AFC South: Matt Leinart

Drew Stanton knows Bruce Arians’ system quite well from working as Andrew Luck’s backup, and could have a chance for some playing time in Arizona.

His departure to the Cardinals means the Indianapolis Colts have a new need: A No. 2 behind Luck. It's hard to envision Chandler Harnish, the last pick of last year's draft, seizing the job. He'll be learning a second offense in his second year.

The list of free-agent quarterbacks is a poor one.

Ryan Fitzpatrick was just cut in Buffalo. Jason Campbell could be a functional spot starter.

The Colts might need to pounce on one of them given the other options: Josh Johnson, Charlie Batch, Rex Grossman, Kellen Clemens, Byron Leftwich, Tyler Thigpen, David Carr, Josh McCown, Brady Quinn, Luke McCown, Caleb Hanie, Matt Leinart or Jordan Palmer.

I’m thinking the same thing you’re thinking: I sure hope Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas upgrade Luck’s protection, because the Colts can’t afford for him to be hurt.
» NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Welcome to Eight in the Box, an NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week’s topic: How each AFC South team needs to address the quarterback position.

Houston Texans

Matt Schaub didn’t finish the season with a high popularity rating among Texans fans. While he was part of a first-round playoff win over Cincinnati, he did not finish strong as the team lost three of its final four in the regular season and a divisional round game in New England. That did nothing to dent the franchise’s faith in him. Put simply, Gary Kubiak loves him. Schaub got a big contract extension before the 2012 season and is going nowhere. The backup is T.J. Yates, who played as a rookie in 2011 after injuries to Schaub and Matt Leinart. He’s a good system fit but not necessarily a dynamic player. The Texans could easily go into 2013 as is, though Kubiak said they are always on the lookout in the draft for a QB who can play 10 or 12 years.

Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck is coming off a excellent rookie year. While he threw too many picks and took too many hits, he effectively pushed the ball downfield the way coordinator Bruce Arians asked him to. The team will upgrade his protection and we’ll see a higher completion percentage as Pep Hamilton, Arians’ replacement, installs an offense with more West Coast principles. Drew Stanton was the backup in 2012 and is heading toward free agency. He could find a situation where he has a better chance to play, perhaps reuniting with Arians in Arizona. If he leaves, the Colts will be in the market for a veteran backup for Luck. It’s hard to imagine Chandler Harnish, the final pick of the 2012 draft, being ready for that role.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Blaine Gabbert is going to get a solid crack at winning the starting quarterback job. But the new regime is not married to him as the group that drafted him was. Chad Henne will be Gabbert’s primary competition. Both of them showed severe limitations during their turns as the starter in 2012. New coach Gus Bradley and new general manager David Caldwell both have been emphasizing how they want to create as much competition as possible. So a draft pick or a veteran -- or one of each -- is likely to be added to the mix as they look to sort out roles at a position where expectations are low. Jedd Fisch is the third cordinator in three years who will try to get Gabbert good.

Tennessee Titans

Jake Locker is the starter heading into his third season, and the offseason will be spent crafting a team that is better equipped to take advantage of his strengths. The interior offensive line is a big rebuild project, and better play inside will help him. New offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, who took over the post with five games left, will make things simpler for Locker. He was shaky in his first year as a starter, which included only 11 games because of a shoulder injury. Veteran Matt Hasselbeck is the backup heading into the third year of a three-year contract. With a $7.5 million cap number this season, the Titans could look to extend him to cut costs and hold on to an experienced guy they like. Rusty Smith is third in line but seems unlikely to have a chance to advance beyond that.
Bill Belichick and Gary KubiakGetty ImagesBill Belichick has steered the Patriots to the top of the AFC, but Gary Kubiak and the Texans are now gunning for the conference's perennial top team.
It’s been a while since the New England Patriots won a Super Bowl, but they remain the standard-bearers in the AFC.

