AFC South: 2012 AFC South camp storylines

Camp storylines: Houston Texans

July, 27, 2012
The Texans open training camp tomorrow. Here are four primary storylines we will be monitoring.

Matt Schaub’s return: The perception is he gets hurt a lot. I thought he got past it with complete 2009 and 2010 seasons, but bad luck knocked him out with a serious foot injury last season. Critics wonder if he’s clutch. We do need to see him in situations with a lot at stake. It’s a contract year. It’s a good team. The table is set for him to excel. The spotlight will shine on his play brighter than ever before.

Potential extensions: Schaub’s not the only guy unsigned beyond this year. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin and left tackle Duane Brown are not far from free agency. Progress toward an extension for someone won’t unfold on the field. But if GM Rick Smith can get one deal done before the regular season kicks off, the tension over potential losses would ease considerably.

Offensive line development: Right tackle Eric Winston was cut to save money. Right guard Mike Brisiel left for a big contract in Oakland. The team is confident it’s got quality replacements in Antoine Caldwell (who will be challenged by rookie Brandon Brooks) and Rashad Butler (who will be challenged by Derek Newton). But cohesion on the offensive line was a big key to last year’s success. Can they reformulate that?

Receiver battles: If Andre Johnson stays healthy, the Texans have as good a No. 1 as virtually anyone. Kevin Walter is not explosive, but he is reliable. Beyond that, the team is sorting through a group of kids with DeVier Posey, Keshawn Martin and Lestar Jean. Gary Kubiak can find ways to use them all if they show areas where they can excel. Veteran Bryant Johnson was recently added back into the mix.
The Colts open training camp Sunday. Here are four primary storylines we will be monitoring.

Andrew Luck: The rookie quarterback is the cornerstone for the rebuild, and while the team doesn’t want him to feel like it’s all on his shoulders, the franchise needs him to be a long-term star. The progress he’s able to make from the start of camp to the end will offer us a lot of information about the potential pace of his development.

Chuck Pagano’s 3-4: The defensive front will be a hybrid as the changeover in personnel can’t happen all at once. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, long planted on the line as ends, will now often roam around as outside linebackers. How they transition and what the guys around them do will have a huge bearing on the defense. Do they have enough of the necessary ingredients.

The offensive line as tone-setters: The Colts patchworked as they added pieces who will help them be bigger and more physical than they were under the previous regime. Can a group that will likely include at least three new starters coalesce? Keeping Luck safe is priority one, and creating some room for backs who have not yet proven they can carry the load is also vital.

Two-tight set: The Colts have long been a three-wide team. But new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians likes to deploy two tight ends, and the team drafted Coby Fleener in the second round and Dwayne Allen in the third. They will be key guys as blockers and receivers, and Luck will need to rely on them a great deal as he drops back.
The Tennessee Titans start training camp practices Saturday. Here are four primary storylines we’ll be following.

The quarterback battle: How Matt Hasselbeck versus Jake Locker doesn’t qualify as a major camp storyline in the NFL for anyone piecing together a list is beyond me. This is a legitimate competition between two good players. Everything about camp is heightened when the most important job is up in the air. I don’t want daily stats, but this is, by far, the most significant position fight in the division and we can’t have enough info on it.

Kenny Britt: The receiver starts off on PUP after last year’s torn ACL and recent scopes on both knees. He’s also coming off an arrest at a military post from which he was accused of DUI. When healthy and when his head is straight, he’s an explosive receiver who a defense must fear. But to what degree can the Titans count on him? Hopefully camp will offer some answers.

Cornerback development: With Cortland Finnegan gone, Jason McCourty takes over as the team’s top corner. His twin brother, Devin, has gotten more attention in New England. But Jason was the better McCourty in 2011. The Titans are counting on Alterraun Verner as the second starter and he will kick into the slot in the nickel package. Can the super athletic but raw Tommie Campbell succeed as the No. 3 guy, taking Verner’s outside spot when three corners are on the field?

The pass rush: The team’s biggest addition on defense was veteran pass-rusher Kamerion Wimbley. He’s played mostly as a 3-4 linebacker, but is now locked in as an end in the Titans 4-3. It’s a lot to ask him to transform an anemic pass rush single handedly. The team brought in a pass-rush coach in Keith Millard, who will help refine linemen and potential blitzers. Derrick Morgan needs to show up, Karl Klug needs to build on a big rookie year and strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers needs to contribute.
The Jaguars opened training camp today. Here are four primary storylines we will be monitoring.

Blaine Gabbert’s development: He has new coaches, a new scheme, new weapons and a full offseason of work behind him. I think he has a good mindset about needing to prove himself, not in conversations with the media, but on the field. Expectations are generally low outside the building -- something that might actually serve him well.

Maurice Jones-Drew’s holdout: I don’t see the Jaguars moving on their stance that they won’t renegotiate with two years left on the running back’s current deal. Ultimately they might move some of his remaining salary around so it’s in his pocket sooner. But he’ll need to shift his thinking too, realizing they can live without him and that he can’t afford to sacrifice his status as the face of the franchise and it’s most productive player.

Mularkey’s approach: New coach Mike Mularkey is very much in control. He’s got a clear plan and a staff he will keep on message. Players will see onsistency from the coach and the staff. The messages will be easy to understand and often repeated. It will be on the players to buy in to them and put them in to practice. Early indications are they will do so.

Receiver progress: First-round pick Justin Blackmon is not with the team because he doesn’t have a contract. Following his recent DUI arrest and guilty plea, the team surely is looking to protect itself in case he has future issues. But they need him on the practice field ASAP for him to develop a relationship with Gabbert and so that the passing offense has a full complement that allows everyone to work in the proper roles. Along with Blackmon and position coach Jerry Sullivan, veteran additions Laurent Robinson and Lee Evans have the potential to transform what was a terrible group last season.