Here are the latest Whispers we're hearing from our sources throughout the AFC:
• Not to be lost in Browns OLT Joe Thomas’ recent criticism of ex-teammate Peyton Hillis was Thomas’ praise for rookie RB Trent Richardson. Thomas, who has never missed an NFL snap, expressed his appreciation for Richardson dealing with injuries. The way we hear it, Richardson’s toughness has his teammates’ respect.
• The Bills’ linebacking corps came under fire early in the season, especially when Buffalo couldn’t stop the run. The whole defense has improved, and the Bills remain high on rookie SLB Nigel Bradham, who took over as a starter in Week Six. “Nigel is playing a very difficult position in the defense at the 'Sam.' There’s a lot of different reads that you have to be aware of,” veteran WLB Nick Barnett explained to PFW. “He’s very athletic, a fast guy and one of those guys that wants to be one of the best linebackers in the league."
• Young Patriots LBs Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower have received plenty of attention this season, but we hear that WLB Jerod Mayo is still very steady on the field — and his numbers speak for themselves, and the veteran is important “behind the scenes,” as one observer put it.
• Chargers OL Brandyn Dombrowski and Johnnie Troutman began the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, and returned to practice in November with the hope that they could add depth to a struggling O-line. It seemed to be a minor move when, as expected, both players were moved from the PUP list to injured reserve. In the last month of the season, though, missing those two players is notable. OLT Jared Gaither and reserve C David Molk are already on I.R. and three starters — OLT Mike Harris, ORT Jeromey Clary and OLG Tyronne Green were hurt last week. Dombrowski is a versatile veteran who certainly could have helped, and the Chargers would have gotten a chance to see what they had in Troutman, a fifth-round pick.
• The Titans will have a lot of tough decisions to make in the offseason, but picking up Chris Johnson’s $9 million option shouldn’t be one of them, we hear. He has been one of the few home runs in the draft for the Titans and, while the other backs on the roster are constantly nicked up, Johnson is there, every day. He’s not cheap — that is a high price tag for a back — but they have so much cap room and he is such an explosive player. It would be a dumb decision to cut ties with Johnson, we hear.
• With NT Shaun Cody missing three games with back injuries, the Texans have gotten great contributions stuffing the run from backup Earl Mitchell. Although coordinator Wade Phillips likes Mitchell at end, where Mitchell can use his explosiveness more to get upfield, word is Cody, whose contract expires after the season, is unlikely to be with the Texans in 2013. Texans fans have been pining for an upgrade at nose tackle since Phillips came on board and, while Houston has played tremendous run defense dating back to last season, it appears they could get their wish.
• A lot of the attention among the Colts wideouts has gone to the ageless Reggie Wayne and explosive T.Y. Hilton, but word is GM Ryan Grigson continues to express a desire to re-sign veteran Donnie Avery after the season. Avery is having a career year and, while he had bouts of inconsistency this season, he could earn himself a new deal by continuing to play well in key spots, as he did in catching the game-winning TD pass against the Lions in Week 13.
• To hear Jaguars defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s name coming up in connection to the University of Wisconsin job is quite puzzling. Jacksonville’s defense has done from the NFL’s sixth-ranked unit a season ago to 31st this season. Tucker’s group can’t generate a pass rush. It can’t consistently stop the run. Sure, he’s a former Badger, but, beyond that, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Hard not to think Tucker is kicking himself for not taking the Vikings’ offer to become their defensive coordinator last offseason.
• There is still no clear timetable for the Raiders’ Richard Seymour’s return from the hamstring injury that has sidelined him for the past five games. We hear the team is not certain it will see Seymour, a starting defensive tackle when healthy, play again this season with three games to go.