NFL Nation: Jonathan Joseph

Camp Confidential: Houston Texans

August, 14, 2013
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HOUSTON -- At 12-4 last season, the Houston Texans had the best record in the young franchise's history, won their second consecutive AFC South championship, became the first professional football team in Houston to win a home playoff game in consecutive years and finished the regular season as one of only two teams to be ranked in the top 10 in both offense and defense.

Doesn't sound like a failed season, does it? But as the franchise has grown and checked off accomplishments, failure has begun to mean anything other than a Super Bowl win.

“We weren’t the last team standing last year, so ultimately we all failed,” quarterback Matt Schaub said. “We all didn’t accomplish our goals.”

This year's Texans are more businesslike. Most of this year's team was around for the slide at the end of last season, which coincided with a linebacking corps that took one hit after another even after taking its biggest hit in early October, when it lost Brian Cushing. They shook their heads at three losses in the last four games of the season. The offense mustered only 12 points per game in those three losses -- less than half its season average.

“Everybody was so excited and couldn’t wait for the next season to come around,” receiver Andre Johnson said. “As you can see, we came out of the gate smoking, but at the end we just didn’t finish it the right way. At times, maybe we could have been feeling ourselves or something. I think, I’ve told people this before, I think the game in New England, our last playoff game, it just showed you what kind of team you have to be in order to accomplish that ultimate goal. That was definitely a humbling experience, and we’ll be looking forward to the challenge again.”

Now they return with Cushing back and an additional offensive weapon in first-round draft pick DeAndre Hopkins -- the receiver with the massive, red-gloved hands. They should have more stability on the offensive line and more depth at safety with the additions of a future Hall of Famer (Ed Reed) and a college enforcer (D.J. Swearinger). They have healthy cornerbacks and the reigning defensive player of the year in J.J. Watt, who is sure he can play better than his unreal 2012 season.

They return with an edge they didn't have last year.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Hopkins' impact: It is impossible not to be impressed by Hopkins' skill and athleticism, owed in part to his unusually large hands. Particularly adept at scoring in the red zone while he was at Clemson, Hopkins is expected to help the Texans, who didn't struggle scoring in the red zone last season but did struggle at scoring touchdowns in the red zone relative to the best offenses in the NFL. Hopkins provides a dimension the Texans didn't have in 2012 -- a second receiver defenses should fear, taking some attention from Johnson. The rookie is at his best on contested catches and spends his practices learning from cornerback Johnathan Joseph. Hopkins struggled early in organized team activities, but as training camp has progressed, he has grown more comfortable with just about everything. If he plays in regular-season games like he has in camp, the Texans' offense will improve significantly.

[+] EnlargeBrian Cushing
AP Photo/Pat SullivanWhen linebacker Brian Cushing went down for the season in Week 5, the loss was felt across the Texans' defense.
2. Cushing's return: When Cushing was lost to a torn ACL in Week 5 against the New York Jets, a line of Texans greeted the fallen inside linebacker at the door to the locker room, shaking his hand and offering condolences. Losing Cushing hurt the Texans' safeties and outside linebackers as much as it changed their inside linebacker rotation. The pass rush suffered too.

“When Cush rushes, which we try to rush him a lot from the inside, if they have to pick up a back on him they are in trouble,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “We got a big advantage, so they try and pick him up with a lineman. Well, if they do that then the outside guys get a chance to get a back or a better matchup.”

Cushing's return brings back a maniacal, focused intensity that intimidates opponents.

“Brian Cushing is back,” outside linebacker Brooks Reed said. “He's going to bring the attitude back.”

3. When will Reed be healthy? Reed signed with the Texans amid great fanfare. The owner sent his team plane to Atlanta to collect the future Hall of Famer, and the team's official Twitter provided updates along the way. Reed met with coaches, underwent a lengthy physical and then left Houston for a family engagement before returning to sign a three-year deal worth $5 million a year. About a month later, Reed had arthroscopic hip surgery to repair a torn labrum that he thinks he suffered during the Ravens' AFC Championship Game win.

This week, Reed was out of town rehabilitating with a specialist after having spent training camp in Houston working with Texans trainers.

“No, absolutely not,” coach Gary Kubiak said when asked if that meant Reed had a setback. “It’s just something that we’ve made our progress here for a couple of weeks. [Head athletic trainer Geoff Kaplan] has been in contact with this guy. He’s worked with us before, so we wanted him to go see him for a couple of days and basically make sure we’re doing the right things. We’re going to do that for a couple of days each week.”

