NFL Nation: Chris Henry

Mr. IrrelevantAP Photo/Ben LiebenbergWhat are some of the common myths that take place behind the scenes at the annual NFL draft?
NFL general managers operate from their teams’ headquarters during the draft, not from Radio City Music Hall, where the draft will take place starting Thursday of next week.

But Kevin Costner is expected in New York, preparing for his role as the general manager of the Cleveland Browns in the upcoming film “Draft Day."

Director Ivan Reitman will begin shooting the film as the first round of the real draft unfolds.

Will the movie dispel some widely held misconceptions about the NFL draft, or will it reinforce some of these narratives?

Here are what I believe to be a half-dozen mistaken beliefs about how things work at the NFL draft.

Chaos: The draft room is a sacred space with no outsiders allowed. So we’ve fictionalized what it must be like in there. Ringing phones. A scout streaming film on the wall screaming, “Look at this.” An assistant coach standing on the table, exhorting the GM to draft a particular guy. Ringing phones. Spilled coffee. General chaos comparable to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

But talk to people who are in the rooms and the guys who run them, and it turns out the space is not like that at all. The difficult discussions and arguments have already taken place and have been resolved in the meetings that get a franchise ready. It’s pretty organized, pretty quiet, pretty uneventful.

Maybe there is a cheer when a guy falls to the team or a collective groan when a coveted player disappears. Beyond that, things are not nearly as crazy as we might like to believe.

Boards are fluid: Many teams have their boards set before the scouting combine in late February because they want them to be based predominantly on tape and scouting.

There are meetings going on in most draft rooms now that force adjustments based on research, pro-day and combine developments, etc. But the tape and the scouting of prospects during their season typically trump all. Get too caught up in the other stuff and you wind up making a mistake like the Tennessee Titans did in 2007 drafting Arizona Wildcats running back Chris Henry.

Once this final round of meetings is complete, boards largely will be set. There may be some light shuffling and some minor movement. The image of a GM or underling pulling a guy's name plate off the wall and walking it to a completely new spot qualifies as overdramatic -- unless said prospect just got arrested.

Money is at play: The new collective bargaining agreement means rookie contracts are not giant, even at the very top. Teams have to be under the cap at all times, but they don’t have to have a specific amount of money available in order to draft. I don’t think teams at the top steer clear of a player now because of his agent or expected demands, because the contract numbers are pretty much pre-prescribed.

When it comes time to sign picks, the new contracts have to fit under the cap. The cap counts only the most expensive 51 players until after final cuts in September, when it bumps up to all 53. So as a draft pick signs, he typically bumps a minimum-salary player out of the top 51. That isn’t quite the level of hit most people imagine.

Guys know where they’ll go: I heard EJ Manuel on the "Dan Patrick Show" this week list the Eagles, Bills and Jets as three teams he believes are very interested in him. And maybe the Florida State quarterback winds up with one of those teams.

Generally, though, a guy is as likely to be surprised by who drafts him as he is to say, “I knew it!” Frequently a player will say he had no idea that the team that selected him was even interested. A lot of pre-draft “interest” can qualify merely as due diligence. Sometimes a team will research a guy like crazy but do nothing beyond a combine meeting so as to not tip its interest.

Initial reaction to a draft class will match up with what happens: We’ll bombard you with grades of drafts as soon as they are over. But what’s really being graded? Teams aren’t concerned, nor should they be, with how their draft measures up against the expectations and ratings set by draft analysts and media.

Over and over we’ll hear about how you need two or three years to really see what a team got in a draft. And it’s absolutely true.

A draft class will make a team completely revamp its starting lineup: The Jaguars have the NFL’s worst roster. And coach Gus Bradley says he expects he could have four rookie starters. Four. So a good draft can change 18 percent of Jacksonville’s first-team depth chart.

The idea, then, that a team with one pick per round is going to wind up with six or seven new starters is ridiculous. Draft batting averages simply aren’t that high. Late-round picks can be tabbed for narrow, niche roles. Or they can qualify as projects who have a best-case scenario of contributing in Year 2.

Cast in a lesser role, maybe Shonn Greene will be more a more impressive running back.

Hill
Cast in a bigger role, perhaps Sammie Lee Hill will be a more impactful defensive lineman.

The Tennessee Titans boosted their free agent haul to four, adding Greene and Hill to guard Andy Levitre and tight end Delanie Walker.

Greene was a plodding back for the Jets, and while he topped 1,000 yards two years in a row for an anemic offense, he was not a very good lead back. He was very good, as John Glennon of The Tennessean notes, in short-yardage situations -- when the Jets faced second or third down and less than 3 yards to go, Greene got first downs on 23 of 26 attempts in 2012.

