Thursday February 11th, 2010

No sooner had the last flake of confetti fallen in Miami that next year's Super Bowl odds were posted. Not surprisingly, the Colts are the favorite to do what they couldn't achieve this season. Everybody of consequence returns for the Colts next season. Linebacker Gary Brackett is scheduled to be a unrestricted free agent and Antoine Bethea is a restricted free agent, but both are expected to return to Indianapolis. With that in mind, here's a look at the biggest questions that need answered this offseason among the AFC teams.


BUFFALO BILLS -- Can new coach Chan Gailey transform Trent Edwards or Ryan Fitzpatrick into a winning quarterback?

Gailey did it with Kordell Stewart in Pittsburgh, but he faces an equally challenging situation in Buffalo. Edwards has had injury and deep-ball issues, while Fitzpatrick has struggled with his accuracy. Both were on the minus side in touchdown-to-interception totals last year, and in eight seasons combined they've had only one year in which either finished with more TDs than INTs: Edwards (11-10) in 2008. The job becomes even tougher if the Bills don't re-sign Terrell Owens and fail to find a complement for Lee Evans.

*And another thing: If Gailey doesn't address the offensive line, it won't matter who takes the snaps. Buffalo never adequately replaced left tackle Jason Peters, who was traded to the Eagles before the season, and the Bills wound up allowing the fourth-most sacks in the league.

MIAMI DOLPHINS -- Can new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan work his magic again?

He did an exemplary job with a largely anonymous front seven in his only season in Denver, but he inherits an aging Miami defense that allowed a league-high 140 points in the fourth quarter -- and 390 points overall, third-most in the conference. Big plays were a problem. The Dolphins surrendered 15 touchdowns of at least 20 yards, more than double the seven they permitted in 2008. Among the other issues confronting them: nose tackle Jason Ferguson, who'll be 36 next season, missed the final seven games with a quadriceps injury; starting linebacker Joey Porter, who led the team with nine sacks, says he won't return in 2010; and No. 2 sacker Jason Taylor is an unrestricted free agent who is looking for a pay increase.

*And another thing: Miami needs a true No. 1 receiver, because Ted Ginn Jr. is not that guy. There have been reports the Dolphins are interested in Arizona veteran Anquan Boldin, a Florida native who would provide playmaking and toughness to the receiving corps. Bottom line: a league-low two TDs of 20 yards or longer on a team that has the No. 4 rushing attack is inexcusable.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS -- Will the Patriots' defensive struggles vanish with Bill Belichick calling the plays?

The unit was uncharacteristically porous in losses to quality teams, surrendering 38 to the Saints and 35 to the Colts, who trailed by 17 in the second quarter. The impact players who contributed to three Super Bowl wins are largely gone, and the one who remains, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, is an unrestricted free agent who wants big money or his walking papers. Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo has the potential to be an elite player, but the cupboard is sparse from there. Linebacker Adalius Thomas hasn't lived up to expectations and will probably be released. Carolina free-agent end/linebacker Julius Peppers would cure some ills, but the Patriots' problems on defense run deeper than one player.

*And another thing: New England has to find a running back. It's not a coincidence that they are Super Bowl-less since shifting the offensive emphasis to the passing game. Laurence Maroney clearly is not what they envisioned after drafting him in the first round in 2006, and Fred Taylor turned 34 last month.

NEW YORK JETS -- Can coach Rex Ryan find another cover cornerback to take his defense even higher?

That question might seem strange considering the Jets allowed league-lows in points, passing yards and total yards and have, arguably, the top cover corner in the game, Darrelle Revis. But the reality is Ryan needs a complement for Revis because he's unlikely to find an elite edge rusher who can win one-on-one battles when the team doesn't blitz. If that player were available, the secondary would be less of a concern because it wouldn't have to cover as long. But elite edge rushers are almost as hard to find as franchise quarterbacks, and any players who fit that category in the draft will be long gone by the time the Jets select near the bottom of the first round.

*And another thing: With Thomas Jones a candidate for termination because he's due $5.8 million in salary and bonus, and with Leon Washington returning from a serious leg injury, the Jets would do well to get backup insurance for Shonn Greene, the rookie runner who came on strong down the stretch.

DENVER BRONCOS -- Is it time to trade wide receiver Brandon Marshall?

Coach Josh McDaniels and Marshall have been together for only one season, but there's already plenty of bad blood between them. The chatter out of the locker room late last season was that McDaniels was trying to divide the players into his guys and former coach Mike Shanahan's guys. Marshall is the latter.

The Pro Bowl wide receiver continues to seek a large contract -- and a little respect -- neither of which he got from McDaniels last season. To wit: When McDaniels benched Marshall for the season finale he insinuated during a news conference that Marshall was exaggerating the extent of a hamstring injury, saying, "There's a number of players that are going to play on Sunday with things that are much more difficult to deal with than what he has."

