NFL Nation: Eric King

Wrap-up: Lions 34, Dolphins 27*

December, 26, 2010
12/26/10
4:35
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A few thoughts on the end of another late-game victory for the Detroit Lions:

What it means: The Lions won their third consecutive game, two of which have come on the road, and now have a chance to elevate out of the NFC North basement for the first time in three seasons. A victory in next Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings will ensure it. Sunday’s game should be an instant classic in recent Lions history.

What I liked: The Lions scored the final 17 points to complete a comeback from 10 points down in the fourth quarter. A 53-yard touchdown reception by tailback Jahvid Best, Dave Rayner’s 47-yard field goal and DeAndre Levy’s 30-yard interception return accounted for the scoring. Levy’s decision to cut back at about 10-yard line was a smooth, veteran and knowledgeable football play.

What I liked II: Cornerback Nate Vasher intercepted Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne to set up Rayner’s field goal and also made a textbook tackle of Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown on the final play of the game, keeping Brown in bounds with the Dolphins out of timeouts. Vasher seemed buried two years ago in Chicago, and his career took him to San Diego and finally to Detroit. But Sunday, we got a reminder of how good of a player he once was.

What I liked III: Nate Burleson’s 30-yard block of Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis in the fourth quarter allowed tailback Best to maneuver downfield for his touchdown. Burleson basically face-guarded Davis across the field and down the right sideline before pancaking him near the goal line. Best got the credit for the score, but it wouldn’t have happened if Burleson hadn’t stayed with Davis.

Secondary woes: The Lions began the game without safety Louis Delmas, who was deactivated because of a concussion, and I checked my Lions roster a few times to identify some unfamiliar numbers. At different point, you saw Eric King, Prince Miller and Tye Hill playing in the Lions’ beleaguered secondary. While Vasher bailed out the secondary, it’s worth noting that Hill should have intercepted a Henne pass late in the second quarter. But the ball glanced off his hands and into those of Davone Bess for a 13-yard touchdown that gave the Dolphins a lead heading into halftime.

What I wasn’t sure of: Receiver Calvin Johnson wasn’t on the field for much of the fourth quarter. Did he have an injury? There was no official announcement that I saw or heard. *Update: Johnson had an ankle injury.

What’s next: The Lions will return home for their season finale to take on the Vikings, who might or might not have played their Week 16 game against the Philadelphia Eagles by then.

Detroit Lions cutdown analysis

September, 4, 2010
9/04/10
8:34
PM ET
Check here for a full list of Detroit's's roster moves.

Biggest surprise: Veteran cornerbacks Dre Bly and Eric King were among six cornerbacks released. The Lions' secondary was hardly exemplary during the preseason, but you figured Bly or King would make the team to provide some level of veteran presence. As it stands now, the Lions' cornerbacks include starters Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade, rookie Aaron Berry and newcomer Alphonso Smith. I'm not saying it was a mistake to cut Bly and King. Just a bit surprising. Defensive tackle Landon Cohen, meanwhile, saw the Lions overhaul his position in the offseason, but seemed to make enough plays in training camp and during the preseason to earn a roster spot. Instead, his spot went to Andre Fluellen. Finally, the Lions chose Aaron Brown over DeDe Dorsey for the final running back spot. Dorsey made two big plays in the preseason finale, but coaches chose Brown's speed and potential special teams contribution.

No-brainers: I give the Lions credit for releasing linebacker Vinny Ciurciu. He entered training camp as a player focused on special teams, but spent most of it filling in for injured middle linebacker DeAndre Levy. Ciurciu hasn't played much linebacker in his career, and unfortunately for him, the extended time revealed that he wouldn't be able to hold down the position should he be called on in a relief role during the season.

What's next: The Lions need to settle their secondary following this weekend of flux. Who is their nickel back? What about the dime? Will rookie Amari Spievey remain at safety or move back to cornerback to provide more depth? The team is also going to need to spend some more time looking for depth at linebacker. It wouldn't be a surprise to see them focus at that position over the next few days.
Before anyone starts doing cartwheels over the Detroit Lions' latest swindle/trade, let's remember one thing: Good cover cornerbacks are never, EVER reasonably available when under contract. You can get them, but it almost always requires a ridiculous contract on top of premium trade terms.

