NFL Nation: DeMarcus Faggins

The early indications are that Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson will be sliding inside at times, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be sliding off the field.

Almost immediately after taking the job, new Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan made it known that he wanted to have three starting-caliber cornerbacks. It took some time, but just before the NFL draft, the Falcons traded for Asante Samuel.

[+] EnlargeDunta Robinson
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFalcons CB Dunta Robinson will be back in his comfort zone in nickel situations next season.
Pair him with Brent Grimes and Robinson, and Nolan has exactly what he wants. But that has a lot of Atlanta fans speculating about who will be the odd man out. I think that’s the wrong question to ask because I don’t think there’s an answer.

In Nolan’s system, all three cornerbacks will play extensively. It really doesn’t matter who starts and who doesn’t. Nolan realizes the NFL has become a passing league and I’m pretty sure the Falcons will be lining up in their nickel package more often than not.

All that emerged from Tuesday’s media session is that the Falcons are working with Robinson sliding inside in nickel situations. It’s a job he sometimes filled when he was with Houston and it’s a role he wants.

“I would slide inside and DeMarcus Faggins would play outside,” Robinson said. “It’d give me a chance to do a lot of different things inside. It’s something I’ve been asking to do around here, but personnel reasons, they wanted to keep me outside. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m back at home. I’ve made a lot of plays inside so I’m excited about going back in there.”

But a lot of people are assuming that means Grimes and Samuel will be the starters and Robinson will be nothing more than a situational player. I don’t see that being the case. Just because a guy lines up as your nickel back, doesn’t mean he’s coming in from the sideline. Through the years, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sometimes have slid Ronde Barber from outside to the inside in nickel situations and other teams have done similar things.

There will be plenty of snaps for Robinson, Samuel and Grimes. The Falcons didn’t hesitate to keep Robinson on the field last season. Look back at this post from February that shows Robinson led all NFC South cornerbacks in playing time last season. He was on the field for 97.09 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps last season. Grimes, who missed four games with an injury, participated in 69.48 percent of Atlanta’s defensive snaps. The Falcons used Christopher Owens and Kelvin Hayden as their nickel backs last year, but they also had to fill in while Grimes was injured. Owens played 30.22 percent of the snaps, while Hayden was on the field for 21.89 percent.

Samuel participated in 78.5 percent of Philadelphia’s defensive snaps last year while missing two games with an injury.

Robinson might not be on the field for 97 percent of the snaps in 2012, but he definitely isn’t headed for the bench.
In general, we expect too much from late-round picks. (And from overall draft batting averages.)

In a recent conversation with former Denver general manager Ted Sundquist, he pointed to an article he once read in Ourlads by Joe Landers. Apologies, I couldn’t find the link.

“Using some common sense and a little investigative research, you'll find that it's rare, at least according to Landers’ study, to find a cornerback or running back or wide receiver that's really going to help you in the last three rounds,” Sundquist said. “And yet you'll find teams constantly take a reach on one of these positions.

“Evidence shows you're more likely to find a defensive tackle, offensive lineman, safety or tight end in the later rounds. Why? Most conventional wisdom says don't draft a safety or tight end high due to escalating rookie salaries and the going market at the position. As for defensive tackles or offensive linemen, it’s probably because of the greater numbers at the position. Both circumstances force down talented players at those positions.”

I went back and combed over the AFC South drafts since 2002, to see how many picks they spent on each side of the ledger Sundquist sets forth and how often the Colts, Jaguars, Texans and Titans did well with a fifth-, sixth- or seventh-round pick at those spots. This is, of course, highly unscientific. Metrics guys can probably shred it. But I thought it worth fiddling with.

Notables are players who played significantly, even if it’s been with another team, or recent picks who appear on track to contribute.

Houston Texans

WRs, RBs. CBs: 9

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 14

Most: Six safeties, four receivers, corners and defensive tackle

Notables: Colts

WRs, RBs. CBs: 7

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 13

Most: 13 offensive linemen

Notables: Jaguars

WRs, RBs. CBs: 12

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 9

Most: Five receivers, four offensive linemen

Notables: Titans

WRs, RBs. CBs: 14

DTs, OL, S, TEs: 16

Most: Seven offensive linemen, six wide receivers

Notables:
Of the notables from the division drafted since 2002, 73 percent (19) have been from the positions Sundquist says teams should concentrate on late while 27 percent (seven) play positions he believes should generally be avoided.

