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2018 NFL Season Preview: The All-AFC South Team

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Matt Weston names the AFC South’s best players before the 2018 NFL season begins.

My diseased and internet-ruined heart only resides in the obscure. It’s an attempt to be an interesting individual. It doesn’t work. My heart is no different than the hearts of nameless others who are deflated and seeping instead of palpitating entering this NFL season. The AFC South is no longer cool. Everyone else is riding my wagon. I can barely breath. My legs don’t fit in the backseat.

With Jacksonville losing an AFC Championship they should have won, the Titans slicing the throat of the Alex Smith era, Deshaun Watson scorching this slab of useless meaningless rock, and Andrew Luck being back, the masses have caught on. The AFC South is a legitimate division. It’s a division that could have three playoff teams and could represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

Shocking times, I know. But it eventually had to happen. It’s been a long time since the halcyon days when we woke up to Sundays of Blaine Gabbert versus Jake Locker, putrescent Thursday Night Football games, and aborted Week 17 AFC SOUTH CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES because the Tennessee Titans suck. And so now, I’m skipping out on writing individual season previews for each of my beauties because I’m a hipster doofus idiot. Without the joy of novelty and loving something no one else loves, the thrill has been extinguished. It’s nearly all gone.

Yet there is still enough love swirling around my purple guts to kick off the 2018 NFL season preview with the classic All-AFC South team. There are no rules. Actually, there’s one rule. No rookies. That’s it. These are the best players who will be partaking in what would have been an exhilarating AFC South race if the NFL didn’t go and ruin professional football completely with this stupid helmet rule.

OFFENSE:

Quarterback: Andrew Luck

The performance of this division has grown along with its quarterbacks. When Deshaun Watson was healthy, the Texans roasted NFL defenses. Marcus Mariota had a down year in 2017 (because of an injury, most likely); that’s the only possible explanation for his release slowing down and his disastrous year in the red zone. Blake Bortles has evolved from an eyes closed downfield passer to an embarrassment to a competent middle manager. Progression isn’t linear. However, none of these three younger men has been a top ten NFL quarterback for an entire season, unlike their elder, Andrew Luck.

Luck sat out all of last year after correcting a shoulder injury he suffered back in 2015. After being unable to throw a football for hundreds of days, he can throw a football again. Quarterbacks aren’t like defensive linemen or running backs. They can come back from injury. With the talent Luck has, he should be able to overcome a previous inability to raise his arm over his head.

In case you forgot, Luck is really good. The last time he was ‘healthy,’ he threw for 4,240 yards, 31 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, averaged 7.8 yards an attempt, and finished 13th in DVOA and 11th in DYAR despite playing behind one of the worst pass blocking offensive lines in football.

The fun thing to do is put Watson in this spot, but he’s done it for only six and a half games and he did it in an unsustainable way. Until DW4 is a top ten quarterback for an entire year, picking him here is blind homerism, especially with regression looming. The other two QBs don’t even have an argument for this spot over Luck. Mariota has been intriguing, but the results still aren’t entirely there. Bortles can only drive the truck he has in Jacksonville. For the time being, even after injury, Luck is the best quarterback in this division.

Running Back: Leonard Fournette, Derrick Henry

Both players weren’t as good last year as you thought you would think they were. Damn, that sentence could really be a the title of an awful emo album. Fournette had a DVOA of 2.1%, a success rate of just 44%, and he broke a tackle on just 18.1% of his touches. There’s context to it, of course. The Jaguars faced the heaviest boxes in football last year and ran the ball 33.1 times per game, which was first in the NFL. With a switch in offense from deep ball heaving to quick crossing, defenders could stay hanging around the line of scrimmage like John Grady Cole around some bordertown whorehouse. As a result, Fournette was left bashing his head into the wall. He’s better than the numbers say, and he’s also a bone breaking barbarian on the field. Fournette calling over a defender was a top ten moment from last season. I feel bad for everyone who has to go to bed thinking about having to tackle Leonard Fournette this season.

