AFC South: Dan Orlovsky

Some Colts fans have been in touch, confused about the awarding of compensatory draft picks. The Colts were awarded one pick, the final pick of the draft (No. 254).

But in the league's formula that figures out who gets what in terms of the extra draft selections, Indianapolis didn't actually "earn" a pick. Compensatory picks add the equivalent of one round worth of selections to the draft. When there aren't enough awarded by the formula, the league adds picks for the near misses until it gets to 32.

One thing many people forget is that many of the biggest losses for the Colts were released. Only players who reach free agency with expiring contracts count here. So Peyton Manning, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Gary Brackett and Curtis Painter were all let go and didn't factor in at all.

According to the NFL, these are the players who did factor into the equation for compensatory draft picks for Indianapolis.

Players lost: Jamaal Anderson (Cincinnati), Pierre Garcon (Washington), Dan Orlovsky (Tampa Bay), Jeff Saturday (Green Bay), Jacob Tamme (Denver), Philip Wheeler (Oakland).

Players signed: Guard Mike McGlynn, defensive tackle Brandon McKinney, defensive end Cory Redding, center Samson Satele, quarterback Drew Stanton and safety Tom Zbikowski.

Stanton counted despite the fact that the Colts traded for him, because he was signed by the Jets as a free agent in 2012 before that deal. A player with such circumstances is part of the formula.

Garcon was the lone giant contract on either side of that ledger, and apparently the Colts did enough to offset that signing with what they brought in.

Here's the league's language explaining the process.
Under the rules for compensatory draft selections, a team losing more or better compensatory free agents than it acquires in the previous year is eligible to receive compensatory draft picks.

The number of picks a team receives equals the net loss of compensatory free agents up to a maximum of four. The 32 compensatory choices announced today will supplement the 222 choices in the seven rounds of the 2013 NFL draft (April 25-27), which will kick off in prime time for the fourth consecutive year.

The first round will be held on Thursday, April 25 and begin at 8 p.m. ET. The second and third rounds are set for Friday, April 26 at 6:30 p.m. ET followed by rounds 4-7 on Saturday, April 27 at Noon ET.

This year, the compensatory picks will be positioned within the third through seventh rounds based on the value of the compensatory free agents lost.

Compensatory free agents are determined by a formula based on salary, playing time and postseason honors. The formula was developed by the NFL Management Council. Not every free agent lost or signed by a club is covered by this formula.

Two clubs this year (Indianapolis and the New York Giants) will each receive a compensatory pick even though they did not suffer a net loss of compensatory free agents last year. Under the formula, the compensatory free agents lost by these clubs were ranked higher than the ones they signed (by a specified point differential based upon salary and performance).
Before the start of the 2012 NFL season, I spent an evening writing some overdue notes.

Like Sal Paolantonio of ESPN, who has a book on thank-you notes in the works, I have a thank-you-note rhythm. I don’t write them nearly as frequently as Sal Pal. But when players, coaches or executives leave teams I cover, I strive to touch base, thank them for dealing with me, wish them well and say I hope we meet again.

I wrote a dozen or 15 notes, some brief, some beefier, before the guys who left the AFC South started up somewhere else.

One guy wrote me back. And I was not at all surprised to find an envelope with a Ravens logo as part of the return address and a note from Jim Caldwell.

He’s as steady and as nice a guy as you’ll meet, not just in the NFL but anywhere.

And with his success guiding Baltimore’s offense in its build-up to the Super Bowl, and no minority hires in eight filled coaching jobs, there are calls for him to get a second chance, like this one from my colleague Ashley Fox.

If Baltimore’s offense and Joe Flacco are good again in 2013, I’d certainly expect Caldwell to draw interest.

[+] EnlargeJim Caldwell
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyJim Caldwell's success with Baltimore's offense might get him on the radar, but his head-coaching bona fides are hardly indisputable.
And I’m not saying he’s unworthy.

But he inherited a great team from Tony Dungy in 2009 and had Peyton Manning lead the way to the Super Bowl, where his team was favored and lost -- and of which one overriding opinion was that Caldwell was outcoached by New Orleans counterpart Sean Payton, who surprised the Colts with an onsides kick to open the second half.

In 2010, Caldwell had another playoff team, and a questionable Caldwell timeout set up the Jets for a surprise victory at Lucas Oil Stadium.

And in 2011, as Manning recovered from neck surgeries and the Colts crumbled, Caldwell stuck with Curtis Painter as the replacement quarterback far too long when Dan Orlovsky turned out to be a far better option.

Caldwell was in a difficult situation with Bill Polian over him. That the guy running the Colts was so strong made the coach weak, and such weakness isn’t a quality from a three-year head-coaching resume that will make other teams want to hire Caldwell.

He can lead men and convey themes, and that is hard work.

But he could be conservative at the wrong times. He wasn’t always a great clock manager. He didn’t make good fourth-down decisions on when to punt, try a field goal or go for it. His public image was one of a pushover on a team with Polian and Manning really running things. His choices for defensive coordinator (Larry Coyer) and special-teams coach (Ray Rychleski) didn’t produce great results and Polian prompted the firing of Coyer with five games left in 2011.

Unsurprisingly, after Polian was fired and Ryan Grigson took over as general manager, he let Caldwell go and hired Chuck Pagano.

Pagano and his offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, did great work in overseeing a rebound from 2-14 to 11-5 with a great new quarterback in Andrew Luck but also with a roster lacking in several areas.

Could Caldwell be a very good NFL head coach in the right circumstances? Perhaps. But while a good stretch as offensive coordinator with a hot team might enhance his best qualities from his three years as head man in Indy, it doesn’t wash away the stuff he did wrong in Indianapolis.

It hardly makes him an automatic hire or success.

He certainly should have to explain that bad in-game stuff as he sells himself for a second chance. If he gets it, I sure hope he's not under a strong GM's thumb.