So far there hasn't been any clarity on when Reed will be available to the Texans or whether he will be able to play in the season opener.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeDeAndre Hopkins
AP Photo/Andy KingRookie DeAndre Hopkins gives Houston a scoring threat in the red zone and a second receiver whom opposing defense should fear.
The Texans have the best defensive player in the NFL in Watt, who in 2012 had, according to his well-traveled defensive coordinator, the best season any defensive lineman has ever had. This was a good team last year that needed some cracks filled. Injuries had a lot to do with the Texans' defensive holes at the end of the season, and those injuries aren't an issue for Houston anymore. Watt also will be healthier this year. Offensively, the Texans have Johnson coming off a career year in receiving yards, running back Arian Foster and a quarterback who will benefit from a more stable offensive line and an extra receiving weapon.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about Schaub, but I expect him to be a lot better this season with the changing personnel around him.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The abundance of linebacker injuries last season hurt the defense and special teams. The Texans still are vulnerable there. A rash of linebacker injuries in training camp has caused players to miss some time. Though none of these injuries were significant, a collection of linebacker injuries that keep players out for even two or three games at a time could be damaging.

Reed's health also could be troubling. Swearinger isn't ready yet, and safety Shiloh Keo has started in Reed's place during camp. Keo has improved since last season and has had a good camp, but he would be a downgrade from departed safety Glover Quin.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Earl Mitchell had about the loudest debut as the Texans' starting nose tackle as one could have. Sure, it was a preseason game, but in 10 snaps Friday against Minnesota, Mitchell had four tackles, three of them for loss, including one sack. He also had one quarterback hit. Mitchell is quick on his feet, powerful and has a new confidence this season. The Houston native says that comes from knowing he entered this season as the starter -- a position well earned.
  • Foster remains on the physically unable to perform list. He initially landed on the list with a calf injury, but that has healed. Now, the Texans are being cautious because of a back injury. I wrote it before and will again: There's no sense in pushing Foster too much right now, especially given the load he takes on during the season.
  • With one full NFL season accrued, receiver Keshawn Martin has made a dramatic improvement on both offense and special teams. It has caught the eye of teammates. Last season, Lestar Jean joined Martin on the active roster. Jean is an incredibly hard worker, but he finds himself back on the bubble two years removed from being an undrafted rookie.
  • The Texans' third-string running back battle took an interesting turn Friday in Minnesota when Cierre Wood, who progressed more slowly at first, seemed to have a better night than fellow undrafted rookie Dennis Johnson. It's far too early to determine a winner in that battle, but those two are ahead, with veteran pickup Deji Karim threatening from a special-teams standpoint.
  • There were times last season when starting cornerback Joseph didn't feel like himself. He had two sports hernias that he didn't even properly identify until after playing in the Pro Bowl. Joseph had surgeries to repair both, and feels healthier than he did all last season. That is great news for the Texans, who pair him opposite the constantly improving Kareem Jackson.
  • It's unclear exactly how long left guard Wade Smith will be out after having his knee scoped Tuesday morning. What's certain, however, is that Smith's absence will give the Texans a chance to test the versatility of sixth-round draft pick David Quessenberry, who started out the offseason playing mostly tackle. Quessenberry made news during the summer because his truck was stolen, then recovered in East Texas with police saying it was being used for human trafficking. More relevant to our purpose is that Quessenberry has been really impressive in camp and willing to learn. Kubiak said he expects both Ben Jones and Quessenberry to see time there with Smith out.

Your Preseason All-AFC South team

September, 7, 2012
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Been pondering doing this for some time, and hit a now-or-never point today.

I decided to move forward for two reasons – it forced me to crystallize some preseason opinions, and I feel certain it will generate some debate.

So here’s our first preseason All-AFC South team.

Let’s be clear on criteria: I’ve combined past performance and my expectations for 2012 to create this team. In some spots, I relied more on one than the other.

Defensively, I picked 12 guys, with four linemen and four linebackers. It’s the only way to be fair considering we have two 4-3s and two 3-4s. And as we’ve got teams that start two tight ends and teams that start two backs, but I went with my favored two-tight end set. (Going three wide would have been pushing it, right?)

Also let’s acknowledge it’s an uneven playing field.

Titans right tackle David Stewart, for example, has minimal competition in my eyes considering the three other guys who will start at the position on Sunday: inexperienced Cameron Bradfield for Jacksonville and Derek Newton for Houston, and shaky veteran Winston Justice in Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, cornerbacks like Jerraud Powers of the Colts, Jason McCourty of the Titans and Derek Cox of the Jaguars couldn’t find their way in because the pool at the position is pretty good.

So here’s the team. Blast away.

Looking at needs with Scouts Inc.

February, 21, 2012
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Our exclusive peek into the Insider file of Scouts Inc.’s Gary Horton running through team-by-team needs :

Texans

Horton says: Corner, receiver, defensive end.

