Jacksonville Jaguars: Tennessee Titans

Top free-agent roundup: AFC South

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
With the 2014 free-agency period starting at 4 p.m. Tuesday, here is a look at top free agents in the AFC South as compiled by reporters Tania Ganguli, Paul Kuharsky, Michael DiRocco and Mike Wells. The top seven free agents are on defense, led by cornerback Vontae Davis of the Colts. Running back Maurice Jones-Drew, a fixture in Jacksonville for the past eight years, is looking for a new team. Is this the end of Antoine Bethea's run in Indianapolis?

1. Vontae Davis, Colts CB: Indianapolis needs a top cornerback to help a defense that finished 20th in the league last season. Davis has shown he has the talent to be one of the top cornerbacks in the league. He just needs to work on his consistency.

2. Alterraun Verner, Titans CB: A smart, aware corner with a knack for getting to the ball, he just lacks top speed and size.

3. Antoine Bethea, Colts S: A reliable player, having started every game he played during his eight years with the Colts. Finished with at least 100 tackles in five of those seasons.

4. Earl Mitchell, Texans NT: Solid player at the point of attack and has shown the ability to get consistent penetration. He had 48 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season.

5. Bernard Pollard, Titans S: Played well as an in-the-box safety and provided the sort of standard-setting leadership the Titans lacked previously. Update: Signed one-year, $2 million deal to remain with Titans.

6. Darryl Sharpton, Texans LB: Led the Texans with 87 tackles but is not as good in coverage as he is against the run.

7. Antonio Smith, Texans DE: He is more of a run-stuffing defensive end than a pass-rusher, although he did record five sacks in 2013.

8. Ben Tate, Texans RB: He led the Texans with 771 yards rushing. He has been somewhat injury-prone but has produced when needed as Arian Foster's backup.

9. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars RB: Jones-Drew started 15 games and led the Jaguars with 803 yards and five touchdowns rushing. He also caught 43 passes (third on the team) for 314 yards. He got off to a slow start then battled through ankle, hamstring and knee issues and averaged a career-low 3.4 yards per carry.

10. Donald Brown, Colts RB:
Brown was the Colts’ third running back twice in 2013 only to end the season as the starter. He has the speed but was too inconsistent during his five seasons in Indianapolis.

11. Garrett Graham, Texans TE: He’s not Owen Daniels, but he can line up tight or as a flex tight end. He came into his own as a receiver last season with 49 catches for 545 yards and five TDs.

12. Ahmad Bradshaw, Colts RB: A neck injury limited Bradshaw to only three games last season. It took just those three games for him to show he was the Colts' most effective running back.

13. Ropati Pitoitua, Titans DE: A giant, run-stuffing end who would be a solid, flexible piece in the hybrid front. Update: Signed 3-year, deal for $9.6 million to remain with Titans.

14. Adam Vinatieri, Colts K: The 41-year-old Vinatieri was 35-of-40 on field goals and a perfect 34-of-34 on extra points in 2013.

15. Samson Satele, Colts C: Was released by the team on March 6 after a disappointing 2013 season. He has started 98 of 102 games during his seven-year career.

Video: Titans-Jaguars postgame

December, 23, 2013

Before they left EverBank Field Sunday night, Mike DiRocco and Paul Kuharsky discussed how the Jaguars and Titans measure up against each other in the AFC South.

Live blog: Titans at Jaguars

December, 22, 2013
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Tennessee Titans' visit to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Video: Jaguars-Titans review

November, 11, 2013

Before they left LP Field Sunday night, Paul Kuharsky and Mike DiRocco discusses what the Jacksonville Jaguars' win over the Tennessee Titans meant for the teams they cover.

Live blog: Jaguars at Titans

November, 10, 2013
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Jacksonville Jaguars' visit to the Tennessee Titans. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 1 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.
Chris Johnson and Cecil ShortsAP Photo, USA Today Sports ImagesChris Johnson is coming off his best game of the season, and Cecil Shorts' role has just gotten bigger.
The Tennessee Titans fielded a lot of questions this week about taking the Jacksonville Jaguars lightly. The questions seemed silly given that the 2011 Titans lost their opener to the Jaguars (who finished 5-11) as well as a late-season game to the 0-13 Colts, and the 2012 Titans lost to Jaguars (who finished 2-14).