The other young back is Henry, who will now get all of the carries in Tennessee since DeMarco Murray was taken from the locker room to that farm upstate where all the other retired running backs go. RB2 Dion Lewis is more of a third down pass catcher even though he’s been excellent on the ground as well.

Henry is the strangest running back I’ve ever watched. He’s built like the protagonist of a 1980s arcade side scrolling button smasher, but he’s not a vertical runner. Instead, Henry lays on a pink flamingo and delays momentum, waiting for the hole to open. Because of this, he misses open runs and cuts out wide into a blender of defenders. But when he hits, man does he hit. In the open field, he’s diabolical at his size and speed. Throw that stiff arm into the mix and you got defenders seeing a flash of light, a gasp, and then nothing.

Summertime reporting says the Titans will switch to more of an outside zone and bootleg offense. This would be the perfect offense for a player whosegame doesn’t match his body.

Wide Receiver: DeAndre Hopkins, T.Y. Hilton, Rishard Matthews

Antonio Brown. Julio Jones. DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins is the third best receiver in the league and it has nothing to do with skill. It’s entirely about volume and effectiveness of production. As a force-fed, sideline route running, isolated wide receiver playing with terrible quarterbacks, Nuk hasn’t received the opportunities to put up 1,600 yard seasons. This year, things are different. For the first time in his career, Hopkins has a vicious quarterback as his Week One starter. He won’t be catching scattershot from Tom Savage anymore. If Watson is healthy, and if things are even kind of like last year, Hopkins could take the wide receiver title belt.

The last season Luck was healthy, Hilton caught 91 passes for 1,448 yards, 6 touchdowns, and averaged 15.9 yards a catch. Last year he was fine, but he was in an impossible situation. Hilton should go back to being one of the best predominantly used in the slot receivers in football this season.

Matthews is super underrated. He’s been the only reliable receiver during Mariota’s blue jean, boot scootin’ time in the NFL. He runs a sicko post route, is a great downfield blocker who flips defensive backs over, and he’s a nice screen receiver. In an offense with more teeth, pearly and electric, Matthews should see a lift in production.

Tight End: Delanie Walker

There’s only one good tight end in this division. It’s Walker. He’s the only tight end who can block, get open, and catch passes that aren’t just the end of progression checkdowns. Once again, Walker led the Titans in receptions last season, and he’s one of the main reasons why a run heavy offense worked okay in the post-modern NFL. It’s wild to think San Francisco once had him and a prime Vernon Davis on the same team. People forget that.

Left Tackle: Taylor Lewan

I want a tribal tattoo. I want it to hurt really bad. I’ll never get it removed. That’s how I’ll know it’s real. A real tattoo.

Lewan has finally put it all together. Previously there was one aspect of a block missing too often that hampered his performance. Pad level, hand placement, missed assignment, whatever...it wasn’t there. It wasn’t that Lewan couldn’t do it. It was that he didn’t do all of it all of the time. This changed last year. He did what he needed to do on every play. His biggest improvement came on one-on-one blocks, a block essential to inside zone plays. He still isn’t perfect, though. He gave up 5.5 sacks last year. He’ll probably never be a top five tackle, but having a top ten left tackle makes developing an offense an easier thing to do.

Left Guard: Andrew Norwell

I didn’t know Norwell was a great player entering this last offseason. Everyone claimed he was. To find out for myself and escape the clutches of football groupthink, I watched the film, did the math, and learned that, yes, Norwell is one of the best guards in football. He’s like the sixth best guard in the NFL, which still makes him one of the best guards around. The only thing he’s lacking is the spectacular, OMG, sublime blocks that players like Zack Martin and Marshal Yanda make. Oh, and PFF is wrong, Norwell did in fact give up a pressure last year.