On Matt Schaub and the clutch question

September, 13, 2012
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Matt SchaubBrett Davis/US PresswireHouston's Matt Schaub knows his reputation as a QB will be defined in the postseason.
The concept of clutch might fade away, but if it does, I think it will take a generation or two.

It remains a giant piece of our sports consciousness: Does a player fare well at the biggest moments of his biggest games? If he does, we treasure him. If he doesn’t, we hold him in contempt.

Sabermetricians will tell you there really is no such thing as clutch when it comes to quarterbacking. Or more precisely, a good quarterback is good in most situations and a bad one is bad in most situations.

“Baseball analysts have generally dispelled the idea of the clutch hitter, a player who routinely raises his game in late and close situations,” Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders wrote in 2009. “Now it's time to retire the myth of the clutch quarterback. We looked both at conventional NFL passer rating and our advanced metrics, and there was no year-to-year correlation in the difference between a quarterback's overall performance, and his performance when the game was on the line.

“It apparently matters not that clutch situations in the NFL feature an element that baseball players don't have to worry about: clock management. Bad QBs overall, such as Kyle Orton, are bad in the clutch. Good QBs overall, such as Ben Roethlisberger, are good in the clutch. Same goes for backs and receivers.”

Nevertheless, the two biggest questions that hang around the neck of Houston quarterback Matt Schaub are: Can he stay healthy? And is he clutch?

With regard to the second question -- after he recently signed a four-year contract extension worth $62 million, including $24.7 million guaranteed -- the answer from a lot of us is: He had better be.

Based on his résumé so far, if we’re still buying the conventional definitions, the answer has to be we don’t know yet. He’s won games in big moments. He’s lost games in big moments. And because he missed the stretch run and playoffs last season because of a right foot Lisfranc injury, we simply haven’t seen him enough in the big settings to know.

I talked with Schaub and several of his teammates about this during the preseason. Though he might have cause to be a bit defensive about a subject that is brought up so often, I think his thoughts on the issue were on point.

“Yeah, I missed the playoffs last year,” he said. “Had I been in there, we’d know a lot more. I know what I am capable of, I’m confident in my abilities had I been out there. But there have been games in my tenure here where we needed to go down late and score and we were able to do it. Now there are games where it didn’t fall on the right side of the coin for us and we lost …

“It’s about doing it in January and February in this league, and until we do that, you’re always going to have people that talk about things like that. You’ve just got to go out and play and get your team there.”

I asked Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information for evidence that Schaub is, or is not, clutch.



Hawkins also provided these two nuggets:

  • From 2007 to 2011, Schaub is one of 13 quarterbacks who has been credited with at least 10 game-winning drives. That’s as many as Tom Brady (although Brady missed the 2008 season), but it’s also four fewer than David Garrard, who didn’t play in 2011.
  • Since 2007, in 31 games the Texans lost or won by no more than seven points, Schaub threw for 9,201 yards. Only Philip Rivers, Drew Brees and Tony Romo had more passing yards in such games. But in those 31 games, the Texans were just 16-15.

Is that 16-15 record on Schaub? Only partly. We’re coming to realize that quarterback wins, like the concept of clutch, are a flawed way to measure the player's success. A guy can play great and not have enough around him to win. He can play poorly and benefit from a running back or a defense and win. One missed assignment can lead to a strip sack and a fumble that lose a game. One diving catch of a misplaced pass can save the day.

The expectations in Houston are high. The Texans are a team that should be in the playoffs. Schaub should guide them there. If and when he does, we’ll get much more evidence about his ability to perform in the NFL’s biggest moments.

Schaub’s top weapon, receiver Andre Johnson, said he thinks clutch for a quarterback has come to be too narrowly defined.

“I think you have to be clutch to be a successful quarterback,” Johnson said. “But there are different ways you can be clutch in the game of football. It may be a drive where you just need to hold the ball and run the time out on the clock, just making that key pass or putting the offense in the right play to get that first down. I mean, that’s clutch. It’s not always just going down and scoring the game-winning touchdown. I think that’s where people get caught up a lot of the times.”

I can’t talk of Schaub and the clutch question without thinking back to Dec. 10, 2010. The Texans were behind by three touchdowns to Baltimore on a "Monday Night Football" game at Reliant Stadium. Schaub helped rally the team to force overtime with fourth-quarter touchdown drives that covered 99 and 95 yards.

Backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky watched Schaub complete 31 of 61 passes for 393 yards and three touchdowns and called the effort “superhuman.”

But under pressure from defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in his own end zone in OT, Schaub threw a poor pass to Jacoby Jones. Josh Wilson picked it off, ran 12 yards with it and had a game-winning touchdown.

So he was clutch ... until he wasn't.

Schaub is a better quarterback now, and he’s running a better team.

Bigger chances for clutch performances should arrive.

The Texans, with the contract they just gave him and the things they say, expect he’ll show up big in the big games.

“If you want to base it off his regular-season games, he’s had clutch performances when need be at certain times,” center Chris Myers said. “That’s the one position where there is going to be the most scrutiny. He’s the leader of the team, and we go as he goes, and Matt understands that.

"The coaches understand that Matt’s the guy, or they would have gone in another direction, and we understand as an offensive line and offense that he is the leader of our team. I will take him taking snaps from me any day over any other quarterback.

“Granted, he hasn’t made it to that spot in the playoffs yet. Unfortunately, that injury prevented him from it last year … He’s ready. We’ve just got to get to that point.”
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans coaches might be serving Derrick Morgan very well by playing practice-squad journeyman Pannel Egboh ahead of him some and stoking his competitive fires.

I don’t think they served him well with their explanations of the move. Mike Munchak talked of it simply being part of seeing more guys in the mix. Funny how the Titans feel compelled to test the mix there, but not so much with right guard Leroy Harris or No. 2 cornerback Alterraun Verner?

[+] EnlargePannel Egboh
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMIPannel Egboh, right, doesn't care what his role is, as long as he makes Tennessee's 53-man roster.
Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray went with a different kind of copout. He talked about how he had five starters at defensive end.

