NFL Nation: Nick Ferguson

NFC West teams need safety help

March, 6, 2010
3/06/10
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The Cardinals lost Antrel Rolle, the Rams could lose Oshiomogho Atogwe and the 49ers might need to replace Michael Lewis. The Cardinals could also lose backup safety Matt Ware, who could draw interest from the Rams.

The Seahawks aren't exactly set for life at safety, either.

What to do?

I've gone through the list of available safeties -- NFC West fan favorites Brian Russell and Mark Roman are out there -- and come up with a few fallback options, listed with their 2009 teams:

  • Ryan Clark, Steelers. The 30-year-old longtime starter couldn't work out a long-term deal with Pittsburgh. The Cardinals are running their defense in the Pittsburgh mold. Clark could fit.
  • Brodney Pool, Browns. Teams generally do not sever ties with productive 25-year-old starters, but the Browns decided against tendering Pool as a restricted free agent after he suffered a series of head injuries last season. Pool picked off four passes in 11 games last season, making 10 starts before his season was ended.
  • Darren Sharper, Saints. The 34-year-old Pro Bowl choice would upgrade every secondary in the NFC West, but at what price? Sharper is probably most valuable to the Saints.
  • Jermaine Phillips, Bucs. Injuries have severely limited Phillips' contributions recently. It's probably not a great sign that Tampa thought about moving him to linebacker. Still, Phillips is 30 years old, hardly ancient by safety standards, and he has 74 starts.

Other safeties who are unrestricted free agents: Ware, Russell, Roman, Nick Ferguson, Sean Jones, Will Allen, Todd Johnson, Clinton Hart, Roy Williams, Vernon Fox, Marquand Manuel, Mike Brown, Tyrone Carter and Lawyer Milloy.

Other safeties who are free agents (but technically not UFAs): John Busing, Hamza Abdullah, Aaron Francisco, Kennard Cox, Eric Bassey, Jamaal Fudge and Quinton Teal.

AFC South: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
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Houston Texans

Potential unrestricted free agents: CB Dunta Robinson, WR Kevin Walter, RB Chris Brown, DT Jeff Zgonina, G Chester Pitts, S Brian Russell, S Nick Ferguson, LS Bryan Pittman, LB Chaun Thompson, QB Rex Grossman, LB Khary Campbell, G Tutan Reyes, T Ephraim Salaam, P Matt Turk.

Potential restricted free agents: DL Tim Bulman, S John Busing, OT Rashad Butler, TE Owen Daniels, RB Ryan Moats, S Bernard Pollard, LB DeMeco Ryans, G Chris White.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: I don’t think the Texans will jump out and make any monumental moves. But by deciding not to tag Robinson they created another hole and saved themselves big dollars. With needs at corner, running back, free safety, interior offensive line and defensive tackle they may have more than they can address in one draft. That means they could jump out for one significant free agent – like they did last year with defensive lineman Antonio Smith -- and maybe another less expensive one or two.

Indianapolis Colts

Potential unrestricted free agents: MLB Gary Brackett, K Matt Stover.

Potential restricted free agents: WR Hank Baskett, S Antoine Bethea, S Melvin Bullitt, OL Dan Federkeil, CB Aaron Francisco, LB Tyjuan Hagler, CB Marlin Jackson, CB Tim Jennings, DT Antonio Johnson, OT Charlie Johnson, LB Freddy Keiaho, DT Dan Muir, CBPR T.J. Rushing.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: Brackett is priority one and the team has indicated a plan to pay him as an upper-echelon guy. The restricted list includes a lot of key guys who will remain big factors next year. Indy is not a team that looks to bring in many outsiders for big roles and it won’t start now. Bill Polian’s said the Colts will sit back and see how things unfold in the new capless landscape.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Potential unrestricted free agents: DE Reggie Hayward, G Kynan Forney.

Potential restricted free agents: DT Atiyyah Ellison, LB Clint Ingram, DL Greg Peterson.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: The Jaguars are draft-reliant, but will also shop for bargains in free agency, hoping to plug a couple holes with high-character guys with upside who fit what they are doing. As for a big splash, it’s unlikely based on their recent busts with big-name free agents like Jerry Porter and Drayton Florence and the direction they’ve moved since.

Tennessee Titans

Potential unrestricted free agents: DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, C Kevin Mawae, LB Keith Bulluck, TE Alge Crumpler, CB Nick Harper, CB Rod Hood, DE Jevon Kearse, S Kevin Kaesviharn.

