NFL Nation: Drew Coleman

A year ago, when the Jaguars signed Drew Coleman, his expertise as a nickel corner was his appeal.

And even as the Jaguars lost defensive backs, the team kept Coleman in that narrow role. He lined up across from the receiver in the slot.

Surprisingly, the Jaguars released Coleman today, and it seems the lack of versatility that was just fine before hurt him now.

The team re-signed Rashean Mathis and he’s done very well with his rehab from a torn ACL. They signed veteran Aaron Ross. They tendered William Middleton and drafted Mike Harris.

Ross, Middleton and Harris have all played the nickel role in the past.

I would have let one of them show he’s a better option than Coleman in training camp. And I do generally abide by the thinking that you don’t make a personnel move until you have to. If Ross fell down the stairs and suffered an injury that means he won’t play in 2013, then you’d like to have Coleman back, no?

Coleman signed for three years and $7.5 million. The Jaguars paid him a bonus of just over $3 million. He was due base salaries of just over $1.5 million this year and next.

The Colts should look at Coleman, who will probably have some options with teams that didn’t get what they wanted in the draft and need nickel help.
Blogger Mock Draft Live has concluded.

The AFC South made one trade and four picks as we unrolled our final mock draft during a well-attended chat.

You can see how it all unfolded in the chat, and we’ve got the full mock draft here.

The Jaguars could well stay put at No. 7. They may have no choice as we hear that the trade market is largely non-existent.

I hardly got a haul from NFC East blogger Dan Graziano, who made a deal with me as the Eagles representative.

As the Jaguars, I got No. 15, No. 88 in the third round and gave up 176th in the sixth round in exchange for No. 153 in the fifth. That’s not a win on the trade value chart, but I think it’s outdated. I got an extra pick and an upgrade. Maybe I should have stayed put and taken defensive end Melvin Ingram. But at 15, I got the Gamecocks cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who could have gone inside the top 10. This would give the Jaguars nice depth at corner, with Derek Cox, Aaron Ross, Rashean Mathis if healthy, Gilmore and nickel specialist Drew Coleman.

Oh, I forgot my first pick, didn’t I? So unsurprising was the Colts selection of Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck.

At 20, the Titans passed on Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick in favor of USC defensive end Nick Perry. Tennessee could go corner, but they are hardly corner desperate. They aren’t desperate at end, either, I suppose, since they signed Kamerion Wimbley. But Perry’s got a combination of size and speed that can help the rush and make life easier on the corners the Titans already have.

At 26, my choice for the Texans was not especially well received by the masses. Prevailing wisdom says receiver, and that’s where I have gone in past mocks. But with Mike Brisiel and Eric Winston gone, that strong offensive line suffered two major dents. Antoine Caldwell or Rashad Butler will probably be good. But to bank on both seems risky. Put Wisconsin’s Kevin Zeitler in the mix, let him win one of those spots and the odds the line can be good again go up.

ESPN.com kindly provides space below for you to destroy me for these picks.

At least I hit on Luck, right?
The sort of bold move the Jaguars were due to make thanks to plenty of salary-cap room and a new owner who’s talked about being all-in has arrived.

While the Jaguars signed receiver Laurent Robinson and backup quarterback Chad Henne, the addition of former Giants cornerback Aaron Ross is a bigger move.

Adam Schefter reports the Jaguars and Ross have agreed on a three-year deal worth up to $15.3 million.

Ross should bring the Jaguars a great deal in play and leadership -- he started in both the Giants’ Super Bowl wins over the Patriots.

Corner depth was the Jaguars’ second-biggest need on defense, behind only the sort of special pass-rushing end that many teams are searching for fruitlessly.

Jacksonville had previously re-signed Rashean Mathis, a one-time staple. He’s coming off a torn ACL, however, and his deal is an incentive-laden one-year package.

The Jaguars now have Ross, Derek Cox, Mathis and nickel corner Drew Coleman.

That’s a pretty solid stable to fill out the defensive backfield with safeties Dawan Landry and Dwight Lowery.

Despite managing to re-sign end Jeremy Mincey, end and receiver remain the primary needs.

