Via Last Word On Pro Football, by Chris Bolden
While the seemingly endless period between the NFL Draft and the beginning of the preseason can be a boring time for many NFL fans, it is never too early to analyze the best players in the league. This week, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be compiling a list of the ten best players in each division heading into the 2017 season. The focus of this article is the AFC South.
Top Players of the AFC South Heading into 2017
1. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
Even with injury, it’s hard to argue that J.J. Watt is not the best player in the AFC South. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year Award winner has been a force since coming into the league in 2011. In both 2012 and 2014, Watt finshed with 20.5 sacks and became the first defensive player to have multiple 20+ sack seasons. Watt had also been voted into the Pro Bowl for four consecutive seasons prior to 2016 and led the league in sacks with 17.5 in 2015.
In his five years in the NFL, J.J. Watt has racked up 379 tackles, 76 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, 12 fumble recoveries (including a touchdown), one interception that he took 80 yards for a score, 45 pass deflections, and a safety. Watt has made a career out of being a versatile pass rusher. Not only can he collapse the pocket and get to the quarterback, he has the ability to get his hands up and disrupt passes as well.
Along with his defensive dominance, Watt has also been beneficial to the Houston Texans offense, lining up in goal-line packages as a receiving tight end. In 2014, Watt caught three passes for touchdowns in the red zone. Given his incredible performance on the defensive side of the ball, along with his ability to give the offense a big target in the red zone, it’s no surprise J.J. Watt is the MVP of this team, as well as the AFC South.
Pro Football Focus has Watt unranked with a grade of 47.2 due to him only playing in three games. However, Watt received a grade of 93.8 in 2016.
2. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck is a very close second on this list and, much like J.J. Watt, has had injuries keep him from being the best each season. Luck missed over half of the 2015 season with several injuries including a shoulder injury, a lacerated kidney, and a partially torn abdomen muscle.
Luck came back in 2016 and played well, missing only one game due to concussion protocol and throwing for 4,240 yards, 32 touchdowns and 13 interceptions while completing a career best 63.5% percent of his passes. What made Luck’s 2016 season even more impressive was the fact that he played the entire season with a lingering shoulder injury from 2015 which he had surgically repaired shortly after the end of the season.
Coming into the Colts organization to fill the shoes of Peyton Manning is no easy task and Andrew Luck has been quite successful with it. After an outstanding rookie season in which he broke the record for most passing yards in a season by a rookie (4,374), Luck has led the Colts to three straight playoff appearances (2012-2014) including an AFC Championship game. In his five seasons, Luck has thrown for 19,078 yards, 132 touchdowns with 68 interceptions, and has also rushed for 1,442 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Pro Football Focus has Luck ranked fourth among quarterbacks with a grade of 92.4.
3. T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
Who could’ve guessed that a receiver drafted in the third round could come into the Colts organization with Reggie Wayne and become a huge target for Andrew Luck. Hilton started out as the Colts kick/punt returner but had some success in the slot position as well. Hilton finished his rookie season with 861 yards and leading the team with seven touchdowns.
With Reggie Wayne tearing his ACL in 2013, as well as below average production from Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hilton quickly went from the number three receiver to the number one. He recorded his first 1,000 yard season in 2013 and broke the franchise playoff record with 13 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns in the comeback victory against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Wild Card game.
T.Y. Hilton has had four consecutive 1,000 yard seasons and finished 2016 as the NFL’s leading receiver with 1,448 yards. 2016 also was Hilton’s third consecutive season to be named to the Pro Bowl. In his five years with the Colts, Hilton has 374 receptions for 5,861 yards and 30 touchdowns. Pro Football Focus ranks Hilton the fifth best receiver with a grade of 87.3.
4. DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
DeMarco Murray had an incredible 2014 season with the Dallas Cowboys, leading the League with a career high 1,845 yards rushing and scoring 13 touchdowns, also a career best total. After landing in Philadelphia via free agency, it seemed that Murray’s prime had ended as he finished with a mere 702 yards rushing. But his resurgence with the Tennessee Titans a year later indicated he was just in the wrong system (namely, Chip Kelly‘s offense).
Murray was named the starting running back for the Titans and finished the year with 1,287 yards on 239 carries with nine touchdowns. He also helped the offense in the passing game, catching 53 passes for 377 yards and three touchdowns. The veteran running back even added a touchdown pass for the Titans offense that he seems much more comfortable in. Pro Football Focus has Murray ranked ninth among running backs with a grade of 77.9.
5. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
DeAndre Hopkins came in to the Houston Texans organization as their first round pick with hopes that he could be a great number two receiver opposite of Andre Johnson. In his rookie season, Hopkins was exactly what the Texans hoped he would be and finished with 52 catches for 802 yards and two touchdowns. In his second season, with new starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Hopkins recorded his first 1,000 yard season with 76 catches for 1,210 yards and six touchdowns.
