AFC South: Jamie Thomas
ANDERSON, Ind. -- They could have made a bid at an undefeated regular season and their hopes for a Super Bowl win were snuffed out by an onside kick and an untimely pick.
So it should concern the rest of the AFC South that the 2010 Indianapolis Colts appear to be better than last year’s version.
They get two high-quality players, who were injured for most of last year, back in safety Bob Sanders and receiver Anthony Gonzalez. The Colts added a third edge rusher and a blocking tight end in the draft.
“Coach [Jim] Caldwell wants us to be a consistent team and not one that plays really well one week and not one that goes into a slump the next couple of games and then comes back,” Peyton Manning said. “I think we have been pretty consistent. Our offseason work, our execution and our attention to detail in training camp make a difference.
“But what has happened in the past doesn’t guarantee you anything for this 2010 season. We have some new players, new coaches and it is up to us to go out and form the identity of his team and to go out and try to win games this season.”
THREE HOT ISSUES
“I don’t think you can put yourself in less danger on the field,” Sanders said when I asked if there was any way he could be less reckless to try to preserve himself. “We’re football players so we’re going to be physical. It’s a physical game. I make tackles. You just never know what’s going to happen. You just have to play your best, hope for the best, I pray and put it in God’s hands and just try to do my job.”
When he’s out there, he’ll be more creative than when we last saw him playing consistently. Second-year defensive coordinator Larry Coyer is much more willing to blitz than Ron Meeks was.
As good as Melvin Bullitt's been as Sanders’ replacement, Sanders is a game-altering presence when he’s out there. Sanders is making plays in camp. If he’s out there, the Colts’ defense could be fantastic.
2. Will offensive line changes amount to an upgrade? Left guard Ryan Lilja was let go, so at least one spot will be filled by someone new. Tony Ugoh looked like the early choice, but he’s been pulled back to tackle to work for the injured Charlie Johnson, so Jamey Richard is in play. Richard might shift to center while Jeff Saturday recovers from a knee scope, which could open the door for rookie Jacques McClendon, if he’s healthy, or someone like Jaimie Thomas.
The talent pool now includes McClendon and tackle Adam Terry, but there was no overhaul. Pass protection combined with Manning’s ability to get the ball out quick meant few sacks, but the team needs to run better for balance. Short-yardage bugaboos have been a factor in season-ending losses the past two years.
New offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars has a chance to make minor alterations that could have a bearing, and a quality-blocking tight end like Brody Eldridge could even help revive the once bread-and-butter stretch play.
If the Colts have to go that deep down the depth chart, their pass rush will be even more vital. But how many teams would love for the fourth cornerback to be a primary issue heading into a season?
It’s hard to find them with a very low-key team that drafts and grooms the bulk of its players. Polian’s harped on short-yardage failures, but then the team didn’t add a sure fire starter to the line with Andy Alleman (already gone), Terry and McClendon.
Before the Colts could start to sort things out, injuries dictated they move offensive linemen around. Saturday is out 2-6 weeks after a knee scope, and Johnson and McClendon are sidelined. It would have been nice to see Metzelaars have a full deck for a long stretch in order to best hold competitions and compare and contrast players. The sooner they resolve the lineup and start to build cohesion, the better. Now it’s probably going to be later than would be ideal.
- In Year 2 of Coyer’s tenure as defensive coordinator, I expect the Colts will be more exotic with an occasional surprise look or package -- perhaps most often utilizing their depth at safety where Sanders, Antoine Bethea and Bullitt make for three starting-caliber players.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Darron CummingsExpect more surprises out of Larry Coyer's defense this season.
- While the defensive line shows fantastic speed and strength, Mitch King looked the least smooth during the drill in which linemen weave through blocking dummies, turn a corner and try to strip a quarterback. For those excited about him, an adjusted timetable might be advisable.
- As the punter and kickoff man, Pat McAfee is electric. But teams in the market for a kickoff specialist might want to keep an eye on Garrett Lindholm, who looks like he can regularly put the ball in the end zone.
