Aspirations were high. Piecing together our second-annual All-AFC South team sounded easy on the front end. Now that it’s time to share, I feel I’m going to insult the division’s best.
How will Colts safety Antoine Bethea, a steady and settling presence in the Colts' secondary at free safety, feel about being part of a secondary with such shaky candidates?
How can I sell that Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew isn’t here when I think he had the second-best running back season in the division and one of the four best in the league, while wedging on a right guard when I didn’t see any I really found worthy?
How do I explain to the Titans' Jason Babin that as the No. 3 defensive end I had to leave him off, while my initial search for linebackers produced only one name?
How do I sort through the Colts' Adam Vinatieri (92.9 percent on field goals), Titans' Rob Bironas (92.3) and Texans' Neil Rackers (90.0) while rewarding a punter from a group whose top net average was 15th in the league and eighth in the AFC?
Here is how I will start: I won’t force. We’re leaving blanks where a guy doesn’t match the caliber required. And top guys -- clear-cut guys, the cream of the division -- get not just a spot on the All-AFC South team, but a spot with honors.
I wanted to create a minimum number of games played to qualify, but that would have taken away too many good players.
The fact is, teams like this generally include the best guy at his position. The context of how good the best guy at another position is doesn’t factor in. But we’re dealing with a small group here, and the skill guys and the pass-rushers were sterling compared to a lot of others.
When Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. sent me back his All-AFC South team to help with perspective, he added four guys he categorized as “by default” and concluded with this:
“Must say, this is a pretty bad all-star team.”
I don’t see it competing very well with an all-division team from anywhere else, but it does have some very fine skill players, so who knows?
Receivers: Houston's Andre Johnson played through a serious ankle injury and was still an incredible threat. Indy's Reggie Wayne made more mistakes than usual but was still exceptionally productive. Three up-and-comers are worthy of mention for strong seasons: The Titans' Kenny Britt and Colts' Austin Collie missed too many games and the Jaguars' Mike Thomas was the best slot guy outside of Indy.
Tackles: It was a down year for the Titans’ line, but Michael Roos was the best of the bunch. His only challenger here was Houston's Duane Brown. The Texans' Eric Winston did not have his best year either, but he’s the top guy in the spot and his team had the league’s leading rusher.
Guards: Wade Smith was an excellent fit in Houston and the sort of veteran addition the Texans need to continue to find. He gets the nod over the stronger Vince Manuwai. He was overweight in camp and didn’t take over the starting job until the Jaguars’ sixth game. Fellow Jaguar Uche Nwaneri was good, not great. But there was space between him and the rest of the middling pool.
Center: Jacksonville's Brad Meester got some good reviews during the year and Colts star Jeff Saturday is an obvious default choice. But my sense is that Houston's Chris Myers is regarded as one of the division’s most underrated players. He’s a smart guy who’s still improving and did a lot to get the blocking for Arian Foster organized.
Tight end: Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis made an excellent jump. He continued great work as a blocker, and his 58 catches and 10 touchdowns were career highs by 17 and eight, respectively. He was tough to get around and tough to cover.
Quarterback: Peyton Manning wasn’t the league MVP, but there is no argument at all about the Colts' star being division MVP. Prefer Foster? The Texans could have won six games and not made the playoffs without him.
Running back: Foster’s the easy choice as he was the league’s most productive runner and also very good as a pass-catcher. Jones-Drew’s chance to challenge faded with the late games missed to a knee injury. What a pool when the Titans' Chris Johnson ranks third.
Defensive ends: Tough group when I’ve got Houston's Mario Williams fourth. He played hurt and saw his season end early. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis didn’t get to tee off as much because the Colts weren’t playing with big leads as much. And still they were very good. Babin was a revelation and right on Mathis’ heels.
Defensive tackles: The enormous Terrance Knighton ate up people and space for the Jaguars and has become a stalwart. His teammate Tyson Alualu is quicker and rates third here because the Titans’ Jason Jones was outstanding. Consistently disruptive, I rank him as his team’s best defender.
Outside linebackers: Jacksonville’s Daryl Smith was quite good, with a lot of uncertainty at the third linebacker spot and in the secondary. Houston's Brian Cushing was not nearly as good as he was as a rookie, but was still better than other outside guys in the division by a solid notch. I didn't love him, but scouts I talked to said he's worthy.
Middle linebacker: A tough spot I thought about not filling. Gary Brackett was not as good as usual, but the Colts were better when he was in the lineup than when he wasn’t. The guy who would typically challenge him, Houston's DeMeco Ryans, was lost for the season after six weeks.
Free safety: Bethea was the glue for a secondary that endured unimaginable turnover. Bethea often played with other defensive backs he had very little practice time with. He’s just a sound and reliable football player, and if he didn’t match previous years, his supporting cast had quite a bit to do with it.
Strong safety: The Colts were battered at the spot and the rest of the division’s strong safeties were awful. The best of a bad group isn’t worthy of mention here. It’s going to be a popular draft need.
Cornerbacks: Indy's Jerraud Powers was very good before he got hurt; a two-dimensional corner who covered well and did his part against the run. He’s developing into a premier guy. The second spot is vacant. A lot of corners suffered for the weak safety play, but I’m uncomfortable singling out anyone else’s season.
Kicker: Vinatieri has huge fan support and he was clutch. But when the competition also kicks off, it dents your candidacy. So Bironas, who has a division-high 17 touchbacks to go with 24 of 26 field goals, wins out. Jacksonville's Josh Scobee and Rackers were not far off.