AFC South: Kyle Shanahan

What kind of scheme will fit Peyton Manning best?

One that’s a lot like what he ran while he was with Indianapolis.

We can do a lot of speculating about what’s most important to Manning going forward. My belief is a guy who is a creature of habit and loves routine and repetition will be most inclined to go somewhere where he gains a good measure of control. Where the coach and offensive coordinator will be willing to bend things to him. Where he can continue to do the things he's been honing for years.

That’s why I don’t see Washington as a good fit at all.

[+] EnlargePeyton Manning
Jerry Lai/US PresswirePeyton Manning would likely do best in an offense that's similar to the one he ran in Indianapolis.
Mike Shanahan is a control freak and his son and offensive coordinator, Kyle, is a chip off the old block. Toss Manning into that mix and there isn’t enough control to go around.

Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona has shown a willingness to fit a scheme to a signal-caller. Joe Philbin in Miami is just starting out and would surely be willing to tilt things. Pete Carroll in Seattle seems to be a flexible guy when dealing with big personalities and stars. Romeo Crennel in Kansas City is a defensive guy.

John Fox is intense, but he and John Elway wouldn’t jump in unless they would mold things for Manning. And we certainly know they are willing to move away from the offense Tim Tebow was running.

“In the end, the chances are that whichever team Manning lands with will incorporate its present offensive system intertwined with what Manning did with the Colts,” writes Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc Insider. “Manning's offense in Indy included a zone run-blocking scheme that featured athletic, movement-based linemen, limited personnel groupings and formations, a ton of pre-snap reads, and a timing-based passing attack that thrived after hours and hours of practice time.”

I can’t give away the store of the Insider piece, so I won’t share the order Williamson lists the matches in. We’ll go alphabetical as we share some snippets. As a bonus, my blog network brethren have chimed in with a flexibility rating for the coach/staff/scheme. A "10" means the team would hand over the keys to Manning and a "1" means he’d be expected to run precisely what the coaching staff wanted.

Arizona

Williamson: “This is the offense I would expect to change the most for Manning. Ken Whisenhunt is a very good offensive mind, but his philosophies have changed dramatically in his tenure as head coach, depending on the quarterback he's had at his disposal.”

Flexibility index from Mike Sando: 7

Denver

Not on Williamson’s list.

Flexibility index from Bill Williamson: 10

Kansas City

Williamson: “Adding Manning should make the team the clear favorite to win the AFC West, if not more. But, without a quarterback of the future on the roster, if Kansas City swings and misses on this acquisition, it could cost it dearly. Cassel is mediocre, and probably always will be, which could make the Chiefs too complacent in terms of finding a replacement or successor. It's time for them to be aggressive.”

Flexibility index from Bill Williamson: 10

Miami

Williamson: "With Joe Philbin taking over in Miami, the team will be installing an offense very similar to the one in Green Bay, which would fit Manning with all the pre-snap reads it requires. Also, limiting some of the injury risk of signing Manning and putting all the eggs in that basket is that Miami has Matt Moore returning. Although Moore is far from elite, you could do much worse as backups go."

Flexibility index from James Walker: 7

New York Jets

Williamson: "I don't think Manning would put New York over the top because it has problems at right tackle, No. 2 wide receiver and possibly at running back on offense. On defense, the Jets have a hole at safety, at outside pass-rusher and with an inside linebacker who excels in coverage."

Flexibility index from Walker: 10

San Francisco

Williamson: “Manning wouldn't have to put the entire team on his shoulders in San Francisco. The wide receiver position certainly needs upgrading, but Manning could have a reduced role from his time in Indianapolis -- which might be best for him now -- and consistently get his team into strong play choices at the line of scrimmage.”

Flexibility index from Sando: 3.5

Seattle

Williamson: "With a power ground game, an improving offensive line and some young receiving weapons to work with, Manning might be able to accomplish quite a bit with this offense. If Seattle signs Manning, it definitely could make a run."

Flexibility index from Sando: 8

Washington

Williamson: I also have some concerns about how well Mike Shanahan would be able to -- and how willing he would be to -- alter his offense, which stresses a move-oriented quarterback, to fit Manning's cerebral skill set.

Flexibility index from Dan Graziano: 3

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 21, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 14

For three years, they’ve been picked as a breakout team. In those three years, the Houston Texans went 25-23 with zero playoff appearances.

So why are the 2010 Texans going to be different? Why do they deserve that sort of faith yet again? What’s changed when the personnel alterations have been pretty minor?

“What’s different? Experience, togetherness,” Amobi Okoye said. “I feel like by the time we will kick off, we will have the full definition of team. If there was a meter of T-E-A-M, we are right at the halfway of M… By the time the season starts, we’re going to completely spell TEAM.”

