For those teams, this is the season for reviewing tape, hitting pro days, clicking stopwatches and evaluating talent. It is the time for evaluating needs and mitigating potential risks.
This is draft and free-agency season.
NFL championships start here, so we start here, building blueprints for each team's 2014 Super Bowl run.
The Arizona Cardinals have taken two steps forward and one step back in beginning their quest for a 2014 Super Bowl title.
That is unacceptable given their abject lack of talent on offense outside of Larry Fitzgerald. It's time to clean house and cut some dead weight.
While this recent history sounds promising for Cardinals fans who would like to see a similar resurgence in 2013, it came at a cost.
While rookie tackles Nate Potter and Bobby Massie showed a bit of improvement in the second half of the season, it is safe to say that the Arizona offensive line is still a major liability that will get quarterbacks wrecked early and often.
And the quarterback position itself is a huge issue. Kevin Kolb was given a $63 million contract two years ago, but has only played in 15 games and has looked like anything but a $63 million man.
After addressing the offensive line early, the Cardinals need to free up cap space by completely reworking Kolb's deal while bringing in a mid-round rookie QB (of which there will be many to choose from), to provide a "Russell Wilson-type" of preseason competition.
Step one in the blueprint for an Atlanta Falcons' Super Bowl run in 2014 is to draft well in 2013.
The Ravens need to keep doing what they've been doing if they want to repeat as AFC champions.
The obvious first order of business is finding a replacement for a living legend in Ray Lewis. While players such as Lewis can't be "replaced" with ease, the team needs to do everything it can to make sure that it has young, developing talent on its linebacking corps.
Baltimore GM Ozzie Newsome also needs to quit beating around the bush, according to the Baltimore Sun (via Pro Football Talk), and sign QB Joe Flacco to a long-term extension. While many appreciate Newsome for his hard-headed nature in contract negotiations, Flacco deserves to get paid.
Unless, of course, Flacco really does want $20 million per year—"Peyton Manning money," according to Yahoo Sports. In that case, they should slap the franchise tag on Flacco, which will pay him approximately $14 million in 2013 and make him prove that 2012's big run wasn't a fluke.
Flacco deserves credit, and the team should meet him in the middle if they can agree to terms. But businesses aren't built on investing in assets when they are likely to be at their all-time high value.
It's hard to make a blueprint when the person who will be erecting the structure has no gift for architecture.
That person in this case is Bills general manager Buddy Nix, a walking, talking bad decision.
How Nix was not canned in the Bills' recent staff overhaul that basically brought the Syracuse football staff two hours west to Buffalo will remain one of the NFL's greatest mysteries for the rest of his tenure.
Regardless of what the blueprint should be, we know what it is. Nix went on the record, in one of the least-savvy business moves ever, and told Tim Graham of the Buffalo News that he plans on drafting a quarterback in 2013.
I think we really need to address it this year. The thing we can’t do is you can’t create one. You can’t go out, thinking ‘I’ve got to make this guy a player.’ If you do, then you’re going to be in a bigger mess. We don’t want to do that. We try to guard against that.
But we do need another one, and we need to do it this time.
Nix found out "you can't create" an NFL quarterback by throwing a $59 million extension at Ryan Fitzpatrick and his rag arm. Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News is reporting that "it seems obvious" that Fitzpatrick will not receive a penny more than the $21 million he has already been paid.
Furthermore, Gaughan said that the team actually stands to gain about $500,000 in cap room by simply cutting Fitzpatrick.
So cut bait.
The Bills pick at the No. 8 spot in the draft, and at that point, Bills fans should hope that West Virginia's Geno Smith is still available. If he is not, the Bills may repeat history and do exactly what Nix said he did not want to do again by reaching for former Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib.
Nassib looked very pedestrian during Senior Bowl week. But because of his connection with new Bills head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, the thought may be that Nassib can instantly start in their system.
Buffalo has plenty of cap space to make another Mario Williams-type splash in free agency, and it desperately needs to address its complete lack of playmaking receiver threats outside of Steve Johnson.
The next order of business is to do whatever possible to get guard Andy Levitre locked up and not squabble over the extra $1 to $2 million per season he may want. Levitre is one of the more underrated guards in the league, and while he likely deserves Carl Nicks-type money, the market probably won't be there for him in the same way.