They’ve been to two of the past five Super Bowls, including the most recent one. They’ve been in five of the previous 11 Super Bowls and won three in four years from 2001 to 2004.

For teams looking to become consistent AFC powers, the Patriots are the target. One of those teams, the Houston Texans, is heading to New England for "Monday Night Football."

No matter the result, the Texans will still have at least a one-game lead for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This could be an AFC Championship Game preview.

Can the Texans overtake the Patriots?

"I think they can," one AFC executive said. "They have the talent, they have the consistency of scheme on both sides of the ball to do it. The wild card is their health, particularly on defense."

"That's going to be a tough one," said Rosevelt Colvin, who played six of his 10 NFL seasons as linebacker with the Patriots and spent a training camp with the Texans. "Patriots are the closest thing to consistency you will find in this era of NFL ball. Two big reasons: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady."

New England’s coach and quarterback have the skins on the wall and the credibility that come with them. That doesn’t mean someone new can’t break through, though only three other teams have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl since the Patriots came to prominence: Oakland once, Indianapolis twice and Pittsburgh three times.

Are the Texans poised to break through?

"Everybody would like to do what they’ve done over a long period of time," Texans coach Gary Kubiak told Houston reporters. "This league’s about consistency. I think I learned a lot about that in my time in San Francisco and Denver. Doing things right all the time.

"We’re trying to become a very consistent organization here and put a consistent product on the field week in and week out and do things the right way. We’re very young in the process, but we have a lot of respect for what they do."

One major similarity: Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Texans owner Bob McNair are widely regarded as two of the best owners in the NFL. They are willing to spend to make things first-class, and they back their coaches.

Let’s look at some other ways the Texans are similar to the Patriots and some ways they are different:

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTom Brady's consistent play has made the Patriots annual Super Bowl contenders.
Scheme: The Patriots morph as required, not just season to season but sometimes week to week.

They drafted two high-quality tight ends when they saw Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez available and shifted their offense to be predominantly two-tight. When both missed time because of injury -- Gronkowski won't play Monday -- they easily shifted to three-wide. They’ve been a 3-4 team. They’ve been a 4-3 team.

Belichick adapts to what he has and the circumstances.

The Texans don’t morph.

They’ve updated and improved Kubiak’s offensive system since he took over in 2006, but the principles are the same. The zone-blocking line cuts defenders down, and the back is asked to make one cut and go. They run a ton of play-action and ask quarterback Matt Schaub to roll out and run bootlegs off that. It’s not a common scheme, which makes it a bit tougher for defenses to handle.

Defensively, they struggled to find an identity until they brought in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. As leader of the defense, he installed his brand of 3-4 and stamped the Texans with a personality they had been lacking. Now they are locked into a defensive system that same way they are locked in on offense.

They are both top-eight rushing teams, but running is less important to New England because its passing game is more straight drop-back and shotgun while the Texans rely on far more play-action.

Leadership: Belichick is the team’s authority, although while the Patriots came to prominence much was made of how he worked in tandem with Scott Pioli in the front office. If they didn’t agree on a player, they would move on to the next one.

Pioli left to become the general manager in Kansas City in 2009. Belichick remains the powerful agenda-setter, but he has resources when he wants them -- including director of player personnel Nick Caserio and senior football adviser Floyd Reese.

Although the Texans have always stayed mum publicly about who has final say, Kubiak was hired first and general manager Rick Smith joined him. League insiders see the Texans as a coach-steered franchise. Kubiak and Smith have an excellent relationship and get good input from front-office personnel, coordinators and assistants.

Kubiak and Belichick have vastly different public personalities. Belichick is gruff and controlling. Kubiak is personable and agreeable.

Belichick wields more power, but the setups for both coaches in their organizations are comparable.

Depth: Belichick once lost Brady in the Patriots opener. He plugged in Matt Cassel and won 11 games.

Overall, New England has done exceedingly well plugging reserves in when needed and getting sufficient production. The Patriots also move guys around with success. We’ve seen them play receiver Troy Brown at corner. Currently, Devin McCourty can line up at cornerback or safety.