- Powers carries himself exceptionally well. During a break in one practice, as most guys went to the cool-down tent or took themselves out of football mentality for a minute, he picked the brain of Reggie Wayne. Powers already has become a media favorite, too.
- Manning could make good money if his only job was to put on clinics about how to best loft red-zone passes to the pylons in the back corners of the end zones.
- Joseph Addai knows what he’s doing on every play, and Donald Brown is smart enough to follow his lead, though Brown doesn’t shine in pass protection one-on-ones versus linebackers. The Colts will be just fine if the line can block for the runners, and maybe even if it can’t. Brown’s had more than a year to get pass protections down. If that keeps him off the field any this year, it’s no one’s fault but his.
- Better didn’t mean great for the interior defensive line in 2009. Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson continue to improve, and Fili Moala will make for a third 300-pounder in there. He appears to be comfortable and ready to contribute.
- The Colts haven’t emphasized the return game and, at times, it’s felt almost like they de-emphasized it. But undrafted rookie Brandon James is a miniature speedster who is in position to win at least the punt-return job. He could give Manning and the offense a short field once in a while.
- John Chick, who joined the Colts from the Canadian Football League, could win the fourth defensive end spot if he shows a good learning curve and durability.
» Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)
Each Wednesday leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the ESPN.com blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Recent history.
The best move the Texans made in the past three seasons was trading a second-round pick in 2007 and 2008 to Atlanta for Matt Schaub, a quarterback who’s the key to their offense and team. With so many teams in need of a quality starter, that trade seems like a steal now. They’ve taken four defensive backs with the 10 picks they’ve made in the fifth round or later, and out of Brandon Harrison, Dominique Barber, Brice McCain and Troy Nolan they’ve not found a guy who has been able to contribute consistently. It’s time to spend a big pick on a free safety or corner who has great ball skills.
Skill positions get attention early, with receiver Anthony Gonzalez and running back Donald Brown grabbed with the two first-rounders in the past three years. The hits in the third round and later have become significant players: Clint Session, Pierre Garcon, Jerraud Powers, Austin Collie, Pat McAfee. Trouble spot? Look to the five offensive linemen who haven’t really panned out. That’s understandable with Steve Justice (sixth in 2008), Jamey Richard (seventh in 2008) and Jaimie Thomas (seventh in 2009), but Tony Ugoh (second in 2007) and Mike Pollak (second in 2008) have left the team with holes and problems that need to be addressed in April. Out of five picks there has to be at least one starter, probably two.
Two first-round picks out of Florida have not met expectations, but the Jaguars still hope safety Reggie Nelson and defensive end Derrick Harvey can become consistent players. Of 25 picks, only one is established as a playmaker on offense, Mike Sims-Walker (third-rounder in 2007). That’s a big part of the reason the team’s not especially potent on offense beyond Maurice Jones-Drew. The top four from the 2009 draft got significant starting experience as rookies, and the 2010 class will have similar opportunities. While Harvey can be steady, he’s not an explosive pass-rusher, and Quentin Groves has struggled. Even with Aaron Kampman signed, they still need another pass-rusher.
The Titans have fared nicely with pass-rushers from lesser-known schools -- William Hayes of Winston-Salem State is on the brink of big things and Jacob Ford of Central Arkansas is a skilled rusher. Contributions from second-rounders have been minimal -- Chris Henry is already gone, Jason Jones hasn’t stayed healthy or consistent and Sen'Derrick Marks had no impact as a rookie. After hitting a home run with seventh-rounder Cortland Finnegan in 2006, late-round corners Ryan Smith, Cary Williams and, so far, Jason McCourty, haven’t panned out. A quality corner is a need early in this draft.
The folks at whatifsports.com wait eagerly for the draft, because only with rookies lined up with teams can they begin work on their projections for the season.
Draft day signifies the beginning of one of our busiest times of the year as we work on our comprehensive, full-season preview. For the preview, we project stats for every single player and team in the league by simulating each game on the schedule 10,000 times. Coming up with statistical inputs is relatively easy for veteran players as most tend to play to a predictable performance trend as they age and take on different roles.
