By: Matt Gonzales
Nobody can say that the AFC South lacks star power. There were 12 Pro Bowlers to come out of the AFC South at the conclusion of the 2012 season. The reigning defensive player of the year represents this division. Furthermore, of the six playoff spots available per conference, two of them were filled by AFC South teams.
This article will rank the top 10 players in the AFC South, based on stats, potential, and sheer talent. Opinions will vary.
10. Ed Reed
Safety, Houston Texans
The 12th year man out of Miami (FL) may be 34 years old, but he’s still one of the 10 best players in this division. Not many 34 year-old athletes can do what Ed Reed does. He still has above-average speed and athleticism to go along with his high football I.Q. and unquestionable leadership. He could be that final piece that gets Houston to the promise land.
Running-back, Tennessee Titans
Chris Johnson has had an up and down career so far. During his first three seasons, Johnson lit the league on fire. During his sophomore campaign, he rushed for a league-leading 2006 yards, which put him in an elite category of players who have rushed for 2000 yards in a single season. However, ever since his holdout in 2010, he hasn’t been the same. Inconsistent play has held back Johnson from being the player he was when he came into the league. Three years ago, Johnson would have ranked #2 on this list (to Peyton Manning). He’s still good enough to be considered a top 10 player though.
8. Johnathan Joseph
Cornerback, Houston Texans
Johnathan Joseph comes into his 8th season already having 20 career interceptions. He is a staple to make the Pro Bowl year after year and is considered by many to be just a notch below elite-hood. He’s a player that seems to always come up with the big play in big moments and isn’t afraid to lock horns with an offense’s best receiver.
7. Eugene Monroe
Left-Tackle, Jacksonville Jaguars
Eugene Monroe may be the most underrated left-tackle in the NFL. One would argue he’s been the most underrated left-tackle for about three seasons now. The 5th year pro out of Virginia has been an outstanding blindside protector, even though it is often overlooked by horrible quarterback play. His standout moment came during week one last season when he completely stonewalled All-World defensive end Jared Allen and held him to just three tackles. If Monroe even had an average QB, who knew how to get the ball out of his hands in a timely fashion, Monroe would likely have been a Pro Bowler already.
6. Duane Brown
Left-Tackle, Houston Texans
Duane Brown is not only the best left-tackle in the AFC South, but one could make an argument that he’s the best in the league at the position. 2012 was a great year for Brown as he made his first Pro Bowl and was named to the AP All Pro First Team. This is a player that doesn’t give up too many sacks and is rarely penalized (he’s been called for “holding” just twice his entire career). Brown is considered an elite pass-blocker and is equally good in the run-blocking department. At 27, he’s still got a good five or six “peak years” left in the tank.
Running-back, Jacksonville Jaguars
In 2011, Maurice Jones-Drew lead the NFL in rushing, which is particularly impressive considering defenses would stack the box with eight, sometimes nine, defenders due to a comically bad passing game. The following offseason, he held out, wanting to restructure his current contract. After an unsuccessful holdout, Jones Drew played just six games before suffering a foot injury against Oakland that ended his season. However, there is no denying that the diminutive MJD is still one of the best backs in the league. Do not be surprised if he has a bounce back year in 2013.
Wide Receiver, Houston Texans
At one point in time, Andre Johnson was the best receiver in the league (and “one point in time” of course means “until Megatron entered the league”). The savvy veteran still puts up monster numbers for one of the best teams in the entire NFL and is showing no signs of slowing down. In 2012, Johnson pulled in a whopping 112 catches, highlighted by a game against Jacksonville where he had 14 catches for a career-high 273 yards and the game winning touchdown in overtime. He is one of the first “freak” wideouts to come into the league due to his combination of size (6’3, 230) and speed (he’s been a 4.4 guy his entire career). He seems to be one of those players who become hungrier as they get older. It would be nice to see him win a ring before he (eventually) hangs ‘em up.
3. Arian Foster
Running-back, Houston Texans
Arian Foster is the best running-back in the league outside of the Minneapolis area. After a breakout season in 2010, Foster has put up 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in each of his last three seasons in the league. On top of the staggering rushing numbers, he is also arguably the best receiving back in the league, which makes him such a feared player for defensive coordinators. He may never lead the league in rushing as long as he is splitting carries with Ben Tate, but that may actually be a blessing in disguise as it will limit the tread on his tires for a longer, more productive career.
2. Andrew Luck
Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts
You would be hard-pressed to find anybody that would argue against Andrew Luck being the best quarterback in the AFC South. After having one of the most decorated college careers, Luck was one of those prospects that a team would be willing to pull a Ricky Williams-esque type trade for. That never happened, mainly due to the fact that the Colts had no doubt in their minds they were selecting Luck, and anybody who even attempted to call the club for a potential trade would have been wasting their breath.
Luck went into the season with higher-than-normal expectations for a rookie given the hype around him, and he did nothing but exceed these expectations. His best game probably came week five against Green Bay. The Colts were down 21-3 at halftime, and Luck rallied the team, threw everybody on his back and lead them to a comeback victory against one of the best teams in the league. I fully expect Luck to take that “next step” in just his second season in the league and establish himself as one of the top ten QB’s in the entire NFL.
Defensive End, Houston Texans
I had to start that off right.
Back in 2008, J.J. Watt nearly quit football to deliver pizzas for a living. He was at a crossroads in his life. He had just transferred from Central Michigan University to Wisconsin and he seemed to have a lack of both motivation and direction. Somewhat lost with what to do with his life, Watt had an inspirational conversation with a friend that changed his life forever and set a fire under him. His focus and drive was at an all-time high. He went on to wreck havoc on opposing offensive lines at the collegiate level and eventually became a first-round draft pick.
At 24 years of age, Watt may very well be the most dominant player in all of football. As a rookie, Watt finished the regular season with 56 tackles and 5-1/2 sacks. Later that year, in his first ever playoff game, Watt made a game-changing play by intercepting Andy Dalton and taking it back for a touchdown.
In his second season, he didn’t just take that “next step” – he became absolutely unblockable. In 2012, Watt posted 81 tackles and a mind-numbing 20.5 sacks. 20.5. As a 23 year-old. Insane. Watt is a guy that has ideal size and strength as a 3-4 end. However, one could argue that his greatest attribute is his will to succeed. He plays with a confident, yet nasty demeanor. He’s a guy that lines up and knows the guy(s) across from him will not stop him from throwing their quarterback into the dirt. This kid has one of the brightest futures of any player in the league. In January 2013, he was named Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press; the highest honor for a defensive player. Whether Watt would have ever won “Pizza Delivery Guy of the Year” will forever be a mystery.