Said Bernard Pollard, the feisty safety who didn’t arrive until a few games into last season: “We have so much more team chemistry. We know and understand what we are good at. We know and understand that we can’t step out of the box and have to play our game. We’re turning that corner.”

To finally get to the postseason, the Texans have to play more complete games. They have to play better in the red zone. Perhaps above all else, they have to play better in the AFC South, where they were just 1-5 last season.

Catching the Colts is a tall task. The Texans aspire to do it, but they also know there is a route to the playoffs without a division crown. They just have to drive it more smoothly.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Can the pass rush pick it up?

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriThe Texans need some pass-rushing help for star end Mario Williams.
Mario Williams had nine sacks to go with a bum shoulder he’s still reluctant to talk about. He needs more support in chasing the quarterback, and the Texans need to hurry and hit quarterbacks more often to help those three young cornerbacks -- Kareem Jackson, Glover Quin and Brice McCain -- cover.

Connor Barwin should be opposite Williams on clear rush downs, and he might be the most improved player on defense. Inside, there are now alternatives to Okoye, who might just not be a good pass pressure guy. Rookie Earl Mitchell could wind up part of the nickel package along with Antonio Smith, who will shift inside to make room for Barwin.

Will the run game do its part?

Everyone is encouraged about the run game, but what’s changed? Second-round pick Ben Tate is lost with an injury. Guard Wade Smith was the only significant addition to the line, where interior issues were a big part of the problems. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is from the same school as predecessor Kyle Shanahan, and line coach John Benton learned under the departed Alex Gibbs.

“We have to get better running the football,” Andre Johnson said. “That helps win games, especially in the fourth quarter when you’re up and you want to kill the time, you have to go on those four-minute drives where you have to get those big fourth downs. We have to get better in that part of our offense.”

They are largely counting on young guys getting better, which begs the question: What if they don’t?

Are the supplementary pieces good enough?

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriHouston's stars, including Matt Schaub, match up with the best players on any NFL roster.
The Texans' stars match up with virtually anyone’s. But beyond Johnson, Williams, Brian Cushing, DeMeco Ryans, Matt Schaub and Owen Daniels, have head coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith done enough to unearth the right sort of players on the next tier?

Pollard and Eric Winston certainly fit the bill. Antonio Smith, Kevin Walter and Zac Diles might. That next level of player might be where this team is a little short, and it’s those kinds of guys who might well be the key to transforming a good team into a very good team.

And so we’re watching the likes of Quin, Barwin, Joel Dreessen, James Casey, Jacoby Jones and the offensive line beyond Winston, because they might wind up telling the story.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Linebacker Darryl Sharpton: The Texans figured one of three veteran linebackers would be in the lineup during Cushing’s four-game suspension. But a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness has put Xavier Adibi, Danny Clark and Kevin Bentley on the backburner because rookie Darryl Sharpton's been such a consistent playmaker. He might be short, but he packs a good punch.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Injury to Ben Tate: As the Texans search for the right combination of running backs to help balance their offense, second-round pick Tate figured to be a key piece. But he was lost for the season with a serious ankle/leg injury in the preseason opener. That puts the load on Arian Foster, Steve Slaton and either Jeremiah Johnson, Chris Henry or a back not yet on the team.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Texans are regarded by some as a finesse team, but the defense is emphasizing physicality. Cushing, Pollard, Smith, Jackson, Quin and Mitchell have all joined the team in the past two years and are physical players.
  • Expect Foster to get first crack at the carries closest to the goal line as the Texans really concentrate on running better at close range. Johnson definitely could be heard from in the running game, too -- he might be the best fit for the one-cut and go zone scheme Houston uses.
  • [+] EnlargeNeil Rackers
    AP Photo/Rick ScuteriKicker Neil Rackers has a chance to beat out incumbent Kris Brown.
    If Kris Brown and Neil Rackers continue to be virtually even in the kicker competition, it makes sense for the team to go with Rackers. Sometimes guys just need a change of scenery. If Brown stays and fails on a crucial long field goal on opening day against the Colts, the thinking will be, “Why didn’t they make a change?” If Rackers does the same thing, I’ll think, “At least they tried someone different.”
  • Houston’s defensive tackles are quick, up-the-field types. But they’d sure love if their one big space-eater, Frank Okam, forced his way into action.
  • The Texans want to get the ball in the hands of Jones since he averaged 16.2 yards a catch on his 27 receptions. But I am not so sure that means he’s going to nudge ahead of Walter for the No. 2 receiver job. Walter is smart and super reliable, and reliability is awfully important. Jones might displace Walter or get a share of snaps in two-wide formations, but look for Jones most in a heavy dose of three-wide formations.
  • Troy Nolan might be a credible alternative to Eugene Wilson at free safety if Wilson gets hurt again. I’ve been critical of the team for not adding to the spot, but Nolan missed his rookie season with an injury and appears to be a high-caliber special-teamer.
  • Daniels’ speed is a big part of what helped set him apart. When he returns soon from another ACL reconstruction, will he still have it in the same way? That's the big question with him.
  • The offensive line is set with Duane Brown at left tackle, Chris Myers at center and Winston at right tackle. Guard jobs remain up for grabs. It seems to me that Wade Smith, a free-agent acquisition tailored to the system, and Antoine Caldwell, a third-rounder from 2009, would make the most sense.
  • It sounds less likely that Trindon Holliday has to be a serviceable receiver to make the team than it did during OTAs. If he convinces the team he can be a consistently special return guy, he’ll stick. He looked good to me when the Texans worked with the Saints.
Ernest WIlford AP Photo/Phil CoaleReceiver-turned-tight end Ernest Wilford stood out for his performance during OTAs.
Four things that should impact the AFC South this fall:

