AFC South: Lawrence Vickers

AFC South free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
11:00
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Houston Texans

Key additions: None.

Key losses: OLB Mario Williams, RG Mike Brisiel, CB Jason Allen, TE Joel Dreessen, RT Eric Winston (cut), ILB DeMeco Ryans (traded), FB Lawrence Vickers (cut), QB Matt Leinart (cut).

Keepers and finance: Not everyone got away. The Texans managed to keep two very important players. They re-signed running back Arian Foster before he reached restricted free agency. And after he'd explored the market some, they struck a deal with unrestricted-free-agent center Chris Myers, a vital piece to a line that lost the two starters on the right side when Winston was cut and Brisiel bolted to Oakland.

Ryans was not a full-time player in the 3-4 defense, and his price tag was high. While Houston takes a $750,000 hit this season, he’s cleared from the books in the future. That will help the team as it tries to make sure players like outside linebacker Connor Barwin and left tackle Duane Brown don’t get away like Williams did.

What’s next: Depth paid off in a big way in 2011 as the Texans managed to win the division and a playoff game despite major personnel losses. At several spots, like on the offensive line and at corner, the draft will serve to replenish the roster with the same kind of insurance.

But the Texans are not without need.

While they are likely to stick with Jacoby Jones as part of the team and like Kevin Walter, a more reliable and dynamic weapon to go with Andre Johnson at receiver is something they acknowledge wanting. A third outside linebacker can reduce the high-snap strain on Barwin and Brooks Reed. While they hope Rashad Butler will replace Winston and Antoine Caldwell will take Brisiel’s spot, adding a guy who can compete for one or both of those spots would be healthy.

Indianapolis Colts

Key additions: DE Cory Redding, WR Donnie Avery, C Samson Satele, S Tom Zbikowski, G Mike McGlynn, RT Winston Justice (trade), QB Drew Stanton (trade).

Key losses: QB Peyton Manning (cut), WR Pierre Garcon, TE Jacob Tamme, C Jeff Saturday, TE Dallas Clark (cut), LB Gary Brackett (cut), S Melvin Bullitt (cut), RT Ryan Diem (retired), WR Anthony Gonzalez, QB Dan Orlovsky, CB Jacob Lacey (not tendered), QB Curtis Painter (cut), DE Jamaal Anderson, G Mike Pollak.

So much we don’t know: We know background on coach Chuck Pagano and his coordinators and we know what Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson have said. But there will be a degree of mystery well into the season about what they intend to run and with whom. It’s unlikely to be a sweeping transition to a 3-4 defense, as it takes time to overhaul the personnel. But as they play a hybrid defense and move toward a conversion, they’ll need more than they’ve got -- starting with a nose tackle.

On offense, they’ve said they’ll use a fullback. That’s a major departure from the previous regime. And we don’t know if a Donald Brown-Delone Carter duo at fullback will be sufficient to run behind. They need help virtually everywhere after the cap purge and free-agency turnover. Not everything will get addressed as much as they’d like in their first offseason.

What’s next: I expect more role players like Zbikowski and McGlynn, more castoffs like Justice and Stanton and more guys who are presumed finished by a lot of teams, like Avery.

They are all guys who didn’t cost much but who have upside and can help, at least as role players. And if they don’t pan out, it’s hardly a death blow to Indianapolis' major, long-term plans. Money is limited with big dead-money charges and a $19 million cap hit for defensive end Dwight Freeney the team has indicated it's willing to carry.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Key additions: WR Laurent Robinson, CB Aaron Ross, QB Chad Henne.

Key losses: DT Leger Douzable (did not tender).

Keeping their own: The Jaguars did well to hold on to players who have been valuable to them. The top of that list belongs to safety Dwight Lowery. They traded with the Jets for him before last season, shifted him full time to safety and got good work from him before he was hurt. It was crucial for the team to stay fixed at the position where it was horrific in 2010 before signing Dawan Landry and adding Lowery.

They also re-signed defensive end Jeremy Mincey, a great effort defensive end who was overextended in terms of playing time last year. He’s no sack-master, but he’s going to bust it on every play, break through sometimes and make the opponent work hard to stay in his way. And with the lack of quality defensive ends who hit the market, the Jaguars did well to keep him from jumping to Chicago.

What’s next: Receiver has to be addressed beyond a change in position coach and the addition of Robinson. If it’s not in the first round, it needs to be early. The franchise is trying to maximize Blaine Gabbert’s chances to be a franchise quarterback, and few would be able to establish themselves with the current cast of wideouts.

The Jaguars are a top pass-rushing end away from being a top-flight defense. Can they find him seventh overall in the draft? They could tab someone like South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, though it’s hard to say he or any rookie would be an immediate solution. Most ends need some time to become impact guys in the league.

The Jaguars could certainly look to add in the secondary free-agent market and when players are set free late in training camp.

Tennessee Titans

Key additions: DE Kamerion Wimbley, RG Steve Hutchinson.

