NFL Nation: AFC South

Seven-step drop: Losing Aaron Smith

October, 25, 2010
Here are seven notes and observations from Week 7:
    [+] EnlargeSmith
    AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarThe Steelers could be vulnerable against the run without defensive end Aaron Smith.
  • Lost in the Pittsburgh Steelers' controversial win against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday was the probable season-ending triceps injury to Aaron Smith. This is a huge blow to Pittsburgh (5-1), because Smith is the prototype 3-4 defensive end and one of the biggest leaders in the locker room. This could be the second straight season-ending injury for Smith, who has been one of the NFL's most underrated players. The Steelers are very hard to run against when Smith is healthy, but the defense suffers mightily when he's out. Defensive end Brett Keisel (hamstring) is also banged up, making it possible that Pittsburgh will start backups Ziggy Hood and Nick Eason this week against the reigning champion New Orleans Saints. Hood, a 2009 first-round pick, must grow up fast for the Steelers.
  • Although they narrowly escaped Miami, the Steelers are now tied with the New York Jets and Tennessee Titans for the NFL's best road record at 3-0. All three of these teams are physical and play a consistent style, home and away. Pittsburgh must continue its road success; four of its next six games are away from Heinz Field.
  • Here is a suggestion for the Cincinnati Bengals: It's time to hold a players-only meeting. The Bengals' season is on the brink after a 2-4 start, and there are so many leaks in this sinking ship that players need to talk it out amongst each other without coaches around and demand everyone look in the mirror to figure out how to improve. Cincinnati's issue isn't with one player or one position or one side of the football. It's been a team-wide failing with different culprits, including coaching.
  • It's officially time to wonder if too many offseason activities negatively impacted Bengals receiver Chad Ochocinco. I've had this theory for a couple weeks, but wanted to be fair to Ochocinco and allow enough time and games to be played before I brought it up. Ochocinco had two nationally televised shows in the offseason and another just starting with teammate Terrell Owens that airs on Tuesdays. Ochocinco received a lot of press and knew he would get heat if he struggled this season, prompting his "birth control" comment. So far Ochocinco's production has been inconsistent and his attention to detail is waning. Ochocinco had a 100-yard game Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. But quarterback Carson Palmer got on him about running the wrong routes, and the receiver also dropped an easy pass that went through his hands. Many Bengals are suffering mental errors this season, but Ochocinco has been one of the biggest offenders.
  • Kudos to the Cleveland Browns' coaching staff and head coach Eric Mangini for pulling out the bag of tricks before the bye week. Many teams use the extra week of preparation to add wrinkles and practice trick plays. But the Browns (2-5) decided there was no time better than the present to run a tricky fake punt that worked to perfection against New Orleans. Tailback Peyton Hillis also caught the Saints' defense by surprise with a 13-yard pass. Cleveland's staff has struggled this season, particularly with second-half adjustments, and needs to be more creative with things like this to spark the team.
  • The Browns will spend the bye week determining whether it's best to stick with rookie quarterback Colt McCoy or turn back to one of their veteran quarterbacks -- Seneca Wallace or Jake Delhomme. In my opinion, McCoy has played well enough to keep the job. Against the past two Super Bowl champions, McCoy put up Cleveland's season-high passing yards (281) against Pittsburgh and was the winning quarterback against the Saints. In two starts, McCoy has thrown for 355 yards and completed 65.3 percent of his passes. With the Browns coming off a huge win, there's no reason to disrupt things with another shakeup at quarterback.
  • What happened to Baltimore Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington on Sunday? Washington had his worst day as a Raven, allowing three touchdown passes to the winless Buffalo Bills (0-6). His play was so bad that Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh benched Washington in favor of Josh Wilson in the fourth quarter. Washington has had solid games this season, but he was awful against the Bills. He will have a lot of corrections to make during the bye week.

Ravens put their 'trust' in Ray Rice

October, 10, 2010
RiceAP Photo/Gail BurtonRay Rice rushed for a season-best 133 yards and two TDs as Baltimore cruised past Denver.

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens' offense was inconsistent in the first four games. But as it turns out, all it needed to do was add Rice.

