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AFC South names to watch

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

If you are looking for content that is perfect for debate over a round of beers, ESPN’s Bill Barnwell delivers. His most recent release takes stock of the names worthy of attention for the coming 2018 NFL season.

He breaks the list into 8 categories.

  1. The Now-or-Nevers
  2. The Rookies (or Almost Rookies)
  3. Familiar Faces in New Places
  4. The Rehabilitation Stories
  5. The Breakout Stars
  6. One More Ride
  7. The Wild Cards
  8. The Ghost

The AFC South has significant representation in critical positions, allowing us to look beyond 2018, to what future changes could impact the hierarchy of power within the division.

The Now-or-Nevers: Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota

The Jaguars are the media focus of quarterback instability, but the Titans share the same boat. While Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota is seen as a better talent, his decline since his rookie year is noticeable. Still a threat on the ground, Mariota’s accuracy has become a concern. Both he and Bortles have suffered from inconsistent receiving corps, and either coaching instability or improper use. Each team comes into the season hoping consistency and creative play calling will improve quarterback production.

Barnwell rates Mariota 2nd on the list, and had this to say about him.

In the paradox that was the 2017 Titans season, Mariota was a microcosm of Tennessee’s stunted growth. The former second overall pick produced his worst season as a pro and simultaneously led the league with three fourth-quarter comeback victories and four game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.

“Nobody doubts that Mariota’s mobility, leadership and propensity for highlight-reel plays make him a great prospect, but after years of cycling through coaches and schemes to try to fit their quarterback, at what point is it more about the passer than the people around him? If Mariota doesn’t turn into the player we’ve been waiting to see this season, there are going to be reasonable concerns about his ceiling.”

Barwell rates Bortles 8th, and these were his observations on the Jaguars QB.

“The best example of the unique position Bortles occupies in the NFL world is that he is a former No. 3 overall pick who had an organization shop for pieces to make him look good each offseason while simultaneously making excuses as he failed to improve and yet, still, Bortles manages to have a persecution complex.”

“The best-case scenario is that we see more of the Bortles who pieced together the best three-game stretch of his career last December along with the guy who subsequently held his own against Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady in the playoffs. The worst case is that we get the Bortles who showed up in between the stretches, the guy who threw five interceptions across three games and became the first quarterback in nearly two decades to throw 20 passes in a playoff game and win despite failing to make it to 100 passing yards. If you know which Bortles is going to show up in 2018, we’re all ears.”

I think Bill succinctly highlights the chicken/egg problem of these two quarterbacks, and tacitly asks the question of what skills are sufficient to retain services. Both Jacksonville and Tennessee field defenses capable of bailing their offenses out of quarterback shortcomings (Titans caveat to follow), but that wears on team chemistry.

Familiar Faces in New Places: Malcolm Butler

One of the most interesting narratives from last year’s Super Bowl was the benching of Malcolm Butler (ranked 25th by Barnwell). Brought in to help the Titans 25th rated pass defense in yards allowed (3,828), the question is whether he was an asset or liability in New England. The Patriots suffered an even worse defense in allowing 4,020 yards through the air, putting them at 30th.

Here is what Bill had to say.

“If you look backward past the Super Bowl, though, 2017 was a wildly inconsistent year for Butler. He struggled all season, and while Stephon Gilmore drew most of the attention for giving up big plays early in the season, Butler was the corner teams were picking on by the time the second half arrived. Football Outsiders notes that Butler allowed 9.1 adjusted yards per pass, which ranked 69th among qualifying cornerbacks. Cornerback statistics can be guesswork, but Butler didn’t look good on film, either. He has to bounce back from something more than the Super Bowl benching in 2018.”

The Rehabilitation Stories: J. J. Watt, Andrew Luck, DeShaun Watson

When J. J. Watt (27th) is on, he is a tough matchup. Unfortunately, Watt has battled injuries for the past two years. There is not much I can add to the lore of the ex-Badger, and it is not obvious that without a healthy Watt the Texans defense is less effective. In 2015, Watt led the league in sacks with 17.5, even though his defense finished 30th. In 2016, the Texans had the top rated defense, even with Watt only starting in three games. However, in 2017, with Watt only playing in five games, where he managed 11 tackles and 2 passes defended, the Texans defense ended the year ranked 20th.