In Jacksonville …

Ernest Wilford got his money in Miami. When things didn’t work out for him there after a free-agent deal, he returned to Jacksonville for 2009, a receiver-turned-tight end who was second to Marcedes Lewis. Wilford played in 15 games, catching just 11 balls for 123 yards and a score.

Wilford’s not been talked about much this offseason. It’s second-year man Zach Miller, after all, who’s supposed to be this great piece for Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to use creatively.

But while Miller was banged up and missing work, it was Wilford who got a lot of featured time during offseason work. Wilford might be the big surprise among David Garrard's pass targets and tight ends.

“We think Zach can be that guy, we have high hopes for him,” Koetter said. “The guy that’s really shined bright in [organized team activities] in Zach’s absence is Ernest Wilford. Back in [2007] when we did go to the playoffs, Ernest was our leading receiver. I think Ernest has been kind of reborn.

“He’s got all these reps. We’re excited about the role Zach can play. But I think Ernest Wilford probably made more big plays at OTAs than anybody out there.”

In Indianapolis…

[+] EnlargeSanders
John Pyle/Icon SMIBob Sanders is looking forward to being unleashed on quarterbacks.
Safety Bob Sanders only played in two games last season, the first for Larry Coyer as the Colts' defensive coordinator. Defenders loved that Coyer started incorporating some blitzes, something the team almost never did under Ron Meeks.

I imagine Sanders as a scary blitzer who will get his chances for shots at quarterbacks.

“I think he’d be pretty good at it,” Colts president Bill Polian said. “He’s not blitzed a lot. Almost none, because we weren’t a blitzing team in the old configuration. His explosiveness and speed are something that are really special. We’ve used him in special situations in the past where we’ve assigned him to a running back and he’s done a heck of a job with it. So there is no reason to believe he won’t be a good blitzer.”

Sanders sounded excited during summer workouts about the possibility of adding some sacks to his stats.

“I love it because it just expands my game and each safety around here, it gives us more opportunity to show what we can do and showcase our skills,” he said. “So we’re excited about it and look forward to getting better at it.”

In Houston …

With Rick Dennison taking over for Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator and Greg Knapp in place as quarterbacks coach, there is not a major transformation of the Texans’ offense in the works. But there are subtle changes we might notice.

Matt Schaub said his review of the 2009 season was helpful, as he and the two new coaches came to a consensus on how things developed. Dennison has roots with the same Denver system that bred Texans head coach Gary Kubiak and Shanahan (now with Washington), while Knapp worked with Schaub in Atlanta.

One key to Schaub’s great connection with Andre Johnson has been crossing routes. And one small change with the new coaches pertains to those.

Previously Schaub read progressions the same way regardless of the coverage.

“They came in and said, if we get man coverage let’s look at it this way and if we get zone let’s read it a different way,” Schaub said. “I think it’s really going to help us. There are only certain concepts that we do that on.

“But I think that will really help our game get even better to take advantage of some of the throws down the field rather than taking throws underneath when something could have opened up. Those can help us get bigger chunks of yardage.”

[+] EnlargeLavelle Hawkins
Don McPeak/US PresswireLavelle Hawkins could be in line for more playing time out of the slot.
In Tennessee …

I’ve always thought that offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was simply philosophically opposed to going deeper than three receivers on a Sunday if health allowed him to stick with his top three. Depth, though, always has been a Titans issue that fit neatly with the practice.

But in talking to him at the end of OTAs, I learned that reluctance to look to a fourth or even fifth receiver on a game day hasn’t been as much about rhythm as it has been about the fissure between the third and fourth guys.