I'd be fine with the Titans not wasting yet another late pick on a receiver and with the Texans using late-rounders on something other than corners and receivers for sure. But it's not like Houston's spending late picks on safeties or the Colts use of such selections on offensive linemen have paid huge dividends either.

I'd love to read your thoughts.
If and when there is free agency, the Texans need to dip into it to try to solve their issues in the secondary. I think they should throw open the vault and be sure to land either Nnamdi Asomugha or Champ Bailey.

But as Green Bay prepares to play for the NFC title in Chicago on Sunday, it’s a good time to note that the Texans had one of the league’s best young cornerbacks on their roster in 2006.

The Texans had the foresight to bring Tramon Williams in as an undrafted free agent out of Louisiana Tech on May 8, 2006. Unfortunately, their ability to see big things in him ended after training camp and he was released on Sept. 6, 2006.

He was available to everyone in the league for months before the Packers signed him to their practice squad on Nov. 29 for the final five weeks of the season. In 2007 he was a training camp surprise, earning a roster spot. He’s played in every game since, with 16 interceptions. In the same span, the Texans don’t have a player with more than five interceptions.

Here are the guys who played cornerback for the 2006 Texans: Dunta Robinson, Dexter McCleon, Demarcus Faggins, Lewis Sanders, Kevin Garrett, Von Hutchins and Dexter Wynn.

Every team in the league let go of someone it wishes it held on to.

The Texans will be watching their prime example play in the NFC Championship Game, then either the Super Bowl or the Pro Bowl.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

The Titans lost at Cleveland Saturday night, but took a lot of good developments out of their fourth, and most important, preseason game. Some thoughts from the 23-17 loss:

  • It's been clear for some time they will wind up carrying four tight ends -- Bo Scaife, Alge Crumpler, Jared Cook and Craig Stevens. Scaife and Cook on the field together caused some difficulties for the Browns. Stevens did some nice things in the second half of this game. So did the versatile Quinton Ganther, who is going to make them keep four running backs too. No way he's not one of their best 53 players.
  • Mark Jones could have gotten away with all types of stumbles in his first action as the primary return man candidate. Fumbling one return away was not one of them. A year removed from a very solid year for the since-departed Chris Carr, the return jobs remain a giant question mark. Titans Radio said Jones suffered a stinger later when he was smothered on a kickoff return.
  • In relief of Kerry Collins, Vince Young had one great run and threw the ball decisively much of the time he was in the game. But his two bad plays were big. The first was a lost fumble at the goal line just before the half. And the pick-six interception he threw deep in the Titans' own end was the sort of gaffe that does an awful lot to offset the good. It was good that he bounced back to lead a touchdown drive and threw a scoring pass to end it. Patrick Ramsey, who's dealing with sore ribs, didn't play.
  • Cornerback Cortland Finnegan worked on the left instead of his usual spot on the right, getting some work in case the Titans need to shuffle or for an occasion when he might draw a particular receiver and have to follow him over there. Corner depth remains an issue -- Cary Williams started in place of Nick Harper, who sat out, and didn't fare particularly well. DeMarcus Faggins did well to force Braylon Edwards out of the end zone before he could get a second foot down during a remarkable one-handed catch.
  • Cleveland played starters into the fourth quarter, while the Titans' went only to halftime.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

ARLINGTON, Texas -- When Jeff Fisher tosses and turns, this is the kind of football game unfolding in his head.

Dallas is up 14-10 at the half of a preseason opener that's the first football played at Cowboys Stadium

If possession (or yardage) produced points, Dallas would be blowing the Titans out. Overall in the first half, Dallas moved 249 net yards in 22:13, the Titans 78 in 7:47.

The Titans had hoped to get Vince Young some time with the first team offense, but as it only got 17 plays, he didn't make it off the bench -- except for when Fisher sent the Titans who played their college ball at Texas to midfield as captains before the game.