The Texans also lost Whitney Mercilus in the week 5 matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs.

The small sampling above may indicate there is more to the Texans defense than just Watt (cough, cough...Aaron Colvin, Jadeveon Clowney and Mercilus). Still, the big questions are 1) what are the long term impacts back and leg surgery, and 2) will those injuries necessarily limit the ability of the eight year veteran.

“Of course, it’s unclear whether we’ll ever see that version of Watt again. Watt broke down in 2016 and underwent back surgery, and while he said all the right things about feeling fantastic and raring to go this time last year, he racked up just five knockdowns without a sack in four games before breaking his leg. The Texans don’t necessarily need the old Watt to be competitive on defense as long as Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus are around, but if they get back the Deshaun Watson we saw in 2017 and the Watt from 2015, they’re Super Bowl contenders.”

For me, Andrew Luck (30th) falls here and Now-or-Never. When Luck is healthy, the Indianapolis Colts are historically playoff contenders. When not, they are inept at best. Injured in 2015, playing through it in 2016, and finally sitting out 2017. The good news for the Colts is that he appears to be getting stronger with every preseason game. The bad news is that he took on a minor foot injury, and he sits behind an offensive line learning a new system. And who is he throwing to? And will he have a complimentary running game?

“Nobody would argue that the Colts are worse off with the return of Luck, but as we fret about the former first overall pick returning to his old form, is it fair to wonder whether there’s ever going to be another gear for the best quarterback prospect of his generation? Luck admittedly hasn’t had much help up front, so a healthy and effective offensive line might unlock the MVP candidate waiting to get out.”

Vince Young. Marcus Mariota. Two AFC South quarterbacks who showed promising rookie campaigns, but never made the next step (and I am referencing Young very loosely...MJD was the OROY). So where will DeShaun Watson (32nd) sit? I am unapologetic in my affinity for the Clemson Tiger. He was the guy I wanted in the 2017 draft, and aided by an anemic defense, Watson led the offense to point totals of 33 (twice), 57, and 34. He battled, but lost, to Tom Brady in New England, and led a 4th quarter comeback against the Chiefs that just fell short.

As I have written before, if Watson was the Jaguars quarterback we would be lauding the upside of what he brings to the offense.

Watson looks to throw first, so how much will the knee impact him, and will that offensive line allow him to throw first?

“Skeptics want to compare Watson to Robert Griffin III in terms of rookie quarterbacks who succeeded in offenses with college flourishes before struggling after knee injuries, but Watson wasn’t anywhere near as reliant on his legs last season as Griffin was during that fateful rookie campaign. On the other hand, Watson might also be stuck behind the worst offensive line in football. Those legs could come in handy.”

The Breakout Stars: Jalen Ramsey

What? Placing Ramsey here implies he has yet to come close to his ceiling. That is scary for opposing offenses. Players and writers recognize his impact, and it is debatable as to whether he presently is the best at his position, though even in that debate the margin of difference is microscopic.

While some may point to Ramsey’s bravado as a negative, I would argue he is simply playing the role of mental disruptor. And he backs it up.

What may be the most intriguing aspect of Ramsey’s potential for development is the cast around him. The Jaguars defense is arguably the best in the NFL, and when talent is surrounded by talent everyone wins.

Ramsey might not be the best cornerback in football. He might not even be the best cornerback on his own team when you consider how good A.J. Bouye was last season. He’s damn good right now, though, and you would be a fool to bet against the 23-year-old continuing to improve. There were few complaints about Ramsey coming out of Florida State, but the scouting reports suggested Ramsey lost a bit of his on-field fire during his final year at school. Three weeks into his NFL career, Ramsey was calling out Steve Smith.”

There are some AFC South omissions that Barnwell could easily have added. Mike Vrabel, as a new face, has a tough task in Tennessee if you consider the Mariota argument above. What does a defensive minded coach bring to a struggling offensive system? Sticking with the same team, and same category, can Matt LaFleur find the same success in Tennessee that he had with the Rams and Jared Goff?

The AFC South will not be short of narratives to watch, in what could be a very balanced division.