AFC South: Donnie Avery

Rapid Reaction: Kansas City Chiefs

January, 4, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- A few thoughts on the Kansas City Chiefs' 45-44 loss to the Indianapolis Colts:

What it means: The 2013 Chiefs are among history's most infamous playoff teams. The Chiefs led 38-10 early in Saturday's third quarter before an epic collapse. The blown lead of 28 points is the second-biggest in NFL playoff history, behind the 32-point margin coughed up by the Houston Oilers against the Buffalo Bills in 1993. The Chiefs lost their eighth consecutive playoff game in a streak dating back 20 years.

Stock watch: Quarterback Alex Smith set a franchise record for touchdown passes with four. The touchdowns went to four different receivers. Joe Montana held the old record of three, in Kansas City's most recent playoff victory, in January 1994 against the Oilers. But Smith lost a fumble in the third quarter with the Chiefs ahead 38-17, and it led to an Indianapolis touchdown. Wide receiver Donnie Avery left the game late in the first half with a concussion and caught only one pass, a 79-yard touchdown in the second quarter that gave the Chiefs a 17-7 lead, their first double-digit advantage of the game. They never led by fewer than 10 points until the fourth quarter. Outside linebacker Justin Houston had a sack and a fumble recovery in his first game since suffering a dislocated elbow Nov. 24 against San Diego. Nickel safety Husain Abdullah had two interceptions. After missing the potential game-winning field goal attempt in the final seconds of Sunday's game in San Diego, Ryan Succop made all three of his tries.

Concussion for Charles: The Chiefs lost running back Jamaal Charles on their first possession with a concussion; they still scored a franchise record for points in a playoff game without him. His backup, rookie Knile Davis, scored on a 4-yard run in the second quarter and a 10-yard catch in the third quarter. Davis left the game with a knee injury in the fourth quarter, leaving Cyrus Gray and Dexter McCluster to finish the game at running back. The Chiefs also lost starting cornerback Brandon Flowers to a concussion. Houston injured his leg late in the game and did not return.

What's next: The Chiefs lost five of their final seven regular-season games before collapsing against the Colts.

Something will have to give when the Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs meet in an AFC wild-card playoff game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday.

The Chiefs have lost seven straight playoff games, tying them for the longest playoff losing streak in NFL history. The Colts have lost three straight wild-card playoff games.

This is the second time the teams will meet in a three-game period. The Colts, who are on a three-game winning streak, beat the Chiefs 23-7 at Arrowhead Stadium on Dec. 22. Colts reporter Mike Wells and Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher break down the matchup.

Teicher: The Colts were wobbling coming into Kansas City a couple of weeks ago but seem to have righted themselves that day. What can you point to as the reasons?

Wells: Most fans would say it's because of quarterback Andrew Luck. Don't get me wrong, Luck has been as good as expected, but the change has been led by the defense. The Colts have 12 sacks and have forced eight turnovers, including four against the Chiefs in Week 16, during their three-game winning streak. That's where Luck and the offense come in. You give Luck a short field to work with, and the odds are pretty good that he'll lead the Colts to a score. They scored a quick 17 points in the first quarter against Jacksonville last week.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid decided to rest most of his starters against San Diego in the finale. Do you think that was the right thing to do?

Teicher: Undoubtedly. The Chiefs didn’t get a bye in the playoffs, but Reid created one for eight defensive and seven offensive starters who didn’t play against the Chargers. I would expect that to be reflected in how those guys play against the Colts. Momentum going into the playoffs is overrated. The NFL is such a week-to-week deal that it’s almost impossible for a team to carry anything over from one game to the next, and even at that, the starters were able to get in some practice time last week. Not that this is a huge thing with the playoffs beginning, but the Chiefs got a good look at some of their backups under game conditions against an opponent that needed to win. In several cases, they liked what they saw.

Donald Brown was the Colts’ playmaker against the Chiefs a couple of weeks ago. He obviously is fast and has more power than you would think by looking at him. Why don’t the Colts use him more as their featured back and why did they trade for Trent Richardson?

Wells: Brown took over the starting spot from Richardson against Tennessee on Dec. 1 because Richardson was having a difficult time finding a rhythm. I still think the Colts made the right move in trading for Richardson, because Brown has been inconsistent for most of his five seasons with the Colts up until now. Richardson is still the future for the Colts; they have no intention of parting ways with him after the season. They still envision him and Luck having a great future together. And Brown said it best earlier this week, “There are only a handful of teams that only use one running back. We’re going to need two, three running backs to get through the playoffs.”

Speaking of running backs, it looked like Jamaal Charles was going to have a huge game against the Colts (not that 106 yards is a bad game) after the first series. He ended up with only 13 carries. How come the team’s best player didn’t have more carries or more catches, for that matter?

