AFC South: 2012 NFL hidden treasure

AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

Lose a known name, fail to replace him with a equally notable veteran or a prominent draft pick, and outsiders tend to panic. That’s what’s happened in Tennessee as the Titans lost Cortland Finnegan as a free agent to St. Louis. But the Titans never valued Finnegan the way the Rams and other suitors did.

And the Titans feel they have sufficient people in place to get the same sort of play out of their cornerbacks.

Jason McCourty played better than his twin brother, New England’s Devin McCourty, last season and is poised to be the Titans’ top cover man in 2012. Alterraun Verner came on to replace Finnegan outside in the nickel. Now Verner will start outside and kick inside the way Finnegan did. He’s not super fast, but he is super smart, and the Titans will be sure to give him deep help when he needs it. Second-year man Tommie Campbell worked through the offseason as the third cornerback, and the team is confident it has added enough polish to a raw guy to have an effective piece. He’s got blazing speed, so getting beat deep won’t be his issue.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

What’s hidden on the Houston Texans? Not very much.

They’ve got blue chippers at running back, receiver, center, left guard and tight end if Owen Daniels is healthy. A healthy Matt Schaub is a proven quarterback in the system. On the defensive side, they’ve got a loaded, swarming front and quality defensive backs.

I don’t want to turn to special teams, as it’s an area where I don’t feel great about them, with unknowns in the return game and, probably, a rookie kicker in Randy Bullock.

Help.

One group I don’t expect great things from is the defensive tackles. So they win by default. Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell were sufficient last year, thanks largely to all the playmakers around them. In their second year playing as less-than-mammoth nose tackles in Wade Phillips’ system, they can be better. Undrafted rookie Hebron Fangupo from Brigham Young is intriguingly thick. At 324 pounds, he’s listed at 23 pounds heavier than Cody, who’s bigger than Mitchell.
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The 2011 Jaguars had a slew of injuries on defense, and the secondary was especially hard hit. Five cornerbacks and five safeties finished the season on IR, and nobody is able to go that deep in one area and survive.

Safety Dawan Landry was the only starter in the group to start all 16 games. The other three starters missed a combined 20 starts.

This time around, if they aren’t decimated by injuries, I expect the Jaguars' secondary to be pretty good. How much better than last season will be determined in large part by whether the pass rush is better. If the coverage isn’t asked to hold up forever, it could be a solid group. Derek Cox is so well regarded at corner that the team will let Rashean Mathis, who’s done great in his comeback from a torn ACL, and veteran addition Aaron Ross slug it out for the spot as the second starter. The guy who doesn’t win will be the nickel. Dwight Lowery, meanwhile, will play alongside Landry at safety for a second season, and they are a duo that is going to be better the second time around.

AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Colts head into training camp with a lot of holes. Even groups that might qualify as strengths have questions -- are Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis going to fare as well playing at least some of the time as outside linebackers? Will rookie tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen be as good as expected?

It’s not easy to pick a spot that could overachieve, but I’ve settled on running back.

I don’t love Donald Brown's body language or his inconsistencies. It was understandable when the previous coaching staff lost faith in Brown. But he’s got a major fresh start and a coach in Chuck Pagano who has been touting him as an every-down back -- be that posturing or a real assessment. Delone Carter struggled to hold on to the ball last season, but he could be a solid short-yardage option if he gets a handle on that issue. (He spent the offseason rehabbing a thumb injury.) At organized team activities, rookie Vick Ballard looked like he fit in.

Should one of them falter, Mewelde Moore knows Bruce Arians’ offense from Pittsburgh and should make for a reliable safety blanket.

It will be interesting to see how roles are sorted out in camp and how well the Colts are able to run the ball and minimize the pressure off rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.

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