SUPER BOWLS ARE WON IN FEBRUARY, RIGHT? GUESS AGAIN—THE EVENTS OF THE NEXT THREE MONTHS WILL GO A LONG WAY TOWARD DECIDING WHO LIFTS THE LOMBARDI TROPHY IN 2016. CONSIDER THIS YOUR GUIDE TO THE SIGNINGS, TRADES AND COACHING MOVES THAT WILL DOMINATE THE NFL OFF-SEASON, THEN TURN THE PAGE FOR DETAILED BREAKDOWNS OF THE NEEDS AND WANTS OF ALL 32 TEAMS. THE COUNTDOWN TO KICKOFF ON SEPT. 10 STARTS ... NOW!
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February 9, 2015
Seahawks re-sign RB Marshawn Lynch but draft his replacement: Georgia's Todd Gurley.
Lions DT Ndamukong Suh cashes in, signs with Raiders.
Raiders hire former Falcons coach Mike Smith as defensive coordinator.
Saints RB Mark Ingram bolts for Chargers.
March owners' meeting: NFL expands playoff field to 14 teams.
Bears sign QB Matt Moore away from Miami.
49ers RB Frank Gore and G Mike Iupati both join Colts.
Owner Stan Kroenke's L.A. leverage play works: His Rams get a new stadium in St. Louis.
WR Michael Crabtree joins San Fran exodus, runs to Rams.
Jerry Jones gets his man: Cowboys trade for Vikings RB Adrian Peterson.
Browns draft Josh Gordon's (well-behaved) replacement, Louisville WR DeVante Parker.
Bears switch to a 3--4 D, sign OLB Brian Orakpo from the Redskins.
Free-agent QB Mark Sanchez rejoins Rex Ryan in Buffalo.
QB logjam in Cleveland: Browns trade for the Bears' Jay Cutler.
Ex-Steelers D coordinator Dick LeBeau takes SS Troy Polamalu (who gets cut along with LB James Harrison) to Titans.
Cowboys re-sign WR Dez Bryant, but RB DeMarco Murray leaves for Titans.
Eagles trade up to draft Oregon QB MarcusMariota—sorry, Nick Foles.
Bills RB C.J. Spiller heads to Jets' busy backfield.
Fed-up Browns cut WR Josh Gordon, who signs with Panthers.
TE Jordan Cameron picks up where Tony Gonzalez left off, leaves Browns to land with Falcons.
Falcons hire Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as their coach.
CB Byron Maxwell leaves Seattle, signs with Jaguars.
Lovie Smith loves Florida State's Jameis Winston, drafts him No. 1 to be Bucs QB.
Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul signs with Smith's Bucs.
MIAMI DOLPHINS 8--8
PRIORITIES: DEPTH ALL AROUND
It's doubtful that overpaid malcontent [HEADACHE] WR Mike Wallace will be cut; that would create $9.6 million in dead money and only $2.5 million in cap savings. [BLOATED CONTRACT] Brian Hartline is a more logical victim. But the receiving corps wasn't the real problem this season; pass protection was. A big factor was [INJURY CONCERN] LT Branden Albert's ACL injury, which forced rookie Ja'Wuan James to play on the blind side and G Dallas Thomas to move outside. Both players were vulnerable out of position. If Albert is healthy, the line recalibrates, making depth the only real issue. GM Dennis Hickey might add another piece to a solid but not spectacular linebacking corps in hopes of preventing his run D from faltering down the stretch again. Re-signing [FREE AGENT] DT Jared Odrick must also be part of that equation.
BUFFALO BILLS 9--7
PRIORITIES: REX NEEDS A QB—AGAIN
It was surprising to see the Bills tab Rex Ryan as their coach considering he runs a defensive scheme very different from that of former coordinator Jim Schwartz, who had Buffalo ranked fourth in points and yards allowed this year. Ryan's a 3--4, blitz-oriented guy; Schwartz played more straight coverage out of a 4--3. But really, this D can be effective under any system given its vast amount of talent—which can be preserved by re-signing free safety [FREE AGENT] Da'Norris Searcy and defensive end [FREE AGENT] Jerry Hughes. The rest of the Bills' needs are on offense, starting with QB. It's likely not ex-coach Doug Marrone's fault that [QB CONUNDRUM] EJ Manuel failed to develop. Buffalo could use a guard to stabilize the line, and though TE Scott Chandler (entering a contract year) can make catches in traffic, he's not someone defenses lose sleep over. A dynamic tight end would do wonders in new coordinator Greg Roman's offense.
