With the Position Breakdown series in full swing, the next division under the microscope is the AFC South. Here’s an offensive position-by-position breakdown of the AFC South, with “the best” at each position followed by “the rest” in descending order.
AFC South Breakdown by Position: The Offense
The Best: IND The Rest: TEN, HOU, JAX
On the surface, this isn’t even close. Andrew Luck is one of the five best quarterbacks in football, and his trajectory only points up. Luck is also one of the most unfairly athletic quarterbacks I have ever laid eyes on. He is built like a linebacker, has an arm like Aaron Rodgers, and seems to genuinely like getting pummeled, which is good because his offensive line has been abysmal so far in his young career. So this isn’t even remotely close – in fact, even discussing how much better Luck is than his competition is just going to be boring.
Instead, let’s spend a paragraph or two discussing the intrigue that lies below the Colts – who are clearly the class of the division – because the other three teams are set to lean on young quarterbacks who have promise in their own right, and it’s near impossible to tell which will claim second best this year.
Assuming Brian Hoyer wins the Battle of the Brady Backups in Houston, which he probably will, he is the second best quarterback in the division by default. Even though Ryan Mallett has more potential for the Texans, it’s hard to see a proven starter who is good at limiting mistakes losing to a younger player with a propensity for them. Hoyer beats out Marcus Mariota and Blake Bortles because well, Bortles was one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL last year and Mariota is a complete unknown.
Watching Bortles and Mariota is where the real intrigue is. Last year, Bortles posted an abysmal 21.9 quarterback rating, leading the league in sacks and sacked yards lost. Part of this is not his fault: he had zero run game and an offensive line like a colander. This year should be better. The Jaguars invested heavily in their offensive line and added tight end Julius Thomas to a surprisingly talented young group of receivers. Hopefully, by moving on from the anemic Toby Gerhart, they can give Bortles more balance and more opportunities to improve.
Mariota, on the other hand, is drawing rave reviews from Titans camp, where he apparently has yet to throw an interception. His preseason debut, however, was underwhelming, as he fumbled and threw a pick on his first two possessions before putting together a nice touchdown drive to end his night. He looked like a rookie, and it was hard to glean much from the performance. The word on the street is that he’s done a very good job with progressions and that the Titans have installed a lot of familiar concepts to ease the transition for him. If Mariota can correct the minor fundamental weaknesses (mainly, his footwork from spending so much time in a shotgun spread) and start to make anticipatory throws on breaking routes (which he allegedly is doing), he could have a much better rookie campaign than expected. Regardless, looking at this crop of quarterbacks, I expect Mariota to have a firm grip on the #2 spot in the AFC South within two seasons.
The Best: IND The Rest: TEN, HOU, JAX
Indianapolis really wins this by default. The best running back in the AFC South is almost unquestionably Arian Foster – but he is slated to miss half the season with a gruesome groin injury and his backup, Alfred Blue, was truly pitiful last year in limited action. Frank Gore is pretty damn good himself, the only question is whether Indy’s offensive line will provide him with enough blocking (he ran behind one of the most powerful offensive lines in the league in San Francisco) and whether he has enough left in the tank in case they don’t.
Beyond that, the running back position is pretty much a wash. Jacksonville hopes to get more out of Denard Robinson, and rookie T.J. Yeldon has impressed enough to be splitting first-team carries with Robinson. Yeldon is a sneaky Offensive Rookie of the Year pick – he comes from Alabama’s pro-style offense and has a very promising combination of size and speed. Bernard Pierce was an intriguing signing, but he lost out completely to Justin Forsett last year and is a plodding, boring runner who is best used as a change of pace back. I don’t see him having any impact as both Robinson and Yeldon are more dynamic players. Bishop Sankey looks to have his first season as the undisputed lead back in Tennessee, and he should have an easier time with an improving offensive line. Running some option with Mariota under center might yield good results for the workhorse back, and I could see him topping 1,000 yards depending on how healthy the team is down the stretch.
The Best: IND The Rest: TEN, HOU, JAX
Noticing a trend here? There is Indianapolis, and then there is everyone else. The Colts said goodbye to surefire Hall of Famer Reggie Wayne this year, but replaced him with likely Hall of Famer Andre Johnson. T.Y. Hilton came into his own last year as a legitimate #1 wideout, and first round pick Philip Dorsett can blow the roof off of a defense. Lurking behind them is Donte Moncrief, a 2014 second-round pick, who also has tremendous speed but struggled mightily with drops last year. This is, unquestionably, going to be one of the league’s best offenses and it’s led by their depth at the skill positions.