The defense is an end away from being loaded, having now added a quality six pack of veterans in the past two seasons: linebackers Paul Posluszny and Clint Session, safeties Landry and Lowery and corners Ross and Coleman.

Jared Cook helps Titans stay alive

December, 24, 2011
12/24/11
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CookDon McPeak/US PresswireJared Cook had eight catches for a franchise-record 169 receiving yards against the Jaguars.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer polls his quarterbacks on their three favorite plays out of each week’s game plan.

Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker and Rusty Smith all voted this week for a deep crossing route.

It was a play the Titans ran with great success in a 23-17 Christmas Eve win over the Jaguars that kept Tennessee in contention for the sixth and final berth in the AFC playoff field.

The Titans need to finish in a three-way tie at 9-7 with the Bengals and Jets or with the Bengals and Raiders to earn the No. 6 seed.

The trio of signal-callers often votes the same way in separate, secret balloting which influences Palmer’s approach, Hasselbeck said.

“It’s mental telepathy or something,” he said. “We get along really well, we like the same plays. They think we’re cheating off of each other, but we’re not.”

Rarely does the favored play contribute so heavily to a favored result.

Hasselbeck leaned on it heavily and posted strong passing numbers despite two interceptions, with 24 completions in 40 pass attempts, for 350 yards and a touchdown.

Tight end Jared Cook is a big, fast, receiver-like threat. He disappears at times and has not been featured the way many of us expected he would be this season. In Week 15 he lost a deadly fumble in Indianapolis when the Titans were mounting a charge.

But he keyed this Titans win with eight catches for 169 yards and the 55-yard score on a mismatch with Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, who was left in an unreasonably difficult spot by the coverage.

No tight end for the Titans or Oilers ever collected so much receiving yardage in one game. The previous record was 150 by Houston’s Dave Casper in 1980.

While the Jaguars have a strong front seven, they do not have particularly threatening edge pass-rushers. That helped the Titans feel comfortable lining Cook up less often next to a tackle, and more often in a two-by-two set, as if he were a receiver in a four-wide formation.

Nate Washington, also in a slot, typically drew nickelback Drew Coleman in coverage. Hasselbeck said that also helped get Cook into open space more often than usual.

Cook said the Titans talked all week about the opportunities they’d find against an injury-depleted Jaguars defense. The Jaguars are without both their starting corners, Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox, and played Saturday minus starting safety Dwight Lowery. That meant Ashton Youboty and Morgan Trent started at corner and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah was in the lineup at safety.

Youboty suffered a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter, and couldn't finish the game. He was replaced by David Jones, a player Jacksonville decided was not part of its future at the end of training camp.

Combine all that change with a gimpy Chris Johnson, who sprained an ankle last week, and the Titans decided to push it with the pass.

“We kind of looked at the first-15 script and saw there was a little change up from the normal,” Cook said, referring to the preordained 15 plays the Titans wanted to run out of the gate if the situations permitted for them. “We kind of got excited. So kudos to coach Palmer for kind of doing that and catching the defense off guard.”

Not to harp, but… While the Titans are over last week’s loss at previously winless Indianapolis, I can’t help wonder how things might be different for them had they taken this approach a week earlier against the Colts, who rush the passer better but also have a secondary minus three starters.

“It’s just hard to predict games,” Hasselbeck said.

It’s hard, too, to predict what happens in all the games that influence the Titans’ chances next week.

But the Texans are locked into the third seed, and have nothing to gain with a win and nothing to lose with a loss. If the Titans find their way in, their opponent isn’t in question. They’ll go right back to Houston for a wild-card game.

The Titans know they’ve blown a ton of chances that would have left them in a better spot.

“We’re alive,” guard Jake Scott said. “That’s all you can ask for right now. We’ve got to handle our business and hope for the help that we need.”

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In his first year calling plays for the Jacksonville defense, Mel Tucker’s had a solid season for the Jaguars.

He was given a huge upgrade in personnel out of free agency, and the team’s issues in a 3-8 season have been primarily largely on offense.

[+] EnlargeMel Tucker
AP Photo/Phil Coale, FileJaguars interim coach Mel Tucker makes his debut on Monday against San Diego.
Tonight, as he debuts as the team’s interim coach in a home Monday Night Football game against San Diego, Tucker will be without his three top outside cornerbacks.