Although veterans generally want to stay in their winning atmosphere, the Patriots have not been sentimental about keeping guys. If a player gets too old or too expensive, they’ll let him walk.

The Texans went to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history last season with rookie quarterback T.J. Yates playing because starter Schaub and backup Matt Leinart both got hurt. Outside linebacker Mario Williams was out after five games, and receiver Andre Johnson missed nine. Houston showed off its depth in overcoming the absences.

The team let Williams leave as a free agent, traded inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans and released right tackle Eric Winston in the offseason while fitting other pieces under the cap. They got Schaub and left tackle Duane Brown locked up with long-term contracts before the season kicked off.

Houston is showing off its depth again this season. Inside linebacker Brian Cushing went down after five games, and Tim Dobbins has played well in his place. Brooks Reed missed last week and will be out a few more, and the team has first-rounder Whitney Mercilus to insert into a shuffled linebacker corps.

"Keeping the talent pool full of younger guys that can run that system is key, as well as coaching consistency," Colvin said. "They have a good mix right now."

Houston Texans cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2012
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Click here for the complete list of Houston Texans' roster moves.

Most significant move: Backup free safety Troy Nolan was a surprising cut, and won’t be on the market for very long. Shiloh Keo stuck. While he’s a willing special-teamer and can hit, he strikes me as too slow and I certainly wouldn’t want him on the field on defense. The Texans traded cornerback Sherrick McManis to the Chicago Bears for fullback Tyler Clutts, who’s expected to back up James Casey. The Texans are a tricky team at fullback, as the lead blocker is important in the zone-run scheme, but they use Casey, who’s more of an H-back with excellent hands. Clutts looks to be an upgrade from Moran Norris, who was cut. Clutts has pro experience, playing in the UFL, AFL and CFL.

Onward and upward: Nose tackle Hebron Fangupo was released, but he is surely a guy the Texans would like to sign to the practice squad, where they could nurture and develop him. Houston doesn't have great depth at the spot, which is generally shared by Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell. Antonio Smith shifts inside in the nickel package, when the outside linebackers creep forward and it’s basically a four- or five-man line. Undrafted out of BYU, Hebron is listed as 6-feet and 324 pounds -- more than 20 pounds more than the Texans’ heaviest lineman. While Wade Phillips is fine with smaller nose tackles, having a big one who can develop is a welcome change.

What’s next: John Beck is on the roster as a third quarterback a year after the Texans got a real feel for the importance of depth when they lost Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart inside two games. They like undrafted rookie Case Keenum, who was cut, as well; he could head for the practice squad. But how many snaps can the Texans get him during the week if he’s fourth in line? Generally, the backup and/or a veteran runs the scout team, so that work will be done by T.J. Yates or Beck. Whatever snaps Schaub doesn’t take in a practice week will go to Yates. Perhaps they feel OK about Andrew Gardner as their swing tackle now that Rashad Butler is lost for the season with a torn triceps, but they could be looking for a guy to provide tackle depth.

AFC South free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

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
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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).

What I'd do if I ran the Texans

February, 28, 2012
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The money isn’t mine. I’m not certain about what you can afford and what the market will pay when free agency opens on March 13. I’m not positive about your plans and schemes.

But I’ve got a good sense of your team. We've looked at your free agents.

And here’s what I’d try to do with your major issues:

1. Make one, big solid offer to defensive end Mario Williams. Very soon. Tell him it’s the best you are going to be able to do now or later. Expect him not to take it. Prepare for life without him and the crushing reviews you’ll get when he goes to a place like Seattle or, worse, Jacksonville, and wreaks some havoc as a pass rusher. Take solace that he’s overpaid by his new team and will ultimately mess up its cap. Plan to draft a outside linebacker to be third in a rotation with Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed.

