Here are the latest Whispers we're hearing from our sources throughout the AFC:
• We hear that no Titan with an expiring contract will be a greater priority to bring back in 2013 than TE Jared Cook. Before being placed on injured reserve, Cook was the club’s third-leading receiver and, though he made waves for voicing his displeasure with former coordinator Chris Palmer’s offense and his lack of involvement in it, we hear Cook is optimistic that he can carve out a greater role in the offense in the future. With WR Kenny Britt’s lack of dependability, re-signing Cook — or giving him the franchise tag, which could be an option, we hear — to promote QB Jake Locker’s growth is paramount.
• Colts GM Ryan Grigson is a strong candidate for executive of the year honors because virtually every button he has pushed since arriving in Indianapolis has helped the Colts to their improbable 10-5 mark and wild-card playoff berth. Of course, each move has had a varying level of impact, and we hear that free-agent SS Tom Zbikowski has not made as large of an impact as the club had hoped for. A strong presence in the locker room and a guy who has come up with a few timely plays this season, “Zibby” simply isn’t the type of playmaker on the back end of the defense that the Colts prefer. Strong safety could be on the club’s offseason wish list, we hear.
• Texans QB Matt Schaub is viewed as a great fit in head coach Gary Kubiak’s West Coast offense because he is rhythm passer that is smart and accurate. Yet, one issue that is often overlooked is that, because Schaub is a rhythm passer, he needs to throw the football a lot to be at his best. Well, that doesn’t mesh with Kubiak’s preferred offense, which is designed to grind the clock by running the football. Thus, Houston has found itself in a bit of an identity crisis with the offense sputtering over the past month.
• If GM Gene Smith is let go this offseason, as expected, we hear his shrewd waiver claim of DE Jason Babin is likely to be a parting gift for whomever replaces him. One source in North Florida said “he would be shocked if Babin wasn’t a Jaguar next season,” as “he clearly adds a pass-rush dimension that was missing prior to his arrival." Babin has collected 1½ sacks and forced two fumbles in four games with the Jaguars, and our source indicates Babin has been a solid addition in the locker room as well.
• For the third year in a row, the Patriots had a strong second half, and the defense improved as the season went along. We hear that a big reason for this season’s improvement was players staying relatively injury-free, allowing them, especially the younger defenders, to grow into Bill Belichick’s system. The defensive line and secondary had been revolving doors in the past two seasons, but showed more stability this year. More depth was also a key — Trevor Scott and Justin Francis helped step in for Chandler Jones, the most significant starter to miss multiple games, without much of a drop-off.
• The Broncos would face a good problem to have, should they advance to the AFC title game, as Willis McGahee (MCL, broken leg) would be eligible to return. Knowshon Moreno has been a pleasant surprise with Ronnie Hillman as his complement. John Fox is no stranger to two-back situations, and if McGahee were healthy, it would bolster the backfield. Moreno has worked to improve his pass blocking, but that’s one area specifically where McGahee would provide a boost.
• The way we hear it, the Ravens are hoping for more from second-year CB Jimmy Smith as they enter the postseason. The Ravens' 2011 first-round pick, Smith has flashed potential but hasn't put it all together.
• One of the numerous reasons the Bengals' defense looks formidable entering January is the play of CB Leon Hall. We're told Hall really looks like he's rounded back into top form. Hall is in his first season back after an Achilles injury that prematurely ended his '11 campaign.
• One Jets rookie to watch in the season finale, and 2013 training camp, is S Antonio Allen. Rex Ryan said last week that the team is “excited” about Allen, and we hear that the Jets are pleased with the seventh-rounder’s work on special teams, though he hasn’t gotten many opportunities on defense. If LaRon Landry is not re-signed, Allen could factor in the safety rotation next season.
• An injury to QB Carson Palmer in Week 16 has contributed to Raiders TE Brandon Myers’ decline in production of late, but defensive adjustments have played a role in his downturn as well. The Raiders believe they are going to need to move him around the field and put him in motion before the snap more to give him a better chance to get a free release at the line of scrimmage. Of course, Oakland is going to have to re-sign him first — Myers is due to become an unrestricted free agent and he has had a breakthrough campaign.