2016 AFC South Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

With the position breakdown series in full swing, the next division under the microscope is the AFC South. Here’s a defensive position-by-position breakdown of the AFC South, with “the best” at each position followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2016 AFC South Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best: Houston Texans

The Rest: Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts

The defensive front of the Houston Texans that boasts J.J. Watt is going to be up there in terms of a front-seven ranking. It also doesn’t hurt having a Super Bowl champion as your nose tackle. The leadership and mentoring that Vince Wilfork offers is priceless. That, paired with the tenacity of Watt makes for a formidable front line.

The Tennessee Titans defensive front is keyed by Jurrell Casey, who once again was one of the league’s best and most complete interior defenders. The Titans were one of the league’s worst defenses at pass-rushing in the first half of games last season. This led to a lot of time playing from behind in the second half, which led to Wesley Woodyard’s excellent run defense numbers. If the Titans are to step forward in 2016, Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo need to make plays earlier in games and be able to pin their ears back more in the second half.

The Jacksonville Jaguars defensive front could be one of the league’s best, but we have to wait and see how the pieces fit together. The glaring hole is in the pass-rush, where the pressure will be on Malik Jackson and last year’s first-round pick, Dante Fowler, to fill the Jags’ biggest defensive need. If every player in this group hits their peak, this is a top ten defensive front.

A strong rookie season from Henry Anderson and a career-year from Kendall Langford were the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing season from the Indianapolis Colts defensive front.

Linebacker

The Best: Houston Texans

The Rest: Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts

With a healthy linebacker crew, the Houston Texans get a slight edge in this category. The Texans run a 3-4 scheme, which heavily relies on the use of linebackers to stop the rush and the passer. Whitney Mercilus is one of the upcoming names on defense in the NFL. He made a name for himself last year by accumulating 12 sacks. Jadeveon Clowney will have to step up and play like a former first overall draft pick. The Texans will need him to come through more than anything else because with him drawing attention, it will free up Mercilus to make plays, as opponents will have to devote so much to stopping Clowney and Watt.

On the outside, the Tennessee Titans have a couple of good pass rushers in Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. The problem is both of them have proven to be fairly injury prone throughout their careers. Orakpo tied for the team lead in sacks last season with seven. In two seasons in Tennessee, Wesley Woodyard has 181 tackles and 7.5 sacks, including five last season. If Avery Williamson can make the switch from a 4-3 defense and the core can stay healthy, the Titans could have a wrecking crew behind the line.

This is a little different because the Jacksonville Jaguars are the only team that runs a 4-3 defense, but still the talent they have at linebacker is surprising. On the inside, Paul Posluszny is a tackling machine. In five years in Jacksonville, he has racked up 622 tackles. He also can cover well with 14 career interceptions. This off-season they picked Myles Jack from UCLA in round two, a guy who might have been a top ten pick if not for his injury risk. If Jack can stay healthy, this will be among the best linerbacker units in the league.

Continuing on with the Colts’ pitiful front seven, their linebackers leave something to be desired. Erik Walden is just kind of there, and Trent Cole is past his prime. So is Robert Mathis, who is old and has battled injuries for the last couple of seasons. On the inside, D’Qwell Jackson makes a ton of tackles but really isn’t an impact player. He’s led the team in tackles each of the last two years. They drafted two linebackers this season in Trevor Bates from Maine, and Antonio Morrison from Florida. Don’t be surprised if one or both of them ended up getting significant playing time this season.

Cornerback

The Best: Houston Texans

The Rest: Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans

Jonathan Joseph ended last season on an absolute tear.  Over the final 14 weeks of the season, Joseph was the highest-graded corner in the league in coverage. While Kareem Jackson took a step back from his 2014 form, Kevin Johnson put in a solid rookie display to add to the overall strength of this trio.

Even before the acquisition of Jalen Ramsey in the draft, the Jacksonville secondary had already made strides, and Ramsey could now cap off an ascending group of cornerbacks. After Ramsey fell into Jacksonville’s lap during the draft, the Jags now boast unexpected depth at cornerm with the likes of Aaron Colvin now competing for playing time. Davon House surrendered a passer rating below 80.0 in his first season in Jacksonville, while free-agent signing Prince Amukamara was tied for 17th in the league.

Vontae Davis has an incredible 2014 campaign with Indianapolis and fans were eager to see if he could keep up his elite numbers from 2014. After his miraculous 2014 campaign (no touchdowns allowed, 13 pass defenses, 41.2 passer rating allowed) Davis returned to giving up too many touchdowns to be considered among the league’s elite, but 2015 was still a solid season for him. Behind him, the support was lacking. Another strong season from free-agent addition Patrick Robinson will give the Colts a quality starting pair, but the competition to be their third corner looked to be wide open. With a right ankle sprain expected to sideline Davis until October, the team went out and signed free agent Antonio Cromartie to help fill the void. Clearly, this situation is one to be monitored.