Teicher: Reid messed up that one and he beat himself up for it afterward. You can count on that not happening again this time around. Charles was given the ball 18 times (13 carries, five receptions) against the Colts two weeks ago. That actually wasn’t a season low for him. He had 16 touches (and a monster game) the week before in Oakland and 18 touches in two other games (both Chiefs losses). Another thing to remember is the Chiefs had only 53 offensive plays against the Colts, their second-lowest total of the season. They didn’t have the normal amount of opportunities to get him the ball. But whether or not the Chiefs have a limited amount of snaps on Saturday, they will get him the ball more often. He’s their best offensive player, so they’re making a huge mistake if they don’t.

Linebacker Jerrell Freeman is another player who had a big game for the Colts when they played against the Chiefs. Has he had other games like that this season? Give us a little scouting report on his strengths and weaknesses.

Wells: You have to credit Colts general manager Ryan Grigson for finding Freeman. Grigson is known for finding players in different parts of the world. He’d probably go to Antarctica to scout if there were a football team there. Freeman is a former Canadian Football League player. He led the Colts in tackles as a rookie and would be the team’s defensive MVP if not for a player named Robert Mathis. Freeman reached double figures in tackles in 12 of the 16 games this season. He has no problem being matched up against a running back out of the backfield, a tight end or even a wide receiver if he has to, because he’s athletic enough to defend them. An argument could be made that Freeman deserved a Pro Bowl nod.

This is not a knock against Charles, but how come the Chiefs had a running back lead them in receiving this season? I would have said Dwayne Bowe led them in receiving if you asked me to take a guess on their leading receiver this season.

Teicher: It’s a number of factors. The Chiefs wanted to use Charles more in the open field and get him in favorable one-on-one matchups, and it’s easier to do that by throwing him the ball. Ideally, the Chiefs would go down the field to their wide receivers more often, but Bowe, Donnie Avery and Dexter McCluster haven’t been able to get open consistently and have delivered few plays. Quarterback Alex Smith has tended to do the safe thing and opt for the checkdown to Charles rather than take a chance down the field. It’s something the Chiefs will need to correct next season. They’ll find another receiver or two in the draft or through free agency.

Chris Johnson, Dontari PoeAP Photo With Jake Locker out, Chris Johnson,left, may see his workload increase. It'll be up to Dontari Poe and the Kansas City defense to contain him.
Raise your hand if you figured a Week 5 matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tennessee Titans in Nashville would feature teams with a combined 7-1 record.

If your hand is up, you’re likely fibbing.

In his first season in Kansas City, Andy Reid has already doubled last season’s win total. In his third season as the head coach of the Titans, Mike Munchak appears to have a revamped team on a good course.

ESPN Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher discuss the teams they cover in advance of the game.

Teicher: Jake Locker was obviously playing well but he won’t be available to the Titans on Sunday. What do the Titans lose without him in their lineup and how will their offense change, if it does, with Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback?

Kuharsky: Well, they won't have him running around as much, though he’s more mobile than one might think. But they haven't used Locker on bootlegs and roll outs so much as they might eventually, as they've been going against 3-4s. They moved away from Matt Hasselbeck in March as he was too expensive for a backup, and they were eyeing Fitzpatrick as they made that move. He’s a smart guy, obviously, and has been a good resource for Locker. He entered the Jets game with the Titans holding a big lead and he said his job was simply not to screw it up. He knows his job changes now for however long Locker is out. Fitzpatrick wasn't on a good team in Buffalo, but he turned the ball over way too much. The Titans are 3-1 in large part because they have not turned the ball over at all yet. The Titans are confident in their system and that Fitzpatrick will be able to keep the trend going.

Alex Smith is a minimal-mistake guy, too. How conservative has he been in Reid's offense?

Teicher: Smith opened things up a little more, went downfield a little more against the Giants on Sunday. Most of their long pass plays from the first three games had been of the catch-and-run type, but he has completed some passes down the field. The Chiefs actually have more pass plays of 20 or more yards (14) than their opponents (10). Smith threw his first two interceptions of the season Sunday, but you could argue that neither one was his fault. On the first, Dwayne Bowe ran a lazy slant route and allowed the cornerback to cut in front and make the catch instead. The other interception was deflected by Jamaal Charles, who accidentally kicked it straight to a defender. The throw wasn't a great one, it was slightly behind Charles, but the interception wasn't Smith’s fault. Going down the field a lot doesn't play to Smith’s strengths. He doesn't throw a great deep ball. His strengths are good decision-making and accuracy on shorter routes.

Big plays have hurt the Chiefs in the running game, but Chris Johnson is averaging fewer than 3.5 yards per carry. Is he still capable of exploiting KC’s run defense or are his best days behind him?

Kuharsky: He's definitely still capable of stellar runs. The Titans have faced some stiff run defenses, particularly in Pittsburgh and against the Jets. They rebuilt the interior of the offensive line, but the new threesome hasn't jelled as quickly as they may have expected. And Johnson will benefit from surrendering some carries to the bigger, better-in-short-yardage Shonn Greene, but Greene's been out since early in the opener with a knee injury that required a scope. He could return this week. Tennessee has run it 55 percent of the time, and Fitzpatrick and the Titans could look for that to go up.

