2020 AFC South Breakdown by Position: Defense and Special Teams

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During the month of August, 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 2020 AFC South breakdown for the defense and special teams. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2020 AFC South Breakdown: Defense and Special Teams

Defensive Line

The Best: Indianapolis Colts

The Rest: Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars

Two of the teams in this division are projected to run a 3-4 base and the other two are in a 4-3 base. Defensive ends in 4-3 schemes are classified as edge rushers in our series so keep that in mind. This does have some effect as to where each teams “defensive line” ranks. 

The Colts sent their first round pick in the 2020 NFL draft to the San Francisco 49ers for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. Coming off of four solid seasons for the 49ers, Buckner looks to bring that same sack power to Indianapolis. Next to him is Grover Stewart who is under appreciated in this Colts defensive scheme. He is a space eater upfront that should draw double teams that will free up Buckner to get to the quarterback.

Even though Tennessee traded Jurrell Casey away this off-season to the Denver Broncos there is still means for hope. DaQuan Jones steps into the roll that Casey left behind and Jeffrey Simmons slides in at defensive end. To try and sure up the other defensive end position the Titans brought in Jack Crawford in free agency. He will battle UDFA Isaiah Mack for starting time. 

The Texans have a lot of potential on the defensive line but not so much promise. J.J. Watt is clearly the glue holding this thing together from being a complete mess. Second round draft pick Ross Blacklock appears to be slotted for the inside despite his small size at 290. At the opposite defensive end Angelo Blackson is a decent starter but nothing teams are scheming for during the week. 

For the Jaguars it looks like another down season for the defensive line with all the major losses. Third year defensive tackle Taven Bryan has not lived up to this first round billing. Behind him is a world of inexperience with rookie DaVon Hamilton likely being forced into playing time earlier than expected. 

Edge Rushers 

The Best: Indianapolis Colts

The Rest: Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars

For the Colts, they are getting the best out of players in the latter part of their careers. Justin Houston is going into his tenth year still looks like a disruptive force upfront. He should get some added help from third year defensive end Kemoko Turay. If reports from training camp hold true, Turay appears to be turning it on and getting after the quarterback often. 

Tennessee would be first one this list if it was not for the uncertainty surrounding Vic Beasley. After showing up 10 days late to camp he was put on the Non Football injury list putting him way behind. Harold Landry should be a problem for quarterbacks this year after registering nine sacks last season. 

Whitney Mercilus is a presence coming off the edge for the Texans but has not seen more than seven sacks since 2015. That does not bode well for the defense’s success at reaching the quarterback. Brennan Scarlett is barely worth mentioning coming off the other side with 3.5 sacks last season. 

The tank is on in Jacksonville and it was made very clear with the trade of Yannick Ngakoue. That leaves second year player Josh Allen as the only real threat to get to the quarterback. Dawuane Smoot did have six sacks last season but has nowhere near the impact of Ngakoue. 

Linebacker

The Best: Indianapolis Colts 

The Rest: Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars

Since outside linebackers are considered edge rushers in this piece that does sway the rankings. Colts take top honors with the tackling machines they have in the middle of the field. Darius Leonard lived up to his maniac moniker last year racking up 121 total tackles. Outshining him slightly with 124 tackles is Anthony Walker who is also a rising star. Completing the core is second year linebacker Bobby Okereke who in limited time managed 65 total tackles. 

Tennessee would be in the top spot if outside linebackers were grouped into linebackers and not edge rusher. Jayon Brown has emerged onto the NFL as one of the best off ball linebackers. Look for a big year from Brown as 2020 will be a contract year for him. Next to him is Rashaan Evans who going into his third season appears for bigger things in this defense. Both linebackers totaled over 100 combined tackles individually and should improve those dramatically this year. 

Zach Cunningham just signed a 58 million dollar extension after exploding for 142 total tackles last season. Cunningham is normally known for his coverage ability in the past but led the NFL in run stops in 2019. He forms one of the best duos in the league with Benardrick Mckinney. Mckinney is one of the most consistent linebackers in the league who never seems to miss a tackle. 

Jacksonville appeared to be gearing up its defense for a better run in 2019 after signing Joe Schobert. Never the most talented linebacker in the league but seems to have a nose for the football. He had five turnovers last season for the Cleveland Browns and four of them being interceptions. Schobert allows Jacksonville to move Myles Jack to the weak side where he has been more comfortable in the past. It allows him to make more plays around the ball where he thrives on his athletic ability. 

