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AFC South preview: Whether returning from injury or a subpar season, they are aiming for validation

Now you see him, now you don’t.

That’s basically the script for AFC South quarterbacks.

Is Andrew Luck a generational quarterback, as he appeared to be early in his career with the Indianapolis Colts, or an overrated player — as some critics suggest — who slowly wore down under a barrage of hits?

Is Marcus Mariota the Tennessee Titans leader who inspired so much hope with his 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions two seasons ago, or the guy who had more passes picked off (15) than touchdown passes (13) last season?

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Is Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles the first-round pick widely written off as a bust — “He trash,” Houston’s Jadeveon Clowney famously scoffed in December — or the inspirational leader who went on to help the young Jaguars to consecutive playoff victories?

And what about the Texans? The NFL world got a glimpse of a phenom last season, as Deshaun Watson got off to a dazzling start before his season ended abruptly with a noncontact knee injury in practice.

The Texans, typically known for their defense, scored more than 33 points in each of Watson’s four starts.

He had 19 passing touchdowns in his first seven games, more than any quarterback in the modern era. He was spectacular.

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AFC West preview: Chiefs finally found a starting quarterback in the draft »

AFC East preview: Rookies Sam Darnold and Josh Allen could be ready to start »

AFC North preview: Arrival of Baker Mayfield gives Browns fans hope »

Even Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who caused a stir this summer with his unbridled critique of various NFL quarterbacks in a GQ article, was effusive in his praise of Watson.

“Deshaun Watson, he’ll be the league MVP in a couple years,” Ramsey told the magazine. “One hundred percent. There’s not even a debate about that. Him and [Philadelphia’s] Carson Wentz, for every year starting now until five to 10 years, it’s gonna be them two. They’re that good.”

After an offseason of rehabilitating, Watson is back and ready to go.

“It’s been hard work,” he told reporters. “Long days, early mornings, late nights, tough times. There were mornings I didn’t want to get up, drills I didn’t want to do. But I’d still do it. I appreciate the training staff and all the people that helped me get through the process.”

Watson was on pace to throw 43 touchdown passes as a rookie, and the team averaged 34.7 points in his six starts, so it’s difficult to overstate the excitement surrounding the team.

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“I mean, the potential is there, but we’ve got to transfer that potential to the field and go put in the work each and every day, try to get 1% better, just trust the process and take it one day at a time,” he said recently. “We can’t look forward to the future. We’ve got to put in the work because we can’t just walk on the field and make it happen.”

In Indianapolis, Luck is makinga triumphant return of his own after sitting out the 2017 season becauseof a shoulder injury. That came a season after he signed a $140-million extension, then threw for 4,240 yards and 31 touchdowns with a career-high completion percentage of63.5.

Now he’s back — heathier, yes, but also a little older and wiser.

“What I’ve learned about myself is that I’m quite impatient as a person and it’s gotten me to a placethat maybe I shouldn’t have been in the first place,” he told reporters. “I don’t want to repeat those missteps. Some things take time and I’ve learned that. When I have the urgeto do something silly, I talk to myself and say, ‘It’s not worth it.’”

At the start of camp, Luck said: “I understand how passionate Colts fans are and how excited they are for the season. But I can assure you this, no one is as excited as I am and no one cares more about it than I do.”

FILE - In this Aug. 9, 2018, file photo, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson (4) signals a pla
After an offseason of rehabilitating, Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson is back and ready to go.
(Colin E. Braley / Associated Press)

AFC SOUTH CAPSULES

1 | TENNESSEE

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2017 | 9-7, 2nd in South

Last year in playoffs | 2017

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Marcus Mariota: Had 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions two years ago, but took a big dip last season (13 touchdowns, 15 interceptions). Now we’ll see whether he flourishes under new coordinator Matt LaFleur, who helped turn around the Rams last season.

WR Corey Davis: The No. 5 pick in 2017, Davis was limited by injuries last year. But he can change the offense if he can stay healthy. He’s big and physical, can catch balls across the middle and get deep.

CB Malcolm Butler: A big offseason acquisition from New England, Butler was brought in to shore up the secondary and provide it with a shutdown corner.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

RB Derrick Henry: He had been in the shadow of DeMarco Murray. Even though addition Dion Lewis will be a factor, Henry finally gets his opportunity as a lead back.

OLB Harold Landry: His future is bright. Figures to make a big impact as a rookie, and can learn from Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan, but should be right in the mix.

WR Taywan Taylor: In his second season, Taylor has a chance to be a significant factor. He’s fast enough to beat quick defenders deep and is making good on the potential he showed at Western Kentucky.

FANTASY SLEEPER

TE Delanie Walker: He led the team in receptions last season but had only three touchdowns. He wants to be a much bigger factor, and he should be in this offense.

