NFL Nation: William Middleton

The Jacksonville Jaguars may get more of a test of their depth Sunday in Minnesota than they’d like.

Coach Mike Mularkey told Jacksonville reporters after Monday’s practice that starting cornerback Derek Cox (hamstring) doesn’t look likely to play and would be replaced by William Middleton.

And starting right guard Uche Nwaneri (sprained ankle) got a rest day and will go through full treatment tomorrow.

“We’re hoping to get him back Wednesday,” Mularkey said. “That’s kind of the plan as we speak. If that’s not the case we can work with (Mike) Brewster in there or (Josh) Beekman, either one. We are planning on Uche being back.”

The Jaguars also suffered a new injury, as Mularkey watched Brett Brackett go down right in front of him with a knee injury. Brackett, a tight end, was recently claimed off waivers from the Eagles.

“I was standing right behind him and it did not look like something simple,” Mularkey said. “It looked serious. They’re checking him out. They were checking him out at one o’clock today, but it did not look good standing behind him.”

If he’s lost the Jaguars would be shopping for a third tight end after Marcedes Lewis and Zach Potter.
Some quick thoughts on the Jaguars 32-31 preseason win over the New York Giants at EverBank Field Friday night:
  • Quarterback Blaine Gabbert showed good command and made good throws on the Jaguars’ first series, converting several third downs and leading a touchdown drive. He got time, stepped up and found Laurent Robinson, Mike Thomas and Cecil Shorts, hitting Shorts for a short TD that produced a 7-0 lead. It was an encouraging showing from the second-year quarterback. Gabbert did lose a fumble later when he got swarmed. He simply needs to go down and be sure to hold on.
  • Shorts offset his TD catch with a fumble of an end around that started a long stretch of super starting field position for the Giants. The receiver was holding the ball with his inside hand and was too easily stripped. It’s the sort of mistake the receivers have been making in camp.
  • Other errors the Jaguars probably won’t be able to withstand against premium competition in meaningful games: a dropped interception by safety Dwight Lowery right at the start; a big kickoff return allowed following the touchdown pass that put the Giants near midfield; William Middleton holding down an arm of receiver Jerrel Jernigan in the end zone (that went uncalled); end Jason Pierre-Paul's too-easy rush inside left tackle Eugene Monroe en route to a tackle for a loss; punt fielding issues by undrafted rookie Mike Brown.
  • Rashad Jennings ran just fine: 12 carries for 56 yards including a 17-yarder around the right corner. Jaguars’ brass will not wake up Saturday morning feeling any differently with regard to Maurice Jones-Drew as a result of anything that happened here.
  • Tyson Alualu didn’t play, and the Jaguars started D'Anthony Smith and C.J. Mosley at defensive tackle. Terrance Knighton was in with the twos, and on several snaps he looked like a player a notch above the guys he was on the field with and against.
  • Rookie defensive end Andre Branch's speed off the edge was apparent a couple times. Once his presence prompted David Carr to step up into a sack by Knighton. Encouraging.
  • Bryan Anger's big, second-quarter punt tied up Jayron Hosley, who fumbled it. The big hang time meant Antwon Blake had time to get in position to pounce and recover the loose ball, setting up a quick Chad Henne-to-Brian Robiskie TD that cut the Giants lead to 24-14. Anger prompted Jernigan to botch a punt as well, and Blake recovered that one too.
  • Thomas and Robiskie made plays for third-string QB Jordan Palmer in the third quarter. More baby steps -- the Jaguars have receivers who can have success against second- and third-team guys in coverage.
  • Good consistency by the replacement officials. They consistently failed to give signals to declare what happened on plays that begged for such authority. It’s not that they failed to convey the message. It’s that they didn’t know what to convey.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- If you care to think the Jaguars are a mess and going to be in the running for the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, they’re fine with that.

As they worked through the early days of Mike Mularkey’s first training camp, they repeated the new coach’s mantras (like, “we just want to get a little bit better every day”), fell in line with his policies (like potential $10,000 fines for answering media inquiries about injuries) and gave team-first answers to questions about the absence of their two biggest names -- Maurice Jones-Drew (holding out for a new contract) and Justin Blackmon (unable to strike a rookie deal).

Sure, they don’t have much choice but to buy in, but there is an undertone that suggests they have a secret to spring on the league in a couple of weeks.

Every team at this stage of camp thinks it can be good. In Jacksonville, a significant improvement from 5-11 is certainly possible, no matter what the popular storylines are. Honest.

Theirs is a defense loaded with quality, front-line talent. Beyond middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, most of it remains largely unknown. But if you don’t know linebacker Daryl Smith or cornerback Derek Cox or defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, that’s not the Jaguars' concern.

“If anyone feels we are not in a proper place or we have problems, that’s OK,” Posluszny said. “We feel like inside these walls we’re doing everything that we can to be a very successful team.

“Mularkey’s done a great job for us. He’s a former player who’s been through it. To me, that all means a ton, because he knows exactly what we are going through and what it takes to be successful.”

While the offense is being revamped, and Mularkey and his assistants are trying to reformat quarterback Blaine Gabbert after a horrific rookie season, the defensive system and bulk of the staff have been in place for a while now.

Gabbert has nice moments, but his overall inconsistency at practice halts any proclamations that he made a significant offseason jump.

