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29 Mar 2010

Four Downs: AFC South

by Tom Gower

Houston Texans

Biggest Hole: Secondary

Last year, the Texans finished 18th in DVOA in pass defense. That ranking is slightly below average and might be considered mediocre by some franchises. For the Texans, it was a great accomplishment -- it was the best performance in pass defense DVOA in the history of the franchise. In an increasingly pass-oriented league, it's no surprise that the Texans are the sole post-merger expansion team not to make the playoffs in their first eight seasons. To reach the postseason for the first time, the Texans need to strengthen their secondary.

Naturally, the Texans' first act in free agency was to let their most prominent cornerback go. Dunta Robinson's play in 2009 didn't match his franchise tag salary, so his message of "Pay me, Rick" went unheeded. While GM Rick Smith was wise not to match the Falcons' overpayment, Robinson's departure still leaves a void that must be filled for the secondary to match its 2009 performance.

In addition to a new cornerback, the Texans' secondary would also benefit from a competent free safety. Chiefs' castoff Bernard Pollard put in a strong performance at strong safety after being a surprise cut, but he could use a running buddy at a position the Texans have struggled to fill for their entire existence. Earl Thomas of the University of Texas, a free safety with cover skills, looks like an excellent fit with the 20th overall selection.

Free Agency Recap

Though they lost Robinson, the Texans retained their second most important free agent, No. 2 wideout Kevin Walter. Other than Robinson, the biggest loss to date is backup quarterback Rex Grossman, who followed Shanahan the Younger to Washington. This makes Dan Orlovsky the league's most overpaid backup quarterback rather than the league's most overpaid third-string quarterback. The only free agent the Texans have added is interior lineman Wade Smith. Think of him as a replacement for original Texan Chester Pitts, who probably won't be retained.

Indianapolis Colts

Biggest Hole: Offensive Line

As you would expect from a Super Bowl participant who didn't lose any free agents of consequence, the Indianapolis Colts have very few holes. Or, at least they had very few holes before cutting starting guard Ryan Lilja. General Manager Bill Polian publicly expressed his displeasure with the offensive line's performance during the Super Bowl, where they most notably failed to get a first down on third-and-1 on the drive that started in the shadow of their own goal line. The Colts' offensive line was generally acceptable in short yardage, ranking 12th in the NFL in power situations. They also didn't allow many sacks, although much of that is due to Peyton Manning. Outside of those two areas, the Colts' offensive line did not excel. They ranked 26th in Adjusted Line Yards and 27th in runners getting stuffed for a loss or no gain.

The Colts have tried to address the offensive line in recent drafts, but second-round selections Tony Ugoh and Mike Pollak are notable among recent Colts picks for being flameouts. Former sixth-round pick Charlie Johnson spent last year at left tackle in place of Ugoh and undrafted Kyle DeVan relegated Pollak to the bench. Compounding the problems, right tackle Ryan Diem and Lilja both slipped in 2009, leaving Diem a candidate for replacement and Lilja on the street after the Colts deemed his 2010 salary excessive.

Subject to the uncapped year restrictions, the Colts were limited in their ability to address the position in free agency. They only added low level players in Adam Terry and Andy Alleman. An ideal solution would be to find a cornerstone left tackle at the end of the first round, allowing Johnson to shift to a more natural right tackle position.

Free Agency Recap

The Colts took care of their most important free agent by re-signing middle linebacker Gary Brackett. Beyond that, the Colts haven't gotten involved in free agency -- exactly what you would expect given their recent history of free agency inactivity and the restrictions they face in this uncapped year. The secondary depth took a hit with the departures of Tim Jennings and Marlin Jackson, and Jim Sorgi is now backing up the other Manning. Beyond that, the only moves have been the aforementioned release of Lilja and additions of Alleman and Terry. There's a reason Ned Macey last year dubbed writing the Colts' free agency recap "the easiest job at Football Outsiders."

Jacksonville Jaguars

Biggest Hole: Premium Players in the Passing Game

The Jacksonville Jaguars are distressingly average. As recently as two years ago, this didn’t seem to be the case. In 2007, they finished third in the league in DVOA, behind only the Patriots and Colts. They scared everyone going into the playoffs and upset Pittsburgh in the first round. Contrary to popular perception, that team wasn't just about running the football. The passing game was the strength of that squad, as the Jaguars ranked second in passing DVOA. That strong performance, though, was built on a couple of unsustainable trends: extraordinary performance in third-and-long situations (158 percent more efficient than average, according to DVOA) and an unsustainable, historically low interception rate by David Garrard. A return to earth in both categories, plus poor defensive performance on third down, pulled the Jaguars down to a 5-11 mark in 2008.

2009 saw more of the same. The running game was good, but not the strength it was in 2007, and the passing game was average. David Garrard ranked 17th in passer rating and 19th in DYAR. No Jaguars receiver ranked above 39th in DYAR (total value) or 41st in DVOA (value per play). No defense worried too much about either Torry Holt or Mike Sims-Walker.