2. Free up money with the following moves: Cut receiver Jacoby Jones (due a $3 million base salary) and reserve quarterback Matt Leinart (due a $1.75 million base). Make it clear while you’d like to keep them on your team, you cannot pay inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans ($5.9 million), receiver Kevin Walter ($3.5 million base) or defensive tackle Shaun Cody ($2 million) the base salaries they are scheduled to make. Ryans is a good player and a great locker room guy. But he played 58 percent of the Texans' defensive snaps last season. He can't make that money for that time on the field.

3. Do what you need to do to hold on to running back Arian Foster, but realize you have control. He’s a restricted free agent. A team trying to lure him away with an offer sheet would have to give up a first-rounder for him, and as great as he is, a first round pick is a high price for a running back. I think you can be a little risky here in terms of not worrying about outsiders. An offer sheet could be front-loaded and hard to match straight up. Hopefully if he’s offered one, he’ll share the numbers because he likes you and you’ve give him an equivalent deal shaped differently to get him to steer clear of signing the sheet. With or without outside influence, you should be able to give him a deal he’ll like that has a smaller 2012 cap number than the franchise tag of nearly $8 million.

4. Find a way to lock up center Chris Myers and don’t worry about guard Mike Brisiel, who's not the same caliber and won't cost nearly as much, unless he can be had for cheap. While you’d like to keep both, Myers is a better player, who's more valuable and has a better injury history. He’s also more of a the leader of the group. You need him long-term to keep that great running game going. Antoine Caldwell can take over at right guard without major drop off. There is no obvious replacement for Myers on the roster, so they’d have to find one if you let him go.

Seven takeaways from the combine

February, 27, 2012
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LuckBrian Spurlock/US PresswireOne thing that didn't change after this year's NFL combine -- Andrew Luck is still going to the Indianapolis Colts at No. 1.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Let's hop around to seven things I took away from the NFL scouting combine with an AFC South takeaway on each:

1. There are a lot of intriguing receivers, but some insiders don’t expect even Justin Blackmon to be a quick, high-impact guy like A.J. Green and Julio Jones were last year. It’s the beginning of hole-punching season and scouts and analysts will pick people apart. But while there are a lot of talented receivers coming out, if you are a team that needs immediate impact, one strong opinion says you’d be wise to shop in a pretty good free-agent market.

What it means to the division: The Jaguars have to land at least one big-time guy in free agency. I nominate Vincent Jackson. The Colts need to hold onto Reggie Wayne or Pierre Garcon.

2. The top guys seem like sure things: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III and USC left tackle Matt Kalil could go 1-2-3 if someone trades into St. Louis’ No. 2 pick. I’ve not heard anyone raising any real issues with any of the three or with LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. The quarterbacks are expected to be franchise guys, the tackle can protect a franchise guy and the corner can take away the franchise guy’s top target.

What it means to the division: There is no suspense at all about what the Colts are going to do and Luck’s combine visit to Lucas Oil Stadium was the first of many. Claiborne could be irresistible if he is there at No. 7 for the Jags.

3. Position values can be overrated. Historically, guards and safeties are not regarded as early first-round values. But this draft may feature singular guys at each spot, and it makes little sense to pass on Stanford guard David DeCastro or Alabama safety Mark Barron if you have a hole at the position. They are both drawing raves.

What it means for the division: Both probably disappear after the Colts and Jaguars have picked first and seventh but before the Titans pick 20th.

4. Quinton Coples is going to be a scary pick. The North Carolina defensive end gets some people talking about Julius Peppers. But his effort in his final year with the Tar Heels was questionable at best. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said it looked like Coples “had a union deal” the way he went through the motions. The team that takes him won’t have a guarantee joining its roster, it'll have a guy a defensive line coach will need to figure out.

What it means for the division: The Jaguars could go into the draft still needing a rush end, but the knocks on Coples don’t make him seem like a match with GM Gene Smith at all.

