By: Tony Meale
NFL Free Agency has begun ( check out our Free Agency Tracker here ) and we’re taking a look at which players each team and division needs to pick up to improve in the 2012 season.
Houston Texans (10-6)
The Giants may have won the Super Bowl, but the Texans had as impressive of a season as any team in football last year. They won the division, advanced to the postseason for the first time in franchise history, won a playoff game and came oh so close to advancing to the AFC Championship – this despite losing their top two quarterbacks and best defensive player midway through the season.
Locking in Arian Foster (five years, $43.5 million) was absolutely pivotal. The hamstring issues are certainly cause for concern, but when healthy, Foster is at worst a top-three tailback in the NFL.
Matt Schaub, meanwhile, has played all 16 games in just two of his five seasons in Houston. T.J. Yates fared well given the circumstances, but a better back-up plan would be good for the Texans, particularly since Matt Leinart will probably be holding a clipboard for the rest of his career.
Peyton Manning, anyone? If Manning played for the Texans, they would be the favorite to win the Super Bowl. No doubt about it.
Mario Williams, in case you didn’t know, is a flat out stud. Houston’s defense is loaded with playmakers, but Williams is the biggest. He’s the difference between a top-five defense and maybe the best defense in football.
Houston, which has the 26th pick, should consider Georgia Tech product Stephen Hill, who would take some pressure off Andre Johnson. Upgrading at defensive tackle would also be good.
Tennessee Titans (9-7)
Last year, the Titans were the only team in football to finish with a winning record and not make the playoffs.
What an honor.
It was an up-and-down year for the Titans, whose 16-game season can be broken down into spurts of 3-1, 2-4 and 4-2.
Seemingly every member of Tennessee’s secondary was a free agent this offseason, and the Titans responded accordingly, using their franchise tag on safety Michael Griffin. It is likely safety Jordan Babineaux will be back, but cornerback Cortland Finnegan might be out the door.
Offensive line remains the biggest need in Tennessee, particularly as the Titans transition to Jake Locker. In addition to protecting the young quarterback, the offensive line will need to open up holes for Chris Johnson, who apparently didn’t know it’s wise to make plays after holding out for playmaker money. Georgia’s Cordy Glenn would be a wise first-round investment.
Jacksonville Jaguars (5-11)
Jacksonville finished last in the league in total offense with 259.3 yards per game last season – and that’s with Maurice Jones-Drew leading the league in rushing with 1,606 yards. In fact, no other running back broke even 1,400 yards.
In short, the Titans’ offense started and ended with MJD last season, as Jacksonville finished dead last in the league in passing offense. Blaine Gabbert had few bright spots, but to be fair, his weapons at wideout weren’t exactly stellar – no Jags pass-catcher had more than 44 catches or three touchdowns – so Gabbert, only 22, deserves at least another season or two before being judged on whether he can play in this league.
Re-signing cornerbacks Dwight Lowery and Rashean Mathis is a priority, but so too is drafting guys who can actually catch the ball – or at least, you know, get open.
Indianapolis Colts (2-14)
The Colts did the the difficult yet inevitable, and Peyton Manning is gone. In steps Andrew Luck.
At this point, Indy should be in complete rebuilding mode. While the Colts’ offensive line is by no means a weakness, they must ensure that Luck is protected just as much as Manning was. Re-signing Reggie Wayne, 33, wouldn’t make much sense, but Garcon, even with the occasional butter fingers, is only 25 and could emerge as the Colts’ go-to receiver, provided he stays put.
Re-signing Robert Mathis (four years, $36 million) was the right move, but the Colts need help on defense, particularly against the run; that unit ranked 29th in the league last year.
In the end, Indy is no longer the class of the division. Houston is. We’ll see if Luck is the future Hall-of-Famer scouts think he is, but the next season or two probably won’t be pretty.
Tony Meale is a freelance writer for MLB.com, cincinnati.com and ffjungle.com, among others. His fantasy football work has led to guest appearances on several radio outlets, including ESPN Radio and Sirius Radio. He has a Master’s in Journalism from Ohio University and has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding work. A Cincinnati native, he is currently writing a book on one of the great sports stories never told. Follow Tony Meale on Twitter @tonymeale.