The year-round cycle of the NFL does not leave teams much time to feel sorry for themselves after their Super Bowl dreams are crushed, officially. The four teams eliminated this weekend then -- Carolina, New Orleans, Indianapolis and San Diego -- will now turn their attention to the draft and free agency, both of which are rapidly approaching.
What are the biggest questions facing those franchises as their offseasons begin?
New Orleans Saints: What will happen with Jimmy Graham?
The rest of the NFL will be watching here. One way or another, the Saints will retain their elite pass-catcher, but how they go about doing so will impact their tight salary-cap situation and could set a precedent for other tight ends moving forward.
More specifically, with relation to the latter talking point: If the Saints have to franchise tag Graham, could he argue for the WR price? That's been a possibility mentioned for other TEs of Graham's ilk in recent seasons, and his usage in the Saints offense could move the needle in that direction -- landing there would earn Graham about $4.5 million more than if he were tagged as a tight end. Should the Saints ink him to a long-term deal, it likely would be a record-setter at his position.
That the Saints already are projected to be about $17 million over next year's cap only adds to the potential headaches here. Factor in a franchise tag, even near the 2013 TE price of approximately $6 million, and the Saints' wallet will be even more overstuffed.
Indianapolis Colts: Can the defense be fixed?
The Colts finished the regular season ranked ninth in points allowed, so the defense held its own over 16 games, despite underwhelming marks against the run (26th in the NFL) and in total yards (20th). But then came the playoffs. Indianapolis had to overcome allowing 44 points in the wild-card round to Kansas City -- and a week later coughed up 43 in a loss to the Patriots. Quite simply, for the Colts to really think about taking the next step, their defense must be stingier in 2014.
“Everyone on the defensive side of the football, obviously it’s not the level of play that any of those guys and our coaches expects,” Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said after his team's playoff exit. “We have to play better."
Finding some help for Robert Mathis would be a solid starting spot. Mathis led the league with 19.5 sacks this season; the next most sacks recorded by a Colt was 5.5, from Jerrell Freeman. Especially given Mathis' advancing age (he'll be 33 in February), finding another disruptive force off the edge might be a priority. Bjoern Werner, the team's 2013 first-round pick, could help the cause by displaying positive development.
Both safety Antoine Bethea and cornerback Vontae Davis, whom the Colts acquired in a trade prior to the 2012 season, are set to hit free agency. So, too, is backup corner Cassius Vaughn. Will the Colts attempt to retain all their in-house pieces or do those situations deliver them an out? Another variable to consider: Their biggest cap savings this offseason, according to OvertheCap.com, could come from cutting CB Greg Toler. He just signed a three-year deal last March but struggled through an injury-plagued season.
This will be a critical few months for GM Ryan Grigson, who both needs to guard the Colts against peaking shy of their ultimate goals and to ensure that they keep a leg up on what should be a more competitive AFC South in 2014.
Carolina Panthers: Who will catch passes in 2014?
Steve Smith will be 35 before next season begins. Domenik Hixon, Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon LaFell all have expiring contracts (LaFell would be a restricted free agent; Hixon and Ginn unrestricted). The offensive weapons here already paled in comparison to other contenders, so Carolina clearly has to come up with some answers at the receiver position. Failing to do so would be a disservice to QB Cam Newton.
Fortunately for the Panthers, the 2014 draft class appears chock full of receiver talent -- nearly 30 underclassmen at that position have declared for the draft, joining some talented seniors. Even in the low 20s, where Carolina will be slotted after winning its division, there should be ample talent to pick through.
Thanks to some fancy financial footwork by GM Dave Gettleman, the once-cash starved Panthers are at least afloat headed into 2014. Will they be able to find money to bid on one or two of the expected free-agent WRs? Names like Anquan Boldin, Riley Cooper, James Jones and Golden Tate could appeal to the Chargers, particularly if any of them (or the other top 10 or 15 available wide receivers) come at a reasonable price.
San Diego Chargers: Which side of the ball will take preference this offseason?
Two things were hammered home on the Chargers' offense in Sunday's loss: The offensive line remains a work in progress, especially if you take Jeromey Clary out of the picture as an injury did against Denver; and Keenan Allen needs a complement in the passing game -- Vincent Brown, Eddie Royal and others did not cut it in 2013, and Malcom Floyd (33 next season) missed all but two games due to injury.
Of course, there will be only so much the Chargers can do before next season begins. Already facing a shaky salary-cap situation, San Diego may find adding a clear-cut No. 2 receiver or reworking the line at all may be difficult. That's doubly true because the front office may declare the defense the real nuisance here.
San Diego finished the regular season ranked 29th against the pass, which means the obvious move in the draft would be to select a cornerback. This probably is not a one-player fix, however, so a little additional creativity may be required. Now that Philip Rivers has proven himself in Mike McCoy's offense, would the franchise consider extending and restructuring his contract? He's set to make $13.8 million next season and to count more than $16 million against the cap. Somehow spreading those numbers out to clear room for the Chargers' free-agent needs might be a legitimate option. Rivers himself might be up for it if it means the team is then able to sign a WR to play opposite Allen.