As my colleague Andrew Brandt has often pointed out, the NFL's long offseason is when a team's players and even coaches step to the background and the front office takes center stage, attempting to distinguish itself in the business of football. The multifaceted roster-building portion of the NFL year is upon us, and it will hit high gear starting next Tuesday afternoon, when the league's free agency period opens and the wheeling and dealing commences. A little less than two months later, the NFL draft will complete the majority of the annual assembly project for most teams.
As March begins to unfold, here's a look at four front offices -- one in each NFC division -- that are the under the most pressure to get it right this offseason, improving the fortunes of the product they field this fall. We'll tackle the NFC clubs today, and the AFC teams on Thursday. The story of how these teams fare in 2014 will largely be written in the coming two-plus months, in the decisions, acquisitions and determinations that are about to be made. As always, the results will vary widely.
• NFC East -- Dallas: Nowhere should the fierce urgency of now be any higher than it is in Dallas, where the Cowboys are stuck in the maddening status quo world of 8-8 under head coach Jason Garrett, losing with a shot at the division title and a playoff trip in Week 17 for three consecutive seasons. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day had nothing on Jerry Jones and Co., who by now probably wake up every day to "I Got You Babe'' on the clock radio.
But large-scale changes won't be possible. The cap-strapped Cowboys know all too well they can't be the Dallas Buyers Club in free agency, given that it is taking a flurry of contract restructures just to get them close to being in compliance with the league's new $133 million salary cap (the Cowboys are actually at $134.55 million with some 2013 carryover cap room). Tony Romo, Sean Lee and Orlando Scandrick all reportedly played ball with Dallas in order to ease the tightest cap crunch in the league, and the club still faces significant decisions on DeMarcus Ware and Miles Austin, both of whom are potential cap cuts or restructuring candidates.
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Instead of big spenders, the Cowboys will be "efficient'' shoppers in free agency, according to executive vice president Stephen Jones, but Dallas can't even peruse the bargain bin until it makes the calls on Ware and Austin and creates more cap space with which to work. But clearly some meaningful roster shakeup has to occur. Dallas' four-year playoff drought is the longest of Jerry Jones' 25-year ownership tenure, and everybody in the NFC East has won the division at least once since the Cowboys last claimed it in 2009.
Fixing the defense is job No. 1 in Dallas, after a season in which the Cowboys surrendered a league-worst 415.3 yards per game (third most in NFL history) and 432 points (second-most in team history). The reshuffled coaching staff will help (Rod Marinelli elevated to defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin bumped up to an oversight role), but fresh bodies are needed. Most of the decisions and additions figure to come on the defensive line, where defensive tackle Jason Hatcher (the team's leading sacker in 2013 with 11) and defensive end Anthony Spencer (season-ending left knee surgery in 2013) are free agents, and defensive end Ware could potentially walk away as a cap casualty.
Hatcher probably will elicit an offer too big for Dallas to contend with, but Spencer and Ware might both make their way back to the Cowboys, leaving defensive tackle the obvious focus in the first round of the draft. Fortunately for Dallas, defensive tackle talents like Pitt's Aaron Donald and Florida State's Timmy Jernigan should be available at No. 16, and safety, another area of need, is also a fairly deep position in this year's draft. Lastly, finding a backup quarterback should Kyle Orton retire is another critical item on the offseason to-do list.
• NFC North -- Green Bay: The injury-riddled Packers were the only team on our list to make the playoffs last season, but that 8-7-1 division title-winning effort really wasn't what they had in mind in Titletown, and it probably said more about Detroit's and Chicago's failures than it did Green Bay's superiority. Despite an NFL-high five consecutive playoff trips (tied with New England), this is a Packers team that knows its Super Bowl window of opportunity won't stay open indefinitely and feels the mounting pressure to earn that second ring while franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers remains in his prime.
That's largely what makes this an exception to the rule type of offseason in Green Bay, with general manager Ted Thompson prepared to be an actual player in free agency for a change, and the Packers in possession of a division-best $34 million-plus of salary cap room with which to operate. Green Bay still believes first and foremost in its draft-and-develop philosophy, but signing many of its own 17 free-agent eligible players will be a big part of the plan this offseason, with the Packers competing to retain the likes of cornerback Sam Shields, offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight end Jermichael Finley, receiver James Jones and outside linebacker Mike Neal, as well as targeting some of their projected four free-agent defensive linemen: B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson.
The Packers realize they left their depth too thin in spots last season, and when the injury wave hit them hard, they didn't have enough to sustain their level of accustomed excellence. They've talked about trying to become more versatile and flexible on defense this offseason, with players who can handle multiple roles and help cushion the cost of inevitable injury sprees.
But the talent level must also improve, and the obvious areas to address will be safety (where no Packer had an interception last season, the first time that has happened in five decades), defensive line (depending on how many of its own free agents leave) and linebacker, where only Clay Matthews has been a dependable playmaker. As Matthews told SiriusXM radio recently, the gap between the team's top-five offense and its 25th-ranked defense must be closed.
"On the defensive side of the ball, we need to have more playmakers and get off the field more often and put the ball back into our offense's hands,'' he said. "It's a time for guys to step up and make a name for themselves, myself included, as well as hopefully adding a few guys through the draft.''
