AFC South: D\'Qwell Jackson
Key free agents: CB Vontae Davis, S Antoine Bethea, K Adam Vinatieri, RB Donald Brown
Where they stand: The Colts have the fourth-most salary-cap space ($41 million) in the league. They solved one of their issues when they signed inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson on Thursday to start alongside Jerrell Freeman, Erik Walden and Robert Mathis. Davis is the most important player to re-sign with having to acquire a new starting center next in line after Samson Satele was released on March 6. The Colts re-signed punter Pat McAfee to a five-year deal Friday. The 41-year-old Vinatieri believes he can kick for several more seasons. Expect the Colts to look to add depth at receiver to give quarterback Andrew Luck another target to go with receivers T.Y. Hilton and Reggie Wayne and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.
What to expect: The Colts should be able to work out a deal with Davis, who was inconsistent last season but has the talent to be one of the top cornerbacks in the league. Don't expect the Colts to go with a rookie or second-year player as their starting center. The position is too valuable for them to go that direction with their franchise player, Luck, taking the snaps. New Orleans' Brian De La Puente and Green Bay's Evan Dietrich-Smith are both free agents. Denver receiver Eric Decker is an ideal receiver to go with Hilton and Wayne. The Colts and Decker have mutual interest, but he may be out of their price range if he wants to be paid like a No. 1 receiver. Hakeem Nicks and James Jones are also free agents the Colts could pursue. Acquiring a veteran guard is a better option than drafting one, because Indianapolis has the talent to take another step in the AFC next season. Decker's teammate in Denver, guard Zane Beadles, is a free agent.
INDIANAPOLIS -- New Indianapolis Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson had options.
Tennessee. Denver. Miami.
But when it was all said and done, the familiarity with his former coach in Cleveland and the family-type atmosphere, the one that so many players talk about, won out over playing with Peyton Manning and the Broncos and the sandy beaches in South Florida.
"One thing that attracted me here was the fact that I feel like it's a family environment," Jackson said during a conference call Thursday afternoon. "Everyone is on the same page and everyone has the same goals in mind and that's whatever needs to be done to win the Super Bowl."
Jackson didn't have to call any of Indianapolis' players to do research on possible joining the team after the Cleveland Browns released him Feb. 26 following eight seasons. He called former Cleveland coach Rob Chudzinski. The Colts hired Chudzinski to be coach Chuck Pagano's special assistant last month. Jackson, who was upset when the Browns fired his coach at the end of last season, has respect for Chudzinski.
"He's a big part of me being here today," Jackson said. "I thought highly of him last year when he was my head coach in Cleveland. He hadn't been here for a long time, but I trusted his judgment. We had a great run in Cleveland. It's unfortunate it didn't work out, but all things happen for a reason and here we are today. I'm very excited about it and I'm excited to get going."
Jackson also came away with a strong feeling about the organization after a dinner with Pagano where they "barely talked football." That right there told Jackson that he wants to be "around people like that."
Jackson will join fellow linebackers Jerrell Freeman, Robert Mathis and Erik Walden on the starting line. The Browns ran a 3-4 defense in six of Jackson's eight seasons.
Jackson has 815 tackles in his career, and his best season was 2011 when he had 158.
"That was something that definitely weighed heavily on my mind, how I would fit into any team that was running any particular defense," Jackson said. "My time in Cleveland was a special time. I was fortunate enough to play in a 4-3 and 3-4, and last year was a 3-4. At the end of the day, to me, it's football. It comes down to guys willing to prepare as well as they do, and willing to go out and win a ton of games, and have one common goal in mind, and that's winning a championship."
You had your options to choose from.
Quarterback Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs offense, without running back Jamaal Charles, scoring 44 points against them in the playoffs. Then there was New England running back LeGarrette Blount running over the Colts for 166 yards the following week.
That’s why it’s not surprising the Colts' first free agent signing was on defense. Indianapolis agreed to a four-year, $22-million deal that includes $11 million guaranteed with former Cleveland Browns linebacker D'Qwell Jackson on Thursday.
Jackson has had at least 100 tackles in five of his seven NFL seasons.
The Colts didn’t get Jackson to come in and compete for the starting inside linebacker spot alongside Jerrell Freeman. They want Jackson to start. That should not be a problem since Pat Angerer, the starter there most of last season, won’t be back.
Jackson was rated as the NFL’s 42nd best inside linebacker by Pro Football Focus last season. He has played in a 4-3 and 3-4 scheme, but he’s viewed as a better 4-3 inside linebacker. Only time will tell if the 30-year-old Jackson can flip that thought process around since Colts coach Chuck Pagano runs a 3-4 scheme. Jackson played in a 3-4 scheme with the Browns last season when he had 141 tackles.
The Colts held their opponents to a combined 20 points, forced eight turnovers, and had 11 sacks during a three-game winning streak at the end of the regular season.
But two of those teams -- Houston and Jacksonville -- have the No. 1 and 3 picks, respectively, in the NFL draft this year. A real indication came against the Chiefs (513 total yards) and Patriots (234 rushing yards) in the playoffs.