No matter how much players and coaches talk about his gains in leadership, no matter how much faith the organization has in him, no matter how patient they are, it comes down to making throws under pressure.

The early snapshot says the defense can be really good, but that a limited offense could be the obstacle to the surprise the Jaguars would so like to produce. There is a lot of time to work on what’s been installed, to find what works and to run it better than it’s been run so far.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Phil Sears/US PresswireBlaine Gabbert finished his first season with 12 TD passes, 11 interceptions and a 50.8 completion percentage.
1. Is Gabbert good enough? He folded under pressure too often last season, but the rush wasn’t all he was facing. The team drafted him 10th overall intending for him to sit and learn for a season, but that plan didn’t pan out and Gabbert was hurried into the starting role for 14 games during which he had poor pass protection and very limited receivers.

There were big distractions off the field, too: Jack Del Rio got fired and the team was sold.

Mularkey was hired in large part because he’s developed quarterbacks, and he, coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson have to get steadier play from Gabbert and get his arrow pointing up. His good moments look very nice, but there are still too many bad ones that leave you shaking your head. A kneel-down would seem less disheartening in many of those instances.

It’s a slow process, installing a new offense and rebuilding a quarterback’s confidence. Exactly how slow is the question we need answered.

Mentions of mechanical or technical adjustments by his coaches have been well-received, and he acts on them quickly. That’s great, but when the rush turns live and the pocket starts collapsing, will he have open people he can stand in and find? We simply can’t know yet.

2. The missing pieces. Jones-Drew is demanding a new contract. The Jaguars have said they won’t give him one with two years left on the old one. Boom -- a stalemate. I can’t see the team altering its stance unless he holds out into the season and it struggles horribly without him. He’s got an ego that will make it hard for him to return without any contract alteration, so this could drag on.

Blackmon is a rangy target who can go get the ball, and missing early camp is helping no one. He got a DUI after being drafted fifth overall, and the team wants insurance against any further troubles. Blackmon's unwilling to give the Jaguars what they are looking for, though.

So we’re seeing second-year man Cecil Shorts work in the Z spot where Blackmon will eventually be, with veteran addition Laurent Robinson at the X. Rashad Jennings is the lead back without Jones-Drew in camp, and is a bigger guy who also ranks as a power runner. I liked what I saw and heard from him.

3. Will there be enough of a pass rush? The Jaguars had 31 sacks last season, and to reach their potential on defense they need more in 2012. More consistent pressure and more sacks will come with improved coordination from the defensive linemen.

Their line coach, Joe Cullen, said they just missed on a bunch of chances last season, and another season together and the work they are doing now will result in better communication. The Jags face Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Andy Dalton in addition to two games against Matt Schaub and two against hotshot rookie Andrew Luck this season, and they won't win many of those without consistent pressure.

The relentless Jeremy Mincey promises the production will increase. Andre Branch was drafted in the second round to help, and looks like a quality player. Depth off the edge remains a concern. Austen Lane suffered yet another injury while I watched practices, during which John Chick walked the width of a practice field dragging heavy weight as he rehabilitated his knee.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeMike Mularkey
AP Photo/John RaouxNew head coach Mike Mularkey and his staff have made a positive impression on the players.
Mularkey and his staff. There is planning and logic to everything going on here, and the new staff has genuine concern for players on and off the field. Players are being told what the plan is and the right way to execute it. They felt that was lacking with the previous regime, and welcome it.

Position coaches like Olson, receivers coach Jerry Sullivan and one of the key holdovers, linebackers coach Mark Duffner, are true teachers, and they have guys under them who want to learn. That leadership and teaching faltered in many areas at the end of Del Rio’s tenure. It’s present in full force now. If guys follow and doing so produces results, it’ll snowball.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

A lot more is in place for Gabbert, and everyone has a stake in his performance: the GM who traded up to draft him needs him to succeed; the new coach who was hired to polish him needs him to succeed; the high-priced free-agent receiver and first-round draft pick receiver need him to succeed; the talented defense needs him to succeed.

Gabbert’s saying the right things and working hard, and you can see improvement on some drop backs. But there are still enough dud plays sprinkled into practices to make you wonder if he can succeed. The team wants him to avoid turning the ball over -- staying away from the worst-case scenarios -- and it's a smart goal, but will it make Gabbert too cautious?

Can you ask him to be careful and function as a game-manager type when the best attribute he has is a big arm that can get the ball into tight windows? It might turn out to be complicated.

