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 defense.
DE: J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
The 2016 season showed us that Watt is human after all. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year managed just 157 snaps over three games last season before going on the season-ending IR. Returning from two back surgeries is not an easy feat, but if there is one person in the NFL that can do it, it’s Watt. From 2012-2015, Watt led all 3-4 defensive ends in pass-rush productivity in each season, earning PFF overall grades of 97.9, 99.5, 97.9, and 94.9, respectively. Over the course of his career, the defensive end averages a sack, hit, or hurry once every seven pass-rushing snaps. He has also accumulated 20+ sacks in two of his five full seasons in the league. Watt is only 28-years-old, and as long as he can put the back injury behind him, should return to his status as the league’s top pass-rusher.
DT: Malik Jackson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jackson looked strong in his first season since leaving Denver and joining the Jaguars. The defensive tackle had 33 combined tackles and a career-high 6.5 sacks, adding one fumble recovery and four passes defended. His overall PFF grade of 84.0 was 12th among all interior defenders, but his pass-rushing grade of 82.3 ranked eighth. His high pass-rushing grade was due in part to his 55 total QB pressures, which was the fifth-most out of 68 qualifying interior defensive linemen. Jackson was very successful at rushing the quarterback in 2016, as his pass-rushing productivity of 9.9 ranked third among defensive tackles, trailing only Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins. His second year in Jacksonville’s defense should help him see things on the field unfold faster, which is bad news for opposing quarterbacks.
DT: Calais Campbell, Jacksonville Jaguars
Campbell turned 30 at the start of the 2016 season, but you never would have guessed that based on his performance. Campbell played in all 16 games, collecting 53 tackles, 8.0 sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, an interception, and six passes defended. He ended the season with an overall PFF grade of 92.9, which trailed only Aaron Donald among interior defensive linemen. In five of the last six seasons, Campbell has ranked in the top six of all eligible defensive linemen. He posted 56 total QB pressures, and missed only three tackles throughout the entire season. By most accounts, Campbell had the best season of his career in 2016, and it shows from the four-year, $60 million contract the Jaguars handed him. With Campbell and Jackson rushing up the middle, the Jaguars defense looks to be much improved in 2017.
DE/LB: Jadeveon Clowney, Houston Texans
The Texans list Clowney as an outside linebacker, but for all intents and purposes, he serves as a defensive end. After being selected with the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, it took until his third season for Clowney to really show his true abilities on the field. The edge rusher stepped up in the absence of Watt, recording 52 combined tackles, 6.0 sacks, one forced fumble, and two passes defended in 14 games. His 58 total QB pressures helped him finish with PFF’s seventh-highest grade among edge defenders, but it was his play against the run that truly shined. Clowney’s run-defense grade of 89.1 tied for third with Khalil Mack among edge defenders, while his 17 tackles for loss was tied for the most in the NFL. The potential for Houston’s defensive line is through the roof with Watt returning and Clowney finally beginning to reach his potential.
LB: Whitney Mercilus, Houston Texans
Mercilus is yet another emerging star on the Texans’ defense. The outside linebacker has racked up 19.5 sacks over the last two seasons and has shown a knack for finding the ball. In 15 games last year, Mercilus forced one fumble and managed to recover four. Playmakers find a way to get the ball in their hands, and Mercilus did just that in 2016. The 27-year old also had 76 total QB pressures over the season, and was ranked as the NFL’s eighth-best edge defender. While he had a great season, it was his performance in the playoffs that really stood out. In Houston’s two postseason games, Mercilus averaged six total QB pressures while notching three sacks. Mercilus has developed into one of the league’s top edge rushers, and will likely build on last season’s performance.
LB: Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars
Posluszny is coming off what could be his strongest season since entering the NFL in 2007. The veteran linebacker out of Penn State had 132 combined tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception, and three passes defended last year. While those numbers may not jump off the page, if you take a deeper look at his play, you see just how good he was in 2016. Posluszny posted a career-best PFF overall grade of 88.4, which was the fourth-highest among the league’s linebackers. He thrived in coverage, with his grade of 88.0 ranking third among players at his position. Posluszny improved vastly as a pass-rusher last season. His 14 QB hurries was tied for the most by any inside linebacker. Posluszny continues to be a run-stopping machine, and with his pass-rushing getting better as well, he is beginning to perform like one of the most well-rounded linebackers in the game.
