AFC South: James Casey

If the Houston Texans move forward with their interest in Vonta Leach, their old fullback, it’ll send a terrible message to late-career veterans the team looks to recruit in the future.

The Texans let Leach walk for big money two years ago.

When James Casey, an H-back miscast as a fullback, bolted for Philadelphia this offseason, the Texans signed Greg Jones.

[+] EnlargeGreg Jones
AP Photo/David J. PhillipIn Greg Jones, the Texans have a fullback capable of doing more than just block out of the backfield.
The former Jaguar is a quality blocker. He’s 32 and heading into his 10th season. He’s not a long-term piece, but he’s a pro who can do what the Texans need done from a lead blocker for Arian Foster and Ben Tate.

Now both Mark Berman of Fox in Houston and Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle report the Texans are interested in a return engagement for Leach.

If the Texans were to sign Leach, would they be asking him to come in and compete for the fullback job? Or would they be giving up on Jones?

If it’s the former scenario, I guess it’s fine. Though why you need a competition of that level between two very good veterans is a good question and you’re basically holding one hostage when he could be entrenching himself elsewhere now instead of when you cut him later. (It would be monstrously silly to keep both as Casey played just 53.3 percent of the Texans' offensive snaps last year.)

If it’s the latter scenario, I’ve got huge objections.

It would mean the Texans swallow $400,000 guaranteed of Jones’ one-year, $1 million contract. A team that’s tight against the cap can’t be throwing $400,000 away on a guy they don’t ever let take the field and have no complaint with. (How could they have a complaint about a fullback in June, when a fullback’s performance is based on physical play and physical play doesn’t start until late July?)

Jones would have every right to be upset and feel mistreated.

Teams make decisions all the time based on what’s available at the time, then they move on.

Fullback is not a position of need, no matter the good feelings and sentimentality they may have for Leach. He’s only six months younger than Jones.

Circumstances change, sure. But as good as Leach is, he’s not so much better than Jones that it’s something they absolutely have to do.

I asked a scout if Leach is better than Jones.

“Not better, just different,” he said. “Jones is very versatile, can run with ball, solid hands, good athlete. Leach is a blocker first, can catch but not going to be a threat.”

How much better a blocker, I asked.

“Not enough,” he said. “I would rather have the versatile player.”

If the Texans make this move, the next late-career free agent whom the Texans court will have to ask himself whether the team really wants him, or if it would jump for a slightly better alternative in a matter of months.
The way the Houston Texans used -- and didn’t use -- James Casey was an issue I struggled with in 2012. Gary Kubiak increasingly forced a round peg (a quality pass-catcher with great hands capable of being a matchup problem) into a square hole (a fullback who worked as a lead blocker far more than a pass target).

It’s one of the objections to the Texans offense for Robert Mays of Grantland, too.
"As teams find new ways to use players who don’t fit certain boxes, the Texans are trying to shove their players into them," Mays writes in a piece about the shortcomings of the Houston offense.

“... Offensively, the Texans have a specific plan, and against most teams they execute that plan well. The run game wasn’t nearly as effective last year as it had been in years past (mostly due to a lack of consistency and the resulting shuffling on the right side), but the run-first, play-action-later Houston offense still had plenty of moments. It’s when the running isn’t an option -- either because of ineffectiveness or a big deficit -- that the plan falters. Former Texans lineman Ephraim Salaam refers to it as 'staying on schedule,' but with offenses like the ones in New England, New Orleans, and Green Bay, relying on point production that can so easily come off the rails just doesn’t feel like an option anymore.”

It doesn’t feel like an option when the Patriots, Saints or Packers are blowing a game open early. And to succeed in the playoffs in the next few years, the Texans are almost invariably going to have to get past Peyton Manning’s Broncos or Tom Brady’s Patriots, if not both. (Manning was still finding his footing in Denver when the Texans won there last season.)

It’s a very well done and well-argued article.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsUsing a run-first offensive philosophy, Houston is tied for the NFL's fifth-best record during the past two regular seasons.
The one element of it I consider debatable is the idea that a zone running game can’t be bread and butter for a team in today’s NFL.

"These days, very few teams lean on the straightforward zone running game for the majority of their offense," Mays writes. "[Mike] Shanahan’s new team did plenty of zone blocking this year, but it was combined with read-option looks and the constant running threat of Robert Griffin III. No offense to Matt Schaub, but I’m not sure teams are too worried about his feet.”