Potential restricted free agents: DE Dave Ball, DT Tony Brown, TE Bo Scaife, LB Stephen Tulloch, DT Kevin Vickerson, RB LenDale White.

Franchise player: None.

What to expect: The Titans will undergo a youth movement, especially on defense where Vanden Bosch and Bulluck, who’s recovering from ACL repair, are going to be allowed to walk. Mawae been told his only chance to return is as a backup at a backup price. Brown, Scaife and Tulloch are important guys they’ll want to retain. Beyond that, expect mostly bargain shopping.
 
 Bob Levey/Getty Images
 Bernard Pollard has shored up the strong safety position for the Texans, who haven't had a steady presence at the position during Gary Kubiak's tenure.
Posted by ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky

Since Gary Kubiak became head coach of the Houston Texans in 2006, he’s deployed seven different starting strong safeties.

A secondary in need of a steady physical presence didn’t get great consistency out of Glenn Earl, Jason Simmons, C.C. Brown, Brandon Harrison, Nick Ferguson, Dominique Barber or John Busing. Injuries prompted some of the changes.

But in Bernard Pollard, whose insertion into the lineup has coincided with improved defensive play, perhaps Kubiak and the Texans finally have found their man.

In October, the Texans were the fifth-best defense in the league based on yardage surrendered, and 10th in scoring defense. The defensive improvements from the first three games to the last five are remarkable, as you can see in this handy chart the team provided.

Houston's defensive improvement, 2009
Category First 3 games Last 5 games Difference
Rush yards/game 205.0* 58.2** -146.8
Pass yards/game 231.7 202.2 -29.5
Total yards/game 436.7* 260.4 -176.3
Points per game 28.7 16.4 -12.3
* Worst in the NFL.
** Best in the NFL.

All these defensive developments are wonderful for a team with the third-ranked passing game and eighth-ranked offense. Defensive consistency is a major boon for any team keyed around a potent and efficient passing attack.

What has Pollard brought?

“I take pride with my tackling, I take pride in being in the right places,” he said. “I watch games around the league and you see guys get interceptions. I wish that could happen with me. But I don’t have time to try to bait quarterbacks, because when you try to bait, things happen. Some guys get away with it.

“I’m not that player. I am a player if you expect me to be wherever on the field, that’s where I am going to be. If that makes the quarterback go to another read, then that’s going to be a coverage sack or he’s going to go somewhere else. But I take pride in tackling, I take pride in coming in with high intensity and trying to get my teammates around me to get pumped up.”

Pollard was initially a 2006 second-round pick by the Kansas City Chiefs out of Purdue, selected 54th overall. In 2008, he delivered the hit that ended Tom Brady's season, carrying himself with grace after the accident.

The Chiefs’ new regime made him part of its roster turnover and released him on Sept. 5. But David Gibbs, the Texans' new defensive backs coach, had come to Houston from K.C. He helped facilitate adding Pollard to Houston’s roster.

Pollard has not solved the Texans' troubles by himself. He has been a positive influence in exemplifying the theme that’s so popular around the league: Do your job while trusting that the guy to your right, to your left, in front of you, and behind you will do his. He said he’s seen that trust grow, and with success comes additional confidence.

Now he will try to help slow Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts' offense Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium in a game that’s fair to rate as the biggest in the Texans’ history.

A win would put the Texans at 6-3, three games over .500 for the first time ever. A victory will keep them in range of the AFC South-leading Colts, who would be 7-1. A rematch at Reliant Stadium on Nov. 19 looms.

One of Manning’s biggest weapons, tight end Dallas Clark, said the Texans' defense starts up front, but that Pollard’s on his radar.

“Their two ends [Mario Williams and Antonio Smith] and their linebackers, that's the strength of their defense,” Clark said. “The safeties and the corners, a lot of the things they do is because of the pressure and [the ends] getting the quarterbacks to make bad decisions. Still, they're there to make the play, which is what their defense needs. But I think everything they do well starts up front …

“[Pollard] is a big safety. He's a guy who loves to hit and loves to make plays. As a receiver, you have to make sure you know where he is.”

Tackling was a major issue early this season, when, for example, Tennessee Titans halfback Chris Johnson accounted for 284 yards against Houston. Sixty-nine of them came when he lined up wide to the left uncovered. Kerry Collins got the ball to him immediately, and the Texans didn’t even have a chance to miss tackles. It was Barber’s mistake, and he was benched for it with Busing replacing him.