CB: A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville Jaguars
Bouye could not have picked a better time to have his best season. Entering a contract-year, Bouye, who spent his first three seasons battling for roster spots, performed like an elite corner in 2016. His PFF overall grade of 90.0 was fourth among all cornerbacks, and opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 58.5 against him. Bouye was the only corner with 10 or more pass breakups and less than 10 yards per catch allowed in 2016, but it was his play in the playoffs that was really impressive. In the Texans’ two postseason games, Bouye had two interceptions and six passes defended, along with one forced fumble. In fact, against Oakland he allowed zero catches on seven targets. Bouye cashed in on his performance by signing a five-year, $67.5 million contract with Jacksonville, and will be joining an increasingly talented defensive unit.
CB: Logan Ryan, Tennessee Titans
Another corner playing for a new contract, Ryan may not have played as well as Bouye, but the 26-year-old still had a very solid season with the Patriots. Ryan collected a career-high 92 combined tackles, in addition to one sack, one forced fumble, two interceptions, and 11 passes defended. Ryan looked especially strong in the passing game, where he missed just a single tackle throughout the entire year for the second consecutive season. That’s right, the 5-foot-11 corner has missed just two tackles in coverage over the last two regular seasons. Ryan also brings some flexibility to the Tennessee secondary as he played the 12th-most coverage snaps in the slot last year. Ryan will have to improve on his tackling in the run game though if he wants to make his first Pro Bowl appearance this season.
CB: Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars
If Ramsey felt any nerves in his first NFL season after being the fifth overall pick, he certainly did not show it. The rookie ended his 2016 campaign as the 21st-ranked corner by PFF with a grade of 82.3. He allowed just 52.9 percent of passes thrown in his coverage to be caught, which was the sixth-best mark of any corner that faced at least 56 targets. Ramsey also established himself as one of the best corners in run support, finishing sixth among players at his position in run-stop percentage and third in defensive stops. However the 22-year-old really picked his game up at the end of the season. From Weeks 12-17, Ramsey had a 45.8 passer rating against, the second-lowest rating for a corner with at least 70 coverage snaps. Ramsey will pair with Bouye to form one of the league’s top young cornerback duos this season.
S: Johnathan Cyprien, Tennessee Titans
Cyprien could not have been more dominant against the run last season. His 27 run stops tied him with Tony Jefferson for the most among safeties, but there’s more. Cyprien received a 98.8 run-stopping grade from PFF, which is the highest mark the analytics site has ever given out for a safety, and one of the best grades any player received against the run in 2016. His brilliance in stopping the run led to him receiving the seventh-highest overall grade among safeties, despite an average coverage grade. The 27-year-old safety has recorded 100+ tackles in each of his first four NFL seasons, including 128 last season (12th-most in the NFL). With Kevin Byard handling more of a center field role in the Titans’ secondary, Cyprien will be able to creep down into the box where he becomes an elite defender.
S: Barry Church, Jacksonville Jaguars
We’re going with two strong safeties as the AFC South lacks an elite free safety. Church had himself a strong season, despite missing four games with a broken forearm. The veteran safety finished the year with 85 combined tackles, one forced fumble, two interceptions, and four passes defended. Church earned the 11th-highest overall grade among players at his position, thanks in large part to the improvement with his tackling. From 2013 to 2015, Church missed a tackle on 12 percent of his attempts. But in 2016, the 6-foot-2 safety was able to drop that number all the way down to 9.1 percent. The 29-year-old was a big factor in the Cowboys earning the honor of PFF’s No. 1 secondary in 2016. Church will take over for Cyprien in Jacksonville, and will bring a veteran presence to a rather young Jaguars secondary.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to email@example.com.