There are only four teams still practicing, scheming and game-planning this season, which means a majority of the work being done at the moment is geared toward the 2020 season and beyond. Every team has a laundry list of pressing needs that will be greatly affected by the weeks leading up to free agency, free agency itself and the draft.
But what is the top priority on everyone’s list before the offseason really gets rolling? Let’s take a look...
Trade the sixth pick; develop a personnel strategy that heavily involves Kliff Kingsbury: At some point a few months ago we all scratched our heads wondering why the out-of-it Cardinals were swapping draft capital for someone like Kenyan Drake. While it’s never great to sacrifice draft capital, it was an example of how well Kingsbury knows his own system and who would best fit in its parameters. This draft should end up being a watershed moment for Kingsbury, Kyler Murray and their offense. Bumping out of the top 10, perhaps for a quarterback-needy franchise, will give them the opportunity to pluck more scheme-pecific talent.
Diversify the offensive staff: If Dirk Koetter is indeed the option at offensive coordinator moving forward, perhaps head coach Dan Quinn could layer the staff with a passing game or rushing game coordinator who gets left out of the initial hiring surge. That, or, follow the Ravens’ lead and clinic with some coaches who have some radically different thoughts on offensive football that could be incorporated into the offense. The best case scenario for Atlanta is to put something on film they haven’t over the previous season (or during Koetter’s previous stint with the Falcons). This is still a group of personnel who can outscore their opponents when the defense fails. They should invest there.
Invest in more playmakers: The Ravens had success this year because they went big and physical at a time when most football teams shrunk. Their matchup against the Titans—another big, physical team—was a speed bump they could not overcome in the playoffs. This offseason, many unsuccessful teams will leap toward the Baltimore/Tennessee blueprint when, in fact, they should be doing the opposite. The Ravens already have the pieces to beat up on their opponents. Now, they should study and heavily invest in complementary components to help Jackson open up the passing game.
Nail the elusive, third-round superstar back and chess piece tight end: Buffalo is set up to be a poor man’s Baltimore offensively but that will necessitate a strong draft again in 2020. The Bills will need to enter the upcoming season with a feared cadre of backs to match up with their ball control offense. Another tight end also helps diversify their ability to block different fronts effectively.
Make the QB decision: Cam Newton’s medical situation may not make an expedited decision simple, but new head coach Matt Rhule needs to decide how he’s going to organize his new program—and whether Newton is a part of it. A healthy Newton could net some draft capital on the trade market, but he would also undoubtedly be Rhule’s best option under center.
Acquire legitimate competition for Mitchell Trubisky: Nick Foles may be available. Tom Brady may be available. Eli Manning, Teddy Bridgewater, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston may also be available. It’s going to take some time to sell it, but this roster is built to win now, and if Trubisky reaches a performance valley as he did in 2019, there needs to be a better option.
Re-sign A.J. Green, trade Andy Dalton and the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft: There are a horde of quarterback needy teams out there, including some who may spend the offseason falling in love with Joe Burrow. The Bengals should capitalize on the momentary swoon, realizing that their rebuild is going to take more than one season (the only reason I would sign Green is to avoid the embarrassment of letting him walk for nothing more than a compensatory selection). Dalton, too, might be interesting for a team looking for veteran competition.
Set firm expectations with ownership involvement: New head coach Kevin Stefanski denied reports that he would need to submit his game plan to the analytics department for review before games, but there does seem to be a general understanding that he will meet regularly with strategy officer Paul Depodesta and owner Jimmy Haslam. There needs to be a fine line drawn there, as a football season is incredibly heavy emotionally. Stefanski is right in declaring that more information is better, but how enjoyable will a dense explanatory meeting on a Monday after a gutting loss be in Week 12?
Follow through on offseason promises: In an interview with NBC’s Peter King, Mike McCarthy stated that he would like to assemble what would likely be the largest analytics department in football. McCarthy should be deep into that process now so he has time to align his new analytics hires with Dallas’ existing department and get everyone on the same page with the scouting staff.
Feel out veteran value: Denver is a strange team in that they were making progress with their young players but then opted to fire both the coordinator and QB coach responsible for a lot of that development. Bringing in Pat Shurmur feels like a pressured move, and if that’s the case, John Elway would likely not be interested in stripping the roster for parts. However, if he is ready to finally admit that this team was never just a quick rebuild away from returning to playoff relevance, he might utilize the combine to understand just how bountiful some of the stars on his roster might be.
Upgrade the secondary: Matt Patricia’s scheme is best with a slate of corners and safeties who can consistently shift the responsibilities and pressures on an opposing quarterback. They let some great players go in 2019 and will need to scour the draft and free agency to come up with a grouping of players who can survive the ever-difficult NFC North.
Confront the obvious: I would read with complete fascination the different ways coaches have tried to get over seismic losses like the one Houston just suffered against Kansas City in the playoffs. Matt Nagy didn’t quite get it right. Dan Quinn has not been to the playoffs since. Bill O’Brien not only has the pressure of corralling a win-now roster he created, but also convincing everyone in his immediate orbit that they should stay the course.