Baltimore running back Ray Rice had been injured and ignored so far this season. While fantasy football owners have been disappointed, the Ravens (4-1) shrugged it off because they were winning and knew eventually they would turn back to their Pro Bowl back.

Sunday was that type of game, as Rice rushed for a season-high 133 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-17 victory over the Denver Broncos. It was the first 100-yard game of the season for Rice, who was heavily involved in the game plan and had his number called 27 times after getting just 23 carries in the previous two games.

Rice, a three-year veteran, finally had a chance to put the Ravens on his back and it produced the easiest victory of the season for Baltimore. It's no coincidence Baltimore put up a season-best 415 yards on offense with Rice as the lynchpin.

"That's trust," Rice said. "I couldn't say that [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron] would do that my rookie year."

Baltimore added former Pro Bowl receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to the passing game in the offseason, but the Ravens aren't at their best offensively unless Rice is healthy and productive. With a quick burst, several nice cuts and tough runs, Rice proved he's back to 100 percent after suffering a knee bruise in Week 3. Although Rice nearly broke a couple big runs, his longest rush was for 18 yards as he grinded out carries against the Broncos, who held Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl tailback Chris Johnson to 53 yards in Week 4.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireRay Rice rushed 27 times and averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
When Rice gets going, everyone else's job becomes easier. Last week, for example, quarterback Joe Flacco had to throw a late touchdown to Houshmandzadeh to pull out a dramatic win over Pittsburgh Steelers. This week, with Rice as the focus, Flacco only needed to throw 25 passes.

Baltimore rushed for four touchdowns and improved to 10-0 all time when it runs for at least three scores. The Ravens rushed for 233 yards as Rice, Willis McGahee and Flacco each scored.

"It's important. We need to be able to run the ball," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's nice to know we can run the ball. That's a defense that's pretty much set up to stop the run in a lot of ways, and we did a good job of running on them anyway."

Rice credited his offensive line, which played its best game of the season. In addition to paving the way for Rice, Baltimore’s offensive line allowed just one sack, on the opening drive.

"I've never seen a group work harder," Rice said of his blockers up front. "The stats haven't shown the last few weeks, but today [it did]. If I was to give a game ball, I'd have to give it to them."

Baltimore, a preseason favorite by many to win the Super Bowl, is off to a great start, but this team could still play better. The Ravens had several blown plays in pass coverage. Denver quarterback Kyle Orton threw for 314 yards and touchdowns of 42 and 44 yards to receiver Brandon Lloyd. That will give the coaching staff something to criticize this week despite the relatively easy win.

But the talent is there for Baltimore to have a big year.

"We feel like we've got a pretty special team here, and we just got to continue to work hard to get better each week," Flacco said. "We can't stay the team we are ... We're showing a lot of promise and getting better week to week, and that's the mark of a championship team."

AFC North Week 1 decisive moment

September, 14, 2010
NFC Decisive Moments: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

In the few seconds that it took running back Rashard Mendenhall to gallop 50 yards for a touchdown in overtime, all the offseason stress for the Pittsburgh Steelers temporarily disappeared.

For those precious moments, there were no concerns about quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension, and the Steelers couldn't have cared less about their sputtering offense the previous four quarters. All that mattered was Mendenhall's sprint up the right sideline gave a jubilant Pittsburgh team its first victory of the season, a 15-9 decision over the Atlanta Falcons.

It doesn't get more decisive than overtime -- and Mendenhall was ready for the big moment.

"In the run game, you just have to be patient," said Mendenhall, who rushed for 120 yards on 22 carries. "We knew that something was going to open up, and it did in overtime."

There were many important plays in the AFC North this weekend. But Mendenhall's clearly was the biggest. Roethlisberger will miss three more games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, but the Steelers proved they can win without him.

The Steelers (1-0) will need more big plays from Mendenhall and others when they travel to play the Tennessee Titans (1-0) on Sunday.

AFC North preseason recap

September, 3, 2010
The preseason is finally over. All four AFC North teams were in action Thursday night for their exhibition finales.