The draft should bring help at safety, which is a well-stocked position this year. At No. 21, Green Bay might be able to land one of the top two prospects, either Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix or Louisville's Calvin Pryor. If the Packers instead address that need in free agency, names like Jarius Byrd, T.J. Ward, Donte Whitner, Ryan Clark and Chris Clemons are potential options.
• NFC South -- Atlanta: After going 13-3 and earning the NFC's top seed in 2012, the Falcons are out to prove that last year's disintegration to 4-12 was an aberration, sparked by some key injuries, narrow early-season losses and problems on both lines. In capsule form, Atlanta couldn't protect its passer or rush the opposing passer, and those glaring deficiencies resulted in a team that got pushed around in the trenches, leading to a distinct lack of toughness in close games.
Trying to ward off the "soft'' label, the Falcons fired both their offensive and defensive line coaches, and hired a couple tough guys to replace them: Ex-Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice is on board to rebuild the offensive line's confidence and coordination, and longtime NFL linebacker Bryan Cox will try to rejuvenate the defensive line. In addition, in a move that was shrewd, Atlanta added ex-Chiefs GM Scott Pioli to provide another set of eyes on the personnel front, aiding GM Thomas Dimitroff.
The thinking is, if Atlanta can fix its issues up front, it still has the skill-position firepower to compete for the Super Bowl in the NFC. The logic had better be correct, because New Orleans and Carolina look like they'll be a tough out in the NFC South for the forseeable future, and Lovie Smith might be just the right man for the job in Tampa Bay. I'm not sure it all adds up to a true make-or-break year for the Falcons, but a second-straight non-playoff season in Atlanta -- after four trips in five years -- could prompt significant changes, and would almost force owner Arthur Blank to abandon his steady-as-she-goes approach to team management.
With that in mind, upgrading the offensive line and boosting the pass rush will be the focus for the Falcons this offseason. In the draft, that means Atlanta has some very good options at No. 6. On defense, maybe South Carolina's freakishly gifted pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney falls to the Falcons, or Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack is there for the taking. If they choose to go offensive tackle with the pick, either Texas A&M's pro-ready Jake Matthews or Auburn's talented Greg Robinson should be available.
In free agency, Atlanta will have a reported $25 million of cap room and not much to worry about in regards to its own players to re-sign. Defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry are set to hit the market, and center Joe Hawley might be a priority to retain. But the Falcons should have the money to pursue a pass rusher like Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson or Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett, or perhaps they try to lure veteran Jared Allen to town. Guard and defensive tackle are the other areas of need, and contract extensions for Atlanta's two top receivers -- Roddy White and Julio Jones -- appear to be a priority as well.
• NFC West -- St. Louis: It can't possibly escape the Rams how pivotal this offseason is in terms of their standing within the NFL's strongest division. Seattle and San Francisco are the NFC's best teams and most recent two conference champions, and even third-place Arizona is on the rise, finishing a strong 10-6 last season under new head coach Bruce Arians. That leaves St. Louis trying desperately to get over the seven-win hump as head coach Jeff Fisher's third season approaches. It's time for the Rams to win, and the backdrop of the franchise's uncertain future in St. Louis (Hello, Los Angeles?) only adds to the prevailing sense of urgency.
For the Rams, it starts with capitalizing on the draft this year, because St. Louis owns two of the first 13 picks (Nos. 2 and 13) as result of the Robert Griffin III trade bonanza of 2012. The Rams have to use that windfall wisely, perhaps taking two instant starters or dealing downward and out of the No. 2 slot once again for even more pieces of the roster puzzle. GM Les Snead has made it clear he's open to dealing that pick, and there should be teams just below St. Louis who are interested in moving up (No. 4 Cleveland for a quarterback?; No. 6 Atlanta for a pass-rusher like Clowney?).
If the Rams can move down slightly and still come away with either a receiver like Clemson's Sammy Watkins or an offensive tackle like Auburn's Greg Robinson or Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, they'd win a lot of points with the instant-draft-grade set. If they stick at No. 2, maybe they have to consider taking Clowney themselves, even though defensive end is a strength with Robert Quinn and Chris Long. But by any scenario, the two first-round picks should help the Rams cross off two of their most pressing needs, be it at receiver, offensive tackle, safety or linebacker. All four of those positions have appealing choices in the top half of the first round.
The biggest issue in St. Louis is cap room, with the Rams believed to be just under the $133 million threshold at the moment, before they do any restructuring or cap-based releases. The priority is the re-signing of offensive tackle Rodger Saffold, who has even more importance given the late-season ACL tear suffered by fellow starting tackle Jake Long. Saffold is expected to have a sizable market for his services, and the team has yet to make progress on retaining him.
Veterans who might be cut to create some breathing room under the cap include center Scott Wells, guard Harvey Dahl and underachieving free-agent cornerback Cortland Finnegan. If there is a position targeted in free agency, it could be safety, where veterans such as Jarius Byrd, T.J. Ward and Donte Whitner are expected to help populate the market place.
Obviously the return to health of quarterback Sam Bradford (season-ending ACL surgery in October) is another big lynchpin of the Rams' plans to contend in the NFC West in 2014. But St. Louis has remained committed to him and is not expected to use any of its draft capital on a starting quarterback option.
It won't be easy for the Rams to step up in weight class in their rugged division, especially since they play both Super Bowl clubs and have eight games against 2013 playoff teams. But they may never have a better chance than 2014 to take the much-needed leap forward.