Land on two critical heir-apparents: Quarterback and left tackle are about to get really interesting for the Colts. We’ve seen teams function without good ones, or at least effectively survive without them. However, Frank Reich deserves the chance to use an attractive bundle of picks in 2020 to make
Hire an offensive coordinator and align the franchise on their quarterback decision for 2020. If it’s not Nick Foles, perhaps there is a Brock Osweiler and picks swap to be made with a franchise looking for a premium backup (or high-end competition for a floundering young quarterback. Andy Reid disciple Matt Nagy would be a very interesting landing spot). Work on accumulating more assets to replace the inevitable loss of pricey veteran talent.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Pull off the Band-Aid with Philip Rivers: If the Chargers are moving on, they should do so in a way that honors one of the best players in franchise history beyond just some sentimental Twitter motion graphic. Even if the team no longer has a home and feels almost entirely rootless, Rivers was a critical part of an important past that deserves recognition. If they are re-signing Rivers, they should try and explore a creative solution that would allow the franchise to spend a large portion of their available cap space in free agency to patch holes that won’t be filled organically by the time Rivers hangs it up.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
Find the pieces to reenergize your running game: Losing the likes of Rodger Saffold turned out to be massively consequential for the Rams, who need smart, athletic players up front to make their outside run plays click. I think Sean McVay learned a valuable lesson about replaceable parts in 2020, the question is whether the Rams will have the financial flexibility or draft ability to replace them easily.
Discuss the possibility of sitting out the QB race: Maybe there is a decent amount of fool’s gold in this draft class. Miami proved they were a well-coached team with massive upside and falling in love too quickly with a passer could disrupt the methodical rebuild they have in place. If, say, Tua Tagovailoa’s injury issues make him a value selection that is one thing. But paying a premium to move up or select someone they aren’t completely in love with could be devastating.
Don’t fall behind in the race for offensive coordinator: There are a handful of good teams still looking for offensive coordinators. The Vikings should act fast before they’re relegated to running an imitation of a system in 2019 that left some explosiveness to be desired. The Bears made their move, while the Steelers plucked offensive guru Matt Canada to coach their quarterbacks. The possibilities are (somewhat) endless, but the number of candidates who could catapult Minnesota back into the playoffs are not.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Finalize the Tom Brady decision: I think Bill Belichick’s desire to plan out the future might not eclipse his ability to mold whatever roster he’s given into something competitive. It would be surprising given that Josh McDaniels is returning to see Brady depart, though the length and value of the contract will play a major factor. For the first time in Brady’s life, he can be wooed. He is a valuable commodity in an uncertain quarterback market. If New England wants him to come back, will they make that clear before other options hit free agency and the draft?
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Understand the real market value of all three quarterbacks: The Saints are probably going to have to decide between keeping two or one of their three quarterbacks, which isn’t an easy choice. The challenge for Sean Payton and the team will be pinpointing whether or not another club would come after Taysom Hill if they tendered him in restricted free agency, and what, really, is Hill’s value independent of the Saints’ universe (it could be a ton, it could not be a ton). Teddy Bridgewater is also coming available and Drew Brees is a free agent and, while generous on his last deal, may be difficult on the salary cap.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Resist another spending spree: With their backs against the wall a few years ago, the Giants spent an insane amount of money on bad contracts to microwave their chances of reaching the playoffs. It worked (kind of), but Ben McAdoo was bounced after one round following a loss to the Packers. Dave Gettleman has been bragging about cap space all offseason, but he shouldn’t feel compelled to blow it on a top-market deal for Leonard Williams or another bloated veteran contract.
NEW YORK JETS
Go all in on offensive line help: There are surely some in house issues the Jets need to take care of, namely with Adam Gase coming into his own and winning his locker room. But from a functional standpoint, the Jets need to layer their offensive line more aggressively than they have in the past decade.
Resist the temptation to move on from Derek Carr: There are a few veteran QB options on the market, which are catnip to the impulsive Jon Gruden. There are also some talented arms coming through the draft, which is an even more dangerous path for the former ESPN star. Carr is a good quarterback on a great contract. Dealing him or marginalizing him amid a move to a new stadium would be totally disastrous.
Fix Malcolm Jenkins’ contract, then do the impossible: Jenkins is a cerebral centerpiece of a good defense and the soul of a talented locker room. They should not let him go. After that? The difficulty of nailing two of the hardest positions to project in the draft commences: Cornerback and wide receiver.
The Steelers may already be ahead of the curve: Jumping on the hiring of Matt Canada was a major step toward integrating potent motion into their offense. From there, it’s only sensible to start planning for life after Ben Roethlisberger (and not necessarily at QB). As the Post-Gazette noted recently, four of their offensive linemen are above 30 years old. That’s a warning sign.
Explore a more quarterback-dominant scheme: Let me join the masses in saying that Russ has not cooked enough. Russ needs to cook more. Seattle has done an excellent job working within Pete Carroll’s ideal offensive parameters, but why not explore the outer reaches? A team that was so far ahead of the curve defensively a few years back is now decidedly behind the curve in a lot of ways now.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Cut ties with Jameis Winston: Bruce Arians doesn’t have to dip into the rookie pool; there are plenty of veteran quarterbacks who will hit the market this offseason. But I can’t imagine it’s enjoyable to craft excellent game plans every week only to walk into the stadium completely unsure of how they’ll play out. Winston’s unpredictability may attract some coaches, but Arians should make a run with a more responsible player under center.
Spend the offseason at Ohio State: Think about how embarrassing it was for Hue Jackson to admit that at no point did he pick the brain of Lincoln Riley during his tenure coaching Baker Mayfield. At this point, it’s inexcusable for a team to not learn about what makes their quarterback successful. It benefits both the coach of the college program and the coach of the NFL program and all it takes is a few short afternoons of film study.
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