Key losses: CB Cortland Finnegan, DL Jason Jones, WR Donnie Avery.

Sidetracked: Did the Titans miss out on real chances to sign either Scott Wells, who went to St. Louis, or Chris Myers, who stayed in Houston, as their new center because they were focused on chasing quarterback Peyton Manning? Perhaps. But when the owner declares that his executives and coaches need to put the hard sell on an all-time great QB with roots in the team’s state, that’s what you do.

Ideally, the team will still find an alternative to Eugene Amano. If the Titans find a new center to go with Hutchinson, who replaces free agent Jake Scott in the starting lineup, the interior offensive line could see a big improvement. That could have a big bearing on running back Chris Johnson, provided he takes care of his own business.

What’s next: The Titans think Wimbley will excel as a full-time defensive end, but they can’t afford for him to be too full time. He’s a smaller guy who’s played mostly as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and shouldn’t be asked to play every down of every game. That means they still need more help at end, where the only other guys they have right now are Derrick Morgan and Malcolm Sheppard.

Look for them to address depth at corner -- where they feel fine about Jason McCourty and Alterraun Verner as the starters, if that’s how it falls -- as well as at receiver. One wild-card spot could be running back. Are they content with Javon Ringer and Jamie Harper as changeups to Johnson, or would they like to add a big back?
Gary Kubiak conceded the early stages of free agency were rough on the Houston Texans.

They re-signed running back Arian Foster before he got to restricted free agency, and managed to keep center Chris Myers after he saw some interest from outside.

But gone through free-agent losses, cuts or trades are eight players of note.

Let’s take a look at each departure:

OLB Mario Williams (free agent, signed with Buffalo)

The team knew it was highly unlikely it would be able to keep him, and he got a giant contract from the Bills.

The glass-half-full side points out how well the Texans rushed the passer without Williams in the final 11 games and the playoffs last year and points out that he was always banged-up.

On the other side, Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed need to be part of a three-man gang at the position, and the odds of the pass rush just picking up where it left off aren’t high. Bryan Braman is an interesting player and could be a factor in his second year. Look for another outside backer in the draft.

RT Eric Winston (cut, signed with Kansas City)

A strong and technically sound right tackle who was a big piece of a line that may have been the team’s best unit and ranked among the league’s best last season.

This move was the biggest surprise of all that’s unfolded, and Winston was courted heavily before landing in Kansas City.

The team could go with backup swing tackle Rashad Butler, who missed much of last season with an arm injury. But he didn’t fare great when subbing for left tackle Duane Brown on the left side for four games a year earlier.

ILB DeMeco Ryans (traded to Philadelphia)

A beloved member of the team, Ryans hasn’t returned all the way to form after a serious Achilles injury. Plus, in the 3-4, he was barely a two-down player until Darryl Sharpton got hurt.

The Texans may not have gotten quite enough in the deal and they may have to smooth things out in the locker room, but a healthy Sharpton is a capable second inside guy to go with Brian Cushing.

RT Mike Brisiel (free agent, signed with Oakland)

The team played better with him in the lineup than when he was out and Antoine Caldwell filled in. Brisiel did tend to miss a couple games a year. The spot should be Caldwell’s to lose now and he should still be getting better.

TE Joel Dreessen (free agent, signed with Denver)

He seriously considered Houston’s offer before leaving to play with Peyton Manning. He was a valuable player for the Texans, the kind of smaller piece that glues together a team while being overlooked by many.

James Casey is the lone fullback now, but he’s technically more of an H-back and can do tight end things. Depending on how he’s deployed along with Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham, Houston could be OK.

FB Lawrence Vickers (cut, signed with Dallas)

He only played 31.06 percent of the Texans’ plays. Are they dead set on being a fullback team? Call Casey a fullback if you want, but you can run out of anything with Foster and shouldn’t feel desperate to restock.

CB Jason Allen (free agent, signed with Cincinnati)

An unsung player who the team counted as a co-starter with Kareem Jackson, a first-round draft pick who has not lived up to his draft status. They lost a security blanket with Allen, and need to ensure they have a fallback for Jackson on the team, whether it’s a veteran later, second-year man Brandon Harris or a draft pick.

QB Matt Leinart (cut)

T.J. Yates flew by him on the depth chart with his performance down the stretch, and the Texans couldn’t afford Leinart as a third.

Addition and subtraction

March, 18, 2012
3/18/12
1:29
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A free-agency roundup for the AFC South so far. We're not including a team's own free agents that it has re-signed:

Houston

Additions: None

Subtractions: OLB Mario Williams (Buffalo); RT Eric Winston (cut, Kansas City); CB Jason Allen (Cincinnati); G Mike Brisiel (Oakland); QB Matt Leinart (cut); Lawrence Vickers (Dallas).

Indianapolis

Additions: DL Cory Redding (Baltimore); RT Winston Justice (trade, Philadelphia); S Tom Zbikowski (Baltimore); C Mike McGlynn (Cincinnati).