For the Titans to maximize the meaning of their Nov. 14 home game against the AFC South-leading Colts, they first need to beat the Jaguars on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Jaguars have to believe they'll have a chance against the Titans given that two of their past seven wins came against Tennessee.

ESPN.com Titans reporter Paul Kuharsky and Jaguars reporter Michael DiRocco chat about the matchup.

Paul Kuharsky: I know Gus Bradley and Dave Caldwell a bit and believe they can lead the Jaguars to a good place. It’s got to be eating them up to have so little talent and no positive results halfway through the season.

Michael DiRocco: Last week Bradley admitted that he didn't anticipate the season being as rough as it has been, but the Jaguars did face a brutal first-half schedule that included games against Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. That being said, Bradley and Caldwell were expecting the team to at least be competitive. That the Jaguars haven't been is a clear indication that they have more work ahead of them than they may have originally thought. They're going to have to spend more money in free agency this offseason than they wanted because there aren't enough draft picks to shore up the offensive line, defensive line and linebacker spots in addition to finding another receiver and a franchise quarterback.

Speaking of franchise quarterbacks, it seems as though Jake Locker has really progressed in his development and appears to be the guy around whom the Titans can build. Do you agree?

Kuharsky: Yes. He’s not going to be Andrew Luck, but he’s not Christian Ponder or Blaine Gabbert either. Locker can be a winning NFL quarterback. He showed steady growth through the first four games, then got hurt. He has not been as good since he returned, but I would think they expect he can get back on track against the Jaguars. He’s got an arm, his speed is remarkable and he generally makes good decisions. And the margin for error is getting better. The win in St. Louis was the first Locker start the team has won when he has thrown an interception.

Is there anything that leads you to think Chad Henne can bust through with a big game in Nashville with Justin Blackmon on the shelf again?

DiRocco: Losing Blackmon is a big blow because he was the offense’s best playmaker, but the Jaguars do have a solid No. 2 receiver in Cecil Shorts (team-high 46 catches). One of the offense’s surprises has been the development of Mike Brown, a former college quarterback who has become a reliable No. 3 receiver. He missed four games with a back injury but has caught 12 passes for 212 yards in the three games since his return. Henne has played well but is really struggling in the red zone, where the Jaguars have scored just five touchdowns in 20 trips. He has made questionable decisions and some bad throws inside the 20. He may very well end up with 250-plus yards Sunday, but the majority could be garbage yards, coming after the game has been decided. He has compiled a lot of his yards that way this season.

Paul, Bernard Pollard seems to have made the biggest impact of all the free-agent signings on defense. The Titans’ pass defense ranks in the top 10 in the NFL. Is Pollard the key?

Kuharsky: He has been a solid player, one who influences the run and pass defense. But he’s not playing much deep coverage. That’s not his strong suit, and they’ve done very well getting him in position to do what he does best.

He has backed up his talk in a big way, disproving this preseason skeptic. He is the No. 1 attitude guy on a team that was sorely lacking in that department. The front is varied and there is plenty of blitzing, all of which is helping the secondary. Another veteran safety addition, George Wilson, has done some good work covering tight ends in nickel and dime packages. And as Gregg Williams has requested more man-to-man, Alterraun Verner has emerged as a top-flight corner.

What hope do the Jaguars have of slowing a run game that found a good rhythm last week in St. Louis if the offensive line plays well and Chris Johnson and Shonn Greene do what they are supposed to?

DiRocco: Honestly, not much. Although middle linebacker Paul Posluszny is playing very well, the Jaguars’ run defense ranks last in the NFL. The big problem is that the defensive line has been handled pretty easily, with the exception of tackle Sen’Derrick Marks, a former Titans player. He has had a solid season, and is by far the team’s best defensive lineman. However, the rest of the group has been pretty underwhelming. Tyson Alualu has been moved to end and is a two-down player; he’s making very little impact. Tackles Roy Miller and Brandon Deaderick aren’t holding ground or getting off blocks well, either.

Paul, you mentioned Chris Johnson. He has been a workhorse back and has had five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Is he slowing down a bit?

