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For years, the AFC South has been seen as one of the bottom-level divisions across the league. Since the creation of the AFC South, the Colts have won the division nine times. Seven of those titles came from 2003 to 2010, when the team dominated the division, finishing 1st seven of the eight years in that stretch. Unfortunately, the years following would not provide the same result as the team has only held the throne twice since, those coming in 2013 and 2014.

During the Colts’ AFC South drought, each team has finished 1st, Houston and Tennessee both winning multiple times. The Colts have come close in the past four seasons finishing 2nd three of the past four years, but at some point, one has to think “being close” isn’t enough. In hopes of ending the eight-year drought, the team made drastic changes this offseason, but now the question is, was it enough. Each team had an active offseason, and the division will look very different in 2022.

In this series, I will be looking into each position group and ranking each unit in the AFC South. Part 1 covered the division’s offenses, and you can check it out by clicking HERE. So now it’s time to move to the defensive side of the ball.

 

IDL:

Houston Texans

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Projected Starters: Ross Blacklock, Maliek Collins

The Texans’ interior defensive line lacks proven playmakers. The expected starters entering the 2022-2023 season are Ross Blacklock and Maliek Collins. Last season Collins put up 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks, and Blacklock put up 22 tackles and two sacks. Therefore the group doesn’t have a proven track record for success which is an area of weakness for a young group. With defensive coordinator Lovie Smith accepting the promotion to head coach, the duo should see a similar role from the previous season. Therefore there isn’t much of a reason for fans to expect this group to take a massive step towards being difference makers this season.

Indianapolis Colts

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Projected Starters: Deforest Buckner, Grover Stewart

Since being acquired via trade, Deforest Buckner has made the Colts happy buyers. In two seasons with the team, he has been named to the Pro Bowl and been a 1st team All-Pro at the DT position. Buckner’s talent is seen and recognized across the league, but another starter hasn’t had the same recognition. Grover Stewart was drafted in the 4th round of the 2017 draft. Stewart has been a full-time starter for the team since 2019 and has been a huge leader in the defense’s success against the run . Over that span, he’s put up 129 tackles and 13 tackles for loss. In the past scheme, Grover showed that he was one of the dominant run stoppers in this league. The biggest question mark for him this year will be if the new attacking front scheme will hinder his game as the new mantra for him has to change to “Stop the run on the way to the passer.”

Jacksonville Jaguars

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Projected Starters: Folorunso Fatukasi, Roy Robertson-Harris, DaVon Hamilton

Like many position groups for the Jaguars, the IDL room is headlined by a FA signing from this offseason. Folorunso Fatukasi comes to Jacksonville from the New York Jets, with whom he had spent his entire career since he was drafted in 2019 in the 6th round. He was not much of a pass rusher in his three seasons, only putting up three sacks. However, where he made his money (literally) was in the run game. Fatukasi brings over a solid run-stopping resume, one where he has shown improvement each season so far. He will be paired with DVon Hamilton and Roy Robertson-Harris in the interior; Hamilton at the nose tackle spot. Harris will line up on the other side and, at the moment, has the best track record as a pass rusher of the three as he’s coming off his first season with the Jaguars and tied his career high in sacks with 3.

Tennessee Titans

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Projected Starters: Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Teair Tart

The Titans’ defensive line had a huge come-out year in 2021. The interior defensive line had a large part of that. The season was headlined by Jeffery Simmons, who continues to grow into a star and anchored the impressive group last season. Simmons added a Pro Bowl to his belt this past season and 2nd team All-Pro honors. The group also added former Colt Denico Autry, who continued where he left off with the Colts, adding more pass rush out of the Titan’s interior line. Autry tied his career-high sack numbers with nine and showed just why the Colts made a mistake letting him walk, let alone walk to a division rivals roster. Simmons and Autry rushing out of the interior is a scary sight for offenses, and I expect an even bigger year for the duo.

Division Rankings:

  1. Titans
  2. Colts
  3. Jaguars
  4. Texans

EDGE:

Houston Texans

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Projected Starters: Jerry Hughes, Rasheem Green

Two free agent signings will headline the Texans’ edge room. One is coming over from the Seahawks in Rasheem Green, and the other is the former Colt and Bill Jerry Hughes. I expect both to take over the starting roles. Hughes is coming off a down year as he had an all-time low sack number for his tenure with the Bills, only notching two sacks. Green is coming off a career-high sack year with 6.5, which was tied for 2nd best on his team. Green will be given a larger role in Houston, giving the 25-year-old edge rusher the chance to put up career numbers for his new team.

