NFL Nation: Neil Rackers

People have been asking me all summer who's winning the Washington Redskins' kicker competition, and we now have our answer. It's the guy who lost the Baltimore Ravens' kicker competition.

Cundiff
One day after cutting veteran Neil Rackers (and ostensibly leaving the job to Graham Gano), the Redskins have signed former Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, Adam Schefter reports. And according to ESPN 980 in Washington, Gano says he's been cut.

Cundiff was released by the Ravens on Sunday in a surprise move after undrafted rookie Justin Tucker outperformed him in camp. Clearly, the Redskins think the Ravens made a mistake, as they raced to sign him and cut both of the guys who'd been kicking for them all summer. The surprise part of today's move is the cutting of Gano, who hasn't been the most reliable of kickers but has a strong leg and might have been able to win a competition with Cundiff if given the chance. I mean, Justin Tucker did...

But kicker is really an eye-of-the-beholder thing, and Mike Shanahan must see something in Cundiff that he likes. Cundiff was a Pro Bowler in 2010, when he hit 89.7 percent of his field goals. And over the past two years, he's 53-of-59 on field goals of less than 50 yards and leads the NFL in touchbacks. Last year, he was 28-for-37 on field goals -- a more pedestrian 75.7 percent that compares closely with Gano's 75.6 and with Cundiff's career percentage of 76.7. But Cundiff was 1-for-6 from beyond 50 yards while Gano was 4-for-6 from that distance.

Cundiff did also, of course, famously miss a 32-yard field goal that would have tied last year's AFC Championship Game and sent the Ravens to overtime against the Patriots for a chance to go to the Super Bowl.

So what to make of this? Cundiff is more reliable inside the 50, which matters more than the ability to boom the occasional 50-yarder. But the main difference is on kickoffs, where 83 of Cundiff's 154 kicks (53.8 percent) have resulted in touchbacks over the last two years while just 40 of Gano's 144 (27.8 percent) have done the same. That's the part that matters most to coaches, who know kickers are eventually going to break their hearts on field goals but really want them to deliver in terms of field position. That's got to be the main reason Cundiff is the Redskins' new kicker while Rackers and Gano are looking for work.
ASHBURN, Va. -- As the rest of the teams in the NFC East talk about dynasties, defending championships and ... whatever it is that Jerry Jones has been talking about all week, the Washington Redskins are working on moving up from fourth place. It has been a long time since the Redskins were a real factor. They've had three straight losing seasons and have reached the playoffs in just three of the past 19 years.

But for the first time in a long time, there is reason for hope. His name is Robert Griffin III, and he is a rookie quarterback on whom everything now rests. The Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-round pick for the right to draft Griffin, and all he has to do is look around or listen to know what he represents to the Redskins' starving fan base.

"I didn't expect the excitement," said Griffin, who doesn't seem to be caught off-guard by too many things. "I wasn't looking to get drafted and have a whole city fall in love with me. So it's definitely a great experience. Hopefully, I can be the catalyst and get a lot of fans excited about this team."

Months before the games -- months before training camp, even -- Griffin already was doing that. His jersey became a fungal phenomenon, sprouting up instantly everywhere in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Stores began selling posters modeled after the iconic 2008 Barack Obama "HOPE" campaign posters, only with Griffin's face on them instead. The public reaction to Griffin has been outsized and unreasonable. But given the way Redskins fans feel about their team and how long they've gone without a franchise quarterback, it's easy for longtime residents of the area to understand.

"It's Washington, man," veteran Redskins receiver Santana Moss said. "There's nothing reasonable. The whole city expects 'now,' so at the end of the day, all you can do is give them what they want."

"Now" may not be a reasonable goal for a rookie quarterback on a team that won five games last year and plays in the same division as the Super Bowl champions. But what Griffin has already done around here is change the vibe. People are talking with real excitement about what can or will be. Even coach Mike Shanahan, who has overhauled the roster to the point where 19 of the projected 22 starters weren't on the team two years ago, feels differently about 2012.

"It's the first time, I feel like, you go into a season and you've got a chance," Shanahan said. "You're excited about the year. You're excited about your football team. You're excited about the direction you're going."

That's all new this year, and the new front man is a huge reason why.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. How will the offense be different under Griffin? If you watch the Redskins practice, you see a lot of new stuff. There are rollouts. There are bootlegs. There are designed runs for the quarterback. There are option sets, where Griffin has to decide whether to keep, pitch or throw the ball. Shanahan admits he's throwing a lot at his rookie quarterback, and it's by design.