Will Middleton has joined Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox on injured reserve.

While Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers has struggled this season, he could be in line to make some connections at EverBank Field, where recent addition Ashton Youboty, undrafted Kevin Rutland and retread David Jones are in line to play in Jacksonville's secondary. Jones, who struggled mightily last season, was re-signed as Middleton went to IR.

Drew Coleman plays as the nickel corner and seems to be pigeonholed there, but whether Tucker likes him outside or not, the Jaguars might have to use him more.

I’m not sure what Tucker can do in the team’s remaining five games to hold on to the job. He’s respected and he’s expected by those who put him in place to do well. But after nearly nine seasons of Jack Del Rio, the Jaguars are a team in need of fresh air, and new owner Shahid Khan is likely to want to make a splash with an outsider who revamps the way the team plays.

Tucker has been assured of an interview, and many are mentioning him as a stong candidate for the post. At this stage I’d guess it’s more likely the new coach, hopefully an offensive mind, sees a productive defense and decides to try to get Tucker to return to the coordinator post.

ESPN’s Mike Tirico will do the play-by-play of tonight’s game. He watched Saturday’s practice and was part of a production meeting with Tucker.

“He’s very detailed, very organized,” Tirico said. “I think it’s definitely an approach that would be what I’d expect from a guy who’s learned from Nick Saban and Jim Tressel, among others. The practice was a crisp, well-paced practice.”

It’s been a whirlwind week. Tucker had no hint of what was coming when he reported to work Tuesday. Since then he dismissed receivers coach Johnny Cox, shifted Mike Sheppard from quarterbacks to receivers coach and gave offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter full sway over the quarterbacks.

He’s overseen the construction and installation of a game plan. He’s dealt with Middleton’s injury.

And he’s very likely implemented some other unseen alterations to the operation.

“For that sort of fire drill for a guy who’s 39 and has never been a head coach, he’s seems pretty organized,” Tirico said.

At his first practice as the head man leading up to this game, Tucker arrived 30 minutes early. He talked of wanting to get some fresh air, but also confessed it gave him the vantage point he wanted as he began to watch everything.

The Jaguars know they’ve got new eyes on them.

What Tucker sees will be important. What Tucker shows will be more important.

Final Word: AFC South

September, 30, 2011
9/30/11
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

Nickel and dime: The Saints fared great when they spread the field and emptied the backfield in their furious comeback against the Texans last week. It really took advantage of Houston’s lack of cornerback depth. Jacksonville will face the same test. Drew Colemanwas signed as a free agent to upgrade the nickel, and he’ll need to play well against a receiving corps that gets Marcus Colston back. Fourth corner William Middleton will be on the field more too, especially if starting corner Derek Cox (doubtful, groin) is out. And linebackers will be tested in coverage against a team with a lot of weapons that likes to throw to running back Darren Sproles.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Painter
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireIn his third season in Indianapolis, QB Curtis Painter is expected to get his first start Sunday.
Curtis Painter time: He will start for the Colts at quarterback on Monday night against the Bucs as Kerry Collins recovers from an apparent concussion suffered in the loss to Pittsburgh. Can Painter show some poise and put together a consistent effort? One thing that would really help his cause is being more accurate with Reggie Wayne. From 2008-10, Peyton Manning threw incomplete just 18.7 percent of the time he targeted Wayne. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Collins and Painter have combined to miss Wayne 39.3 percent of the time. You can’t miss your primary target that often and have a successful passing game.

Steelers blitzes: Pittsburgh’s been great on defense without blitzing. The Steelers are allowing just 5.5 yards per pass attempt when sending four or fewer rushers, third-best in the league. But last year and so far this year, Matt Schaubis connecting on 71.4 percent of his passes when he’s not blitzed, hitting for 8.2 yards per pass attempt. I’d expect Pittsburgh to bring more pressure to try to get Schaub out of rhythm. The Steelers have forced just one turnover this season.

First quarter points: Three teams in the NFL have yet to score a first-quarter point this season. In Tennessee-at-Cleveland, we’ll see two of them. If the Titans or Browns can find some early offensive rhythm, they’ll get a big advantage. The Titans need to show some early intent, I think. While showing a determination to get Chris Johnson running, they would also be well served to call some plays that include tight end Jared Cookin the early part of the progression. He’s got the potential to be a dynamic downfield matchup problem. With Kenny Britt out, it’s time to start seeing it.

