NFL Nation: Bill Kollar

Among the questions about the Houston Texans' defense as the NFL season kicks off is this: After a great gain last year, will there be some regression?

Football Outsiders expects a drop off. They predict the Texans will be 15th in their defensive ratings.

The Texans begin to show us how they’ll be Sunday against Miami, and they will be at full strength.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
Jerome Miron/US PresswireHouston coach Gary Kubiak said J.J. Watt has been "excellent" in practice heading into Sunday's season opener.
Three key players -- end J.J. Watt (elbow), inside linebacker Brian Cushing (ribs) and nose tackle Shaun Cody (back) -- played sparingly or not at all in the preseason.

They are good to go now, but may be kicking some rust off this week in preparations.

Watt was injured early and didn’t suit up for any of the four games. The Texans will monitor how much he plays.

“Well, I don’t want to say a play count, but there’s no reason for him to go out there and play 70 plays,” coach Gary Kubiak told Houston reporters Wednesday. “I think we know that. That’s on me and Wade [Phillips] and [defensive line coach] Bill [Kollar] to make sure. But watching practice, he’s been excellent. I watched one-on-ones today, he was excellent. He looks like J.J. I know he’s going to be battling us to take every play but I think it’s smart of us to make sure that we bring him along the right way.”

Cody and Cushing won’t necessarily have the same limitations. Cody missed three preseason games, Cushing two.

“Well they’re a little different; they did play some in the preseason, so I would say they’re a little further ahead from that standpoint,” Kubiak said. “We’re going to rotate Shaun anyway. Earl [Mitchell] has had a great preseason. Mister [Alexander] has had a great preseason; he’ll have to spell Cush some. I think we’re going to play a lot of people, regardless.

“This is the week where every team goes past a point they haven’t been to yet, as far as how many plays you play and the first team and that type of thing. We’re going to rotate players. We’re going to keep fresh guys on the field. We’ve got confidence in all of them.”

Said Watt: “It feels good. It feels good to have the defense at full strength, have the guys you’re familiar with, the guys you’re used to. We all know each other so well it’s fun and the defense really jells well.”

The expectation is that a defense that regularly swarmed quarterbacks last year will have a big day against rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

He’s certainly not expecting a team that’s regressing to the mean defensively.

“They don’t have as many exotic pressures and zone blitzes as you will see from other teams, but they’re really good at what they do,” Tannehill said in a conference call. “They believe [in] what they do and they’re crisp at it.

“So, it’s not a situation where they have so much in that they’re not good at it, or you’re going to catch them at something that they're not really comfortable with and do a whole lot. So they really trust, like I said earlier, in their players and they believe in their one-on-one matchups.”
At the midpoint of the 2010 season, Wade Phillips was out of work after being forced out as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.

At the midpoint of the 2011 season, he’s being touted by virtually everyone as the most influential coordinator/assistant coach in the league.

As the Houston Texans defensive coordinator, Phillips has guided a team that was 30th in defense last season to a 29-spot gain. Through nine games, the revamped Texans defense is first in the league.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Troy Taormina/US PresswireTexans coordinator Wade Phillips gives his players credit for being the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense.
“A year ago about now I didn’t have a job, after eight games I didn’t have a job, he said with a laugh when I asked him to compare head-coaching life to coordinating. “It’s what I do. It’s football coaching and I try to do the best I can wherever I am and I’ve been lucky to be in a lot of good situations …

“It’s head coach of the defense, that’s the way that I’ve always looked at it. I’ve had autonomy most of the time, as far as head coaches letting me run it. The head coach has control and I am a good soldier on whatever he wants done … It never has mattered either way, really. I’m coaching and that’s what I love to do. I’m around the players, I’m hopefully helping them get better. That’s what I’ve always tried to do whether I am head coach or coordinator.”

And Phillips certainly isn’t reading the clips that are naming him assistant of the year at the halfway point. He's deflecting attention and credit.

“It still comes down to them, it’s what kind of players you have,” Phillip said. “Part of it is utilizing the talents that you have, the guys who can play inside linebacker, putting them in the right place and give them opportunities to make plays, playing different techniques with different guys. That’s the coaching part of it. The X's and O's are important, the calls are important and all of that stuff.

“But it comes down to the players. I’ve been lucky to be with a lot of good players over the years and that makes me look good.”

Phillips also praised the work of line coach Bill Kollar, linebacker coach Reggie Herring and defensive backs coach Vance Joseph.

Kollar was the lone position coach holdover from the defensive staff Gary Kubiak had last season with Frank Bush as coordinator.

Herring and Joseph were connected to Phillips and hired on his recommendation. And Phillips had major input into player acquisition as the Texans added veteran defensive backs Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning and drafted heavily on defense, starting with end J.J. Watt and linebacker Brooks Reed.

Those coaches and players have been key elements to the Texans' rise to defensive prominence.

Stay tuned for more out of my conversation with Phillips.
Amobi OkoyeKellen Micah/Icon SMI "He's got to find another level," Texans general manager Rick Smith said of Amobi Okoye (91).
He came into the league especially young and filled with promise, the 10th pick in the 2007 draft.

Now, Houston Texans defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, still just 23, will no longer get snaps based on potential. His team needs production and penetration from its defensive tackles, and if he can’t provide it, coaches can turn to a new alternative.

So Okoye, who figured to be a high-ranking defensive building block with Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing, will head into Texans' camp trying to cling to his role.

“He’s got to find another level and I think he understands that,” general manager Rick Smith said. “He’s got to find another level of production, he’s got to find another level of intensity, and I think he gets that. We’re expecting to see that.”

