AFC South: Tony Ugoh

Chris Polian is officially the Jaguars' director of pro personnel.

Jacksonville GM Dave Caldwell worked for Bill Polian and with Chris Polian in Indianapolis. Chris Polian became Indy's GM in 2009. Both Polians were fired following the 2011 season.

Caldwell then helped get Chris Polian hired in Atlanta. (Bill Polian became an ESPN analyst.)

Chris Polian may or may not be a good personnel evaluator. He was reportedly a driving force behind some Colts draft picks that did not pan out, most notably left tackle Tony Ugoh.

He had a reputation for having an oversized ego, and while I heard more tales of it, I saw it a bit myself.

I had limited dealings with him in Indianapolis. We stood and watched one training camp practice together, chatting off the record. He was affable and candid enough, but I felt rebuffed in efforts to develop a relationship beyond that.

Undeniably, his critics think he rose up the ranks in Indianapolis more because of whom his boss/father was than because of his résumé. Same now as he’s resurfaced in a prominent position with one of his father's disciples, if you will.

In working some with Caldwell so far and watching what he’s done, I feel very confident the Jaguars are in good hands. Polian’s new post isn’t one where he will be visible or out front, which is a good thing.

If he does good work, he can further refurbish his image. Maybe we'll see him as a GM again someday.

I hope to see him in press boxes in the late summer and fall.

Also in the Jaguars' front office, Caldwell promoted Andy Dengler to assistant director of player personnel. He spent the last two seasons as director of college personnel.

In addition to Polian, Caldwell hired made the following hires in the front office:
  • Kyle O’Brien, director of college scouting -- O’Brien spent the 2012 season with the Kansas City Chiefs as regional scout and is in his 12th season in the NFL. Prior to joining the Chiefs, O’Brien spent 10 seasons (2002-11) in the New England Patriots’ personnel department.
  • Paul Roell, assistant director of college scouting -- A veteran NFL scout of 21 years, Roell served as regional scout for the Minnesota Vikings for the past seven seasons (2006-12)
  • Mark Ellenz, eastern regional scout -- Ellenz spent the past 13 seasons with the Colts, including the last six as an area scout.
An alteration to a preseason Week 2 unofficial depth chart isn’t a big deal.

But the revised Colts’ depth chart flips left tackle Anthony Castonzo ahead of Jeff Linkenbach and left guard Joe Reitz ahead of Jacques McClendon.

It may merely be the team rotating guys, but it’s hard not to comment on the Castonzo “move.”

[+] EnlargeAnthony Castonzo
AP Photo/Tom GannamThe Colts' Anthony Castonzo has a rather tough assignment on Sunday -- contain the Vikings' Jared Allen.
As a first-round pick, he should be a guy who can start from the beginning, particularly when he isn’t attempting to displace a proven NFL veteran but a player who was an undrafted free agent just a year ago, starting three regular-season games and one playoff contest.

It’s not an easy spot to jump into, especially with Peyton Manning at risk if Castonzo botches blindside blocking. But Manning’s developed an awfully good radar detection system regarding blocking breakdowns, and over the last four years he helped Tony Ugoh (who was bad) and Charlie Johnson (who did the best he could with what he had) avoid catastrophe.

(A blown block Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium against Washington would be putting Curtis Painter or Dan Orlovsky at risk, not the still-rehabbing Manning.)

Castonzo’s pedigree from Boston College and the draft should be enough to make up for the four games worth of experience for Linkenbach.

The team is confident Castonzo has the makeup to contribute quickly or it wouldn’t have drafted him, because the Colts need the offensive line help now as well as later. The question is how quickly, of course.

The early intent was to ease him in as opposed to subjecting him to baptism by fire.

But I’d go baptism by fire now, particularly with Manning not in any danger. They can always flip Castonzo back if he gets singed.

McShay's multiple scenarios

April, 20, 2011
While Todd McShay makes an official pick in his newest mock Insider, he also provides a three-for-one, with two alternate scenarios for each team.

Here’s what he’s got the AFC South doing.

Tennessee Titans, No. 8

Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn

Scenario 1: Fairley makes the most sense at this point and he has tremendous upside. He's worth the pick from a talent standpoint, but there are legitimate questions about his football character and if the Titans pass, that will be the reason.

Scenario 2: [Prince] Amukamara is worth the pick and would fill one of the Titans' top five needs.

Scenario 3: If [Julio] Jones were to fall this far, Tennessee would consider taking him given Kenny Britt's recent off-field issues, or if he were available it might provide an opportunity to trade back with a team like the St. Louis Rams and perhaps address need at quarterback with someone like Washington's Jake Locker.

