by Vince Verhei and Tom Gower
(Editor's note: This was originally published with the first draft of the Indianapolis "Who Could Leave?" section. That section has since been updated.)
Houston: Can Steve Slaton bounce back?
Steve Slaton's rookie season was the stuff dreams are made of. His 1,282 rushing yards set a Texans franchise record and led all first-year players in 2008. Those dreams turned to nightmares in 2009, though, as Slaton rushed for just 437 yards and 3.3 yards per carry. He also fumbled five times in just 131 carries. (Adrian Peterson led all running backs with six fumbles, but he also carried the ball 314 times). Slaton was finally placed on Injured Reserve after Week 12 with a neck injury.
Slaton was even worse by Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, finishing last in the league in all three statistics we use to evaluate running backs: DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which measures value on a per-carry basis), DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, which measures total value), and Success Rate (which measures how often a runner gains meaningful yardage). Although his speed and open-field ability made him a very effective receiver (he finished third among running backs in receiving DVOA, and second in receiving DYAR), Slaton was pretty clearly the most impotent ground threat in football in 2009.
And the problem wasn't the Texans' offensive line, it was definitely Slaton; his teammate Ryan Moats ranked second in the NFL in Success Rate, and Arian Foster would have finished second in the league in DVOA if he had carried the ball often enough to qualify.
Then came word that Slaton underwent neck surgery in January. Slaton called the procedure a "cervical fusion," while Texans coach Gary Kubiak used the term "discectomy." Regardless, the procedure performed by Dallas surgeon Drew Dossett was to relieve pressure on the nerve root of the spine. In a chat on the Texans' Web site, Slaton suggested that he had been hurt all season: "You always have aches and pains as a player," he wrote, "but this got progressively worse." He specifically blamed the injury for his fumbles, saying his right side had been weaker than his left.
Though Slaton is claiming he'll be stronger than ever by the draft, there's no guarantee he'll ever return to his rookie form. Our own injury expert Will Carroll could think of only one player who has returned a year after a similar procedure: Brad Johnson, a quarterback who played 11 more seasons and won a Super Bowl after suffering a herniated cervical disk in 1997. As a running back, however, Slaton will be subjected to more of a pounding than Johnson was. Slaton is wading into largely uncharted waters.
Who could leave?
The biggest name among Houston's unrestricted free agents is cornerback Dunta Robinson. Robinson was also a free agent last season, but Houston retained him via the franchise tag. Houston Chronicle writer John McClain has written that Robinson will leave for sure if he's not franchised again this offseason. The Texans got plenty of quantity from Robinson last season (he played every game for the first time since 2006), but not much quality, as his level of play slipped badly.
The Texans' punt team ranked fifth in our ratings last year, and while that's partly because their coverage teams allowed only 4.3 yards per return, punter Matt Turk also deserves a lot of credit. He and Washington's Hunter Smith were the only two players with more than 10 punts last season to force as many fair catches as they allowed returns.
The Texans were bailed out by the collapse of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Under the old plan, three more starters -- tight end Owen Daniels, safety Bernard Pollard, and star linebacker DeMeco Ryans -- would have also been unrestricted free agents. Instead, while they are free agents, they are restricted and not likely to be going anywhere.
Who could they sign?
The Texans should look to the Super Bowl champions to fill the biggest question mark on their roster. The Saints will likely retain restricted free agent running back Pierre Thomas, but Mike Bell and his 54 percent Success Rate (sixth in the league) could be available. Whether Robinson leaves or not, the Texans will be looking for cornerbacks. Some of the best names available include Leigh Bodden, Tramon Williams, and likely the best of the bunch, Carlos Rogers.
Indianapolis: Can the Colts fix their running game?
It's hard to find flaws on a team that went 16-1 in meaningful games last year, but the 2009 Colts had one obvious weakness: They couldn't run the ball for squat, finishing with only 1,294 rushing yards and 69 first downs on the ground, both the lowest figures in the league. That's largely because they didn't rush very often -- they ended up with 366 carries, one more than Arizona and less than anyone else -- but the advanced metrics at Football Outsiders show this was still the biggest hole on the team. The Colts offense finished 22nd in rushing DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which measures value on a per-carry basis).
The problem was not with Joseph Addai, who was 17th out of 50 individual running backs in DVOA. Instead, it was with backup runners Donald Brown and Mike Hart, who would have ranked 44th and 46th in DVOA if they had garnered enough carries to qualify for the leader board.
The offensive line deserves some of the blame too. The Colts ranked 25th in Adjusted Line Yards, Football Outsiders' metric that attempts to separate the performance of an offensive line from its running backs. While center Jeff Saturday is still excellent, his linemates are subpar. The Colts were eighth in ALY in runs up the middle, but no higher than 19th in any other direction. Injuries had little to do with the line's performance -- the starters combined to miss 16 games, which is about average for most teams.
It's doubtful that an impact offensive lineman will be available when the Colts pick 31st in the first round of April's draft, but there should be some good talent at running back, possibly including Jahvid Best out of California. Or the Colts could cross their fingers and hope that Donald Brown takes a giant step forward in his sophomore season. Either way, there about 30 other teams who wish their biggest offensive problem entering 2010 was "backup running back."
Who could leave?
The biggest question facing the Colts in free agency is the future of Gary Brackett. The five-year starter is an unrestricted free agent, and while both player and team say they want Brackett to stay, there's no guarantee a deal will get done. As Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star points out, the Colts have never invested a big contract to retain a free agent-to-be linebacker (see June, Cato).