A few other thoughts:

  • Javon Ringer returned 15 kicks as a collegian, none as long as his first-quarter 51 yarder, when he bounced to the left sideline and took off. He continues to impress and will be able to contribute in a number of ways. On the Titans' next special teams play, he was lined up second from the right on the kickoff coverage unit. His 16-yard run with the first team offense late in the first quarter was a thing of beauty too. He had a nice one-handed catch too. Don't want to read too much into it, but as we've been talking about Nate Washington and Jared Cook upping the dynamic weapons. Kenny Britt's going to be on that list, and Ringer could be working his way on it too. At this early stage, the draft class is looking quite impressive.
  • With Vincent Fuller (hamstring) and Ryan Mouton (ankle) out, Tanard Davis was the first nickel. On a third-and-3 against Patrick Crayton in the slot, Davis allowed for too much separation and Crayton crossed to the left and caught a 15-yard pass. A bit later Davis gave up a 9-yard pass to Crayton and Dallas converted the resulting fourth-and-1. The Titans aren't three deep at nickel right now. Ultimately someone with a better chance at a roster spot -- DeMarcus Faggins, Cary Williams or Jason McCourty -- needs to be ready to go there in an emergency.
  • Chris Johnson has 3 yards on two carries and one catch for no gain. But it continues to be clear that the Titans aren't doing anything schematically to help spring him. On a first-and-15 in the first quarter, Collins threw to him short on the right and he was swarmed by -- I promise I am not exaggerating -- five Cowboys without a Titan any where nearby to even try to throw a block. Come meaningful games, they will be doing far, far more to get him into space.
  • Everything is big here, except the small corner pieces of ribbon boards where the Cowboys post the down and distance. I got a headache trying to read it. Have any Tylenol?
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Three things I'll be looking at, beyond the inevitable Vince Young/ Patrick Ramsey analysis, while the Titans take on the Buccaneers Saturday night in Nashville:

1. Tempo and rhythm: Kerry Collins had a lot of slow starts in 2008 and we know he and the first team offense aren't going to play very long. Tennessee's offense looks to have significantly better personnel than Tampa Bay's defense. Can the Titans first-team offense find a good flow?

2. A corner to stand out. Has one of the four candidates to be the chief corner backup stepped forward yet? I've not been with the Titans for a while, but haven't heard any great buzz yet either about Cary Williams, DeMarcus Faggins, Ryan Mouton or Jason McCourty.

3. Young linebacker play. Ryan Fowler will start in the middle with Stephen Tulloch (knee) out. Josh Stamer probably works with the twos in David Thornton's spot on the left with Stanford Keglar taking over for Keith Bulluck on the right. Rookie Gerald McRath should see significant time outside as well. Keglar or McRath could have a big opportunity in a year if Bulluck's not re-signed. Do either show signs?

 
  Don McPeak/US Presswire
  Keith Bulluck knows the window of opportunity for the Titans is getting smaller.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans believe they have all the necessary parts to contend for a championship: a top offensive line that facilitates two complementary running backs and a good decision-maker at quarterback; a swarming defense with at least one Pro Bowl talent in every unit; a clutch kicker with a big leg; a steady coaching staff under calm, cool Jeff Fisher.

Camp Confidential: AFC South
Titans: Mon., Aug. 3
Jaguars: Sat., Aug. 8
Colts: Sat., Aug. 15
Texans: Fri., Aug. 21

But while they have a young core to build around beyond 2009, it feels like a window may be closing. Among the players in a contract year are tone-setters such as longtime linebacker Keith Bulluck, defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, center Kevin Mawae, cornerback Nick Harper and defensive end Jevon Kearse.

None has played longer or more consistently than Bulluck, the outspoken 4-3 outside linebacker who has long excelled in the Titans' system with his speed, athleticism and ability to hit.

He's seen good friends and good teammates disappear from the locker room as the team judged them unaffordable or done, and lamented the losses of Eddie George, Samari Rolle, the late Steve McNair, Robaire Smith, Derrick Mason and, most recently, Albert Haynesworth.

Fantasy Football: 32 Questions
Ken Daube breaks down the 2009 season for Tennessee's backfield tandem of Chris Johnson and LenDale White, and explains why White has greater value in fantasy. Story

That makes him expect he'll be next, adding to his sense of urgency: This is his last, best chance to get to a Super Bowl with the Titans.

