AFC South: Mitch Petrus

ESPN.com polled 63 insiders -- or "insiders" if you prefer -- connected to the site to put together lists of the top 100 players on offense and defense in the NFL. I was one of them.

We'll reveal them 10 at a time. You can find details of the process at the top of the pieces on 91-100 on offense and defense.

Titans left tackle Michael Roos is 96th on the offensive list.

Says ESPN Stats & Info:
"Only the Panthers (37) and Vikings (32) have more 20-yard rushes outside the tackles than the Titans in the past four seasons (31). Roos has appeared in more than 98 percent of Tennessee's snaps over that span."

Roos was good, not great, in 2012 as he played alongside a fading Steve Hutchinson, and, after Hutchinson got hurt, three games with Fernando Velasco and one with Mitch Petrus.

Over his eight seasons, he's often been overlooked in conversations about the league's best left tackles. He's a smart, athletic player who moves quite well and is steady and reliable.

I'm curious how many left tackles are ahead of him on this list.
The early volume out of the AFC South as free agency opened came from Tennessee, where the Titans reached a five-year, $39 million agreement in principle with Buffalo's Andy Levitre.

Once he passes a physical, he figured to solidify an interior offensive line that has become a major issue. He will take over left guard from the retired Steve Hutchinson. Better play from the interior, where the Titans likely will draft a second starting guard, should do a lot to help the play of quarterback Jake Locker and running back Chris Johnson.

The Titans also have agreed on a four-year deal with San Francisco tight end Delanie Walker, who will take over the spot of departing free agent Jared Cook.

Here is Scouts Inc. on Levitre:
"Levitre is a short, athletic interior offensive lineman who has played with great technique and intensity. He lacks great strength at the point of attack in the running game but understands leverage and can anchor well against more powerful bull rushers. He wins with intelligence, toughness, athleticism and effort. Levitre is the Bills' most consistent and durable offensive lineman, making all 64 starts in four seasons."

And Scouts Inc. on Walker:
"Walker is an excellent player who fills a lot of roles for the 49ers. He is used as an inline tight end as well as an H-back or lead fullback. He is a very good route-runner who is quick on his release and has the ability to drop his hips to get in and out of his breaks with foot quickness and a burst to separate. He is quick to read coverages and has become a solid third-down option, coming up with clutch receptions. He is not a powerful inline blocker but will show effort and some pop and power as a lead blocker."

Two others have also emerged as Titans targets: Lions defensive tackle Sammie Lee Hill and Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola.

I don’t know what kind of chance the Titans have to land those two on top of the two they've already hooked. But that would make for a very solid four-pack of additions. They’ve already added safety George Wilson. Today they also subtracted two players, releasing safety Jordan Babineaux and guard Mitch Petrus.

I'm impressed with the Titans' speed out of the gate here. They need to make substantial additions to this roster and are off to a rousing start.
Titans offensive line coach Bruce Matthews always said he’d recuse himself on roster decisions involving his son, Tennessee interior offensive lineman Kevin Matthews.

It would have cost the Titans a tender of at least $1.323 million to retain his rights. With or without the input of Bruce Matthews, the Hall of Fame lineman, the Titans didn’t tender Kevin Matthews or interior offensive lineman Kyle DeVan.

Kevin Matthews and DeVan will become unrestricted free agents Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. At that point the Titans could sign them to deals at one-year base minimum salary. The third-year base salary minimum is $630,000.

It’s time, though, for the Titans to be finished with Matthews, the project who came out of Texas A&M in 2010.

The interior offensive line is expected to be revamped with two new starting guards. As they are brought in, via free agency and/or the draft, the team is likely to move on from two expensive veterans, Steve Hutchinson and Eugene Amano.

Leroy Harris and Deuce Lutui become unrestricted free agents Tuesday.

Tyler Horn was on the practice squad at the end of last season and Chris DeGeare was on the practice squad injured list.

The Titans now have Mitch Petrus and Kasey Studdard as their interior depth.

So Tennessee doesn't need only a couple starting guards. It needs a candidate or two to compete with Petrus and Studdard for backup roles as well.

RTC: Texans' identity in question?

