The jarring part of playoff elimination is how quickly the offseason begins. If you're eliminated in the wild-card round, all you have left to do after final press conferences and exit interviews is to look forward to the free agency and draft processes. For the four teams whose seasons ended in the first round over the weekend, there are definite questions to be answered. There is no true offseason in today's NFL, and these teams need to start addressing their issues sooner rather than later.
Arizona Cardinals: What's the plan after Carson Palmer?
When Carson Palmer was lost for the season to a knee injury in early November, the Cardinals' fortunes started to change pretty drastically. Head coach Bruce Arians was able to keep things going for a while with backup Drew Stanton and Todd Bowles' outstanding defense, but when Stanton went down and the franchise's fortunes were left in the hands of third-stringer Ryan Lindley, the downward spiral that ended in Arizona's playoff thud at the hands of the Carolina Panthers seemed inevitable. It's not that Stanton or Lindley performed below expectations, it's precisely that both players are average quarterbacks at best, and Lindley may never even reach that mark. Lindley's 82 passing yards and one completion over 15 yards against the Panthers re-affirmed the obvious: He's not well-suited for the deep passing game that Arians prefers. And while Stanton does have the physical attributes to run that kind of offense, he's not a consistent player.
The Cardinals, therefore, have a serious decision to make. Palmer signed a four-year, $58.5 million contract extension in November, but the club protected itself, as it should with any player in his mid-thirties with an injury history. None of Palmer's money is guaranteed past 2015, giving the team the option to pay as it goes.
Is it time for Arians and general manager Steve Keim to draft the team's next quarterback? Given Arians' history with quarterback development, now would seem the time. Players like Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will be out of Arizona's reach unless it makes a major trade, but if UCLA's Brett Hundley were to drop to the middle or bottom of the first round for any reason, it's tough to think of a better long-term combination. Hundley still needs schooling in the finer points of the position, but he's a mobile marvel, and he has the arm strength to execute Arians' entire playbook.
Palmer was the bridge between Arizona's horrible post-Kurt Warner years at the position and the next generation of Cardinals quarterbacks. It might be time to put a face to that transition.
Pittsburgh Steelers: How does a team completely overhaul a secondary?
The Steelers have had a defense in transition over the last few seasons, and the days of the Steel Curtain and Blitzburgh might as well be a hundred years ago given the overall performance of the current squad, despite the outstanding efforts of players like James Harrison, Cameron Heyward, Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds. The key issue at this point, the same issue that bedeviled the team all season and through Pittsburgh's 30-17 playoff loss to the Ravens, is a secondary that has consistently underperformed. Veteran Ike Taylor was not available for the Ravens game, though it's questionable just how much help a player with four touchdowns allowed, no interceptions and a 157.2 opponent quarterback rating this season would have been.
Truth is, Taylor has been on the decline for a while, and the players coming up underneath him are struggling to fit the bill. In 2014, William Gay and Brice McCain took the most snaps at cornerback, and while both players did well at times, there were too many stretches of blown coverage.
In addition, all three safeties who took snaps for the Steelers this season -- Troy Polamalu, Mike Mitchell and Will Allen -- were suspect in pass coverage and generally weak in run support. It's sad to say that Polamalu, who was among the game's best at his strong safety position for years, has declined precipitously in a physical sense.
Clearly, the best way to fix this is through the draft, and that's where general manager Kevin Colbert and the Steelers' personnel staff need to do better. Over the last few seasons, Pittsburgh has selected a handful of defensive backs, but only Cortez Allen has been on the field for meaningful time, and he's still an up-and-down performer. Clearly, the Steelers have it all going on offense, though it could be argued that there's still work to be done on the offensive line. Now, Colbert needs to turn his attention to the defensive backfield.
Cincinnati Bengals: How far can this team ever go with Andy Dalton?
