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?
14 May 2012
by Rivers McCown
In a move that raised eyebrows around the league, the Texans released the highly-regarded Eric Winston prior to free agency. Winston signed with the Chiefs, becoming one of the very few players to be released, then receive a "bigger" contract than he had owed to him. With cap money hard to come by, the Texans couldn't really find many proper solutions in free agency, so Houston instead had to look to the draft. They addressed wide receiver and outside linebacker in the early rounds, and brought in some fascinating interior linemen in the middle rounds, but they don't have an obvious challenger to Rashad Butler at right tackle at this point.
Butler, who was actually Winston's replacement at tackle at the University of Miami as well, does have a decent pedigree as a former third-round pick with the Panthers, but he doesn't have much in the way of NFL experience. He saw some snaps in 6-OL sets in 2010, and got four starts on the left side when Duane Brown was suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs. While he wasn't a disaster replacing Brown, and may even offer a slight upgrade on Winston in pass protection, it would be a surprise if he brought quite as much to the table in the running game. The only other in-house options are 2011 seventh-rounder Derek Newton and 2012 sixth-round pick Nick Mondek, both of whom are considered projects. Since Houston is also handing over right guard to Antoine Caldwell, a new right side could lead to some awkwardness as the offensive line learns to work together in game conditions.
Perhaps the most widely-known Texans UDFA is North Carolina wideout Dwight Jones, who is an intriguing size/speed prospect (6-foot-4, 4.55 40-yard-dash) and could break camp with the team if he can beat out LeStar Jean and Jeff Maehl for the fifth receiver slot. He thinks he's the next Andre Johnson, so he's certainly not lacking for confidence. Another interesting piece is BYU defensive tackle Hebron Fangupo, who weighs in at 323 pounds and could be the first real "nose" tackle the Texans have ever employed. The Texans have a pair of defensive tackles they like in Earl Mitchell and Shaun Cody, but if Fangupo can gain enough grasp on Wade Phillips' defense to see the field, he could be a big load in the middle of the line.
The Colts completely revamped their offense in the draft, landing four quality offensive pieces in quarterback Andrew Luck, wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, and tight ends Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. However, a 2-14 team can't be rebuilt in one draft, and while the Colts did manage to snag a decent nose tackle prospect in Alabama's Josh Chapman, they didn't add much at all on defense. Indianapolis left the draft with no new cornerbacks and now have a logjam of unproven mediocrity at the position.
Last season, Indianapolis finished 26th in DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers, 27th against No. 2 wide receivers, and 31st against other wide receivers. The only change in personnel from then to now is the exile of Jacob Lacey, who played bad enough last year to lose his starting job to the guys who are still in town. Jerraud Powers has always done well by our metrics and will be back on the field after being bothered by a hamstring injury and shutting it down following a dislocated elbow in Week 13. Third-rounder Kevin Thomas, who has a lengthy injury history at both USC and in the pros, is the nominal second cornerback. Behind him are 2011 sixth-rounder Chris Rucker and a pair of former undrafted free agents: Terrence Johnson and Brandon King. As the NFL continues to shift into a passing league, really good defenses are finding it necessary to have three credible cornerbacks. The Colts are still stuck on one at this point.
One of Rob Rang's favorites, Morehouse State nose tackle Chigbo Anunoby could be a fit in the middle of Chuck Pagano's line down the road if Chapman doesn't claim the job. As a small-school project, he's definitely a practice squad candidate this year. Wide receiver is still a very unsettled group for the Colts, with Donnie Avery looking like a potential starter at flanker while Austin Collie is inside. In that sort of chaff field, someone with experience working with Luck could rise up to claim a roster spot, and Stanford receiver Griff Whalen has those credentials. And the name Griff.
The Jaguars came into the offseason with a couple of major holes that needed filling: wide receiver and defensive end. After spending their first two picks in the draft on Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon and Clemson defensive end Andre Branch, they have a lot more credibility at those positions. What they didn't address is the offensive line -- a strong run blocking unit that did Blaine Gabbert no favors over the course of his nightmare rookie season. Guy Whimper was one of the worst offensive tackles in the league last season -- FO's J.J. Cooper had a scathing column on his play last year -- and the only obstacle to keep him from starting at tackle again is Eben Britton, who the Jaguars wanted to turn into a guard last season.
Will Rackley, a third-round pick in 2011, won the starting nod at left guard. He showed some flash in the running game, but also allowed 6.5 sacks and looked every bit as lost as Gabbert did in a few games. Eugene Monroe is solid at left tackle, but lacks the edge speed to match the best rushers in the NFL. Brad Meester is 35, and not the type of 35 that gets you "wily old vet" mentions like Matt Birk or Jeff Saturday. This is a unit that could have used some more solidification rather than the blind hope that Britton's return from a back injury will heal all. For their beleaguered quarterback's sake, at least.
Ohio State center Mike Brewster was regarded as a mid-round prospect by quite a few different services, and as mentioned above, Meester is not getting any younger. Assuming he plays as well as some internet draftniks have said he does, Brewster could be starting by the end of the season if he shows some improvement in the combo blocking game.
The Titans came into the offseason, as we noted, with one of the weakest pass rush units in the NFL. While they tinkered with the idea of signing Peyton Manning, the one player who could instantly bring credibility to their rush, Mario Williams, joined the Bills. Tennessee instead was left to chase after second-tier rushers, and they came up with Kamerion Wimbley after the Raiders set him free to atone for their salary cap sins.
Wimbley isn't a bad player at all -- in fact, he's picked up 42.5 sacks in six years, which is pretty impressive. However, he's never played exclusively as a 4-3 defensive end, and as our own esteemed Tom Gower noted on his Total Titans blog, four of his seven sacks in 2011 came against woefully overmatched Chargers backup tackle Brandyn Dombrowski. Wimbley was a smart signing in light of the other options, but he's not exactly a sure thing. If the Titans can get some production from either Wimbley or third-year end Derrick Morgan, that would go a long way towards shoring up their 31st place ranking in Adjusted Sack Rate from 2011.
The most intriguing player the Titans managed to pick up after hours was USC defensive tackle DaJohn Harris. Harris, who has ideal NFL size, was part of a tackle rotation for the Trojans and managed 1.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. A heart condition discovered at the combine dropped him out of the draft, but it doesn't look like it'll be enough to actually keep him off the field.
Posted by: Rivers McCown on 14 May 2012
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