Charles isn't just the Chiefs' top rusher, he's their top receiver. If the Titans can control him, how much will they improve their chances?

Teicher: A lot. In the passing game, no other receiver has stepped forward as a consistent threat for the Chiefs. Bowe has scored a couple of touchdowns, but otherwise, his numbers are way down. He’s just not getting open a lot. The other starting wide receiver, Donnie Avery, had a big game against the Eagles in Philadelphia but has otherwise produced little. Likewise, Dexter McCluster had a nice game last week against the Giants, but otherwise has given them almost nothing. The Chiefs are hurting at tight end. Of their top three tight ends at training camp, one is out for the season while the other two are injured and didn't play last week. In the running game, the Chiefs don’t trust anyone but Charles. They drafted Knile Davis in the third round this year, but between fumbles, lining up in the wrong place and running the wrong play, they can’t count on him for much.

The Titans are a lot like the Chiefs in that they are living off a nice turnover differential. The teams are tied for the league lead at plus-9. What’s it going to look like for the Titans when that begins to balance out?

Kuharsky: Not only are the Titans tied with Kansas City with the league-best plus-9, but Tennessee's plus-9 includes zero giveaways. Odds are this team is due to lose a fumble or throw a pick, and Fitzpatrick is more likely to get picked off than Locker, though he should be less inclined to force anything in this system than when he was pressing in Buffalo. But this is a big piece of what they want to do -- play mistake-free and capitalize on mistakes they help prompt.

Looking at the stats, I see the Chiefs are giving up 5.4 rushing yards a clip. Johnson once ran a mile for a touchdown at Arrowhead and then played the drums he found on the sideline to celebrate. Defensively, what's the best plan of attack for the Titans' offense?

Teicher: He played the drums well, too, as I recall. The Titans need to be patient with the running game. They need to stay with it even if they get behind early or it isn’t working well. If they give up on it early, it’s probably going to be a long day for Fitzpatrick and the offense because the Chiefs are relentless in getting after the passer. They have the players and the schemes to make it work, so the last thing Tennessee needs to do is drop-back the quarterback a bunch of times. Though their season stats look ugly, the Chiefs had only one game where their rushing defense stats were completely out of whack. Philadelphia rushed for 264 yards on 27 carries, but Michael Vick accounted for a lot of that. The Chiefs have allowed 11 runs of 10 or more yards and six were in that game. Their longest run allowed in the other three games is 15 yards. But that’s still the best plan of attack for the Titans.

The Titans haven’t received as much attention for the way they’ve played on defense, but they’ve got a lot of guys playing well on that side of the ball. Who are some of the defensive players the Chiefs need to make sure they account for in the running game and the passing game?

Kuharsky: A guy who's probably remembered by Chiefs fans, safety Bernard Pollard, is the defensive tone-setter. The Titans have managed to keep him out of coverage situations downfield, which are not his strength. Defensive tackle Jurrell Casey is a really good, disruptive rusher and effective run-stopper who rates as the best player on defense. Zach Brown is a speedy weakside 'backer who's gotten to the quarterback. And cornerback Alterraun Verner has more takeaways than anyone in the league with four picks and two fumble recoveries. They wondered if he'd be good enough playing more man-press, which they're going to more often. He's been great.

Same question to you. We know Justin Houston's got 7.5 sacks and Eric Berry is a very good safety. Who else keys that defense?

Teicher: They have a lot of guys playing well on defense. Dontari Poe, their nose tackle, has been outstanding. He’s providing some consistent push in the pass rush they haven’t had from the middle of their line in a long time. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson is playing as well as he ever has. The other outside linebacker, Tamba Hali, had a big game against the Giants with a couple of sacks and a forced fumble. The corners, Sean Smith and Brandon Flowers, have mostly held up well. Dez Bryant of Dallas had a big game against Flowers. He has a sore knee that prevented him from playing Sunday and could be trouble for him again this week. A rookie, Marcus Cooper, filled in nicely for Flowers. A lot of their players seem to have taken to the pressure system put in by new coordinator Bob Sutton.

In early March, I outlined a five-category plan for offseason moves for each team in the AFC South.

I considered finances, continuity, turnover, additions and the draft.

Today we’ll look back to see how my plan and the team’s offseason lined up and how they didn’t.

Next up are the Colts. Here’s the original post.

What I got right:

Turnover: “Nose tackle Antonio Johnson did good work but isn’t ideal for a 3-4. Josh Chapman and Brandon McKinney are on the roster, rebounding from injuries and better suited to do what the role requires. Receiver Donnie Avery was a nice reclamation project, but the Colts can and should be looking for an upgrade beyond Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton.”