The Colts finished 20th in the league overall and 26th against stopping the run last season, which is why Jackson’s signing is just a start.
“We certainly had times during the season where we played very, very good defense. Played smothering defense, especially down the stretch,” Pagano said during the NFL scouting combine last month. “I know the playoffs didn’t turn out, obviously we didn’t play like we are capable of. We’ve just got to be more consistent. As we add pieces to the puzzle and guys get better at their craft, I think we’ll certainly one day say we play defense like [Seattle] on a consistent basis.”
Re-signing cornerback Vontae Davis still sits at the top of the Colts’ priority list for their own players. Safety Antoine Bethea is also a free agent and getting a wide body at nose tackle to help clog up the middle of the line is an option, too.
The process in improving the defense started Thursday for the Colts. Now they have to keep going.
So I take the occasion to urge us all to emphasize the word at the heart of what’s going on: visiting.
Presumably Jackson will take a physical.
Perhaps as it wraps up, Ruston Webster or contract guru Vin Marino will talk contract parameters with Brian Mackler, Jackson’s agent.
I don’t think this is a scenario where the Titans, no matter how good they feel about Jackson, attempt to keep him from leaving town without signing.
Jackson is to visit the Broncos on Sunday, and is also reportedly fielding interest from Arizona. The Cardinals could be prepping to lose Karlos Dansby as a free agent, and Dansby is a player Whisenhunt knows well from time together in Arizona.
The Titans might love Jackson, who at 30 is two years younger than Dansby.
They might love Dansby more.
Maybe the Titans will wind up with Jackson. Maybe they’ll wind up with Dansby and create an opportunity for Jackson in Arizona. Maybe he’ll wind up with the Broncos. Maybe the Titans won't end up with either.
Maybe something happens fast for Jackson.
I suspect it’ll take a bit of time.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- D'Qwell Jackson, the linebacker released by the Cleveland Browns, is likely to be a guy the Tennessee Titans look at closely.
Tennessee defensive coordinator Ray Horton coached Jackson in 2013.
“D’Qwell has been a coach’s dream as far as leadership, intelligence,'' Horton said last season per this article from Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "He demands a lot from himself and his teammates. He really is a locker room coach [with] some of the things he says after the game and at halftime.”
The Titans could use that in the middle of a defense that needs more leaders. Strong safety Bernard Pollard, who could be leaving as a free agent, was the singular leader of the 2013 defense.
I talked to one executive who couldn’t predict what sort of deal Jackson might command because he believes everyone is waiting to see what the market will offer when free agency opens March 11. That executive said while Jackson has been productive in both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, he’s probably better in a 4-3.
The numbers from Pro Football Focus suggest it’s more than a bit better.
ESPN.com’s resident scout, Matt Williamson, is a bit skeptical of Jackson.
“He’s highly productive when he’s right [physically], but I also have always seen that as a bit of an aberration, as he is often making plays downfield, rather than 'impact tackles,' Williamson said. “He has experience in both schemes, but never was a great take-on linebacker and need protection, which I would think Jurrell Casey and company could do rather well. He’s an every down LB, but his name value is greater than what he truly is in my opinion.”
Williamson said another player connected to Horton, Arizona free-agent-to-be Karlos Dansby is a superior option: “Dansby had a much better year than Jackson in all areas and is more versatile ... would clearly prefer Dansby.”
Odds are Jackson fares well on the open market, though as indicated in Cabot’s piece, just two months ago he never imagined he would be moving on from Cleveland.
Horton will certainly have a strong voice in how seriously the Titans look into Jackson.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
|Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images|
|Kerry Collins threw two touchdowns as the Titans routed the Browns 28-9 Sunday to grab the AFC South title for the first time since 2002.|
And so a simple handoff went down in the shadowy Titans locker room, where the same electrical problems that took out a Jumbotron meant only about half the lights were working.
While Tulloch acquired an AFC South Championship hat and Michael Griffin proudly wore his high on his head during interviews, most Tennessee players tucked their hats and shirts into their bags -- treats for family or mementos for later when they hope it's a small marker on the road map of a much bigger season.
"I think I'll put it in the closet with the rest of them, I think that's my fourth or fifth one," said cornerback Nick Harper, who jumped to the Titans in 2007 from the Colts, who won the previous five division titles. "I collect them. I've won so many, I never wore the hats. One day I'm going to have a trophy case and put them all up there for the grandkids to see."
"We came in, said we've got one goal down, and by the time we said a prayer you guys were in the locker room, so we didn't get a chance to do much celebrating," Crumpler said. "If anybody on this team is satisfied, they're in the wrong place."
Long after the Titans finished their part, the Jets' loss in San Francisco assured Tennessee of a first-round playoff bye.
The last two weeks may have shown us as much or more about how bad the Lions and Browns are than about how good the Titans are.
Still, it's no small feat for the home team to survive a season-high three turnovers and season highs in penalties and yards -- 13 for 131 -- and still win by 19 points.
"It wasn't our cleanest game," quarterback Kerry Collins said. "I think a lot of credit has to go to our defense. We put them into some tough situations with the turnovers, hurt ourselves with the penalties, so a lot of credit has to go to them for stepping it up the way they did."
