Just like POLITICAL CANDIDATE is sacrificing HIS OR HER USUAL PROFITABLE ENDEAVORS to FILL IN POLITICAL SLOGAN HERE, a group of players is looking to do the same thing for the AFC South. The last time the AFC South was the pride of the NFL was 2007. The quarterbacks that year were David Garrard, Kerry Collins, Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub. The division had three playoff teams, and last place Houston finished 8-8. Since then, Jacksonville has finished with a .500 record once. The Titans made the playoffs a singular time, but have won only five games total over the last two seasons. Houston went from mediocre, to beating Cincinnati in the playoffs twice, to awful, and back to mediocre. The Colts dominated the league until failing their way into Andrew Luck while promising not to make the same mistakes they did with Peyton Manning, yet ended up doing exactly that.
After this offseason, there’s hope. The AFC South is going to be fun again. The Titans have a real young quarterback, not just a young quarterback. They have a pass rush and will smash your mouth exotically. Jacksonville finally turned all those high draft picks and their beaucoup cap space into a promising roster. Like Hank sitting on the toilet reading Leaves of Grass (spoilers!), the Texans had an epiphany and realized having a quarterback is very important to being something more than the best team in a bad division. As for the Colts, well, Andrew Luck is back!
All the years of downtrodden hangover football should take a backseat to fun and interesting teams. It may take another year or two or three for it all come together like it did in 2007, yet, at the very least, the AFC South will be fun again this season. To celebrate this momentous occasion after toiling around in the NFL’s version of a septic tank for almost a decade, let’s craft an All-Star team using the players from this division.
QB: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
This is the most interesting position in the division. All four teams are tied to a young quarterback for the next two seasons at a minimum. Each one thinks they are set for the future. There’s question marks with three of them. Can Brock Osweiler be better than average? Is Marcus Mariota going to stay healthy, and will the Titans stunt his growth? Will Blake Bortles’ accuracy improve, and can he ever stop making bad decisions? The fourth quarterback? I’m sorry you forgot, but Andrew Luck is really good.
You already forgot 2014 when Luck threw for 4,761 yards, 40 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, and completed 61.7% of his passes while chunking the ball deep down the field. You forgot all of that. All it took was one miserable year saddled behind a mediocre offensive line, faded skill players, and Luck having to overcompensate while injured for the Colts to have a chance to win. When he finally played a great game against Denver, he missed the rest of the season because he lacerated a kidney after failing to slide.
Just like 2014, you’ll forget 2015 once Luck steps up in the face of a rush and drops a meteor into T.Y. Hilton’s arms 65 yards down the field. Oh, and Luck will be here for the next five years. If the Colts ever get it together outside the quarterback position, the AFC South won’t be fun. It will be a monarchy.
RB: Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
You should never forget the 2015 Texans-Dolphins slaughter, and I don't think Bill O'Brien and Rick Smith ever will. In that game, Miller had runs for 17, 29, and 85 yards, plus he casually turned a screen pass into a 54 yard touchdown. He was so unbelievable that Ryan Tannehill did the Michael Jordan shrug. Miller was so unbelievable that Houston had to bring him down to the carcinogenic corner. Throughout the 2015 season, he gained 872 yards on just 194 carries, had 8 touchdowns, and caught 47 passes, too.
The only question will be if Miller can handle a large workload. He has rarely had more than 20 carries in a game, and he has yet to have more than 300 touches in a season. If Miller can take crashes and collisions, he will be a top ten back in the league and more than a highly efficient DVOA darling.
TE: Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans
When Walker first put his boots on yonder and strolled into Nashville, his quarterbacks were Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst, and Zach Mettenberger. In his first two seasons there, he averaged 61.5 catches, 730.5 yards and had two negative DVOA seasons. Then, with a real quarterback in Marcus Mariota, Walker became one of the best tight ends in the league. In their first year together (with Mariota missing time), Miller had 94 catches, 1,088 yards, and 6 touchdowns, all while being the Titans' best receiver and the only pass catcher on the roster who was worth a damn. On top of that, Walker is one of the best blocking tight ends in the game. Dwayne Allen hopes to be like Delanie Walker when he grows up.
WR: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
Contorting, body-extending, mucilaginous hands catch lots of footballs. Hopkins was the Texans' entire passing offense last year, and along the way he became the third best receiver in the NFL. The Texans played him to one side of the field to isolate him in one-on-one matchups where a second defender couldn’t help out. This led to a lot of curls, outs, ins, and despicable catches in tight coverage. All while not having elite speed or strength or size, but an elite ability to play the game. The circus catches that left clowns with their mouth agape were spectacular, but hopefully those spectacles will be rare this year, and we can all see what he can do with a real life quarterback instead of bargain bin stopgaps, wildcards, and dumpster divers.
WR: Allen Hurns, Jacksonville Jaguars
WR: Allen Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
The A-Team isn’t the best receiver combo in the division. It's the best receiver combo in the entire league.