Cornerback

The Best: Tennessee Titans

The Rest: Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars

Tennessee did lose Logan Ryan this off season but there is still talent on the roster. They have Adoree’ Jackson who has developed nicely into less of a gadget player and more legitimate corner. Opposite him will likely be Malcom Butler who is coming off less than stellar play compared to years past. He is a savvy veteran so he knows how to set up quarterbacks into bad throws. Jonhathan Joseph joins the team but at his age he does not appear anything more than a depth addition. 

Xavier Rhodes is looking to redeem himself after flaming out in Minnesota. He has definitely lost a step at his age but could fit better into the Colts zone scheme. Starting opposite him should be Rock Ya-Sin who played much improved in the second half of 2019. T.J. Carrie comes over from the Cleveland Browns and should be more of a dime corner with Kenny Moore holding down the slot. 

Houston re-signed corner Bradley Roby after having a productive 2019 season with two interceptions and eight PBUs. He is joined by Vernon Hargreaves III and Gareon Conley who were added mid way through last season. Neither corner is exceptionally good so expect a lot of big gains against this secondary. 

Had this article been written a few years ago Jacksonville would be the tops in this category. Long gone are corners A.J. Boyue and Jalen Ramsey who would have been a nasty duo in the secondary. Now rookie C.J. Henderson is trusted into the tough position of being the number one guy right away. Tre Herndon will start opposite him in the secondary with D.J. Hayden playing the nickel. When healthy Hayden is one of the best at his position in the slot. Veteran Tramaine Brock provides some depth after some COVID-19 opt outs. 

Safety

The Best: Tennessee Titans

The Rest: Indianapolis Colts, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars 

Criminally underrated Kevin Byard leads the Tennessee secondary into the 2020 season. He is lethal from the safety position securing five interceptions last season and totaling 84 tackles to boot. Kenny Vaccaro joins Byard in a unit that had 11 dropped interceptions last year tied for second worst in the NFL. Had they secured those 11 interceptions they would have tied for first in takeaways. If they can improve this number by any means, the Titans should return to the playoffs. 

To be honest the Texans and Colts could be flipped when it comes to their safety talent on the rosters. In Houston Justin Reid looks to be the only bright spot for a unit that is known for giving up big plays. Eric Murray joins him but the real lack of commitment to improve this position group is damming. 

Malik Hooker has had a problem with staying healthy and being consistent since he came into the league in 2017. He should have some added motivation since the Colts decided not to pick up his fifth year option. Khari Willis should be much improved after an up and down first year. Willis plays all over the field for the Colts so a lot will be asked of him in 2020. 

 Jarrod Wilson does not provide much hope as he is still developing well into his sixth season. Definitely not a number one guy one his own so the sudden trade of Ronnie Harrison is head scratching. There is little hope for this Jaguars team that will struggle to stop even the most destitute offenses.  

Special Teams

The Best: Indianapolis Colts

The Rest:Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans

The end of an era has come in Indianapolis as the team is moving on from Hall of Famer Adam Vinatieri. Taking his spot appears to be Chase McLaughlin over rookie Georgia standout Rodrigo Blankenship. Returning punter Rigoberto Sanchez averages 44 yards per punt. At returner Nyhiem Hines is explosive returning the football and is a touchdown threat with the ball in his hands. 

Tennessee made the recent signing of Stephen Gostkowski to bolster their place kicking game. Adding a former super bowl champion is never a bad move in this business. Brett Kern is one of the best punters in the league hands down with a 47 yard average. Adoree Jackson is electric with the ball in his hands and Adam Humpries rarely drops any ball. 

If it was not for Justin Tucker and Harrison Butker in the AFC Josh Lambo would be a Pro Bowler. He gets lost in the shuffle due to the lack of talent around him. Punter Logan Cooke is top 10 at his position and rightly so seeing he is on the field a lot. He was top ten in the NFL in attempts last year with 75 punts. Dede Westbrook provides some spark in the return game but nothing game breaking. 

Recently signed kicker Ka’imi Fairbairn is among the highest paid kickers in the NFL. A bit of a head scratcher to be honest seeing his consistency issues in the past. Turning it on in the playoffs earned him his new contract with a game winner in the wild card game. Bryan Anger is a solid punter for the Texans and proven over the years to be serviceable. Wide receiver DeAndre Carter averaged 9.7 yards per return which ranked him top 3 in the NFL.

Be sure to check out the 2020 AFC South Breakdown for the offense!

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