NEW YORK JETS 4--12
PRIORITIES: NEW PIECES FOR A NEW COACH
Todd Bowles ascended the assistant coaching ranks by running a multifaceted, blitz-hungry scheme. That style takes great man-to-man corners—of which Bowles inherits none. With mediocre 2010 first-round pick [FREE AGENT] Kyle Wilson unlikely to be re-signed, the Jets need at least three new corners. They also must decide whether to re-sign [FREE AGENT] LB David Harris, whom new GM Mike Maccagnan may not want to pay for, given that Bowles likes to use a one-'backer, three-safety dime package. The problem: Bowles doesn't have any safeties, either. Amazingly, things are [DRAFT SOLUTION] even drearier on offense. The receiving corps remains underwhelming, both guard spots must be reworked and, oh, yeah, there's also a [QB CONUNDRUM] major need at QB.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS 12--4
PRIORITIES: LOCK DOWN REVIS ISLAND
The Pats face a tricky task in figuring out how to retain [FREE AGENT] CB Darrelle Revis. The 29-year-old is the NFL's best defensive player not named Watt, but he's scheduled to count [BLOATED CONTRACT] $25 million against the cap in 2015—$11 million more than Tom Brady. New England's foundational man scheme has become too strong to jeopardize, however; Revis can't get away. Another big contributor to that scheme is [FREE AGENT] FS Devin McCourty, who has thrived in centerfield and in covering tight ends one-on-one. Re-signing him is another priority. On offense, the interior line is inadequate—especially in pass protection—and its best member, [FREE AGENT] LG Dan Connolly, is unsigned. In the backfield, [FREE AGENT] Shane Vereen is not a 1,200-yard runner, but his receiving prowess brings invaluable versatility. Restocking the much scrutinized receiver position is less important than retaining Vereen.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS 11--5
PRIORITIES: YOUTH MOVEMENT
The front office has drifted away from its rule of dumping players sooner rather than later, and now [DRAFT SOLUTION] half the defensive personnel needs changing. It'll be interesting to see what happens with [TICKING CLOCK] SS Troy Polamalu; the soon-to-be-34-year-old counts $8.25 million against the cap, but cutting him would create only $3.75 million of space. Thirty-four-year-old corner [TICKING CLOCK] CB Ike Taylor's very fine career is most likely over. Up front, the pass rush is no longer vaunted. DE Cameron Heyward, heading into the final year of his rookie deal, deserves a big second contract, but free-agent [FREE AGENT] OLB Jason Worilds does not. If Pittsburgh wanted to use the draft to address its defensive maladies, an [DRAFT SOLUTION] edge rusher to pair with Jarvis Jones is the place to start.
BALTIMORE RAVENS 10-6
PRIORITIES: SECONDARY IS PRIMARY
It's amazing that such a [MAJOR RECONSTRUCTION] makeshift secondary held up as well as it did after stud CB Jimmy Smith (foot) went on IR midseason. Such luck can't be counted on again; they need an additional corner. They may also need insurance at safety given how 2013 first-rounder Matt Elam couldn't hold the starting job ahead of street free agents [FREE AGENT] Darian Stewart and [FREE AGENT] Jeromy Miles. Based on talent alone, midseason pickup [HEADACHE] Will Hill should be retained at the position, but his myriad off-field issues make a long-term deal unlikely. As for [FREE AGENT] RB Justin Forsett and [FREE AGENT] TE Owen Daniels: Both were tailor-made for former coordinator Gary Kubiak's system. New OC Marc Trestman is flexible and may keep a lot of the zone tactics Kubiak ran. If not, Forsett won't be worth his price and Daniels could be replaced by a bigger end.
