Today's Pre-Camp Two-a-days: NFC SOUTH | AFC SOUTH
HOUSTON TEXANS Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 25-1
Training Camp: Methodist Training Camp, Houston, July 30
The Looming Question: "So, who exactly is replacing Kyle Shanahan as the offensive coordinator in Houston?"
Shanahan guided a juggernaut Texans offense that led the league in passing yards and was fourth in the NFL in total offense in 2009. In January, Shanahan left town to join his pops in Washington. Instead of hiring from within or making a big splash like Chicago, Gary Kubiak went back to his old Denver roots and contacted Broncos offensive line coach Rick Dennison for the gig. After 24 years of experience as a player and assistant coach in Denver, Dennison accepted the job as O-coordinator in Houston.
Though he comes with little media fanfare, there's a lot of excitement within the organization over his arrival. In the incestuous world that is the NFL, this was a major coup.
When Kubiak first left Denver for Houston in 2006, he tried bringing Dennison along as his offensive line/running game assistant coach. Mike Shanahan, the longtime head coach in Denver, refused to let him go. When Shanahan was hired as the Redskins' new head coach four years later, one of his first moves was to make a play for Dennison's services. The Broncos, though, didn't grant the Redskins permission to interview him. When the Texans called, however, Denver relented and gave Dennison the green light to take the job. In Houston, the 51-year-old will be a first-time offensive coordinator and responsible for all play calling.
Kubiak and Dennison were teammates for eight years in Denver during the 1980s. They then coached together for 11 seasons on Shanahan's Broncos staff from 1995 to 2005. There's genuine excitement in Houston over what the two will bring to the table.
Dennison will certainly have the tools to succeed. Matt Schaub put up the sixth-most passing yards in NFL history last season, throwing for more yards than Peyton Manning ever has in a single season. Andre Johnson, though tied up in a contract squabble, is one of the top two wide receivers in the game. The offensive line is solid, the backfield is made up of three exciting young talents and there's a potential All-Pro at tight end in Owen Daniels.
In eight years as an NFL franchise, the Texans have never been to the playoffs. They've been the media's "hot" sleeper team for three years now.
The offense, under Dennison's watch, shouldn't be what keeps them out of the postseason in 2011.
Key Camp Battle: Kicker: Kris Brown vs. Neil Rackers
Kicker? Really? Yes, really. Brown, the only kicker the Texans have ever known, was horrendous in 2009, missing 11 of 32 field-goal attempts. Rackers comes to Houston with a legitimate shot of taking the gig.
Early Edge: Neil Rackers
New Veteran in Town: Danny Clark, LB
Just days after Brian Cushing was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season, Houston signed Clark, the Texans' strong-side linebacker in 2007. After two seasons with the Giants, Clark comes to Houston as one of the few veterans on a young Texans defensive unit.
Young Gun to Watch: Ben Tate, RB
After rushing for 1,200-plus yards as a rookie, Steve Slaton hit a sophomore wall in 2009, battling a neck injury and an awful case of fumblitis. Ryan Moats and undrafted rookie free agent Arian Foster filled in, but the Texans finished 30th in the league in rushing and missed the playoffs. Tate, a beast at Auburn, should be the between-the-tackles force that was missing in the offense last season. In Tate, Foster and Slaton, there's reason for excitement for the three-headed running back monster in Houston.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 9-1
Training Camp: Anderson University, Anderson, Ind. Aug. 1
The Looming Question: "Is Bob Sanders finally back and healthy?"
Bob Sanders played in just two games in 2009, Larry Coyer's first as defensive coordinator in Indianapolis. In Sanders' absence, free safety Antoine Bethea stepped up and played at an All-Pro level, while reserve Melvin Bullitt filled in admirably for Sanders at strong safety. The Colts defense, and this was perhaps a surprise to some, moved on quite nicely without the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the lineup.
This spring, Sanders fully participated in OTAs for the first time in his entire pro career. Two weeks from the start of training camp, he's healthy, fresh, and eager to play a leading role in Coyer's defense. Under old defensive coordinator Ron Meeks, Sanders was rarely asked to blitz. In Coyer's scheme, he'll be asked to play a larger role in the pass rush. Sanders sounded pumped during summer workouts about the prospect of increased blitzing opportunities in 2010.