The Lions had to do neither Saturday afternoon in order to pry Alphonso Smith away from the Denver Broncos. Instead, general manager Martin Mayhew sent No. 4 tight end Dan Gronkowski to the Broncos. And that's it. As of now, at least, there are no indications that the Lions included any draft picks for Smith, who was the No. 37 overall pick of the 2009 draft.

It's rare that a team gives up on a highly-drafted cornerback after one year. It was especially painful for Denver which, as my AFC West colleague Bill Williamson recently pointed out, traded its 2010 first-round pick (No. 14 overall) to jump back into the second round in 2009 to draft Smith. But he was buried deep on the Broncos depth chart this summer and would have been released were it not for this trade.

That said, Mayhew had every reason to make this trade. Even though Gronkowski had a strong preseason, there was little chance he would play in a tight end group that includes established veterans Brandon Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler and Will Heller. Cornerback is a much more important position than tight end, and the Lions' need there is acute.

Chris Houston and Jonathan Wade finished the preseason as the starting cornerbacks, with Eric King working at nickel. But Smith will get every opportunity to turn around his career in Detroit, at minimal cost to the Lions. Advantage, Detroit.
As we enter the final week of the preseason, position battles and depth chart competition should be nearing their conclusion. No clear answers generally means trouble. So with that timing in mind, let's take a look at the key summer issues in each NFC North locale:

Chicago Bears
Unsettled positions:
Both safeties and strongside linebacker
Comment: The safety issue will come down to how quickly rookie Major Wright can return from a fractured finger. If it's soon, he could be the free safety with Chris Harris at strong. If not, the Bears might have to patch the position together with Harris at free safety and Danieal Manning or Craig Steltz on the strong side. Meanwhile, Nick Roach seemed to have the linebacker job won before having knee surgery. Can Pisa Tinoisamoa hold him off?

Detroit Lions
Unsettled positions:
No. 2 cornerback, strong safety
Comment: Jonathan Wade held down the cornerback job in camp until a finger injury knocked him from the lineup. Eric King or Dre' Bly could be his short- and/or long-term replacement. C.C. Brown was the first-team strong safety for most of camp, but his hand was in a cast last week. Randy Phillips has been the primary replacement, but fellow rookie Amari Spievey was moved from cornerback to safety last week.

Green Bay Packers
Unsettled positions:
Left guard and punter
Comment: Daryn Colledge won the left guard job by default after a hip flexor slowed rookie Bryan Bulaga. Tim Masthay appears to have an edge on Chris Bryan in the punting battle, but the Packers will take the competition through the end of the week.

Minnesota Vikings
Unsettled positions:
No. 2 cornerback, strong safety, center, third-down back
Comment: Rookie Chris Cook appears on the brink of beating out Lito Sheppard and Asher Allen for the right cornerback job. Tyrell Johnson is trying to hold off Jamarca Sanford at safety. That battle is too close to call. The Vikings are worried that center John Sullivan's calf injury has put him too far behind to be ready for the Sept. 9 season opener at New Orleans, leaving them to decide whether to play backup Jon Cooper or move over right guard Anthony Herrera. The Vikings have rotated Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart and Albert Young in the third-down role and might use a combination when the season begins.

NFC North training camp preview

July, 20, 2010
7/20/10
10:00
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Of the eight divisions, the NFC North reports to camp the latest. All four teams arrive July 30.

Figuring Brett Favre will report to Minnesota sometime after the Vikings break camp in Mankato, Minn., that seems fitting. All good things come to those who wait.

The NFC North, once known as a pounding-the-rock division, is now one of the more interesting for quarterback play. Favre, who is expected to return, and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers are among the league’s elite quarterbacks. Jay Cutler of the Bears hopes to regain that status after a poor 2009 season. The Lions drafted Matthew Stafford with the hope of him being one of the next great ones.

FOUR BIG QUESTIONS

[+] EnlargeMike Martz
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe addition of Mike Martz to run the Bears' offense should pay off on the scoreboard.
Chicago Bears: Can new offensive coordinator Mike Martz add enough offense to the Bears to catch up to the Vikings or Packers?

Martz adds five to six points a game to any offense he’s around, so there is no question the Bears will be better on offense. Cutler likes what he sees, but the Bears must tighten their defense because the season will be a roller-coaster ride if they play 27-24 games every week. Keep an eye on the defense -- it ranked only 17th in 2009 -- in camp and during the preseason.

