(July 9)--With NFL training camps due to open later this month, Vic Carucci has put together an eight-part series highlighting how each division shapes up in the aftermath of offseason personnel moves and organized workouts.
Most influential offseason moves: The Jacksonville Jaguars have turned defensive in trying to stem the tide after three consecutive losing seasons. Jack Del Rio, their new defensive-minded coach, brings a tougher attitude to a unit that had seemingly gone soft and will reinforce his more demanding approach once the contact begins in camp. Del Rio also has plenty of help in his revamping efforts from a pair of difference-making free agents: Pro Bowl end Hugh Douglas, from Philadelphia, and linebacker Mike Peterson, from the Indianapolis Colts.
Losing Peterson was a big blow to the Colts, but they made some intriguing additions: Free-agent defensive tackle Montae Reagor, who could help improve the NFL's 20th-ranked run defense last season; first-round draft pick Dallas Clark, a tight end who should make for some highly effective two-tight end sets with Marcus Pollard, and second-round draft pick Mike Doss, a strong safety with plenty of smarts and speed.
Positional showdowns: Mark Brunell is still the Jaguars' starting quarterback, but he will have some competition from first-round draft pick Byron Leftwich. Leftwich has struggled at times in offseason workouts, but his considerable talent as a passer is unmistakable. He also has been tireless in his efforts to develop a thorough understanding of the Jaguars' offense, spending virtually every day this summer at the team's facility.
The Tennessee Titans have a fairly wide-open battle for the starting receiver spot that Kevin Dyson, now with Carolina, held opposite Derrick Mason. Although Drew Bennett seemed to take the early lead by consistently shaking free from coverage during offseason workouts, he still should face strong competition from Justin McCareins and second-round draft pick Tyrone Calico. McCareins, who has had problems staying healthy, made key catches late in Tennessee's playoff victory against Pittsburgh. Calico is a big (6-foot-3, 223 pounds), fast target who could very well emerge as the Titans' best receiver once he learns the playbook.
Trouble spots to address: David Thornton, the Colts' fourth-round pick last year, steps in for Peterson at weak-side linebacker. He has plenty of talent, but he also has plenty to learn this summer about the complexities of the Colts' defense and recognizing what he sees on the other side of the line. It might take some time before he can match Peterson's consistently strong pass coverage.
The Houston Texans' offensive line problems, which contributed heavily to quarterback David Carr being sacked an NFL-record 76 times, remain a concern mainly because of the uncertain status of Tony Boselli. If Boselli has recovered from the multiple shoulder surgeries that sidelined him last season, he will start at left tackle. Chester Pitts, Boselli's replacement in 2002, will likely start at right tackle, although he did see time at left guard during offseason workouts. If Boselli can't play, Pitts probably replaces him again and free-agent newcomer Zach Wiegert ends up on the right side. But rookie Seth Wand and Greg Randall have also worked at tackle in the offseason, and Wiegert is also in the mix at guard, along with Ryan Schau, Fred Weary and Milford Brown.
Rookies to watch: Desperate for receiver help, the Texans made Andre Johnson their top pick and it shouldn't take long for the former University of Miami star to become Carr's go-to guy. Johnson's combination of great size (6-2 and 230 pounds) and blazing speed will keep the Texans' coaches busy this summer preparing him to work within a variety of short, intermediate and long patterns.
The Jaguars would love nothing better than to have Leftwich learn how to become an NFL starter without the stress of having to fill the role as a rookie. Leftwich isn't quite so patient. He has pushed himself throughout the offseason so that he'll perform well enough in camp to convince the coaches that he should be the starter. At the very least, if Brunell is injured or struggles, Leftwich wants to be ready to deliver the sort of performance that would allow him to keep the No. 1 job.
First-round draft pick Andre Woolfolk is a strong candidate to replace Donald Mitchell, now with Dallas, as the Titans' nickelback. This is a vital position, considering that Mitchell was on the field an average of 55 snaps per game last season. Woolfolk is fast enough to run with the swiftest of slot receivers and also strong enough to contribute in run support. But he will need to grasp the Titans' defensive scheme quickly this summer to overcome competition from 2002 fourth-round draft picks Mike Echols and Tony Beckham.