My thoughts: I’m on board with Fairley if things unfold as expected with the top seven players. If Blaine Gabbert or Patrick Peterson somehow slip, I think they’d pounce. Among players likely available, I think Locker is second-most likely to Fairley, with Jones next.

Houston Texans, No. 11

Robert Quinn, DE/OLB, North Carolina

Scenario 1: Taking Quinn is the best-case scenario outside of [Von] Miller somehow falling this far. Quinn would be a nice complement to fellow OLB Connor Barwin, one of the best ILB tandems in the league in DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing, and difference-maker Mario Williams up front.

Scenario 2: If Quinn is gone, then a 5-technique like [J.J.] Watt or California's Cameron Jordan would be the pick.

Scenario 3: The Texans could be forced to weigh value against philosophy here if the players above are gone. Amukamara would be the value pick, but I tend to think they would lean toward Missouri DE Aldon Smith because new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is determined to upgrade the front seven.

My thoughts: Quinn would feel like a home run. If he’s gone, I feel like one of those more rugged ends who could play in a 3-4 would be the value, though Smith would fill the more the outright need. Amukamara would surprise me.

Jacksonville Jaguars, No. 16

Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue

Scenario 1: General manager Gene Smith likes safe, high-motor, strong-character picks who can contribute right away, and Kerrigan fits that mold perfectly.

Scenario 2: If the Jaguars were to take a chance with this pick, it could be on Clemson DE Da'Quan Bowers and his knee issues.

Scenario 3: Their three other top needs are reaches here, so reaching for Locker or moving back for another quarterback might be a possibility.

My thoughts: Kerrigan is an easy match to make, but he’s not the only high-motor, hard-worked Smith is going to have a crack at here. They already have a DE with knee questions in Aaron Kampman, and I suspect they’d fear Bowers. Watt or Smith are possibilities.

Indianapolis, No. 22

Nate Solder, OT, Colorado

Scenario 1: Solder is a no-brainer. The Colts gave up the fewest sacks in the league last year, but that was mostly due to QB Peyton Manning getting the ball out quickly. But Solder has the athleticism to help in protection when he's ready to step into the lineup. More importantly, he's already a monster at 6-foot-8 and 319 pounds and would help upgrade a running game that finished 29th in the league (92.7 yards per game) last season.

Scenario 2: Liuget is the higher-ranked prospect and is a strong possibility as the kind of quick, penetrating defensive lineman the Colts like.

Scenario 3: If the top four offensive tackles are off the board, Indianapolis could reach for Mississippi State OT Derek Sherrod.

My thoughts: As soon as a player or a position is deemed a no brainer for the Colts, I get scared. One of the top four offensive tackles sure looks like a match. I don’t see them looking to Sherrod as he seems a bit like Tony Ugoh. I could certainly see Liuget. Is there a receiver value here?
The National Football Post's Joe Fortenbaugh has a nice piece reviewing AFC South draft trends.

Here’s a nugget on each team with a thought from me:

Fortenbaugh: “Since 2001, the Colts have drafted only three offensive tackles. To put that in perspective, take note that over the last 10 years the team has spent the same amount of selections on kickers and punters (3).”

[+] EnlargeTony Ugoh
AP Photo/Darron CummingsThe Colts spent a 2007 second-round pick on Tony Ugoh but cut him last season.
Kuharsky: It’s significant and it’s time to make a substantial investment. But when a team has a left tackle who plays for nine years and goes to three Pro Bowls (Tarik Glenn) and gets steady play from its right tackle for eight years (though Ryan Diem slipped last season) there isn’t cause for huge expenditures at the spot. They failed in a second-round attempt (Tony Ugoh in 2007) to replace Glenn.

Fortenbaugh: “Since 2001, the Jaguars have drafted nine defensive ends, but only two (Derrick Harvey, Quentin Groves) have been selected within the top 100 picks.”

Kuharsky: Jaguars GM Gene Smith worked to offset that by bringing in free agent Aaron Kampman last offseason. And now it appears quite possible Smith will spend the 16th overall pick on a defensive end to complete the makeover of the line that included their top four picks from 2010.

Fortenbaugh: “Since Gary Kubiak took over as head coach in 2006, the Texans have drafted exactly 19 offensive players and 19 defensive players.”

Kuharsky: It’s nice to populate the roster in a balanced fashion. But if Houston does as it should and looks to fill a load of defensive holes in this draft, these numbers will tip to the defensive side.

Fortenbaugh: “Since 2005, the Titans have selected an average of 2.0 wide receivers per draft. Tennessee has landed at least one wideout in each of the past six drafts and has selected as many as three wide receivers two times in the last six years.”