Subtractions: WR Pierre Garcon (Washington); WR Anthony Gonzalez (New England); QB Dan Orlovsky (Tampa Bay); QB Peyton Manning (cut); LB Gary Brackett (cut); S Melvin Bullitt (cut), TE Dallas Clark (cut).

Jacksonville

Additions: WR Laurent Robinson (Dallas); QB Chad Henne (Miami).

Subtractions: ST-WR Kassim Osgood (cut).

Tennessee

Additions: G Steve Hutchinson (cut, Minnesota).

Subtractions: CB Cortland Finnegan (St. Louis); DL Jason Jones (Seattle).
Reading the coverage …

Houston Texans

The Texans hope to avoid the worst-case defection scenario, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. (News in here: Tight end Joel Dreessen is headed to New Orleans for a visit. Right guard Mike Brisiel is visiting Oakland.)

Recently cut fullback Lawrence Vickers was not out of work long, quickly signing with Dallas, says McClain.

Indianapolis Colts

It’s a three-year, $10.5 million contract for defensive end Cory Redding, a building block for the Colts, says Phil Richards. Says Redding: “I believe we can get this thing turned right back around and just keep winning."

Reggie Wayne: Colt for life. Phillip B. Wilson on Reggie Wayne’s decision to re-sign with Indianapolis.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars landed their first two outside additions in Laurent Robinson and Chad Henne, says Tania Ganguli.

Why a multi-year deal for reserve linebacker Russell Allen makes sense for Jacksonville, from Ganguli.

Tennessee Titans

Was it a long hello, or will Peyton Manning be putting down roots again in Tennessee? John Glennon of The Tennessean reports on Manning’s visit to the Titans headquarters.

Manning’s gut could push him to decide on the Titans, says David Climer of The Tennessean.

The Titans are also working on their offensive line, and hosted free-agent Scott Wells, says Glennon.
Reading the coverage…

Houston Texans

The Texans feel like they became more physical when Lawrence Vickers was inserted at fullback, says Jeffrey Martin of the Houston Chronicle.

A win in Baltimore could rival the 1979 Oilers upset of San Diego as the city’s biggest NFL playoff upset, says John McClain.

We could see a test of will between the Texans' offensive line and the Ravens' defensive front, says Edward Less of the Baltimore Sun.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts new GM will face some major decisions: The fate of Jim Caldwell and the staff, an evaluation of Peyton Manning’s health and future, the No. 1 pick in the draft and a rebuild of a roster. Mike Chappell’s run down from the Indianapolis Star.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Tania Ganguli’s Tuesday night story from the Florida Times-Union on the swift hiring of Mike Mularkey.

Mike Mularkey is a roll of the dice like Blaine Gabbert was, says Gene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union. “Looking at Mularkey's overall body of work, there's no question that Gene Smith is banking on him developing (Blaine) Gabbert the way he brought along (Matt) Ryan. In fact, Smith, who begins his fourth year as the Jaguars' GM, is staking his future on Mularkey doing just that.”

Tennessee Titans

Tennessee hopes that Kenny Britt and Jared Cook will be healthy and productive at the same time, forming a threatening pass-catching duo, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

The Titans denied the Bears permission to talk with quarterback coach Dowell Loggains about coordinating the passing game in Chicago, says Wyatt. I wonder if they’ll get another request from Jeff Fisher once he’s in place as a head coach again.

RTC: Breaking down sale of the Jaguars

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
8:29
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Reading the coverage ...

Houston Texans

T.J. Yates’ mistakes might be understandable, but what about the rest of the Texans? A sloppy team saw a seven-game winning streak end, says John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.

Based on his observations during the national anthem, Panthers tight end Jeremy Shockey judged the Texans to be unpatriotic, says McClain.

Turnovers and red zone busts are issues for the Texans, says McClain.

Lawrence Vickers made a contribution to the passing game, says the Chronicle crew.

It’s not a loss that will kill the Texans, says Jerome Solomon.

Indianapolis Colts

The Colts got a win and made sure they won’t deal with the stigma of a winless season, says Phil Richards of the Indianapolis Star.

The Colts spelled out what Peyton Manning’s done and said he will not play in the final two games, says Bob Kravitz. How much he’s throwing has been an issue and the divide between Manning and management is growing, the columnist writes.

Mike Chappell of the Star says a Dan Orlovsky block on Donald Brown’s big run amounted to a rent payment.

The Colts' defense ganged-up on Chris Johnson, says Phillip B. Wilson.

Jacksonville Jaguars

The sale of the Jaguars to Shahid Khan was a transaction executed in secrecy. Tania Ganguli of the Florida Times-Union breaks down the ultimate trick play. Interesting details include the role of Eric Grubman, the NFL’s executive vice president of NFL ventures.

Khan introduced himself to the team before practice on Saturday, says Ganguli.

Dirk Koetter is reportedly a leading candidate for the Hawaii job, says Tania Ganguli.

