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AFC South Spotlight: Rookie Impact

Training camps in the AFC South open in a few short weeks which is great news if you are a football fan. The AFC South as a division has seen a lot of changes in the offseason with 2 teams hiring virtually new coaching staffs, one team still rebuilding and the one team watching the DWI arrest of its owner make headline news. Now it’s almost time to put on the pads and focus on football once again.

As camps open around the division there will be plenty of bright eyed youngsters taking the field hoping to catch the coaching staffs’ eyes and earn a roster spot or even a starting spot. For high draft selections, expectations will be high already with all eyes focused on them. We take a look around the division to determine who could be the most impactful rookies.

The Colts offseason has been eventful to say the least. The arrest of Jim Irsay, suspensions for Robert Mathis and LaVon Brazill, and questions regarding the lackluster season by Trent Richardson after the Colts used a first round pick to trade for him all added up. The Colts draft was universally regarded as underwhelming but the additions of wide receiver Donte Moncrief, defensive end Johnathan Newsome and linebacker Andrew Jackson makes the draft a bit more attractive now.

Veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne turns 36 and is recovering from an ACL injury suffered in October of 2013 and with Brazill now released by the Colts, Moncrief’s star could rise even more. Out of all the Colts rookies, Moncrief could be the favorite to be the most impactful player among the rookies. He has a well regarded young quarterback in Andrew Luck and will surely compete with T.Y. Hilton for targets but there could be plenty to go around.

Honorable mention goes to Jack Mewhort the offensive lineman taken out of Ohio State. The Colts offensive line was atrocious last season and Mewhort is a versatile offensive lineman who played left tackle in college but is projected at guard for the Colts.

Mewhort was taken in the second round so the Colts obviously thought highly of him. Several rookie guards started last season and did well. A strong training camp could see Mewhort pushing for starting time somewhere on the line. A better performnace from the offensive line helps not only Andrew Luck but Trent Richardson and the run game.

For the Houston Texans, the choice is fairly obvious. Jadaveon Clowney should be the clear favorite to be the impact rookie for the Texans despite J.J. Watt. A fantastic athlete in his own right, Clowney will get every opportunity to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. He isn’t the only trenchman who might lay claim to the most impactful rookie however.

Fellow rookie defensive lineman Louis Nix could challenge Jerrell Powe for playing time in the interior of the Texans defensive line. Powe is a talented player who never really lived up to his talent in Kansas City but he is familiar with Romeo Crennel’s defensive system. Finally, don’t rule out Xavier Su’a-Filo the guard drafted out of UCLA. Ben Brooks struggled last season and as mentioned earlier rookie guards are getting playing time all over the league.

For the Tennessee Titans, the answer also seems equally simple. With the release of Chris Johnson the Titans were looking to add to their offensive backfield. Enter former Washington running back Bishop Sankey. Sankey joins a backfield that includes Dexter McCluster, Shonn Greene and Jackie Battle. Leon Washington has also played running back in the league.

I took a look at Sankey here and while I do think he gets his opportunities I also wonder how the Titans will split carries among this platoon. Sankey needs to work on his blocking and it could be some time before he becomes the “feature back” if he ever does. More and more teams are relying on a running back by committee so that remains to be seen.

The Titans are a team in transition with a new coaching staff so it seems reasonable to think most players will be auditioning for their new roles. The position group that has under performed is arguably the linebacking corp. With the switch to a hybrid defense, the position becomes even more important and thus far there are no real established positions.

The Titans took one of my favorite linebackers in this draft in former Kentucky linebacker Avery Williamson. They also added veteran Wesley Woodyard who figures to play a key role in the rotation. The coaching staff put Zach Brown on notice after his underwhelming 2013 season that saw his playing time reduced by rookie Zaviar Gooden. Could a strong training camp yield results for the rookie out of Kentucky? Timing and opportunity as the old saying goes.

With 9 draft picks, the Jacksonville Jaguars were perhaps the toughest to select an impactful rookie. While I was tempted to select Blake Bortles, everything points to Chad Henne being the starter in 2014, at least for now. The other temptation was to select the wide receivers because ooohhh shiny offensive weapon! I’m sticking somewhat with a theme here so I went in another direction.

The Jaguars took former Miami guard Brandon Linder in the third round and he was immediately penciled in as the starter at right guard. For the time being, Jacques McClendon has that position but a strong training camp could see him lose out to the rookie. McClendon isn’t a bad player but he is better at pass protection than run blocking which isn’t ideal for your right guard. A well rounded Linder could be the solution at the position.

That isn’t to say I don’t think the wide receivers can be impactful. I think they can be but Marqise Lee needs to get signed and both he and Allen Robinson will compete with Ace Sanders and Denard Robinson. A strong camp from one or both could see a shifting in targets and playing time but Cecil Shorts and Marcedes Lewis will also get looks. Between the two, my money is on Allen Robinson in the race between the rookie wideouts on who has the most impact.

What say you? Who do you think will have the biggest impact among the rookies in the division?

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