Detroit Lions: Can the Lions generate enough of a running game to make it easier on Stafford?

Probably not. The Lions averaged only 25.6 rushing attempts a game last season, meaning Stafford needed to complete 24 or 25 passes a game for the offense to be good. Keep an eye on rookie RB Jahvid Best in camp. He will add explosiveness. Last year’s starter, Kevin Smith, is coming off knee reconstruction and may not be ready to earn quality first- and second-down yards.

Green Bay Packers: What’s the biggest concern on defense?

The Packers must sort out their cornerback situation in camp. Al Harris is coming off a major injury, so they must make sure that Tramon Williams is ready to take over if Harris is not ready for the start of the regular season. They also must develop Pat Lee as a key backup just in case.

Minnesota Vikings: While they wait for Favre to return, what is the main job of the Vikings’ offense this summer?

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
John David Mercer/US PresswireAdrian Peterson had nine fumbles in 2009, losing six.
Ensuring that Adrian Peterson protects the football would be nice. Peterson has an NFL-high 20 fumbles the past three seasons. Vikings head coach Brad Childress knows that Peterson’s aggressive style sometimes will lead to fumbles, but a repeat of late-season fumbling issues by Peterson would not be good. Peterson fumbled twice and caused a turnover on a third play when he botched a handoff in the second quarter against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game.

HOTTEST SEATS

Bears: Head coach Lovie Smith. This is an easy one. Smith is on the hottest seat in the division. If the Bears don’t have a winning record this season, anyone who isn’t a McCaskey or a Halas will lose his job. It’s win or else.

Lions: Right tackle Gosder Cherilus: Former Redskins veteran Jon Jansen was signed to be an insurance policy, but Jansen came out of the offseason program in competition for a starting job. The right tackle job is there for the taking. Cherilus is big and physical, but he’s on the hot seat.

Packers: Safety Atari Bigby. The Packers rewarded free safety Nick Collins with a four-year, $30.4 million contract. Bigby isn’t happy that he was given the $1.759 million restricted tender and hasn’t signed it. Plus, the Packers drafted strong safety Morgan Burnett in the third round and seem to like him.

Vikings: Backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels. Before Favre joined the Vikings last season, Rosenfels competed against Tarvaris Jackson for the starting job. Rosenfels left the offseason program as the fourth quarterback, behind rookie Joe Webb, who was drafted to play receiver. Rosenfels’ seat is burning.

SECRET WEAPON

Bears receivers: Want a weird stat? The Bears are tied with the Vikings for most Pro Bowl players at wide receiver. That’s right. The Vikings have Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin. The Packers have only Donald Driver as a Pro Bowler, although Greg Jennings has been on the Pro Bowl radar the past couple of years. Bears wide receivers Devin Hester and Johnny Knox have each been to the Pro Bowl. The problem is that each made it as a returner, not a receiver. Those trips vouch for their athletic abilities, but it makes them ultimate secret weapons in the Mike Martz offense. Hester has receiving skills similar to Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers, but he tends to wear down the more routes he runs. Plus, he is challenged by the adjustments receivers must make on routes. Knox’s game is speed, but the second-year player still must polish his receiving skills.

Martz and the Bears said they like their receiving corps, but how good is it? If Hester and Knox are raw talents who can turn into solid receivers, the Bears could emerge as one of the league’s surprise offenses.

Another receiver to follow in training camp is Devin Aromashodu. This is Aromashodu’s fifth team, but Jay Cutler treated him as though he were his favorite receiver in the second half of last season. He caught 22 passes in the final five games. It’s hard to categorize Bears receivers into who is the legitimate No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3. It will be interesting to see how this sorts out in camp.

WILD CARD: DETROIT’S SECONDARY

How quickly the Lions’ secondary jells this summer could determine the fate of Detroit’s division rivals. In many ways, the Lions are the wild card of this division because the Vikings, Packers and Bears are each counting on two wins against Detroit if they want to get a better seeding in the playoffs or, in the case of the Bears, make the playoffs.

No secondary has undergone more change the past two offseasons than the Lions’. Detroit’s passing defense was abysmal last season, ranking last in the NFL. Opponents threw for 266 yards a game, with a 68.1 completion percentage and a 107.0 QB rating. Obviously that won’t cut it in a division that features Favre, Rodgers and Cutler.