Kuharsky: The all-star receiver roster of those past six drafts: Courtney Roby, Brandon Jones, Roydell Williams, Jonathan Orr, Paul Williams, Chris Davis, Joel Filani, Lavelle Hawkins, Kenny Britt, Dominique Edison, Damien Williams and Marc Mariani. The lone Pro Bowl appearance was Mariani last year -- as a return man.
Virtually every prognosticator is giving the Indianapolis Colts a first-round offensive tackle, and Boston College’s Anthony Castonzo, Colorado’s Nate Solder and Mississippi State’s Derek Sherrod could all be nice fits.

Much has been made of vice chairman Bill Polian’s comment during the 2010 season about how Rodger Saffold, a tackle the Colts passed on who went on to play quite well for St. Louis, could have helped for Indianapolis.

But Polian said that comment got misshapen as it was repeated.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Johnson
Stew Milne/US PresswireColts tackle Charlie Johnson played hurt for most of the 2010 season.
“What I said was, if I’d know we were going to suffer all the injuries we had on the offensive line, we might have looked at things differently in terms of the draft,” he said. “Because when you are drafting as low as we were, there isn’t a lot of difference between the players. I said, ‘You know, you could make the argument that we should have taken Rodger Saffold instead of the player that we took.’

“That’s what I said. It’s been construed very differently. What I meant was, if foresight were 20-20, we probably would have taken an offensive tackle. But it isn’t and that’s the point. This is an inexact business.”

(I thought the use of “the player” as opposed to “Jerry Hughes” was both Parcellian and a little odd.)

The Colts certainly had banged up people playing on the line all year, but by my count there look to have been just five starts missed to injury through the regular season and playoff loss. The injuries were far more severe elsewhere in terms of lost games.

Indianapolis has spent 12 picks on offensive linemen since realignment in 2002. Only one, guard Jake Scott from 2004’s fifth-round, qualified as an outright hit. He moved to Tennessee as a free agent in 2008 and helped pave the road for Chris Johnson's 2,000-yard season in 2009 before dropping off last season.

The franchise hasn’t used a first-round pick on a lineman since 1997, when Tarik Glenn was the choice. That was the year before Polian joined the franchise.

Only two of the Colts’ dozen offensive line picks since 2002 have been higher than fourth-round selections. They traded up to take Tony Ugoh in the second round in 2007 and he wound up busting. They took Mike Pollak in 2008 and he was an OK starter at right guard in 2010 based on the team’s concerns at other spots.

The presumption is offensive line is viewed as an issue in-house and that to maximize the chances for the Peyton Manning-led Colts to claim another Super Bowl, they need to offer him better protection and be able to block better for a tough yard from a running back.

But going in that direction would mean at least a minor philosophy change for Polian when it comes to draft emphasis at the position.

I don’t know if we should jump there considering Polian’s assessment of the Colts’ line play in 2010. The team started seven different offensive linemen with left tackle Charlie Johnson playing banged up all season and Kyle DeVan pushing Jamey Richard out of the left guard slot.

“Now I thought our offensive line, given all that happened with injuries, did very well," Polian said. "As it turns out, Jeff Linkenbach came in as a collegiate free agent and ended the season as a starter and did quite well. So those things work themselves out.”

Linkenbach started one game at left tackle, three games at right guard and the playoff loss to the Jets at right tackle.

Here we can connect Mel Kiper’s recent piece ranking the “vulnerability scale” of the NFL’s 12 best teams. Kiper ranks the Colts at moderately to extremely vulnerable for a big fall.
“Seemingly every win after September was a close battle and Manning was the difference. Injuries killed the Colts in 2010, but even with Manning upright, they couldn't run the ball, they were barely hanging on defensively and even now there are a number of personnel needs. The offensive line and defensive interior need help, and the team didn't get hurt in a spot I thought could have hurt it most in an injury situation -- the pass rush, if either Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis was out. Indianapolis could easily prove me wrong, as Manning alone seems like spackle enough for a whole roster. But this team felt like it was on the edge all of 2010.”

Draft Watch: AFC South

March, 17, 2011
» NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: draft rewind -- examining the past five drafts.

Houston Texans

Best choice: The Texans got crushed by just about everyone when they tabbed defensive end Mario Williams as the No. 1 overall selection in 2006. Though he’s dealt with some nagging injuries, time has proved him a more dangerous and valuable player than Reggie Bush or Vince Young, the two players people wanted them to take instead. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips thinks Williams will be like Bruce Smith in the team’s new 3-4.

Worst choice: Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye shows flashes and maybe he somehow works better in the new 3-4 front. But after four seasons, the No. 10 overall pick from 2007 has hardly been the sort of impact player you hope for from such a big investment. He’s still got a giant chance, but the Texans should have hit a home run in the spot and did not.

