AFC South: Jacoby Jones

INDIANAPOLIS -- The start of the free agency is less than two weeks away. Receiver is one of the positions that the Indianapolis Colts need to address through free agency, trade or the draft.

It’s about the present and the future for them at that position.

Depth was an issue for the Colts at the start of last season. It was a bigger issue when Reggie Wayne crumbled to the ground with a torn ACL against Denver in Week 7 and it remained an issue when the season ended last month.

The Colts can't get away with not adding any players at receiver. All indications point to Wayne returning from his knee injury, but you have to be realistic, too. Nobody knows what type of player he’ll be when he returns because he’s 35 years old. That leaves T.Y. Hilton and young receivers like Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill and Griff Whalen.

This takes us to the free-agent market. There was a report Wednesday that the Colts have interest in Denver receiver Eric Decker.

Decker is looking for a big payday like all free agents do. He told SiriusXM NFL Radio in an interview earlier this month that he needs to do what is the “best for my family.”

The Colts will have money to spend – the fourth-most salary cap space – but they’re going to be frugal spenders with all their money. That's bascially what general manager Ryan Grigson said last week at the combine.

Decker caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.

My issue with Decker is that you can't pay him like he’s a No. 1 receiver because he’s not a No. 1 receiver. He's more of a solid No. 2 receiver. He put up those nice numbers while not having to face the other team's best cornerback. Things could be different if Decker's asking price isn’t too much.

And if that’s the case, why leave Peyton Manning and Denver when you have a chance to make at least one more run at winning the Super Bowl?

Here's a look at some 2013 stats of some notable wideouts who are set to hit the free-agent market:

RTC: Texans-turned-Ravens not bitter

February, 1, 2013
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Three former Texans who are now Ravens -- Bernard Pollard, Vonta Leach and Jacoby Jones -- aren’t bitter about Houston, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

J.J. Watt recently married young for a day, says Nick Matthews of the Chronicle.

Bob McNair, who wants guys who “will bite the head off a nail,” thinks the Texans never recovered from consecutive overtime games in a short span.

Indianapolis Colts

A downtown admission tax stands to raise the price of most Colts tickets, but a team official told Phil Richards of the Indianapolis Star that "the team intends to absorb most of the pain of the tax increase."

Chuck Pagano has two more new assistants, says Richards.

Ed Reed could be a nice stopgap at safety for the Colts, says Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

Jacksonville Jaguars

A busy signal on draft day in 2003 may have changed the fortunes of the Jaguars and Ravens, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

Marcedes Lewis bounced back with a solid season in 2012, says Dunlevy.

Tennessee Titans

Can Gregg Williams and Jerry Gray coexist on the Titans coaching staff? David Climer of The Tennessean says a title for Williams isn’t important, “but he should have the first and last word on your defense. If Gray can handle that, fine. If not, fine.”

Considering his yards per catch, the catch rate for Kendall Wright was low, says Dunlevy.

How gap between Titans, Ravens grew

January, 28, 2013
The Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens used to be bitter rivals, closely matched.

Then Tennessee collapsed in a playoff game after the 2000 season at what now is LP Field, losing 24-10 despite dominating the game in a lot of ways.

Since that fork in the road, the teams have gone in very different directions.

Writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean: “The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and they will play for a second championship on Sunday in New Orleans against the San Francisco 49ers. The Titans, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff game in nine years and are coming off a 6-10 season.”

But that’s not the line of demarcation I’ll use.

The 2008 Titans were the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The sixth-seeded Ravens won in Miami to earn another playoff trip to Nashville. And Tennessee lost that divisional round game in a similar fashion to the game in 2000, even though the score was a lot closer, 13-10.

Since then:
  • The Titans are 29-35 (.453) with no playoff appearances.
  • The Ravens are 43-21 (.672) with a 6-3 playoff record.

That playoff meeting in Nashville was Joe Flacco’s second playoff game, and while he’s had his ups and downs, he’s now a Super Bowl quarterback.

Since then, the Titans have started Kerry Collins, Vince Young, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker and, in an emergency situations, Rusty Smith.

Instability at quarterback is only part of the reasons the teams have been so different.

