Offseason questions ahead for the NFL's divisional round losers
The jarring part of playoff elimination is how quickly the offseason begins. Once you're eliminated, 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 divisional 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.
Baltimore Ravens: Where's the help at cornerback?
When Jimmy Smith was lost for the season to a Lisfranc injury in early November, you knew that was going to affect Baltimore's secondary, but the extent to which it ultimately did has to be worrisome to general manager Ozzie Newsome, head coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees. Smith was by far Baltimore's best cornerback in 2014, small sample size notwithstanding, as he allowed a 51.5 opponent passer rating in 476 snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Lardarius Webb played the most snaps of any Ravens cornerback with 800, and he was far from top-notch, allowing a 96.3 opponent passer rating, as well as 47 receptions on 73 targets for 650 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Smith, Webb and Rashaan Melvin were the only three of the nine Ravens cornerbacks who played more than 100 snaps for Baltimore this season that allowed an opponent passer rating under 100. That's pretty horrible for a defense that clearly needs depth at the position -- when your sub-package guys and last-minute swap-outs can't get the job done, it makes your defense vulnerable. Webb is due $8.5 million in base salary next year, so the Ravens have some work to do.
The Ravens' No. 15 ranking in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted pass defense metrics is especially egregious because the front seven is so consistently good at getting pressure. When you have Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs, Pernell McPhee, C.J. Mosley and Daryl Smith, not to mention tackles Brandon Williams and Haloti Ngata wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines, your cornerbacks are going to benefit from opposing quarterbacks having bad days. Baltimore's inability to capitalize on that pressure is one big reason they had to hope for help to get into the playoffs at all -- and why they're out now.
Carolina Panthers: Who will protect Cam Newton's blind side?
The thought was that the receiver position would be Carolina's Achilles' heel in 2014 after general manager Dave Gettleman let the team's top three targets go in free agency. But between rookie Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers hung in pretty well for the most part. More help is needed, but there's a solid foundation. More worrisome is an offensive line that looked like a sieve more times than not. Left tackle Byron Bell allowed 11 sacks this season, including two in the divisional round loss to Seattle, and he's a free agent. Only Miami's Ja'Wuan James and Minnesota's Matt Kalil allowed more total pressures than Bell, so it's safe to say the team will be looking elsewhere to protect Cam Newton's blind side.
The Panthers did upgrade the right side of that line with rookie right guard Trai Turner (who's a run-blocking monster) and third-year man Mike Remmers, who started the team's last seven games at right tackle and didn't allow a single sack. Remmers was a huge upgrade over Nate Chandler. Veteran Ryan Kalil allowed three sacks and quite a few pressures at the center position, but Kalil runs that line, and he's been a great run-blocker for the most part. Andrew Norwell was pretty solid at the left guard position down the stretch, but more talent overall would help, especially when protecting Newton, a mobile quarterback who will move into his own sacks and pressures at times.
Despite their status as the second division winner in NFL history with a losing record, the Panthers have shown that they're on the right track. They had an exceptional 2014 draft, their defense is one of the league's best, and the offense is coming around. Protection could be the difference next season.
Dallas Cowboys: Who will rush the passer?
The Cowboys' defense put together a fairly strong year despite the offseason losses of DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher, who were the team's two best players when it came to bringing pressure against opposing quarterbacks. In their stead, lineman Henry Melton -- brought on because of his familiarity with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli from their days in Chicago -- finished second on the team with five sacks, but Melton was injured and out for the playoffs. Veteran end Jeremy Mincey finished first with six sacks, and the Cowboys ranked 28th in the league with just 28 sacks overall. Mincey and Melton brought a lot of pressures, as did Tyrone Crawford, but it was tough for Dallas' pass-rushers to get home. The hope is that DeMarcus Lawrence can be that guy, but Lawrence was a rookie in 2014, playing just 277 snaps after recovering from a foot injury.
In the end, it was Marinelli who held that defense together with an excellent blend of discipline and coverage spacing concepts, but that defense was also vulnerable to teams that could extend drives and force it to stay on the field. The lack of play-ending pressure was therefore a larger issue, and if Marinelli is headed to Tampa as many rumors indicate, Dallas could be in a heap of trouble defensively next year. One way to engineer a quick turnaround is to bank on the kind of player who can provide consistent pressure and double-digit sacks in a season. Easier said than done for most teams, but it's a requirement for the Cowboys going forward.
Denver Broncos: What would life after Peyton Manning look like?
It was unthinkable as the 2014 season began, but after Peyton Manning's all-too-average performance down the stretch and his quiet exit from the playoffs against the Colts on Sunday afternoon, the Denver Broncos might just be looking for a new quarterback in 2015.
"My mindset right now is just disappointment after today’s game," Manning said after the 24-13 loss. "I haven’t -- [Denver radio host] Dave Logan asked me about it after the game and you know, like I said, I didn’t have a great answer for him. So I’m disappointed. I need to process this game and we’ll meet tomorrow and kind of -- I need to process this game. So I’m disappointed right now, is what I am."
It wasn't just Manning's performance in the Colts game, though 26 completions in 46 attempts for 211 yards and one touchdown won't set a high bar at any time. Going back through the last two months of the season, Manning was clearly losing arm strength, and various mechanical failures led to overthrows and missed targets. On Sunday, Manning was an inconceivable 6-of-21 on throws more than five yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Over the last five weeks of the regular season, Manning completed just 13 of his 33 attempts in the red zone and just one of his league-leading 16 targets to receiver Demaryius Thomas. Only Robert Griffin III and Blake Bortles had lower red-zone completion percentages over that span.
It's tough to imagine Manning staying on if, after a thorough offseason review, he decides that he's more of a liability to his team than a benefit. And in that case, the Broncos would most likely promote Brock Osweiler, who has thrown a grand total of 30 passes since he came into to the league in 2012. What the Broncos could be in danger of if they're not prepared is what happened to the Colts when they weren't ready for Manning's injuries in 2011, dropping from perennial playoff contender to 2-14 debacle overnight. Of course, Denver has done a better job than Bill Polian did during his last few years in Indianapolis, which means that Osweiler or whoever replaced Manning would have to really muck things up for a similar result. If Manning is done, the team's belief in Osweiler had better pay off.