Inside AFC South: Now or Never
Phillip B. Wilson
As the old adage goes, it’s now or never for four AFC South Division players who have yet to fulfill their potential in the NFL.
Editors who cover the Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Tennessee Titans were asked to choose one player on the proverbial hot seat entering 2020.
Here’s four players whose pro careers hang in the balance.
Patrick Starr, State of The Texans
This is a now-or-never season for Texans wide receiver Will Fuller for more reasons than one. In his final season with the Texans, the pressure is on the big-play receiver to play a full 16 games for the first time. Fuller has been slowed with injuries, from a broken clavicle, knee injuries that required surgeries, broken ribs, and various soft tissue injuries. Last season, he missed portions of the season with a hamstring issue that ended up needing a core muscle surgery to correct after the final game.
The offense is a different beast with Fuller running routes and quarterback Deshaun Watson throwing to him. In 22 games with Watson, Fuller has caught 94 passes for 1,452 yards (15.4 yards per catch) and 14 touchdowns. His big-play catches saw him rack up nine receptions of 30-or-more yards last season, seventh-best in the NFL despite playing just 11 games.
In three years with Fuller on the field, Watson's career splits are similar to 2019, and the only quarterback with a better QBR over that span is the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes at 77.3. According to ESPN Stats, Watson's passer rating jumps from 89.8 to 104.3 and his QBR goes from 64.4 to 77.3 with Fuller.
Fuller's ability is evident, and the Texans offense struggles without him on the field. The Texans brought in the safety net of Brandin Cooks, but Fuller's vertical speed is unmatched. The Texans offense is .59 yards per-play better with Fuller on the field, and this season, he played 564 offensive snaps (53 percent). Absent for 453 of the Texans offensive snaps this season, that would mean he left at least 267 yards of offense without being in the lineup.
The closest regular starter behind Fuller's yards per play was DeAndre Hopkins at .33 yards per play.
If Fuller can put together a full season, there is a good chance he will play himself into a more significant contract outside of Houston. If he continues to be bitten by the injury bug, his value will continue to be lukewarm because availability remains the most critical trait for NFL players.
Phillip B. Wilson, AllColts
The obvious answer could be key Colts players signed to one-year contracts like quarterback Philip Rivers or cornerback Xavier Rhodes, but the thought behind this story idea pertained to a player who has yet to live up to his potential and must do so or will be gone after this season.
Defensive tackle/end Tyquan Lewis arrived in 2018 as a second-round selection full of promise after being a dominant college player at Ohio State. He was known for his toughness with the Buckeyes, which included playing his sophomore season with a labrum injury that eventually required surgery.
Then Lewis couldn’t get on the field in the NFL. He missed his first eight games as a rookie with a toe injury. When he finally played, there were flashes of potential in eight games with 11 total tackles and two sacks.
Last season was a lost cause. Lewis was supposed to shift inside to utilize his versatility at tackle, but couldn’t stay healthy again, missing seven games due to an ankle injury. When he played, he managed just four tackles and no sacks.
If Lewis is unable to produce for whatever reason in year three, general manager Chris Ballard can’t be faulted for cutting his losses.
John Shipley, JaguarReport
There are a number of players on Jacksonville's roster who you can argue are entering “now-or-never” seasons, such as Leonard Fournette, but fourth-year left tackle Cam Robinson is maybe the one who best falls under the category.
The Jags traded their second-round (35th) and sixth-round (187th) picks to the Seattle Seahawks to select Robinson with the No. 34 overall pick in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft, but the results have been a mixed bag since. Robinson is not entirely at fault. He played a big role in Jacksonville's run to the AFC Championship in 2017, starting 15 games at left tackle and helping pave the way to the Jaguars having one of the league's best rushing attacks and red-zone offenses. He had his ups and downs as a pass blocker, but he was overall encouraging in that department and his excellent run blocking was a positive.
But in 2018, Robinson tore his ACL in Week 3, resulting in a lost sophomore season. Robinson returned in Week 3 last season and started the rest of the year at left tackle, but had more struggles than bright spots. Both in terms of penalties and pass protection gaffes, Robinson was less than ideal.
Robinson's development was halted by that ACL injury, but he is now entering the final year of his rookie deal without having a full season of consistent play as a pass protector. The clock is ticking on Robinson as Jacksonville's left tackle of both the present and the future, making 2020 a key season.
David Boclair, AllTitans
It is highly unlikely that Corey Davis ever will be a centerpiece of the Titans’ passing attack. That opportunity vanished last season with the emergence of rookie A.J. Brown.
If Davis is going to live up to the expectations created by the fact that he was the first wide receiver selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, though, now is the time to start. Tennessee opted not to exercise the fifth-year option on his contract, which means Davis will be a free agent in 2021 and if he does not show more this fall than he has through his first three years in the league, he won’t generate a lot of interest in a group of available receivers that could include Chris Godwin, Keenan Allen, Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay and T.Y. Hilton.
Davis, 25, was the fifth overall pick in 2017 and battled a groin injury throughout much of his rookie year. He led the Titans with 65 receptions and 891 yards in 2018 but lost playing time to Brown as last season progressed and finished with 43 catches for 601 yards. In 42 career games, he has just six touchdown receptions (oddly, he has three touchdown receptions in five playoff games).
At 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, he has the size and athleticism that turns heads. He simply has not shown that he can be a number-one receiver in the NFL. Not yet, at least.
(Phillip B. Wilson has covered the Indianapolis Colts for more than two decades and authored the 2013 book 100 Things Colts Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. He’s on Twitter @pwilson24, on Facebook at @allcoltswithphilb and @100thingscoltsfans, and his email is email@example.com.)