NFL Nation: Vince Manuwai

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Falcons coach Mike Smith termed the release of veteran guard Vince Manuwai as a "football decision.''

The translation there is simple. Manuwai, who sat out last season and spent part of his career with Smith in Jacksonville, wasn’t injured. The Falcons simply decided they like what they’ve seen out of their younger guards early in training camp and they’re going to go in that direction.

Garrett Reynolds, who started seven games at right guard last season, seemed to get most of the first-team work during Saturday afternoon’s practice. But rookie Peter Konz, Joe Hawley, Mike Johnson and Andrew Jackson also are in the mix. Hawley also can play center, while Johnson also can play tackle.

“We’ve got a real competitive situation across the board on the offensive line,’’ Smith said. “I think you’ll notice that we’re rolling the guys. They’re not all going out right now, first team or second team. We’re going to roll them in and out, look at the different combinations and come up with the best combination of seven offensive linemen. That’s important, it’s not just the first five, but seven offensive linemen because you’ve got to have the backups cross-train. We’ve got to have a second snapper, an emergency snapper. We’ve got to have tackles that can play guard and guards that can play center.’’

Left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo might be the only guys who are penciled in as starters right now. The Falcons also are hoping left tackle Sam Baker can bounce back from the injuries that hampered him last season. If not, Will Svitek could be an option. Veteran Todd McClure is the incumbent starter at center. But McClure is 35 and, if he’s showing signs of slowing down, Hawley could be a candidate to start at center.

Some other quick notes out of Saturday’s practice:
  • Brent Grimes, who is carrying the franchise tag, might have another role than just playing cornerback: He has been getting some work as a punt returner. That’s a job that’s wide open after the departure of Eric Weems via free agency. Smith said wide receiver Harry Douglas and cornerback Dominique Franks also have been fielding some punts. Smith said he also may look at some young players on punt returns soon.
  • The play of the day came on a jump ball between two of Atlanta’s best athletes. Grimes had good coverage on a pass that was thrown high for wide receiver Julio Jones. Grimes, whose vertical leap has been measured at more than 40 inches, went up as high as he could. But Jones, who also has some spring in his legs, came down with the ball.
  • The runner-up for play of the day came from a surprising combination. Backup quarterback Chris Redman hooked up with undrafted free agent Kenny Stafford on a touchdown pass of about 45 yards.
  • Speaking of backup quarterbacks and undrafted free agents, I was pretty impressed by the arm strength of Dominique Davis from East Carolina. He can throw the heck out of the ball. But the potential problem I see is that every pass comes at full speed and there’s not a lot of touch.
  • The Falcons are currently carrying six tight ends. Veteran Tony Gonzalez is the starter and Michael Palmer did some good things last season. But the third roster spot at tight end appears to be up for grabs. There’s a lot of camp and four preseason games ahead that will determine a lot. But I did see Tommy Gallarda make one very nice catch in traffic over the middle.
  • I got some one-on-one time with veteran defensive end John Abraham, who touched on a lot of subjects (including his thoughts on new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, his decision to return to Atlanta after testing free agency, his belief that maligned teammate Ray Edwards is ready for a big season and some other things). I’ll share those with you over the coming days. I’ll be back out Sunday and Monday, watching the Falcons practice and doing interviews, and we’ll run their Camp Confidential profile later next week.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- So much for that Atlanta free-agent class of 2012. It basically is all gone.

Moments before hitting the practice field, the Falcons announced they have released guard Vince Manuwai. That comes after the Falcons released middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who suffered a season-ending injury.

Manuwai and Tatupu both sat out last season and signed with the Falcons this spring. Atlanta drew lots of criticism for not being more active in free agency. They didn’t give big money to Tatupu or Manuwai because both were older and had a history of injuries. The Falcons also viewed the two veterans as short-term solutions, at best.

We’ll find out more on Manuwai’s release after practice. But I think it’s fair to speculate that the Falcons decided to stick with a group of young interior linemen that they have stockpiled. They drafted guard/center Peter Konz in the second round this year. They also have Joe Hawley, Garrett Reynolds and Mike Johnson. It’s likely the Falcons will let those guys compete for the starting guard job opposite Justin Blalock.

I’m off to the practice field and will be back with more in a few hours.

Falcons: One big question

May, 3, 2012
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Did the Falcons do enough to get tough enough up front?

The Falcons went hard after offensive linemen in the draft. They took Wisconsin guard/center Peter Konz in the second round and Southern Mississippi tackle Lamar Holmes in the third. They also added guard Vince Manuwai in free agency.

The plan seems to be to throw Konz and Manuwai out there with guard Justin Blalock, center Todd McClure, guard Garrett Reynolds and guard/center Joe Hawley. The Falcons will let them all compete in training camp and and then decide which combination gives them the best interior. Konz probably will emerge as a starter, and either he or Hawley could replace McClure, who is aging fast. That should improve the interior of the offensive line, but what about the outside? Left tackle Sam Baker struggled last season, and the fact that Holmes was sitting there in the third round is a pretty good indicator that he’s not ready to step in and be a stud left tackle.

