Each year, a division’s best players help decide who does and doesn’t make the playoffs. Often times, it starts with a quarterback and skill players. Other times the division battles revolve around pass protection, and still others are decided on defensive prowess. As a result, certain players rise to the top. In this series, we’ll create the best AFC South team defense.
All-AFC South Defense
Defensive End: J.J. Watt, Texans
The three-time AP Defensive Player of the Year’s spot on this team is as close to a lock as you can have. In eight NFL seasons, J.J. Watt has made first-team All-Pro five times and has led the league in sacks twice, and in tackles for loss three times. Despite missing most of the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Watt returned last year to force 16.0 sacks and force a league-high seven forced fumbles. The 30-year-old is as dominant as anyone in the league when he’s healthy, and looks to put together another elite performance this season. Not only is he one of the most physically tough players in the league, but he’s also perhaps the toughest to block as well.
Defensive Tackle: Jurrell Casey, Titans
Following four-straight Pro Bowl seasons, Jurrell Casey enters 2019 on a brand-new, four-year, $60.4-million contract, which makes him one of the top-paid defensive tackles in the league. Casey has recorded at least 5.0 sacks in each of the past six seasons and has missed only three games over that span. According to Pro Football Focus, Casey was the seventh-best interior defensive lineman against the run in 2018. PFF also gave him the second-best grade of any Tennessee Titans player last year. Casey is coming off of an injury last December, however, he is fully expected to be ready by Week 1, and should once again be one of the top defensive tackles in the league.
Defensive End: Yannick Ngakoue, Jaguars
Despite holding out for a contract extension with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Yannick Ngakoue is still deserving of a spot on the all-division team. In three NFL seasons, the 24-year-old has already piled up 29.5 career sacks and 10 forced fumbles. He was a key component of the Jags’ defense in 2017 when the team nearly defeated the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. He’s a quick, shifty defender who uses his quickness and versatility to create matchup nightmares for opponents. Assuming he ends his holdout without missing much (if any) of the regular season, Ngakoue very well could end up with another double-digit sack total in 2019.
Outside Linebacker: Jadeveon Clowney, Texans
After missing 15 games over his first two professional seasons, Jadeveon Clowney has developed into a serious defensive threat for the Houston Texans. Over the past three seasons, Clowney has racked up 24.5 sacks and 53 tackles for loss, all while seeing his quarterback hits increase each year. In fact, he has been so good that he has been named to three-straight Pro Bowls.
Much of his success came after transitioning to an outside linebacker role, which has allowed him to become a much better run defender, as well as better utilize his athleticism when rushing the passer. If the past few seasons are any indication, Clowney and Watt can continue to form a dynamic duo on the Texans’ defense for years to come.
Inside Linebacker: Darius Leonard, Colts
Perhaps one of the biggest NFL surprises last season was the Indianapolis Colts’ rookie second-round pick, Darius Leonard. In his first pro season, Leonard made an immediate splash by leading the league in tackles, despite not playing in all 16 games. Leonard was so good that his 163 tackles were the most in a single season since Bobby Wagner had 167 back in 2016. On top of that, he also finished tied-second among linebackers in forced fumbles with 4. The rookie was named a first-team All-Pro, as well as winning the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award. After a strong start to his career, it can be argued that Leonard is one of, if not the best, young linebackers in the league.
Inside Linebacker: Myles Jack, Jaguars
At 6’1”, 244, Myles Jack has the build of a linebacker and the speed and quickness of a running back. In fact, Jack was so fast and athletic that he actually rushed 68 times in college at UCLA. Coming into the draft, Jack was dealing with a serious knee injury that many teams feared would affect his pro career. However, he hasn’t missed a game in three seasons and has seen his stats increase each year.
Like Ngakoue, Jack was a critical piece of the 2017 defense, and although his play fell off some last season, he’ll have a chance to be the Jags’ defensive leader with Telvin Smith announcing he will be away from football in 2019. Jack will be only 24 when the season starts, and his athleticism and versatility make him one of the more intriguing and talented linebackers in the division and NFL as a whole.
