NFL Nation: Austen Lane

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears officially placed defensive end Willie Young on injured reserve due to a torn left Achilles on Tuesday, and brought back defensive end Austen Lane, who spent the preseason with the club.

Young
“That’s a tough one,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said of Young’s injury. “He has kind of been an inspirational leader. You guys know him in the locker room -- he’s a charismatic guy. He keeps people up. He’s fun to be around. He’s a guy who is always up and around the building, and has played well and gotten better throughout the season. He’ll be missed on Sunday, certainly.”

Young posted a career-high 10 sacks in 2014, which also leads the Bears, and he’s tied for 13th in the NFL and tied for sixth in the NFC in sacks. Young played in 15 games with eight starts this season, registering 55 tackles, one forced fumble, three pass breakups and 13 quarterback pressures.

A five-year veteran, Young also blocked a field goal this season. He’s now posted 127 career tackles, 16 sacks, 10 pass breakups and 14 tackles for lost yardage.

Lane, meanwhile, has appeared in 30 games with 17 starts over four seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars (2010-12) and Detroit Lions (2013), contributing 64 tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble, 13 quarterback hurries and five tackles for lost yardage.

A fifth-round pick of the Jaguars in 2010, Lane spent training camp with the Bears, but was released at the end of the preseason.
Most significant move: After finishing last season on the injured because of a hamstring injury in training camp, veteran cornerback Kelvin Hayden made it through the preseason healthy and appeared to perform well throughout camp and the preseason to make the team. Perhaps Hayden became a victim of the numbers game, as the Chicago Bears decided to go into the regular season without him. The Bears drafted Kyle Fuller in the first round, and he turned heads throughout the preseason which likely gave the club enough confidence to use him opposite Charles Tillman on passing downs, while sliding Tim Jennings inside to the nickel. Hayden has proved to be a capable at both cornerback spots and at nickel. So by cutting Hayden the Bears lose solid veteran depth at corner.

Too little, too late: Eben Britton could be considered somewhat of a surprise cut. Britton played 13 games last season and started in four games, but pulled a hamstring early in camp which limited his availability throughout the preseason. Britton played in only the preseason finale at Cleveland because of the injury, and didn’t perform particularly well when called upon. Receiver Chris Williams entered training camp as one of the favorites to win the job as Chicago’s primary return man. But like Britton, Williams missed too much time because of a hamstring injury suffered Aug. 8 while catching a 73-yard touchdown pass against the Philadelphia Eagles. Britton and Williams should catch on with other teams as both are capable of playing in the NFL. But hamstring injuries limited their opportunities to show what they could do for the Bears, and the team couldn’t give either the benefit of the doubt in making Sunday’s decisions.

Whacked again: Defensive end Austen Lane wrote this great account of what it’s like to get cut last year for The MMQB. At the time, Lane was getting ready to try again with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he’d eventually be cut again. Lane ended up appearing in two games with the Detroit Lions last season, only to be waived 22 days after the club signed him. The Bears signed Lane on Feb. 27, but the veteran failed to nab a roster spot in what seemed to be a logjam at the defensive end position despite performing solidly.

What’s next: With cuts now out of the way, the Bears will establish a 10-man practice squad by the end of the weekend before turning their attention to the season opener against the Buffalo Bills.

Team moves: WR Josh Bellamy, C Taylor Boggs, DT Brandon Dunn, LB Jerry Franklin, OG Ryan Groy, LB DeDe Lattimore, CB Al Louis-Jean, WR Dale Moss, DT Lee Pegues, DT Tracy Robertson, S Marcus Trice, WR Chris Williams, CB C.J. Wilson, OT Eben Britton, CB Kelvin Hayden, DE Austen Lane, S M.D. Jennings.

Chicago Bears draft wrap-up

May, 10, 2014
5/10/14
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A wrap-up of the Chicago Bears’ draft. Click here for a full list of Bears' draftees.

Bears general manager Phil Emery likes to say a team can never expect to fill all of its needs via the draft. Well, eight draft choices later, the Bears actually came close.

Best move: Taking defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton with consecutive picks on Day 2. We don’t know if Ferguson or Sutton will pan out, but the Bears had to keep strengthening the defensive line after last season. Ferguson and Sutton join new faces Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young, Austen Lane, Trevor Scott and Israel Idonije, who is back for his second tour of duty. The Bears also re-signed tackles Jeremiah Ratliff and Nate Collins to help fortify the trenches on defense.

This reminds me of how Emery & Co. rebuilt the offensive line last offseason.

Riskiest move: Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey’s (fourth round) on-field production speaks for itself: 4,239 yards, 48 rushing touchdowns and 77 receptions for 679 yards in three years for the Wildcats.