Center: Brandon Linder

Playing center is a tussle in a public restroom. There’s no space. Your block is inches across from you. Life is immediate and instantaneous. As a result, one of the keys of the position is head placement. There isn’t time to recover at center. Landmarks have to be instantly hit. Linder has some of the best head placement in football. He’s always hitting that outside shoulder. Although he gets in trouble with stronger defenders, Linder has the fundamentals to overcome them, and he’s one of the best second level blockers in football.

Right Guard: Zach Fulton

Now that there’s a bigger spotlight on him after signing a big contract, Fulton will have Twitter videos made of him, which will make him ubiquitous when people think of good offensive linemen. Stuff like this will be coming to a timeline near you.

He’s one of the better guards in football, can play multiple positions, is as good of a run blocker as he is a pass blocker, and he should be the fix the Texans have needed at guard since Brandon Brooks left to win a Super Bowl.

Right Tackle: Jack Conklin

So much has happened since the end of last season that I forgot Conklin is coming back from ACL surgery and probably won’t play until Week Seven. That’s a bummer. He gave up zero sacks last year. He didn’t give up a sack last year. There...that’s a better way to say that. There’s a comfort to being a loser and watching Titans’ offensive line play, seeing Conklin repeatedly make his blocks in unspectacular fashion. It really solidifies things.

DEFENSE:

Defensive End: Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell

What do you mean Luck is on this list, but J.J. Watt isn’t? The difference is it’s only been a year for Luck. Watt has played just eight football games the last two seasons. He can’t be counted on to provide anything. Houston has to plan their defense and their season like he’s one of those after dinner chocolate mints that come in a green package and not a main course. You never know if the Luby’s is going to be out of them or not. Until Watt plays even half a season again, there isn’t anything to expect from him.

Instead, the edge rush living in Sacksonville makes the list. Campbell is my favorite of the two. He was J.J. Watt Lite in Arizona while Watt was winning three Defensive Player of the Year Awards in four years. It’s hilarious how enormous Campbell is. The best part of that Ngakoue-Dante Fowler hold me back hollerfest was Campbell standing between the two looking like Aquaman. Once he’s done with this football thing, he could 100% stand in front a green screen for some superhero movie made for babies. He was also 100% worth his contract last year. Campbell had 14.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, and 37 hurries.

The man who lives on the horizon opposite of him made an acrobatic leap off the turnbuckle last season. Ngakoue is long and stretchy. Composed of rubber and a ridiculous rip move, he battered offensive linemen and put up 12 sacks, 17 quarterback hits, and 33.5 hurries. It wasn’t vulture sack padding either. Ngakoue beats offensive linemen and creates disruption on his own. Strip sack!

I kind of wish these two weren’t so damn good. It hurts my feelings to leave Jabaal Sheard off this list. It’s a national travesty that he’s underrated.

Defensive Tackle: Jurrell Casey, Malik Jackson

Dean Pees is now the defensive coordinator in Tennessee. LOL, Dean Pees. And with that, Casey will probably switch from defensive tackle to the typical 3-4 ‘5’ technique. He should continue to stay great in that role, but no longer will he be known as one of the best interior rushers in football. Actually, that never happened. Rarely does anyone discuss Casey’s play in the reverence it deserves.

Jackson on the other hand will stay inside and actually does get brought up occasionally. The former Broncos’ interior threat was convinced to moved to Florida by a pile of mney. Since then, he’s only had 14.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 55 pressures, and 6 batted passes. He’s also one of the best stunt runners in football.

Outside Linebacker: Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus

Last season Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan combined for 14.5 sacks, 18 quarterback hits, and 68.5 quarterback pressures. The last time Clowney and Mercilus were healthy together, they were able to overcome the loss of J.J. Watt and combined for 13.5 sacks, 26 hits, and 64 pressures. Close, but not as good as Orakpo and Morgan. The difference is that since then, Clowney has turned into the best edge run defender in football and put up a 9.5/13/45 season last year without having another soul to garner pass protection attention. The off-brand outside linebacker combination in Tennessee is intriguing; it’s just not the solar system devouring vortex that Whitney and Clowney are.