John Harbaugh has developed into a steady coach while Jeff Fisher’s tenure fizzled out and Mike Munchak hasn’t established any solid footing after two seasons.

Led by one of the NFL’s top general managers, Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens have continued good roster building.

The Titans actually have more starters and contributors out of their last four drafts, but it’s partly because of previous failures -- think Young, Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry, Paul Williams -- that so much opportunity is available.

Baltimore’s gotten far more production out of outside veterans it’s brought in: Center Matt Birk, receiver Anquan Boldin (via trade), fullback Vonta Leach, safety Bernard Pollard, resurgent left tackle Bryant McKinnie, receiver/returner Jacoby Jones.

Compare that to Tennessee’s veteran additions: Receiver Nate Washington, linebacker Will Witherspoon, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, safety Jordan Babineaux, guard Steve Hutchinson, end Kamerion Wimbley, returner Darius Reynaud.

The Titans fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and didn’t see much change with Dowell Loggains promoted to replace Chris Palmer.

The Ravens fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and got a major boost from Jim Caldwell taking over for Cam Cameron.

It’s a copycat league, and the Ravens were already a model franchise in many ways.

The Titans are one of a long list of teams that need to look at how the Ravens work and borrow some ideas.

Quarterback is the key, but the gap between these two teams was a playoff field goal just four years ago. It’s a deep moat now.

On the Texans, Holliday and Jones

January, 13, 2013
It’s awfully easy to look at the plays made by Trindon Holliday and Jacoby Jones in Saturday’s great Baltimore Ravens-Denver Broncos game and say the Houston Texans blew it.

Both those guys belonged to Houston. Both those guys were cut by the Texans.

Holliday was the first player in NFL history to return both a punt and a kick for touchdown in a playoff game. It was a spectacular performance and it had Twitter buzzing with talk that the Texans were fools for letting him go.

“Never cut a game changer,” said Tony Boselli, the former Jacksonville left tackle who now serves as a NFL color analyst on radio and TV broadcasts.

It’s a valid principle.

But it’s not like the Texans made a rash decision on Holliday. They were very patient with him, and while he had a big preseason in 2012, the overall picture he drew was of a guy who had a tendency to get hurt and to fumble.

The Texans wanted more roster flexibility and Holliday can’t do anything but return. In five games with Houston this year he averaged 9.2 yards on 16 punt returns and 19.4 yards on 10 kickoff returns. Rookie receiver Keshawn Martin, who replaced him, has better numbers.

After five games of his third year, they let him go.

It’s an easy second guess today. If the Texans cover punts and kicks the way the Ravens did yesterday, I bet Martin could score a couple TDs, too.

As for Jones, the All-Pro kick returner who ran under the 70-yard touchdown pass from Joe Flacco that forced overtime ...

He had become a liability in Houston. He couldn’t handle punts in last year’s divisional-round playoff loss in Baltimore, really damaging his team’s chances.

He never became a consistently reliable player for the Texans as a receiver or a returner, and it was completely reasonable for Houston to part ways with him and draft some receivers to develop in the roles Jones had. Martin and DeVier Posey haven’t done a great deal so far, but it doesn’t mean Houston made the wrong choice.

Sometimes a change of scenery changes things for a guy, and what he does in the second place wouldn’t have happened in the first.

Martin will get tackled quickly on a return today and people watching Texans-Patriots will say, “It sure would have been nice to have Trindon Holliday there.”

To which I’ll say it’s a super-easy second guess.

And if Holliday was there he would have been just as likely to cough it up or get crunched as he would have been to break off a touchdown return.

RTC: Jacoby Jones returns to Houston

October, 21, 2012
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

“A victory Sunday would break a lifetime of futility against the Baltimore Ravens plus give the Texans control of their conference and their quest for home-field advantage in the playoffs,” writes Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle.

Reviled by Texans fans, Jacoby Jones returns as a member of the Ravens with his head held high, says Randy Harvey of the Chronicle.

That the Ravens are banged up provides no guarantee of success for the Texans, says Dale Robertson.

Indianapolis Colts

Living on the edge with a rookie quarterback can make for interesting football, writes Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star. Two of them, Andrew Luck and Brandon Weeden, will square off today.

