The AFC South is a conundrum. It has provided one of the most consistent teams of the 00s – the Peyton Manning & Andrew Luck Colts – and been in the AFC Championship six times in the last 15 seasons, the last being in 2014. But, at the same time, it has been home to basement dwelling teams, formerly good teams that have declined precipitously and teams that suffer through aberrational seasons.
Now, though, it feels like we have four very interesting teams. Let’s not say good because it is July and we are as far away from a body of evidence to substantiate that claim as we could possibly be. But, interesting is certainly the case. Perhaps even intriguing.
To build upon that intrigue, it feels pertinent to have a quick snapshot of some of the likely key contributors to each team this upcoming season. For each of the four franchises, we will list their Most Important Player (MIP), a rookie to watch and a sophomore stud…Let’s go!
Most Important Player – There are a range of options for this accolade but it is hard to see beyond JJ Watt. The counter argument is that the D performed excellently in his absence and has a number of key players and a superstar in Jadeveon Clowney. That’s true but that should in no way diminish the importance of Watt. He is a Hall of Fame candidate after only six seasons, with last season ending before it really began. Consider this – JJ Watt has 76 sacks in 83 career games. In 2014 he tallied 20.5 sacks (his second 20+ sack season), five fumble recoveries (including one for a TD), and IN THE returned 80 yards for a TD…oh, and he had three receptions on three targets for three TDs when used as a weapon in the red-zone.
JJ Watt is a phenom. His ability to wreck the game is second-to-none in the game (though it may be tied for first with Von Miller). Though there are emrging talents such as Bosa and Mack, establishing talent like Aaron Donald, there is still only one JJ Watt and if he stays fit, he is the Texans most important player.
Rookie to Watch – It is hard to look beyond first-round pick Deshaun Watson, the QB out of Clemson. The Texans went hard at him after ditching Brock Osweiler. When you factor in both of these transactions, the Texans spent their first round pick this year, a first round pick in 2018 and a second round pick in 2018 to ship out one guy and bring another in. That’s a huge bounty to clear room for Watson to come in and start.
Yes, we are assuming that Watson will start and he probably should. His ceiling is incredibly high, his pedigree undeniable and he demonstrates all the traits that single him out for success as a leader of a franchise. His playing style needs refining, he needs to work on his accuracy but Watson has exhibited an uncanny knack to get the job done. He has talent around him and a D that can get them out of jams. Watson is in a great position to excel. He is worth watching closely.
Sophomore Stud – Will Fuller (WR). Fuller had a dream debut, reeling in five catches for 107 yards and a score. He followed this with another 100+ yard game, snagging four balls for 104 yards. As Houston’s O sputtered, so too did the first rounder out of Notre Dame, he didn’t pass 100 yards again, and didn’t pass 60 yards after week four and didn’t manage a TD after that mark either…there were issues with drops and routes but he showed enough promise that you can place some of this on growing pains and a QB who couldn’t hit water from a boat most of the season.
With a balanced offence and hopefully an upgrade at QB, Fuller has the skill to develop as a deep threat with speed to burn.
Most Important Player – For those who have read my words, you will know that I am a great big, whack-a-mole mark for Andrew Luck. For this Colts team, he is without question the MIP. If he is healthy, with a middle of the road D on the other side, he can lead this team deep into the play-offs. He’s done it before. Listen to current Cardinals HC, Bruce Arians, talk about Luck’s play during his rookie season, the season Arians acted as Interim HC of the Colts during Chuck Pagano’s treatment for cancer. Arians makes no bones about that seasons 11-5 record being all on Luck.
Arians is one of the games good guys and has worked with a lot of the best QBs of this generation. His words mean an awful lot. If he is on the side of Luck, so am I.
The Colts D needs to improve dramatically, the O line needs to improve dramatically. If they can. Luck could tear the emerging AFC South pretenders to shreds. I’d love to see him do that. So would Colts fans.
Rookie to Watch – Is it unimaginative to say Malik Hooker? Probably. The former Buckeyes Safety was drafting 15th overall in this seasons Draft. Many had him pegged as a top 10 pick, heck some had him in the top 5. In a year of great DBs in this draft, Malik Hooker is special. Watch a highlight reel on YouTube, this guy is, well, a highlight reel. He makes plays, is aggressive, a general in the backfield. With more solid vets on the D, Hooker could emerge as a genuine star and add bite to an otherwise solid D.
Sophomore stud – The Colts didn’t draft well under former GM Ryan Grigson but, as with his pick of Andrew Luck, he had another no-brainer in the first round in 2016. Former Crimson Tide Centre, Ryan Kelly. A solid debut season was encouraging but with his QB hopefully fully fit by the time the regular season kicks off, Kelly could burst out and emerge as one of the premier centres in the game. I recall with great fondness the PM18-Jeff Saturday tandem, this combo has the potential to replicate that sort of outstanding foundation for the Colts offence.