Also, there is not great roster depth. I have particular concerns about the offensive line, defensive end and safety if someone goes down.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The team appears to be high on undrafted rookie linebacker Julian Stanford out of Wagner. With Clint Session’s future in doubt because of post-concussion issues, Russell Allen is likely to start opposite Daryl Smith outside. Stanford could make the team as a special-teamer who can provide depth. Brandon Marshall, a fifth-round pick, also has what looks to be an NFL-ready linebacker frame.
  • Mike Thomas needs Blackmon signed, in camp and taking the bulk of the snaps at one of the two outside receiver spots. I’m convinced that to get his head right, Thomas needs to be given the slot role and allowed to focus on it exclusively. His snaps were cut down during my visit, with Shorts working at the front of the line in Blackmon’s Z spot. The slot is what Thomas is best suited for, and his performance has slipped when he’s been expected to do more. He had a lot of drops early in camp, and Mularkey agrees with the potential for less to be more with Thomas.
  • Josh Scobee has the leg to get a lot of touchbacks and Bryan Anger has the leg to force a lot of fair catches. The Jaguars obviously still have to work on covering kicks and punts, but how often will they actually be covering kicks and punts? If the offense can produce some first downs, we should see more scoring, and more scoring will mean more kickoffs from Scobee and less work for Anger.
  • The depth at tight end is interesting after No. 1 Marcedes Lewis. Colin Cloherty got a lot of work as the No. 2 early on, and Zach Miller is another move guy who’s very intriguing, though Miller is rarely healthy. Zach Potter is giant, but hasn’t earned a lot of time, and undrafted rookie Matt Veldman is also extra large.
  • Posluszny is the centerpiece of this defense. He covers a ton of ground and makes big hits. He’s a model for doing things the right way, which is a major point of emphasis for Mularkey and his staff. Posluszny was a solid signing last season, and continues to deliver just what the team hoped for. That helps offset the fact Session, who also came to Jacksonville for a big contract in 2011, might not be on the field any time soon, or ever again.
  • The cornerbacks look good. Cox is really solid, and Aaron Ross and Rashean Mathis will be effective as the Nos. 2 and 3. The depth grew with last season's injury onslaught, and William Middleton and Kevin Rutland can play, too.
  • Branch, the rookie pass-rusher, came into the league facing questions from many teams about his ability to stand up against the run. The Jaguars have no such concern at this point. He’s got to be an effective part of a four-man group at end with Mincey, Lane and Chick. Branch certainly looks the part, but so did former Jaguars bust Derrick Harvey, so we can’t put much on the early eyeball test.
  • Along with Stanford, running back Jalen Parmele caught my eye. He’s spent time with Miami and Baltimore.
A year ago, when the Jaguars signed Drew Coleman, his expertise as a nickel corner was his appeal.

And even as the Jaguars lost defensive backs, the team kept Coleman in that narrow role. He lined up across from the receiver in the slot.

Surprisingly, the Jaguars released Coleman today, and it seems the lack of versatility that was just fine before hurt him now.

The team re-signed Rashean Mathis and he’s done very well with his rehab from a torn ACL. They signed veteran Aaron Ross. They tendered William Middleton and drafted Mike Harris.

Ross, Middleton and Harris have all played the nickel role in the past.

I would have let one of them show he’s a better option than Coleman in training camp. And I do generally abide by the thinking that you don’t make a personnel move until you have to. If Ross fell down the stairs and suffered an injury that means he won’t play in 2013, then you’d like to have Coleman back, no?

Coleman signed for three years and $7.5 million. The Jaguars paid him a bonus of just over $3 million. He was due base salaries of just over $1.5 million this year and next.

The Colts should look at Coleman, who will probably have some options with teams that didn’t get what they wanted in the draft and need nickel help.

Final Word: AFC South

September, 30, 2011
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 4:

Nickel and dime: The Saints fared great when they spread the field and emptied the backfield in their furious comeback against the Texans last week. It really took advantage of Houston’s lack of cornerback depth. Jacksonville will face the same test. Drew Colemanwas signed as a free agent to upgrade the nickel, and he’ll need to play well against a receiving corps that gets Marcus Colston back. Fourth corner William Middleton will be on the field more too, especially if starting corner Derek Cox (doubtful, groin) is out. And linebackers will be tested in coverage against a team with a lot of weapons that likes to throw to running back Darren Sproles.

[+] EnlargeCurtis Painter
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireIn his third season in Indianapolis, QB Curtis Painter is expected to get his first start Sunday.
Curtis Painter time: He will start for the Colts at quarterback on Monday night against the Bucs as Kerry Collins recovers from an apparent concussion suffered in the loss to Pittsburgh. Can Painter show some poise and put together a consistent effort? One thing that would really help his cause is being more accurate with Reggie Wayne. From 2008-10, Peyton Manning threw incomplete just 18.7 percent of the time he targeted Wayne. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Collins and Painter have combined to miss Wayne 39.3 percent of the time. You can’t miss your primary target that often and have a successful passing game.

Steelers blitzes: Pittsburgh’s been great on defense without blitzing. The Steelers are allowing just 5.5 yards per pass attempt when sending four or fewer rushers, third-best in the league. But last year and so far this year, Matt Schaubis connecting on 71.4 percent of his passes when he’s not blitzed, hitting for 8.2 yards per pass attempt. I’d expect Pittsburgh to bring more pressure to try to get Schaub out of rhythm. The Steelers have forced just one turnover this season.

First quarter points: Three teams in the NFL have yet to score a first-quarter point this season. In Tennessee-at-Cleveland, we’ll see two of them. If the Titans or Browns can find some early offensive rhythm, they’ll get a big advantage. The Titans need to show some early intent, I think. While showing a determination to get Chris Johnson running, they would also be well served to call some plays that include tight end Jared Cookin the early part of the progression. He’s got the potential to be a dynamic downfield matchup problem. With Kenny Britt out, it’s time to start seeing it.

