AFC South: Aubrayo Franklin

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis Colts general manager Ryan Grigson is not playing around when it comes to trying to improve the front seven of their defense.

Jones
Jones
It started with the signing of former Cleveland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson last week, and it continued when the Colts announced the signing of defensive lineman Arthur Jones less than 45 minutes into the start of the free-agency period Tuesday.

“He is an outstanding producer down after down versus the run and pass,” Grigson said. “He's a guy who plays at a championship level week after week and lays it on the line every time he steps out on the field. He is a great fit for our team.”

The Colts had to do something with their defense. While they had their moments last season, they lacked the consistency needed to make a deep run in the AFC playoffs. They were 20th in the league on defense and even worse when it came to stopping the run (26th).

Here's what former Colts GM Bill Polian said about Jones.

“A power player with great size, he proved difficult to move in the run game. He's well-suited to play end in a 3-4 or tackle in the an even front, but Jones should be taken off the field in clear throwing downs.”

Colts coach Chuck Pagano is familiar with Jones. Pagano was the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator during Jones' rookie season in 2011.

Jones can play defensive end and defensive tackle. The Colts need help at defensive tackle after Aubrayo Franklin and Josh Chapman combined for only 44 tackles and no sacks last season. Jones finished with 53 tackles and four sacks last season.

The Colts continue to improve in the front seven, but they're in need of a new starting safety, as Antoine Bethea, who started every game he played in during his eight-year career with Indianapolis, signed with the 49ers Tuesday.

Indianapolis Colts season wrap-up

January, 15, 2014
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Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 8
Preseason Power Ranking: 10

Biggest surprise: The questions were valid. Was linebacker Robert Mathis' production a product of having sack-machine Dwight Freeney playing on the other side? Could Mathis still be an impact player without Freeney? Mathis silenced the naysayers when he led the league in sacks with 19.5, including seven strip sacks. Mathis didn't hide the fact that he wanted to quiet the doubters. What made his season even more special is that he did it without much help elsewhere, as the Colts had only 42 sacks as a team. Mathis is one of the front-runners to be the league's defensive player of the year.

Biggest disappointment: Safety LaRon Landry was supposed to have the same kind of impact Bob Sanders had when he played for the Colts. That's why general manager Ryan Grigson signed him to four-year, $24 million contract. Landry was good when he was able to come up with the big hits or touchdown-saving tackles, but it was too often that he ended up whiffing on a play. The plays on which he missed running back Jamaal Charles on a touchdown run in the regular-season game against Kansas City and New England's LeGarrette Blount on his touchdown run last weekend are two examples that quickly come to mind. It also doesn't help that Landry missed four games because of injury this season.

Biggest need: Help on both lines -- offensive and defensive -- should be at the top of Grigson's list during the offseason. The Colts are set at offensive tackle with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus. Donald Thomas will be back to take one of the guard spots after he missed most of the season with a quad injury, but the other guard spot and center could use upgrades. The Colts need a defensive tackle who can clog the middle of the line.

Team MVP: This is a no-brainer. Quarterback Andrew Luck was mentioned as a league MVP candidate at one point in the season. The second-year quarterback overcame injuries to five key offensive starters -- including future Hall of Fame receiver Reggie Wayne -- to cut his interceptions in half, increase his completion percentage and throw the same number of touchdown passes despite 52 fewer attempts. Take Luck out of the lineup and the Colts would have won maybe six games this season.

 
INDIANAPOLIS -- We’ve all witnessed Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's ability to strap his team on his back and lead it to come-from-behind victories during his first two NFL seasons.

Luck has developed a nice continuity with young receivers Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen to go with T.Y. Hilton in recent weeks.

[+] EnlargeRobert Mathis
AP Photo/Ric TapiaRobert Mathis and the Colts have allowed just 20 total points over their past three games.
Luck, however, is not the reason behind the Colts’ three-game winning streak. Don't get me wrong, Luck has been good, but you have to look at the defense when it comes to giving credit to the team’s recent success.

The Colts head into Saturday’s wild-card playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs having forced eight turnovers and feasting on opposing quarterbacks like they’re at a buffet, registering 12 sacks in their three-game winning streak.