If the Falcons really are serious about throwing downfield more, they have to give quarterback Matt Ryan more time. The Falcons still may have to add a left tackle (Marcus McNeill) to compete with Baker if they really want to solidify their offensive line.

Speaking of solidifying lines, the Falcons haven’t done much on the defensive side, and that also was a problem area last year. They brought back veteran defensive end John Abraham, but they don’t have any other especially strong pass-rushers. I wouldn’t count on an immediate impact from fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi. Guys like Ray Edwards, Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury have to step up, or the Falcons have to go try to find a pass-rusher in what remains of free agency.

Is the door open in NFC South?

April, 12, 2012
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Greg Schiano, Vincent JacksonCliff Welch/Icon SMIA free-agent class led by Vincent Jackson, right, could push Greg Schiano and the Bucs into contention.


The best thing about living in much of the South is that you can leave the door open in December and January. The flip side is, you never know who’s going to walk in.

That’s been demonstrated repeatedly throughout most of the decade the NFC South has been in existence. Worst to first isn’t just a hokey slogan in this division. It’s been a reality.

Not counting the inaugural season (because there was no defending champion or reigning last-place team in a division that didn’t exist before 2002), there have been six NFC South teams that finished fourth in the division one season and ended up winning it the following year. The trend started with the Carolina Panthers and their miraculous run to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season.

The Atlanta Falcons pulled off worst to first in 2004. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers did it twice -- in 2005 and 2007. So did the New Orleans Saints. They did it in 2006 and again in 2009, the season after which they won their only Super Bowl.

But the worst-to-first trend has stopped since then. The Saints and Falcons have stayed consistently good and managed only to flip back and forth between first and second place.

This could be the season in which things get back to normal. Let’s be clear that I’m not ready to write off the Saints, as long as they have Drew Brees at quarterback, or an Atlanta roster that’s loaded with talent and has the potential to click at any moment.

But you look at what has happened in New Orleans and what hasn’t happened in Atlanta this offseason and you have to wonder if it’s at least possible that new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano is about to pull off a miracle on Dale Mabry Highway or if Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis knew what he was talking about when he said the Panthers are headed for the Super Bowl.

The Saints’ bounty program has left them without coach Sean Payton for the entire season and they have little chance of pulling anything off in the draft because they don’t have a pick until the third round. They lost some free agents, like Carl Nicks and Tracy Porter. Plus, there’s the very real possibility that multiple players could face suspensions for their roles in the bounty program. Maybe adversity becomes a rallying cry for the Saints and they stay atop the division. Or maybe the bottom falls out of what was a great three-year run.

If that happens, the Falcons would seem the logical choice to step up. They did go 10-6 last season, although you could say they underachieved slightly throughout the regular season and tremendously in their playoff loss to the New York Giants. And what have the Falcons done to improve their roster this offseason?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present linebacker Lofa Tatupu and guard Vince Manuwai, two guys who didn’t play in the NFL last season.

Yeah, I know how the Falcons like to point to their roster continuity and changes at offensive and defensive coordinator as reasons they’ll be better this season. Those are valid points. But, still, the way last season ended, you have to at least wonder if the Falcons have already started their downhill slide.

[+] EnlargeThomas Davis
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneThe return of linebacker Thomas Davis should provide an immediate boost for Carolina's defense.
Then, you look at the Buccaneers and Panthers and you see two teams that almost have to be on the rise. In the case of the Bucs, that’s mainly because they can’t go any lower.

Tampa Bay ended last season on a 10-game losing streak. Raheem Morris left for London at 4-2 last October, looking like the NFL’s next great coach. That guy hasn’t been seen since. But Schiano is in his office now and he seems to be saying and doing all the right things. He got rid of safety Tanard Jackson and coaxed safety Ronde Barber into coming back for one more year. Plus, Schiano has one luxury Morris didn’t last year -- a free-agent class.

A year after punter Michael Koenen was their big addition in free agency, the Bucs went out and made one of the league’s biggest splashes. They signed receiver Vincent Jackson, Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright.

Mix those guys in with some young talent (Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn and some others), let Schiano restore a little order in the locker room and on the practice fields and worst to first at least seems like a possibility.

But, even if the Saints and Falcons slip, the Panthers could be ahead of the Bucs. They only won six games last season, but it might have been the most positive six-win season in NFL history. With Ron Rivera taking over for John Fox, the Panthers suddenly realized the NFL became a passing league a few years ago and started playing catch-up. They used the No. 1 overall draft pick on Cam Newton and suddenly had one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses.

The problem was the Panthers couldn’t do the one thing they always did under Fox -- play defense. That was largely because defensive tackle Ron Edwards was lost to injury in training camp and linebackers Jon Beason and Davis quickly followed. All three are expected back and that instantly should give Carolina a better defense. It only needs to be a little better, because Newton and that offense are going to score enough points for the Panthers to stay in the game with anyone.

Can the Panthers and/or the Bucs pass the Saints and Falcons?