5. There is a flurry of new information teams will be gathering for a couple more days. But when scouts and personnel executives get back to their offices Wednesday, the film will once again be the prevalent measure they put to work as they stack their boards. Forty times, bench press numbers, Wonderlic scores and interview notes will all factor into grades. But the most significant information gained in Indianapolis is typically the hands-on medical information training staffs gather. Details of issues there may also be the biggest secrets.

What it means for the division: Nothing different than for anyone else. We don’t know what we don’t know, and the intrigue is a big part of why this whole process is so insanely popular.

6. News nuggets from coaches and GMs are more and more difficult to pry loose at this stage of the year. We learned Jaguars defensive tackle Tyson Alualu had knee surgery, the Colts have made a contract offer to Pierre Garcon he didn’t accept, the Texans still see Matt Leinart and T.J. Yates competing for the No. 2 quarterback job and the Titans might overpay for a veteran edge rusher. Beyond that? Not much. A lot of generalities as secrecy ruled the day.

What it means for the division: Run through the AFC South coaches and GMs. Who’s the most dynamic, chatty guy of the bunch? I think it’ll be Colts coach Chuck Pagano in time. Five of the eight guys are in their first or second season in the job. Everyone is pretty reserved at this point, even the veterans of the group, Rick Smith and Gary Kubiak of the Texans.

7. We need to go find the specifics of a different rule every year. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and Pagano both said they had not seen Peyton Manning throw. They didn’t say they aren’t allowed to see Manning throw. As it turns out, though, NFL rules don’t allow for executives beyond medical staff to watch even a rehabilitating player work at this point. While I don’t believe there is a decision still to be made, it’s interesting that the Colts' new duo at the top will only be able to hear reports from medical people and not see for themselves by the March 8th bonus deadline for Manning.

What it means for the division: Every team in the division will have a question at quarterback heading into camp: Is Matt Schaub’s foot healed? Can Matt Hasselbeck hold off Jake Locker? Does Blaine Gabbert get better? And how effective can Luck be from the start?
INDIANAPOLIS -- T.J. Yates showed himself to be a capable NFL quarterback after both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart went down for the Texans, winning the franchise’s first playoff game.

But Gary Kubiak just told the media at the NFL scouting combine that Yates won’t go into camp as the No. 2 if he has the same three quarterbacks on the roster now.

Schaub
Schaub
“If we lined up going into camp tomorrow and I’ve got all three of those guys back, I know who my one is,” Kubiak said. “I think what I would do is have T.J. and Matt [Leinart] go back and battle for the backup spot behind Schaubie.

“I think both of those guys did well with their opportunity. It’s hard to fault Leinart with what happened to him. He played a half of football and was playing very well (before getting hurt). They’re still both young players making their way to the top.”

But the Texans need to find cap savings, and Leinart is due a $3 million base salary in 2012. He could be at risk because of that.

Kubiak is confident that Schaub will be recovered from surgery to repair a Lisfranc foot injury in plenty of time for camp.

The coach said Schaub called him last week to invite him to play a round of golf.

“He’s doing great,” Kubiak said. “… He’s out of his boot, he’s walking, he’s doing everything he can do. He’s in every morning. I think our expectations are for him, once we get to [organized team activities], he will do everything, probably be excluded out of team work just to keep him out of harm’s way.

“But all indications are that he will be full speed sometime in May and will be ready to go in camp."

Texans QBs will miss Greg Knapp

January, 31, 2012
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Greg Knapp’s departure from Gary Kubiak’s coaching staff will hurt Houston.

According to NFL.com, the Texans quarterback coach is leaving to coordinate the offense in Oakland in a second stint in the post for the Raiders.

Knapp deserved a ton of credit for the Texans' ability to stay afloat last season after Matt Schaub went down in the team's 10th game. Knapp had done a ton of work behind the scenes with both Matt Leinart and rookie T.J. Yates. Leinart didn’t make it out of his first start, breaking his collarbone.

That meant Yates, a fifth-round pick, was at the controls.

