AFC South: Charlie Johnson

An alteration to a preseason Week 2 unofficial depth chart isn’t a big deal.

But the revised Colts’ depth chart flips left tackle Anthony Castonzo ahead of Jeff Linkenbach and left guard Joe Reitz ahead of Jacques McClendon.

It may merely be the team rotating guys, but it’s hard not to comment on the Castonzo “move.”

[+] EnlargeAnthony Castonzo
AP Photo/Tom GannamThe Colts' Anthony Castonzo has a rather tough assignment on Sunday -- contain the Vikings' Jared Allen.
As a first-round pick, he should be a guy who can start from the beginning, particularly when he isn’t attempting to displace a proven NFL veteran but a player who was an undrafted free agent just a year ago, starting three regular-season games and one playoff contest.

It’s not an easy spot to jump into, especially with Peyton Manning at risk if Castonzo botches blindside blocking. But Manning’s developed an awfully good radar detection system regarding blocking breakdowns, and over the last four years he helped Tony Ugoh (who was bad) and Charlie Johnson (who did the best he could with what he had) avoid catastrophe.

(A blown block Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium against Washington would be putting Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky at risk, not the still-rehabbing Manning.)

Castonzo’s pedigree from Boston College and the draft should be enough to make up for the four games worth of experience for Linkenbach.

The team is confident Castonzo has the makeup to contribute quickly or it wouldn’t have drafted him, because the Colts need the offensive line help now as well as later. The question is how quickly, of course.

The early intent was to ease him in as opposed to subjecting him to baptism by fire.

But I’d go baptism by fire now, particularly with Manning not in any danger. They can always flip Castonzo back if he gets singed.
With my magical user name and password, I cracked into this Insider file.

So I am able to share some of the AFC South elements of Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson’s assessments and grades of free agency.

Houston Texans

Williamson: “I'm usually very reluctant when teams decide to switch their defensive personnel. But in this case -- seeing how Houston has handled it in the draft and free agency -- I am quite excited about the improvement that is coming on this side of the ball as the Texans make the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Plus, Houston couldn't have gotten much worse than how it played on defense in 2010.

“The team has filled needs extremely well while making this schematic transformation. Adding [Johnathan] Joseph and [Danieal] Manning to a historically poor secondary is exceptional work, and both cover men have enough versatility in their game to allow Wade Phillips to run a wide array of coverages. Joseph is the bigger name player, but Manning had a very good season in Chicago last year. [Mike] Brisiel is a vastly underrated player, and keeping him allows this excellent offensive line to create further continuity. The only big loss is [Vonta] Leach, who will deal a blow to the Texans' rushing attack. There are other lead blocking fullbacks in this league, but none like Leach.”

Grade: B+

Kuharsky: I like what they’ve done as well, though I am taking a major wait-and-see attitude about the 3-4. Manning is the best safety the team will have had since I started covering the team in 2008 and Joseph will be the best corner. Lawrence Vickers is a drop-off from Leach, but likely a serviceable one.

Indianapolis Colts

Analysis: “Considering the effect the lockout could have on rebuilding teams, and considering that Indianapolis also is getting back a lot of contributors from injury, keeping the status quo should serve [Peyton] Manning & Co. quite well. [Joseph] Addai is worth more to the Colts than to any other team, but I suspect he might not be starting by the end of the year. One area of the team that will be different, however, is along the offensive line. Bringing [Charlie] Johnson back as a versatile tackle/guard would have been a great situation, but Indianapolis did use two very high picks to rebuild its ailing offensive front.

“On the other line, [Jamaal] Anderson is a curious fit. He certainly isn't in the mold of their speed-rushing defensive ends. Indy most likely will use him as a penetrating defensive tackle. Early in his career, [Tommie] Harris was the prototypical three-technique for a scheme such as the Colts'. Injuries have vastly altered his career path, but he still does flash at times. They will need to nurse him along, but he could act as a great mentor to Drake Nevis and help out in limited snaps. The pass-rushing foursome of Anderson/Harris, Nevis, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on throwing downs might be extremely potent.

Grade: C+

Kuharsky: Three stabs into the outside veteran free-agent market -- in Anderson, linebacker Ernie Sims and Harris -- is a nice change. The risk/reward seems just right. They’re exploring a different avenue for roster improvement and deserve applause. But no points for re-signing Manning, as he was not a free agent with an exclusive-rights franchise tag.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Williamson: “There could be an argument that the Jaguars overspent on [Paul] Posluszny, but this market is difficult to get a true handle on. And I do think Jacksonville has spent wisely in terms of which players it has brought in. Along with Daryl Smith, the Jaguars now have three very solid starting linebackers, and what was a weakness now looks to be a strength. They did spend a ton of money on second-level defenders, though. [Dawan] Landry is an excellent addition as an in-the-box safety type who also can cover tight ends (like Owen Daniels and Dallas Clark).