In Tennessee, that’s what the Titans will ask him to do: Convert short-yardage situations, and help the Titans control the clock in a 4-minute drill.

While I believe they could have found someone to fill that specialty role for less than $10 million over three years, perhaps it's a good thing they didn't wait for the draft considering their failure at the position in recent years. Outside of Chris Johnson in in 2008, they've bombed with fourth-rounder Jamie Harper, 2009 fifth-rounder Javon Ringer and 2007 second-rounder Chris Henry.

If just one of those guys was able to function in a capable complementary role, the Titans wouldn’t have had running back on their list of needs. They are probably better off getting a guy who’s shown he can convert in short-yardage. It's the yearly average of $3.33 million for a No. 2 running that concerns me. Let's see what he's guaranteed.

Hill should be an early-down run stopper who can penetrate some. At 6-foot-4, 329-pounds, he’s a bigger body than anyone the Titans have. He should be what the Titans hoped Shaun Smith was going to be when they brought him in a few years back.

The investment in a guy who’s been working behind Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in Detroit seems reasonable: Three years, $11.4 million, including $4 million guaranteed according to Adam Schefter.

He’ll take over the starting job vacated by Sen'Derrick Marks, an unrestricted free agent whose name we have not heard connected to any suitors yet.

The Titans are expected to introduce all four of their additions at a news conference at 6 p.m. ET, 5 p.m. CT, and I’ll share some details from there.

How gap between Titans, Ravens grew

January, 28, 2013
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The Tennessee Titans and Baltimore Ravens used to be bitter rivals, closely matched.

Then Tennessee collapsed in a playoff game after the 2000 season at what now is LP Field, losing 24-10 despite dominating the game in a lot of ways.

Since that fork in the road, the teams have gone in very different directions.

Writes Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean: “The Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl, and they will play for a second championship on Sunday in New Orleans against the San Francisco 49ers. The Titans, meanwhile, haven’t won a playoff game in nine years and are coming off a 6-10 season.”

But that’s not the line of demarcation I’ll use.

The 2008 Titans were the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. The sixth-seeded Ravens won in Miami to earn another playoff trip to Nashville. And Tennessee lost that divisional round game in a similar fashion to the game in 2000, even though the score was a lot closer, 13-10.

Since then:
  • The Titans are 29-35 (.453) with no playoff appearances.
  • The Ravens are 43-21 (.672) with a 6-3 playoff record.

That playoff meeting in Nashville was Joe Flacco’s second playoff game, and while he’s had his ups and downs, he’s now a Super Bowl quarterback.

Since then, the Titans have started Kerry Collins, Vince Young, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker and, in an emergency situations, Rusty Smith.

Instability at quarterback is only part of the reasons the teams have been so different.

John Harbaugh has developed into a steady coach while Jeff Fisher’s tenure fizzled out and Mike Munchak hasn’t established any solid footing after two seasons.

Led by one of the NFL’s top general managers, Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens have continued good roster building.

The Titans actually have more starters and contributors out of their last four drafts, but it’s partly because of previous failures -- think Young, Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry, Paul Williams -- that so much opportunity is available.

Baltimore’s gotten far more production out of outside veterans it’s brought in: Center Matt Birk, receiver Anquan Boldin (via trade), fullback Vonta Leach, safety Bernard Pollard, resurgent left tackle Bryant McKinnie, receiver/returner Jacoby Jones.

Compare that to Tennessee’s veteran additions: Receiver Nate Washington, linebacker Will Witherspoon, quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, safety Jordan Babineaux, guard Steve Hutchinson, end Kamerion Wimbley, returner Darius Reynaud.

The Titans fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and didn’t see much change with Dowell Loggains promoted to replace Chris Palmer.

The Ravens fired their offensive coordinator late in the 2012 season, and got a major boost from Jim Caldwell taking over for Cam Cameron.

It’s a copycat league, and the Ravens were already a model franchise in many ways.

The Titans are one of a long list of teams that need to look at how the Ravens work and borrow some ideas.

Quarterback is the key, but the gap between these two teams was a playoff field goal just four years ago. It’s a deep moat now.
Our periodic look at the best and worst draft pick by position for each team begins with running back. We’ll look at draft results since realignment in 2002, since that’s when the Texans came into existence and gives us the most level comparison.

Houston Texans

Best: Arian Foster is the best guy they’ve had, but he was undrafted so he doesn’t qualify. It’s not a great list, but the best of the lot was Domanick Williams, who became Domanick Davis, a fourth-rounder in 2003. In three seasons, he averaged 4.1 yards a carry and scored 28 touchdowns. That’s pretty solid production for a back during a three-year stretch when his team was 14-34.

