There may not be a division more reliant on young quarterbacks than the AFC South. Outside of Houston, each team will be looking to young quarterbacks to develop into the franchise players that their GMs hoped for when they drafted them. The development of Andrew Luck, Jake Locker, and Blaine Gabbert will be crucial to the long term fortunes of Indianapolis, Tennessee, and Houston.
But there’s more going on in the AFC South than just the young players under center. Who has stepped up so far during the preseason in support of those young QBs?
KR Trindon Holliday: The Houston Texans went into the offseason in desperate need of a playmaker to take some of the load off of the often injured Andre Johnson. They added numerous wide receivers in an attempt to remedy the problem, and Trindon Holliday may be the surprising solution.
In the first two preseason games, there was no bigger playmaker on the Texans’ roster than Holliday. He scored 80+ yard touchdowns on returns in each of his first two games, proving that he has elite speed and return skills. But his third game was marred with ball security issues, and it raised questions as to whether or not the Texans had room on their roster for a return specialist. It remains to be seen if he’ll make the Texans’ roster, but it’s likely he’ll be making highlight reel plays for some NFL team this fall.
RB Jonathon Grimes: There may not be a team in the league where running back depth is more crucial than in Houston. Arian Foster just might be the league’s top running back, and the offense often times revolves around him. But he’s struggled to stay healthy during his career, and therefore the Texans need to have solid second and third options behind him.
Fortunately, the Texans have discovered Jonathon Grimes. Grimes has been a decisive runner that’s shown good burst. He’s been productive with the chances he had, averaging no less than four yards a carry in each of his first three games. Additionally, he’s been a strong special teams performer, making it a good bet that Grimes makes the roster.
QB Andrew Luck: Andrew Luck was expected to be a great NFL quarterback, but his near seamless transition to the NFL has been surprising to all but the most adamant Luck fans. He’s shown an experienced poise and pocket presence, and handled the offense like a veteran.
He’s bounced back from interceptions, read blitz packages easily, and shown off impressive accuracy. Sure, there will likely be some growing pains along the way, but Luck sure looks like an elite NFL QB in the making.
WR T.Y. Hilton: T.Y. Hilton was knocked before the draft for not having the ideal size you look for in an NFL receiver. And while there’s no avoiding the fact that he is indeed undersized, it’s also true that Hilton possesses a ton of speed, and his made good use of it thus far.
Following the concussion of Austin Collie, Hilton was elevated to the third receiver spot and he hasn’t been a disappointment so far. Andrew Luck has looked his way often, and for the most part those looks have been productive. He’s caught nine passes and 116 yards and a touchdown, and looks to be settled in nicely as the Colts third receiver.
WR Justin Blackmon: After his summer DUI arrest, Justin Blackmon’s rookie season was often times considered to already be a wash-out. After a strong preseason, those early predictions may just prove to be premature.
Blackmon has looked every bit the part of a top young receiver so far this summer. He’s be able to get separation from defensive backs, and he’s caught nearly everything that has been thrown his way. His four catch, 72 yard performance against the Ravens was his most promising yet. His play making will go a long way in helping QB Blaine Gabbert improve from his rookie season.
QB Blaine Gabbert: Blaine Gabbert was widely crucified for what was admittedly a terrible rookie campaign, and some Jacksonville fans even wanted the Jags to pursue another QB during the offseason. The coaching staff stood by their guy, however, and now it appears that it may be paying off.
He’s looked like a much improved quarterback during the preseason, and some might even say he’s shown the potential to be a franchise QB. Through his first three games he’s completed 60% of his passes, thrown for three touchdowns and he’s only turned the ball over once. He’s looked much more comfortable in the pocket and should have a much more successful sophomore season for Jacksonville.
RB Darius Reynaud: When Darius Reynaud was signed by the Titans this summer, the addition was little more than an afterthought for most observers of the team. Reynaud was mostly thought to be a kick returner for the summer, and wasn’t likely to make the team.
Reynaud had other plans, however. He made plays through out training camp, and even earned reps with the first team offense. In the preseason opener he returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown, and scored another TD running the ball as well. Week two so him return a kickoff 42 yards. Following those strong showings he was considered a near lock to make the team, and the gruesome injury to Marc Marani solidified Reynaud’s roster spot for 2012.
DT Sen’Derrick Marks: Prior to this preseason, Sen’Derrick Marks was considered by many to be a camp cut waiting to happen. The Titans had recently added young talent at defensive tackle such as Karl Klug, Jurrel Casey, and Mark Martin, and Marks had been nothing but a disappointment thus far in his career.
Because of that, it’s been a huge surprise to see Marks dominate like he has this preseason. Long gone are the days where Marks could hardly bench press 200 pounds. He’s been a massive force in the middle and has beaten double teams consistently. His emergence gives Tennessee some tough decisions to make with an extremely young and talented interior defensive line group.