Tennessee Titans

With so much to play for, the Titans lost to the previously winless Colts. Players were embarrassed and ticked off over the performance, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

Mike Munchak deflected blame from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck after the loss, says John Glennon of The Tennessean.

The Colts ran the ball better than the Titans expected they could, says Glennon.

Special-teams mistakes landed Tommie Campbell on the bench, say Wyatt and Glennon.

Turner, Jones will play against Texans

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
11:53
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HOUSTON -- The Texans’ defense won’t get any major help from injuries today.

Atlanta running back Michael Turner and receiver Julio Jones, who both came into the game as questionable, will play Sunday at Reliant Stadium.

Houston will need to slow both and have a solid defensive effort to maximize the chances for rookie quarterback T.J. Yates to guide the Texans to their sixth consecutive win.

Turner is a load, and sure tackling with quick-arriving support will be a necessity.

The Falcons are without two of their top four cornerbacks in Brent Grimes and Kelvin Hayden, which could mean increased opportunity for Yates to connect with Andre Johnson. Dominique Franks will start at left corner for Grimes.

The full inactives lists:

Texans
Falcons

Vickers in, Holliday not for Texans

October, 16, 2011
10/16/11
2:59
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BALTIMORE -- The Texans will stick with their veteran returners and look to fullback Lawrence Vickers this afternoon against the Ravens.

They signed returner Trindon Holliday this week and Gary Kubiak indicated Holliday would take punt returns off Jacoby Jones’ plate and reduce Danieal Manning’s workload by taking over kickoff returns. But Holliday is inactive, so the Texans are unwilling or not ready to go forward with that idea.

James Casey suffered a pectoral injury in last week’s loss to Oakland and was not expected to play. Casey is a tight end-turned-fullback with great pass-catching skills. Vickers is more of a traditional fullback. He dropped a sure touchdown pass last week.

TEXANS
RAVENS
More Scouts Inc. lists are out, with rankings of running backs, fullbacks and offensive lines.

Here’s where the AFC South starters and players of note stand.

Running backs
2: Chris Johnson

4: Maurice Jones-Drew

6: Arian Foster

22: Joseph Addai

I think: Foster might be too low.



Fullbacks
7: Lawrence Vickers

8: Ahmard Hall

9: Greg Jones

I think: I might flip Jones and Vickers.



Tackles
14: Eric Winston

22: David Stewart

23: Michael Roos

28: Duane Brown

33: Eugene Monroe

49: Ryan Diem

52: Wade Smith (actually a guard)

68: Eben Britton

I think: I expressed myself on Roos yesterday. He's way to low.



Guards
22: Jake Scott

41: Jason Spitz

55: Eugene Amano (actually a center)

56: Leroy Harris

61: Mike Brisiel

62: Uche Nwaneri

70: Kyle DeVan

71: Mike Pollak

I think: It says a lot about the division's guards that Spitz is second among them.



Centers
7: Jeff Saturday

9: Chris Myers

24: Brad Meester

I think: Myers is underrated generally, and deserves this top 10 slot.

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 16, 2011
8/16/11
10:56
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HOUSTON -- Yes, they brought in a top-flight defensive coordinator, drafted well and signed some good-looking free agents.

Still, the Texans have been the breakout pick so often in recent years and have come up short that it’s completely fair to ask, even with those changes: Why should people believe? Why should they buy this team?

“I couldn’t sell it to anybody,” said Chris Myers, the team’s underrated center. “We’re doing what we do here in camp. If you’re a Texans fan, you’re a Texans fan. Our offense is the same offense that we’ve had and we’re going to try to make it better. Our defense has brought in who we think can change it, take it in the right direction and make us that complete team.

“That’s the pitch. If you’re going to buy it, you’re going to buy it. If not, we’re still rolling.”

To find their way to the playoffs for the first time since the franchise began play in 2002, the Texans need to find the consistency they’ve lacked on many levels -- start to finish in a game, week to week over the course of the season.

That new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, has a great record of turning defenses around. Gary Kubiak carries questions as a head coach, but not as an offensive mind.

It’s a now or never deal for Kubiak, and he’s got a lot of talent on his roster that knows it.

Receiver Andre Johnson, one of the league’s top players, says the team’s spent the past few preseasons talking about breaking through. This time he wants less talk and more action.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1) How quickly can Phillips shape the defense?

He's coming off a poor term as head coach in Dallas, but his track record as a coordinator is excellent.

[+] EnlargeMario Williams and Wade Phillips
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMario Williams is adjusting to life as a stand-up linebacker in Wade Phillips' scheme.
Players on the Texans' defense say he’s funny, yet pointed. He’s already infused the group with confidence, and he quickly identified things that amounted to easy fixes. Mario Williams’ false step should disappear, for example, and Kareem Jackson is unlikely to be seen in press coverages.

