2018 Preseason All-AFC South Team: Star-studded Jaguars defense leads the way
Jaguars are loaded on defense, Titans have strong offensive line
Over the next two weeks here at CBSSports.com, we'll be unveiling our annual preseason All-Division teams. We began Monday with the, continued Tuesday with the , and will finish out the rest of the AFC with the AFC South (below), and AFC West (Aug. 9). Starting next Monday, we'll run through the NFC, starting first with the NFC East (Aug. 13) and continuing on through the NFC North (Aug. 14) and NFC South (Aug. 15 before finishing up with the NFC West (Aug. 16). Enjoy.
Until recently, the AFC South was the worst division in football pretty much ever year. In 2017, it took a massive step forward, with the Jaguars looking like one of the NFL's best teams, the Titans making a run to the playoffs, and the Texans, when healthy, becoming arguably the league's most exciting team. All three teams should be competitive once again in 2018, and the Colts are getting one of the NFL's best quarterbacks back from a long-term injury. In other words, the AFC South is good!
Also good: our 2018 All-AFC South Team. Check it out below.
Deshaun Watson, Texans
For the short time that he was healthy and starting last season, Watson was arguably the best quarterback in football. We don't expect him to be quite that productive in 2018 (for one thing, he almost surely won't be throwing touchdowns on 9.3 percent of his pass attempts again), but he has the talent and the infrastructure to be wildly effective and lead what should be one of the NFL's more exciting offenses. Between his ability to push the ball downfield to DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller, and his own ability to take off and run with the football, he is the best bet to be the best quarterback from this division, this season. You can make a good argument for Andrew Luck, but until we actually see him take a snap, we're not counting our chickens.
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Fournette as a rookie was not the transformational offensive force the Jaguars envisioned when they selected him with the No. 4 overall pick in last year's draft. But he also didn't have to be, because their defense was that transformational force. With a year under his belt and an improved offensive line, Fournette should be better in 2018 -- and he already ran for 1,048 yards and nine scores in just 13 games a year ago. Even a modest improvement works out to an excellent running back.
Similarly, Henry has not been the dynamic workhorse back the Titans likely envisioned when they drafted him in the second round a few years back. But he was far more effective than DeMarco Murray last season and he has a much better chance of remaining healthy for all 16 games than his backfield-mate, Dion Lewis. With a new offensive scheme led by offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, Henry should be in line for his best season to date.
DeAndre Hopkins, Texans; T.Y. Hilton, Colts; Corey Davis, Titans
If it weren't for the existence of Antonio Brown, Hopkins would have as good an argument as anyone in the league for the title of Best Receiver in Football. Working with an even worse crop of quarterbacks than his WR1 predecessor in Houston, Andre Johnson, Hopkins has nonetheless produced at an elite level, year after year. Last year was arguably his best yet, and while his league-leading 13 receiving touchdowns are likely to regress to the mean, he is also likely to see more catchable passes with a full season of Watson at the helm, so he could improve on his 96 grabs for 1,378 yards.
With Luck back under center, Hilton should also have a resurgent campaign. He's the clear No. 1 passing game target on a team where Ryan Grant is expected to work as the No. 2 wideout, so Hilton should gobble up targets more often than almost anybody else in the league. If Luck is even 75 percent of his old self, that means monster production for Hilton.
The third receiver spot here was a tough choice. Do we go with touchdown machine Will Fuller? Leading Jaguars receiver Marqise Lee? Underrated Titans weapon Rishard Matthews? In the end, we went with Corey Davis, who seems likely to fill the X-receiver role in Tennessee's offense, which means he will be working as Marcus Mariota's de facto primary option. There's a whole lot of opportunity there on what should be a much-improved offense, and Davis has the size-skill-athleticism combination to do a lot of damage with that opportunity.
Walker was easy to pencil into this spot. He's one of the more underrated offensive threats in the league, working on five straight seasons of at least 60 catches for 550 yards, and an average of 78-900-5 over the last three years. He's due for some positive touchdown progression after crossing the goal line just three times last year, as well.
Doyle developed some nice chemistry with Jacoby Brissett last season, and he should fare well in new coach Frank Reich's offense, which has shown the ability to develop multiple receiving threats on the interior. With Luck throwing him the ball, he'll also get more opportunities to stretch the field up the seams, where he can use his size and hands to beat linebackers rather than be forced to elude them after catching short passes.
The strength of the Titans' offense is their offensive line, and these two are the strength of that unit. Lewan and Conklin form one of the best tackle combinations in football, each excelling both in pass protection and the running game. There's a reason Lewan got one of the richest offensive line contracts in NFL history, and Conklin is likely in store for a nice chunk of change when he's eligible for an extension as well. These guys are damn good.
At the time he signed it, Norwell's contract was the largest ever for an offensive guard. It's since been surpassed by that of Zack Martin, who waited to get his extension until after Norwell had signed in free agency specifically so he could use that deal as a benchmark. But the Jags paid Norwell handsomely for a reason, and it's because he's an absolute monster on the interior.
