Here are the latest Whispers we're hearing from our sources throughout the AFC:
• For a Colts defense that has not made enough big plays and consistently fails to get to the quarterback, we hear the pressure is increasing on OLB Dwight Freeney, who, in a contract year, has been a complete nonfactor as he transitions to a new position. In his defense, Freeney suffered a high ankle sprain early in Week One and missed the next two games. However, we hear Freeney has come to his own defense too often, repeatedly referencing his injured ankle when asked about his lack of production. We hear it would be a major surprise if Freeney is back with the Colts next season.
• Browns offensive coordinator Brad Childress said that rookie RB Trent Richardson has begun to show more patience as a runner. "You want to do more so you’re going to try to do more and that’s not always the right way to go as a running back,” Childress said. “That happens with every running back, he’s not the Lone Ranger.”
• With half the NFL regular season in the books, it seems the right time for the annual discussion of how underrated Texans DRE Antonio Smith continues to be. The way we hear it, Smith is getting the credit he deserves from NFL coaches and executives, who marvel at how well-rounded his game is and what an under-the-radar cog he is in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’ “D.”
• The Jets had high expectations for DE Muhammad Wilkerson in his second season, and one daily team observer called Wilkerson the most consistent player on the Jets’ “D” this season. “I think I’m just playing more fast,” Wilkerson told the team’s website this week. “I’m recognizing things quicker.” Rex Ryan did say last month the team wants more out of Wilkerson, who leads all Jets D-linemen with 36 tackles, but only three have been for a loss. Wilkerson led the team with 13 TFLs last season.
• The Patriots’ O-line has come under scrutiny at times this season, and has rarely been at full strength, but it had its best game in Week Eight heading into the bye. OTs Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer held Rams DEs Robert Quinn and Chris Long without a sack or a QB hit. Vollmer’s play on the right side is key as well in run blocking, as he aims to earn a new contract this offseason.
• The Broncos stuck with new PR Trindon Holliday, even after a muffed punt in his first game with the club in Week Six. He had a 22-yard punt return in Week Eight. We were told that the Broncos wanted a more dynamic punt returner than Jim Leonhard, who is safe in terms of catching punts but doesn’t have game-breaking speed. Kickoff returns, with rookie Omar Bolden, remain a struggle as the Broncos rank 31st in the league in kickoff-return average.
• Our spies in Jacksonville who interact with head coach Mike Mularkey daily indicate that he seems as much like the coach of a 7-1 football team as one that has a 1-7 record. It begs the question: Does all of Mularkey’s constant positive reinforcement eventually send the wrong message to a team that simply hasn’t been good enough? Mularkey’s emphasis continues to be on progress the team is making, but at some point, shouldn't the myriad mistakes his team is making no longer be tolerated?
• Chiefs third-round rookie OT Donald Stephenson has shown promise, but the sack for a safety allowed against the Chargers in Week Nine is an example of how far he has to go. The Chiefs must tie up Branden Albert long term, and watching Stephenson struggle as a third tackle backed up on his own goal line will remind them he is a long-term project.