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 (4 p.m. ET), 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 the four front offices -- one in each AFC 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 tackled the NFC clubs on Tuesday, and now conclude with the under-the-gun set in the AFC. 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.
• AFC West -- Oakland: At least no one is laboring under any misconceptions this year in Raider-land. Team owner Mark Davis has labeled this a "transformative offseason'' in Oakland, and it darn well had better be for head coach Dennis Allen's and general manager Reggie McKenzie's sake. Both realize there's zero chance they make it to Year 4 in their jobs if the Raiders don't show significant improvement in 2014. The good news is, after back-to-back 4-12 seasons under Allen and McKenzie, improvement is a fairly low bar to clear.
The Raiders have the weight of those 11 consecutive non-winning seasons to drag around, but they also have by far the most salary cap room in the league ($66.4 million) to offer hope for a better day. After years of being in the salary-cap stockade due to poor personnel decision-making, Oakland has the mother of all makeover opportunities and Monopoly money to hand out. But the task of laying the foundation for a turnaround season won't be as easy as spending big in free agency and drafting well, not with three 2013 playoff teams in the AFC West and the powerful NFC West on the schedule in 2014. The Raiders can afford to take a shotgun approach to their acquisition spree, with needs almost everywhere, but they still have to be judicious and make every move count if they're going to threaten the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers in any real way.
With all that dough to work with, it's a little surprising McKenzie hasn't already moved to lock up the Raiders' two priority free agents with long-term deals: offensive tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end Lamarr Houston. Both are young cornerstones who are part of the solution rather than part of the problem in Oakland, and it would send a confusing signal if the Raiders let either escape.
Defensive tackle Pat Sims and cornerback Tracy Porter are also Oakland free agents worth investing in, and last year's emergence of running back Rashad Jennings (another eligible free agent) should make it an easy call to bid farewell to eternally injured veteran rusher Darren McFadden, the team's star-crossed No. 1 pick in 2008. As for available free-agent talent on other rosters, a complementary receiver like James Jones makes some sense, as does a veteran pass-rushing defensive end along the lines of Jared Allen, if the Raiders can coax him into silver and black.
But the decision that will matter most and should get the most thought will come at quarterback, where Oakland has to find better starting options than the 2013 tandem of Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin. The undrafted McGloin is seen as a decent short-term bridge quarterback if the Raiders opt to spend their No. 5 draft pick on a franchise QB, but Pryor might be gone by the time training camp opens. Oakland could also get into the veteran quarterback market by signing Josh Freeman, Josh McCown or Michael Vick, giving itself the option to take someone like Khalil Mack or Sammy Watkins at No. 5, and perhaps look for a quarterback in the second round. Freeman worked with Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson in Tampa Bay and might be the leader in that clubhouse.
• AFC North -- Pittsburgh: Everyone knows the Rooney-owned Steelers have patience and never panic, but that doesn't mean they're immune to feeling pressure. A few quick reminders of the state of things in the Steel City: Five seasons have passed since Pittsburgh last won a Super Bowl. The Mike Tomlin-coached Steelers haven't had a winning record since 2011, haven't won a playoff game since the 2010 AFC title game defeat of the Jets and, in 2014, will be trying to avoid their first three-year streak of missing the postseason since 1998-2000 under Bill Cowher. So the heat will be on in Pittsburgh this year. No matter how it looks outside. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert recently called it a "huge'' offseason for the venerable franchise, and he didn't overstate it.
The Steelers came into this week with some significant salary cap trimming to do, and they've been busy, first retaining outside linebacker Jason Worilds with a $9.75 million transition tag deal, but then responding to that surprise move by lowering the 2014 cap figures of safety Troy Polamalu and tight end Heath Miller via contract extensions, cutting a combined $7.8 million from the team's tight cap.
Releasing three other players, including offensive tackle Levi Brown and linebacker Larry Foote, provided millions more of cap savings, and the machinations likely aren't done. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley is expected to be released, perhaps after June 1, to lessen the amount of dead money he would account for under the cap. And cornerback Ike Taylor might have to significantly lower his $7 million salary for 2014 to avoid being released, although this week's decisions might lessen the urgency of that situation.
Those financial steps aside, the Steelers enter the talent acquisition season with plenty of areas to upgrade. The secondary is getting old and slow, and with the expected departure of free-agent safety Ryan Clark, either the team drafts his replacement (Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round at No. 15?) or hands his job to 2013 fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas.
Depth at cornerback is another concern even if Taylor stays, and receiver will be on the radar screen as well if free-agent receiver Emmanuel Sanders signs elsewhere as expected. Pittsburgh likes 2013 third-round pick Markus Wheaton to help fill the void at receiver, but he remains largely unproven and it could prompt Pittsburgh to both re-sign Jerricho Cotchery and perhaps select another pass-catcher in this year's receiver-rich draft.
The Steelers could stand to find their next Casey Hampton at defensive tackle, or acquire some youth at defensive end, but their first-round pick is probably going to be spent on the secondary, or even offensive tackle. Perhaps free agency will provide a short-term option like Baltimore 3-4 end Arthur Jones or run-stuffing defensive tackle Paul Soliai. As always, Pittsburgh won't be spending lavishly in free agency, but look for the Steelers to make selected forays in the market, especially to supplement their aging defense.