A 2010 first-round pick not qualifying as a clear-cut starter would amount to a negative development, no matter the spin. But Morgan started against Tampa Bay, played plenty on first-and-10 and notched a sack of Bucs backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky, so maybe the mixing it up at his spot is over.

I’ve heard from someone who would know that Egboh against the run serves Gray’s theme of getting guys on the field for the situations they are best at, and that the Titans view Egboh as a guy who needs encouragement and Morgan as a guy who might need a kick in the backside.

To his credit, while complimenting Egboh, Morgan disagrees entirely with idea that they need different treatment to maximize their production.

“I don’t need extra motivation, I have enough motivation from within and my own expectations,” Morgan said. “I don’t know what they were doing, but I’m just worried about getting better. … I want to be on the field. I’m not here to be a specialist. I’m an all around player. I feel like I’m solid against the run.”

Said Egboh of my theory that there is psychology involved in what the Titans have done with him and Morgan: “You’re getting way too deep for me.”

Here’s another concern I have with the idea of Egboh as a first-down run-stuffer. The NFL ran the ball 52 percent of the time on first down last season, and 51.1 percent of the time on first-down against the Titans. (Thanks to Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats and Info for the numbers.)

If the Titans want Egboh to give Morgan a break on run downs, then maybe they ought to consider pulling Morgan when a second-and-short comes up.

Egboh did say his feedback from coaches has been all positive.

Asked if he thinks he’s the starter, he said “absolutely not.”

But he did allow for the possibility that he’s going to make the 53-man roster. He spent part of 2009 on Houston’s practice squad, and part of 2010 on the practice squad in Philadelphia. Then 2011 he worked the whole season on Tennessee’s practice squad.

If he breaks through this time …

“It’ll mean everything, but I’ve thought about it, and when I do it, it’s just the beginning,” he said. “It’s one little accomplishment, but I’ll have a whole season to play. My No. 1 goal right now is to make the 53. But after that I’ve got to celebrate it quickly and move on and get ready to play 16 games.”
ANDERSON, Ind. -- What’s next?

As the Indianapolis Colts begin a new era, the centerpiece of change is Andrew Luck.

The impressive rookie quarterback has been sitting in meetings, running through every piece of the offense. Coaches are always looking for acknowledgement that a player gets it before moving forward. Coaches often circle back and go over something again and again and again, but Luck has helped them pick up the pace.

“Everything we’ve given him to this point he’s been able to handle,” coach Chuck Pagano said. “He’s one of those guys that’s probably got a photographic memory or something like that. Because he just gets it. It’s not like you’ve got to come back and repeat something and give it again and give it again.

“The coaches will sit there and they’ll be installing the offense and they’ll be like, ‘Are you with me, do you understand it?’ And he’s like ‘Yeah, yeah, next thing up, next thing up.’ As a coach you’re always looking for affirmation: 'Do you understand? Do you get it?' He’s, ‘Yeah I’ve got it, what’s next? Yeah, I’ve got it, what’s next?’”

What’s next in bigger terms is a preseason debut Sunday against the St. Louis Rams at Lucas Oil Stadium, the continuation of training camp and the buildup to the Sept. 9 opener at Chicago.

As rebuilding teams around the league wonder if they’ve got the right quarterback, the Colts can skip right past that fundamental question.

Luck’s exceptional maturity extends to the practice field as well.

"The day I got him a couple times (with interceptions) at practice, he came up to me and [Antoine Bethea] and said, ‘If I’m tipping off anything presnap or y’all get any read off me during the course of a play, please let me know,’” said the Colts' top cornerback, Jerraud Powers. "'And just let me know if there is any way I can help y’all.'

“That right there, for a guy to be so young and able to realize that, it shows you what type of guy he’s going to be.”

Such interplay was completely natural for Luck.

“It’s been nice to talk to Antoine and Jerraud, maybe once a week, once every two weeks,” Luck said. “Any help I can get as a rookie that doesn’t know the ropes, I’ll try to take it.”

That timetable for learning the ropes is going to be the most interesting thing about the 2013 Colts.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDwight Freeney
AP Photo/Michael ConroyLongtime defensive lineman Dwight Freeney will be adjusting to a new position in Chuck Pagano's 3-4 scheme.
1. How will Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis fare as outside linebackers? The transition is bigger for Mathis than Freeney. Per Mathis, he will be in the role Jarret Johnson played in the Ravens defense (now filled by Paul Kruger), while Freeney will be in the Terrell Suggs role. (Courtney Upshaw’s there now, while Suggs is out after shredding an Achilles.)

That means far more of an adjustment for Mathis, who will regularly be dropping into coverage as the strongside linebacker, while Freeney will be moving forward from the rush linebacker spot. They are great, veteran football players, and a smart defensive coach like Pagano would not put them into roles that take away their strengths.

But it will take a lot of repetition for them to break old habits and operate in different ways and hop around. Both are excited about being less predictable and expect big production as a result of the element of surprise. The energetic Mathis seems invigorated by the change as he talks enthusiastically about an “exotic” defense after playing in what could fairly be called a bland Tampa-2 scheme in recent years.

2. Can they run? Whether they try a bell-cow approach or a committee, it’s hard to envision Donald Brown, Mewelde Moore, Vick Ballard and/or Delone Carter providing the level of run-game output that Pagano and his staff keep emphasizing.

Also, will a patchwork offensive line with at least three new starters be able to make room for those backs? The Colts gained size with the addition of center Samson Satele, right guard Mike McGlynn and right tackle Winston Justice. But simply being bigger doesn’t complete the change to playing bigger. This is a team that has long had a smaller, more mobile, more finesse line and offensive mentality.

It’s yet another transition to be monitored, and one that was hard to read in the early days of camp.