Ah, the memories: The Saints’ last trip to Jacksonville, for the last game of the 2003 regular season, was a memorable one. They trailed 20-13 when they completed a 75-yard miracle touchdown with no time left. The play featured a pass from Aaron Brooks and three laterals before Jerome Pathon scored. But John Carney’s extra point went wide right, leaving the Saints with a 20-19 defeat and eliminating them from playoff contention. The Colts' last trip to Tampa Bay was Oct. 6, 2003. Indianapolis scored 21 points in the final 3:37 of the regulation to tie that game 35-35 before winning it on a Mike Vanderjagt field goal in OT.

Final Word: AFC South

September, 23, 2011
9/23/11
1:30
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 3:

Watch the Jaguars' defense: It did not play badly in New York, it’s just that the Jets were given so many chances by the Jacksonville offense. Cam Newton is due for a comedown, and a defense that loaded up on veterans this offseason needs to see a payoff Sunday in Carolina. Put the spotlight on Paul Posluszny, Clint Session, Matt Roth, probable new starting safety Dwight Lowery, and Drew Coleman. They were brought in to make this a good defense now, and if they can’t fare well against a rookie quarterback and a rebuilding team, it will be a major disappointment. The defense should play well enough to give Blaine Gabbert a chance to win his first start if he plays efficiently.

[+] EnlargeMatt Schaub
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireThe Saints will look to bring pressure on Matt Schaub to slow down the Texans' air attack.
Blitz alert: The Texans are probably sick of hearing about how challenging the blitz packages of Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will be. But they’ll also be reviewing the possibilities and reminding themselves of their schemes for handling blitzes. Matt Schaub is better when teams sit back and play coverages rather than coming after him. Still, although New Orleans wants to blitz and has the people to do it, the Saints are only 18th against the pass through two games. Although they collected eight sacks against the Packers and Bears, they’ve also allowed an opponent passer rating of 95.6. There will be room for Schaub to succeed.

Quick and short: I expect the Colts will try to combat the Steelers' high pressure 3-4 front with quick, short passes, hoping for yards after the catch. Kerry Collins can certainly connect with Joseph Addai in such circumstances. He’s done OK with Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark. The guy who needs to be a bigger part of things is Austin Collie, who was targeted 10 times a week ago but had only three receptions for 24 yards. To move it better, particularly in the red zone where it was a struggle against the Browns, I think Collins-to-Collie has to become a bigger part of things.

Denver’s health: The Broncos were awfully banged up last week against Cincinnati when they managed to win without several key guys -- defensive end Elvis Dumervil, linebacker D.J. Williams, cornerback Champ Bailey, receiver Brandon Lloyd and running back Knowshon Moreno. At least some of those guys will return, and the Titans will face a better team than the one they have been watching on tape. Kyle Orton led Denver to a win at LP Field last season, so this is a trip the Broncos know they can make successfully. Underrated Titans left tackle Michael Roos will be ready for Dumervil if the defensive end is back.

Making Newton uncomfortable: Newton’s been very comfortable in his first two NFL games, even as Carolina has dropped both. For the Jaguars, making Newton do things he’s not been doing well is a major goal. What might that entail? According to ESPN Stats & Info, Newton’s been the best quarterback in the NFL throwing outside the numbers, where he’s got a passer rating of 109.5 and a Total QBR of 91.6. Take away receivers on the perimeter and make him look inside the numbers and you’ll find a much more average player: passer rating of 63, QBR of 39.2. The pressure is on Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox, particularly against Steve Smith, who is responsible for a good share of Newton’s numbers to the outside.

Jacksonville Jaguars cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
9/03/11
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Click here for a complete list of Jaguars' roster moves.

Surprise moves: Three undrafted rookies stuck -- offensive linemen Cameron Bradfield, receiver Jamar Newsome and cornerback Kevin Rutland. The Jaguars already have a deep IR, with running backs Rashad Jennings and Richard Murphy, defensive tackle D'Anthony Smith (for the second year in a row), corner David Jones, end Aaron Morgan.