The Texans won the first three games in which Yates played to clinch the AFC South. They lost their final three regular-season games, but won the franchise’s first playoff game before Yates' inexperience caught up to him and helped end the Texans’ season in Baltimore.

All together, Texans quarterbacks completed 61.7 percent of their passes with 20 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 92.7 rating.

I never heard a bad thing about Knapp, and the quarterbacks, Kubiak and offensive coordinator Rick Dennison will miss him.

Texans regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 10
Preseason Power Ranking: 11

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Troy Taormina/US PresswireIn one season Wade Phillips turned one of the NFL's worst defenses into the league's second best unit.
Biggest surprise: An impressive degree of resolve. Along the way to the AFC South title and the franchise’s first playoff berth, the Texans lost outside linebacker Mario Williams and quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart. They were without receiver Andre Johnson for a good stretch of the season because of two separate hamstring injuries. They suffered a bunch of other injuries that tested their depth. And they answered resoundingly. Take away a team’s best player on both sides of the ball -- Williams and Johnson wear those crowns -- and anyone is going to struggle. But the Texans forged on and played well enough to secure the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoff field. I questioned the team’s mental makeup heading into the season, but the staff and roster turned a major corner in erasing such concerns.

Biggest disappointment: The Colts were terrible, the Jaguars were way down and the Titans ultimately didn’t threaten for the division crown. The best teams in the AFC are hardly dominant. They all have holes. Had the Texans not lost Schaub to a foot fracture in Week 10 at Tampa Bay, it’s fair to think they could have made a bid for one of the top-two seeds. With a bye and home field deeper into the playoffs, they may well have entered the postseason as a favorite to advance to the Super Bowl. It’s disappointing that in a year when things lined up for them, they’ve lost so much that they’d have to be somewhat of a Cinderella to make a big run deep.

Biggest need: There is nothing giant looming. Williams is not under contract for 2012, so he’ll be an issue. Do they need to sign him long term? Or have they shown they can thrive on defense without him? A franchise tag is prohibitive as it would cost more than $16 million. The next great receiver for the system who will complement and, perhaps eventually replace, Johnson would be nice. But personnel-wise this team will have great flexibility in the draft, enjoying the luxury of taking the best players it sees, rather than being driven by a weak position group or two.

Team MVP: We can make a strong case for cornerback Johnathan Joseph, inside linebacker Brian Cushing or outside linebacker Connor Barwin. With such a wealth of candidates, we’ll cop out and shift to the guy who schemes for them, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. In the span of one season, the Texans went from being one of the league’s very worst defenses to being one of the very best. Guys have a swagger that comes from Phillips' confidence that he will accentuate strengths and mask weaknesses and that he can find the weak spot in an offense to attack. The pass rush has constantly harassed quarterbacks and the secondary contests a large percentage of passes.

New security: Gary Kubiak stayed the course and stuck with the things he believed would work in time. It all may have taken longer than he’d hoped, and his team certainly enjoyed some good fortune in the Colts’ fall and the availability of Phillips. But the head coach who came into the season with the very real possibility of being fired if he didn’t take his team to the postseason has delivered. He and his staff have earned new deals that ensure they’ll be overseeing an excellent core going forward.
James CaseyThomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesVersatile James Casey, left, and the Texans showed off their depth Sunday against the Titans.
HOUSTON -- The Texans sought to restore order and momentum in their season finale, while avoiding any more of the injury misfortune that’s beset them all season long.

Despite suffering a 23-22 loss to the Tennessee Titans at Reliant Stadium, the team seemed to achieve those goals and is now ready to turn to its first postseason. As the No. 3 seed, the Texans will host the Cincinnati Bengals.

“Nobody’s disappointed,” said receiver Andre Johnson, who estimated he played 15 snaps as he worked back from a hamstring injury. “Of course we wanted to win the game. We didn’t come out on top, but there is next week. Some teams don’t have next week. We have next week.”

