AFC South: Marques Colston
But I’ve got a good sense of your team. We've looked at the free-agent list.
And here’s what I’d try to do with your major issues:
1) Land at least one premium free-agent wide receiver. I’d stack them something like this: San Diego’s Vincent Jackson, Kansas City’s Dwayne Bowe, Buffalo’s Steve Johnson, New Orleans’ Marques Colston. If you’re bold and will take two, I like Indianapolis’s Pierre Garcon or New Orleans’ Robert Meachem.
2) Re-sign safety Dwight Lowery. Just a year ago, you were a mess at safety. You did fine work signing Dawan Landry and trading for Lowery and shifting him from corner to fix it. You have to keep it fixed. Hopefully he realizes what a great fit he is in a top-flight defense. But there are a lot of safety-needy teams out there, including your AFC South rival Titans. Lowery needs to be in your lineup in 2012.
3) Be a player for Mario Williams. If Houston’s outside linebacker/defensive end becomes a free agent as I expect, you can afford to make a huge splash with him. And you’re a premier pass-rushing defensive end and a cornerback away from being a premier defense. If Williams goes elsewhere and the Colts’ Robert Mathis comes free, he should be the second target.
4) Shop free-agent quarterbacks to upgrade the backup plan for Blaine Gabbert. Chad Henne probably finds a better situation. Kyle Orton too. How about Jason Campbell? The new backup needs to have the right disposition -- sit back, offer guidance, run a good scout team. But he also needs to be able to play, because if Gabbert is bad again, you can’t just sacrifice the season. You have to have a better backup than Luke McCown.
5) Let defensive end Jeremy Mincey explore the market. He’s a supreme effort guy you’d like to have back. But he’s not worth the kind of money I imagine he’s looking for. If the rest of the league agrees, you’ll have a chance at him later. If he gets swept up, then someone likely overpaid.
6) Monitor your defensive tackles closely. Tyson Alualu's knee surgery wasn't said to be major, but the knee kept him from peak performance last season and they need to get it right. And Terrance Knighton's weight cannot continue to be an issue going forward. Ultimately it's on him, of course, but the new staff needs to find the best, most helpful approach.
7) Wait on Rashean Mathis unless he's cheap right away. The corner will be an unrestricted free agent but is coming off a torn ACL. He's a great team guy and can still play, but the end is in sight. You want him on a cheap, short deal and hopefully you draft the guy in April who replaces him in 2013.
8) While you have plenty of cap room, you still want to be conscious of paying reasonable prices. You can wait to decide on them later. But even a healthy Aaron Kampman isn’t worth a $4.97 million base. And fullback Greg Jones played only 38.7 percent of the team’s snaps last season but is schedule to make $3.4 million. Too much.
I wish he also included two Colts, Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon.
The Jaguars had one of the NFL’s two worst groups of receivers in the NFL last season and will definitely be considering free agents at the position. If the Colts don’t keep one or both of their guys, they’ll also have a need.
Here are Joyner’s bottom lines on the seven guys he writes about:
Dwayne Bowe, Kansas City: “Bowe may have stretch vertical limitations, but he should be able to upgrade the short and medium pass game of any team.”
Marques Colston, New Orleans: “Colston has the potential to be the best possession receiver in the NFL, but his productivity could drop off if he joins a team with less creative playcalling than he received with the Saints.”
DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia: “There is a reason the Eagles have shown some hesitation in paying him a big contract and why they may be considering either putting a franchise tag on or trading Jackson. He has more big-dollar bust potential than any other wide receiver in this year's field.”
Vincent Jackson, San Diego: “Jackson might be biggest risk-reward wideout in this year's free-agent class.”
Steve Johnson, Buffalo: “Johnson wants to be paid like a true No. 1 wideout but there are too many facets of his game that say he has a production ceiling that doesn't justify that type of expenditure.”
Brandon Lloyd, St. Louis: “Lloyd has the highest volume of notable negatives in this comparison.”