The Browns have 16 rookies or first-year players while the Colts have 13, says Chappell. Reggie Wayne says facing such youth is dangerous, as everyone is trying to make a name for himself.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Maurice Jones-Drew has cause to question the Jaguars’ offensive direction and struggles, but instead he’s not yelling about anything unfolding in Jacksonville, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

Jaguars receiver Justin Blackmon versus Raiders cornerback Michael Huff should be one of the big matchups, says O’Halloran.

Bryan Anger’s great punting has been negated by two major factors: a 29th-ranked defense and a 32nd-ranked offense, says Gene Frenette of the Times-Union.

Tennessee Titans

The Tennessean’s crew breaks down the game. Writes Jim Wyatt: “The Titans are coming off what should be a momentum-building win against the Steelers, and they’ve had extra time to rest. They won their two most recent games in Buffalo, including last season’s visit. But the Titans have been miserable on the road this season, outscored 106-31 in losses at San Diego, Houston and Minnesota.”

Kendall Wright’s a prime target for the Titans on third down, and against the Steelers there was finally a long reception, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

Breaking down the Bills with Tom Gower of Total Titans.
Joe Flacco, JJ WattUS Presswire, AP ImagesHow Baltimore's Joe Flacco, left, fares against Houston's explosive J.J. Watt could be key Sunday.

The last time we saw the Texans and Ravens square off, we were watching a divisional-round playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Terrell Suggs had six tackles and a pass defended as the Ravens' rush linebacker. Houston featured third-string rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback, and his three interceptions -- paired with multiple special-teams gaffes by Texans returner Jacoby Jones -- were big factors in a 20-13 Baltimore victory.

The Texans returned home to rave reviews for their first playoff season but also couldn’t help wonder what might have been if they'd had injured starting quarterback Matt Schaub and played a cleaner game. Baltimore advanced to the AFC Championship Game in New England, where it lost to the Patriots, but a near-catch for a touchdown by Lee Evans could have won it with 27 seconds left and a missed 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff could have forced overtime.

This rematch doesn’t carry the same stakes but could have big implications. The winner will have the AFC’s best record at 6-1.

AFC North blogger Jamison Hensley and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky will be watching closely.

HENSLEY: I think it's easy to say this is a battle of the two best teams in the AFC. Not really going out on a limb here because the Ravens and Texans are the only teams with winning records in this mediocre conference. I know there are going to be nine games after this one, but this is shaping up to be the Ravens' most important game of the regular season.

The result of this game could become a tiebreaker for home-field advantage or a first-round bye at the end of the season. The Ravens, who have won a league-best 14 consecutive games at home, don't want to go on the road in the playoffs. The Ravens' mindset is that they won't have to come back to Houston this year if they win there Sunday. What's the mindset of the Texans after what happened in Houston last Sunday night?

KUHARSKY: Because the Texans are so young, they've played a lot of "biggest games in franchise history." This is certainly the newest one to top the list. Their critics look at the 5-1 record and see wins over mostly softies and a pasting by the Packers on Sunday night. A victory over the Ravens validates everything they've done and regains a firm hold on Best in the AFC. A loss would create some serious concerns. They do have the cushion of playing in a terrible division they simply can't lose. But Baltimore has been an obstacle and ended the Texans' last season in the playoffs. If they meet again with such high stakes, they don't want to be traveling.

It might be a good time to draw the Ravens, too, right? I know Ray Lewis wasn't what he has been, but their first game without a leader like that and without an underrated, great corner like Lardarius Webb may make them a bit more susceptible, no?

HENSLEY: This is the most vulnerable I've seen the Ravens' defense in 13 seasons. Lewis wasn't playing like the Lewis from 10 years ago, but he was still an above-average linebacker in this league. The Ravens have given up more than 200 yards rushing in each of the past two games, and losing Lewis only makes that run defense shakier. Dannell Ellerbe, who has made seven starts since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2009, will take Lewis' spot.