Indianapolis Colts

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Projected Starters: Yannick Ngakoue, Kwity Paye

One of the biggest moves by the Colts this offseason was making the trade for edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue is one of two players in the NFL who has recorded eight or more sacks every season since 2016. The other player is current Super Bowl champion Aaron Donald. Ngakoue is coming off the 2nd highest sack number of his career with 10. And while he is switching teams in 2022, he will have the perk of having the same defensive coordinator in Gus Bradley. The same defensive coordinator he played under during his Jaguars tenure. He will be able to slide into a very familiar role and have an upcoming 2nd-year edge rusher, Kwity Paye, on the other side. Paye’s rookie season started slow and got slightly derailed by an injury early. However, he was able to rebound well as all four of his sacks came from week 7 and on.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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Projected Starters: Travon Walker, Josh Allen

The Jaguars, for a 2nd straight year, held the number 1 pick in the draft, this time around going edge rusher Travon Walker out of Georgia. Walker will try and join a short list of rookie edge rushers to come out firing out the gate like Clowney, Garett, and even teammate Josh Allen. He will be paired with young edge rusher Josh Allen, who was drafted in the first round of the 2019 draft. He put up 10.5 sacks his rookie year and had a 2nd year step back with only 2.5 thanks to an injury sidelining him for half the season. However, this past year he was able to show his production ability again, putting up 7.5 sacks. The Jaguars could very well have a scary duo of edge rushers for years to come, but the ceiling of this duo most likely won’t be seen in 2022.

Tennessee Titans

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Projected Starters: Harold Landry III, Bud Dupree

Like many other Titans defenders, Harold Landry saw a career year in production. Landry was able to put up 12 sacks earning himself quite the payday by signing a 5-year $87,500,000 extension. A spot that used to be a weakness for the Titans has become a strength thanks to Landry and many others on the defensive line. Landry’s running mate on the edge is Bud Dupree, who is coming off his first year with the team. Dupree was only able to participate in 11 games last season and put up a career-low sack number of three sacks. If Dupree can get back to being a near 10-sack edge rusher, the Titans would have one of the best edge duos in the entire league.

Division Rankings:

  1. Titans
  2. Colts
  3. Jaguars
  4. Texans

LB:

Houston Texans

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Projected Starters: Christian Kirksey, Neville Hewitt, Kamu Grugier-Hill

The LB room in Houston has seen multiple changes and lacks the star power it once had. The team saw their best LB from the year prior Zach Cunningham released and joined the division rival Titans for the remainder of last season. The room is now headlined by former Brown and Packer Christian Kirksey and Kamu Grugier-Hill. In Kirksey’s first season with Houston, he put up 93 tackles, the most in his career since 2017. Grugier-Hill had by far his most productive season putting up career-high numbers with 108 tackles and three sacks catapulting him to the most productive LB in this room. The duo will be joined by Neville Hewitt, who saw his numbers dip in his first year in Houston.

Indianapolis Colts

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Projected Starters: Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, Zaire Franklin

The Colts’ LB room is headlined by All-Pro Darius Leonard, who is viewed by most as one of, if not the best, LB in the NFL. Leonard has shown himself to be a dynamic playmaker and one of the most proven turnover specialists in the entire league. Because of Leonard’s notability, another linebacker flies under the radar across the league, that being Bobby Okereke. Okereke led the team in tackles last season with 132, 89 being solo which was good enough for 9th in the NFL. He also added two interceptions to the career year, which was a career high for the LB. The third LB spot will see a rotation of Zaire Franklin and EJ Speed this year is an important one for them to show what they have to offer as it is a contract year for Bobby Okereke.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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Projected Starters: Devin Lloyd, Foyesade Oluokun

LB is another position where the heavy hitters for the Jaguars are going into their first season with the team. The team drafted LB Devin Lloyd out of Utah with the 27th pick of the first round. The other starting spot for the team will most likely be Foyesade Oluokun. Oluokun coming from Atlanta has been very productive ever since coming into the league, but none as productive as this past season. Oluokun finished the year tied for 3rd in solo tackles with 102 and ended with 192 total. The signing of Okokun will take the stress off rookie Lloyd and allow him to ease his way into the league while he takes the lead in the LB room and build on his success in Atlanta.

Tennessee Titans

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Projected Starters: David Long Jr., Zach Cunningham

Like most of the Titans’ defense, David Long Jr. had a career year in 2021. Long put up 75 total tackles, 46 of which being solo, where that wasn’t the same as the rest of the Titan’s defense; that number didn’t translate to ranking high across the league. His 46 solo tackles would tie for 127th in the league. The LB room is the weak link for this defense and one where if either Long or Cunningham can take a step in the right direction, the entire defense could follow suit, taking the unit to the top tier of the entire league. Zach Cunningham came over to Tennessee after being waived by the Texans mid-year and had his struggles but was an obvious upgrade at a spot of need for the team.

Division Rankings:

  1. Colts
  2. Jaguars
  3. Texans
  4. Titans

S:

Houston Texans

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Projected Starters: Terrence Brooks, Eric Murray

Safety is a spot the Texans will have veterans manning the starting spots. Brooks and Murray have been around the league for five or more years. Both are not the long-term answer at the spot, and many would argue they are both out of their primes. One sign pointing toward that is the Texans electing to draft S Jalen Pitre out of Baylor in the 2nd round of the 2022 draft. Pitre is a very versatile DB who already has taken snaps in OTA’s at SS, FS, and even the nickel CB spot. The important part of this for the Texans is that it will help Pitre see the field sooner rather than later.