However, there are questions about Carey that extended beyond the football field. The 5-9, 207-pound tailback reportedly had multiple run-ins with the authorities, including a charge of assaulting his pregnant ex-girlfriend that was later dismissed.

Carey depicted himself as a high-character individual when he spoke to Chicago media members following his selection by the Bears at No. 117.

“As you guys are going to get to know me over the years; I’m an outgoing [person] who loves kids and is light-hearted,” Carey said. “I would never do anything to harm people. I’m a loveful cat.”

Emery is not afraid to draft or acquire players with questionable character. Wide receiver Brandon Marshall has rewarded Emery’s faith in him by posting consecutive Pro Bowl seasons. On the flip side, 2012 fourth-round pick Evan Rodriguez lasted only one season before being cut after multiple run-ins with the law last offseason.

[+] EnlargeKa'Deem Casey
Casey Sapio/USA TODAY SportsArizona running back Ka'Deem Carey, a fourth-round pick by the Bears, has some question marks in terms of off-the-field incidents.
Most surprising move: Emery told reporters before the draft that he rejected the notion of drafting a developmental quarterback in the later rounds with the intent of grooming him to be a future starter.

The Bears selected San Jose State quarterback David Fales in the sixth round (183).

Go figure.

File it away: Time will tell if the Bears regret passing on a safety in the first round.

The organization continued its longstanding tradition of waiting until the later rounds to address the position when they moved back into the fourth round and traded away a pair of fifth-round selections to grab Minnesota’s Brock Vereen at 131. Vereen does have an excellent NFL pedigree. His brother, Shane, a standout running back, was selected in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft by the New England Patriots. Their father, Henry, was drafted by the Bucs in 1979.

Vereen is a versatile player who lined up at all four defensive back spots over the course of his career with the Golden Gophers. He started 36 games and registered 200 tackles, four interceptions, 7.5 tackles-for-loss and one blocked kick.

“Brock is one of the smartest and most versatile players I have ever had the privilege of coaching and is an outstanding young man,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. “He is the ultimate team player and will do whatever is needed to help the Bears win. I know he is going to make Chicago a better team and will also be a great teammate in the locker room.”

But you can argue the Bears are in this mess at safety because the organization doesn't put a high enough value on the position.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Darius Slay has been in this position before.

Houston
Houston
With Detroit Lions cornerback Chris Houston not practicing all week and now officially doubtful for Thursday's game against Green Bay, Slay will once again potentially be one of the Lions' starting cornerbacks.

Just like he was the first week of the season.

Since then, Slay has bounced in-and-out of the lineup. He began the season starting opposite Houston at cornerback, but was pulled from both games for veteran Rashean Mathis.

Mathis eventually replaced him in the starting lineup full-time in Week 3, pushing Slay to spot duty and as an injury fill-in, which he had to do multiple times in place of both Houston and Mathis.

But those first two weeks, when he won the job, were difficult and it showed.

"My first two weeks, it was rough," Slay said. "The game and the speed was so different. I was like, 'man, this is what's going on right here in the NFL.'

"But then, as I got accustomed to it, they just slid me in back-and-forth, give me the feeling of it, brought my confidence like crazy, yes, this is where I need to be."

A potential starter again, Slay won't say he wasn't ready to start the first time, but he was "second-guessing" himself too much and striving for perfection when making the play is what he needed to do.

Sitting on the bench watching Houston and Mathis helped that. So did advice from Mathis telling him to stay loose and to do what he does well, along with what the coaches were saying.

Now in the same position again, he has a bit more experience and knowledge to potentially handle it.

"I'm ready," Slay said. "Ain't no second-guessing about me being a starter. If they tell me I'm going to be a starter, I'm going out there with the same mentality I got out there when I wasn't.

"Go out there and compete and beat the guy in front of me."

If Houston ends up inactive, Detroit's available cornerbacks would be Mathis, Slay, nickel Bill Bentley and little-used Jonte Green.

Also, the Lions signed offensive lineman Rodney Austin off the practice squad Wednesday while releasing defensive end Austen Lane, who was signed while Ziggy Ansah was injured.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If you care to think the Jaguars are a mess and going to be in the running for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, they’re fine with that.

As they worked through the early days of Mike Mularkey’s first training camp, they repeated the new coach’s mantras (like, “we just want to get a little bit better every day”), fell in line with his policies (like potential $10,000 fines for answering media inquiries about injuries) and gave team-first answers to questions about the absence of their two biggest names -- Maurice Jones-Drew (holding out for a new contract) and Justin Blackmon (unable to strike a rookie deal).

Sure, they don’t have much choice but to buy in, but there is an undertone that suggests they have a secret to spring on the league in a couple of weeks.

Every team at this stage of camp thinks it can be good. In Jacksonville, a significant improvement from 5-11 is certainly possible, no matter what the popular storylines are. Honest.