On the bubble: Indications are the Texans would like to re-sign receiver/returner Jacoby Jones, a third-rounder from 2007. But he’s hard to figure out. He can be the sort of dynamic player who’s a real bonus for an offense with Andre Johnson and Arian Foster. Or he can disappear and drop the ball when he gets chances.

Indianapolis Colts

Best choice: Antoine Bethea came in with little fanfare as a sixth-round defensive back out of Howard in 2006. But he’s grown into a steady and reliable fixture for the Colts at free safety. He’s a great model of the sort of late-round success that is a key part of how Indianapolis builds. Last season, with defensive backs falling all around him, Bethea held a patchwork secondary together.

Worst choice: The Colts traded up to get offensive tackle Tony Ugoh in the second round in 2007. But he never won the team over as the permanent answer at left tackle, and he was done before last season. It’s a spot the franchise is still looking to fill. Had Ugoh been the guy, Peyton Manning would be working with more time and it would be easier to get the tough yard on the ground.

On the bubble: Anthony Gonzalez can be a very effective receiver in the Colts’ scheme and has done a lot of work to earn Manning’s trust. But he’s appeared in just three games over the past two seasons because of injury. Bad fortune is not in his control, but we still aren’t sure he’s a long-term piece of the puzzle and they could really use him.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Best choice: Running back Maurice Jones-Drew remains well aware that everyone passed on him and he knows all the pundits who said he wouldn’t make it. The Jaguars didn’t pass on him twice, and their second-round pick from 2006 is the centerpiece of their offense, a player they rely on for a very large percentage of their touches on offense.

Worst choice: Defensive end Quentin Groves just didn’t fit the Jaguars' defense. He was even part of the reason they experimented with a 3-4 front for part of 2009. But no matter where the 2007 second-rounder was plugged in, he didn’t produce and didn’t bring much fire to the job. He was traded to Oakland after just two seasons.

On the bubble: Tight end Zach Miller is a versatile talent who played quarterback at Nebraska-Omaha and was supposed to be a wild-card piece of the Jaguars’ offense. But the 2009 sixth-rounder has only 41 catches in 29 games through two seasons and has not forced his way into the plan the way the team had hoped. It would be great for the team if he could still be an X factor.

Tennessee Titans

Best choice: Running back Chris Johnson looked like a third-down specialist, a track guy who was a reach at No. 24 in the 2008 draft. He’s proved to be much more than that, posting a rare 2,000-yard rushing season in 2009 and posing a matchup nightmare even when he’s not made the best choices about where to go.

Worst choice: The Titans completely fell for Chris Henry’s combine work, allowing it to overshadow an unimpressive college career. The second-round running back from 2007 was a physical specimen. Unfortunately he lacked the sort of instincts needed in a runner. He actually stuck around three seasons as Tennessee hoped he’d emerge. It was a wasted roster spot.

On the bubble: William Hayes came in as a raw talent in 2008, and the fourth-round defensive end figures to have his best chance to be a consistent impact player going forward as the Titans look to be bigger up front. But his primary backer, defensive line coach Jim Washburn, has moved on and Hayes has to step forward to prove he can be a force.
The Rodger Saffold element of this has already gotten a lot of play, but I waited for the Colts' transcript of Bill Polian’s Monday night radio show to jump in on this.

Polian talked pretty extensively about the issues on the offensive line, and pretty much offered what fans would want from him on some of the issues -- a “my bad” on a poor second-round pick and on the failure to sufficiently address the personnel.

Here are the key pieces of what he said about the line:
“We find that what we're lacking on the offensive line is power and punch. If you said to me that was going to happen, I would have probably said we should have done more in the draft. Despite what was a less-than-stellar performance in the Super Bowl, I thought we would bounce back and be pretty good in terms of the punch department. But we have not been.

“…Inside, the middle three has been disappointing to say the least in terms of getting people off the ball. It makes it tougher to run, then you're in a situation where you have some issues because you have to pass the ball on a rather continual basis. That puts more pressure on the tackles, so if I could have predicted that, probably we should have done a little more with the offensive line, but we didn't, so we're in the situation we're in right now. My hope is that we will play in these next four games basically the way we've played in the last three, which essentially is to outlast the opposition. We've had difficulty at times in the ballgames – and that's particularly true in the running game – but we have gotten better as the game has gone on and the opposition has gotten weaker. That's a characteristic of heart and toughness and mental toughness, and we have all of that…

“With respect to drafting offensive linemen, first of all the responsibility is mine. When we miss on a guy like Tony Ugoh, that's my mistake. And we did miss on him. There's no question about it. He never came on after the knee injury the way we thought he would. That's our mistake, my mistake – no question about it. Mike Pollak and Jamey Richard, I think, are pretty good players. They may be a little miscast as guards. They're probably both centers in the end, when all is said and done. Last year, we had a choice. We could have drafted Rodger Saffold. He was the last offensive lineman that deserved to be picked in the first round. And there was Jerry Hughes. We thought that Roger was going to be a right tackle. Who knows whether he will or won't. We liked the fact that Jerry had special rush ability, so we elected to go on the defensive side of the ball. In hindsight, you can question whether we should have drafted Roger, but that's the way it is. Hindsight is 20-20. It's an area we do need to address. I'm sure we will. That doesn't preclude free agency, either, as we go forward. We'll see what transpires in that area. We certainly do need, particularly at tackle, to address that.”