Worst: Lots of options here. I remember thinking that 2002 fourth-rounder Jonathan Wells was simply not an NFL back. Vernand Morency (2005, third), Wali Lundy (2006, sixth) and Tony Hollings (2003, second in the supplemental draft) were also not good. The Texans got just one season plus one game out of Morency, who couldn’t get ahead of Ron Dayne, Lundy or Samkon Gado. But the least value came from Hollings, who earned just 49 carries in three seasons. Pro Football Reference says his weighted career average ranks him 10,562nd since 1950.

Indianapolis Colts

Best: He takes a lot of grief because he’s not necessarily a big producer for fantasy leagues, but Joseph Addai (2006, first) is very effective at doing what’s asked when he’s healthy. He’s got a darting style that’s suited for the team, he’s a great pass-catcher and he’s very reliable in protecting Peyton Manning.

Worst: The team spent late picks on backs in 2002 (Brian Allen), 2005 (Anthony Davis) and 2006 (T.J. Rushing) and none of them did much. Hard to grade hard on such low picks, but it’s too early to talk Donald Brown (2009 first-rounder) here. Allen had one kick return in 2003 and Davis didn’t make the team. We’ll declare it a tie, acknowledging a hit with either would have qualified as a nice surprise.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Best: Maurice Jones-Drew is the centerpiece of the team and was a steal in the second round (60th overall) of the 2006 draft. The Jaguars passed on him at No. 28 in the first round, when they took tight end Marcedes Lewis. MJD qualifies as the face of the franchise.

Worst: LaBrandon Toefield and Alvin Pearman made contributions on a team that was in pretty good shape at the position with Fred Taylor and then Jones-Drew. So while it’s unfair to hit them for a seventh-rounder from 2008, it also means they’ve done pretty well. Three years into his career, Chauncey Washington finished 2010 on the practice squad of the St. Louis Rams.

Tennessee Titans

Best: You’d expect the 24th overall pick to be here and Chris Johnson certainly is the selection. He’s coming off a 1,364-yard, 12-TD season that was largely regarded as a failure because he’d set the bar so high with his 2,006-yard rushing season in 2009. He’s as fast as or faster than any running back in the league.

Worst: The Titans fell in love with Chris Henry at the combine and let his measurable outweigh his unspectacular performance at Arizona. The second-round pick the team spent on Henry in 2007 amounted to a waste. The Titans kept him for three seasons to try to justify spending the 50th overall pick on him, which was longer than the needed to know he was a strikeout. He played in just 10 games.

Draft Watch: AFC South

March, 17, 2011
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: draft rewind -- examining the past five drafts.

Houston Texans

Best choice: The Texans got crushed by just about everyone when they tabbed defensive end Mario Williams as the No. 1 overall selection in 2006. Though he’s dealt with some nagging injuries, time has proved him a more dangerous and valuable player than Reggie Bush or Vince Young, the two players people wanted them to take instead. New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips thinks Williams will be like Bruce Smith in the team’s new 3-4.

Worst choice: Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye shows flashes and maybe he somehow works better in the new 3-4 front. But after four seasons, the No. 10 overall pick from 2007 has hardly been the sort of impact player you hope for from such a big investment. He’s still got a giant chance, but the Texans should have hit a home run in the spot and did not.

On the bubble: Indications are the Texans would like to re-sign receiver/returner Jacoby Jones, a third-rounder from 2007. But he’s hard to figure out. He can be the sort of dynamic player who’s a real bonus for an offense with Andre Johnson and Arian Foster. Or he can disappear and drop the ball when he gets chances.

Indianapolis Colts

Best choice: Antoine Bethea came in with little fanfare as a sixth-round defensive back out of Howard in 2006. But he’s grown into a steady and reliable fixture for the Colts at free safety. He’s a great model of the sort of late-round success that is a key part of how Indianapolis builds. Last season, with defensive backs falling all around him, Bethea held a patchwork secondary together.

Worst choice: The Colts traded up to get offensive tackle Tony Ugoh in the second round in 2007. But he never won the team over as the permanent answer at left tackle, and he was done before last season. It’s a spot the franchise is still looking to fill. Had Ugoh been the guy, Peyton Manning would be working with more time and it would be easier to get the tough yard on the ground.

On the bubble: Anthony Gonzalez can be a very effective receiver in the Colts’ scheme and has done a lot of work to earn Manning’s trust. But he’s appeared in just three games over the past two seasons because of injury. Bad fortune is not in his control, but we still aren’t sure he’s a long-term piece of the puzzle and they could really use him.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Best choice: Running back Maurice Jones-Drew remains well aware that everyone passed on him and he knows all the pundits who said he wouldn’t make it. The Jaguars didn’t pass on him twice, and their second-round pick from 2006 is the centerpiece of their offense, a player they rely on for a very large percentage of their touches on offense.

