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AFC South 2021: Trevor Lawrence and other players on rookie contracts who are key to their team’s success

Tom Brady was able to take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl in his very first season in Florida, but if you don’t have the greatest quarterback of all time on your roster, then your success is likely built through the draft. Being able to identify gems in all seven rounds of the draft and hitting on a couple of undrafted free agents is important, because it’s that young, cheap talent that can open your Super Bowl window quicker. 

Each one of the four AFC South teams possess a player still on his rookie contract that is vital for their success. They can sometimes be obvious like a young, star quarterback, but not in every case. Let’s take a look at a homegrown player on each AFC South team that is capable of steering their franchise in the right direction.

Player experience: Third season
How acquired: 2019 draft (No. 54 overall)

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We could discuss both of the Texans safeties here, but Justin Reid has just one year remaining on his deal and Lonnie Johnson has switched positions, which could be something that actually helps in his development. Johnson will likely have to battle Eric Murray for reps at strong safety, but it will ultimately be up to new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith when it comes to how the Texans will use these versatile defensive backs.

Johnson was selected by the Texans in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft as a cornerback, but he became a safety during the 2020 season. It was a change that seemed to work, as he recorded a career-high 76 combined tackles despite starting in just five games. Smith says he sees Johnson as a safety, so expect him to play there moving forward. 

“Lonnie has position flexibility,” Smith said during his introductory press conference, via The Houston Chronicle. “You’re going to hear that word an awful lot. I think it’s safe to say, we see Lonnie as a safety right now. He feels good about that. He’s got excellent size. He’s got a corner skill set, too. Really feel good about him fitting into our defense.”

Johnson is athletic, and this permanent position change could end up being pivotal in his career. He could be someone that helps create turnovers for a defense that struggles to do so; that’s at least what his running mate Reid says. 

“Lonnie is a safety,” Reid said, via Texans Wire (USA TODAY). “The evil twins are what we will have going on in the backfield. It’s good I get to have a partner that I have a little bit of an experience with now. He really grew into his own last season. He is a physical guy who has the size, talent and ability. Now that he has the experience heading into Year 2, we are expecting big things from him.”

Player experience: Second season
How acquired: 2020 draft (No. 41 overall)

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The Colts like to use a committee when it comes to running the ball, but Jonathan Taylor did enough in 2020 to prove that he should be the workhorse or at least the starter moving forward. After Marlon Mack went down with a season-ending injury in Week 1 last season, Taylor got his first start against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 2 and rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries. It wasn’t until later when Taylor really broke out, however, as the last four games of the 2021 season were special. 

Taylor rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 13, and then capped the season with a whopping 253 rushing yards and two touchdowns against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Over the last four games of the 2020 season, Taylor scored seven touchdowns. Hitting on a talented running back in the draft can be huge, as the Colts now have a couple of years where they can feature him before they have to make the tough decision whether to pay him or not. Taylor is a player who can take the load off of Carson Wentz, as the former Eagles QB looks to reintroduce himself to the NFL world, and can assist in the passing game as well. 

Jacksonville Jaguars: QB Trevor Lawrence

Player experience: First season
How acquired: 2021 draft (No. 1 overall)

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This one is easy, as Urban Meyer and the Jaguars have placed their hopes and dreams in Trevor Lawrence. The former Clemson star threw 90 touchdowns and just 17 interceptions in 40 career games, of which he lost just two. He was dominant, and became the first quarterback ever to win three ACC championships. Lawrence takes over a 1-15 Jaguars team that does possess some talent on both sides of the ball, but the Jaguars are trusting Lawrence can come in and immediately help this franchise get back on the right track. How quickly will that happen, though? Just looking at some of the former No. 1 overall picks: Joe Burrow matched Cincinnati’s 2019 win total of two in 10 starts before he was injured; Kyler Murray won two more games for the Arizona Cardinals in his first season; Baker Mayfield won six games after the Cleveland Browns won zero the year prior. What will the Jaguars’ record be in 2021? Maybe somewhere around 6-11 or even 7-10 would be a good guess. It’s obviously not just about the quick turnaround even though that would be preferred, it’s about knowing you have a star at the quarterback position, and one that will help your team continue to improve until you’re contending.

Player experience: Third season
How acquired: 2019 draft (No. 51 overall)

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A.J. Brown became the only player in the Super Bowl era to record more than 1,000 receiving yards while averaging more than 20 yards per reception in his rookie season, and proved that the 2019 campaign was not just a one-year wonder. In 2020, he improved his numbers across the board, recording 70 catches for 1,075 yards and 11 touchdowns with a 66% catch rate, and made his first Pro Bowl. He also has averaged 2.66 yards per route since entering the NFL, which is the highest yards per route figure ever recorded by a wide receiver in their first two seasons, according to PFF. Brown has solidified himself as a true No. 1 wide receiver and a home run hitter — so much so that not even the addition of Julio Jones put his role into question. Even with Jones now sharing the field with him, Brown could be set for his best season yet.