"That window of opportunity is only open but for so long," he said. "I've been on this team going on 10 years. The window's been open two times previously and we didn't jump through it, so I feel -- for me, for the organization -- this team has to be the one to take that bound and jump through the window of opportunity. It's fair to say that."

 
  AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
  The addition of wide receiver Nate Washington gives the Titans another downfield threat.

Last year's 13-3 team returns 20 starters, and Nate Washington is an upgrade over Justin McCareins. The team is confident it has a committee that can make up for the departure of Haynesworth, and has replaced defensive linemen well through the years.

"Now it's definitely straight business and trying to win the Super Bowl," Bulluck said.

The Titans may not match last season's 10-0 start or 13-3 record. Barring injuries, they should be a playoff team and if it does prove to be Bulluck's swan song with the franchise, it's reasonable for him to expect his last game with them will be one deep in the playoffs.

Key questions

1. Will the passing offense improve?

There are three reasons to believe so: Washington, the free-agent addition who will start opposite Justin Gage, and draft picks Kenny Britt and Jared Cook.

Washington gives the team a receiving speedster on the outside who should keep safeties honest, which can threaten defenses deep and help create additional room for the team's most dynamic weapon, Chris Johnson. Britt is a physical receiver who comes into the league having impressed offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger with his ability to get off the jam at the line of scrimmage. And when Cook was available 89th overall, the Titans felt he was such a value that they dealt their 2010 second-rounder to New England in order to take Cook. Such a trade is rare for them.

Kerry Collins will have solid protection. Now he should have better optio
ns downfield, who can do more once he delivers them the ball.

2. Will they rush and stuff the run as effectively without Haynesworth?

 Haye
 Jones

They will miss a player who could dominate and frequently drew double teams, and his fear-no-one, say-anything attitude gave the unit some of its swagger. But a year ago they lost their left end tandem of Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy as free agents after they'd combined for 14 sacks, and there was no talk in 2009 about how the team missed the duo. They plugged in people and moved forward.

Defensive line coach Jim Washburn has molded a lot of players into effective run-stuffers and pocket-collapsers. Free-agent addition Jovan Haye and second-round draft pick Sen'Derrick Marks are guys he wanted for the interior, just like Jason Jones, last year's second-round pick. The Titans will love it if opponents draw up protections expecting they won't be as threatening as they were with Haynesworth.

3. What will change under new defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil?

Well, Fisher is a defensive coach who's overseen successful transitions at the post before. Cecil learned under the guy he replaces, current Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz. So no matter how much people may want to believe Cecil will bring a blitzing mentality, the Titans won't be compromising coverage if they get sufficient pass pressure from their front four. (See No. 2 above.)

In his early days in the post, Cecil said if the Titans give up 6 yards on third-and-seven, he'll say yippee or hurrah as the defense leaves the field having held. Expect a Schwartz-like emphasis on third-down percentage and points allowed.

Market watch

 
  AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
  The Titans hope a lighter LenDale White can remain a steady complement to Chris Johnson.

LenDale White said he was as heavy as 265 in 2009 and reported to camp at 228. It's a contract year and that was certainly part of the motivation, but he's matured, too, and has been a good teammate for the bulk of his first three seasons. Given the same sort of key-situation carries he got last year, when he scored 15 touchdowns, he can be an even more effective complement to Johnson.

Newcomer to watch

Bo Scaife wasn't as much of a target down the stretch last season, and while he's got a knack for a tough catch in a crucial spot, Cook brings much more upside. If he can run the sort of routes and make the type of catches he did in OTAs and the early days of camp, he could become a prominent piece of the offense in short order. If he can earn his way onto the field, he will be able to outrun linebackers and outmuscle defensive backs. First he'll have to prove to be a reliable route-runner and show he's got dependable hands.

