As far as the division goes, the Colts’ offensive outlook in 2018 is pretty good by comparison. Where the rubber meets the road though, will be on the defensive side of the ball. In case you haven’t heard, defense wins championships. Even with all-time great quarterback Peyton Manning helming the Colts to unprecedented success in the regular season, it took a solid defense to push the Colts to a Super Bowl win.
Andrew Luck has the ability to be an all-time great quarterback. However, if the defense can’t get the job done and make stops, he’ll be fighting an uphill battle that probably just isn’t winnable. How does that defense compare to the others in the AFC South? Let’s take a look, starting with the safety and cornerback position groups.
If you are surprised to see the Jaguars at the top, you weren’t paying attention last season. The Jaguars pass defense was suffocating, and the safeties definitely were a big part of that equation. At the free safety position they have Tashaun Gipson, who had a solid season with 4 interceptions, 7 passes defended and a fumble recovery. Barry Church handled strong safety responsibilities and had 4 interceptions himself including one for a touchdown. He also knocked down 8 passes and got credit for 1.5 sacks. They also drafted Ronnie Harrison out of Alabama with their third round pick.
As far as balance goes, this is the best safety group in the division. They aren’t put under a ton of pressure, because Jacksonville’s defense is so good everywhere else, but that just allows them to sit back and make plays. If they are able to bring Ronnie Harrison along and develop him, he could help keep them truly scary over the next several years.
The Titans have the best safety in the division in Kevin Byard. At just 24 years old and entering only his third season that might be a premature assessment, but his 2017 season was that outstanding. His 8 interceptions, 16 passes defended, 62 tackles, and 2 fumble recoveries were enough to land him his first Pro Bowl berth and first-team All-Pro recognition. Did I mention he’s just 24?
Johnathan Cyprien had a much less impressive year at the strong safety position. He was brought in from Jacksonville last year and played just 10 games due to a hamstring injury. They signed rookie strong safety Damon Webb as an undrafted free agent, and he might get a chance to see some snaps if Cyprien cannot stay healthy. However, if Cyprien can return to form, this is a formidable duo.
This offseason has produced the worst kind of turmoil for the Texans’ safety group. Starting safety Andre Hal was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma earlier this month. That sucks for reasons that are much more significant than football, but it certainly doesn’t help their safety group. While the Texans’ defense has been pretty strong as a whole, their safety position has been a struggle, and Hal provided some stability.
Word out of mini-camp was that CB Kareem Jackson was taking reps almost exclusively at safety, and rookie Justin Reid (who I really liked) will also be competing to fill that role. Tyrann Mathieu was added to the roster in the offseason, and if the Honey Badger plays like he did back in 2015, it will go a long way to strengthening the group.
At the bottom of the table sit the Colts. A lot of questions persist about the Colts’ safeties. Second year free safety Malik Hooker looked pretty good to start his rookie season, but saw it cut short when a bad block caused him to tear his ACL and MCL after just 7 games. While the Colts are optimistic that he will return for the season, he’ll be less than a year removed from a significant knee injury. Combine that with learning a new defensive system and it is tough to know how much to expect from the second year player.
The presumed starting strong safety is Clayton Geathers and his future isn’t much clearer. Geathers missed nearly all of 2017 after having neck surgery and hasn’t participated in offseason activities with an undisclosed injury. When healthy, Geathers was a solid addition, but he hasn’t played a full season since he came into the league, so expecting him to be a full time contributor is pretty optimistic.
Matthias Farley is right now the Colts de facto starter at safety. While he has played admirably and done his job, I like to think of him as the Jack Doyle of the Colts’ defense. He has continued to improve his game, but has some limitations that will be tough for him to overcome based on his size and speed. The coaching staff also continue to talk up T.J. Green, but that for me is just hot air until we see him hit someone legally, prior to the whistle, and who isn’t wearing a Colts uniform.
Again, if you watched last season, this is a no-brainer. The Jaguars corners were absolutely dominant in 2017 and I wouldn’t expect any significant change to that trend. While it is tough to string back to back years like that one together, the tandem of A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey is one that no quarterback is excited to face. If they have another year like 2017, this is the best cornerback tandem in the NFL. The only addendum I’ll make to this group is that they didn’t have to face Andrew Luck twice in 2017. While that won’t affect how good they are, two games against an elite talent can take some of the shine off any defense.
If not for how ridiculously good that Bouye and Ramsey are, the Titans would have the top spot here. The addition of Malcolm Butler has earned early buzz from OTAs, and Logan Ryan is a solid player as well. Add to that equation that their first round pick from 2017, Adoree Jackson, is entering his second year, and you have the formula for a well-rounded and solid cornerback group. In addition to the group’s improved talent level, having a head coach who has been a part of championship caliber defenses will definitely not hurt them in their growth as a unit.
The possible move of Kareem Jackson from corner to safety means a need for guys to step up in the Texans cornerback group. Johnathan Joseph is 34, and while he has been a valuable contributor to the defense over his career, it would be unwise to count on that continuing. There aren’t many guys who can play cornerback successfully well into their 30s.
Aaron Colvin has been brought over from the Jaguars in the hopes that he was limited by being stuck behind their dynamic duo. If he can bring a solid presence it will make a big impact on the defense and could really bolster them. They also picked up Kevin Johnson’s fifth year option, hoping that his contribution is more like 2016 than 2017.
At the bottom (again) are the Colts. The Colts’ cornerback room has a ton of upside, which is what you say when you’re dealing with a completely unproven group without a defined talent to point to. In a best case scenario, Quincy Wilson breaks out this season and proves that Chuck Pagano was the main problem for him in 2017. There were flashes in his game last season that made you think he could be very good. However, his immaturity and lack of discipline hurt him and his chances to develop.
Pierre Desir ranks as the veteran of this group, but has spent a career as a journeyman before landing with the Colts last season during their awful run of injuries. Desir was effective in filling his role, and it is hopeful that he can do so again this season with a defensive scheme that will put less pressure on their cornerbacks. Still, expecting him to be a long term answer is unrealistic.
One bright spot here is Nate Hairston, who had a great rookie year working out of the nickel corner spot. Hairston was a steal in the fifth round and will look to add to his progress last season and take his play to the next level. This is not a unit without talent, but a lot will depend on Quincy Wilson making big strides as a player, leaving this unit as a major question mark.
Next time: Linebackers