We’ll see. It’s only April and the NFC South door looks to be wide open. Let’s see if it's still ajar -- or maybe even off the hinges -- in December.
Arthur BlankAP Photo/Nell RedmondArthur Blank contends the Falcons failed to maximize their talent last season.
Given the way Atlanta Falcons fans have reacted to what the team has done (or, more accurately, not done) this offseason, I was expecting Arthur Blank to pull out earmuffs as he reached into his pocket just before the start of an interview last week.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the owner of the Falcons pulled out a pair of sunglasses. This was a rare step outside during the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. He slipped on the shades, surveyed the Atlantic Ocean, sat down on a bench and started explaining, in great detail, the course his team has chosen.

Maybe this will, once and for all, stop all the screaming in Atlanta about how the Falcons didn’t pursue Mario Williams and didn’t really do much of anything in free agency. Blank’s got a detailed answer for that and, when you listen, it should all start to make sense.

There was a moment when I looked directly at Blank, but could have sworn I was seeing and hearing Gene Hackman. It was almost exactly like the scene in “Hoosiers," where the basketball coach played by Hackman firmly tells a referee “my team is on the court," after a player fouls out and the coach elects to go with four players instead of turning back to a player who had defied orders.

Blank has said “My team is on the field."

[+] EnlargeJones
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireFans should expect to see bigger plays from Julio Jones in 2012.
Yeah, the marquee free-agent signings have been linebacker Lofa Tatupu and guard Vince Manuwai. And Atlanta fans aren’t exactly jumping up and down about the fact that the Falcons re-signed defensive end John Abraham and center Todd McClure, who wouldn’t have surprised anyone if they decided to retire. Throw in the re-signing of role players Thomas DeCoud, Jason Snelling and Harry Douglas and it’s easy to see why a lot of Atlanta fans believe the Falcons haven’t done a single thing to get better after ending last season with an embarrassing playoff loss to the New York Giants.

But Blank has an explanation, so let’s hear it.

“I feel good about where we are,’’ Blank said. “I know we didn’t make a big splash going into free agency. But that really wasn’t our intention going into this year. We really felt we had a lot of talent. We were fortunate that we had the opportunity to bring in the two new coordinators and a few other coaches. At some points, it’s not even a matter of if the contents are correct. Sometimes, it’s a matter of who is delivering the message and whether the players are hearing it or not.’’

The man makes a good point. The 2011 Falcons that went 10-6 and never really played with a lot of consistency were essentially the same team that went 13-3 and played with a great deal of consistency in 2010. The 2012 Falcons have largely the same roster as the previous two teams. In the eyes of Blank, general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith, the problem last season and the reason this team hasn’t won a playoff game under the current administration isn’t about the roster.

Maybe the roster was just fine, but the coaching staff and the schemes were holding back the Falcons. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey left after the season to become head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder left after the season to become the defensive coordinator at Auburn. Both men left on their own, but I get the impression that if they hadn’t, they might have been shown the door.

Let’s be honest here. Mularkey’s offensive system reached its peak in 2010 and didn’t get any better even with the addition of talented rookie receiver Julio Jones last season. VanGorder’s defense was solid, but never dominant, which was a disappointment because the Falcons have some individual talent on defense. Mularkey’s been replaced by Dirk Koetter, and VanGorder’s been replaced by Mike Nolan.

“I love the selections that Smitty and Thomas made,’’ Blank said.

I get the sense that the days of Matt Ryan rolling out and almost always checking down are over. I get the sense that the days of sitting back in the Cover 2 are long gone.

“Dirk and I have had numerous discussions in terms of what our players are capable of doing,’’ Smith said during the meetings. “I think, first and foremost, you have to design your schemes toward what the players are capable of doing. We’ve spent a lot of time identifying the strengths and weakness of all our guys and what they do well and what they don’t do well, and we want to put together an offense that accentuates their strengths.’’

In other words, the Falcons aren’t going to be handing the ball to Michael Turner 300-plus times a season. They’re going to try to take some shots downfield with Jones and Roddy White and they’re going to get versatile second-year running back Jacquizz Rodgers more involved in the offense. They also will try to put Ryan in a position where he can go from being a good quarterback to an elite one.

Smith said he’s had similar discussions with Nolan, the former head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, who also has had success as a defensive coordinator elsewhere. Nolan is noted for producing aggressive defenses. Some minor tweaks to attitude and scheme could provide an upgrade over the VanGorder units that never were able to establish any sort of identity.

[+] EnlargeJohn Abraham
Dale Zanine/US PresswireBy re-signing John Abraham, the Falcons are valuing continuity over flash.
Blank made quite a bit of noise after the loss to the Giants about how simply getting to the playoffs wasn’t good enough. He wants his team to win playoff games and contend for the Super Bowl.

That really hasn’t changed. But, after the heat of the moment cooled a bit, Blank, Smith and Dimitroff sat back and realized they weren’t all that far from where they wanted to be. Early in his days as an owner, Blank was portrayed as hands-on and reactionary. I don’t think those descriptions really fit him anymore and I think he’s learned from his past. I think Blank is at a stage where he remains plugged in but trusts Smith and Dimitroff to make the football decisions.