There are more questions than talent elsewhere. DeAndre Hopkins continued his development last year, but can he be as effective with Cecil Shorts instead of Andre Johnson lined up across from him? He stands to see significantly more targets and could either continue his quite-good production, or become one of the league’s best wideouts. Can the Allens (Hurns and Robinson) continue their surprising production, or will they prove to be flashes in the pan? Their surprise breakout seasons were the silver lining of an awful year in Jacksonville, and Bortles is going to need all the help he can get. Will Harry Douglas do well as a #1 wideout in Tennessee and can Kendall Wright and Justin Hunter continue to develop into legitimate NFL wideouts? Douglas did well in Atlanta – when he was surrounded by Roddy White and Julio Jones (or at least one of the two). Wright and Hunter both struggle with drop issues, but could improved quarterback play be the key to taking the next step? The biggest wild card of all is Dorial Green-Beckham, who has the talent of a top 10 pick but a piss-poor track record off the field. He could either be spectacular, or flame out spectacularly, with little in between. There is so much potential, and a lot of it rests on the signal callers that are this division’s greatest unknown.
The Best: IND The Rest: TEN, HOU, JAX
Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener are quietly one of the best 1-2 receiving tight end combos in the entire league. Fleener, who also went to Stanford with Luck, has great rapport with his quarterback and is usually Luck’s safety valve. Allen is a more dynamic athlete and, when healthy, he is probably the better player. With both of them on the field at the same time, they provide a serious threat down the seams, especially because opposing defenses have to respect the blow-by speed of Hilton and the general awesomeness of Andre Johnson. This is going to be a very, very good offense.
Jacksonville comes in comfortably in second following the offseason signing of Julius Thomas. I thought they overpaid for a tight end who can barely block and who thrives mostly on 3-5 yard passes that he turns into big gains. His numbers stack up with Jimmy Graham and Gronk, but the tape doesn’t. Whereas Graham is a huge jump ball target, Thomas is more of a yards after catch master and a speedster. Gronk is just everything, because he can block as well as he can dominate down the field. So Thomas is getting paid like those players without necessarily having the skill set. But still, he is a very good player and is a significant upgrade over the rest of the division.
Beyond that, it’s mediocrity. Delanie Walker and Anthony Fasano are both well-rounded tight ends who have had some success as receivers over their career. Neither are going to make a dynamic change to the offense, but they are both above average tight ends who will get the job done. Houston is harder to peg down – Garrett Graham has looked promising but he can’t stay healthy. C.J. Fiedorowicz was supposed to be a dynamic downfield receiver when they drafted him in 2014, and he played in 15 games, starting eight, while only racking up four receptions for 28 yards all season. So I have a hard time believing he’s going to make a leap massive enough to put him in this conversation (thus proving, Gronks don’t grow on trees).
The Best: HOU The Rest: JAX, TEN, IND
Oh my gosh, it’s not Indianapolis! Houston wins this round based purely on consistency. Houston hasn’t done much to their offensive line, and that is a good thing. Arian Foster is a good running back, but you’d be kidding yourself if you didn’t give the lion’s share of the credit to the big men who block for him. One-cut zone blocking schemes require immense, powerful, athletic run blockers who can get a few yards down the field before the defense can even react. This has been one of the league’s best rushing attacks for years, precisely because of that reason. Pass blocking has as much to do with a quarterback’s ability to make reads and get the ball out quickly as it does with the blockers themselves – there is a very good reason Peyton Manning is rarely sacked – and with stability at the position a real possibility for the first time in a few years, there should be an opportunity for this unit to prove its worth as a pass-blocking unit as well.
Tennessee has Andy Levitre, a very good and very durable left guard, and Chance Warmack, the #10 pick in 2013, at right guard, solidifying their interior. Levitre is already one of the league’s better guards and Warmack has the athleticism to be one also. Last year’s first-round pick Taylor Lewan had some struggles in his rookie year, but what left tackle doesn’t? His massive frame and impressive athleticism mean that, with a little seasoning, he should fill this role very well this year, luckily for his new quarterback.
Jacksonville overpaid for Jeremy Parnell and Zane Beadles, but they represent massive upgrades to what was one of the league’s worst lines last year. 2013 first rounder Luke Joeckel did better last year after an injury cut short his rookie campaign, and he should improve more. He’s a bit of a mauler, and his feet aren’t what you want out of a tackle protecting your quarterback’s blindside, but he has a lot of upside and with more proven veterans coming in, he has more help than he did before too. I’m not sure Parnell and Beadles, who both came from some of the league’s best offensive line units in Dallas and Denver, were as good as their counterparts along those lines.
Indianapolis acquired Todd Herremans from the Eagles, who is one of the league’s best guards and should provide a big upgrade in the middle, but the tackle combination of Mewhort and Castonzo were pitiful last year and probably won’t be significantly better this year. It’s worth noting that, for all of the focus on Indianapolis improving and competing for a Super Bowl, they have left the trenches virtually untouched, and I find it hard to believe that their offensive and defensive lines are going to be much better this season… which means, come January, they’re probably looking at the same results.