*And another thing: Denver must address the interior of the offensive line. The Broncos used a zone-blocking scheme under Shanahan, but McDaniels wants to get away from that and will need bigger, beefier linemen to run his scheme.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS -- How can they make good on their $63 million investment in QB Matt Cassel?

The most obvious ways are by upgrading the offensive line and adding a true No. 1 receiver. New GM Scott Pioli was in a tough spot in his first season because there was so much work to do on a team that won a total of six games the previous two seasons. But if you're going to give a quarterback $35.5 million in virtual guarantees, you've got to give him the pieces to be successful. The Chiefs led the league in dropped passes, and their best young receiver, 2007 first-round pick Dwayne Bowe, was No. 1 among wideouts with 11 drops, according to STATS LLC.

*And another thing: The Chiefs ranked 31st among 32 teams in sacks last season and need to find an outside linebacker who can pressure passers. They used the third pick in last year's draft on Tyson Jackson, but ends in a 3-4 scheme are primarily anchors and space-eaters. Kansas City needs a game-changer.

OAKLAND RAIDERS -- Will it be JaMarcus Russell, Bruce Gradkowski or someone else at QB?

Russell was supposed to come into his own in his third season as the fulltime starter. Instead, the former No. 1 overall pick found himself on the bench because of poor production and a suspect work ethic. Insiders say owner Al Davis, who has invested some $31.5 million in guarantees to Russell, wasn't happy about the benching, but the players privately applauded coach Tom Cable's decision. Gradkowski is a restricted free agent, but Oakland is expected to re-sign him so he can compete for the starting job. One plus for whoever wins the job: he will have a bright new offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson, the former quarterbacks coach with Baltimore.

*And another thing: The Raiders acquired defensive lineman Richard Seymour before last season in a trade with New England. Now he's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Oakland must re-sign him, otherwise it will have given up its 2011 first-round pick to rent Seymour for one season. This one bears watching because Seymour's family remained back east last season, and the three-time Super Bowl champion is not accustomed to the losing or dysfunction he experienced last year in Oakland.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS -- Who will replace running back LaDainian Tomlinson?

Tomlinson has been the face of the franchise pretty much since he was drafted in 2001, but he's expected to be released because the offense now runs through QB Philip Rivers, and Tomlinson has had three consecutive seasons of declining production. Backup Darren Sproles is not physically built to be the fulltime back for 16 games, and journeyman reserve Michael Bennett isn't the answer. GM A.J. Smith doesn't believe in spending big in free agency, so look for help to come from the draft.

*And another thing: Arguably no team will benefit more from an uncapped season than the Chargers, who have a handful of key starters who'll be kept off the open market because they won't have the required six seasons for unrestricted free agency. The list includes Shawne Merriman, Darren Sproles, Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill and Malcom Floyd.

BALTIMORE RAVENS -- Is there a need to revamp the offense?

The Ravens have relied on their running game since the turn of the century, but the passing attack must improve for the team to have a better chance of reaching the Super Bowl. Joe Flacco is the first franchise-type QB Baltimore has had under GM Ozzie Newsome, but his stable of receivers isn't deep or talented. Too often Flacco looks for talented veteran Derrick Mason at the expense of younger receivers. Mason was the only wideout to finish with more than 34 catches, and his seven touchdowns matched all the other wideouts combined. Could a trade for Denver's Marshall be a possibility?

*And another thing: The player to watch is safety Ed Reed. He's one of the game's alltime great ballhawks, but said after the playoffs his return was 50-50. Tom Zbikowski filled in capably, but is he the longterm answer should Reed retire?

CINCINNATI BENGALS -- Anyone know a good tight end and wideout?

The Bengals made great strides on defense and with their running game, but the passing game suffered last season because it lacked weapons. QB Carson Palmer lost his top two tight ends to injury in training camp and never had a consistent complement to wideout Chad Ochocinco. In fact, the Bengals ranked 26th in the league with only 36 completions of at least 20 yards. The Bengals have to find a capable and consistent deep threat, otherwise their chances of repeating as division champions are remote.

*And another thing: As well as the defense played in its second year under coordinator Mike Zimmer, the Bengals have to find help at safety. Strong safety Roy Williams and free safety Chris Crocker turn 30 this year, and neither is a ballhawk. If they can find a playmaker on the back end to go with talented corners Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph, turnovers and defensive touchdowns could come in bunches.

CLEVELAND BROWNS -- It's February, do you know who your quarterback is?

