2021 AFC South Breakdown by Position: The Defense

AFC South Defense Breakdown
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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 breakdown of the AFC South defense positions. The breakdown will contain “the best” at each unit followed by “the rest” in descending order.

2021 AFC South Defense Breakdown by Position

Defensive Line

The Best: Indianapolis Colts

The Rest: Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans

Even without their 4-3 edge-rushers being counted here (because they’re sorted elsewhere), the Colts get the best spot here almost purely because of DeForest Buckner, who is arguably the best defensive lineman in the entire division. Despite already being a star with the San Francisco 49ers, he ended up being traded to Indianapolis – and got a First-Team All-Pro berth. The other expected starter among the defensive tackles is Grover Stewart, and he pales a little in comparison – but he’s not a half-bad lineman to have around either.

With the Jaguars moving to a 3-4 defense, Josh Allen is effectively moving to an “outside linebacker” edge-rusher position. That does leave the “three” part of the 3-4 defense less prolific, but they still have Malcolm Brown, and they signed Roy Robertson-Harris, who should not be slept on if he is healthy. That leaves the likes of Adam Gotsis and Taven Bryan to compete over whatever is left, which isn’t a bad situation as far as depth goes.

The Titans are just slightly more shaky. They do have the underrated Denico Autry (who has had 20 sacks in the last three years) and Jeffrey Simmons, who has not quite lived up to his first-round billing yet but hasn’t been a bust either. Their problem, though, is a hole at nose tackle. No one at that position on the roster has more than 20 career tackles. Currently, Teair Tart is projected to be the starter. Regardless, this rather glaring problem pushes them a little down the totem pole.

Outside of the Texans edge rushers on the defensive line, they are a bit lacking in defensive tackles as well. Right now their best options appear to be the likes of Maliek Collins (who underwhelmed with the Raiders), Brandon Dunn, and Ross Blacklock. They need some better depth at this position.

Edge Rushers

The Best: Tennessee Titans

The Rest: Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts

The Titans made quite a good pickup at edge rusher this off-season in Bud Dupree, who had 11.5 sacks in 2019 and would most likely have had 10+ again in 2020 if not for missing five games. This makes the Titans a bigger threat in the pass-rushing department. Harold Landry is less prolific, but he is no slouch either, having 14.5 sacks over the last two years. This is an underrated duo for the Titans.

The Jaguars have at least one notable pass-rusher of their own in Josh Allen, who had an excellent rookie year in 2019 with 10.5 sacks and a Pro Bowl. His 2020 season was underwhelming due in part to injury, so he needs a bounce-back, but he’s still one of the more promising young edge rushers in the league. The guy set to be opposite him – K’Lavon Chaisson – does not have much of a resume, despite being a first-round pick in 2020. Perhaps he will make his breakout this year, but the jury’s still out.

Meanwhile, the Texans look to be moving their edge rusher outside linebackers to defensive end for their new 4-3 defense. This would leave Whitney Mercilus and Jordan Jenkins starting at edge rusher. Mercilus has been around for a while and though he may be past his prime, he can still make plays. They also have some depth in Shaq Lawson and Charles Omenihu, which is better than the two teams above can say.

The problem with the Colts edge rushers is that they seem to be banking on the first-round pick Kwity Paye. That may not be a bad strategy, but you would think having a more proven player on the other side would be a good idea. But their other two best options right now are Al-Quadin Muhammad and Isaac Rochell. That lack of proven talent leaves them at the bottom of the edge rusher position.

Linebackers

The Best: Indianapolis Colts

The Rest: Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans

The AFC South linebacker corps all basically have one clear “star” among them, and then either some merely okay players alongside them or outright question marks. With that in mind, the clear best linebacker in the South is Darius Leonard of the Colts, who has been a monster since he came into the league in 2018. Alongside him is Bobby Okereke, who has shown some promise, and Zaire Franklin, who is a bit of a question mark.

For their part, the Jaguars have Myles Jack, who is coming off one of the best seasons of his career. Up until earlier this month, they also had Joe Schobert, who’s been a tackling machine for years; however, he apparently was not fitting into the new defensive scheme and got traded, leaving Damien Wilson to play alongside Jack instead. He was with the Chiefs the last two years, and while he’s nothing to write home about, he is at least a more predictable/safe option.