Ah, the memories: The Saints’ last trip to Jacksonville, for the last game of the 2003 regular season, was a memorable one. They trailed 20-13 when they completed a 75-yard miracle touchdown with no time left. The play featured a pass from Aaron Brooks and three laterals before Jerome Pathon scored. But John Carney’s extra point went wide right, leaving the Saints with a 20-19 defeat and eliminating them from playoff contention. The Colts' last trip to Tampa Bay was Oct. 6, 2003. Indianapolis scored 21 points in the final 3:37 of the regulation to tie that game 35-35 before winning it on a Mike Vanderjagt field goal in OT.

Wrap-up: Jets 32, Jaguars 3

September, 18, 2011
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Thoughts on the Jaguars’ loss to the Jets at MetLife Stadium:

What it means: The Jaguars came off a Week 1 win against the Titans and produced a complete dud on the road against the Jets. There’s going to be a lot of talk about whether the Jaguars should stick with the change to Blaine Gabbert they made after Luke McCown managed only 59 passing yards to go with four interceptions and a 1.8 passer rating. He was making hopeful throws that had the Jets simply salivating.

Ugly numbers: Antonio Cromartie brought a kickoff return back 46 yards … The Jaguars converted just three of 12 third downs … Jacksonville averaged 3.4 yards per pass play, while the Jets averaged 7.3 … In the first three quarters, the Jaguars had no drive of more than six plays or 32 yards.

Early turning point: Down 9-0 in the first quarter, the Jaguars got the ball at their own 49-yard line after a William Middleton interception. It was a spot where even a field goal drive might have made a difference. But they went three-and-out and punted the ball back to the Jets.

A small source of encouragement: The game was over when he came in, but Gabbert hit on five of six passes for 52 yards, took one sack and posted a passer rating of 102.8. Jack Del Rio said the team will discuss what to do at quarterback going forward in the coming days.

What’s next: A game at Carolina in Week 3 initially looked to be a good trip for the Jaguars to draw. But even though the Panthers are 0-2, they stood toe-to-toe with the champion Packers on Sunday.

AFC South draft analysis

April, 30, 2011
4/30/11
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NFC draft analysis: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Quarterbacks are the faces of franchises. The 2011 draft gave half the teams in the AFC South facelifts.

What are the odds that both Jake Locker and Blaine Gabbert pan out as long-term fixtures for their teams? Probably long. We’ll all be watching how and why they develop or don’t.

The two teams that already have known entities at quarterback worked hard to build up things around them. Peyton Manning gets better protection. Matt Schaub gets a revamped defense.

Front offices and coaching staffs usually work the phones to court undrafted free agents about now. With no CBA and the lockout back in place, no such signings will occur at this point. The three-day festival is over. We’ve got new classes to contemplate while we return to labor impasse fever.

BEST MOVE

All the Colts had to do was sit and wait. Then with what happened in the first 21 picks of the first round, they found themselves in a scenario unlike any they’d played out in their draft preparations. one in which Boston College offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo was available.

Need met value, and the Colts added a player who’s probably the biggest immediate impact player in the AFC South. It’ll be a major upset if Castonzo isn’t the starter at left tackle on opening day. If Indianapolis retains Charlie Johnson or if he doesn’t become an unrestricted free agent, he could move inside to guard and the Colts could get better at two spots.

It will mean more time for Manning to work and more room for the Colts' stable of backs to run. Expect years of review about how things came together so nicely at No. 22 for the Colts in 2011.

RISKIEST MOVE

The Titans took Locker, a quarterback who didn’t throw well from the pocket and didn’t throw accurately while at Washington. He’s a super-likeable kid who will work hard for Mike Munchak, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer and quarterback coach Dowell Loggains.

They can love everything about him, but can the things about him that are not right be made right? If so, it will look like a genius move. If not, the franchise will forever hear how it took Locker over whichever quarterback taken after No. 8 pans out.

It’s a giant pick for general manager Mike Reinfeldt and a giant coaching job for Munchak and his staff. All of them will be linked to Locker’s success or failure for a long, long time.

MOST SURPRISING MOVE

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Mark J. Rebilas/US PreswireThe Jaguars will have time to develop Blaine Gabbert behind current starter David Garrard.
If you need a quarterback and see one that you like as a value, I say go get him. I don’t know if Gabbert’s going to be a great quarterback for Jacksonville. There is built-in risk with any quarterback in the draft. But I like how the Jaguars believed Gabbert was a value at No. 10 and did what they needed to do to move up from No. 16 to get him. I never would have predicted a trade up.

There will be a ton of debate about just when Gabbert should get into the lineup with David Garrard in place. But as Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said, that’s part of the fun of all of it.

The Jaguars are rebuilding around draft picks. It makes sense to get a quarterback to put into the middle of it all. In two or three years, if they have been selecting well, they can really challenge. And there is always a chance of a team maturing ahead of schedule.

FILE IT AWAY

The Jaguars expect to add two to four players to the defense in free agency and clearly plan to address linebacker through that avenue. Corner, safety and defensive end are all possibilities too.

But their nickelback could be in place. William Middleton held the job last season, and it sounds as if he’ll face some serious competition from fifth-round pick Rod Isaac from Middle Tennessee.