The team made no effort to re-sign Johnson, who wound up with the Titans. Avery moved on to Kansas City and the Colts brought in Darrius Heyward-Bey, who looks to be an upgrade.

What I got part right, part wrong:

Draft: "What was missed in free agency? The emphasis should fall on that, be it outside linebacker, corner, safety or offensive line. …Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins would be a very nice fit if he’s there at No. 24. Also: at least one offensive lineman, a 3-4 end (or two), outside linebacker depth and additional corners.”

While they signed Erik Walden in free agency, they went pass-rushing outside linebacker with Bjoern Werner in the first round and picked two offensive linemen. But the Colts didn’t draft a receiver, a corner or an end.

What I got wrong:

Finances: “The team has more than $43 million of cap room, which means there's no need to search for savings. Still, one contract appears to be too big. Center Samson Satele needs to be a lot better in his second year to prove he's worth the free-agent deal he got in 2012 that calls for a $2.8 million base salary in 2013. Cutting him would save only $668,000, however, and at least until the line is restocked, the team should keep options alive, not kill one off.”

Not only did the Colts keep Satele, once they drafted center Khaled Holmes in the fourth round, they traded A.Q. Shipley to Baltimore. Shipley played better than Satele when he was in the lineup for the Colts last season.

Continuity: "They already held onto defensive end Fili Moala with a new contract. I’d re-sign Jerraud Powers to a one-year, incentive-laden deal, but that requires that no one else gives him something better. If he stays healthy, he can be a productive contributor. If he doesn’t, the Colts will have given him every chance.”

Powers went to Arizona for a three-year, $10.5 million contract with $3 million guaranteed.

Additions: “I’d target these four players, hoping to land three. Ravens outside linebacker/end Paul Kruger played for Chuck Pagano in Baltimore and is coming off a Super Bowl win. He could fill out a nice linebacking corps and boost the pass rush. Provided that Atlanta’s Brent Grimes is on the right path to recovery from a torn Achilles, he could be great opposite Vontae Davis as a second starting cornerback. Houston safety Glover Quin could be a nice takeaway from the team the Colts are chasing in the AFC South and has enough versatility to fit with Antoine Bethea and ultimately take over his role. On offense, San Diego’s Louis Vasquez is the sort of guard who could help settle a line that has to be far better.”

Right positions, wrong names. The additions were Walden, cornerback Greg Toler, safety LaRon Landry and guard Donald Thomas.

Reassessing the Colts' needs

April, 3, 2013
The Colts have restocked their roster in a big way since free agency opened, adding 10 veterans from the outside.

Some are sure to be upgrades, like right tackle Gosder Cherilus and safety LaRon Landry. Others require a wait-and-see approach as we find out how strongside linebacker Erik Walden and defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois fare with expanded roles.

Despite an 11-win season, Indianapolis headed toward the second season of Ryan Grigson as the general manager, Chuck Pagano as the head coach and Andrew Luck as the quarterback with some significant holes.

With all the additions, the pressure to find answers at certain spots in the draft is significantly lightened. That makes for a far better atmosphere in which to draft.

Here’s my assessment of what they’ve done to fill roster gaps and what now rank as the team’s primary needs with the draft drawing near.

[+] EnlargeGosder Cherilus
Tim Fuller/USA TODAY SportsGosder Cherilus, left, provides an infusion of talent to a Colts O-line that was lacking it last season.
Offensive line -- Cherilus is a physical player who can help change and set a better tone for a position that simply didn’t have enough talent last season. Donald Thomas will upgrade a guard slot as well. Is it enough? I think they should add at least one more lineman in the draft who can contend for a guard spot or at center.

Cornerback -- Greg Toler could be a fine second starter, but they qualify as three deep at best with Vontae Davis, Toler and Darius Butler. They have to have another solid guy in the mix, and the draft should provide someone who will automatically qualify as better than Cassius Vaughn.

Wide receiver -- Can they get more out of Darrius Heyward-Bey than they got out of Donnie Avery? I would think so. Is DHB going to be the ultimate successor to Reggie Wayne? I highly doubt it. They need to be looking for that guy to go with T.Y. Hilton, their lone long-term sure thing at the position.

Safety -- LaRon Landry is a significant upgrade over Tom Zbikowski. He and Antoine Bethea should be a nice tandem. Joe Lefeged is fine as depth. But in a good safety year and with Bethea heading into his eighth season, I think it would be a good move to add a young player at the spot.

Outside linebacker -- Walden was a controversial addition, but they’ve emphasized his ability to set the edge. That does not make for much of a pass rush opposite Robert Mathis. I hope they aren’t counting on big production from Jerry Hughes or Lawrence Sidbury. They still need a pass-rushing outside 'backer.