The Titans have Jayon Brown on the inside, who isn’t as much of a star as Leonard or Jack but still is a quite solid option at linebacker. The question mark is who is playing long-term alongside him. They have the inconsistent Rashaan Evans presumably locked in for now, but they do not appear to have a lot of confidence in him – hence why they declined his fifth-year option and drafted Monty Jones in the third round, who could be pressing for Evans’ job.

The Texans have Zach Cunningham as their main linebacker. He is one of the better tackling machines in the league right now, pulling in 164 combined and 106 solo last year. There’s still question marks elsewhere though, which is more problematic for them since they have to account for three non-edge-rusher spots. They have Christian Kirksey, who is solid enough when healthy – but that’s been a problem lately. He’s only played 19 games in the last three years, and it’s anybody’s guess if he will stay healthy this year. That leaves Kevin Pierre-Louis and Neville Hewitt – the latter of whom was in on 100+ tackles last year and is still getting buried on the depth chart already, which does not bode well. Regardless, there does not seem to be much of a viable backup plan if Kirksey goes down again.

Cornerbacks

The Best: Indianapolis Colts

The Rest: Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans

The Colts look to be the most firmly well set at cornerback (though this position is actually decently deep in the South). They have Xavier Rhodes who resurrected his career last year, as well as Lenny Moore, who has been getting progressively better. In the event that Moore gets put in the slot, they can put T.J. Carrie out there opposite Rhodes and not suffer for it. Rock Ya-Sin is a popular younger project as well.

The Texans are also pretty set in that they have enough proven talent. Even with Bradley Roby suspended for the first six games, they still have Terrance Mitchell starting. Then there’s Desmond King, who is best as a slot/nickel corner but can play on the outside as well. Vernon Hargreaves rounds things out as a presumed depth piece.

The only issue for the Jaguars is that while they certainly have plenty of upside, they have less of the proven/reliable talent. They brought in Shaquill Griffin this off-season, which will be a big help. However, they seem to be otherwise relying on second-year corner C.J. Henderson (who hasn’t broken out yet) and this year’s second-rounder Tyson Campbell. Then there is Sidney Jones, but he cannot be depended on to stay healthy. That leaves Tre Herndon, who is fine for depth purposes. However, the point is that aside from Griffin, they look to be counting on more unproven youth – which may work out fine in the end, but this still leaves them lower on this list for now.

The Titans still have a bunch of questions at cornerback. They do have Janoris Jenkins as their clear top starter, but after that, it goes down to either first-round rookie Caleb Farley or Kristian Fulton, who is still a bit of a project as well. There is not any remarkable depth to speak of after that. The lack of a proven starter opposite Jenkins as well as a lack of depth leaves them at the bottom at this position.

Safeties

The Best: Tennessee Titans

The Rest: Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Houston Texans

The safety position is not particularly deep in the South. The Titans take the top spot in part because they have the best free safety easily in the division – and also the only safety of either position to have a Pro Bowl on his resume (unless you include George Odum, who only got on there for special teams). Elsewhere, Amani Hooker showed some promise in his sophomore year, pulling in four interceptions. He is expected to start at strong safety. They also have Bradley McDougald and Matthias Farley for depth, which gives them a little more depth than at least two teams in the division.

The Colts also have a promising duo at safety. Julian Blackmon had a fine rookie season and he looks to be locked in going forward. Khari Willis is arguably the best strong safety in the division, even if that is not saying a whole lot. They do also have George Odum who went All-Pro last year, but that was strictly for his special teams work.

The Jaguars made a good signing at free safety by snagging Rayshawn Jenkins, who ought to help out the safety position in general. Jarrod Wilson, who was free safety last year, is expected to move to strong safety, pushing Josh Jones to the bench. One could do worse than Wilson, but they still could use an upgrade.

The Texans safety lineup remains unchanged from last year. Justin Reid was quite promising his first couple of years, but had a bit of a down year in 2020, leaving him slightly on notice. Even assuming that Reid returns to form, they still need an upgrade over Eric Murray at strong safety. They do not have much depth to speak of either at this position, leaving them the weakest in the division.

AFC South Offense Breakdown

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