No-brainers: Getting another defensive back in a trade with the Jets for Dwight Lowery was a good mover. With Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox, Drew Coleman and Lowery the team is deeper at corner than it was last year. But Lowery has some safety experience. Could the Jaguars want him there? The Don Carey experiment in the defensive backfield depth mix needed to end.

What’s next: This has to be the only team in the league with more fullbacks (three) than running backs (two). No matter how much Jack Del Rio talks of giving the fullbacks carries, a run-based team needs another running back. It should upgrade offensive line depth too.
Quick observations and thoughts on the Jacksonville Jaguars' 15-13 preseason win over the Atlanta Falcons Friday night.

David Garrard's deep interception to Brent Grimes was well over Mike Thomas up the middle. It was an overly hopeful throw that killed a possession and wasn’t necessary. He also missed Marcedes Lewis on a much shorter touchdown pass opportunity, though his ankle was clipped by a rusher as he let it go. Those are the sort of plays that make some people say, “Why not just play the rookie?”

Cecil Shorts should have simply fallen on the ball after he failed to cleanly take a handoff from Garrard on a reverse. His failure to do so meant another turnover.

Defensive end Jeremy Mincey caused problems for Atlanta, bearing down on Matt Ryan at least three times with high-effort rushes. One forced an intentional grounding.

Montell Owens, a fullback who operates almost exclusively on special teams, got a couple early carries as the Jaguars looked to spread the workload on a night they were without both Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings because of injuries.

Drew Coleman didn’t seem determined enough to stick close to Harry Douglas early in his route on what turned into a 76-yard touchdown catch out of the slot against the Jaguars new nickelback.

Fox commentator Daryl Johnston felt like Blaine Gabbert left the pocket prematurely a couple times when he probably could have stayed put and given a play more of a chance. I thought it was good analysis. Gabbert didn’t play as well as he did in last week’s start at New England, with a 59.3 passer rating. It was still nine points better than Garrard’s.

Loved, loved, loved Jack Del Rio going for 2 after the go-ahead touchdown. Not because it gave the team an opportunity to work on the play, but because it eliminated the possibility of a field goal making for a tie game and possible overtime. Preseason games should not, by rule, include the possibility of overtime. Who cares if the meaningless result is a regulation tie?

With my magical user name and password, I cracked into this Insider file.

So I am able to share some of the AFC South elements of Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson’s assessments and grades of free agency.

Houston Texans

Williamson: “I'm usually very reluctant when teams decide to switch their defensive personnel. But in this case -- seeing how Houston has handled it in the draft and free agency -- I am quite excited about the improvement that is coming on this side of the ball as the Texans make the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Plus, Houston couldn't have gotten much worse than how it played on defense in 2010.

“The team has filled needs extremely well while making this schematic transformation. Adding [Johnathan] Joseph and [Danieal] Manning to a historically poor secondary is exceptional work, and both cover men have enough versatility in their game to allow Wade Phillips to run a wide array of coverages. Joseph is the bigger name player, but Manning had a very good season in Chicago last year. [Mike] Brisiel is a vastly underrated player, and keeping him allows this excellent offensive line to create further continuity. The only big loss is [Vonta] Leach, who will deal a blow to the Texans' rushing attack. There are other lead blocking fullbacks in this league, but none like Leach.”

Grade: B+

Kuharsky: I like what they’ve done as well, though I am taking a major wait-and-see attitude about the 3-4. Manning is the best safety the team will have had since I started covering the team in 2008 and Joseph will be the best corner. Lawrence Vickers is a drop-off from Leach, but likely a serviceable one.

Indianapolis Colts

Analysis: “Considering the effect the lockout could have on rebuilding teams, and considering that Indianapolis also is getting back a lot of contributors from injury, keeping the status quo should serve [Peyton] Manning & Co. quite well. [Joseph] Addai is worth more to the Colts than to any other team, but I suspect he might not be starting by the end of the year. One area of the team that will be different, however, is along the offensive line. Bringing [Charlie] Johnson back as a versatile tackle/guard would have been a great situation, but Indianapolis did use two very high picks to rebuild its ailing offensive front.