"What I think you do is, you feed him everything," Shanahan said. "For people to grow, in my opinion, you teach them everything and then you find out what they're able to do. So we teach him everything, see how much he can handle, knowing he's going to get better and better every year because he's smart enough to get it. And then that'll be our job here for the next three weeks, really after this week, to isolate it down more to what we're going to do this season -- get a package for him that he's most comfortable with."

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
AP Photo/Brian GarfinkelRedskins fans are hoping Robert Griffin III can turn things around in Washington.
In other words, all of the stuff we're seeing Griffin do in practice might not necessarily carry over into the season. If there's a particular part of the offense with which he's having a hard time, the Redskins could shelve it until next summer and go with the things they know he can do. Regardless, though, Griffin's athleticism and running ability give the Redskins options they didn't have in previous years. And it may help them cover up question marks on the offensive line and in the running game. Speaking of which ...

2. Do they have enough around him? Shanahan won't talk about the salary-cap penalties the league imposed on the Redskins (and the Cowboys) just before the start of free agency. But it's a pretty fair guess that, had they not been docked $18 million in cap space this year and again next year, they might have been able to sign some offensive line help. They did not. They're bringing back last year's offensive line, and two of the starters are already injured. There's a chance left guard Kory Lichtensteiger makes the season opener, but right tackle Jammal Brown has a recurring hip problem that could prevent them from being able to count on him. The good news is that some of their backups got playing time last year because of injuries and suspension. And left tackle Trent Williams looks like the best player on the field in practices. But Griffin's protection could be an issue all year if the line struggles with injuries.

If it doesn't, Shanahan believes it can be effective because the players all know the system and each other. He's also not worried right now about who will emerge has his starting running back. Veteran Tim Hightower would be the starter if not for his ongoing recovery from last year's knee surgery. Evan Royster, a sixth-round pick in 2011, has looked the best of the remaining bunch so far in camp, but they also like 2011 fourth-round pick Roy Helu and 2012 sixth-rounder Alfred Morris. "We have four backs that can play," Shanahan told me, and he's willing to let the camp competition sort it out for him.

Griffin's receiving group includes newcomers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, veteran Moss and last year's rookie star, Leonard Hankerson, whose 2011 was cut short by injury, appears to be back. They're also expecting big things out of tight end Fred Davis, who was their best pass-catcher for much of last year before a drug suspension cost him the final four games.

3. The secondary. The defensive front seven looks strong and deep, but there are question marks at cornerback and safety. Will DeAngelo Hall thrive in his new role as the nickel corner? Will Cedric Griffin or Kevin Barnes be good enough as his replacement on the outside? Is strong safety Brandon Meriweather a talented star who was miscast in Chicago? Or is he a malcontent who got kicked out of New England because he wasn't playing to his potential? Can Madieu Williams or Tanard Jackson hold down the free safety spot? Lots of new faces and moving parts out there, and these questions need to be answered if the defense is going to continue to make progress.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

As they will tell you, the Redskins did beat the Giants twice last year. And they played the Cowboys tough twice. Of all the last-place teams in the NFL, only one finished closer to its division's first-place team than did the Redskins, who at 5-11 were still only four games out of first. They have replaced a starting quarterback (Rex Grossman) who somehow threw 20 interceptions in only 13 games with a brilliantly talented, charismatic and ultra-promising rookie. They've beefed up at receiver and on the defensive line. And even if all of that isn't enough for them to contend in 2012, Redskins fans have all kinds of reasons to feel good about the direction in which their franchise is pointing.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

The Eagles should be better than they were last year. The Giants have reason to believe they'll be better than they were last year. The Cowboys made major upgrades at cornerback and should be tougher to play than they were last year. Even with the improvements, there are very few positions (Tight end? Linebacker? 3-4 defensive end?) at which the Redskins appear to be as good as or better than their division rivals. That's a comment on the talent in the rest of the division as much as it is on what the Redskins are doing, but it remains a troubling reality. The Redskins are still a work in progress, and while the NFL prides itself on the number of its annual surprises, a Redskins playoff push at this point would likely rank among the biggest.