“Although Posluszny is an every-down linebacker, Jacksonville hasn't improved itself dramatically on defense against the pass in free agency. With Houston, and especially Indianapolis, in the division, that is a serious concern.”

Grade: C+

Kuharsky: I think that’s low. I like what they’ve done. I think a safety combination that won't include Don Carey will be better. Drew Coleman is a flexible veteran corner who should upgrade the nickel. And I think the front seven is much stronger, which should mean quarterbacks have less time.

Tennessee Titans

Williamson: “I very much understand that the Titans could not open the season with just Jake Locker behind center, and throwing their first-round pick to the wolves probably isn't a recipe for success. But I also don't see the infatuation with [Matt] Hasselbeck. He hasn't played well in two years; he is a major durability risk; and the Titans' interior offensive line is vastly overrated -- not a great situation for an aging signal-caller. Plus, Hasselbeck's skill set isn't similar at all to Locker's.

“[Barrett] Ruud is another overrated player, but I am not implying that he will be a liability as the starting 'Mike' linebacker. His tackle numbers just make him out to be a better player than he truly is. Ruud should provide valuable leadership to Tennessee's young linebacker corps. I also think [Jacob] Ford's best days could still be ahead of him. Still, the Titans might be worse on defense now than they were a year ago. [Daniel] Graham will be a big help as a blocker, but [Leroy] Harris and [Ahmard] Hall were disappointing blockers in 2010.”

Grade: C-

Kuharsky: I think a change of scenery will help Hasselbeck, and while I have concerns over the interior line, if two Hall of Famers (Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews) overseeing the group are confident it will play more like 2009 than 2010, I tend to give some benefit of the doubt. The defense remains a big concern.
Reading the coverage ...

Will lower rookie salaries invite a competing league? An interesting angle I had not considered from Scott Bolander.

Houston Texans

Wade Phillips looks to build on his track record for quick turnarounds, says Craig Malveaux.

Brad Maynard is the new punter, Ty Warren is getting a look, Lawrence Vickers is in play and Brian Cushing is almost back from January knee surgery, says John McClain.

It’s odd seeing so many quality players on the sideline for practice at this point, says McClain.

Given DeMeco Ryans' situation, Stephanie Stradley considers how guys come back from Achilles injuries.

Andre Johnson put the sell on Johnathan Joseph at Fred Bennett’s wedding.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts' offensive line is something to worry about, says Bob Kravitz.

Curtis Painter is the No. 1 quarterback while Peyton Manning is out, writes Mike Chappell.

Reggie Wayne said he would not be in camp if his contract was an issue, writes Chappell.

Chappell’s reserving judgment on Jamaal Anderson.

Blair White is on the PUP list and we don’t know the injury, says Tom James.

With Charlie Johnson gone, the Colts have to sign a veteran tackle, says Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

So far Blaine Gabbert looks the part of a franchise quarterback, says Gene Frenette.

The defense is being paid handsomely, says Vito Stellino.

Marcedes Lewis isn’t looking for Antonio Gates money, says Tania Ganguli.

Aaron Kampman says free-agent acclimation varies player to player, writes John Oehser.

Keep defensive expectations reasonable, urges Shane Clemons.

Tennessee Titans

Will Barrett Ruud be an upgrade over Stephen Tulloch? John Glennon considers.

The Titans re-signed a significant trio in Ahmard Hall, Dave Ball and Jacob Ford, says Jim Wyatt.

Kenny Britt is still out, says Wyatt.

Matt Hasselbeck learned early from Brett Favre. David Boclair asks if Hasselbeck can now do the same for Jake Locker.
Not long after he went public with his desire to get a reasonable deal done quickly, Peyton Manning got what he asked for.

According to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay’s tweet, Manning’s five-year deal is worth $90 million, with $69 million coming in the first three years.

Irsay said it cut the $23 million franchise tag number to a $16 million cap hit. That $7 million savings gives the Colts significant relief.

Manning said he didn’t need to be the highest paid player in the league, and the $18 million per year average matches Tom Brady.