CINCINNATI BENGALS 10-5-1
PRIORITIES: DEFENSIVE REINFORCEMENTS
Beyond injuries at receiver, an inability to generate pressure from a four-man rush was Cincy's downfall in its wild-card loss. And player personnel director Duke Tobin can't just bank on erratic DE Carlos Dunlap suddenly becoming consistent or on once-dominant [INJURY CONCERN] DT Geno Atkins regaining his form. The Bengals rely heavily on zone-blitz concepts that require athletic linebackers; with [FREE AGENT] Emmanuel Lamur and [FREE AGENT] Rey Maualuga entering free agency, this position needs replenishing. The receiving corps is deep ([INJURY CONCERN] when healthy), and the backfield is set for the foreseeable future. With a superior option to [QB CONUNDRUM] Andy Dalton unlikely to show up, the focus will be on his line. [FREE AGENT] LG Clint Boling must be re-signed. Cincy ought to be fishing, too, for another pass-catching tight end, as [FREE AGENT] Jermaine Gresham will most likely find more money on the open market.
CLEVELAND BROWNS 7--9
PRIORITIES: QB, DEFENSE ... DID WE SAY QB?
[QB CONUNDRUM] The Browns need a QB—the question is whether ownership and the front office understand that. In the meantime GM Ray Farmer can set his sights on upgrading every skill position outside of tight end, where [FREE AGENT] Jordan Cameron is a free agent he can't let get away. Cleveland has a few catch-and-run receivers; now they need a big wideout who can make contested grabs—especially with [HEADACHE] Josh Gordon reportedly facing another long suspension. At running back, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell form an adequate, but not always reliable, tandem. The D also needs revamping; despite a talented front seven, it ranked 32nd against the run. Letting free-agent [FREE AGENT] NT Ahtyba Rubin walk and acquiring an interior clogger to go with DT Phil Taylor would provide a boost.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS 11--5
PRIORITIES: RUSHING REDEMPTION, EDGE MAN
GM Ryan Grigson has done a commendable job heading into Year Four—he's earned immunity from criticism for trading a first-round pick for RB Trent Richardson. Expect Grigson to make up for that mistake by [DRAFT SOLUTION] drafting a new lead back. He'll also need to keep constructing an O-line that was hounded by injuries in 2014. Center and right guard are the remaining holes; he can draft or acquire the best player available and put '13 third-rounder Hugh Thornton in the other spot. Defensively, a 34-year-old coming off a torn Achilles shouldn't be counted on to anchor a pass rush—even if that player is a specimen like [TICKING CLOCK] OLB Robert Mathis. With '13 first-rounder Bjoern Werner proving to be more of an edge-setter and blitzer, the Colts need a dynamic force who can bend the corner. If they don't pursue one, it means they saw more in 2014 than most did in fifth-round rookie [IN-HOUSE SOLUTION] Jonathan Newsome.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS 3--13
PRIORITIES: BUILD AROUND QB
The good news: [IN-HOUSE SOLUTION] QB Blake Bortles showed signs that he was worth a high-first-round pick. The bad news: He's still greener than grass and has no ground game to lean on. Fixing that requires upgrades at running back and touch-ups along the line, which improved a little inside but is weak at tackle (though it's far too soon to give up on Luke Joeckel). Finding a dynamic tight end to replace the injury-prone [INJURY CONCERN] Marcedes Lewis (entering the final year of his contract) would take pressure off Bortles and this callow receiving crew, plus give much-needed dimension to the offense. On D, coach Gus Bradley runs a Seahawks-style scheme, which requires physical corners and explosive edge rushers—two things the Jags lack (aside from 33-year-old [TICKING CLOCK]DE Chris Clemons, who's starting to tail off). LB Paul Posluszny's season-ending pectoral injury really hurt this unit, but it at least gave more looks to fifth-round rookie [IN-HOUSE SOLUTION] Telvin Smith, who showed enough to warrant reps in 2015. Still, depth at 'backer must be improved.
HOUSTON TEXANS 9--7
Former Patriots QB Ryan Mallett had more experience in new coach Bill O'Brien's system and better raw tools than Ryan Fitzpatrick; if the Texans really felt he could be their franchise guy, wouldn't he have started from Day One? [QB CONUNDRUM]Consider QB a need. Up front, even if respected C Chris Myers gets cut (creating $6 million in cap space), this is still a solid line—plus last year's second-round pick, Xavier Su'a-Filo, is waiting to step in at guard. On D, a [DRAFT SOLUTION] 3--4 inside 'backer should be considered early in the draft; so should a nosetackle, as [FREE AGENT] Ryan Pickett and [FREE AGENT] Jerrell Powe are both unsigned. On the back end [FREE AGENT] Kareem Jackson might get overpaid elsewhere in free agency, which would make cornerback a need. At free safety it would be prudent to re-sign [FREE AGENT] Kendrick Lewis, who was a pleasant surprise after signing from K.C.