“Those first couple drives, we kind of had that swagger back a little bit,” said quarterback T.J. Yates, who left the game with a bruise of his non-throwing shoulder in the first quarter. “Everybody was aggressive, flying around, very talkative on the sideline. It felt like we were back to normal out there.”

A postseason appearance is definitely not normal for the Texans. Houston has an NFL playoff game for the first time since 1993.

Here are some things we learned along the way on Week 17’s game between the division’s two best teams:

Texans fullback James Casey remains a weapon: He’s not your standard fullback. The converted tight end started the Texans' first five games, then missed a couple with a chest injury and never got back ahead of the more traditional Lawrence Vickers.

But Casey’s really more of a pass-catcher than a blocker by nature, and the Titans did poorly in figuring out how to stop him from getting free for seven receptions on seven targets for a team-high 91 yards.

Casey helped get the Texans in range for one of Neil Rackers’ field goals with a brilliant catch, keeping the ball in the air with a left-handed tip before diving to collect it.

“We were lining up in different formations with different personnel, and as a defense it’s kind of hard to understand exactly what we’re going to do,” Casey said. “Because we’re not just doing base things. We’re motioning all over the place. They don’t know if I’m fullback or tight end. It’s tough sometimes for them to set their blitzes or their coverage. Hopefully you can get guys out of spots, out of gaps in the run game and out of their zones in the pass game and try to take advantage of that.”

Next week, with Johnson playing full time and Owen Daniels and Arian Foster back in the lineup, odds are Casey qualifies as only the fourth- or fifth-best receiving option when he’s on the field.

“James has some crazy hands,” Johnson said. “He’s probably the guy I’ve seen make the most one-handed catches. His hands are very, very good, I think he has the best hands on this team. I don’t know who has the best in the league, but I think he’s right up there.”

The Texans are quite deep: Typically a team that scratches key starters like Foster, Daniels and cornerback Johnathan Joseph for a game that doesn’t have great meaning, is willing to yield some. Especially if it doesn’t jump out to a lead.

And the Texans have proven all season they have quality depth, as they’ve replaced defensive end Mario Williams, quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart, punter Brett Hartmann and linebacker Daryl Sharpton, and played stretches without Johnson, safety Danieal Manning and guard Mike Brisiel.

Sunday as they rested some guys and pulled others early, they called on even more depth.

Beyond Casey, the Texans got solid contributions from a lot of role players like receiver Bryant Johnson, running back Derrick Ward and linebackers Tim Dobbins and Bryan Braman, along with quarterback Jake Delhomme.

“It says we have quality players all across this locker room,” Foster said. “We have guys that can play.”

Said Titans receiver Nate Washington: “This is a new Texans team that they take pride in. Even their backups come in there and they are playing hard. They’re going to make plays. We have to find a better way to close out those games.”

One piece of depth they were missing: a center behind Chris Myers who could make a quality shotgun snap in the clutch. The Texans could have won it with a 2-point conversion at the end, but guard Thomas Austin put the shotgun snap over Delhomme’s head at the end of the game. Kubiak said Austin had snapped enough that it shouldn’t have been an issue.

Kubiak understands a “meaningless” game: He’s never been a playoff head coach before, but he’s been part of a lot of good teams. That’s why he didn’t hesitate after Bryant Johnson’s 5-yard touchdown reception with 14 second left to keep his offense on the field for a 2-point try.

Even after Joel Dreessen’s false start, Kubiak stuck with it.

He wanted a win, sure, but he wanted overtime even less.

It was a smart call and the right call, even if Tennessee defensive end Derrick Morgan didn’t agree.

“I understand they want to get the game over with, but after they false started and they still went for 2, I was like, ‘Wow,’” he said. “That’s a slap in the face. But they botched the snap, so whatever.”
HOUSTON -- T.J. Yates and Gary Kubiak brought clarity to the quarterback’s health situation after the Titans’ 23-22 win over the Texans at Reliant Stadium Sunday.