December, 27, 2012
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Reading the coverage …

Houston Texans

“The Texans’ identity is much in question after two losses in the last three games, when they’ve hardly been the team that produced an AFC-high eight Pro Bowlers,” writes Dale Robertson of the Houston Chronicle. “The offense has stopped scoring, managing just four touchdowns of consequence over the past 14 quarters. The defense — save for (J.J.) Watt — has been, at best, inconsistent and, at worst, in disarray.”

A team-record eight Texans are Pro Bowlers, says John McClain of the Chronicle.

According to Andre Johnson, Houston was a team Reggie Wayne considered in free agency before re-signing with Indy, says Tania Ganguli.

To which I say: Wayne has said he seriously considered a team Colts fans wouldn’t have liked, but steadfastly said he’d never tell who it was. Did his friend let the cat out of the bag?

Chuck Pagano and the Colts don’t plan on easing up Sunday though the game can’t impact their playoff seeding, according to the Chronicle.

Pagano and the Colts have already won this season, says Randy Harvey of the Chronicle.

Indianapolis Colts

Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis are AFC Pro Bowlers, says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.

The Colts Women’s Organization helped Nicole Pechanec, Andrew Luck’s girlfriend, find her place in Indianapolis, says Cathy Kightlinger of the Star.

Matt Schaub is the better player on the better team and deserves his Pro Bowl spot ahead of Andrew Luck, says Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

To which I say: Chappell reports Luck is the first alternate. One of the three guys ahead of him will likely be in the Super Bowl, opening the door for Luck to be on the team.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Will Sunday be the final game in their current roles for Mike Munchak or Mike Mularkey? Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union looks at two guys with questionable job security.

The Jaguars will set franchise records for fewest rushing yards, attempts and touchdowns and face uncertainty at running back heading into the offseason, says Ryan O’Halloran of the Times-Union.

To which I say: It’s the sort of thing that happens when your top guy, Maurice Jones-Drew, misses nine or 10 games. Heading into the final year of his deal and following a 2012 holdout, will MJD be back?

Justin Blackmon is the only receiver from the opening day roster still on the team’s active roster, says O’Halloran.

Tim Tebow in Jacksonville would sell some tickets but fail to solve the team’s quarterback problem, says Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans want Jake Locker to play better, but also can’t tell how much outside factors like all the losses on the offensive line have affected his ability to perform, says Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean.

For the second consecutive year, the Titans have no Pro Bowlers, says Wyatt.

The Titans are close, Locker says. (Video.)

Guard Mitch Petrus was in a cab that was in a car accident the night before the Green Bay game, but still started, says Wyatt.

Who calls the protections, and why?

December, 20, 2012
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Andrew LuckKim Klement/US PresswireRookie Andrew Luck of the Colts is among the QBs asked to call the bulk of his team's protections.

A young quarterback breaks the huddle and steps to the line. There is much to assess staring at him from across the line of scrimmage.

What’s the coverage? Is it better to run or pass against it? Is that safety really coming at me or is he disguising before backing off to be part of a Cover 2? I need to send that receiver in motion. How would the cornerback across from him react to that? Who’s hot here if someone comes free at me?

On top of all of that, in some systems, the quarterback is also setting the protections.

Is asking him to manage the blocking scheme putting too much on his plate?

Some teams think so, leaving those decisions mostly to the center and giving the quarterback power to make a simple switch. Other teams want their quarterback to control everything, and ask him to assess what needs to happen up front, not just downfield.

“Personally, I think it ties the quarterback into everything,” said Colts offensive coordinator and interim coach Bruce Arians, who asks rookie Andrew Luck to call protections most of the time. “I don’t think the center can see what the quarterback can see. When the center depends on the [middle linebacker] because of safety locations, he gets fooled too many times.

“The quarterback can see everyone’s body language and everything else. That’s his job. He’s got to know who the 'Mike' is, where the safeties are for him to know his hots and sights. There are a lot of offenses that the center does it because the quarterback doesn’t throw hots or sights, they don’t have them in their offense. I’m not one of those people.”

In Jacksonville, meanwhile, the Jaguars rely heavily on 13-year veteran center Brad Meester.