“Wade Phillips and [linebackers coach Reggie Herring] have brought a credibility and a confidence to the system that they run,” said end-turned-outside-linebacker Connor Barwin. “I feel like it carries over to us. You know if you do what you’re coached up to do that it’s going to work.”

The change from a 4-3 to a 3-4 isn’t as extreme as some imagine, because Phillips’ 3-4 doesn’t demand a gigantic space-eating nose tackle, and it doesn’t ask linemen to be responsible for two gaps. The linemen are really playing roles akin to what they did in the previous system, with Williams now standing up as an on-the-line 'backer on the weak side.

Creating that matchup as often as possible is key, and Williams should be the centerpiece of the retooling.

Though Williams didn’t look comfortable in the preseason opener, end Antonio Smith thinks offenses will really struggle with Williams and his bull rush.

“It has not been stopped in camp yet,” Smith said. “Since he decided to do it, I ain’t seem him lose. You know what you need to do to beat a person. I think that throughout this camp, he’s figuring out how to use that. He’s added it into his bag of tricks and he’s going to figure out how to use it along with his other moves.”

Matt Schaub and Johnson have both talked about how many more balls are contested and broken up in a typical practice. That difference suggests the new philosophy’s growing on a unit that’s needed not just players like Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning but also the sort of direction Phillips is providing.

2) Will Arian Foster be able to have another big season on the ground?

It wasn’t long ago that Steve Slaton ran for 1,282 yards. He’s disappeared since the 2008 season, however.

Foster said that what he did over 16 games last season proved him capable and that the notion of a fluke is ridiculous. But for the Texans’ offense to get better, he’ll have to follow up his 1,616-yard season and rushing title with another big showing.

“When you come out and have a season like that, then everybody wants to see what you’re going to do the next season,” Johnson said. “I think that is important for him, to come out and show people that he is the guy that he was last year.

“I think he’ll do it, there is no doubt in my mind. Because he works hard and he plays with a chip on his shoulder.”

Houston’s play-action can be spectacular with Foster running as he did in 2010. His style is perfectly suited for the team’s blocking scheme, which encourages him to cut once and take all he can get.

Another big year will go a long way toward setting the Texans’ course.

3) Do enough guys have killer instinct?

The Texans' slow starts and inability to finish were major issues last season. Better personnel and coaching will need to be accompanied by a killer instinct this franchise has too frequently lacked.

[+] EnlargeDanieal Manning
AP Photo/David J. PhillipThe Texans are counting on Danieal Manning to bring some veteran leadership to the defense.
“You could put it that way,” tight end Owen Daniels said. “There’s definitely never been a lack of effort. I think it’s been missed opportunities at finishing games. ... We need to find something different this year in order to close out those games.”

A guy like Johnson, soft-spoken but intense, certainly has a personality you can win with. But are the Texans, in total, too low-key? I think it’s a fair question.

“You’ve got to have that [killer instinct],” said Manning, one of the key newcomers. “... If you believe, all this other stuff is going to come into play: working together, supporting your man, pushing him, making him work hard, holding him accountable. All that stuff goes hand in hand. I’ve never seen a championship team that didn’t believe, that didn’t finish.”

BIGGEST SURPRISE

When they grabbed him during the 2010 season, I don’t think the Texans expected much from veteran cornerback Jason Allen. But the secondary was better with him than it was without him. Now, with a fresh start, he’s mounting a serious challenge to Jackson, the 2010 first-round draft pick. The team would be well served to go with Allen if things come out roughly even. Jackson’s seasoning would be better for now as a role player.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Antwaun Molden looks the part as a 6-foot-1, 200-pound corner. But the team has finally stopped talking up the fourth-year man from Eastern Kentucky. He’s not sturdy enough and doesn’t show enough gumption to be a factor in a group where he’s had a chance to add some depth. He had an interception in the preseason opener, but only after he committed a penalty that washed it away.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Joel Dreessen is consistently underrated. Dreessen can block and, while not as dynamic as Daniels, has a knack for finding open spaces and presenting himself to Schaub. The Texans have a lot of quality tight ends. Look for the team to put three tight ends on the field at times, when they can operate as a heavy package or shift Daniels, Dreessen, James Casey or Garrett Graham into space, depending on the defensive personnel. Anthony Hill is the blocker of the bunch.
  • After facing questions about durability, Schaub’s played two full seasons. Now the questions are about play in the clutch. He needs to eliminate moments like the one when he threw an overtime pick-six against Baltimore last season.
  • I expect the Texans to look closely at receivers when the league cuts down rosters. Dorin Dickerson currently looks to be fourth in line, but I saw him fighting some passes in practices and he’s still relatively new to the position. Jeff Maehl heads the undrafted group but didn’t look great, either. Receiver depth is an issue.
  • Inside linebacker Darryl Sharpton could be the best non-starter on the roster come opening day. He’s in a tough spot behind DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing, though injuries are often in play with Cushing.
  • Myers is a key cog in making the Texans’ offensive line work, and he could be taking his place right alongside Jeff Saturday as an indispensable center in the division.
  • The team could be an injury away from trouble at end and safety.
  • Trindon Holliday’s speed is not enough for him to overcome his size as even a situational receiver. Plus, he seems easily hurt. The return jobs are open if the team wants to avoid using Jacoby Jones as the punt returner and Manning as the kick returner.
  • Undrafted rookie Brett Hartmann beating out veteran punter Brad Maynard is a definite possibility.
  • Count me among those not convinced that Matt Leinart can’t play. If this team needs a few spots starts, I bet he can do OK. One of the NFL’s quarterback-needy teams was foolish not to add Leinart to the mix. He’s better than a lot of guys with a chance to start some games this season.
  • Lawrence Vickers is better equipped to work as the fullback than Casey, and he should get far more frequent opportunities to lead the way for Foster.