Inside Linebacker: Benardrick McKinney, Telvin Smith

I couldn’t think of two more opposite players who excel at playing the same position. McKinney is Gus Fring brutal, a mallet carrying skull crusher. He can stand up guards, remove them from existence, and find the football. He can also rush the passer. The past two seasons, McKinney has accrued 8 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, and 21 pressures. That’s pass rushing production you rarely see from the inside linebacker position, especially from a guy who weighs 260 pounds. The one downside to B-Mac’s game is man pass coverage. You don’t want him chasing Dion Lewis out in the flat.

Smith is a zap of energy, a teleportation of guts and bone. He can outrun almost everyone on a football field and has the quickness to zip under those five behemoths who lumber around the line of scrimmage. Last season, SMith had 66 stops, 27 defeats, and deflected 7 passes. He gets to places most linebackers are still running to. The one big flaw is his tackling ability; Smith missed 15 tackles last year and 18 the year before that.

Cornerback: A.J. Bouye, Jalen Ramsey

If I was lame and had any modicum of influence outside my immediate reality, I would take to the internet and try to claim some terrible nickname for these two playlers who combine together to form the best cornerback duo in football. Bad and Bouye? AJJ? The Archipelago? Whatever. This is fan fiction for me.

Last season the Jaguars made the leap from 15th in pass defense DVOA at 5.6% to first with a DVOA of -27.6%. Their young defense added the two best defensive free agents available in Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye, and then Ramsey went from great rookie corner to franchise cornerstone. Last season Bouye and Ramsey had an adjusted success rate of 55% and 61%, respectively, gave up 6.3 and 5.3 adjusted yards per pass, and together they deflected 37 passes and intercepted ten. Oh, and the Jaguars also finished first and eighth in DVOA at covering opposing teams’ first and second wide receivers. Jacksonville’s pass defense could regress next year mainly because they were soooo healthy last year. But if they do, it won’t be because one of their two corners.

Free Safety: Kevin Byard

I’ve never seen Byrad play a down of football. I just saw he had eight interceptions last year. That’s good enough for me!

Strong Safety: Tyrann Mathieu

Barry Church is average at everything, but he’s coming off a down year. The Colts still probably don’t know who is going to play strong safety for them. Johnathan Cyprien is a fifth linebacker and is already out for the year. Mathieu may play free safety instead of strong safety, and Kareem Jackson just switched to a position he’s better suited for. So, yeah, Mathieu makes the team by default. The makes me want to listen to Pink and White. The hairstylist, screen scurrying, dive ball blitzer was added to the division thanks to a one-year, prove-it deal in Houston. He’s going to give running backs and tight ends a terrible time this season.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Punter: Rigoberto Sanchez

The Colts were bad at everything last year. Everything but special teams. Sanchez kicked balls on one of the best punting units in football. The Colts allowed only 19 punt returns last year and Sanchez helped force 27 fair catches. Punt returners only picked up 80 yards against them last year. Crazy.

Kicker: Ryan Succop

I’ve been closing my eyes to find why all good things should fall apart. Succop finally missed inside the 50 yard line. However, with Adam Vinatieri losing some kick off distance and missing kicks from an unheard of 30-39 yards, Succop is now the best kicker in the division.

Punt Returner: Will Fuller V

Fuller doesn’t get to return punts often enough because is body is made out of noodles and it isn’t worth ejecting him into interstate collisions for a couple of extra yards of field position. But when Houston needs a jolt, Fuller usually delivers. That man is fast. Part of me wishes he plays for the Ravens because he’s the one player in the league I don’t think Joe Flacco could ever overthrow.

Kick Returner: Adoree Jackson

Like Fuller V, Jackson evaporates quicker than countertop vodka. Last season he averaged 23.1 yards a return and had a long return of 57 yards. It’s just a matter of time until he takes one all the way to the house.