TENNESSEE TITANS 2--14
PRIORITIES: A QB DECISION, DEFENSIVE FRONT
The Titans face a fascinating dilemma: Do they use the No. 2 pick to draft whichever QB— [DRAFT SOLUTION] Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota—the Bucs don't take? Or do they use that pick on defense and take a closer look at [THINKING AHEAD] Zach Mettenberger, who last year showed many of the pocket-passing traits needed to thrive in the NFL? The rest of the offense will go relatively unchanged, given that it boasts four of their former first- or second-round picks (all still young), plus two free-agent pickups: LG Andy Levitre and TE Delanie Walker. For the [MAJOR RECONSTRUCTION]27th-ranked D, more quality corners are needed to execute Ray Horton's pressure 3--4 scheme. The front seven also needs renovations—especially at outside 'backer, where Kamerion Wimbley is average and Derrick Morgan, a longtime 4--3 end, has been miscast.
DENVER BRONCOS 12--4
PRIORITIES: CRANK OUT NEW CONTRACTS
This is almost a pointless exercise without knowing whether [TICKING CLOCK] Peyton Manning returns. He's not a fit in new coach Gary Kubiak's moving-pocket zone system. But let's assume the QB is back and Kubiak is wise enough to amend his scheme for the future Hall of Famer. GM John Elway's focus would then be on retaining talent. [FREE AGENT] WR Demaryius Thomas and [FREE AGENT] TE Julius Thomas are must-re-signs. But [FREE AGENT, INJURY CONCERN] WR Wes Welker can be replaced. [FREE AGENT] NT Terrance Knighton is another must-re-sign: His light feet and size are critical to Denver's run D. [FREE AGENT] G Orlando Franklin really helped the ground game last season; he's worth locking up at the right price (though another team is likely to overpay). And the O-line stabilized when [FREE AGENT] Will Montgomery was inserted at center. Will Elway find the 31-year-old worth of a multiyear deal?
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS 9--7
PRIORITIES: REINFORCE THE LINE
With [INJURY CONCERN] C Nick Hardwick, 33, coming off a seasonlong neck injury and RG Jeromey Clary having retired, GM Tom Telesco must reinforce his O-line, beginning with the left tackle position, as free agent [FREE AGENT] King Dunlap just enjoyed the type of breakout season that will generate oversized contract offers on the open market. Coach Mike McCoy's system could withstand losing Dunlap, but there's no replacement from within. (D.J. Fluker, a 2013 first-rounder, can play only the right side.) Telesco also needs a tight end; [FREE AGENT] every one of them on his roster is entering the final year of his contract, and Ladarius Green has not shown enough to be considered the heir to [TICKING CLOCK] Antonio Gates. Defensively, [TICKING CLOCK] OLB Dwight Freeney was quiet for long stretches of this season and may have reached the end of his road. It wouldn't hurt to add a pass rusher, even with '14 second-rounder [IN-HOUSE SOLUTION] Jeremiah Attaochu showing promise—but that should come only after re-signing [FREE AGENT] CB Brandon Flowers to a multiyear deal.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS 9--7
PRIORITIES: FINALLY GRAB A RECEIVER
It's still baffling that K.C. didn't pick up a receiver last off-season. They've survived with a paucity of playmakers because Andy Reid is ingenious at designing defined-read passes that hide Alex Smith's weaknesses and take advantage of TE Travis Kelce's and RB Jamaal Charles's strengths. But those designs would be more potent with a [THINKING AHEAD] fearsome receiver. On D, K.C. must lock up NFL sack leader [FREE AGENT] Justin Houston and reload an overachieving secondary that has three expired contracts ( [FREE AGENT] Ron Parker, [FREE AGENT] Chris Owens and [FREE AGENT] Kurt Coleman) plus three scheduled to end in 2016 ([DESPERATE NEED] Sean Smith, [DESPERATE NEED] Jamell Fleming and [DESPERATE NEED] Husain Abdullah). Aside from Houston, the most important free agent is one many will overlook: 25-year-old [FREE AGENT] C Rodney Hudson deserves a long-term contract. If it doesn't come, this line will crumble.