“I went back and studied this over a long period of time in the NFL and studied the great teams,’’ Blank said. “Consistency is very important in terms of leadership with coaches and players. The great teams, what they have done is they’ve kept their head coaches for a longer period of time, kept their general managers for a longer period of time and they identified early enough their core players and they extended them. The football staff has done a great job of identifying the players that can help us and keep them.’’

The salary cap also was a factor in the Falcons’ approach to the offseason. Pursuing Williams or some other big names in free agency would have meant sacrificing continuity. The only key player the Falcons lost was middle linebacker Curtis Lofton -- and that was a calculated loss. Lofton wanted a lot of money and Atlanta placed a limit on his value. If they’d made just one or two big moves in free agency and kept Lofton, guys like Abraham, McClure, DeCoud, Douglas and Snelling wouldn’t be on the roster. Other players would have had to have been cut to free up cap room. The Falcons could have made a splash, but it would have left them with all sorts of holes.

“What you have to look at is, this is not like baseball,’’ Blank said. “There are limits. This is real money and not monopoly money. That’s one of the beauties in the NFL is that in July and August fans of every team think their team has a chance to go to the playoffs or to go to the Super Bowl and win it. The salary-cap system forces you to make some tough choices. Thomas and Smitty and their staffs made these choices because they believe they were the ones that will give us the biggest bang for the buck going forward. I certainly tested their logic and asked questions, but I think their plan was all very sound and well formulated.’’

Like it or not, Blank is putting his team (the one chosen by Smith and Dimitroff) on the field this fall. You might not like it now and that’s fine with Blank. He thinks you’ll like it a lot more as the season goes along.

NFC South free-agency assessment

March, 29, 2012
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AFC Assessments: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Atlanta Falcons

Key additions: LB Lofa Tatupu, G Vince Manuwai

Key losses: LB Curtis Lofton, WR/KR Eric Weems

Keeping their own: Much to the chagrin of their fans, the Falcons chose not to pursue defensive end Mario Williams or any other big-name free agent. Instead, they focused hard on keeping their own guys. That started before the season ended with tight end Tony Gonzalez re-signing and continued into free agency as the Falcons made it a point to lock up guys like receiver Harry Douglas, defensive end John Abraham and running back Jason Snelling. They also protected cornerback Brent Grimes with the franchise tag.

The only loss that really hurt was Lofton. The Falcons liked him, but new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan didn’t view him as a three-down player. The Falcons still made an effort to keep Lofton, but weren’t willing to pay big money. They brought in the veteran Tatupu, who could be a short-term answer. But there’s a hope within the organization that second-year pro Akeem Dent can step forward and win the job immediately because he’s the guy that’s going to end up there for the long term.

What’s next: Don’t completely rule out the addition of a minor or mid-level free agent or two, but the Falcons are focusing mainly on the draft. Even with Abraham back, they’re still looking to improve their pass rush and defensive ends could be in play. But the Falcons also could add a defensive tackle because Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry are coming off sub-par seasons. Some depth in the secondary and a kick returner also are possible targets.

Key additions: RB/FB Mike Tolbert, G Mike Pollak

Key losses: G Travelle Wharton

The splash came last year: The Panthers haven’t been very active in free agency. That’s largely because they made their big moves coming out of the lockout last year. They signed defensive end Charles Johnson, running back DeAngelo Williams, linebacker Jon Beason, defensive tackle Ron Edwards and linebacker Thomas Davis to huge deals, and that’s why they had very little salary-cap room to work with this year.

But the Panthers didn’t really reap the rewards of some of those signings because Beason, Davis and Edwards all suffered early injuries. That took a toll on the defense. But all three of those guys are back and healthy and that should improve the defense immediately. Carolina developed an explosive offense last season and a strong defense could turn the Panthers into playoff contenders.

What’s next: The Panthers have very little cap room and don’t figure to make many more moves in free agency. They’re focused in on the draft and there needs have been narrowed. They’re likely to address cornerback and defensive tackle early in the draft. But don’t be surprised if they take a linebacker somewhere in the first three or four rounds, and it’s even possible they could target one in the first or second. Davis is coming off his torn ACL and the Panthers don’t know if he’ll be anything close to what he was before the injuries.

New Orleans Saints

Key additions: LB Curtis Lofton, DT Brodrick Bunkley, G Ben Grubbs

Key losses: G Carl Nicks, CB Tracy Porter

Miracle workers: Faced with an extremely tight salary-cap situation and some bizarre off-field events, it’s somewhat amazing the Saints were able to keep as much as they did. They didn’t want to lose Nicks, who might be the best guard in the league and is in his prime. But that’s the price they had to pay to make sure they kept quarterback Drew Brees and receiver Marques Colston, as well as adding players like Lofton, Grubbs and Bunkley.