On corner:Johnathan Joseph was a terrific shutdown corner for the Texans in 2011 and a big part of their defensive resurgence. Kareem Jackson is OK on the other side, but he lacks elite speed and ball skills and rotated with Jason Allen, who might leave in free agency. Brice McCain shows some promise as a nickel corner, but, in this blitz-oriented defense, turn-and-run cover corners are critical.”

Kuharsky: I’d like to see them upgrade. It’s time for a more honest assessment of Jackson. But they did draft Brandon Harris last season in the second round and they surely hope he’s ready to push for playing time in his second season.

Colts

Horton says: Quarterback, center/guard, cornerback.

On center/guard: “The left tackle position is decent on this line, but there are all sorts of problems on the interior and at right tackle. Offensive guard was a revolving door in 2011, and center Jeff Saturday is near the end of a terrific career. With not much behind the current starters, there is a lot of work to be done with this unit. Center Carl Nicks might be too expensive for New Orleans, and he would be a huge get.”

Kuharsky: I don’t know how the new regime’s philosophy will be about big-money free agents, but odds are the team won’t be able to afford a guy the quality of Nicks.

Jaguars

Horton says: Wide receiver, defensive end, cornerback.

On receivers: “This offense has lacked a go-to guy in the passing game for years, and it is by far the weakest position on this team. The Jaguars' only dependable guy, Mike Thomas, is ideally suited for the slot, and that means the team could use two starters on the outside. The depth in this unit is nonexistent. If they leave in free agency, DeSean Jackson, Vincent Jackson and Steve Johnson might be attractive guys. If Jacksonville goes the college route, Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon would be great.”

Kuharsky: They’ve got money to spend and have indicated they’ll use it. There is no reason they should not land a premier receiver in free agency.

Titans

Horton says: Cornerback, safety, center/guard.

On center/guard: “The Titans like their bookend tackles, but the interior of this offensive line needs an influx of veteran depth and talent to boost a run game that underachieved in 2011.”

Kuharsky: I think Horton underrates what the Titans have at corner even without Cortland Finnegan. They’ll make a move on the inside of their line, but how big a move?

Encouraging numbers for Texans' D

September, 20, 2011
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Yesterday, I said let’s not throw a parade quite yet over the Houston Texans' defensive standing.

John Choi of ESPN Stats & Info saw it and did what the good people there do -- he looked to see what the numbers say.

He was kind enough to send me two pieces of information.

Here’s what the revamped Texans with Johnathan Joseph and Danieal Manning in the secondary have done so far compared to last season.

What's that tell us?

Well quarterbacks have smaller windows to throw to, and targets have less room to make catches. When they do make catches, they're generally being tackled more quickly. Defensive backs are getting to more balls.

It goes hand-in-hand with the work of the defensive front, of course. Additional pressure changes life for defensive backs.

How much more pressure have the Texans applied in their first two games as a Wade Phillips 3-4? Choi and I are glad you asked.

That 52.5 percentage for blitzes is the second highest in the league so far. Phillips feels confident sending at least one extra rusher so often because he knows the back end can hold up better. He also knows the throw likely to be made by the quarterback under pressure won't be as good.

These are all good numbers, and it will be very interesting to see if the Texans can maintain them against Drew Brees and the Saints Sunday in New Orleans. That will be the best offense that Houston has seen so far.

Until that game, let’s remember one of the games that helped produce these numbers was against the woeful Indianapolis Colts. Against Indianapolis, the Texans were blitzing against an offensive line with only one player in the same place he was last season and with three new starters. That line was protecting an old, immobile quarterback in his first start in that system.

So I urge Houston fans to adopt a mantra this week to temper excitement: It’s just two games. It’s just two games. It’s just two games.

Wrap-up: Texans 23, Dolphins 13

September, 18, 2011
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Thoughts on the Houston Texans' 23-13 win over the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium:

What it means: Houston is the lone undefeated team in the AFC South after two games with a solid performance in Miami that produced its first road win. The Texans showed the sort of finishing touch they’ve too often lacked. When the Dolphins pulled within three early in the fourth quarter, Houston responded with a quick drive and an Andre Johnson touchdown that boosted it to a two-score lead and provided the winning margin.

What I liked: Ben Tate filled in very well again with 23 carries for 103 yards, Matt Schaub was efficient with 21 connections on 29 pass attempts for 230 yards and two touchdowns for a 118.5 passer rating. Solid defense against Chad Henne, who hit on only 40 percent of his passes for 170 yards, was sacked twice and was picked by Johnathan Joseph.