Theirs is a defense loaded with quality, front-line talent. Beyond middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, most of it remains largely unknown. But if you don’t know linebacker Daryl Smith or cornerback Derek Cox or defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, that’s not the Jaguars' concern.

“If anyone feels we are not in a proper place or we have problems, that’s OK,” Posluszny said. “We feel like inside these walls we’re doing everything that we can to be a very successful team.

“Mularkey’s done a great job for us. He’s a former player who’s been through it. To me, that all means a ton, because he knows exactly what we are going through and what it takes to be successful.”

While the offense is being revamped, and Mularkey and his assistants are trying to reformat quarterback Blaine Gabbert after a horrific rookie season, the defensive system and bulk of the staff have been in place for a while now.

Gabbert has nice moments, but his overall inconsistency at practice halts any proclamations that he made a significant offseason jump.

No matter how much players and coaches talk about his gains in leadership, no matter how much faith the organization has in him, no matter how patient they are, it comes down to making throws under pressure.

The early snapshot says the defense can be really good, but that a limited offense could be the obstacle to the surprise the Jaguars would so like to produce. There is a lot of time to work on what’s been installed, to find what works and to run it better than it’s been run so far.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Phil Sears/US PresswireBlaine Gabbert finished his first season with 12 TD passes, 11 interceptions and a 50.8 completion percentage.
1. Is Gabbert good enough? He folded under pressure too often last season, but the rush wasn’t all he was facing. The team drafted him 10th overall intending for him to sit and learn for a season, but that plan didn’t pan out and Gabbert was hurried into the starting role for 14 games during which he had poor pass protection and very limited receivers.

There were big distractions off the field, too: Jack Del Rio got fired and the team was sold.

Mularkey was hired in large part because he’s developed quarterbacks, and he, coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson have to get steadier play from Gabbert and get his arrow pointing up. His good moments look very nice, but there are still too many bad ones that leave you shaking your head. A kneel-down would seem less disheartening in many of those instances.

It’s a slow process, installing a new offense and rebuilding a quarterback’s confidence. Exactly how slow is the question we need answered.

Mentions of mechanical or technical adjustments by his coaches have been well-received, and he acts on them quickly. That’s great, but when the rush turns live and the pocket starts collapsing, will he have open people he can stand in and find? We simply can’t know yet.

2. The missing pieces. Jones-Drew is demanding a new contract. The Jaguars have said they won’t give him one with two years left on the old one. Boom -- a stalemate. I can’t see the team altering its stance unless he holds out into the season and it struggles horribly without him. He’s got an ego that will make it hard for him to return without any contract alteration, so this could drag on.

Blackmon is a rangy target who can go get the ball, and missing early camp is helping no one. He got a DUI after being drafted fifth overall, and the team wants insurance against any further troubles. Blackmon's unwilling to give the Jaguars what they are looking for, though.

So we’re seeing second-year man Cecil Shorts work in the Z spot where Blackmon will eventually be, with veteran addition Laurent Robinson at the X. Rashad Jennings is the lead back without Jones-Drew in camp, and is a bigger guy who also ranks as a power runner. I liked what I saw and heard from him.

3. Will there be enough of a pass rush? The Jaguars had 31 sacks last season, and to reach their potential on defense they need more in 2012. More consistent pressure and more sacks will come with improved coordination from the defensive linemen.

Their line coach, Joe Cullen, said they just missed on a bunch of chances last season, and another season together and the work they are doing now will result in better communication. The Jags face Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton in addition to two games against Matt Schaub and two against hotshot rookie Andrew Luck this season, and they won't win many of those without consistent pressure.

The relentless Jeremy Mincey promises the production will increase. Andre Branch was drafted in the second round to help, and looks like a quality player. Depth off the edge remains a concern. Austen Lane suffered yet another injury while I watched practices, during which John Chick walked the width of a practice field dragging heavy weight as he rehabilitated his knee.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeMike Mularkey
AP Photo/John RaouxNew head coach Mike Mularkey and his staff have made a positive impression on the players.
Mularkey and his staff. There is planning and logic to everything going on here, and the new staff has genuine concern for players on and off the field. Players are being told what the plan is and the right way to execute it. They felt that was lacking with the previous regime, and welcome it.

Position coaches like Olson, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and one of the key holdovers, linebackers coach Mark Duffner, are true teachers, and they have guys under them who want to learn. That leadership and teaching faltered in many areas at the end of Del Rio’s tenure. It’s present in full force now. If guys follow and doing so produces results, it’ll snowball.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

A lot more is in place for Gabbert, and everyone has a stake in his performance: the GM who traded up to draft him needs him to succeed; the new coach who was hired to polish him needs him to succeed; the high-priced free-agent receiver and first-round draft pick receiver need him to succeed; the talented defense needs him to succeed.