OAKLAND RAIDERS 3--13
PRIORITIES: CENTER, WIDE RECEIVER AND PATIENCE
Kudos to owner Mark Davis for showing composure and not firing GM Reggie McKenzie. Given the salary-cap mess that the longtime Packers exec inherited in 2012, this past season was essentially Year One of McKenzie's tenure. He now has plenty of cap space, but he'll need to spend a good chunk of it to either re-sign solid four-year pro [FREE AGENT] Stefen Wisniewski or bring in a new center. The rest of the O-line is in good shape for the first time in eons. The receiver position is not. James Jones is a No. 3 guy, not the No. 1 he's asked to be. Oakland [DESPERATE NEED] needs playmakers around him. On D, McKenzie must make provisions for next year, when linemen [THINKING AHEAD] Justin Tuck and [THINKING AHEAD] Antonio Smith will be free agents in their mid-30s. Oakland extended 38-year-old [TICKING CLOCK] FS Charles Woodson for another year last week, but the safety position still badly needs reloading.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS 4--12
PRIORITIES: CAN YOU CHANGE OWNERS? (ALSO: D)
Many believe [ROGUE OWNER] Dan Snyder will be disinclined to end the [QB CONUNDRUM] arranged marriage of Robert Griffin III and coach Jay Gruden. We'll assume that new GM Scot McCloughan will focus elsewhere. The turmoil at QB has obscured the fact that this offense is loaded. RB Alfred Morris is good for 1,100 yards. Few receiving trios are as dynamic and balanced as DeSean Jackson, Pierre Gar√ßon and Andre Roberts. And Jordan Reed may soon be the best pure receiving tight end in football. [BUST] The D is another story. The only bright spot is [IN-HOUSE SOLUTION] CB Bashaud Breeland, who went from overwhelmed fourth-round rookie to stalwart in 2014. But position mates David Amerson and E.J. Biggers are inconsistent. And at safety, age has diminished the range of hard-hitting [FREE AGENT] Ryan Clark, Phillip Thomas is still unknown, and [FREE AGENT] Brandon Meriweather's contract just expired.
DALLAS COWBOYS 12-4
PRIORITIES: RETAIN FREE AGENTS, REBUILD DEFENSE
The NFL salary cap is again inflating, but it still might be tough for the Cowboys to re-sign [FREE AGENT] WR Dez Bryant and [FREE AGENT] RB DeMarco Murray. Without question, Bryant is the priority. If Murray leaves, running back becomes a position of need, figuring Joseph Randle is best in a complementary role. Jerry Jones must also allocate resources to restock a D that hugely overachieved under Rod Marinelli—and [MAJOR RECONSTRUCTION] almost every position is in play. D-linemen [FREE AGENT] George Selvie, [FREE AGENT] Anthony Spencer and [FREE AGENT] Nick Hayden are all free agents. So are [FREE AGENT] LBs Bruce Carter and [FREE AGENT] Rolando McClain. (Figuring out their values is tough; both have been disappointments at times in their careers, but both played well late in 2014.) Depth at safety is an issue, and outside nickelback [FREE AGENT] Sterling Moore, a street free agent two years ago, is unsigned. Moore embodies this D's overachievement; don't be surprised if [ROGUE OWNER] Jones pursues a sexier free-agent corner or uses a high draft pick to get one given how Marinelli played more man coverage late this season.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES 10--6
PRIORITIES: QUICK-FOOTED QB
Now that coach Chip Kelly has control over personnel, here's a dark-horse idea for what he'll do with it: find a QB. [QB CONUNDRUM] Nick Foles is a nice placeholder, but significant parts of Kelly's system require mobility under center. If the right guy isn't available, Kelly will turn his attention solely to the D. In the time it's taken you to read this sentence, [FREE AGENT]CB Bradley Fletcher has somehow gotten beaten over the top three more times. He must be replaced with a viable boundary guy. With 30-year-old [INJURY CONCERN] LB DeMeco Ryans coming off a torn right Achilles, Kelly should explore a long-term sidekick for rising star Mychal Kendricks. And on the outside, re-signing [FREE AGENT] Brandon Graham would be wise; at this point he appears more suited than 2014 first-rounder Marcus Smith to be [TICKING CLOCK] Trent Cole's heir.