We should not be at all surprised if, four or five years from now, Nelson gets a deal that makes Norwell's look small. Considered one of the best offensive line prospects in years, he should immediately step in and be a two-way force for a Colts offensive line that badly needs elite talent. He's one of the few rookies who made any of our all-division teams this year, and it's because he's just that special of a player.
Brandon Linder, Jaguars
Linder received a monster deal himself last offseason, turning elite pass protection at center into a $51 million-plus contract. He became an even better run-blocker last season than he already was, making him one of the best overall centers in football. Working next to Norwell on the inside, he could have an even better campaign in 2018.
Long one of the league's most underrated defenders during his time in Arizona, Campbell blossomed into a full-blown Defensive Player of the Year candidate during his first season in Jacksonville. Though he is on the wrong side of 30, we should not expect much of a drop-off in 2018. He's basically undouble-teamable with all the other talent along that defensive line, and a guy that size, with those movement skills is practically unblockable one-on-one.
Similarley, Ngakoue should be in store for another big year. Considered a bit of a project when he was drafted n 2016, Ngakoue instead made an instant impact with eight sacks and four forced fumbles as a rookie, then got to the quarterback even more often a year ago. He's going to be a bit of an afterthought so long as he's working across for Campbell and alongside both Marcell Dareus and Malik Jackson, but he's a budding star in his own right.
Interior Defensive Lineman
J.J. Watt, Texans; Jurrell Casey, Titans
When healthy, J.J. Watt is arguably the best defensive player in NFL history. Due to his issues staying on the field, he's been surpassed by Aaron Donald as the consensus best defender in football, but all it would take it one healthy Watt season to vault himself right back into that discussion. We're betting it happens in 2018; but even if it doesn't, he should be an absolute force for as long as he is on the field.
If Campbell was the most underrated defender in the NFL during his time in Arizona, Casey might hold that title now. For seven years he has wreaked absolute havoc on the interior of Tennessee's defense, knifing into the backfield to make plays against both the run and the pass. With the Titans finally upgrading the talent around him this offseason, perhaps he can have the truly dominant season we've all been waiting for since he broke out with 10.5 sacks back in 2013.
Clowney struggled to stay healthy during his first two NFL seasons, but during his last two he has shown exactly why the Texans made him the No. 1 overall pick back in 2014. He can rush the passer with the best of them, and his quickness off the line allows him to make plays in the backfield against the run as well. Get this guy moving forward at the line of scrimmage and he is a straight-up monster. If Watt and teammate Whitney Mercilus are healthy all year, Clowney should be freed up to do even more.
Smith is one of the more under-sung contributors on Jacksonville's defense, but he did make his first career Pro Bowl in 2017. He's an athletic second-level playmaker who is always on the field, and he's working behind an elite defensive line and in front of an elite secondary while in the prime of his career. Big things are in store once again.
McKinney seems like one of those guys who is just about ready to have his true breakout year. He had a ton of tackles two years ago but fell off a bit last year as injuries to his teammates dampened his impact, but if everyone is healthy in Houston he should be freed up to roam the field and make a ton of plays.
Jack took extremely well to his expanded role in Year 2, and Year 3 should allow him to make even more progress. He is one of the most athletic linebackers in the NFL and he uses that athleticism to his advantage, showcasing excellent coverage skills and the ability to chase down ball-carriers from behind. There's not much more you can ask for out of a player at his position.
Ramsey and Bouye were arguably the two best cornerbacks in the league last season. I do not envy quarterbacks having to choose which one of them to throw at on a weekly basis.
Butler had a down year during his final season in New England and was then mysteriously benched for the Super Bowl despite having played, like 97 percent of snaps throughout the season prior to that point. It was weird and we will probably never get a real explanation because that's how Bill Belichick works. The Titans gave him a whole bunch of money, though, so they're not going to bench him anytime soon. We should expect him to bounce back and be one of the NFL's better corners once again.
Let's throw it out there: Byard is probably not going to have eight interceptions or be named a first team All-Pro again in 2018. But that doesn't mean he can't still have an excellent season. Even during his interception-less debut in 2016 he was solid, and he should be once again even when his picks regress to the mean this season.
Gipson formed a strong safety duo with Barry Church last season but his work over the top was likely more valuable than Church's ability to make plays inside the box. When you have press-man corners like Ramsey and Bouye, you need a center-fielder to provide help behind them, and Gipson did exactly that. He's in the prime of his career and assuming good health, should provide similar cover this year.
Lechler is practically ageless, and has long been a good weapon in the kicking game. Vinatieri is actually ageless, and may or may not be a warlock. Jackson did not work as a return man as often as one might think he should've last season, but the Titans would be fools not to give him a bigger role in the kicking game this year. Let him cook.
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