AFC South: Justin Miller

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Carr

Five minutes after I posted about how Chris Carr would lose leverage with the Titans if they landed Jarrett Bush, Carr reached an agreement in principle with Baltimore, reports John Clayton.

A solid return man who can also play cornerback, Carr will get two years and $5 million from a team that's released Chris McAlister and appears on the verge of doing the same with Samari Rolle.

The loss is a blow to the Titans, who now have to find kick and punt returners.

Among the players they've looked at while Carr has been on a free agent tour is Justin Miller, a corner who is an experienced kick returner.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

The first wave of free agency has come and gone. While Round 2 hasn't played out yet -- the draft is still six weeks away and offseason programs are in the offing -- the AFC South blog pauses to assess our four teams.

What's the overriding issue that remains to be addressed for each team? How might the franchises take them on?

Houston Texans

 
  Rob Tringali/Sportschrome/Getty Images
  Defensive end Antonio Smith gives the Texans some help on their defensive line.

The team's 2006 draft was the last with Charley Casserly as GM and coach Gary Kubiak signed off on all seven picks. Three of them -- Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Owen Daniels -- already have been to the Pro Bowl, and a fourth -- Eric Winston -- is a very solid starter.

If the Texans can come close to matching that with a defense-heavy draft, they could position themselves to challenge Tennessee and Indianapolis atop the division.

They need an infusion of defensive playmakers for new coordinator Frank Bush to work with: A sturdy linebacker, a stout defensive tackle, a safety or corner to challenge for a big role.

Never mind their standing as the league's 22nd-ranked defense in 2008. If the Texans can improve in scoring defense (24.6 points, 27th) and third-down defense (39.4 percent, 16th), that can make a huge difference. Defensive stinginess would help a team that's got an offensive head coach in Kubiak and an attack that should be able to score with a quality skill trio of Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson and Steve Slaton.

They believe they answered the question at defensive end by signing free agent Antonio Smith to play opposite Williams. But more additions to the front seven are needed, as they have to produce more pressure on quarterbacks. Only five teams had fewer than the Texans' 25 sacks last year, 12 of which came from Williams. Each of the 12 playoff teams last season recorded more sacks than it allowed. Houston was minus-seven.

Above all else, the pass rush needs to remain the focus. The Texans need a pocket-collapsing tackle, a linebacker who could contribute to the rush and/or a defensive back who can help keep the ball in a QB's hand for an extra beat. A running back to go with Slaton will be tempting, but the Texans should wait to grab one until after they've spent at least a couple of value picks on defense.

Indianapolis Colts

Bill Polian got deals done with cornerback Kelvin Hayden and center Jeff Saturday before they became free agents, both big moves.

 Hayden
 Saturday

The Colts like Roy Hall and Pierre Garcon, but they are unproven and it would be asking for and expecting a lot for one of them to emerge as the third receiver on a team that needs dependable pass catchers for Peyton Manning. That's why it won't be a surprise at all if the Colts use the 27th pick in the draft on a wideout if there is one they believe fits what they do and can contribute right away.

But even if they go that direction early, their bigger issue is on defense, where the front seven needs restocking. The Colts need at least one big, run-stuffing defensive tackle and they need a new weakside linebacker with Freddy Keiaho (not given a qualifying offer when he could have been a restricted free agent) and Tyjuan Hagler (unrestricted) apparently out of the picture.

New defensive coordinator Larry Coyer is expected to be more complex, and Polian needs to give him more pieces to work with. The Colts like to choose "the best player available" in at least the first two rounds. It would be great for them if those players happened to be interior linemen or outside linebackers. Without boosts there, we'll be discussing a lot of the same issues in 2009 we covered in 2008.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars have sent the message loud and clear: They are looking to rebuild by improving their foundation first, and they are big believers that the offensive and defensive lines are that foundation.

 
  Howard Smith/US Presswire
  While providing stability on the offensive line, Tra Thomas knows he needs work on his run blocking.

The addition of veteran left tackle Tra Thomas alleviates the pressure on the team to find a left tackle at No. 8 in the
draft, but Thomas himself said he needs work as a run blocker. With a team looking to spring Maurice Jones-Drew, that's the big priority.

At their peak, Jack Del Rio's Jaguars were known as one of the league's most physical teams. For a long time, the interior defensive line tandem of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud were primary reasons for that reputation.

The 2008 Jaguars never really replaced Stroud effectively after he was traded to Buffalo, and finding someone like him who could eat space and blockers and help boost Henderson back to his old form is important.

As usual, Jacksonville needs a playmaker outside. Their failures with receivers are well documented, but if David Garrard has insufficient protection and the defense can't get off the field on third down better, the next Jerry Rice won't win them too many games.

Re-establishing a physical identity remains priority No. 1, and will be a big focus in the draft.

Tennessee Titans

With Jason Jones poised to make a second-season jump and Jovan Haye added to the interior defensive line mix, the Titans are not desperate to replace Albert Haynesworth as many seem to believe.

 Haynesworth
 Washington

Beyond Haynesworth, the Titans have lost little and should be in position to be a contender again. The big issue is the lack of playmakers.