Safety Louis Delmas, a second-round pick in 2009, seems to be a good piece to build around. Lions coach Jim Schwartz must sort out whether Ko Simpson, Marquand Manuel or C.C. Brown is the strong safety to pair with Delmas.

It’s a roll of the dice at cornerback. Eric King is the only corner returning from last season, but he started only one game for the Lions. The Lions acquired Chris Houston from the Falcons in a trade and have high hopes for third-round choice Amari Spievey. The Lions also have Jonathan Wade and Dre’ Bly, who played for Detroit from 2003-2006, but he’s 33.

The acknowledged top prognosticator of compensatory draft picks was a little more off that in the past as far as the AFC South is concerned.

In this post on March 9, we pointed to the nearly fearless (he’d be completely fearless if he used his name) AdamJT13 who said the Titans would get a third and three sevenths and the Jaguars would get a sixth.

Adam Schefter on Monday reported Tennessee officially got a third (97th overall), a sixth (207th), and a seventh (241st). Jacksonville got a sixth (203rd) and Indianapolis got two sevenths (240th and 246th).

These additional picks are awarded based on a formula that factors in free agents lost last year, their contracts and their production in their first year elsewhere.

A third-rounder is the highest possible. Picks in the seventh round basically allow teams to lock in players they would have pursued as undrafted rookies.

The picks cannot be traded.

From the league release that followed, here are the guys who factored in:

INDIANAPOLIS
Lost: Darrell Reid, Hunter Smith
JACKSONVILLE
Lost: Khalif Barnes, Mike Peterson, Gerald Sensabaugh

Signed: Sean Considine, Tra Thomas
TENNESSEE
Lost: Chris Carr, Albert Haynesworth, Brandon Jones, Eric King, Daniel Loper, Chris Simms

Signed: Jovan Haye, Mark Jones, Nate Washington

Three and out: Titans

August, 29, 2009
8/29/09
11:01
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

1. The defense is loaded and the transition from coordinator Jim Schwartz to Chuck Cecil should be as smooth as the two previous coordinator transitions have been under Jeff Fisher, a coach with a defensive background. They will miss tackle Albert Haynesworth's size and ability to dictate double teams, but when the Titams are healthy they will have waves of defensive linemen who can get pressure without much blitz help. The coverage will help -- three of the four starters were Pro Bowlers last season.

2. Kerry Collins has never put together solid seasons back-to-back, but here's his best chance yet. The Titans have a solid run attack featuring Chris Johnson and LenDale White. The line that paves the way for them also ensures Collins will have time, and he's quite good at throwing the ball away and living for the next play when need be. He's got additional dynamic weapons in Nate Washington, Kenny Britt and Jared Cook. His one issue is slow starts. The Titans need to be better on offense from the opening whistle. The additional firepower on offense should help offset any drop off on defense in the post-Haynesworth era.

3. Fisher has called this the best two-deep roster he's ever had. At some spots, the team has great depth -- like the interior offensive line with Leroy Harris, at tight end and running back with four capable players, and with the deep pool of defensive linemen. But like most teams, the Titans still have a couple of spots where injuries would hurt them badly. There is a completely different vibe if Collins is out and Vince Young is in, the secondary depth is not very good after Eric King and Chris Carr left as free agents and there is no proven third tackle if anything happens to Michael Roos or David Stewart, the Titans' underrated bookends.

 
  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
 
  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

Often times mock drafters or fans (or mock drafter fans) who aren't fully aware of a team's depth chart will connect the easiest dots.

The Titans, for example, lost Albert Haynesworth, therefore a lot of people presume they automatically need a replacement defensive tackle and put them down for one at No. 30.

 
  Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
  Just because the Titans lost Albert Haynesworth through free agency doesn't mean they are dead-set on a replacement in the first round.

Except that the Titans drafted Jason Jones in the second round last year and he was impressive as a rookie, with five sacks in 13 games. They signed free agent Jovan Haye, a favorite of defensive line coach Jim Washburn. They like starter Tony Brown very much, and they like Kevin Vickerson as their biggest body -- enough so that he got a contract extension during the 2008 season.

The Titans may well be in best-player-available mode and if Evander Hood is there at their spot and they see him as a great value they could take him.

But it's hardly a foregone conclusion.