Behind his top three of Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and Justin Gage, Heimerdinger now has Lavelle Hawkins, for whom the lights apparently have come on, as well as third-round pick Damian Williams, who’s likely to be working as a return man.

“Hawk’s got a good feel, he was actually coaching other guys. That was scary when I saw that,” Heimerdinger said with a laugh. “He’s gotten to the point now where I get on him about little things and he’ll do it right the very next time.”

If Hawkins can stay on course, look for him to get chances working out of the slot.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Could Dan Orlovsky prove a capable fill-in if Matt Schaub misses time?

[+] EnlargeDan Orlovsky
Fernando Medina/US PresswireDan Orlovsky still has to prove he's ready to back up starting QB Matt Schaub.
Lost in Peyton Manning's fourth MVP season was the fact that the Indianapolis Colts quarterback didn’t even lead the AFC South in passing yardage. Matt Schaub of the Houston Texans actually led the NFL in that category, with 4,770 yards.

That number came about in part because of the Texans' run struggles, but it's still quite impressive.

Schaub played all 16 games last season, throwing all but nine of the team’s 592 quarterback passes. His backup, Rex Grossman, hit it off with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, and followed Shanahan to Washington this offseason. That puts Orlovsky back in line to back up Schaub.

We’ll get a much better sense in training camp, but Orlovsky was shaky last summer. Several teams had coveted the former Detroit Lions veteran before he joined the Texans as a free agent. Grossman’s arrival and subsequent preseason performance bumped Orlovsky to No. 3.

But Texans coach Gary Kubiak is more at ease with Orlovsky as the backup now.

“Obviously, I’m more comfortable,” Kubiak told Houston media this week. “He’s a better player right now than he was last year. It’s a really big camp coming up for him, training camp and stuff. Dan’s had some chances in this league, and he’s got all of the tools that Matt has. The question is for him, ‘Does he continue to progress and get better?’”

Kubiak didn’t view Grossman’s move to No. 2 as a demotion for Orlovsky last summer, and said he really liked the way Orlovsky handled it.

“Really, what happened was that there were great expectations for him, and it wasn’t happening as fast,” Kubiak said. “I really, personally -- and I told Dan this, so it’s nothing new to him -- I really just thought it was about his standard in how he prepares and how he plays and how he practices. We’ve got one here for the quarterback. Our quarterback is going to play good. It just wasn’t happening at the same pace it should have.

“So we felt more comfortable with Rex, who had played in a lot of football games. Dan could have done one of two things. He could have sulked; he didn’t. He worked all year. He helped Matt, and he’s a better player because of it. I’m proud of the way he went about his business, and now it’s time for him to take off.”

That said, he offered no guarantee that Orlovsky is the No. 2. He’ll have to show them he’s ready and make sure they aren’t tempted by someone else who may end up on the market.

“It’s time to work, and what he has to do is he’s got to earn the respect from everybody,” Kubiak said. “If Matt is not practicing a day, he has to continue to have this football team practicing well. They’ve got to know if something happens to Matt, we still win. That’s your job as a backup quarterback.”
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Does the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan mean the Texans' offense will struggle through an adjustment period?

[+] EnlargeRick Dennison
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireRick Dennison takes over the Texans' offense from Kyle Shanahan, who joined his father's staff in Washington.
Shanahan went to Washington to join his dad’s new staff with the Redskins. The Texans’ offensive system isn’t going to change a lot as Rick Dennison takes over the post. Like Kubiak and Kyle Shanahan, Dennison comes from Denver roots with Mike Shanahan.

The Texans will do everything possible to make for a smooth transition. Still, even with a top-flight quarterback (Matt Schaub) and one of the game’s best receivers (Andre Johnson), Dennison is a different guy and his own man and there is likely to be an adjustment period.

Change at coordinator can often be underrated with regard to that settling-in time. Look no further than Houston’s change -- by choice, not necessity -- last season when Frank Bush was elevated to defensive coordinator. The defense was shaky early and it dented their season. The Texans recovered and played much better later, but their 9-7 record left them just short of the playoffs. (Yes, Bush took over a unit that needed big changes, and Dennison has a group that has proved productive.)

Houston is looking to revamp its interior offensive line and will add a running back it hopes can work in tandem with Steve Slaton. Dennison will be charged with helping weave a more effective running game into an already-explosive passing offense.

There is a lot of reason for optimism there. But how the change affects relationships, tempo, play-calling and more is something we must monitor early on in Dennison’s term.
After a year as a well paid No. 3, it looks like it’s time for Dan Orlovsky to prove he’s capable of stepping in for Matt Schaub.