Defensive end -- They resigned Fili Moala and hope Cory Redding will be more durable. Newcomer Ricky Jean Francois could start outside and move inside in nickel. Another guy in that mix wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Running back -- Vick Ballard, Donald Brown and Delone Carter are the three-pack that will return. Ballard showed a lot of promise, but the other two are not sure things. Bruce Arians’ offense didn’t throw to backs much. Pep Hamilton’s offense will do so more. If Grigson sees a versatile back as a value, I expect he’ll add one.

Defensive tackle -- Went from being a need to not being a need. Jean Francois will play some tackle and some end. Aubrayo Franklin can be an early-down run-stopper. And they expect Brandon McKinney and Josh Chapman to be healthy and equipped to contribute. They could have a lot of options at this spot who fit the 3-4 front.

Quarterback -- They did well replacing Drew Stanton with Matt Hasselbeck as Luck’s backup. The No. 2 was never going to come from the draft.
The Indianapolis Colts have managed to repeatedly assume little long-term risk, even with some of their most costly free agent deals.

If things don’t work out with a guy they bring in, they will be able to move on. In most instances the greatest effect would just be filling another need.

The deal they’ve struck with former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey came later in the free agency period and hold the lowest risk possible. Adam Schefter reports it’s a one-year contract that could be worth up to $3 million.

If DHB gives them more than Donnie Avery did last season, it’ll rank as a win. If he’s a big hit, they’ll have the first chance to secure him long-term before he reaches another round of free-agency. If he doesn’t pan out, they’ll move on to the next guy, or perhaps a draft pick will be that much more ready to take on more in 2014.

I’m not seeing any downside.

Heyward-Bey won’t be in anyone’s way. If LaVon Brazill needs to be playing ahead of the veteran, he will. Same for a rookie.

General manager Ryan Grigson has added an option. Adding an option who was once a first-round pick, who could potentially pan out in a new environment with one of the league’s best young quarterbacks, seems like a smart move.

AFC South links: Greg Jones visits Texans

March, 26, 2013
Houston Texans

Arian Foster dishes on the NFL's new helmet rule and how he would sign a waiver to "never sue" the league. "It’s kind of like blaming the NFL for your injuries, and I don’t blame the NFL because it was my decision to partake in this game," the Texans' featured running back told ESPN Radio New York.

Houston has hired Bob Ligashesky as a special teams assistant.

Do the Texans need to draft a young quarterback -- possibly from West Virginia -- to learn from Matt Schaub? Check out's thoughts on Houston's No. 27 overall pick.

Safety Ed Reed's three-year deal with the Texans includes a $2 million signing bonus, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Indianapolis Colts

Darrius Heyward-Bey is visiting with the Colts Tuesday, and the Indianapolis Star's Phil Richards says DHB would be an upgrade over former Colts receiver Donnie Avery. The Colts aren't the only suitors in the mix for Heyward-Bey, as he'll also visit with the Lions on Wednesday.

Delone Carter understands the urgency to produce big numbers out of the backfield this season. continues its positional series, focusing on running backs.

How does it feel being a new Colt, Matt Hasselbeck? The veteran quarterback answers a slew of questions for, including how he sees his working relationship to be with Andrew Luck.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Fullback Greg Jones, an eight-year veteran with the Jaguars and a free agent, is visiting with the Texans on Tuesday.

Tennessee Titans

Ryan Fitzpatrick tells Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean that he's trying to adjust to his new role in Nashville and put his Buffalo past behind him. “You have to swallow your pride a little bit. I felt like Buffalo was the best place for me to start next season and it didn’t work out. So when that relationship ended, I knew I was going to be looking at a backup role. I am a competitor. I want to be out there and helping the team win on Sunday, but that’s the reality of the situation right now."

The Titans beefed up their defensive line when they agreed to terms with 6-foot-8, 315-pound defensive end Ropati Pitoitua. And just in case you're dying to know, "The #Titans agreed to terms with free agent DE Ropati Pitoitua (pronounced ROE-pot-ee Puh-TOE-uh-two-ah)."
My plan for the Indianapolis Colts as we approach the start of the 2013 NFL calendar year:

Finances: The team has more than $43 million of cap room, which means there's no need to search for savings. Still, one contract appears to be too big. Center Samson Satele needs to be a lot better in his second year to prove he's worth the free-agent deal he got in 2012 that calls for a $2.8 million base salary in 2013. Cutting him would save only $668,000, however, and at least until the line is restocked, the team should keep options alive, not kill one off.

Continuity: They already held onto defensive end Fili Moala with a new contract. I’d re-sign Jerraud Powers to a one-year, incentive-laden deal, but that requires that no one else gives him something better. If he stays healthy, he can be a productive contributor. If he doesn’t, the Colts will have given him every chance.

Turnover: Nose tackle Antonio Johnson did good work but isn’t ideal for a 3-4. Josh Chapman and Brandon McKinney are on the roster, rebounding from injuries and better suited to do what the role requires. Receiver Donnie Avery was a nice reclamation project, but the Colts can and should be looking for an upgrade beyond Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton.