3. Where is the depth? With massive roster turnover, the Colts could only do so much replenishing with one draft class and minimal money to spend in free agency. They didn’t get much done in terms of big-time additions at cornerback or on the offensive line.

Even if they manage to be alright at those spots in the starting lineup, the depth is very poor. When they suffer injuries and guys miss games, will they have quality backups?

Maybe they will on the defensive line. Maybe there are young options at receiver or running back. Otherwise, they’ll be facing some big problems. Good health would be a big help, but you can never count on that.

Sixty percent of the Colts' 90-man roster right now is new to Indianapolis. That can be a great thing when you’re talking about Luck, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, T.Y. Hilton, LaVon Brazill and Cory Redding, but it’s not great when you’re talking about backups.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

Chuck Pagano and Jim Irsay and Ryan Grigson
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThere's nowhere to go but up for the Colts' new regime: Chuck Pagano (left), Jim Irsay (center) and Ryan Grigson (right).
There is nowhere to go but up. Last year was a complete cave-in, and after a 2-14 year with Peyton Manning sidelined by a neck injury, owner Jim Irsay decided it was time for a restart. He booted the powerful head of the organization, Bill Polian, and ultimately changed coaches, too.

Enter general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano. Manning was let go, and Luck arrived via the No. 1 overall draft pick.

It’s a fresh start in virtually every respect, and the team is swallowing a huge chunk of dead money this year. While no one wants to concede anything, the franchise more or less is playing with house money this year. Things will be better than last year, and as long as the Colts show growth, improvement and direction, it’s 2013 that will be big. That's when they’ll have money to spend on free agents and a second draft class with which to further restock.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Change can be slow. The expectations are high for Luck, but it’s a big transition, and beyond Reggie Wayne, we aren’t sure about his weapons. We have no real idea about how several groups will produce, especially the corners, offensive line and running backs.

While Houston has shown a transition to a 3-4 can be successful quickly, it’s far more common for a team to take time to adjust. The Colts don’t have nearly as many pieces who are natural fits for the scheme as the Texans did. Pagano wants a defense that looks like Baltimore’s, but it will take time to reshape things to fit that model.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Beyond Powers, we can’t be certain the guys who will play corner on opening day are on this roster yet. Maybe it’s Justin King and Cassius Vaughn, but the Colts will certainly be looking at other options who become free agents. Powers and others in the group have rallied around each other, which is what you want. You also want the group to turn over if it needs upgrading.
  • It’s hard to tell much at all about the running game at this point. But Pagano is determined for the Colts to run effectively, to ease pressure on Luck and the defense and establish a physical tone. Brown’s been touted as an every-down back, but it may be more encouragement/hype at this point. He’d like that role but will take whatever he’s given.
  • Antonio "Mookie" Johnson is the lead guy at nose tackle, with Brandon McKinney behind him. Johnson’s up 10 pounds to 330, but the Colts aren’t looking for a mere space-eater. Like the Texans last year in their first incarnation of the 3-4, Indianapolis can be fine without a dominant tackle. And when they go to nickel, they’ll basically look like a 4-3 again, with Freeney and Mathis creeping up to the line, sandwiching Redding, who is likely to kick inside, and perhaps tackle Drake Nevis.
  • I jokingly proposed a pool to the Colts' beat writers with the money to be collected by the guy who prompted anyone within the organization to say anything remotely negative about Luck. They said it would have to exclude Luck himself. That’s great. When you’re the linchpin of an organization and everyone is going to constantly rave about you, even if it’s deserved, you do yourself a great service by being consistently self-critical.
  • Austin Collie is starting off as the No. 2 receiver in a base offense that now features two tight ends. But he will move around, spending time outside and in the slot when the Colts put an extra wideout on the field.
  • One spot that probably hasn’t gotten enough attention as a depth concern is quarterback. The Colts saw how much a bad backup plan can hurt last year, with Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky trying to fill Manning's shoes. Now, Drew Stanton is the guy behind Luck, and he wasn’t very good in the camp practices I watched. Will they look to upgrade as third quarterbacks around the league come free? Or will they feel like camp work for Stanton gives him an experience advantage?
  • I’m not sure how much the tension Polian cast over the organization reached players, but there is certainly a looser atmosphere around the team. When players' families sat on a hillside during a recent practice, one regular observer pointed out how they never would have been allowed there under the previous regime. Minor difference? Maybe, but I think a team with a broader circle of trust and more emphasis on family -- a Pagano and Grigson theme -- can be a healthier environment.
  • Watch Brazill as a punt coverage gunner. He’s had a lot of hands-on work with new special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf.
  • Allen looked excellent in early camp. He will move all over the place as part of Bruce Arians' two-tight end scheme and, like Fleener, can be an impact guy early.
» AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Colts in 2012.

Dream scenario (8-8): I consider this a pretty optimistic dream, but since we’re dreaming …

This one would require exemplary rookie seasons from quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen and at least a few others from the new regime’s first class.

But beyond that, they’ll need several guys from the old regime to play far better in a new system than they did in the old one for which they were better suited.

Donald Brown or Delone Carter will have to run effectively, for example. From a pool of returning cornerbacks, including Chris Rucker, Kevin Thomas, Terrence Johnson and Brandon King, they need to find at least a nickel, and that presumes the guy they just traded for, Cassius Vaughn, will be the second starter. (If I am playing against the Colts, with that collection of defensive backs, I’m trying to get them in dime.)

Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis prove to be pass-rushing demons as outside linebackers in a 3-4 base set in which they are coming from less predictable spots and forcing quarterbacks into all kind of mistakes. Their play offsets the questions at other spots for the defense and helps set up Luck and the offense with good field position.

Nightmare scenario (2-14): Yes, it’s possible the first year of the Ryan Grigson-Chuck Pagano regime matches the last year of the Bill Polian-Jim Caldwell one.

The Colts will face Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler in 2012. But if things go badly, plenty of second- and third-tier quarterbacks will also shred a patchwork secondary that added only safety Tom Zbikowski in free agency and Vaughn in a trade and got no help in the draft.