Worst choice: Defensive end Quentin Groves just didn’t fit the Jaguars' defense. He was even part of the reason they experimented with a 3-4 front for part of 2009. But no matter where the 2007 second-rounder was plugged in, he didn’t produce and didn’t bring much fire to the job. He was traded to Oakland after just two seasons.

On the bubble: Tight end Zach Miller is a versatile talent who played quarterback at Nebraska-Omaha and was supposed to be a wild-card piece of the Jaguars’ offense. But the 2009 sixth-rounder has only 41 catches in 29 games through two seasons and has not forced his way into the plan the way the team had hoped. It would be great for the team if he could still be an X factor.

Tennessee Titans

Best choice: Running back Chris Johnson looked like a third-down specialist, a track guy who was a reach at No. 24 in the 2008 draft. He’s proved to be much more than that, posting a rare 2,000-yard rushing season in 2009 and posing a matchup nightmare even when he’s not made the best choices about where to go.

Worst choice: The Titans completely fell for Chris Henry’s combine work, allowing it to overshadow an unimpressive college career. The second-round running back from 2007 was a physical specimen. Unfortunately he lacked the sort of instincts needed in a runner. He actually stuck around three seasons as Tennessee hoped he’d emerge. It was a wasted roster spot.

On the bubble: William Hayes came in as a raw talent in 2008, and the fourth-round defensive end figures to have his best chance to be a consistent impact player going forward as the Titans look to be bigger up front. But his primary backer, defensive line coach Jim Washburn, has moved on and Hayes has to step forward to prove he can be a force.

Houston Texans cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
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Check here for a full list of Houston’s roster moves.

Biggest surprises: At times, the Texans touted running backs Jeremiah Johnson and Chris Henry. But they are both gone now, Johnson likely due at least in part to a toe injury. Veteran Derrick Ward gets the last running back spot, and the Texans will move forward with Arian Foster, Steve Slaton and Ward as they look for a big jump from their running game. Another player that got some early hype from Gary Kubiak, defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard, didn’t stick.

No-brainers: Considering quality and draft status ahead of them, low-ranking depth chart guys were easy choices for the waiver wire: Receivers Bobby Williams and Derrick Townsel, offensive tackles Steve Maneri, Brett Helms and Cole Pemberton, defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, linebacker Will Patterson and cornerback Mark Parson. Perhaps we will see a few of them who did OK resurface on the practice squad.

What’s next: With the running back issue resolved, the Texans might not have too much waiver-wire surfing to do. They could upgrade over Jesse Nading at their final end spot. While they are quite young with their five cornerbacks, they seemed committed to them all, at least right now. While they put Kris Brown and Andre Davis on IR and Anthony Hill on PUP, they did not announce Brian Cushing is on the suspended-reserve list. So they might still be in line to gain one roster spot.

Thoughts on Buccaneers 24, Texans 17

September, 3, 2010
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Some bullet point thoughts on the Texans’ 24-17 loss to the Buccaneers Thursday night:
  • Houston sat 29 players.
  • Neil Rackers hit a 21-yard field goal while Kris Brown was short on a 56-yarder in the final chances in the kicking competition. Expect the guy who doesn’t stick to find work with relative speed.
  • Jeremiah Johnson turned three carries into 20 yards while Chris Henry needed 15 carries for 51 yards as the Texans got a look at their third and fourth backs. I like Johnson as the third.
  • After Dan Orlovsky threw two interceptions to Corey Lynch -- one for a 91-yard touchdown -- John David Booty threw two touchdown passes. Gary Kubiak expressed continued confidence in Orlovsky after the game, but what is he supposed to say?
  • The Texans went for it on fourth down five times and converted four.
  • Even without Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Jacoby Jones, Arian Foster and Steve Slaton Houston managed 417 total yards. The Texans ran 76 plays compared to 49 for Tampa Bay, though time of possession was only 32:55 to 27:05.
  • Dorin Dickerson’s one-handed 27-yard reception from Booty was the best catch I remember seeing from an AFC South player in the preseason.
  • Rookie linebacker Darryl Sharpton got the start and was credited with six tackles and a sack. Xavier Adibi started on the strong side. The Brian Cushing replacement strategy looks like it will be Adibi in his spot or Sharpton at weakside with Zac Diles moved to strong.

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 21, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 14

For three years, they’ve been picked as a breakout team. In those three years, the Houston Texans went 25-23 with zero playoff appearances.

So why are the 2010 Texans going to be different? Why do they deserve that sort of faith yet again? What’s changed when the personnel alterations have been pretty minor?

“What’s different? Experience, togetherness,” Amobi Okoye said. “I feel like by the time we will kick off, we will have the full definition of team. If there was a meter of T-E-A-M, we are right at the halfway of M… By the time the season starts, we’re going to completely spell TEAM.”