Gabbert’s saying the right things and working hard, and you can see improvement on some drop backs. But there are still enough dud plays sprinkled into practices to make you wonder if he can succeed. The team wants him to avoid turning the ball over -- staying away from the worst-case scenarios -- and it's a smart goal, but will it make Gabbert too cautious?

Can you ask him to be careful and function as a game-manager type when the best attribute he has is a big arm that can get the ball into tight windows? It might turn out to be complicated.

Also, there is not great roster depth. I have particular concerns about the offensive line, defensive end and safety if someone goes down.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • The team appears to be high on undrafted rookie linebacker Julian Stanford out of Wagner. With Clint Session’s future in doubt because of post-concussion issues, Russell Allen is likely to start opposite Daryl Smith outside. Stanford could make the team as a special-teamer who can provide depth. Brandon Marshall, a fifth-round pick, also has what looks to be an NFL-ready linebacker frame.
  • Mike Thomas needs Blackmon signed, in camp and taking the bulk of the snaps at one of the two outside receiver spots. I’m convinced that to get his head right, Thomas needs to be given the slot role and allowed to focus on it exclusively. His snaps were cut down during my visit, with Shorts working at the front of the line in Blackmon’s Z spot. The slot is what Thomas is best suited for, and his performance has slipped when he’s been expected to do more. He had a lot of drops early in camp, and Mularkey agrees with the potential for less to be more with Thomas.
  • Josh Scobee has the leg to get a lot of touchbacks and Bryan Anger has the leg to force a lot of fair catches. The Jaguars obviously still have to work on covering kicks and punts, but how often will they actually be covering kicks and punts? If the offense can produce some first downs, we should see more scoring, and more scoring will mean more kickoffs from Scobee and less work for Anger.
  • The depth at tight end is interesting after No. 1 Marcedes Lewis. Colin Cloherty got a lot of work as the No. 2 early on, and Zach Miller is another move guy who’s very intriguing, though Miller is rarely healthy. Zach Potter is giant, but hasn’t earned a lot of time, and undrafted rookie Matt Veldman is also extra large.
  • Posluszny is the centerpiece of this defense. He covers a ton of ground and makes big hits. He’s a model for doing things the right way, which is a major point of emphasis for Mularkey and his staff. Posluszny was a solid signing last season, and continues to deliver just what the team hoped for. That helps offset the fact Session, who also came to Jacksonville for a big contract in 2011, might not be on the field any time soon, or ever again.
  • The cornerbacks look good. Cox is really solid, and Aaron Ross and Rashean Mathis will be effective as the Nos. 2 and 3. The depth grew with last season's injury onslaught, and William Middleton and Kevin Rutland can play, too.
  • Branch, the rookie pass-rusher, came into the league facing questions from many teams about his ability to stand up against the run. The Jaguars have no such concern at this point. He’s got to be an effective part of a four-man group at end with Mincey, Lane and Chick. Branch certainly looks the part, but so did former Jaguars bust Derrick Harvey, so we can’t put much on the early eyeball test.
  • Along with Stanford, running back Jalen Parmele caught my eye. He’s spent time with Miami and Baltimore.

Thoughts from Jaguars' practice

August, 2, 2012
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Observations and thoughts out of my final practice with the Jaguars this morning:

  • Receiver Cecil Shorts has moved up in the rotation and was prominent with both Justin Blackmon (contract dispute) and Laurent Robinson (being evaluated for a possible concussion) missing. Shorts did a lot of good things, but had at least two drops. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert said the receivers made great gains with routes in a tough practice, he saw “crisp, perfect routes.” Drops remain an ongoing issue, however. And Shorts may have run a great route on one seven-on-seven play, but Gabbert stared him down and Rashean Mathis easily slipped inside the receiver for a pick.
  • One of Shorts’ drops produced a terrible officiating situation. NFL replacement officials are here through Friday night’s scrimmage. Shorts went up on the left sideline to grab a Gabbert pass over defensive back Courtney Greene. Shorts made a fine play on the ball, but ultimately allowed it to squirt out as he went to the ground. Official No. 82 -- whose name the league didn't make available -- had no idea what had unfolded and looked up the line to Neely Dunn, an NFL supervisor of officials who had to tell him it was incomplete. Perhaps No. 82 would be looking to his teammate up the line in that situation for help, but I saw little effort to actually diagnose what happened and a big effort to get off the hook for making a call. Dunn was doing a lot of hands-on coaching of the officials. Will the league clone him and put him on the field as a reference point for these subs if they are used in actual games?
  • I can’t visit Jacksonville during camp without watching the defensive line’s period with its coach, Joe Cullen. It can be hard to look anywhere else, but I intentionally waited until today. He ran his guys through a furious session, going from drill-to-drill and working on power, cornering and getting through traffic. For the latter, they weaved through four dummies set in a tight row before turning left to hit the QB dummy and swipe at his arm. The pace was well above what you see at position drills. And yes, Cullen’s voice is about gone. His guys know how to listen to his hoarse instruction and evaluation.
  • Chad Henne has been average at best. Gabbert bashers can find ammunition, but at this point they can’t argue that the backup quarterback would give the Jaguars a better chance to win.
  • Coach Mike Mularkey said he never promotes fights but he does find value in the competitiveness that can fuel them. He went out of his way to point out that players are disciplined for fighting. He also went out of his way to share how minor that is: a $25 fine. A bit cheaper than the $10,000 hit for answering questions about injuries.
  • Gabbert is not being discouraged from running, and Mularkey sees a lot of advantages to the quarterback using his athleticism that way. “When you run the ball, you can protect yourself, you can see where the threat is coming from” as opposed to time spent in the pocket when a quarterback is encouraged to not look at the rush, Mularkey said. Certain coverages will create running opportunities that Gabbert should be considering even in the huddle.
  • Punt-returner candidates currently include Shorts, Mike Thomas, Aaron Ross, Charles Gilbert and Mike Brown.
  • Tight end Marcedes Lewis was featured in red zone team work and looked like the effective weapon we saw in that territory two years ago.
  • Rookie linebacker Brandon Marshall had a pick, reacting well to a ball batted shortly after Gabbert released it. Couldn’t ID whose paw altered the pass, sorry.
  • Injuries: Defensive end Austen Lane suffered a sprained foot and linebacker Daryl Smith has a groin injury. Mularkey is optimistic Robinson will be cleared to return but isn’t expecting the same for corner Kevin Rutland, who’s also likely dealing with a concussion.
  • Fans at Friday’s scrimmage will each get a scratch-off ticket, and 90 of them will win the jersey worn by each player on the field, which will be autographed.
  • Non-practice aside: I saw two versions of the Jaguars' commercials pushing tickets on Jacksonville’s NBC affiliate during Wednesday night’s Olympic coverage. Gabbert is featured in one, Smith and Tyson Alualu in the other. The players introduce themselves and pledge that they are “All In.” Sleek, I thought.
Aaron Kampman’s no longer a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

But if some of his teammates picked up on his professionalism, his influence will linger.

And Twitter gives us a couple indications that will be the case.


Some thoughts on Kampman on the day the Jaguars released him.
  • As Mark Long of AP points out, giving up on Kampman at this stage surely indicated the team’s feeling good about second-round pick Andre Branch, and Austen Lane, who’s was on IR last year after six games. You can also include John Chick here. Those three should be the guys beyond Jeremy Mincey to take the defensive end snaps.
  • The first time I spoke with Kampman, when he was recovering from the first of two ACL tears, he spoke of the recovery in a way I’ve never heard another player talk of it. He said he found the experience “purifying,” an outlook that’s struck me as healthy and always stuck with me.
  • He certainly will go on the negative side of Gene Smith’s GM ledger. But I don’t like to hold big injury guys at positions of need against teams who go for it. The Jaguars needed a pass- rusher, they needed leadership, and they made a move to get it. They got unlucky. (The Titans did that at receiver twice, memorably, with Yancey Thigpen and David Givens.)

I hope Kampman gets healthy and gets one more look somewhere. But if he doesn’t, I hope he’s satisfied with what he did as a player.

NFL Twindex: Cleveland WR takes crown

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
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Mohamed MassaquoiTom Cammett/Getty ImagesMohamed Massaquoi tops this week's Twindex.

It was a good week for pictures from NFLers on Twitter.

We had tourist shots of Larry Fitzgerald at the Lincoln Memorial and at The White House, a picture of Antonio Garay driving a Hello Kitty car, a shot of a receipt showing off just how much Michael Huff’s dad spent for groceries on his son’s credit card and a freeze frame of Josh Scobee’s locker on TV.

We at the NFL Twindex are in favor of all sharing. We seek insight into football lives, and do our best to weed through a lot of junk to find it.

If you see good humor, good explanations or yes, good pictures from an NFL player or coach or mascot or anyone on Twitter, please make sure we see it by calling our attention to it. Twindex headquarters can be found at @ESPN_AFCSouth and @PaulKuharsky.

To our new edition.

Chris HarrisAP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBears safety Chris Harris had an interesting take on the penalties in the Broncos-Raiders game.
Free advertising. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance?

When Randall Cobb gets his charitable foundation up and running, he’s likely to be using a logo he acquired thanks to a simple tweet.