Here are some notes from each game:

Pittsburgh Steelers 19, Carolina Panthers 3

The Good
  • Rookies Emmanuel Sanders and Jonathan Dwyer both made strong cases in their final chance to impress before Saturday's cuts. Dwyer, a sixth-round pick, led the Steelers in rushing for the second straight week with 86 yards on 20 carries. Sanders, a third-round pick, led Pittsburgh in receiving with 66 yards and a touchdown. Both players were up and down in training camp but came on strong late in the preseason to likely earn roster spots.
The Bad
  • The huge negative was the left knee sprain to quarterback Byron Leftwich, who was expected to be Pittsburgh's Week 1 starter. Leftwich was hit low in the first half and didn’t return. Now his status is in question for the regular-season opener, where quarterbacks Dennis Dixon or Charlie Batch may have to step in against the Atlanta Falcons.
Cleveland Browns 13, Chicago Bears 10

The Good
  • We mentioned quarterback Colt McCoy's perfect 13-for-13 passing earlier in the AFC North blog. So let's shift the focus to Cleveland running back James Davis, who likely claimed a roster spot. The backup was on the bubble but led the Browns in rushing with 66 yards against Chicago. Davis also caught five passes for 53 yards and showed good elusiveness to break tackles. Davis was the talk of the preseason last year when he led the Browns in rushing. But he's been quiet this exhibition season until Thursday.
The Bad
  • Browns rookie running back Montario Hardesty's much-anticipated debut ended poorly as he suffered another knee injury. Hardesty missed all of training camp and three preseason games with a right knee injury. After seven carries, he hurt his left knee and was on crutches after the game. Hardesty came to Cleveland with a reputation of being injury-prone in college.
Baltimore Ravens 21, St. Louis Rams 27

The Good
  • Baltimore rookie WR David Reed showed flashes. Reed recorded 138 yards on four kickoff returns. The fifth-round pick also caught three receptions for 65 yards. Reed is on the bubble but helped his case to be one of the final receivers to make the team.
The Bad
  • We also mentioned Ravens quarterback Troy Smith earlier. But let's discuss the most unnecessary move we've seen in the AFC North this preseason, which was Dannell Ellerbe stopping at the goal line to taunt the Rams before scoring a defensive touchdown. Where to start with this one? First, the Ravens were losing. Second, it was the preseason. Third, Ellerbe is fighting for playing time and made a good defensive play look unprofessional. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh cleary wasn't happy with Ellerbe's antics.
Cincinnati Bengals 30, Indianapolis Colts 28

The Good
  • The Bengals finally got great quarterback play from backups Jordan Palmer and J.T. O'Sullivan. Both players have been inconsistent this preseason but had their best efforts against Indianapolis. O'Sullivan was 9-for-12 for 102 yards, and Palmer was 10-for-14 for 114 and two touchdowns. This should bring a little bit of calm in relation to Carson Palmer's replacements heading into the regular season.
The Bad
  • Cincinnati had another double-digit penalty game with 11 infractions. Sure, a lot of backups played Thursday, but there were some on the field who will contribute in the regular season. Cincinnati doesn't seem concerned about its penchant for penalties. But we will see if it disappears or carries over when the games count.
Ernest WIlford AP Photo/Phil CoaleReceiver-turned-tight end Ernest Wilford stood out for his performance during OTAs.
Four things that should impact the AFC South this fall:

In Jacksonville …

Ernest Wilford got his money in Miami. When things didn’t work out for him there after a free-agent deal, he returned to Jacksonville for 2009, a receiver turned tight end who was second to Marcedes Lewis. Wilford played in 15 games, catching just 11 balls for 123 yards and a score.

Wilford’s not been talked about much this offseason. It’s second-year man Zach Miller, after all, who’s supposed to be this great piece for Jaguars offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to use creatively.

But while Miller was banged up and missing work, it was Wilford who got a lot of featured time during offseason work. Wilford might be the big surprise among David Garrard's pass targets and tight ends.

“We think Zach can be that guy, we have high hopes for him,” Koetter said. “The guy that’s really shined bright in [organized team activities] in Zach’s absence is Ernest Wilford. Back in [2007] when we did go to the playoffs, Ernest was our leading receiver. I think Ernest has been kind of reborn.