“On the other line, [Jamaal] Anderson is a curious fit. He certainly isn't in the mold of their speed-rushing defensive ends. Indy most likely will use him as a penetrating defensive tackle. Early in his career, [Tommie] Harris was the prototypical three-technique for a scheme such as the Colts'. Injuries have vastly altered his career path, but he still does flash at times. They will need to nurse him along, but he could act as a great mentor to Drake Nevis and help out in limited snaps. The pass-rushing foursome of Anderson/Harris, Nevis, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on throwing downs might be extremely potent.

Grade: C+

Kuharsky: Three stabs into the outside veteran free-agent market -- in Anderson, linebacker Ernie Sims and Harris -- is a nice change. The risk/reward seems just right. They’re exploring a different avenue for roster improvement and deserve applause. But no points for re-signing Manning, as he was not a free agent with an exclusive-rights franchise tag.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Williamson: “There could be an argument that the Jaguars overspent on [Paul] Posluszny, but this market is difficult to get a true handle on. And I do think Jacksonville has spent wisely in terms of which players it has brought in. Along with Daryl Smith, the Jaguars now have three very solid starting linebackers, and what was a weakness now looks to be a strength. They did spend a ton of money on second-level defenders, though. [Dawan] Landry is an excellent addition as an in-the-box safety type who also can cover tight ends (like Owen Daniels and Dallas Clark).

“Although Posluszny is an every-down linebacker, Jacksonville hasn't improved itself dramatically on defense against the pass in free agency. With Houston, and especially Indianapolis, in the division, that is a serious concern.”

Grade: C+

Kuharsky: I think that’s low. I like what they’ve done. I think a safety combination that won't include Don Carey will be better. Drew Coleman is a flexible veteran corner who should upgrade the nickel. And I think the front seven is much stronger, which should mean quarterbacks have less time.

Tennessee Titans

Williamson: “I very much understand that the Titans could not open the season with just Jake Locker behind center, and throwing their first-round pick to the wolves probably isn't a recipe for success. But I also don't see the infatuation with [Matt] Hasselbeck. He hasn't played well in two years; he is a major durability risk; and the Titans' interior offensive line is vastly overrated -- not a great situation for an aging signal-caller. Plus, Hasselbeck's skill set isn't similar at all to Locker's.

“[Barrett] Ruud is another overrated player, but I am not implying that he will be a liability as the starting 'Mike' linebacker. His tackle numbers just make him out to be a better player than he truly is. Ruud should provide valuable leadership to Tennessee's young linebacker corps. I also think [Jacob] Ford's best days could still be ahead of him. Still, the Titans might be worse on defense now than they were a year ago. [Daniel] Graham will be a big help as a blocker, but [Leroy] Harris and [Ahmard] Hall were disappointing blockers in 2010.”

Grade: C-

Kuharsky: I think a change of scenery will help Hasselbeck, and while I have concerns over the interior line, if two Hall of Famers (Mike Munchak and Bruce Matthews) overseeing the group are confident it will play more like 2009 than 2010, I tend to give some benefit of the doubt. The defense remains a big concern.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars aren’t looking for parades or pinwheels as congratulations. But in the two years since Gene Smith took over as general manager, they’ve basically gutted the roster. And while setting about a major rebuilding project, they remained competitive with a 7-9 season and an 8-8 campaign.

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

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

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

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

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

THREE HOT ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIGGEST SURPRISE

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

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

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

OBSERVATION DECK

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

Free agency so far ...

July, 31, 2011
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Are teams addressing needs? We can’t say if they’ve picked the right guys until we see how they all play. But we can assess how our four franchises have done in terms of filling holes or attempting to upgrade to this point.

Houston Texans

Old needs: The Texans were in desperate need of defensive backs and landed the second-best available cornerback in Johnathan Joseph and a safety better than any they have in Danieal Manning. They re-signed receiver Jacoby Jones, third tackle Rashad Butler and backup quarterback Matt Leinart. Matt Turk was a free agent who departed, so a punter is a need.

New needs: Fullback Vonta Leach was a huge part of Arian Foster’s rushing title but went to Baltimore. It seems likely the Texans will turn to versatile tight end James Casey as a lead blocker, but there are some quality free-agent options out there.