“Accountability. No personnel shifts. No change in schemes. No world-changing type of deals. It’s just holding guys accountable,” Colts linebacker Robert Mathis said. “If you’re not doing your job, you’re going to be called out within ourselves, not in the media or anything like that. It’s guys being accountable.”

The Colts have given up an average of 6.7 points, 292 yards and 24.3 percent on third down in the past three games.

Those numbers are a drastic change from when they were giving up big plays, a lot of yards and a lot of points prior to the winning streak.

The Colts went through a six-game stretch where they gave up an average of 30.8 points, 397 yards, including three games of at least 410 yards, and opponents converted 46.9 percent of third-down opportunities. The defensive players didn’t trust each other, forcing too many players to try to do too much by themselves.

“I just think any time you give up a long run, a big pass in the secondary or whatever, a big pass play, it’s just all the guys have to be on the same page,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “Everybody has got to do their job. It only takes one breakdown. Ten guys can be doing exactly the right thing, and one guy could be not on the same page.”

Indianapolis sacked Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith five times and forced four turnovers in its victory against the Chiefs on Dec. 22.

The defense should be relatively healthy Saturday, as defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin (knee) and defensive end Fili Moala (knee) are the only two players listed as questionable for the game.

“To be a good defense, you got to get turnovers,” Mathis said. “That’s one of the foundations of being a good defense, getting the ball into your quarterback’s hands. And we have a quarterback that can do some good things with it. So to be able to wrestle the ball away from the offense and get those extra possessions, it helps our team tremendously.”
INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts had their top cornerbacks on the practice field Wednesday, a day after only having three available in Tuesday's practice.

Cornerbacks Vontae Davis (groin), Darius Butler (quad) and Greg Toler (groin) were full participants in practice, giving an indication that the Colts could have a healthy group for Saturday’s wild-card playoff matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. Davis injured his groin in last weekend’s victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“They still have to get their feet under them,” Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. “They looked pretty good [at practice Wednesday]. Still evaluating and see how it goes come Saturday.”

The Colts are becoming healthy at the right time.

Defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin (knee) and defensive end Fili Moala (knee) were the only two players not to practice Wednesday. Receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (hamstring) was limited in practice.

Predicting the Colts' 53-man roster

August, 30, 2013
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Here’s my projection at what the Colts' 53-man roster will look like:

Quarterback

Andrew Luck, Matt Hasselbeck

Comment: The Colts are in good hands with Luck and Hasselbeck.

Running back

Ahmad Bradshaw, Vick Ballard, Donald Brown, Kerwynn Williams

Comment: Williams locked in his spot as the fourth running back by rushing for 92 yards against Cincinnati. He’ll also likely return kicks.

Fullback

Stanley Havili, Dominique Jones

Comment: Havili proved that he can be another option for Luck to throw to out of the backfield against Cleveland last weekend.

Wide receiver

Reggie Wayne, Darrius Heyward-Bey, TY Hilton, LaVon Brazill, Griff Whalen, David Reed

Comment: Colts are set with Wayne, Heyward-Bey and Hilton, but depth is still a concern at receiver.

Tight end

Dwayne Allen, Coby Fleener, Justice Cunningham

Comment: You have to cross your fingers that Fleener’s preseason problems were just that and they won’t linger into the regular season.

Offensive line

Anthony Castonzo, Donald Thomas, Samson Satele, Mike McGlynn, Gosder Cherilus, Hugh Thornton, Joe Reitz, Khaled Holmes, Jeff Linkenbach

Comment: The Colts’ scoring success depends heavily on how well this unit protects Luck

Defense

Defensive line

Cory Redding, Josh Chapman, Ricky Jean Francois, Aubrayo Franklin, Montori Hughes, Lawrence Guy, Drake Nevis

Comment: The defensive line has to prove it can stop the run.

Linebackers

Robert Mathis, Erik Walden, Bjoern Werner, Caesar Rayford, Pat Angerer, Jerrell Freeman, Kavell Conner, Mario Harvey, Kelvin Sheppard

Comment: Rayford is the surprise name on this list, but the 27-year-old former Canadian and Arena League player earned a roster spot by having a very strong training camp.