That may be the biggest element of this, there at the end. I linked earlier today to a Bob Kravitz video in which he suggested Polian has to do what the Broncos did for John Elway late in his career. Build up the run game and the defense and damn the team’s traditional blueprint.

Polian’s said some of this before, but saying the plan going forward “doesn’t preclude free agency” is significant. The Colts may be drafting higher than usual, but it still offers no guarantee about the availability of an offensive lineman that fits.

So he’s on the record saying he will look beyond that.

The biggest name heading toward free agency is New England guard Logan Mankins, and while I am not sure how he’d fit with Indianapolis it’s automatically intriguing because such a signing would also serve to weaken a rival.

Others with significant experience who are not signed for 2011 according to Pro Football Weekly include Baltimore tackles Jared Gaither and Marshal Yanda, Kansas City tackle Ryan O’Callaghan, Atlanta guard Justin Blaylock, New Orleans tackle Jermon Bushrod, Arizona guards Alan Faneca and Deuce Lutui and St. Louis guard Adam Goldberg.

Trouble is, the draft’s ensured before a lockout, but free agency would be pushed back if there is no labor agreement. Potentially, Polian won’t be able to shop the market and then draft but will have to do vice versa.
The Colts could have some big players back in the mix for Sunday’s home game against the Dallas Cowboys. Mike Chappell reports that Colts president Bill Polian said on his radio show that linebackers Gary Brackett and Clint Session, as well as running back Mike Hart, could be back.

Others, including Joseph Addai and Bob Sanders, are likely further off.

But as Chappell points out, while Hart and Addai could provide a boost to the run game, none of the injury returnees is going to help the offensive line, which has been insufficient as a run-blocking group and increasingly leaky in pass protection. (Sacks remain low, but pressure is up.)

“I think oftentimes, you guys are driven by what you see on TV," said coach Jim Caldwell at a news conference Monday. "They can highlight a certain couple of areas, and you think that was the way the entire game went. I think they can sort of prejudice your opinion a little bit.

"What we do is we take a look at it. We think we have the right people in there, but we are always trying to jostle it around, trying to make adjustments, trying to make certain that not only do we have the right people, but also are we doing the right things with the folks that we have in there? That’s up for critique, and we challenge ourselves in those areas and we try to find a way to improve. That’s the important thing.”

Polian identified the offensive line as a position of concern after last season, really singling out the effort in the Super Bowl. They were comments several players bristled at. (Greg Easterbrook hit on some of this here in his weekly Tuesday Morning Quarterback column.)

Longtime line coach Howard Mudd was known for molding players who were not high draft picks or top free agents into effective contributors. He retired and passed the torch to Pete Metzelaars, a transition that seemed smooth.

But in a move that was a stunner then and is baffling now, Polian let right guard Ryan Lilja go. Lilja has received good reviews for his play in Kansas City, while the Colts have played two ineffective right guards.

Mike Pollak was benched in favor of undrafted rookie tackle Jeff Linkenbach three games ago.

Left guard’s hardly been solid either, with Jamey Richard getting displaced by Kyle DeVan.

There should be more options.

After Lilja was released, the Colts brought in a couple low-level free agents in Andy Alleman and Adam Terry. Neither stuck. Fourth-round rookie Jacques McClendon has been inactive or worked on special teams.

Polian and the Colts identified a problem, but they really didn’t do anything to fix it, unless we count the Tony Ugoh resolution and release as addition by subtraction.

In the past five drafts, the Colts have taken eight offensive linemen, five in the fifth round or later.

Charlie Johnson is a scrappy left tackle who’s been better than many expected but still might be ideal as a third, swing tackle. Ugoh, Michael Toudouze and Steve Justice are gone. Pollak has been benched. McClendon is a reserve as are seventh-rounders Jaimie Thomas and Richard.

However this season plays out, the offensive line must be the primary concern in the offseason.

It’s time to hit on value picks -- plural. Quality guys and the team’s draft slots may not line up. The Colts may need to maneuver to change that.

It’s critical to Peyton Manning’s chances for another Super Bowl in his remaining years.