But what’s it matter how many or how few teams lean on a zone running game for the majority of their offense? With such a philosophy the Texans are 22-10 over the past two regular seasons.

Yes, games against some good teams with high-powered offenses came apart and couldn’t be salvaged.

That’s a problem heading forward. I’m not sure, however, that the way to fix it is to decide that a primary tenet of your organization has to be scrapped.

They've got a lot invested in this system and only four teams have a better two-year record -- Green Bay, New England, San Francisco and Atlanta. (Baltimore has fared the same in the two-season sample.)

Say you have the sixth-best team in the league, but not one of its preeminent quarterbacks.

How do you improve enough that you can get past the teams that do?

Well, Schaub needs to play better in games against those high-caliber opponents, and he needs more help to do so. Part of that help might come from enhanced schooling that gets him ready for, and gives him freedom to make, adjustments to what a defense is doing on a given play. Houston’s defense, meanwhile, needs to get a better handle on the league’s top quarterbacks, right from the start of games against them.

Yes, the Texans offense needs to evolve. Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison need to develop the new talent that is drafted, but they also need to tinker with their system, and the needed tinkering goes beyond strengthening the existing scheme or getting better at it.

What changes can they make to the scheme to ensure that it’s not over-reliant on being run-first and play-action second? How can their offense, lacking a Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at the helm, still stand toe-to-toe and be in games against those talents at the end?

I’m better at asking the questions than answering them, but I don’t doubt football minds far better than mine can solve the puzzle and increase Houston’s chances.

Is the only way to beat a high-powered team these days to become a high-powered team? If so, then no, the Texans aren’t going to find themselves getting past the second round of the playoffs, where they’ve stalled the past two years.

It’s a quarterback league, but not everybody gets to have a complete stud. The Texans aren’t going to magically land a Colin Kaepernick, particularly as they pledge their fidelity to Schaub and just gave him a giant deal a year ago.

I still believe a unique team centered around a strong running game and a strong defense can make a run with a quarterback like him, provided he doesn’t wither at key moments.

Schaub isn’t going to get more dynamic. They can get him more dynamic weapons, field a more forceful defense, peak at the end of the season instead of at the start and have a chance.

It seems better to me than suggesting they completely revamp the offense when such a revamp would require a different kind of quarterback who’s not readily available and who a lot of other teams are looking for, too.
My contempt for fullbacks is well-known.

It’s a passing league, and I’ve got little time for a niche lead blockers. I want five guys on the field at the five eligible positions who are threatening to a defense.

That’s why, if you are determined to use a fullback as Gary Kubiak is, I’d lean toward a James Casey -- perhaps miscast as a blocker, but certainly capable as a pass-catcher.

But ...

The Texans have indicated they will stick with two youngsters on the right side of their offensive line, with Brandon Brooks at guard and Derek Newton at tackle.

The Texans' first-round pick in this month's draft seems likely to be a wide receiver who can help the passing attack immediately.

Given the still-unproven right side of the line and a potential boost in the passing game from a new No. 2 receiver, a traditional fullback may make sense for the Texans right now.

So I am curious to see how veteran free-agent addition Greg Jones can help Houston and Foster.

Foster averaged 4.7 yards a carry in his first three seasons and 4.1 yards last year. That’s a significant drop, and if Jones can help boost that number back to its previous level, I’ll be more (situationally) pro-fullback than at any time I can remember.
Thoughts on the primary developments around the AFC South over the past 10 days while I took some time away…

Houston Texans

The Texans signed Greg Jones to replace James Casey as their fullback, plucking a player who’d been a staple for division rival Jacksonville. Jones is much more of a traditional fullback than Casey was. While he’s not the sort of pass-catching threat Casey was, he will be a better lead blocker for Arian Foster. With a one-year contract, he’s unlikely to be a long-term solution, as he will turn 32 in May.

Shane Lechler is the new punter, a free-agent addition replacing Donnie Jones. Lechler is obviously an excellent punter. The one concern is the Texans are not an excellent coverage team. While a linebacking corps that will be restocked in the draft and presumably healthier will help, I’ll be watching to see if Lechler outpunts his coverage, actually creating additional issues rather than helping to resolve them. Houston did hire Bob Ligashesky as an assistant for longtime special teams coach Joe Marciano.