Cornerbacks

Greg Toler, Vontae Davis, Darius Butler, Cassius Vaughn, Josh Gordy

Comment: The Colts are in good hands if Davis and Butler play like they did during the preseason.

Safeties

LaRon Landry, Antoine Bethea, Joe Lefeged, Larry Asante

Comment: Asante made a strong case to make the roster with an interception against Cleveland and 13 tackles against Cincinnati. Don’t count out Sergio Brown, though.

Special teams

Adam Vinatieri, Pat McAfee, Matt Overton

Comment: No comment necessary

Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star made his 53-man roster projection earlier this week.

Conrad Brunner of 1070 The Fan did the same.

Wednesday's Colts camp observations

August, 14, 2013
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ANDERSON, Ind. -- Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle Josh Chapman waited almost two years for last Sunday.

The second-year defensive tackle hadn't played in a game since he helped the University of Alabama win the national title in January 2012.

Chapman was finally on the field during the Colts' preseason loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

"It felt pretty good," Chapman said. "I got a little nervous about it but at the same time, when I got the first pop it was back to normal. ... Every day it feels better and better, more punch on it and just cutting on it, it feels great."

Chapman was the Colts' fifth-round draft choice in 2012, but missed all of last season with a torn ACL, which he played with most of his senior season at Alabama.

Chapman's numbers weren't eye-popping against the Bills -- four tackles -- but all that matters is the "900-pound safe in the middle of the line of scrimmage" is back playing again. Chapman has the size -- 340 pounds -- to clog the middle of the line and draw multiple blockers to him, which will open things up for his teammates. Chapman is behind Aubrayo Franklin on the depth chart.

"I think Josh is a bigger-bodied guy," Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said. "He's got a great amount of weight behind him. ... He's a little sore, which is expected, but he did a fabulous job for us."

Other camp highlights Wednesday:
  • A day after dropping at least four balls, receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey made up for it Wednesday when had he one of his best practices at camp, catching two touchdown passes from quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts need Heyward-Bey to produce like that on a regular basis.
  • Manusky said he'd like for the starters on defense to play about 15 plays in Sunday's game against the New York Giants. "It depends on how old they are, too," he said. "You get the 30-plus guys like Cory [Redding] and Aubrayo and Robert [Mathis], it's a little bit different. You kind of want to take care of them a little bit."
  • In a move that had the defensive players pumped up during a pass-rush drill, Mathis had tackle Anthony Castonzo convinced he was making a high outside move, but then he suddenly spun in the opposite direction to get to the quarterback dummy. Fellow defensive lineman Cory Redding ran over to Mathis and started dumping water on him to cool him off.
ANDERSON, Ind. -- Interchangeable.

That's the word the Indianapolis Colts are using when talking about their defense. That has to be a good sign, especially when thinking back to last season's defensive unit.

It was 26th in the league in total defense, 29th and and 21st against the run and pass, respectively.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe versatility that the Colts' defense provides has players such as Cory Redding excited.
Gone is Dwight Freeney, who spent 11 seasons causing havoc on opposing quarterbacks for the Colts. Freeney is now playing on the West Coast in San Diego.

Experience in the 3-4 defensive scheme combined with some faces has the Colts believing they'll be a better unit this season.

"What I like best is you’re not handicapping guys," defensive end Cory Redding said. "You’re not handcuffing them and telling them you have to do this and you have to do that. In this defense it’s interchangeable positions....all the guys on the defense have the freedom to do whatever they have to do to get the job done. That’s what I like about it. You just fly around. You never know who is coming and who is not. You can’t really key on too many guys because everybody is interchangeable."

Redding -- still talking about being interchangeable -- even joked that he could play free safety.

The Colts added Aubrayo Franklin and Ricky Jean Francois on the defensive line. Safety LaRon Landry -- the great human specimen, according to defensive coordinator Greg Manusky -- and cornerback Greg Toler are new in the secondary, and the team added Erik Walden at linebacker.

“I think we have the body size and the right type of people for the system,” Redding said.

The secondary, which includes Vontae Davis and Antoine Bethea --holdovers from last season -- has been aggressive in its coverage so far in training camp.