Adam Schefter reports that last year’s Texans No. 2 quarterback, unrestricted free agent Rex Grossman, has reunited with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan in Washington.

That means Orlovsky is the backup unless the Texans make a move. Chris Simms would seem a possibility if they wanted a third quarterback with some experience. But Orlovsky got three years at $8.5 million last year in a deal that had second- and third-tier quarterbacks around the country doing cartwheels.

It’s time for him to give the team the confidence he was worth it.

Schaub did well to stay healthy last year, and need to do so again. He probably has graduated to the ranks of irreplaceable.

Knapp looks like good add in Houston

January, 27, 2010
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The Texans have completed a two-for-one replacement move, hiring Gregg Knapp as quarterbacks coach to go with new coordinator Rick Dennison after the departure of Kyle Shanahan.

It looks like a quality move to me.

Knapp’s worked as offensive coordinator with San Francisco, Atlanta, Oakland and Seattle.

He was with Matt Schaub during that stint with the Falcons, but had no coaching tree connection to Mike Shanahan’s Denver regime, which is where Gary Kubiak has turned so often.

I've heard Knapp is a good guy whose play calling often came under fire for being too conservative. That won't be an issue in Houston as Kubiak or Dennison will be sending in the plays.

Here's a bit more from Alan Burge.

On replacing Shanny in Houston

January, 11, 2010
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Paging through Pro Football Weekly Sunday during commercials in the games, I came across an excellent item.

PFW’s “Audible” section is insightful stuff, anonymous takes from scouts, coaches and front-office personnel. I always like the ones that hit on themes.

Here’s the one that caught my eye from the most recent issue:

"A lot of teams have maintained the same head coach and very similar personnel, but the results have not been the same. What everyone overlooks is the assistant coaches have changed. Not having Spags (Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo) really hurt the Giants. (The loss of) Jim Schwartz (to Detroit) hurt Tennessee. Baltimore lost Rex Ryan to the Jets. And you have to really break down how many assistants with those teams followed their coordinators. It's usually at least one, if not several. They tend to bring their defensive assistants and make them coordinators. So you lose two good coaches, not only one. That takes a huge toll. Assistant coaching is very valuable and undervalued."

Gary Kubiak is spending the day with Rick Dennison, who appears in line to replace offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan has gone to Washington to work with his father.

The arrow is up on Houston. Matt Schaub was outstanding despite the lack of a running game, and Bernard Pollard did wondrous work in solidifying the defense. The needs seems obvious -- a running back, help in the secondary at free safety and cornerback and an additional defensive tackle.

But the departure of a coordinator the team liked will have a bearing. (Houston had a new defensive coordinator last year as Frank Bush took over for Richard Smith, but that came out of the Texans letting Smith go.)

Does Dennison or whoever takes Shanahan’s place automatically become the playcaller, or might Kubiak get more involved again?

How quickly does Schaub bond with the new guy? Are they able to pick up where Schaub left off with Shanahan, or are there things that need to be rebuilt from close to scratch?

Beyond personnel, these are questions we should be examining closely as 2010 begins to unfold for the Texans’ offense.
Titans offensive line coach Mike Munchak is a candidate for Houston’s offensive coordinator job. If Gary Kubiak retains assistants Alex Gibbs, John Benton and Bruce Matthews, that would be an awfully offensive line-heavy staff. Munchak and Matthews, the best of friends, would surely love to work together, though.

Houston Texans

The winning record heightens anticipation for 2010, says John McClain,

In addition to Kyle Shanahan, the Texans could lose Gibbs and Ray Rhodes, says McClain.

Richard Justice thinks Gary Kubiak should get an extension right now. I disagree.

Bill Belichick ripped the turf at Reliant Stadium as a cause of Wes Welker’s injury.

The turf was ranked fourth in the league by NFL players, says Alan Burge.

Franchise tagged or not, Dunta Robinson wants to return, writes McClain.

Could Rick Dennison replace Shanahan? Burge provides some rationale.

Why McClain is excited about next season.

The good and the bad of the Texans’ season from Lance Zierlein.

A look at offensive coordinator candidates, from Battle Red Blog.

Battle Red Blog isn’t that excited about Robinson’s desire to return.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts rest and wait to see which of three teams is heading to Indy for a divisional round game the night of Jan. 16.

Sam Giguere gave the Colts something to think about as they decide who to keep under contract for their playoff roster, says Phil Richards.

After a rough week in fan relations, Bill Polian spent a little time trying to butter them up: “The only people who can affect the game will be the people in this building – the players, the coaches, the administrators . . . and our fans.” John Oehser’s report.

The Colts are planning on business as usual, says Tom James.

Trying to get teams to play starters is an exercise in futility, says Clark Judge.