[+] EnlargeWashington's Santana Moss
Geoff Burke/US PRESSWIRERedskins receiver Santana Moss has lost 16 pounds since last season.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • Moss' weight loss is striking. He's down 16 pounds and says he feels completely different. The Redskins' coaches called him in the offseason and told him they thought he was too big, and he agreed, so he got in shape and has come to camp determined to show the world he's still a top receiver.
  • The Redskins are converting Niles Paul, who last year was a rookie wide receiver, to tight end. He's 234 pounds and said his biggest concern when they asked him to make the change was that he wouldn't be able to block big pass-rushers like DeMarcus Ware and Jason Pierre-Paul. But incumbent tight end Chris Cooley told him it was all about technique, and Cooley has been working with Paul to help refine that.
  • That's a pretty cool thing for Cooley to do for a player who may be about to take his job. Shows you what kind of guy and teammate Cooley is. He's got a chance to stick on the roster, but he has to show he's healthy and probably take a pay cut.
  • The Redskins' plan as of now for three-receiver sets is to use Garcon and Hankerson wide and Moss in the slot. But Moss could play well enough to see action outside in two-receiver sets, especially if Hankerson and Morgan have injury problems. Morgan, who has always had those, is being looked at as someone who can play any of the three receiver slots in Shanahan's offense.
  • Shanahan named defensive lineman Chris Baker as a player he thinks will surprise people. If that's true, the defensive line rotation looks formidable with Barry Cofield, Stephen Bowen, Adam Carriker and 2011 second-round pick Jarvis Jenkins, who missed his rookie year with a knee injury but is back and looking good.
  • Outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan will switch up from time to time this year instead of staying pinned to specific sides of the field. Orakpo also says he's working on adding pass-rush moves to his arsenal in an effort to get his sack numbers up.
  • Neil Rackers has a chance to unseat Graham Gano as the kicker, but Gano held off a challenge from veteran Shayne Graham in preseason last year, so don't give up on him yet.
  • Brandon Banks has been told he has to make the team as a receiver, not just a return man. If he doesn't make it, look for Aldrick Robinson as a possible kick returner.
  • Somehow, we have reached this point in the Camp Confidential without mentioning the name of London Fletcher. But he's still very much in the middle of things at age 37. He ran an interception in for a touchdown during the first week of training camp. He's in the best shape of anyone in camp, as usual. They put Griffin's locker next to his because they felt Griffin could benefit from proximity to their best veteran leader, and Griffin said he knew right away the significance of the locker assignment. Fletcher said he wanted to come back to Washington in part because he wants to be there when they turn it around. If they do, his presence will of course be a big reason why.
When he talked Tuesday about what the Texans need out of the upcoming draft, Houston general manager Rick Smith identified offensive line, receiver and linebacker.

And when he talked about areas of depth in the upcoming draft, he hit the same three spots.

“I think we talked about the wide receiver position, they have some depth there,” he said at Houston’s pre-draft press conference. “I think there is some depth along the offensive line. I think linebacker is another position (with depth). So there are a few positions that have a little bit more depth than maybe others. All in all, I think this is a quality draft.”

It’s convenient when needs and draft strengths intersect.

For the Texans’ sake, I hope that’s happening.

A couple other notes out of Smith’s conversation with the media:

More on linebacker need for a team heading into Year 2 of using a 3-4 defense: “One thing about this defense is you need linebackers. You need depth at linebacker. You need as many guys as you can find that can rush the passer that are athletic. It helps you on special teams. I do believe that our special teams units were improved last year and part of that is a function of a 3-4 defense as one of the byproducts of the system. We’ll continue to bolster those groups and continue to try to find players that fit that system and can come in and help us.”

On feeling any pull to draft for offense early because the team has drafted a defender first each of the past three years and in eight of the past nine: “We rank it the way that this year is, and I think if you’re influenced by anything that you’ve done in the past relative to that type of conversation, I think you might make a mistake because it might influence you in a way that you ought not to be influenced.”

On the possibility of re-signing kicker Neil Rackers, who’s visited Washington: “We’re very interested in bringing Neil back and talking to his representatives about bringing him back.”
That’s a relief.

The Houston Texans head into the 2012 league year with several difficult choices. But they’ve taken care of one major player, agreeing on a five-year contract with running back Arian Foster, according to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle and ESPN's Adam Schefter.

That means the team won’t have to use the franchise tag on Foster, who would have been a restricted free agent who could have been lost to an offer sheet at the cost of a first-round pick.

Foster
Foster
Myers
Myers
The franchise still has a big list of pending free agents including outside linebacker Mario Williams, center Chris Myers, guard Mike Brisiel, tight end Joel Dreessen and kicker Neil Rackers.

If the team can’t reach a deal with Williams, he’ll hit the market as the biggest defensive free agent. They cannot afford to use the franchise tag on him as it would be over $22 million.

The franchise tag number for offensive lineman is the same for tackles, guards and centers — an unreasonably large grouping. The team likely can’t clear roughly $9.5 million to tag Myers either, and a long-term deal for him should now be the priority.

We don’t know Foster’s numbers yet on the five-year deal, but he was due a giant raise after playing as the biggest value in the league the last two seasons. He made $525,000 last season.
Early thoughts on the Texans scheduled to become unrestricted free agents come March 13, with thanks to Mac’s Football Blog, where you can find complete team-by-team lists that include exclusive rights and restricted free agents.

Running back Derrick Ward -- A third-stringer who has good experience and could be important if Arian Foster is lured away with an offer sheet as a restricted free agent.