Rookies present the biggest challenge. To come up with statistical inputs for rookies, we run a very complex set of algorithms that factors collegiate performance, role in college, strength of collegiate competition, "measurables," likely NFL role, previous performance of a similar player in that NFL role for this coaching staff and trends of similar rookies in the past. This gives us the player's projected ratio stats (expected yards per carry, completion percentage, etc.), as well as his forecasted usage for the upcoming season. From there, we can compare all rookies based on who we think will make the biggest positive impact for his new NFL team in his first year. The Top 100 from this ranking are listed below.
We have done pretty well with this approach. Leading into the 2008 season. Last season's ranking is located here. As you can see, not only did this methodology correctly rank first round draft choices like Jonathan Stewart, Jerod Mayo, Jake Long and Sedrick Ellis among the top ten, it helped to point out some steals like Steve Slaton, Charles Godfrey, Matt Forte, Trevor Scott, Jamaal Charles and Cliff Avril.
Here's how they ranked AFC South rookies:
98. Jaimie Thomas, OL, Indianapolis
97. Terrance Taylor, DT, Indianapolis
91. Sen'Derrick Marks, DT, Tennessee
84. Jared Cook, TE, Tennessee
70. Jarett Dillard, WR, Jacksonville
65. Fili Moala, DT, Indianapolis
54. James Casey, TE, Houston
46. Antoine Caldwell, OL, Houston
41. Austin Collie, WR, Indianapolis
29. Eben Britton, OL, Jacksonville
26. Eugene Monroe, OL, Jacksonville
20. Connor Barwin, DE, Houston
18. Brian Cushing, LB, Houston
12. Donald Brown, RB, Indianapolis
And just one in the top 10.
8. Kenny Britt, WR, Tennessee
Tennessee is another team in desperate need of a go-to wide receiver. The Titans have not had a wideout eclipse 750 yards since Derrick Mason in 2004. In 2008, Justin Gage led the way with 651 yards on just 34 catches. Britt, who has prototypical size and athleticism for the position, should be the long-term answer for the Titans. With an excellent running game and a veteran quarterback, he has a good chance of breaking out this season. In the latter weeks and in the playoffs, look for Britt to become an intimidating weapon for Kerry Collins.
The highest picks from each team that didn't make the cut: Jacksonville third-round defensive tackle Terrance Knighton; Indianapolis third-round cornerback Jerraud Powers; Tennessee third-round corner Ryan Mouton; Houston fourth-round safety Glover Quin.
We'll keep an eye out for those projections, coming in mid-June.
There will be picks on Saturday and Sunday that prompt brows furrowed into question marks on the faces of fans of the four teams of the AFC South.
So in advance of this weekend's draft, the AFC South Blog is here to warn you: Don't be surprised when the Colts look to cornerback; don't be shocked when the Titans turn to a tight end and/or a defensive end. Should the Texans invest a reasonably high pick in a receiver or the Jaguars dip again in to the pool of defensive ends, they won't be making redundant roster choices.
They'll be thinking more about 2010 than about 2009.
We've discussed the current needs of all four teams a lot in the build-up to the draft. But teams obviously have to look further ahead than that. They can't count on the CBA expiring and the rules of free agency changing. Because if a new labor deal is struck and free agency continues to operate in the fashion we are used to -- with players who've logged at least four years and have expired contracts hitting the free market -- teams have to be prepared to lose people, and they need to have replacements ready.
Some of those potential replacements are already lined up, of course, working as backups. But others must be targeted.
"You're not just drafting for this year, you're drafting for future years too," Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said. "You have to have the vision of what they might be in two or three years. ... You're always building depth on your team and you're getting, especially in the later-round guys, traits that can be developed."
Here is a look at the issues teams may be facing in terms of departing free agents in 2010 with some suggestions, courtesy of Scouts. Inc.'s Matt Williamson, on mid- and late-round picks who could fill the holes.