Okoye was listed at 315 pounds last season and played at around 300. He is currently 283. Is lighter the way to go? If he gives up any ability to hold the point of attack, we may well be asking if it was a smart trade-off for a bit more quickness, but he’s hoping to hold up better at a lighter weight and being quicker than his blocker.

[+] EnlargeAmobi Okoye
AP Photo/David J. PhillipAfter posting 5.5 sacks as a rookie, Amobi Okoye has collected just 2.5 sacks in two years since.
He says he’s rejuvenated, feeling strong and more explosive.

He’s got a bulging disc in his back and lingering issues with his knees, an ankle and a shoulder. Work to his core muscles shaved some pounds and may help with those injury issues. The weight loss continued, he said, with some light running on the side with his little sister, 10-year old Chinwe, who he didn’t think had enough physical activity in her life.

“Internally I feel stronger,” he said. “You can have the looks, but your muscles may not be what it looks like on the outside.”

He had 5.5 sacks as a rookie, but only 2.5 since. That drop-off doesn’t look good, but Okoye isn’t sure it’s reflective of his play.

“Anyone you watch film with will say they’ve seen improvement from Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3,” he said. “Play-wise, it’s been good. Statistically the last two years, I’ve only had one and one-and-a-half sacks.”

He came into the league with fanfare over his youth and background, and expectations aren’t normal, he said.

“I’m not expected as a defensive tackle, I’m expected as Amobi Okoye,” he said. “I finally see the difference.”

Defensive line coach Bill Kollar, who’s entering his second season, agrees that Okoye is better, but says he hasn’t improved enough.

And toughness is the major theme.

“I watched all the games from the year before [2008] and the guys here said he needed to be a more physical player,” Kollar said. “We kept on him: ‘Hey, man you’ve got to hit, when that ball carrier is going down you’ve got to go down and get him, you’ve got to finish plays more.’ It was a big thing. He definitely did a better job, but he can do more…

“Don’t come over and stand by the guy, you’ve got to finish it off… If you don’t like getting in there and scrapping and grinding, you can’t play in this league. We’ve got to make sure when the pads are on that’s what he’s doing.”

One of the Texans' big questions is their third-down pass-rush package. Antonio Smith will continue to kick inside from end to tackle, with Connor Barwin now a lock to replace him opposite Williams. That leaves one inside spot.

And if Okoye can’t earn it, third-rounder Earl Mitchell might.

“One of those two guys will be the other guy inside,” Kollar said.

First-rounders typically get the benefit of the doubt for a good while. So I was a bit surprised that Okoye, Kollar and Smith all agreed Okoye is not certain to fit in that crucial group. Kollar isn’t even talking like Okoye is even assured of a place in the base defense.

Okoye said he doesn’t view Mitchell as a challenge but as a teammate -- one who is, incidentally, only about three months younger.

“We’re going to help each other out, I want him on the field too,” Okoye said. “I love the city, I love the team. I just want both of us to work to improve this team.

“I have inner selfishness, and I think every player should have that…. With that, I would definitely be upset with myself if I am not out there. I’m definitely going to make sure I get to be an every down player.”
 
  Bob Levey/Getty Images
  Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and the Texans defense have a new attitude.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

HOUSTON -- React or act?

Give a group of guys who've spent a lot of time doing the former to do the latter and you'll be greeted with glee.

That's the Houston Texans' defense's feelings for first-year coordinator Frank Bush, promoted by Gary Kubiak to replace Richard Smith.

Camp Confidential: AFC South
Titans: Mon., Aug. 3
Jaguars: Sat., Aug. 8
Colts: Sat., Aug. 15
Texans: Fri., Aug. 21
Training camp index
"His leadership and the way he comes off to the players, it's a different feeling," middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "It's a different attitude, a different mentality which carries over to the guys and our attitude. We're a lot more physical team. I don't want to say we were too passive.

"I think we had guys thinking too much, we had so many checks and this and that. It was too much, you're thinking so much to where you can't just line up and go tee off on someone. Now we can just line up and get it, there isn't so much too it. It's simplified to where we don't have all the checks."

The primary word being used for the team's new approach is "aggressive," and that's not a term that characterized them too often with Smith at the controls. The mild mannered Bush has the defense excited and determined not to let the Texans be known exclusively as an offensive team.

While Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Steve Slaton and Owen Daniels will go a long way towards determining if the Texans can build on consecutive 8-8 seasons and make the playoffs, Mario Williams, Ryans and linebacker Brian Cushing, a first-round pick, bring a good dose of star power to the defense.

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"They are getting tougher and tougher to go against every day," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "They've improved themselves with a bunch of players, they've been rushing the passer better and they are making it tough on us."

To graduate to being a playoff team, the Texans have to reverse some trends. They'll need to play better early so they aren't left to fight so hard to get back to .500. They need to fare better within the division, finding ways to finish off their primary rivals when they have the chance.

They expect the Titans and Colts to be strong again. The Texans will likely have to chase one or both of those teams down.

Anything less than double digit wins and a playoff berth won't be considered a success.

Key questions

1. Can the offense fix turnover and red-zone issues?

The Texans ranked third in total offense last year, but it didn't mean as much as it should have because they were 17th in points per game. The two big themes heading into the 2009 season are cutting turnovers and getting better production once they get inside the 20.

They were minus-10 in takeaways/giveaways last year, third worst in the NFL. They scored touchdowns on just 45.9 percent of their red zone possessions.

