NFL Nation: Dante Hughes
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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: Busts and late-round gems.
The previous regime traded with division rival Tennessee to get Western Michigan linebacker Jason Babin with a second first-round pick in 2004 and he never became what they envisioned. The first-rounder from the next year, Florida State defensive tackle Travis Johnson, wasn’t good either. Johnson flashed some but wasn’t long-term help. Wide receiver David Anderson (seventh round from Colorado State in 2006) is a quality slot receiver, and probably the team’s best late-round pick.
The Colts traded up in 2007 to take Arkansas offensive tackle Tony Ugoh 42nd overall. He was the man to replace Tarik Glenn when he surprised the team by retiring the same year. But Ugoh lost his starting job in 2009 and was often inactive. Two third-rounders from the same draft also faded: cornerback Dante Hughes from Cal didn’t make it out of camp in 2009 and Ohio State defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock quit football in 2008. Late-round finds abound: Howard safety Antoine Bethea (sixth round) is a Pro Bowl talent; Mount Union receiver Pierre Garcon (sixth round, 2008) just had a breakout season; punter/kickoff man Pat McAfee from West Virginia (seventh round, 2009) is a consistent performer. And Indianapolis does consistently well with undrafted rookies, such as safety Melvin Bullitt and cornerback Jacob Lacey.
First-round busts have been a major reason the Jaguars haven’t broken through as a consistent contender: receivers R. Jay Soward of USC in 2000, Reggie Williams from Washington in 2004 and Matt Jones from Arkansas in 2005 are gone and safety Reggie Nelson (Florida, 2007) and defensive end Derrick Harvey (Florida, 2008) rank as major underachievers. Late-round gems? Purdue guard Uche Nwaneri was a 2007 fifth-rounder and has started a lot of games and Florida’s Bobby McCray was a good defensive end for a seventh-rounder in 2004. James Harris was ousted as the personnel chief and the team seems on a better track under Gene Smith, who was named GM about a year ago.
Any list of recent high-ranking failures has to start with first-round cornerback Pacman Jones, sixth overall from West Virginia in 2005. He was probably the best defensive football player there, but the Titans failed miserably in researching his personality. Other busts who hurt them: Ben Troupe (second-round tight end from Florida in 2004), Andre Woolfolk (first-round cornerback from Oklahoma in 2003) and Tyrone Calico (second-round receiver in 2003). Cornerback Cortland Finnegan was an All-Pro in 2008 and heads any list of recent late-round gems. He was a seventh-rounder from Samford in 2006. Tight end Bo Scaife was a sixth-rounder from Texas in 2005 and promising defensive end Jacob Ford from Central Arkansas was a sixth-rounder in 2007.
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|New coach Jim Caldwell has made a number of changes and the Colts appear happy with the alterations.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
But Freeney is content with new coach Jim Caldwell's changes at defensive coordinator and special teams coach. The Colts' star defensive end surveys a landscape that no longer includes Ron Meeks and Russ Purnell and feels just fine.
"I think that's one thing people need to understand: We had a lot of success in the years with Meeks and Purnell and, yeah, we are changing personnel as far as those coaching positions are concerned. But change is not always a bad thing," he said. "If you look at the end result, and I'm not saying it was their fault, but we only achieved the end goal once even though we were very successful.
"And I'm not saying it was because of them. But there is always room for improvement. You never know -- you change things around, it brings new energy, it brings new fire. We could see some bigger things."
That energy was palpable early in camp from a team that overcame a lot to go 12-4 last year, then botched a big opportunity in a playoff game in San Diego.
The Colts have had a smooth transition because they anticipated the change and had Caldwell serve as associate head coach under Dungy. Caldwell removed Meeks and Purnell, replacing them with Larry Coyer and Ray Rychleski, respectively.
But the other key people in the organization who provide major stability are still in place -- Bill Polian is still the team president and Peyton Manning is still the quarterback.
Like Freeney, Polian believes some change can be a good thing.
"Sometimes that's good -- you hear a different voice, you hear a different approach, it gets the message across in a different manner," Polian said. "Both are excellent coaches, both are terrific guys.
"They're both organized and they're both good teachers, so I don't think there is any real change there. But maybe the way the lesson is taught might be a little bit different and it's probably, in the end, good."
1. Can the third-down defense get Manning the ball back?
The Colts tied for second worst in the league in third-down conversion rate, allowing teams to convert on third down 47.4 percent of the time. Bend-but-don't-break is going out of fashion under Coyer, according to many of his players. And with third down as a focus, they hope to get the offense back on the field and allow their best people to spend more time working.
Only six teams fared worse in time of possession than the Colts (28:39) last year. No matter how opponents try to play keep-away, getting Manning and the offense on the field more must be a priority.
2. Does Manning have the weapons and protection?
Reggie Wayne has been the de facto No. 1 receiver for a while already. And Anthony Gonzalez is primed for a great year in his third season, with a lot more opportunities to come. Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie were both impressive early in camp and appear primed to be steady contributors, and Donald Brown provided a second running back with dynamic possibilities.