Similarly, I believe it's a mistake to cross left tackle off the list of potential picks for Jacksonville just because they signed free agent Tra Thomas. They still need a long-term solution, and if the best tackle at No. 8 is a better value to them than what's left at receiver, defensive tackle or cornerback -- or if they aren't taking a quarterback or trading the pick to someone who wants one -- they may well take a potential offensive line anchor.

The Scouts Inc. needs board looks pretty good to me, so I'd keep an eye on that. It gets adjusted based on any new developments.

Meanwhile, here's an up-to-date rundown of the primary needs, in my view, for the teams of the AFC South:

HOUSTON TEXANS

Defensive tackle: Amobi Okoye needs some help inside to be the player the Texans envisioned, and an effective tackle who demands attention will help the continued push to upgrade the line and produce more consistent pass pressure.

Defensive back: There is evidence that Jacques Reeves wasn't as bad as portrayed last year as the corner opposite Dunta Robinson once Robinson returned from injury. But competition for the second and third spots would be good to add with Reeves and Fred Bennett. And none of the top three safeties are overwhelming -- Eugene Wilson at free and Dominique Barber at strong are the starters, with Nick Ferguson as depth. The Texans should add the best overall defensive back they can find, maybe a couple.

Outside linebacker: The Texans can use a bigger, more rugged outside 'backer who can rush the quarterback and drop into coverage.

Running back: Steve Slaton was a godsend in the third round last year. Now the Texans need to find a bigger guy to take some of the carries and serve as a heavier changeup.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Defensive tackle: The Colts lost the big bodies in the middle of their line, space-eating run-stuffers Quinn Pitcock and Ed Johnson, right at the start of last season and they need to spend to get quality replacements.

Receiver: Anthony Gonzalez can become a full-time guy with Marvin Harrison gone, and he or Reggie Wayne can kick into the slot in the often featured three-wide sets. Still, a third quality wideout is a necessity, and it won't be a surprise if Bill Polian uses No. 27 to address the position.

Outside linebackers: This group needs to be replenished as two guys who've seen significant time in the last two seasons, Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler, appear out of the picture. But the Colts restock their linebackers often through the draft and with undrafted rookies.

Running back: Was Joseph Addai banged up and suffering behind an injured line, or is he not going to be able to carry the load? The Colts like Mike Hart, who's coming off a bad injury. But they haven't re-signed Dominic Rhodes and need more.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Receiver: A perpetual need. They are down Reggie Williams, a free agent they have no interest in, and Matt Jones, who was cut after a new round of trouble. To get a true read on David Garrard, he needs real weapons on the outside.

Defensive tackle: GM Gene Smith has talked a lot about building from the inside-out and the Jaguars thrived when John Henderson and Marcus Stroud gave th
em an identity. Their plans to replace Stroud after a trade failed, and they need a better partner for Henderson that will help toughen them and could be a good influence on him.

Cornerback: Brian Williams can play opposite Rashean Mathis or he can play safety. Free-agent safety addition Sean Considine is an X factor here. But even if he's in the lineup and the Jaguars have their two starting corners, they need nickel candidates and depth badly.

Left tackle: As mentioned above, the addition of Thomas does not mean the Jaguars are done addressing this spot. Garrard needs not only better weapons but better protection and the offense is built around running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who needs consistent long-term blocking.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Receiver: They hope for big things from free-agent addition Nate Washington, but considering how long they've lacked a dynamic weapon outside, they can't have enough candidates for the role. A legitimate big-play threat can help create things for Chris Johnson, the running back who's the centerpiece of the offense.

Cornerback: Beyond starters Cortland Finnegan and Nick Harper and nickel Vincent Fuller, the Titans have only unproven Cary Williams. The expectation is the Titans will draft a corner who would be in line to replace Harper in 2010 and they need the depth now after losing Eric King and Chris Carr in free agency.

Outside linebacker: Stalwart Keith Bulluck is heading into a contract year and should the Titans have trouble holding on to him or decide not to, they could use an heir in place and it's unclear if Stanford Keglar can be that guy. Better depth and a player who could be a big special-teamer will be nice to have in 2009.

Offensive tackle: Daniel Loper was a versatile swing guy who backed up both Michael Roos and David Stewart and could move inside to play guard. He went to Detroit as a free agent. Maybe Mike Otto is the new third tackle, but a versatile lineman is a need for depth.