Observation deck

Leroy Harris worked as the starting center at the start of camp while Mawae completed his recovery from an elbow injury. It's unlikely the stronger but less experienced Harris can win the job, but he gives Tennessee great security at center and guard. Now the Titans need to find a swing tackle to back up Michael Roos and David Stewart. ... Rookie running back Javon Ringer could quickly seize the No. 3 running back job if he can show the skills the team needs from that player on special teams. ... Rookie corner Ryan Mouton has started out as Vincent Fuller's backup at nickel. Can he also get comfortable outside and provide depth behind Cortland Finnegan and Harper? Mouton, DeMarcus Faggins, Cary Williams and Jason McCourty will jostle for spots in the pecking order with Eric King and Chris Carr gone. ... The end looks to be near, mercifully, for two ineffective third-year players on offense -- running back Chris Henry and receiver Paul Williams. What might the Titans have been if they hit on their second- and third-rounders in 2007? ... After two middling years, receiver and return man Chris Davis looks like he's gained confidence and could be in line to break out, especially if Mark Jones doesn't mount a strong case for the return jobs and the last receiver slot. ... Look for high-motor defensive end Vanden Bosch, slowed by a groin injury last year, to make a strong return and rank among the league's sack leaders. ... The Titans remain hopeful that Vince Young can be a solid backup to Collins, but a roster bonus of more than $4 million in 2010 calls his future with the team into question.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Some quick thoughts out of the first practice of Titans training camp, which was not especially eventful.

First, the two things I tweeted (@espn_afcsouth):

  • No contract for Kenny Britt meant the first round pick, a wide receiver, wasn't on the field. Chris Davis and Lavelle Hawkins got the additional work. No real indication of where negotiations stand except the standard optimism.
  • Vince Young had a nice day, you'll find one detail about it below, and outperformed Patrick Ramsey by a good bit on the first day. If it's the start of a trend it'll be a good development, but let's not read a whole lot into a one day sampling of anything.

Additionally:

  • Yes, LenDale White has kept the weight off. I would have thought he would have been in the locker room advertising the number, which could be under 230. White looks impressive.
  • Speaking of running back size: I said during OTAs that I thought rookie Javon Ringer was not well-served by being assigned No. 3, which made him look too thin for the part of a physical back. He looks a lot better, honest, in his new No. 21.
  • Kicker Rob Bironas was not in uniform, Jeff Fisher said he was going to be held out for a few days with a slight pull, then called it soreness that "is nothing to be concerned about." He declined to reveal a body part. Undrafted rookie A.J. Trapasso kicked during a field goal period and was unimpressive, but Fisher emphasized Trapasso is a punter first, a kickoff guy second and a place kicker third. If we don't have to be concerned about it, why does it have to be top secret?
  • Bironas got bigger in the offseason and I know I risk some wrath here, but I have to be candid and say it's not all muscle.
  • Hard not to find symbolism when Paul Williams, very likely on his last legs, drops the first pass thrown to him, in a period with quarterbacks and no defenders. Same result for undrafted rookie Dudley Guice. Later, Williams got scolded by offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger. If the coach is making hand gestures about the course you should have taken as opposed to the one you took before you even get back to the line of scrimmage, that's not a good sign.
  • Bud Adams watched some practice from the balcony off the second-floor executive office, which has a new awning to provide some shade. He pulled out binoculars to check out the action on the field furthest from him, where the main action happened to take place. Earlier in the day he reminisced about the AFL on a national media conference call.
  • During receiver work, Nate Washington, Dominique Edison, Hawkins and Phillip Morris lined up on the left and Justin Gage, Davis, Williams, Mark Jones and Guice were on the right.
  • Washington breaks down smoothly and makes sharp cuts. He did some coaching of Edison during the receivers' period alone with the quarterbacks. I want to see him run all out, which I haven't seen for myself yet.
  • In seven-on-seven work, Chris Hope broke up a quick pass for Chris Johnson from Kerry Collins. Then Hope and Cortland Finnegan broke up a bullet of about 10 yards from Collins intended for Alge Crumpler, who was moving downfield. Hope topped things off by picking off a mid-range pass intended for Davis, also from Collins.
  • No lineup surprises at all that I saw. Leroy Harris is at center for Kevin Mawae (elbow), who said he's start getting into the swing of things in two weeks and ideally needs a little preseason time but is concerned only with being ready for Sept. 10 in Pittsburgh. Tony Brown started off at right defensive tackle -- Albert Haynesworth's old spot -- next to Jason Jones.
  • Young hit rookie tight end Jared Cook with a nice midrange pass up the left sideline over linebacker Colin Allred and was generally on target from the pocket and on the move.
  • DeMarcus Faggins moved quickly to come from behind Gage, dive and break up a pass delivered from Young on the run
  • It seemed like the offense didn't complete anything deep, which is always what a crowd wants to see. The first team defense flew around and clearly had the better day, picking up where it left off at the end of OTAs. But it was just one day.
  • Check out Keith Bulluck on Twitter -- @kbull53. He's doing live chats with video, though Friday's was postponed: "No show this evening folks,got things 2 do @ work. Hopefully I get the kinks worked out b4 the next episode. Good day @ prac tho. I'll holla." He was being coy about it, and is clearly looking to grow his own thing without any advertising from an outlet like this one. Sorry Charlie.
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
 
