Who is the AFC South’s biggest rising star? Our roundtable reporters give their picks:
Sarah Barshop, Houston Texans reporter: Deshaun Watson. It’s hard not to pick the Texans quarterback after seeing what he did in seven games (six starts) as a rookie. In 2017, Watson was tied for the NFL lead in passing touchdowns (19) before he tore his right ACL during practice; he also threw for 1,699 yards with eight interceptions. Watson was back on the field, throwing with his teammates and participating in seven-on-seven drills during the offseason, and he is expected to be ready for real in training camp. Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has spent the offseason tweaking the playbook to feature Watson’s strengths, so if the quarterback and his playmakers can stay healthy — which wasn’t the case a year ago — Watson and the offense will be the best in the AFC South.
Mike Wells, Indianapolis Colts reporter: It only took Watson seven games as a rookie to prove the Texans finally have their franchise quarterback after years and years of a revolving door at that position. He threw for 1,699 yards and 19 touchdowns, completing nearly 62 percent of his attempts. Watson’s rookie season came to an unfortunate end because of a torn right ACL, but he knows what it takes to overcome that injury because he recovered from a torn left ACL in college. He will give Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota and Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck — if Luck can regain his form — a run for their money as the best quarterback in the division.
Michael DiRocco, Jacksonville Jaguars reporter: Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue gets overshadowed on his own defense by defensive lineman Calais Campbell, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, cornerback A.J. Bouye, linebacker Telvin Smith, and tackle Malik Jackson — all of whom were Pro Bowlers last season. But so was Ngakoue, and he appears to be on the verge of becoming one of the league’s best pass-rushers. He has 20 sacks in his first two seasons (12 in 2017), which is more than any other player drafted in 2016 except Joey Bosa, and Ngakoue leads the NFL during that span with 10 forced fumbles — all of which have come on strip sacks. He’s fueled by the fact that he was a third-round pick, and defensive coordinator Todd Wash raves about how Ngakoue practices. Ngakoue is never satisfied with what he does, and that’s the kind of drive that great players have.
Cameron Wolfe, Tennessee Titans reporter: Watson. No player in the AFC South is generating as much anticipation as Watson after his amazing 2017 seven-game run (1,699 passing yards, 21 total TDs, 8 interceptions, 269 rushing yards). He showed NFL MVP potential. The Texans’ expectations are sky-high after a 4-12 season, mostly because of what people think Watson will do with a full 16-game season. The entire NFL will have a spotlight on Watson, who will have to justify the hype with his play. Jacksonville’s Ramsey was a consideration, but he should be an established star by this point.