We are officially in the dead zone of the NFL. This is the time of year when you hope your team doesn't get mentioned, as it's usually bad news.
... Unless you are reading the AFC South positional rankings, in which case you want your team on the board as fast as possible!
The offensive positional rankings were well received by our readers, and if you haven't seen read it yet you can find it here.
It's time to take a look at the defensive positions. Keep in mind that positions are ranked based on talent of the entire group and that group only, hence ability to rush the passer doesn't affect (e.g. cornerback ranking).
Let's get to it!
1st: Texans - J.J. Watt, Charles Omenihu (R), Brandon Dunn, D.J. Reader, Whitney Mercilus, Jadeveon Clowney, Carlos Watkins, Brennan Scarlett.
2nd: Jaguars - Yannick Ngakoue, Abry Jones, Marcell Dareus, Calais Campbell, Josh Allen (R), Datone Jones, Taven Bryan, Lerentee McCray.
3rd: Titans - Jurrell Casey, Harold Landry, Kamalei Correa, Cameron Wake, Daquan Jones, Amani Bledsoe (R), Matt Dickerson, LaTroy Lewis.
4th: Colts - Jabaal Sheard, Denico Autry, Tyquan Lewis, Justin Houston, Ben Banogu (R), Grover Stewart, Margus Hunt, Kemoko Turay, Al-Quadin Muhammad.
The Texans and Jaguars have ridiculous defensive lines. Watt finally got back on track with 16 sacks and 18 TFLs after two injury-riddled seasons.
Clowney, who was rumored in trade talks, is still on the team and continues to progress in skills and production. Mercilus has been up and down over the years, but presents an above-average option in the rotation. Look for talented rookie Charles Omenihu to beat out veteran D.J. Reader at defensive end.
Meanwhile, Campbell, Ngakoue, and Dareus continue to be productive. With the addition of Josh Allen, the unit as a whole looks to repeat its pass rush productivity from 2018, which ranked 5th in the league.
Landry had a fine first year at rush linebacker for the Titans, while old faithful, Casey, continues to play at the highest level at defensive tackle, stacking up seven sacks, 62 tackles, 11 TFLs, and 11 QB hits in 2018. Correa took a big step forward and played well in 2018, and will look to progress even further to solidify the edge pressure in 2019 with Landry.
As a pass rushing group, the Colts will look to improve off of a disappointing season, in which they ranked 29th, per PFF. That being said, the group entering 2019 looks more promising.
Both Hunt and Autry finally took steps forward last season in both sacks (five and nine, respectively) and TFLs (13 both). Justin Houston, albeit having slowed down since his insane 2014 season, always has a dominating and impactful presence. Sheard has never been more than a single-digit rusher, but is a decent veteran, as rookies like Banogu fight for playing time.
1st: Titans - Jayon Brown, Wesley Woodyard, Daren Bates, Rashaan Evans, David Long (R)
2nd: Colts - Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, Bobby Orekeke (R), E.J. Speed (R), Matthew Adams
3rd: Texans - Benardrick McKinney, Zach Cunningham, Dylan Cole, Peter Kalambayi
4th: Jaguars - Myles Jack, D.J. Alexander, Leon Jacobs, Najee Goode, Jake Ryan
Listen... The core linebackers of this division are straight-up absurd.
Darius Leonard (23), Jayon Brown (24), and Benardrick McKinney (26) were all extremely productive in 2018, and all ranked as top 10 LBs, per PFF. McKinney got over 100 tackles for the second time in his career, while Jayon Brown got 97 tackles, but added six sacks, 10 QB hits, and a pair of forced fumbles to it.
Leonard crushed all those numbers, acquiring a stupid 163 tackles, 12 TFLs, seven sacks, four forced fumbles, and two interceptions. In terms of ranking these groups, it really comes down to the co-workers in each group.
Woodyard is a productive vet who continues to play at a high level, getting more than 100 tackles for the second year in a row, along with 4.5 sacks. The hope is second-year player Rashaan Evans can take over for the soon-to-be 33-year-old linebacker in the near future.
The Colts and Texans have similar situations with a pair of young, talented linebackers, in which one is far more dominating than the other. While I believe Zach Cunningham is a better LB than Anthony Walker, I believe the depth in Orekeke and Speed is superior to that of Cole and Kalambayi.
The Jaguars are in a hot mess after Telvin Smith decided to sit out the year. For one, it forced Myles Jack, who has disappointed at outside linebacker since being drafted, to move to the MIKE linebacker position.
Furthermore, you have former Eagles special teamer Alexander and former Eagles and Colts backup Najee Goode battling for a starter job with Leon Jacobs. Prayers up - this could get ugly.
