The AFC South wasn’t particularly strong this past season. All four franchises haven’t drafted well in previous years, leaving a shallow pool of candidates for these selections. In the end, already established stars raised their profiles more than young players made an impact, which contributed to the South not getting a team past the Wild Card Round.
Let’s set one essential rule before we start. Rookies weren’t included in the selection process because they only have one season under their belts. Even if a player like Jonathan Taylor made strides throughout 2020, including him in an article looking for year-to-year improvement at the NFL level doesn’t make sense.
This article is the third edition in an eight-part series. You can visit the previous articles below. Check back regularly for more content.
Houston Texans- Deshaun Watson, QB
Watson made his third consecutive Pro Bowl this past season, so he’s already an established star. However, the Clemson product went from being a bottom top-ten quarterback to an MVP candidate in 2020. Even without DeAndre Hopkins, Watson set career highs by completing 70.2% of his throws for 33 touchdowns and a league-leading 4,823 yards.
Watson posted a 112.4 passer rating behind Houston’s battered offensive line. That only trailed Aaron Rodgers’ 121.5 rating among qualified quarterbacks. Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, and Rodgers were the only quarterbacks to start more than 12 games and throw fewer interceptions than Watson’s career-low seven. It’s also worth noting that the 25-year-old star ran for 444 yards and three touchdowns.
In an offseason where multiple former first-round quarterbacks found themselves without jobs or on the trade market for the wrong reasons, Watson is the apple in the eyes of all QB needy teams. He’s already arrived as an MVP-caliber player.
Indianapolis Colts- Braden Smith, OT
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes made the largest jump from his 2019 season to 2020. The former All-Pro got destroyed in his final year with the Vikings. However, Rhodes rebounded with a quality starting season for the Colts, but he’d reached higher levels in the past. Because 2020 was a bounce-back year rather than a real breakout season for Rhodes, he doesn’t qualify for this spot.
Smith is the often-overlooked right tackle along a dominant Colts offensive line. Since entering the NFL in 2018, he’s been one of the most consistent tackles. However, this past year was the high-water mark of Smith’s already stellar career. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), the Auburn product didn’t allow a sack in his 14 appearances and only committed three penalties.
Jacksonville Jaguars- Dawuane Smoot, DE
Smoot hasn’t jumped off the page since entering the NFL in 2017, but there aren’t many candidates for this spot in Jacksonville. The team tanked this past season, and it showed in how their young and inexperienced players performed. At least Smoot played a career-high 665 defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Reference.
The former third-round pick started seven of his 16 appearances. He recorded 25 tackles, 5.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, 17 quarterback hits, and 31 pressures. All of those numbers were career highs. Smoot is a free agent this offseason.
Tennessee Titans- Corey Davis, WR
Davis entered the league to high expectations. Tennessee took the Western Michigan product at fifth overall in the 2017 NFL Draft, and he flopped almost immediately. Davis wasn’t effective as a rookie. He took strides in his second season before regressing in Ryan Tannehill’s 2019 breakout campaign. The Titans declined Davis’ fifth-year option, making him a free agent this offseason.
While Davis won’t reach the rich base salary in the fifth year of his rookie deal, he gets to sign a lucrative long-term deal in free agency. The 26-year-old balled out this past season, catching 70.65% of his targets for 984 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games. Davis’ 15.1 yards per reception and 10.7 yards per target were both career-highs that cemented him as a quality No. 2 option.