“He’s got all these reps. We’re excited about the role Zach can play. But I think Ernest Wilford probably made more big plays at OTAs than anybody out there.”

In Indianapolis…

[+] EnlargeSanders
John Pyle/Icon SMIBob Sanders is looking forward to being unleashed on quarterbacks.
Safety Bob Sanders only played in two games last season, the first for Larry Coyer as the Colts' defensive coordinator. Defenders loved that Coyer started incorporating some blitzes, something the team almost never did under Ron Meeks.

I imagine Sanders as a scary blitzer who will get his chances for shots at quarterbacks.

“I think he’d be pretty good at it,” Colts president Bill Polian said. “He’s not blitzed a lot. Almost none, because we weren’t a blitzing team in the old configuration. His explosiveness and speed are something that are really special. We’ve used him in special situations in the past where we’ve assigned him to a running back and he’s done a heck of a job with it. So there is no reason to believe he won’t be a good blitzer.”

Sanders sounded excited during summer workouts about the possibility of adding some sacks to his stats.

“I love it because it just expands my game and each safety around here, it gives us more opportunity to show what we can do and showcase our skills,” he said. “So we’re excited about it and look forward to getting better at it.”

In Houston …

With Rick Dennison taking over for Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator and Greg Knapp in place as quarterbacks coach, there is not a major transformation of the Texans’ offense in the works. But there are subtle changes we might notice.

Matt Schaub said his review of the 2009 season was helpful, as he and the two new coaches came to a consensus on how things developed. Dennison has roots with the same Denver system that bred Texans head coach Gary Kubiak and Shanahan (now with Washington), while Knapp worked with Schaub in Atlanta.

One key to Schaub’s great connection with Andre Johnson has been crossing routes. And one small change with the new coaches pertains to those.

Previously Schaub read progressions the same way regardless of the coverage.

“They came in and said, if we get man coverage let’s look at it this way and if we get zone let’s read it a different way,” Schaub said. “I think it’s really going to help us. There are only certain concepts that we do that on.

“But I think that will really help our game get even better to take advantage of some of the throws down the field rather than taking throws underneath when something could have opened up. Those can help us get bigger chunks of yardage.”

[+] EnlargeLavelle Hawkins
Don McPeak/US PresswireLavelle Hawkins could be in line for more playing time out of the slot.
In Tennessee …

I’ve always thought that offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger was simply philosophically opposed to going deeper than three receivers on a Sunday if health allowed him to stick with his top three. Depth, though, always has been a Titans issue that fit neatly with the practice.

But in talking to him at the end of OTAs, I learned that reluctance to look to a fourth or even fifth receiver on a game day hasn’t been as much about rhythm as it has been about the fissure between the third and fourth guys.

Behind his top three of Kenny Britt, Nate Washington and Justin Gage, Heimerdinger now has Lavelle Hawkins, for whom the lights apparently have come on, as well as third-round pick Damian Williams, who’s likely to be working as a return man.

“Hawk’s got a good feel, he was actually coaching other guys. That was scary when I saw that,” Heimerdinger said with a laugh. “He’s gotten to the point now where I get on him about little things and he’ll do it right the very next time.”

If Hawkins can stay on course, look for him to get chances working out of the slot.

New contract for Ed Reed?

July, 7, 2010
In an offseason where it's been one surprise after another in the AFC North, Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed provided another unexpected revelation.

According to the six-time Pro Bowler, Reed has contacted the Ravens about a new contract.
"I'm not making it a big deal," Reed said in a radio interview this week, courtesy of the Baltimore Sun. "[But] I think it needs to be taken care of."

This is unexpected because Reed strongly considered retirement in January following Baltimore's playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts. While dealing with a neck ailment and coming off hip surgery, Reed has given the impression that he's playing on a year-to-year basis.

Does wanting an extension mean Reed is committed to the Ravens beyond 2010? That's something both Reed and Baltimore would have to figure out. Reed makes just under $20 million over the final three years of his contract, according to the Sun.

It will be interesting to see where this goes.
Dallas Clark, Vince Young and Andre JohnsonUS PresswireWhich of these AFC South stars -- Dallas Clark, Vince Young or Andre Johnson -- would make the best soccer goalie?
A while ago on Facebook, regular reader and contributor Nathan Cherolis posed an interesting question for downtime in the NFL with the World Cup approaching.