“It starts with the center, but everybody’s had the ability to get us in the right protection to obviously make us more sound,” coach Mike Mularkey said. “I think it’s a very user-friendly offense. I think because of players having to come in and learn the system yearly, you’ve got to be careful just how much you put on their plate. But I think our guys can handle it pretty well."

In Tennessee, Jake Locker doesn’t have the responsibility Luck does in the Colts' offense.

The linemen sort out the protections, with the center serving as the key communication person. Veteran backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said there is typically one guy whose interpretation serves as the default if there is any confusion. Once left guard Steve Hutchinson became comfortable in his new team’s system and before a knee injury knocked him out, he was that guy for Tennessee.

With Tennessee’s offensive line now stocked with backups, the lone remaining original starter, left tackle Michael Roos, surely has a louder voice.

The Titans lost Eugene Amano in the preseason and plugged Fernando Velasco in at center. When Hutchinson went down, they settled on Velasco shifting to left guard and Kevin Matthews as center. In Week 15, Matthews was lost for the remainder of the season with an ankle sprain. Third-stringer Kyle DeVan played the bulk of that game as the pivot. He could be there again Sunday in Green Bay, or the Titans could put Velasco back in the middle and play recent waiver claim Mitch Petrus at guard.

Got all that?

Whoever is doing the decision-making up front and whoever is communicating it, Locker has veto power. If he sees something he believes isn’t right for what the Titans are intending to run, he is expected to alter it.

The case for a quarterback setting protections starts with the view. Linemen in three- or four-point stances don’t see things as clearly as the quarterback, who can stand upright and scan the field before getting under center.

“They might start somewhere, we see where they start and we might say, ‘No, no, no, let’s do this’ or ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah let’s do that,'” Hasselbeck said. “Or if a team blitzes, we have different words that mean ‘same protection other side’ or whatever it is.”

The Texans and the Jaguars work in a similar fashion, where the line and quarterback work in conjunction. Both teams have veteran centers who typically get things started, Chris Myers in Houston and Meester in Jacksonville.

A couple of weeks ago when the Titans prepared for the Texans, offensive line coach Bruce Matthews made the quarterbacks aware of three especially difficult looks. If the center saw one of those, he’d take the lead and tell Locker what to check into.

At other times, the quarterback’s ability to recognize things he wasn’t advised about is very important.

“One thing that is big with me and veteran players in general is, you develop problem-solving skills,” Hasselbeck said.

On the bus or plane after the game, he might talk with a lineman or a blocking tight end who says he knew a certain play wasn’t going to work.

“The coaches don’t care if you change the play if you’re getting them out of a bad play,” Hasselbeck said. “They care if you change the play and you are getting them out of a decent or good play.

[+] EnlargeBrad Meester
Rob Foldy-USA TODAY SportsThe Jaguars rely on veteran center Brad Meester to make the majority of their protection calls.
“My advice to guys is just to scream ‘this play is not going to work’ or ‘check it.’ Something. I don’t need to know everything about why. I just need to know that someone along the line isn’t feeling good about their assignment. I can always get us into a decent play. Always.”

Some quarterbacks don’t want to be real involved in sorting out protections.

Mike Munchak was the Titans' offensive line coach while Steve McNair quarterbacked the Titans. He said McNair didn’t want to be concerned with setting protections. His safety blanket receiver, tight end Frank Wycheck, recalled McNair asking weekly what his “emergencies” would be against an opponent and making sure he had a solution in mind or was ready to freelance when he saw those.

But Hasselbeck thinks most coaches want it on the quarterback, at least to some degree. He was responsible for calling protections in Mike Holmgren’s scheme in Seattle. He likes not having to do it all when he’s playing in Tennessee.

“It’s partly 'best seat in the house,' it’s partly you’re expected to be the guy who spends the most hours at the facility watching the most amount of film,” he said. “You’re the coach on the field. You’re the guy that talks in the huddle."

Still, there are situations where he’s been told in meetings that top offensive linemen would just “feel it” when it came to certain stuff from a defense, and that the line would “just pick that up,” Hasselbeck said.

“That’s not a world I’ve ever lived in,” he said. “I’ve lived in a world where you use your cadence to try to get a tip. You move the protections. You tell the running backs exactly where to block. And if you have to throw hot, you have to throw hot. And that’s a hard way to live on the road or against certain guys.”

