William Faulkner once said, “To understand the NFL, you must first understand a division like the AFC South first.” And what a spectacular division to understand. For what feels like decades, this division has been fetid. Mediocrity and atrocity reigned while the Colts and Texans took turns sleeping their way through it.
Last year, things flipped. The division became FUN. It became legitimately interesting, in a dramatic intrigue sort of way, instead of the Thursday Night septum-pierced (2-10) Jaguars v. (3-9) Titans ironic, hate-watching sort of way.
Last season each AFC South team was interesting in different ways. The Texans were stuck with terrible quarterback again (Hey! At least they tried this time!), but repeated as division champions thanks to close wins and an incredible defense. Tennessee proved everyone wrong by being bigger, nastier, and meaner than everyone else with their exotic methmouth offense. Indianapolis wasted another year of Andrew Luck, thanks to their Sandpiper ridden defense, the porous right side of their offensive line, and an incessant need to be a gritty, power formation, between the tackles team. Jacksonville had a great defense that didn’t matter much because of an investment in the running back position that never worked and a continue reliance on Blake Bortles to throw his way to wins, something he hasn’t been able to do.
The season ended in spectacular fashion, too. The Titans blew a Week 16 game to the Jaguars, which allowed Randy Bullock’s missed field goal later that night to be division-clinching for the Texans, killing a possible Week 17 AFC South Championship game between the Texans and Titans.
This season, the division will probably get better, though still mediocre overall. However, it should be as just as raucous and enjoyable as last year. So to pop off this understanding of the AFC South, here are the best players in the division.
Quarterback: Andrew Luck
Luck is a spectacular quarterback. He threw for 4,240 yards, 31 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, all while getting trounced at times behind a slapped together right side of the offensive line, playing in a scheme that doesn’t maximize his talent, and having a lackluster head of snakes of skill players screeching and covering up his thinning head. There are some who will berate him for not having the wins that he should after being lauded as a generational quarterback talent. That’s fine. He doesn’t. But he just rebounded from a disastrous 2015 and had one of the oldest and slowest defenses in the league on his team. If the shoulder is good, Luck will be great again. If not, Marcus Mariota will outplay him behind an offense that allows him to be efficient and could transform into something disastrous for defenses if the play-action game improves and Mariota starts hitting deep passes more consistently. Until then, Luck is the best quarterback in this division.
Running Back: DeMarco Murray
At the beginning of last season, Murray immediately proved that his career wasn’t over. He showed that his issue in Philadephia was the scheme, an offense that forced him into a running attack focused on horizontal runs that desired hesitation and elusiveness. In Tennessee, Murry was back in a vertical, detonate-the-hole style that was similar to the one he almost ran for 2,000 yards behind. Because of it, he was similar to his past self. While running behind a heavy multi-blocking, inside zone and power run focused attack, Murray had some great games. He averaged more than seven yards a carry against Oakland, Green Bay, and Detroit. Some were inefficient runs, and some were whatever. The common denominator was that Murray was the driver of the division’s best offense. Hopefully this season Tennessee has him catch more passes and gets Derrick Henry more involved to keep him fresh since he’s already 35 in running back years.
Left Tackle: Duane Brown
Brown was incredible last season. He gave up zero sacks last year and blew only six run and pass blocks according to Football Outsiders, all while protecting a quarterback who lurched in surprise at the flash of a different jersey color. Brown was the Texans’ best run blocker, continuing to work well with the much maligned and often (unwarranted) complained about Xavier Su’a-Filo.
Left Guard: Jack Mewhort
Mewhort is good. Nobody really says anything about him. This is good. This is what you want from an offensive lineman. He and center Ryan Kelly are one of the better interior run blocking combinations in the NFL. The world would be even more beautiful if the Colts employed a running back with any athleticism to attack defenses with.
Center: Ryan Kelly
A lot a fuss has been made regarding the Colts’ offensive line. Yes, the right side is a mess. Yes, Andrew Luck is a daredevil who takes too many hits and holds onto the ball until the last second, so the pass blocking numbers are worse than they really should be.
