As the NFL season kicks off this week, it is fun to look ahead and project what the storylines at the end of the season will be. Instead of picking who will play each other in Super Bowl L this year, this exercise will go division by division looking at the players each roster has to offer, including who could breakout or breakdown this year, who the best rookies are, and where the best rookies of next year will likely play on each team. This piece highlights the AFC South.
Surprise Player: Jared Crick, DE
Early on in his final college season, Crick was viewed by many as a first-round pick. Injury not only limited his playing time that year, but caused him to fall down the draft board until the fourth round, when Houston picked him. That first-round potential still exists with Crick, who was finally given a chance to start last season, and turned it into 56 combined tackles and 3.5 sacks. Given another entire offseason to grow alongside J.J. Watt and now having some experience as a starter, Crick could be in line for a breakout campaign that sees his sack total double, at least.
Bust: Garrett Graham, TE
Currently in line to be the starter for the Texans at tight end, Graham has two major factors playing against him this season. The first is that he has yet to play in all 16 games of a season, drawing concerns about his durability as the full-time starter. The second is that with more playing time last season, Graham was still only able to haul in 18 receptions for less than 200 yards. Even on a team that has emerging start DeAndre Hopkins at receiver taking many of the targets, you’d like to get more production from your tight end. Graham needs to stay healthy and increase his production to truly earn a starting job in Houston.
Best Rookie: Jaelen Strong, WR
How Jaelen Strong made it to the third round is beyond me. He was viewed as almost a consensus first-round pick, and when he made it to the middle of the second round, it seemed likely that a team would snatch him up, either with their pick or through trading up. Yet it took seventy picks for Strong to hear his name called, and now Strong is in a competition for the third or fourth receiver job. Strong has arguably the most promise of any rookie on the team, and has what appears to be the best chance of earning significant playing time.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Quarterback, Tight End, Offensive Line
Surprise Player: Someone on the Offensive Line
The Colts are trotting out three players this season that could develop into long-time starters for the team: Jack Mewhort, Khaled Holmes, and Jonotthan Harrison. It’s highly unlikely all three end up starting for the team (Holmes and Harrison both play center), but the likelihood that at least one, and possibly two, develop into quality linemen is high. The smart money is on the second-rounder Mewhort, but the winner of the starting job at center has a good chance as well.
Bust: Arthur Jones, DE & T.Y. Hilton, WR
Before the collective city of Indianapolis tracks me down and tosses me off a cliff, hear me out. This was one of the hardest teams to pick a “Bust” for, because there aren’t any glaring candidates for the position. Arthur Jones is the top pick, but he might not get enough of an opportunity to be a bust if he doesn’t end up starting. If he does, forget that Hilton’s name is mentioned here. But, if Jones plays all season as a back-up, my pick is Hilton. I’m not saying Hilton will suddenly drop every target he gets; I would actually still expect him to get, at the very least, 800 yards receiving. But Hilton still makes a lot of his yards through his speed on go routes, which teams can sniff out and stop, so long as they have a corner who can actually keep up with him. I’d still say Hilton is a safe bet to break 1,000 yards again this season, but even 1,000 yards and only a few touchdowns is still close enough to a “Bust” compared to his 1,345 yards and seven touchdowns from last season.
Best Rookie: Henry Anderson, DE
This is a three-horse race between Anderson, first-round pick Phillip Dorsett, and cornerback D’Joun Smith. All three aren’t locks to earn playing time all season, but in terms of opportunity, Anderson seems the best bet. Dorsett is stuck behind three quality receivers, and Smith seems likely to open the season as the fourth cornerback. Anderson isn’t likely to be a starter in the early portion of the season, but Josh Chapman and Arthur Jones can both be supplanted by great play from Anderson.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Outside Linebacker, Running Back, Safety
Surprise Player: Johnathan Cyprien, S
Cyprien has already established himself as a competent member of the Jaguar secondary, recording over 100 combined tackles in each of his two seasons. However, in those two seasons, he has only one interception. Sooner rather than later, Cyprien will need to improve his numbers in coverage, and a boost in his numbers would qualify him as a kind of “surprise”.
Bust: Ziggy Hood, DL
As far as first-round picks go, Ziggy Hood is closer to the “bust” side of the scale rather than the “success” side, never racking up more than three sacks in a season, or forcing a fumble. Yet here he is, projected to fill one of the spots on Jacksonville’s defensive line. Based on the last six seasons of production from Hood, I’m willing to say that job will probably be handed to someone else by the end of the season.
Update: Hood has been placed on injured reserve
Best Rookie: T.Y. Yeldon, RB
I’m not going to overthink this one here. Yeldon is in the best position to succeed out of all the Jaguar rookies, already projected as the starting running back behind Blake Bortles. A.J. Cann and Michael Bennett have opportunities to play their way into bigger roles, but Yeldon is already there, and will be asked to take pressure off Bortles to help the offense flow.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Pass Rusher, Cornerback, Wide Receiver
Surprise Player: Delanie Walker, TE
It took me a few run-throughs of the Tennessee roster to finally pick a player that could surprise us, and Walker just barely made the cut. After turning in his best two seasons thus far each of the last two years, Walker enters this season as a dark horse candidate to hit 1,000 yards.
Bust: Andy Levitre, OG
It’s simple: Levitre signed a $46.8 million contract and has played like a backup since. The Titans have revamped almost every other position on their offensive line, and I don’t know if it is possible for Levitre to avoid becoming the next one they replace.
Update: Levitre has been released, firmly giving him the “Bust” label for his entire tenure in Tennessee
Best Rookie: Marcus Mariota, QB
Who else could it really be? Well, Dorial Green-Beckham, but DGB seems sandwiched behind at minimum three other receivers. After picking Mariota second overall, it was only a matter of time before they gave him the starting job.
Projected 2016 First-Round Targets: Guard, Defensive End, Running Back