Now the Colts will make decisions on how much to offer running back Joseph Addai and offensive lineman Charlie Johnson, the most significant remaining free agents.

The team had previously indicated it would be more interested in adding an outside free agent or two than usual if it’s possible. But that would run counter to the Colts' long-standing philosophy.

The team is thinnest at defensive tackle and linebacker, after the departure of Clint Session to Jacksonville.

Manning won’t be practicing Monday when the team kicks off camp. John McClain said the Colts are signing Dan Orlovsky, recently released by Houston, to fill out the quarterback spot with Curtis Painter and Nate Davis.

Peyton Manning conveyed a strong message to Colts owner Jim Irsay on Thursday and shared it with Mike Chappell on Friday: Spend elsewhere.
“While I appreciate Jim Irsay offering to make me the highest-paid player, I told him I’d rather he save that money and keep whoever it is . . . Joe Addai, Charlie Johnson, whoever that may be.

“I’m willing to take less than they’ve offered if they are going to take that money to keep players we need to keep and go get other players. All I want is for them to have the cap and the cash to keep the players they want to keep and to sign other players.’’

Colts fans will really like the “go get other players” part of that.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Brian Spurlock/US PresswirePeyton Manning said he's "willing to take less" if the Colts are going to retain key free agents.
Manning also instructed his agent, Tom Condon, and the Colts on his desired timetable: “Today, tomorrow, definitely by Sunday.” He said rumors swirling that suggested he’d asked for as much as $25 million annually did not start with him.

The Colts report to Anderson, Ind., on Sunday and begin practicing Monday, although Manning will not be on the field at the start, as he is still recovering from neck surgery.

“I told [Irsay and Bill Polian] my cap numbers can be as low as they want them to be in being creative with the salary cap,’’ Manning said.

Tom Brady’s contract averages $18 million a year. The franchise tag number currently connected to Manning is $23 million. Even a very big long-term deal will drive that down.

The new salary cap is $120.3 million, with an additional $3 million of wiggle room.

Chappell reports veteran right tackle Ryan Diem has been asked to trim his $5.4 million salary or be released. He also wrote that the team is in discussions with Addai and Johnson.

A Manning deal that doesn’t push the limits should be able to be completed in short order. And if the Colts want to be able to pursue one or two outside free agents, there will be fewer and fewer available as they sign in the coming days.

Manning is doing the Colts a huge favor here -- he's not obligated to help them manage their cap. By doing so, he has the potential to come across as heroic while also increasing his chances of winning a second Super Bowl.

A true win-win.

NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC South team:

Houston Texans

1. Finally fix the secondary: Not only was the Texans’ secondary awful in coverage last season, but it also needs some stabilizing veteran leadership on the back end of this revamped defense. A safety like Eric Weddle could help cure both issues. There are quite a few safeties in this crop of free agents who would be clear upgrades for Houston. Of course, we have to discuss Nnamdi Asomugha -- and the Texans should certainly be right in the thick of those negotiations. If they can’t land Asomugha, the Texans could pursue Johnathan Joseph or Ike Taylor, who could help fix some leaks.

2. Work the cap: Houston is pretty tight up against the cap as it stands right now. But the team has serious needs on defense -- particularly in the secondary. In order to get the help they need, the Texans might have to restructure a few contracts or let a current player or two go.

3. Lock up Vonta Leach: This offense pretty much has it all. Wideout Andre Johnson makes everyone around him better in just so many ways. And the running game was exceptional last season. But Leach is a key component in that running game. And no fullback opens holes like this guy. Houston should bring him back and dedicate the rest of its free-agent moves to the defense.

Top five free agents: Leach, WR Jacoby Jones, S Bernard Pollard, DE Mark Anderson and QB Matt Leinart.

Indianapolis Colts

1. Get Peyton Manning’s extension done: Manning has been franchised and had surgery again on his neck recently. But there is little doubt who the face of this franchise is. Getting him locked up long term is something that Indianapolis just needs to get done.

2. Get a starting safety signed: Melvin Bullitt is a free agent. He is a solid player, and bringing him back makes a lot of sense. Outside of Antoine Bethea, who is vastly underrated, Indy has very little at this position. The Colts need to get a starter under contract. Also on defense, bringing back linebacker Clint Session, who is a superb fit in this scheme, and adding defensive tackle help also should be priorities if they can fit it under the cap.