Additions: I’d target these four players, hoping to land three. Ravens outside linebacker/end Paul Kruger played for Chuck Pagano in Baltimore and is coming off a Super Bowl win. He could fill out a nice linebacking corps and boost the pass rush. Provided that Atlanta’s Brent Grimes is on the right path to recovery from a torn Achilles, he could be great opposite Vontae Davis as a second starting cornerback. Houston safety Glover Quin could be a nice takeaway from the team the Colts are chasing in the AFC South and has enough versatility to fit with Antoine Bethea and ultimately take over his role. On offense, San Diego’s Louis Vasquez is the sort of guard who could help settle a line that has to be far better.

Draft: What was missed in free agency? The emphasis should fall on that, be it outside linebacker, corner, safety or offensive line. Ryan Grigson did well with Hilton and needs to find another receiver for Andrew Luck, this time an outside guy who will bring potential to succeed Wayne eventually. Clemson receiver DeAndre Hopkins would be a very nice fit if he’s there at No. 24. Also: at least one offensive lineman, a 3-4 end (or two), outside linebacker depth and additional corners.
Khaled Elsayed of ESPN Insider identified a list of buyer beware free agents to-be, and two of them are out of the AFC South. They don’t qualify as surprises: Texans outside linebacker Connor Barwin and Colts receiver Donnie Avery.

Barwin had a contract offer from the Texans before the season when he was coming off an 11.5-sack season. He passed and played the final year of his rookie deal, but his production tumbled to three sacks.

He’s a smart, high effort player and a great guy in the locker room.

But the Texans drafted Whitney Mercilus in the first round last year. They’ll always need at least three quality outside linebackers for Wade Phillips’ 3-4, but if they feel Barwin’s price is too high, I believe they could replace him with a less expensive free agent or a mid-range draft pick.

Says Elsayed: “Barwin finished the year as (Pro Football Focus’) third-lowest ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, struggling in all areas of the game. As a pass-rusher he had the fourth-lowest score of his peers in our pass rushing productivity rating after notching 40 combined sacks, hits and hurries on 533 pass rushes, while in the run game his run stop percentage score of 4.0 was the sixth-lowest number. You spend big money on impact players and Barwin just isn't one of those.”

As for Avery, I’m not imagining there will be much of a market for him. Perhaps Bruce Arians, for whom he was a deep threat in Indianapolis, will want him in Arizona. The Colts will become more of a West Coast offense with Pep Hamilton calling plays. The one thing Avery can do very well, stretch a defense by running deep, is less valuable in that offense.

Says Elsayed: “… The former Ram was targeted 25 times on balls aimed over 20 yards in the air (13th highest in the league), yet only caught six of them while dropping four.

“Indeed, drops were a huge problem for the unreliable Avery, as he led our drop rate signature stat for wideouts after dropping 12 of 72 catchable balls. A team might think he can provide another dimension to its offense but in essence it will overspend on plays left on the field.”

Polian on AFC South's top free agents

February, 5, 2013
ESPN’s Bill Polian has a major Insider file out ranking the upcoming class of free agents.

He divided them into three tiers:
  • A Players: Worth paying big, starter-caliber money.
  • B Players: Guys I would sign but only if the value made sense.
  • C Players: Guys I'd sign for low-salary, short-term (one or two years) value, with low bonuses.

Let’s look at how Polian views free-agents-to-be coming out of the AFC South. Obviously he's got some special insight, and regard, for the Colts on this list:

A Players:

Titans TE Jared Cook

Polian: “I think he'll command some money based on his potential.”

Kuharsky: Polian mentions Cook as a franchise possibility, and I suspect that is what will happen.

Jaguars FB Greg Jones

Polian: “Can he pass a physical? And is he affordable? He is one of the few FBs who can carry the ball and do it well.”

Kuharsky: Both Super Bowl teams used fullbacks, but it’s still a position that’s fading.

Colts OLB Dwight Freeney

Polian: “I see Freeney as a fit in a Wide-9 scheme or as a 4-3 DE. I believe he still has a lot of talent, but age is definitely a concern.”

Kuharsky: He’s going to want more years than he’s going to be able to get.

Texans S Glover Quin

Polian: “If you want a safety to play man, cover ground, and go up and play in the nickel on the line of scrimmage, this is a guy who does all of that well.”

Kuharsky: Like Polian, I think the Texans will make a big push to keep Quin in Houston.

B Players:

Priority one: Indianapolis Colts

January, 23, 2013
Today we look at the biggest issues facing each team in the AFC South and give you an opportunity to assess priority one:

Pending free agents of note: Outside linebacker Dwight Freeney, cornerback Jerraud Powers, punter Pat McAfee, right tackle Winston Justice, defensive lineman Fili Moala, defensive tackle Antonio Johnson.