Linkenbach fares OK protecting Manning

September, 27, 2010
The Indianapolis Colts were forced to endure a preseason scramble on the offensive line. Jeff Saturday had knee surgery and wasn’t around. Charlie Johnson missed a ton of work with a foot injury. Tony Ugoh was still in the mix but also hurt.

But one of the silver linings was a chance to see kids in action, and tackle Jeff Linkenbach made the team based on his performance. Sunday he started for the still-ailing Johnson in Denver, protecting Peyton Manning’s blind side.

“I think the nice thing with him is he got a chance during the preseason to play a pretty significant amount,” Jim Caldwell said at his Monday press conference. “So he got quite a few reps underneath his belt. He had an opportunity to match up with some of the talent within the league early on and that helped him. They just continue to get a little bit better, a little bit more comfortable, but it doesn’t happen in a matter of weeks or months. I think it’s years, particularly at that particular position until they get really, really settled down.

“We faced a couple of guys last year that were rookies at the tackle position and by the time we saw them that following year, things had changed. They had become more confident, they understood how to use their skill set and they’d improved. I would anticipate that he’s going to follow the same graph.”

Linkenbach got some help from Brody Eldridge and even Dallas Clark lining up next to him, but he was on his own plenty as well. Linebacker Robert Ayers ran around him once to put a combo hit on Manning as he threw a third-down incompletion.

“In the passing game, that was the exception, not the rule,” Linkenbach said. “There were a couple mental mistakes early on with the crowd noise and then I settled down. I was high at times in the run game. I was all right, not great. It was not bad for a first start…

“I got some good feedback on a lot of stuff to help me do better. It’s always easier to handle after a win rather than a loss.”

But he seemed to come through it OK and he did the No. 1 job of a left tackle: He didn’t get his quarterback hurt.

“He hung in there, he played tough, he’s a scrappy guy, he gets after it in there,” Caldwell said. “He did some things that young guys do. He’s coming along.”

There is no indication if the week off means Johnson will be feeling better and be able to return to action in Jacksonville to deal with Aaron Kampman or if he needs time on the shelf and Linkenbach will face the veteran 4-3 edge rusher.

Why didn't Colts do more on O-line?

September, 13, 2010
The mailbag is filling up with notes from panicked Colts fans.

The gist of their questions: Isn’t it time for the Colts to make a move to get one of the disgruntled offensive linemen out there: Marcus McNeill or Logan Mankins?

Sure, if the Colts found them a system fit, adding either would give a big boost to the offensive line.

But it’s uncharacteristic for the Colts to go outside looking for help. Those guys would be costly, and making a move would amount to a concession that Indy underestimated its offensive line issues.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Johnson
Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMIColts tackle Charlie Johnson, shown here last season working against Mario Williams, might be better off moving inside and playing guard.
That’s the confusing part of this.

Bill Polian was quick to say the offensive line was a primary issue in the Super Bowl loss to New Orleans.

But the Colts did little to fix it. Left guard Ryan Lilja was released. Two street free agents, Adam Terry and Andy Alleman, didn’t stick. Only one of eight draft picks was spent on an offensive lineman, and Jacques McClendon was not active in Houston.

The Colts couldn’t do major free-agent shopping because the CBA limited the top teams’ ability to do so.

Still, with the head honcho saying it was a concern, it sure seems like the Colts could have done more on the line to ensure better protection and better run blocking.

On a bad foot, Charlie Johnson put forth a courageous effort against Mario Williams. But Johnson’s not cast as a left tackle by a lot of personnel folks. If Indy had a franchise left tackle, Johnson would likely be better as a guard. Polian missed on Tony Ugoh in 2007. The guy they hoped to be the heir to Tarik Glenn was waived/injured and is now on IR.

Putting Peyton Manning at risk is a dangerous game. He was face down on the turf, an official checking on him after one hit. He bounced up. But will he always? He absorbed two sacks, eight additional hits and stuff that didn't register in the stat book.

The guys the Colts do have will play better. Manning can continue to get the ball out quickly and make pressure less of an issue. Joseph Addai can make the most of what’s there. Not every team has a Williams-like threat to mess things up.

In Sunday's loss, the Colts didn’t choose to go with two tight ends very often, leaving Johnson mostly on his own. Put tight end Brody Eldridge in to help the way I imagined and you’re taking one target out of the arsenal. Maybe the Colts do that more if they find it necessary. The choice at Reliant Stadium was to throw it more quickly with more options running routes.

I don’t expect Polian to be making calls about McNeill or Mankins Monday.

Polian talked before camp about throwing all the linemen in a pot and seeing who came out as the best group. Injuries to Jeff Saturday, Johnson and others made that system more difficult and there was no time to build continuity with the five who started against the Texans.

