There are times when the pace of activity in the NFL's long offseason actually seems busier than in the six months in which the games are being played. That's why I always laugh when people ask me what I cover once the Super Bowl is over. My answer? More football. Just no games.
With the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis just two weeks away, an unusual free agency period looming on the not-too-distant horizon, and our first three-day NFL Draft to look forward to (ahem) in April, it's time to preview the issues that are about to percolate in the offseason. Here's a team-by-team look at some questions facing the NFC's 16 clubs.
CLICK HERE FOR JIM TROTTER'S LOOK AT THE AFC
DALLAS COWBOYS -- Is it time to for Dallas to part ways with offensive left tackle Flozell Adams, the longest-tenured Cowboy?
With all questions about the future of either head coach Wade Phillips and quarterback Tony Romo cleared up for now, the Cowboys should be facing a remarkably status quo offseason. But there is that not-insignificant matter of how the Dallas offensive line was overwhelmed by Minnesota in the playoffs. Adams will be 35 in May, with 12 NFL seasons already in the books. The Cowboys were very high on the seven starts they got from third-year reserve tackle Doug Free in place of injured right tackle Marc Colombo, and may feel that Adams' game has slipped and he's no longer worth the big money he's in line for in 2010.
*And another thing: After going through Nick Folk and Shaun Suisham last season, who's going to kick in Dallas? Maybe a bid for Raiders free agent Sebastian Janikowski is in order.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES -- How will the Eagles three-headed quarterback situation shake out?
Andy Reid has said Donovan McNabb will return for the final year of his contract, and No. 5 says that's his understanding as well. The Eagles love Kevin Kolb and won't trade him unless somebody blows their doors off (Cleveland?). And Philly even says it has the luxury of bringing back Michael "Wildcat'' Vick at $5 million. But don't count on it.
The Eagles reportedly are already listening to teams interested in McNabb (Denver, Cleveland and Buffalo), and there's a chance Brad Childress and the Vikings might even give up a first-round pick (No. 30) for him if Brett Favre retires (again). More likely, the Eagles would have to settle for second- and fourth-round picks. I also expect Philly to shop Vick for a mid-round pick, and St. Louis still makes the most logical destination.
*And another thing: Given his health issues, his $7.5 million salary, and the emergence of LeSean McCoy, Brian Westbrook's chances of being in green and white again next season aren't good. Is retirement, a big pay cut or an outright release in the offing for Westbrook?
NEW YORK GIANTS -- Is unhappy defensive end Osi Umenyiora going anywhere?
In a word, no. Make no mistake, the Giants were underwhelmed by Umenyiora's performance in 2009. New York thought he showed a notable lack of toughness at times. But he wasn't the only big disappointment on its defense, and in particular on the defensive line. And let's not forget, he was coming off 2008's season-ending knee surgery, and some players aren't themselves again until the second season after their injury. Umenyiora has threatened to retire if the Giants don't restore him to the starting lineup, but get serious. The bottom line is you don't discard 28-year-old, two-time Pro Bowl pass rushers based on one poor year. Especially when they're only scheduled to make $3 million next season. The Giants hope new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell will bring Umenyiora's game back to life.
*And another thing: Coming off a season-ending neck injury, middle linebacker Antonio Pierce may have played his last game in Giants blue. Who takes over that key spot -- Jonathan Goff or Bryan Kehl?
WASHINGTON REDSKINS -- Which direction will Mike Shanahan go at quarterback?
It's way too early to know, but I happen to think the Redskins new head coach will spend the team's No. 4 pick in the first round on Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, even with Washington's crumbling offensive line needing to be rebuilt. But choosing to groom Bradford for the future may not preclude the return of Campbell, a restricted free agent, in the short term. Remember, the last time Shanahan took a first-round quarterback -- Jay Cutler in Denver in 2006 -- he kept veteran Jake Plummer around for one more year during the transition from old to new. Shanahan seems to think Campbell did OK with what he had to work with last season, and re-signing him to a short-term deal gives the Redskins options and buys time for Bradford. The big question will be: Is Campbell OK with that plan?