Mario Manningham, NY Giants: “Manningham's postseason performance, age and 2010 numbers show that he may have the most upside of any wideout in this group. Depending on how his postseason is viewed by teams in the free-agent market, he could end up as the best value acquisition wide receiver.”
I asked Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. about the field-stretching speed of those seven plus Wayne and Garcon and what he’d like to see Jacksonville do.
“The Jags might need two of those guys! In terms of field stretchers, which is clearly a need for Jacksonville, Vincent Jackson and DeSean Jackson are way ahead of the rest. And both are excellent in this capacity. I prefer Vincent Jackson overall-bigger. And Mike Mularkey is going to want his receivers to block, which isn’t DeSean Jackson’s game. Manningham should be the cheapest on the list and if they were able to get two, he would be an ideal WR2 -- also with field stretching ability. Although not a burner, Dwayne Bowe could be the best fit. Physical and plays tough. But I bet Bowe is franchised.”
While we linked to a piece earlier today about how Jaguars' GM Gene Smith isn't completely determined to add only choir boys, I think Jackson's attitude might be a turnoff to Smith.
ESPN Stats & Information says Brees is connecting on 72.4 percent of his passes between the numbers for an average of 8.2 yards per attempt with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions.
His primary target there is 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end Jimmy Graham.
Rookie middle linebacker Colin McCarthy is coming off an AFC defensive player of the week award for the Titans, but with Graham roaming the middle, McCarthy will face a new kind of challenge. And he’ll need help, particularly from safeties Michael Griffin and Jordan Babineaux.
“When you’re 6-7 and 6-4 (like receiver Marques Colston) and you’re throwing it over little bitty guys, why wouldn’t you go over the middle,” said Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray. “I don’t think we’ve covered a 6-6, 6-7 tight end. The thing is the safety has got to come down and hit him and help (McCarthy) out.
“The biggest thing I think in this league is, you’ve got to start putting fear in guys’ hearts from throwing the ball in the middle of the field. If that means getting a letter from the commissioner on Monday, that means getting a letter from the commissioner. But a lot of times you’ve got to let these guys know, you’re not going to be able to throw the ball over the middle of the football field. This is not a basketball, this is a football game, so the ball doesn’t go down the middle of our field. And that’s what safeties should do in this league.”
Have the Titans safeties done enough to send that message this season?
“Of course not,” Gray said. “Or they wouldn’t be throwing the ball down the middle of the field.”
As for encouraging play that could be deemed fine-worthy, Gray softened that stance while drawing a laugh.
“Do a clean hit, you hit a guy clean,”’ he said. “And the good thing is, he’s 6-7, you’re not going hit him in the head anyway.”
“We were told what the expectations were for coming to the Pro Bowl and I don’t know -- I got to fly on a private plane with six of my best friends and teammates, we had Ruth’s Chris steakhouse, took a private escort right into Miami, shook a few hands, had to wave, did one interview and we made $45,000. I can think of some worse things to put yourself through. ...
“We’re glad everybody’s here now and we’re ready to go.”
The popular topic was Dwight Freeney. You see a Chris Mortensen report in the post before this one and here’s the news story on what was said.
Some other highlights that don’t quite match up to that, many on familiar themes:
- Pressed for a difference between Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell, Kelvin Hayden came up with: “No eating in the meeting rooms. Coach Dungy felt like if guys were relaxed and comfortable in the meeting rooms, they’d pay attention a little more. But coach Caldwell, I guess he didn’t buy into that and he shut it down, so no eating in the meeting rooms.”
- Asked about reconciling giving up so few sacks and blocking for the 32nd-rated running team, right tackle Ryan Diem said: “I think a lot of that can come to rhythm in a game. And once you start throwing a lot, you kind of get out of that run rhythm obviously and it’s hard to get a rhythm when you only run 12-15 times a game. So I guess that’s really the only way I can explain it is that we don’t run the ball often enough to kind of feel that run rhythm that some other teams do.”
