Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
17 Feb 2012
by Rivers McCown
The Texans enter free agency as a team with a promising amount of depth at many key areas, but Andre Johnson's injury last year exposed the fact that their wide receivers simply aren't up to snuff without him. Nominal No. 2 receiver Kevin Walter saw his DVOA drop under 10% for the first time since 2007, and before you go thinking that was caused by an increased role, he actually had 21 fewer targets than he did in 2010. Jacoby Jones is a mercurial talent on his best days: capable of big plays, but also capable of plenty of drops. His disastrous game against Baltimore in the divisional playoffs could give Houston a reason to cut bait on him. Former Arizona washout Bryant Johnson backed those two up and was essentially invisible when he did step on the field.
With all three of those guys as free agents or cap casualty candidates, Houston will look hard at receivers in both the draft and in free agency. It's unlikely that they'll land a top-tier wideout like Marques Colston or Vincent Jackson because they still need to budget money carefully to keep players like Mario Williams, Arian Foster, and Chris Myers. But a mid-level receiver like Stevie Johnson, Reggie Wayne, or Robert Meachem could potentially be brought in. More likely though, the path for improvement lies through the draft, as is the normal Texans M.O., and Houston should have quite a few options available to them in what is considered a deep receiving crop.
It seems like a fairly safe assumption at this point that the Colts will use their No. 1 overall pick on either Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III, so there's little reason to list quarterback here. However, who that quarterback will ultimately be delivering spirals to is completely up in the air. Of the top five receivers on the Colts depth chart going into last season, only Austin Collie and Blair White are under contract for 2012. Reggie Wayne, who will turn 34 during the 2012 season, is likely on the outs as this team begins a rebuilding phase. The Colts have expressed interest in re-signing fellow free agent Pierre Garcon, who has generally come out very poorly in our receiving numbers. Garcon came out as below-replacement value last year, but he has ideal deep speed, and playing with Dan Orlovsky and Curtis Painter will make any speed receiver look worse than they really are. Anthony Gonzalez is also finally out the door after a disappointing, injury-plagued career in Colts blue.
Again, given the direction of the team, it's rather unlikely that the Colts will be players for an elite free agent receiver, but they could probably be in on the mid-tier targets with an eye towards youth. Players like Laurent Robinson, Harry Douglas, or Andre Caldwell could make sense here. The Colts could also spend their second- or third-round picks on a receiver who could compete for snaps.
Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson summed it up best when he said: "Those guys couldn’t get a (expletive) receiver if it hit them in the head. They haven't had anyone since Jimmy Smith." While quarterback Blaine Gabbert had an inauspicious debut, to put it mildly, the Jaguars didn't exactly give him many weapons to throw to. Opening day No. 2 receiver Jason Hill was such a disappointment that the team waived him after November, and the rest of the Jaguars young receiving corps showed little promise. Mike Thomas is a nice secondary piece in a passing game, and simple regression towards the mean says Marcedes Lewis probably can't be as bad as he was in 2011, but the Jaguars have desperately needed an elite receiver since the days of Smith.
There are two ways to accomplish this. The Jaguars could make a play for a Colston or Vincent Jackson, as they certainly have the cap space to accomplish such a goal, and could even bowl over someone who is iffy about Jacksonville with extra money. Or they could see if Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon falls into their laps at No. 7 overall, which would certainly be a more cost-conscious, if risky, move.
The Jaguars are also in real need of an elite pass rusher, as Jeremy Mincey will likely try to cash in on his best season to date and there isn't much in the cupboard behind him. This is going to be a big offseason for Gene Smith. He needs to rectify this franchise's past draft-day blunders like Reggie Williams, Matt Jones, and Derrick Harvey and find the actual solutions that Jags fans have been waiting for at those positions for the past five years.
Assuming that the Titans continue to handcuff themselves to the declining Chris Johnson, the biggest need in Nashville is an elite pass rusher. When Jason Babin joined former Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn in defecting to the Eagles, the Titans' adjusted sack rate fell from 13th in the NFL in 2010 to second-to-last in 2011. Moreover, only two teams generated fewer quarterback hits from their top pass rusher than the six the Titans had from Dave Ball: San Diego and Buffalo.
There are a number of options available for Tennessee in free agency, but perhaps the most interesting would be to make a play for Texans outside linebacker Mario Williams. Not only would they strengthen their pass rush, but they'd also weaken a divisional rival in the process. The other top pass rushers are either unlikely to make it past the franchise tag (Cliff Avril, Calais Campbell) or a little older than the Titans would probably like (Robert Mathis, John Abraham, Andre Carter).
If they can't address defensive end in free agency, then a pass rusher will likely be a top priority for the Titans with their first-round pick. If they do pick up a premier sack artist, then it would give them an opportunity to spend the pick on a safety or wide receiver, which are also positions that could use reinforcement in Nashville.
(This article originally appeared on ESPN Insider.)
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