The Brees situation remains complicated. He's still carrying the franchise tag. The Saints need to get him signed to a long-term deal quickly. Even more than ever, the Saints need Brees’ leadership abilities. They need him signed and happy before their offseason program starts April 16.

What’s next: With the possibility of multiple defensive players facing possible suspensions as a result of the bounty program, the Saints still could be looking to make significant moves. It will be hard to draft players that will make an instant impact because the Saints are without picks in the first two rounds. That means they might have to pull some more help out of free agency, even with limited cap space. They could use another pass-rusher to complement Will Smith. Even after adding Lofton and Bunkley, the Saints still could use depth at linebacker and defensive tackle.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key additions: WR Vincent Jackson, G Carl Nicks, CB Eric Wright

Key losses: C Jeff Faine

Locking them up: Part of the reason the Bucs didn’t lose much of anything in free agency is because they’ve done a nice job of locking up some core players in recent years. They made it a point to make sure offensive linemen Donald Penn, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah never got close to leaving. Add Nicks to that group and the Bucs have a chance to have one of the league’s better offensive lines. As the season gets going, some other young players will be rewarded with contract extensions as they show they fit in coach Greg Schiano’s system.

What’s next: After making the initial splash, the Bucs said they’re done with free agency and are focused on the draft. That’s largely true, although the team is keeping a close eye on what remains on the market. This is a team that still is building and will still have needs after the draft. The Bucs have a big need at running back, where they have to find at least one player to complement LeGarrette Blount. The cornerback position could be an early target in the draft even after Ronde Barber decided to return for a 16th season. There also is some uncertainty about Aqib Talib's future. Even if he remains with the team, the Bucs need depth at the position. There also is uncertainty at linebacker and a need for depth at safety and tight end.

Falcons beef up offensive line

March, 9, 2012
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The Atlanta Falcons began the process of overhauling their offensive line even before the start of free agency.

Manuwai
The team announced Friday night that it has signed guard Vince Manuwai. He becomes an instant candidate to start. The Falcons have Justin Blalock at one guard spot, but there was uncertainty on the right side last year as the Falcons experimented with Garrett Reynolds and Joe Hawley, but neither exceled.

Manuwai could have a big edge over Reynolds and Hawley because he has a history with new Atlanta offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.

Manuwai was drafted by Jacksonville in 2003 and started 105 of 111 games between his rookie season and the end of the 2010 season. Manuwai was cut by the Jaguars last summer and spent the year away from football.
When Jacksonville cut him just before the season, the widespread presumption was that David Garrard would be quickly scooped up. But the former Jaguars quarterback remains out of work, reportedly unsatisfied with a scenario Miami recently presented.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert and David Garrard
Phil Sears/US PresswireDavid Garrard, who was replaced by rookie Blaine Gabbert, is still searching for a job in the NFL.
Jacob Ford was a pretty effective situational pass rusher for the Titans, but didn’t rate as a fit for them as they changed their defense and went with bigger ends. When healthy, former Jaguar Vince Manuwai can be a top-flight run blocking guard. Like Garrard, they seemed like players who would land another job in relative short order.

But more than a month into the season, they and many others who may still be NFL-caliber players are floating around, jobless.

Why?

My theory is that when Team X spends a draft pick, money, time and resources to develop a player and ultimately decides he can no longer help, the rest of the league tends to think, “We’d rather develop our guy than take a chance on theirs considering they’ve given up on him.”

“There are a lot of good players out there,” Titans defensive end Dave Ball said. “Look at guys coming though for workout not getting picked up. [Safety] Chris Horton came though here and worked out. He was playing a big role for the Redskins, a big role, a couple years ago.

“It’s tough. When you get cut, it can take a while. I got cut and it took me a year plus to get back with somebody. I think it’s a big confidence shaker for teams looking to pick people up.”

Teams typically have realistic views of their own players, at least in time. Fans can tend to overvalue their own.

Ball said Ford is a good pass rusher who should definitely be on a team, and that it’s scary to look at the landscape of a league where there is not a spot for him.

As more and more teams devote themselves more and more to building through the draft, they seem to be less and less interested in pulling in an outsider during the season if they don’t have a hole created by injury.

Surely former Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu expected to be working again by now.

For a lot of No. 1 picks it’s different. Aaron Maybin, a defensive end drafted in the first round by Buffalo in 2009 but cut after two seasons, was of interest to more than one team and got signed by the Jets. The Colts scooped up former Atlanta No. 1 pick Jamaal Anderson and are getting good run-down work from him. Linebacker Ernie Sims was a similar acquisition, but he’s been hurt.

“There are a lot of people who will take that first-rounder, anticipating that they may not be able to get a full 60 minutes out of him, but maybe they can get two quarters of No. 1 draft pick play out of him, kind of using him in a role,” Colts coach Jim Caldwell said. “There are some teams that do a great job of that, take guys who have been No. 1s, plug them in and say, ‘All I need is a quarter or two quarters’ or ‘All I need is third down from this guy’ and try to utilize him that way.”

As for lesser picks who are still floating out there, Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said he thinks it’s still early and a lot of those guys will wind up playing.