There was quite a bit of concern coming into the 2015 season for Hopkins. Andre Johnson was with the Indianapolis Colts and Hopkins would have to step into the role of number one receiver, with another new quarterback in Brian Hoyer. DeAndre Hopkins had no issues stepping into his new role, however, and had his best season with 111 catches for 1,521 yards and 11 touchdowns.
As we all know, Hopkins production suffered in 2016 from a lack of consistency in quarterback play. With Brock Osweiler at quarterback, Hopkins finished with 78 catches, 954 yards and four touchdowns, his lowest numbers since his rookie year. Unlike most receivers in the NFL, DeAndre Hopkins has had to face the challenge of having a different quarterback each year. Pro Football Focus has Hopkins ranked 25th among receivers with a grade of 80.
6. A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville Jaguars
A.J. Bouye is coming off of his best season with the Houston Texans, finishing 2016 with 63 tackles, a sack, 16 pass deflections, and an interception. For whatever reason, the Texans decided to let Bouye test free agency and the Jacksonville Jaguars signed him to a five-year deal. Pro Football Focus ranks Bouye as the number three corner with a grade of 91.2.
Entering the League as an undrafted free agent with the Texans, Bouye has developed into a solid corner. In his four seasons with the Texans, Bouye accumulated 117 tackles, one sack, 32 pass deflections, a forced fumble, and six interceptions for 129 yards and a touchdown. Bouye will add some experience to the young defense for the Jaguars and compliment Jalen Ramsey in the secondary.
7. Marcus Mariota, Tennessee Titans
It seems like every draft brings forth at least two big name quarterbacks to compare throughout their rookie seasons. 2015 brought us Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, with Winston being the first overall pick and Mariota the second. While Winston has the more impressive stats, Mariota has been developing into a great quarterback for the Titans.
After struggling with a knee injury that would eventually end his rookie season early, Mariota still managed to finish with 2,818 passing yards for 19 touchdowns and ten interceptions. He also accounted for 252 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries.
Marcus Mariota showed signs of improvement in 2016, finishing with 3,426 passing yards for 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions while carrying the ball 60 times for 349 yards and two touchdowns. Mariota did, however, have his season cut short by one game due to a fractured fibula that required surgery. For this reason, Mariota is not higher on this list. If Mariota can come back 100 percent in 2017, there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to improve. Pro Football Focus ranks Mariota 24th among quarterbacks with a grade of 72.4.
8. Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
Jadeveon Clowney joined Mario Williams as the second defensive end to be drafted first overall by the Houston Texans. There was plenty of skepticism with Clowney’s health coming into the Draft. It seemed like the critics were right after Clowney missed most of his rookie season due to a knee injury.
Clowney has since shown why he was worth the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Clowney has the versatility to line up at defensive end, defensive tackle, outside linebacker, and inside linebacker and be disruptive at each position. In his three years with the Texans, Clowney has 99 tackles, 10.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and eight pass deflections.
2016 was Clowney’s best season so far recording six sacks and his first interception in the Wild Card victory against Oakland. With the return of J.J. Watt, Clowney won’t have as many double teams in 2017 and could potentially have a monster season. Pro Football Focus has Clowney ranked ninth among defensive ends with a grade of 87.2.
9. Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars
Among the free agents that Jacksonville brought in this off-season, Calais Campbell is likely their greatest addition. The Jaguars defensive line, consisting of Malik Jackson, Dante Fowler, and Yannick Ngakoue, is young but has shown promise. The addition of a veteran like Campbell not only brings a mentor, it brings improvement to the pass rush.
In nine seasons, Campbell accumulated 501 tackles, 56.5 sacks, two safeties, eight forced fumbles, 42 pass deflections, and three interceptions. Other than his rookie season, Calais Campbell has not had a season with less than five sacks. Pro Football Focus has Campbell ranked second among interior defensive linemen with a grade of 90.4.
10. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans
Jurrell Casey came into the Tennessee Titans organization as a third round draft pick in 2011. Casey has been a consistent force on the Titans defensive line. Including 2013, where Casey recorded 10.5 sacks, Casey has had four consecutive seasons with five or more sacks.
In his six years with the Titans, Casey has 327 tackles, 33 sacks, four forced fumbles, and 11 pass deflections. Pro Football Focus has Casey rated 85.4 and ranked eighth among defensive ends.
Honorable Mentions: Whitney Mercilus, Jack Conklin, Bernardrick McKinney, Taylor Lewan, Johnathan Cyprien, Lamar Miller, Allen Robinson.