What I didn’t like: A setback with Arian Foster's hamstring. Three sacks of Schaub. A solid overall rushing day for Miami with 28 carries for 153 yards, including 18 touches for 107 yards from rookie Daniel Thomas. Only one touchdown in five red zone chances.

Trending: In the season-opening win against the Colts, Danieal Manning had a 46-yard kickoff return. Against the Dolphins he had a 43-yarder after Miami closed to within 3 points, and it sparked a touchdown drive. Another good special teams' development: J.J. Watt blocked a field goal.

What’s next: A trip to New Orleans could produce an offensive fireworks show. The Saints are sure to bring a lot of blitzes, which will test the offense. And the new-look defense will face its biggest challenge yet.

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.

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.
The Texans got their second secondary addition in two days, adding Chicago free-agent safety Danieal Manning with a four-year, $20 million deal that includes $9 million guaranteed, according to Mark Berman.

With corner Johnathan Joseph and Manning now part of a secondary that allowed 267.5 passing yards a game in 2010, things should settle down substantially on the back end in a new 3-4 scheme.

From Scouts Inc.:
Manning is an active defender who is best filling the alley versus the run. He is a reliable tackler in space, keeping his pads over his feet on contact. Manning is a compact built player with good strength and athleticism for the safety position. He has good foot agility, quickness and balance in coverage. He is best versus slot receivers or in zone coverage coming off the hash. He has solid ball skills and is around the ball often. He has been a consistent kick returner over the past three seasons and shows natural vision and quickness to hit a crease.

His experience will be a big help to Glover Quin if the Texans move forward with a shift of last year’s best corner to free safety.

I’m not ready to say the additions of Joseph and Manning completely cure the Texans and make them a favorite to overtake the Colts in the AFC South.

But that’s not going to stop others, and a lot of fans in Houston just got their expectations raised, again.

That is, of course, a good thing when it's based on personnel upgrades and not talk.
We have to wonder if Johnathan Joseph's agreement with Houston means Oakland free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is headed to the New York Jets or elsewhere. The Texans were considered a favorite along with the Jets to land Asomugha.

The Texans’ agreement with Joseph means Houston didn’t feel like it could get Asomugha. The Jets reportedly want to hear an answer from the top free-agent prize, one way or another. Here is a thought that Asomugha is holding the Jets hostage. It seems like the Jets are getting antsy and they may soon decide to move away from Asomugha if he doesn’t come to a decision soon.

Of course, as long as he is still out there, the Raiders still have a chance. Could Asomugha be waiting to see if the Raiders can clear the cap room to sign him? Who knows, but the longer this drags on, the more reasonable of a question it becomes.

Meanwhile, no surprise that Kansas City cut receiver Chris Chambers and cornerback Jackie Bates. They clearly weren’t in the team’s plans. Chambers played well when the Chiefs claimed him in the second half of the 2009 season off waivers from San Diego. But he didn’t do much last season.

Greg Olsen's trade from Chicago to Carolina means another tight end is off the market. This hasn’t been a hot market for tight ends so that is good news for the Raiders, who are trying to keep Zach Miller.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting freshly cut Vince Young wants to play for the Eagles. Earlier in the day, Schefter listed the Eagles and Raiders as potential suitors for the former Titans’ quarterback.

'First' thoughts on free agency

July, 25, 2011
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I know you're impatient. It's one of the things I like best about you. Because it's one of the things that keeps you coming back for more.

Free agency is nearly upon us, after months of waiting, and you want to know (among other things) what your team is going to do first. Well, if you have an ESPN Insider subscription, you can check out what the Football Outsiders think. They've done a list of the first thing each team should do once free agency opens. And while I can't give it all away (because we want you to buy the Insider access), I can offer a little glimpse into what they had to say about the NFC East teams.

Dallas Cowboys: "Sign S Michael Huff." As we have discussed here ad nauseum, the Cowboys will need at least one safety and maybe two, depending on what happens with Gerald Sensabaugh. The Outsiders point out that they didn't act in February, when guys like O.J. Atogwe were available, and they didn't draft one. So they'll have to hit the market. Eric Weddle is the best option, but everyone thinks he'll stay in San Diego. Huff is a fine consolation prize, especially given the fact that he's worked with new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan before and might be able to help other players with the transition to a Ryan-coached defense.

New York Giants: "Sign LB James Anderson." You know where I stand on the Giants and linebackers -- i.e., that they've consistently ignored the position to their detriment over the past couple of years. Anderson is a fine strongside solution and there are many others out there. The trick for the Giants will be how quickly they can get their in-house free-agent situations settled. I might have put "Re-sign RB Ahmad Bradshaw" here if I were the Outsiders, and again ... you know how I feel about the Giants and linebackers.