“I think they’re playing together as a unit," Manusky said. "Last year was a little bit different because it was all new to everybody. For right now they’re feeling comfortable with the calls, comfortable with one another and they’re feeding off each other, which is great as a defense."

Redding took it a step further.

“In my mind, it’s night and day," he said. "Last year, we did some good things, but still we needed a lot of work against the run, a lot of work against the pass, a lot of work at different things and scheme-wise. It’s night and day, man. We have the body size, the type of men that are built for this system and have played in this type of system around other teams, so all they have to do is learn the terminology."

INJURY UPDATE

• Tight end Dwayne Allen missed the morning walk thru, as he was having his foot checked out.

• Offensive lineman Justin Anderson has a "significant pec" injury and could end up having surgery.

• Offensive lineman Joe Reitz returned to practice after dealing with stinger, while safety Joe Lefeged is bothered by a strained calf and is using a walking boot.
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Four running backs are vying for the No. 3 job with the Texans. Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle looks at Deji Karim, Dennis Johnson, Cierre Wood and Ray Graham.

To which I say: Experience won’t be the deciding factor here, but Karim has a big edge there as he’s played for the Jaguars and Colts.

Duane Brown means a great deal to the Texans as the anchor of the offensive line, writes Kristie Rieken of the Associated Press.

The plan for quarterback play Friday night at Minnesota, per John McClain of the Chronicle.

“I believe in Matt Schaub. And I think this is the season in which he eliminates doubt,” writes Adam Schein of NFL.com.

Indianapolis Colts

At Tuesday's practice, Andrew Luck completed 26-of-35 passes with three touchdowns each to receivers Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

There were few surprises on the Colts' initial, unofficial, depth chart, says Phillip B. Wilson of the Star.

Nose tackle Josh Chapman and receiver Griff Whalen are having breakout camps, says Michael Marot of the Associated Press.

To which I say: Aubrayo Franklin was still the starting nose tackle on the team’s first, unofficial depth chart. Part of that is seniority. Part of that is Franklin is a run-stopper, and first-and-10 is still regarded as a run down, so if they are dividing up the work, he could be on the field first, but not necessarily most.

The Manning brothers made an epic rap video for DirecTV.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Jason Babin hopes to show skeptics he can still be a top pass-rusher at 33 coming off groin surgery, says Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.

To which I say: If Babin can't be an effective rusher, the Jaguars are in trouble, because they don't have many other guys who have proven they can find the quarterback.

Cecil Shorts might miss the preseason opener with a left calf strain, says Hay Carlyon of the Times-Union.

Dwayne Gratz pulled in an interception even though he had fallen to the ground, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Times-Union in his practice report.

"Offensive weapon" Denard Robinson shifted from uniform No. 29 to his college No. 16, says the AP.

Tennessee Titans

Five things the Titans are hoping to accomplish in their four preseason games, from Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

To which I say: Staying healthy is No. 1, which tells you a lot about the preseason.

It was bad haircut day for the Titans' rookie offensive linemen, including Chance Warmack, says Wyatt.

Wyatt’s video practice report.

Alterraun Verner versus Tommie Campbell for right cornerback is a competition that will get hotter with preseason games starting, writes Teresa Walker of the Associated Press.
Training camp competitions for the Indianapolis Colts are not shaping up the way general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano likely imagined them.

As Phillip B. Wilson points out in his blog at the Indianapolis Star, injuries are already having an impact.

Brandon McKinney is on IR with a continuing knee problem, so nose tackle looks like it’ll belong to Aubrayo Franklin and Josh Chapman, with Ricky Jean Francois able to help. What we thought could be a pretty good battle might be sorted out already.

Rookie right guard Hugh Thornton was expected to challenge incumbent Mike McGlynn, but Thornton has a boot on his right foot and has not practiced yet.

Pat Angerer is on PUP, meaning the second inside linebacker spot isn’t as much of a competition as it might be later, with Kelvin Sheppard apparently outranking Kavell Conner by so much that Wilson doesn't even mention Conner.

Rookie center Khaled Holmes might still give Samson Satele a fight at center, but Holmes had an ankle issue at USC and injured the same ankle on Tuesday.

