Scouting the NFL: AFC South Players to Watch

With the regular season around the corner, Inside The Pylon reached out to former NFL scout and current Scouting Academy director Dan Hatman for a cheat sheet on who the pros are keeping an eye on – and who may be in danger of losing their job. Here, he identifies which AFC South players to watch in 2015.

Houston Texans

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Benardrick McKinney Lonnie Ballentine / Andre Hal Brian Cushing Jadeveon Clowney Kevin Johnson

Fresh off their appearance on HBO’s
Hard Knocks, the Houston Texans enter 2015 as the biggest threat to the Indianapolis Colts for AFC South supremacy. While the Colts continue to add offensive threats, the Texans responded by bolstering the defensive side of the football, adding one of the game’s premier 3-4 nose tackles this off-season when they signed Vince Wilfork. Another addition to the defense is first-year linebacker Benardrick McKinney, the Rookie Who is Needed Early. McKinney was a second-round selection for the Texans and is a very physical inside linebacker with prototypical size and frame for the position. Given the attention that opposing offensive lines will pay to J.J. Watt, Wilfork, and Jadeveon Clowney, McKinney will be given many chances to make plays for this Houston defense. Although he is limited in coverage, McKinney is excellent against the run, and can play the point of attack with his hands and stand his ground, but can also effectively shed blocks. How he handles this role will go a long way towards determining the fate of the Texans’ defense.

Another reason why Houston needs McKinney to step up this season is because his ILB mate, Brian Cushing, is the Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline. The veteran linebacker, who was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2010, is one of the game’s premier ILBs, when healthy. But, the injuries have begun to mount for Cushing, who suffered a torn ACL in October of 2012 that cost him the rest of the season. The ILB returned for the start of the 2013 season, but in that October he suffered a broken fibula and a torn fibular collateral ligament, ending his 2013 season. He enters the 2015 campaign healthy, but the injury history and wear and tear are a concern, as is his mental processing, play recognition and reaction to triggers. Maybe the Texans should just sit him for the month of October, given his history.

Staying on the defensive side of the football, two more young defenders are players to watch this season. The Most Intriguing to Study is DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney, who plays the JACK role in Houston’s 3-4 scheme. The former #1 overall selection played in only four games in 2014 before undergoing microfracture surgery for a knee injury. The Texans have brought him back slowly, and anticipate that he will be fully healthy and ready to contribute on the league’s first weekend of games. When healthy Clowney is a defensive force, who burst onto the national stage during a college bowl game when he separated a Michigan RB from his helmet – and the football. Clowney is an athletic talent and explosive defender, who combines both lower body leverage and upper body strength to win one-on-one battles and disrupt offensive backfields. If he is healthy, he and Watt form a dangerous combination on the edges.

Incoming cornerback Kevin Johnson is another rookie defender looks to play a big role for Houston this season, and is a player Texans fans should be Excited About an Expanded Role. The 16th overall selection in the 2015 Draft, Johnson is a very talented and athletic CB possessing solid quickness and hip fluidity – both core traits for the position. A great fit in a cover 3 system, Johnson’s elite closing speed makes him tough to exploit on short routes, even if playing in off man coverage. Houston has pressed Johnson into action early, and he turned in a very solid preseason for the Texans. His presence should help shore up the back half of Houston’s defense.

Two other secondary defenders who need to Develop Quickly for this defense are Andre Hal and Lonnie Ballentine. Both were 7th round picks last year, which typically anticipates a player with backup ability, however, in this case they are both being called upon to perform at starter level for 16 games. The strong safety position is an area of concern for this team, and both of these defenders have seen reps at that slot during the offseason. One of them needs to step up and take the spot across from Free Safety Rahim Moore.

On the offensive side of the football, the much-discussed quarterback battle between Ryan Mallett and Brian Hoyer played out on televisions during the HBO series, and head coach Bill O’Brien selected the veteran Hoyer over the younger Mallett. But the concerns for the offense begin up front, particularly the battle at left guard. Second-year guard Xavier Su’a-Filo is locked in a battle with swing OL Jeff Adams for that position along this younger group. Su’a-Filo was regarded as one of the upper level OL prospects in the 2014 draft, but has yet to materialize as a solid lineman at the next level.