3. Add running back help: This could come in the form of bringing back the reliable Joseph Addai. Well, he is reliable when he is healthy. And Addai has a great grasp of the Colts’ offense. I am very high on 2011 draft pick Delone Carter and maybe the light goes on for Donald Brown. But the Colts do need someone in their backfield who can pass protect and can be trusted. In this capacity, Addai seems to be worth more to the Colts than to any other team.

Top five free agents: Manning (franchised), Session, Addai, Bullitt and OT Charlie Johnson.

Jacksonville Jaguars

1. Address holes at linebacker: Linebackers Justin Durant and Kirk Morrison are up for free agency. I would suggest bringing one of those two back and then finding an upgrade from a coverage standpoint at a starting linebacker position to go along with the steady Daryl Smith. James Anderson would be an excellent target, and if healthy, so would another Panther -- Thomas Davis.

2. Address holes at safety: Jacksonville featured one of the worst secondaries in football last season. The Jags tried many bodies at safety, but it yielded minimal results. This is a very strong free-agent safety class, and the Jaguars need to add a starter or two they can count on week after week.

3. Spend! The Jaguars have quite a bit of money to spend in free agency, and under the new rules, they will have to spend. This free-agency period is like none we have ever seen and the action could be fast and furious. Jacksonville needs to stay the course and make wise financial decisions as it tries to add players who can mostly upgrade a hurting defense.

Top free agents: Marcedes Lewis (franchised), WR Mike Sims-Walker, Durant and Morrison.

Tennessee Titans

1. Revamp the Interior offensive line: Although they didn’t play great in 2010, I have faith in the Titans’ offensive tackles. But the interior of the line is a train wreck. That won’t do with a rookie quarterback behind center and in an offense that will be extremely run-heavy. Chris Johnson had little room to run last season. That needs to change. Marshal Yanda and Harvey Dahl would be great targets here.

2. Add a veteran quarterback: Needless to say, the Titans cannot enter the season with just the quarterbacks they currently have on their roster. They must bring in a veteran with some experience. Donovan McNabb would be high on my list. Matt Hasselbeck might also fit the bill.

3. Fortify every level of the defense: Presently, Tennessee is very young at linebacker, just adequate at safety and could lose three of its defensive ends. Making matters more difficult, the team is also installing a different version of the 4-3 defense. The Titans do have some money to spend in free agency. It would be wise if they used those funds on young free-agent talent, as it appears this team is now rebuilding from the ground up. Every level of the defense could use reinforcement.

Top five free agents: DE Jason Babin, LB Stephen Tulloch, WR Randy Moss, DE Dave Ball and DE Jacob Ford.

Colts back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: Players were very hush-hush about player-organized team activities, but they did happen, with Peyton Manning spearheading the effort. Before his neck surgery, Manning had spent time with a lot of his targets, doing the sort of offseason route work that he said is key to much of what unfolds in games. Curtis Painter did the throwing during workouts after Manning had his neck operation. Reports say Manning won't be ready for the start of camp and could miss a large chunk of it, which will hurt the team's readiness.

Biggest challenge: Holding on to people. The team could conceivably lose running back Joseph Addai, linebacker Clint Session, strong safety Melvin Bullitt, versatile offensive lineman Charlie Johnson, defensive tackle Daniel Muir and kicker Adam Vinatieri. Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis are heading into the final years of their deals. The Colts also need to sort out high salaries for tackle Ryan Diem and corner Kelvin Hayden.

Medical report: We’ve heard good things about all the hurting Colts, but they need checkups from a slew of guys coming off injuries. It’ll start with Manning, whose surgery was in late May. Key guys who also ended last season on IR: tight end Dallas Clark(wrist), Bullitt (shoulder), Austin Collie (concussions), Jerraud Powers (arm), Hayden (neck) and Session (elbow).

Key players without contracts for 2011:Addai, Session, Bullitt, Johnson, Muir, Vinatieri.
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

If Vonta Leach leaves as a free agent, James Casey has the most to gain, says John McClain.

Examining what Steve Slaton might bring in a trade. I think the neck issue will scare a lot of teams.

Gary Kubiak talked with Mark Berman about his trip to visit troops in the Middle East.

Indianapolis Colts

How Robert Mathis quashed a story that went on to become big anyway, from Nate Dunlevy.

Charlie Johnson and Melvin Bullitt told Philip Wilson they want to remain with the Colts.

Devin Moore wants to be a Colt everyone can root for, says Wilson.

Defensively, the Colts were significantly better at home than on the road last season, says Stampede Blue. Some of these numbers are hard to comprehend. This has got to be a point of emphasis for Jim Caldwell.