Still, today, I can understand why Colts’ faithful are wondering today why there wasn’t more in that pot.

Mailbag: On lifting blackouts

September, 11, 2010
William in Oviedo, Fla., writes: I’m glad to see how ESPN hasn’t said anything about five of the Jags eight home games not being blacked out.

Paul Kuharsky: I will try to explain as best as I can.

Me saying, “No way will William eat that donut” is different than me reporting “William won’t eat that donut.”

The first presumes something that I have little doubt will be the case. The second is absolutely factual.

Here’s what I tweeted Friday morning:
I am told only game #Jaguars have blackout lifted for so far is opener. Next four are close, but not done deals. #NFL

So the AFC South Blog piece of ESPN hasn’t said anything about it for one simple reason: I checked it out and found it to be untrue.

Now eventually it may become true. The Jaguars certainly hope it comes true. But if it does, that doesn’t make saying it as beyond speculative now correct.

Also, while we’re on the subject: People keep saying the Jaguars announced it. They did not. If they had it to announce, don't you think they would have done so with great fanfare?

Someone saying it on the radio and an official team announcement are two very different things. How about we choose our words more carefully?

This is why Ben Roethlisberger not being elected a captain this season becomes him being “stripped” of his captaincy. We can all see how that is not the same thing, right?

Zack Adams in Easley, S.C., writes: Paul, first let me say I'm a fan and follow your work on here all the time. I'm a HUGE Colts fan. Coming into this season I thought we had the best chance to go all the way this year. Now... not so much. With Charlie Johnson hurt and Tony Ugoh gone, we have Jeff Saturday, Ryan Diem and a bunch of terrible backups on the o-line. What is the chances Peyton Manning once again makes the impossible possible, and leads this team through the season and into the playoffs with probably the worst offensive line of his career?

Paul Kuharsky: I appreciate the kind words and the clicks.

The O-line is in rough shape, especially when considering the depth. Still, once Johnson is healthy, we’re looking at four-fifths of the starting group that went to the Super Bowl still being in place.

I think this is unquestionably a playoff team. A playoff team that needs to draft two high-quality linemen soon.

One question about your logic: Ugoh qualified as one of those “terrible backups” and got released while hurt, so how does that move now qualify as part of what to lament?

Chris in Odessa, Texas, writes: Any word on Texans' interest in cut players. Perhaps Damione Lewis or Justin Hartwig. I realize the Texans stick closely to their build through the draft plan and prefer younger players, but am not sold on the ability of any of the Texans tackles to occupy offensive linemen nor Myers as the answer at center. Any potential for these or other moves? Or will they stand pat and hinder their chances for advancement?

Paul Kuharsky: You think Lewis or Hartwig would somehow greatly enhance the Texans’ chances for advancement? I don’t.

Bryan in Sydney, Australia, writes: Hi Paul, loved your article on fielding punts, and last year's on racing the fastest guys in the AFC South. Next year I'd love to see an article on how to block a defensive lineman. Good luck!

Paul Kuharsky: I appreciate that very much. I expect I’ll be looking for a 2011 idea. It won’t be blocking a D-lineman, though.

RTC: Addai runs well against Houston

September, 10, 2010
Reading the coverage …

Pete Prisco’s division preview.

A fan’s guide to the NFL labor situation, from Mike Silver.

Houston Texans

John Clayton rates Sunday’s game as a must-win.

Antoine Caldwell will start but Mike Brisiel is going to get time, says Dale Robertson.

It’s time for Mario Williams to justify his status and to harass Peyton Manning, says Jerome Solomon.

The Texans are doing well in tough economic times, says John McClain.

A loss this week but a playoff season, predicts Lance Zierlein.

The Texans are determined to cut into the Colts’ dominance, says Phil Richards.

Matt Schaub’s looking for different numbers, says Phillip B. Wilson.

Indianapolis Colts

The offensive line is reason for concern for the Texans, writes Bob Kravitz.

Joseph Addai has had his best games against Houston, says Mike Chappell.

Jerraud Powers spoke with Wilson.

Joe Reitz is thrilled to be with his hometown team, says Chappell.

Gary Brackett was ready for a career in finance, says Chappell.

Will the Colts have to rally from a big deficit as they did in recent games against the Texans? John Oehser ponders.

Tony Ugoh was not a bust, says Nate Dunlevy.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Sean Considine is the Jaguars' last line of defense, says Vito Stellino.

Younger guys like Rashad Jennings, Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard and Zach Miller are winning Dirk Koetter’s confidence, says Tania Ganguli.

No more weather talk, pleads Vic Ketchman.

Tennessee Titans

Marc Mariani beat the odds to become the Titans' return man, writes David Climer.