Offensive playmakers is also an area of concern for the Texans. Arian Foster suffered a groin injury in the preseason, and while he remains on the active roster at the time, Houston will need Alfred Blue to pick up the slack in the running game. With the departure of Andre Johnson to the division rival Colts, De’Andre Hopkins will need to emerge as a true offensive weapon in his second year in the league. Another young receiver, rookie Jaelen Strong, will also need to make an impact for the Texans to challenge Indianapolis for the division title. Strong can line up outside or in the slot and is able to get off the line of scrimmage effectively and win contested balls. However, his route running needs polish for him to blossom into a top tier receiver.

Indianapolis Colts

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Clayton Geathers Khaled Holmes / Bjoern Werner Robert Mathis David Parry Jonathan Newsome

Speaking of Indianapolis, a number of storylines have emerged this offseason for the defending AFC South Champions. The Colts added even more offensive weapons to their already-impressive arsenal, including Andre Johnson and running back Frank Gore. But the concerns for Indianapolis begin on the defensive side of the football. OLB/DE Robert Mathis is the
Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline. The 34-year old veteran enters his 13th season in the league since he was drafted by the Colts in 2003. While he is one of the game’s most respected edge defenders, he comes off a year that he lost to an achilles tendon injury in September of 2014. If Mathis cannot return to his previous form, one Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly for this defense is Bjoern Werner. A highly-regarded edge defender from Florida State, Werner was selected in the first round of the 2013 draft but has yet to live up to the potential he displayed while terrorizing opposing backfields for the Seminoles. Werner possesses elite size (6’ 3”, 266 pounds) and athleticism for the position, having posted a 4.83 second 40-yard dash to go with a 4.40 second 20-yard shuttle. But he has only contributed 6.5 sacks over his first two NFL season, and the Colts need him to add more to this defense in 2015.

But the concerns over Werner and Mathis might be lessened given the growth of Jonathan Newsome, a player that Indianapolis should be Excited Over an Expanded Role. A fifth-round selection in the 2014 draft from Ball State, the outside linebacker notched 6.5 sacks in 2014 despite not starting a game until Week 17. In that contest against Tennessee, Newsome tallied eight tackles, one forced fumble and two sacks, and was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Week. His 6.5 sacks on the year were the most from a rookie in 2014, and if Mathis and Werner cannot contribute as needed, Newsome’s continued growth and development will be necessary for this defense to slow down opposing passing games.

[jwplayer file=”″ image=””]

The interior of the defensive line is an area I will be watching this season, particularly defensive tackle David Parry, a player who is the Most Intriguing to Study. Run defense is a big area of concern for the Colts, particularly in the wake of the AFC Championship game when the defense surrendered 177 yards on the ground to the Patriots. On film, Parry looks every bit the part of a quality 1-technique defender, and the Colts will need him to occupy space – and blockers – in the interior of the defense to keep the second level free and able to flow to ball carriers.

The Indianapolis secondary is where you can find a Rookie Who is Needed Early in Clayton Geathers. The fourth round selection in the 2015 draft was a standout strong safety for the University of Central Florida where he tallied a whopping 383 tackles in his collegiate career. The Colts have a number of veterans in their secondary, including cornerbacks Greg Toler and Vontae Davis. Look for Geathers to play a big role for Indianapolis in their sub packages early in the season, often down in the box near the line of scrimmage helping in run support and against tight ends when offenses run 11 personnel against Indianapolis. However, Indy needs him to be more than a sub package player as they have two replacement level starters in Mike Adams and Dwight Lowery and Geathers could provide an upgrade there.