A look at market values for free-agent cornerbacks from Brett Mock.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Blaine Gabbert has a fun friendship with Christian Ponder, writes Tania Ganguli.

The five key games on the Jaguars’ 2011 schedule, from John Oehser.

Maurice Jones-Drew still isn’t 100 percent.

Rookie prognostications on Rod Isaac from Brian Levenson.

Tennessee Titans

The lockout should close the door on Roger Goodell’s doghouse, says David Climer.

Who was a better fullback for Tennessee: Lorenzo Neal or Ahmard Hall? Andre Strickert considers.

I’m late to this: Eddie George and his wife are writing a marriage advice book.
If the new CBA takes the shape that’s currently being reported, unrestricted free agency would arrive after four years. That was the standard number for players with expired contracts to hit free agency until 2010 -- the final year of the old CBA -- when players needed to have six years of experience.

So Independence Day could arrive for players who were trapped by the rule change in the final year of the last deal.

Here’s a team-by-team look at notable players who stand to be unrestricted now who didn’t know what their fate would be in a new labor agreement.

Houston Texans

OT Rashad Butler -- Was not great playing filling in for four games for a suspended Duane Brown, but they like him as their third tackle.

WR Jacoby Jones -- Flashes make him appealing, inconsistency makes him dispensable if someone wants to pay him more.

QB Matt Leinart -- Likely to move on to a place where he can rank better than No. 3.

Indianapolis Colts

RB Joseph Addai -- Has more value to the Colts because of system fit, so perhaps he won’t get a more attractive offer elsewhere.

S Melvin Bullitt -- There are a lot of safety-needy teams in the league, including the other three in the AFC South and he’s very steady.

DT Antonio Johnson -- Probably would only rank fourth on the inside. Has not been real effective but team seems to like him.

OL Charlie Johnson-- Versatility makes him valuable, but like Addai he may not fit other teams as well.

DT Daniel Muir -- Could still rank as the second interior lineman depending on development of third-round pick Drake Nevis.

LB Clint Session -- The Colts have a long history of letting young linebackers move on and plugging in the next guy.

Jacksonville Jaguars

LB Justin Durant -- All indications are the team is ready to find a veteran linebacker in free agency to take his place.

QB Trent Edwards -- No hope of a return with David Garrard, Blaine Gabbert and Luke McCown on the roster.

TE Marcedes Lewis -- He’s franchise tagged and that’s expected to hold in the new agreement, so he won’t really become free.

P Adam Podlesh -- They could do better, they could do worse.

WR Mike Sims-Walker -- The team told him before the lockout they’d be going another direction.

Tennessee Titans

DE Jacob Ford -- The Titans know his situational pass rushing value but are also looking to beef up and emphasize stopping the run.

FB Ahmard Hall -- An important guy for Chris Johnson and a rock on a team with little leadership even if he’s not an every-down guy.

G Leroy Harris -- The team’s faith in him as the starter at left guard appears to be unwavering.

LB Stephen Tulloch -- I suspect his view of his value and the league’s view are quite different.

AFC South draft analysis

April, 30, 2011
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Quarterbacks are the faces of franchises. The 2011 draft gave half the teams in the AFC South facelifts.

What are the odds that both Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert pan out as long-term fixtures for their teams? Probably long. We’ll all be watching how and why they develop or don’t.

The two teams that already have known entities at quarterback worked hard to build up things around them. Peyton Manning gets better protection. Matt Schaub gets a revamped defense.

Front offices and coaching staffs usually work the phones to court undrafted free agents about now. With no CBA and the lockout back in place, no such signings will occur at this point. The three-day festival is over. We’ve got new classes to contemplate while we return to labor impasse fever.

BEST MOVE

All the Colts had to do was sit and wait. Then with what happened in the first 21 picks of the first round, they found themselves in a scenario unlike any they’d played out in their draft preparations. one in which Boston College offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo was available.

Need met value, and the Colts added a player who’s probably the biggest immediate impact player in the AFC South. It’ll be a major upset if Castonzo isn’t the starter at left tackle on opening day. If Indianapolis retains Charlie Johnson or if he doesn’t become an unrestricted free agent, he could move inside to guard and the Colts could get better at two spots.

It will mean more time for Manning to work and more room for the Colts' stable of backs to run. Expect years of review about how things came together so nicely at No. 22 for the Colts in 2011.

RISKIEST MOVE

The Titans took Locker, a quarterback who didn’t throw well from the pocket and didn’t throw accurately while at Washington. He’s a super-likeable kid who will work hard for Mike Munchak, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and quarterback coach Dowell Loggains.