The lockout contributed to less opportunity, too. Reinfeldt said the draft pick a team might have given up on after spending the spring and summer with him got the benefit of the doubt as teams needed more time to evaluate.

“It was all so quick,” Reinfeldt said. “You didn’t get the opportunity to evaluate them the way you did in the past, so some made it because of who they were. This year was so compressed, I think some rookies made it just because the period of inspection and scrutiny wasn’t what it usually was. And that came at the expense of those other guys.”

Draft picks are such a premium commodity. Teams love to gather them, hate to part with them, believe their scouting system can find them quality with each one.

Linebacker Barrett Ruud moved from the Buccaneers to the Titans as a free agent this season. He sees building your own guys as the central theme when it comes to opportunity these days.

“Teams want to develop the guy they brought up,” Ruud said. “Sometimes, you’ve got a young guy and maybe it’s his first chance to start a game. You bring in someone to start in front of him and his confidence is shattered.

“I don’t think it’s a reflection so much of how somebody got cut. I think it’s more a reflection of a team wanting to develop a guy they brought in.”

Your 2010 All-AFC South team

January, 20, 2011
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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.

How I See It: AFC South Stock Watch

December, 15, 2010
12/15/10
1:18
PM ET
NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

[+] EnlargeTennessee Titans head coach Jeff Fisher
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliJeff Fisher failed to get Randy Moss and Kenny Britt involved against the Colts.
1. Jeff Fisher, Titans coach: He spelled out his reasoning for a fourth-and-1 punt and an end-of-the-game scenario in which the Titans scored a touchdown on the last play but had no chance at the second score they needed. Still, expecting a second straight stop against the Colts' offense was overly confident. The failure to find a way to use both Randy Moss and Kenny Britt was atrocious.

2. The Texans' ability to finish: For the fourth time in five weeks, the Texans came back from a 14-point deficit to tie or take the lead only to lose. That’s never happened to a team before, so it’s really impressive to do it in five weeks. Matt Schaub was spectacular in the rally against the Ravens. But Schaub simply cannot make the throw he made out of his own end zone that turned into the game-losing interception return by Josh Wilson.

3. Jacksonville’s run defense: They got away with one against Oakland, with Darren McFadden doing some major damage. Allowing 6.1 yards per carry in a crucial game is no game plan for victory, but they survived it. Now they head to Indianapolis, where the Colts' run game is unlikely to be an issue for them.

RISING

1. Gene Smith’s case for executive of the year: If the Jaguars win the division Sunday, it’ll be hard to make a case against the team’s second-year general manager. He's refreshed a roster and instilled a winning attitude. He’s trimmed the fat and drafted well. His calm, steady approach sets a trickle-down tone.

2. Lead running backs: Maurice Jones-Drew, Arian Foster and Chris Johnson all got to 100 yards in their games (as did a riser from last week, MJD backup Rashad Jennings). I’m anti-fan voting for the Pro Bowl because it’s a popularity contest. But the people are getting it right here, as the trio occupies three of the top five slots in AFC Pro Bowl voting, though they could order them better. Foster is a deserving first, with Johnson third and Jones-Drew fourth.

3. Jacksonville’s run-blocking: The Jaguars are rolling with the run and their offensive line has been getting great push with Vince Manuwai setting a tone. Also big factors: fullback Greg Jones and tight end Marcedes Lewis.
NFC High Energy: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

A look at a player who gave his team a significant boost in Week 13.

Coming out of training camp, Vince Manuwai’s stock was way down. He was a backup, with Justin Smiley starting at left guard for Jacksonville.

[+] EnlargeVince Manuwai
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliVince Manuwai's performance Sunday helped Maurice Jones-Drew run for 186 yards on 31 carries.
But Manuwai returned to the lineup Oct. 18 and has been a key element in the return to prominence of Jacksonville’s running attack. The Jaguars pride themselves on being physical, and when they are the more physical team, they are often the better team.

On Sunday in Nashville, Manuwai helped spearhead a 53-carry, 258-yard rushing game in a 17-6 win over the Titans that got the Jaguars to 7-5 and into first place in the AFC South.

Maurice Jones-Drew, who ran for 186 of those yards, was quick to share the acclaim with his line, tight ends and fullback.

“Without Vinny in the lineup, some of the stuff we are doing now wouldn’t be possible,” Jones-Drew said. “He doesn’t just move a guy 1 or 2 yards off the line. He moves him 4 or 5 yards, which makes it easier for me as a running back. You know you can get 4 or 5 yards when you are going to his side. He’s very physical and he always says, ‘Some people like to do other things, I like to block.’ Glad to have him on my side.”

Any lineman in the league would take satisfaction in hearing his running back talk about him like that.
David GarrardAP Photo/Joe HowellQuarterback David Garrard and the Jaguars have hit stride and are alone in first place in the AFC South.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Titans tried a bit to decorate it, but it’s hard to paint the Jaguars’ 17-6 win at LP Field as anything but a thrashing in which the visitors simply imposed their will.