Though the Ravens will miss Lewis' leadership, the bigger loss is Webb. He was emerging as one of the top cornerbacks in the league. His nine interceptions since the start of the 2011 season was tied for the league lead. So, the Ravens have taken shots to both their run and pass defenses this week. How do you see the Texans attacking the Ravens' defense Sunday?

KUHARSKY: Although they might not run first chronologically Sunday, the Texans are a run-first team. Everything they do offensively is keyed on the one-cut-and-go running of Arian Foster, who did great work running for 132 yards in that playoff game on Jan. 15. They send him left most often now, because Duane Brown and Wade Smith are steadier blockers than the guys on the right side, where they have two new starters who aren't even full time.

Spinning off that run game, we'll see play-action heavy with bootlegs and rollouts. It's always remarkable to see Owen Daniels out in space awaiting a Matt Schaub pass. Andre Johnson is certainly dangerous too, though they've not been able to feed him the ball as much as usual. He hates the talk that he's getting older and slowing down, but he hasn't looked like the same player so far this season. Two weeks ago, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie really smothered Johnson. I figured Webb would be a guy who could do similar work. If AJ sees someone like Cary Williams instead, it could be a different story.

Speaking of Schaub, let's turn to quarterbacks. He has been quite efficient this year, doing what Houston needs and not getting caught up at all in his numbers. I came into the season not sold on Joe Flacco and thinking the Ravens didn't have the right guy under center to become an offensive team. But he has done some very good work in the games I've seen and started to change my opinion. Even minus Brian Cushing, the Texans' front throws a lot at a quarterback. Green Bay might have exposed some coverage deficiencies. How's Flacco at assessing such things on the fly and taking advantage?

HENSLEY: Flacco's biggest improvement this season has been his ability to audible at the line. The Ravens are using the no-huddle more than any other time in Flacco's five seasons. It's not to the point of being Peyton Manning, but Flacco is constantly changing the play at the line. Flacco, who ran the no-huddle during his college days, is comfortable with this. He has wanted to have more control of the offense and he's now getting it.

A lot of credit goes to quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who is familiar with this style from his days with the Colts. Flacco makes his mistakes when he gets pressured. His pocket awareness has improved and he can scramble for yards. But Flacco will rush and make poor throws when a defender is in his face. Left tackle Michael Oher (four sacks) and rookie right tackle Kelechi Osemele (three sacks) have struggled at times keeping rushers away from Flacco. Is there any chance the Ravens slow down J.J. Watt and Houston's pass rush?

KUHARSKY: It sure seems like the key to the game for me. Watt is going to get his at some point, and it's not just sacks. Watch how he'll stop rushing when he knows he's not getting there and time his jump to bat down, or even pick off, a pass.

And although the numbers of the other guys aren't in his stratosphere, Brooks Reed, Antonio Smith and Connor Barwin are very effective rushers who will have a bearing on Flacco's pocket comfort. Force some mistakes with that rush, and I like Houston's chances. Get stonewalled and fall victim to the ball coming out super-fast, and I feel differently.

One note about the quicker Ravens offense: With Cushing out, Brice McCain, the nickelback, will have a bigger role in covering players such as Ray Rice and Dennis Pitta on routes. If the Ravens run hurry-up or no-huddle, they can potentially trap the Texans in base if they want McCain off the field. I am eager to see whether they try that. The Texans are obviously are familiar with Jim Caldwell's no-huddling.

How about special teams? Tell me how Jacoby Jones is now reliably explosive? The Texans have some serious special-teams issues.

HENSLEY: Jacoby Jones has been one of the bigger surprises this season for Baltimore. The Ravens were looking to upgrade the return game this offseason and failed to sign Eddie Royal or Ted Ginn in free agency. That's why they jumped on Jones when he was cut by the Texans. He has been average as a punt returner (9 yards per return), but he really keyed the win over the Cowboys on Sunday. His 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, which tied an NFL record, was the big play in that game.

The only reason the Ravens turned to Jones on kickoffs was because rookie Deonte Thompson fumbled a kickoff the week before. If you think about it, it's kind of funny that Jones got his chance to be explosive because another player couldn't hold onto the ball, especially after Jones' problems fielding kicks in the past. But that really hasn't surfaced so far with the Ravens.