They can love everything about him, but can the things about him that are not right be made right? If so, it will look like a genius move. If not, the franchise will forever hear how it took Locker over whichever quarterback taken after No. 8 pans out.

It’s a giant pick for general manager Mike Reinfeldt and a giant coaching job for Munchak and his staff. All of them will be linked to Locker’s success or failure for a long, long time.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Mark J. Rebilas/US PreswireThe Jaguars will have time to develop Blaine Gabbert behind current starter David Garrard.
If you need a quarterback and see one that you like as a value, I say go get him. I don’t know if Gabbert’s going to be a great quarterback for Jacksonville. There is built-in risk with any quarterback in the draft. But I like how the Jaguars believed Gabbert was a value at No. 10 and did what they needed to do to move up from No. 16 to get him. I never would have predicted a trade up.

There will be a ton of debate about just when Gabbert should get into the lineup with David Garrard in place. But as Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said, that’s part of the fun of all of it.

The Jaguars are rebuilding around draft picks. It makes sense to get a quarterback to put into the middle of it all. In two or three years, if they have been selecting well, they can really challenge. And there is always a chance of a team maturing ahead of schedule.

FILE IT AWAY

The Jaguars expect to add two to four players to the defense in free agency and clearly plan to address linebacker through that avenue. Corner, safety and defensive end are all possibilities too.

But their nickelback could be in place. William Middleton held the job last season, and it sounds as if he’ll face some serious competition from fifth-round pick Rod Isaac from Middle Tennessee.

“I’m in that group of people in the building that are very excited about the tape that I saw,” Del Rio said. “We brought him in for a visit, he was very good in the visit. The tape is excellent. He’s a very aggressive corner. We think he can come in and help us, contend for the nickel spot and certainly help us with the multiple wide receiver sets that we face, whether it’s three wide or four wide. You need somebody that can come in and help you do those things. He is a physical player, he’s an aggressive player, he ran pretty well. The tape is fun to watch on this player. We like him and he was definitely a guy that was below the radar. Which is OK by us.”

Bill Polian’s spent a first-round pick on an offensive lineman for the first time in his 14 drafts running the Colts.

Castonzo
Castonzo

Anthony Castonzo out of Boston College should offer an immediate upgrade in Indianapolis. He’s likely to step in at left tackle and replace Charlie Johnson, protecting Peyton Manning's blind side while hopefully also offering a boost to the run game.

Smart and dependable are words attached to him in virtually every review. Smart is a prerequisite for a Colts offensive linemen and dependable is a necessity with Manning’s health at issue if a Mario Williams gets a free shot at him.

Johnson did admirable work the last few years. But he was part of a patchwork operation that has yet to fully recover from the retirement of Tarik Glenn before the 2006 Super Bowl-winning season. Polian traded up for Tony Ugoh, drafting the Arkansas tackle in the second round in 2007 but cutting him after three middling years when he couldn’t win and hold a lineup spot.

Johnson may be a free agent, but he’s a player the Colts probably like as a guard or a versatile sub if they can retain him.

Ryan Diem, the right tackle, slipped last season and will likely have to fight to keep his spot. Jeff Linkenbach could be the big challenger there, or Castonzo could start out on the right.

Another second-year man, Jacques McClendon, might fight his way into a guard job as the Colts revamp the unit.

And Indianapolis could still draft another lineman in the next two days.

In general, we expect too much from late-round picks. (And from overall draft batting averages.)

In a recent conversation with former Denver general manager Ted Sundquist, he pointed to an article he once read in Ourlads by Joe Landers. Apologies, I couldn’t find the link.

“Using some common sense and a little investigative research, you'll find that it's rare, at least according to Landers’ study, to find a cornerback or running back or wide receiver that's really going to help you in the last three rounds,” Sundquist said. “And yet you'll find teams constantly take a reach on one of these positions.

“Evidence shows you're more likely to find a defensive tackle, offensive lineman, safety or tight end in the later rounds. Why? Most conventional wisdom says don't draft a safety or tight end high due to escalating rookie salaries and the going market at the position. As for defensive tackles or offensive linemen, it’s probably because of the greater numbers at the position. Both circumstances force down talented players at those positions.”

I went back and combed over the AFC South drafts since 2002, to see how many picks they spent on each side of the ledger Sundquist sets forth and how often the Colts, Jaguars, Texans and Titans did well with a fifth-, sixth- or seventh-round pick at those spots. This is, of course, highly unscientific. Metrics guys can probably shred it. But I thought it worth fiddling with.