Running back is still very interesting. Provided Ahmad Bradshaw is back to himself in time for the regular season, I’m not sure his presence on PUP with a still-healing foot hurts the competition at the spot. It might actually help. We know Vick Ballard will be second at worst, and it seems likely Kerwynn Williams will be fourth. The extra snaps could allow the staff maximum opportunity to gauge Donald Brown and Delone Carter.

While having virtually everyone good to go the first week of camp is ideal, camp injuries are inevitable. Maybe Thornton and Holmes don't miss much at all. Perhaps some of these guys will emerge in relative short order and still get into position battles the way we envisioned.

But if guys who are on the field now like McGlynn, Sheppard and Satele perform consistently well, they’ve got a chance to get a tight grip on jobs before their competition even takes the field.
We pick up our series in which ESPN.com’s resident scout, Matt Williamson, ranks the AFC South position-by-position.

Today, we examine defensive lines.

Williamson’s AFC South defensive line rankings:
1) Texans (J.J. Watt, Earl Mitchell, Antonio Smith, Jared Crick, Chris Jones)
2) Titans (Ropati Pitoitua, Sammie Hill, Jurrell Casey, Derrick Morgan, Kamerion Wimbley, Mike Martin, Lavar Edwards, Antonio Johnson)
3) Jaguars (Jason Babin, Sen’Derrick Marks, Roy Miller, Tyson Alualu, Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick, Andre Branch, Jeremy Mincey)
4) Colts (Cory Redding, Josh Chapman, Ricky Jean-Francois, Drake Nevis, Fili Moala, Aubrayo Franklin, Montori Hughes, Brandon McKinney)

I struggled a bit as I sort through that and consider how my own list should look. Ultimately I co-sign what Williamson has done here, and will explain it a bit after we talk with him.

SportsNation

Matt Williamson's ranking of AFC South defensive line units is:

  •  
    60%
  •  
    26%
  •  
    14%

Discuss (Total votes: 616)

My questions for Williamson based off of his list:

Your overall assessment of the AFC South defensive lines:

“Overall, I wouldn't say this is a fantastic division for defensive line, but I think the Jags' defensive line is a little underrated since they produced so few sacks. With Watt in the picture, Houston is pretty strong with their 3-man front.”

Does judging a couple 3-4s vs. a couple 4-3s complicate things here?

“Judging varying schemes isn't difficult, but it is hard to overlook that teams that run a 4-3 have more starting caliber linemen and of course the opposite is true when evaluating linebackers in a 3-4, but I just look at it as to how well these players do their respective jobs”

Can you rank them in order of depth?

“Just in terms of depth, I would go: Tennessee, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Houston.”

Can you name a potential breakout player?

“Morgan could break out, he pressured the quarterback well last year but didn't get home quite enough. I also think Babin is still a very good player and while he has already ‘broken out,’ he could be perfect in this new Jacksonville D.”

How big a gap do you see between Houston and Tennessee?

“As I noted, I see Tennessee as deeper than Houston, but the Texans have the star power. Watt just might be the best defensive player in football and Smith is no slouch either. Like the entire Titans' D, their defensive line is solid, but they lack a true star or difference maker.”

Are you not a believer in the Colts new additions and newfound health with Chapman and McKinney?

“It’s hard to say on the Colts. They have a lot of bodies, but who will step up? Better health of course is important, but I have a tough time handicapping their defensive line overall right now.”

As for me…

The Texans should get the biggest production and have the best player in Watt and a candidate for the second-best player in Smith. The Titans and Colts seem certain to be equipped to slow the run far better. With the change of scheme and personnel additions in Jacksonville things will improve against the run and pass.

It’s difficult for me to put the Colts last as they’ve added a lot and get Chapman and McKinney back healthy. Their crop of defensive linemen are now all 3-4 guys.