Baltimore's coverage teams are both ranked in the top half of the league, which is a big improvement from last year. In 2012, the Ravens allowed three touchdowns on returns. Another improvement is at kicker. Rookie Justin Tucker has made 12 of 13 field goals this season and has hit both attempts beyond 50 yards. If this game is close, the Ravens have a lot of confidence in Tucker to make a pressure kick. So, what are the issues with the Texans' special teams?

KUHARSKY: Well, Trindon Holliday was absolutely electric as their returner in the preseason. But it didn’t carry over and they gave up on him. You saw Holliday playing for the Broncos on Monday night. Keshawn Martin is the man now. The team averages only 9.8 yards a punt return and 18.5 yards a kick return.

Their average start after a kickoff is the league’s worst -- the 17.7-yard line. Their coverage isn’t that bad -- it’s 31st in the league instead of 32nd. Opponents start at the 26.9-yard line.

Donnie Jones is a middle-of-the-pack punter in net average. Shayne Graham has been good on field goals, hitting 11 of 12, but is tied for 24th in touchbacks playing at home in what amounts to a domed stadium.

It’s gambler’s logic that the Texans are due to break through against the Ravens. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. If they don’t and Jacoby Jones has something to do with it, it’ll hurt a little bit extra.

It’s certainly no stretch to predict we’ll see these teams facing off again in the playoffs. In what round and where is the question, and Sunday’s winner will lead the race to be in position to host.

On Matt Schaub and the clutch question

September, 13, 2012
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.”
Outside of a guy who’s hurt or who gets in trouble, it’s hard to find anything that’s not thoroughly sugar-coated at this time of year.

As the NFL has turned itself into a year-round deal, I don’t think it calculated that OTA and minicamp season would be such a happy time. But the league and its teams certainly enjoy it.

How, then, can this cynic, find something to pick at?

Here’s how:

Our look at the most unreasonable causes for optimism around the division.

Houston: The young receivers

It’s great the Texans have replenished the unit, and it was time to move on from Jacoby Jones, who was released after the draft and is now in Baltimore.

But receiver might be the position that it’s easiest to look good at in June and be lost at in August. Lestar Jean was undrafted out of Florida Atlantic last year, then missed the season with a shoulder injury. He’s currently is drawing raves. Draft picks DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin will get a lot of opportunity now with Andre Johnson watching from the side rehabbing.

No matter how good any of those guys look now, I’m going to need to see them on the field with Matt Schaub (also out now) throwing to them before I become a believer on any level surpassing the usual for guys who have yet to play in real games.

Indianapolis: The offensive line

I was going to say the cornerbacks -- but I don’t know that there has been any great optimism about the group, which really says something at this time of year.

General manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano want to be bigger and more physical up front. Reshaping the line so far has meant the addition of right tackle Winston Justice, guard Mike McGlynn, center Samson Satele and, most recently, tackle George Foster.

As the Indianapolis Star recently wrote, there were reasons these guys were all available and affordable. Right now it seems holdovers Anthony Castonzo (left tackle) and Joe Reitz (left guard) will be joined on the starting line by Justice, McGlynn and Satele.

It’s a bit of a patchwork group, but for a team with financial restrictions and needs all over the place, it might not be bad. Grigson is leaning heavily on two guys he knew from his time with the Eagles in Justice and McGlynn. We’ll need to see if these guys are good enough and how they jell.

Jacksonville: The pass protection

I like right tackle Eben Britton a lot. And I understand why the team is optimistic about what his return from a back injury can mean for a group that run-blocked great, but didn’t fare nearly as well as pass protectors.

Still, is getting one guy back and changing scheme a guaranteed route for keeping Blaine Gabbert upright? I can be convinced, but I am not yet.

And they didn’t even add outside depth. Tackle Guy Whimper was very inconsistent last season and got a new deal. Cameron Bradfield, John Estes, Daniel Baldridge and Mike Brewster are an unproven lot as reserves.

Guard Uche Nwaneri said the running backs will be more involved in protecting the edges. When the top running back, Maurice Jones-Drew, is your best player, is that a good thing or a bad one?

