Following are some whispers we've been hearing from around the AFC:
• The Texans' salary-cap issues have been well-documented. Finding a way to bring back both OLB Mario Williams and RB Arian Foster is likely going to be too difficult. In addition to dealing with guys whose contracts have expired, the club has several key starters who are set to hit the open market in 2013 and whom they would like to lock up long term this spring. Leading the list, we hear, is OLT Duane Brown, who developed into one of the game's better players at his position last season. Next on the list is OLB Connor Barwin, a pass-rushing force who the Texans think will only get better.
• Count Colts former vice chairman Bill Polian among the folks who believes QB Peyton Manning will be under center somewhere next season. Polian hasn't seen Manning throw the ball since late December but said he was "really positively pleased" with Manning's progress at that time.
• Jets QB Mark Sanchez's struggles in 2011 are no secret, and RB LaDainian Tomlinson suggested in January that it hurt that Sanchez did not have a legitimate challenger as a backup. QBs Mark Brunell and Kevin O'Connell will be unrestricted free agents, leaving Sanchez and Greg McElroy, who spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve. GM Mike Tannenbaum didn't seem concerned, though, about bringing in someone to pressure Sanchez. "I don't think if we brought in any other quarterback, that would drive Mark to be any better," he said from the Combine. "He wants to be great, and that's what we like about Mark, and we're fortunate that he's our starter."
• At the Scouting Combine, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis gave a vote of confidence to reserve safeties Taylor Mays and Robert Sands. "I feel great about them because I watched them each and every day in practice," Lewis said of Mays, a two-year pro from USC whom the Bengals acquired from San Francisco, and Sands, a West Virginia product entering his second NFL season.
• Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert reiterated at the Scouting Combine that second-year OT Marcus Gilbert could move to the left side in 2012, though he said that will be head coach Mike Tomlin's decision. "This year, we get Willie Colon back, which we're very excited about," Colbert of the Steelers' right tackle, who suffered a season-ending triceps injury in the 2011 season opener and missed the entire 2010 season with an Achilles injury. Colbert indicated that Colon is likely to remain the right tackle. Gilbert stepped into the starting lineup for Colon after the injury. The Steelers' starting left tackle at the end of the 2011 season, Max Starks, suffered an ACL injury in the playoff loss to Denver and is an unrestricted free agent.
• The Raiders are confident RB Darren McFadden will return to health next season after missing the final nine games of 2011 with a foot injury. Head coach Dennis Allen said McFadden "will be ready to go whenever we get ready to kick off the season." However, we hear the team would still like to retain free-agent RB Michael Bush as an insurance policy in case McFadden gets hurt again.
• With both Marcus Thomas and Brodrick Bunkley becoming free agents, the Broncos could make a major overhaul at defensive tackle. Executive VP of football operations John Elway said at the Combine he'd like to retain some of the players on last year's depth chart, citing Bunkley specifically, but also saying, "Defensive tackle is, no question, an area where we want to get better."
• The Chiefs got a big victory during the Combine, grabbing the 11th pick in the draft after winning a coin toss against the Seahawks, who will choose 12th. It may not seem like much of a difference, but GM Scott Pioli felt the win helps the Chiefs whether they want to keep the pick or trade it. "Not only is it a better opportunity for you to get what you want, but if there is an opportunity to make a trade, you are one spot higher, and the value of that pick is going to be that much greater," the GM said.