Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
21 May 2009
by Ned Macey
The Texans’ 8-8 finish was the result of an explosive offense and a woeful defense, particularly against the run. The team properly identified their weaknesses and went about working for change. In free agency, they signed defensive end Antonio Smith from the Cardinals and also added linebacker depth in Cato June. Meanwhile, the Texans said goodbye to defensive end Anthony Weaver, linebacker Morlon Greenwood, safety Will Demps, and cornerback DeMarcus Faggins.
The defensive theme continued in the draft. In the first round, the Texans decided that Brian Cushing was the best of the three talented USC linebackers. The second round brought pass rushing end Connor Barwin from Cincinnati, and the fourth round brought defensive back Glover Quin. It remains unclear if Quin will be a cornerback or a safety at the NFL level, but he should get a shot to be the nickel corner this year.
Offensively, the Texans' offseason saw few changes. The starting lineup should be identical to last year. The Texans traded away backup quarterback Sage Rosenfels and signed Dan Orlovsky. The good and bad news about Orlovsky is that he was by far the best quarterback on the Lions last season. The draft brought guard Antoine Caldwell, who will provide much-needed depth for an offensive line that is unlikely to be as healthy as it was a year ago.
The most interesting thing the Texans did was attempt to address their running back depth by signing both Tennessee running back Arian Foster and Oregon’s Jeremiah Johnson. Maybe it is my degree from the University of Michigan speaking, but I always thought defensive end Tim Jamison could play at the next level. The Texans went heavy for offensive linemen, and with little proven depth, those guys might have a chance to stick. Tackles Jason Watkins out of Florida and guard Brandon Walker out of Oklahoma obviously have pedigrees. NFL Draft Scout projected Watkins to be a fifth- or sixth-round pick.
The Colts’ annual eschewing of free agency made the draft the first opportunity to see how the departure of Tony Dungy would change the way the Colts choose personnel. In the first round, the Colts showed that offense still rules the world, selecting running back Donald Brown. Brown will tandem with 2006 first-round pick Joseph Addai. Perhaps the Colts noted that their only Super Bowl championship during the Manning era came the one year the team had a true timeshare at running back.
While the first round showed no major change in philosophy, the Colts hinted at a new defensive mold with their second- and fourth-round selections of defensive tackles Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor. The Colts’ primary defensive tackles last season both weighed less than 270 pounds. Moala and Taylor are both over 300 pounds, with Taylor pushing 320. The Colts under Dungy only started a season with a 300-pound defensive tackle once, Corey Simon in 2005 (although Anthony McFarland was acquired midseason and started the rest of the year). The heaviest defensive tackle in recent years was Ed Johnson, whom the Colts cut for a marijuana arrest before last season. With a new sheriff in town, amnesty was extended, and Johnson was re-signed this week.
The Colts' most obvious personnel change is the departure of Marvin Harrison, who appears set on retiring after never regaining strength in his injured knee. Harrison has been a fixture since 1996, and as recently as 2006, he was the most valuable receiver in football according to Football Outsiders’ advanced DYAR statistics. Just three years later he will not be missed on the field, as Anthony Gonzalez is better than Harrison was last year, and fourth-round pick Austin Collie should serve adequately in the slot.
Did you know that Jeff Saturday and Gary Brackett were undrafted free agents? It is an unwritten rule that both names must be mentioned whenever a new batch of undrafted free agents are signed by the Colts. This year’s most promising future stalwart is Cornelius Lewis, who could be a factor in the Colts’ evolving interior offensive line situation. Punter Tim Masthay has a chance to compete for the job with the departure of Hunter (the Punter) Smith. In my continuing effort to support U of M players, I will note cornerback Brandon Harrison was signed, but even I think he is a long shot.
The Jaguars’ story is simple to tell. A dominant offensive line led them to a surprising 11-5 season in 2007. In 2008, that same offensive line was decimated with injuries and the unit’s struggles strongly contributed to a disappointing 5-11 record. Facing these facts, the Jaguars knew where change was necessary. In free agency, they added Philly tackle Tra Thomas, and their first two draft picks were also tackles: Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, who will start out at guard and wait for Thomas to slow down.
The other area of concern for the Jaguars was their perpetually disappointing wide receivers. They started fresh by casting off Jerry Porter and the troublesome Matt Jones and Reggie Williams. To replace them, the Jaguars imported Torry Holt, an all-time great who is on the downside of his career. Holt is an upgrade, but expecting him to be nearly the explosive presence he has been in the past is foolish. Holt will start alongside holdover Dennis Northcutt.
As much as anything, this offseason symbolized a turning of the page for Jacksonville, with the departure of a number of key players from recent Jaguars’ history. Gone are linebacker Mike Peterson, tackle Khalif Barnes, and guard Chris Naeole. Most unsettling -- although not necessarily negative on the field -- is the departure of running back Fred Taylor, the face of the franchise who slogged more than 11,000 yards during his 11 years with the team. Taylor’s declining skills and high salary mandated a change, making him the latest in a long line of cases who will retire for a team other than the one with which he will be forever associated.
The Jaguars apparently feel they might have some holes, as they signed a whopping 18 undrafted free agents. My personal favorite is Cecil Newton out of Tennessee State, who profiles as a workmanlike interior lineman. The prolific mailbag producer Vic Ketchman of Jaguars.com has his eye on linebacker Russell Allen out of San Diego State, and he’s admittedly closer to the team than I am. Finally, quarterback Nathan Brown from Central Arkansas obviously did not play top competition, and his height is only 6-foot-1. Still, those are the reasons he did not get drafted. He has a strong arm and solid mobility and is certainly an intriguing camp arm.
After losing Albert Haynesworth in free agency, the Titans had a gaping hole in the interior of their defensive line. Having started the Justins (Gage and McCareins) at wide receiver, the Titans had a yawning canyon at that position. Two picks into the draft, both situations were addressed. In the first round, the Titans took receiver Kenny Britt out of Rutgers, who should be a physical wideout the likes of which the Titans have not had in years. The second round brought Sen’Derrick Marks, a defensive tackle from Auburn who is extremely talented, if inconsistent, but should be an asset in the defensive tackle rotation.
Later choices allowed the Titans to work on depth. Third-round tight end Jared Cook provides insurance if Bo Scaife ever leaves and a low-cost replacement for Alge Crumpler if he stays. The third round also brought more need-filling as the Titans took cornerback Ryan Mouton, who could replace last year’s nickelback Chris Carr, now signed with Baltimore.
The rest of the Titans’ offseason has been decidedly uninteresting. They retained Kerry Collins and franchised Scaife. They added defensive line depth by signing Jovan Haye, and they replaced slot receiver Brandon Jones with former Pittsburgh burner Nate Washington. The 2009 team will look very similar to the 2008 squad -- with the obvious exception of losing its best player.
Compared to the Jaguars, the Titans clearly have fewer holes they are trying to fill. As a result, they only signed eight free agents. The fun one is Chris Mortensen’s son Alex who is not really a prospect but has a good arm and a prominent reporter for a father. In terms of chances to make the team, Dudley Guice, a big wide receiver from Northwestern State, could fit in the Titans’ crowded but mediocre receiving corps.
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