NFC West preview: Bradford can sling with the best of them — if he’s not hurt »

NFC East preview: Redskins hope Smith’s postseason experience pays off »

NFC South preview: Fitzpatrick will start while Winston serves suspension »

NFC North preview: Cousins moves to a division that’s loaded with QB talent »

2 | JACKSONVILLE

2017 | 10-6, 1st in South

Last year in playoffs | 2017

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

RB Leonard Fournette: The fourth overall pick in 2017 made a splash as a rookie despite lingering ankle problems. He ran for 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns in the regular season, and 242 yards and four touchdowns in the playoffs.

QB Blake Bortles: He got increasingly comfortable with the offense last season, and it showed. Now in his second season in coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s system, he is pain-free after offseason wrist surgery.

CB Jalen Ramsey: He’s outstanding, no question, but also provides some solid bulletin-board material, candidly assessing quarterbacks for a GQ story. He didn’t pull punches on Buffalo rookie Josh Allen (“He’s trash”), Baltimore’s Joe Flacco (“He sucks”) and Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger (“Decent at best”). At least he likes Tom Brady.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

DE Yannick Ngakoue: Has added a power-rip move to pass-rush arsenal, and that should concern opponents. He had 13 sacks last season, counting the playoffs, and led the NFL with seven forced fumbles.

LB Leon Jacobs: A seventh-round pick from Wisconsin, he is proving to be a major find. He has looked terrific on the strong side, looking and sounding nothing like a rookie.

WR DJ Chark: A second-round pick from Louisiana State, the 6-foot-4, wiry Chark got rave reviews at training camp as a receiver and a gunner on the coverage teams.

FANTASY SLEEPER

WR Donte Moncrief: He is on a one-year, prove-it deal with the Jaguars after sitting out 11 games in the last two seasons for Indianapolis. Jacksonville was depleted of receivers in the offseason and Moncrief likely will get his chances.

3 | INDIANAPOLIS

2017 | 4-12, T-3rd in South

Last year in playoffs | 2014

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

QB Andrew Luck: A healthy Luck gives the Colts a chance every week, and his injured year away has given him a new appreciation of the game. Even when he was banged up in 2016, he threw for 4,240 yards and 31 touchdowns in 15 games.

TE Eric Ebron: A stalwart in Detroit, Ebron is primed for a big year in a tight-end-heavy offense. He’s got size (6 feet 4) and speed, and should do a better job of stretching the field than Jack Doyle.

S Malik Hooker: The 2017 first-round pick is coming back from a knee ligament injury and is one of the few playmakers on a blue-collar defense. He suffered the knee injury in October and already had three interceptions at that point.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

LB Darius Leonard: Leonard has looked good in camp and can provide some pass rush. This is essentially Tony Dungy’s Tampa-2 defense and that worked so well in the Colts’ heyday, in large part because the team had Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis coming off the edge. Difficult to replicate.

RB Marlon Mack: In a mere 93 carries last year, Mack had seven runs of 20 yards or longer. But he also had 33 runs of zero yards or less, so he’s a bit of an all-or-nothing back. He played last season with a nagging shoulder injury.

DE John Simon: He is the Colts’ most reliable defensive player. He’s stout at 6-2, 260, and solid. This team lacks difference makers on the defensive side.

FANTASY SLEEPER

WR T.Y. Hilton: The Colts are going to find ways to get Hilton the ball. After four seasons in which he totaled precisely 5,000 yards receiving, he had 996 yards last year catching passes from Jacoby Brissett. Now, it’s back to Luck.

4 | HOUSTON

2017 | 4-12, T-3rd in South

Last year in playoffs | 2016

THREE PLAYERS WHO MUST COME THROUGH

LT Julie’n Davenport: Standing 6 feet 7 and 320 pounds, Davenport protects the blind side of Deshaun Watson. Davenport, who played at Bucknell, is raw but with massive potential. Small school, big responsibility.

WR Will Fuller: In his third season, Fuller has yet to prove he’s durable enough for 16 games. The talented speedster has packed on 15 pounds to help survive the rigors of the season.

S Kareem Jackson: He needs to make a smooth transition from cornerback to safety with Andre Hal, the normalstarter, sidelined after a lymphoma diagnosis.

THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH

S Tyrann Mathieu: Honey Badger is on a one-year prove-it deal. The former Arizona Cardinals star is determined to show he’s among the best defensive playmakers in the game.

DE J.J. Watt: The three-time NFL defensive player of the year is healthy again after two years of injuries. When he’s not injured, he dominates.

DE/OLB Jadeveon Clowney: This a pivotal juncture for the former No. 1 overall pick. Should the Texans make another long-term investment in him or just rent him as their franchise player next season? This season will go a long way in determining that.

FANTASY SLEEPER

QB Deshaun Watson: He put up astounding numbers last season before a knee injury in practice cut his season short. He could be the NFL’s most exciting player.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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