Tennessee: The interior offensive line

It’s clear the Titans were not satisfied with the way center Eugene Amano played last season. They brought a parade of centers through Nashville during free agency, but failed to land any of them.

Now they appear content to go forward with Amano as the favorite to win the job over Kevin Matthews and, perhaps, Fernando Velasco. Amano is recovering from knee and ankle surgeries. He will be playing next to free agent addition Steve Hutchinson, who the team expects to have a very positive influence on him.

But Amano has never faced this kind of scrutiny and heat before, and I wonder if he will rise to meet it or melt. Leroy Harris, also out right now while he recovers from shoulder surgery, will move from left guard to right guard. Harris wasn’t great in 2011 either, and will have to hold off Velasco.
» 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 Texans in 2012.

Dream scenario (12-4): Quarterback Matt Schaub and receiver Andre Johnson return from injuries and have exemplary seasons, providing big plays that sync up beautifully with another excellent campaign by running back Arian Foster. New starters at right guard and right tackle take over and play well, and the offensive line continues to be a team strength, providing time for Schaub and room for Foster. They show it’s about the scheme and players with the traits that fit it, not necessarily about the specific people in the lineup.

In conjunction with the excellent offense, Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense picks up where it left off, swarming opposing quarterbacks and finding big plays that tamp down offenses just about every week.

This talented, deep squad does not get caught up in success and shows it can stand toe-to-toe with teams like the Packers and Patriots. In so doing, the Texans give Houston something it has never had before: a Super Bowl team.

Nightmare scenario (7-9): Schaub either can’t stay healthy or can’t return to form and he or T.J. Yates winds up throwing more to rookie receivers who struggle than to Johnson, who battles another round of leg injuries. The right side of the offensive line proves a huge issue as the team loses any hint of the cohesion that was such a key in 2011. That means trouble for Foster as well, and he doesn’t break through to the second level nearly as often as we’ve become accustomed to.

Defensively, the Texans can’t generate the kind of consistent pass rush they mounted last season as offenses do a better job countering than they did in Phillips’ first season heading up the 3-4. The secondary is asked to hold up too long and an injury to Johnathan Joseph leaves them susceptible at cornerback, the one spot that they lack depth. Opposing quarterbacks find too many big plays against them.

The return games are worse, not better, with Jacoby Jones now playing in Baltimore.

A nearly unanimous pick to win the AFC South before the season, the Texans fail to make the playoffs.

AFC South links: Colts pining for Luck

May, 17, 2012
Houston Texans

Former Texans receiver Jacoby Jones welcomes his move to new surroundings in Baltimore. "Change is good in life," said Jones, whose muffed punt in last season's playoffs led to a Ravens touchdown in a game Baltimore won by seven. "It’s always good to have a breath of fresh air.”

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts appear to be feeling the absence of top draft pick Andrew Luck, who is missing this week's organized team activities and can't report to the team's facilities until after his final exams at Stanford. "For him to be here, taking snaps, building chemistry, the timing with the offense, timing with the receivers, all those kind of things ... it’s days lost,’’ coach Chuck Pagano told the Indianapolis Star's Mike Chappell of the quarterback. “It’s like money you never get back."

The team signed four more draft picks Wednesday: fifth-rounder Vick Ballard, sixth-rounder LaVon Brazill, and seventh-round selections Tim Fugger and Chandler Harnish.

Becoming head coach of the Colts "has been a whirlwind" Pagano says in a Q&A with Chappell.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Though he hasn't been cleared for contact, linebacker Paul Posluszny is participating in this week's organized team activities as he recovers from January shoulder surgery. "As far as working out, being functional, the strength, the stability -- everything is back," Posluszny, who expects to be at full strength for training camp, told the team's official site. "I’m still not allowed to be in contact, but other than that, it feels great. It feels normal to me."

The Jaguars don't mind practicing in the rain, writes Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.

Quarterback Blaine Gabbert isn't taking his starting job for granted, writes Stellino.

Tennessee Titans

As expected, receiver Kenny Britt had minor surgery on his right knee in an effort to boost his return from torn ligaments suffered in September. The procedure will "probably accelerate his rehab," Titans general manager Ruston Webster told the Tennessean. Also in Jim Wyatt's notebook: The Titans have not had any contract talks with franchise player Michael Griffin, but the safety is working out with teammates. And third-round pick Mike Martin signed a four-year deal.