*And another thing: Can Shanahan get perennial loose cannon Clinton Portis to shut up, work harder and produce as the team's lead running back? Shanahan was willing to get rid of Portis in Denver when No. 26 had much more value than he does today, so he wouldn't hesitate this time around.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS -- Will Brett Favre return next season, or do the Vikings have to go quarterback shopping?
You can't seriously expect me to divine Favre's intentions on Feb. 11. Talk to me Aug. 11 and I'll have a better idea if No. 4 intends to make it an even 20 seasons in the NFL. But as long as we understand those guessing-game ground rules, I'm willing to remind everyone that I'm on record saying I expect Favre to be back in purple in 2010. He played too well for too long last year to let that horrible interception at New Orleans be his last NFL pass. What I don't know is when Minnesota really needs to hear his intentions, because you'd have to figure the Vikings would be interested trading for Donovan McNabb if Favre retires, and that deal likely won't wait until early August. I'd tell you to stay tuned, but I already know you will.
*And another thing: Veteran running back Chester Taylor is an unrestricted free agent, and he's still very productive and valuable as Adrian Peterson's backup -- even at 30. Given Peterson's fumbling problem, re-signing Taylor should be higher on Minnesota's to-do list than it otherwise might be.
GREEN BAY PACKERS -- Do the Packers re-sign nose tackle Ryan Pickett or turn the job over to 2009 first-round pick, B.J. Raji?
Pickett thrived at the nose in the first year of Green Bay's 3-4 formation, and proved adept at handling the point of attack in the Packers' top-ranked run defense. He'll be 31 in October, and already has nine NFL seasons to his credit, but the best space-eating defensive tackles generally last well into their mid-to-late 30s (think Ted Washington, Sam Adams and Grady Jackson). Green Bay wants Pickett back and seems prepared to try and re-sign him even before he reaches unrestricted free agency next month. But the Packers drafted Raji with the nose tackle job in mind, and at some point logic says he'll be the starter. In reality, Green Bay's D-line played a four-man rotation last season and still needs both players in the foreseeable future. That's why the Pack is a good bet to get a deal with Pickett done.
*And another thing: Problems at offensive tackle almost doomed Green Bay in the season's first half, so look for the Packers to think tackle in the first round of the draft. But in the meantime, they might want to bring back veterans Chad Clifton and/or Mark Tauscher, who are both unrestricted.
CHICAGO BEARS -- Can new offensive coordinator Mike Martz and Jay Cutler form a winning team?
Head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo have one more season to fix what's broken in Chicago and contend once again in the NFC North, and nothing will aid that effort more than getting quarterback Jay Cutler's game straightened out. The team's circuitous search for an OC was embarrassing, but it finally led to Martz, who certainly has a track record of success with quarterbacks. But Cutler's a different bird, of course, and come to think of it, so is Martz. How they work together once the bullets start flying is anyone's guess. Smith talked about getting back to a Bears-type running game next year, and he hired run-loving offensive line coach Mike Tice. But Martz has been known to forget about the run game at times, and throw, throw, throw. To say the least, this marriage bears watching.
*And another thing: Will Chicago's newly elevated defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli, be up to the challenge of restoring some swagger to a unit that has slipped a long way from its 2006 Super Bowl form?
DETROIT LIONS -- Can the Lions continue building on last year's strong draft class and take a much bigger step than 2009's two-win improvement?
Though the Lions' record didn't show it, there's hope in Detroit, thanks to a 2009 draft that yielded four starters in the opening three rounds: quarterback Matthew Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, safety Louis Delmas and linebacker DeAndre Levy. And now to that bounty head coach Jim Schwartz can add either Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy or Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh -- one of which will be the choice when Detroit's No. 2 pick comes up April 22. At that point, each level of the Lions defense will have added a stud player in the span of two drafts. This much Detroit has learned and won't be repeated: Signing a bunch of older free agents to late-career deals does not improve a bad team. Additions like Larry Foote, Julian Peterson and Phillip Buchanon fell flat last year.
