AFC South Offseason Preview
In today's parity-filled NFL, every team is one solid offseason away from being a playoff contender.
With every team doing their homework for 2010, check out our daily look at each team's offseason to-do lists by division.
Coach Gary Kubiak has no interest in going through another season like this one, in which a disappointing running game forced Matt Schaub to throw more passes for more yards than any quarterback in the league. Kubiak insists on developing a running game, the kind they had in 2008 when rookie Steve Slaton was one of the best running backs in the NFL. This season, Slaton had a fumble problem over the first half, then suffered an injury and now is recovering from neck surgery. The Texans ranked 30th in rushing, averaging 92.2 yards a game and 3.5 yards a carry.
As Kubiak, general manager Rick Smith and the scouts evaluate college and pro prospects, they must decide if the problem is in the backfield or the offensive line. After playing the 2008 season without losing one offensive lineman for one play because of an injury, they lost starting guards Chester Pitts and Mike Brisiel. They also lost tight end Owen Daniels, who contributes to the running game by being an above-average blocker, for the last half of the season. Chris Brown, whose contract is up, isn't expected to return. That leaves Slaton and Jeremiah Johnson (shoulder) coming off major surgery, backup Ryan Moats entering his sixth season and Arian Foster trying to pick up where he left off last season with 216 yards in the last two games. The coaches seem to believe it's the back, so that's a priority position in the draft. They're not interested in veterans like LaDainian Tomlinson and Thomas Jones. They want young and hungry. They're going to draft a back. It's just a matter of when.
Cornerback Dunta Robinson started 16 games as the franchise player last season. He earned $9.957 million. He played better over the second half of the season, especially at crunch time when the Texans closed with a four-game winning streak to finish 9-7. Robinson, a six-year veteran, didn't play the run as physically as he did in the past, but for the first time in his career, he was used to cover the opponent's top receiver. No receiver blistered him. He gave up some catches, including touchdowns, but overall, the Texans were pleased with his performance.
Now, what do they do with him? They would like to sign him to a long-term contract. They tried last season and failed, even though they offered $23 million guaranteed, which would have made him the second-highest paid player at his position. To prepare for the possible loss of Robinson, the Texans drafted two rookies — Glover Quin and Brice McCain. Quin, a physical corner, started the last 13 games and played extremely well. McCain is a pure cover corner who lacks size and toughness but can cover all over the field. If the Texans don't franchise Robinson again, they'll probably lose him. They have until Feb. 25 to decide. Without Robinson, corner becomes a priority position in the draft. They'd have Quin and Jacques Reeves as the starter, with McCain as the nickel. Fred Bennett, who has been a big disappointment, and Antwaun Molden, who has been injured much of his first two seasons, are the only corners left on the roster. If Robinson leaves, the Texans will have to select a corner in one of the first two rounds.
1. Running back: They ranked 30th, and the coaches want Matt Schaub to throw less than the league-high 583 times for a league-high 4,770 yards. Coach Gary Kubiak wants more balance between the run and pass.
2. Defensive tackle: Starters Amobi Okoye and Shaun Cody played the run well. They also played good team defense, doing the necessary things like grabbing and holding to allow the linebackers to make the tackles. But they combined for two sacks. The coaches would like to get an inside player who can rush the passer.
3. Cornerback: If they allow Dunta Robinson to leave, this becomes a priority position. If Robinson stays, they can draft a free safety or an interior offensive lineman.
The Colts had one of the youngest rosters in the league this past season, so outside observers shouldn't expect a lot of turnover during the offseason. Indianapolis may ultimately decide to tweak a few areas, but team president Bill Polian, general manager Chris Polian and coach Jim Caldwell like the roster that they have assembled. And there shouldn't be much change on the coaching staff, with the exception of the retirement of longtime offensive-line coach Howard Mudd. Assistant offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars is expected to be Mudd's replacement. Senior offensive coordinator Tom Moore should be back.
Take a long hard look at the team's roster. That's what in store for the Colts heading into the offseason. While the Colts compiled a 16-3 record in 2009, the team never really found its identity offensively. To have played so well and gotten so far this past season is a credit to Indianapolis' players and coaches. The Colts, for the most part, found ways to win games all year long. Indianapolis has to find ways to run the football better and more consistently. Also, getting the football downfield more often through the passing game will be key. The Colts had success with a lot of underneath routes. But they have to be able to be more productive in stretching the field vertically.
Defensively, the Colts were improved in all areas this past season. But Indianapolis has to find a way to provide a more consistent pass rush if there are injuries to key defensive linemen, such as DE Dwight Freeney. When Freeney's not able to play at 100 percent, such as in Super Bowl XLIV, opposing offenses have too much time to throw the football. Free agent-wise, look for Indianapolis to make a strong effort to re-sign LB Gary Brackett (UFA), CB Marlin Jackson (RFA) as well as DTs Antonio Johnson (RFA) and Daniel Muir (RFA).
1. Left offensive tackle: Tony Ugoh hasn't panned out as expected. Charlie Johnson did a nice job of taking over the job this season, but he isn't a prototypical NFL left offensive tackle. The Colts need to find a long-term replacement for former Pro Bowl tackle Tarik Glenn, who retired after the 2006 season.