Said Bernard Pollard, the feisty safety who didn’t arrive until a few games into last season: “We have so much more team chemistry. We know and understand what we are good at. We know and understand that we can’t step out of the box and have to play our game. We’re turning that corner.”

To finally get to the postseason, the Texans have to play more complete games. They have to play better in the red zone. Perhaps above all else, they have to play better in the AFC South, where they were just 1-5 last season.

Catching the Colts is a tall task. The Texans aspire to do it, but they also know there is a route to the playoffs without a division crown. They just have to drive it more smoothly.

THREE HOT ISSUES

Can the pass rush pick it up?

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriThe Texans need some pass-rushing help for star end Mario Williams.
Mario Williams had nine sacks to go with a bum shoulder he’s still reluctant to talk about. He needs more support in chasing the quarterback, and the Texans need to hurry and hit quarterbacks more often to help those three young cornerbacks -- Kareem Jackson, Glover Quin and Brice McCain -- cover.

Connor Barwin should be opposite Williams on clear rush downs, and he might be the most improved player on defense. Inside, there are now alternatives to Okoye, who might just not be a good pass pressure guy. Rookie Earl Mitchell could wind up part of the nickel package along with Antonio Smith, who will shift inside to make room for Barwin.

Will the run game do its part?

Everyone is encouraged about the run game, but what’s changed? Second-round pick Ben Tate is lost with an injury. Guard Wade Smith was the only significant addition to the line, where interior issues were a big part of the problems. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison is from the same school as predecessor Kyle Shanahan, and line coach John Benton learned under the departed Alex Gibbs.

“We have to get better running the football,” Andre Johnson said. “That helps win games, especially in the fourth quarter when you’re up and you want to kill the time, you have to go on those four-minute drives where you have to get those big fourth downs. We have to get better in that part of our offense.”

They are largely counting on young guys getting better, which begs the question: What if they don’t?

Are the supplementary pieces good enough?

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriHouston's stars, including Matt Schaub, match up with the best players on any NFL roster.
The Texans' stars match up with virtually anyone’s. But beyond Johnson, Williams, Brian Cushing, DeMeco Ryans, Matt Schaub and Owen Daniels, have head coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith done enough to unearth the right sort of players on the next tier?

Pollard and Eric Winston certainly fit the bill. Antonio Smith, Kevin Walter and Zac Diles might. That next level of player might be where this team is a little short, and it’s those kinds of guys who might well be the key to transforming a good team into a very good team.

And so we’re watching the likes of Quin, Barwin, Joel Dreessen, James Casey, Jacoby Jones and the offensive line beyond Winston, because they might wind up telling the story.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Linebacker Darryl Sharpton: The Texans figured one of three veteran linebackers would be in the lineup during Cushing’s four-game suspension. But a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness has put Xavier Adibi, Danny Clark and Kevin Bentley on the backburner because rookie Darryl Sharpton's been such a consistent playmaker. He might be short, but he packs a good punch.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Injury to Ben Tate: As the Texans search for the right combination of running backs to help balance their offense, second-round pick Tate figured to be a key piece. But he was lost for the season with a serious ankle/leg injury in the preseason opener. That puts the load on Arian Foster, Steve Slaton and either Jeremiah Johnson, Chris Henry or a back not yet on the team.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Texans are regarded by some as a finesse team, but the defense is emphasizing physicality. Cushing, Pollard, Smith, Jackson, Quin and Mitchell have all joined the team in the past two years and are physical players.
  • Expect Foster to get first crack at the carries closest to the goal line as the Texans really concentrate on running better at close range. Johnson definitely could be heard from in the running game, too -- he might be the best fit for the one-cut and go zone scheme Houston uses.
  • [+] EnlargeNeil Rackers
    AP Photo/Rick ScuteriKicker Neil Rackers has a chance to beat out incumbent Kris Brown.
    If Kris Brown and Neil Rackers continue to be virtually even in the kicker competition, it makes sense for the team to go with Rackers. Sometimes guys just need a change of scenery. If Brown stays and fails on a crucial long field goal on opening day against the Colts, the thinking will be, “Why didn’t they make a change?” If Rackers does the same thing, I’ll think, “At least they tried someone different.”
  • Houston’s defensive tackles are quick, up-the-field types. But they’d sure love if their one big space-eater, Frank Okam, forced his way into action.
  • The Texans want to get the ball in the hands of Jones since he averaged 16.2 yards a catch on his 27 receptions. But I am not so sure that means he’s going to nudge ahead of Walter for the No. 2 receiver job. Walter is smart and super reliable, and reliability is awfully important. Jones might displace Walter or get a share of snaps in two-wide formations, but look for Jones most in a heavy dose of three-wide formations.
  • Troy Nolan might be a credible alternative to Eugene Wilson at free safety if Wilson gets hurt again. I’ve been critical of the team for not adding to the spot, but Nolan missed his rookie season with an injury and appears to be a high-caliber special-teamer.
  • Daniels’ speed is a big part of what helped set him apart. When he returns soon from another ACL reconstruction, will he still have it in the same way? That's the big question with him.
  • The offensive line is set with Duane Brown at left tackle, Chris Myers at center and Winston at right tackle. Guard jobs remain up for grabs. It seems to me that Wade Smith, a free-agent acquisition tailored to the system, and Antoine Caldwell, a third-rounder from 2009, would make the most sense.
  • It sounds less likely that Trindon Holliday has to be a serviceable receiver to make the team than it did during OTAs. If he convinces the team he can be a consistently special return guy, he’ll stick. He looked good to me when the Texans worked with the Saints.
METAIRIE, La. -- When the Texans called a run play to the right and the ball hit the ground at an afternoon practice with the Saints, every member of the Texans’ press corps strained to see who the back in the middle of the mess was.