A game that was sailing early got bogged down with chippy play -- 21 total penalties and 30 incomplete passes. But the Titans took command with a stout run defense, a steady diet of carries for their two running backs and third-down success on both sides of the ball.
The Titans were a bit daring on the play of the game that might best symbolize how things line up for them. Down 6-0 and facing a fourth-and-1 from the Cleveland 28-yard line after LenDale White couldn't convert on third-and-1, Collins faked a handoff to White, then threw to fullback Ahmard Hall, who snuck out into the flat. He caught the short throw, raced to the front left corner of the end zone and the Titans were ahead for good.
"Actually it was the best call I think we could have had for the defense they were in, I think they had a 6-2 defense in," Crumpler said. "If we tried to just run it up the gut, we were outmanned. It was a great call at the right time."
Collins said it was a "gutsy" call by offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and that the Titans hadn't imagined Hall would be open, but planned to throw to one of two crossing receivers.
Just like with the penalties and the turnovers, it all worked out for the best.
At the two-minute warning, the Titans' marketing folks were pitching AFC South Championship gear on the one scoreboard that was working. But Finnegan was not at all excited about his keepsakes.
"That's short-lived man, I don't care about that," he said. "The Houston Texans don't care, that's a division rival coming up."
Other things I noticed, heard or asked about after the game at LP Field...
- Rookie Running back Chris Johnson came into the game averaging an impressive 4.7 yards per carry, and did significant work to boost it to 4.9 with 19 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown.
His backfield partner, White, got a touchdown too, and landed a yard short of 100 himself. He actually had it until he took a late fourth-down carry wide left for a loss of two yards.
Had he stayed in triple figures, it would have been the Titans' third game with two 100-yard running backs. No team had seen two backs top 100 yards rushing in three games in the same season since Rocky Bleier and Franco Harris on the 1976 Steelers.
- An illustration of how Fisher and Collins are hardly the only calm, cool, collected guys leading this team, just the most visible:
Return man Chris Carr watched the opening kickoff of the third quarter scoot by him and circled behind it. When it touched the goal line he was on a knee in the end zone gathering it to down it. Touchback.
Undoubtedly, there are some return men in the league who wouldn't have known the rule well enough to make the right play with such confidence and would have tried to bring it out of the end zone for fear of being hit for a safety.
"I think I played it exactly the way you're supposed to play it," Carr said. "It's tough when the ball bounces like that, but I think I did the right thing."
A similarly smart play: Collins let go of his second touchdown pass, a 9-yarder to Justin Gage, while defensive back Eric Wright had his back turned. Gage may have gotten away with a slight shove and Wright slid sideways, away from the ball, as it arrived.
"The defender had his back turned," Collins said. "Sometimes if you throw it high and right at him, the defender doesn't know the ball is coming and at worst it's going to be incomplete."
Likewise on defense, the Browns' use of Joshua Cribbs in a "flash package" where he took direct snaps and lined up some at quarterback hardly made the Titans flinch. He threw one nice pass that led a receiver out of bounds and ran six times for 24 yards. Ho hum.
- Three of the Titans' penalties h
ad side effects that don't show up in the raw numbers:
Kevin Mawae's personal foul undid a 5-yard gain, Jevon Kearse's defensive offside undid a Nick Harper interception and a 14-yard return, and Jason Jones' defensive offside meant his 18-yard sack of Ken Dorsey didn't count.
- One spot it doesn't look like this regime or a new one for the Browns will have to address is weakside linebacker. D'Qwell Jackson had two picks and nearly had a third, and looked to do very well getting depth covering the deep middle when he had too.
He was credited with 15 tackles in a game where no one else had more than eight.
But Jackson can't solve this team's primary issue -- an inability to get into the end zone. The Browns' touchdown-less streak now extends just 13 seconds short of 13 quarters, dating back to the early fourth quarter of their Nov. 17 win at Buffalo.
- Until late in the second quarter, the scoreboard in the north end zone was completely dark. The play clock at the other end was turned off too to make things fair.
Collins said he looked only for the 10-second signal from the official. Fisher was complimentary of the crisp pace with which the offense worked to ensure it was a non-issue.
- Finnegan was kicking himself after the game for two near-misses on field-goal blocks. Twice he streaked in from the right edge, beating Steve Heiden and nearly blocking Phil Dawson's kick.
"I was real close, great penetration," he said. "I made the same move both times and it worked both times, and the third time he roughed me up. ... I definitely owe us one."
While we're on the subject of field goals, an odd note from ESPN Research:
With Dawson hitting from 47 and 41 and missing from 44, opponents are just 5-for-10 on field goal tries from 40 yards and beyond against the Titans. Tennessee kicker Rob Bironas, meanwhile, is 14-of-17 from 40 and beyond. His work was limited to extra points on Sunday.
It gave the ball to the Browns just inside Titans territory - just as Jackson's first-half interception did. The first one turned into a field goal. We'll see what happens here, but...
At no point in this game have I felt like the Browns were able to score a touchdown on anything but a fluke.
Which means a 21-6 lead as the fourth quarter is about to start seems perfectly safe.