Observation Deck: Jets-Texans

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
11:33
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The Houston Texans are scheduled for only one prime-time game in the regular season, Week 16 at Indianapolis. But the new-look Texans got the Monday Night Football spotlight on the opening weekend of the preseason.

Viewers saw a team already thinned out at running back get thinner as a revamped defense did some nice things in a 20-16 win over the New York Jets.

One man's quick observations…
  1. The Texans lacked some of firepower, with Andre Johnson (finger), Arian Foster (hamstring), Brian Cushing (knee) and prize free-agent cornerback Johnathan Joseph (groin) sitting out. We saw more, sooner, of Jacoby Jones, Derrick Ward, Darryl Sharpton and Jason Allen as a result.
  2. Ward started and didn’t last long before suffering a head injury, leaving the team with only Chris Ogbonnaya and Javarris Williams as its running backs. Houston tried running Ogbonnaya inside too much, but got him going more as a bootleg pass target for Matt Leinart. He caught a short touchdown pass among his team-high six receptions for 67 yards. He ran for the game-winning touchdown from a yard out with just under 2:00 left.
  3. Ankle injuries to Antoine Caldwell and Kasey Studdard could mean the team could be thinned for a time at guard as well.
  4. Matt Schaub hit on just 2 of 5 passes before yielding to Leinart. Schaub was just a touch off and two of his targets, Owen Daniels and Kevin Walter, were unable to pull in balls they got their hands on.
  5. The Texans shouldn’t feel obligated to use James Casey as the first-string fullback just because he was the primary plan once Vonta Leach left. They later signed free-agent Lawrence Vickers. He shouldn’t be waiting until the second half for a chance to impact the game. He quickly had a 22-yard catch and run.
  6. Second-string inside linebacker Xavier Adibi had a nice night, though he was unblocked on one of his two sacks. Another No. 2, outside linebacker Jesse Nading, was also productive with a sack and a forced fumble. Second-round pick Brooks Reed looked good, showing good burst at the snap. He had one good rush followed by a nice recognition in which he stopped chasing to jump and knock down a pass.
  7. The late work of undrafted rookie outside linebacker Bryan Braman out of West Texas A&M is the sort that makes a guy impossible to hide for a practice squad spot. No matter the caliber of the people attempting to block him, he showed a knack for getting to the quarterback, even if he allowed rookie quarterback Greg McElroy to shrug out of a sure sack on the final possession of the game.
  8. Quintin Demps fielded kickoffs and punts early on without much affect. Trindon Holliday was out hurt and the team wisely didn’t choose to look at Jones and Danieal Manning, veteran starters who didn’t need to be exposed to injury risk on special teams.

Mailbag: I take on your best

August, 14, 2011
8/14/11
10:57
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Kyle Marcil from Jacksonville writes: I just saw the Jaguars added another defensive player in DE/OLB Matt Roth, who was arguably the best defensive player for the Browns. Two questions: Why are the Jags not considered in the top five for off-season moves/acquisitions, especially since the Patriots are considered to have made one of the best moves by adding a past his prime Chad Ochocinco and a lazy Albert Haynesworth who doesn't want to play now that he's paid? And with Roth filling the last hole in our defense, assuming he plays DE, do you think that we have the best defense (at least on paper) in the AFC South?

Paul Kuharsky: Free agency scoring is likely over. The Jaguars did quite well. The reason they didn’t get more hype, I believe, is because the pass defense was so bad and the only big early addition who is perceived as directly impacting that is Dawan Landry. I doubt many folks who saw what the Patriots hung on the Jaguars Thursday night are going to be touting Jacksonville's defense, regardless of who played or did not play. I still have major concerns about the secondary. I'm not willing to declare who the best defense on paper is. but they are definitely in the conversation. And the competition is not great.


Todd from Pennsylvania writes: With the Colts apparently content to stand pat on the nose tackle position even though Antonio Johnson is the only true nose tackle with any experience on the roster, does he suddenly become the Colts second most important player to keep healthy? (behind Peyton Manning of course).