Notables are players who played significantly, even if it’s been with another team, or recent picks who appear on track to contribute.

Houston Texans

WRs, RBs. CBs: 9

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 14

Most: Six safeties, four receivers, corners and defensive tackle

Notables: Colts

WRs, RBs. CBs: 7

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 13

Most: 13 offensive linemen

Notables: Jaguars

WRs, RBs. CBs: 12

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 9

Most: Five receivers, four offensive linemen

Notables: Titans

WRs, RBs. CBs: 14

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 16

Most: Seven offensive linemen, six wide receivers

Notables:
Of the notables from the division drafted since 2002, 73 percent (19) have been from the positions Sundquist says teams should concentrate on late while 27 percent (seven) play positions he believes should generally be avoided.

I'd be fine with the Titans not wasting yet another late pick on a receiver and with the Texans using late-rounders on something other than corners and receivers for sure. But it's not like Houston's spending late picks on safeties or the Colts use of such selections on offensive linemen have paid huge dividends either.

I'd love to read your thoughts.
Virtually every prognosticator is giving the Indianapolis Colts a first-round offensive tackle, and Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo, Colorado’s Nate Solder and Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod could all be nice fits.

Much has been made of vice chairman Bill Polian’s comment during the 2010 season about how Rodger Saffold, a tackle the Colts passed on who went on to play quite well for St. Louis, could have helped for Indianapolis.

But Polian said that comment got misshapen as it was repeated.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Johnson
Stew Milne/US PresswireColts tackle Charlie Johnson played hurt for most of the 2010 season.
“What I said was, if I’d know we were going to suffer all the injuries we had on the offensive line, we might have looked at things differently in terms of the draft,” he said. “Because when you are drafting as low as we were, there isn’t a lot of difference between the players. I said, ‘You know, you could make the argument that we should have taken Rodger Saffold instead of the player that we took.’

“That’s what I said. It’s been construed very differently. What I meant was, if foresight were 20-20, we probably would have taken an offensive tackle. But it isn’t and that’s the point. This is an inexact business.”

(I thought the use of “the player” as opposed to “Jerry Hughes” was both Parcellian and a little odd.)

The Colts certainly had banged up people playing on the line all year, but by my count there look to have been just five starts missed to injury through the regular season and playoff loss. The injuries were far more severe elsewhere in terms of lost games.

Indianapolis has spent 12 picks on offensive linemen since realignment in 2002. Only one, guard Jake Scott from 2004’s fifth-round, qualified as an outright hit. He moved to Tennessee as a free agent in 2008 and helped pave the road for Chris Johnson's 2,000-yard season in 2009 before dropping off last season.

The franchise hasn’t used a first-round pick on a lineman since 1997, when Tarik Glenn was the choice. That was the year before Polian joined the franchise.

Only two of the Colts’ dozen offensive line picks since 2002 have been higher than fourth-round selections. They traded up to take Tony Ugoh in the second round in 2007 and he wound up busting. They took Mike Pollak in 2008 and he was an OK starter at right guard in 2010 based on the team’s concerns at other spots.

The presumption is offensive line is viewed as an issue in-house and that to maximize the chances for the Peyton Manning-led Colts to claim another Super Bowl, they need to offer him better protection and be able to block better for a tough yard from a running back.

But going in that direction would mean at least a minor philosophy change for Polian when it comes to draft emphasis at the position.

I don’t know if we should jump there considering Polian’s assessment of the Colts’ line play in 2010. The team started seven different offensive linemen with left tackle Charlie Johnson playing banged up all season and Kyle DeVan pushing Jamey Richard out of the left guard slot.

“Now I thought our offensive line, given all that happened with injuries, did very well," Polian said. "As it turns out, Jeff Linkenbach came in as a collegiate free agent and ended the season as a starter and did quite well. So those things work themselves out.”

Linkenbach started one game at left tackle, three games at right guard and the playoff loss to the Jets at right tackle.

Here we can connect Mel Kiper’s recent piece ranking the “vulnerability scale” of the NFL’s 12 best teams. Kiper ranks the Colts at moderately to extremely vulnerable for a big fall.
“Seemingly every win after September was a close battle and Manning was the difference. Injuries killed the Colts in 2010, but even with Manning upright, they couldn't run the ball, they were barely hanging on defensively and even now there are a number of personnel needs. The offensive line and defensive interior need help, and the team didn't get hurt in a spot I thought could have hurt it most in an injury situation -- the pass rush, if either Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis was out. Indianapolis could easily prove me wrong, as Manning alone seems like spackle enough for a whole roster. But this team felt like it was on the edge all of 2010.”
With the draft slated to take place ahead of free agency, how will teams determine their needs if they don't know whether they will be able to retain their own guys with expiring contracts?