  Bill Baptist/Getty Images
  A healthy Chris Brown could be a big plus for Houston.

Houston Texans

Training camp site: Houston, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

Camp will be a success if: A defensive identity develops under new coordinator Frank Bush, who's pledged to be more aggressive.

Division Camp Previews
Tuesday: NFC North | AFC North
Wednesday: NFC East | AFC East
Thursday: NFC South | AFC South
Friday: NFC West | AFC West

MORE
Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates
With new coaches overseeing the defensive line and the defensive backs, there is a real chance for new messages and approaches to have a  bearing on players and units.

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

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

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


Indianapolis Colts

Training camp site: Terre Haute, Ind.

 
  Donald Miralle/Getty Images
  Peyton Manning's receiving corps will be without Marvin Harrison this year.
Campfires: Targets for Peyton Manning are crucial, of course, and that's why there is such a large focus on the three-way fight for the No. 3 receiver spot. Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and Roy Hall will draw a lot of attention as that's sorted out. Garcon seemed to be getting a lot of positive reviews in OTAs and min
icamp, with Hall not generating much buzz.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Our NFC West ace Mike Sando has been keeping track of free-agent movement by division and put together this excellent chart, which doesn't factor in any deals that may have been completed Friday morning.

Division Starting UFA Current UFA
Percent Still Unsigned
NFC North
40 33 .825
AFC West
34 28 .824
NFC West
58 45 .776
NFC East
33 25 .758
AFC North
46 32 .696
AFC South
39 26 .667
AFC East
45 28 .622
NFC South
41 22 .537
Who's still out there from the AFC South teams?

The most significant names by team, with asterisks denoting players still believed to be of interest by their current clubs:

Houston Texans

Cornerback DeMarcus Faggins, safety Nick Ferguson*, defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina*, fullback Cecil Sapp*.

Indianapolis Colts

Safety Matt Giordano, linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, running back Dominic Rhodes*, punter Hunter Smith, defensive end Josh Thomas.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Tackle Khalif Barnes, guard Chris Naeole, linebacker Mike Peterson, safety Pierson Prioleau, safety Gerald Sensabaugh, receiver Reggie Williams.

Tennessee Titans

Corner/returner Chris Carr*, punter Craig Hentrich*, cornerback Reynaldo Hill, tackle Daniel Loper*, receiver Justin McCareins.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Before we head to the airport for a too-long afternoon of travel with a connecting flight back to Nashville, we wander through the four cities of the AFC South to see what's been written.

Houston Texans

The Texans came out of a win angry, because they gave Detroit too much second-half life, says John McClain.

When Matt Schaub is on, he can be very good, writes Richard Justice.

In his return, Dunta Robinson played 25 snaps, mostly covering Mike Furrey, says Bernardo Fallas.

Andre Johnson has put together the best three-game stretch of his career, writes Megan Manfull.

DeMarcus Faggins says Calvin Johnson's 96-yard touchdown catch was his fault, according to McClain and Manfull.

Steve Slaton and Owen Daniels combine for four touchdowns, says Kristie Rieken.

Indianapolis Colts

Turnovers and penalties amount to sloppiest game of the Tony Dungy era, writes Phil Richards.

It takes a lot to make Dungy angry. He was angry after this one, says Bob Kravitz.

Kravitz's report card includes only one F.

"I guess we're like the Dow Jones in a sense,'' linebacker Gary Brackett says in Mike Chappell's story. "We're all over the place."