With Andrew Luck growing into one of the game’s elite quarterbacks, the Colts look to be set yet again offensively entering 2015. The Luck to T.Y. Hilton connection is one of the more dangerous in the league, and the front office added even more weapons to help the young quarterback, such as Gore, Johnson and the speedy Phillip Dorsett, a rookie wide receiver from the University of Miami. If there is a concern for this offense, it is on the offensive line. Another Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly is center Khaled Holmes. Considered one of the top interior line prospects in the 2013 draft, the former USC Trojan was selected in the fourth round by the Colts but has only two starts to his credit. Holmes was the third Center to start for IND last year, losing snaps to A.Q. Shipley and Jonotthan Harrison, showing that the coaching staff struggles to trust Holmes with the responsibilities of the position. He has been named the starting center for Indianapolis heading into the regular season, and he will need to anchor this offensive line and help keep clean pockets for the franchise, if the Colts are to get back to the AFC Championship Game.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
James Sample Luke Joeckel / Dwayne Gratz Chris Clemons Aaron Colvin Ryan Davis

The Jaguars will need improvement from both sides of the football if they are going to make any noise in this division, and this begins with their quarterback. Blake Bortles was a first-round selection last season, but questions remain about his mechanics and ability to locate the football when facing pressure. Aside from Bortles, another early-round draft choice for Jacksonville is a
Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly. The Jaguars selected offensive tackle Luke Joeckel with the second pick in the 2013 draft. Joeckel was considered one of the elite talents in the 2013 draft class, with outstanding size (6’6” 306 pounds) and strength for the position. But Joeckel has not grown into the cornerstone offensive linemen the front office thought they were selecting, and was part of a group that surrendered 71 sacks in 2014. If the offense is going to take a leap forward, improved play from the OT will be needed.

On the defensive side of the football, Jacksonville’s secondary is a unit I will have my eyes on in 2015 for a number of reasons. Cornerback Dwayne Gratz is another Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly. Drafted in the third round of the 2013 draft, Gratz is the highest cornerback drafted by the team since Rashean Mathis in 2003, and started 13 games in 2014. He looks to play a big role in sub packages serving as one of the outside cornerbacks in those situations, and may be pressed into even more action given the recent injury to fellow cornerback Demetrius McCray. In whatever role Gratz serves, the Jaguars need him to develop quickly and shore up the back half of this defense.

Fellow cornerback Aaron Colvin is another key player for this unit, and a player who is Most Intriguing to Study. Colvin was selected in the fourth round of the 2014 draft out of Oklahoma. He may have been picked earlier in the draft but suffered a torn ACL during Senior Bowl week. The injury forced him to miss the majority of the 2014 season, but the Jaguars activated him late in the season and he contributed down the stretch. With a full offseason of work, Colvin enters 2015 as one of the team’s top corners and is slated as a starter on opening day. Jacksonville’s coaches and fans hope that he can display the athleticism, technique and recognition that had him listed on many draft boards in 2014.

James Sample is Jacksonville’s Rookie Who is Needed Early. Many consider it a matter of “when, not if” the former Louisville Cardinal takes the free safety slot away from Sergio Brown. Sample was considered one of the top safety prospects in the 2014 draft, and possesses upper-level size and strength for the position. While in college he also showed solid hands and the ability to win 50-50 balls at the catch point. Sample suffered a setback in preseason when he fractured his right arm during OTAs, but he returned to action for the fourth preseason game and notched seven tackles. He enters 2015 with a big chance to contribute early.

Jacksonville added edge rusher depth in the offseason, acquiring defensive end Jared Odrick from the Miami Dolphins and selecting Dante Fowler Jr. in the first round. One reason for these acquisitions is the status of Chris Clemons, a Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline. Clemons enters his 12th NFL season in 2015 and posted eight sacks last year for the Jaguars, but three of those came in one game. Clemons began this season on the active/non-football injury list, but the loss of Fowler to an ACL injury means that the Jaguars will need Clemons to regain his form. But in the twilight of his career, it remains to be seen how much he has left in the tank. If Clemons cannot step up for Jacksonville, a player that might fit into an Expanded Role is fellow defensive end Ryan Davis. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Bethune-Cookman in 2012, Davis saw his first regular-season action in 2013 and notched one sack and one interception. The DE enjoyed more playing time in 2014, and tallied 6.5 sacks as a situational pass rusher. Even with the additions up front for Jacksonville, look for Davis to enjoy more opportunities in this defense, particularly on passing downs.