The defense can prove to have too few quality pieces to run a 3-4 or a 4-3 effectively, and if it’s giving up a lot of points, Luck will be dropping back a lot to try to lead comebacks. If a line of leftovers and castoffs can’t consistently fend off rushers, there will be trouble.

Should Luck get hurt and miss any time, the team will look to Drew Stanton or seventh-round pick Chandler Harnish. Either one is likely to leave fans pining for the halcyon days of Dan Orlovsky.

Also damaging would be the Texans' ability to stay good and improvements from Tennessee and Jacksonville. The Colts got their two wins last season against the Titans and Texans late in the year.

AFC South free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
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» AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Houston Texans

Key additions: None.

Key losses: OLB Mario Williams, RG Mike Brisiel, CB Jason Allen, TE Joel Dreessen, RT Eric Winston (cut), ILB DeMeco Ryans (traded), FB Lawrence Vickers (cut), QB Matt Leinart (cut).

Keepers and finance: Not everyone got away. The Texans managed to keep two very important players. They re-signed running back Arian Foster before he reached restricted free agency. And after he'd explored the market some, they struck a deal with unrestricted-free-agent center Chris Myers, a vital piece to a line that lost the two starters on the right side when Winston was cut and Brisiel bolted to Oakland.

Ryans was not a full-time player in the 3-4 defense, and his price tag was high. While Houston takes a $750,000 hit this season, he’s cleared from the books in the future. That will help the team as it tries to make sure players like outside linebacker Connor Barwin and left tackle Duane Brown don’t get away like Williams did.

What’s next: Depth paid off in a big way in 2011 as the Texans managed to win the division and a playoff game despite major personnel losses. At several spots, like on the offensive line and at corner, the draft will serve to replenish the roster with the same kind of insurance.

But the Texans are not without need.

While they are likely to stick with Jacoby Jones as part of the team and like Kevin Walter, a more reliable and dynamic weapon to go with Andre Johnson at receiver is something they acknowledge wanting. A third outside linebacker can reduce the high-snap strain on Barwin and Brooks Reed. While they hope Rashad Butler will replace Winston and Antoine Caldwell will take Brisiel’s spot, adding a guy who can compete for one or both of those spots would be healthy.

Indianapolis Colts

Key additions: DE Cory Redding, WR Donnie Avery, C Samson Satele, S Tom Zbikowski, G Mike McGlynn, RT Winston Justice (trade), QB Drew Stanton (trade).

Key losses: QB Peyton Manning (cut), WR Pierre Garcon, TE Jacob Tamme, C Jeff Saturday, TE Dallas Clark (cut), LB Gary Brackett (cut), S Melvin Bullitt (cut), RT Ryan Diem (retired), WR Anthony Gonzalez, QB Dan Orlovsky, CB Jacob Lacey (not tendered), QB Curtis Painter (cut), DE Jamaal Anderson, G Mike Pollak.

So much we don’t know: We know background on coach Chuck Pagano and his coordinators and we know what Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson have said. But there will be a degree of mystery well into the season about what they intend to run and with whom. It’s unlikely to be a sweeping transition to a 3-4 defense, as it takes time to overhaul the personnel. But as they play a hybrid defense and move toward a conversion, they’ll need more than they’ve got -- starting with a nose tackle.

On offense, they’ve said they’ll use a fullback. That’s a major departure from the previous regime. And we don’t know if a Donald Brown-Delone Carter duo at fullback will be sufficient to run behind. They need help virtually everywhere after the cap purge and free-agency turnover. Not everything will get addressed as much as they’d like in their first offseason.

What’s next: I expect more role players like Zbikowski and McGlynn, more castoffs like Justice and Stanton and more guys who are presumed finished by a lot of teams, like Avery.

They are all guys who didn’t cost much but who have upside and can help, at least as role players. And if they don’t pan out, it’s hardly a death blow to Indianapolis' major, long-term plans. Money is limited with big dead-money charges and a $19 million cap hit for defensive end Dwight Freeney the team has indicated it's willing to carry.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Key additions: WR Laurent Robinson, CB Aaron Ross, QB Chad Henne.

Key losses: DT Leger Douzable (did not tender).

Keeping their own: The Jaguars did well to hold on to players who have been valuable to them. The top of that list belongs to safety Dwight Lowery. They traded with the Jets for him before last season, shifted him full time to safety and got good work from him before he was hurt. It was crucial for the team to stay fixed at the position where it was horrific in 2010 before signing Dawan Landry and adding Lowery.

They also re-signed defensive end Jeremy Mincey, a great effort defensive end who was overextended in terms of playing time last year. He’s no sack-master, but he’s going to bust it on every play, break through sometimes and make the opponent work hard to stay in his way. And with the lack of quality defensive ends who hit the market, the Jaguars did well to keep him from jumping to Chicago.

What’s next: Receiver has to be addressed beyond a change in position coach and the addition of Robinson. If it’s not in the first round, it needs to be early. The franchise is trying to maximize Blaine Gabbert’s chances to be a franchise quarterback, and few would be able to establish themselves with the current cast of wideouts.

The Jaguars are a top pass-rushing end away from being a top-flight defense. Can they find him seventh overall in the draft? They could tab someone like South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, though it’s hard to say he or any rookie would be an immediate solution. Most ends need some time to become impact guys in the league.

The Jaguars could certainly look to add in the secondary free-agent market and when players are set free late in training camp.

Tennessee Titans

Key additions: DE Kamerion Wimbley, RG Steve Hutchinson.

Key losses: CB Cortland Finnegan, DL Jason Jones, WR Donnie Avery.

Sidetracked: Did the Titans miss out on real chances to sign either Scott Wells, who went to St. Louis, or Chris Myers, who stayed in Houston, as their new center because they were focused on chasing quarterback Peyton Manning? Perhaps. But when the owner declares that his executives and coaches need to put the hard sell on an all-time great QB with roots in the team’s state, that’s what you do.