J.J. Watt’s star continues to shine. After visiting troops in the Middle East, he belted home runs at an Astros batting practice and had a baby penguin in Galveston, Texas named after him.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts took a look at former Oakland receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, but no deal came together. Considering how general manager Ryan Grigson has worked in free agency, it seems unlikely a deal will come together now. Indianapolis has moved quickly to bring in the guys it wants, so it would seem the Colts decided to pass, or DHB didn’t jump to agree to what they may have offered. I think the team, which has made plenty of moves in free agency, can address wide receiver early in the draft.

The addition of veteran backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck shows the Grigson-Chuck Pagano regime regard the position behind Andrew Luck differently than Bill Polian did when he was dealing with insurance for Peyton Manning late during his tenure in Indianapolis.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars didn’t become players in the trade market for quarterback Matt Flynn. Smart move. The next signal caller that lands in Jacksonville needs to be more of a sure thing, and come at a more reasonable price than Flynn. Coach Gus Bradley obviously saw Flynn up close while working for the Seahawks. If he loved him, the Jaguars would have more likely shown some interest. Maybe they love Geno Smith or another quarterback in the draft. But I’ll be fine if they work hard on building the framework around the QB, play this season with Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne. If neither emerges as a guy they can count on going forward, then it’s priority No. 1 a year from now.

Gabbert's talking excitedly about the competition ahead at quarterback. He didn't like comments from a nameless coach from the previous staff that called him "Blame Gabbert" and suggested the way he carries himself puts blame for his problems on everyone else. It's exactly how you'd expect him to react. But I believe there was some truth to it, and it's something the new staff could have to address.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans took a look at former Jets wide receiver Chaz Schilens as well as former Bronco Brandon Stokley and former Texan Kevin Walter. The team has been eager to add a slot guy to its group, and while Stokley is going to be 37 when this season starts, he is the one guy of these three who could give the Titans something they lack, I believe.

Ropati Pitoitua is the newest member of the Titans defensive line, an area they’ve wanted to beef up. Now Pitoitua, at 6-foot-8 and 315 pounds, joins tackle Sammie Hill (6-4, 329) to provide that size upgrade. Pitoitua was the 10th free-agent addition for Tennessee this offseason. He figures to help shore up the run defense.

I was a bit surprised the Titans signed safety Bernard Pollard, who’s a solid player against the run but also a coverage liability. He’s an outspoken guy with a big attitude and I’d categorize him as more of a Gregg Williams guy than a Mike Munchak guy.
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at whether each AFC South team has been a winner or a loser in free agency:

Houston Texans

They wouldn’t have had to do a lot to be considered a winner, so the acquisition of veteran safety Ed Reed (Baltimore) keeps them out of the loser's bracket. They’ve lost safety Glover Quin (Detroit), outside linebacker Connor Barwin (Philadelphia) and fullback James Casey (Philadelphia). They did retain nickel cornerback Brice McCain. Is there a receiver or a nose tackle out there whom they would consider among the cheaper options? If there is, they should.

Indianapolis Colts

In terms of numbers, it’s a raging success and they are winners. To what degree the free-agent class improves the Colts remains to be seen. But two elements are undoubtedly better today than they were at the end of the 2012 playoff season. Gosder Cherilus is a far better right tackle than Winston Justice, and Donald Thomas figures to upgrade one of the guard positions. Defensively, the Colts were a bad run-stopping team, and they’ve added better run-stoppers at all three levels -- from Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin on the line to Erik Walden at outside linebacker to LaRon Landry at strong safety. They are better equipped to run Chuck Pagano’s 3-4. Many of the contracts they’ve negotiated are front-loaded, so any mistakes will not sting very badly in future years.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are in a patient rebuilding mode, and it doesn’t include any big free-agent expenditures. So far they’ve shopped for role players like cornerback Alan Ball, running back Justin Forsett and defensive tackle Roy Miller, a good run-stopping defensive tackle. They re-signed longtime center Brad Meester and slot receiver Jordan Shipley, whom they got for cheaper after not tendering him as a restricted free agent. At the same time, they’ve watched Derek Cox, a high-quality but often-injured cornerback, and defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, whose play trailed off in Year 4, move onto San Diego and Denver, respectively. It’s not fair to call non-players in the free-agency game losers at it, but if I am being forced to say they’ve won or lost so far, I can’t say they’ve won. They'd say the only way to win is not to play.

