The AFC South produced two playoff teams last season, but the division is mediocre at best. Even throughout the 2010s, the AFC South didn’t generate an AFC Champion, but the Tennessee Titans did make the Conference Championship game in 2019. This middling division doesn’t have many future Hall of Famers either, with only two players registering a percentage over 55.
In this article, we’ll examine which players from the AFC South deserve the greatest individual honor a football player can receive. Every player with a relevant Hall of Fame case appears under his team. If a player doesn’t appear, he has no case or not enough accolades to register a percentage over ten. The percentages represent accrued achievements. This means a player’s percentage rises over time as he wins awards and accumulates statistics.
Even superstar players who are still on their rookie contracts usually have low percentages. However, that doesn’t mean I think they’ll all miss the Hall of Fame. Next to each percentage is an additional designation that says either YES, NO, or MAYBE. These are my ultimate determinations on whether or not a player will get enshrined in Canton.
Only a few cases received the MAYBE designation. It goes to players who find themselves stuck in a middle ground with good arguments for and against enshrinement. They could go either way but already have a strong foundation to build on.
Remember, the Hall of Fame is highly selective and reserved for generational talents. This process aims to match that selectivity by only allowing a few elite players in. However, I reserve the right to make some controversial predictions for younger players.
The AFC South currently features one guaranteed player who will receive a gold jacket when he retires. The division also includes one MAYBE case where the player could make the hall if he finishes his career strong. Three young players project out as future Hall of Famers, but it’s too soon to guarantee anything.
J.J. Watt DE – 100% YES
Everyone knows by now that only two players in NFL history have three Defensive Player of the Year awards: Lawrence Taylor and Watt. The stud defensive end could’ve retired four years ago and still made the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, injuries stole 32 games from Watt over the past four seasons. He has 96 sacks in 112 career appearances.
Watson is a borderline elite quarterback waiting for his moment to crack the top-five players at his position. Despite poor offensive line play, Watson is thriving in Houston’s offense. He boasts a career 101.0 passer rating and a 24-13 record as a starter. Watson made each of the last two Pro Bowls and posted an impressive 104.6 passer rating in the playoffs last year.
At one point, Johnson was one of the top four running backs in the NFL. He led the NFL with 373 touches for 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns in 2016. However, he only has 455 touches for 2,191 yards from scrimmage and 16 total touchdowns since then.
Philip Rivers QB – 72% MAYBE
Rivers is easily the most controversial Hall of Fame candidate in the AFC South. He has eight Pro Bowls and won the 2013 Comeback Player of the Year award. The former fourth overall pick also ranks in the top seven all-time in pass attempts, completions, yards, and touchdowns. However, the 16-year veteran is 5-6 in the playoffs with zero Super Bowl appearances.
Since the start of 2014, Rivers only has one playoff appearance. His record features a landslide of 9-7, 8-8, and 7-9 seasons, which are indicative of the organization he played for and his personal struggles. Rivers’ career record as a starter is 123-101.
While Rivers’ Hall of Fame credentials are questionable, I find it hard to believe that Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger get in while their 2004 Draft mate gets left out in the cold. Rivers isn’t a Super Bowl champion or an all-time elite player, but he doesn’t have to be to make the Hall of Fame.
From 2012 through 2015, Houston made four consecutive Pro Bowls, racked up 50.5 sacks, and received a First-Team All-Pro selection. Unfortunately, injuries and scheme changes halted Houston’s rise to stardom. Houston isn’t on a Hall of Fame track anymore, and the 31-year-old is seeing fewer snaps than earlier in his career. His 89.5 sacks in nine seasons still deserve some recognition.
The NFL is saturated with talented receivers. At one point, Hilton strung together four consecutive Pro Bowl selections. However, injuries limited him to career lows in receptions and receiving yards last season. In eight seasons, Hilton has 8,598 receiving yards, but he lacks elite accolades.
Nelson looks and acts the part of a Hall of Fame offensive lineman. He’s dominated during his first two seasons and didn’t give up a sack in 2019. Nelson earned First-Team All-Pro honors in each of his first two seasons. He’s arguably the best offensive lineman in the league today.
Rhodes made his third Pro Bowl last season, which tells you more about Pro Bowl voting than Rhodes. The Florida St. product peaked in 2017, earning First-Team All-Pro honors. However, he hasn’t been the same since. The 30-year-old hopes he can revive his career with the Colts.
Leonard received a First-Team All-Pro nod in 2018 and a Second-Team All-Pro spot last season. The former Defensive Rookie of the Year dominated during his first two seasons, stuffing the stat sheet from top to bottom. At his pace, Leonard only needs five or six more years of peak production to have a strong case for Canton.
After two decent years, Buckner experienced a breakout season in 2018. The former seventh overall pick made the Pro Bowl after registering 12 sacks and 67 tackles. Despite a reduced role in the pass rush, Buckner earned Second-Team All-Pro honors this past season. He has 19.5 sacks and 129 tackles over the past two years.
Yannick Ngakoue DE – 15% NO
Ngakoue’s teammate Josh Allen could eventually log a significant percentage, but Ngakoue is the only Jaguar with a résumé big enough to qualify right now. Ngakoue made the Pro Bowl in 2018, but disagreements with the front office could lead to a long-term holdout. Ngakoue has 37.5 sacks in four seasons.
Taylor Lewan LT – 24% NO
Lewan made three consecutive Pro Bowls from 2016 through 2018. However, he served a four-game suspension last season and struggled once he got back. Despite becoming a well-known figure in the NFL, Lewan hasn’t earned an All-Pro selection.
The Hall of Fame hasn’t been kind to bruising backs lately. The last one to get in was Jerome Bettis, and it took several years for him to gain admission. Last season, Henry led the NFL with 303 carries for 1,540 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Associated Press selected him as a Second-Team All-Pro.
At 26 years old, Henry could conceivably throw together a Hall of Fame career over the next six or seven seasons. However, that’s a considerable projection for a running back with only one standout performance.
After leading the NFL with eight interceptions in 2017 and earning a First-Team All-Pro nod, Byard seemed primed for greatness. While he’s still a top-ten safety, the Middle Tennessee St. product hasn’t made the Pro Bowl since his breakout campaign. Given how hard the Hall of Fame is on safeties, Byard is a long-shot even to earn consideration.
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