*And another thing: Running back Kevin Smith had an injury-marred sophomore season, and who knows if he's still capable of fronting the Detroit running game? But the Lions offense can't put it all on Stafford's shoulders, so finding another potential lead rusher in free agency or the draft is fairly vital.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS -- Are the Saints facing a showdown with Reggie Bush over his scheduled $8 million salary in 2010?
Once upon a time during the season that just ended, it looked nigh impossible that the Saints would be willing to pay their situational running back the money he has coming this year in the fifth season of his six-year rookie contract. But now, in the post-Super Bowl love-fest, who can say definitively? The Saints certainly know Bush loves playing in New Orleans and is motivated to stay put, so they could approach him with a restructured deal that is in essence a pay cut. As long as they're tactful about it and Bush doesn't feel insulted, the two sides could work something out and continue the marriage. But I don't think a trade or release are really options at this point. Saints head coach Sean Payton made Bush his first draft pick in New Orleans, and still believes in him. Bush will get his best deal from the Saints, because nobody loves him as much as they do.
*And another thing: All-Pro safety Darren Sharper is the team's priority unrestricted free agent, but New Orleans will do what it takes to retain him. Other than coordinator Gregg Williams, nobody did more to change the face of the Saints defense than Sharper.
ATLANTA FALCONS -- What's the biggest lock in the first round of this year's NFL Draft?
I suppose defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy going 1-2 in some order looks rock solid to most folks about now, but I'd put my money on the Falcons taking a cornerback in the first round as having an even higher probability. Atlanta's injury-plagued secondary was its glaring weakness last season, and that the Falcons managed to go 9-7 with the cornerbacks they had speaks to how much offensive talent is currently on hand in Atlanta. I gave the No. 19 Falcons fast-rising Boise State cornerback Kyle Wilson in my first mock draft last month, but Alabama's Kareem Jackson is another possibility that has surfaced as we get fully into draft season. In an NFC South currently ruled by the receiver-laden Super Bowl champion Saints, the Falcons are desperate for a big-time cover corner.
*And another thing: After using three kickers last season, can the Falcons find someone to bring stability to that key position? Matt Bryant and Steven Hauschka are still around, but three CFL kickers reportedly tried out just last week.
CAROLINA PANTHERS -- Does Julius Peppers have any chance of being a Panther again in 2010?
Slim and none -- with slim decreasing all the time -- sounds about right. Carolina wound up paying their star defensive end a total of $18.2 million for the 2009 season, and nobody thinks Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is willing to go that route again, re-slapping the franchise tag on him at a cool $20.1 million this time around. Carolina could franchise him and then shop him in trade, but a new contract would obviously be a major component of any deal. The always quiet Peppers is getting the silent treatment from the Panthers these days, and he now says he doesn't want a long-term deal in Carolina. One way or another, his eight-year run in Charlotte looks over. The Panthers have until Feb. 25 to franchise him, and teams like New England (a 3-4 defense), Philadelphia and New Orleans (both 4-3s) seem the most likely potential suitors.
*And another thing: Will veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme stick around as Matt Moore's backup next season, or will the Panthers cut ties with the player they unwisely rewarded with a fat, long-term contract extension in 2009?
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS -- Can the Bucs use their all-important 10 draft picks this year as the foundation of their rebuilding program?
With the exception of starting quarterback, where the Bucs are Josh Freeman's team for the foreseeable future, Tampa Bay has needs everywhere you look on the roster. Defensive end, defensive tackle, safety, cornerback, receiver, running back, guard, offensive tackle, you name it. There's no way the Bucs are going to be major players in what figures to be a quieter than usual free agency period, so that makes this year's draft absolutely critical if Tampa Bay is to return to relevance. Much like Detroit did in last year's draft, the Bucs need to come away with four or five starters from the 2010 lottery, hopefully seeding each line of their defense with at least one potential standout.