Additionally, they make up for Bortles' faults and accentuates his strengths. Bortles has issues with accuracy and had another sub-60% completion percentage season in 2015. What Bortles does well is escape from the pocket, and like an alchemist, craft something out nothing to throw the ball deep. With these two around, the only thing Bortles has to do is get the ball in the neighborhood; just close enough for one of these two to leave the Earth and swallow the ball. 36% of Hurns’ targets and 61% of Robinson’s were marked as deep (16-25 yards) or bomb (26+). They were the boom and excitement to the constant sacks, fumbles, and interceptions that prevented Jacksonville's offense from being productive.
T: Duane Brown, Houston Texans
Brown has been so good for so long. Old Faithful has held down the left side of Houston’s offensive line for 120 games since he was drafted in 2008. He’s never been a great run blocker, and the past few years he’s declined even more in this facet. He doesn’t drive anyone. His blocks end in horizontal movements or stalemates, which is alright. In the pass game, Brown is still a Wayne Gretzky 3D Hockey goalie morphed wall. He’s wide, low, quick, strong, and nearly impossible to go around, unless you are a whirling Dwight Freeney.
T: Derek Newton, Houston Texans
Newton had a down year in the pass blocking department. He went back to his old habit of lunging instead of punching. Rushers yanked him down and went around the edge. Part of this can be attributed to the moving around he did on the line of scrimmage. He played a spate of time at guard while Brandon Brooks was injured. Because of these two things, Newton gave up seven sacks and was credited with eleven blown pass blocks in 2015.
In the run game, he’s a mauler and is the best run blocking tackle in this division. He and Brandon Brooks were not only BFFS4EVR, but ran one of the most underrated double-teams in the game. They paved, smashed, and vivisected defenses like a fetal pig.
Now Brooks is gone. That is very sad. I know they miss each other so much. Even with Brooks' departure, Newton should stand out in the run game and his pass blocking woes should end if he sticks at right tackle all season.
G: Jack Mewhort, Indianapolis Colts
Mewhort is strong and perfect for the Colts' power run scheme. Additionally, he’s a solid pass blocker. He’s good and unexciting, which is exactly what an offensive lineman strives to be.
G: Jeff Allen, Houston Texans
Allen is a remarkable pass blocker and can move the line of scrimmage. His biggest fault is his inability to stick at the second level, just like every other Texans offensive lineman. He'll fit in perfectly in Houston.
C: Ben Jones, Tennessee Titans
Jones is as mediocre as they come. His biggest strength was that he played every snap at center for Houston last year. He doesn’t excel at anything aside from playing a lot and he does everything pretty okay. Ryan Kelly or Nick Martin should take this spot next season.
DE: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
The denizen of the backfield. What else can you say about him that hasn't been said? Last season, Watt led the league in defeats (42), tackles for a loss (18), quarterback hits (33), hurries (51), batted passes (8), and sacks (17.5). Let’s hope this back injury isn’t serious so all of us can continue to enjoy watching the greatest do great things.
DE: Malik Jackson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jackson was paid like one of the best defensive players in the NFL. He isn’t that. He now has enough money to buy his own pet Jaguar because of the need the Jaguars had for interior pass rushing, Jacksonville's abundant cap space, and the rising salary cap. It was the perfect maelstrom for Jackson to get paid like Calias Campbell even if he’s waddling on the tier below.
That being said, there is a very good player here. Jackson is a disciplined run defender who sits in the hole, reads the play, and sheds well against single blocks to tackle running backs. It's nearly impossible for linemen to block him individually. Jackson does have trouble against double teams. He gets tossed around some. On pass rushes, he had 5 sacks, 10 QB Hits, 20 hurries and 6 batted passes. His swim move is nice and he can bull rush well. And when his first move is stopped, he’s great at finding the ball and can still make an impact by batting passes. Jackson is a fine player, but not dominant, even though he’s paid to be one.
DT: Jurrel Casey, Tennessee Titans
Casey is a beautiful combination of 300+ pounds and speed. I’ve never seen a man of his size make tackles in space from the "3" technique like he does. Additionally, Casey is one of the better interior pass rushers despite his size. The only thing preventing him from being on Sunday commercials are the players around him. He’s yet to play on a talented defense that would give him more opportunities to make plays. He'’ll constantly beat his man only to see the back cut away into an open hole. His pass rushes end in hits and pressures, but they never mature into sacks because of the loose secondary that plays behind him. Hopefully, one day, Casey will reach his full potential while he’s still in the prime of his career.
DT: Sen’Derrick Marks, Jacksonville Jaguars
Marks was a Pro-Bowler before tearing his ACL, and he was working at getting back to form before tearing his triceps last year. When healthy, Marks can penetrate the interior in the run and pass game. He’s not a disciplined guy who sits and reacts. He plunders the backfield. Again, the problem is the injuries. There is no telling if he will ever sniff his past form. This selection is more of a gamble that he’ll be healthy. If he is, he’s heads, shoulders, knees, and toes better than Vince Wilfork, Jared Odrick, David Parry, and Al Woods
Edge Rusher: Whitney Mercilus, Houston Texans
It finally happened. Mercilus turned into a real pass rusher, instead of just an edge-setting demoniac. He learned how to spin, bull rush, and do something more than unsuccessfully rip around the edge incessantly. Mercilus is now a complete player. For the first time since Connor Barwin, the Texans have another viable pass rusher to pair with J.J. Watt.