- Someone asked Gary Brackett, does anyone do as much as the Saints in terms of offensive formations and packages? “A few teams try but I don’t think they have quite the talent level that the Saints have that can spread out. Obviously Reggie Bush can play several positions. Robert Meachem is another speed guy. [Marques] Colston has the ability to be that matchup problem. They do a good job of opening up the playbook.”
- Manning was asked about another championship further validating his career: “I have the same excitement that I had three years ago. ... Your question had a lot of 'I's phrased in it. I really think of it as a we. This is our opportunity and I feel fortunate to have a number of guys on my team that you’d feel fortunate to go into any type of battle or game with. That’s kind of my approach to it and I’m sticking to that.”
- And as for the team staying in the same hotel, working on the same practice field out of the same facility as they did when they won the Super Bowl following the 2006 season, he said: "I don’t think staying in the same hotel or practicing on the same field, I certainly don’t think it helps you stop Drew Brees’ offense or figure out where Darren Sharper’s going to be.”
|AP Photo/Dave Einsel|
|The final joint practice held by the Texans and Saints got chippy Friday with several fights breaking out, including one between Jeremy Shockey and DeMeco Ryans.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
HOUSTON -- Wherever I wasn't, there was a fight at Thursday morning's Texans-Saints practice. When I was watching the Texans' offense, the fights were on defense. When I changed up, so did they.
John McClain says the fight total was six and that the highlights were a Jeremy Shockey versus DeMeco Ryans bout and a Vonta Leach-Rod Coleman battle. Another observer told me that Shockey threw at least one punch and that another of the fights was Ryan Moats against Saints fullback Troy Evans. (Here's McClain's story.)
The crowd erupted in response to each fight, and the teams swarmed to defend their guys, with order restored relatively quickly.
Leach said afterward that "we are not going to get pushed around, we are not going to get bullied" and Gary Kubiak said he liked the way guys stood up for teammates, but he likes composure even more.
It made for a more entertaining show for a large crowd that included the football teams from both Houston and Rice.
On to some notes about the football I saw:
- Tried to get a read on the rookie defensive backs, but one-on-ones were kind of sloppy and Drew Brees, who rejoined the team after attending to family matters in the wake of his mother's death, seemed rusty, at least early.
Glover Quin lost Lance Moore as the receiver cut hard across the middle on one play. In red zone work he covered Marques Colston well but the throw wasn't anything Colston had a chance to go get. Quin had a very nice pass breakup in the back left corner of the end zone on a throw from Mark Brunell aimed for Rod Harper. Quin also got a nice jam on Devery Henderson and stayed tight on him, but Henderson maintained focus and managed to make the catch despite the coverage. That was all in one-on-ones. Later, in a team period, Brees fit a nice mid-range pass between Quin and Dominique Barber to Colston.
- Brice McCain either didn't work a lot in the one-on-one period or I had a hard time finding him in the crowd. I saw one play where he didn't stay particularly close to his receiver. Deltha O'Neal, the veteran who was brought in when injuries mounted, didn't look great to me.
- Special-teams periods in the heat can be excruciating, but I noticed one play of note: New Orleans' Adrian Arrington was lined up as a gunner and Quin and Eugene Wilson absolutely handled him, getting their hands on him repeatedly as they prevented him from having any chance to influence the return.
- Dan Orlovsky had some uncomfortable moments. I don't think he's Chevy Chase impersonating Gerald Ford, but he might have a degree of clumsiness to him. He fell down back out from under center on one play. On another, backpedalling furiously with two defenders bearing down, he threw an ill-advised dump off over the middle that hit an O-lineman and had no chance at success.
- Steve Slaton had some very nice moments. The best one I saw was he pulled in a short pass, and spun off the first defender to gain some extra yards. Will Smith likely would have had a sack on the play, however. Chris Brown looks very good and can be just the sort of complement to Slaton that the team is looking for. Insert your obligatory line about his issues staying healthy here.
