By Matt Citak
The time has come. With NFL training camps underway, there will officially be football on every weekend from now until February. With the most glorious time of the year finally here, we are going to take a look at each division around the NFL and break down the best player at each position. Now it is time to check out the AFC South’s top players on offense.
QB: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts
Luck injured his shoulder in Week 3 of the 2015 season, yet did not have surgery on that shoulder until this offseason, missing only one game during the 2016 season. Despite playing the entire year hurt, Luck was Pro Football Focus’ fourth-highest rated quarterback. He threw for 4,240 yards on a career-best 63.5 completion percentage, and racked up 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Luck was the most improved QB in 2016, and it showed when he hold on to the ball for 2.6 seconds or more (something he did 57.5 percent of the time in each of the last two seasons). On those passes, Luck had the eighth-best TD-to-INT ratio, the seventh-best completion percentage, and the seventh-best passer rating. The Colts QB will need his offensive line to provide him with some protection if he wants to have a repeat performance in 2017.
RB: Demarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
Similar to Luck, Murray had a huge bounce-back season last year. It was clear the back was misused by Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, and he proved to everyone last season that he is far from done with the NFL. Murray carried the ball 293 times for 1,287 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns, adding 53 receptions for 377 yards and another three receiving touchdowns. Murray definitely benefited from running behind one of the league’s best offensive lines, but it was easy to tell that the veteran was running a lot more aggressively in 2016. The 29-year-old also improved significantly in his pass-blocking, as he allowed only four QB pressures across 115 pass-blocking snaps. Although Murray will share some of the carries with Derrick Henry, both running backs should perform well this season running behind PFF’s No. 1 ranked o-line from 2016.
WR: T.Y. Hilton, Indianapolis Colts
Hilton’s performance last year further solidified him as one of the league’s top receivers. In his fifth NFL campaign, Hilton put together his fourth consecutive 1,000+ yard season, collecting career-bests in receptions (91) and yards (1,448, which led the NFL) while catching six touchdowns and 66 first downs. Hilton had the third-highest yards per route run, trailing only Julio Jones and AJ Green, in 2016. Luck’s go-to receiver is one of the most dangerous and explosive offensive threats in the NFL, evidenced by his league-leading 28 plays of 20 yards or more last season. If that wasn’t enough, Luck’s QB rating when throwing to Hilton anywhere on the field beyond 20 yards was never lower than 92.0. These two players have one of the best connections you will find in football between a QB and his No. 1 receiver, and both will be looking to make their fourth Pro Bowl trip this season.
WR: DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans
After having a career-year in 2015, Hopkins saw his production in almost every category decrease dramatically last season due to the Texans’ poor quarterback play. The 25-year-old still caught 78 passes for 954 yards and four touchdowns, but saw his catchable targets drop from 118 in 2015 to 82 in 2016. His catchable deep target percentage was 18.2 percent, which ranked 75th out of 78 qualifying receivers, and his passer rating when targeted was 60.5, which ranked 91st out of 96 qualifying receivers. With Brock Osweiler no longer in Houston, Hopkins’ numbers are sure to see an increase in 2017. Don’t forget, it was only two seasons ago that Hopkins finished the year as PFF’s fourth-highest graded wide receiver. Whether it’s Tom Savage or Deshaun Watson under center for Houston, either one should be able to get Hopkins back in the Pro Bowl discussion.
WR: Rishard Matthews, Tennessee Titans
In his first season in Music City, Matthews put up career-highs in almost every receiving category. The former seventh-round pick caught 65 receptions for 945 yards, nine touchdowns, and 43 first downs. His 2.12 yards per route run was just below some of the league’s elite WRs, such as Mike Evans (2.28), Odell Beckham Jr. (2.27), and Antonio Brown (2.26). Matthews finished the season as PFF’s 22nd-highest ranked receiver, largely due to his ability to catch the deep ball. The 27-year-old saw 11 catchable deep passes (20 yards or further) thrown his way in 2016, and caught all of them for 388 yards, which ranked seventh among players at his position. With the addition of Corey Davis and Eric Decker, the field should be opened up even more for Matthews, who will attempt to break the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career.