And after thoroughly examining other options at center, it looks like the Titans will go with one of their own this fall, writes Wyatt. Eugene Amano, the regular starter the past two seasons, will have to hold off Kevin Matthews, Fernando Velasco and rookie William Vlachos for the job, Webster said.

The Titans are in the running for former Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell, writes Terry McCormick.

Picking a starting quarterback can be a difficult proposition, but for the Titans, Webster says choosing between Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker could come down to a simple "gut feeling," writes Elliot Harrison of
Reading the coverage …

Houston Texans

Owner Bob McNair’s challenge is to keep contract extensions for coach Gary Kubiak and GM Rick Smith at a manageable length “so that he won’t hesitate to pull the trigger if the time does come that he has to make a move,” writes Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle.

Recently cut receiver and return man Jacoby Jones signed with the rival Ravens, says John McClain of the Chronicle.

Indianapolis Colts

The rookie wage scale that was part of the new collective bargaining agreement means the contract for No. 1 pick Andrew Luck won’t be difficult, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Quarterback Jordan Palmer doesn’t see as much Bob Bratkowski influence on the Jaguars’ offense as he expected, says Tania Ganguli.

Tennessee Titans

Matt Hasselbeck and Michael Roos have built a close friendship based on mutual respect, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. Hasselbeck jokes that two bald guys spend a lot of time discussing hair styles.
The Mailman from Section 146 EverBank Field writes: An elite punter that can consistently force fair catches and pin the enemy inside the 20 is a defensive weapon. Is an elite punter worth a high draft pick? Al Davis took Ray Guy with his 1st round pick in the '73 draft. Was that crazy? Yeah, I'd say so and we're talking about Ray Guy. I can live with giving up a 3rd round pick if Bryan Anger is another Ray Guy. At least GM Gene is not Al Davis crazy.

Paul Kuharsky: You’re giving me one whole example, and he was drafted 39 years ago.

Think the game’s evolved a little bit since then? I am not anti-punter.

And I could have lived with Bryan Anger in the fourth perhaps, definitely in the fifth.

But it’s simply silly to refer to someone who would have punted 99 times last year as a starter, as Gene Smith did, when the offense and defense played more than 900 plays each.

Realistically, what are the odds Anger is Guy? Slim.

Brutus from Houston writes: Now that the Texans have drafted 2 new receivers, and released Jacoby Jones, do you see a receiver currently on the Texans' roster that can really step up and challenge Kevin Walter as the starter opposite Andre Johnson and the heir apparent to Andre down the road?

Paul Kuharsky: I am sure DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin will prove more dynamic than Walter.

But they’ll have to be precise to chop away at his snaps.

It’s not a bad thing, if Johnson is healthy, and Arian Foster and Owen Daniels are on the field, to have a precise, sure route-runner who blocks on the field as well. That’s Walter.

Dan from Indianapolis writes: Looking at the Colts draft picks this year; especially the TEs. It’s clear they plan on running a lot of 2 TE sets. However, I remember Grigson and/or Pagano saying weeks ago that they plan on using fullback running sets. I'm trying to imagine the standard offensive sets they plan to use this year. With 5 lineman, QB, RB, FB, and two TE's, that only leaves one open spot for any of the WRs. Obviously, multiple formations are used in game. But do you really think this is what the colts plan on doing for the most part? Or do you think that post draft, the Colts are now shying away from the fullback idea? Are the days of 2 wide outs, slot receiver formations mostly over.

Paul Kuharsky: They will be two-tight sometimes, and they will be fullback at other times. They won’t be both at the same time, except maybe in an occasional short-yardage situation.

If the skill guys pan out, I hope they lead the Colts (and any team) away from using a fullback much. A quality tight end like Dwayne Allen should be able to add enough to the run game as a blocker while not giving away that it’s a run every time he’s on the field. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians historically does a lot with multiple tight ends, so I expect two-tights to wind up as the base look.