2015 was a rough year for the Tennessee Titans, and their cornerback corps didn’t escape the damage. Among the corners who registered playing time, only rookie slot corner Cody Riggs surrendered a passer rating below 100.0. Jason McCourty is now three years removed from his best form, but his sure tackling will at least provide an upgrade after Perrish Cox and Coty Sensabaugh missed a combined 23 tackles last year.

Safety

The Best: Houston Texans

The Rest: Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans

The safety position is arguably the weakest of the division. The safeties in the AFC South aren’t top shelf or household names, but Houston does lay claim to the best two in the division. Andre Hal and Quintin Demps of the Texans both finished the 2015 campaign with above average grades in coverage.  The other three teams have sub-par grades for coverage after the 2015 season.

The Colts come in at number two with Mike Adams and rookie T.J. Green. Green was a standout his senior year at Clemson. He was a wideout who made the transition to safety his sophomore year. Green will improve through repetition, and will slowly make a name for himself if he can keep silly penalties to a minimum.

The Jaguars are poised to have a solid cornerback platoon, but the question comes down to which version of the safeties fans will see. One question is which version of Tashaun Gipson is going to show up this season; after earning the 15th-best overall grade in 2014, he dropped all the way to 83rd out of 88 qualifying safeties in 2015. Jonathan Cyprien was not much, if any better, with a negative grade that ranked 85th.

The poor Titans. Unfortunately, they will find themselves at the bottom of most of these lists. About the only thing that went right for the Titans’ secondary last year was the addition of Da’Norris Searcy, who finished the season with a career-high coverage grade.

Special Teams

The Best: Indianapolis Colts

The Rest: Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans

Pat McAfee excelled both as a punter and a kickoff specialist, ranking first and fourth in the league, respectively. His 47.7 gross average on punts ranked second in the league. The ageless Adam Vinatieri was the fifth-highest graded kicker, missing only two field goals all season. Quan Bray had the third-highest grade among kick returners, despite playing only nine games.

The Titans come in at number two. Brett Kern earned the second-highest grade among punters, averaging 47.4 gross yards per punt. He forced the second-most fair catches (23), surrendered the second-fewest touchbacks (two), and had the fourth-most punts downed inside the 20-yard line (35). Return man Dexter McCluster was solid before an injury ended his season, and cover men David Bass, Daimion Stafford, and Phillip Supernaw combined for 19 solo special teams tackles, two assists, one forced a fumble, and one fumble recovery, while combining for just one missed tackle. Titans special teamers forced four total turnovers during the course of the 2015 season.

Jason Myers had a very up and down first year in Jacksonville. He struggled so much early on that some fans wanted him replaced. But as the year went on he got better, and missed just four field goals all season. Where he struggled was with extra points, missing a league-high seven. But overall he has a strong leg and could very easily improve in year two. While the kickoff returns were nothing special last season, they had the highest average on punt returns in the league. Former Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Denard Robinson make for a couple decent returners. Unfortunately for them, their coverage units are not as good.

After being brought in a few games into last season, Nick Novak made 18 of21 field goals, good for 85.7%. Randy Bullock was 5-6, which is 83.3%. Shane Lechler earned the reputation of being one of the best punters in the league during his time in Oakland, but the big legged former Texas A&M Aggie really looked his age last season. He ranked 26th among 32 qualified punters in net last season at 38.8 yards. He had a league-high ten touchbacks, and one of the highest punt return averages against in the league. Keith Mumphery is handling the bulk of the punt return duties. The Texans need to hope somebody steps up as a returner during training camp, and the coaches are betting mostly on fourth-round pick Tyler Ervin, the San Jose State speedster who was likely brought in for this exact purpose.

Coaching

The Best: Indianapolis Colts    The Rest: Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans

Chuck Pagano has to be the best coach in the AFC South. What he is able to do for and with a team is astonishing. He returned to coaching after a bout with cancer and was still able to lead the Colts to a second place finish last season without Andrew Luck.

Bill O’Brien is making his presence known, both in Houston and in the NFL. During last season, his second with Houston, a lot more of his changes were noticeable. His offensive and defensive schemes came to life, leading the Texans to a division title.

Gus Bradley inherited an awful Jacksonville team that went just 3-13 his first year as head coach. On the upside, each season since then has been an improvement over the prior. 2016 could be a very good year for the Jaguars.

There’s not a large sample size from Titans head coach Mike Mularkey. He was originally hired to be the tight ends coach with Tennessee and was promoted to interim head coach after Ken Whisenhunt was relieved of his coaching duties. In the off-season, the Titans announced that they would retain Mularkey full time as the head coach.

Check out the AFC South offensive breakdown.

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