"I think if we can make those two adjustments, we can win at least two more games," Shanahan said. "If we can do that I think we will be a playoff team. We were a good offense last year statistically. But that was the first thing I talked about on the first day of OTAs this year, that doesn't mean anything. The top three offenses in the league last year were New Orleans, Denver and us. None of us made the playoffs. Moving the ball does not matter unless you move it across that goal line."

2. Do they have enough in the secondary?

Their top cornerback, Dunta Robinson, has not been with the team because he's upset about getting slapped with a franchise tag, but he will ultimately sign it and play for a guarantee of nearly $10 million.

Jacques Reeves will miss the start of the season with a fractured fibula, which means Fred Bennett will get some time as the second starter. Rookie Glover Quin is currently the nickel and they like his physical play.

But the safeties and the defensive backfield depth are question marks, even if the defensive front gets more of a pa
ss rush and forces the ball out quicker. Can they get steady enough play from Eugene Wilson and second-year man Dominique Barber, the presumptive starters at safety on opening day against the Jets?

 
  Defensive end Mario Williams
  Defensive end Mario Williams accounted for 12 of the Texans' 25 sacks last season.
3. Does Williams have enough pass rush help?

The Texans had just 25 sacks in 2008, fewest in the division. And Williams accounted for 12 of them. Houston made moves intended to get pressure from elsewhere -- first by signing free agent defensive lineman Antonio Smith, then by drafting Cushing and defensive end Connor Barwin with their first two picks. New defensive line coach Bill Kollar is a fiery type who preaches pocket penetration and may just be the team's biggest addition.

An effective rush from the front can help take a lot of pressure off the secondary, which ranks as the team's weak link.

Market watch

Ideally, Jacoby Jones would be in line to replace Kevin Walter as the No. 2 receiver in a year if the team doesn't or can't re-sign Walter. But Jones lacks maturity and consistency and his job security could be in jeopardy. The team is looking at kickoff return man Andre Davis, a better receiver, as a punt return possibility. If Davis succeeds there, Jones could be expendable.

Jones can be very good, but he can also put the ball on the ground too much as a punt returner. And Kubiak is not a fan of specialists. He wants football players who can fill multiple roles. That describes Davis, who can cover kicks as well as return them in addition to catching passes. It may not cover Jones much longer.

Newcomer to watch

Smith
Smith wasn't regarded as any sort of premier pass rusher when he hit free agency. But he's a versatile lineman who is very good with his hands. If things go the way the Texans hope, he can be an early down end and a third down tackle, having a positive influence and taking on a leadership role for youngsters Williams, Amobi Okoye and Barwin.

"He's a kid that can move from outside to inside, he's a big man that's a real good athlete," said Bush, who also worked with him in Arizona. "He's a 285-pound guy with good knee bend. He's extremely tough, has no problem playing over a center, guard or tackle. He takes a lot of pride in his performance and he came up through the ranks the hard way, he honed his craft and made himself what he is.

"That whole sense of a guy that came from virtually nothing to what he is right now kind of helps our team. Other guys can see it and aspire to be that way."

Observation deck

Antwaun Molden got hurt in his rookie season when the team wanted to bring him along slowly. He's a physical cornerback who could provide some great insurance or become a real alternative now if he's needed. ... Dan Orlovsky hasn't looked very good, but the team knows it will take him a while to be comfortable in the system and are convinced with coaching he can be a quality No. 2 quarterback for them. Even before a hamstring injury Rex Grossman wasn't going to challenge him for the backup quarterback job. ... Ryan Moats is like Slaton style-wise and Arian Foster is Chris Brown-like. But the undrafted rookie back may have missed his chance with a preseason injury and a too-slow return. Brown's ability to stay healthy will be a big question for the offense. ... While he's a popular fall guy with media and fans, defensive tackle Travis Johnson, who's missed camp so far recovering from hernia surgery, generally does what the team asks, taking up blockers. That it's a contract year won't hurt his motivation either. ... Undrafted free agent John Busing hits and plays good special teams, which may give him a shot at a roster spot that has belonged to Nick Ferguson or Brandon Harrison. ... The team also likes undrafted defensive end Tim Jamison, but will there be room for him? ... Frank Okam is big, quick and smart and he's been a pet project for coaches. When Kubiak complimented his offseason, Okam knew it meant something, "because it's difficult for an Aggie to give a Longhorn a compliment." ... Rookie tight end James Casey can play fullback, line up wide or throw. That's versatility that makes him Houston's Wildcat candidate. ... Want an undrafted possibility on offense? If Jones is out, there could be room for receiver Darnell Jenkins.

 
  Rick Stewart/Getty Images
  John McCargo hasn't played up to expectations so far in his NFL career.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- John McCargo hears the criticism. He tries to ignore it, but he's human. He admits it's difficult.

The Buffalo Bills defensive tackle isn't 26 years old yet. He has been called a bum, a slug, a bust. His old position coach chided him. His team gave up on him.

"When people say things, it doesn't make me mad because it's the truth," McCargo said after signing autographs at Buffalo Bills training camp on Sunday afternoon.

"I haven't played well since I've been in the league. I know that. It's not like I'm afraid to admit the truth. It's hard when you get picked in the first round, and you haven't done what you're supposed to do."

McCargo is entering a crossroads season. He intends to make this one count.

"All the naysayers and whatever, I want to show them that I am a football player, and I'm an athlete, and I didn't get picked where I did for no reason," McCargo said. "If you want to say I have a chip, sure, I do. But most of it's just me. I put the pressure on myself."