On defense, the Jaguars’ miserable third-down performance in 2009 made a mediocre defense look even worse. The Jaguars added Aaron Kampman in free agency to cure an anemic pass rush that ranked 31st in Adjusted Sack Rate. Kampman and John Henderson are half of a good defensive line, but beyond those two, the Jaguars' defense has no disruptive players.

The Jaguars are in the enviable position of being able to take the best available player with the 10th overall pick. They need receivers, and they also need pass rushers. They can only choose one in the first round. The pressure is on GM Gene Smith to get this pick right and avoid past first round disappointments like Reggie Williams, Matt Jones, and Derrick Harvey.

Free Agency Recap

The small-market Jaguars have been perhaps the biggest surprise player in the relatively muted affair that has been Free Agency 2010. They made a move on the first day of free agency, signing special teams dynamo Kassim Osgood away from the Chargers with the promise of a three-year deal and a chance to compete for a starting wideout position.

The big move, and a surprise one, was signing Kampman to a four-year, $26 million deal. Assuming he's recovered from his ACL injury, he should be a quality edge rusher. Attention on one side could help Derrick Harvey shed the first-round bust label on the other side. Kampman's addition probably means the departure of defensive end Reggie Hayward, who remains a free agent and would have to accept a reduced role and deal to return.

Tennessee Titans

Biggest Hole: Defensive End

In 2008, the Titans had the No. 4 defense by DVOA, thanks in large part to a defensive line that ranked 5th in Adjusted Line Yards and 9th in Adjusted Sack Rate. In 2009, the defensive line slipped to 20th in Adjusted Line Yards and 25th in Adjusted Sack Rate, and the defense overall fell to 27th in DVOA.

Albert Haynesworth is not walking through that door, and his departure exposed other players for what they were. Kyle Vanden Bosch has been slowed by age and injuries. Ditto for Jevon Kearse, to the point where the Freak's career may be over. Youngsters William Hayes and Jacob Ford could occasionally exploit single coverage when the attention was concentrated elsewhere, but they couldn't make plays on their own. The Titans compounded their problems by letting former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz entice Vanden Bosch to join the Lions. They did add Jason Babin, but with only 17.5 sacks in six seasons, he remains most famous for the draft day trade in 2004 when the Texans traded with the Titans to move up to draft him.

The good news: There is depth and talent in the defensive ends expected to go in the first round of the draft, including Jason Pierre-Paul, Carlos Dunlap, Derrick Morgan, Brandon Graham, and Everson Griffen. The Titans are in good position to select one of these players, and have been linked to most of them.

Free Agency Recap

The Titans' strategy in free agency was to try to remain competitive while shedding players who wouldn't be key contributors in 2011 or beyond. Vanden Bosch was allowed to sign with the Lions, and Kearse was not and will not be re-signed. Kevin Mawae and Nick Harper might be welcomed back -- at best -- in backup roles. Alge Crumpler was allowed to sign with the Patriots, and franchise mainstay Keith Bulluck remains on the free-agent market while he rehabs from the ACL injury that ended his 2009 season.

The Titans did take care of the one unrestricted free agent who was young, re-signing offensive lineman Eugene Amano to a five-year deal. He may be moved to Mawae's center spot after starting at left guard the past two seasons. The Titans also re-signed corner Rod Hood, who will probably compete for the starting spot opposite Cortland Finnegan. From other teams, they added a pair of former Eagles in Babin and Will Witherspoon, who should fit into Bulluck's weakside linebacker position. They also paid the price to re-up restricted free agent tight end Bo Scaife at 110 percent of the 2009 franchise tag amount, or a cool $4,908,200, for which you may thank the lack of development of 2009 draft pick Jared Cook.

(Portions of this article previous appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)

Posted by: Tom Gower on 29 Mar 2010

15 comments, Last at 01 Apr 2010, 3:37am by iapetus

Comments

1
by Bobman :: Mon, 03/29/2010 - 2:27am

The slots I am curious about are the Jags' and Texans' offensive backfields... does MJD need/have a stable-mate? Who will run for Houston and will their run game be consistent? It's hard to win without balance?

On the flip-side, assuming VY is the Man in Tennessee, whom is he throwing to? Scaife is nice, and they're old buddies, but....

The Colts should just not draft OL on the first day--regardless of need or the players. It seems to be one of the few blind spots they have in the draft. Sign 20 UDFAs and sift out the best 4 OLs to challenge the incumbents/fill holes. Yes, I know you usually need a blue chip LT to be elite, but after striking out at LT and C/G recently, I am not sure they know what to do there.... And now with Mudd leaving (sniff) who will coach them up? Saturday?

6
by armchair journe... :: Mon, 03/29/2010 - 1:54pm

I imagine the Jags are content to let Rashad Jennings develop into that stablemate. If I remember correctly, both FO and Rotoworld were quite high on him around draft time last year.

