Linder (JAX)
Part of why expectations were so high for Jacksonville this year, Brandon Linder is a very solid center in both the running and passing games. Though the rest of his teammates didn’t follow suit, Linder has a fantastic season in 2016.
After starting his career at guard, Linder seamlessly made the transition to center in 2016. Pro Football Focus gave him a grade of 87.6, the fifth highest grade among centers (behind Matt Paradis, Travis Frederick, Alex Mack, and Rodney Hudson).
Ben Jones had a terrific first year with the Titans, but Linder’s solidarity gives him the slight edge.
G: Jack Mewhort (IND)
Titans guards Quinton Spain and Josh Kline helped make up one of the most dominant offensive lines in the NFL this season, but Mewhort is simply a better overall player. It’s actually puzzling why Indianapolis’ offensive line is so unproductive when their left side is made up of very solid players in Mewhort, tackle Anthony Castonzo, and center Ryan Kelly.
Like Linder, Mewhort makes this list because of his solidarity. He’s no Kelechi Osemele or Marshall Yanda, but he’s still productive.
DE: J.J. Watt (HOU)
The fact that the Texans defense was the best statistically in the NFL with J.J. Watt on injured reserve is astounding. Next season, if they’re able to keep A.J. Bouye and add some depth, we could be looking at a historically good defense.
J.J. Watt is a top five player in the NFL. He’s in a different tier than almost all of his peers. Less than a year ago, most football fans wondered if anyone other than Watt had a chance to win Defensive Player of the Year while he was still playing.
Calling J.J. Watt disruptive is an insult to his talent. A crying baby during a church service is disruptive. Watt, instead, is like the preacher’s wife interrupting the service to accuse him of having an affair. If you can think of a word to describe that situation, you’ve effectively described Watt.
I would go as far as calling him the best player in the NFL, but it remains to be seen how productive he will be when he returns next season from back surgery. If he manages to return to form, I will say that with no reserve.
OLB: Jadeveon Clowney (HOU)
I will now issue a public apology to Jadeveon Clowney for calling him a bust and a mind-boggling first overall pick. In a breakout season, he proved me and all other doubters wrong.
Clowney is an athletic freak of nature. While he isn’t really an elite pass rusher, his ability to make things hard for quarterbacks and be incredibly productive and disruptive in the running game makes him one of the best edge rushers in football.
Against the Patriots in the Divisional round of the playoffs, his leadership qualities came to the surface. Following a slow start, Clowney was seen pacing the sidelines and firing up his teammates. Whether or not it had anything to do with Clowney’s words, the Texans stepped up their play big time afterwards.
The biggest problem with Clowney during his career has been health. He avoided the injury bug this year, but the million dollar question is whether he’ll be able to do it again next season. Like Taylor Lewan, Clowney is heading into a contract year.
Honorable Mentions: Whitney Mercilus (HOU), Brian Orakpo (TEN)
DT: Jurrell Casey (TEN)
Jurrell Casey will be traveling to Orlando in the next few weeks for his second straight Pro Bowl, and it’s well deserved. Though his numbers didn’t show it, Casey was again one of the most dominating interior rushers in the NFL this season.
When the Titans faced the Vikings in Week One, they held All Pro running back Adrian Peterson to 31 yards on 19 carries, and Casey was a huge part of that. Casey made guard Alex Boone look like a turnstile all game long, often simply pushing him out of the way to get to Peterson in the backfield.
Casey also has a rare knack for rushing the passer from the inside. He only finished the season with five sacks, but what the stat sheet doesn’t show is how many time he put pressure on quarterbacks and flushed them out of the pocket. Additionally, he recorded five pass deflections.
Leadership, dedication, passion, and talent are all things that Casey possesses. It’s no wonder to me, someone who watches all of his games in depth, that he’s heading to the Pro Bowl again.
MLB: Paul Posluzny (JAX)
As I began to make my selections for an All AFC South team, I knew the Paul Posluszny was easily the best inside linebacker in the division, but realized I have absolutely no clue about him or his strengths as a player. So, I reached out to Michael Sheppard from FanSided’s Jaguars affiliate, Black & Teal, to tell us a little bit about him.
From Michael: “Paul Posluszny is among the league’s most versatile Linebackers. The 32 year old former Pro Bowler is ranked #13 among all linebackers in the NFL by Athlon Sports and 6th in the NFL in tackles. He provides the young Jacksonville defense with veteran leadership and is considered one of the best linebackers to ever play for the franchise. Despite the fact that he will soon enter his 11th season in the NFL, Posluszny shows no signs of slowing down. His massive size and quick acceleration gives him the ability to take down even the most powerful running backs. Paul Posluszny’s ability to make big hits and deliver powerful tackles has earned him the reputation of being one of the leagues most promising linebackers.”
CB: Jalen Ramsey (JAX)
When the Titans held the first overall pick of last year’s draft, many fans were pushing for them to select Ramsey. They traded down and ultimately were happy to end up with All-Pro tackle Jack Conklin. Jacksonville was equally happy when Ramsey fell to them at the fifth overall spot.
Jalen Ramsey has a chance to become the next Patrick Peterson: a true shutdown, man coverage corner. His athletic ability is supreme, and his football intelligence improved in every game.
The biggest knocks on Ramsey during the draft process were that he had tight hips and lacked a competitive fire. He showed, on Twitter anyway, that he has competitive fire. However, the issue with his tight hips was present.
Against the Titans in Week 8, Ramsey was badly beaten by Delanie Walker on a wheel route in which he was completely turned around, leading to a 47 yard catch and run. He was also thrown around in the run game, failing to get the edge on Derrick Henry multiple times.
Ramsey’s play was improved drastically in his next game against the Titans. His coverage resulted in the Titans having an almost non-existent passing game prior to Marcus Mariota breaking his fibula. When Matt Cassell entered the game, Ramsey intercepted him and returned it for a touchdown.
Ramsey has all the talent in the world and is already a very good corner. If he wants to take the next step, he’ll need to improve his consistency.
Honorable Mention: Vontae Davis (IND)
S: Mike Adams (IND)
Despite being 35 years old, Mike Adams remains a key part of the Colts defense. A Pro Bowler in 2014, his intelligence tackling ability make him one of the more solid safeties in the NFL.
Unfortunately for the Colts, other than Vontae Davis, Adams is about all that the Colts defense has going for them. His Pro Bowl year was the last time that the Colts made the playoffs, and a lack of defense is a big reason they haven’t been back since.
As good of a leader and player as Adams is, he can’t do everything by himself, and he isn’t getting any younger. The Colts must address their issues on defense this offseason.
Honorable mentions: Kevin Byard (TEN), Johnathan Cyprien (JAX)