Slaton

Slaton
And when it turned out to be Chris Henry, not Steve Slaton, we all knew it wasn’t as significant.

Slaton’s fumble issues last year were a big element of Houston’s ground-game struggles. He lost another at the goal line in the preseason opener in Arizona.

Even if Arian Foster is as good as the Texans think, they need Slaton to be a reliable contributor and they cannot accept fumbles. With second-round pick Ben Tate lost for the season with torn ligaments and a cracked bone in his lower leg, Houston’s got one less alternative.

“I think it’s driving the fans crazy, I don’t think it’s driving Slaton crazy,” fullback Vonta Leach said. “It was an unfortunate situation down at the goal line but he knows we can’t do that and he’ll be better.”

Coming off neck surgery Slaton is determined to prove he can still be the back who ran for more yards than Chris Johnson as a rookie in 2008 and is not really the one who struggled last year and went on IR in need of neck surgery.

“My job is to run the ball and the most important thing is not to put it on the ground,” Slaton said. “I’m taking more precautions and doing different little things.”

Slaton will take whatever role he is given, but he knows it’s probably not going to be a full-time job. Bell cow running backs are out of vogue, committees are the more popular way to go and if Foster keeps progressing he’s going to be in the mix.

“I think they would like to divide things up,” Slaton said. “It’s harder on the defenses and the running backs stay strong not having to take the whole thing.”

I don’t have a great read on Slaton yet and my two-practice snapshot Wednesday didn’t help too much. I do think the team will be hard-pressed to improve significantly on the ground without him as a factor.

If you want to do any looking back, I wrote about Slaton in March.

Matt Schaub is very willing to trade passing yards for better balance.

“Yes,” Schuab said, politely cutting me off before I could even finish a question about whether he’s confident the run game will improve. “Yes, I’m confident. It’s been good so far in training camp. We just need to keep running it and stay committed to it.”
William HayesJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesTitans defensive end William Hayes was drafted in 2008 in part because defensive line coach Jim Washburn wanted him.
When players want to steer clear of trouble with the bosses, they are fond of saying “players play, coaches coach.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His voice trailed off and he left that one hanging.

I’d be inclined to finish it: “Well that’s a different deal.”

Draft Watch: AFC South

April, 7, 2010
4/07/10
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NFC Approach: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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

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

Houston Texans

Gary Kubiak was already on board for the fantastic 2006 draft, but the old front office was also there. General manager Rick Smith was hired after that. I don't have a great sense of the Texans' philosophy. The three drafts since feature some hits -- most noticeably Brian Cushing -- but more guys who still haven’t fully tapped into the potential the team saw in them. They’ve only taken one defensive back as high as the third round, which is part of why they need a few so badly now. They’ve only taken one defensive tackle, and he was a fifth rounder.

Indianapolis Colts

Best player available, regardless of need. That’s how president Bill Polian strives to operate and that’s why the Colts are very unpredictable, especially at the top, when draft days roll around. The Colts still prefer fast and quick to big and super-strong, though they have come to desire more size on their offensive line and interior defensive line. The team’s first pick has been offense the last four years, and providing what Peyton Manning needs to be successful is usually priority one. This time around that would seem to be offensive line, but Polian won’t panic if there is a lineman he loves later and is confident he will be able to land.

