In this series, the Last Word on Sports NFL department will be selecting the best players in each division by position. Without further ado, here’s are the players that make up the AFC South All-Division Team’s defense and special teams.
2020 AFC South All-Division Team: Defense/Special Teams
Defensive End: Yannick Ngakoue, Jacksonville Jaguars
The defensive line is an ever-changing position group. Teams often cycle through linemen through the draft or through free agency. Yannick Ngakoue‘s spot on this list comes with an asterisk given the recent news that he’s asked for a trade. The fifth-year defensive end has been a force since the very beginning of his career. In just his sophomore season, he was selected to the Pro Bowl after leading the league in forced fumbles (6).
Whether or not his tenure in the AFC South ends before this year is unknown, but as of now, he’s easily one of the most promising young linemen in the NFL and will continue his rise to the top regardless of where he plays.
Defensive Tackle: DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts
Although he hasn’t played a snap in the AFC South just yet, DeForest Buckner is a top-five player at his position at only 26 years old. He reached his first Pro Bowl in 2018 and debatably had a better season last year despite not being given the same honors. He enters a Colts lineup in desperate need of an upgrade on the defensive line. Now paired next to Justin Houston, he’ll be able to take a large role on the defense in hopes of propelling it into a top ten unit.
Buckner will likely see another Pro Bowl nod come his way this upcoming season and should continue to rise into a star.
Defensive End: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
J.J. Watt isn’t what he was five years ago. He’s only been able to complete one full season since then since 2015. That one season, however, he dominated the league with 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles (which led the league). As a result, he was named to his fifth Pro Bowl and earned a spot in the First-Team All-Pro lineup for the fifth time. Despite playing only eight games last year, Watt is still one of the most talented linemen in his division. While that could be a factor of overall weakness in the AFC South on the defensive line, his inclusion is still justified.
If Watt is able to stay healthy, he’ll be able to sneak in a few Pro Bowl votes before he retires and will remain a focal point of the Texans’ front seven that’s in need of help.
Honorable Mentions: Justin Houston, Colts; Josh Allen, Jaguars
Rookies to Watch: K’Lavon Chaisson, Jaguars; Ross Blacklock, Texans
Outside Linebacker: Darius Leonard, Indianapolis Colts
Darius Leonard is nicknamed “The Maniac” for a reason. In only two seasons, he’s been able to grab a First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection (in 2018 and 2019, respectively). After leading the NFL with an absurd 163 total tackles in his rookie year en route to a 10-6 season, he finished his second season by becoming the first NFL player since 1982 to have 10-plus sacks and five-plus interceptions in his first 25 games.
Leonard is on a perennial All-Pro track and has the skills and all-round physicality to become the NFL’s top linebacker in just a few short seasons.
Inside Linebacker: Benardrick McKinney, Houston Texans
McKinney is one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL. He’s been stellar in his five seasons with Houston and has averaged a total of 107.5 tackles per season since becoming a full-time starter in his sophomore season. His ability to simply get to the football is his best trait and ranks among some of the best in the league. He reached his first Pro Bowl in 2018 after a 105-tackle, one-interception season during a successful Texans playoff run.
McKinney is steadily improving and is a key piece in Houston’s path to getting younger on the front seven and a lock for the AFC South All-Division lineup.
Inside Linebacker: Joe Schobert, Jacksonville Jaguars
Joe Schobert, like DeForest Buckner, has yet to play a snap in the AFC South but is one of the top players at his position. He’s spent all four years of his career with the Cleveland Browns, and after becoming a full-time starter at inside linebacker during his second season, he’s blossomed into one of the most well-rounded players at his position. Although he earned a Pro Bowl selection in 2017, he’s coming off arguably the best season of his career. He finished with 133 total tackles, four interceptions, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and two sacks.
Not many players have the all-around abilities as Schobert does. For a team in full rebuild mode, the new Jaguar will be the centerpiece of a hole-filled linebacker core.
Outside Linebacker: Zach Cunningham, Houston Texans
A similar build and playstyle to Darius Leonard, Zach Cunningham is one of the best emerging linebackers in the NFL. He was an immediate starter for the Texans in his 2017 rookie season and made quite an impact. In his last two seasons, he’s been able to turn up to a borderline Pro Bowler in his last two years. After posting 107 tackles, two forced fumbles, and a pick-six in 14 games, Cunningham exploded to the best season of his career in 2019, finishing with 142 tackles (99 solo, ranked second in the NFL), two fumble recoveries, and seven tackles for loss.
He’s quickly becoming one of the division’s top linebackers, and for very good reason.
Honorable Mentions: Myles Jack, Jaguars; Whitney Mercilus, Texans
Rookies to Watch: Jonathan Greenard, Texans
Cornerback: Kenny Moore II, Indianapolis Colts
Kenny Moore is primarily a slot cornerback but due to the AFC South having arguably the league’s weakest position group on the back end at cornerback, he’s is the best player here. Moore has become one of the league’s best on the inside and has made a name for himself as a dynamic all-around playmaker. In 2018, he started all 15 games and finished with three interceptions, 11 pass breakups, a forced fumble, 1.5 sacks, and 77 total tackles (four tackles for loss).