Tight end Joel Dreessen -- Though largely underrated from the outside, he’s been a nice contributor and certainly has value for the Texans.

OG Mike Brisiel -- A solid starter they’d surely like to keep in order for their very good offensive line to remain intact.

C Chris Myers -- A very valuable cog in the machine and a great system fit, he may have been the best center in the NFL in 2011.

Wide receiver Bryant Johnson -- He was a non-factor as the team’s fourth receiver and they need to upgrade the spot.

Linebacker Tim Dobbins -- Played well when he got on the field, but may find better opportunity elsewhere.

Outside linebacker/defensive end Mario Williams -- If the Texans can’t lock him up before March 13, he will become the biggest prize of the free-agent class. It would be a huge accomplishment to find a way to re-sign him.

Cornerback Jason Allen -- He’s been a virtual “co-starter” with Kareem Jackson and has typically outplayed him. But based on this list, he’s not close to a priority.

Kicker Neil Rackers -- Rackers has been a steady guy for the Texans, who surely would like to keep him rather than shopping for a replacement.

Also UFAs:

Lewis drop kills Jaguars in first half

November, 27, 2011
11/27/11
2:38
PM ET
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jaguars blew a great chance to take control of their game against the Texans in the first half, but perhaps an injury to Matt Leinart creates the possibility of a rare comeback.

Houston’s top-ranked defense hardly looks worthy of the standing.

At the half, it’s 20-10 Texans.

Jacksonville put together an excellent second-quarter drive with consecutive plays of 31 yards, 25 yards and 14 yards. But a wide open Marcedes Lewis dropped a touchdown pass from Blaine Gabbert and the Jaguars had to settle for a 10-7 lead off a field goal.

Things went south from there.
  • A 42-yard punt return from Jacoby Jones put the Texans in great field position and set up a 2-yard Leinart to Joel Dreessen touchdown pass.
  • Gabbert forced a deep ball up the right side where three defenders were around Jason Hill. Johnathan Joseph’s 29-yard return set up a Neil Rackers 53-yard field goal.
  • Josh Scobee missed a 55-yard field goal wide right with 1:45 left in the first half.
  • Jeremy Mincey knocked Leinart out of the game, at least temporarily. The Texans have not officially disclosed what the injury is, but it looked to be his throwing shoulder. T.J. Yates took over for the remainder of the final drive, which produced a 33-yard Rackers field goal and the 10-point halftime lead.

AFC South Stock Watch

September, 27, 2011
9/27/11
1:02
PM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Matt Turk, Jacksonville Jaguars punter: The Jaguars pride themselves on having a good special-teams unit. They were without one of their premier special-teamers, Kassim Osgood, in Carolina and another stand-out, Montell Owens, probably will be on the injury report this week. The thinking was they’d help Turk look good. But through three games he has a 33.4-yard net punt average and has given up touchbacks on four of his 10 punts. Jack Del Rio said it’s not been good enough and if it doesn’t get better, the Jaguars could ponder an alternative.

2. Red zone offense, Houston Texans: That killer instinct I’ve written about repeatedly always comes into question when the Texans settle for field goals. They moved the ball great in New Orleans then stalled when they got close and called on Neil Rackers too often. The good news is, no team has been inside the 20 more than Houston (16 trips). But five touchdowns for a .313 percentage in the red zone puts them 30th in the NFL. With their offense, that’s just not sufficient. (It could be worse, though. The Jaguars are dead last in red zone efficiency. They’ve been in the red zone a grand total of one time, when they kicked a field goal.)

3. Quarterback accuracy, Indianapolis Colts: Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter combined to hit on just 18 of 40 passes in the Colts’ loss to Pittsburgh. Each missed open guys at crucial moments. The stat sheet says Reggie Wayne was targeted 13 times, which is as it should be. But he caught only three passes for 24 yards, which is something we can really second-guess. Painter missed a wide open Pierre Garcon on a play that could have changed the game. We’re not going to get anything close to Peyton Manning out of these guys. But whoever is under center needs to get the ball in the hands of Wayne, Austin Collie, Dallas Clark and Garcon.

RISING

[+] EnlargePat Angerer
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireLinebacker Pat Angerer (51) racked up 21 tackles against the Steelers.
1. Pat Angerer, Indianapolis Colts linebacker: In a game in which the Colts' defense really woke up and made things work, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis led the line and harassed Ben Roethlisberger. Angerer keyed the second level. Game statisticians credited him with 21 tackles, twice as many as anyone else in the game. And he added one on special teams for good measure. He was constantly around the ball, and he wasn’t collecting “cheap” tackles by jumping in late or from behind.