Perhaps a young graphic artist out there will be able to add a line to his or her résumé after designing a mark for an NFL up-and-comer.

Cobb had a big debut in Green Bay’s season-opening win. Days later he decided to take advantage of the eyes on him. I’m guessing he’ll land a good logo out of it.

The smart marketing ploy gets him the No. 2 spot in this week’s NFL Twindex.

You can influence the poll by calling my attention to quality Tweers from NFLers. I’m @ESPN_AFCSouth and @PaulKuharsky.

First look: Jaguars' depth chart

August, 7, 2011
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Initial depth charts are like all of them -- unofficial and not always accurate.

Still, they are teams putting players and slots on the record.

The Jaguars' release for their preseason debut is out, and a depth chart is a required part of it.

No major surprises, but here’s stuff of note:
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars aren’t looking for parades or pinwheels as congratulations. But in the two years since Gene Smith took over as general manager, they’ve basically gutted the roster. And while setting about a major rebuilding project, they remained competitive with a 7-9 season and an 8-8 campaign.

After another draft and an active free-agency period, they now feel the rebuild is complete.

“There is an expectation level in this league to win, and I think having some horses makes us all smile in this building,” Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said. “I think we went out and acquired some guys for the second and third level of our defense where we talked about needing some help. ... It’s going to help us be a whole lot better.

“The pressure, the demands, that’s part of what we do, and I love that part of it. It becomes a little more enjoyable when you know you’re getting closer to being on equal footing."

Del Rio’s not buying that the Colts are slipping, and he’s not waiting for them to. The in-house expectation is that this team is capable of competing for the AFC South crown no matter what any other team in the division has going for it.

Bolstered by four upgrades among the top 12 players on defense, Jacksonville is a team that should be much improved. The Jaguars won’t be a popular pick, but they could be a surprise, emergent team.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert and David Garrard
Phil Sears/US PresswireThe Jaguars say they will develop Blaine Gabbert (left) slowly and have David Garrard take the snaps as the team's starter.
1. Will there be a quarterback controversy? The team stands firmly with David Garrard and intends to bring first-round pick Blaine Gabbert along slowly. But Gabbert has looked great early, while Garrard tends to be inconsistent. There are bound to be times during the season when there is some pressure to make a change from inside team headquarters, not just from media and fans.

“If we ever get to the point where we think Blaine is better than Dave, that’s good for the Jaguars,” offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. “Because I think Dave is good enough to win with; I think we can win our division with Dave Garrard at quarterback. If Blaine is better than Dave, shoot, that’s good for us.”

Del Rio and Koetter could have a complicated job managing how and when to play Gabbert if they feel he’s forcing his way into the lineup.

“I’ve got a healthy appreciation for the desire out there to make it a story,” Del Rio said. “For us, we’re about maximizing our opportunities as a football team, playing the guys who give us the best chance to win games and working on the preparation. ...

“Through the course of competition and exposure and based on health, those factors kind of take care of themselves. I don’t think we have to get ahead of the story. I think we can just let it play out, and at least we are doing so from a position of strength. There is no reason to make it dysfunctional, make it unhealthy. What purpose does that serve? It’s not going to help us win more games.”

It sounds good, but it can get complicated. Garrard’s the guy right now, and the team and the quarterback need to do a better job of making sure he gets hit far less so he can make consistently good decisions with the ball.

Factor tight ends Marcedes Lewis and Zach Miller and running backs Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings into the mix with the receivers, and the Jaguars have sufficient weapons to complement a run-based offense. Mike Thomas, Jason Hill and Cecil Shorts could be a better three-pack of receivers than many people think.

2. How much better can the revamped defense be? If this defense doesn’t improve from 32nd against the pass, 28th overall and 27th in points allowed, Del Rio will lose his job.

The team shelled out $37 million guaranteed to three prime free agents: linebackers Paul Posluszny and Clint Session and safety Dawan Landry. The Jags also added nickelback Drew Coleman.

That group, plus rookie defensive backs Chris Prosinski and Rod Issac, should vastly improve the defensive production and depth.

Smith wanted to build foundations early and spent his first two drafts working on the lines. Defensive tackles Tyson Alualu and Terrance Knighton should take up all kinds of blockers and create space for the two new linebackers and the underrated Daryl Smith to make a lot of impact plays.

“Jacksonville’s interior D-line really stood out,” Posluszny said about his research as a free agent. “They’ve got two studs in the middle that are very active, get to the ball a lot and certainly are going to take up a lot of blockers.”

Safety play last season was horrific, and Landry will be a significant upgrade even though he didn’t bring Ed Reed with him from Baltimore.