Now concerns over such matters are much smaller.

“He’s done a nice job of coming in and kind of taking up what we are teaching, our concepts, our program,” Texans defensive coordinator Frank Bush said of Pollard. “He’s brought a physical presence to us first of all. The kid’s a big [6-foot-1, 224 pounds] and physical football player, he enjoys the contact. He seeks it. He’s the most physical presence in that secondary and all the guys try to emulate what he’s doing.”

“He’s smart, he takes good angles to the ball, he tries to keep himself out of harm’s way as far as angles on running backs and then he brings a load to the party when he hits you.”

That’s a pretty good addition when you sign a guy after the season’s under way and he quickly becomes a player others are looking to follow. Bush was surprised to get such a quality player at such a time.

Pollard appears to be a solution at what has been a questionable spot.

“He’s kind of shored it up for us and let us feel confident about what we want to call. He’ll go out and execute our program,” Bush said.

After being part of two miserable seasons in Kansas City where the Chiefs were 6-26, Pollard said he’s thrilled to be on a 5-3 team that’s got reasonable expectations of a playoff berth.

But he’s not yet sure he’s a long-term answer for a team who’s been searching for a solution at his spot.

“I hope I ended it,” he said. “Nothing’s settled until you actually sign a long-term deal and you know you are in this city for a certain amount of time. So no player gets that gratification until it’s actually done. I am very happy with what I am doing, where I am. And I hope that I prove myself. It’s still a long season and things can happen.

“Do I look for them to happen? No. I’m going to prepare myself to bring my A-game and to get my teammates, and for them to get me, hyped as can be to play football at a high level every Sunday from here on out.”
 
  Bob Levey/Getty Images
  Linebacker DeMeco Ryans and the Texans defense have a new attitude.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

HOUSTON -- React or act?

Give a group of guys who've spent a lot of time doing the former to do the latter and you'll be greeted with glee.

That's the Houston Texans' defense's feelings for first-year coordinator Frank Bush, promoted by Gary Kubiak to replace Richard Smith.

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"His leadership and the way he comes off to the players, it's a different feeling," middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "It's a different attitude, a different mentality which carries over to the guys and our attitude. We're a lot more physical team. I don't want to say we were too passive.

"I think we had guys thinking too much, we had so many checks and this and that. It was too much, you're thinking so much to where you can't just line up and go tee off on someone. Now we can just line up and get it, there isn't so much too it. It's simplified to where we don't have all the checks."

The primary word being used for the team's new approach is "aggressive," and that's not a term that characterized them too often with Smith at the controls. The mild mannered Bush has the defense excited and determined not to let the Texans be known exclusively as an offensive team.

While Matt Schaub, Andre Johnson, Steve Slaton and Owen Daniels will go a long way towards determining if the Texans can build on consecutive 8-8 seasons and make the playoffs, Mario Williams, Ryans and linebacker Brian Cushing, a first-round pick, bring a good dose of star power to the defense.

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"They are getting tougher and tougher to go against every day," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "They've improved themselves with a bunch of players, they've been rushing the passer better and they are making it tough on us."

To graduate to being a playoff team, the Texans have to reverse some trends. They'll need to play better early so they aren't left to fight so hard to get back to .500. They need to fare better within the division, finding ways to finish off their primary rivals when they have the chance.

They expect the Titans and Colts to be strong again. The Texans will likely have to chase one or both of those teams down.

Anything less than double digit wins and a playoff berth won't be considered a success.

Key questions

1. Can the offense fix turnover and red-zone issues?

The Texans ranked third in total offense last year, but it didn't mean as much as it should have because they were 17th in points per game. The two big themes heading into the 2009 season are cutting turnovers and getting better production once they get inside the 20.

They were minus-10 in takeaways/giveaways last year, third worst in the NFL. They scored touchdowns on just 45.9 percent of their red zone possessions.

"I think if we can make those two adjustments, we can win at least two more games," Shanahan said. "If we can do that I think we will be a playoff team. We were a good offense last year statistically. But that was the first thing I talked about on the first day of OTAs this year, that doesn't mean anything. The top three offenses in the league last year were New Orleans, Denver and us. None of us made the playoffs. Moving the ball does not matter unless you move it across that goal line."

2. Do they have enough in the secondary?

Their top cornerback, Dunta Robinson, has not been with the team because he's upset about getting slapped with a franchise tag, but he will ultimately sign it and play for a guarantee of nearly $10 million.