Colts vice chairman Bill Polian said he’ll take a worst-case scenario approach.

I asked him, as an example, whether safety ranks as a Colts draft need considering Melvin Bullitt could be an unrestricted free agent if a new CBA is struck.

“I think you have to go into the draft and say, ‘Anybody who’s out there [as a possible unrestricted free agent] is not coming back,'” Polian said. “Now, that’s for draft purposes. Don’t misconstrue what I am saying. That’s for purposes of evaluating players in the draft.

“We hope like the devil to get Melvin Bullitt back. I don’t know if we will or we won’t.”

I feel certain that thinking doesn’t apply to Peyton Manning, who isn't under contract for 2011 but who got a franchise tag before the CBA expired.

Elsewhere, Polian's comment gives us some insight into what Indianapolis may be looking to address in the draft.

Among the Colts’ potential free agents to-be are running back Joseph Addai, left tackle Charlie Johnson, linebacker Clint Session, defensive tackles Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir and kicker Adam Vinatieri.

The Colts probably have enough at running back and linebacker even without Addai and Session. Maybe there is a blue-chip guy too good to resist, but otherwise a late pick to help ensure depth could suffice. But offensive line is a primary need even if Johnson returns and a big defensive tackle could be an upgrade over Johnson or Muir.

Of that group, only Vinatieri will be unrestricted if the lockout is lifted by the courts and the NFL imposes the most recent set of rules. In that scenario, players need six years rather than four to reach unrestricted free agency.

If things revert to 2010 rules ...

March, 14, 2011
3/14/11
12:27
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If the NFLPA wins an injunction that stops the lockout, Mark Maske reports the NFL’s intent will be to stay with to the rules of 2010 -- with no salary cap and tougher criteria for free agency.

If players need six years instead of four to be unrestricted, it will hold back some key players in the AFC South, restricting their ability to move and tying them to restricted free-agent tender offers.

The Titans and Texans officially announced their tenders, the Colts had several reported and all indications were the Jaguars, who had only a couple candidates, stayed away from the process.

Who will be held back in such a scenario?

It would be a great landscape for the Colts.

Here’s a team by team look at how 2010 rules could affect 2011 teams:

Houston

The team would control the movement of four players it likes: Receiver Jacoby Jones, defensive end Mark Anderson, offensive tackle Rashad Butler and quarterback Matt Leinart.

Jones is a player they would like to keep, and while he did not pan out last season the way they hoped, retaining him could eliminate or reduce the one need we can find when looking through their depth chart -- a potentially dynamic receiver beyond Andre Johnson.

Leinart was a third stringer behind Matt Schaub and Dan Orlovsky. But he could have value in a league where a lot of teams have holes at quarterback.

Indianapolis

The Colts will fare far better at holding their roster together in this scenario, as it gives them extended control of six players who could hit the market if four years of service was the standard: running back Joseph Addai, offensive lineman Charlie Johnson, defensive tackles Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir, strong safety Melvin Bullitt and linebacker Clint Session.

Five of those players could be in the starting lineup on opening day and all of them would play significant roles. Bullitt and Session are the most likely to be attractive to other teams if they come free, and Bullitt could create a hole the team would have to address through the draft or free agency.

Jacksonville

The two key players the team could hold on to with a tender would be linebacker Justin Durant and punter Adam Podlesh. But all indications were the team didn’t give either a tender offer.

Tennessee

I expect the team will be happy to hold on to fullback Ahmard Hall and guard Leroy Harris. Though Harris was part of interior line issues last season, his position coach, Mike Munchak, is now his head coach and has said he believes those issues can be fixed by the incumbents. Hall was not as good in 2010 as he’d been, but is a good blocker who’s a respected leader.

Jacob Ford could be the sort of guy the Titans move away from as they’ve talked of beefing up at defensive end, but they tagged him.

No one in the division will be more upset to see things pan out this way that middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who was unhappy he didn’t reach the market last season. I think he’d feel like a prisoner if he’s back under a tag without a long-term deal. I also suspect, even with 32 teams as possibilities, he wouldn’t land the deal he thinks he would.

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