As the summer heat burns through the middle of July, those football geeks like us know that there are only a few more weeks left of the painfully long offseason before training camps open all over the league. The AFC South has as many star players as any division in football, but who are the guys who make a difference that nobody talks about?
5. Zac Diles, OLB, Houston Texans
Better known as the Houston Texans “other linebacker” who stands next to DeMeco Ryans and across from Brian Cushing, the former seventh-round draft pick from Kansas State has earned a starting job on the talented Texans defense. Diles is always solid but sometimes unspectacular and always makes the plays in front of him. Although his 2009 statline of 61 tackles, two forced fumbles and one pass defensed isn’t going to have people calling for a Pro Bowl snub, Diles was more than solid even if he went largely unnoticed. Diles will have to take his game to an even higher level this year as the team will be without the services of linebacker Brian Cushing for the first four games of the season due to suspension.
4. Tony Brown, DT, Tennessee Titans
Nobody expected Tony Brown to make Titans fans forget about losing Albert Haynesworth prior to the 2009 season, but Brown did his best to anchor a very young defensive line that was in transition. At 6’3”, 290 lbs., Brown isn’t the run-stuffing mammoth as his former teammate was in Nashville, but Tony Brown is a disruptive, quick tackle who can get pressure “up the gut” which will bother opposing quarterbacks. With questionable talent around him last season, Brown faced numerous double-teams and still managed to rack up 38 tackles, five sacks and three forced fumbles.
3. Clint Session, OLB, Indianapolis Colts
When you think about the Indianapolis Colts, Peyton Manning and their lethal passing attack immediately come to mind. Then you move over to the defensive side of the football and quickly realize that it was the defense that helped them win their second AFC Title in four years as no team in the playoffs allowed fewer points per game. The players that get most of the publicity on defense are the great ends, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, but just one level behind them stands Clint Session. The former fourth-round pick from Pittsburgh was a tackling machine last season as he tallied 100 stops while defending five passes, intercepting two of which while returning one of those for a touchdown and forcing one fumble. Session played at a Pro Bowl level for the entire 2009 season and he was one of the main reasons that the Colts defense stayed strong despite suffering a myriad of injuries.
2. Marcedes Lewis, TE, Jacksonville Jaguars
When the Jaguars drafted Marcedes Lewis in the first round of the 2006 draft, few thought that he would become the best blocking tight end in football in his first few seasons. Lewis has done just that and he’s one of the big reasons why most fantasy football geeks will be selecting Lewis’ college and pro teammate Maurice Jones-Drew high in the first round of their drafts. Aside from being a punishing blocker, Lewis has improved his pass catching ability greatly as he led all NFL tight ends with a 16.2 yards per catch average in 2009. Lewis will not put up Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez numbers, mainly due to the lack of talent around him at the quarterback position, but he will continue to make big catches and clear room for Maurice Jones-Drew to do end zone dances.
1. Antoine Bethea, S, Indianapolis Colts
It’s tough to make the top of an underrated list right after earning a trip to the Pro Bowl, but it’s truly amazing that most fans around the league have no idea how good Antoine Bethea is and how much he means to the Indianapolis Colts. Bethea may live in the shadow of the hard-hitting Bob Sanders, but many can argue that Bethea means much more to the team as he’s been able to stay on the field for the majority of his four-year career, unlike Sanders who has missed 37 of the team’s last 64 regular season games. Bethea, a former sixth-round pick from Howard University, began his Indianapolis career backing up Bob Sanders at the strong safety position before moving to free safety where he can display his sideline to sideline ball-hawking abilities. Bethea has compiled 196 tackles over the last two seasons to go along with his 22 career passes defensed and 11 career interceptions.