NEW YORK GIANTS 6--10
PRIORITIES: LINEBACKER, LINEBACKER, LINEBACKER
Linebacker has been a problem since Antonio Pierce left six years ago, and yet New York has drafted at the position only four times since, all in the fourth round or later. Moreover, myriad mid-level free agents have failed here. It's time to invest in a dynamic three-down 'backer. Of course, that's hard to pull off with [MAJOR RECONSTRUCTION] six unrestricted free agents in the secondary, five of whom filled starting roles at some point in 2014. The closest the Giants have to a must-re-sign player is versatile safety [FREE AGENT] Antrel Rolle, who'll turn 33 next season. Returning D coordinator Steve Spagnuolo's aggressive blitzing scheme demands corners who can play tight press coverage and blitz from all angles. Offensively, a replacement must be found for struggling RT Justin Pugh, who is better suited at guard. And a shifty back capable of splitting out wide would bring valuable diversity.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS 7--9
PRIORITIES: BOLSTER THE O-LINE, GROW
Flying in the face of the cliché that is the "10-year left tackle," the Vikings are most likely keeping tabs on available blind-side protectors. If they see one they like, they could let [BUST] LT Matt Kalil, the No. 4 pick in 2012, walk away as a free agent in '16. Kalil struggled mightily this season. With the exception of John Sullivan's center position, [MAJOR RECONSTRUCTION] the rest of the O-line, particularly the guard spots, could also use upgrading. If RB Adrian Peterson somehow splits town (he'll likely return), [IN-HOUSE SOLUTION] Jerick McKinnon and a placeholder back would make for a sturdy ground game. Finding another weapon for QB Teddy Bridgewater would be nice; with the new coaching staff down on '13 first-rounder Cordarrelle Patterson, GM Rick Spielman very well may pull the trigger if he sees an available speedster.
DETROIT LIONS 11-5
PRIORITIES: RESTOCK THE D-LINE
If [FREE AGENT] Ndamukong Suh gets re-signed, defensive linemate [FREE AGENT] Nick Fairley most likely won't be—and vice versa. Sturdy backups [FREE AGENT] C.J. Mosley and [FREE AGENT] Andre Fluellen are also free agents, [MAJOR RECONSTRUCTION] making defensive tackle, easily, the biggest need. [TICKING CLOCK] DE Jason Jones (a free agent next year) can slide inside on passing downs, so don't be surprised if GM Martin Mayhew finds another edge rusher. Coordinator Teryl Austin successfully implemented a man-coverage foundation this season; to continue this, he could use two new cornerbacks—maybe three, as [FREE AGENT] Rashean Mathis is very replaceable, and [FREE AGENT] Cassius Vaughn is undeserving of his nickel duties. With few pressing needs on offense, Mayhew can also invest at linebacker. Locking up rising incumbents [THINKING AHEAD] DeAndre Levy and [THINKING AHEAD] Tahir Whitehead, both heading into contract years, would be his best course.
GREEN BAY PACKERS 12--4
PRIORITIES: LOCK UP TALENT
Re-signing WR Randall Cobb has to be Job No. 1. After that, GM Ted Thompson must decide whether to retain injury-prone free-agent RT Bryan Bulaga or bring in outside help. (T.J. Lang has finally found a home at RG; if he had to move back to RT, it'd represent a downgrade at both right-side spots.) On defense: NTs Letroy Guion and B.J. Raji are both free agents. Unless Raji, who spent last season on IR with a triceps tear, takes another one-year, $4 million--level "prove it" deal, Thompson should re-sign the cheaper, much-improved Guion and draft a developmental nose. On the back end CBs Tramon Williams and Davon House are unsigned. Williams, who turns 32 in March, has been very sturdy, but House, 25, could cost less and is quietly one of the most intriguing young perimeter defenders in football.