It went something like this: If you could take one guy from each AFC South roster to train intensively for one year to be a World Cup goalkeeper, who would it be?

I called on soccer coaches who are familiar with the four NFL teams we’re working with for some input. And while they didn’t choose any shockers, I thought some of the rationale and conversation was interesting.

I also had a chance to speak with two of the chosen ones about how they feel they’d do.

So if you’re anticipating the opening matches Friday and the US-England game Saturday as I am, here’s a little football/futbol post for entertainment purposes only.

Dominic Kinnear of the Houston Dynamo of Major League Soccer is the lone top-level professional coach at work in our territories.

He’s familiar with the Texans and the Colts, and said he’d pick Houston receiver Andre Johnson (“He’s got incredible hands, and plucking balls out of the air is a necessity”) and Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark (“Same thing, incredible hands, brave, not afraid to get hit going through traffic”).

“I don’t think it would be that far off because these are great athletes,” he said. “A lot of goalkeepers now are great athletes first. You look at the guy who plays for the United States, Tim Howard, the one thing that people marvel about with him -- especially in England [where he plays for Everton] -- is how good of an athlete he is.

“On the athletic side as far as shot stopping, timing of coming out to collect crosses, I don’t think it would take too long for those guys, because it’s kind of the same thing they do. They are big guys, they are going through traffic. Having a bit of contact in the air when they are catching the ball, it happens all the time. So I don’t think the timing of that would be that difficult for them.”

(Read full post)

NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What are realistic expectations for controversial Cincinnati Bengals cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, who was inactive in 2009?

On one hand, the Bengals recently added a talented former first-round pick at cornerback who's known for his return skills. But on the other hand, Cincinnati also added a player with a checkered past who hasn't played in the NFL since 2008.

[+] EnlargePacman Jones
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAdam "Pacman" Jones hasn't played since 2008.
Welcome to the enigma of Adam "Pacman" Jones.

The Bengals signed the embattled cornerback to a two-year deal. But there is no way to know exactly what Cincinnati is getting next season.

Jones could quickly develop into the athletic, No. 3 cornerback the Bengals are hoping for. If that's the case, Jones would provide an immediate impact by filling a void in the secondary for the reigning AFC North champs. Cincinnati's defense struggled covering slot receivers last year.

But Jones' history also suggests that, potentially, he could become a distraction for the Bengals. Rust also will be an issue. Cincinnati is trying to make the jump to being a legitimate contender in the AFC and can't afford any problems.

The "Pacman" Jones experiment didn't work for the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys. Both franchises tried, then eventually felt he wasn't worth the headache and moved on.

Now it's the Bengals' turn, and they're hoping for different results.
This much we know: The Cincinnati Bengals love a good reclamation project -- especially when it's on the cheap.

That is why it's no surprise that the Bengals feel Adam "Pacman" Jones is a good fit for their franchise. He reached a two-year deal with Cincinnati on Thursday at the league minimum.

Yes, Cincinnati could use another corner behind starters Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall. More reasonable options such as Dre' Bly and Ken Lucas were probably too expensive for the team's liking. But signing a troubled player for pennies on the dollar is a vintage move by Bengals ownership.

Jones' poor off-field behavior led to his demise with the Tennessee Titans and Dallas Cowboys. But as long as it doesn't hurt the bottom line, that doesn't matter to the Bengals.

It's no secret that football is a rough sport. Show me a team with 53 choirboys and I'll show you a team that cannot make the playoffs.

But also show me a team that consistently cuts corners and ignores character and I'll show you the Bengals -- a franchise that's never won a Super Bowl and hasn't posted back-to-back winning seasons in 28 years. If the goal is winning championships, there's more than enough evidence Cincinnati's way of doing business doesn't work.