Jacksonville Jaguars

General manager Gene Smith has only been on the job for a year, but we still know a good bit about his drafting philosophy. He believes in foundation first, which means offensive and defensive lines. He’s looking to hit singles with every pick, not to swing for the fences. He’s not afraid to stick his neck out as he did last year, trading his 2010 second-rounder for a third-round pick used on corner Derek Cox out of a lesser football school, William & Mary. The Jaguars will strive to get value at every pick while filling out their needs. They will be more likely to trade down than up because of that missing second-rounder and won’t force moves (read draft Tim Tebow) to please the marketing department or a segment of the fan base.

Tennessee Titans

In the three drafts run by general manager Mike Reinfeldt, the Titans have gotten excited over at least one workout warrior early: Chris Henry (bust), Chris Johnson (home run) and Jared Cook (we don’t know yet). The Titans are not afraid to look to smaller programs like Eastern Michigan or Winston-Salem State and some picks in recent years have clearly been favorites of position coaches -- Jim Washburn wanted Jason Jones, William Hayes and Sen'Derrick Marks; Marcus Robertson backed Ryan Mouton. The team doesn’t have big concerns over how other teams or people may value a guy. Sticking their neck out for Johnson made the Titans look great. The jury is still out others like Michael Griffin or Jones.

The Big Question: What to expect from VY?

April, 6, 2010
4/06/10
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NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

What can we expect from Vince Young in 2010?

[+] EnlargeYoung
Steve Dykes/US PresswireVince Young threw for 1,879 yards in the Titans' final 10 games of the 2009 season.
When this question was posed to me last year at this time, I felt Young would be an unsuccessful quarterback in 2009 -- and going forward. I just didn’t trust him to throw the ball well and accurately enough. Nothing is static in this business, and although I am not ready to say that I am a total believer in Young, my tune has surely changed.

Of course, Young deserves a ton of credit for this improvement, but so does coach Jeff Fisher and the Titans’ offensive play calling. I see a lot of half-field reads for Young and obviously Tennessee employs a run-first offensive approach. It also doesn’t hurt having the threat of Chris Johnson as a runner and outlet receiver to make life much easier on a developing quarterback. The Titans also have one of the very best offensive lines in the league and a young, promising group of pass-catchers.

But back to the original question. Young’s supporting cast shouldn’t change much in 2010. In fact, those pass-catchers -- namely Kenny Britt and Jared Cook -- should be further along in their development. Britt in particular should really assert himself this season.

But most important, Young should continue to progress as well. Of course, Young is very dangerous with his legs and he should continue to present a threat in this capacity, but his passing skills improved by leaps and bounds in 2009 since his last stint as a starting quarterback. His ball placement and touch on throws to all levels is vastly improved. Young seems to understand that staying in the pocket to make the throw is usually a better decision than tucking it down and running in the NFL.

But still, this isn’t an offense built to come from behind. Young needs to keep the offense on schedule and move the chains. I see him continuing to do just that, but also further refining his passing skills and deciphering defensive schemes.

Sometimes failure is a great thing for a quarterback. They come back and no longer are playing scared or like the weight of the franchise is planted on their shoulder pads. Young did play fast at times last year, but less so than in the past, and those instances probably will continue to decline. He looks like a much more relaxed quarterback.

Draft Watch: AFC South

March, 10, 2010
3/10/10
12:00
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NFC Recent History: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

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

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

Houston Texans

The best move the Texans made in the past three seasons was trading a second-round pick in 2007 and 2008 to Atlanta for Matt Schaub, a quarterback who’s the key to their offense and team. With so many teams in need of a quality starter, that trade seems like a steal now. They’ve taken four defensive backs with the 10 picks they’ve made in the fifth round or later, and out of Brandon Harrison, Dominique Barber, Brice McCain and Troy Nolan they’ve not found a guy who has been able to contribute consistently. It’s time to spend a big pick on a free safety or corner who has great ball skills.

Indianapolis Colts

Skill positions get attention early, with receiver Anthony Gonzalez and running back Donald Brown grabbed with the two first-rounders in the past three years. The hits in the third round and later have become significant players: Clint Session, Pierre Garcon, Jerraud Powers, Austin Collie, Pat McAfee. Trouble spot? Look to the five offensive linemen who haven’t really panned out. That’s understandable with Steve Justice (sixth in 2008), Jamey Richard (seventh in 2008) and Jaimie Thomas (seventh in 2009), but Tony Ugoh (second in 2007) and Mike Pollak (second in 2008) have left the team with holes and problems that need to be addressed in April. Out of five picks there has to be at least one starter, probably two.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Two first-round picks out of Florida have not met expectations, but the Jaguars still hope safety Reggie Nelson and defensive end Derrick Harvey can become consistent players. Of 25 picks, only one is established as a playmaker on offense, Mike Sims-Walker (third-rounder in 2007). That’s a big part of the reason the team’s not especially potent on offense beyond Maurice Jones-Drew. The top four from the 2009 draft got significant starting experience as rookies, and the 2010 class will have similar opportunities. While Harvey can be steady, he’s not an explosive pass-rusher, and Quentin Groves has struggled. Even with Aaron Kampman signed, they still need another pass-rusher.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans have fared nicely with pass-rushers from lesser-known schools -- William Hayes of Winston-Salem State is on the brink of big things and Jacob Ford of Central Arkansas is a skilled rusher. Contributions from second-rounders have been minimal -- Chris Henry is already gone, Jason Jones hasn’t stayed healthy or consistent and Sen'Derrick Marks had no impact as a rookie. After hitting a home run with seventh-rounder Cortland Finnegan in 2006, late-round corners Ryan Smith, Cary Williams and, so far, Jason McCourty, haven’t panned out. A quality corner is a need early in this draft.