I want to bump the Titans down as I like their depth but not their lack of proven sack guys, but look behind them and it’s not as if the Jaguars or Colts do, either.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

The major question facing each team in the AFC South as summer break looms:

Houston Texans: Even if Derek Newton recovers well from his knee surgery, are they sure he can be good at right tackle? In Newton's first year as the starter there, veteran Ryan Harris still got a share of the snaps. Now the team has to see how Newton recovers, will consider rookies Brennan Williams and David Quessenberry and brought Harris back as veteran insurance. They’ve surely got comfort in numbers, but you’d much rather have a sure thing at the front of the line. If second-year man Brandon Brooks doesn’t play well from the start at right guard, right tackle could be an even bigger problem. And the Texans need to be able to send Arian Foster both left and right to be unpredictable in the run game. They also need to protect Matt Schaub from all angles.

Indianapolis Colts: The team’s biggest defensive moves have been keyed on stopping the run. Outside linebacker Erik Walden is an edge-setter, defensive linemen like Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin should help stop backs and safety LaRon Landry is a force in the box when he’s healthy. If cornerback Greg Toler pans out, he will help the pass rush, and rookie outside 'backer Bjoern Werner could be an impact rusher if he transitions quickly from college end. But can this team consistently rush the passer? The only truly proven rusher on the defense is Robert Mathis, and for the first time he’ll be playing without Dwight Freeney drawing some of the blocking attention. To me, the major question is: Can they rush the passer effectively?

Jacksonville Jaguars: Who is the quarterback? Blaine Gabbert had most-favored status from the last regime, because the general manager of the last regime traded up to draft him 10th overall. That doesn’t mean anything to new GM Dave Caldwell or new coach Gus Bradley. They are looking for a guy who will give them the best chance to improve. If it’s Gabbert, that’s fine. But Chad Henne has said he believes there isn’t a charade element to this competition, and the team is talking as if new addition Mike Kafka and even undrafted rookie Matt Scott have an equally good chance of winning the job. Odds are very high this team will be looking for its long term-quarterback in next year’s draft. In the meantime, opportunity abounds.

Tennessee Titans: All Titans questions start with the quarterback. Jake Locker is now protected by a great offensive line, which should also greatly improve the run game. The new offense will give him a lot of play-action as well as rollouts and bootlegs, which will be threatening because of his extraordinary speed. His short-yardage targets should be dangerous -- Kevin Walter is super reliable; Kendall Wright should blossom; Delanie Walker and Chris Johnson need to be consistently reliable. The deep guys are a solid bunch if healthy. Kenny Britt and Nate Washington are capable of making downfield plays, and the team is super high on rookie Justin Hunter. The defense will be better, which means the Titans will have the ball more. What can Locker do with it?
Today, I set out to sketch out a list of the 10 most competitive position groups in the AFC South.

Putting them in order was more difficult than coming up with the list, but after some juggling, I feel pretty good about what’s below. I’m sure you’ll offer me input on what’s out of order, shouldn’t be included or should be.

The more overall uncertainty and the less sure we are of a starter or starters right now, the higher I ranked a spot.

10. Jaguars quarterbacks -- Blaine Gabbert would really have to blow this opportunity and Chad Henne would really have to have a good camp for Gabbert not to be the opening-day starter, I believe. Undrafted rookie Matt Scott could make the team as a third option, and if things go poorly for the veterans and the rookie shows well, he could get a chance at some point.

9. Titans interior offensive line -- Michael Roos is a lock at left tackle, Andy Levitre is a lock at left guard and Chance Warmack is a lock at right guard. David Stewart should be the starter at right tackle, though he’s coming off a broken leg and has a bad ankle. Center could be a good battle between fourth-round draft pick Brian Schwenke and Fernando Velasco. There will be huge battles for the interior backup slot(s), where the Titans loaded up with Rob Turner and Chris Spencer. (If they signed Eric Winston to fight with Stewart, this position would move up some.)

8. Titans defensive tackles -- Sammie Hill and Jurrell Casey are locks, and Mike Martin should rank third. If they keep five, who are the other two out of Karl Klug, Antonio Johnson, DaJohn Harris and Zach Clayton? Ropati Pitoitua is an end, but comes from a 3-4 in Kansas City and will also get a look inside, so he could factor in here, too.

7. Texans right side of offensive line -- I think they would have been fine sticking with Derek Newton, but he’s not healthy. He had major knee surgery and offensive line coach John Benton said during the draft that Newton’s status is up in the air. Enter Brennan Williams, a third-round pick out of UNC that the Texans feel could be fine as the starter. At right guard, Brandon Brooks could displace Ben Jones in a potentially nice battle of second-year players.