"I love it because it just expands my game, and each safety around here, it gives us more opportunity to show what we can do and showcase our skills," he said. "So we're excited about it and look forward to getting better at it."
I've already predicted Bethea -- the recently re-signed five-year veteran -- as my pick as the NFL's first-team All-Pro at free safety this season. After coming on strong over the second half of 2009 and throughout the postseason, Bethea is one of the four to five leading candidates for the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. I'm Cheech and Chong-high on the guy.
Give Bethea a healthy Sanders to work alongside and we could be looking at the best safety tandem the NFL has seen in over a decade.
Key Camp Battle: Right guard: Andy Alleman vs. Kyle DeVan
The Colts released starting right guard Ryan Lilja this offseason, creating an opening at the position. DeVan played in AF2, which I'm told is the minor leagues for Arena Football. He stepped it up when called upon in 2009. Alleman is a veteran guard now on his fourth team in four years. Neither player is going to any Pro Bowls anytime soon.
Early Edge: Kyle DeVan
New Veteran in Town: Tom Brandstater, QB
When the Broncos drafted Tim Tebow in the first round of the draft, there was no longer a roster spot for 2009 sixth-round draft pick Brandstater. A star at Fresno State and a guy Broncos personnel actually really liked in camp and preseason last year, Brandstater gives the Colts a third-stringer who could give backup Curtis Painter a run for his money in training camp.
Young Gun to Watch: Jerry Hughes, DE
An undersized defensive end who actually played running back in high school, Hughes fits the Colts defensive game plan perfectly. A two-time All-American and sack demon at TCU, the rookie will learn from fellow undersized pass rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. "He does give us more options," head coach Jim Caldwell said of Hughes last week. "We can create maybe some situations where all three of them are in the ballgame at the same time that may be pretty unique. It also gives us a buffer if we're in a situation where either one can't play. We still can have two edge rushers that can do some damage. We don't place any limitations on anybody."
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 70-1
Training Camp: Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla., July 29
The Looming Question: "Will there be a pass rush in 2010?"
The pass rush was downright nonexistent in Jacksonville in 2009. The Jaguars finished a league-worst 32 in sacks, getting to the opposing quarterback just 14 times.
So, what'd they do in the offseason? They overhauled the whole damn defensive line.
First, the Jaguars got rid of longtime Jack Del Rio wingman Ted Monachino and brought in former Lions coach Joe Cullen as the new defensive line coach. Then, despite cries of outrage from the local fan base and draftniks, Jacksonville selected Tyson Alualu, a defensive tackle out of California, with the 10th overall pick. Alualu, though perhaps not as highly rated as other defensive linemen on Todd McShay's big board, fits Del Rio's 4-3 scheme perfectly, and after OTAs, there's a lot of excitement over his potential. Jacksonville took defensive linemen with their next three draft picks.
The Jaguars also added free agent Aaron Kampman, who will be going back to his natural position of defensive end after a forgettable (and frustrating) season as an outside linebacker in Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme in Green Bay. Kampman's surgically repaired knee is apparently good to go, and his motor has never been questioned. Jacksonville has already signed its two fifth-round defensive end draft choices, Larry Hart and Austen Lane, and plans to get Alualu and second-round defensive tackle D'Anthony "Boo" Smith signed as soon as possible. Derrick Harvey, selected eighth overall in the 2008 draft, has been an utter disappointment in two years as a pro. There's hope he can be the pass rushing demon he was in Gainesville in year No. 3. Terrance Knighton, a third-round pick from a year ago, returns as the only performer from last year's wretched unit.
With the youth movement came a shedding of several familiar names and faces. Rob Meier, a hero in Jacksonville's 2007 wild-card win over Pittsburgh, was released. John Henderson, the longtime heart and soul of the defensive line, was released, too. Reggie Hayward, a 10-year veteran who missed all but one game in 2009, was also given his walking papers.
Out with the old, in with the new.
That's the name of the game in the NFL. In Jacksonville, it was really the only option.
