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AFC South training camp preview

7/23/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
Houston Texans

Training camp site: Houston, Texas

Campfires: Weakside linebacker appears to be the biggest battle for a starting spot. Xavier Adibi has bulked up in an effort to become more rugged and withstand the 16-game pounding. Zach Diles appears to be an underdog here, as does veteran Cato June, who signed up after spending time in Indianapolis and Tampa Bay.

Finding a back to complement Steve Slaton is a big priority, but the Texans didn't spend much to increase their options. A healthy Chris Brown could do well in the role, but Houston is living on the edge if it's counting on 16 games from him. Undrafted rookies Jeremiah Johnson and Arian Foster are in the mix along with Ryan Moats and Clifton Dawson

The safety position remains an issue, with Nick Ferguson and Eugene Wilson in line to start now. But the team will allow for the possibility of Dominique Barber to nudge his way into the lineup.

Camp will be a downer if: Anything bad happens to Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson or Slaton. This is an offensive team keyed around that trio, and the loss of any of them for any extended time will be a huge setback.

Schaub's been labeled as injury prone, but it's really been more about being unlucky. It's not as if other quarterbacks would have played through some of the things he's faced. Still, Gary Kubiak's talked about how players can learn how to stay on the field, and he needs his signal-caller to do that.

Camp will be a success if: A defensive identity develops under new coordinator Frank Bush, who's pledged to be more aggressive. With new coaches overseeing the defensive line and the defensive backs, there is a real chance for new messages and approaches to have a  bearing on players and units.

The Texans need some preseason success on both sides of the ball to carry into the regular season, because another shaky start will be cause for concern based on the team's history. If Houston is to plot a course to its first playoff berth, it needs to avoid a poor start.

Second time around: Slaton was a revelation as a rookie, and while there is uncertainty about who else will get carries, the line should be better. It's the second year for the group under Alex Gibbs running his scheme, which should mean better and more consistent play.

Additionally, not only does the unit have Gibbs and John Benton as coaching resources, but can look to assistant Bruce Matthews, the Hall of Famer who's now part of the staff.


Indianapolis Colts

Training camp site: Terre Haute, Ind.

Campfires: Targets for Peyton Manning are crucial, of course, and that's why there is such a large focus on the three-way fight for the No. 3 receiver spot. Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and Roy Hall will draw a lot of attention as that's sorted out. Garcon seemed to be getting a lot of positive reviews in OTAs and min
icamp, with Hall not generating much buzz.

Returning defensive tackles Keyunta Dawson, Eric Foster, Raheem Brock (an end on early downs) and Antonio Johnson will be fighting for roles at a position that welcomed back Ed Johnson and has two young, thick additions from the draft in Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor. Getting bigger inside while maintaining athleticism was a priority for the Colts.

The plan at linebacker is for Clint Session to play on the weakside and Philip Wheeler to replace him on the strongside. But guys with starting experience like Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler will be looking to take the team away from that blueprint.

Camp will be a downer if: Left guard Ryan Lilja, perhaps the team's best run blocker, can't make it back after the knee injury that cost him all of 2008. Trouble on the return path for cornerback Marlin Jackson (knee) would also be a bad thing.

With those injuries, the two surgeries on Manning's knee, a dinged Joseph Addai and a bunch of additional problems for the offensive line, the Colts got to show that they could survive. It's not anything they want to be in position to prove again.

Camp will be a success if: New head coach Jim Caldwell sets an early tone that gives the team no room for doubt about the transfer of power from his mentor, Tony Dungy. The players also must take to the thinking of new defensive coordinator Larry Coyer (a bit more aggressive) and new, fiery special teams coach Ray Rychleski.

It also would be great if Manning develops increased rapport with Anthony Gonzalez, who's graduated to No. 2 receiver with Marvin Harrison gone. Manning also needs to gain a real feel for the guy who wins the battle for No. 3 as well as the young tight ends, Jacob Tamme and Tom Santi.

Off the record: Even with a new coach and changes on his staff, it's unlikely there will be any different emphasis on preseason results. Indianapolis is 3-15 in the preseason over the last four years and 51-13 in the regular seasons that followed.

