Before the regular season kicks off, the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be breaking down every division in the league by position. This article contains a position-by-position breakdown of the AFC South defenses. The AFC South breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.
2017 AFC South Breakdown by Position: The Defense and Special Teams
The Best: Houston Texans
The Rest: Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts
Let’s get this out of the way fairly quickly: the Houston Texans are at the top of this list solely due to the disruption that J.J. Watt causes at defensive end. Outside of Watt, the defensive line for the Texans is pedestrian at best following the retirement of nose tackle Vince Wilfork. Joel Heath and D.J. Reader strike fear in the hearts of literally no one. It is up to Watt – who is coming back from a whole season off due to injury – to keep the Texans at the top of this list.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have done a tremendous job shoring up their defensive front in the past few years, and it can be expected that those dividends will bear fruit during the 2017 season. Boasting a front four that features free agent acquisitions Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson (from 2016) along with young budding star Yannick Ngakoue, the Jaguars will cause all kinds of trouble for opposing quarterbacks and running backs alike.
The Tennessee Titans have one of the most unsung defensive units in all of the NFL. That lack of recognition starts with defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who despite having two Pro Bowl nods in the past two seasons, consistently is either ignored or overshadowed by NFL pundits. Casey is joined by defensive end DaQuan Jones and tackle Sylvester Williams. Jones is the only player other than Brian Orakpo to start every game over the past two years, while Williams is easily the weak link of this bunch.
The Indianapolis Colts have made marked improvements along their defensive line, but continue to be in the cellar of the AFC South in this category. The free agent signing of Johnathan Hankins does improve this unit tremendously, but until Henry Anderson and Al Woods make significant strides, there’s still a lot of work to be done here.
The Best: Houston Texans
The Rest: Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts
The Texans have three of the best pass rushers in the NFL. One has already been mentioned as part of the defensive line, J.J. Watt, but Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney are also terrors for quarterbacks. Add in rising star Benardrick McKinney and mainstay middle linebacker Brian Cushing and you’ve got a linebacking corps that can compete with any other set in the NFL.
The Titans roster at linebacker is deceptively good, considering the age of the group overall. Wesley Woodyard, a free agent pickup from the Denver Broncos in 2014, continues to shine in the middle linebacker position. Joined by veterans Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo on the outside, this group has the tools to hurry quarterbacks and stuff running backs all season. They are joined by 2014 fifth-round pick Avery Williamson, who is quickly emerging as a leader on this defense and can be expected to assume that role in the ensuing seasons.
The Jaguars have spent significant draft capital on improving their defense over the past few years, and it shows. Criminally underrated middle linebacker Paul Posluszny is joined by former second-round pick Myles Jack and fourth-year man Telvin Smith. Smith, who was drafted in 2014, is second in the NFL in tackles (309) over the span of his career. If the trajectory continues on this group, don’t be surprised to see them challenge the Texans for the top spot at the end of this season.
The Colts linebacking corps is most likely one of, if not the, worst in the entire NFL. Looking for some quick fixes on a roster that was mostly worthless under former general manager Ryan Grigson, new management went out and signed multiple free agents to fill roster slots here. Signing John Simon (from Houston), Jon Bostic (did not play in 2016), and Jabaal Sheard & Barkevious Mingo (from the Patriots) has completely revamped the linebacking corps in Indianapolis. Even so, this group is completely untested as a unit, and is expected to perform near the bottom of the league.
The Best: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Rest: Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans
The Jaguars boast the best cornerback unit in the division and it’s not even close. Picking up free agent acquisition A.J. Bouye from divisional rival Houston has only made this already impressive group better. Led by young phenom and former first-round pick Jalen Ramsey, you can believe this group will make passing offenses think twice about going to their top receivers. Ramsey has all of the tools to become one of the pre-eminent shutdown corners in the league and has already shown a propensity for getting to the ball to disrupt pass attempts.
The Texans, despite losing Bouye to the Jaguars, are still solid in the corner department due to the consistency of Johnathan Joseph at the position. Kevin Johnson joins Joseph at the number two corner spot and is expected to make significant strides following a 2016 season that saw him break his foot in October and land on injured reserve. Backed up by eighth-year man Kareem Jackson, the Texans have the best depth at the position in the entire division.
The Colts have started to address issues that have plagued them in the secondary with the hiring of new general manager Chris Ballard. Starting cornerback and defensive leader Vontae Davis is usually one of the best defensive backs in the league, and he’s finally joined by some early-round talent on the other side. The Colts used their 2017 second-round pick on cornerback Quincy Wilson out of Florida, and Wilson will be expected to earn the second starting cornerback spot early in the season. The Colts have also shifted former safety T.J. Green to the cornerback position where he has seemed to make significant strides after an extremely disappointing first season at safety.
The Titans made one of the best pickups in free agency when they signed away former New England Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan in free agency. Ryan, who will be expected to take up a leadership role immediately in the Titans defense, will start opposite of second-year man LeShaun Sims. Sims, who was selected in the fifth-round of the 2016 NFL Draft, had a stellar rookie campaign and will be looking to build on it. The third cornerback is former USC star Adoree Jackson, who the Titans selected in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. Jackson will be expected to challenge Sims for the number two spot immediately.
The Best: Tennessee Titans
The Rest: Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans
The Titans seem to have found their groove in the safety department with the emergence of Kevin Byard last season. Joined by former Jaguar Johnathan Cyprien, the Titans boast the best overall pair of safeties in the division. Cyprien holds the highest run-stopping grade ever awarded by Pro Football Focus, so you best believe he’ll be used in a lot of situations as the eighth man in the box. Byard, a third-round selection in last year’s draft, finished the 2016 season with 40 tackles, four pass defenses, and one interception.