Tennessee Titans

They didn’t bring in as many people as the Colts did, but the Titans have addressed many of their weaknesses and needs. Guard Andy Levitre gives them an interior stud at a spot they’ve pledged to upgrade, and center Robert Turner can be better interior depth than they’ve had recently. Shonn Greene is going to take carries away from Chris Johnson but make the Titans two-dimensional at running back, where getting a tough yard won’t be so tough. The team wants to get back to moving an H-back tight end around a lot with shifts and formations, and Delanie Walker is better at that than Jared Cook was, though he had some drop issues last season with the 49ers.

For two years, they wanted to get bigger on defense, and Sammie Lee Hill is a bigger tackle who should help stop the run if he’s ready to take on a bigger role than the one he had in Detroit. Matt Hasselbeck was shipped out to cut costs, and while I am not a big believer in Ryan Fitzpatrick, he was probably the best backup quarterback option on the market. We need to see these guys play to know what the Titans got themselves, but on paper they are better than they were before free agency opened.
Catching up on some reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

Connor Barwin said the Eagles offered a better deal than the Texans and he had to take it, says Tania Ganguli of the Houston Chronicle.

Glover Quin got $4.7 million a year from the Detroit Lions, says Ganguli.

Thoughts on Kevin Walter, James Casey and Glover Quin from Lance Zierlein of the Houston Chronicle blog.

Any logic that didn’t rate Quin as a core player was flawed, says Rovers McCown of Battle Red Blog. He was the only player the Texans ever successfully developed at the position.

Alternatives to Ed Reed if he doesn’t join the Texans, from Ryan Cook of Toro Times.

Indianapolis Colts

Chuck Pagano and Ryan Grigson reviewed their free agency haul, says Phillip B. Wilson.

Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth breaks down the Colts' spending spree, and sees a lot of questions.

The Colts' free agency efforts have been largely focused on shoring up the defense, writes Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

Darius Butler and Greg Toler ranked very well in Pro Football Focuses ratings of cornerbacks, says Chappell.

Owner Jim Irsay let the Star know that he spent “with the top of the top” and had his wallet open “matching everyone else’s,” says Chappell.

Considering the payout for Ricky Jean Francois with Brad Wells of Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars’ new guys must prove they belong, says Gene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union. “It’s no coincidence that the four UFAs brought aboard by (David) Caldwell are on two-year contracts. They are here to audition, not be handed starting jobs.”

To which I say: Roy Miller and Justin Forsett look like nice pieces. I am less confident about Alan Ball and Antwaun Molden. They'll really need to coach up those cornerbacks.

Slow-playing has been the right way to go for Caldwell and the Jaguars, says Alfie Crow of Big Cat Country.

The Jaguars re-signed Molden to a minimum one-year deal, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Times-Union.

Clearing up the concept of the mandatory cap floor, with Alfie Crow of Big Cat Country.

Tennessee Titans

Green Bay free agent Brad Jones is the next linebacker the Titans are looking at to fortify their depth, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Titans owner Bud Adams talked to Wyatt about big free-agent spending and playoff hopes. Said Adams: “We have to get the players we know can perform and make us look like we’re a tough team to play against again.”

The Titans re-signed return man Darius Reynaud, says Wyatt.

To which I say: Reynaud might not like being identified as a returner. But after the signing of Shonn Greene he should get used to it, because he’s rarely going to get a carry.
Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

The Texans now have a need at fullback, with James Casey gone to Philadelphia. They also cut receiver Kevin Walter, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. I think Casey will do a lot for the Eagles and leave people wondering why Gary Kubiak didn't manage to do more with him.

J.J. Watt has a snappy answer to a Twitter follower who wanted to fight him.

To which I say: Twitter muscles amuse me.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts felt like Day 1 all came together for them, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

The addition of cornerback Greg Toler signals the end for Jerraud Powers, says Phillip B. Wilson of the Star.

Toler’s deal is three years, $15 million according to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun.

Exploring the idea of Greg Jennings to the Colts, with Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

The Colts' roster is still in need of some dynamic talent, says Greg Cowan of Colts Authority. He also looks at the somewhat controversial big dollars for Erik Walden.

