AFC South: Under pressure

Under pressure: Kareem Jackson

April, 11, 2012
Perhaps no underachieving player in the division gets more, steady, public cover from his team than Kareem Jackson, the Texans’ cornerback heading into his third year.

He was the 20th pick of the 2010 draft, when I felt like the draft went off the course the Texans expected and they got a little panicky. The talked about how pro ready he was coming out of Alabama and they made him a starter from the very beginning.

[+] EnlargeKareem Jackson
Brett Davis/US PresswireHouston cornerback Kareem Jackson, a first-round pick by the Texans in 2010, had 42 tackles, one forced fumble and one interception last season.
But even in an upgraded secondary last season, he couldn’t secure a full-time job, splitting work at the cornerback slot opposite free-agent addition Johnathan Joseph with Jason Allen, who’s now gone. (Nate Dunlevy of Bleacher Report recently wrote about Jackson as on the hot seat in Houston.)

Jackson doesn’t play with the confidence the Texans seem to try to instill with the constant reinforcement, often appearing timid. He got better under new defensive back coach Vance Joseph, but he still qualifies as the weak link in the defense.

Perhaps Brandon Harris, a mid-round draft pick from 2011, will get in position to challenge Jackson or provide a security blanket. Perhaps the team will draft a cornerback to fill Allen’s role. Perhaps it will pick up a veteran down the road when some shake free out of training camps.

But ideally, Jackson would graduate and become the player the Texans like to say he is. If he does, the defense has the potential to be as good as it was a year ago, when it often carried Houston.

Gary Kubiak was fond of saying both Jackson and Allen qualified as starters. Jackson played 55.73 percent of the Texans’ snaps on defense, Allen played 49.05 percent.

Getting only a bit more than half-time work out of a first-round draft pick hardly qualifies as a success. It’s only Year Three. Plenty of players emerge to play their best at this stage.

Receiver Jacoby Jones was a candidate here, but I fully expect the Texans to add a wide receiver who would take playing time away from Jones. Jackson should be counted on to play more, not expected to play less.

If I am a coordinator planning for the Texans, I’m making an effort to go after Jackson until he shows me he can make plays to slow me down.

Under pressure: Mike Thomas

April, 10, 2012
Obviously no one on the Jaguars is under more pressure in 2012 than Blaine Gabbert.

But the quarterback is such an obvious choice, we will set him aside and go a different direction, to one of the people Gabbert or Chad Henne will need to be productive if the Jacksonville offense is going to make a significant jump.

Wide receiver Mike Thomas will have better coaching with Jerry Sullivan and a better supporting cast with Laurent Robinson, Taylor Price and, presumably, a high draft pick in the mix.

Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. has said Thomas can combine attributes of Wes Welker and Steve Smith.

But many Jaguars fans were left wondering about Thomas last season, when he fell off after he got a contract extension in early October. That three-year, $18 million deal included $9 million guaranteed. It eclipsed the three-year deal worth $13.35 million with $5 million guaranteed that Green Bay gave Jordy Nelson.

Thomas finished with 44 catches for 415 yards and a TD, and after the contract he didn’t have a game better than four catches for 36 yards. Nelson was obviously playing for a far better team with an MVP quarterback, but he had 68 catches for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns.

Word in Jacksonville was that Thomas gave up late in the season, frustrated by a bad receivers coach in Johnny Cox and a struggling rookie quarterback in Gabbert. Cox was fired by interim head coach Mel Tucker and replaced by quarterbacks coach Mike Sheppard.

The Jaguars need Thomas to be the player they thought he was when they drafted him and then when they gave him the extension. He needs to be part of the solution for Gabbert, not an addition problem.

Thomas said recently he will benefit from being pushed by Sullivan, and if that helps, great.

But once the Jaguars signed him to a new deal, he graduated to an NFL veteran who shouldn’t necessarily need pushing. He’s a guy who should be motivated by simply living up to his contract and the faith his bosses have showed in him.

Will the additions amount to enough help? It’s too early to say and we don’t know who they will draft. But Thomas shouldn’t be the top option in the receiver group, and with Robinson in the fold Thomas should rank second at best.

Thomas is under pressure to produce.