- Matt Schaub was crisp but had a few bad moments. He threw a bad pick in the red zone intended for David Anderson on the left side that Tracy Porter jumped and would have taken back for a touchdown in a game setting. And for the second day in a row a pump or a pull down turned into a lost ball for an incompletion. There are far worse ways to end a play, but is he having some sort of grip issue?
- Kubiak said linebacker Cato June suffered a broken forearm.
- The practice started at 8:30 and was short, breaking up at 9:53 by my cell phone clock.
|Can Drew Brees or Matt Schaub take the next step and lead his team to the playoffs?|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas and Paul Kuharsky
The New Orleans Saints and Houston Texans each finished 8-8 in 2008. Looking back, breaking even was a remarkable accomplishment given the extreme circumstances each team endured.
After Oct. 12, 2008, the Saints did not play another game in the Superdome until Nov. 24, thanks in part to their international game in London and a bye week. They somehow managed to split the four games during that span.
The Texans began last season 0-4, including a devastating Week 5 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts that featured Houston squandering a 17-point fourth-quarter lead.
Each team produced a great salvage job. Which is primed to take the next step to being a contender?
In this edition of Double Coverage, NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas and AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky discuss what each team needs to do to break the .500 barrier and make a run to the playoffs.
|Check out highlights of the best moments from Drew Brees in 2008.|
THE QUARTERBACK FACTOR
Kuharsky: Well, Pat, topflight quarterback play is always a good first ingredient in a big jump for a team. I'm not going to suggest Matt Schaub is going to be better than Drew Brees in 2009. But if he cuts down on turnovers, Schaub can make a major leap and the Texans can be a playoff-caliber team. He's got one of the NFL's best receivers in Andre Johnson and they've established one of those special relationships. His offense ran the ball far better last season thanks to the new scheme of offensive line coach Alex Gibbs and the emergence of running back Steve Slaton. The offseason focus is on improving the defense -- which already has added free-agent end Antonio Smith. If Houston plays more aggressively and better defense under new coordinator Richard Bush, Schaub and the Texans' offense could feel less pressure. All those circumstances suggest to me, if he can stay healthy, Schaub is in prime position to help the Texans score more points per game. And if they tack some onto the 22.9 points per game they averaged in 2008, they've got an excellent shot at improving on 8-8 and making the playoffs.
Yasinskas: Paul, I like Matt Schaub, too, and I think the Texans can win with him. But Brees was the best quarterback in the league last season. He threw for more than 5,000 yards even though top receiver Marques Colston missed a big chunk of time with an injury and tight end Jeremy Shockey was banged up most of the season. Brees was spectacular with a very ordinary supporting cast around him and not much of a running game. He made receiver Lance Moore into a star and made former disappointment Devery Henderson into a respectable receiver. Brees is an absolutely perfect fit in Sean Payton's offense and I expect him to be even better in 2009. With a healthy Colston and Shockey, Brees could put up astronomical numbers. There's also a sense of urgency within the organization because the coaches and front office realize Brees is in the prime of his career and the Saints don't want to waste that with another mediocre season. Brees single-handedly carried the Saints to eight wins last year. With just a little more help around him, he should be able to lead the Saints to double-digit wins.
Kuharsky: Two seasons ago, the AFC South sent three teams into the AFC playoff field. For the Texans to make their first postseason appearance, the division might have to send three again, because the Titans and Colts are going to have a lot of the same ingredients they had last season. What suggests the Texans can join those teams or pass one? Well, the AFC South plays the NFC West in 2009. While Arizona was a great story last season and one can never accurately predict teams' success from one year to the next anymore, I think if every team in the league could pick one division to play this fall, it would love to have the Cards, 49ers, Seahawks and Rams on its schedule. Say the Texans go 3-1 against those teams, manage 2-2 against the AFC East and sweep the two games assigned based on their third-place division finish in 2009, Oakland and Cincinnati. That's seven wins. If they could pull off just 3-3 in their division, where they have historically done great against Jacksonville but horribly against Indianapolis and Tennessee, they're 10-6 and in range of a playoff berth, I think. Last season's late win over the Titans could serve as a catapult for them in divisional play.