 
  Luc Leclerc/US PRESSWIRE
  John McCargo has just 2.5 sacks in his injury-plagued three-year NFL career.

McCargo was the 26th selection of the 2006 draft. What's more, the Bills traded up to get him. They desperately dealt their No. 42 and No. 73 picks to the Chicago Bears to nab a defensive tackle because the top two already were off the board and their scouts saw a big drop off after McCargo.

Three years later, McCargo's stat line includes 28 games, zero starts and 2.5 sacks.

Buffalo's former defensive line coach, Bill Kollar, publicly questioned his desire last year. McCargo was scratched from the season opener. The Buffalo News charted McCargo for an average of 11 snaps a game, a distant fourth among their defensive tackles.

Oh, and the Bills traded him away last year. They unloaded him to the Indianapolis Colts for a fourth-round draft choice. The Colts, however, noticed McCargo had a bulging disk and voided the trade.

So McCargo slinked back to Buffalo. Eventually, the ordeal turned into an awakening.

"It definitely was an awkward situation with that," McCargo said. "It was kind of hard to brush off, but it's cool. It's all part of the business.

"Once I started looking at football like it is, a business, a lot of stuff was able to roll off my shoulders more. That's why I look at it like this: If you do what you're supposed to be doing, you'll be here; if not, you won't. If I don't do what I'm supposed to do, that's on me."

Bills head coach Dick Jauron said he viewed the voided trade with Indianapolis as an opportunity for a new beginning.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Here's what we know halfway through the AFC South picks of the second round:

  • The Jaguars are very intent on rebuilding their offensive line.
  • The Texans have carried their pass rush help for Mario Williams theme into their premium pick neighborhood.

Jacksonville took Arizona offensive tackle Eben Britton in the second round with the draft's 39th pick, making their start of their draft tackle-tackle. With No. 8 pick Eugene Monroe and Britton, the team may have its bookends for a long while and have reason to expect that David Garrard will have more time to sort through options and find open people.

After Houston took USC linebacker Brian Cushing 15th overall, the Texans stuck to defense with the 46th pick tabbing raw but high-energy Cincinnati defensive end Connor Barwin. Mel Kiper compared the 6-3, 253-pound Barwin's non-stop motor to that of Titans end Kyle Vanden Bosch. When I talked to new defensive line coach Bill Kollar recently, he spoke of his willingness to shift free agent addition Antonio Smith inside on passing downs if that's what the personnel called for. Barwin may help create that scenario.

 
  Diamond Images/Getty Images
  New defensive line coach Bill Kollar vows to get more out of Houston's defensive line this season.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Bill Kollar plans to scream, cajole, irritate and pester.

The Texans' new defensive line coach casts himself not just as a coach, but as a button-pusher. He says his style is similar to that of a friend he once crossed coaching paths with briefly at Purdue -- Jim Washburn.

Washburn has coached the Tennessee Titans defensive line with great success -- and at high volume -- since 1999. As the Texans looked to start reinventing their defense, they lured Kollar from Buffalo.

Kollar pledges to do what he needs to squeeze all he can out of a group that features 2006 No. 1 overall draft pick Mario Williams. The Texans didn't produce enough good play around the Pro Bowl defensive end last season. Houston's linemen, then, can expect constant reminders that they are to run to the ball on all occasions and never take a play off.

Kollar will rotate his people. With the free-agent additions of defensive end Antonio Smith (from the Arizona Cardinals) and tackle Shaun Cody (from the Detroit Lions), he should have better depth than his predecessor, Jethro Franklin, did. The Texans are sure to also draft at least one defensive lineman.

"Obviously we're teachers, but we're also motivators," Kollar said. "If you had a whole group of players that were self motivated, that went nuts, you wouldn't have to worry about it. That would be fine. But I've never had a group like that and I don't know how many guys do or if there is a group like that. So I think everybody now and then can be helped to keep going by a little kick in the rear."

Kollar, a 1974-first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals who played eight seasons as a defensive lineman in the NFL, is still getting to know the Texans. Much of his sense of them still comes more off tape than from his own interaction and experiences.

In a phone chat with the AFC South Blog this week, he was willing to frame each of his linemen, providing his general feelings about each of them -- feelings that can obviously change significantly between now and opening day.

Smith: "A guy who works his butt off, gives you 100 percent all the time. We think he will end up definitely helping us. He's got good technique and knows how to use his hands and stuff. He's not the most agile guy out there that's going to run a 4.5 or something like that. But he really uses his hands well, watching him over the last few years he does a really good job."

Williams: "A heck of a guy, a heck of a player. I've really been impressed with the guy... He works his butt off out there and I think he just wants to keep getting better and better and take the team to the playoffs. And the better your team is, the better accolades your players end up getting.

"People know about the sacks, but he's a hell of a run player too. As long and as strong as he is, he does a heck of a job in both aspects."

 
  AP/Gene J. Puskar
  The Texans lured Bill Kollar from the Bills and hope Kollar's motivational style is what the defensive line needs to take the next step.

Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye: "I know he had that high ankle sprain [last year] and it's tough to play with. We're obviously hoping that's all past him now and with a young guy like that hopefully by the third year they hopefully kick in and become the player that they are going to be. We're hoping that happens this year...

"He's 22 [in June] and you look at it and sort of feel like the first two years in the league were his junior and senior year of college and he's just sort of had a jump on the guys coming out this year because he's already been playing with the big boys instead of still playing in college. Now you're hoping he's able to take it to the next level, stay healthy, that's always a big factor in anybody's career."

