In and around updates on the labor front, the business of preparing for the NFL's 2011 season has already begun. Free agency and the league's trading period are on hold, subject to the CBA talks and a potential lockout by the owners. But the league never completely rests. With the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis just two weeks away, here's a team-by-team look at key questions facing the AFC's 16 teams this offseason.
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Mankins, New England's All-Pro guard, is starting a second consecutive offseason in a grumpy mood because he might not be entering unrestricted free agency as he originally thought. Last year, in the NFL's uncapped season, the threshold for unrestricted free agency was lifted from four to six seasons, leaving Mankins in the restricted free agent class. That didn't sit well with him. He held out until the eighth game of the year, and wound up playing for only a slice of his reduced $1.54 million restricted tender.
Come this year, the Patriots are expected to franchise Mankins any day now, an outcome he said he would not welcome in the least. The league says teams have the right to franchise players even if there's no new CBA, but the union disagrees and says the tag will be meaningless if owners lock out players. A guy as unhappy as Mankins might just try to challenge the franchise tag in court, and could have a decent shot at earning his free agency that way. Stay tuned. My sense is this can't possibly end well.
Obviously not if there's no free agency and trading period to speak of. But let's assume both avenues of personnel acquisition will be open to them. In terms of keeping their own house in order, the Jets clearly are making the retention of inside linebacker David Harris a top priority. He'll be franchised if that tag winds up being available. New York also wants to re-sign receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith, but getting something done with Holmes and Smith likely ranks ahead of Edwards returning.
If there is no Edwards, couldn't you just see New York taking a one-year flier on either Randy Moss or Terrell Owens? And here's one more juicy supposition: How about the Jets being the landing spot for Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth? New York can't count on Kris Jenkins any more, and if anyone can get Haynesworth to buck up and play nose tackle in the 3-4 defense, it's Rex Ryan. Half the league claims to want to play for Sexy Rexy, and Big Albert might be among that number.
The ink may not be dry on the two-year extensions they both received in January, but Sparano and Ireland clearly understand they lack a surplus of job security as 2011 dawns. So does that sense of urgency rule out taking a first-round quarterback and upgrading Miami at the game's most pivotal position? It shouldn't.
Dolphins starter Chad Henne obviously regressed last season, and even if the addition of new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll manages to breathe life into his development, Miami should be looking for a quarterback who can help close the gap on New England and the Jets in the AFC East. If they get the right guy, and he shows some rookie promise, it might even serve to buy time for the embattled Dolphins management tandem.
Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton figure to be gone at Miami's No. 15 slot, but the Dolphins best do their homework and make sure Ryan Mallett, Jake Locker, or Colin Kaepernick aren't the missing piece.
The Bills have to stop messing around and finally hit a home run with their 2011 draft class, like the turnaround Kansas City Chiefs did a year ago. There have been far too many swings and misses by Buffalo in recent years, and that's how you get to the basement of the NFL and stay there season after season.
Bills fans will flinch at the following list of draft busts, underachievers, and players who never completely lived up to the big billing: Aaron Maybin, John McCargo, Trent Edwards, Marshawn Lynch, James Hardy, Donte Whitner, Leodis McKelvin and Chris Ellis. Even last year's first-rounder, running back C.J. Spiller, didn't add the impact expected of him.
That trend has to end, and it starts with nailing Buffalo's No. 3 pick in this year's first round -- the franchise's highest selection since taking Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith first overall in 1985. Whether it's a franchise quarterback like Missouri's Blaine Gabbert or not, Buffalo has to find a rookie of the year candidate in the first round, then keep a hot hand going all the way through the seventh round. It's time. Way past time.
More than almost any other team in the league, the Steelers are hoping the NFL is in the right about being able to apply those franchise tags in this season of labor uncertainty. Because Pittsburgh will definitely use its tag on Woodley, their sack-happy outside linebacker, if that's the only way to keep him off the open market.
This isn't Joey Porter, Chad Brown, Hardy Nickerson or Larry Foote we're talking about. Woodley is only 26 and he's an ultra-productive player whose 12 sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions in 2010 would make him an extremely rich man if he were to become a free agent and open up the bidding. But during Super Bowl week, Woodley made it sound like he knows the grass isn't greener elsewhere, even saying he wouldn't mind having the franchise label applied (horrors!) and earning the median salary of the top five linebackers in the league (about $10 million in 2011). The security of a long-term deal, he reasoned, would come soon enough.
That's the kind of player the Steelers aren't about to let get away.
OK, here's one team that needs the franchise tag as much as the Steelers (LaMarr Woodley). Because the Ravens could say the very same thing, and then some, about defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who is recognized within the organization as the engine that makes the Baltimore defense go. Ngata is going to hit the jackpot one way or another, either via the franchise tag or by virtue of the long-term deal the Ravens would bestow upon him to keep him from free agency.