But these days, you’re a dinosaur if you aren’t going three-wide (or the equivalent of three wide with Coby Fleener in the slot) a reasonable amount of the time, too.

They still have a lot of time to sort these things out.

Ellen Rosenblum from Jacksonville writes: Why do you continue to fan the flames of Tebow and jacksonville? I know every Tebow reference by ESPN is supposed to get ratings, but for most of us in Jacksonville it is very old and tired news. The sports media is having a great time accentuating the negatives of Jacksonville, while downplaying the positive of getting Justin Blackmon. Goodbye ESPN.

Paul Kuharsky: You blame me, I blame the Jags.

Why in the world would they be talking Wildcat now, and make it a selling point for cornerback Mike Harris. If they are going to run some silly, gimmicky stuff, then they should have gone and gotten the league’s biggest gimmick.

Otherwise, find people who can run somewhat conventional offense with success and run it.

And talk about that.
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

Jacoby Jones had some big moments with the Texans, but they were too infrequent, says Jerome Solomon.

Bob McNair talks draft with Drew Dougherty of the Texans’ website, showing particular interest in receiver Keshawn Martin.

What to expect from Whitney Mercilus in the rookie year of the Texans' first-round outside linebacker, from Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

Indianapolis Colts

The average rookie-year production of first- and second- round tight ends sets a relatively low bar for production from Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. Dunlevy breaks down the recent history.

A Jim Irsay comment about Indianapolis needing another big hotel to get another Super Bowl prompted this piece from Anthony Schoettle of the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars released a long list of workout players who will get a look in minicamp, says Vito Stellino.

The story of Long Ding, a Chinese kicker hoping to make the Jaguars, from Michael Preston of the International Federation of American Football.

What to expect from first-round receiver Justin Blackmon and second-round defensive end Andre Branch, in more Dunlevy projection pieces.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans added veteran linebacker Zac Diles and fullback Collin Mooney who spent the last three years fulfilling his service commitment to Army, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. With Quinn Johnson and Mooney on the roster, it doesn't look good for Ahmard Hall to return.

What to expect from Kendall Wright, from Dunlevy.
When I saw him in mid-April, Jacoby Jones said he would happily mentor a Texans’ receiver draft pick. He also sounded like a guy who knew he could be on the way out.

And according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle, the Texans have released the receiver and return man after drafting two receivers: Ohio State’s DeVier Posey in the third round (68th overall) and Michigan State’s Keshawn Martin in the fourth round (121st overall).

It was time.

While Jones showed flashes, his ability to disappear and make costly mistakes isn’t worth waiting for the peaks in his game.

He wasn’t going to be worth the scheduled $3 million base salary he was due this season.

Undoubtedly he will get a chance somewhere, likely for a deal at a minimum base salary with incentives.
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Jacoby Jones is in trouble after the Texans drafted two receivers, says Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chronicle. “His on-again, off-again relationship with fans may have gone off permanently after a crucial muffed punt in the Texans’ playoff loss at Baltimore. The Texans aren’t bowing to pressure from fans; they just acknowledge the need for more production from that position.

Indianapolis Colts

Micah Pellerin, an undrafted cornerback out of Hampton, is a Colts addition who can help, says Wes Bunting of the National Football Post. “Displays a great feel in coverage when matched-up one-on-one... Showcases natural fluidity when asked to turn and run and displays a good burst out of his transition.” Hat tip to the Indy Star.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are going to experiment with the Wildcat with fifth-round cornerback Mike Harris, a one-time quarterback, writes Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times-Union. They’ll get roasted for this. Many of us defended them not getting Tim Tebow because they weren’t going to be gimmicky. Now they are enthusiastically talking about employing the very gimmick Tebow’s good at.

Tennessee Titans

Taylor Thompson, the SMU defensive end who’s turning back into a tight end for the Titans, shows the team is being creative and thinking outside the box, says David Climer of The Tennessean. “For the Titans, this was a risk/reward draft. They surprised everyone by picking wide receiver Kendall Wright in the first round, went the athleticism/potential route in the second round with Zach Brown, gambled on the speed of Clemson cornerback Coty Sensabaugh in the fourth, and traded up 10 spots to grab the position-hopping Thompson in the fifth.”