Tennessee Titans defensive tackleJurrell Casey
(99) celebrates.Jim Brown
-USA TODAY Sports
Indianapolis Colts OLB Robert Mathis
Ah, another front seven player, but Robert Mathis was an obvious choice for the Colts here. He was one of the best defensive players in the league last season, and he didn’t look like he was 32 at all en route to picking up 19.5 sacks. While those sack totals were bloated a tad, he was still absolutely excellent and plays the game with impeccable technique. The Colts defense could be in trouble for the first four games if second-year pro Bjoern Werner doesn’t step up in the absence of one of the best Colts players in recent memory (and they’ve had quite a few great ones).
Tennessee Titans DT Jurrell Casey
Casey is an easy choice, as he’s one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL, especially when it comes to rushing the passer. There aren’t many 4-3 DTs who can terrorize the quarterback like Casey, and he and Karl Klug have been excellent ever since joining the Titans in the same draft class. Casey is finally starting to be recognized thanks to the desperate cries of those who have sung his praises for years now, and 2013 was the first year in which his sack totals (also 10.5) matched his production as a pass rusher (a combined 5.5 sacks in his first two seasons). The USC product had to drop 15 pounds in order to make the switch into Ray Horton‘s 3-4, but hopefully he’ll still be a menace to offensive linemen and quarterbacks alike.
Jacksonville Jaguars WR Cecil Shorts
I really hope Blake Bortles pans out, because I can only imagine how good Cecil Shorts III would be with a true franchise quarterback at the helm. Rookies Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson have an incredible amount of talent, and chances are that at least one of those two WRs from this historic draft class will make good on their potential and take off considerable pressure from Shorts’s shoulders. Speaking of shoulders, Shorts played through a painful SC sprain last year and still managed to haul in eight receptions for 80 yards against the San Diego Chargers on that injury. Injuries caused him to miss three games last year, but he still caught 66 passes for 777 yards after notching 55 for 979 and seven touchdowns in a breakout 2012. Shorts’s back-shoulder catches have become famous, and he has plenty of speed to burn downfield. Just 26, Shorts has to be a priority for the Jags to re-sign, and it’s possible for Bortles, Shorts, Lee, and Robinson to form an explosive quartet of youth in the passing attack.
Houston Texans DE J.J. Watt
It’s come to the point where there’s no need to explain J.J. Watt‘s greatness, and it’s a testament to his ability that every single superlative in the book carries little meaning when applied to Watt; we’ve just become so used to unfathomable excellence from him. He impacts the game in too many ways to count, and his run defense last season was just unbeatable. Although he didn’t put up the legendary stats of his 2012 season, he actually had more QB hits and did more dirty work; he had just as good of a season and should have won the DPOY. Watt had it tougher last year as well, since the defense around him was considerably worse.