_______________________________
armchair journeyman quarterback

7
by commissionerleaf :: Mon, 03/29/2010 - 5:05pm

Also, MJD was perfectly effective on his own this year. They may not be in need of a stablemate. Let's be honest, looking at the Jags roster... isn't running back the single strongest position on the roster? MJD is a legitimate star, and Jennings is a well thought of young player.

I imagine the Jags would like to acquire a few defenders and a quarterback before worrying about MJD.

13
by Mr Shush :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 11:16am

The Texans will likely draft a running back in the first three rounds, and he will split time with Arian Foster, who looked very good in his limited time at the end of last year, Ryan Moats, and Slaton if he recovers from his surgery properly and stops fumbling. With Brisiel coming back from injury, another year for Brown and Caldwell to develop and the addition of Smith, I think we're likely to see a major improvement in the Texans running game over 2009. A major improvement probably just means adequate rather than lousy, but that's still a major improvement.

2
by Theo :: Mon, 03/29/2010 - 11:27am

So the owner of the Texans (Bob McNair) spent about a billion to enter the league with the Texans. Then spend about... oh another billion on player salaries. Only to overlook the 2 main ingredients of 'success' for your 'factory'; a passing game and a passing defense.

Now I know that 'success' for a buisiness man is measured by ROI and not by the number of Lombardi's. But still, that's not a good businessmodel.

3
by theshadowj :: Mon, 03/29/2010 - 12:07pm

I'm not sure why you're blaming the passing defense woes on Bob McNair, as he is one of the best owners in the league in terms of being non-intrusive on the football side of things.

4
by commissionerleaf :: Mon, 03/29/2010 - 1:01pm

Nor can the Texans be accused of ignoring the passing game or pass defense. Their quarterback threw for more yards than any other NFL quarterback last year, and they have recently invested high draft picks in good defensive players (Demeco Ryans, Mario Williams, etc.). The Texans have just never gotten it together, despite some talented pieces to the puzzle.

8
by Joe T. :: Mon, 03/29/2010 - 5:10pm

They've been trapped in a brutal division since joining the league, with the Colts and either the Jags or Titans playoff caliber teams nearly every year.

10
by Bobman :: Tue, 03/30/2010 - 3:52pm

Yeah, but McNair has short arms, stiff hips, and only average speed....

5
by Travis :: Mon, 03/29/2010 - 1:46pm

[The 2007 Jaguars] scared everyone going into the playoffs and upset Pittsburgh in the first round.

Jacksonville was actually a 2.5 point favorite going into that game.

9
by t.d. :: Tue, 03/30/2010 - 9:27am

Garrard is still a damn fine quarterback, and teh passing game will be fine in Jax, as long as they can give him even a little protection. Britton and Monroe may turn into good players, but they weren't last year. I'm big on the qb being largely accountable for sacks, but much of the time he didn't have any time at all.

11
by Bobman :: Tue, 03/30/2010 - 3:54pm

I thought the bookend OT draft was brilliant. The Colts fan in me doesn't want it to work out, but the generic football fan in me does....

12
by t.d. :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 9:17am

I loved the move, too, but, like drafting Groves and Harvey in the same year on the theory that it would fix the front seven, the early returns have been uninspiring

15
by iapetus (not verified) :: Thu, 04/01/2010 - 3:37am

'Damn fine' may be overstating it a little - on his performance in recent years 'acceptably mediocre' might be a better description. He certainly isn't elite. :D

14
by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 03/31/2010 - 1:00pm

On the Colts:

The Colts are sort of spoiled. In 2009, they weren't really even a very good football team; they were a young football team with a very good quarterback. In a number of ways, they were just Texas with better quarterback play when it counted. They've had, and relied, on Peyton Manning for so long that a lot of other elements of the team have corroded.

In 2004-2005, the Colts had a good-to-great offensive line, a HOF running back, two HOF receivers, two star DE's in the prime of their careers, and depth everywhere on the roster.

Every single element of that picture had regressed drastically by 2009. Freeney and Mathis were injured (and aging). Bob Sanders is no longer really a member of the team. Harrison is gone, as is James, replaced by Pierre Garcon and Joseph Addai. I'm very high on Addai; he's a good player. But he's no James. Worse yet, the depth is nonexistent (except at linebacker, where Freddy Keiaho and others are arguably better than the starters). Melvin Bullitt missed tackles by the dozen in relief of the (permanently?) injured Sanders, but he's miles better than the alternatives. The offensive line is a joke; apart from a 35 year old Jeff Saturday, no one on the line today (with Lilja gone and Diem probably leaving or a backup) is around from '05, and the replacements are mostly castoffs from other rosters, or worse.

Worse, of course, refers to Tony Ugoh, the failure the Colts traded up to take. Polian's drafting has been dicey in recent years. I still have high hopes for Anthony Gonzalez, but Fili Moala has yet to make an impact and Donald Brown is at best fungible.

The Colts still have Manning, which means they will contend for the NFL championship every year until he retires; but the Colts aren't a good football team anymore. They're a rebuilding team with a Hall of Fame quarterback.