To which I say: Odds now suggest the dynamic talent additions of the offseason are going to show up in the draft.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Quiet as free agency started, the Jaguars are asking fans to trust their plan, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Florida Times-Union.

To which I say: They did well to make it clear in advance they weren't going to be free-agency front-runners, so the reaction has been tempered.

David Caldwell and Gus Bradley were both at Florida’s pro day on Tuesday, says Hays Carlyon of the Times-Union.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans were sprinters at the start of free agency, adding guard Andy Levitre and tight end Delanie Walker, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean. They are expected to add defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill Wednesday.

Shopping Nate Washington is risky, at least for now, says Wyatt.

To which I say: I’m not sure I understand the Titans' interest in St., Louis free agent Danny Amendola or their interest in moving away from Washington.

The Titans re-signed fullback Quinn Johnson, says Wyatt.

Running back Shonn Greene will visit Tennessee, says Wyatt.
I think James Casey is going to make the Houston Texans look bad.

He was a square peg in a round hole as the Texans' fullback, and while he was fine in that role it limited the Texans use of his best attribute: His hands.

On and around the team it was unquestioned that he had the best hands on the team. Yet they took advantage of that by feeding him just 1.08 catches per game in 61 contests.

The Philadelphia Eagles pounced on Casey in the first day of free agency with what John McClain of the Houston Chronicle says is a three-year, $14.5 million deal.

I know I am going out on a real limb here, but I am guessing that innovative new coach Chip Kelly is going to get the ball in Casey’s hands more than 1.08 times a game in 2013.

As he does, I’m envisioning us discussing what could have been if the Gary Kubiak and the Texans had used him more creatively and more assertively instead of relegating him to second-class citizen status in the pecking order of passing-game options.
This list was somewhat of a bear. The gap between No. 1 and No. 12 isn’t so big. There is a huge degree of subjectivity and personal preference.

I wanted my one overriding consideration as I pieced together the top 12 free agents in the AFC South to be production versus potential. If I’m shopping for a player, I want to feel like he’s got potential to produce for me, of course. But I want that feeling rooted in the fact that he already has produced. But few guys with expiring contracts in our division strike the right measure in the production versus potential debate.

You could reshape this in any number of ways and I likely wouldn’t object. So have at me in the comments. It seems quality fodder for some discussion.

My top 12 free agents-to-be in the AFC South:

[+] EnlargeGlover Quin
Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY SportsLosing the coverage skills of safety Glover Quin would surely be a big blow to Houston.
1) Glover Quin, free safety, Texans. He’s versatile and can cover and hit. He may rank as only the fourth-best safety to get to free agency in the NFL, but he could be a strong addition to a secondary and losing him would hurt the Texans.

2) Dwight Freeney, defensive end, Colts. He’s aging, sure. But for a team needing a pass-rushing boost, he’s got to be intriguing. Put him back in a 4-3, ideally indoors on turf, and he’s going to get some sacks.

3) Daryl Smith, outside linebacker, Jaguars. A durable guy, the timing of his first serious injury was poor and he missed all but two games last year. A very solid player the Jaguars would probably do well to retain.

4) Jared Cook, tight end, Titans. He’s an intriguing physical specimen who’s quite a threat as a pass-catcher. While the Titans didn’t figure out best how to use him, he wasn’t very consistently productive and is limited as a blocker.

5) Derek Cox, cornerback, Jaguars. But for health concerns that have cost him 17 games over the past three seasons, he’d probably be atop this list. When he’s on the field, he can be a high-quality cover corner. Can he stay on the field?

6) Greg Jones, fullback, Jaguars. It’s a position that is increasingly devalued and de-emphasized. But if you need a lead back, he’s a quality guy who’s done some awfully good work paving the way for Maurice Jones-Drew.

7) Terrance Knighton, defensive tackle, Jaguars. He can show great feet for a giant man, and seemed to get his weight under better control. But his best play was early in his time with the Jaguars, not late. That was a big disappointment considering how much of a contract he could have earned.

8) Connor Barwin, outside linebacker, Texans. Had a big year in 2011 and passed on a contract extension before the 2012 season. What he’s going to get now, after a poor season, is unlikely to match up to the deal he passed on. Does he rebound or did he simply flash once?

9) Sen’Derrick Marks, defensive tackle, Titans. Has some ability to penetrate on early downs and has made some progress. But isn’t as far along as suitors would probably like for a second-round pick four years into his career.