The protection question may be a bigger conc
ern. Charlie Johnson has been inserted at left tackle. While he has been an effective fill-in, if he is the guy for 16 games, defensive ends named Mario Williams and Kyle Vanden Bosch are going to find the holes in his game. Perhaps Tony Ugoh responds to the demotion and seizes the job back. Either way, could Manning have to worry more about getting hit from a blind side rusher than he has in the past?
3. Can special teams provide a boost?
Mediocre to poor special teams have been the norm for the Colts, and under Dungy there seemed to be a level of tacit acceptance. Enter Rychleski, a fiery and passionate special teams coach who Caldwell hired from South Carolina. As in many of the departments where the Colts ranked poorly in the past, just a moderate improvement can make a big difference.
The return games have been the worst element. T.J. Rushing is the leading candidate right now, but rookies Collie and Jerraud Powers could provide a boost. Another rookie, Pat McAfee is slated to be the new punter.
Working predominantly as the third receiver last season, Gonzalez had 664 receiving yards. Bumped up to No. 2, he should be poised to top 1,000 yards and improve on the four touchdown catches he totaled in 2008. He is typecast by too many as a slot guy, but in three wide receiver sets it appears more likely that Wayne or Collie will line up inside.
Gonzalez is a complete receiver who has established a great rapport with Manning -- so much so that Manning invited the receiver to serve as his caddy at a pro-am golf tournament in April.
|Scott Boehm/Getty Images|
|The Colts are counting on Donald Brown to have a big impact in his rookie season.|
Newcomer to watch
While most analysts figured the Colts would look wide receiver or defensive tackle late in the first round, Polian spent the 27th pick in the draft on highly productive UConn running back Brown. An indictment of Joseph Addai? Perhaps. An upgrade over Dominic Rhodes? Absolutely.
The Colts' plans for Brown and their opinion of Addai after an off year in which he struggled with with knee trouble are both unclear. But Caldwell has made it clear he anticipates significant work for his top two backs. Brown was effective in his first preseason action, even as it came against a mix of second- and third-string Minnesota defenders. High draft picks on offense are expected to help right away and rookie running backs regularly plug in and excel. It's what Addai did in 2006 as the league's leading rookie rusher and it's what Brown may well do in the same offense.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri (hip) isn't expected back until the very end of the preseason. When he's kicking again, he will work intensively with McAfee, his new holder, to get their rhythm and timing down. ... If everyone is healthy in the secondary, work as the dime won't be sufficient for safety Melvin Bullitt. Expect the Colts to creatively find other ways to get him on the field regularly. His development likely means Antoine Bethea won't be re-signed when he becomes a free agent. ... Ryan Lilja is the best run blocker on the line and will also help Jeff Saturday provide an additional veteran influence on the younger players in the offensive line meeting room. ... While Harrison was locked in to lining up in the right, Reggie Wayne will move from the left into the slot, making him tougher to predict and defend. ... Curtis Painter's preseason play could determine his fate. The team doesn't intend for the rookie quarterback to be Manning's backup this season -- that's still Jim Sorgi's job. But injuries and numbers at other spots could impact their ability to keep three signal-callers. Ideally they would have Painter on the practice squad, but what if someone else wants to sign him away? ... Gijon Robinson can block and catch and qualifies as a starter. Buy the development of two second-year right ends could cut into his time. Jacob Tamme runs good routes and has good hands, qualifying as more of a pass catcher while he's emerging as a better blocker. Tom Santi can be a combination guy but has had health issues. ... Because the Colts added three big bodies to the defensive tackle mix -- veteran Ed Johnson and rookies Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor -- two guys who contributed in the interior last year could see far less action. Keyunta Dawson has been moved to end and Eric Foster could get caught in a numbers crunch. ... If Philip Wheeler and Clint Session lock in the outside linebacker spots, then Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler will give the Colts something they have not often had -- veteran linebackers available for a lot of special teams work. ... Dante Hughes looks to have fallen out of favor, which creates a lot of opportunity for Powers. ... Maybe I just caught him on a good couple days of practice, but receiver Taj Smith looks like a guy with real potential to develop. Look for him on the practice squad again.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
INDIANAPOLIS -- It's been a gorgeous day in Indy and the Colts-Vikings game will unfold beneath an open roof and window at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Three pregame thoughts/questions:
1) Sage Rosenfels is starting for the Vikings against a team that is not playing any of its starting secondary. On the one hand, Minnesota fans should feel confident the candidate for the starting job will be able to complete some passes. On the other hand, take a look at the picture atop this post from last October and revisit, if you will, a game famous for the "Rosencopter fumble" in an appearance against the Colts.