2. James Casey, Houston Texans fullback: It’s still early to rate the tight end-turned-fullback as a run-blocker. But getting him on the field gives the Texans another high-quality pass-catcher. The Saints struggled to cover him, leaving him alone on a 62-yard reception. And his diving 26-yard touchdown catch was just beautiful. Casey finished with five catches for 126 yards, just two fewer than the best receiver in the NFL, Andre Johnson. He’s a matchup issue for everyone the Texans now face. Treat him like a fullback and opponents may suffer for it when he motions out and runs routes like a receiver.

3. Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans defensive tackle: He can rush the passer better, but the rookie’s a big piece of a defense that currently holds the No. 1 ranking in the NFL. He was one of the guys who stopped Willis McGahee in a fourth-quarter goal line stand against Denver. As a run-stopper, he’s an influential guy who’s got potential to get even better as he gets more comfortable and confident.

Rapid Reaction: Saints 40, Texans 33

September, 25, 2011
9/25/11
4:28
PM ET

NEW ORLEANS -- Thoughts on the Texans’ loss to the Saints at the Superdome.

What it means: The Texans reverted to their old ways, failing to put away an opponent when they were playing well enough to do just that. They gave the Saints life and watched an offense even better than theirs take advantage of the opportunity. They’ll say it was just one failure against one very good team at one very tough venue, but it’s hard not to take it as symbolic. At 2-1, Houston’s got the same record as Tennessee atop the AFC South.

Fast, fast, fast: The Texans nearly matched the Saints’ furious pace but ultimately could not keep up. They gave up the lead three times in the second half and could only take it back twice. A Matt Schaub interception helped turn the tide. He took a sack on third-and-15 at the very end as well.

If there is a silver lining: I think the Saints are going to win their second Super Bowl in three seasons. If they are one of the NFC’s best teams, ultimately there will be no shame in having lost to them at their building. But it’s still going to sting to the Texans as one that got away.

Too much: Neil Rackers saw far too much action, booting four field goals. If the Texans were more effective with their scoring chances, they’d have put the game out of range.

Injury concern: He returned to action, but a second-half right leg injury to Mario Williams could be a concern going forward. He flexed the knee over and over on the sideline before he returned to action.

What’s next: The Texans host Pittsburgh at Reliant Stadium and get to see for themselves if the Steelers are aging. They’ll get a measuring stick on the Steelers tonight when they play the Colts.

Red zone woes could haunt Texans

September, 25, 2011
9/25/11
2:35
PM ET
NEW ORLEANS -- Red zone offense has been the big issue for the Texans through the first half of their game against the Saints.

Houston’s controlled this game, but its lead is just 16-10 at intermission because it’s settled for three Neil Rackers field goals from 22, 27 and 27 yards.

Stalling once they got to close range has kept the Texans from really pulling away.

They’ve gotten a ton of big plays from Andre Johnson, James Casey, Owen Daniels and Ben Tate. They've got a yardage advantage of 301-177.

Perhaps they pick it up and continue in the second half. But if the Saints feel they’ve withstood Houston’s best and come out and play better, the Texans may wind up bemoaning their failure to find an additional touchdown or two when they were in range.
Andre Johnson/Matt SchaubBob Levey/Icon SMIAndre Johnson and Matt Schaub help lead a Texans team that has a clear path to the division title.
It’s a bit easy to say the AFC South should belong to the Houston Texans this season.

But I’m joining the chorus and saying it anyway: If this team can’t win this division, it’ll be time for owner Bob McNair to crumple up the plan and aim it for the closest trash can.

The Texans have a championship-caliber quarterback, receiver, tight end and running back (maybe two or three of those) all working with a smart and skilled offensive line that understands how it needs to work.

Mindset is the only question mark on offense, starting with Matt Schaub’s ability to rise to big moments. Even if he’s only average in that category, with Peyton Manning out for at least the bulk of the season, Schaub is the best signal-caller in the division by a wide margin.

The Schaub-Andre Johnson-Arian Foster combination is among the league’s best. Who has a better trio?

Philadelphia perhaps, with Michael Vick-LeSean McCoy-DeSean Jackson. Maybe Matt Ryan-Roddy White-Michael Turner in Atlanta. If we sub tight ends for running backs, San Diego with Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates and Vincent Jackson is in the conversation as is Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers, Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley.

[+] EnlargeWade Phillips
Troy Taormina/US PresswireThe Texans' defense had an outstanding performance in its first game under coordinator Wade Phillips.
The revamped Houston defense was outstanding in the opener. Sure, much of that had to do with the Colts' offense in its first game with Kerry Collins playing in place of Manning. But we saw all the elements of a defense that can win games -- stout run defense, consistent pressure on the quarterback, quality coverage, the ability to cope with sudden-change situations.