The left side of Indy’s line is a good unit. Kelly didn’t give up a sack last year. The Colts led the league in adjusted line yards on runs over the center and guard with 5.32 while employing a rusted tank at running back. Kelly was the main reason why the interior run game made this far of a jump from the 27th spot they were ranked at last year.
Right Guard: Brandon Linder
Put an asterisk on my right cheek because I’m a cheater. Right guard is a wasteland in this division. Jeff Allen was one of the worst guards I’ve ever seen last year, lazy and slow. Josh Kline is okay, I guess. Everyone the Colts played on the right side isn’t worth mentioning. And nobody can name who played right guard for the Jaguars. I have this thing called the internet, and even it couldn’t tell me. The names don’t matter. What does is the Jags are one of the worst interior blocking teams around and have opted to invest in their backfield rather than their run blocking. Good luck, Leonard Fournette!
So to maneuver around the obstacles life placed in front of me, I did some research, and what do you know, Brandon Linder, a really good center and the Jags’ best offensive lineman, is taking reps at right guard. That’s good enough for me. Brandon Linder taking training camp snaps at right guard makes him the best in the division.
Right Tackle: Jack Conklin
Jack Conklin and Taylor Lewan are some giant type of yin-yang. Conklin was an All-Pro in his rookie year, posting the lowest blown block rate out of any tackle last season. He was strong, quiet, and dependable. Lewan is a Road Rash biker gang, slobbering across the field, pelting defenders with 4x4s, playing great and violently, all while committing 14 penalties last season. Together, they are the division’s best tackle tandem.
Tight End: Delanie Walker
Tight end is also a sad position in this division. It’s the four yard out catching tight ends the Texans employ. It was the overrated Julius Thomas who was traded to Miami for a player who said, “Screw this!” and retired after the first week of training camp like a high school freshman who follows his heart and picks the trombone after a hellish August week in the blazing Texas sun. Now the Jags have whatever Mychal Rivera is. Tight end in the AFC South is Jack Doyle. Indianapolis had two young talented tight ends who never flourished there, only for Doyle, a corn fed UDFA, to be the one to stick around.
Then there’s Walker. This 32 year old man is a great player. He’s had over 800 receiving yards the last three years in Tennessee and is one of the league’s better blockers at his position.
Wide Receiver: DeAndre Hopkins
Even if Houston didn’t do anything with the cap room they created this offseason, Texans fans are all covered in happiness now that Brock Osweiler is gone forever. But their happiness is infinitesimal compared to what Hopkins must feel now that the witch is dead and boiling in its own bulbous guts.
From 2015 to 2016, Nuk’s receptions dropped by 33, his targets by 41, his touchdowns by 7, and his catch rate by 6%. He fell from 41st to 70th in DVOA and from 13th to 66th in DYAR. The number of please help me glances at the sky he had tripled. Even if the penciled-in starting quarterback isn’t that much more talented than Osweiler, things should be better by default. Hopkins should rebound this season and go back to bullying cornerbacks with physical routes and absurd box out one handed catches.
Wide Receiver: T.Y. Hilton
I didn’t realize how great Hilton was last season until now. Even while watching all those Indy games last year, I didn’t realize what they all accumulated to. Hilton ranked 12th in DVOA, 4th in DYAR, and caught 91 passes for 1,448 yards while predominantly attacking the middle of the field. Most speed receivers never fully round out and learn how to do anything other than make one cut and run really fast down the sideline. Hilton figured it all out and became one of the best receivers in the league.
Wide Receiver: Allen Robinson
Gross. Last season was awful for Robinson. His catch rate fell from 53% to 48.3% while his yards per reception dropped from 17.5 to 12.1. He was used more in the middle of the field than in previous years. The easy reason explanation was that Blake Bortles Bortled so much last year and was one of the league’s worst quarterbacks. It wasn’t entirely Bortles, though.
Robinson had a bad year. He dropped ten passes on seven less targets and couldn’t do anything with the ball after the catch. That being said, he’s an incredible talent. With Fournette in the fold now and the Jags having a Doug Marrone middle school offense that will run the ball up the middle even after the flavor runs out, Robinson leaping and snagging deep passes is going to be one of the crucial components of Jacksonville’s success. He’s done it before and Robinson can do it again.
Check back tomorrow for defense and special teams.