Last year, the franchise number for defensive tackles was $7 million, but that shot way up thanks to folks like Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton, Ryan Pickett and Albert Haynesworth getting paid. If there are franchise tags this season, a defensive tackle's will be a one-year deal worth an estimated $12.5 million. Not bad considering Ngata made $1.7 million in 2010, earning the second Pro Bowl berth of his five-year NFL career.
At the moment, no. Especially after Cleveland began its defensive transformation this week by purging its roster of veterans like defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, defensive end Kenyon Coleman, and linebackers David Bowens and Eric Barton. While none of those moves were really a surprise, it leaves the Browns a little short of bodies in spots, especially along the defensive line, where more linemen are now required.
Promising nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin will slide to defensive tackle and man one inside spot, and Browns 2010 sack leader Marcus Bernard might be moving from outside linebacker to defensive end. But after that, there's a lot of projection involved in piecing together a front seven, including the hope that D'Qwell Jackson can handle the key middle linebacker role after losing almost all of the past two seasons to pectoral injuries.
The draft figures to be crucial in Cleveland's ability to acquire 4-3 personnel, with defensive ends and outside linebackers the greatest need positions. That's one reason the Browns, as much as they might like him, could be hard-pressed to take Georgia receiver A.J. Green with their No. 6 pick. Defense is too much of a priority.
Palmer doesn't strike me as a guy who's playing unnecessary head games with the Bengals, and I think there's a decent chance he means it when he says he's done playing for Cincinnati.
Bengals owner Mike Brown says he has no intention of dealing Palmer, but Brown had better at least have a backup plan in place, and by that we don't mean Jordan Palmer. (Come to think of it, Carson Palmer can pretty much end the Bengals quarterbacking career of both Palmer brothers in one fell swoop). Palmer has put his house up for sale in Cincinnati, and that should at least get the Bengals management studying the tape of all the draft eligible college quarterbacks.
Sure, Cincinnati has plenty of other needs to address, but given that it's sitting at No. 4 in the first round, it may be the logical year to land a franchise quarterback and then trade Palmer for the best deal to be had. Missouri's Blaine Gabbert and Auburn's Cam Newton would likely be the two QBs the Bengals would consider, and if nothing else, landing Newton would give Cincy some star power and perhaps help turn the page on the franchise's Palmer era.
The Colts' have gotten by for years on their offensive line with something less than blue-chip talent, counting on Manning's short drops, quick release and instincts for sensing pressure to make up for some deficiencies in pass blocking. Indy's run blocking has always been streaky, but this season it was mostly sub-par and the ground game proved non-existent for a good part of the season. That has to change if the Colts hope to maximize the last few years of their Super Bowl window of opportunity.
Indianapolis has been looking for a left tackle forever, and still regrets passing on Indiana's Rodger Saffold at the bottom of last year's first round. If there's a left tackle prospect the Colts believe in when their No. 22 pick comes up this April, they'd do well to grab him. But that's not the whole story. Center Jeff Saturday will be 36 this summer and right tackle Ryan Diem is turning 32 in July. The Colts need to get younger up front, especially since they rarely turn to free agency to fill their needs. An improved offensive line will help the running game and the passing game, and avoid a repeat of 2010, when Manning tried to carry the entire offense on his shoulders.
With head coach Jack Del Rio back for a ninth season, and starting quarterback David Garrard returning for a 10th year in Jacksonville, the Jaguars' offseason started with a running-in-place feel to it. Which I suppose is par for the course after last season's 8-8, so-so finish. Owner Wayne Weaver has issued a playoff-or-else edict for 2011, but what else could he have said after making the decision to retain Del Rio for one more year?
Jacksonville's most glaring needs are on the defensive side of the ball, but nothing would change the stale dynamic in northeast Florida more so than drafting a quarterback of the future in the first round. The Jaguars own the No. 16 pick, and that's a slot where they likely could choose between Arkansas's Ryan Mallett and Washington's Jake Locker, or perhaps even a wild-card passing prospect like Nevada's Colin Kaepernick. Time to shake it up, Jaguars. Garrard is probably still the guy this season, but Jacksonville could use a bold step or two into the future.
The Texans are counting on it, and Phillips has had success everywhere he's been as a defensive coordinator. But Houston head coach Gary Kubiak is working on borrowed time already and doesn't have the luxury of Williams struggling with the transition. He needs his sack specialist to be a dominating presence week in and week out, rather than the player who can flash for one or two games and disappear the next.
Phillips says Williams will assimilate quickly because in his 3-4 scheme, he won't have two-gap (or three technique) responsibility. He'll still be asked to use his speed and athleticism to penetrate and rush the passer from the outside, the same way Bruce Smith did for years in Buffalo's 3-4. Williams might even be moved around some to get his best possible matchup, rather than seeing the majority of his snaps at left end and occasionally moving to the right side on passing downs. But a lot depends upon Phillips getting more out Williams' talents. If he can turn Williams into the next Bruce Smith, Houston's woeful pass defense should improve by default.
That would be the notion that the Titans were first and foremost interested in continuity in elevating their respected offensive line coach to his first NFL head coaching gig. Munchak's first coaching staff will have at least eight new members, including two new coordinators. Any thought that Munchak was merely the safe and easy choice for Tennessee owner Bud Adams kind of went out the window when Munchak fired veteran Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who's in the midst of a battle against a rare form of cancer. From that we can deduce that Munchak is anything but risk averse and afraid of change.
That kind of approach could be a positive development in a franchise that has done things the Jeff Fisher way for the past 16 years, with mixed results. Munchak's off to a surprising start in Nashville, and change could serve to revitalize a team that had the talent to compete in the AFC South last season (see its 5-2 start) but not the resiliency to overcome adversity (collapsing to lose eight of its last nine).
Todd Haley's decision to elevate offensive line coach Bill Muir wasn't expected, but it does provide the Chiefs with a sense of continuity coming off their AFC West-winning turnaround season. Muir replaces the departed Charlie Weis, who moved on to the University of Florida after just one season in Kansas City. Muir is no novice, having served as Jon Gruden's offensive coordinator and offensive line coach for seven seasons in Tampa Bay, a dual role he'll recreate with the Chiefs. But the more important question is: Who will call the plays in K.C.?
Muir didn't handle that part of the job with the Bucs, deferring to Gruden, and my guess is he and Haley will wind up having a similar arrangement. Haley has been here before, of course, having taken over the offense in his debut season of 2009 after firing coordinator Chan Gailey late in the preseason. One of the things that seemed to work better for the Chiefs last year was having Haley get to stand back and perform the duties of head coach, rather than focus intently on offense. It's year three now and Haley might be able to handle the dual role more easily this time. But if K.C.'s offense struggles, you can guess where blame will be assigned.
The Chargers stretched last year to keep running back/return man Darren Sproles off the open market, tendering him at the highest possible level as a restricted free agent. But it's not likely San Diego will be willing to do whatever it takes to keep him around this time. With the Chargers having drafted running back Ryan Mathews in the first round last season, and facing a high tender for potential restricted free agent Mike Tolbert, Sproles is viewed as only the third most valuable commodity in the San Diego backfield.
Though he'll only be 28 this June, Sproles won't command a $7.2 million base salary like he did last season, and San Diego will trust that its No. 1-ranked offense can compensate for his departure. The Chargers have 28 potential free agents, and probably will franchise No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson. With Mathews and Tolbert representing the future, Sproles' run in San Diego appears to be nearing its end.
That would be starting quarterback Jason Campbell, to no great surprise. Campbell enters the final year of his contract with his future in Oakland anything but secure. He had his highlights last season with the Raiders, going 7-5 in his 12 starts. But he was also benched and struggled with the same wildly inconsistent play that plagued him at times in Washington.
Owner Al Davis remains staunchly in Campbell's corner, but Jackson actually lobbied ex-Raiders head coach Tom Cable to play backup Bruce Gradkowski last season, so the relationship between Jackson and Campbell bears scrutiny. The hope is that Campbell's comfort level and familiarity with Oakland receivers produces significant improvement in year two of his Raiders tenure.
Jackson said he intends to call the plays, but he hired Al Saunders -- who knows Campbell from their days together in Washington -- as his offensive coordinator. After last season's 8-8 record, Davis's expectation level is clear. It's a return to the playoffs this year in Oakland, or Campbell will likely be moving on once again. If history holds, his departure will be followed shortly thereafter by Jackson's.
Think of it this way: Tebow just has to avoid losing it. The Broncos new brain trust can't come out in February and say Tebow is their opening-day starter in 2011, for all the obvious reasons. First, there goes any real leverage you might have in Orton trade talks if you signal that he's definitely not in your plans this season. Secondly, it does Tebow no good to be elevated without having to work for it and earn it.
Though a lack of motivation is hardly his character flaw, why not make Tebow prove himself and improve his game over the course of the entire offseason? After all, he showed flashes of potential in his three-game late-season starting stint, but he hardly removed all doubt regarding the worthiness of his first-round draft status. Fox and Elway have time to fully evaluate Tebow's progress, and they'd be wise to take it. The reality is, he was picked in the first round and that means he's going to get his starting shot in Denver at some point. And it's likely going to be this year. The Broncos know where Orton can take them, and they have loftier aspirations than that. But Tebow's time has not yet fully arrived.