When Chris Johnson left the Baltimore playoff game hurt, Tennessee didn't have an alternative and became far less threatening. Adding a field-stretching receiver can improve the Titans' quick-strike ability. A burner would help keep defenses honest so they can't focus on Johnson as much.

Is free-agent acquisition Nate Washington that guy? Perhaps.

If the Titans can bring back Chris Carr or sign one of the veteran corners they've looked at -- Justin Miller, Eric Green or Jarrett Bush -- they won't be in dire need of anything in the draft. That's a liberating idea for a team that needs to line up heirs at some spots like outside linebacker and corner.

But it also gives the Titans the option of grabbing a receiver they think can help add a dynamic like Johnson did a year ago. The question is, will they finally do it?

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Houston Texans

The Texans matched Denver's offer sheet for David Anderson who said it's a win-win situation, while C.C. Brown signed with the Giants, says John McClain.

More from AP on Brown to the Giants.

LaDainian Tomlinson was one of seven inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, writes McClain.

Indianapolis Colts

John Oehser ponders Marvin Harrison's future.

Oehser tracks some other former Colts.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The contract defensive end James Wyche, who hadn't received a qualifying offer from the Jaguars, agreed to earlier this week is one year for $460,000, I was told. The minimum, as you'd expect.

Tennessee Titans

A chance at a bigger role lured Chris Simms to Denver, and the money wasn't bad either, writes Jim Wyatt.

Vince Young's agent said the quarterback wasn't unhappy about Kerry Collins re-signing and is "just trying to get himself together," reports Wyatt.

The Titans will have a lot more tough decisions on expiring contracts after 2009, writes Terry McCormick.

As the Titans visited with Justin Miller, Chris Carr's tour took him to New England, says Wyatt.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Three developments in the AFC South this afternoon:

  • The Texans matched Denver's offer sheet to restricted free agent receiver David Anderson, reports John McClain. Good move, I think.
  • Free agent cornerback and returner Justin Miller visited the Titans, reports Jim Wyatt. Miller could help the Titans patch their return games if they lose Chris Carr in free agency.
  • In Indianapolis, the Colts announced they re-signed defensive tackle Daniel Muir. He was an exclusive rights free agent who joined Indy just before the 2008 regular season as a waiver claim from the Green Bay Packers.

Audibles: AFC South Week 16 preview

December, 19, 2008
12/19/08
5:46
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Pittsburgh Steelers (11-3) at Tennessee Titans (12-2), 1 p.m. ET
The Titans have drifted away from their run-at-all-cost mindset while losing two of their last four. A game can unfold in a way that forces them out of it, but they are usually pretty stubborn, even if a good share of the carries are for minimal gains.

Much has been made about how the offensive line will handle Pittsburgh's zone blitzing 3-4 front. Tennessee's is a cerebral line keyed by left tackle Michael Roos and center Kevin Mawae, and how they sort through the unexpected to block for Chris Johnson and LenDale White and to buy time for Kerry Collins will be crucial.

Fewest Yards/Play Allowed Since 1978
TeamYds./Play
'08 Steelers3.88 (3347/863)
'79 Buccaneers3.89
'91 Eagles3.92
'99 Ravens4.06
'78 Rams4.09
'89 Vikings4.10

Another key piece is fullback Ahmard Hall. He and the tight ends will be called on to help slow James Harrison and crew.

Collins has been starting especially slow and while the Titans don't panic, they don't want a bad first quarter to leave them with a hole to climb out of. Tight end Bo Scaife hasn't been as involved in recent weeks as he was earlier in the season. It would seem the Titans could look to find some short Collins-to-Scaife connections early to create rhythm and get the offense started.

Pittsburgh is the league's top scoring defense (13.7 a game) and the Titans are second (14.1). If it's a field-goal-at-the-end kind of game both teams have a clutch guy who's only missed three -- Jeff Reed is 26 of 29, with misses from 40, 45 and 51 yards while Rob Bironas is 28 of 31 having missed from 43, 47 and 49 yards.

I feel like the Titans will need a big play on defense or special teams that flips the field to help the offense get to the end zone.

Of course, since we all expect a 13-10 result, we'll get a shootout.

Houston Texans (7-7) at Oakland Raiders (3-11), 4:05 p.m. ET
Once again the question is whether the Texans can sustain their quality play after an emotional win, and this time with a trip to the West Coast.

If Oakland's stellar cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha shadows Andre Johnson, I suspect the Texans will be willing to look elsewhere and Kevin Walter and Owen Daniels could be in line for big days against the 26th pass defense in the NFL. Johnson, though, has averaged 17.7 yards against the Raiders in two games.

Still, Steve Slaton may be the key -- he has three 100-yard games in a row during which he's averaging almost 5 yards a carry. That could fit nicely against the Raiders run defense, which is used to allowing 4.7.

Houston cannot afford to be undone on special teams, where it has had its share of gaffes this season and has not been a very good kick coverage unit. They will be on high alert with Justin Miller fielding kickoffs, as he has returns for touchdowns in consecutive games.

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