Keeping Arian Foster on the roster should be at the top of the Texans' priority list. (John Biever)
The teams in this division may not generate the most buzz in-season, but this has the potential to be a game-changing offseason in the AFC South.
Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Mario Williams and Cortland Finnegan are just a few of the big names that could find their way to the free-agent market come March. How their respective teams handle their situations will set the stage for the division race in 2012.
Here's a look at the AFC South free agency picture:
• Key free agents: DB Jason Allen, OL Mike Briesel, TE Joel Dreessen, RB Arian Foster (restricted), C Chris Myers, K Neil Rackers, LB Mario Williams.
• Players Houston needs back: Dreessen; Foster; Myers.
You'll notice Mario Williams isn't on this list. Why? Well, the Texans survived -- and even thrived -- without him in the lineup last season. When he's healthy, he is one of the NFL's more dominant defenders. But Houston cannot afford the $22.9 million franchise tag for him, and the franchise has to ask itself if paying him just shy of that amount would be worth it.
As for the players who did make the cut ... Most casual football folk might not recognize Dreessen's name, but the Texans know that he's one of the more underrated players in the league. Not only has he become a red-zone threat, but also he can block.
Myers and Foster should be priorities one and two. Foster is a dynamic dual-threat back, while Myers anchored the Texans' sensational offensive line all season.
• Players Houston should let walk: Allen.
There are some other names on the Texans' free-agent list that definitely should be allowed to leave: Bryant Johnson, Jake Delhomme, Jeff Garcia, etc.
It's a tough call among Houston's "key" free agents, though, because each guy listed above was valuable in 2011. That includes Allen, who played all 16 games and picked off four passes. Because of that performance, he'll be looking for a starting role -- one that Houston might not have available.
• Outlook: Aside from the Peyton Manning saga in Indianapolis, Williams' future is the AFC South's biggest question mark. Assuming the Texans can lock up Foster and Myers, how they deal with the 2006 No. 1 pick will go a long way toward determining their other moves.
• Key free agents: DE Jamaal Anderson, OL Ryan Diem, WR Pierre Garcon, DB Jacob Lacey (restricted), DE Robert Mathis, C Jeff Saturday, TE Jacob Tamme, WR Reggie Wayne, LB Philip Wheeler.
• Players Indianapolis needs back: Garcon; Mathis; Saturday; Tamme.
The Colts face a decision at wide receiver, and the feeling here is that they'll do what they can to keep Garcon over Wayne, mostly based on youth. The reasoning behind trying to bring back Tamme is the same -- Dallas Clark's career is on its last legs, so the Colts need a solid tight end.
Even on a terrible team in 2011, Mathis was a force. Indianapolis could slap the franchise tag on him. Saturday's future is in the balance until he decides if he wants to keep playing or retire. His performance last year indicates that he can still bring it.
• Players Indianapolis should let walk: Anderson; Wayne.
The Colts need to come up with some depth on the D-line, but Anderson's impact was minimal last season.
Letting Wayne walk away would be a huge step toward rebuilding for the Colts. Is their decision on their longtime wide receiver tied to Manning? If Indianapolis opts to start this thing over, giving an aging Wayne a hefty contract doesn't make much sense.
• Outlook: You should have some idea why everyone keeps reminding fans that Indianapolis' issues go beyond Manning. Not only do the Colts need to get better at a lot of positions, but also they have to do it in a financially sound way. Picking up Manning's roster bonus would severely limit them elsewhere.
• Key free agents: DB Dwight Lowery, DB Rashean Mathis, DB William Middleton (restricted), DE Matt Roth, K Josh Scobee, OL Guy Whimper.
• Players Jacksonville needs back: Lowery, Mathis, Roth.
The issue with Mathis and Roth is the same: Health. Both missed substantial time last season to injury. If they are ready to go for 2012, the Jaguars could use them -- Roth to help steady a rebuilding defensive line; Mathis as an anchor in the secondary.
Lowery wasn't great last season, but he was far from terrible. If the Jaguars bring him back, they can keep some continuity in the defensive backfield.
• Player Jacksonville should let walk: Whimper.
Whimper started 15 games in 2011 and allowed, according to Pro Football Focus, 14 sacks. Even on a poor offense with an inexperienced quarterback, that's a staggering number. Jacksonville has to get better along the offensive line, both to help Blaine Gabbert in the passing game and to find Maurice Jones-Drew more room to run.
• Outlook: The Jaguars will bring a lot of their 2011 roster back which, depending on how you look at it, could be good or bad. Between the draft and free agency, they should be able to find some contributors.
• Key free agents: S Jordan Babineaux, DE Dave Ball, CB Cortland Finnegan, S Michael Griffin, DL Jason Jones, LB Barrett Ruud.
• Players Tennessee needs back: Griffin; Finnegan.
Griffin has played in every Titans game since 2007 and remains a solid performer in the defensive backfield. Losing him and Finnegan in the same offseason would force the Titans to do some major reworking.
And speaking of Finnegan, the general consensus is that he's gone. It would be smart, however, for Tennessee to at least find out where it stands with him -- Finnegan was arguably the team's best defender in 2011.
• Players Tennessee should let walk: Babineaux; Ruud.
If the Titans are planning on making a playoff run next season, then they absolutely must upgrade over both of these players. Tennessee has Colin McCarthy, who turned in a very solid rookie season, ready to replace Ruud.
The answers aren't as easy in the defensive backfield, where Babineaux started 14 games. He just simply was not that good, especially against the run.
For all their issues in 2011, the Titans finished just one game back in the AFC South. Assuming Jacksonville or Indianapolis doesn't take a huge leap forward, Tennessee should be right there again. The offense will return more or less intact, so stabilizing the defensive secondary -- especially if Finnegan and others depart -- will be the top task.