Will Witherspoon is mourning the loss of his mom, says Jim Wyatt.

Kevin Mawae will announce his retirement on Friday, says Wyatt.

Jeff Fisher is hush-hush about his second starting cornerback, says Wyatt.

Look for the Titans to look away from Nnamdi Asomugha, says David Boclair.
The Colts parted ways with Tony Ugoh -- I wrote up the news here. How much does that raise the level of concern about the Colts offensive line?

In that they lose an experienced player who could be put inside at guard or outside at tackle, a lot. In that they could trust him to be a consistent performer there, not nearly as much.

They may come to say it boiled down to his foot injury and not his production.

But no matter the rationale, Indy claimed Joe Reitz off waivers from Miami and cleared away Ugoh to get the roster spot. Reitz originally signed as a free agent with Baltimore in 2008 out of Western Michigan.

Charlie Johnson was limited in practice Wednesday with a foot injury. If he cannot start at left tackle Sunday or if he cannot finish, Peyton Manning’s blind side protector is likely to be undrafted free agent Jeff Linkenbach. With Reitz possibly next in line.

At some point, the strain on the line and on Manning as a result of it becomes too much.

I’d expect Linkenbach to get constant help from rookie tight end Brody Eldridge if he played.

Still, those guys against Mario Williams get the Colts line closer to that breaking point than they've ever been.

What I think they're thinking

September, 6, 2010
What I think they’re thinking at the four team headquarters in the AFC South ...

Houston Texans

We’re going to be pretty good.

Our guys will hear a lot of talk about how we can’t beat the Indianapolis Colts this weekend. We need to strike a delicate balance. Our guys need to know we can beat them and they have to see the confidence of the coaches in the plan to do so. But they also can’t put too much on it. If this is our Super Bowl and we should lose it, we can’t leave ourselves in position where it’s too difficult to say afterward that it was just one of 16. The bandwagon adds passengers with a win, loses many with a loss. If we lose, let’s just make sure we don’t give it to them.

Indianapolis Colts

We’re going to be pretty good.

Sure, a game in Houston to start isn’t an easy task. But if we do our thing and worry very little about them, it should turn out fine. There is a major psychological upper hand here, and we don’t intend to surrender even a morsel of it. We’ve got three beat-up guys on the offensive line in Jeff Saturday, Charlie Johnson and Tony Ugoh, so we won’t know who’s going to be blocking for Peyton Manning and Joseph Addai until just before kickoff. No matter for us. The big plays at the big moments will come from our guys.

Jacksonville Jaguars

We’re going to be pretty good.

There will be a lot of hype about Tim Tebow’s homecoming this week and we expect to see him in the game in a few touchdown-scoring situations. If that storyline angers us, so be it. We just have to be sure to channel that anger in a way that will benefit us. Our defensive front is rebuilt, their line is overrated. Let’s hit Kyle Orton the way we failed to hit quarterbacks last year. Let’s hit him in a way where he won’t have the time to try to go after our weak safeties. And after all the concern about Maurice Jones-Drew, let’s do all we can for him to have a big day.

Tennessee Titans

We’re going to be pretty good.

The Raiders are no soft spot. Their defense is better; good enough to cause us problems. And who knows how their offense has transformed with Jason Campbell, a semi-capable quarterback, taking snaps? We’ll look to do our thing, which means a steady diet of Chris Johnson on offense and a big effort from the defensive front to get Campbell out of sync. If we get those two things, and we always think we will, we'll be in good shape. While Colts at Texans gets the division’s biggest billing and Tebow is a story in Jacksonville, we’ll quietly move to 1-0.
A scrambled scenario through the preseason took a major step toward settling down for the Indianapolis Colts Tuesday when center Jeff Saturday returned to practice, working through the offensive line period.

"It was good [to practice], but I'm not back yet," Saturday said. "I'm still working toward that. It's progressing, and I'm working as hard as I can. We've still got nine or 10 days to go, so we'll see."

That’s the first indication we’ve had on Saturday’s timetable for a return, and it now seems reasonable that he can progress over the next week and a half to be ready to play in the team’s opener at Houston on Sept. 12.

Even with Saturday back, the Colts head toward that trip to Reliant Stadium with serious offensive line questions.

Incumbent left tackle Charlie Johnson (foot) remains out and neither guard slot is set for sure, though Kyle DeVan looks like he is in line to play right guard as he did last season. Jamey Richard’s been at left guard, but that may be only because Tony Ugoh’s been filling in for Johnson.

With right end Mario Williams aiming for Peyton Manning on opening day, Indy would love to roll out the line it’s hoping to play this season. It would be big if Johnson returns to practice soon and if the team had all of its options healthy. We’ll see our first injury report a week from Friday.