Who’s got momentum now, asks Deshawn Zombie.

Welker’s injury doesn’t vindicate Polian, says Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are dealing with the fallout, writes Michael C. Wright. I delved into some of this earlier, here.

Players support Jack Del Rio, says Gene Frenette.

The Jaguars’ future depends on the draft, says Frenette.

Good to see Vic Ketchman back. And good stuff from him in reviewing the Jaguars’ season: “The bottom line is the season was not a failure and it revealed several bright spots."

Tennessee Titans

Vince Young is the starting quarterback going forward says Jim Wyatt.

Chris Johnson’s planning a busy offseason, say Wyatt and Gary Estwick.

Johnson’s basking in the glory of his accomplishment, writes Wyatt.

AFC South draft rewind

December, 23, 2009
12/23/09
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NFC Draft Rewind: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft class lists: Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Houston | Tennessee

Houston Texans
Cushing
Cushing

Best get: Not everyone was sold on Brian Cushing coming out of USC, often because of his injury history at USC. He missed most of camp hurt and has missed a lot of practices, but none of it has gotten in the way of his being an impact player every Sunday. The Texans need more defenders and more players in his mold. He’s a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate.

Worst unaddressed spot: The Texans had plenty of reason to expect they had a feature back in Steve Slaton, but completely misread their situation after that. Interior line injuries and a second-year slump for Slaton have made a second back even more important, and Chris Brown, Ryan Moats and Arian Foster all have proved incapable of handling the pressures of the work. A second running back ranks as one of the team’s highest priorities in free agency or the 2010 draft.

Still uninvolved: Tight end James Casey came in as a versatile fifth-rounder who was going to be a unique weapon for head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to tinker with. He’s got six catches for 64 yards in 11 games. He needs to have more of an impact, given that the Texans lost top-flight tight end Owen Daniels to a season-ending knee injury.

Indianapolis Colts
Brown
Brown

Still to be determined: First-rounder Donald Brown has shown he will be a good NFL player. But he’s missed five games with injuries, including the last three. He’s more capable than Joseph Addai of breaking off a big run. The question: Does Brown understand that looking for the big gain isn’t worth risking a play resulting in second-and-12. If Brown is healthy, he could see a lot of touches in the last two games. The Colts are 14-0 with just 59 carries, 263 yards and two TDs from their top pick. (They haven’t gotten much out of second-round defensive tackle Fili Moala, either.)

A perfect fit: Fourth-round receiver Austin Collie, not Minnesota’s Percy Harvin, leads all rookie receivers in catches. Collie's nabbed 53 passes for 567 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s a perfect fit for the Colts' system, and adopted the necessary work ethic to win over and work with Peyton Manning. Whether Anthony Gonzalez re-emerges for the post season push or not, Collie’s crucial to it.

Best special teams addition: The Colts had eight touchbacks in 2008. With rookie punter Pat McAfee taking over kickoffs from Adam Vinatieri, they have 18 with two games remaining. Better kickoffs are a big factor in coverage improvements under new special teams coach Ray Rychleski. McAfee’s also got a net punting average of 38.0 yards, less than a yard off former Colts' veteran Hunter Smith’s number from last season.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Monroe
Monroe

Long-term solutions: Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton were the top two picks and have played the bulk of the season at left and right tackle, respectively. They have not been consistent, but the team loves their skill sets and upside. And early work means they’ll get to the levels the team projected when spending such high picks on them sooner rather than later.

Eighth-rounders: First-year general manager Gene Smith needed additions beyond his draft class and found a couple: Cornerback William Middleton out of Furman and linebacker Russell Allen from San Diego State are undrafted free agents who made the team and have been contributors. In the nationally televised Week 15 Thursday night loss to the Colts, Allen led the team with 12 tackles. Smith is down a second and seventh rounder in 2010 because of trades, and he hopes to hit on some undrafteds again, and annually.

Three is key: Smith did great work in the third round, landing two small school players who’ve established themselves as productive starters with upside. Cornerback Derek Cox from William & Mary has not been intimidated by anything or anyone. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton from Temple has been a stout and reliable run stopper.

Tennessee Titans
Monroe
Britt

Biggest breakthrough: Since 1998, the Titans have spent draft picks in the top three rounds on Kevin Dyson, Tyrone Calico, Courtney Roby, Brandon Jones and Paul Williams. Dyson was involved in two of the franchise’s biggest plays in 1999 and did OK otherwise, but none of them solved the team's long-standing woes at receiver. First-rounder Kenny Britt is a great combination of size, power and speed who goes and gets the ball. Britt seems like he can be a consistently productive weapon.