10) Jerraud Powers, cornerback, Colts. A smart player who understands how to play. Didn’t have sufficient time to settle into Colts’ new system which has a thin secondary before he was sidelined by a toe injury. His inability to stay healthy is the big issue for him at this point.

11) Rob Bironas, kicker, Titans. Bironas has a strong leg and a clutch history, though he’s not coming off his best season. But in a league where analytics are carrying more weight, more teams will cap what they’ll pay a top guy at the position

12) James Casey, fullback, Texans. I think he’s been somewhat miscast as a lead blocker. He’s got excellent hands, so I think he could do more in an atmosphere where he has more chances to catch passes.

Five AFC Southies are All-Joes

February, 13, 2013
USA Today’s All-Joe team is a nice recognition for largely unsung heroes. Only players who’ve never been to the Pro Bowl are eligible for the team, selected every year since 1992.

Five of the 53-man roster on the team selected by Nate Davis are from the AFC South:

Texans FB James Casey

Davis: “Versatility personified. He's played quite a bit of tight end for Houston but settled in last season as the lead blocker for Arian Foster, who churned out 1,424 yards. Casey once played seven positions in one game while attending Rice and could probably spell Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in a pinch. After all, Casey spent three years pitching in the Chicago White Sox farm system.”

Kuharsky: Casey is heading for free agency and would be wise to flee. In a different environment in need of a pass-catching tight end, he and his great hands could be a very productive piece. He’s wasted as a lead blocker.

Colts TE Dwayne Allen

Davis: “Here's one Indianapolis newcomer you might not have heard much about even though his 45 receptions for 521 yards led all rookie tight ends. However Allen's crushing run blocks earned him a lot more playing time than teammate and fellow frosh tight end Coby Fleener, who entered the league with far more fanfare.”

Kuharsky: Allen is not just a productive player already, but he’s shown really good leadership qualities that will pay off for a young team.

Jaguars LT Eugene Monroe

Davis: “He's probably Jacksonville's steadiest, most reliable player. That alone warrants some rare recognition.”

Kuharsky: He was good, not great. He can still get better. A new position coach will be big for him and he should excel in a new zone-blocking scheme the team intends to install.

Titans CB Jason McCourty

Davis: “He's emerged as the best corner on his team and in his family now that twin brother Devin (a former Pro Bowler) of the Patriots has moved to safety. Few corners are more willing to get their hands dirty than Jason McCourty, whose 92 tackles paced the position among AFC players.”

Kuharsky: It took him a while to find his groove in 2012, but ultimately he showed himself to be the quality player the Titans believed in when they extended him.

Texans special-teams ace Bryan Braman

Davis: “Playing as if his flowing hair was on fire, he blocked two punts, both returned for Houston TDs (one by Braman himself) and was a demon in coverage, making a team-high 16 special-teams tackles.”

Kuharsky: He’s a special-teams demon. The next stop is making himself a viable option for some snaps at outside linebacker as the Texans look for more pass-rush burst out of the position.

Priority one: Houston Texans

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: Safety Glover Quin, fullback James Casey, outside linebacker Connor Barwin, cornerback Brice McCain.

Weaknesses: The pass rush beyond J.J. Watt was insufficient and there was too much room for plays to be made in the secondary. The right side of the offensive line wasn’t good enough. Pass-game threats beyond Andre Johnson didn’t develop and now DeVier Posey is recovering from a torn Achilles. Red zone offense sputtered late in the year. Special teams allowed too many returns and didn’t get enough.


What should be priority one for the Texans?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,670)

Unsettled starting jobs: Right guard was split up between Ben Jones and Brandon Brooks and both Derek Newton and Ryan Harris saw time at right tackle. Bradie James is a smart veteran, but might they look to a younger and more athletic option from on the roster or outside?

Depth issues: The Texans like to play a package on defense with a third safety playing as a linebacker, and neither Quintin Demps nor Shiloh Keo was very good in that role. Secondary depth wasn’t good enough.

Health concerns: Inside linebacker Brian Cushing is coming back from a torn ACL. Posey’s got a long rehab again. McCain is rehabilitating after suffering a broken foot. Swing tackle Rashad Butler, who’s going to be a free agent, is coming back from a torn triceps. Two backup inside linebackers who I believe are good players, Darryl Sharpton and Tim Dobbins, finished the season on IR.