Defensive tackle Travis Johnson: "The guy plays hard, he's more of a run-down player, he's sort of trying to anchor down in the middle compared to a pass rusher. What happens when you end up taking a defensive tackle or a defensive end in the first round, you expect production in both the run and the pass. [The Texans selected Johnson in the first round in 2005.]

"The funny thing is, if you go back over years, very seldom do your nose men turn out to be pass rushers. They are the guys in there getting doubled all the time and anchoring down and then usually -- I won't say all the time, but usually - when it becomes third down, you might take another guy, you might take one of your outside guys and move him inside. And those [nose] guys sort of end up getting their break in passing situations. You can look at it quite a few different ways, but that's how I sort of view it and it really happens that way for a lot of guys."

Cody: "He's been unable to do anything so far here. I remember watching him and liking him coming out of USC. He had some injury problems there in Detroit, we're hoping that all those are past him now and we see him as able to play either spot inside which turns out to be a big plus for him, it turns out to give you more playing time and for us it helps depth-wise."

"We see him probably a little more as a solid player in the run game than he is a pass rush guy. Anytime you get a pass rush guy who can get up the field and go, we'd love to have it. When he was in college and so far at Detroit, he's a little more of a run down player than a pass rusher."

End Tim Bulman: "A real hard worker, a real tough kid when you watch him. I've sort of been impressed so far with what I have seen of him... I know he was down at Arizona when Kyle Vanden Bosch was down there and Vanden Bosch didn't have a lot of success down there, I know he was injured, he blew a couple of knees out and stuff. But I think Tim has seen
what Vanden Bosch was able to do on a new team and I am sure he's hoping that's a possibility that it could happen for him."

Defensive tackle Frank Okam: "He's more of an anchor guy, we're hoping he can end up getting in there and plug up the gap and help with short-line pursuit and stuff... A lot of second-year guys that really didn't play that much their first year, sometimes they make a big step. We'll just sort of see how it ends up going with him."

End Stanley McClover, who spent almost all of 2008 on IR with a right knee injury: "He's still probably not at 100 percent. I really saw no film on him, he got hurt in the first game I think. I really don't know much about him at all."

End Jesse Nading: "Played a little bit last year, mainly in passing situations. Showed a little quickness here and there. Maybe a little undersized but has some good mobility, has pretty good feet."

Defensive tackle DelJuan Robinson: "He's a big stop guy, too, in there."

A final thought:

Prevailing wisdom has been that the Texans need an upgrade inside to play the nose next to Okoye. Kollar sounds pleased with the pool he's already got to choose from, and he could and could get another candidate in the draft.

"We've got quite a few on the inside especially at the nose we should end up having some good competition with Johnson, Cody, Okam and Robinson," he said.

But if one of the ends emerges as a good rusher opposite Williams or the Texans add that guy in the draft, it sure sounds like Smith could be the interior answer on passing downs.

"He's definitely a good inside rusher, I mean he's slippery inside, he uses his hands well," Kollar said. "He ended up playing a lot inside last year on first and second down. He just does a good job, he plays with great leverage, he was able to slip through gaps. He can give you some rush from the inside, that's for sure."

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

The Texans' three most recent No. 1 draft picks, including No, 15 in the upcoming draft, may well be the key to Houston's season.

That was a big theme coach Gary Kubiak hit on in his Tuesday morning breakfast meeting with reporters at the owner's meeting in Dana Point, Calif., which I have had a chance to look at thanks to John McClain.

Here are the key pieces of what Kubiak had to say regarding No. 15 and recent first-rounders Amobi Okoye, a defensive tackle, and Duane Brown, the left tackle:

What do you expect out of your first-round pick?

Our first-round pick has to have a big impact on our team. The more the first-round pick continues to be an impact player, the better we're going to get. We could still use an impact player at linebacker and on the backend (but) we'd be hard-pressed to take a receiver or a running back in the first round.

How important is it for you to hit a home run with that pick?

It's very important. We've made progress, and for us to make some more progress, that guy has to be an impact player.

On Okoye's second-year drop off and expectations for him now:

Amobi's got to become an impact player. You talk about this year's No. 1 pick becoming an impact player, that's what we need him to do. When it comes to taking the next step for our defense, Amobi's more important than anybody. I was a little disappointed last season but not with his work. He battled a high ankle sprain. I think we're over those things. He's grown up. He's more mature. I like the way he's started the offseason. Bill [Kollar] has a good reputation with players like Amobi and what his talent is as far as coming off the ball. It's a big year for him."

On what Kubiak wants to see from Okoye:

I want to see him be active, be a factor. We want him to be a factor in all phases of the game. Sometimes I think he worried so much about trying to get sacks that he forgot about having fun and just cutting it loose and playing the game. Sacks aren't the most important thing. We expect him to be a big-time contributor.

If Okoye is the one defensive player who has to step up, who's the one offensive player who has to step up?

I think Duane Brown has to take another step forward. There's no more coming off the field like he did last year [when backup Ephraim Salaam played every fourth series]. He made a lot of progress as a rookie starting every game, and now he has to make more to help our offense be more successful.

Hot Button: AFC East

February, 15, 2009
2/15/09
12:21
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

The top issues facing each team in the division:

Buffalo Bills

Primary issue: The Bills had the weakest pass rush for an NFL team that wasn't an out-and-out doormat. They recorded 24 sacks all season. Only the Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs had fewer.

 
  Brendan Maloney/US Presswire
  If available, Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo would fit in nicely with the Bills.

