Defensive End: J.J. Watt
Yeah, he was gone last year. Yeah, he played in just two games. Well, three if you include the wheezing and pain-riddled national television pantsing game against New England and their third string quarterback.
But the best defensive player in the league, the best defensive player I’ve ever seen, is back. The denizen of the backfield, that great white leviathan, is back. Nobody can be entirely certain that Watt is ever going to be reach the level of play that he did in the past. But if anyone is going to return to previous form after suffering malicious maladies, Watt will be the person to do it. Even if he only reaches 90% of what he’s done before, he’ll still be one of the league’s best defensive players.
Defensive Tackle: Malik Jackson
Jackson was very good last year. He’ll never be spectacular or be fully worth his extravagant contract. It doesn’t matter. Very good is all Jacksonville needed from him last season and it’s all they will need from him again this season. Jacksonville was a team dying for interior pass rushing, and Jackson filled a need while maintaining the same level of play he had in Denver.
Last year he had 6.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 29 hurries, similar to the 5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, and 22 hurries he had on Denver’s Super Bowl winning defense. Unlike Jackson, great but not spectacular is something most of us will never achieve.
Defensive Tackle: Jurrell Casey
One of the best things to come out of Tennessee’s first successful season since they flirted with the playoffs back when Matt Hasselbeck was at quarterback was the recognition the terminally underrated Casey was given last season. With Tennessee winning nine games and blowing a playoff opportunity at the end of the year, Casey went from being an AFC South darling to a nationally talked about player. It’s a shame, because this is something that should have happened years ago.
Casey is one of the rare blobs that play defensive tackle who can take on double teams in the run game and disrupt the pass. With him leading their rush defense, the Titans finished tenth in run defense DVOA. Although he didn’t have the sacks in 2016, Casey still had 16 quarterback hits and 23 hurries while feeding quarterbacks and one-on-one blocking matchups to Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo.
Defensive End: Calais Campbell
Oh the horror for everyone who tries to score touchdowns now that Campbell has relocated from the desert to the swamp. Last season the Jags had a fringe top ten defense. This year they will have a top ten defense thanks to the signings of Campbell, A.J. Bouye, and Barry Church.
Campbell is J.J. Watt lite. He’s a monster against the run and pass. He has the versatility to play both interior and exterior defensive line. He’s been one of the most productive defensive players in the league over the last five years. Even if he’s 31, he should be the missing exterior rusher Jacksonville needs. He and Malik Jackson will force offensive linemen to scratch, claw, and falter in an effort to pick up yards on the ground.
Edge Rusher: Whitney Mercilus
Mercilus has had one of the stranger career arcs to any player I’ve seen. He went from an interesting rookie, to a player who accumulated vulture sacks on a great defense during the tail end of his rookie contract, to a legitimately great edge defender. Everyone wants to talk about sack numbers. Mercilus has 37.5 over his career and saw his sack total drop from 12 to 7.5 last year. Despite this magical number, Mercilus was a more productive player last season, upping his hits and hurries from 4 and 20 in 2015 to 14 and 31 in 2016. Plus he’s an underrated run defender. He’s strong enough to punch and sit against tackles who outweigh him, and he absolutely mashes teeth when tight ends try to block him individually. When you start to explain why Houston has one of the best front sevens in the league, Mercilus is an integral part, not an afterthought.
Edge Rusher: Jadeveon Clowney
It’s just good for football that Clowney has turned all of that disgusting, rarely ever seen athleticism into tangible football skills. He went from showing similar athleticism after microfracture surgery, to showing flashes of dominance, to becoming one of the best run defenders in the NFL.
If progression stays linear, this season all of Clowney’s pass rushing flaws will smooth over, and he’ll be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. His name will be attached in sentences that include names like Khalil Mack and Von Miller. If not, Clowney will just be a great defender on a great defense, which is all gravy, baby. I’m not the kind to wait and get excited for the future, but my bones are vibrating in my skin thinking about this potential version of him and Watt running T-E stunts and flipping blockers into ball carriers for tackles.
Linebacker: Telvin Smith & Benardrick McKinney
The best inside linebackers in this division are opposites. You have Smith, a great coverage linebacker, a bullet spinning out of a gun, who had a success rate of 66% on 53 targets and knocked down 8 passes last season. He’s an absolute flash across the screen who can’t rush the passer well or tackle well at 218 pounds.
Then you have McKinney, a 6’4” 250 pound mauler who’s drenched in Gene Simmons makeup. When tackling, McKinney always drives ball carriers backwards and moves the pile. Somehow he became a great blitzer, learning when to blitz and the correct angles to take. But B-Mac has the opposite flaws as Smith—he can’t cover. He gave up 7.7 adjusted yards on pass attempts he was targeted on, with a success rate of just 48%. Oh, and New England converted two touchdowns in the playoffs last season by attacking McKinney directly. Both these players are great despite having opposite skill sets.