Ideally, the team will still find an alternative to Eugene Amano. If the Titans find a new center to go with Hutchinson, who replaces free agent Jake Scott in the starting lineup, the interior offensive line could see a big improvement. That could have a big bearing on running back Chris Johnson, provided he takes care of his own business.

What’s next: The Titans think Wimbley will excel as a full-time defensive end, but they can’t afford for him to be too full time. He’s a smaller guy who’s played mostly as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and shouldn’t be asked to play every down of every game. That means they still need more help at end, where the only other guys they have right now are Derrick Morgan and Malcolm Sheppard.

Look for them to address depth at corner -- where they feel fine about Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner as the starters, if that’s how it falls -- as well as at receiver. One wild-card spot could be running back. Are they content with Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper as changeups to Johnson, or would they like to add a big back?

Addition and subtraction

March, 18, 2012
3/18/12
1:29
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A free-agency roundup for the AFC South so far. We're not including a team's own free agents that it has re-signed:

Houston

Additions: None

Subtractions: OLB Mario Williams (Buffalo); RT Eric Winston (cut, Kansas City); CB Jason Allen (Cincinnati); G Mike Brisiel (Oakland); QB Matt Leinart (cut); Lawrence Vickers (Dallas).

Indianapolis

Additions: DL Cory Redding (Baltimore); RT Winston Justice (trade, Philadelphia); S Tom Zbikowski (Baltimore); C Mike McGlynn (Cincinnati).

Subtractions: WR Pierre Garcon (Washington); WR Anthony Gonzalez (New England); QB Dan Orlovsky (Tampa Bay); QB Peyton Manning (cut); LB Gary Brackett (cut); S Melvin Bullitt (cut), TE Dallas Clark (cut).

Jacksonville

Additions: WR Laurent Robinson (Dallas); QB Chad Henne (Miami).

Subtractions: ST-WR Kassim Osgood (cut).

Tennessee

Additions: G Steve Hutchinson (cut, Minnesota).

Subtractions: CB Cortland Finnegan (St. Louis); DL Jason Jones (Seattle).

What I'd do if I ran the Colts

March, 1, 2012
3/01/12
2:17
PM ET
The money isn’t mine. I’m not certain about what you can afford and what the market will pay when free agency opens on March 13. I’m not positive about your plans and schemes.

But I’ve got a good sense of your team. We've looked at the free-agent list.

And here’s what I’d try to do with your major issues:

1) Tell Peyton Manning thanks for everything. Say we had every intention of you playing out your career with the Colts, but the chances of all these elements aligning -- his health questions, a new GM and coach, the top pick and Andrew Luck’s availability -- make it impossible. Maximize your graciousness.

2) Assessing what will be available in the draft, or a relatively inexpensive free agent or two you’d like to grab, then franchise either defensive end Robert Mathis or receiver Reggie Wayne accordingly. Both will have great chances to move on in free agency, and you can’t afford to move forward without them, either. You can make a case either way -- Mathis would be a great piece in a transformation to a 3-4; Wayne would reliably be in place to convert third downs for a young quarterback.

3) Convince defensive end Dwight Freeney to sign an extension. You have to drive down his $19 million-plus cap hit and his $14 million-plus base salary for 2012. But cutting him would be awfully painful, especially if Mathis is getting to free agency. If Freeney has to go because of cost, then Mathis has to be tagged and Wayne is likely lost.

4) Look for cost savings with these players: Tight end Dallas Clark ($7.32 million cap hit, $4.53 million base), middle linebacker Gary Brackett ($7.4 million cap hit, $5 million base), running back Joseph Addai ($4.3 million cap hit, $2.9 million base), and safety Melvin Bullitt ($3.7 million cap hit, $2.4 million base). Brackett and Bullitt are now injury prone and I don't know if you can count on them. But just cutting them won’t necessarily save money as accelerated bonus cost could produce a cost approaching their scheduled cap numbers. Same with Addai, who may not fit with a new run philosophy.

5) Let receiver Pierre Garcon walk. The guy is a blazer who will make a good amount of big plays, but he’s not guaranteed reliable in big moments. The sort of drops and gaffes he’s capable of can really mess with a team trying to build confidence and he'll be overpaid by the market.

6) Try to get Jeff Saturday to sign up for one more year. He’d be a great influence on Luck and a young team and could help get a group of young linemen ready to protect the new centerpiece and to block for a newly emphasized run game.

7) Re-sign reserve quarterback Dan Orlovsky, tight end Jacob Tamme and receiver Anthony Gonzalez cheaply if you can. Orlovsky can spot start if need be and it’ll be difficult to find a quality backup who wants to come to be No. 2 to Luck. Tamme has quality hands. Gonzalez was highly rated not too long ago and a doghouse visit under the last regime will make him affordable. It’s worth trying to keep them around at reasonable cost and they are unlikely to draw significant offers elsewhere.

8) Let three other free agents walk: linebacker Philip Wheeler, guard Mike Pollack and tackle Ryan Diem.
INDIANAPOLIS — Adam Schefter reported that Indianapolis Colts receiver Pierre Garcon, a free-agent-to-be, passed on a five-year contract offer from the team.

[+] EnlargePierre Garcon
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireThe Colts would like to retain Pierre Garcon, a four-year pro who has played his entire career in Indianapolis.
Not knowing details of the money makes it difficult for us to offer a complete interpretation of what such a development means.

But the nugget of news still tells us a few important things:

  • New GM Ryan Grigson is to the point where he’s evaluated what he’s got and made some judgments on who he’d like to retain. And Garcon is on the list.
  • Garcon expects to find something better on the open market, which could prompt the Colts to boost their offer.

Garcon will bring a receiving corps a jolt of speed, and virtually everybody seeking help at the position covets a guy who can stretch the field and impact the way defenses play.