Don’t think they need: They’ve said from the time Wade Phillips evaluated personnel that Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell will be a capable combo at nose tackle. It’s a spot they may well be overestimating.

Indianapolis Colts

Old needs: A contract for quarterback Peyton Manning was No. 1, even though he was not technically a free agent, and they’ve gotten that done. They prevented safety and kicker from becoming issues with quick moves to retain Melvin Bullitt and Adam Vinatieri.

New needs: Kavell Conner is likely the third linebacker with Clint Session now a member of the Jaguars. But the linebacking depth is hardly great, and even a late veteran addition at the position might be significant.

Don’t think they need: I’m sure they’d love to find the next Reggie Wayne or a run-stuffing defensive tackle, but they either don’t see those guys out there or, more likely, aren’t changing their philosophy about chasing significant outsiders.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Old needs: Very aggressively address linebacker (with Paul Posluszny and Session), safety (with Dawan Landry) and nickelback (with Drew Coleman). That’s four quality players added to their top 12 on defense

New needs: Punter Adam Podlesh bolted for a big contract in Chicago. But the Jaguars quickly adjusted, signing Turk to replace him.

Don’t think they need: They’ve tried and failed with veteran wideouts to varying degrees -- from the bust of Jerry Porter, to the more affordable non-contributions of Troy Williamson, to the stopgap year from Torry Holt. They appear comfortable with a top three of Mike Thomas, Jason Hill and Jarett Dillard or Cecil Shorts. They won’t likely be shopping.

Tennessee Titans

Old needs: They’ve addressed quarterback (Matt Hasselbeck), middle linebacker (Barrett Ruud), defensive tackle (Shaun Smith), and guard (re-signing Leroy Harris). Safety has gone unaddressed, so it appears Chris Hope remains in place. With Ahmard Hall a free agent, they could use a fullback, but may just go with tight ends or an undrafted if he departs.

New needs: Stephen Tulloch didn’t officially leave until after the Titans signed Ruud. They lost Jason Babin to Philadelphia, but never really planned to pursue him hard, and the move of Jason Jones to end helps offset it.

Don’t think they need: Wide receiver is always an issue for the Titans, but they don’t feel the desperation outsiders do. They’re content with their group, though an experienced, low-cost free agent could eventually arrive.

Jets back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Jets' coaching staff and much of the roster will remain intact, which reduces the learning curve. But the Jets won't have training-camp bonding time at SUNY Cortland, an enhancement Rex Ryan and his players prized the past two seasons. They already pulled the plug on their upstate training camp and will convene at team headquarters in Florham Park, N.J.

Biggest challenge: All their free agents. The Jets have some biggies, most notably at wide receiver. They must keep young quarterback Mark Sanchez's support staff stocked with weapons, and receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith are about to hit the market. So are cornerback Antonio Cromartie and safeties Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo.

What a rush: The Jets quietly tied for eighth in the NFL in sacks last season but didn't have a fearsome presence in an overall defense designed to create mayhem. Of the 40 sacks they recorded last season, more than a quarter of them belonged to defensive backs and almost half were rung up by players who aren't under contract. The Jets released outside linebacker Jason Taylor (5 sacks). Defensive end Shaun Ellis (4.5 sacks) also has an expired contract.

Key players without contracts for 2011: In addition to the above, fullback Tony Richardson, cornerback Drew Coleman, top special-teams tackler Lance Laury, kicker Nick Folk, punter Steve Weatherford.

Jets trying to tackle busy 2011 offseason

January, 28, 2011
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David HarrisAlan Maglaque/US PresswireFree-agent linebacker David Harris has led the Jets in tackles each of the past two seasons.
New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum held a news conference Friday to wrap up the 2010 season and address several issues moving forward.

Some highlights with my thoughts:

The Jets probably won't re-sign any of their players before the collective bargaining agreement expires March 4. This probably is the most prudent approach. The Jets would benefit from knowing the new salary cap structure rather than simply guessing on whether or not their players will fit under it. Teams also would prefer to know how free agency will be determined under the next CBA. Right now, we can't say for sure who will be restricted or unrestricted or what veteran minimum salaries will be.