Key Camp Battle: Third wide receiver: Kasim Osgood vs. Jarett Dillard
After years of Pro Bowl-caliber special teams work in San Diego, Osgood signed with Jacksonville with an opportunity at a full-time wide-out role. Dillard, a second-year veteran coming off a major injury that cut his 2009 season short, broke several NCAA receiving records at Rice and had a good start to his rookie campaign. Both Osgood and Dillard should make the roster, but only one will be the third wide-out in Jacksonville.
Early Edge: Jarett Dillard
New Veteran in Town: Aaron Kampman, DE
A nine-year veteran, Kampman comes to Jacksonville after a disappointing year at outside linebacker in Dom Capers' 3-4 Packers defense. In 2006, Kampman had 15.5 sacks. The entire Jaguars defense had just 14 sacks in 2009. The Jags hope Kampman, coming off an injury, can be both a pass rushing demon and a veteran leader.
Young Gun to Watch: D'Anthony "Boo" Smith, DT
First-round pick Tyson Alualu will get the media glare, but Smith should be the more immediate contributor. He started 44 games at Louisiana Tech and has more game experience than Alualu.
TENNESSEE TITANS Current Vegas Super Bowl Odds: 28-1
Training Camp: Baptist Sports Park, Nashville, Tenn., July 31
The Looming Question: "What's the latest on the Chris Johnson front?"
After accepting an award for the Best Breakout Performance of 2009 at last week's ESPY awards, Johnson characterized his contract negotiations with the Titans as being at a "standstill." Johnson said if the Titans didn't step up and pay him by July 31, he could very well hold out during training camp and perhaps, into the 2010 season. The third-year back wants an increase over his $550,000 base salary, part of a five-year, $12 million contract that still has three years left on it.
The truth is, though, regardless of how many rushing yards Johnson racked up last season (2,006 to be exact), the Titans have the leverage in the situation. If Johnson doesn't report to camp by Aug. 10, he'll lose a year of credit toward free agency. Furthermore, he's the one missing out if he doesn't play. Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger spent the offseason expanding the playbook with an interest in using Johnson in a wide variety of creative new ways. To boot, Johnson has already stated he'd like to compile 2,500 yards in 2010. He can't do that from his couch.
Last week, head coach Jeff Fisher expressed concern over Johnson's absence from workouts: "Not only has he missed the conditioning, but from an offensive standpoint, he hasn't had a day with his new running backs coach (Kennedy Pola),'' Fisher told the Tennessean. "So he's missed a lot. ... He'll have some catching up to do. And it's certainly better for everyone involved if he is familiar with whatever changes and special types of things we're doing for him offensively."
Training camp starts July 31, but that Aug. 10 date is the one worth circling.
If Johnson isn't in uniform come opening day? Eek.
The other running back options in Tennessee are unproven second-year man Javon Ringer and journeyman Alvin Pearman.
Neither is running for 2,000 yards in 2010.
Key Camp Battle: Second cornerback: Jason McCourty vs. Ryan Mouton vs. Tye Hill vs. Rod Hood vs. Alterraun Verner
Cortland Finnegan has one of the cornerback spots locked up in Tennessee, but Nick Harper won't be lining up beside him in 2010. That gig should be up for grabs in training camp. I like McCourty, a second-year vet and brother of 2010 first-round selection Devin McCourty, to make a push for the job in August. Mouton had some growing pains in '09, Rod Hood is on his last legs and Tye Hill has a lot to prove. Verner is a rookie and rarely does Fisher give defensive first-year players starting jobs right out of the gate. McCourty, though certainly not a proven NFL performer, may be the best option.
Early Edge: Jason McCourty
New Veteran in Town: Will Weatherspoon, LB
Veteran defensive leaders Jevon Kearse, Keith Bulluck and Nick Harper are all unrestricted free agents. Insert Weatherspoon, a longtime vet fresh off stints with Carolina and Philadelphia. He'll be the voice of that defensive huddle.
Young Gun to Watch: Derrick Morgan, DE
Albert Haynesworth, Jevon Kearse and Kyle Vanden Bosch are no longer lining up on that Tennessee defensive line. Insert Morgan, a rookie selected 16th overall in April. Morgan, though taken after Giants rookie Jason Pierre-Paul, was considered the collegiate defensive end most ready to make an immediate impact in the NFL. If his hamstring is healthy come Sept. 12, he should be lining up as the starting right defensive end against Oakland.