One can see swagger and confidence in the body language of guys thrilled to be working under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. I think he’s too low key, but it can clearly work for him as a coordinator. He has a way of keeping things simple and keeping the mood light, and players have bought in. I never sensed a similar feeling when Richard Smith or Frank Bush manned the post, though they obviously didn’t have the same quality of personnel Phillips will enjoy.

On special teams, Neil Rackers has a big leg that will make a lot of touchbacks and long field goals. Jacoby Jones and Danieal Manning can provide a jolt in the return game. Rookie punter Brett Hartmann isn’t proven yet but has a big leg.

The schedule is hardly a breeze, but look at the quarterbacks they could face: Collins twice, Chad Henne, Matt Hasselbeck twice (or maybe rookie Jake Locker), Luke McCown twice (or maybe rookie Blaine Gabbert), Colt McCoy, Andy Dalton and Cam Newton.

Houston’s been called a soft team, a finesse franchise. Not too many soft teams produce the NFL rushing champion the way this team produced Foster last season.

If the Texans' offensive blocking scheme amounts to a finesse one, so be it. The Colts have won the division eight times in nine seasons with a lot of finesse. They’re fine with you insulting them over it while admiring their success.

The Texans can show their toughness this season in how they stand up to Pittsburgh on Oct. 2 and at Baltimore on Oct. 16 and in how they fare in their games with the Jaguars.

The Colts' issues should be a huge assist for the Texans, as will the fact that the Titans and Jaguars are trying to stay afloat with temporary quarterbacks while developing top-10 draft picks in Locker and Gabbert. Although both teams may be ascending, their talent doesn’t match Houston’s.

If the Texans can make it through the first three-fourths of the season with a good record and in good health, they should be golden with a home stretch against Cincinnati (away), Carolina, Indianapolis (away) and Tennessee.

It sets up for success.

If this team folds under the expectations, if it cannot go get what’s so attainable, it’s going to have to be dismantled. It will require no more Mr. Nice Guy from McNair, who will have to part ways with a lot of nice guys he truly admires, starting with GM Rick Smith and coach Gary Kubiak. McNair will have no choice but to look for a different tone after a house cleaning.

I don’t think that’s how things will play out. I think Manning’s injury is a big break that opens the door, a door the Jaguars and Titans are not ready to approach. The Texans are more than talented enough to storm through it if they don’t complicate things. Run the ball. Work the play-action and bootleg game off of it. Rush the passer. Build from there as the season goes on and finish strong.

Watch pundits pick you to be a team that can do damage in the playoffs, and respond to it.

It sounds simple.

It just might be.
NFL teams tend to think they can replace specialists somewhat easily.

Often, they are right.

When they're wrong, the money they saved seems trivial in retrospect.

The Seattle Seahawks went through quite a few punters and snappers after letting Jeff Feagles and J.P. Darche get away years ago. They're taking a risk this offseason after watching kicker Olindo Mare agree to terms with Carolina on Wednesday. Mare set a franchise record for consecutive field-goal attempts without a miss after then-coach Jim Mora ripped him for an "unacceptable" performance against Chicago.

Mare has made 88.0 percent of his field-goal attempts over the last three seasons, the third-highest percentage among players with at least 20 attempts. Only Neil Rackers (90.7) and Ryan Longwell (90.0) have higher conversion rates during that time, according to Pro Football Reference.

Rackers' appearance atop that list affirms the first sentence of this blog entry. The Cardinals parted with Rackers and came out just fine with Jay Feely.

One other consideration: Mare has been strong on kickoffs, but strong legs might carry less value now that the league has moved up kickoffs to the 35. As Mare told Dave Mahler of Sports Radio 950 AM in Seattle via Brian McIntyre, the change should extend careers for kickers.
While Colts vice chairman Bill Polian told Ian Rapoport "the stars will still shine" with NFL kickoffs being moved up to the 35-yard line, it's a rule change that will benefit teams like Indianapolis who do not have particularly threatening return games or tight coverage.

Likewise, it will hurt a team like the Titans, who sent rookie return man Marc Mariani to the Pro Bowl last season.

It should do a great deal to help the division's kickers grow their touchback number, as all four were in the top half of the league in the category last season.

Here are the 2010 touchback numbers for the AFC South kickers, with the percentage of the team's total kickoffs that were touchbacks:
Williams/GarrardAP Photo/Phil CoaleMario Williams and David Garrard are two of the 53 players under contract in the AFC South slated to make more than $1 million this season.
After being struck recently with how the NFL's labor rift has been cast as billionaires vs. millionaires, I thought I’d look at some players' salaries.

Totaling-up career earnings is quite difficult, and bonus money can be hard to nail down and sort through.