Disappearing act: The Titans gave away a second-rounder to draft tight end Jared Cook in the third, and in camp he seemed like a great addition. Then he suffered an ankle injury, faded and never really re-emerged. Long-term he’s still very compelling. But the Titans sure could have used a jolt from him during their 0-6 start.

An heir: Gerald McRath seems comfortable and been effective as an outside linebacker when needed. He will start the rest of the way and, after bulking up in the offseason, stands to inherit the spot of either David Thornton (breaking down) or Keith Bulluck (free agent who tore an ACL in Week 15) next year. If both veterans are gone (a likely scenario), the second replacement needs to be a free agent or a draft pick.
Houston Texans

The Texans' poor conference record means they are at the back of the pack of teams vying for a wild-card berth, says John McClain.

Kyle Shanahan would be in line to join his dad if Mike Shanahan resurfaces, says McClain.

Five Texans questions from Lance Zierlein.

Gary Kubiak talked to 610 in Houston, and Sports Radio Interviews provides some transcript and a link.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts paused to enjoy the view from the top, says Mike Chappell.

A weekend off was good for the Colts, says Phil Richards.

Jim Caldwell is mum on plans for playing time against the Jets, says Phillip B. Wilson.

Reviewing Bill Polian’s radio show: Anthony Gonzalez will practice fully Wednesday and likely be a game-time decision, says John Oehser.

Defensive starters weigh in on perfection pursuit, from Jeremiah Johnson.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Michael C. Wright has a long talk with Fred Taylor.

Clint Ingram is on IR.

How close are the Jags? Vic Ketchman talks it through.

Eben Britton has a lot of improving to do, says Terry O’Brien. Watch his video of still shots with examples.

As they prepare for a trip to New England remember the Jaguars are bad in the cold, says Big Cat Country.

Tennessee Titans

Keith Bulluck's season-ending knee injury clouds his future, says Jim Wyatt.

Wyatt talked to new Titan Jamie Winborn.

A short week limits the Titans’ schedule, says Gary Estwick.

Jeff Fisher tried again to explain why he didn’t use timeouts to force a late Dolphins punt, says Terry McCormick.

The Titans will move on without Bulluck and David Thornton, says McCormick.

There is still some bad blood between the Titans and Chargers, at least according to Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillip, blogs Wyatt.

Reading the coverage: Yards at any cost

December, 20, 2009
12/20/09
11:27
AM ET
Houston Texans

Don’t scoff, says Richard Justice: Matt Schaub is the real deal.

The Rams are not what they used to be, says Dale Robinson.

If Kyle Shanahan and Alex Gibbs leave, Justice will wish them well and urge people to move on.

Losing Shanahan to his father’s staff would stink for the Texans, says Lance Zierlein.

A guide on who to root for in order for the Texans to hold on to their slim playoff chances, from Sean Pendergast.

Indianapolis Colts

Joseph Addai has surpassed his hero, Kevin Faulk, says Phil Richards.

Jim Caldwell has extra time to make decisions about game No. 15, says Steve Ballard.

More on Caldwell taking his time, from John Oehser.

The Saints’ loss just about clinched the MVP for Peyton Manning, says Stampede Blue.

Jacksonville Jaguars

As the Jaguars watch and hope, they cut two defensive reserves -- Kennard Cox and James Wyche, says Vito Stellino.

Are Reggie Nelson’s days in Jacksonville numbered? Gene Frenette asks.

Vic Ketchman loved the play calling in the Jaguars’ loss to the Colts.

Tennessee Titans

Chris Johnson wants yards at any price, writes Jim Wyatt.

The Titans and Dolphins still harbor playoff hopes, says Wyatt.

Kerry Collins tells Titans Radio he's not planning on retiring. (Audio.)

Count Michael Irvin among the Johnson fans, says Wyatt.

Texans take lead with a twist

November, 23, 2009
11/23/09
9:01
PM ET
HOUSTON -- Goal line runs haven’t been a strength of the Texans this season. They just went up 7-0 on the Titans with a little third-and-goal creativity.

Credit the bye week, credit Gary Kubiak and his coordinator Kyle Shanahan, credit Matt Schaub and Steve Slaton for execution and the blockers ahead of them for helping it work.

Out off the shotgun, Schaub waited for the rush, then flipped an underhanded pass to Slaton cutting across. Dave Ball had him, but got dragged into the end zone.

Now the Texans have the Titans pinned deep in their own end.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky

With Owen Daniels lost for the season to a torn ACL, Gary Kubiak and Kyle Shanahan will need to tinker with their offense.

And Sunday in Indianapolis, one of the players they’d like to look to to help offset the loss won’t be available either. Rookie tight end James Casey has a torn meniscus repaired with a scope early Monday, Gary Kubiak said at his afternoon press conference.