While we are touching on the Indianapolis secondary, let's take note of where cornerback Dante Hughes lines up. Is he second team (and thus starting)? Third? I don't get the sense the team is big on him right now, but what does playing a lot in a Colts' preseason game mean for a non-starter? That they like you? That they don't? That they need film to decide? It's harder to tell with them than with a lot of other teams.
2) Roy Hall is already gone, and I think Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie are both in line for roles as contributors at third receiver. Here we get our first game-pressure looks at them with big expectations. Peyton Manning won't play long. We shouldn't read much into it if he throws to one a bunch and the other not at all or hardly to either or a lot to each. But provided he aims for them a couple of times, do they look poised and comfortable and is it clear they are getting to their spots or are there hints of any hesitation?
3) Is there a discernable difference on special teams? I had a chance to talk with new coach Ray Rychleski, a very interesting guy with great passion for his job. Will we be able to see a difference in his charges? And how does rookie Pat McAfee fare punting and holding for Shane Andrus, who's keeping Adam Vinatieri's seat warm?
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul KuharskyGreen Bay Packers (4-3) at Tennessee Titans (7-0), 1 p.m. ET
The Packers have gotten healthy and will come to Nashville well-rested following a bye, while the Titans played an emotional game Monday night and had a short week. I don't buy any trap game theories and Jeff Fisher has been very good at keeping his good teams from any sort of hangovers, but I do buy that this is a bad matchup for Tennessee and could be its first loss.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has rested up that sore shoulder and defensive backs Atari Bigby and Al Harris are set to rejoin a secondary that shut down the Colts in the last game it played. Bigby will help in run defense, where I suspect the Packers can load up, leaving their corners on islands to deal with unintimidating receivers.
That would mean Green Bay selling out to stop the run and taking their chances against Kerry Collins & Co. It's what Indy tried, but it didn't work for the Colts, in part because they threw two picks and turned the ball over on downs twice.
If the Packers protect the ball better, they could have a breakthrough.
The Titans are the NFL's lone remaining unbeaten team.
The Jaguars have struggled with consistency all year, and their chance to pull things together and be a factor in the AFC playoff field is reliant on victories this week at winless Cincinnati and next week at, as of now, winless Detroit.
Jacksonville plays tight games -- all seven have been decided by a touchdown or less.
Cornerback Rashean Mathis has played well at times -- he helped shut down Denver's Brandon Marshall, for example. He's likely to draw T.J. Houshmandzadeh often. That's a guy you don't want to get going for a team desperate for any crumbs of momentum.
The Bengals are 0-8 for the fifth time in franchise history. Three of the four previous times the Bengals started 0-8, they won their ninth game.
The Texans are a bad road team and the Metrodome is a tough venue. Houston can prove a lot if it can win there, pulling to 4-4 after an 0-4 start.
Minnesota is ranked No. 2 against the run, forcing opponents to throw. The Texans have gotten pretty comfortable throwing it, ranking fifth in pass offense.
It could come down to which offensive star manages to have a better day, Minnesota running back Adrian P
eterson or Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson. Surely the Vikings will want to slow Johnson with Antoine Winfield as often as possible. Of course, the Texans will work to get Johnson into some situations where Cedric Griffin is trying to cover him.
The Vikings are coming off a bye and are 15-4 all-time in their first game following a week off.
The prevailing thinking on this game is that the Colts will find more plays and that Peyton Manning should outduel Matt Cassel. But I am getting the feeling the Patriots are figuring out who they are and what they can do while Indianapolis is learning what it isn't and what it can't do.
Look for New England to try to get the ball to Wes Welker working out of the slot. He's got at least six catches in the first seven games of the year, a feat accomplished by only three players in league history before.
Colts cornerback Tim Jennings will work outside as a starter in place of Marlin Jackson, but it's unclear what Indianapolis will do in the nickel. The guy next in line at cornerback is Dante Hughes, who missed practice all week with an ankle injury. Behind him is Keiwan Ratliff, who was just re-signed. But the Colts could go with three safeties, finding a way to keep Melvin Bullitt involved even with Bob Sanders due back.
Indianapolis slowed the Titans strong run game last week. Sanders should give them a boost as the Colts try to do the same to New England. Then the question is about slowing Welker and Randy Moss and making Cassel uncomfortable. Those Patriots receivers have a lesser quarterback, but could be better suited to produce than their Colts counterparts, Marvin Harrison (not himself these days) and Reggie Wayne (missed two practices and was limited Friday with a knee injury).
1:00 PM ET New Orleans Atlanta 1:00 PM ET Minnesota St. Louis 1:00 PM ET Cleveland Pittsburgh 1:00 PM ET Jacksonville Philadelphia 1:00 PM ET Oakland New York 1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Baltimore 1:00 PM ET Buffalo Chicago 1:00 PM ET Washington Houston 1:00 PM ET Tennessee Kansas City 1:00 PM ET New England Miami 4:25 PM ET Carolina Tampa Bay 4:25 PM ET San Francisco Dallas 8:30 PM ET Indianapolis Denver