2. Middle linebacker: This area needs help even if starter Gary Brackett doesn't leave for free agency. Brackett is an unrestricted free agent who wants to remain with the Colts if the monetary issues can be worked out. Should Brackett come back in 2010, the team could use additional quality depth at middle linebacker.
3. Wide receiver: Yes, the Colts have Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. And Anthony Gonzalez is expected back after missing the entire 2009 season with a knee injury. But you can never have too many weapons for QB Peyton Manning to use. He needs someone who can gain some separation downfield from a defensive back, a big-play Marvin Harrison type of receiver. Garcon is the only one of the Colts' receivers who can do that, but he was inconsistent at times and had some big drops in the postseason.
In the second year of general manager Gene's Smith tenure, the Jaguars figure to follow the same formula they used in his first season. They'll concentrate on building through the draft, won't spend big money on free agents, will wait until the market settles down and then will bring in some reasonably priced free agents. They're not in danger of losing any key players this year.
The coach and the quarterback tend to be the two most important players on a team. And it helps if they're both on the same page. Coach Jack Del Rio and quarterback David Garrard were on the same page in 2007 when he cut Byron Leftwich nine days before the season started and handed the job to Garrard. Garrard led the team to an 11-5 season, including a playoff victory in Pittsburgh, the team's only playoff victory in Del Rio's seven years as a coach. That earned Garrard a $60 million contract extension and Del Rio a $21 million extension. But Garrard hasn't been the same quarterback the last two years. He team went 5-11 in 2008 and 7-9 in 2009 when it had a 7-5 record and lost its last four games.
The result is that Del Rio is on the hot seat. He survived this year because it would have cost them more than $15 million to fire him. But it would seem to be difficult for Del Rio to survive an eighth season with just one playoff victory even though it will cost owner Wayne Weaver about $10 million to fire him at the end of the 2010 season. Meanwhile, Del Rio has become publicly critical of Garrard. He called him a "middle-tier" quarterback at his season-ending press conference and then said he wasn't an elite quarterback during an interview with Jim Rome during Super Bowl week.
"David is a guy who can be successful when he has really good players playing well around him but the teams who win consistently in the playoffs have elite quarterbacks. David is not an elite quarterback," he said. What he said is true, but coaches don't usually publicly knock their quarterbacks. It's almost as if Del Rio is planning on blaming Garrard if they don't make the playoffs and creates what could be an awkward situation this year.
1. Pass rushers: The Jaguars are desperate to add pass rushers because they were last in the league in sacks with 14 and sacks per pass play. They desperately need to improve their pass rush.
2. Linebackers: They have a solid linebacker in Daryl Smith, but the other two spots are wide open. Incumbents Justin Durant and Clint Ingram need to step up their game if they're to keep their jobs.
3. Safeties: Reggie Nelson lost his job late last season and needs to look good in camp just to keep a roster spot. Gerald Alexander and Anthony Smith ended the season as the starters, but they're stopgap players.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Titans have nearly a third of their roster headed to free agency, with (in an uncapped scenario) 11 unrestricted free agents and six more restricted free agents. Some hard decisions might have to be made on some very popular and productive players in this regard, as C Kevin Mawae, LB Keith Bulluck, DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, CB Nick Harper, DE Jevon Kearse and TE Alge Crumpler are all on the wrong side of 30 and headed into free agency. All those players have been productive starters for the Titans, but few of them are guaranteed to be back with Tennessee next season. Some, notably Kearse and Harper, might even find it tough to stay in the league, given their advanced age and a slippage in play this season.
Tennessee has some issues in free agency on the offensive side of the ball with offensive linemen Eugene Amano and Kevin Mawae and tight ends Bo Scaife and Alge Crumpler, but by and large, the Titans will use free agency and the draft to overhaul a defense that slipped to 31st overall in 2009. For a team that has been based on defensive pressure with the front four and stopping the run, such a fall — precipitated largely by the defection of Albert Haynesworth a year ago — is completely unacceptable. It could mean a major overhaul and some tough decisions on key veterans like Kyle Vanden Bosch and Keith Bulluck are on the horizon.
1. Defensive end: Kyle Vanden Bosch and Jevon Kearse are both unrestricted free agents, and Dave Ball will likely be a restricted. The Titans need a pass rusher to pair with emerging William Hayes on the left side. Kearse won't return, and Vanden Bosch could come back in a lesser role.
2. Linebacker: Before his ACL injury, Keith Bulluck looked like a goner in free agency, as he and the Titans could not seem to agree on his worth. With Bulluck out, along with the injury to David Thornton, the Titans got a taste of life without Bulluck, and it could not have been encouraging. Bulluck could return with a make-good deal, but look for the Titans to address this spot regardless.
3. Cornerback: Cortland Finnegan wants to become a man-to-man cornerback who follows opposing receivers all over, a la Darrelle Revis. Whether that happens or not, Nick Harper is 35 and a free agent. He probably won't be back. Rod Hood, who filled in for him, was good as a stopgap, but might not be a long-term answer. Rookies Ryan Mouton and Jason McCourty were not ready when called upon. A must-need area to fix this offseason.