The Colts have a number of players up for restricted free agency, including offensive tackle Charlie Johnson, defensive tackle Antonio Johnson, and linebackers Tyjuan Hagler and Freddy Keiaho. If Brackett leaves, Keiaho then returns to the starting lineup. Similarly, if Charlie Johnson signs elsewhere, former starter Tony Ugoh will find himself on the first string once more.
Kicker Matt Stover is also an unrestricted free agent. With Adam Vinatieri under contract and returning to health, the Colts will wish Stover the best in his future endeavors.
Who could they sign?
Every year, this is the easiest offseason write-up we have to do. The Colts simply do not throw money at free agents. Of the 44 Colts who played in the Super Bowl against the Saints, only four had ever played on another NFL team, including just one starter (Antonio Johnson). The Colts stockpile talent in the draft or pick up undrafted rookies on the cheap, and save their money to retain players like Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, and Dwight Freeney.
Jacksonville: Are the Jaguars looking for a new quarterback?
The list of primary starters at quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars from their inception reads Mark Brunell, Byron Leftwich, and David Garrard. Head coach Jack Del Rio declared Garrard a good but not elite quarterback and one who needs a strong team around him to reach the Super Bowl.
It was a bold statement from the coach who committed to Garrard over high draft pick Byron Leftwich on the eve of the 2007 season and signed Garrard to a six-year, $60 million extension after that year. Garrard played like that in 2007, finishing third in DVOA and seventh in DYAR, but slipped to 15th and 14th in 2008 and 23rd and 19th in 2009. Offensive line struggles contributed to those lesser numbers, as did lack of production from wide receivers, but the Jaguars were one of the league’s most inconsistent offenses thanks in large part to Garrard’s inconsistent play.
Garrard turned 32 on Valentine’s Day, so he is unlikely to improve his level of performance much unless the talent around him improves. Improvement is reasonable to expect from the offensive line, as 2009 draftees Ebon Britton and Eugene Monroe gain experience, but despite Mike Sims-Walker’s emergence, wide receiver remains a weak link. That makes a Super Bowl run unlikely in the Garrard era.
With the 10th or 11th pick in the draft (depending on a coin flip with the Bears) and Garrard in place, the Jaguars should be well-positioned to take Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen and give him a year to adapt to the NFL rather than thrusting him into an immediate starting role. The fans in Jacksonville might prefer hometown hero Tim Tebow, but the fans in Los Angeles will appreciate the front office’s patience and foresight.
Who could leave?
Jacksonville kicked things off early by releasing wideout Torry Holt, tackle Tra Thomas, and defensive tackle Rob Meier. Beyond them, the Jaguars have a particularly short list of impending free agents. Only Kynan Forney, Reggie Hayward, and Ernest Wilford will be unrestricted. Given the disappointments that 2008 draftees Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves have been, the Jaguars will look to retain Hayward. Beyond them, safety Reggie Nelson is a candidate to be released after being a disappointment the last couple years.
Who could they sign?
The Jaguars should be modest players in free agency. One way to make a splash without spending too much money would be to sign Darren Sharper to provide needed veteran support to a pass defense that ranked 32nd in DVOA. They could also address the wide receiver position, as Holt’s signing didn’t work out as well as expected. Kevin Walter might be an attractive complement to Mike Sims-Walker. An experienced backup for Maurice Jones-Drew is another possibility.
Tennessee: Can the Titans rebuild their defense?
The Titans made the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 behind defenses ranked first and fifth in DVOA, respectively. But with the departure of Albert Haynesworth and the aging of other defensive starters -- including end Kyle Vanden Bosch, outside linebackers Keith Bulluck and David Thornton, and cornerback Nick Harper -- the defense slipped to 27th last year. The fall was particularly acute in pass defense, as five of the first six quarterbacks the Titans faced passed for more than 300 yards. The poor pass defense helped put the team in an 0-6 hole they couldn't dig out of.
The Titans’ depth behind Bulluck, Thornton, and Harper was tested last year when each went down with injuries. Although rookie linebacker Stanford Keglar proved adequate, neither rookie corner, Ryan Mouton or Jason McCourty, looked prepared to assume the starting job created by Harper’s free agency.
An improved pass rush would help the secondary, as the Titans fell from ninth in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate (sacks per pass attempt adjusted for opponent, down, and distance) in 2008 to 25th in 2009. Veteran ends Vanden Bosch and Jevon Kearse have each lost a step and will likely be allowed to leave. William Hayes largely stepped into Kearse’s shoes in the second half of 2009, but the Titans may still look to address the position in free agency. A healthy season from defensive tackle Jason Jones would also help.
Who could leave?
Vanden Bosch, Kearse, Bulluck, and Harper are all unrestricted free agents, and each is unlikely to return. Thornton’s sizable base salary and recent injury history could also lead to his release if the team feels a suitable replacement is on the roster. On the offensive side of the ball, pending free agent Eugene Amano should be re-signed, which means Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae will be allowed to walk. Quarterback Kerry Collins, a backup with a starter’s salary, may also find himself cast loose if the Titans add another passer. The Titans may be willing to part with running back LenDale White, who has expressed an interest in more than the backup role he’d probably play again in 2010.
Who could they sign?
Defensive end, outside linebacker, and cornerback are the positions the Titans seem most likely to address. Julius Peppers and Karlos Dansby will be too expensive for the Titans’ mid-market blood, but a mid-level player like Pisa Tinoisamoa or a new contract for Roderick Hood might be an option.
(Portions of this article originally appeared on ESPN.com Insider.)