Weaknesses: The offensive line wasn’t great and played better than the sum of its parts. The team needs a major overhaul on the line. The secondary needs a lot of work -- at least two new corners and one new safety. The defensive line suffered a lot of injuries and needs depth or more depending on what happens with Moala and Johnson in free agency.

Unsettled starting jobs: Left cornerback Cassius Vaughn was a constant target once he “settled in" as the starter when Powers was lost for the season, Tom Zbikowski and Joe Lefeged aren’t good enough at strong safety. Pick a spot on the offensive line besides left tackle Anthony Castonzo.


What should be priority one for the Colts?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,008)

Depth issues: The secondary needs options for nickel and dime packages and needs to be able to survive some injuries. Outside linebacker -- minus Freeney, who’s not expected back -- needs to be restocked, even if Jerry Hughes is deemed worthy of Freeney’s starting spot.

Health concerns: Powers hasn’t been able to stay healthy, and that could mean the Colts don’t re-sign him. He’s recovering from a toe injury. Moala is coming off a torn ACL and defensive tackle Josh Chapman, who didn’t make it back during his season from a college knee injury, is a wild card going forward.

Unseen issue: Reggie Wayne was fantastic in his first season with Andrew Luck as his quarterback. T.Y. Hilton had a great rookie season. But Donnie Avery is going to be a free agent and is hardly a long-term answer and we’re not sure what LaVon Brazill is yet. The Colts need to continue to add at receiver, knowing Wayne won’t last forever.

AFC South links: Colts need upgrades at CB

January, 21, 2013
Houston Texans

Tight end Owen Daniels has been added to the AFC Pro Bowl roster to replace New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, reports the Houston Chronicle's John McClain.

Nick Scurfield of takes a look at how the Texans defense performed with and without inside linebacker Brian Cushing.

Indianapolis Colts

New offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton helped develop Andrew Luck at Stanford and the duo looks forward to working together again, writes the Indianapolis Star's Mike Chapell. “I spoke with him this morning and he’s excited,’’ Hamilton said. “Of course I’m very excited to have an opportunity to work with Andrew again. We can’t wait to get started.’’ Chapell examines what changes might be in store for the offense under Hamilton.

Kyle Rodriguez of The Colts Authority looks at the performance of starting cornerbacks Cassius Vaughn and Darius Butler, who are both free agents, and what the Colts should do at the position going forward.

Colts receivers didn't fare well in Pro Football Focus' study of drop rate among wideouts. Donnie Avery and T.Y. Hilton were on top (or is that the bottom?) of the list.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Receiver Cecil Shorts was No. 6 on Pro Football Focus' list of receivers with the worst drop rate.

The Jaguars' new leadership is preparing for the trek to Mobile, Ala., for the Senior Bowl. John Oehser of the team's website looks at the top prospects at each position group and how they might fit with the Jaguars, who have the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.

Tennessee Titans

The team will focus on revamping the offensive line this offseason, writes John Glennon of the Tennessean.

Would the Titans select Alabama guard Chance Warmack if he's available at No. 10? Jimmy Morris of Music City Miracles considers.
The Colts moved the ball in their last game of the 2012 season, they simply couldn’t score.

ESPN Stats & Information says Indianapolis’ 419 total yards were the second most by a team in a playoff game without an offensive touchdown. The 1988 Philadelphia Eagles managed 430 in a 20-12 loss at Chicago.

Those Eagles gained 430 yards in that game and are the only team in league history to gain more in a playoff loss than the Colts’ 419 in Baltimore.

Andrew Luck, under pressure all day, hit on 28 of 54 passes for 288 yards with a pick. Per Elias Sports Bureau, that is the second-most passing yards by a rookie in a playoff game in NFL history. Sammy Baugh had 335 in his postseason debut in 1937.

Luck and the Colts were victimized by drops. ESPN Stats & Information counted seven; four on third or fourth down. (Those throws could have raised Luck’s completion percentage from .519 to .648.)

Five different Colts receivers dropped a pass Sunday: T.Y. Hilton (2), Reggie Wayne (2), Donnie Avery, Vick Ballard and Coby Fleener.

Final Word: AFC South

January, 4, 2013
NFC Final Word: East | West | North AFC: North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about wild-card weekend:

Rematch in Houston: This is the fourth time under the current playoff format that teams are meeting in the wild-card round in back-to-back seasons. In each of the previous three instances, the team that won the first game also won the second game. Houston won on Jan. 7, 2012, at Reliant Stadium 31-10. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990. Every other NFL franchise has won a playoff game since then. Cincinnati is 0-5 all-time on the road in the postseason, tied with the Saints (also 0-5) for the worst road record in NFL postseason history. If the Bengals lose, Marvin Lewis will become the first head coach to lose his first four playoff games since Wade Phillips (now the Texans' defensive coordinator) lost his first four before earning his postseason victory in 2009.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiColts QB Andrew Luck hasn't thrown an interception since Dec. 9 in a win against Tennessee.
Playing cleaner: Colts rookie quarterback Andrew Luck led the NFL with 23 turnovers in his first 13 games. But in the last three, he’s protected the ball well and not turned it over at all. Can he stay clean against the Ravens and ball hawking safety Ed Reed, or does he fall back into bad plays? Luck has thrown 10 interceptions on passes 15 or more yards downfield this season, tied with Mark Sanchez and Drew Brees for most in the league. Seven of Luck’s interceptions on such throws have come on the road, the most in the NFL.

