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AFC South Preview: the top players at every defensive position

Indianapolis Colts v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts finished second in the AFC South in 2018, with a record of 10-6. As they head into the 2019 season, the once “young, rebuilding team” is now looking to win their first division title since 2014. Comparing the Colts to the rest of the division, how does their top talent stack up? In some position groups, the Colts have the obvious top choice, while at others, the top spot is more debated.

With that being said, here are my top players at each defensive position in the AFC South.

Defensive Tackle: Jurrell Casey

The top defensive tackle in the AFC South is obviously Casey. A dominant force in the middle, he has totaled an impressive 46 sacks over the course of his eight year career. His strength, combined with his elite athleticism, make him a nightmare for interior offensive lineman. He tallied seven sacks last season, and I fully expect him to return to his dominant form in 2019 after recovering from a knee injury that held him out in the final game of last year.

Defensive Tackle #2: Denico Autry

Autry enjoyed a bit of a breakout in 2018 as he tallied his career high in sacks. He finished his career year with nine total sacks and was named a Pro Bowl Alternate for his efforts. His athleticism and speed are a great fit in the Colts’ penetrating defense as he made play after play last year. If he can build more consistency in 2019, his first career Pro Bowl appearance is not out of the question.

The AFC South is fairly weak on the defensive interior. Marcell Dareus, in years past, may have been considered for a list like this, but he was relatively quiet last year. Players such as Austin Johnson and Brandon Dunn are decent role players but overall are not near the level of either Autry or Casey.

Defensive End: JJ Watt

There are not many better players in the NFL than JJ Watt. There aren’t even many pass rushers all time that are as good as Watt. Throughout his dominant career, he has totaled 92 sacks in just six healthy seasons. In his first full season since 2015, he came back with an outstanding 16 sack and 7 forced fumbles year in 2018. If he stays healthy again this next year, I fully expect him to be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year.

Defensive End #2: Calais Campbell

There are very few players who have been as dominant as Campbell has been throughout his career. After nine seasons and 56.5 sacks in Arizona, he came to Jacksonville and continued his elite play. He tallied 10.5 sacks last season, and his run defense is perhaps the best in the NFL for a defensive end. Although he is getting up there in age, I again expect Campbell to be one of the best defensive ends in the NFL in 2019.

Yannick Ngakoue deserves a huge honorable mention here. He is among the best pass rushers in the NFL but he just isn’t as complete of a player as these other two players are. Other talented pass rushers in this division are Jadeveon Clowney, Justin Houston, Jabaal Sheard, Harold Landry, and Cameron Wake. The AFC South may have the best group of defensive ends in the entire NFL. It's an insanely deep group.

Weak Side Linebacker: Darius Leonard

What an amazing rookie season by Leonard. After being labeled as the “reach of the draft” by many major NFL sites, Leonard put on a show as a rookie. He led the NFL with 163 tackles— his 111 solo tackles also led the NFL— while also tallying 7 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions. He was the heart and soul of a defense that shattered all expectations last year. With Leonard leading the way again in 2019, the Colts’ defense should be in great shape.

Zach Cunningham and Jayon Brown are no slouches on their respective teams. Both linebackers are young, athletic players who have a knack for making plays for their teams.

Middle Linebacker: Myles Jack

Once projected to be a top five pick in the NFL draft, Jack has put together a pretty solid NFL career. His athleticism for a player his size is outstanding and it allows him to make plays all over the field. He had over 100 total tackles in 2018 along with 2.5 sacks and 1 interception. He needs to take another step forward with Telvin Smith out this season and I expect him to step up to the plate.

Anthony Walker had an outstanding year for the Colts last season. He had over 100 tackles and was one of the best run defenders in the entire NFL. Once he improves his pass defense, he will be among the best linebackers in football. Benardrick McKinney is another talented middle linebacker in this division, as he made the Pro Bowl in 2018.

Strong Side Linebacker: Whitney Mercilus

One of the most underrated NFL players over the course of his career, Mercilus is an outstanding player. He has tallied 42 sacks as a SAM backer in his career and continues to shine despite being overshadowed by both Clowney and Watt. While his sack production has dipped a bit in recent years, he still makes his fair share of plays every game. He is a versatile and skilled player who is a major asset to the Texans’ defense.

Matthew Adams was a solid SAM for the Colts last year. Taking over in the role halfway through the season, he put together a very respectable rookie season. Leon Jacobs for the Jaguars is also a notable player at the strong side linebacker position.

Outside Cornerback: Jalen Ramsey

One of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, Ramsey is an elite talent. After being a top draft pick in the 2015 draft, he continues to impress as he progresses through his rookie deal. While rarely being targeted in 2018, Ramsey still managed to haul in three interceptions and earn another Pro Bowl appearance. He should have yet another big season in 2019 as he looks for the biggest cornerback contract in the NFL after the season.

Outside Cornerback #2: AJ Bouye

The second part of the best cornerback duo in the NFL, Bouye did take a bit of a step back in 2018. After an outstanding 2017 season where he brought in six interceptions, he only was able to haul in one interception all of last year. He is still one of the better corners in the game, however, as he has elite ball tracking skills and is competitive at every catch point. I expect him to bounce back as we head into 2019.

Pierre Desir enjoyed a breakout season for the Colts in 2018 and he could easily propel himself into the top 10-15 cornerback conversation with another good year in 2019. Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler are solid corners for Tennessee and Jonathan Joseph is decent (as long as he isn’t matched up with TY Hilton).

Slot Cornerback: Kenny Moore II

I said it the other day on Twitter when Moore received his contract extension: Kenny Moore is the best slot corner in the NFL. He was absolutely outstanding in 2018 as he was one of the best defenders for the Colts. He finished with 77 total tackles, 1.5 sacks (3 sacks in the postseason), 11 pass deflections, and 3 interceptions. He was one of the best tackling and blitzing corners in the NFL as well. Overall, Moore is an absolute stud who needs more recognition league wide.

Logan Ryan is a very solid slot corner for the Titans who consistently puts together good seasons. DJ Hayden and Bradley Roby are also above average slot corners in the division as well.

Strong Safety: Ronnie Harrison

Once Harrison became the starter in Jacksonville last year, the position was officially solidified for the future. He is a hard hitting, smart safety who understands where to be on the field at the right time. He finished last year with 32 tackles and 1 interception in 2018 and I expect those numbers to drastically improve as he develops more into his starting role with the team.

Kenny Vaccaro and Clayton Geathers are two hard hitting safeties who need to stay healthy going forward. If they can both stay on the field, they are above average starters for their teams.

Free Safety: Kevin Byard

Perhaps the best safety in the NFL, Byard has ascended into a star player. He totaled 90 tackles, 8 pass deflections, 4 interceptions, and 2.5 sacks in 2018. He may not get the recognition that he deserves league wide, but he is an excellent young safety who is near the top of the NFL. The Titans’ secondary is in good hands with this safety on the backend.

Malik Hooker and Justin Reid are very good young safeties who could both be Pro Bowlers in 2019 with good seasons. Both players are ascending and they should have great years for their respective teams.