CHICAGO BEARS 5--11
PRIORITIES: RETURN THE DEFENSE TO OLD FORM
There's no knowing how new GM Ryan Pace and incoming coach John Fox really feel about QB Jay Cutler. But even if they abhorred him, could they really stand the $19.5 million in dead money that cutting him would bring? And where do you find a more talented passer without trading up in the draft? Yes, [QB CONUNDRUM] Cutler had a league-high 24 turnovers in 2014, but a poor D is what felled this team. The [MAJOR RECONSTRUCTION] scheme and personnel need to be overhauled. (Hiring 49ers departee Vic Fangio helps.) Pace should start his rebuilding up front: Cut disappointing [BUST] DE Lamarr Houston, who's coming off a right ACL tear, and find an edge rusher. ([TICKING CLOCK] Jared Allen is no longer that guy, but he's too expensive to discard.) Also re-sign [FREE AGENT] DT Stephen Paea, the only successful contributor up front last season. Next, find a linebacker to replace [FREE AGENT, TICKING CLOCK] Lance Briggs and another to compete with Jon Bostic and Shea McClellin.
ATLANTA FALCONS 6--10
PRIORITIES: SPEED RUSHER, DEFENSIVE COGS
It was smart of Arthur Blank to keep Thomas Dimitroff, which was never a certainty. The GM has built a strong roster—it just hasn't achieved lately, which is why Mike Smith was let go. The question now: How will this defense fit with (presumed) new coach Dan Quinn's scheme? Young CBs Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant don't have great size, but it'd be foolish to discard them. Quinn may have to amend his approach. He'll also have to blitz on every snap unless the Falcons can acquire a feared pass rusher. [FREE AGENT, TICKING CLOCK]DE Osi Umenyiora is not what he used to be and most likely won't be re-signed. [FREE AGENT]DE Kroy Biermann is worth bringing back, but he's not a speed rusher. On offense, a receiving tight end would serve the passing game well, but the multidimensional [IN-HOUSE SOLUTION] Levine Toilolo deserves another year to develop. Up front, everyone essential is under contract, but improvements are mandatory inside.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS 7-9
PRIORITIES: TWEAK THE D
If free agent [FREE AGENT] Mark Ingram is not re-signed, the Saints will need a running back—preferably a receiving one who can bring a Darren Sproles--like element back to Sean Payton's offense. [IN-HOUSE SOLUTION] Khiry Robinson (4.8 ypc in 2014) could conceivably become that feature back, though his contract is up after '15. (Plus, Payton likes to rotate in this position; depth is good.) The only other offensive need is at center, where 36-year-old free agent [FREE AGENT, TICKING CLOCK]Jonathan Goodwin is out of gas. On defense, Rob Ryan is regarded as a pressure-based coordinator, but most of his best work has come with coverage-based game plans. To decrease blitz necessity, the Saints must tab a natural pass rusher or two to accompany OLB Junior Galette, who's coming off his most impressive season yet. They also need to solidify the cornerback spot opposite No. 1 Keenan Lewis. They drafted Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round last year, but he didn't see meaningful action. In Ryan's scheme, corner versatility is vital.
CAROLINA PANTHERS 7-8-1
PRIORITIES: WEAPONS, PROTECTION FOR CAM
Undrafted youngsters Byron Bell (on the left) and Mike Remmers (right) scraped by, but the Panthers are still [MAJOR RECONSTRUCTION] well below the NFL's talent median at offensive tackle. Finding a solid guy who can move in space would enable them to keep the read-option as the foundation of their ground game and employ fewer of the chip blocks that force their backs and ends to delay their routes. And while Kelvin Benjamin showed promise as a rookie, this receiving corps is still thin. On D, inconsistent safety play has hurt the Panthers' zone-based pass unit. They may have partially rectified that with the fourth-round selection of [IN-HOUSE SOLUTION] FS Tre Boston last season, but two reliable corners are still needed. And Carolina might consider a pass-rushing end to replace [FREE AGENT, HEADACHE] DE Greg Hardy, whose off-field issues have him in flux.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS 2--14
PRIORITIES: PROTECT NEW QB
Whomever the Bucs draft No. 1— [DRAFT SOLUTION] Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota—it's vital that their new QB gets a [MAJOR RECONSTRUCTION] revamped O-line. This was the worst line in the NFL, and any spot—including left tackle, where last year's big free-agent pickup, Anthony Collins, was a bust—is easy to upgrade. Tampa also needs more passing-game speed. WRs Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson make splashy plays, but neither can take the top off a secondary. On D, the Bucs learned in '14 what they should have known before guaranteeing $18 million to Michael Johnson: The ex-Bengals end is dynamic, but he's not a feared edge rusher. They could use a threat opposite him. Behind the line, [FREE AGENT] every linebacker besides Lavonte David is a free agent. If coach Lovie Smith wants to continue his Cover Two/Cover Three scheme, a long-term running mate is needed. Think Urlacher-Briggs 2.0.