Yasinskas: The most certain thing I can say about the Saints right now is that their 2009 schedule won't be anywhere near as difficult as it was in 2008. That's when the Saints drew the most brutal schedule any NFL team has had in recent memory. The Saints had to spend much of the year on the road, practicing for a week in Indianapolis to avoid an approaching hurricane. But that was the easy part. The Saints had a stretch where they went 42 days without playing in the Superdome as a "home" game in London and a bye week were surrounded by road games. To their credit, the Saints never pointed to the schedule as an excuse. But the fact is they were at a competitive disadvantage that no other team had to deal with. We haven't seen the exact schedule yet, but the Saints don't have an international game this year and it's safe to assume they won't have any stretch that compares to last year. But the Saints have to play better against the rest of the NFC South. They were 2-4 in division play last year and were the only NFC South team with a losing record against division foes.
|Paul Spinelli/Getty Images|
|Mario Williams is just one of many young, up-and-coming defenders on the Texans.|
Kuharsky: The nicest NFL breakout stories are about teams that pieced themselves together relying largely on the draft. It's great to see a young group mature together, gaining confidence and feeding off it. The Texans have the right sort of characters to fit that script. They traded for Schaub, of course, but he'll be just 28 when camp opens. He's throwing to Johnson (also 28) and tight end Owen Daniels (26), handing off to Slaton (23), and enjoying protection on the edges from Duane Brown (23) and Eric Winston (25). The defense is built around Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans, Smith, Dunta Robinson and Amobi Okoye. Robinson and Smith are currently the old men of that group at 27. It's possible all 11 guys of that core have not yet played their best football -- a great reason to be encouraged. And they've got draft help coming on defense.
Yasinskas: The Saints aren't a team you usually think of as being young. But, in a unique way, they've got a youth movement going on. They have only four picks in the 2009 draft at the moment, but it's almost like they've got another rookie class. Several rookies missed all or most of last season because of injuries. In particular, the Saints believe cornerback Tracy Porter and receiver Adrian Arrington can be very valuable players. Throw in the fact that Reggie Bush, Colston, Pierre Thomas and Sedrick Ellis are still young and the Saints have some youthful players who should continue to get better. But they've also got a nice mix of veterans. They've got guys like Brees, Jonathan Vilma and Dan Morgan as leaders who have won some big games in their careers. The Saints aren't relying heavily on many old guys -- defensive tackle Hollis Thomas and cornerback Mike McKenzie might be just role players. This is a team made up mostly of guys who are young or are in their prime and that's a nice combination to have.
THE CHANGES IN DEFENSIVE COORDINATORS
Yasinskas: I sincerely believe the best and most important move the Saints made this offseason was the hiring of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Gary Gibbs took the fall for last season and was fired. You can't put all the blame on Gibbs because the defense was decimated by injuries. But the defense was nothing short of horrible and it was the main reason the Saints didn't make the playoffs. Payton recognized that and went out and got the best defensive coordinator available. Williams likes to play very aggressive defense and that's something the Saints haven't done in a long time. Williams is intense and he might be able to light a fire under defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith. The return of a lot of injured players also should help and the Saints got linebacker Morgan back from retirement and signed cornerback Jabari Greer. This defense doesn't have to be great because the offense is. Williams just needs to get this defense to be average and the Saints will have a shot to go deep into the playoffs.