He’s been a streaky player, and his good games and stretches have been very good. But he can put up duds, get mixed up with his quarterback and muff the sort of crucial pass that can change a game.

One thing that can’t be used as a strike against him is that he’s a product of Peyton Manning, since he led the Colts with six touchdown catches as he caught 70 passes for 947 yards with Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky at quarterback.

I’d rate him as a risk with a big money contract, but also think he’s worth a shot as a No. 2 on the right team with the right offense, the right quarterback and the right No. 1.

The Colts need him and could beef up their offer and continue to try to get a deal done before free agency opens March 13. Also, defensive end Robert Mathis is also a franchise-tag candidate. That would cost about $10.05 million. If he hits the market, he’s going to field calls from a ton of teams.

Receiver Reggie Wayne is also heading for free agency. Indianapolis can keep one with a franchise tag of around $9.4 million. Lose both and they’re down to Austin Collie — a very good player who shouldn’t be asked to be a team’s top guy — and Blair White as their wideouts under contract.

Some analysts will be tempted to rate Garcon as having more upside than the aging Wayne as the Colts prepare to draft Andrew Luck. But I’ve been chatting with colleagues about it. That deep threat is nice, but isn’t a guy who will reliably convert third-and-7 more valuable for a young quarterback?
Early thoughts on some key Colts scheduled to become unrestricted free agents come March 13.

Thanks to Mac’s Football Blog, where you can find complete team-by-team lists that include exclusive right and restricted free agents.

QB Kerry Collins – He may not have filed paperwork, but he’s retired.

QB Dan Orlovsky – Showed enough to be on a roster in the league as a third quarterback in a crowded situation or a backup somewhere with a sure-fire starter.

WR Pierre Garcon – He’s inconsistent, but this team needs a speed receiver for Andrew Luck and it’s better to keep the one they’ve been developing than going searching.

WR Anthony Gonzalez – Was completely in the doghouse at the end and could not get on the field. Probably needs to sign for a season, in Indy or elsewhere, and prove he can be healthy and contribute.

WR Reggie Wayne – Has said he’d stay and be honored to be part of a rebuild, but they’d have to be fair. Other teams will court him and somebody will pay him better than the Colts would if they pursued him, I suspect.

TE Jacob Tamme – Was quite a good receiving option for Peyton Manning in 2010, but how much of that was Manning? I think Tamme is a valuable piece they should want back and can certainly afford.

OT Ryan Diem – Did well to serve as a veteran example for a young line and was flexible, playing some guard. But his time is going to be up.

OG Mike Pollak – Has played a lot and not gotten a lot better. They got new tackles last year; it’s time for a new guard or two.

OC Jeff Saturday – If Manning is gone, it would make sense to turn the page with Saturday, too. Reportedly the Colts and at least one other team would like him in their front offices.

DE Robert Mathis – Will be a commodity, for sure. Never mind his age. He can help you rush the passer for the next three years. Colts should want to keep him, but will they pay what he costs?

LB Philip Wheeler – If the Colts are getting bigger on defense, they’ll probably move on here. He’s consistently failed to get in or stay in the lineup for extended stretches in a defense for which he’s better suited.

Other UFAs:
The buzz is growing that the Colts are going to stick with Jim Caldwell as their coach.

Mike Chappell senses it. Phillip B. Wilson thinks the Colts would be fooling themselves.

Caldwell
Caldwell
I think if new general manager Ryan Grigson retains Caldwell it will be in large part because owner Jim Irsay convinced him to. If Peyton Manning is back, having Caldwell and the offensive staff in place will make things far smoother. But continuity is a hard thing to sell as relevant when the thing you're looking for carryover from is branded with a 2-14 record.

As Wilson points out, there will be a giant fan backlash.

The Colts can’t make a decision based on that. But with a chance for 2012 to be a fresh start, they have to know that sticking with the coach who was at the helm for a disaster won’t be well received at a time when they could make a move and regain a great deal of support.

Caldwell takes too much grief, I believe. He had more to do with the Super Bowl run in his first season that he gets credit for. The 10-6 record the following injury-plagued year was a big accomplishment. The biggest thing going for him now is that he held together a team that should have burst like a piñata at a 5-year-old’s birthday party.

But consider this: Irsay has said that Caldwell has admitted mistakes in coaching hires and clock management. With a franchise that was under the thumb of Bill Polian, the coach didn’t have a ton of decision-making power. And in two big departments -- hiring and managing a game, he failed.

He also failed to alter the Colts’ approach dramatically enough when it became clear what they could not be without Manning. And he consistently stood in front of a microphone and talked about how Curtis Painter was improving when everyone knew he was not. Dan Orlovsky should have replaced him sooner.

That’s a long list of errors that, when weighed against holding a team together and being a good man, would seem to sway the scale against him.

If the team announces in the next couple days that he’s staying, I hope Grigson and Irsay will talk about how those things come to balance in their judgment.

And if Caldwell’s back, I hope he loosens up in the post-Polian era and proves to be a better coach.

Colts regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
1:00
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» NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 32
Preseason Power Ranking: 9

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesWithout Peyton Manning the Colts went from playoff contender to the worst team in the NFL.
Biggest surprise: Even without rehabilitating Peyton Manning (neck), few figured the the Colts could go 0-13 and wind up 2-14 with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. We can’t say how much better these Colts could have been with their four-time NFL MVP in the huddle, but he clearly masked a lot more issues than many knew. The offense tried to be more run-based but didn’t make it work well enough. Typically allergic to fullbacks, they used three different ones but ran worse with a fullback on the field than without one. The secondary was poorly constructed and couldn’t endure injuries and it became clear how bad a fit Jim Caldwell’s hand-picked coordinator, Larry Coyer, had become for the Cover 2 scheme the Colts like to run.

Biggest disappointment: Quarterback play was awful. Kerry Collins, Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky were terrible as the alternatives to Manning at quarterback. They combined to average 6.04 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, while absorbing 35 sacks. A lot of the good numbers were compiled late in blowouts. The Colts' 26.9 combined QBR was better than only the Jaguars and Rams. The team tied an NFL record by going eight full games without ever holding a lead.