The Bengals will say they're confident Jones has changed his stripes. But Thursday's controversial and cheap signing is further proof that the Bengals refuse to change theirs.
In honor of Tim Graham’s idea to honor Cinco de Mayo with five random thoughts, here are five random thoughts on the AFC South:

1) I wonder how much Pete Metzelaars will carry over Howard Mudd’s thinking about offensive linemen, and how much he will stray from it. Mudd was way down on Tony Ugoh, who may get a whole new second chance after Mudd’s retirement. Metzelaars replaces a legendary assistant, but is going to have leeway to put his stamp on things. Four of five incumbent starters are back, but I feel like only one is absolutely assured of being in the same spot: center Jeff Saturday.

2) There are a lot of great Twitter guys in the AFC South rookie classes, but I think the Texans’ Ben Tate (@BenTateRB) is the early leader for his combination of quality and quantity. He’s shown confidence and a lot of respect at the same time in what I’ve read, reaching out to several NFL guys to introduce himself or connect. If he’s the productive running back the team expects, adding his personality to that is going to make him very popular in Houston very quickly.

[+] EnlargeTrindon Holliday
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe Texans are hoping that pint-sized speedster Trindon Holliday can spark their return game.
3) The ability of the Texans, Titans and Jaguars to close the gap on the Colts could come from new special-teams sparks. I’m anxious to see Trindon Holliday, Damian Williams and Scotty McGee at work. The Colts downplayed their own attempts to address the return spots, by Ray Fisher may be an answer. How those four stack up comparatively could have a correlation to the standings.

4) Titans sixth-round quarterback Rusty Smith could create a lot of buzz in training camp. He’s the fourth guy now, but will wind up third unless he implodes. I saw him in a very limited window at a small, all-rookie practice. But between that and what the Titans have said about him, I expect people who love a drop back, pocket passer with a big arm (I admit I do) are going to fall in love with him. And if or when Vince Young struggles, a faction will emerge that prematurely asks about Smith’s potential to get on the field.

5) Pot Roast’s backside is a concern. Jaguars defensive tackle Terrance Knighton had an impressive rookie year and can really stop the run. He’s hard to move, but also has to be able to move. And his backside was huge at Jaguars’ minicamp last weekend. He’s listed at 325. I think they’d like him to be 325. I feel certain he’s well above 325.

Tracking undrafted additions

April, 25, 2010
Curious about the undrafted rookies heading to your team?

Here are two excellent links that maintain running lists for the whole league: and

Draft Watch: AFC South

April, 21, 2010
NFC dream/Plan B: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: Dream scenario/Plan B.

Houston Texans

(Overboard) Dream scenario: Running back C.J. Spiller falls to them, but I cannot see that happening and I don’t see safety Earl Thomas lasting either. Next best is that they are in position to choose running back Ryan Mathews. He could work every down if needed and will be able to earn the tough yard and hold on to the ball in a way no one could last season, when the offense was very good despite its running woes. Plan B: Mathews is gone and they get a cornerback like Devin McCourty or Kyle Wilson. My inkling is that McCourty could be the guy in this situation.

Indianapolis Colts

(Overboard) Dream scenario: Center Maurkice Pouncey somehow lasts, giving the Colts a big interior presence who could help at guard and eventually succeed Jeff Saturday. Next best is that they find another lineman who’s especially well suited to what the Colts do, but brings a bit more size. That could be Rodger Saffold, who seems to project as a very good left tackle for them. Plan B: A speedy defensive end in the mold of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. TCU’s Jerry Hughes fits the bill.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Dream scenario: Someone wants the Jaguars' No. 10 pick and offers a deal that drops them down in the first round and gets them a second-rounder, which they currently lack. They’d be happy to dip down and still find a defensive end, defensive back or interior offensive lineman. Plan B: If they stay put, linebacker Rolando McClain could be too good to resist 10th overall. He can be a consistent playmaker and a face-of-the-defense guy for a team that’s still looking to develop its personality.

Tennessee Titans

Dream scenario: Get a trade offer, move back to regain a second-round pick and still be able to add a defensive end (Sergio Kindle?) or cornerback (McCourty?) early on. If they stay at 16, they’d love to see a run at offensive tackle ahead of them and Jimmy Clausen go off the board by the time their turn comes. I think they’d be happy with Jason Pierre-Paul or Brandon Graham. Plan B: Wilson, who’d have a chance to earn a spot as a starter opposite Cortland Finnegan.
William HayesJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesTitans defensive end William Hayes was drafted in 2008 in part because defensive line coach Jim Washburn wanted him.
When players want to steer clear of trouble with the bosses, they are fond of saying “players play, coaches coach.”