("The surgery went really well and I will be back in no time ready to rock and roll," Casey tweeted from @jamescasey86.)

It’s hardly ideal to go forward without Daniels -- who is second on the team with 40 catches and tops with five touchdown receptions -- but it shouldn’t be a death blow either.

The Texans will be able to get something out of Daniels’ replacement, Joel Dreessen. And they can do more with receivers beyond Andre Johnson. I’ve touted No. 2 wideout Kevin Walter, who’s had a semi-quiet year and can produce more than roughly the 3.5 catches a game he’s averaging now.

Other players they can try to look to more: receivers David Anderson, Andre Davis and Jacoby Jones and Casey once he’s healthy, hopefully after the bye week for a Nov. 23 "Monday Night Football" game against the Titans.

“The production of catching the football and those types of things have got to continue to come from some place,” Kubiak said. “Does it come from Joel? Does it get spread out amongst the receivers? We’ll see. But it’s another adjustment period for us as an offensive coaching staff.”

Dreessen played 52 plays of offense and about 80 total in the win in Buffalo, Kubiak said. He will continue to work as the long snapper, but likely have his other special teams obligations scaled back.

Because Daniels is so good, the Texans haven’t had to rely on Dreessen in the passing game, but it doesn’t mean they’ve not looked to him. In their Week 2 win at Tennessee, Matt Schaub threw to Dreessen to convert a key fourth-and-2 on a drive that tied the game in the fourth quarter.

“He’ does a little bit of everything,” Kubiak said. “He’s a guy who can play a lot of football with limited [practice] reps. ... He’s just very flexible. He can do a little of both as a tight end on the line of scrimmage, as a receiver. Big opportunity for him in his career, we’ve got to use him the right way and he’s got to step up.”

Kubiak said with replacement guards filling in and Kasey Studdard and Chris White gradually improving after season-ending injuries to Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel and Ryan Moats’ stellar performance against the Bills after Steve Slaton was benched, the Texans are looking for the next round of players to rise to the opportunity.

Another rookie tight end, Anthony Hill, was brought in largely because of his abilities as a blocker. The team will likely look at tight ends and long snappers this week as they consider how to fill Daniels’ roster spot.

As for the running back situation, Kubiak was non-committal. He said only Slaton can fix the fumble problems that led to his benching.

They will consider both and Chris Brown as they prepare for Indy. Kubiak said that Moats is roughly the same as Slaton in pass protection, but while he has good hands less equipped to line up wide and run routes as Slaton can.

The Texans could play backs by down, meaning work on first and second down for Moats and maybe some chances for Slaton on third down when his versatility is more appealing.

They shouldn’t be quick to move away from Moats after such a great fill-in performance. A lost Slaton fumble won’t likely be something they can survive at Lucas Oil Stadium.

One note on Moats, who scored three TDs in the fourth quarter in Buffalo, from the Elias Sports Bureau: In the last seven seasons (2003-09) the only other NFL player to score three touchdowns in the fourth quarter of one game was Michael Turner for the Falcons -- last year against Carolina.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky

Houston Texans
  • Ten years later, Bob McNair’s Texans remain a work in progress, says Dale Robertson.
  • Will the winds of Ralph Wilson Stadium affect the game plan of Gary Kubiak and Kyle Shanahan? John McClain ponders.
  • The Texans were aggressive on first down, says Lance Zierlein.
  • How the fans graded the Texans against the 49ers in McClain’s blog.
  • The Texans are just outside looking in at the playoff field in the AFC right now, writes Alan Burge.
  • Houston took a look at John David Booty, says Burge. I wouldn’t read much into it.
Indianapolis Colts
  • The Colts are getting good mileage out of three obscure defensive linemen, writes Phillip B. Wilson.
  • Wilson’s Colts-49ers matchup page.
  • Dwight Freeney’s about a lot more than numbers, says John Oehser.
  • Passer ratings are getting inflated, at least in part because of the bad teams at the bottom of the league, says Deshawn Zombie.
  • Football Outsiders puts Pierre Garcon’s bad day into some context. Thanks to Stampede Blue for the link.
Jacksonville Jaguars
  • The Jaguars are preparing for both Kerry Collins and Vince Young, says Vito Stellino. Given any doubt, teams always do, which makes the whole competitive advantage stance from the Titans' side rather silly.
  • Mike Sims-Walker would like to be a college receivers coach some day, he tells Michael C. Wright.
  • The respect card gets overplayed, but the Jags as a three-point underdog is an occasion to play it, says Big Cat Country.
  • A broken finger might sideline Rashean Mathis.
  • Richard Collier testifies he didn’t see his shooter, writes Paul Pinkham.
Tennessee Titans

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