Cornerback: Vontae Davis
Davis is the only legitimately good defensive player left over from last year’s Colts’ defense. The rest of that side of the ball is gone, purged, after new general manager Chris Ballard stuck his fingers down the roster’s throat.
No matter who the receiver is, you can stick Davis out wide, play man coverage, and not have to worry too much, which allows the defensive coordinator to wonder on about other things. Things like, what is a pass rush? What will it take to make Erik Walden stop dancing like that? Where is a time machine so I can get the D’Qwell Jackson from 2010? How can I sneak a newer copy of Madden into Ryan Grigson’s office so I can finally get some talent on this unit?
Cornerback: Jalen Ramsey
Cornerback seems like the hardest thing in the world to do. They stand there all alone, across from one of the world’s greatest physical specimens, having to react to whatever it is they do, all while getting in trouble for touching them past an arbitrary distance with other very fast men buzzing all around you. It seems damn near impossible.
This is what I love about Ramsey. He turns a reactive position the other way around. He’s the one in control of most plays. He’s stronger than most receivers and can jam just about anyone on the line of scrimmage. Wide receivers are stuck to him out of their breaks. His closing speed ensures no one ever really gets away, allowing him to break and make plays on the ball. Routes are pretty pictures painted by steps and camouflaged movement. Ramsey covers these water colors with slop before they can be completed.
Despite playing off the screen for the majority of the game, Ramsey commands attention until he exceeds the limits of cable television. He’s always a must-watch come Tuesday when the All-22 drops again. For fellow AFC South apostles, these Ramsey versus DeAndre Hopkins battles are going to make all the years of disgusting 2-10 v. 3-9 fart fests worth it.
Cornerback: A.J. Bouye
Bouye can play zone. He can play man. He knows when to break on the ball and attacks it when it’s in the air. He’s strong at the release point. I’m going to miss him so much this season. The Houston Texans should have franchise-tagged A.J. Bouye.
Free Safety: Andre Hal
Both safety positions are the sad(!)dest positions in the AFC South. You got Tashaun Gipson, who did absolutely nothing last season. You got Andre Hal, who can cover half the field and attack the ball, but is one of the worst tacklers you’ll ever see. You got whoever the Titans will employ at this position. And you got Malik Hooker, who will end up being the best one of this stinky bunch whenever he finally plays.
Based on what’s available, Hal is the default winner. He has some skills, and what he’s truly terrible at isn’t a problem until he’s the last line of defense against a free runner. That’s when it truly becomes a problem.
Strong Safety: Jonathan Cyprien
Cyprien was made fun of once he became a Pro Football Focus darling, but at least he can do one thing well—step into the box and make tackles. He plays low while the free safety plays high. In 2016, Cyprien had 96 solo tackles, 58 stops, 15 defeats, and his average tackle was at 4.3 yards up the field. This is very good for a safety. Although he doesn’t really cover, he can do one thing really well at a position no one else in the division does much with.
Kicker: Adam Vinatieri
He doesn’t kickoff anymore. Not because he’s 44 years old, but because he’s a glory boy who doesn’t like to get his fingernails scratched or his helmet nicked. Vinatieri is still is the best field goal kicker in the division, though.
He made 27 out of his 31 kicks, including hitting 7-9 from 50 yards or more. I want Vinatieri’s, not Tom Brady’s, workout regimen and diet to help prepare this giant body for the bad back glory years.
Punter: Jeff Locke
Every punter in this division is bad now that Pat McAfee has retired to create online content for boys. I wish he didn’t retire to make this one a section of five sentences I like to write easier to write.
McAfee’s replacement, Jeff Locke, is a prodigy of Bazinga internet lameness, a short kicker who creates fair catches and downed punts. However, unlike the rest of a division that has punters who place the ball into the returner’s basket, Locke at least limits the number of returns opponents have against him. That’s something the rest of the division should think about trying out sometime.
Kicker Returner: Marqise Lee
Since his emergence as a real wide receiver last season, it’s unknown how often Lee is going to return kicks next season. Whatever. He should return kicks. He is a playmaker, a wonder, an incredible athlete. He showecased last season that he can do things with the ball whether it’s a screen, quick pass, or kickoff. I’m here for Allen Robinson/Allen Hurns/Marqise Lee all finally playing well together in the same season-season.
Punt Returner: Will Fuller V
The will he catch it, will he drop it slot machine returned a punt for a touchdown last season against the Tennessee Titans. Houston won because of it. There aren’t any good punt returners in the division. Fuller returned a punt for a touchdown, so he gets the nod. Despite the smashed me a gray one, bought me a red collarbone he now has, he is the best punt returner in the division because he did something remarkable once last season.