Biggest need: The Colts need help at all sorts of positions, starting in the secondary. Before team vice chairman Bill Polian was dismissed he was saying the team needed an infusion of youth that could contribute to converting third downs on offense and stopping them on defense. But until a new general manager is in place and we know the coaching staff and scheme, we won’t know which veterans they should aim to keep and which ones they should let go. So new leadership at the management level is the top need following the dismissal of Polian and GM Chris Polian. From there, a verdict on Manning’s health and future and a decision on whether to keep the No. 1 pick and what to do with it will hang over the franchise.

Team MVP: Pat Angerer slid to middle linebacker from the strong side after Gary Brackett suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the season opener in Houston. Angerer proved to be a tackling machine who consistently shed blockers and covered ground despite the fact that the defensive line in front of him and the secondary behind him often didn’t play reliably enough. He made a team-high 148 tackles. Brackett now appears dispensable.

System status: For the Polian-Manning era the Colts built a Manning-centric, fast-moving, no-huddle offense that caught defenses in bad personnel groups and regularly scored in the final two minutes of the first half of the game. It was paired with a bend-don’t-break Cover 2 defense that aimed to limit big plays and produce situations that allowed a duo of premier pass-rushers to tee off on quarterbacks who had to drop back. With regime change coming, will system change come too? The odds seem low that Bill Polian’s successor will put a similar premium on smaller, speedier defenders.

Wrap-up: Jaguars 19, Colts 13

January, 1, 2012
1/01/12
6:14
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Thoughts on the Jaguars' 19-13 win over the Colts at EverBank Field:

What it means: At 2-14, the Colts clinched the No. 1 pick in the April draft, a selection virtually everyone believes will and should be used on Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. The Jaguars, meanwhile, got to send off original team owner Wayne Weaver with a victory as the team changes hands to Shahid Khan this week.

What I liked, Jaguars: Maurice Jones-Drew secured a single-season franchise rushing record and the NFL rushing title with a season-high 169 yards on 25 carries. He was virtually unstoppable and made it clear there was no scenario in which the Jaguars cared about what draft pick the Colts would wind up with.

What I didn’t like, Colts: After two great weeks of defense in two wins, the tackling of Jones-Drew was just horrible. And quarterback Dan Orlovsky returned to turnovers, throwing two picks and showing no clock in his head on Jeremy Mincey’s strip sack.

What I wonder: Is there any way Jim Caldwell, an honorable man who had a very bad year at work, is not part of Black Monday when coaches lose jobs?

What the Jaguars won despite: A 3.2 average gain per pass play when they averaged 5.4 yards per rush and no touchdowns in four trips into the red zone, which produced just nine points.

What’s next: In Indianapolis, a verdict on Caldwell and the Polians followed by months of speculation about whether the Colts really want to keep Peyton Manning and draft Luck. In Jacksonville, a change of team ownership and a coaching hire.

AFC South Stock Watch

December, 27, 2011
12/27/11
1:00
PM ET
» NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. The Houston Texans' confidence: They will say otherwise, but coming off of two bad losses the Texans have to be wondering about themselves. They got pushed around by Carolina, and their vaunted defense fell apart in the final minutes, allowing the Colts to drive to a game-winning touchdown. I was among those questioning this team’s mental makeup coming into the season. I thought they’d answered that question resoundingly as they ran away with the division. Is it creeping back in now?

2. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ dealings with tight ends: Marcedes Lewis will be a headliner on the AFC South All Disappointment Team, and if not for Chris Johnson, he’d be the captain. Saturday in Nashville, he pulled up on one ball across the middle for fear of a hit from notorious thumper Michael Griffin, the Titans safety (#sarcasm). On the other end, the defense let Tennessee’s Jared Cook run wild. The coverage call on Cook’s 55-yard touchdown pass that sent the safeties wide and left middle linebacker Paul Posluszny covering Cook deep down the middle was disastrous.

3. The Houston Texans’ third-down offense: On last week’s list, it was third-down defense. The Colts allowed them just one conversion in 10 chances, and that one came on a pass that bounced off Antoine Bethea twice. This team can win with games centered on defense and the run game. But if the offense can’t convert third downs and stay on the field for some extended drives, the strain on those two areas becomes too much and the margin of error shrivels.

RISING

[+] EnlargeIndianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne
Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIREIndianapolis Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne stepped up in last Sunday's win against Houston.
1. Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis Colts wide receiver: He talked leading up to the Colts' home finale about wanting to go out with a bang in case it turned out to be his last game as a Colt at Lucas Oil Stadium. I saw one early route where I thought his effort was questionable. But he sure cranked it up as Dan Orlovsky threw his direction 14 times. He pulled in eight receptions for 106 yards and cradled the game-winning touchdown after a 1-yard catch that provided the winning margin for Indianapolis in its second consecutive win. He’s heading toward free agency and it’s clear he can still produce. How much longer is the question.

2. The Tennessee Titans’ discipline: Mike Munchak has preached discipline from his first day as the Titans coach. Saturday, when he didn’t get a postgame question about a penalty-free performance, he didn’t leave the podium before jokingly pointing it out. It was the first time the franchise didn’t draw a flag in a game since 1972. Meanwhile the Titans benefited from six calls against the Jaguars that gave Tennessee 28 yards and three first downs.

3. Jared Cook, Tennessee Titans tight end: Following the best game for a tight end in franchise history -- 169 yards -- he’s in range of the franchise record for tight end receiving yards in a season. He’s a receiver-like threat who I believe has been under-used by offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck since Kenny Britt went down early in the season. Cook killed the Titans with a lost fumble in the loss at Indianapolis. The effort against the Jaguars was an excellent rebound. The Titans need to find ways to get him the ball Sunday at Reliant Stadium.

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