Kuharsky: Compared to Williams, we know nothing about Frank Bush, the Texans' new defensive coordinator. He's been part of Gary Kubiak's staff since 2007 and a lot of Texans faithful, fairly or not, really like one thing about him already: He's not Richard Smith. Though Houston made some progress in the latter part of the season when it turned more aggressive, the defense didn't come close to matching the offense in 2008. That needs to change in 2009 and it can if Bush can stamp the group with a defensive identity. Indications are the Texans will move toward making that late-season aggression more permanent. The big addition in free agency came on defense, and Antonio Smith can be a load to handle playing end opposite Mario Williams. Bush is going to get a personnel boost from the draft to help him try -- likely in the form of a linebacker, a tackle and a safety. Can Bush get the group believing and producing? Much like you say, Pat, with the Saints -- the Texans don't have to be one of the league's top defenses. If they move from 22nd to the mid or early teens and if they can knock some points off the average of 25 they allowed last year, that should be a sufficient boost for a team that should be offense-driven.
|Matt Stamey/US Presswire|
|The Saints haven't been able to figure out exactly how to use Reggie Bush's unique talents.|
Yasinskas: For a small-market team, the Saints have an awful lot of star power. But it would help if all those stars played up to their ability level on a consistent basis. Brees was outstanding all last season and Vilma was very solid. But Shockey, Reggie Bush and Colston weren't able to match their hype for various reasons. The Saints have to get their stars playing like stars again. For Colston, that's just a matter of being healthy. Shockey was banged up almost all of last year, but still has the talent to be one of the league's best tight ends. Then, there's the curious case of Reggie Bush. If he hadn't been such a great college player and such a high draft pick, he'd be considered a decent player. But decent doesn't cut it for him. He's supposed to be spectacular all the time and the Saints haven't done him a lot of favors. They've never been able to figure out exactly how to use his unique talents. Payton
is widely credited with being a brilliant offensive mind. But he needs to focus all his thoughts on getting more out of Reggie Bush. If he ever comes close to being what he was in college, he'll be the biggest star New Orleans ever has seen.
Kuharsky: The Texans are a young team, but several of their guys have been around long enough to establish themselves as premier talents. Andre Johnson doesn't do popcorn stunts and doesn't make brash demands about how often the ball needs to come his direction. But he sets a standard for the franchise and everyone knows they can look to him to see how things should be done. Mario Williams is quiet, too, and he's won over all the Houstonians who wanted Reggie Bush or Vince Young at the top of the 2006 draft. With those two cornerstones, the Texans have the kind of star power a team needs -- not for a fancy marketing campaign or happy stories on "SportsCenter," but as tone-setters who show the other 52 guys that the work ethic, tone and philosophy of the organization can produce names that rank with the best in the league at their positions.
Yasinskas: The Saints didn't come close to ending last season on a high note, mainly because they finished with almost 20 guys on the injured reserve list. They never were able to build any momentum. They'd play well one game and horribly the next. That's a problem that has to be fixed next season. What the Saints need more than anything is a fresh start. They need to forget last season's brutal travel schedule and welcome back all the injured guys who are healthy now. Just getting the bulk of those guys back should be a nice shot in the arm.
Kuharsky: The Texans excel at winning at the end of the season. In 2007 they finished 3-1 to get to 8-8 and last year it was a big 5-1 push that got them to .500. That's nice momentum to carry into an offseason. But the team knows the question that now comes attached: Those good finishes are nice, but they came once it was apparent the team wasn't going to the postseason. Now Houston has to fare well enough in the first couple months of a season to earn a chance to show it can win late games that are more meaningful.
Kuharsky: Are the Texans better suited to build on 8-8 and be a playoff team in 2009 than the Saints, who are only two years removed from the conference championship game? It's too early to say. I picked the Saints to be in Super Bowl XXLIII, so I am wary of them. But I'd have to give them the edge right now based on two more proven commodities in Brees and Gregg Williams. I'd sure like to sit next to you at Reliant Stadium or in the Superdome to watch them play each other, though. It could well be a 38-37 game.
Yasinskas: Paul, I think the Texans have the potential for a breakthrough year. But I think the Saints will have a breakthrough year. They had an incredible run of bad luck last season, but they've got a ton of talent in place and they've made the moves they had to make to get their defense better. I'll go out on a limb and say the Saints make the playoffs in 2009.