“I’m in that group of people in the building that are very excited about the tape that I saw,” Del Rio said. “We brought him in for a visit, he was very good in the visit. The tape is excellent. He’s a very aggressive corner. We think he can come in and help us, contend for the nickel spot and certainly help us with the multiple wide receiver sets that we face, whether it’s three wide or four wide. You need somebody that can come in and help you do those things. He is a physical player, he’s an aggressive player, he ran pretty well. The tape is fun to watch on this player. We like him and he was definitely a guy that was below the radar. Which is OK by us.”

Leading Questions: AFC South

February, 22, 2011
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each AFC South team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

HOUSTON TEXANS

How do they fix the secondary?

New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is charged with repairing and revitalizing a defense that was 30th overall and dead last against the pass. His 3-4 front will alter a lot of things and the Texans will need to add some personnel to fill it out. Better work up front will ease some of the pressure on the defensive backs, but they will need more than that.

We don’t know when -- or even if -- there will be free agency. But the Texans need to make a big splash with a veteran outsider. Nnamdi Asomugha or Champ Bailey could knock every one down a peg at corner, shut down a side of the field or a primary receiver and help transform things. A veteran free safety like Eric Weddle could provide a big boost as well.

If the Texans think the pass defense can be fixed by coaching and will improve dramatically with a scheme and maturing kids, they’re overestimating what they’ve got, again.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Are they going to take action to address the offensive line?

We’ve heard for years about how the Colts would get better at converting that tough third-and-1 in the run game. We saw Bill Polian drop Ryan Lilja after pointing to the offensive line as a reason for the loss in Super Bowl XLIV. We heard Polian admit Rodger Saffold could have been a solution for the Colts at left tackle.

Now, as Peyton Manning heads into the final stretch of his prime, the Colts need to move from talk to action with regard to the offensive line. After last year’s comments, Polian added middling free agents Andy Alleman and Adam Terry and drafted Jacques McClendon in the fourth round. Only McClendon stuck and he did nothing.

Getting Manning more time for things to develop downfield and creating more of a push for ball carriers means investing at least one premium draft pick and landing at least one quality veteran via free agency or trade when those windows open. The Colts don’t have to find Hall of Fame linemen. But there is a lot of room between some of the guys they’ve been relying on and that level of talent.

They’re overdue to follow through with a real revamping.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

How do they fix the secondary?

With four games a season against Manning and Matt Schaub, the Jaguars are woefully unprepared to face them with what they’ve got at safety. Last season, Jacksonville spent its first four draft picks on defensive linemen. This season, they’d be wise to put a similar emphasis on the secondary, and safety in particular.

Ideally they’d have drafted an up-and-comer to go with a veteran brought in from the outside -- someone like Weddle, Dawan Landry, Quintin Mikell or Donte Whitner. They've already had Bob Sanders in for a look. While depth at cornerback is also an issue, I suspect Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox and William Middleton will all look a lot better if they are playing with safeties who are superior to Don Carey and Courtney Greene.

They’ve got a big question at quarterback, too. It’s time to draft and develop a signal-caller with more upside who can be more consistent than David Garrard. But they contended last season with Garrard. It's possible they can make a playoff push with him under center -- provided they address the secondary.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Who’s the quarterback?

There couldn’t be a worse time to be uncertain at the position, and the Titans’ depth chart at the spot currently has blanks at starter and backup. Blame it on Bud Adams and his love affair with Vince Young.

New coach Mike Munchak and his offensive coordinator Chris Palmer don’t really know what they will be able to do offensively, because they do not know who they will be asking to do it. General Manager Mike Reinfeldt has said the team will find a veteran and use a draft pick. But if the draft comes before free agency and trades, it will be more difficult to be patient and to take more of a project guy out of college. It’s not a good year to need a quarterback in the draft, and the scouting department will have to show it can find someone in the group who will develop into a franchise guy.

Once they do, they could look to make a big move for Kevin Kolb, Carson Palmer, Kyle Orton, Matt Flynn or any number of veteran options they believe could operate an offense that will remain run-centric keyed around Chris Johnson.

Greetings from Lucas Oil Stadium

December, 19, 2010
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Greetings from Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s cold out, and the roof is closed as you’d expect.

The Colts are holding Kelvin Hayden (neck) out, which means Justin Tryon at left cornerback. Kavell Conner will be at weakside linebacker for the injured Clint Session and Donald Brown starts for Joseph Addai.

Austin Collie (concussion) is active and could be a huge piece to this game. Jerry Hughes is healthy but inactive.

The Jaguars are healthier, but without two starters on defense. Linebacker Justin Durant will be replaced by Russell Allen, but Allen won’t be part of the nickel package we will see a bunch that brings William Middleton on the field. Safety Sean Considine fills in again for Courtney Greene, and the Jaguars endure a drop-off there in sure tackling.

I tweeted this picture of the view from my seat. But don’t worry, I have binoculars.

The complete inactive lists:

Jaguars: QB Todd Bouman, WR John Matthews, WR Tiquan Underwood, Greene, Durant, OT Daniel Baldridge, DE Aaron Morgan, DT Nate Collins.

Colts: Hayden, Addai, RB Mike Hart, Session, G Jamey Richard, G Jacques McClendon, G Jaimie Thomas, Hughes.

Wrap-up: Jaguars 38, Raiders 31

December, 12, 2010
12/12/10
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Thoughts on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ win against the Oakland Raiders at EverBank Field.

