AFC South: Kawika Mitchell
The Titans did it gradually. The Jets had a big swoop.
But the two teams that square off Sunday in Nashville share a quality that has helped set them apart from a lot of teams in the NFL: They have hit on veteran free agents who have been productive and helped shape their team's culture.
The Jets are getting good production out of guard Alan Faneca as well as linebacker Calvin Pace. Right tackle Damien Woody has been OK. (Trades for Brett Favre and Kris Jenkins have obviously been big too, but we're sticking to free agents here.) The Titans are better on the offensive line with Jake Scott at right guard, and made solid additions in the last few years with cornerback Nick Harper and linebacker David Thornton.
Other hits so far from the 2008 free agent class include running back Michael Turner in Atlanta, defensive end Travis LaBoy in Arizona, defensive end Justin Smith in San Francisco, linebacker Kawika Mitchell in Buffalo and center Jeff Faine in Tampa Bay.
But plenty of other teams have swung and missed with significant deals for players they hoped would be cures -- Jacksonville with receiver Jerry Porter and cornerback Drayton Florence, Cleveland with Donte' Stallworth, Miami with defensive tackle Randy Starks and receiver Ernest Wilford and Oakland with receiver Javon Walker.
When a team brings in a guy with a big contract and high hopes and he fails to pan out early on, it hurts a team in multiple ways. A club misses the production, obviously, but can also be deflated by having failed in an attempt to get an immediate upgrade. It's a whiffed tackle or dropped pass that can haunt a team.
Both the Titans and the Jets have put a premium on personalities as they've brought guys in.
"When you bring in free agents it's also a function of how well they fit into the group that's already there," Jets coach Eric Mangini said. "How quickly they can stop being free agents and start being Jets? One of the things that has always been important to us is core characteristics with the people that we bring in and that's smart, tough, hard-working guys, guys that are competitive and selfless, and guys that football is important to."
"That's the draft, that's free agency and those are characteristics that we target before we even talk about their ability to play football."
That could have just as easily been Jeff Fisher talking about what the Titans have managed to do as they've shopped for veteran help.
Do it well as these two teams have and you might end up in one of the best games of Week 12, pitting a 10-0 team against a 7-3 division leader.