Lewis deserved Coach of the Year

January, 16, 2010
1/16/10
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It would have been easy for the Associated Press to select Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints, the Indianapolis Colts' Jim Caldwell or Norv Turner of the San Diego Chargers as its 2009 Coach of the Year. All three led their teams to at least 13 victories and a first-round bye in the playoffs.


AP Photo/David KohlBengals coach Marvin Lewis, who led the team to a 10-6 season, was named AP Coach of the Year.
But unlike most awards, this year's voting went deeper than standings and statistics.

It was about tragedy and the ability to lead an entire organization through some of the toughest situations imaginable.

With those rare credentials, Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals was chosen as the AP 2009 Coach of the Year. No other coach faced such a difficult journey this season. Lewis' team finished with a 10-6 record, a playoff berth and an AFC North division title.

The passing of Vikki Zimmer, the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and receiver Chris Henry about two months apart rocked the Bengals. The team also had families of several players affected by the tsunami in the Samoa Islands.

This year was so much more than injuries and X's and O's for Cincinnati.

The next step for the Bengals is to offer a contract extension to Lewis, who is entering the final year of his deal. In seven seasons, he has brought respectability back to a franchise that was a league-wide laughingstock the dozen years prior to his arrival.

Now the Bengals are looking up as they try to maintain their success from this past season.

"While we're proud of the season we had, we didn’t get beyond our first goal [of winning the AFC North]," Lewis said in a statement. "There is a lot more for us to accomplish in 2010."

Final Word: AFC West

December, 25, 2009
12/25/09
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 16’s games:

Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesBengals running back Larry Johnson plays the Chiefs for the first time Sunday since being cut earlier in the season.
Chiefs will meet LJ: While Denver safety Brian Dawkins' return to Philadelphia is the big reunion story in the NFL this week, do not forget the meeting between the Chiefs and running back Larry Johnson. Of course, it would be a bigger deal if Johnson and the Bengals were visiting Kansas City. When Johnson was cut by the Chiefs in November after several off-field issues, he was vilified in Kansas City. But his teammates didn’t have a huge problem. So, while it will be interesting to see this matchup, there probably won’t be any revenge on the minds of the Chiefs when facing Johnson, who is a backup in Cincinnati.

Merriman meets the Titans: There is bad blood between the Chargers, particularly linebacker Shawne Merriman, and Tennessee. Don’t expect much Christmas night cheer in Nashville. Merriman maintains the Titans were guilty of a cheap shot on his knees. He said it was the beginning of his knee woes that kept him out of all but one game last season. The Chargers and Merriman haven’t forgotten. This week, Titans coach Jeff Fisher said the Chargers are not a beloved team around the league. Expect some holiday feistiness. This could be fun.

Can McDaniels keep his streak going? During training camp, Denver coach Josh McDaniels boasted he has never been .500 or under in any season in any sport during his life as a player or coach -- dating back to his fourth-grade basketball team. In his first season as an NFL head coach, McDaniels’ Broncos are 8-6. They can ensure themselves of a winning record with a victory at Philadelphia. It won’t be easy, but McDaniels has a shot. But he is making himself sweat. The Broncos could have locked up a winning record the past two weeks but lost to the Colts and Raiders.

Can Oakland get over the five-win hump? Oakland has a chance to improve to 6-9 Sunday at Cleveland. No, that is not a good record, but it would be a significant plateau for the Raiders. Oakland has set an NFL record by losing at least 11 games in each of the past six seasons. That horrible streak can end if the Raiders win at Cleveland or against the Ravens at home next week. With Baltimore in the playoff hunt, this is Oakland’s best chance to end the madness.

Chiefs will be facing emotions: For the second straight week, an AFC West team will have to face the grieving Bengals. Last week, San Diego beat Cincinnati three days after receiver Chris Henry died. This week, the Chiefs will be facing the Bengals in their first home game since Henry’s death and five days after the team went to Henry’s funeral in Louisiana. Expect emotions to be just as high this week as last week.

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