Unseen issue: They seem to love Shaun Cody as the primary nose tackle with help from Earl Mitchell. But couldn’t an upgrade there would make things a lot easier on the inside linebackers?
John Clayton of ESPN shared some significant cap information in his latest column at

He’s got everybody’s carry over cap space that will go from 2012 to 2013, and their estimated total room against the cap in 2013.

Colts general manager Ryan Grigson will enter a whole new world with that $46 million of cap room a year after his team swallowed about $37 million in dead money plus a $19 million cap hit for Dwight Freeney in the final year of his contract.

But the initial list of free agents to-be doesn’t have me thinking he can necessarily hit a jackpot.

From this link you can get position-by-position lists from Pro Football Focus. Most or all of the restricted free agents will get tenders and not be able to move. And of the guys heading to restricted free agency, some will re-sign and some will get franchise tagged.

I expect Grigson will bring in some quality people to address trouble areas starting with the offensive line. But he’s not going to shoot to spend every available penny if he doesn’t find guys who are worth it or who will accept contracts he thinks they’re worth.

Houston’s in better shape than I would have guessed, but has three significant guys with expiring contracts: Fullback James Casey, safety Glover Quin and outside linebacker Connor Barwin.

HOUSTON -- Thoughts on the Texans’ 19-13 wild-card game win Saturday over the Cincinnati Bengals at Reliant Stadium:

What it means: The Texans knocked off the Bengals in the first game of the playoffs for the second consecutive season and advanced to a divisional-round game next weekend at New England. Cincinnati still has not won a playoff game since the 1990 season.

What I liked: Star power got it done for the home team. Running back Arian Foster became the first player in NFL history to top 100 rushing yards in his first three playoff games. In combination, receiver Andre Johnson (four catches for 62 yards) and tight end Owen Daniels (nine for 91) were big in a game in which the run game and defense carried the day. Matt Schaub played better than he had recently, hitting on 29 of 38 passes for 262 yards with a pick-six and no touchdowns. Defensive end J.J. Watt had a sack and a couple of batted passes.

What I didn’t like: Schaub gave the Bengals a touchdown with a bad throw for James Casey that corner Leon Hall picked off and took 21 yards in a tightrope walk down the sideline to the end zone. The Texans had a lot of chances in the red zone but really took only one crack into the end zone, an inaccurate pass that Johnson should have corralled but did not.

Quality: The Bengals aren’t a good third-down offense, and the Texans did a great job making sure that stayed the case. Cincinnati was 0-for-9 on third down.

He’s back: Cornerback Johnathan Joseph has had an inconsistent season during which he has been hampered by a groin and hamstring injury. He played a very good game Saturday, with a key interception on a pass on which A.J. Green stopped running, and with a lot of tight coverage.

What’s next: The Texans return to New England on Jan. 13. They lost a Monday night game there, 42-14, on Dec. 10. It’s not unprecedented for the Patriots to lose at home to a team they’d beaten badly not too long before. It happened with the Jets in 2010. The Patriots crushed New York 45-3 on Dec. 6, 2010, then lost at Gillette Stadium 28-21 in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Matt SchaubAP Photo/AJ MastTexans QB Matt Schaub says he'll keep an even-keeled approach entering his first playoff game.
He’s not a master of body language. Even when things are going well for Matt Schaub, his shoulders can slump.

It’s easy to read too much into such things. But when a ninth-year quarterback who’s played in 118 NFL games is preparing for his first playoff game, everything’s up for consideration. Especially because he’s headed a season-ending slump, during which the Texans lost three of their final four, booting multiple chances to secure a first-round bye and the AFC’s No. 1 seed.

In the three losses, he didn’t have a touchdown pass, threw three interceptions, posted a passer rating of 69.0 and was sacked nine times.

It’s not the sort of stat line one wants to carry into a playoff game against a tough defense.

Fair or not, Schaub is widely perceived as a guy who can’t get it done in a big game, who's not clutch.

(We explored much of that in September.)

He has not played in many big games. A serious foot injury cost him six regular-season games and the franchise’s two playoff games last season.

So we arrive at what’s without question the biggest game of his NFL life.

“There is no doubt that this is the biggest game to this point,” he said.

