With NFL training camps beginning soon, fans will be looking at how the stars and the high draft picks for their favorite team will do this season. What fans often do not look at are potential sleepers that could make a big impact unexpectedly.
Today, we look at the AFC South; a division with loads of young talent, as well as uncertainty as to who will come out as victorious.
Taken in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, there was a lot of buzz surrounding Strong. The 6’2″ and 205 lb receiver out of Arizona State has been relatively quiet in his first two years as a pro, but entering a pivotal year for contract talks could make Strong someone to look at this upcoming season.
The Texans’ wide receiving corps has quite a bit of talent, with Pro Bowler Deandre Hopkins as the consensus number one receiver and rising talents in Will Fuller and Braxton Miller closely behind. Strong has the ability to beat out both Fuller and Miller, so if rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson can gel well with him, Strong could have a breakout year.
Taken in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the big run-stuffing nose tackle in D.J. Reader was drafted by the Texans so he could sit under Vince Wilfork and eventually succeed him. With Wilfork likely going to retire, Reader can become the nose tackle for the future in Houston.
Last season, Reader recorded 7 tackles, 15 assisted tackles and 1 sack. With an increase in playing time, Reader can wreak havoc with fellow front-seven members such as J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.
Over the past two seasons, Hal has quietly been a solid contributor to the Texans secondary. In 2016, Hal recorded 32 tackles, 16 assisted tackles, 1 sack and 2 interceptions.
As Hal can play both cornerback and free safety, the departure of A.J. Bouye this offseason gives Hal a larger chance to make more plays in the defensive backfield.
Taken in the fourth round of this year’s NFL Draft, Mack immediately becomes the Colts’ number two running back behind future Hall of Famer Frank Gore. Since Gore is nearing 35 years of age, Mack will be next man up once Gore retires or is injured this season.
Mack’s combination of speed and strength make him hard to bring down and hard to catch. Once he finds his rhythm within the offense, we could be seeing the next Jordan Howard; a mid-draft pick who will make their offense that much better.
Taken in the fifth round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Haeg was a small school prospect out of North Dakota State (yes, he protected Carson Wentz’s blind side). Haeg quickly became a large part of the offensive line, as he played in 15 games and started 14 of those games. He played primarily right guard and right tackle.
Over the years, the Colts offensive line has been the recipient of a lot of jokes, but with Haeg progressing into year two with fellow sophomores Ryan Kelly and Le’Raven Clark, the Colts offensive line may be legitimate after all.
Taken in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, Anderson, the 6’6″ and 300 lb defensive end out of Stanford showed signs of brilliance in his rookie campaign, before a torn ACL made him unable to play until later in his sophomore season.
Now fully healthy, Anderson can become a dominant 3-4 defensive end in this young, rejuvenated Colts defense.
Formerly of the Oakland Raiders, tight end Mychal Rivera has a chance with the Jaguars to become a prominent member of this receiving corps. The tight ends have severely underwhelmed on this Jaguars, as former first round pick Marcedes Lewis could not even eclipse 200 yards last year (he started 10 games).
Rivera has a chance to compete for the number one tight end position and could become a relied on target for the struggling Blake Bortles.
Formerly of the Arizona Cardinals, guard Earl Watford will have the opportunity to start on this potentially top 15 offensive line.
Now entering his fifth season, Watford can seek a leadership role on this young offensive line, as well as likely start on either guard positions. Watford could be the missing piece they have been looking for.
Taken in the seventh round of this year’s NFL Draft, Myrick was considered to be at least a fifth round pick, so snagging the 5’10” and 200 lb cornerback out of Minnesota was considered by many to be a steal.
With players like Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye on the team, Myrick will play mainly in the slot corner position. His 4.28 40 yard dash time at the combine proves he can keep up with the speedy slot receivers he’ll have to go against, which will make Myrick a key member of this secondary.
Taken in the third round of this year’s NFL Draft, Smith gives the Titans a younger version of what they already have in Delanie Walker; a solid blocker who can make space for himself when catching the ball downfield. Though he needs refinement, Smith will become the number two tight end behind Walker and collect a few red zone touchdowns in two tight end sets.
Taken in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, Penn State nose tackle Austin Johnson was scheduled to become the Titans’ run-stuffing nose tackle for years to come. His rookie season was underwhelming, however, as he only played in 10 games due to injury and recorded 7 tackles, 7 assisted tackles and 0.5 sacks.
While not an impressive rookie campaign, it is a building block for what could be a good sophomore season. His dominance at Penn State shows he can be a consistent disruptor in both the run and passing game, so watch out for him to make a comeback in year 2.
As a reliable piece of the Jaguars’ secondary for a few seasons, Cyprien has never been in the limelight, but has always been a consistent playmaker in both the run and passing game.
Now with the Titans, Cyprien can become a veteran presence for this relatively young secondary, as well as be a consistent tackler in the backfield. Last season, Cyprien recorded 96 tackles, 31 assisted tackles, 1 sack and 4 passes defended.
As he is staying in the same division, Cyprien should have almost identical (or better) stats for the 2017 season.