PK: Seriously? Replace a mediocre nose tackle with a bad nose tackle and it’s not a big deal. Replacing Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Antoine Bethea, Austin Collie, or even Dallas Clark would be far, far more difficult. You can also find nose tackles on the street -- see Johnson as an example. They signed him from Titans’ practice squad when they got him.

Of starters, Johnson is probably the most replaceable.


Ryan from Arlington, Texas, writes: Aren't people over reacting a bit to the loss of Vonta Leach? Houston had Leach from 2006-2010. In those years, the Texans' running game was good in 2010, but was putrid in 2009 and mediocre the rest. Also, Arian Foster averaged 5.5 yards/carry without Vonta in the game, and 4.7 with him. I'm not disputing that Vonta is a very good fullback, but I think his impact is being overplayed.

PK: I’m with you. A fullback is only so influential. I understand people love him. Great guy, great story. But at some point you have to separate the emotional part and be rational and fiscally responsible. The Texans were, even if a percentage of their fans were not. It’s a situational role. Lawrence Vickers and James Casey can more than handle it.


Riverman from Florence, Ala., writes: How can the Titans justify drawing a line in the sand for (Chris Johnson) to come to camp before they "will talk" about a new deal? Didn't they go on record last by saying that if CJ would come to camp for the $500k increase, then they would work out a new contract? So they have had almost an entire year knowing that this situation was coming. This type of business is why the Titans have a reputation of "not paying their players" as Marshall Faulk said last year.

PK: All true. But you have to acknowledge that a four and a half month lockout took away a significant chunk of time. Maybe they would have worked this all out around organized team activities. But the calendar didn’t include that this year. Asking him to come and not practice while they negotiate doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. He could always leave after a few days if it wasn’t going to his liking.

The financial reputation is simply incorrect. Who did they fail to pay? Did you want them to spend what Washington did on Haynesworth and have that catastrophe on their hands?

Matt Hasselbeck is getting paid. Michael Roos, David Stewart, Finnegan and Eugene Amano all got early, proactive extensions. Will Witherspoon got paid. Barrett Ruud and Daniel Graham chose to take the Titans’ deals so they had to be reasonable, no?

It’s hard to find a guy who reached free agency who they let walk fare better with his new team than he did in Nashville. If you want star chasing, this isn’t your team. That doesn’t make them cheap.


Matthew from Montréal writes: Paul, Your comment that life is easier for the media when all is running smoothly in relation to whatshisname walking out on the Titans: I don't think so. If nothing's happening, then no one wants to read/watch what the media says. The media's job is to sell, to make things interesting. To declare that the media has no agenda is disingenuous, of course it does. And making a mountain out of a molehill is something the media does very well. The media thrives on drama, whether it's Grandma Favre's dithering about a comeback or whatshisname walking out on the Titans. So don't tell us that whatshisname thinks people are idiots when you yourself take up a disingenuous argument that insults your readers' intelligence. Just saying.

Paul Kuharsky: I understand your broad point and it’s a fair one. But I don’t wake up in the morning hoping for controversy. I really don’t. And I don’t think my bosses do either. People are obsessed with the NFL and gobble up every nugget. I’m always rooting for a good nugget and a compelling story above all else. Plenty of them happen to be controversial. But plenty of them are not.

I promise, on a Saturday with a chance for some family time, people who cover the Titans aren’t excited when Cortland Finnegan does something foolish.

First look: Texans' depth chart

August, 9, 2011
8/09/11
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A first look at the Texans' unofficial depth chart gives us these nuggets to consider:
Rarely, if ever, does an NFL unit simply pick up where it left off one year as it begins the next. Coaches talk all the time about how you’re actually starting from zero every time you start up.

Gary Kubiak’s been reminding his offense of that, and he wishes it had more of a chance to build some continuity in the first week of camp and in life after Vonta Leach.

Instead, with contract delays, injuries and a later addition in Leach’s replacement, Lawrence Vickers, the Texans have been patchwork on offense.

Here’s Kubiak with Houston media today:
“The number one thing I wish would happen is I wish we had these offensive guys on the field working. That’s been disappointing because you can have all the guys you want on paper, but they need to work together and play together. With Arian [Foster] going to miss some time now and Andre [Johnson] has missed some time; Jacoby [Jones] missed a lot of time, not his fault by any means; [Owen Daniels] missed a day. We need that continuity. We need to get on the field and get better. We’ve got to replace Vonta; we’ve got to replace the things David Anderson did for us, so we need that continuity, but I’m hoping that starts to pick back up next week.

“… They did some good things last year; that’s last year. You don’t ever stay the same in this business. You’re either moving forward and getting better or you’re stepping back. We’ve got a good group and I like the way our guys up front have worked, and they look very solid. Our tight ends look solid, but it’s about putting the whole group together and everybody being there to work for Matt [Schaub]. We’ll be smart; we’re not going to throw somebody out there who’s not ready to go, but boy, I sure would like to get them all back out there.”