Jacques Reeves will miss the start of the season with a fractured fibula, which means Fred Bennett will get some time as the second starter. Rookie Glover Quin is currently the nickel and they like his physical play.

But the safeties and the defensive backfield depth are question marks, even if the defensive front gets more of a pa
ss rush and forces the ball out quicker. Can they get steady enough play from Eugene Wilson and second-year man Dominique Barber, the presumptive starters at safety on opening day against the Jets?

 
  Defensive end Mario Williams
  Defensive end Mario Williams accounted for 12 of the Texans' 25 sacks last season.
3. Does Williams have enough pass rush help?

The Texans had just 25 sacks in 2008, fewest in the division. And Williams accounted for 12 of them. Houston made moves intended to get pressure from elsewhere -- first by signing free agent defensive lineman Antonio Smith, then by drafting Cushing and defensive end Connor Barwin with their first two picks. New defensive line coach Bill Kollar is a fiery type who preaches pocket penetration and may just be the team's biggest addition.

An effective rush from the front can help take a lot of pressure off the secondary, which ranks as the team's weak link.

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Ideally, Jacoby Jones would be in line to replace Kevin Walter as the No. 2 receiver in a year if the team doesn't or can't re-sign Walter. But Jones lacks maturity and consistency and his job security could be in jeopardy. The team is looking at kickoff return man Andre Davis, a better receiver, as a punt return possibility. If Davis succeeds there, Jones could be expendable.

Jones can be very good, but he can also put the ball on the ground too much as a punt returner. And Kubiak is not a fan of specialists. He wants football players who can fill multiple roles. That describes Davis, who can cover kicks as well as return them in addition to catching passes. It may not cover Jones much longer.

Newcomer to watch

Smith
Smith wasn't regarded as any sort of premier pass rusher when he hit free agency. But he's a versatile lineman who is very good with his hands. If things go the way the Texans hope, he can be an early down end and a third down tackle, having a positive influence and taking on a leadership role for youngsters Williams, Amobi Okoye and Barwin.

"He's a kid that can move from outside to inside, he's a big man that's a real good athlete," said Bush, who also worked with him in Arizona. "He's a 285-pound guy with good knee bend. He's extremely tough, has no problem playing over a center, guard or tackle. He takes a lot of pride in his performance and he came up through the ranks the hard way, he honed his craft and made himself what he is.

"That whole sense of a guy that came from virtually nothing to what he is right now kind of helps our team. Other guys can see it and aspire to be that way."

Observation deck

Antwaun Molden got hurt in his rookie season when the team wanted to bring him along slowly. He's a physical cornerback who could provide some great insurance or become a real alternative now if he's needed. ... Dan Orlovsky hasn't looked very good, but the team knows it will take him a while to be comfortable in the system and are convinced with coaching he can be a quality No. 2 quarterback for them. Even before a hamstring injury Rex Grossman wasn't going to challenge him for the backup quarterback job. ... Ryan Moats is like Slaton style-wise and Arian Foster is Chris Brown-like. But the undrafted rookie back may have missed his chance with a preseason injury and a too-slow return. Brown's ability to stay healthy will be a big question for the offense. ... While he's a popular fall guy with media and fans, defensive tackle Travis Johnson, who's missed camp so far recovering from hernia surgery, generally does what the team asks, taking up blockers. That it's a contract year won't hurt his motivation either. ... Undrafted free agent John Busing hits and plays good special teams, which may give him a shot at a roster spot that has belonged to Nick Ferguson or Brandon Harrison. ... The team also likes undrafted defensive end Tim Jamison, but will there be room for him? ... Frank Okam is big, quick and smart and he's been a pet project for coaches. When Kubiak complimented his offseason, Okam knew it meant something, "because it's difficult for an Aggie to give a Longhorn a compliment." ... Rookie tight end James Casey can play fullback, line up wide or throw. That's versatility that makes him Houston's Wildcat candidate. ... Want an undrafted possibility on offense? If Jones is out, there could be room for receiver Darnell Jenkins.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
 
  Bill Baptist/Getty Images
  A healthy Chris Brown could be a big plus for Houston.

Houston Texans

Training camp site: Houston, Texas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Indianapolis Colts

Training camp site: Terre Haute, Ind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Read full post)

 
  Getty Images
  While the Texans made some expensive offseason additions to their defense, they did not add any high-profile competition for Nick Ferguson and Eugene Wilson, their presumed starters at safety.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Defensive upgrades were to be the theme of the offseason for the Houston Texans.

