The Colts' release of Peyton Manning will leave a huge void in our division.
Without him in the AFC South, how does a star system that’s revolved around him for some time now align?
Here’s my order, with comments from Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.:
1. Arian Foster, Texans running back.
Production: An average of 88.5 yards rushing and 126 total yards per game, with 33 touchdowns in 35 games. That’s tremendous. Last season in the Texans' second playoff game he ran for 132 yards against a highly touted Ravens defense in Baltimore.
Personality: He’s a complex, smart guy whose interests extend well beyond football. And that’s a model a lot more people in the league should follow. He’s been the most underpaid player in the league over the past two seasons, and rather than gripe about it he offered context, showed patience and just got rewarded with a five-year contract.
Popularity: It’s giant and growing in Houston and nationally. He tweets with fans. And he's unafraid to take on big topics in social media, like his perspective on fantasy football or sharing an injury X-ray.
Williamson: “Perfect piece for this running game -- with [Adrian] Peterson injured, could be the top running back in all of football. Very versatile. GREAT all-around player on the best team in division.”
2. Andre Johnson, Texans receiver
Production: In 122 career games, he’s averaged 79 receiving yards a game and 13.7 yards a catch. He’s scored 52 touchdowns and led the NFL twice in receptions and twice in yardage while earning a spot on the All-Pro first team twice. He is a willing and effective blocker who combines size and speed.
Personality: Has done a good deal to help take the diva out of the receiver position, a trend that had reached some epic proportions. Soft spoken but strong willed, he’s shown himself to be accountable. A rock and a leader for a team that took too long to surround him with playoff talent.
Popularity: He’s absolutely beloved in Houston and qualifies as the all-time face of the young franchise. For a star of his size, he seems accessible and approachable, and appreciative that people want access and approachability.
Williamson: “With the body of work, he’s not far removed from being the best wide receiver in the NFL. He easily could rebound from injury to regain such status.”
3. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars running back
Production: Despite facing stacked boxes throughout his career, Jones-Drew has plowed for 73.7 yards a game and 4.6 yards a carry. He’s also been a solid receiver with at least 34 catches a season. In 93 games, he’s scored 73 touchdowns.
Personality: He’s a fun guy who’s well liked by team executives, coaches and teammates. But he can be defensive and take things way too personally. He maintains a list of reporters whom he feels slighted him, which is a bit over the top for a star of his magnitude.
Popularity: Very much the face of the franchise -- many would say too much so. He’s an affable guy who’s very well liked in Jacksonville and has built a national profile thanks largely to his fantasy football production and a regular gig on Sirius NFL Radio centered on the fantasy game.
Williamson: “No running back had a better 2011 season than MJD. He does it all with ZERO around him. A pro’s pro.”
4. Andrew Luck, presumed Colts quarterback
Production: In three seasons as the starter at Stanford, he completed 67 percent of his passes with 82 touchdowns and 22 interceptions despite not being surrounded by great weapons. His football IQ and accuracy are factors that make him such a big-time prospect. He’s underrated as an athlete who can run and jump and do a lot of things that may not be primary skills for a pocket passer but will be big factors in a well-rounded game.
Personality: He seems like a nice enough guy and is close to an engineering degree from Stanford, which tells you he’s quite smart. He stayed in school for his senior year, which showed confidence that he would be better positioned coming out after another year of school. It also suggested some perspective on football.
Popularity: He’s a huge star coming out being so strongly the consensus No. 1 pick. He has a regular-guy demeanor that will serve him well as he inherits Manning’s spot with the Colts. It may come a bit more slowly than most No. 1 picks because of that context, but if he plays as predicted, it’ll come.
Williamson: “It is all about the future/potential/hope ... and that is a terrific story. Of course, following in Manning’s footsteps factors in as well. An exceptional and rare prospect.”
5. Chris Johnson, Titans running back
Production: It dropped off in a major way last season after he got the big contract extension he was looking for. Even with a down year, he’s averaged 89.6 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards a carry and he’s scored 42 touchdowns in 63 games. Does he have the same speed he showed in his first three seasons?
Personality: In a word, brash. He’s made big predictions and the down year hasn’t stopped that. He recently tweeted that he will lead the league in rushing next season. Some view him as selfish -- and it’s a fair idea to examine as his effort was questionable at times. You won’t find a more confident guy, and he may like the star life a little bit too much.
Popularity: He was huge when he topped 2,000 rushing yards in 2009, and with 12 touchdowns in 2010 he was still one of the league’s top backs. But Titans fans (and fantasy owners who drafted him at or near the top) loved him less as Tennessee didn’t run nearly as effectively as usual in 2011.
Williamson: “We have certainly seen what a difference-maker Johnson can be. And actually, I expect his situation to improve a great deal next season with an improved interior offensive line and getting Kenny Britt back in the lineup, but there were just too many runs in 2011 where Johnson lacked competitiveness.”
I struggled to choose between Johnson and Houston linebacker Brian Cushing for the last spot. But it’s hard for a defensive player to outrank a guy who has the ball all the time. And fair or not, Cushing has a dent in his national reputation because of his four-game suspension in 2010.
Williamson said Britt and Titans quarterback Jake Locker could press for inclusion soon and I agree. For Britt it’s about health; For Locker it’s about opportunity and production.