It’s a risk calling anything in the NFL circa 2010 a transformational win -- the next week can too easily undo things -- but this had a lot of good ingredients for the Jaguars.

This is a team that hasn’t traveled well in the cold after Thanksgiving and that was 7-5 a year ago before a four-game losing streak ended its season short of .500.

Even so, this win on the road in the cold after Thanksgiving felt distinctly different. The Jaguars ran the ball 53 times for 258 yards while controlling the ball for nearly 40 minutes.

“They came to our place on a Monday night and handed it to us,” cornerback Rashean Mathis said, remembering the Titans’ 30-3 Oct. 18 win. “This was payback. We knew we needed to get this game, to dominate this game. It felt good to come in and control the game the way we controlled it on both sides of the ball.

“We’re in first place now. To get a win like this after the Thanksgiving holiday in the cold weather with it snowing a little bit, it feels great. It’s good to break the mold, especially with a division opponent. It just shows the growth of this team. We’re getting better, still. And there aren’t too many teams in the league that are doing that at this point. It shows progress. It can be slow, but it’s good when it gets here.”

Also helpful: The Colts' 38-35 overtime home loss to Dallas that dropped Indianapolis to 6-6. The Colts are a game off the pace of Jacksonville, which won the first head-to-head game. The Jags visit the Colts in Lucas Oil Stadium in two weeks.

The Titans now own a 5-7 record and a five-game losing streak. While the Jags can point to slow progress, some Titans fans would have to be pleased at this point if their team simply faded less slowly.

Besides win-loss records and mindset, here’s a look at the Jaguars and Titans in a few other categories.

Run defense: Jacksonville’s young tackles Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu are becoming a force that simply won’t allow interior runs. The Titans want to be a run-stuffing defense too, but Maurice Jones-Drew regularly found space anywhere on the field he aimed on 31 runs that averaged 6 yards.

“We’re starting to jell, we have the same guys in there, we’re starting to develop a rotation and that’s the message that we’re starting to send to teams: ‘Running the ball is not going to work,’ ” Knighton said.

The same Titans who held Jacksonville to 76 rushing yards in the first game, meanwhile, have now given up consecutive rushing totals of 156, 88, 107, 188 and 258.

“They really didn’t do so much,” said Titans defensive tackle Jovan Haye. “The game plan was real simple. They just beat us with a simple game plan. It’s not like they came in here doing crazy plays. They just lined up and did what they wanted to do.”

Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson: They both hit the 1,000-yard mark during the game. But Jones-Drew found giant holes, broke tackles and ran over defenders, embarrassing Michael Griffin with a stiff arm late in the fourth quarter.

Johnson went a half with 9 yards before finding some footing with his team behind 17-0 and finishing with 53 yards.

“The O-line tight ends and fullback did a great job making those kinds of holes for Maurice to run though,” left guard Vince Manuwai said. “We know they’re banged up. That doesn’t change the mind frame of running the ball. Healthy or not your whole objective is just to run the ball.”

The Titans missed way too many tackles, which safety Chris Hope said he believed often resulted from aggression.

“Sometimes being too aggressive causes you to miss tackles and I think that was one of the biggest problems,” he said. “… I feel like we played a part in a lot of the chains moving being that you’re trying to make a powering tackle instead of a safe, secure tackle. Sometimes you knock yourself off of a guy, sometimes your teammates knock you off of a guy. Then Jones-Drew is a hard tackle by himself anyway.”

Fourth down: Jags coach Jack Del Rio is a fourth-down riverboat gambler on some fourth downs. He can be a little reckless about going for it.

Against the Titans, his offense converted two of three chances: Running back Rashad Jennings took a fourth-and-1 for that 11-yard TD run up the middle and David Garrard snuck to convert a fourth-and-1 early in the third quarter.

“I would go for it too [on fourth-and-short],” Haye said. “We didn’t do a good job on first and second down keeping them behind the chains.”

Jeff Fisher also went for it three times, with the lone conversion coming on a Kerry Collins-to-Jared Cook connection.

I’m all for going for it on fourth down so long as a team makes it. The Jaguars were aggressive when they needed 1, 1, and 2 yards. The Titans were desperate when they needed 7, 6 and 3.

Freshness: From the start, the Jaguars seemed to have hop and the Titans seemed tired. Over the course of the game, the way the Jaguars played fed both sides of that.

Jones-Drew is peaking at the right time, but it wasn’t just him. No 2. running back Jennings did some good work, taking 10 carries 44 yards and scoring an 11-yard touchdown on a fourth down. Greg Jones took a short pass and ran physically for 11 yards up the sideline.

The Titans came into the game way more banged up and it showed, I thought.

Bye Report: Jacksonville Jaguars

November, 4, 2010
11/04/10
11:26
AM ET
Our 10-point bye report on the Jacksonville Jaguars:

Major issue: Inconsistency. They looked great in wins over Dallas and Indianapolis and did what they needed to against Denver and Buffalo. But they were terrible against San Diego, Philadelphia, Tennessee and Kansas City. To have a chance in the AFC South, the Jaguars will have to be a steadier team in the second half.