They grabbed defensive lineman Antonio Smith with a big-dollar free-agent contract. They drafted linebacker Brian Cushing with the No. 15 pick overall.

But outside of adding fourth- and sixth-round cornerbacks and a seventh-round safety/special-teamer in the draft, the Texans didn't add anyone of note to their secondary.

What does that say?

Either the Texans liked what they had enough to believe it will work better with an upgraded front seven, or they didn't like the options in free agency or the high value spots in the draft. Perhaps both.

"We have some quality guys back there, that if things are going correctly, they can contribute and make plays for us," said defensive coordinator Frank Bush, who took over as defensive coordinator for Richard Smith, whom Gary Kubiak let go. "Of course it's all tied together. Hopefully the front seven can do some things that are going to ease some of the pressures on the back end."

Bush said his veteran safeties are smart, contentious and understand the system and that the younger guys at the position are following suit.

Had there been a "gotta have him" first-round safety, he could have landed in Houston. There wasn't, so at organized team activities (OTAs) this week the Texans have lined up with Nick Ferguson at strong safety and Eugene Wilson at free safety on the first-team defense, with Brandon Harrison and Dominique Barber behind them.

The résumé lines for the four, with assessments from Bush:

  Ferguson

Ferguson has played nine seasons with the Jets, Denver and Houston. Last year he was considered a nice addition for depth and to assist in further establishing the culture coach Gary Kubiak and general manager Rick Smith wanted to grow.

Bush: "Nick's a very tough kid. He hits a ton, he studies a tremendous amount. He's got real good zone coverage awareness. He might have a little bit of problem with some man-coverage things, but all in all, he's solid."

  Wilson

Wilson has 12 interceptions in five seasons playing both corner and safety. He was a second-rounder, 36th overall, for New England in 2003 and was part of two Super Bowl-winning teams. He signed as a free agent in Tampa Bay last year and didn't stick before finding a home in Houston. He started the last nine games of 2008 at free safety.

Bush: "He's been playing safety, but he played corner in college. He's more athletic, more of a coverage safety, more in the middle of the field, a ball hawk. He's a willing tackler. He will come down in the box and lay some wood on you when he has to. But he's really comfortable ball-hawking, breaking on the ball and making plays on the ball."

  Harrison

Harrison was a fifth-round pick by the Texans out of Stanford in 2007 but missed his rookie year with an injury. He played in 15 games, starting six last season.

Bush: "Harrison is a Stanford kid, so of course he's smart. He's a big, physical presence. He's probably over 220 pounds, a kid that can strike you, runs well and moves real well for a big guy. His biggest deal is to keep getting quality reps and more experience. A big kid like that, you probably want him closer to the box. He's got almost linebacker size, but he's capable of playing in the middle of the field."

  Barber

Barber was presumed by many to be heading for the starting strong safety spot opposite Wilson this year, and still could be. At 6-foot, 218, he's thick and can thump if he's finding his way to the right spots.

Bush: "He actually played some nickel-type linebacker for us last year. He's another kid you like towards the box. But he has a tremendous understanding of the game -- his dad played, his brother played -- he really understands football. We're able to put him in the middle of the field and he can help guys get lined up and do things that way. He's got a lot of football savvy."

Troy Nolan, the seventh-rounder out of Arizona State has nice ball skills, but will have his initial opportunities on special teams.

If things pan out as the Texans envision, the club will get improved pla
y from the group of holdovers, boosted by a pass rush that will consistently force quarterbacks to make quicker decisions. If they don't, the spotlight will very likely chase the safeties and feel more like a searchlight.

It seems they have three candidates to be the in-the-box kind of guy. But they could have set things up better for competition at free safety, where I will be interested to see how Wilson can do.

"It's going to be on the DBs to cover so that the front seven can work and get those sacks," Barber said. "We know the front seven is going to get that push and it's going to come down to us making that play on the ball."

 
  Aaron M. Sprecher/Icon SMI
  New coordinator Frank Bush is looking for more discipline and accountability from his defense.

During this offseason work, the safeties have an additional chance to prove themselves as leaders. Cornerback Dunta Robinson will re-emerge eventually, either after signing the franchise tender that upset him or with a long-term contract. Without him around, Jacques Reeves -- a popular target of fans -- and Fred Bennett are the frontline corners.