Five things Don Banks learned while watching Colts-Packers.

The Packers gave Indy's receivers trouble coming off the line, according to Phillip B. Wilson.

Dominic Rhodes fared pretty well in place of Joseph Addai, but given the loss he wasn't too happy about it, Chappell and Richards write.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Apologies for missing this. Big news in the Richard Collier case: Police arrested a suspect in his shooting.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans ran for 332 yards in their win in Kansas City, a single-game franchise record, says Jim Wyatt, who short-changes Max Weinberg.

David Climer says the Titans have their helmets screwed on straight as they look ahead to Monday night against Indianapolis.

Michael Silver: "A primer on a well-coached, unselfish, hard-hitting team that remains decidedly devoid of sexiness."

Titans receivers caught all of two passes with their two starters sidelined, but they were key blockers for the run game, according to Gary Estwick.

Tennessee has eight tackles for a loss as they shut down the Chiefs' run game, writes Estwick.

Kyle Vanden Bosch started, but exited quickly. He's hopeful his groin will be fine by Monday night, says the crew from The Tennessean.

Wyatt hands out two As and an A+ in his report card.

Chris Johnson gave himself a chance to execute his plan, banging on the house band drums after his long TD run in KC, writes Steve Weiberg.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

The Houston Texans were able to run out to a big lead and hold on against Detroit.

Along the way Matt Schaub twice found tight end Owen Daniels wide open in the end zone on play-action passes from short range for his first two touchdown receptions of the season.

Back in training camp I wondered if the Texans would look to find more ways to get the ball to Daniels in the end zone. He's a solid option in their passing game and he had five scoring catches as a rookie but just three last year.

I guess it might be easier to feed him if Houston saw the Lions more regularly. Look over the box score and dramatic edges in rushing yard (150-77), first downs (29-15) time of possession (40:04 to 19:56) suggest the Texans did well to control this game and make you wonder how the final score wasn't of blowout proportions.

It all would have showed up better in the score if they didn't allow big-play quick scores in the form of a 26-yard run by Kevin Smith and a 96-yard touchdown catch and run by Calvin Johnson. (Cornerback DeMarcus Faggins just won his way back into the starting lineup, then let Johnson get behind him with all that green space? Ouch.)

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

I'm off to Green Bay in a bit, but first I'd like to act as your AFC South tour guide...

Houston Texans

  • Dunta Robinson will be a captain Sunday in his first game back from serious knee and hamstring injuries, says John McClain.
  • DeMarcus Faggins was "the red-hot star at practice this week," Gary Kubiak told McClain.
  • Five things to watch for in Texans vs. Lions from Brooke Bentley of houstontexans.com.

Indianapolis Colts

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • A status report from Tania Ganguli as the Jaguars head into their bye Sunday.

Tennessee Titans

  • Return man Chris Carr has earned some trust, which gets him better blocking, writes Jim Wyatt.
  • The Titans could be without their two starting receivers Sunday because of injuries, says Wyatt. If Lavelle Hawkins gets a chance, he has to play close to mistake-free to force coaches to consider him when everyone is healthy.
  • The Titans are downplaying their 5-0 record, according to Teresa Walker.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

A trip around the division before our trip to Denver this afternoon ...

Houston Texans

  • DeMarcus Faggins has overtaken Fred Bennett for a starting cornerback spot, according to John McClain.
  • Running backs will play an important role in blocking against Miami, says McClain.
  • Competition on the D-line might lead to Amobi Okoye being used situationally. He played his best game last week under that scenario, according to houstontexans.com.

Indianapolis Colts

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • Reggie Nelson and Mike Walker are out for the Denver game with knee injuries, writes Michael C. Wright.
  • Another take on the friendship between Walker and Denver's Brandon Marshall, from Tania Ganguli.