*And another thing: Getting a sense of stability established after last year's upheaval -- new head coach, new GM, new coordinators, fired coordinators, three different starting QBs -- would register as progress in and of itself in 2010.
ARIZONA CARDINALS -- Will the Cardinals finally end the team's Anquan Boldin era?
Most likely, yes. Boldin says he's not requesting a trade this offseason, but ironically, this time he doesn't have to. With young receivers Steve Breaston and Early Doucet both contributing alongside Larry Fitzgerald last season, the Cardinals can see that life without Boldin is far from scary. In fact, in games Boldin has missed the past two years, Arizona is 6-2, averaging more than 30 points per game. With him, they're 17-13, with 24.5 ppg. As long as the Cardinals don't over-price Boldin, he should draw interest from receiver-needy teams like Miami and Baltimore, and maybe even Denver if it moves Brandon Marshall.
*And another thing: Will the Cardinals bring in some legitimate competition for newly elevated starter, Matt Leinart? Maybe they draft a quarterback in the mid-to-late rounds, but otherwise I think it's Leinart's time and Leinart's team.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS -- Did Alex Smith and Mike Singletary do enough in 2009 to establish themselves as the 49ers' tandem for the long term?
San Francisco's quarterback and head coach did just enough in their first full season together to warrant another chance to continue their growth in 2010. But that's about as far as the commitment level should go these days in 49ers-land. Smith had a pretty decent season after taking over for Shaun Hill six games into the year. He wasn't lights out, but you could see the beginning of some solid chemistry between Smith and tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree. That deserves time to strengthen. As for Singletary, his leadership skills outweigh his coaching skills at this point, but he too took a step in the right direction with last year's 8-8. With no Kurt Warner in Arizona any more, the 49ers have no excuse for not contending in the NFC West. That means the pressure amps up for both Singletary and Smith next season.
*And another thing: Picking 13th and 16th in the first round, can the 49ers land themselves a quality cover corner to aid the pass defense (Florida's Joe Haden?) and a solid right offensive tackle (Idaho's Mike Iupati?) to upgrade the line and bookend with Joe Staley on the left side?
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS -- Is Seattle wise to believe Matt Hasselbeck is still the answer at quarterback?
Hasselbeck will be 35 in late September, he's coming off his worst season in years, and his recent health issues have been well-chronicled. But new head coach Pete Carroll and new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates seem 100 percent sold on him still being the guy in Seattle, and Bates went so far as saying Hasselbeck could be "special'' in the team's West Coast offense. In a year in which Brett Favre and Kurt Warner played superbly at 40 and 38, respectively, it does seem premature to consider Hasselbeck washed up. Talking with Dick Vermeil last month, he scoffed at those who think Seattle needs a new quarterback, insisting Hasselbeck just needs a better supporting cast. I agree, but will Seattle give it to him?
*And another thing: New offensive line coach Alex Gibbs' never needed a first-round running back in Denver to make the ground game work. So will Seattle pass on using one of its two first-rounders (No. 6 and 14) on a big-name back like Clemson's C.J. Spiller?
ST. LOUIS RAMS -- Will the Rams wind up making the play for Eagles quarterback Michael Vick that everyone expects them to?
No team in the NFL is more desperate for new options at quarterback than St. Louis, and that includes the very needy Bills, Browns and Raiders. The Rams still make the most sense for Vick because he'd walk in the door as the likely starter, getting the opportunity he craves, and he'd add a dose of much-needed excitement to a moribund franchise that has won three games over the past two years. Also, head coach Steve Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur were on Andy Reid's staff in Philly for years, meaning the Rams would likely get the best possible trade terms (a fourth-round pick?) from the Eagles, not to mention straight talk on where Vick's game is at these days.
*And another thing: Sitting in the draft's No. 1 slot, the Rams get to decide whether Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy is the most disruptive, pro-ready defensive tackle available. Watching that big-money decision play out should add a touch of drama to the draft season.
CLICK HERE FOR JIM TROTTER'S LOOK AT THE AFC