When the Bengals selected Dalton with the 35th overall pick in the 2011 draft, they had to know they weren't getting the immediate second coming of Dan Marino. There are all kinds of reasons quarterbacks drop in the draft and Dalton's fall had to do with arm strength and the fact that he ran a fairly simple offense at TCU. However, with a developing team around him and the occasionally great performance, Dalton garnered praise as a "winning quarterback," despite the fact that his game-to-game attributes fell far short of the NFL's elite. Dalton has a decent arm and he's become stronger over the last few seasons, but he struggles with ball placement, he exits the pocket too quickly, he fails to make repeatable stick throws and he relies far too much on receivers with an enormous catch radius.
Of course, those liabilities have all come home to roost in the playoffs, where Dalton's Bengals have been eliminated from the first round in four straight seasons. And Dalton's statistics are particularly horrid in those games -- 88 completions in 158 attempts for 873 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions. Dalton got a pass from some in Cincinnati's 26-10 wild-card loss to the Colts because A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham did not play, but even when he did have those targets in past postseason appearances, he still hadn't performed all that well, and it could be argued that Dalton regressed in 2014.
"I thought Andy played a good football game, so I don’t know what kind of criticism will be on the quarterback here," head coach Marvin Lewis said after the loss to Indianapolis. "I thought he hung in there. I thought he made plays with his feet. I thought he made plays throwing the football, and I thought he played a good football game. He didn’t, as far as I know, he didn’t turn the football over. I thought he avoided the rush and came up, stepped up in the pocket and delivered footballs.
"He’s going to be disappointed because we didn’t win, but I think he did a good job at doing his part today, and that’s all we can ask of any of the guys. You’re not going to make any super human plays. He’s got to get the ball out there. He got the ball down there and out there, and we’ve got to make some plays as well, we’ve got to pick him up as well.”
The new contract Dalton got in August isn't quite the seven-year, $96.9 million contract it appears to be on its face. It's more of a "pay-as-you-go" thing, and at some point, the Bengals are going to have to wonder: if they took a gamble on a better quarterback, or one with more obvious physical capabilities, would it be worth the potential backlash? There are only so many excuses that can be made, and this is a team that seems to have everything else needed for a deep playoff run.
Detroit Lions: How can Ndamukong Suh be replaced?
Suh broke down in tears after Detroit's 24-20 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday night, and that may have been as much of a function of his impending and potential departure from the only NFL team he's ever known as it was disappointment after a controversial postseason loss. Say what you will about his insistence on playing to (and through) the whistle, but Suh has certainly lived up to every bit of the potential he showed at Nebraska, the same potential that had the Lions selecting him with the second overall pick in the 2010 draft. In Detroit's resurgent defense this season, Suh was an absolute beast -- unstoppable at times, despite the fact that he was double-teamed on nearly every play and fellow first-round tackle Nick Fairley missed the second half of the season.
If the Lions are to retain Suh for a second contract, it won't likely be with a franchise tag, as that would eat up just short of $27 million for 2015, and the team already has a lot of scratch sewn up in Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson -- more than $38 million in 2015 cap space on those two players alone. A deal like the one the Houston Texans gave J.J. Watt is more likely from some NFL team -- Watt received an eight-year, $108.88 million deal in September with $51 million guaranteed but with base salaries that are a bit friendlier in the short term.
Everyone involved has said that bringing Suh back is a major priority, but what if the Lions get priced out of the market? At that point, the onus will be on Fairley to come back and make major noise in 2015, and backup tackle C.J. Mosley did a nice job replacing Fairley down the stretch this season. But the need for a player of Suh's caliber is a major deal in Detroit's schemes and under first-year coordinator Teryl Austin, they were able to blitz selectively and excel in coverage as a result.
In the draft, Washington's Danny Shelton might be an amenable alternative. In 2014, Shelton amassed nine sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss at 6-2 and 332 pounds. He might be a better fit as a 3-4 or hybrid nose tackle in the NFL, and he has to get his pad level together, but as a hypothetical combination of pressure and run-stopping, he could prove to be a decent -- if not altogether complete -- replacement for Suh, who is a once-in-a-generation player.