The Jaguars safety group is headed up by former Cowboys standout Barry Church. Church, who signed with the Jaguars after the departure of Cyprien to divisional rival Tennessee, was an excellent safety for the Cowboys during his seven-year career in Dallas. Church hasn’t lost a step as his career has progressed either; he was ranked the number 11 safety in the NFL last year according to Pro Football Focus. Joining Church in the deep secondary is 2016 free agent acquisition Tashaun Gipson. Gipson, who had a reputation as a ball-hawk during his first four years in Cleveland, had a down year during his first season with the Jaguars. Only recording one interception during the entirety of last season, Cyprien could be playing for his job in 2017. Based on that, the expectation should be that he can regain his former effectiveness this year.
The Colts move up in this category based solely on projections for 2017 first-round pick Malik Hooker. Hooker, who will join second-year man Clayton Geathers in the deep back of the secondary, is expected to become one of the best safeties in the league. Unfortunately for the Colts, they’ll be starting the season without Geathers in the starting lineup as he continues to recover from offseason neck surgery he underwent in March. This leaves the Colts in a precarious position to start the season, as former cornerback Darius Butler will most likely fill into the free safety position for the first six games. That being said, there’s sufficient enough depth for this group to remain in the number three slot in the division.
The Texans may have the best front seven in the AFC South, but they are by far and away the worst team in the division when it comes to the safety position. The Texans lost their best safety, Quintin Demps, to the Chicago Bears in free agency during the offseason and are replacing him with third-year man Corey Moore. Moore, who started eight games last season, will be expected to fill the shoes that Demps left while also shouldering the largest load of his young NFL career. Moore will be partnered with Andre Hal, who had a very promising 2016 season. Hal played in 80% of the Texans defensive snaps last year, all the while coming in with 46 tackles, seven pass defenses, and two interceptions.
The Best: Tennessee Titans
The Rest: Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Titans up jump the Colts in this spot from last year. Placekicker Ryan Succop has been steady kicking for the Titans for the past three years, and looks to build on that during the 2017 season. Joined by punter Brett Kern, who finished the 2016 season as the 13th ranked punter in gross punting yards, the Titans have the best duo in the division. With rookie Adoree Jackson returning kickoffs and punts, expect the Titans to use his speed to get them into great starting field position throughout the year.
The Indianapolis Colts fall from the top spot primarily due to the early retirement of punting phenom Pat McAfee in the offseason. McAfee, who finished the 2016 season first in average punting yards, was an absolute weapon for the Colts when it came to flipping field position. He’ll be replaced by rookie Rigoberto Sanchez for the upcoming campaign. The Colts retain future Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri at the placekicker position, as he heads into his 23rd season in the NFL. Vinatieri has still yet to lose a step, as he finished the 2016 season as the sixth best kicker in the league based on field goal percentage. The Colts retain return man Quan Bray, who if nothing else is reliable and doesn’t drop the ball during kickoffs and punt returns.
The Texans are starting 2016 undrafted free agent Ka’imi Fairbairn at placekicker for 2017. Fairbairn, who the Texans signed in 2016 but was placed on injured reserve for the season, beat out former kicker Nick Novak during the offseason. Fairbairn was awarded the Lou Groza award while at UCLA, which is awarded to the nation’s top college kicker annually. Fairbairn is joined by punter Shane Lechler, who finished the 2016 season as the number six punter in the NFL based on average punt yardarge. With receiver Will Fuller expected to field kickoff returns, the Texans hold a great ability to start offensive series with good field position.
The Jaguars round out the special teams rankings in no small part due to placekicker Jason Myers abysmal field goal percentage in 2016. Myers, who finished last season ranked 23rd in the league on field goals made (79.4 percent), will need to see marked improvement in 2017 if the Jaguars are expected to become a divisional crown contender. Punter Brad Nortman is as good as anyone in the league, but with any luck the Jaguars won’t have to rely on his leg as much as in previous years.
The Best: Houston Texans
The Rest: Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars
After two straight seasons of winning the AFC South, it’s time to give Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien his due. Having crafted one of the best defensive units in the NFL and a promising young offense, O’Brien has all of the tools to make a serious playoff run after offloading franchise mistake Brock Osweiler to the Cleveland Browns in the offseason. If rookie Deshaun Watson can live up to expectations, then the Texans have everything they need to continue to win the division for years to come.
After tying the Texans in overall record in 2016, Tennessee Titans coach Mike Mularkey has cemented himself as one of the top two coaches in the division. Mularkey, who like O’Brien has all of the weapons he needs, will be expected to challenge and possibly supplant the Texans for the divisional crown this year. A run-first oriented coach, you can expect him to take advantage of the bevy of offensive weapons at his disposal in order to bring the Titans back into postseason contention.
Indianapolis Coach Chuck Pagano is on the hot seat for the 2017 season. A holdover from the Ryan Grigson era, many believe that Pagano only continues to have a job due to his presumed favorite status with Colts owner Jim Irsay. A major issue during Grigson’s tenure as general manager was his constant irritation and clashing with Pagano over personnel management and coaching. If Pagano can’t wrest the divisional crown from the Texans this season, you can expect a new head coach in Indianapolis next year.
The Jaguars parted ways with former head coach Gus Bradley in the middle of an extremely disappointing 2016 season. Replacing Bradley is former interim (now full time) head coach Doug Marrone. Marrone, who will be working with general manager David Caldwell and new vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin, will be expected to come in and immediately make the Jaguars competitive within the division and conference.
Check out the AFC South offensive breakdown.