Munchak said the center can be fooled more easily, so the quarterback needs to be involved, but he doesn’t want Locker making constant protection decisions at the line.

A quarterback like Peyton Manning, who controls everything, can handle it. Munchak played with Warren Moon, who did the same during some of the run-and-shoot era.

“But for the most part, I don’t think a lot of quarterbacks are comfortable doing that,” Munchak said. “I don’t think they want to do it. I think it’s too much for them. And then all of a sudden they’re not making the throws and doing the things you want them to do. I think there is a place for a percentage of doing it, but not all the time.”

Some athletic quarterbacks wind up in situations where they have no real idea of where a protection might break down, but can make guys miss when they come free. Hasselbeck’s seen this year’s top three rookie quarterbacks -- Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson -- as well as Ben Roethlisberger do it this season.

When Hasselbeck was a backup behind Brett Favre in Green Bay, he saw it to an extreme.

“He knew how to pick things up, and he was very, very good at it,” Hasselbeck said. “But sometimes he just wouldn’t care. He was like, ‘Ah, I can get it off.’ And he’d get it off and take a shot in the chin. There is a price to be paid sometimes when you do it.

“I would lean on coaching it up.”

The Titans clearly hope Locker comes to buy himself time in the fashion that Roethlisberger, Luck, RG III and Wilson can and do.

Myers is a key leader for the Texans, and he carries a lot of responsibility for calling protections. He likes working with a veteran quarterback, in Matt Schaub, who participates in the process, and he likes having other offensive linemen who are capable of making calls or adjustments, too.

While Myers welcomes the play here and there when he doesn’t have to figure out the equation and solve it before the snap, he’s always ready and willing to do so.

“We have the quarterback do it, have a tackle do it sometimes when we have to fan out in certain play-actions,” Myers said. “So the responsibility isn’t solely on one guy, and I think that’s a great thing. We have the ability and the leadership and the people who have played long enough, we’re able to put it on everyone’s shoulders as opposed to just one guy.”
Do the Titans have full reads on Leroy Harris and Eugene Amano going forward?

They should.

And now with another shuffling of the offensive line, they should complete their research on Fernando Velasco, Deuce Lutui and Kevin Matthews, too.

Tennessee flirted with a bunch of high quality, high-priced centers in the offseason, they stuck with the status quo. Incumbent center Amano suffered a triceps injury in camp and was lost for the year, and Velasco took over.

Now left guard Steve Hutchinson is on IR and guard Mitch Petrus has joined the team as a waiver claim from New England.

Jim Wyatt tweeted from Mike Munchak’s media talk following practice that Velasco is moving from center to left guard and Matthews will take over at center. Matthews played poorly at left guard in relief of Hutchinson in Sunday’s loss to Houston.

The offensive line has been better for Chris Johnson in recent weeks. Pass protection has allowed 25 sacks in 12 games.

Twenty-eight games into Munchak’s tenure as head coach and Bruce Matthews’ tenure as his close friend's offensive line coach, the line may not be a weakness, but it’s not a clear strength.

If the two Pro Football Hall of Famers -- two Oilers alumni of whom owner Bud Adams is especially proud -- are back next year, they have to field a quality line with quality depth.

As the franchise's longtime offensive line coach, Munchak frequently developed draft picks and the team didn't have to invest high picks at the position. He certainly got the benefit of the doubt with regard to linemen in his first two years as head coach.

It could be past time now to spend a high-value draft pick or two to help restock, whether he comes to such a decision or GM Ruston Webster pushes that development.

Are any of Harris, Amano, Velasco, Lutui and Kevin Matthews in line to start in 2013 under the same coaches? Would some combination of them provide good enough depth along with Mike Otto? Otto is the team's third tackle who's now taking over for injured right tackle David Stewart the rest of this season.

Velasco, Lutui and Matthews should play the next four games and have opportunities to upgrade the film that’s on record for them as job applications for 2013.

Here’s hoping for upgrades that better supplement left tackle Michael Roos, right tackle David Stewart (now out for the year with the broken leg) and Hutchinson. And better depth to go with Otto.

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