Part of the appeal of fourth-round defensive back Glover Quin out of New Mexico was his versatility, but Bush said Quin is working with the corners for now along with sixth-rounder Brice McCain out of Utah.

The expectations Bush has for the safeties and defensive backfield are in line with the message for the whole defense, he said.

"More than anything, more discipline, being more consciously aware and accountable for their techniques and the things that we ask them to do," he said. "We're going to be sticklers for the details and by doing so make those kids more prepared to do the same things over and over and over again and get the same looks instead of , I won't say just ad-libbing it, but instead of having different techniques. We want the same things over and over and over again, so it becomes habit."

Barber said new defensive backs coach David Gibbs has streamlined a big piece of the safeties' lives.

"He's helped simplify a lot of the calls for the safeties and it makes all of the adjustments easier," Barber said. "And in three days of practice, you can tell we are flying around and have made a lot of progress already."

When Houston played its best defense last season, it was when coaches became less cautious and more aggressive. That was a big theme for Kubiak as he made the change from Smith to Bush, and players have universally talked about how they prefer the mindset.

Does a safety in that line of thinking have to be less afraid of giving up a big play?

"It's a controlled caution, I guess you would say," Bush said. "We will always try to give them the different techniques and the pointers to help them out in those situations. When we feel like we need to be aggressive, we're going to always give them some tools to protect themselves. Football is aggressive. If we can just play to those principles, we should be fine."

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

There will be picks on Saturday and Sunday that prompt brows furrowed into question marks on the faces of fans of the four teams of the AFC South.

So in advance of this weekend's draft, the AFC South Blog is here to warn you: Don't be surprised when the Colts look to cornerback; don't be shocked when the Titans turn to a tight end and/or a defensive end. Should the Texans invest a reasonably high pick in a receiver or the Jaguars dip again in to the pool of defensive ends, they won't be making redundant roster choices.

They'll be thinking more about 2010 than about 2009.

We've discussed the current needs of all four teams a lot in the build-up to the draft. But teams obviously have to look further ahead than that. They can't count on the CBA expiring and the rules of free agency changing. Because if a new labor deal is struck and free agency continues to operate in the fashion we are used to -- with players who've logged at least four years and have expired contracts hitting the free market -- teams have to be prepared to lose people, and they need to have replacements ready.

Some of those potential replacements are already lined up, of course, working as backups. But others must be targeted.

"You're not just drafting for this year, you're drafting for future years too," Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said. "You have to have the vision of what they might be in two or three years. ... You're always building depth on your team and you're getting, especially in the later-round guys, traits that can be developed."

Here is a look at the issues teams may be facing in terms of departing free agents in 2010 with some suggestions, courtesy of Scouts. Inc.'s Matt Williamson, on mid- and late-round picks who could fill the holes.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Houston Texans

The Texans brought back safety Nick Ferguson, says John McClain.

Indianapolis Colts

Dennis Polian, son of Colts president Bill Polian, is the new assistant to Brad Childress in Minnesota, writes Mike Chappell.

John Oehser doesn't know that Peyton Manning deserves the heat he's getting for passing on a Mississippi ceremony honoring his family to play golf with Tiger Woods.

Former Colts linebackers Freddy Keiaho and Cato June are waiting on word from Buffalo about their future, says Oehser.

Colts.com assesses the team's running backs.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Thoughts on Mel Tucker from Cole Pepper.

Tennessee Titans

As the Titans wait on Chris Carr, they took a look at Carolina return man Mark Jones, reports Jim Wyatt.

Albert Haynesworth was indicted on traffic charges, reports Mitchell Kline.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

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

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

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

Houston Texans

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

Indianapolis Colts

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

Jacksonville Jaguars

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

Tennessee Titans

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

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

The Colts and Titans made for a late night, so please forgive the "late" hour of your daily tour of the AFC South.

Houston Texans

  • The Texans are gaining recognition as one of the league's more potent offense, writes John McClain.
  • Safeties Nick Ferguson and Eugene Wilson drew praise for their play, says McClain.
  • Andre Johnson is playing at an elite level, says Brooke Bentley of houstontexans.com

Indianapolis Colts

Jacksonville Jaguars

  • Guard Chris Naeole is likely to miss the remainder of the season after suffering a broken hand in warm-ups before his first action of the year, according to Vito Stellino.
  • Jack Del Rio is searching for answers, writes Jim Nasella.
  • A Q&A with David Garrard.

Tennessee Titans

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