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Thursday, February 18, 2010
Our 2009 All-AFC South Team

By Paul Kuharsky
ESPN.com

Chris Johnson, Antoine Bethea and DeMeco Ryans
Chris Johnson, Antoine Bethea and DeMeco Ryans highlight 2009's All-AFC South Team.
First, the faults.

Selecting an all-division team is an imperfect process. It’s somewhat uncomfortable to bestow the same honor on the league MVP (Peyton Manning) and Offensive Player of the Year (Chris Johnson) as the best of a less-than-great group of guards.

But once we committed to this, we had to see it through.

You offered a good deal of feedback through this post, in which I listed shoo-ins and a few either/or choices and left blanks, asking for your assistance. Once I had the team sketched out, I needed some help at a couple of spots and called on a couple of scouts. They offered good, if sometimes conflicting, input.

With all that in mind, here is my completed 2009 All-AFC South Team:

Proactive: Jaguars fans will crush me, I am sure. But part of the Jaguars’ lack of presence here is just bad fortune. Maurice Jones-Drew would probably be the running back on seven other all-division teams, but can’t be in front of Johnson and his 2,000-yard season here.

John Henderson and Rashean Mathis, still good players, lived more on reputation than production in 2009. Daryl Smith is a quality player, but was a clear third to me at outside linebacker behind Brian Cushing (Houston) and Clint Session (Indianapolis). Uche Nwaneri lost out in similar circumstances -- see the guards entry below. Terrance Knighton and Derek Cox are definite risers, but were not quite as good as their competition in the division this season.

And although Montell Owens was the Jaguars' leading tackler on special teams, William Middleton stood out more in some games I saw. I don’t defer to Profootballfocus.com on everything; when I checked its special-teams ratings, Middleton was tied for ninth, well ahead of Houston's Xavier Adibi (next in the AFC South at 20th) as well as Owens (tied with a huge group for 377th).

Guards: One scout suggested I leave at least one of these spots blank, but I couldn’t leave Manning with no inside protection or Johnson with no interior blocking. The Colts' Ryan Lilja isn’t especially strong but he was very efficient. Although the scouts didn’t love him, both chose the Titans' Jake Scott over Nwaneri.

Defensive tackles: A lot of readers wanted Henderson here, but he was good (not great) and didn’t draw my attention the way others did, so players on the rise got ahead of him. Tennessee's Tony Brown was a consistently disruptive force and Antonio Johnson caused problems for people who presumed the Colts would be soft in the middle.

Corners: Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan started slowly and dealt with an injury. But he eventually got back to form. The bulk of readers and both scouts rated him as the best in the division, as do I. The second spot was a tough call with Dunta Robinson, Mathis, Cox and Jerraud Powers all getting consideration. I really liked Powers’ ability to fill in effectively for the Colts when they expected him to be a nickel at most in his rookie season.

Mario vs. Mathis: Is Mario Williams equipped to be a more complete player than Robert Mathis? Absolutely. Was he in 2009? No. The shoulder injury was a factor, but Williams was not his best self while Mathis was a terror who still gets downgraded as if he cannot play the run even though he is just fine against it.

Ryans vs. Brackett: One of the scouts said that as good as Indy's Gary Brackett was, Houston's DeMeco Ryans is such a consistent playmaker he has to be at the head of the line. That was more than good enough for me to break my initial tie at middle linebacker.

Pollard vs. Bullitt: I put Bernard Pollard in as a lock on my initial ballot, but some of you made a good case for Melvin Bullitt. I love Bullitt and thought he had an excellent season. But Pollard was a transforming presence after he joined the Texans.

Thanks, but...: I appreciated the push for Owen Daniels (half a season vs. Dallas Clark’s 100 catches made it no contest), the reader who rated Chris Johnson as a “one-trick pony” and the mention of Mike Pollak.