Best Match: NFC North

March, 2, 2009
3/02/09
3:26
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

As we look ahead following a wild opening weekend of the NFL's free agent market, the ESPN blog network will take a look at what's next. Let's have some fun and try matching a remaining player with an NFC North team:

St. Clair

Chicago Bears

It won't sound exciting to many Bears fans, but offensive lineman John St. Clair looks like a pretty important figure right now. The signing of free agent tackle/guard Frank Omiyale gives the Bears some flexibility, but there is still no obvious successor to retiring right tackle John Tait.

St. Clair is an ideal short-term fit for that role, much as he was in 2008 at left tackle. He hasn't attracted a ton of interest from other teams, and it is in both sides' interest to find a common ground.

Carr

Detroit Lions

Kick returner/cornerback Chris Carr left Detroit on Monday without agreeing to a contract, but the Lions would be well-advised to continue their pursuit.

It's been a long time since the Lions have had a consistent returner, and they could use more depth in their defensive backfield even after acquiring Anthony Henry and Eric King over the weekend. This makes Carr a real value.

Olshansky

Green Bay Packers

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has reported the Packers might target San Diego's Igor Olshansky, who would give them another option at defensive end as they convert to a 3-4 defense.

Olshansky isn't exactly a household name, but the Packers don't have a proven pass rusher at this point to play either end position.

Minnesota Vikings

Ok, let's have some real fun.

Cutler
Denver quarterback Jay Cutler isn't a free agent, and it's hard to believe the Broncos will part ways with him when they don't have another option at the position. But even after acquiring Sage Rosenfels from Houston, the Vikings should do everything in their power to find out if they can pry Cutler away from Denver. He's proven he can run a West Coast offense and would be dynamic in an offense that includes tailback Adrian Peterson and receiver Bernard Berrian.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Houston Texans

New Texans defensive end Antonio Smith knows Frank Bush from their time together in Arizona. Bush is now Houston's defensive coordinator. John McClain has details.

With Smith on board, the Texans are more likely to look to an outside linebacker in the first round, blogs McClain.

Indianapolis Colts

Raymond Berry provides some context about getting older as a receiver as he considers Marvin Harrison, writes Phil Richards.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Nothing this morning.

Tennessee Titans

David Climer says Vince Young needs to watch and learn from Kerry Collins a lot more than he did in 2008.

The Titans lost Brandon Jones to San Francisco and Eric King to Detroit. Sunday, they host Pittsburgh free agent wide receiver Nate Washington, say Jim Wyatt and Gary Estwick.

Titans' Carr will wear a target

November, 23, 2008
11/23/08
12:06
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Chris Carr played a wonderful game last week in the Titans' win in Jacksonville.

Carr

But coming off the bench as a third-string corner is a whole different deal than being in line to start all week. With Nick Harper (ankle) on the shelf, Carr is in the lineup at left cornerback against the Jets.

It seems obvious that Brett Favre and Jerricho Cotchery and other New York receivers have studied Carr this week and will have several different approaches to going after him.

Will he play to last week's level or will he struggle in a tougher matchup and bigger game?

The Titans will be in trouble if they suffer another injury at cornerback. They just put Eric King (arm) and Reynaldo Hill (hip) on injured reserve.

Tyrone Poole joined the team late this week, but is likely rusty after a long stretch of being inactive. Tuff Harris, a safety and special teamer, got the nod for the other roster spot ahead of practice squad corner Cary Williams.

The Jets are minus two starters on defense: linebacker David Harris and safety Eric Smith.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Look at the stars of the Titans' 10th win of the season -- one-time Chicago castoff receiver Justin Gage and third-string cornerback Chris Carr, whom the Raiders had no interest in retaining last offseason -- and it's hard to say the difference in Tennessee's win over Jacksonville was talent.

It was more about execution and resolve.

 
  Steve Mitchell/US Presswire
 Tennessee Titans wide receiver Justin Gage (12) celebrates his touchdown with wide receiver Brandon Jones (81) during the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Here's a sampling of evidence:

Looking to build on a 14-3 halftime lead on the opening possession of the third quarter and facing a third-and-11 from their 28-yard line, David Garrard threw to tight end Marcedes Lewis on the left sideline. The charging Titan in coverage was more than five yards off as the ball arrived, and Lewis was going to have to make quite a move to even get close to a first down. But even with such space and time, Lewis did a poor job of realizing where he was and had a foot touching the boundary. Incomplete.