A significant problem was the loss of Pro Bowl defensive end Aaron Schobel for all but the first five games because of a foot injury. But he managed only one sack when he was available. The Bills haven't gotten anything out of John McCargo, a defensive tackle they traded up to draft 26th overall three years ago. He has started zero times and has notched 2.5 sacks.

The Bills lost defensive line coach Bill Kollar, who accepted a promotion to be Houston Texans' assistant head coach. Fired Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Bob Sanders has replaced him.

Solution: If Schobel recovers and Sanders can figure out a way to unlock the lackadaisical McCargo, then the Bills' defensive line might spring back nicely. The Bills hold the 11th overall draft choice, and top-rated pass rushers Brian Orakpo of Texas and Everette Brown of Florida State could be available.

Hot Button Archive
Kuharsky: AFC South
Yasinskas: NFC South
Seifert: NFC North
Walker: AFC North
Sando: NFC West
Williamson: AFC West
Graham: AFC East
Mosley: NFC East

Secondary concern: The Bills need to build some goodwill between themselves and their fans. Given the dreadful economy and the team's recent past, even the most ardent Bills supporter has plenty of reasons not to buy tickets. The Bills haven't made the playoffs in nine years. Fans are down on management's decision to stick with head coach Dick Jauron.

Solution: As much as Bills fans despised former general manager Tom Donahoe, they have to admit he knew how to get them excited with high-profile offseason moves such as the Drew Bledsoe acquisition and the first-round Willis McGahee gamble. Would it kill the Bills to provide a little excitement this spring?


Miami Dolphins

 
  Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
  California center Alex Mack could help solidify the Dolphins' offensive line.

Primary issue: Miami's interior offensive line was a major source of frustration throughout the season.

At first, the Dolphins weren't happy with the depth, routinely circulating street free agents through the roster. Rookie Donald Thomas won the starting right guard job but suffered a season-ending foot injury on opening day. Left guard Justin Smiley, their top offseason free-agent acquisition, played well but went down with a gruesome leg injury in Week 13. The front office has decided center Samson Satele isn't sturdy enough to handle 3-4 nose tackles.

The Dolphins went into 2008 excited about their running-back tandem of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, but their inability to run inside limited offensive options and forced the Dolphins to try the exotic Wildcat offense, which put two tackles on the same side of the line.

Right tackle Vernon Carey is a free agent. If the Dolphins re-sign him, there's talk of switching him to guard.

Solution: The Dolphins are searching for a center to anchor their offensive line. Free agency is an option, but drafting a center such as Alex Mack of California or Max Unger of Oregon creates a tantalizing proposition of a formidable line that can stay together for years. Satele could shift to guard and provide depth. Thomas will be back. No. 1 draft pick Jake Long went to the Pro Bowl.

Secondary concern: As ownership switched from Wayne Huizenga to Stephen Ross, football operations chief Bill Parcells renegotiated his four-year contract to include a permanent walkout clause with full pay. Parcells can leave whenever he desires for any reason he wants.

Solution: Leave him alone, Steve.


New England Patriots

Primary issue: The three biggest concerns for the Patriots this offseason are Tom Brady's ACL, Tom Brady's MCL and Tom Brady's knee infections.

 
  Greg M. Cooper/US PRESSWIRE
  The Patriots have $29 million in salary-cap dollars tied up between Tom Brady and Matt Cassel.

Much of the Patriots' offseason -- and beyond -- hinges on Mr. Everything's status for 2009 because roughly $29 million in salary-cap dollars are tied up between him and his insurance policy, Matt Cassel.

That massive allocation will affect how flexible the Patriots can be when it comes to signing free agents or hammering out extensions to players they want to keep around.

Solution: The Patriots must clear Cassel's one-year, $14.65 million guaranteed contract off the books by trading him, but they might not be able to do so. They need to make sure Brady is healthy enough first, and they might not know for months.

Secondary concern: Brain drain hasn't been a problem for the Patriots yet, but recurring defections could catch up to them eventually. Vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli is the Kansas City Chiefs' general manager. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is the Denver Broncos' head coach. Other respected assistants have shuffled about.

Solution: Head coach Bill Belichick has to maintain his remarkable knack for finding and nurturing football minds who always seem to thrive in the Patriots' already-established culture.


New York Jets

 
  Rich Kane/US PRESSWIRE
  Kellen Clemens, right, will be one candidate to replace Brett Favre as the Jets' quarterback.
Primary issue: The chief concern evolved a little on Wednesday, shifting from "How long will the Jets have to wait on Brett Favre?" to "How will the Jets replace Brett Favre?"

Management insists it's focusing on the three candidates already on the Jets' roster. But Kellen Clemens has made only eight starts, most of them frightful. Brett Ratliff and Erik Ainge have combined for zero NFL game snaps.

The Jets are downplaying their interest in locating another candidate through free agency or the draft, but banging those drums so soon would be demoralizing to the three hopefuls and possibly short-circuit a budding competition.

Solution: Rookie head coach Rex Ryan is a defensive mastermind, which means this mostly will be Brian Schottenheimer's problem to solve. Ryan said he wants to run an all-weather offense, which emphasizes the run. That should help alleviate pressure on a young quarterback.

Secondary concern: Despite star cornerback Darrelle Revis and impressive safety Kerry Rhodes, the Jets were miserable in defending the pass last season. They ranked 29th in pass defense, allowing 234.5 yards a game. Opponents completed 64.3 percent of their passes and threw for 23 touchdowns.