Playmaker update: Marcedes Lewis has been outstanding with seven touchdowns in 25 receptions and Mike Thomas is developing well and leads the team in catches. Still, this team needs to develop the stable of guys beyond Maurice-Jones Drew to consistently threaten a defense.

Protection issues: David Garrard plays a lot better when he’s well protected, and the pass protection has been up and down. Right tackle Eben Britton is out for the season, replaced by Jordan Black. In the Dallas game, Vince Manuwai may have wrestled the left guard spot away from Justin Smiley.

Score more: The Jaguars have been outscored 226-165. Jack Del Rio has said a blowout or close loss are the same to him, but they shouldn’t be. Playing well in a loss is much healthier than playing poorly. The only teams with worse point differentials are Buffalo, Arizona, Carolina and Denver. That’s not who you want to be bunched with.

Automatic: Josh Scobee is a perfect 19-for-19 on field goals, and nine of them have been from 40 yards or longer. He’s the only kicker in the league with more than six attempts who’s perfect. And his 59-yarder to win the Colts game on the final play was a kick he’ll have a hard time topping in his career.

Safety concerns: They’ve played them all -- trading one away and cutting another, twice -- and are going with kids Courtney Greene and Don Carey right now. It’s good experience for them, but it’s hard to imagine that this spot won't a huge offseason project. All the uncertainty at safety has made things harder on cornerbacks Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox and David Jones, who haven’t always been as bad as they have looked at their low moments.

Star performance: Maurice Jones-Drew is averaging 4.0 yards a carry, but he actually has more passing touchdowns (two) than touchdown runs (one). He’s got two games over 100 yards and two games under 50. Deji Karim seems to have the coaches’ confidence and can lighten some of MJD's load to ensure he’s as healthy as possible late in the season.

Developing well: Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu are developing into a top-flight interior defensive line tandem. Knighton is remarkably quick for a gigantic man and is a handful for multiple blockers. Alualu penetrates well and is getting better week to week. We’ll mention outside linebacker Justin Durant here, too. He’s played great since returning from an ankle injury.

About those blackouts: Turn your attention to San Diego and Oakland, please. The Jaguars have played four home games and they’ve been on local TV four times. They have issues, but drawing enough people to ensure they’re seen on TV has not been one of them to this point.

What’s to come: Out of the bye, the Jags have home games against Houston and Cleveland. They need good results there, because trips to the Giants and Titans follow.
GM Gene Smith locked up offensive tackle Jordan Black with a contract not that long ago, a deal that said the team has faith in Black as their third tackle.

With Eben Britton out for the season with a shoulder injury, Black is now the starting right tackle. Sunday in Dallas he will try to create space for Maurice Jones-Drew and keep David Garrard upright as he returns from the concussion that knocked him out of the Oct. 18 game against Tennessee. He didn’t even travel to Kansas City last week while he recovered.

Garrard said the Jaguars need to be on the lookout for Black against the Cowboys’ 3-4 front.

“You want to help him out, you want to make sure you’re helping him out as much as possible without sending everybody over there to help,” Garrard told Jacksonville media. “You want to be smart with him. They’ve got a really good pass rush and we understand that. I really think it would be the same way regardless, you’re going to have guys over there helping out on both sides chipping so that doesn’t really change that much.”

The Jaguars had talked early on about trying to run behind a strong right side of the line, but when Vince Manuwai didn’t secure a starting guard job that talk dissolved. Britton is a better and more powerful run-blocker than left tackle Eugene Monroe.

Katharine Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information looked up the Jaguars' rushing by direction for me, and the numbers suggest no matter who’s playing at tackles, the Jaguars are going to look to power up the middle first.

According to Scouts Inc., Black “lacks the bulk and power to be a strong drive blocker and is more of a finesse blocker who gets by with technique and a good feel for angles.”

That doesn’t mean the Jaguars will not run behind him, especially if he’s getting that help Garrard is talking about from people like Marcedes Lewis and Greg Jones.
Three things I’ll be watching for in Jaguars at Tampa Bay:

Guard play: Sounds like we'll see Uche Nwaneri at center in this game, with Kynan Forney at left guard and Vince Manuwai at right guard. The guard who plays the best will be designated the starter on the right side, with Nwaneri on the left and Brad Meester at center. Pretty big stakes for Forney and Manuwai. UPDATE: Tania Ganguli reports Forney won't play. In that case, Justin Smiley will get a chance to make his case. The opportunity remains immense for Manuwai.

A showing from a safety: The idea that the team will shop for a safety on the waiver wire is growing. But they are not going to find two new ones, so it would be great if one of four guys -- Reggie Nelson, Anthony Smith, Gerald Alexander or Sean Considine -- had the sort of game that made coaches confident in him.

Another solid effort from Terrance Knighton: He could be the team’s best defensive player, and he did some nice work in the Jaguars’ loss to Miami. If he keeps it going, he can be the touchstone guy for Tyson Alualu, the defensive front and maybe the whole defense to work off of.

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