As contrast, in the middle of the fourth quarter, when the Titans had seized control of the game and were looking to put it away, Jevon Kearse and Albert Haynesworth closed on quarterback Garrard as he let a pass go for Dennis Northcutt up the right side. The ball came out fluttery, and Carr found his way in front of Northcutt, leaping to grab the errant pass and getting precisely one foot down, then the next as he fell out of bounds. Interception.

It's too easy to say those two plays encompass the difference in these teams, but they certainly were illustrative on a day when the Titans proved capable, yet again, of simply finding a way to win.

Baltimore and Indianapolis had slowed Tennessee's running game this year, forcing the Titans to throw to win. Both times the Titans did. A week ago, Chicago took it to extremes at Soldier Field, allowing the Titans only 20 yards on the ground and losing, like the Ravens and Colts before them, because quarterback Kerry Collins made enough plays.

But even at 9-0, one clear ingredient was missing, the same one that has been a hole in the Titans' repertoire through good times and bad in the 12 years since they moved to Tennessee from Houston. The deep ball.

And so, fittingly, as they did repair work on their worst half of the season, they did it with long throws.

Twice Gage hinted he was going toward the middle of the field, twice his defender (Drayton Florence and Brian Williams each had a turn) went too hard with the move, and twice he veered back and caught a ball close to the sideline that turned into a score. The first time safety Reggie Nelson arrived in time to prevent a TD and Gage simply muscled through him. The second time Nelson couldn't get there in time.

"Gage needed a breakout game like that and his confidence is sky-high right now," tight end Bo Scaife said. "I just hope him and Brandon [Jones] and the other wide receivers carry that confidence the rest of the season."

Coming into the game, Tennessee's three longest pass plays of the season were 44, 37 and 32 yards.

Gage caught a 47-yard pass on the Titans' first offensive play and then had the second-half touchdowns of 56 and 38.

"Two of them were zone, one of them was man, but none of them was without a centerfielder at least," Jags coach Jack Del Rio said.

Del Rio's team blew an 11-point lead, the biggest deficit the Titans have faced this season. It was only the second time Del Rio's Jags have lost after leading by double digits. The first time was his first game at the helm, Sept. 17, 2003 at Carolina.

Other things I noticed, saw, heard or asked about after this one:

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

CHICAGO -- The pass protection for Kerry Collins was so good Sunday, it seemed unfathomable that he'd taken a hit that produced the gash across the bridge of his nose.

He didn't.

 
  Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
 Titans quarterback Kerry Collins had a season-high 289 yards passing in a win over the Bears.

After his season-best 289-yard passing day and two touchdown throws keyed the Titans' 21-14 win over the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field, Collins explained that the cut was actually a couple of days old, the result of a non-football accident.

"I shot a buck the other night with a muzzle loader, and the thing kicked back and popped me," he said, laughing. "I wish I had a better story. Stuff happens. I got him. He wasn't very big, he was just a little six-pointer, but I got him. It is the first time I've gotten one in a while. I was pretty happy, even though I was bleeding profusely."

The Titans (9-0) are winning profusely.

Many presumed -- the Bears surely included -- that if you force the Titans out of what they favor, you can beat them. The Titans made a pretty strong statement about that not being the case in a Monday night win over Indianapolis a few weeks ago, and a bigger one Sunday.

The hosts swarmed the Titans' offensive line, filling gaps with linebackers and making it impossible for the run-based offense to function on the ground, as it prefers.

"I knew we were going to have to throw it to win, I thought we would all week, but I thought we could mix the run in there," Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said. "Eventually it was just ridiculous to try to mix the run in there. I mean we set a record against Kansas City for rushing, we probably set a record for inefficiency rushing today, I don't know."

Actually, the Titans had a little wiggle room there. With 20 net yards rushing, they missed the franchise record low by a yard. Twice the Houston Oilers ran for 19 yards in a game, most recently in a loss to San Diego on Dec. 12, 1965.

And so the Titans were largely one-dimensional, and the dimension was hardly the one we associate them with, centered on a quarterback who has been asked to be a game manager first and who had not topped 200 yards through eight games.

"They're just putting so many people down in the box, they're forcing us to beat them these different types of ways," tight end Alge Crumpler said. "We went on the road and proved that we are more than capable of doing it."

The Titans have their first rematch of the season next week with a trip to Jacksonville.