1st: Jaguars - Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye, D.J. Hayden, Quenton Meeks, Saivion Smith (R)
2nd: Titans - Adoree Jackson, Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, LeShaun Sims, Tye Smith
3rd: Colts - Pierre Desir, Quincy Wilson, Kenny Moore, Rock Ya-Sin, Nate Hairston
4th: Texans - Jonathan Joseph, Bradley Roby, Aaron Colvin, Johnson Bademosi, Lonnie Johnson (R)
The Jaguars have a solid cornerback room, obviously highlighted by Bouye and Ramsey, who once again in 2018 played at a high level, earning good to excellent coverage grades (79.3 and 72.7, respectively). However, Hayden was also a pleasant surprise as he played very well in his first year in Jacksonville.
The Titans and Colts are close. Like, really close.
Adoree, Butler, and Ryan all had above-average years, but none of them really stood out. Then you have Desir, who was extended for three years this off-season, played a heck of a season, allowing the third-lowest completion percentage in the division (57.8 percent) and a solid 73.9 PFF grade.
Kenny Moore had a solid year as well, which earned him a four-year extension this off-season. Quincy Wilson was okay, grading similar to Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler in terms of coverage. Everything depends on the Temple kid, Rock Ya-Sin, who has high expectations on his shoulders going into training camp.
The Texans have the best cornerback in the division in Jonathan Joseph. Once again, the 35 year old star earned top 10 coverage grades. However, the cornerback unit is only as good as its weakest link - and boy do the Texans have weak links. As Kareem Jackson left for Denver, there is now a camp battle going on between the 92nd- (Roby), 110th- (Colvin), and 115th-ranked (Bademosi) cover corner.
Unless, of course, Lonnie Johnson somehow ends up as the savior of the group.
1st: Texans - Tashaun Gipson, Justin Reid, Jahleel Addae, Briean Boddy-Calhoun
2nd: Titans - Kevin Byard, Kenny Vaccaro, Amani Hooker (R), Dane Cruikshank
3rd: Colts - Malik Hooker, Clayton Geathers, Khari Willis (R), Matthias Farley, George Odum
4th: Jaguars - Ronnie Harrison, Jarrod Wilson, C.J. Reavis, Cody Davis
After the Honeybadger left, the Texans had to find a solid replacement to pair with Justin Reid, who played solid football in his rookie season at free safety.
In 2018, he racked up three interceptions, 10 pass deflections, and a good 77.9 coverage grade and 81.1 overall CB grade. Pair him with former Jaguars safety Gipson, who has played well over the past two seasons, and the Jags should be set for years.
Once again, it's basically a toss up between the Colts and Titans, who enter the year with very similar situations:
- They both have a star free safety in Malik Hooker and Byard, respectively.
- They both have a strong safety with multiple average to below-average years.
- They both drafted a safety in round 4 of the 2019 draft.
So why Titans over Colts? Simply because Byard has been consistently really, really good. In 2017 and 2018, Byard graded 85.4 and 82.5 in coverage, respectively, and 85.3 and 88.4 in overall defensive ranking. Malik Hooker was really good in 2018, but his rookie season in 2017 was not nearly as impressive, which obviously is to be expected with his season-ending injury.
Last note, I believe Khari Willis will contribute faster than fellow Titans rookie Amani Hooker.
The Jaguars will be with two new starters going into 2019, as the aforementioned Gipson left for Texans, and Barry Church is a free agent (about time). While Harrison started eight games in 2018, in which he did a decent job, Reavis, Wilson, and Davis combine for a total of five started games.
Surprised? The Titans allowed the third-fewest points and eighth-fewest yards in 2018. Furthermore, looking at the overall perspective of this defense, they have a top-two secondary in the division, a pair of studs at inside linebacker, and a respectable front five combining young talents and experienced vets. The Titans look decent at all levels and don't have a glaring weakness, which earns them the No. 1 spot.
The Texans have the best defensive line, the best pair of safeties, and a young pair of studs at starting inside linebacker. Furthermore, as long as old man Joseph stays healthy, they have arguably the best cornerback in the division. However! Every other cornerback on the roster needs to really step up to not provide a big liability in 2019.
The Jags took a major hit with the departure of both starting safeties and the unexpected absence of Telvin Smith. Although their defensive line and superior cornerbacks may carry them well in 2019, linebacker remains a mess, and safety is being occupied by very raw players.
It's really not that I think the Colts will have a bad defense in 2019. In fact, they may exceed expectations at all levels of the defense, as they sure have the pieces to do it. My major question with this team is simply: Can they generate pass rush? They simply have to achieve more than the 29th pass rushing ranking they had in 2018. If they do so, the sky is the limit as the young, talented guys at linebacker, cornerback, and safety look ready.
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