What it means: The Jaguars improved to 8-5 and will win the AFC South with a win at Indianapolis next week if Houston loses to Baltimore on Monday night. The Jags are assured of a better record than last season’s 7-9.

What I liked: Jacksonville had plenty of chances to give up in this one, but kept pushing and took a 28-24 lead with 3:44 remaining in the third quarter. When the Raiders tied it at 31-31, the Jaguars easily retook the lead, with a 65-yard kick return by Deji Karim and a 30-yard touchdown run by Maurice Jones-Drew. The Jaguars missed some tackles and allowed some big plays, but continued to rebound and recover. That sort of resiliency is becoming more and more of a consistent characteristic.

What I didn’t like: The personal foul call against Jacksonville for a hit to the quarterback’s helmet early in the fourth quarter. I thought it was against William Middleton. The official game book says it was against Terrance Knighton. It undid a 16-yard fumble recovery touchdown return for Knighton, and who doesn’t love to see an enormous defensive tackle rumble into the end zone? While Jason Campbell got decked and hurt, I don’t know that there was a hit to his helmet.

Breaking out: While Jones-Drew churned out 101 yards on 23 carries, backup running back Rashad Jennings continued to provide an excellent changeup out of the backfield. He looked especially fresh as he went 109 yards with five carries -- taking one third-and-4 touch 74 yards for a touchdown.

What’s next: The Jaguars play in Indianapolis Sunday and can win their first division title since 1999, three years before realignment with a win. If they win at Lucas Oil Stadium, the worst they can finish is 9-7 and the best the Colts will be able to finish is 9-7. But Jacksonville will have swept the season series with Indy, thus winning the tiebreaker for the crown. The Jags also need one other ingredient: One more loss for Houston.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans have played four games with Randy Moss. One of the most difficult receivers to defend in the history of the league has five catches for 62 yards and no touchdowns with the Titans.

[+] EnlargeRandy Moss
AP Photo/Joe HowellThe Tennessee Titans are having a difficult time getting receiver Randy Moss involved in the offense.
Down 14-0, late in the second quarter, the Titans went for it on a fourth-and-7 from the Jacksonville 42-yard line. Kerry Collins' pass up the deep right side was short. Moss was open behind nickel back William Middleton and flailed as he tried to get back to a ball. It's a catch we've come to expect him to make, but he wasn't up to the task here.

When he did catch his one pass of the day, a 13-yard completion in the third quarter, the remaining crowd about exploded. I took it as sarcastic, not anticipatory.

Overall, Moss’ production issues are on coordinator Mike Heimerdinger and the quarterbacks. The Titans appear to have no clue what to do with Moss. They are not acknowledging that if you don’t throw to a double-covered Moss you’re pretty much never throwing to him.

Surely they understood that was going to be in play when they claimed him, looking ahead to two games against a woeful Houston passing defense and a Jaguars’ defense that was 28th against the pass at the start of the day.

Now Tennessee has lost two of those three with Moss.

Derek Cox and Mathis were both diplomatic about the Titans’ use of Moss, though Mathis admitted being surprised they didn’t throw one or two more balls up for him. Cox broke up the one ball Collins threw for Moss at the goal line.

“I don’t know how much he knows the offense,” Mathis said. “There are only so many routes you can run and so much stuff you can do when you don’t know the offense. I don’t know exactly where he is with their terminology and everything. ... If I was in that position, I probably would have given him a shot. They have other threats I guess they feel more comfortable with.

“I came into the game thinking this is a guy I grew up watching play and is a great player," Cox said. "And I leave thinking this is a guy I grew up watching play and he’s a great player.”

Moss was looked at as an X-factor that could help the Titans achieve new heights when he came in.

“That’s what we all hoped and wished for and that’s not to say that it still can’t happen,” Titans safety Chris Hope said. “But since he’s been here, a lot has happened on offense. Dinger being ill, the quarterback changes. There are a lot of things that have happened on offense to cause that jelling process to be slower.”

Going forward, the Titans pledged again to try to get the ball to Moss.

There [are] a lot of frustrations going around in different aspects and that is definitely one of them,” Collins said. “I had an opportunity to make a play and I didn’t throw the greatest ball to him. We will keep trying to find ways to do it. We have got to. He’s is that kind of guy.”

Kenny Britt is likely to return Thursday night against Indianapolis after four games off with hamstring injury.

He and Moss play the same spot and the team’s talked of finding ways to have the on the field at the same time, though what those ways are remain to be seen.

Right now, if they’re choosing between the two, it makes more sense to have Britt on the field for the most important plays. At least they have a history of throwing it to him.
We’ll get some good stuff Tuesday morning out of Orlando, where AFC South coaches are having breakfast with reporters at the owners meetings. I’ll be monitoring what comes out through some of my colleagues who are there.

The first thing of note I’ve seen was this from Adam Schefter via Twitter:
"Colts coach Jim Caldwell is thinking about playing some four WR sets with Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez."

As if three wides and Dallas Clark isn’t enough of a problem.

I automatically started thinking of secondary depth in the division and how it would stack up against that. Nobody in the league has the kind of corner and secondary depth needed to stand up to that personnel grouping with Peyton Manning at the controls.

The Texans and Titans are definitely in the market for a cornerback, and safety is also in play. The Jaguars likely take a defensive back or two as well in the draft.