Division games are a different animal, always more difficult no matter the talent or record gap. The Jaguars are probably a playoff long shot, but the city remembers 1999 when its team lost only three games -- all to Tennessee, including the AFC Championship Game.

They are different teams, these are different times, but surely some of the feelings from back then will bubble to the surface as the Titans see if they can make it 10 for 10 and Jacksonville looks for a little revenge for that piece of history.

Other things I noticed, asked about, saw or learned out of this game:

  • I understand Devin Hester is incredibly dangerous every time he fields a kick or a punt.

Hester was crazy the last two years with 11 return touchdowns, and you don't want to be risky with him. But take note, please, that Tennessee's Chris Carr entered and exited the game with a better kick-return average, a better punt-return average, and just as many touchdowns this season -- zero.

The Titans didn't kick away from Hester every time, allowing him to touch the ball on special teams on six occasions. Two punt returns produced 13 yards, four kick returns produced 99. Kicker Rob Bironas knocked Hester out of bounds to end his best play of the day, a 41-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter. That drive ended with a Robbie Gould 48-yard field goal attempt that was blocked by Jason Jones.

"Your heart is in your throat every time you put the ball in the air to Devin," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said.

The Titans crushed the Bears in field position: Tennessee's average start was its 43-yard line; Chicago's was its 21.

That wasn't all special teams, of course; a lot of it was defense.

"The field position game hurt us the entire time," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We played down close to our end zone most of the time and eventually, if you don't get that field position, it will end up leading to points for the opponent and that's what happened."

After Chicago impressively moved 75 yards on 14 plays on its first possession, the Bears gained 168 yards and only 10 more first downs all game.

  • Receiver Brandon Jones has put together the most productive three-game stretch of his career. With eight catches for a game-high 82 yards, he has 16 receptions for 158 yards in his last three games.

Still, consistency has always been the question with him and Heimerdinger was reluctant to say the fourth-year receiver has established anything that assures a good performance next week.

"I don't know, it's Brandon," Heimerdinger said, laughing. "He had a great day today, he made some good catches, he ran some good routes. Brandon played real well. But I don't know, I've just got to see what Brandon shows up next week. He's going back out there."

Jones said consistency remains the theme for him.

"Hopefully they'll continue to look my way and we've got to come out here and do it next week," he said.

In the third quarter, on one of their best chances at a big play, Hester had Finnegan beaten by a step running a post, but Rex Grossman couldn't measure the pass correctly and overthrew him. It could have been a 67-yard touchdown if Hester had a chance to catch it in stride.

"I don't know if he's turned into a receiver, but he's an explosive fella down the field and he can run," Finne
gan said of the converted defensive back and return man, before talking a little about how his speed compares. "He can run. This guy right here [pointing at himself] is phenomenally fast and you've got to be on your A game. I was fortunate and blessed [on that play], whichever comes first, whichever one you want to put first."

Hester finished with four catches for 54 yards and he had to slow down to get the biggest in front of Chris Hope, a 29-yard reception that was Chicago's top gain of the afternoon.

First, Jevon Kearse wanted the world to see 9-0 in tape.

And so at the end of the win over Chicago, he turned the 90 on his chest into a makeshift 9-0 with a piece of white tape between the two blue numbers.

"I actually thought about it leaving the field after that last game," Kearse said. "I showed it to teammates, the fans, the camera. I let everybody see it."

  • The Titans showed off good defensive depth again.

Working along with Jacob Ford, Dave Ball was active as a replacement for the injured Kyle Vanden Bosch, recording three tackles and one of the team's two sacks.

Eric King took over at left cornerback when Nick Harper went out with an ankle injury, and King had two big breakups of third-down passes.

The Titans will gauge KVB this week. Keith Bulluck led the team with 10 tackles after not practicing all week with a rib injury. Fisher said it's likely Bulluck will miss this week's practices too.

  • The one sack the Titans gave up came when rookie running back Chris Johnson was left to pick up Chicago defensive end Adewale Ogunleye. That's 260 pounds and eight years of experience versus 180 and one. It's hard to put that on his back rather than the call that left him in that position, and Heimerdinger and Fisher both said as much.
  • Fisher has been known to add a salt-and-pepper beard to his famous mustache when things are going well, creating a buzz in Nashville each time he does it. He was scruffy enough after this game that I asked him if he was starting a new version.

"I don't know," he said. "You'll have to ask my daughter."

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