As the draft approaches, I wonder how often scouts mumble the variation: “Scouts scout, coaches coach.”

Not long ago, the Tennessee Titans had a somewhat distinct division of power along those lines.

Former GM Floyd Reese respected Jeff Fisher’s staff. But Reese believed it was his job to assess the talent and to provide it to be coached up.

There were exceptions, of course. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak was the primary force behind the selection of left tackle Michael Roos in 2005, for example.

The scouts I know respect the opinion of a position coach like Munchak.

How could they not appreciate the track record of a Hall of Fame player in developing quality linemen? Still, in a general scout-assistant matchup where the credentials are more even, scouts should hold the trump card, don’t you agree?

One scout I spoke to this week pointed to nine months of work including all those live visits against four to six weeks of study done primarily with tape.

If a GM needs to lean one way or the other, this scout said he should lean with the scout. And on his team, he said that’s usually the way it goes.

Most often, Reese was making the call with the support of his scouting staff. Position coach input was a relatively small ingredient.

And so, when some of Reese’s players didn’t match expectations, a semi-traditional tug of war commenced: Position coaches might gripe about the talent they were -- or were not -- given; the personnel department could grumble about how coaches were not bringing out a player’s best.

Now the man who replaced Reese in 2007, Mike Reinfeldt, strives for harmony and consent and has drafted several players in part because of large endorsements from assistant coaches with mixed degrees of success.

  • Secondary coach Marcus Robertson liked Ryan Mouton, who struggled as a rookie in 2009.
  • Defensive line coach Jim Washburn wanted Jason Jones and William Hayes in 2008, and they still rate as works in progress.
  • Former running backs coach Sherman Smith endorsed Chris Henry in 2007, and Henry busted and is gone.
Reinfeldt’s counterparts in the AFC South seek to be consensus builders too, though Colts president Bill Polian and Jaguars general manager Gene Smith are more powerful than Reinfeldt and Texans GM Rick Smith when it comes to final decisions.

[+] EnlargeSteve Walters
Jacksonville Jaguars for ESPN.comSteve Walters said he has coached on teams where assistants played a role in scouting.
Retired coach Steve Walters, who worked in New England and New Orleans before wrapping up his career with stops in Tennessee and Jacksonville overseeing receivers, said he agreed with that. Under Reese he rarely did much hands-on work with prospects. Assistants just weren’t used that way much. Under James “Shack” Harris with the Jaguars, dumped after the 2008 season, Walters said he and the assistants played a bigger role in scouting.

I can see some value in a more old-school approach to how things should work. It was often unhealthy to have “Reese guys” and “Fisher guys” on the Oilers and Titans. But a position coach didn’t have any more stake in Player A than he did in Player B and it felt like a system of checks and balances was in place.

Washburn helped turn late-round picks by Reese like Robaire Smith (sixth round, 2000) and Carlos Hall (seventh, 2002) into productive players. More recently, he’s given his blessing to the team’s choice of Jones and Hayes under Reinfeldt .

Might the hard-nosed Washburn, even subconsciously, be inclined to give Jones and Hayes a bit more leeway than a guy previously forced on him despite his protests? Might he, even subconsciously, be rooting for them a bit more, because he stuck his neck out for them?

My initial answer to those questions was that I expected he would, and that such things be detrimental. But in hashing it out with a scout and a former coach, I am no longer as staunch in my opinion.

I do still think it’s an interesting question to consider.

My scout told me the additional accountability that comes with a position coach endorsement is a good thing. Maybe a coach would want to stick with such a player a snap, a series, a game or a season too long, but the cross-checking and co-sign from a GM and his scouts provides the necessary context and cover for such scenarios.

You can take the accountability idea in many different directions, though.

If there is a scouting-coaching split, it’s easier to trace an evaluation mistake back to where it happened. On the consensus side, the saying goes that it’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares about who gets the credit. What about the blame?

Ultimately, an owner should want to know who is nailing assessments and who is botching them.