The Colts have a good feel for how to get ready and don't have to worry about building fan enthusiasm with preseason wins. Everyone knows to look at smaller things early in the game to gauge the team's readiness.


Jacksonville Jaguars

 Training camp site: Jacksonville, Fla.

Campfires: The Jaguars have more turnover than anyone in the division. The first question might be how the secondary is assembled. Rookie corner Derek Cox and free-agent safety Sean Considine seem to be battling for a job, with swingman Brian Williams' spot determined by the outcome.

Defensive tackle is a giant question mark, even if we presume John Henderson wakes up and returns to old form. Rob Meier is fine as a complementary guy playing limited snaps, but who's ahead of him? Third-rounder Terrance Knighton, 2008 late-season pick up Atiyyah Ellison and veteran Derek Landri will all have opportunity.

Newcomer Torry Holt is the top receiver and Mike Walker is second in line so long as he can stay healthy. After that? Three draft picks -- Mike Thomas, Jarett Dillard and Tiquan Underwood -- will slug it out with Troy Williamson to set the pecking order.

Camp will be a downer if: David Garrard struggles. This is a crucial season for him to show that behind a quality line, with a solid run game and with a better group of targets he is indeed the player the Jaguars thought he was when he got that giant contract.

He needs help, but he also needs to show in camp that he can help some teammates become better players and get them the ball in advantageous spots. And while every team in the league is in trouble if it has a clear-cut starting quarterback who goes down, even Garrard detractors know there is no good alternative this year. Todd Bauman is the backup.

Camp will be a success if: Guys buy into the approach and philosophy new general manager Gene Smith and coach Jack Del Rio have set about instilling since last year's disappointing 5-11 campaign.

A lot is dependent upon whether the good vibe continues and locker room leadership emerges as the post-Fred Taylor era begins. The team needs to see contenders at the question mark positions (see campfires above) prove themselves capable. If those things happen, then the team will feel good about itself when the regular season starts.

Changing character: Twelve players who had or were supposed to have significant roles for the Jaguars last season are gone. That's by choice, but it's a lot of roles to fill. For his emphasis on character, Smith's being called "Clean Gene" by one
Jacksonville sports talk radio host.

Will good guys translate to good play? That's one of the big questions. Del Rio is sure to point out early that no one expected the 2008 Dolphins or Falcons to be playoff teams. He's asking his  team why it can't be a similar story in 2009.


Tennessee Titans

Training camp site: Nashville

Campfires: Start at receiver, where Justin Gage and Nate Washington will line up as the starters. The hope is that No. 1 draft pick Kenny Britt will win the No. 3 spot and second-year man Lavelle Hawkins will be fourth in line. But beyond that? Chris Davis had a very good offseason and has additional value as a returner.

One guy won't replace Albert Haynesworth. The Titans will throw numbers at defensive tackle more than ever, which means plenty of snaps for Tony Brown, Jason Jones and Jovon Haye. Second-rounder Sen'Derrick Marks will fight to be in the mix as will Kevin Vickerson, the biggest interior lineman in the post-Haynesworth group.

The worst hit to depth came at cornerback, where Eric King went to Detroit and Chris Carr to Baltimore. DeMarcus Faggins, Ryan Mouton, Cary Williams and Jason McCourty will battle for the top backup slots. Carr's departure also created openings at the return jobs, where receiver Mark Jones will be a primary contender.

Camp will be a downer if: Chris Johnson shows any signs of something we could label a sophomore slump. The second-year running back tweeted up a storm in the offseason and talked about how he couldn't be part of a Smash-and-Dash duo with LenDale White anymore because he needed to stand on his own.

The guy is explosive and electric, but hopefully he arrives focused and stays locked in and healthy through the preseason and beyond. If not, the Titans could have an issue.

Camp will be a success if: The Titans can mix in some blitzes to help make up for what's lost with Haynesworth, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch can show he's back to form and the passing offense grows with some new pieces in the second year of Mike Heimerdinger's second stint.

If Kerry Collins can build on what he started with Gage and Bo Scaife last season and is able to build new rapport with Washington, Britt and Jared Cook, the Titans will feel good about their ability to complement an effective run game with the pass.


Trey Wingo, Cris Carter and Marcellus Wiley break down the AFC South and preview the season.