6. Titans wide receivers -- Nate Washington got himself in the doghouse with his work late last year, and he’s pricey. But it would be hard for the team to part with him yet as the Titans are an injury away from potential depth issues. If second-round pick Justin Hunter takes off early, he could start ahead of Washington at Z opposite Kenny Britt at X. Kendall Wright is the primary slot guy. Also in the mix for snaps: Damian Williams, Kevin Walter and maybe even Michael Preston.

5. Colts offensive line -- Anthony Castonzo is the left tackle, Gosder Cherilus is the right tackle. The three spots in between them and the depth will see a lot of competition. Donald Thomas should win a guard spot and I’d think third-rounder Hugh Thornton could as well. They will battle with incumbent left guard Joe Reitz and incumbent right guard Mike McGlynn. Fourth-rounder Khalid Holmes could push Samson Satele out of the center spot.

4. Colts inside linebackers -- If Jerrell Freeman is as good as he was last season, he’s certain to start. A healthy Pat Angerer should make a strong bid to retake his old job, but the competition could be really good with Kavell Conner trying to stay in the lineup and newcomer Kelvin Sheppard in the mix as well.

3. Texans linebackers -- Rookies Sam Montgomery and Trevardo Williams have a chance to win the strongside linebacking spot, which would mean Brooks Reed moves inside. Or Reed could stay on the strongside setting up Darryl Sharpton vs. Tim Dobbins to slug it out for the Mike spot inside next to Brian Cushing. This will be a good one to monitor for sure. The injury histories of Sharpton and Dobbins could be at play. Can they both stay on the field for their reps to compete?

2. Colts nose tackle -- What a revamp the Colts have put together here. The guys who can play inside were limited last year. Now there are plenty: His knee healed, Josh Chapman is the favorite at nose tackle right now. Also available are Aubrayo Franklin, rookie Montori Hughes, Brandon McKinney (once healthy) and versatile veteran Ricky Jean Francois, who can play inside or out.

1. Jaguars cornerbacks -- This gets the top slot because there is the most uncertainty. I don’t have much faith in Alan Ball based on what he did with his chances in Houston last year. Mike Harris has one year of experience, playing some as the team’s nickel. Dwayne Gratz should be a starter. There is room for seventh-rounders Jeremy Harris and Demetrius McCray to carve out roles. [UPDATE: Apologies for initially forgetting Marcus Trufant, the recent veteran addition. If he's competing for much more than nickelback, the team's got even bigger secondary issues than feared.]
Antonio Johnson gave the Indianapolis Colts almost five solid years of service.

Originally a fifth-round pick by the Titans out of Mississippi State in 2007, Bill Polian reluctantly signed him off Tennessee’s practice squad when the Colts were thinned out to a ridiculous degree by injuries to the interior defensive line in 2008.

Polian rarely signed guys off other team’s practice squads. Though, it’s a perfectly legal way of adding a player, Polian felt it qualified as “poaching.”

Johnson played in 67 games with 46 starts for Indianapolis. Though, he’s much more a 4-3 defensive tackle than a 3-4 nose tackle, he played the nose for the Colts last year in the first season of the transition to the three-man line under Chuck Pagano.

He got to free agency this year and the Colts weren’t interested in re-signing him as they’ve got Josh Chapman and Brandon McKinney set to return from injuries. Chapman’s been playing the nose so far in offseason work, which McKinney is set to be ready for camp. The Colts also added veteran run stopper Aubrayo Franklin and draft pick Montori Hughes.

They will be much better manned with 3-4 personnel in Pagano’s second season.

So Johnson has come full circle, signing to re-join the Titans who continue to add people and create competition. Sammie Hill and Jurrell Casey are certain to be on the team. I can't imagine Mike Martin not sticking. The defensive tackles beyond them will be in a dogfight for roster spots and roles.

That group now includes Karl Klug, DaJohn Harris, Zach Clayton and Johnson.

The Titans finished 2012 with five defensive tackles on their roster.