Indianapolis Colts

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Projected Starters: Julian Blackmon, Rodney McLeod

In Gus Bradley’s defensive scheme, the safety position is very important. The team saw starter Khari Willis retire unexpectedly earlier this month. Luckily for them, this is a position for Chris Ballard and Co. built depth at this offseason. The team signed veteran Rodney McLeod during free agency and elected to make an aggressive push to trade up and draft S Nick Cross out of Maryland in the 2022 draft. The expected week 1 starters should be Julian Blackmon and Rodney McLeod, with the box safety role open for Cross. Blackmon, when on the field, has shown he can be a dynamic player in this league who has already returned for OTAs much faster than anticipated from tearing his Achilles last season. The versatility in this group will be exciting to watch as all three can fill in interchangeably for each other at either starting spot.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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Projected Starters: Andrew Wingard, Rayshawn Jenkins

The safety room is a lackluster one, to say the least, for the Jaguars here. Both starters are well below the league average for their position. Saftey was a spot I felt fairly confident going into the draft for the Jaguars, but the team elected to fill other holes. The team will have to deal with that choice as they will field the same starting duo from a year ago that opposing offenses were able to take advantage of. Hopefully, for their sake, the areas they improved around the safety spot will be enough to minimize the lack of talent at this position.

Tennessee Titans

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Projected Starters: Kevin Byard, Amani Hooker

The safety room for the Titans is headlined by Kevin Byard, who returned to the Pro-Bowl and earned All-Pro honors for the first time since 2017. Byard finished the year tied for 4th in the league in interceptions with 5. Besides Byard, the expected starter is the same as last season’s Amani Hooker. Hooker is a solid but not great safety in this league whose strength is in the run-stopping world, and weakness comes in the passing game. Where this room lacks is in-depth, so the big thing for the Titans will be both staying on the field as much as possible.

Division Rankings:

  1. Titans
  2. Colts
  3. Texans
  4. Jaguars

CB:

Houston Texans

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Projected Starters: Derek Stingley, Steven Nelson, Desmond King II

Having multiple starters at CB is an uncommon thing for the Texans. One is rookie Derek Stingley who the Texans decided to take at the 3rd pick of the 1st round of the 2022 draft. Talent isn’t a question for Stingley, who, when healthy at LSU, was a special talent but struggled to stay on the field. If he can turn around his recent injury history and stay on the field, the Texans will have hit a home run at pick 3. The other newcomer in the room is Steven Nelson, who I believe to be one of the most underrated CBs in the entire league. He has been able to produce in each of the three teams he’s been on so far in KC, PIT, and PHI. Nelson will be a solid vet to help Stingley learn the ropes and is still only at the age of 29 to be his partner in crime for the foreseeable future.

Indianapolis Colts

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Projected Starters: Stephon Gilmore, Kenny Moore II, Isaiah Rodgers

The Colts’ CB room has two heavy hitters at the top, with Gilmore and Moore II being seen among their peers as some of the best at their positions. Gilmore, whom many believed just two years ago to be the best corner in the entire league, had some learning curves after his move to Carolina, but after he got his footing, he returned to his elite play. Moore II saw himself earn his first ever Pro Bowl selection last year and is known by many to be among, if not the best nickel corner in the entire NFL. On the other side of Gilmore for this upcoming season will be 3rd-year CB Isaiah Rodgers, who took a huge step to be an every-week starter on the outside last season, and this year, he will get that chance.

Jacksonville Jaguars

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Projected Starters: Shaquill Griffin, Darious Williams, Tyson Campbell

Griffen showed last year in his first year with the team that he does have the potential to be a number one corner in this league. This offseason, the team added Darious Williams, who will slide directly into the team’s nickel role and do so at a solid level. In the other outside corner role, Campbell is a 2nd year player out of Georgia. He will need to take a solid step in year two if he wants to lock up the starting role long-term for the team, but as the roster sits, the job is his to lose heading into camp.

Tennessee Titans

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Projected Starters: Kristian Fulton, Caleb Farley, Elijah Molden

The CB room for the Titans is a unique room to judge. Kristian Fulton is far and away from the most proven of the bunch and will serve as the team’s CB1. Elijah Molden, who will be in the nickel role for the team, is entering his 2nd year and had an up and down year rookie season where he saw himself playing in a larger role than expected. Molden could see his role taken if rookie Roger McCreary impresses early in camp or if Molden’s flaws from his first year are not fixed. The biggest question mark of the room is Caleb Farley, a 2nd-year player who fell in the first round of the draft because of injury concerns and saw his rookie season cut short for that very reason. If he’s able to stay healthy and show the talent he flashed in college, this room could very well be the most improved on the team.

Division Rankings:

  1. Colts
  2. Texans
  3. Jaguars
  4. Titans

DEFENSIVE RANKING RESULTS:

Below are the overall defensive AFC South rankings. This list was created using the average ranking from the positions above to compile an overall defensive division ranking.

    1. Colts (1.6)
    2. Titans (2.2)
    3. Jaguars (3)
    4. Texans (3.2)

 

 

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