Big plays from Andre: Andre Johnson has 10 receptions of 30 or more yards this season, tied for fourth most in the league. The Bengals' defense has allowed only 10 such passing plays all season, the fewest in the NFL. The Texans' ability to find such a play could be a gigantic factor in what I expect to be a defensive game. Matt Schaub has looked to Johnson too much in the Texans’ three recent losses. If the Texans are able to spread the ball around better, it can actually increase opportunities for the throws to Johnson to result in back-breaking, field-flipping plays.

Wayne in the end zone: As good as Reggie Wayne has been this season, less than 5 percent of his 105 catches and less than 3 percent of his 180 targets have been for touchdowns. ESPN Stats & Info says his one touchdown every 36 targets is Wayne’s lowest touchdown rate in the past five seasons, and the sixth-lowest rate in the NFL this season among receivers with at least three touchdowns. (The Colts' Donnie Avery has the fourth lowest with one touchdown every 38.7 targets.) Wayne needs 162 receiving yards to pass Cliff Branch for the third most in NFL postseason history and he needs one touchdown reception to tie Fred Biletnikoff, Antonio Freeman, Randy Moss and Hines Ward for third most touchdown receptions in NFL postseason history.

Also: A.J. Green has four touchdown catches this season on play-action passes, tied for third most in the league. Andy Dalton has not thrown a touchdown pass to any other receiver out of play-action this season. … The Ravens are trying to become the fourth team in NFL history to win a playoff game in five straight seasons. … Of the 16 teams he has faced more than once since 2008, Schaub’s Total QBR of 89.4 against the Bengals is his best against any team. … Arian Foster’s 285 rush yards are the most ever by a player in his first two career playoff games. … Joe Flacco’s not been pushing the ball downfield as much since Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator.
Heading into the Colts' season finale against the Texans, Andrew Luck had failed to connect on 50 percent of his passes in four consecutive games.

In the win against Houston last Sunday, he connected on exactly half his passes. He was generally more accurate and made the plays Indianapolis needed to win the game.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Luck
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireColts quarterback Andrew Luck has shown he can be dangerous when he has good protection.
Much has been made of Luck's completion percentage (54.1) and interceptions (18) this season. Those are not good numbers, but he has regularly done things to overcome them.

I was struck Sunday by two passes Luck threw in very difficult circumstances: On third-and-13 from the Colts' 40-yard line early in the fourth quarter, he dropped back, had time and stepped into a great throw to Reggie Wayne for a 24-yard gain. It was called back because of a hold against left tackle Anthony Castonzo.

Given a second chance on third-and-23, Luck got quality protection again, stepped into a throw again and connected deep to T.Y. Hilton for a 70-yard touchdown.

Back-to-back throws. With good protection both times (aided by a hold on the first), Luck was able to really step into his throws, and they were excellent.

How many of his 14 incomplete passes resulted from an inability to step into the throw?

There is a degree of subjectivity in assessing what happened on a play. Here is my breakdown of the incomplete passes:
  • Hurried or hit -- 5
  • Drops -- 3
  • Thrown away -- 2
  • Defended by DB -- 2
  • No issue -- 1
  • Batted -- 1

Those five hurries or hits certainly affected Luck’s ability to be accurate. He overthrew Donnie Avery and bounced a ball to Wayne.

These are situations every quarterback faces. Luck tends to hold on to the ball extra at times to try to make something happen, knowing he can handle some jostling or even absorb a hit in exchange for extending a play.

“Luck is already one of the best quarterbacks around at keeping his eyes downfield and moving within the confines of the pocket, which is amazing for a rookie -- and lucky for him, because the Colts' line is obviously pretty bad," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "But Bruce Arians does help the line out, and they obviously go deep a ton. Luck has the natural abilities to throw well even when his feet are not set, but like you mentioned, Luck might be lethal if he actually had adequate time to throw more consistently in their downfield attack.”

The issue Luck has had recently with throwing high seemed to have settled down in this game. He was blitzed a great deal by the Texans but not, incidentally, on the third-and-23.

It’s basic for any good quarterback: Protect him well, and the odds of a good result improve.

Still, I imagine Arians, offensive line coach Harold Goodwin and quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen showed that Luck-to-Hilton touchdown pass, and even the one to Wayne, to the entire offense: See how assertively Luck was able to step into his throw? See the quality result? If we can give him a chance at more plays like that Sunday in Baltimore, we can be playing in the divisional round a week later.