|Houston will have a good chance to be on top of the AFC South again next year. (US Presswire)|
TexansAfter a long, long wait (try, 10 years -- or the entire history of the franchise), Houston finally broke through in 2011, using the absence of Peyton Manning in the division to help propel the Texans to the AFC South title and to win a playoff game vs. the Bengals. For that, you have to thank running back Arian Foster and a defense that, although it missed Mario Williams for most of the season, transformed itself into one of the best in the league ( and for that, you have to thank Wade Phillips).
Although the Texans lost their final three games of the season, you have to give them credit for making the playoffs after losing quarterback Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart and having to play rookie T.J. Yates (plus, playing nine games without star receiver Andre Johnson). And you have to assume that Houston will continue its reign at the top of the division heading into 2012.
Free agents of note
Although he wasn't an unrestricted free agent, the Texans signed Foster to a five-year, $43.5 million deal this offseason. So, Foster shouldn't be an unrestricted free agent for quite a while. … Of course, the Texans biggest free agent this offseason is Mario Williams, and at this point, it's unclear if he'll be back in Houston next season. … Tight end Joel Dreessen, who has been effective the past two seasons, is unrestricted … As is kicker Neil Rackers … Center Chris Myers should draw interest on the free agent market.
Even the loss of Williams, assuming it happens, shouldn't hinder the Texans that much. They played 11 games without him last year, and still, they were one of the best units in the league. At this point, the defense is good enough where the organization needs to worry about the team's backups, particularly in the secondary. But if your biggest concern is the second string, you're doing OK.
If Myers leaves, that will punch a big hole in the center of the offensive line, which could lose right guard Mike Brisiel to free agency as well.
Myers is the one the Texans really need to keep, because, of course, we have seen what can happen when you're starting quarterback is knocked out for the season (yes, Houston made the playoffs, but the division was weak last year). The problem with that, though, is that Myers seems intent on testing the free agent market. Losing him would be a bad idea for Houston.
TitansDespite playing a 36-year-old quarterback who's nearing the end of his career in Matt Hasselbeck, despite the fact that running back Chris Johnson had the worst season of his career and despite the fact that top receiver Kenny Britt missed most of the season with a knee injury suffered in Week 3, the Titans still managed to finish with a winning record in Mike Munchak's first season as head coach (it was enough to get Munchak linked to the Penn State job).
Tennessee was not a great squad mind you, losing to the Colts late in the season to give Indianapolis its first victory of the year, but it wasn't a terrible team either. No, the Titans were average (maybe slightly above average) but still produced a record just north of .500 for the first time in three years. Overall, they have to believe they're on the right path, especially if Johnson and Britt can rebound with strong years and Jake Locker develops himself into a starting quarterback.
Free agents of note
While the Titans thought about franchise-tagging cornerback Cortland Finnegan, they did not -- instead they selected safety Michael Griffin for that honor. Now, they probably will lose him to free agency … Tennessee hasn't had much luck trying to strike a deal with defensive end Jason Jones, and if he hits the market, there's a good chance he'll leave. As will linebacker Barrett Ruud, who might have a tough time finding a job in general … At this point, it appears right guard Jake Scott and the team have not been in contact … Defensive back Jordan Babineuax is expected to return.
Once Tennessee lost Britt, the Titans had to count on Nate Washington and, to a lesser degree, Lavelle Hawkins and Damian Williams for receiving yards. But it was telling that, midway through the season, Tennessee took a look at Brandon Lloyd and Terrell Owens. Obviously, neither of those moves happened, but it is clear that, even with Britt, Tennessee needs to upgrade the receiving corps.
Losing Finnegan will be tough for the Titans, and their secondary won't be quite as good next year. That's why Tennessee -- which has decent depth at cornerback -- needs to come to an agreement with Babineaux.
Assuming Scott will leave, the Titans could go after a player like Ben Grubbs to fill in at the guard spot. Other than that, it will be a surprise if Tennessee makes any big-time free agent splashes.