Philadelphia Eagles: "Sign CB Nnamdi Asomugha." On this, the Outsiders and I heartily agree. The drop-off from Asomugha to the second-best cornerback available (Johnathan Joseph? Antonio Cromartie? Ike Taylor?) is significant, and the Eagles, armed with enough money to make it happen, should jump at the opportunity to fill their biggest need with the best player on the market. (Note: "Trade QB Kevin Kolb" could have been the answer here, but Brian McIntyre, who wrote this piece, already used "Trade for QB Kevin Kolb" in the Arizona Cardinals' blurb, so that was taken care of.)

Washington Redskins: "Sign DE Cullen Jenkins." There was some thought a couple of weeks back about pairing brothers Cullen and Kris Jenkins on the offensive line in Washington. Kris has since retired, and nose tackle remains a huge need for the Redskins. But adding a pass-rushing end the caliber of Cullen might help, since it might be easier to find a space-eating nose tackle on this market than a pass-rushing one.

Anyway, those are the Outsiders' thoughts. As always, I welcome yours.
This one I'm curious about, because for weeks I've been hearing fans of certain teams say they'd rather not get free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, either because he'd cost too much or because he's 30 or because you supposedly like Johnathan Joseph or Ike Taylor better. It's all hogwash, brought on and cultivated by the length of the NFL lockout. If this had been a normal offseason and your team had signed Asomugha in the spring, you'd be doing cartwheels and trash-talking the world about how awesome this year's defense was going to be.

Asomugha
He is the premier free agent, at any position, on this year's market -- a shutdown cover cornerback nearly on the same plane as the Jets' incomparable Darrelle Revis. You can build a defense around a guy like Asomugha, whose abilities free up the front seven to do more than they otherwise could. You'd think fans would be dying for their teams to sign him.

So in case there are some people out there who are thinking sensibly about this, I present your chance to argue in favor of signing the best player on the market.

This week's Fired-up Friday question is: Which NFC East team has the best chance to acquire Asomugha?

We put all four on the poll, but you can safely eliminate the Giants, who believe they took care of their present and future cornerback needs in the draft with Prince Amukamara. The other three teams, though, are in this race and should be. The Eagles have a desperate need at cornerback. The Cowboys could use an upgrade, and could cut Terence Newman to make room. And the Redskins will need a Carlos Rogers replacement.

Out of the NFC East teams (yes, remember, there are seven other divisions in which he could sign), I'm picking the Eagles as the most likely. The sense in Philly is that they don't need a cover corner and might need a more physical one. But Asomugha isn't the kind of player you sniff at because he doesn't fit your scheme. He's the kind of guy you get because he can do anything, and fit into any scheme. Playing opposite Asante Samuel, he'd give the Eagles a fearsome secondary duo, help take some pressure off the young safeties and allow the Eagles to send an extra blitzer pretty much any time they felt like doing so. They have the money and the cap room. He makes too much sense in Philadelphia.

The Cowboys surely would like to have him and could get him, but they have bigger needs at safety than they do at corner, and they need to sort out their defensive line situation. Can't rule them out, but they may not have as much incentive to make the big money push as Philadelphia does.

The Redskins? Well, they have the money, the cap room and the incentive. They'll surely make the effort. The question is whether Asomugha will want to play in Washington. The Redskins aren't currently perceived as a contender for this season's Super Bowl, and if Asomugha is going to leave Oakland it'll almost certainly be to improve his chances of winning a Super Bowl very soon. It's possible the Redskins could convince him they're closer than they appear, and that he could be the key piece that gets them there. But Asomugha's going to have a slew of very similar, very lucrative offers from a wide variety of teams. He's not going to have to go to a team he considers a non-contender if he doesn't want to. This is where the Redskins' chances suffer.

But that's enough from me. What do you guys think? Please play nice.
In light of the word that the proposed new NFL labor deal would make players with four years of service time into unrestricted free agents, there has been some support in the comments for a free-agent rundown as it pertains to our little division here. We're going to do it position-by-position, over the next couple of days, and because the biggest-name guy in the field is a cornerback, we're going to start with cornerbacks.

NFC East teams in need

[+] EnlargeNnamdi Asomugha
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesNnamdi Asomugha is the big prize in this year's free-agent class.
Cowboys: Dallas plans to move Alan Ball, who flopped as a safety, back to the cornerback position, where they already have Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman as starters. Assuming all of those guys are on the team, the Cowboys could decide to stand pat and focus their energies on upgrading at safety. But one of the starters may have to be cut to create cap room, and if that happens, expect the Cowboys to be big-game hunters on the corner market.

Eagles: They need another corner to play opposite Asante Samuel, and they've said they plan to be aggressive in free agency. That could mean playing at the top end of this pool, but even if they don't land the big fish, expect Philadelphia to come up with someone on this list.