Tennessee Titans

  • ESPN's Tom Jackson was in town this week working on a feature on the Titans defensive line, says Jim Wyatt. Also in the Titans Insider: Cortland Finnegan and Derrick Mason got fined $5,000 each for an incident during last week's Tennessee-Baltimore game.
  • The bye week was about details for the Titans, writes Gary Estwick.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Jacksonville at Tennessee, 1 p.m. ET

In the wake of Richard Collier's shooting, the Jaguars are likely to be in an all-or-nothing state. Are they drained from hospital visits and sleepless nights considering whether their teammate would survive the night? Or do they rally on his behalf, calling on a reserve to help provide some good news for him and the city? I think we'll have a feeling for which way the Jags go in the first five minutes of the game.

Never mind the players for a moment. Many of us are expecting another low scoring, defensive battle like last year's 13-10 Tennessee win at Jacksonville on opening day. But it could amount to a coming out party for two offensive coaches. Dirk Koetter, the Jags second-year offensive coordinator, now has a better handle on what he's got and a better comfort level calling an NFL game. The Titans Mike Heimerdinger is back for a second term in the same post. Neither coordinator was showing much in the preseason. Now we'll see some of the plays they rate as their favorites. That should make a big difference, shouldn't it?

While it's a huge game, it seems to me the Titans are the team that can better handle losing it. Jeff Fisher's teams have a history of starting slow, and have often managed to dig out of it. The Titans couldn't get anything going offensively with their first team in the preseason, so it won't be a surprise if they don't move the ball effectively. Jacksonville, meanwhile, is a popular pick to catch or pass Indianapolis. They seemed to be gradually ramping up in the preseason. How will they handle a loss after a month of listening to all the big expectations? Maybe better than I imagine. They did, after all, lose their opener to Tennessee last season in Jacksonville and recover just fine.

It's been a football lifetime since Gregg Williams was the defensive coordinator for the Oilers/Titans, so it's hard to imagine such a thing would carry over. But it's still worth a mention: while his defenses beat some very good quarterbacks, they also tended to go after young and unproven guys and see it backfire. Remember Ryan Leaf? With Young's questionable decision-making and ability to dodge a rusher, is it better to send extra people at him or to complicate coverages and await mistakes? Six of his 30 regular season interceptions have landed in the arms of Jaguars' defenders.

Houston at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m. ET

Steelers receiver Santonio Holmes averaged a ridiculous 18.1 yards per catch last year. For the Texans to cap that, they need to find a consistent pass rush and they need cornerback Fred Bennett to prove he can stick with Holmes. I'd also expect the Steelers to get a third wide receiver on the field in order to put Houston in nickel to get chances to test DeMarcus Faggins.

Against a 3-4, Houston's offensive line is likely to need to cut more linebackers as part of Alex Gibbs' zone blocking scheme. It's one thing to take down bigger linemen, another to get to the second level and deal with more athletic players.

Indications to this point are that the Texans may feel the need to pass to set up the run instead of vice versa. Either way, we find out if a couple skill position players like Steve Slaton and Kevin Walter can be factors or get cancelled out once the games begin to count.

The Texans won in Pittsburgh in 2002 despite gaining only 47 yards of total offense. The Texans forced five turnovers, returning three for touchdowns.

Chicago at Indianapolis, 8:15 p.m. ET

The Peyton Manning questions are twofold: How does he do on a left knee that kept him out of the entire preseason after he had an infected bursa sac removed from it on July 14? And how does he do without his center, Jeff Saturday? Will Saturday's replacement, probably Jamey Richard, work to adjust things at the line of scrimmage the way Saturday did? Will another lineman? Will Manning take on even more responsibility? Look for Manning to get rid of the ball even faster than usual with Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Anthony Gonzalez, Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai looking to break a tackle and get yards after the catch. The Colts aren't going to ask Manning to stand in very long with three new offensive linemen working against a defensive front that includes Adewale Ogunleye, Tommie Harris, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Harris will surely work to make it a long night for the likely center Jamey Richard.

Lucas Oil Stadium makes its regular season debut on national television Sunday night. Will the crowd be able to influence a game the way it did at the RCA Dome? It's a much more difficult task with all the additional square footage under the roof, be it open or closed.

Kick coverage is always a Colts' issue. Will they kick to Devin Hester as they did to open the Super Bowl two years ago? Can Courtney Roby (kicks) and Keiwan Ratliff (punts) help the offense out with some field position on returns?

Spotlight issues, obviously: Manning's knee, Dwight Freeney's foot, Bo Sanders' shoulder

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