Teams could obviously use an additional safety in the sort of dime scenarios this could force. Here’s our take on the depth at defensive back for each of the Colts’ division opponents:

Houston
Nickel: Glover Quin, Jacques Reeves, Brice McCain.

Dime candidates: Cornerbacks Fred Bennett, Antwaun Molden; Safeties Dominique Barber, Troy Nolan.

Assessment: Contemplating this secondary against the Colts’ four-wide lineup is scary right now. Throw Clark in as the fifth skill player and I don’t know how Houston holds up. Corner and free safety are big draft needs.

Jacksonville

Nickel: Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox, Tyron Brackenridge.

Dime candidates: Corners William Middleton, Kennard Cox, Michael Coe; whichever safety isn’t already playing out of Reggie Nelson, Anthony Smith, Sean Considine.

Assessment: Top three are pretty solid, but safety really needs to be sorted out and could have a new piece.

Tennessee

Nickel: Cortland Finnegan, Ryan Mouton, Vincent Fuller.

Dime candidates: Corners Rod Hood and Jason McCourty; safety Donnie Nickey.

Assessment: I am giving the nod as the second starting corner to Mouton right now based on hearing the team is high on him. A draft pick needs to compete for that spot. Overall depth is unproven.

Osgood a good 'Jaguar move'

March, 6, 2010
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The Jaguars have Mike Sims-Walker, still unproven Troy Williamson and a group of inexperienced kids at wide receiver.

So adding Kassim Osgood makes sense to me.

At 6-5, 220, he’s certainly got intriguing size. Maybe, given the chance, he blossoms as a role-playing receiver for Jacksonville.

Even if he doesn’t, the Jaguars have added a supreme special team talent. For San Diego, he’s been a Pro Bowler as the AFC special teams guy in three of the last four years.

The Jaguars already have Montell Owens and William Middleton -- who was the special teamer on my 2009 All AFC-South Team. Those three probably provide the best special teams core of anyone in the division.

Haven’t heard yet about Osgood's contract length or money, but it’s safe to assume we don’t have a bank-breaker here.

This is what I’m coming to call a “Jaguar move” -- inexpensive upside without a ton of risk.

Our 2009 All-AFC South Team

February, 18, 2010
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Chris Johnson, Antoine Bethea and DeMeco RyansGetty Images, US PresswireChris Johnson, Antoine Bethea and DeMeco Ryans highlight 2009's All-AFC South Team.
First, the faults.

Selecting an all-division team is an imperfect process. It’s somewhat uncomfortable to bestow the same honor on the league MVP (Peyton Manning) and Offensive Player of the Year (Chris Johnson) as the best of a less-than-great group of guards.

But once we committed to this, we had to see it through.

You offered a good deal of feedback through this post, in which I listed shoo-ins and a few either/or choices and left blanks, asking for your assistance. Once I had the team sketched out, I needed some help at a couple of spots and called on a couple of scouts. They offered good, if sometimes conflicting, input.

With all that in mind, here is my completed 2009 All-AFC South Team:

Proactive: Jaguars fans will crush me, I am sure. But part of the Jaguars’ lack of presence here is just bad fortune. Maurice Jones-Drew would probably be the running back on seven other all-division teams, but can’t be in front of Johnson and his 2,000-yard season here.

John Henderson and Rashean Mathis, still good players, lived more on reputation than production in 2009. Daryl Smith is a quality player, but was a clear third to me at outside linebacker behind Brian Cushing (Houston) and Clint Session (Indianapolis). Uche Nwaneri lost out in similar circumstances -- see the guards entry below. Terrance Knighton and Derek Cox are definite risers, but were not quite as good as their competition in the division this season.

And although Montell Owens was the Jaguars' leading tackler on special teams, William Middleton stood out more in some games I saw. I don’t defer to Profootballfocus.com on everything; when I checked its special-teams ratings, Middleton was tied for ninth, well ahead of Houston's Xavier Adibi (next in the AFC South at 20th) as well as Owens (tied with a huge group for 377th).

Guards: One scout suggested I leave at least one of these spots blank, but I couldn’t leave Manning with no inside protection or Johnson with no interior blocking. The Colts' Ryan Lilja isn’t especially strong but he was very efficient. Although the scouts didn’t love him, both chose the Titans' Jake Scott over Nwaneri.

Defensive tackles: A lot of readers wanted Henderson here, but he was good (not great) and didn’t draw my attention the way others did, so players on the rise got ahead of him. Tennessee's Tony Brown was a consistently disruptive force and Antonio Johnson caused problems for people who presumed the Colts would be soft in the middle.

Corners: Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan started slowly and dealt with an injury. But he eventually got back to form. The bulk of readers and both scouts rated him as the best in the division, as do I. The second spot was a tough call with Dunta Robinson, Mathis, Cox and Jerraud Powers all getting consideration. I really liked Powers’ ability to fill in effectively for the Colts when they expected him to be a nickel at most in his rookie season.

Mario vs. Mathis: Is Mario Williams equipped to be a more complete player than Robert Mathis? Absolutely. Was he in 2009? No. The shoulder injury was a factor, but Williams was not his best self while Mathis was a terror who still gets downgraded as if he cannot play the run even though he is just fine against it.