JaguarsAfter its fourth-straight season without a winning record, Jacksonville fired longtime coach Jack Del Rio, and with new owner Shahid Khan taking over, the franchise is still in flux as it tries to find the formula that won the Jaguars 12 games in 2005 and 11 games in 2007. At this point, the organization is nowhere near those benchmarks. Rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert struggled, and though Maurice Jones-Drew's 1,606 rushing yards led the NFL, the Jaguars still managed to finish last in the league in total yards (that's really, really hard to do, by the way).
Jacksonville had two impressive wins -- a squeaker against the Ravens and a 41-14 domination of the Buccaneers -- but it was clear that ridding the team of Del Rio was long overdue and that a fresh start was needed (though general manager Gene Smith received a three-year contract extension). New coach Mike Mularkey will try to provide that moving forward.
Free agents of note
The only true offensive threat the Jaguars could lose is backup quarterback Luke McCown. So, not much of a threat at all really. … Cornerback Rashean Mathis already has received a one-year, $5 million contract … Coming off a career year, the Jaguars are in conversations about re-signing Jeremy Mincey.
If you were to pick the team with the weakest receiver corps in the NFL, the Jaguars would probably be the frontrunners. "Those guys are [bleep]ing jokes," Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said in December. "Those guys couldn't get a [bleep]ing receiver if it hit them in the head." And he added that the Jaguars "haven't had anyone decent since Jimmy Smith." Yep, that's pretty much the perfect way to describe Jacksonville's receivers.
The secondary, even with the re-signing of Mathis, is in disarray with Dwight Lowery and David Jones set for free agency.
There have been rumblings lately that if Peyton Manning were to sign a deal with the Broncos, Denver would then trade away Tim Tebow. Considering Khan has said he would have drafted Tebow given the chance, that's a remote possibility. Since the Jaguars have money to spend, the biggest free agent acquisition they could make would be to sign Houston defensive end Mario Williams. Not only would he change that defense and immediately make it better, he could go a long way toward winning fans back for the Jaguars. He might be the most intriguing target for Jacksonville this offseason.
At the same time, though, it's been reported that the Jaguars won't be aggressive in free agency this year. So, that's also something to keep in mind.
ColtsThe mindset in the Colts organization from this time last year to today is unbelievably drastic. Without Peyton Manning in the lineup, Indianapolis lost its first 13 games of the season and finished with a demoralizing 2-14 record. And then, owner Jim Irsay cleaned house, firing executives Bill and Chris Polian and coach Jim Caldwell before parting ways with Manning and a host of Colts veterans. The team Indianapolis fields next year will be completely different from the ones we're used to seeing in the past half-decade.
Free agents of note
Already, the Colts have let go so many of their players (Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Gary Brackett Melvin Bullitt, and Curtis Painter), and it's unclear how many of their unrestricted free agents they'll try to return to Indianapolis … Center Jeff Saturday has been a fixture in that offensive line, but he might be at the end of his road with the Colts … Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon are talented receivers who might take their talents elsewhere. Wayne has been linked to Peyton Manning … Defensive end Robert Mathis also might be on his way out.
This section would be easier to write if we just talked about where the Colts don't need help. For instance, um, punter and place-kicker. Pat McAfee and Adam Vinatieri are fine and should be back. And, um, left tackle Anthony Castanzo struggled a bit with injuries last year, but he's not going anywhere. And, um, that might be about it.
This quote from the Indianapolis Star from new general manager Ryan Grigson says it all: “We are going to try and do our best. Obviously you would love to just get out the shopping cart and go and pick, you know, all the players you would like. We are in a tough spot right now. We are going to do our best to find the best players we are capable of getting underneath the constraints we have right now fiscally.” Considering the Colts will have about $38 million in dead money this year, the Colts will have to go cheap for the time being. Which means a ton of upcoming losses.
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