[jwplayer file=”″ image=””]

Tennessee Titans

Rookie Who Is Needed Early Players Who Need to Develop Quickly Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline Most Intriguing to Study Excited About Expanded Role
Marcus Mariota Bishop Sankey / Coty Sensabaugh Michael Griffin Dorial Green-Beckham Andy Gallik

The Titans enter 2015 with a young roster with tons of potential. We begin on the offensive side of the football, and Heisman-trophy winner Marcus Mariota. He and Jameis Winston were considered by most draft watchers the top two prospects in the 2015 draft class, with some prognosticators believing that the former Oregon Duck is the top quarterback in the class. Mariota is Tennessee’s
Rookie Who is Needed Early, and his transition from Oregon’s spread system to the NFL is going to be interesting to watch in 2015. While in college Mariota showed flashes of the ability to win from the pocket with anticipation and work through progressions, and his solid preseason is a sign that his growth might be taking place faster than expected:

[jwplayer file=”″ image=””]

Another young weapon for the Titans is rookie WR Dorial Green-Beckham, Tennessee’s Most Intriguing to Study. Green-Beckham was a standout player at Missouri, but off-the-field transgressions led to him being suspended from the Tigers and resulted in him transferring to Oklahoma. He was forced to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, and decided to enter the draft before ever playing a down for the Sooners. He looked every bit the part of a premier wide receiver at the combine, with an impressive combination of size (6’ 5”,  237 pounds) and speed (4.49). But he was a tough evaluation from a film standpoint, as his Missouri tape showed a receiver who ran basically two routes: a one-step smoke route and a straight vertical route. If and how he develops and refines his game as a WR is an intriguing aspect to the 2015 season.

Another offensive Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly is second-year RB Bishop Sankey. Drafted in the second round out of Washington, Sankey was the first running back selected in the 2014 Draft. He saw action in all 16 games last year, carrying the football 152 times for 569 yards and two touchdowns, while catching 18 passes for 133 yards. But he lost two fumbles during his rookie season, and with an young core – and quarterback – Sankey will need to develop into a workhorse for this offensive group if the Titans are to enjoy success in 2015. Tennessee traded for Terrance West from CLE to provide depth and competition to Sankey who has not lived up to the job he was handed day one.

Near the conclusion of the 2015 Draft Tennessee selected center Andy Gallik out of Boston College. The rookie has shown tremendous flexibility this preseason, seeing significant time at center and both guard positions. His ability to move around up front is a reason for Titans fans to be Excited About an Expanded Role. Gallik’s smooth transition brings depth across the interior line for Tennessee and allowed the front office to part with veteran guard Andy Levitre before the start of the regular season.

Defensively, there are concerns about the secondary given the recent groin surgery for cornerback Jason McCourty. The veteran corner has started the last 51 games for the Titans since becoming a starter in 2011, but with his health an issue, reserve cornerback Coty Sensabaugh is a Player Who Needs to Develop Quickly. The fourth-year defender has been the primary nickel cornerback for the Titans the past two seasons, but will need to take on additional duties with the injury to McCourty. How he handles the additional playing time is a big piece of the puzzle for this defense. Another piece of the puzzle for this secondary is safety Michael Griffin, a Veteran Who May Be Ready to Decline. The veteran safety out of the University of Texas has been a very durable player during his career, having missed only two games due to injury. But the safety has a lot of miles on those legs, and talented second-year player Marqueston Huff is waiting in the wings.

Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Hatman

Dan Hatman is the Director of The Scouting Academy and writes for Inside The Pylon when not teaching future football scouts and coaches how to do their job.

All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *