With the league hamstrung and facing a looming deadline in its CBA negotiations, everything about this unique NFL offseason has to be written in pencil. Free agency may not happen, and trades can't be executed until there's a new agreement between the players and owners in place.
But with the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis just two weeks away, teams are starting to prepare for whatever may unfold in the coming months. Amid all the uncertainty, it's time to start previewing the particular issues NFL clubs will get around to dealing with at some point this year. Here's a team-by-team look at key questions facing the NFC's 16 teams. We'll tackle the same exercise for the AFC's clubs on Friday:
Financially? Yes. Strategically, probably not. The Eagles will franchise Vick if franchise tags are in play, waiting until a new CBA is in place to try to work out a long-term deal with No. 7. That's a $20 million one-year commitment, but it's the price Philly may have to pay to secure its starting quarterback for 2011. As for Kolb, he's on the books for just less than $1.4 million this year, so the Eagles could keep him if they don't like any of the trade offers they get. But they should get some solid bids, because there are so many QB-needy teams. Arizona, Minnesota, San Francisco and Tennessee make the most sense to come after Kolb, and someone might just be willing to part with a first-round pick.
The odds would seem stacked against it. Though the tandem combined for more than 2,000 yards rushing in 2010, neither running back had smooth sailing all season. Bradshaw struggled with fumbles in the second half of the year, and Jacobs had that well-publicized helmet-throwing meltdown in a Sunday night game at Indy.
Bradshaw is eligible for free agency and is the obvious priority for New York. He rushed for 1,235 yards and is the kind of tough, inside runner the Giants always look for. If they can fix his fumbling, á la Tiki Barber, he'd be worth the big new deal he's in line to receive. As for Jacobs, he's too streaky to count on, and even his resurgence in 2010 (823 yards rushing, 5.6-yard average) makes him no lock to return. He's due $4.65 million this year, and that's a sizable salary for a No. 2 back.
While no one believes this year's Redskins will feature either one of the players who were the headline acquisitions of the past two offseasons in Washington, Shanahan doesn't have to just cut his losses as soon as possible and release them. Why should he? They both have some value despite their dismal 2010 showings, and the longer Shanahan fights the urge to rid his roster of them, the more the demand for their services will grow.
With so many teams looking for starting quarterback options, there will be a market for McNabb, even if it takes until well after the late-April draft to develop. And in the case of Haynesworth, there will be takers willing to gamble on his talent. With ex-Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn now working in Philly, the Eagles and Redskins could very well orchestrate a blockbuster trade for the second offseason in a row. McNabb and Haynesworth might have been benched and/or suspended, but they don't have to be given away.
The Cowboys secondary clearly regressed in 2010, with cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman struggling in coverage, and both Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh beaten too often at safety. While owner/GM Jerry Jones recently expressed confidence that Jenkins and Newman can bounce back, don't be surprised if Dallas targets a first-round cornerback at No. 9. But the two top-rated cornerbacks -- LSU's Patrick Peterson and Nebraska's Prince Amukamara -- could be gone by then, and that might just tempt Dallas into cutting ties with Newman and going after expensive Raiders free-agent corner Nnamdi Asomugha. Ryan, however, is expected to install his trademark package of exotic blitzes in Dallas, and a better pass rush could be just the thing to improve the Cowboys' results in pass coverage.
We know Desmond Bishop isn't going anywhere since he just signed a four-year contract extension late in the season. That leaves Green Bay facing a choice between Barnett, the eighth-year veteran who will be 30 in May, and Hawk, who just completed the most productive of his five NFL seasons since being the team's first-round pick in 2006.
Barnett and his troublesome Twitter account would be the fairly easy choice to go, all things being equal. He played in just four games this season before suffering a year-ending wrist injury, and his 2008 season was also cut short by seven games, due to a knee injury. But the tricky part is this: Hawk is in line for a $10 million base salary next season, and there's no way the Packers are paying that kind of cash at ILB. Barnett affords Green Bay some clear-cut leverage in its contract restructuring talks with Hawk, who will have to play ball if he wants to, you know, play ball for the defending champs.
Chicago overachieved this past season with a receiving depth chart filled with No. 2 and No. 3 receivers (see Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and Earl Bennett) and desperately needs to find the kind of big, reliable target that quarterback Jay Cutler had in Denver with Brandon Marshall. The Bears' No. 29 draft slot doesn't look like the place to get that need filled, and dream on if you think Chicago has the juice to orchestrate a blockbuster-like trade for Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald.
Free agency is probably the route the Bears will take, but landing a Sidney Rice, Vincent Jackson, Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards will be pricey. It would take Chicago doing its homework and likely some patience early in the season, but don't forget about Plaxico Burress as an option. The ex-Giant leaves prison in June and might be a decent investment if it's clear his two-year sentence didn't erode his skills.
It sounds like both options will be investigated, although the Vikings are clearly hoping they can use their No. 12 pick in the first round to acquire their own version of a Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez or Sam Bradford. If Minnesota has enough conviction about the guy they get in that spot, there wouldn't be any need to trade for more than a temporary veteran starter (boy, wouldn't Sage Rosenfels fit the bill nicely?) But Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton figure to be gone by No. 12, and Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett don't appear to be ready to be day one starters as rookies. That could prompt Minnesota to kick the tires on a deal for Kevin Kolb (would it be willing to pay the No. 12 pick for him?), or go after Donovan McNabb as a short-term starter while drafting and developing a quarterback of the future.
Detroit doesn't choose until 13th in the first round, and that only adds to an offseason that shapes up as the quietest in recent Lions history. No coaching changes or mass personnel defections are in store. There will be no major shake-ups at any one position, because Detroit has a pretty good young nucleus in place almost everywhere as year three of the Jim Schwartz coaching era unfolds.
Even what passes as the team's most pressing issues aren't all that dramatic. Outside linebacker is a need, because veteran Julian Peterson and his $8 million salary in 2011 won't be retained. At kicker, Jason Hanson might actually face a pretty good camp battle in his 20th NFL season, with his 2010 injury replacement, Dave Rayner, providing a more youthful option. But the Lions are at the steady-as-she-goes phase of their rebuilding program, and this offseason is just about upgrading the team's 22 starters and buttressing its depth. It's positively boring by Detroit standards.
As impressive as Atlanta's 13-3 regular season was, we all saw in the playoffs how limited the Falcons look when they're asked to win a shootout with a team possessing as many passing-game weapons as the Packers.
Take away or limit the impact of receiver Roddy White and you've basically shut down Atlanta's ability to throw the ball and score quickly. Receivers Michael Jenkins and Harry Douglas aren't keeping opposing defensive coordinators up at night working on schemes to stop them. Atlanta needs another impact receiver, and maybe a complementary player in the pass game as well.
If receivers like Sidney Rice, Vincent Jackson, Braylon Edwards and maybe Santonio Holmes reach the market, the Falcons should have options. As for a solid upgrade at No. 3 receiver, Green Bay's James Jones might be available in free agency. The Falcons are painfully aware how effective he can be in multiple receiver sets.
The NFL's most over-paid role player (and we're talking in league history, not just in 2010) said last month he's willing to restructure his salary to remain in New Orleans. What a team guy. As if he had a choice in the matter. Bush's contract calls for a salary of $11.8 million this season, and that's after the Saints bit the bullet in the post-Super Bowl honeymoon phase and paid him the $8 million he had coming last year. For that, all New Orleans got was eight games of very modest regular-season production, with Bush missing half the season with a broken fibula.
The Saints say they're still deciding what to do at running back, but if Bush comes back at all, it will be at a deep, deep discount price of their choosing. If I'm the Saints, I'd start the negotiation by suggesting Bush give back money and see where the talks go from there.
No matter what ugliness happens in terms of the NFL's looming labor issues, the draft is scheduled to take place in late April. And the draft's strength this season, at least in the first round, perfectly dovetails with Tampa Bay's greatest area of need. The Bucs are searching for an impact defensive end to spruce up the pass rush and grow alongside young defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, and there's no shortage of candidates who should be in play when Tampa Bay's No. 20 pick rolls around. Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, Cal's Cameron Jordan and Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan are three prospects the Bucs will be studying in the coming months, and all would seem to be high-value selections for a Tampa Bay team with designs on a playoff berth in 2011.