The Browns played musical QBs with Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson last season, and now there's a report they have inquired about the availability of Eagles signal-caller Donovan McNabb. It has been said that if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one. Coach Eric Mangini needs to find one and stick with him. Anderson reportedly will be released before his $2 million roster bonus comes due next month, but the talk of McNabb, if true, says little for the club's confidence in Quinn. The Browns closed the season with their first four-game winning streak since rejoining the league in 1999, and they must improve a passing game that had a league-low 25 completions of 20 yards or more to maintain that momentum.

*And another thing: The Browns have 11 draft picks and a new GM, Tom Heckert, who comes from an Eagles organization that favors drafting for quality instead of need. It's unclear whether that will be the case in Cleveland, but if Heckert does decide to go for need he should look at wide receiver, defensive back, running back and linebacker.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS -- Is it time to start retooling the defense?

The Steelers defense, which ranked No. 1 in nearly every statistical category in 2008, blew five fourth-quarter leads last season. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh went from Super Bowl champion to out of the playoffs. The Steelers undoubtedly missed All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who was sidelined 11 games with a knee injury. But the late-game collapses might also be attributed to age; seven of the regular starters were 30 or older last season. Another factor was the secondary. The cornerbacks did not intercept a pass until the season finale. That's unacceptable considering opponents attempted 548 passes against the Steelers, tying for ninth-most in the league. Ike Taylor is solid, but William Gay was a liability. Look for 2009 third-round pick Keenan Lewis to challenge for a starting job.

*And another thing: Can the Steelers get back to their smash-mouth identity? Owner Dan Rooney suggested after last season that Pittsburgh had strayed too far from its roots -- also known as the running game. That won't happen this year. There are building blocks for a power-running game in guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackle Willie Colon, but the other starters are replaceable. One problem: Pittsburgh has a lot of money invested in the line and isn't likely to spend more at that position.

HOUSTON TEXANS -- What will it take to reach the playoffs for the first time?

Other than make key field goals when the opportunities present themselves, the Texans must upgrade their ground game. They ranked 30th in rushing yards and 31st in yards per carry. The passing game is lethal with Matt Schaub throwing to wideout Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels. If the offense can complement that with a ground game strong enough to control the clock and keep the ball out of the hands of opposing quarterbacks, the playoffs should definitely be within reach because six of Houston's seven losses were by eight points or less. Run the ball more effectively and that's one or two fewer possessions each game for the opposing offense. All of this changes, however, if the team chooses not to franchise Dunta Robinson. At that point cornerback would become the most pressing issue.

*And another thing: Houston needs help in the secondary, but no one should overlook the kicking game. Kris Brown is the Texan's longest-tenured player and their alltime leading scorer, but he also missed makeable field goals down the stretch. Can the staff and front office be confident in Brown if he's in the same situation next year?

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS -- Will the Colts re-sign middle linebacker Gary Brackett?

The short answer is yes. Brackett is a respected leader who made the climb from undrafted rookie to team captain. Don't be shocked if Brackett gets some help at the linebacker position. Tennessee free agent Keith Bulluck would be a perfect fit in the Colts' system, and the Titans have made no attempts to re-sign him at this point.

*And another thing: Indy rarely is a big spender in free agency, preferring to build through the draft and reward its own. QB Peyton Manning almost certainly will receive a new deal before the end of the season (his contract expires after 2010), and safety Antoine Bethea, another quiet leader on the defense, could be in line for a multiyear deal. He'll be a restricted free agent this offseason, per an uncapped year.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS -- Are the Jaguars ready to grow up?

They had better be, because owner Wayne Weaver has only so much patience. He did an extensive overhaul at the end of the season and announced he believes in coach Jack Del Rio, who last season played 16 first-year players -- including offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton -- and 33 new players overall. Once wideout Torry Holt and offensive tackle Tra Thomas are released, as expected, the team will have only 11 players on the roster with more than five years experience.

*And another thing: In a division that features Pro Bowl passers Manning and Schaub, the Jaguars are going to have a tough time breaking their two-year playoff drought if they don't upgrade their pass rush. Jacksonville ranked last in the league with 14 sacks in 2009. It was sackless in half its games. Most of the problem is on the edge, where ends Quentin Groves and Derrick Harvey combined for only two sacks in 23 starts.

TENNESSEE TITANS -- Is the franchise ready to trust Vince Young again?

Without question. The Titans started 0-6 last season with Kerry Collins at QB, but Young came on and led them to eight wins in their final 10 games. He showed greater maturity as a player and person, and won back the trust of teammates. He is never going to be a great stats guy, but his career shows that he always puts up big numbers in the one area that counts: wins. He is 26-13 as an NFL starter.

*And another thing: Last offseason the Titans allowed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to leave as a free agent and never completely replaced him. Now linebacker Keith Bulluck, a respected team leader, is up for free agency. Bulluck is recovering from knee surgery -- the first major injury of his 10-year career -- and the team has yet to approach him about an extension. Might it be their second major free-agent loss in as many years?


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