Ryans vs. Brackett: One of the scouts said that as good as Indy's Gary Brackett was, Houston's DeMeco Ryans is such a consistent playmaker he has to be at the head of the line. That was more than good enough for me to break my initial tie at middle linebacker.

Pollard vs. Bullitt: I put Bernard Pollard in as a lock on my initial ballot, but some of you made a good case for Melvin Bullitt. I love Bullitt and thought he had an excellent season. But Pollard was a transforming presence after he joined the Texans.

Thanks, but...: I appreciated the push for Owen Daniels (half a season vs. Dallas Clark’s 100 catches made it no contest), the reader who rated Chris Johnson as a “one-trick pony” and the mention of Mike Pollak.

AFC South draft rewind

December, 23, 2009
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NFC Draft Rewind: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Draft class lists: Indianapolis | Jacksonville | Houston | Tennessee

Houston Texans
Cushing
Cushing

Best get: Not everyone was sold on Brian Cushing coming out of USC, often because of his injury history at USC. He missed most of camp hurt and has missed a lot of practices, but none of it has gotten in the way of his being an impact player every Sunday. The Texans need more defenders and more players in his mold. He’s a legitimate defensive player of the year candidate.

Worst unaddressed spot: The Texans had plenty of reason to expect they had a feature back in Steve Slaton, but completely misread their situation after that. Interior line injuries and a second-year slump for Slaton have made a second back even more important, and Chris Brown, Ryan Moats and Arian Foster all have proved incapable of handling the pressures of the work. A second running back ranks as one of the team’s highest priorities in free agency or the 2010 draft.

Still uninvolved: Tight end James Casey came in as a versatile fifth-rounder who was going to be a unique weapon for head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to tinker with. He’s got six catches for 64 yards in 11 games. He needs to have more of an impact, given that the Texans lost top-flight tight end Owen Daniels to a season-ending knee injury.

Indianapolis Colts
Brown
Brown

Still to be determined: First-rounder Donald Brown has shown he will be a good NFL player. But he’s missed five games with injuries, including the last three. He’s more capable than Joseph Addai of breaking off a big run. The question: Does Brown understand that looking for the big gain isn’t worth risking a play resulting in second-and-12. If Brown is healthy, he could see a lot of touches in the last two games. The Colts are 14-0 with just 59 carries, 263 yards and two TDs from their top pick. (They haven’t gotten much out of second-round defensive tackle Fili Moala, either.)

A perfect fit: Fourth-round receiver Austin Collie, not Minnesota’s Percy Harvin, leads all rookie receivers in catches. Collie's nabbed 53 passes for 567 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s a perfect fit for the Colts' system, and adopted the necessary work ethic to win over and work with Peyton Manning. Whether Anthony Gonzalez re-emerges for the post season push or not, Collie’s crucial to it.

Best special teams addition: The Colts had eight touchbacks in 2008. With rookie punter Pat McAfee taking over kickoffs from Adam Vinatieri, they have 18 with two games remaining. Better kickoffs are a big factor in coverage improvements under new special teams coach Ray Rychleski. McAfee’s also got a net punting average of 38.0 yards, less than a yard off former Colts' veteran Hunter Smith’s number from last season.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Monroe
Monroe

Long-term solutions: Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton were the top two picks and have played the bulk of the season at left and right tackle, respectively. They have not been consistent, but the team loves their skill sets and upside. And early work means they’ll get to the levels the team projected when spending such high picks on them sooner rather than later.

Eighth-rounders: First-year general manager Gene Smith needed additions beyond his draft class and found a couple: Cornerback William Middleton out of Furman and linebacker Russell Allen from San Diego State are undrafted free agents who made the team and have been contributors. In the nationally televised Week 15 Thursday night loss to the Colts, Allen led the team with 12 tackles. Smith is down a second and seventh rounder in 2010 because of trades, and he hopes to hit on some undrafteds again, and annually.

Three is key: Smith did great work in the third round, landing two small school players who’ve established themselves as productive starters with upside. Cornerback Derek Cox from William & Mary has not been intimidated by anything or anyone. Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton from Temple has been a stout and reliable run stopper.

Tennessee Titans
Monroe
Britt

Biggest breakthrough: Since 1998, the Titans have spent draft picks in the top three rounds on Kevin Dyson, Tyrone Calico, Courtney Roby, Brandon Jones and Paul Williams. Dyson was involved in two of the franchise’s biggest plays in 1999 and did OK otherwise, but none of them solved the team's long-standing woes at receiver. First-rounder Kenny Britt is a great combination of size, power and speed who goes and gets the ball. Britt seems like he can be a consistently productive weapon.

Disappearing act: The Titans gave away a second-rounder to draft tight end Jared Cook in the third, and in camp he seemed like a great addition. Then he suffered an ankle injury, faded and never really re-emerged. Long-term he’s still very compelling. But the Titans sure could have used a jolt from him during their 0-6 start.

An heir: Gerald McRath seems comfortable and been effective as an outside linebacker when needed. He will start the rest of the way and, after bulking up in the offseason, stands to inherit the spot of either David Thornton (breaking down) or Keith Bulluck (free agent who tore an ACL in Week 15) next year. If both veterans are gone (a likely scenario), the second replacement needs to be a free agent or a draft pick.

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