TE: Delanie Walker, Tennessee Titans
While most players tend to begin declining once they turn 30, the opposite can be said about Walker. Over his last three seasons with the Titans, the first of which he was 30-years-old, the tight end has caught at least 63 passes for 800 yards and four touchdowns (all of which beat his stats from each of his first seven years in the NFL). Over that same span, Walker has collected the most receiving yards by a tight end from the slot with 1613 yards, and in 2016, the veteran ranked second among tight ends with 2.00 yards per route run from the slot. When he lines up at that position, he becomes a match-up nightmare as he is too big for defensive backs and too fast for linebackers. Walker caught a career-high seven touchdowns last season, which helped him make his second consecutive Pro Bowl. With Marcus Mariota’s affection for targeting his tight ends, Walker should have another successful season in Nashville.
OT: Taylor Lewan, Tennessee Titans
Lewan is the perfect left tackle for Mike Mularkey’s run-first, pound-the-ball offensive philosophy. He finished the 2016 season with the second-best run-blocking grade among all tackles in the NFL with a mark of 88.4. He allowed just two sacks in 16 games, the first of which did not occur until the 10th game of the season, and was ranked as the eighth-best tackle in all of football by PFF with an overall grade of 87.7. Lewan had three perfect games of pass protection in 2016 and six more in which he surrendered only one hurry. He was ranked No. 64 on PFF’s top 101 players of 2016, and was also awarded with his first trip to the Pro Bowl. The only major knock on Lewan’s performance last season was his 14 penalties, with some of them being extremely foolish and costly. With more experience, Lewan will learn to keep his emotions in check and limit the silly penalties.
OG: Quinton Spain, Tennessee Titans
Spain is an undrafted free agent out of West Virginia that has started 19 of the 21 games he has played in since joining the Titans in 2015. He was an amazing find by Tennessee’s front office as he finished the 2016 season as the AFC South’s highest-rated guard. While it certainly helps to have the talented linemen surrounding him on the o-line, Spain really grew into his starting role last season. His 82.5 grade from PFF was the 15th-highest among the league’s guards, which makes sense considering Spain allowed only two sacks in the 14 games he appeared in. Tennessee has one of the strongest offensive lines in the entire league. The team would be wise to lock up their young lineman, especially Spain, as soon as they can.
C: Brandon Linder, Jacksonville Jaguars
Last season was the first time Linder played center in the NFL. Coincidentally, it was also his best season since joining the league in 2014. Linder started 14 games for the Jaguars at center and played exceptionally well, allowing only 13 total QB pressures all season while pass-blocking on 611 occasions. His 87.6 overall grade on 909 total snaps ranked fifth among 38 eligible centers. Linder excelled in both pass protection and as a run blocker in 2016. His pass protection earned a 84.5 grade, which ranked eighth among centers, while his 84.0 run-block grade ranked fifth.
OG: Jack Mewhort, Indianapolis Colts
After spending his first two seasons splitting time between guard and tackle, Mewhort settled in as the Colts’ starting left guard last year and seemed to find himself at home there. Mewhort started in 10 games in 2016 and did not allow a sack. He also picked up just three penalties in those 10 games, and ended the year as PFF’s 24th-highest graded guard. Indianapolis will certainly need their offensive line to play significantly better in 2017 if they want to have a realistic chance at making the playoffs. The success of the offensive line depends largely on Mewhort taking another step in his development.
OT: Jack Conklin, Tennessee Titans
Conklin could not have had a more impressive rookie season. Starting in all 16 games during his first season, the rookie surrendered just two sacks all year while only getting flagged twice. The offensive lineman also allowed only 31 total pressures last season. Conklin’s overall grade of 88.6 was the highest mark among right tackles and fifth-best among all tackles. He finished with the seventh-best pass-blocking grade of 88.5, in addition to showing some powerful run blocking. Conklin’s performance earned him a spot as a first-team All-Pro and a nomination on PFF’s All-Pro first-team. Between Conklin and Lewan, the Titans have two studs on the offensive line for years to come.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.