Redskins: Carlos Rogers wants out and the team seems inclined to grant him his wish. But while Redskins fans may be sick of Rogers, he's not a bad player and he will need to be replaced.

Top five potential unrestricted free-agent cornerbacks

1. Nnamdi Asomugha. The prize of the offseason free-agent market. Probably the second-best corner in the league behind Darrelle Revis. Asomugha will draw interest from all three of the above-named NFC East teams plus plenty of teams (Baltimore? Houston?) outside the division. Whoever does sign him will use a lot of cap space to do it, which is why, as much as Dallas might want him, he might make more sense in Philly.

2. Johnathan Joseph. Some talk that the Bengals will make him their franchise player, but if they don't, the 27-year-old rising star stands to ride Asomugha's coattails to a big payday somewhere outside of skimpy-spending Cincinnati. A fine fallback for the Eagles or Redskins. Cowboys? Sure, but my hunch is, if they don't get Nnamdi, they spend elsewhere and either keep the corners they have or go further down this list for a replacement.

3. Antonio Cromartie. Remains to be seen if the Jets will keep him (or if they'll pursue Asomugha as well!). Cromartie comes with plenty of baggage, as his attitude and effort were in serious question at the end of his time in San Diego. Doubt he'd fit in a place like Dallas or Washington, where peace and quiet are going to be important to the short-term and long-term plans.

4. Chris Carr. He's said he'd like to return to Baltimore and that he'd be willing to play some safety in order to do that. Lots of turnover is expected in the Ravens' secondary, and depending on how other things shake out, Carr could be a surprise entry onto the market and a nice fit in Philadelphia or Washington, neither of which is too far from Baltimore. His fellow Baltimore corner, Josh Wilson, would be an intriguing name on the market as well.

5. Ike Taylor. Known more as a physical corner than a traditional cover type such as Asomugha, Taylor is a perfect fit right where he is, in Pittsburgh. But there have been rumblings lately that he's seeking a big payday, and Washington seems like it could use an infusion of toughness and a championship-seasoned veteran presence on defense.

Predictions that mean nothing: Asomugha to the Eagles, Taylor to the Redskins, Cowboys stand pat at corner and spend on safety.
The NFL draft is long over and all we have to look forward to now is free agency, though we don't know when or how it will come or exactly what it will look like.

But if there is a 2011 season, it will have to be preceded by some sort of free-agency period, one last window for teams to fine-tune their rosters with what they couldn't get in the draft.

We’ll spare you most of the boring details of the labor negotiations, but we do have to point out that the rules for a potential free-agency period aren’t set. They could be determined if a new labor agreement is reached and that probably would include some tweaks to past rules. It has long been assumed that if the lockout is lifted before an agreement that free agency rules will be the same as they were in 2010. But word has started to trickle out in the past few days that might not be the case.

At this point, we only can look at hypothetical situations -- all you can do is dream and you might as well dream big. With that in mind, let’s take a look at one free-agency dream scenario for each NFC South franchise.

Atlanta Falcons -- This is the easiest call in the division because you can see it coming like a slow-moving storm or Arthur Blank strolling to the sideline late in a game. Let’s go ahead and make Atlanta’s dream move signing Minnesota defensive end Ray Edwards.

Some of our coming moves are pie-in-the-sky scenarios that probably won’t happen, but this one has serious potential. Edwards has five seasons in the league, which could make him a restricted or unrestricted free agent, depending on the rules of free agency. If at all possible, I think the Falcons will pursue a player who had eight sacks in 14 games last season and 8.5 the season before that.

Edwards is just hitting his prime and sure looks like the one missing link between the Falcons being a team that exits the playoffs early and one that can challenge for the Super Bowl. Blank and general manager Thomas Dimitroff already put most of their chips on the table when they traded up on draft night to get wide receiver Julio Jones. He’s the explosive player they wanted on offense.

Edwards can be the explosive guy on defense. Carolina’s Charles Johnson, a probable restricted free agent, and Green Bay’s Cullen Jenkins could be fall-back options. But the Falcons already have shown strong signs this offseason they’re not interested in falling back.

Carolina Panthers -- Let’s imagine for a moment that Carolina owner Jerry Richardson opens his free-agent checkbook for the first time in several years to bring in cornerback Johnathan Joseph, who has been playing with Cincinnati and is another five-year player.

If Joseph is a free agent, this move would make all sorts of sense. He's a local product, from just over the border in Rock Hill, S.C. He also has nine interceptions the past two seasons. Carolina has Richard Marshall and Chris Gamble, but their futures are very uncertain.