Solution: The Jets desperately need an effective cornerback to start opposite Revis. Getting sixth-overall draft pick Vernon Gholston playing like the pass rusher they thought he was at Ohio State wouldn't hurt either.

Hot Button: AFC South

February, 9, 2009
2/09/09
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Houston Texans

 
  Doug Benc/Getty Images
  Matt Schaub tossed 10 interceptions and lost four fumbles in 2008.

Primary issue: The 2007 Texans were a terrible turnover team, giving the ball away 38 times with interceptions and fumbles. Protecting the ball and taking it away from the opposition were huge themes from the time that season ended all the way through the 2008 season.

But Houston cut the giveaways by only six and improved its takeaway-giveaway ratio by just three, to minus-10. For a team that was far better on offense than defense, it's hard to harp on an offensive issue. But Gary Kubiak simply has to find a better way to get the message across to his team. The Texans were 2-5 when they had three or more turnovers and 5-2 when they had one or none.

Quarterback Matt Schaub needs to play a full season and find a balance between being an aggressive weapon and a turnover liability with picks and fumbles.

Solution: Stickum? The primary people with the ball in their hands aren't going to change, so Kubiak and his staff have to continue to pound the theme and seek new ways to get the message across. If the defense can improve from 22nd overall, perhaps the offense will squeeze the ball or force a play less often.

Secondary concern: The pass rush just wasn't sufficient and Mario Williams can't work alone. The Texans had 25 sacks, 12 from Williams. The teams that qualified for the playoffs in the AFC averaged 38 sacks and the Super Bowl champion Steelers had 51. In the AFC South, quick heat on Peyton Manning and an ability to get through Tennessee's solid line are necessities.

The Texans played better defensively at season's end when they were more aggressive. Under new defensive coordinator Frank Bush, they hope to continue the move to that style. But to make it work they need a second big-time pass-rusher who can take some pressure and attention off Williams and whose impact will trickle to the linebackers and secondary.

Solution: The Texans have the 15th and 46th picks on the first day of the draft, and ideally will be able to grab a defensive end or pass-rushing outside linebacker with one of those selections. New defensive line coach Bill Kollar could have a positive impact here.


Indianapolis Colts

 
  AP Photo/Tom Strattman
  The Peyton Manning-Marvin Harrison duo may have seen its last days.

Primary concern: The way the Colts build, they're unlikely to be a premier rushing offense or a premier run-stopping defense. But they need to be consistently better at both.

Offensively, they dealt with a banged-up offensive line and feature back in 2008, but left tackle Tony Ugoh and running back Joseph Addai may have questions lingering about their toughness and production. If the team was confident enough in the run game that it could have handed off to convert a late third-and-2 in San Diego and succeeded, it would have advanced to a divisional-round playoff game in Pittsburgh. Is team president Bill Polian satisfied with the primary pieces or will he look for some alternatives, and what does his new coach, Jim Caldwell, want?

Defensively, the Colts suffered from the loss of size on the interior line with the unexpected retirement of Quinn Pitcock and the discipline-necessitated departure of Ed Johnson. They would benefit from getting stouter between Pro Bowl ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and such roster revisions should help them be more consistent against the run.

Solution: The Colts have not drafted a defensive tackle higher than the third round since 2002; in fact they've only drafted one -- Pitcock -- since then. That streak could end. But whether it does or not, look for a big stable of late picks and undrafted free agents who are bigger but still agile to get a chance to help. Odds are the team sticks with Ugoh and Addai, expecting better health and better play.

Hot Button Archive
Kuharsky: AFC South
Yasinskas: NFC South
Seifert: NFC North
Walker: AFC North
Sando: NFC West
Williamson: AFC West
Graham: AFC East
Mosley: NFC East
Secondary
concern:
Marvin Harrison's production doesn't match his contract and the Colts are going to have to resolve that because they have looming cap issues. It's hard to envision Harrison, who will be 37 by opening day, calmly agreeing to a reduction in pay, so an ugly ending could be ahead for a player who's been a major force.

Harrison often looked out of sync with Peyton Manning during the season, and a year removed from major knee issues, he wasn't running away from many defenders.

Solution: Maybe Indy is actually fortunate it can blame the cap for forcing a move with Harrison. The offense is powered by the precise passing game, and while Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Anthony Gonzalez are a high-quality three-pack, the Colts will need to import a smart receiver, likely in the draft, who can make a quick contribution.


Jacksonville Jaguars

 
  Fernando Medina/US PRESSWIRE
  The Jaguars may seek an upgrade at left tackle over Khalif Barnes.

Primary issue: The Jaguars want to be a physical team that can wear an opponent out, but to do that they need an influx of healthy talent on both their offensive and defensive lines.

Injuries crushed the offensive line in 2008, but Khalif Barnes was healthy. He's just not the right left tackle for a team that seeks to run the ball above all else. The team needs a consistent tone-setter in this spot and also has to decide whether it wants veteran center Brad Meester, a free agent who turns 32 next month, back.

On defense, the team overestimated what it had to replace Marcus Stroud on the inside. Not only was the production from that spot insufficient, but John Henderson was not up to par playing next to those guys. Pairing him with an effective tackle who can help get him back to form is crucial.

Solution: Last year the Jaguars traded up to No. 8 in the first round. This year they earned it themselves. A franchise left tackle would be an ideal get there, and defensive tackle is likely to be addressed relatively early, too.

Secondary concern: Chemistry was a major issue for last year's team, and Jack Del Rio's continued job security likely depends on rebuilding it.

As Del Rio and new GM Gene Smith, a promotion from within, look to reconstruct the roster, they'll have to weigh personalities and leadership traits. Many believe winning breeds chemistry and not vice versa.