Edge Rusher: Brian Orakpo, Tennessee Titans
Jadeveon Clowney is better and more talented than Orakpo. The conundrum is that Orakpo played 397 more snaps than Clowney did. Until Clowney can play a minimum of twelve full games, he’ll be nothing more than a complement on the Texans’ defense.
Orakpo, on the other hand, is the second member of Tennessee’s defensive focal point along with Derrick Morgan. Together these two outside linebackers led a blitz-heavy pass rush that was second in the NFL in adjusted sack rate. The problem was they didn’t get enough opportunities. Every game for Tennessee was kick off, and then, oh, cool, we are already down 45-0. You don’t get to rush the passer or put up gaudy stats in a hole like that.
LB: Telvin Smith, Jacksonville Jaguar
Smith is quick and can do something most linebackers in the league can’t--cover receivers. Paired next to Paul Posluszny, he’s had to overcome Poz's deficiencies as one of the worst coverage backers in the game; Smith has to rummage around and cover more space than most linebackers are supposed to. His advanced stats are skewed as the result of this.
On top of that, Smith is stout in the run game. He can run under linebackers heading to the second level. Although he’s not the best tackler, he gets there often enough to make up for it. Last season, Smith had 78 total stops and missed 14 tackles. At his age, he has as the athleticism to improve his tackling, and with Myles Jack next to him, he should cover a shorter range of field and have a greater impact in the pass game.
LB: Brian Cushing, Houston Texans
When Cushing is in the open field, he looks like the clichéd damsel in a horror movie whose bone is sticking out of her leg, gray and putrescent like something from PetSmart, hobbling toward a locked door that will end up being a grave site. In the box, he’s a monster. He can still punch and stand up guards or run under them to the ball carrier. He’s a great tackler as well. Last season, Cushing had 110 tackles, covered in scabs made of offensive linemen because Vince Wilfork is as hindering as a half tank of gas is from the leaving the house. You could make the case for Wesley Woodyard to be here because of his performance last year and his ability to play in space. But Cushing is that much better in the box.
CB: Johnathan Joseph, Houston Texans
At the beginning of last season, I was worried about Joseph. The straight line speed wasn’t there. Receivers were scampering past him, and he had to use veteran savvy to knock passes out of receivers' hands to stop completions. But after the Tampa Bay game, he, I don’t know, drank some millennial blood with Peter Thiel and turned back into one of the better corners in the league.
CB: Vontae Davis, Indianapolis Colts
Amongst the flotsam of failed draft picks and overpaid mediocre free agents, Davis has been holding onto an oar and bobbing above it all. The best personnel decision general manager Ryan Grigson made was trading a second round pick to Miami for Davis. Vontae was one of the best corners in the league last year. He finished in the top ten in adjusted success rate, batted down fifteen passes, and picked off four.
CB (Slot): Kareem Jackson, Houston Texans
When he’s in the slot and playing press coverage, Jackson is masterful. Although he’s only 190 lbs., he’s strong and can jam receivers. He has the speed to stick with tight ends. The other thing that is great about Jackson in the slot is he can have an impact on the run game. Jackson runs through blocks and brings force when he tackles. The numbers may show him as below-average because he played a lot of CB2 until he was injured, which forced Kevin Johnson into the lineup. From then on, Jackson played primarily in the slot and improved. He’s traveled a long way since his rookie season way back when.
FS: Andre Hal, Houston Texans
This can either be Hal or Tashaun Gipson. I’m going with Hal because of how he transformed the defense last year. After he took over for the man who will never get over Jacoby Jones, the Texans’ cornerbacks had a blanket that at least covered their torso, unlike the previous version that was the size of a washcloth. With Hal being able to go from midfield to the side line to make plays on the ball, Houston’s corners could play closer to the line and more aggressively. This led to more turnovers and tighter coverage that gave the pass rush more time to get there.
This year, Hal should be better playing a full season at free safety. Eight interceptions this season isn’t unreasonable. He has the speed, recognition, and ball-breaking ability to do it. Hal should become something more than a Texans’ cult classic this season.
SS: Mike Adams, Indianapolis Colts
At the moment Quintin Demps, Johnathan Cyprien, Da’Norris Searcy, and Mike Adams are the starting AFC South strong safeties. None of these guys are very good. I wish the Jags played Jalen Ramsey at SS already to make this easy. That isn’t the world we live in, though. Demps is below replacement level, Cyprien can’t tackle, and Searcy is a member of an awful secondary. Adams is the pick, I guess, because he has the most interceptions.
K: Adam Vinatieri , Indianapolis Colts
P: Pat McAfee, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts only did one thing well last year--kick the football. Despite having one of the worst coverage units in the league, the Colts managed to have a positive special teams DVOA. It was because of these two. Vinatieri is a possible Hall of Famer. McAffee is one of the best kickoff kickers (kickoffers?) and punters in the league.
Returner: Rashad Greene, Jacksonville Jaguars
So fast. So fun. The perfect example of why you have your best athletes return kicks, not the safest.