“I’m not looking for any grace period to assemble this defense,” Del Rio said. "Guys we’re assembling and counting on for the most part are veterans. ... We’re going to expect to play coming out of the gate as a winning football team, and defensively we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

3. Can they play well late in the season? December is a debacle for this team.

In the past three seasons in games played in December and beyond, the Jaguars are 4-11. They need to learn to finish games and seasons better. What can change it?

“I think in Week 13 or something, we had a better record than the Packers did last year,” Daryl Smith said. “They got hot, and who would have thought they would go on to win? That could be us. Why not? We have to try to stay off of that roller coaster, try to be consistent, just get better each week. Steady, steady, steady, then come late November or December, get hot.”

“I’ve been in the playoffs twice since I’ve been here and that’s been the formula. … We can’t feel like we arrived when we have a good game or played well and won a couple games.”

Del Rio says that with a more talented roster, he has to guide it to better work in the last quarter of the season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeAusten Lane
Scott A. Miller/US PresswireJacksonville could look to Austen Lane to help solidify their defensive line.
Beat writers and fans call Austen Lane “The Bringer of Pain.” It’s funny. But he looks like a guy who will make it hard for the team to look anywhere else for its second starting defensive end. He can be a ball of fury, and that will fit right in with the tone and tempo of the rest of the defensive front.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Right tackle Eben Britton came in with a reputation as a nasty player, and the team missed him last season when he was lost with a shoulder injury. I’ve picked him as a breakout-caliber guy this season. But word is he has not been great so far. Perhaps he’s still being cautious and easing his way back, but he needs to take things up a big notch soon.

OBSERVATION DECK
  • Two years ago, people were writing off center Brad Meester. But defenses were taking advantage of weak guard play to get to him. He rebounded well last season and is a guy whom coaches love as a reliable offensive line leader.
  • Knighton’s weight always will be an issue. The defensive tackle is a great player and superlikable guy. The team cannot hold his fork for him. The more he can control it, the more impact and money he will make.
  • Prosinski could well be in the opening day lineup as the free safety. He worked with the first team early in camp and might be up to a pairing with Landry in the middle of the secondary. Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox need to play better at corner, but the Jaguars will improve from the safety upgrades and from the presence of veteran nickelback Drew Coleman.
  • Looking for an underdog to root for? How about undrafted free agent Marc Schiechl? He set a Football Championship Subdivision record for sacks at the Colorado School of Mines.
  • Scotty McGee isn’t working with defensive backs regularly anymore. Can he stick as strictly a punt-return specialist? He caught 185 punts on one day of camp. And the team should move away from using Thomas in the role, although McGee is hardly the only alternative.
  • I like Miller, and the team raves about his potential. But he’s been inconsistent early in camp with too many drops. He’s got great hands, so it seems to be a focus issue.
  • Larry Hart may be in the doghouse for coming back from the lockout overweight. At defensive end, he currently ranks behind Aaron Kampman, Lane, Jeremy Mincey and Aaron Morgan.
  • Fourth-round receiver Cecil Shorts was great in camp early, and I bet the undrafted crop of wideouts has at least one NFL-caliber guy. Keep your eyes on Armon Binns, Jamar Newsome and Dontrelle Inman.
  • Third-year receiver Jarett Dillard is running well after a couple of injuries cost him the bulk of his first two seasons.
  • Watch how much better punter Matt Turk gets now that he will be a beneficiary of the Jaguars’ topflight cover guys, Montell Owens and Kassim Osgood.
  • The Jaguars may be content to use Jones-Drew, coming off a knee operation, very minimally in camp and preseason games.
  • Veteran Jason Spitz has not been on the field yet, but I think the team would like for third-round pick Will Rackley to win the open left guard spot.
Austen LaneAP Photo/Stephen MortonAusten Lane has now been in the top-10 rankings of all four of the NFL Twindexes so far.
Show, don’t tell. We’re making it an NFL Twindex commandment.

“I usually hate when athletes tweet about how good their workout was,” Matt Hasselbeck (@Hasselbeck) tweeted Thursday in a good start, “but we had a great one today!”

Bad finish.

Plenty of NFL fans starved for morsels and insight into football and beyond would love to know what made it good.

J.J. Watt (@JJWatt) did very well with show-don’t-tell when he tweeted this picture. Yowza.

Alas, Hasselbeck and Watt are snapshot examples for us here at Twindex HQ, where we’d like to host Cleveland receiver Carlton Mitchell and Green Bay tight end Tom Crabtree. They hold the top two spots in our new poll, flip-flopping their standing from two weeks ago.

We could have a 10-event competition for the two including feats of strength and intellect and concluding with a tweet-off or a tweet-up or a tweet-meet.

They were neck and neck, and it came down to my gut feeling -- Mitchell was more consistently amusing.

Scroll through my favorites to see what was considered as we made the final cuts -- we are now trying to track 493 guys.