By anyone's standards it was a brutal rookie season in Charlotte for Clausen, a second-round pick in 2010. He finished as the league's lowest-ranked passer (58.4), with nine interceptions, three touchdown passes and a 1-9 starting record. But it'd be foolish to throw him on the scrap heap based on one season, especially since no quarterback could have looked too effective in Carolina's offense last year.
The Panthers are going to either draft another quarterback (probably not at No. 1 overall) or sign a veteran starting option, but if Clausen gets to work with Shula this offseason, they might see some rapid improvement. Shula helped David Garrard go to the Pro Bowl in their first season (2007) together, and the son of the Dolphins coaching legend also had some early success last decade working with the likes of lightly-regarded Jay Fiedler in Miami. Let's give the Shula-Clausen pairing a little time and see what develops.
Matt Hasselbeck threw seven touchdown passes in two playoff games, and those two performances changed everything when it came to his future in Seattle. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has talked as if the club intends to re-sign Hasselbeck to a short-term deal, but he's also the guy who went out and paid handsomely for Charlie Whitehurst last offseason, a move that signaled the former San Diego No. 3 quarterback was the heir apparent in Seattle.
Reading the tea leaves, the Seahawks know Hasselbeck has value on the open market and don't want to wind up playing against him this season as a 49er or Cardinal. A two-year deal for Hasselbeck doesn't preclude Seattle from turning to Whitehurst or another young quarterback of its choosing in 2012. And in a division that remains eminently winnable, continuity at quarterback translates as an clear-cut advantage for the defending champion Seahawks.
It stands to reason they will. St. Louis took a major step forward with its surprise 7-9, second-place showing last season, but the Rams are a young team that needs time to continue growing together, and more pieces need to be added around franchise quarterback Sam Bradford.
St. Louis made a savvy hire last month when it signed ex-Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels to a two-year deal, but some of the impact of that move could be blunted if Bradford and his new OC go three or four months without being able to work together this spring and summer.
McDaniels' system features a spread offense and that's what Bradford thrived in at Oklahoma, but it's not quite as cut and dried as that. The two need to learn what the other is thinking at all times, and a lockout could greatly disrupt that learning curve. More than most teams, the Rams have reason to hope for a quick resolution of the labor front, and no significant loss of practice and preparation this offseason.
At the end of the 2010 season, it seemed a comical notion to consider the possibility of Smith returning for a seventh year in San Francisco, but it's getting less laughable all the time as Smith and Harbaugh continue their getting-to-know-you phase. Harbaugh and Smith have met at least a couple times already, and Harbaugh said he likes what he has seen so far of Smith on tape, calling him "very accurate'' and "very athletic,'' and even going so far as to say Smith can be "a winning quarterback in the National Football League.''
The 49ers have only David Carr under contract past March 3, so maybe Harbaugh is just keeping his options open until San Francisco has a few passers secured, but I don't think so. I think he sees something he likes in Smith, and is trying to get the 2005 first overall pick to give San Francisco one last try. The 49ers will still draft a quarterback and probably sign another veteran, too. But wouldn't that be something, if Smith wound up succeeding as a 49er after all? Maybe coaching really was the issue.
It probably should. Or didn't you see Derek Anderson, Max Hall and John Skelton play last season? Getting a competent passer isn't just important to Arizona in 2011, it's critical to the Cardinals' chances of re-signing all-world receiver Larry Fitzgerald, whose contract expires after this year. Fitzgerald recently recommended that Arizona try to acquire either Kevin Kolb or Marc Bulger this offseason, and I see what he's thinking there. Kolb is the best, young starting option who might be available (for a steep price) and Bulger is kind of Kurt Warner Lite. If the Eagles really do want first- and third-round picks for Kolb, the Cardinals won't be players in that market. But Arizona owns the No. 38 pick in the second round, and maybe a package of picks with that as its centerpiece is a decent starting point. If not, you pick up either Bulger or Matt Hasselbeck on the cheap, and hope for the best.