It's a complicated formula the team needs to try to figure out.

Solution: Virtually everyone who's added to the team needs to have the right kind of work ethic and personality. Del Rio and Smith can't forge chemistry, but they can provide optimal ingredients.


Tennessee Titans

 
  Kenny Felt/Icon SMI
  The Titans need to bring veteran QB Kerry Collins back into the fold.

Primary issue: If the Titans are going to build on what they had last year, the primary issue is obvious no matter how determined they are to say it's not. The Titans need a threatening, big-play wide receiver to make defenses play honest and to make Tennessee dynamic on offense beyond running back Chris Johnson.

In the playoff loss to Baltimore that ended the team's season, the offense was hardly dangerous once Johnson was knocked out of the game with an ankle injury. Coach Jeff Fisher said the Titans proved that they can be successful with receivers who are at the right spots at the right time if they've got a quarterback like Kerry Collins benefiting from good protection and delivering the ball on schedule.

Acquiring that receiver won't mean much if the quarterback isn't in place, so the Titans have to get Collins back. They said the right things at season's end, but if they don't treat him right Collins means it when he says he'd be content to retire and go hunting.

Solution: Sign Collins to a fair two-year deal that treats him like a starter, then upgrade his weapons with a bold move, trading for Anquan Boldin or trading up to land Michael Crabtree.

Secondary issue: The beauty of the Titans' defense in 2007 was that with a consistent pass rush out of the front four, it rarely needed extra rushers. With a defense that was strong everywhere, former coordinator Jim Schwartz had to cover for no one. His replacement will not have it so good if defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth gets to free agency and jumps to another team.

The Titans have a strong group of linemen, but all of them have benefitted from the attention Haynesworth has demanded.

Solution: Lock up Haynesworth before free agency. Barring that, add a tackle in the draft and get ready to add more blitzes to the repertoire.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

The theory says there are just six degrees of separation between each of us and anyone else on the planet, that in only six steps we can be connected through common acquaintances.

It's only natural in a league of 32 teams that had about 556 assistant coaches in 2008 that the degree of separation among them, if there is one at all, is usually one.

 
  Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire
  Gary Kubiak's defensive staff in Houston will have a new look heading into next season.

Let us consider that as we attempt to prejudge the promotions and additions Gary Kubiak has made to his staff in Houston. Frank Bush, promoted to defensive coordinator, and David Gibbs, hired as defensive backs coach, each have extensive experience with the Denver Broncos on their resumes.

In a recent, scathing column in the Houston Chronicle, Richard Justice made fun of the franchise for its propensity to lean on people Kubiak and GM Rick Smith know from their previous NFL lives in Denver.

Justice wrote that Smith might not have trusted two staff members who were let go after the Texans' season ended -- strength and conditioning coach Dan Riley and head trainer Kevin Bastin -- "because neither worked for the Denver Broncos, had enough friends with the Denver Broncos or changed planes in Denver."

The strength and conditioning coach job is still open. But Kubiak's staff is otherwise complete and now includes eight assistants with Denver ties and 11 without them. (Relevant aside: Of the four coaches Kubiak let go, defensive coordinator Richard Smith was connected to the Broncos while defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, defensive backs coach Jon Hoke and Riley were not.)

Now, of the team's four most powerful assistants by authority and title -- assistant head coach/offense Alex Gibbs and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, Bush and new assistant head coach/defensive line coach Bill Kollar -- only Kollar has no Broncos connection.

That certainly leads some to say, "Hey, coach Kubiak, there's a whole, big football world out there that extends beyond Denver, especially considering that your mentor and the head man out there, Mike Shanahan -- also your offensive coordinator's dad -- was just fired."

Kubiak isn't concerned with perception outside team headquarters, but he was willing to outline how he looks at people he considers hiring or shifting upward.

"This is important and I've been doing it long enough to have coached with a lot of football coaches," he said. "And having some familiarity with how a guy coaches, how a guy teaches, him knowing what you expect and what you stand for, that's is important to me. I can't speak for everyone else out there. At the same time, when you're interviewing coaches that you haven't worked with or you don't know personally, I start pulling from guys I do know that may have worked with them, guys who know their work habits, know what type of person they are.

"In this business, coaches bounce around and we all kind of know each other one way or another."

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

Miami Dolphins

New York Jets
Buffalo Bills

New England Patriots

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Greetings from AFC South central.  What looked to be a quiet week has found a few story lines. Here's what I found this morning.

Houston Texans

New assistants on the defensive side of the ball, Bill Kollar and David Gibbs, promise to help raise the intensity and aggressiveness, writes John McClain.

McClain says Kollar's got a drill sergeant mentality.

Indianapolis Colts

The departure of defensive coordinator Ron Meeks leaves the unit's philosophy in limbo, writes Mike Chappell.

Another look at Meeks' departure, from Justin A. Cohn.

The cap won't allow for any sort of defensive overhaul, blogs Phillip B. Wilson.

Colts followers might enjoy this piece on Edgerrin James by Charles Robinson.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Secondary coach Donnie Henderson confirmed to Scout.com that he's no longer with the Jaguars, writes Vito Stellino.

Tennessee Titans

Kerry Collins is a late Pro Bowl addition, writes Jim Wyatt.

Another look at Collins-to-Hawaii, from Terry McCormick.

Keith Bulluck is not sure about his long-term future, says McCormick. 

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

New England Patriots

Buffalo Bills

Miami Dolphins

New York Jets

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