Kuharsky: Not in terms of losing speed, I don’t think. But up until last week, the run game had been ineffective, and he was a major reason why. The blocking with a new interior line has been slow to come around, and the play calling has been suspect at times. Greene is a short-yardage specialist who missed a lot of time after suffering a knee injury in the season opener. He’s back now and should make a difference.

Arian FosterBrett Davis/USA TODAY SportsThe AFC South has three of the 15 running backs in the #NFLRank top 100, including Arian Foster.

The AFC South is the lone division in the NFL with three running backs rated in the top 100 players on offense in #NFLRank, ESPN.com's widespread player-ranking poll.

Fifteen running backs made the top 100, so the AFC South accounts for one-fifth of them, with Houston’s Arian Foster 14th, Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew 50th and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson 68th.

Indianapolis, the only team in the division whose quarterback is on the list -- Andrew Luck is 41st -- is also the only team from the division without a running back on it.

But the Colts came close. Vick Ballard finished 110th.

Having a top running back doesn’t automatically make a team run-centric, though Tennessee and Jacksonville certainly will be. Houston's passing game with quarterback Matt Schaub (No. 108) is equipped to make big plays, but is also most effective when it’s built off play-action that is triggered by Foster’s success. (See sidebar.)

While running effectively and playing good defense remain things good football teams typically need to do to win, it’s rare for a team without a good passer to have a great deal of success. And that has changed the way running backs are regarded.

Foster, Jones-Drew and Johnson are all playing under lucrative second contracts in a league where a back is highly unlikely to get big dollars or years the third time his agent sits down for negotiations.

Increasingly, teams are wary of drafting a running back high, as the Titans did with the 24th pick overall in 2008. Instead, they seek to find a back in the middle or late rounds. Some even hit a home run in the undrafted rookie pool, as the Texans did with Foster in 2009.

“A lot of things we do start with the run,” Texans coach Gary Kubiak said. “I think you’ve got to do what your team does best. You can’t worry about what everybody else does or what everybody else thinks is the formula. Last year, our formula, we played great defense, we ran the ball well, we held onto the ball longer than anybody in football. It was an excellent formula for our football team. This year, I don’t know. We’ve got to go see.”

Foster gives the Texans a great combination of speed and power, running with a gliding, effortless style and catching the ball well. Those qualities have earned him 1,115 regular-season touches over the past three seasons.

“He’s a real good running back,” Johnson said. “He’s a bigger guy. He can run the ball and catch the ball out of the backfield. Just seeing him run the ball is interesting, because he is a very smooth runner. They’ve got a great scheme with him, they like to run that stretch with him, he’s got a great feel for his linemen and they’ve got a great thing going where they know when to cut the backside down. The offense he’s in is a very good offense.”

Jones-Drew was knocked out of action last season after just six games. He’s back from a foot injury now, and while he’s on a team with better receivers than they've had in some time, the Jaguars still have a giant question mark with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback as well as a susceptible defense.

The Jaguars will hand the ball to him against loaded boxes and when trailing. He could face those situations more than any of the league’s top backs.

He came into the league as a second-round pick just seven years ago but has seen a dramatic change in perception about the position in that span.

“I think money-wise they tried to change it, but there are certain players and every team understands that you need a balanced attack,” he said. “So Aaron Rodgers, they threw the ball so many times. I remember last year he was like, 'We need a running game, we need a running back.' And they went out and drafted two.

“Teams want to portray it as if running backs aren’t valuable or are interchangeable. No, everybody has a piece. Your piece [as a quarterback] may be bigger than the other positions. But in order for the whole offense to work …"

Jones-Drew points to the 2010 Packers who won Super Bowl XLV. Come the playoffs, pass-happy Green Bay got quality play from James Starks, who ran well and created a new option. Last season’s Super Bowl teams, San Francisco and Baltimore, had hot quarterbacks who were supplemented by good runners.

Balance and co-existing skill players -- it’s an easy formula to want, and often a difficult one to execute.

Things won’t work if they are too pass-centered, Jones-Drew said. And it’s the same if his team is over-reliant on him.

“I’ve been screaming for balance ever since I’ve been here,” he said. “People can’t say I’ve been like, 'Oh, let’s run the ball.' 'Cause I know what balance brings. It opens it up for everybody.”