Moore is set to enter the 2020 season as the league’s best nickel corner. His abilities in coverage and attacking the run are next to none at his position; a strong campaign this year could result in his first Pro Bowl nod.
Free Safety: Malik Hooker, Indianapolis Colts
Free safety is a tough position for the AFC South All-Division team. From injuries to veterans that have taken a step backward to young rookies yet to prove themselves, it’s one of the toss-up positions that could’ve given way to a slew of players. Malik Hooker has proven that. Despite his many injuries and increasingly bleak future with the Colts, he’s one of the better ball-hawking safeties in the NFL even though he hasn’t completed a full season in his three-year career. He’s compiled seven interceptions including a few highlight plays along the way.
Hooker has the potential to be a top-five safety in the NFL but that high level extends to his probability of leaving the team before the beginning of the 2021 season. He’ll need to have a career year in order to stick around for a second contract in the AFC South. If so, it could be the turning point for a successful career.
Strong Safety: Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans
Alternatively to the weak free safety position, Kevin Byard is quite possibly the league’s best safety. His skills in coverage and ability to read the quarterback have wowed analysts and opposing teams, rightfully so. The Middle Tennessee State product has totaled 18 interceptions and 17 passes defended, including a league-high eight interceptions and 16 pass breakups which gave him both a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro nod. Last season, he allowed a 57.4 percent completion rate and three touchdowns, which was a far cry from his outstanding 2018 season (50.4 percent, one touchdown) but still among the best in the league.
Byard hasn’t made a Pro Bowl since his only selection in 2018 but still remains as a premier defender on the back end for the Titans ad will likely get back to Orlando this year.
Cornerback: Adoree’ Jackson, Tennessee Titans
Adoree’ Jackson, similarly to Malik Hooker, has been the subject of trade rumors as a member of the Tennessee Titans. While Jackson has had the majority of his snaps come at outside cornerback (and punt returner during the first two years of his career), he’s more suited for an inside role at the nickel position. Standing at 5’11” and 185 pounds, he has the speed to keep up with Chris Godwin and Deebo Samuel, as well as the agility and playmaking to keep up with premier route runners such as Keenan Allen.
Jackson allowed a 66.7 percent completion rate last year on the outside, which isn’t going to cut it in the long run. If the move to inside cornerback happens for this coming year, it could lead to a huge jump in production for the USC corner as he enters his third year.
Honorable Mentions: Justin Reid (FS), Texans; Kenny Vaccaro (FS), Titans; Xavier Rhodes (CB), Colts
Rookies to Watch: C.J. Henderson, Jaguars; Kristian Fulton, Titans
Kicker: Josh Lambo, Jacksonville Jaguars
Kicking is hard. It’s the name of the game, but Josh Lambo makes it look pretty easy. Since arriving in Jacksonville, he’s missed only four field goals in 32 career games (75-for-79, including three playoff games). His 97.1 percent kicking rate led the NFL last year. In his career, he’s had an 88.5 percent make percentage (which was brought down by the rough start to his career in San Diego). That rate puts him third all-time in field goal percentage, only behind Baltimore’s Justin Tucker and Kansas City’s Harrison Butker.
He hasn’t been given a Pro Bowl nod as of yet in his career; that’s mostly due to the Tucker-Butker duo in the AFC and the fact that he’s on a perennially subpar team.
Honorable Mentions: Ka’imi Fairbairn, Texans
Rookies to Watch: None
Punter: Brett Kern, Tennessee Titans
Brett Kern has consistently been one of the better punters in the game throughout his 12-year career but has been surging to become of the very best. Kern is a bonafide wizard when pinning his opponents deep in their own territory; he totaled 37 punts that were down inside the 20-yard line. He also ranked fourth in the NFL with 47.1 yards per punt. Kern is able to both place the ball well or put a booming ball whenever called upon.
He’s a two-time Pro Bowler that will, without question, finish his career one of the better punters of his generation.
Honorable Mentions: Bryan Anger, Texans; Logan Cooke, Jaguars
Rookies to Watch: None
Kick/Punt Returner: Nyhiem Hines, Colts
Punt returners don’t usually get the same amount of love as kick returners do simply because of the number of fair catches they take in comparison. Nyheim Hines deserves that love. He just completed his first season as a punt returner and exploded onto the season as one of the best. In Week 16, he fielded only three punts but ran two of them back for touchdowns, which ties the all-time record for most punts returned for TDs in a single. He was the first to accomplish the feat since Darius Reynaud and is currently the only active player to accomplish such a feat.
Hines totaled nine returns for 281 yards this year on the return. Yes, it’s a small sample size but his potential is through the roof as a dynamic returner in the future.
Honorable Mentions: None
Rookies to Watch: None
Be sure to check out the top players on 2020 AFC South teams on the offensive side of the football.