I get to Houston on Thursday. Selfishly, I'd love it if the offense was closer to fully stocked during my visit.
With my magical user name and password, I cracked into this Insider file.

So I am able to share some of the AFC South elements of Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson’s assessments and grades of free agency.

Houston Texans

Williamson: “I'm usually very reluctant when teams decide to switch their defensive personnel. But in this case -- seeing how Houston has handled it in the draft and free agency -- I am quite excited about the improvement that is coming on this side of the ball as the Texans make the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Plus, Houston couldn't have gotten much worse than how it played on defense in 2010.

“The team has filled needs extremely well while making this schematic transformation. Adding [Johnathan] Joseph and [Danieal] Manning to a historically poor secondary is exceptional work, and both cover men have enough versatility in their game to allow Wade Phillips to run a wide array of coverages. Joseph is the bigger name player, but Manning had a very good season in Chicago last year. [Mike] Brisiel is a vastly underrated player, and keeping him allows this excellent offensive line to create further continuity. The only big loss is [Vonta] Leach, who will deal a blow to the Texans' rushing attack. There are other lead blocking fullbacks in this league, but none like Leach.”

Grade: B+

Kuharsky: I like what they’ve done as well, though I am taking a major wait-and-see attitude about the 3-4. Manning is the best safety the team will have had since I started covering the team in 2008 and Joseph will be the best corner. Lawrence Vickers is a drop-off from Leach, but likely a serviceable one.

Indianapolis Colts

Analysis: “Considering the effect the lockout could have on rebuilding teams, and considering that Indianapolis also is getting back a lot of contributors from injury, keeping the status quo should serve [Peyton] Manning & Co. quite well. [Joseph] Addai is worth more to the Colts than to any other team, but I suspect he might not be starting by the end of the year. One area of the team that will be different, however, is along the offensive line. Bringing [Charlie] Johnson back as a versatile tackle/guard would have been a great situation, but Indianapolis did use two very high picks to rebuild its ailing offensive front.

“On the other line, [Jamaal] Anderson is a curious fit. He certainly isn't in the mold of their speed-rushing defensive ends. Indy most likely will use him as a penetrating defensive tackle. Early in his career, [Tommie] Harris was the prototypical three-technique for a scheme such as the Colts'. Injuries have vastly altered his career path, but he still does flash at times. They will need to nurse him along, but he could act as a great mentor to Drake Nevis and help out in limited snaps. The pass-rushing foursome of Anderson/Harris, Nevis, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on throwing downs might be extremely potent.

Grade: C+

Kuharsky: Three stabs into the outside veteran free-agent market -- in Anderson, linebacker Ernie Sims and Harris -- is a nice change. The risk/reward seems just right. They’re exploring a different avenue for roster improvement and deserve applause. But no points for re-signing Manning, as he was not a free agent with an exclusive-rights franchise tag.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Williamson: “There could be an argument that the Jaguars overspent on [Paul] Posluszny, but this market is difficult to get a true handle on. And I do think Jacksonville has spent wisely in terms of which players it has brought in. Along with Daryl Smith, the Jaguars now have three very solid starting linebackers, and what was a weakness now looks to be a strength. They did spend a ton of money on second-level defenders, though. [Dawan] Landry is an excellent addition as an in-the-box safety type who also can cover tight ends (like Owen Daniels and Dallas Clark).

“Although Posluszny is an every-down linebacker, Jacksonville hasn't improved itself dramatically on defense against the pass in free agency. With Houston, and especially Indianapolis, in the division, that is a serious concern.”

Grade: C+

Kuharsky: I think that’s low. I like what they’ve done. I think a safety combination that won't include Don Carey will be better. Drew Coleman is a flexible veteran corner who should upgrade the nickel. And I think the front seven is much stronger, which should mean quarterbacks have less time.

Tennessee Titans

Williamson: “I very much understand that the Titans could not open the season with just Jake Locker behind center, and throwing their first-round pick to the wolves probably isn't a recipe for success. But I also don't see the infatuation with [Matt] Hasselbeck. He hasn't played well in two years; he is a major durability risk; and the Titans' interior offensive line is vastly overrated -- not a great situation for an aging signal-caller. Plus, Hasselbeck's skill set isn't similar at all to Locker's.

“[Barrett] Ruud is another overrated player, but I am not implying that he will be a liability as the starting 'Mike' linebacker. His tackle numbers just make him out to be a better player than he truly is. Ruud should provide valuable leadership to Tennessee's young linebacker corps. I also think [Jacob] Ford's best days could still be ahead of him. Still, the Titans might be worse on defense now than they were a year ago. [Daniel] Graham will be a big help as a blocker, but [Leroy] Harris and [Ahmard] Hall were disappointing blockers in 2010.”

Grade: C-

Kuharsky: I think a change of scenery will help Hasselbeck, and while I have concerns over the interior line, if two Hall of Famers (Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews) overseeing the group are confident it will play more like 2009 than 2010, I tend to give some benefit of the doubt. The defense remains a big concern.

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