ST LOUIS RAMS 6--10
PRIORITIES: EVERYTHING ON OFFENSE
With the NFL's most talented non-Seattle-based D, coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead can devote their resources almost entirely to an [MAJOR RECONSTRUCTION] offense that has ranked 21st or worse in scoring for eight straight years. A blind man could see that this team needs a QB; [QB CONUNDRUM] Sam Bradford will almost certainly be cut, creating $13 million in cap space. Cutting [BLOATED CONTRACT] T Jake Long, who's also coming off a second straight ACL injury, would free another $9 million. Whether or not the 29-year-old sticks around, right guard still needs shoring up and line depth is essential. Another position to address: wideout. The Rams would need at least one more weapon here even if leading receiver [FREE AGENT] Kenny Britt weren't a free agent. (He is.) A possession target might not be a bad idea given how the Rams seem bent on being a power offense.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS 8-8
PRIORITIES: CAP MANAGEMENT
New coach Jim Tomsula is a no-name to many, but the 49ers' free agents are not: [FREE AGENT] G Mike Iupati, [FREE AGENT] RB Frank Gore and [FREE AGENT] CBs Perrish Cox and [FREE AGENT] Chris Culliver. San Francisco is already almost $3 million over the projected cap; it's unlikely that any big free agents get re-signed. That makes guard a significant need. Gore can be replaced by 2014 second-rounder [IN-HOUSE SOLUTION] Carlos Hyde, but a backup is needed. On D, [HEADACHE] DE Ray McDonald is gone and [THINKING AHAD] Justin Smith will almost certainly leave in '16. It'd be nice to replenish this position now so that a young end can learn under Smith for a year. At corner, given the free-agent scenario, depth is nonexistent. And then there are two very interesting positions that, one year ago, no one would have imagined this team needing to address: tight end and QB. [THINKING AHEAD] Vernon Davis had an awful year and may not be re-signed in '16. And [QB CONUNDRUM] Colin Kaepernick's contract can be thrown out at any point. If he doesn't sharpen his fundamentals, that could be a consideration.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS 12--4
PRIORITIES: PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
The Seahawks are in an enviable position: no dire needs and minimal significant free agents. Teams don't often reach Seattle's lofty standing without planning at least two years out—which is exactly what the Seahawks will continue doing. They have two megacontracts to handle before 2016: [QB CONUNDRUM]QB Russell Wilson and [BLOATED CONTRACT] LB Bobby Wagner. They'd also be wise to lock up [FREE AGENT] CB Byron Maxwell, whose rookie deal just expired. If that's all in the plans, then this year's draft targets will be at linebacker because [FREE AGENT] Malcolm Smith is a free agent and Bruce Irvin is likely to be one in '16. Depth along the defensive line is the only immediate need. If 34-year-old [FREE AGENT] Kevin Williams isn't retained, Seattle must find a backup and possible replacement for underrated nose shade [THINKING AHEAD] Brandon Mebane, whose contract is up next year.
ARIZONA CARDINALS 11--5
PRIORITIES: REPLENISH THE D, REPLACE A LEGEND
If [BLOATED CONTRACT] Larry Fitzgerald becomes a cap casualty the Cardinals will need a wideout. A mid-level guy should do—but a receiver shouldn't trump a 3--4 outside linebacker on GM Steve Keim's priority list. Though new D coordinator James Bettcher is likely to run a blitz-oriented scheme (like predecessor Todd Bowles's) that can manufacture pressure on its own, it's important to have a horse to build blitzes around. Arizona brass may feel that [IN-HOUSE SOLUTION] Alex Okafor—with his week-by-week improvements in 2014—can become that horse; even so, more outside depth is needed up front. (If [FREE AGENT] Antonio Cromartie is not re-signed, then a top corner should move to the top of Keim's wish list. High-level man coverage enables the Cards to run their pressure schemes.) Besides filling Fitz's spot on O, Arizona must shore up its interior line, especially since 2013 first-round G Jonathan Cooper hasn't even cracked the lineup.