Outside Linebacker: Cameron Wake, Titans
Despite being 37 years old and one of the league’s oldest players, Cameron Wake continues to be a force to reckon with on Sundays. Although he mainly plays in pass-rush situations (he played only 6 coverage snaps all last season), he remains effective even in limited snaps. According to Pro Football Focus, Wake was rated just outside the top-ten among edge defenders when rushing the passer. He was just as good overall, finishing with the fifteenth-highest overall grade for linebackers/edge defenders. Wake signed a contract to join the Titans through 2021, and barring retirement, can help further solidify an already good Tennessee defense.
Cornerback: Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars
While he struggled last year and was a far cry from repeating his 2017 season, Jalen Ramsey’s talent is still enough to notch him a spot on the All-AFC South defense. He’s slightly undersized for his position, but whatever he lacks in size, he makes up for with his blazing speed and swagger. His elite athleticism makes him one of the league’s best all-around athletes, and the chip on his shoulder makes him an intriguing, yet also controversial, player to watch. Even in a “down” year in 2018, the former All-Pro allowed the twelfth-lowest passer rating for opposing quarterbacks. Ramsey, like his teammate Ngouke, is in line for a mega-deal in the next year or two. Ramsey is coming off of two-straight Pro Bowls, and an All-Pro campaign in 2017.
Cornerback: Johnathan Joseph, Texans
Following dismal 2016 and 2017 seasons, Johnathan Joseph largely returned to early-career form in 2018. The 35-year-old was a first-round choice back in 2006, and since then, he has intercepted 30 passes and accounted for eight defensive touchdowns, with seven of those being pick-sixes. Joseph ranks fifth all-time in passes defended and is first among active players. Despite his age, Joseph had his second-best season in 2018 according to Pro Football Focus and was tenth-best at his position. Joseph will be a free agent following this season, and if he can continue to perform, he may choose to play a year or two longer.
Free Safety: Kevin Byard, Titans
Taken in the third round in the 2016 draft, Kevin Byard took the world by storm in 2017 and continued his elite performance last season. In his brilliant sophomore season, Byard picked off a league-leading 8 passes and recorded 16 passes defended on his way to his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro season. Even though his 2018 stats weren’t as eye-popping as the year before, Byard was actually better last year than in 2017 according to PFF. The Titans have begun extension talks with Byard and being only 25 (26 when the season starts), as well as one of the best safeties in the league, he should be a dominant force for years to come.
Strong Safety: Justin Reid, Texans
After finishing 2018 as the third-best rookie safety according to PFF, Justin Reid has already made a name for himself after only one season. Reid snatched three interceptions in his rookie campaign, including his 101-yard touchdown return against the Washington Redskins in Week 11. While in college at Stanford, coaches raved about Reid’s football IQ, and he continued to impress his coaches last season and this off-season with his knowledge of the game. On top of his smarts, Reid has a nose for the ball and is one of the fastest and athletic safeties in the NFL. With 2019 and beyond ahead of him, Reid could quickly develop into one of the league’s best at his position.
All-AFC South Special Teams
Kicker: Adam Vinatieri, Colts
After 23 seasons, 2,600 career points, and 582 field goals made, it’s only right that Adam Vinatieri is the all-division kicker. Vinatieri’s 84.3% field goal percentage ranks sixteenth all-time, and nobody has ever made more field goals than he has. Vinatieri has made three Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams, on top of winning four Super Bowls. The 46-year-old has made two Super Bowl-winning kicks and is regarded as one of the most clutch players in NFL history. Vinatieri re-signed with the Colts in January, ensuring that the future Hall-of-Famer will play for at least one more season.
Punter: Brett Kern, Titans
In only twelve seasons, Brett Kern ranks eleventh all-time in yards per punt and is already in the top-forty all-time in terms of total punting yards. The 33-year-old has gotten better with age, highlighted by his league-leading average of 49.7 yards per punt back in 2017. Among AFC South punters, Kern is by far the most seasoned, as well as the most decorated. Kern has made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons and earned himself a new contract which makes him the fifth-highest paid punter in the NFL.
Return Specialist: Dede Westbrook, Jaguars
Following a breakout 2018 season, Dede Westbrook nearly earned a spot on the All-AFC South Offense, however, his performance on special teams earns him a spot as the all-division return specialist. On 19 punt returns last season, Westbrook totaled 266 yards, giving him an average of 14.0 yards per return. He finished eighth in the league in punt return yards and was the only returner in the division to have either a punt or kickoff return touchdown. As quick and shifty as he is, Westbrook can be very slippery in the open field, making him a very dangerous returner.
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