We can still get an interesting snapshot by looking at scheduled 2011 base salaries. I suspect many readers will be surprised that the vast majority of players will earn less than $1 million this fall.

Here, according to the NFLPA, are the players from each AFC South team currently scheduled to make a base salary of $1 million or more in 2011. Keep in mind guys in line for some form of free agency are not part of things here.

Fifty-three of 216 players under contract are slated to make $1 million or more. That’s 24.5 percent of the division.

Houston Texans
Total base salaries of $1 million or more: 13

Total players under contract for 2011: 49

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 26.5

Indianapolis Colts
Total base salaries of $1 million or more: 11

Total players under contract for 2011: 57

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 19.3

Jacksonville Jaguars
Total base salaries of $1 million or more: 13

Total players under contract for 2011: 51

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 25.5

Tennessee Titans
Total base salaries of $1 million or more: 16

Total players under contract for 2011: 59

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 27.1

*Young will be cut or traded, the Titans have announced.
DALLAS -- The Arizona Cardinals experienced more roster turnover than most from 2009 to 2010.

They felt it, too.

Arizona finished with a 5-11 record largely because quarterback Kurt Warner retired. The team hoped it had enough veteran strength throughout its roster to keep the Cardinals competitive. A favorable schedule and division in transition made it seem possible.

Looking back, the roster turnover played a leading role in the Cardinals' fall, coach Ken Whisenhunt said from the Super Bowl media center Friday.

"What you lose more than anything is that equity buildup that you have had for a couple years," Whisenhunt said.

Specifically, Whisenhunt said the Cardinals too often couldn't draw on shared experiences -- say, adjustment that worked against an opponent the previous season.

"Even though you have a Kerry Rhodes, you have Paris Lenon, you have guys you are comfortable with that are good players in the league, they don't know what you have gone through to get to that point," Whisenhunt said. "To have those guys step up and say, 'Listen, we are not practicing the right way, we are not making these plays like we should be,' you don't have that history with them. You can get away with that if it is one or two, but if you have five or six -- especially if they are good football players -- that is hard to overcome."

The Cardinals parted with a long list of players featuring Warner, Anquan Boldin, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle, Bryant McFadden, Bertrand Berry, Chike Okeafor, Mike Gandy, Reggie Wells, Neil Rackers, Anthony Becht, Sean Morey, Jerheme Urban, Matt Leinart, Ralph Brown, Monty Beisel and Dan Kreider.

"You can never go in and say, 'Gosh, woe is me because we lost those guys,' because you are counting on the other guys to step in and you always want to be positive," Whisenhunt said. "But you have to recognize it's a pretty big blow to lose [key] guys."

Whisenhunt called the situation a "perfect storm" with Warner retiring, key players hitting the market and the NFL heading toward an uncertain labor situation.

"There is no operating plan for what you do or how you do it," he said. "It doesn't really matter at this point. You just have to move forward."

Quite a few younger players gained more experience than anticipated. That could help Arizona build back some of that equity Whisenhunt said was missing. But so much comes back to the quarterback situation. An upgrade at that position would cover for imperfections elsewhere on the roster.

Your 2010 All-AFC South team

January, 20, 2011
1/20/11
1:31
PM ET
FosterUS PresswireQB Peyton Manning, left, and RB Arian Foster were easy choices for the All-AFC South team.
Aspirations were high. Piecing together our second-annual All-AFC South team sounded easy on the front end. Now that it’s time to share, I feel I’m going to insult the division’s best.

Seriously.

How will Colts safety Antoine Bethea, a steady and settling presence in the Colts' secondary at free safety, feel about being part of a secondary with such shaky candidates?

How can I sell that Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew isn’t here when I think he had the second-best running back season in the division and one of the four best in the league, while wedging on a right guard when I didn’t see any I really found worthy?

How do I explain to the Titans' Jason Babin that as the No. 3 defensive end I had to leave him off, while my initial search for linebackers produced only one name?

How do I sort through the Colts' Adam Vinatieri (92.9 percent on field goals), Titans' Rob Bironas (92.3) and Texans' Neil Rackers (90.0) while rewarding a punter from a group whose top net average was 15th in the league and eighth in the AFC?

Here is how I will start: I won’t force. We’re leaving blanks where a guy doesn’t match the caliber required. And top guys -- clear-cut guys, the cream of the division -- get not just a spot on the All-AFC South team, but a spot with honors.

I wanted to create a minimum number of games played to qualify, but that would have taken away too many good players.

The fact is, teams like this generally include the best guy at his position. The context of how good the best guy at another position is doesn’t factor in. But we’re dealing with a small group here, and the skill guys and the pass-rushers were sterling compared to a lot of others.

When Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. sent me back his All-AFC South team to help with perspective, he added four guys he categorized as “by default” and concluded with this:

“Must say, this is a pretty bad all-star team.”

I don’t see it competing very well with an all-division team from anywhere else, but it does have some very fine skill players, so who knows?

Receivers: Houston's Andre Johnson played through a serious ankle injury and was still an incredible threat. Indy's Reggie Wayne made more mistakes than usual but was still exceptionally productive. Three up-and-comers are worthy of mention for strong seasons: The Titans' Kenny Britt and Colts' Austin Collie missed too many games and the Jaguars' Mike Thomas was the best slot guy outside of Indy.

Tackles: It was a down year for the Titans’ line, but Michael Roos was the best of the bunch. His only challenger here was Houston's Duane Brown. The Texans' Eric Winston did not have his best year either, but he’s the top guy in the spot and his team had the league’s leading rusher.

Guards: Wade Smith was an excellent fit in Houston and the sort of veteran addition the Texans need to continue to find. He gets the nod over the stronger Vince Manuwai. He was overweight in camp and didn’t take over the starting job until the Jaguars’ sixth game. Fellow Jaguar Uche Nwaneri was good, not great. But there was space between him and the rest of the middling pool.

Center: Jacksonville's Brad Meester got some good reviews during the year and Colts star Jeff Saturday is an obvious default choice. But my sense is that Houston's Chris Myers is regarded as one of the division’s most underrated players. He’s a smart guy who’s still improving and did a lot to get the blocking for Arian Foster organized.

Tight end: Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis made an excellent jump. He continued great work as a blocker, and his 58 catches and 10 touchdowns were career highs by 17 and eight, respectively. He was tough to get around and tough to cover.

Quarterback: Peyton Manning wasn’t the league MVP, but there is no argument at all about the Colts' star being division MVP. Prefer Foster? The Texans could have won six games and not made the playoffs without him.

Running back: Arian Foster’s the easy choice as he was the league’s most productive runner and also very good as a pass-catcher. Jones-Drew’s chance to challenge faded with the late games missed to a knee injury. What a pool when the Titans' Chris Johnson ranks third.

Fullback: I debated this out when I did my Pro Bowl suggestion post and settled on Houston's Vonta Leach as more than one person I trust said he was better than Jacksonville's Greg Jones.

Defensive ends: Tough group when I’ve got Houston's Mario Williams fourth. He played hurt and saw his season end early. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis didn’t get to tee off as much because the Colts weren’t playing with big leads as much. And still they were very good. Babin was a revelation and right on Mathis’ heels.

Defensive tackles: The enormous Terrance Knighton ate up people and space for the Jaguars and has become a stalwart. His teammate Tyson Alualu is quicker and rates third here because the Titans’ Jason Jones was outstanding. Consistently disruptive, I rank him as his team’s best defender.

Outside linebackers: Jacksonville’s Daryl Smith was quite good, with a lot of uncertainty at the third linebacker spot and in the secondary. Houston's Brian Cushing was not nearly as good as he was as a rookie, but was still better than other outside guys in the division by a solid notch. I didn't love him, but scouts I talked to said he's worthy.

Middle linebacker: A tough spot I thought about not filling. Gary Brackett was not as good as usual, but the Colts were better when he was in the lineup than when he wasn’t. The guy who would typically challenge him, Houston's DeMeco Ryans, was lost for the season after six weeks.

Free safety: Bethea was the glue for a secondary that endured unimaginable turnover. Bethea often played with other defensive backs he had very little practice time with. He’s just a sound and reliable football player, and if he didn’t match previous years, his supporting cast had quite a bit to do with it.

Strong safety: The Colts were battered at the spot and the rest of the division’s strong safeties were awful. The best of a bad group isn’t worthy of mention here. It’s going to be a popular draft need.

Cornerbacks: Indy's Jerraud Powers was very good before he got hurt; a two-dimensional corner who covered well and did his part against the run. He’s developing into a premier guy. The second spot is vacant. A lot of corners suffered for the weak safety play, but I’m uncomfortable singling out anyone else’s season.

Kicker: Vinatieri has huge fan support and he was clutch. But when the competition also kicks off, it dents your candidacy. So Bironas, who has a division-high 17 touchbacks to go with 24 of 26 field goals, wins out. Jacksonville's Josh Scobee and Rackers were not far off.

Punter: Jacksonville's Adam Podlesh beats out the Titans' Brett Kern with slightly better numbers. But the entire division can punt better and more consistently.

Special teamer: Montell Owens of the Jaguars benefited from the addition of Kassim Osgood, but edged him in this category. Scouts really like him as a special-teams contributor.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

Roster Advisor