And hit me at @ESPN_AFCSouth and @PaulKuharsky with tweets I need to see and people I need to follow.

Best of NFL: AFC South players

June, 28, 2011
6/28/11
2:00
PM ET
» Best of NFC: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

As part of Best of the NFL Week on ESPN.com, here are five bests for the AFC South:

Best nickname, “Pot Roast.” Jacksonville defensive tackle Terrance Knighton ordered it his rookie year in range of teammate Clint Ingram, and Ingram turned it into a nickname that stuck. Knighton’s gigantic to the point his weight has been an issue. But he’s a warm and funny guy who’s embraced the moniker rather than letting it bother him. It will become more widely known if and when he moves from lists of underrated players to lists of guys who are tops at their positions. He may also have the division’s best sack dance: he rubs his belly.

[+] EnlargeAndre Johnson and Cortland Finnegan
AP Photo/David J. PhillipAndre Johnson (80) and Cortland Finnegan went toe-to-toe last season.
Best leader, Peyton Manning: No one does more to set a standard that teammates have to follow than Manning. His work ethic borders on ridiculous and his detailed one-on-one sessions with pass-catchers during the offseason pay dividends when games roll around. Young guys on the Colts step into serious expectations and know that if they can’t live up to them, they’ll be subject to a glare or worse from Manning, who wants everyone to be as prepared as he is and to execute as precisely as he does.

Best individual rivalry, Texans receiver Andre Johnson vs. Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan: They had some history before last season’s game in Houston when they had a big, well-documented and publicized fight. Finnegan got under the mild-mannered Johnson’s skin, provoking him. Johnson won the fight even as the Titans tried to play up and praise Finnegan’s restraint. Moving forward, every time the division rivals play, the matchup between one of the league’s best receivers and a cornerback who’s been a Pro Bowler and All Pro will be a story.

Best teammate, Titans fullback Ahmard Hall: Hall has a sense of the moment. He knows when to be funny and when to be serious. He’s a Marine who served in Kosovo, who made it into the league as a free agent after he wasn’t selected in the supplemental draft. The Titans lack leadership, and even though Hall is not on the field for all of the offensive snaps, he provides a follow-me work ethic and seems to get along with everyone in every situation.

Best tweeter, Jacksonville’s Austen Lane: Lane is the lone player in the NFL to appear on the first three versions of ESPN.com’s NFL Twindex, which rates the quality of recent Twitter activity of players. He’s consistently entertaining. “This is not an account...but a lifestyle,” reads his Twitter bio. “If you are not into hitting QB's or dropping Twitter Bombs from the skies then this lifestyle is not for you!” As of Monday afternoon, he had only 1,975 followers, which is too few for him to have a chance to get Taylor Swift’s attention, something he’s joked about wanting. Badly.
Tom CrabtreeMichael Heiman/Getty ImagesCreative tweeting earns Packers tight end Tom Crabtree the top spot on the latest Twindex.
Want to rise and grind? Want to know how long a flight is delayed out of Atlanta? Want motivational quotes and bible passages?

Me neither.

That’s not what I am looking for on Twitter. But I am curious what NFL players are saying and I have made a commitment to sort through it all to give you the highlights from NFL players since the last edition of the NFL Twindex.

Comedy is key during the lockout, but once things are settled we expect far more football talk to be involved here.

It’s not all about laughs on Twitter, and Amy Nelson illustrated so well in this piece about Brandon Phillips of the Cincinnati Reds.

Check out tweets I made favorites. That's the list I then worked with to craft our new poll.


Seeing quality tweets you want to make sure are considered? Point me to them. I'm @ESPN_AFCSouth and @Paul Kuharsky.
Carlton Mitchell and Steve BreastonGetty ImagesCarlton Mitchell and Steve Breaston were the cream of the NFL tweeting crop in the latest Twindex.
My eyes glazed over as would-be analysts offered little worthy of attention on Twitter regarding the NBA Finals, starting with too many of these: “Who ya got tonight, Mavs or Heat?”

Yawn-inducing, akin to, “What up [insert city here]?”

Over the last two weeks, we heard who came close to missing a flight and who was delayed and what they thought of the airports they were delayed in.

But even in such a desolate landscape, wonderful things popped up.

Little known Carlton Mitchell, a second-year Browns wide receiver, was consistently hilarious and emerged from nowhere to take the top spot -- not by a nose, but in a landslide.

Laughs are aplenty among the rest of the field in the second edition of the NFL Twindex, one man’s subjective rankings of the best NFL tweeters out there over the last two weeks.

Big names who did well in the feature’s debut disappeared, with only three players retaining a spot in the top 10.

Without further ado, the new list:


Have a tweet I need to see? A Tweeter who needs more consideration? Find me at @ESPN_AFCSouth and @PaulKuharsky.

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