• AFC East -- Miami: Rebuilding project? Try re-branding in the case of the Dolphins, a team trying desperately to turn the page after the ugly and unprecedented tumult of their 2013 locker-room controversy. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which any NFL franchise would be more under the microscope than Miami is this year, with head coach Joe Philbin's entire program in need of both success and renewed credibility. After going 7-9 and 8-8 in his first two seasons on the job -- with an 0-2 finish to last year costing his team a playoff berth -- Philbin has no margin for error in 2014. And that means Miami had better start hitting its marks from the outset of this year's offseason.
Miami went big into free agency last season, and didn't get enough bang for its buck, winning just one more game than in 2012. But the Dolphins might have to go back into the market in a relatively significant way, given that their now-disgraced offensive line needs to be almost totally remade. Other than center Mike Pouncey, who could be in line for a league suspension for his role in the team's bullying scandal, the Dolphins could field new starters at the other four line positions this season. It's just as well, too, given that Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked a league-worst 58 times in 2013, and the Dolphins running game averaged just 90 yards per game.
With more than $38 million of salary cap room (fifth most in the NFL) at the start of this week before re-signing cornerback Brent Grimes, you'd have to think the Dolphins are going to wave a wad of cash in the face of one of the top-rated free agent offensive tackles: Kansas City's Branden Albert, Oakland's Jared Veldheer or Baltimore's Eugene Monroe. At No. 19 in the first round of the draft, Miami might be in perfect position to find its other starting tackle, with Notre Dame's Zack Martin a popular pick for the Fish.
Re-signing Grimes was a shrewd first step, but the secondary could use more coverage talent, and what better way to perhaps close a bit of the gap on first-place New England than by stealing away the Patriots' No. 1 corner, free-agent-to-be Aqib Talib? The draft also holds decent options at cornerback for Miami, with the second half of the first round expected to feature a run at that vital position.
The Dolphins defense might lose tackles Paul Soliai and Randy Starks in free agency, and both have made the Pro Bowl in their Miami tenures. It'd be a blow to go 0-for-2 on that front and the Dolphins would be smart to use some of their money to secure at least one of them if possible before the bidding starts. Trying to rebuild both lines in the same offseason is probably a recipe for disaster.
Finding out what they really have in 2013 first-round pick Dion Jordan is another item on Miami's offseason to-do list. The Dolphins moved up to No. 3 to select the pass-rushing outside linebacker, but he made little impact as a rookie and was relegated to being a role player and a special teams contributor. There have been reports that Miami has shopped him on the trade market, but the Dolphins won't get the best of any potential deal at this point. Better to find ways to use him more effectively, turning him loose to rush the passer and chase the ballcarrier.
• AFC South -- Houston: Can't think of anyone in recent NFL history that has fallen further faster than the 2013 Texans, shaving 10 wins off their division-winning 12-4 record of 2012 to hit rock bottom at 2-14 in 2013 (even Atlanta saw only a nine-win decline from 2012 to '13). But perhaps that portends a rise in Houston that could happen just as suddenly, and for inspiration, the Texans have only to look within their own division. The 2010 Colts won the AFC South at 10-6, then suffered a disaster at quarterback in 2011 with Peyton Manning's neck injury, plummeting to 2-14. Armed with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, Indianapolis took quarterback Andrew Luck and returned to the playoffs that season.
That's the plan in Houston, anyway, after franchise quarterback Matt Schaub's pick-six-fest seemed to set the tone for a season that swirled down the drain following a 2-0 start in 2013. With a new head coach in Bill O'Brien, even that part of the story mirrors Indy's overnight return to prominence, as the Colts fired the previously successful Jim Caldwell and got a playoff trip out of the rookie season turned in by the coaching tandem of Chuck Pagano and interim Bruce Arians. It wouldn't shock me if Houston's trajectory was very similar.
A lot of that projection, however, depends on who Houston has as its starting quarterback. Will the Texans use their No. 1 on Teddy Bridgewater, Blake Bortles or Johnny Manziel? Or will they take the freakishly gifted Jadeveon Clowney for more pass rush along with J.J. Watt, and then sign a veteran quarterback like Matt Cassel and/or draft a passer in the second round to develop (Jimmy Garoppolo)? We only have another two months to obsess about that one, so pace yourself.
There's enough talent on hand in Houston to win with, but that doesn't mean quarterback is the only hole that needs addressing. The Texans could lose key contributors like tight end Garrett Graham, defensive end Antonio Smith, guard Wade Smith, defensive tackle Earl Mitchell and backup running back Ben Tate in free agency, and they don't have a ton of money to play with under the cap (an estimated $9 million to $11 million at the moment). Cutting Schaub and veteran tight end Owen Daniels will create more breathing room to work with in free agency, and safety Danieal Manning might be in jeopardy too.
Getting running back Arian Foster and inside linebacker Brian Cushing back to full health will help brighten the 2014 picture considerably, but Houston still needs more playmaking and depth at linebacker, and has upgrades to make in both the offensive line and the secondary. It's crucial that the Texans use their lofty draft slot this year to their full advantage, given they get to reset the board and pick first on all three days of the draft (in the first round, the second round and the fourth round). If they can come away with three or four starters and supplement with a few valuable veterans in the second tier of free agency, a bounce-back season in O'Brien's debut effort is one of the safer bets in the NFL this year.