Walters said when an assistant feels he got what he asked for, he is conscious of having endorsed a guy.

“If you stand on the table for a guy and say, ‘I really think this is the guy and these are the reasons why’ and you can build a case for the guy, your opinion may push it over the top for a guy that you want,” he said. “And if you get that guy you’re certainly a little bit on the line for him because they’re going to remember what you said.

“If they just say ‘Here are your guys, like them or not,’ whether you had any input into them or not…”

His voice trailed off and he left that one hanging.

I’d be inclined to finish it: “Well that’s a different deal.”
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South


Jaguars’ ticket situation: Yes, they should have a boost after the draft, out of OTAs and minicamp and again as the season approaches. The community pushes being made are a strong effort, but being honest the response so far rates as steady but underwhelming. The Jaguars still need to sell roughly 12,000 tickets a game to get to the point where they won’t have home games blacked out. It seems like an awfully tall order.


The value of the Jaguars' pick at No. 10: My sense is the league sees the Jaguars as a prime trading partner. Perhaps you'll want to move up for a big-name skill player like C.J. Spiller or Jimmy Clausen, or rangy safety Earl Thomas. Maybe you'll want to get in position for a top offensive tackle. Jacksonville’s phone number is the one you may be calling. Gene Smith would like to move back and gain additional picks as the team is minus its second-rounder. Jacksonville is confident it can still get an impact guy later in the first round.

Draft Watch: AFC South

March, 31, 2010
NFC History: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft Watch: Biggest needs (2/17) | Busts/gems (2/24) | Schemes, themes (3/3) | Recent history (3/10) | Needs revisited (3/17) | Under-the-radar needs (3/26) | History in that spot (3/31) | Draft approach (4/7) | Decision-makers (4/14) | Dream scenario/Plan B (4/21)

Each week leading up to the NFL draft (April 22-24), the blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: History at the spot.

No. 20: Houston Texans

No. 20 has produced productive players in the last five years. Detroit tight end Brandon Pettigrew did reasonably well as a rookie. Tampa Bay corner Aqib Talib has nine picks in his first two years. Aaron Ross missed the bulk of his third season with a hamstring injury. Tamba Hali has a very respectable 27 sacks in four seasons. Dallas end Marcus Spears had only 27 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 2009. Quality defensive backs have been there two of the last three years and that may bode well for the Texans’ chances to address corner or free safety. Two of those No. 20 picks were acquired in trades.

No. 31: Indianapolis Colts

No. 31 has produced a running back (Chris Wells to Arizona in 2009), two defensive backs (Kenny Phillips to the Giants in 2008 and Kelly Jennings to Seattle in 2006), a tight end (Greg Olsen to Chicago in 2007) and a defensive tackle (Mike Patterson to Philadelphia in 2005). Phillips was on IR most of last year, while Jennings and Patterson, a high-motor interior guy, have played in every game of their careers. Olsen’s fit with new coordinator Mike Martz is a question. I don’t think history will tell us a lot about what the Colts, firm believers in best player available, will find or do.

No. 10: Jacksonville Jaguars

There should be and will be quality options at No. 10 for the Jaguars. Recent years saw the 49ers snatch receiver Michael Crabtree, the Patriots select linebacker Jerod Mayo, the Texans pluck defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, the Cardinals grab quarterback Matt Leinart and Detroit pick receiver Mike Williams. Williams busted hard. Leinart is about to take over the job as Arizona’s starter. Okoye is still young with upside. Mayo was defensive rookie of the year. Crabtree had an ugly holdout, but San Francisco has high expectations for him in his second year. How are trade possibilities? Houston and New England got their picks in deals.

Tennessee Titans

It’s a coincidence for sure, but No. 16 has been spent on a defensive player for the last five years. The scorecard: linebacker Larry English to San Diego in 2009, corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to Arizona in 2008, tackle Justin Harrell to Green Bay in 2007, defensive back Jason Allen to Miami in 2006 and tackle Travis Johnson to Houston in 2005. The Titans will probably be fine extending the trend, as their biggest concerns are with rebuilding a defense that needs an end, a corner and could benefit from additions at safety and linebacker too.