Like offensive line and receiver, defensive tackle is going to be a very interesting position to watch shake out.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Who is one highly drafted or highly paid player from each AFC South team who needs to show something during the remainder of the offseason?

Houston Texans: I can’t find a highly paid or highly drafted player who could be in jeopardy. Shiloh Keo was a fifth-round draft pick in 2011 and ranked as a Wade Phillips favorite. Keo played in every game last year, even seeing time as the often-used third safety when Quintin Demps fell out of favor. But Keo is limited, primarily because he’s slow. The Texans replaced Glover Quin with Ed Reed, which doesn’t really affect the bottom of the safety depth chart. Demps is an unsigned free agent who won’t be back. Second-round pick D.J. Swearinger will be the third safety. Keo and Eddie Pleasant are the fourth and fifth safeties now, and the team had five on the roster at the end of last season. But a good player at the back end of another position could prompt them to keep just four, which could put the limited Keo in jeopardy if he doesn’t perform well in camp.

Indianapolis Colts: A team that didn’t have a true nose tackle option last season because of injuries and personnel deficiencies will have a glut this summer if everyone remains healthy. Now they have Aubrayo Franklin and 2012 fifth-rounder Josh Chapman, who’s back from the knee injury that kept him out last year. They also have new fifth-round draft pick Montori Hughes as well as Ricky Jean Francois, a versatile lineman who can man the middle on occasion. I don’t expect Martin Tevaseu to stick, and if the rest of that pack remains healthy, one player who will need to have a solid camp to make his case to stay is Brandon McKinney, who’s due $1 million this year. Brought in as a free agent from Baltimore last year, he too is coming off a serious knee injury. He’s expected to be ready for camp but could have already lost some ground in organized team activities and minicamp.

Jacksonville Jaguars: While the Texans don’t have a highly paid or highly drafted veteran who could be in trouble because they have drafted well and their roster is solid, the Jaguars don’t really have one because they are young and largely unproven. They already parted with an expensive guy who wasn’t worth his contract in strong safety Dawan Landry. Tight and Marcedes Lewis ($4.2 million base this year) and defensive tackle Tyson Alualu ($1.8 million) are overpaid based on recent production, but the Jaguars have money and don’t have promising replacements for either.

Tennessee Titans: I don’t think right tackle David Stewart is in jeopardy. But he’s coming off a down year when he committed too many penalties, is recovering from a broken leg, has an ankle that seems to be a lingering concern and is due a $5 million base salary. I’m not sure Mike Otto or Byron Stingily, the team’s two primary backup tackles, are starting-caliber guys. But the team did visit with free agent Eric Winston, who worked with offensive line coach Bruce Matthews in Houston. If Winston remains on the market and Stewart doesn’t look ready to bounce back, perhaps the Titans would still consider adding Winston and allowing him to slug it out with Stewart. That could be an epic battle.
Antonio Johnson worked hard to be a 3-4 nose tackle for the Colts last year and started 13 games.

But if the Colts are healthy they’ve now got four, much bigger options for the spot in their second year of the 3-4 front.

Fifth-round pick Montori Hughes went 139th overall. He started his college career at Tennessee, found trouble and finished up at Tennessee-Martin.

He’s 6-foot-4, 329 pounds and joins Josh Chapman (316), Brandon McKinney (345) and Aubrayo Franklin (315) as options for the nose. Ricky Jean Francois (295) can kick inside in some instances as well.

Chapman and McKinney missed last season with injuries. Franklin and Jean Francois are free-agent additions.

Scouts Inc. says he’s above average against the run and below average against the pass.

The big issue is his background, which the Colts clearly feel he addressed sufficiently as they scouted him.
“Was present at site of bar altercation in July 2010 and reportedly involved but not charged by police. He was suspended one game during 2010 season for violation of team academic rules. In addition, he was suspended twice from team activities during offseason of that year. Was involved in an on-campus altercation (dorm) in May 2011 that lead to his dismissal from the Tennessee football team. Coaches at Tennessee also have openly questioned his work effort and passion for the game. Has made strides in terms of maturity and was not a problem for the coaches during his time at Tennessee-Martin. In the end though will he work hard enough off-the-field (practice, conditioning, diet etc.) to reach full potential?”

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