That got me thinking: Who are the AFC South players who need contract extensions before they get anywhere close to an expired contract at the start of the 2013 league year?
Here are my top six:
1) Matt Schaub, Texans quarterback
I understand there are some non-believers. In five seasons with the Texans, Schaub has played a full slate of games only twice. He’s not been consistently clutch in big moments.
Still, I see him as a quality engineer of Kubiak’s offense. I think the team loves him and has faith in him. And although rookie T.J. Yates did some good work while filling in for Schaub last season, I don’t think the Texans would be comfortable handing the team over to Yates after he's been in the league only two seasons, especially if he plays only a little or not at all this season because Schaub is in the lineup.
I’d make sure Schaub’s fully recovered from the serious right foot injury that ended his 2011 season. If he plays well in the first month of the season, I’d talk to his agent. Even if they wait until after the 2012 season plays out, gauging his health and seeing how far he can take them, Schaub is their guy.
He’s not the best player on this list, but as a starting quarterback, he goes to the head of the line. Is he a top quarterback in the league? My count says he’s 13th or 14th among current starters. You’d like better, but can do far worse and I don’t think you can project Yates to rank any higher. The Texans aren't going to be drafting at the top of the first round, and none of the guys better than Schaub are going to be hitting the market. So there is no place to go to upgrade.
2) Connor Barwin, Texans outside linebacker
Connor Barwin Thomas Campbell/US PresswireConnor Barwin enjoyed a breakout season in 2011, collecting 11.5 sacks.
The Texans projected Barwin could be a quality pass-rusher when they drafted him out of Cincinnati in 2009 with a second-round pick. Last year, in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 defense, Barwin was a consistent pass-rushing force, playing nearly 95 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and recording 11.5 sacks.
Barwin is part of the reason the franchise could afford to let Mario Williams depart as a free agent. The Texans simply cannot allow Barwin to follow Williams out of town. And with the increase in 3-4 defenses around the league, there are a lot of teams that would make a play for Barwin if he came free.
3) Daryl Smith, Jacksonville linebacker
Smith’s known for being an underrated player.
He’s an anchor for the Jaguars, and I expect he’ll shine in a healthy defense in 2012. The unit has a chance to be great, and Smith will shine if the coverage behind him is good and the rush in front of him can be consistent. They have the people for both of those elements to be in place.
The Jaguars would certainly like to keep a starting linebacker corps of Smith, Paul Posluszny and Clint Session together.
4) Duane Brown, Texans left tackle
I don’t think he’s regarded around the league as a premier guy who would draw a ton of interest if he became a free agent. But he is regarded as an excellent player in the Texans' line scheme. The team is moving forward, replacing Mike Brisiel at right guard and Eric Winston at right tackle.
The Texans did what they had to in order to keep center Chris Myers. They will need to do the same with Brown. They must hold together the key pieces of what was an excellent group in 2011. Brown is vital for the success of Schaub, or Yates, as well as running back Arian Foster.
5) Jason McCourty, Titans cornerback
He’s a solid player on the rise. He plays a position where he will have a chance to establish himself as a productive leader who needs to be in place for the long term.
Cortland Finnegan is gone. And the team is weak at safety, where Michael Griffin is getting one last chance under the franchise tag and Jordan Babineaux owns a starting spot at least in part because the Titans don’t have other options.
McCourty is a smart player who should be the best member of the secondary in 2012 and beyond provided they are able to keep him.
6) Terrance Knighton, Jaguars defensive tackle
He suffered a serious eye injury in a bar incident not long ago, but indications are he should be OK for training camp. Knighton has had weight issues since he came into the league. He seems to have gained better control of that, and general manager Gene Smith made it clear to Knighton that if he proves he can remain fit he’ll be taken care of in the long run.
Knighton moves very well for a very large man, and the Jaguars believe if their defense will be good, it will be because Knighton and Tyson Alualu anchor the middle, stuffing the run and moving the quarterback off his spot.