Leading Questions: AFC South

With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each AFC South team as it begins preparations for the 2012 season:


Can they keep Mario Williams?

He’s an incredible pass-rushing talent most every team would love to have. Yet the Texans might be in a position where they have no choice but to watch him move on as an unrestricted free agent.

They should have had planned better and not have allowed themselves to be in a position where the franchise tag is an impossibility. They cannot tag the defensive end-turned-outside linebacker for $22 million, so they either have to sign him or allow him to test the market. He talks affectionately about the Texans and what the franchise did for him, and that leads some to be optimistic about the team’s chances to hold on to him.

But once he’s out there and being courted, things can change in a big way with big dollars on the table.

Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed are great talents, but they’d be better, and the entire defense would be better, if Williams were part of it.

It would be difficult for the Texans to watch Williams lift someone else's defense and put up big sack numbers. He’s also been hurt a lot, however, and if that continues, maybe there won’t be so much regret if he moves on.


How does the Peyton Manning saga sort out?

It’s widely presumed the team is parting ways with the four-time MVP quarterback.

It would have been impossible to imagine a year ago. But several unlikely developments have all come together at the same time -- the uncertainty surrounding Manning’s arm; the team’s ability to draft Andrew Luck; the dismissal of Bill Polian and Chris Polian in the front office as well as coach Jim Caldwell and most of his staff; the hiring of new general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano; other core players (Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday, Robert Mathis) reaching the end of their contracts.

The soap opera has been long and drawn out. It needs to be resolved so the focus on the Colts can be about those new leaders, Grigson and Pagano, the messages they want to send, the guys they want on the roster, and the systems they intend to run.

Owner Jim Irsay has been sloppy as he’s tried to gain upper ground in a public relations battle with Manning, who has not comported himself perfectly, either, as he’s tried to manipulate the story. But for the health of the organization and for the benefit of Manning going forward, this thing needs closure.


Who can they add to help Blaine Gabbert?

No team should do more to assess the free-agent market for wide receivers than the Jaguars, who had a terrible, insufficient group last season.

Mike Thomas can be a good slot guy, but if the Jaguars really want to maximize Gabbert’s chances of success in his second season, he needs his primary targets to be much better. Jacksonville has plenty of cap room, and a new staff can sell someone like Vincent Jackson on the chance to be an unquestioned No. 1 and be paid like it.

Beyond the people he will be throwing to and the ones who will be protecting him, Gabbert’s new coaches will be a big piece to his progress. Can coach Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson get Gabbert more confident in the pocket and better able to focus on his reads than on the people around him?

The team has talked of having a better veteran backup behind Gabbert to help him. The Jags need that guy to be a safety net, too. It’s possible the 2012 Jaguars can compete for a playoff spot, provided they get sufficient play from their quarterback.


Can they become more of a playmaking defense?

The Titans got great contributions from several rookie defenders -- middle linebacker Colin McCarthy and defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug will be a big part of things going forward. So will strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers, who wasn’t as productive in his rookie season as the Titans hoped.

Will the team be able to find more playmakers to fill out their defense? Odds are cornerback Cortland Finnegan will depart as a free agent, and although the team hopes to re-sign Jordan Babineaux as one starting safety, it should be looking for an alternative to another of its free agents, Michael Griffin.

The Titans would be well served to find someone with more upside as a playmaker in Griffin’s spot. And although they still expect big things from Derrick Morgan, it’s again time to find a consistent pass-rushing defensive end.

They need to rush better from everywhere, which is why they hired Keith Millard as a multi-position pass-rush coach.

Getting bigger up front didn’t necessarily pay off the way they planned. Stopping the run first was a theme, and they finished 24th in run defense.