Last week was a giant game, with the No. 1 seed on the line, and he didn’t produce -- missing James Casey open deep for a touchdown and getting intercepted by Vontae Davis, then throwing another pick to Davis in the Colts' end zone.

That 69.0 passer rating in the three losses dropped his season rating to 90.7.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. is a former scout who watches tape and breaks down performances. His feelings about Schaub now reflect a widespread opinion.

“I can’t say I am excited about Schaub in this game,” Williamson said. “He is better than how he has played of late, but he is still a very limited guy. The Texans go as their run game goes, and I don’t see them being very successful on the ground against Cincy. Most of what Schaub does well stems off play-action, the right side of his line doesn’t pass block well, and he really only has one threatening receiver to throw to. He is also somewhat streaky, and he is on a cold streak.”

During the cold streak, Schaub has looked too much to Andre Johnson.

It’s a delicate balance. The Texans want to throw to their best guy, of course. But for the offense to really work, the ball needs to go other places, too.

Outside of the three recent losses, Johnson accounted for 24 percent of Schaub’s targets. In those three games, it was 37 percent.

“I think there are times as a quarterback you get so confident with a person that when your back is against the wall, when you need a play, you’re going to go that way,” Schaub said. “Sometime you may try to force a ball where you shouldn’t. Maybe just going the other way is the best thing.

“We’ve always been an offense that executes and plays at a higher level when we get a lot of people involved all while still getting him his touches, because he’s such a vital part of what we do.”

Johnson said after the loss in Indianapolis that for him and Schaub to connect well is not enough.

“All 11 of us have to click as a whole,” Johnson told Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle. “It can’t just be one or two guys. If we don’t click together, then we’re not going to win. We’ve got to find a way to get it done.”

Although Schaub has not found any mechanical issues, he said he has passed on too many checkdowns. Instead of trying to attack good one-on-one coverage to allow for a play, he can turn to a guy underneath who can make one defender miss and gather some yards.

Like his coach, Gary Kubiak, Schaub is a levelheaded guy. When things are going badly, it’s easy and simple for outsiders to be turned off by that, to crave fire and brimstone. That’s not, however, where the Texans go when they are playing well, and they don’t believe it’s where they need to go to get back to playing well.

Schaub is aware how much this game and a playoff run can impact the perception of him around the league.

But it’s hardly his primary concern this week, nor should it be.

“Just trust your preparation,” he said. “You get yourself ready as you would for any other game. Trust in that preparation. Trust in your teammates. Trust in what you do throughout the week to get yourself ready. Keep your routine as normal as you can.

“When you do that, you keep your mind at ease and you just go out and cut it loose and play football. The things that got you to this point and the things that help you win football games are the same, regardless of what time of year or when or where or who you play. It’s all about staying on the field on third down, converting in the red zone, win the turnover battle and you’ll be successful. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

It’s basic. It’s sensible. It’s calm.

It’s not stirring. It’s not motivational.

Fans won’t read that and get fired up. It won’t bolster their confidence that the Texans are about to get back on track.

So be it.

The Texans beat the Bengals in big games twice last season with third-stringer T.J. Yates at quarterback. These teams are pretty similar to those. There will be plenty of reason to believe in the plan.

Schaub shouldn’t be thinking about how his reputation can be enhanced or suffer from what unfolds. That would only serve to distract.

As he walks out on to Reliant Stadium’s field for warm-ups, as he puts his hand over his heart for the national anthem, as he heads to midfield for the coin toss, he said, he won’t pause anywhere to consider the magnitude of the stage or the game.

“No,” he said. “It’s all about getting ready to go play, getting out there and cutting it loose. It’s going to be exciting and fun to get out there. But no, there’s not going to be any of that.

“It’s just not the way I’m built, it’s not the way I approach things. That’s not in my makeup to go and do that stuff. I want to keep everything the same.”

The AFC South in Pro Bowl fan voting

December, 12, 2012
Updated Pro Bowl voting results are in. Fan votes count one-third, with player votes and coach votes that come later also counting a third.

You can vote here until Monday night’s game between the Jets and Titans finishes up.

Here’s how AFC South players stand in the top five by position:

Running backs
Wide receivers
Tight ends
Offensive tackles
Defensive ends
Defensive tackles
  • None
Outside linebackers
Inside linebackers
  • None
Strong safeties
Free safeties
  • None
  • None
  • None
Kick returners
  • None
Special teamer