Richardson has had some success in the past bringing local products home -- Stephen Davis, Kevin Donnalley, Ricky Proehl -- and Carolina has invested a lot in its young defensive line and has a good group of linebackers. Joseph could solidify the secondary and new coach Ron Rivera suddenly could have a nice defense. By the way, I know there’s speculation about defensive tackle Tommie Harris ending up with the Panthers because of his Chicago ties to Rivera. That could happen. But I don’t view Harris as a dream scenario. I view him as a guy with questions about his knees, who could be a decent pickup if he can stay healthy.

New Orleans Saints -- This one’s tough because the Saints have a bunch of young and talented, but totally unproven players at outside linebacker. Plus, veteran outside linebacker Scott Shanle can become an unrestricted free agent. The list of players at outside linebacker who definitely will be unrestricted is pretty thin. You could take a veteran such as Detroit’s Julian Peterson and gamble that he’ll regain some of his early-career magic the way some other veterans have with the Saints in recent years. The Saints have shown willingness to gamble on injured guys in the past and Carolina’s Thomas Davis has huge upside.

But Peterson’s no long-term solution and Davis is a total unknown because he’s had two major knee injuries. In a best-case scenario, the Saints will re-sign Shanle. Then, they’ll go after Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny. He’s a four-year player and could end up being restricted. But hey, we can dream.

Put Posluszny with Shanle and Jonathan Vilma and the Saints would be better off at linebacker than they were in 2009, when Shanle and Vilma were joined by Scott Fujita.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- The Bucs spending big money in free agency? Well, they haven’t done it in some time unless you count Derrick Ward, and that didn’t work out. But there’s one sure-fire move that could excite a fan base that wasn’t buying tickets during a 10-6 season in 2010 and put this team over the top: sign cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

Asomugha’s the one true gem we know will be in this free-agent class and his price tag is going to be astronomical. But if there is a salary cap, the Bucs will have more room under it than any team in the league. The Bucs showed a willingness to spend big money once before, offering more to defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth than the Redskins did before Haynesworth went to Washington. There are strong rumors Asomugha will end up in the NFC East, but Tampa Bay can use the lack of a state income tax in Florida, a great natural-grass field, the weather, a team on the rise and coach Raheem Morris (a former defensive backs coach) as selling points.

The future of Aqib Talib is unsure because of off-field problems. Sign Asomugha and the Bucs have a corner more talented than Talib who doesn’t come with the headaches. Put him out there with veteran Ronde Barber, who still plays at a high level, and younger players such as E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis. If the pass-rushers taken in the draft (Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers) work out, Tampa Bay’s corners suddenly could be dominant.

Remember, it’s all hypothetical. But wouldn’t the NFC South be a better and more exciting place if these dream scenarios actually came true?

Draft Watch: NFC South

April, 7, 2011
4/07/11
12:00
PM ET
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today’s topic: history in that spot.

Carolina Panthers

The Panthers’ top pick is No. 1 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010 QB Sam Bradford (Rams)

2009: QB Matthew Stafford (Lions)

2008: OT Jake Long (Dolphins)

2007: QB JaMarcus Russell (Raiders)

2006: DE Mario Williams (Texans)

2005: QB Alex Smith (49ers)

2004: QB Eli Manning (Giants via Chargers)

Analysis: It’s still early, but indications are the Panthers are seriously considering taking a quarterback, and that probably narrows it down to Auburn’s Cam Newton and Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert. Part of the reason the Panthers are looking down this road is because they saw what the Rams got in Bradford last year. The early results from Bradford and Stafford have been encouraging. But Russell was a tremendous flop, and Smith hasn’t been much better. Manning is the only quarterback taken No. 1 overall in this time period to make a Pro Bowl. Even before Manning, the history of quarterbacks at No. 1 is shaky for a long time. Carson Palmer and Michael Vick have had some good years and some bad ones. David Carr and Tim Couch rank right up there with Russell. To find a quarterback drafted first overall who has been an unquestioned success you have to go all the way back to Peyton Manning in 1998, and there were some people at the time who thought Ryan Leaf could be just as good. Long story short: there might not be such a thing as a sure-fire quarterback, even with the No. 1 pick.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers’ top pick is No. 20 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: CB Kareem Jackson (Texans)

2009: TE Brandon Pettigrew (Lions)

2008: CB Aqib Talib (Buccaneers)

2007: CB Aaron Ross (Giants)

2006: DE Tamba Hali (Chiefs)

2005: DE Marcus Spears (Cowboys)

2004: DE Kenechi Udeze (Vikings)