Tannenbaum hopes to keep all three free-agent receivers: Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes and Brad Smith. I'm skeptical the Jets can pull it off. All are coming off big years, and it will be difficult to match all offers from other teams. But if the Jets can pull it off, the happiest man in the organization will be Mark Sanchez. Tannenbaum declined to speculate on whether or not the Jets would be interested in a post-prison Plaxico Burress.

Free-agent inside linebacker David Harris "remains a top priority for us." Harris, to me, is the most important free agent for the Jets. It's much easier to find a receiver in free agency than a stud linebacker such as Harris. He has led the Jets in tackles each of the past two seasons and makes all the on-field defensive calls. I highly doubt the Jets let him get away.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Icon SMIMark Sanchez has the second most starts in the AFC East, but who will he be throwing to next season?
Brian Schottenheimer will be back as offensive coordinator. I realize some Jets fans are disgusted with Schottenheimer's play-calling in the AFC Championship Game, but he's a gem. Deep back-to-back runs into the postseason with a raw quarterback is a major accomplishment. And let's not forget he had the Jets humming with Brett Favre at quarterback until Favre's right arm started falling apart in 2008.

Sanchez will get "a couple of opinions" on his injured throwing shoulder before deciding if he'll have surgery. The Jets don't want to cut on their quarterback unless they have to. But the sooner they make a decision, the better so Sanchez can begin the rehab process. One of the overlooked traits Sanchez has developed in his two years is toughness. He has taken quite a few shots in the pocket and on the run, but he stays on the field.

Tannenbaum expects LaDainian Tomlinson and Jason Taylor to be on the 2011 roster. Tomlinson and Taylor are under contract, but the Jets could release them. Tomlinson lost effectiveness as the season wore on, but he can be a quality backup for Shonn Greene and adds value in the passing game as a receiver and in blitz protection. Taylor clearly is nearing the end of the line, and he knows it. But he wasn't a liability and provided leadership Tannenbaum said was "really hard to quantify."

First-round draft choice Kyle Wilson's future is "one of our paramount objectives for the offseason." The day the Jets drafted Wilson 29th overall, head coach Rex Ryan declared Wilson would be their nickelback and a great punt returner. Even with Darrelle Revis absent all summer because of a contract dispute, Wilson couldn't seize the opportunity and fell behind Drew Coleman on the depth chart. Tannenbaum cited inconsistency as Wilson's biggest problem.

Right tackle Damien Woody and fullback Tony Richardson probably won't be back. Tannenbaum didn't make those statements, but that's what I read between the lines. Woody turned 33 during the season and recently underwent Achilles surgery. He also missed games with a knee injury. Wayne Hunter or Vladimir Ducasse could take over for him. The Jets cut Richardson before the season and brought him back. They also have fullback John Conner waiting in the wings.

Vernon Gholston sounds like a goner. The sixth overall pick in 2008 was a healthy scratch in the playoffs. Tannenbaum diplomatically said the Jets "are going to see if there's anything else to try, but he has been given his share of opportunities, and it could be time to move on." Move over Mike Mamula.

Troy Probable-malu against the Jets

January, 21, 2011
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets fans shouldn't be concerned with all the names on the AFC Championship Game injury report. Jets head coach Rex Ryan announced Friday everybody will play Sunday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers list four names on their report. The two biggest are safety Troy Polamalu (probable, Achilles) and defensive end Aaron Smith (doubtful, triceps). Polamalu missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, but participated fully Friday.

Cornerback Bryant McFadden (abdomen) and safety Will Allen (knee) are questionable.

For the Jets, receiver Brad Smith (groin), defensive end Shaun Ellis (knee), cornerback Drew Coleman (knee) and safety James Ihedigbo (knee, ankle) are questionable.

"They're questionable. They're playing. OK," Ryan said after rattling off the injury report at the start of Friday's news conference. "That's pretty much it."

Listed as probable are quarterback Mark Sanchez (shoulder), receiver Santonio Holmes (quadriceps), center Nick Mangold (shoulder), defensive tackle Mike DeVito (neck), defensive tackle Sione Pouha (back), outside linebacker Jason Taylor (concussion), cornerback Darrelle Revis (hamstring) and cornerback Antonio Cromartie (groin).

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