Yates said he has no doubts he will be able to play next week in the franchise’s first playoff game and that he hoped to be a full-go from the start of the practice week.

“I feel good, I just dinged up the left shoulder a little bit, I fell on it on that first play,” said Yates, who’s right handed. “Everything was fine after that. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t do anything futher to it and we were just being safe.”

He said an X-ray showed everything was good.

The Texans made no official announcement on Yates during the game when it’s customary to share what body part is in question and the likelihood of a return. They did say he could have come back if he was needed. Yates said there was no plan prior to the game for him not to play all the way.

Jake Delhomme replaced him and finished the game, though if Delhomme had been knocked out Kubiak would have had to turn back to Yates. Third-string quarterback Jeff Garcia was a healthy inactive and the team’s emergency quarterback, tight end Owen Daniels, didn't dress either.

Starter Matt Schaub (Nov. 13) and Matt Leinart (Nov. 27) suffered season-ending injuries earlier this season.

In a halftime interview during the regular season finale, Kubiak said Yates was still being evaluated -- though Yates spent his time after returning from the locker room in a baseball cap, chatting with teammates and listening in to coaches. There was no continuing interaction with medical personnel.

I guess evaluation doesn’t have to be an active process.

“I have a hard time telling you exactly what happened,” Kubiak said. “He’s got a bruised shoulder at this moment. He’s being evaluated, will be evaluated this evening. We’ll get some pictures of it this evening and I’ll know more tomorrow. He could have gone back in the game. Obviously I didn’t want him to go back in the game. We’ll know better where we’re at tomorrow at this point.”

The Texans got an inaccurate read of Schaub’s injury at Tampa Bay on Nov. 13 and it’s apparently made them wary of assessing injuries to key people.

The team’s stance that a larger degree of real-time injury analysis is not possible is, of course, nonsense. It happens all around the league every Sunday. To suggest it can’t happen in Houston is insulting to the medical staff, the trainers and team sponsor, The Methodist Hospital System.

The bigger issue, obviously: Texans fans should be relieved that Yates said he's is in line to be fine.
San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh is going to win coach of the year, and he’s deserving.

[+] EnlargeGary Kubiak
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireGary Kubiak has Houston rolling despite season-ending injuries to several key players.
So this isn’t a piece about how Houston's Gary Kubiak won’t get fair consideration. He should be a solid second, and if he’s not, does the way guys stack up behind the winner really mean much?

I’ve been critical of Kubiak in the past, though less critical than some.

My primary complaint was about his team’s mental toughness and personality. Teams take on the personality of their coach and Kubiak was too nice, too aw-shucks. I thought Wade Phillips was a good hire as defensive coordinator, but would bring more of the same to a team that lacked sufficient fire. Even Andre Johnson went along with my idea that the team could use at least one jerk in the mix.

The way this season has unfolded has changed my mind.

I was wrong in predicting that Kubiak and his staff lacked an ingredient coming into this season necessary for success. He’s done remarkable work keeping a team on track through the loss of outside linebacker Mario Williams, an injury to Johnson that took him away for six games (and a new one that is likely to cost a couple more), contests without running back Arian Foster and safety Danieal Manning and season-ending injuries in back-to-back games to quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart.

I’m not big on symbolic contract extensions in-season, and believe one now would amount to a distraction.

But this team is going to the playoffs. The door opened with Peyton Manning’s injury and the Colts’ collapse for certain, but someone still had to storm through it. The Texans are doing so at 9-3, improbable based on the injuries.

Kubiak is pretty unflappable. He came into the season knowing another disappointing season would end his six-season term at the Texans’ helm. His level approach has finally translated into performance and production. It’s allowed for no panic as major issues have popped up.

He’s got a team that believes in itself as much as anyone in the league outside of Wisconsin.

He’s signed through 2012. This skeptic believes he’s already proved worthy of more.

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