Analysis: The Bucs have been in this territory recently and have had tremendous results and one very big complication. The Bucs were at No. 19 heading into the 2009 draft, which was the first for general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris. They feared missing out on a chance to get the guy they believed would be their franchise quarterback. That’s why they traded up to No. 17 and took Josh Freeman. You can’t question that move, because Freeman single-handedly turned the franchise around last season. Even taking Talib at No. 20 -- and it should be pointed out that move was made by former general manager Bruce Allen and coach Jon Gruden -- brought some positive results. When on the field, Talib showed flashes of being one of the best young cover corners in the game. But the latest in a series of off-field troubles means Talib is probably on his way out of Tampa Bay. The lesson to be learned here is that you can get big-time talent in the draft, but it’s wise to do your homework on the character and attitudes of players. It’s common knowledge the Bucs desperately need a defensive end. Look at Hali and Spears. They represent two ends of the spectrum. Hali came with some questions about being undersized but had no character issues, and he’s turned out to be a solid pass-rusher. Spears came with some questions about attitude and never has panned out.

New Orleans Saints

The Saints’ top pick is No. 24 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: WR Dez Bryant (Cowboys)

2009: DT Peria Jerry (Falcons)

2008: RB Chris Johnson (Titans)

2007: DB Brandon Meriweather (Patriots)

2006: CB Johnathan Joseph (Bengals)

2005: QB Aaron Rodgers (Packers)

2004: RB Steven Jackson (Rams)

Analysis: Johnson, Rodgers and Jackson are proof that you can get a big-time player this late in the draft. The Saints aren’t looking for a quarterback because they have Drew Brees. But running back isn’t out of the realm of possibility, and when you see guys like Johnson and Jackson have been available at this spot, it makes you wonder about the Saints taking a shot if Alabama’s Mark Ingram is there. Yes, defensive end and outside linebacker might be greater needs, and those positions are possibilities. Pierre Thomas re-signed, Reggie Bush is expected to stay and Chris Ivory is recovering from injury, but the Saints still have to think back to the end of last year when they basically ran out of running backs.

Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons’ top pick is No. 27 overall. Here are the last seven players taken in that spot, with their NFL team in parentheses:

2010: CB Devin McCourty (Patriots)

2009: RB Donald Brown (Colts)

2008: CB Antoine Cason (Cardinals)

2007: WR Robert Meachem (Saints)

2006: RB DeAngelo Williams (Panthers)

2005: WR Roddy White (Falcons)

2004: OLB/DE Jason Babin (Texans)

Analysis: Although nearly every draft guru is projecting that the Falcons will take a defensive end, it’s not out of the question that a wide receiver or running back could be the pick here. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith have talked a lot about wanting to add explosive players. If they look at their own history and the recent history of NFC South teams who have been in this spot, the idea of going with a receiver or running back could get stronger. Although it took some time for him to develop, White has turned into one of the game’s top receivers. Meachem also took some time and dealt with some injuries but has emerged as a force in the New Orleans passing game. Williams had some explosiveness as soon as he joined the Panthers.

Wrap-up: Bills 49, Bengals 31

November, 21, 2010
11/21/10
4:45
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A few thoughts on Buffalo's win over Cincinnati:

What it means: The Bills are on a winning streak. A week after their first victory of the season, the Bills seemed on the verge of getting annihilated at Paul Brown Stadium. They trailed 28-7 in the second quarter, but surged in the second half to crush the Bengals.

How they did it: The Bills scored 35 unanswered points after the intermission to flip a blowout loss into a blowout victory. The Bills entered the game with two interceptions all year, but in the second half intercepted Carson Palmer twice and recovered a Cedric Benson fumble. Drayton Florence returned the fumble 27 yards for a touchdown.

The villain as a hero: Steve Johnson scrawled "Why so serious?" on his undershirt in homage to The Joker, a role Johnson wanted to play against the self-proclaimed Batman and Robin, Bengals receivers Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco. Johnson finished with eight catches for 137 yards and three touchdowns. Batman and Robin combined for six receptions, 91 yards and two touchdowns.

Unhappy returns: Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick played poorly for much of his first game back in Cincinnati, where he spent two seasons and started a dozen games. Fitzpatrick threw two first-half interceptions to Johnathan Joseph, who returned one of them 21 yards for a touchdown to put Cincinnati up 28-7.

Happy returns: Fitzpatrick rebounded in the second half to complete seven of 10 throws for 139 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions. In two seasons with Buffalo, he already has 27 touchdown passes, two more than Trent Edwards had in his three-plus seasons.

High-profile inactives: The Bills scratched four first-round draft choices: running back C.J. Spiller (injured), defensive lineman John McCargo (healthy) and outside linebackers Aaron Maybin (healthy) and Shawne Merriman (injured).

What's next: The Bills welcome the Pittsburgh Steelers to Ralph Wilson Stadium in Week 12.

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