Most Important Player – hmmmm…look, we know Blake Bortles needs to get a heck of a lot better, but I don’t see him as the MIP here. No, I think it is offseason addition Calais Campbell. Hear me out…
Last year, the Jags were hipster darlings and a lot of peoples pick to win the South (I had them 9-7 and just being pipped by the Texans…) but Bortles regression and the failure of the D to live up to the hype led to yet another lost season in the wilds of Northern Florida (where Winter is never coming).
This offseason was one of upheaval in the leadership of the Jags and more aggressive free agency activity. Perhaps AJ Bouye was the marquee but Campbell was perhaps the crucial piece. A giant of a man whose reputation blossomed year to year in Arizona, at 30 (and hitting 31 as the season begins) he is at the height of his powers. An absolute monster up the middle, he creates the pressure that allows EDGE guys to shine. His tandem with Malik Jackson could be the key to unlock the talents on the outside and see guys hit double digit sacks. But more so, and what makes him the MIP, is the attitude, work-ethic and leadership he brings to the Jags. They’ve had promising stars, they’ve had high-price free agents but never the drive and direction of a true defensive general. If Campbell can be the guy that coalesces this D, then they have all the pieces to be a phenomenal unit.
Rookie to Watch – Look I watched all seven rounds of the draft but I’m teeing up the third first rounder to watch so far. How could it not be Leonard Fournette? Taken 4th overall, Fournette garnered all the praise in the world at LSU. He looked like he was playing a different sport to his opponents. He was a physical outlier compared to his peers. At the draft he looked like an LB. He got dinged for not having a great vertical leap. Like he said, ‘I’m not a jumper’. Fournette is a ball-carrying wrecking ball. He is a classic football player who doesn’t test well.
Now, he could hit a rookie wall, he will play with a QB that has it all to prove and behind an O-line that has holes but if Fournette can have the sort of season that his talent suggests, the Jags will perhaps be regular season winners, rather than offseason winners.
Sophomore Stud – This is tough. Myles Jack could break out as an elite ILB, Yannick Ngakoue had a great debut season and could be about to benefit from the Campbell signing. Sheldon Day will hopefully continue to evolve with great tutors on the interior…but how can anyone not want to see more of Jalen Ramsey? The rookie had an up and down start, displaying bouts of maddening immaturity and consummate play. However, down the stretch, opponents started treating him like a shutdown corner. They stayed away where they could. This year Ramsey is poised to be the breakout star of CBs in the NFL. With turnover at both Safety positions and the addition of the aforementioned Bouye, Ramsey has some new running mates. I think they quickly become the supporting cast to the Jags new face of the franchise. Get ready.
Most Important Player – The growth of Marcus Mariota was impressive last year. Behinf an excellent line and with DMM excelling behind that same line, Mariota was able to manage games well, pick his spots and show great progression with not the greatest weapons on the outside. The leg break he suffered put them out of contention at the tail-end of the season and that injury drew parallels with Derek Carr. So too will this seasons play from Mariota, if he can make the same sort of progression, he could be about to see a similar sort of payday on the horizon (obviously a year down the line given the fifth year option the team retain as Mariota was a first round pick). They have the same great O line, two very solid RBs and a whole host of new weapons in the WR corps. Mariota is the lynchpin that ties all this together. His ability to set the agenda, to pick his spots and make the right plays will be crucial (see my desperately not saying ‘game manager’ anywhere because of the negative connotations?!). Mariota’s health and progress will determine the Titans season.
Rookie to Watch – It’s another first rounder, this time the Titan’s second pick of the first round, CB out of USC, Adoree’ Jackson. In a deep draft for CBs, he divided draftnik opinions with some slotting him there in the first round, others seeing second or third round landing spots. What potentially attracted the Titans was his KR ability as well as his talents at CB. The Titans need to be more explosive on Special Teams and they needed to upgrade their secondary. With Logan Ryan brought in at CB (hopefully to play in the slot) and Jonathan Cyprien an addition at Safety, Jackson could see time as an option on the outside. He has the speed and ball skills, if he can master Dick LeBeau’s scheme, he could have a great season.
Sophomore Stud – Derrick Henry was a heavily touted second round pick out of Alabama. A bull of an RB, he found himself stymied behind a resurgent DeMarco Murray. DMM clearly comes into the preseason as the No1 back and with the O line predicted to be just as strong, he may not find himself toting the rock too early…but an NFL season is a long, long time and for teams with designs on the postseason, depth at RB and the ability to have quality in back-up can make all the difference. Why Henry is touted here is because he has all the talent to do so well in relief that he eats into the carries of the No1 guy. DMM has a hell of a lot of miles under his belt. A young, hungry sophomore back may well end up usurping his position. Perhaps not taking it but simply upstaging and becoming the signature guy, if not the starter this season.
Well, that’s a quick primer on the AFC South, that most Millennial of division. Any thoughts, feedback, compliments or criticisms, you know where to find me (on social media, of course).