This is important to step four, which is to feature C.J. Spiller on the offense. The "new" version of the old Jim Kelly K-Gun that Marrone is resurrecting in Buffalo calls for Thurman Thomas-like skills from a running back. It's time for the guard to officially change from Fred Jackson to Spiller.
It's been time for a season and a half, in fact.
In putting this blueprint together, it almost seems like it has the potential to be a giant palace.
But this one is going to take some string-pulling.
QB Cam Newton is one of the most exciting young players in the game. He is one of a new age of quarterbacks who NFL teams are forced to defend in new and innovative ways.
What can put this offense over the top would be acquiring free-agent Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace and putting him opposite Steve Smith. That way, the Panthers could move Wallace outside and Steve Smith inside to force a mismatch with either himself or tight end Greg Olsen.
One thing about Carolina that worries me is its offensive line. The Panthers have a ton of money invested in a Corvette of a running game that has no paved roads nearby to drive on.
Between Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and the running ability of Cam Newton, there is no reason why the Panthers should not be one of the league's best rushing teams.
In fact, it will be an embarrassment and a disappointment if they are not. It's time for a shake-up.
It's a tackle-needy league, and while it seems counter-intuitive to trade your best tackle, the second move the Panthers need to make is to trade Jordan Gross to a team like Chicago or San Diego for a second- or third-round pick.
This gets rid of almost $12 million in cap hit alone and allows Carolina to rebuild an offensive line that already has plenty of veteran leadership and smarts through the middle. Gross is going to be 33 years old. Now is the time to deal him.
In this scenario, Carolina could come into the 2013 season with an offensive line featuring rookies Eric Fisher and either Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones or Larry Warford depending on how the picks fell. This would be a developing corps for years and a burgeoning road-grading monster to complement the outside threat Wallace represents.
Step one in Chicago's blueprint for making a 2014 Super Bowl run has already occurred.
After one of the most exhaustive head-coaching searches in recent memory, Bears GM Phil Emery finally got his man.
New Bears head coach Marc Trestman is known having a special way with quarterbacks, and QB Jay Cutler "couldn't be more excited," according to ChicagoBears.com.
It's a great hire....I've talked to guys around the league and did my own research on him. He's an offensive mind, a great person and a guy that's going to come in and hopefully lead us to many victories in the future.
He understands quarterbacks. He understands their thought process and the minds of quarterbacks and what we have to go through. It's going to be a quarterback-friendly system and I can't wait to get started with him.
If Jay Cutler needs "fixing," Trestman is the coach to do it. Rich Gannon frequently raves about Trestman on his Sirius XM NFL Radio Show, "The Blitz.'' Trestman was Gannon's QB coach in 2002 when Gannon won the league MVP, and like Cutler, Gannon was a bit of a diva himself as an NFL athlete.
Trestman knows how to deal with gifted QBs who may have less-than-desirable personalities within a locker room.
No matter how good (or bad) a teammate Cutler is, one thing is certain—the Bears need a backup plan in case he gets hurt again. Step two is making a run at Miami backup QB Matt Moore, who is scheduled to hit free agency, has shown he can win at the NFL level and has familiarity with stud WR and former Dolphin Brandon Marshall.
Step three is facing the truth that the linebacker corps is not what it used to be. A succession plan is desperately needed for Brian Urlacher. The Bears can't afford to lose that part of their defensive identity.
Step four is doing whatever is necessary to keep Henry Melton in Chicago. He is capable of creating pressure from the defense's interior and brings an athleticism that the Bears can't afford to lose.
The final step occurs in the draft. The Bears need to use their first-round pick on Oklahoma LT Lane Johnson if he is available. The offensive line is the clear No. 1 issue on the Bears offense. Cutler can't improve if he is not upright.
Johnson is raw, but he is lean, long, smart and plays with great functional balance and feet. Basically, he is everything that current LT J'Marcus Webb is not.
If the Bengals want to get over the hump in the 2013 season and have any hope of a real run at the Super Bowl in 2014, they are going to need to spend money.
This is something Bengals owner and GM Mike Brown hates doing. Houston CB and former Bengal Jonathan Joseph told HeraldOnline.com that "In Cincy, we’re told how much Gatorade we could take home."
Those Gatorade bills must have really been adding up.
Thankfully, the team many think of as the NFL's notoriously cheapest club will have to get its wallet out in 2013. Under the new CBA, starting in 2013, a salary "floor" of sorts will be instituted to go along with the $120 million cap.
A team must spend at least 88.8 percent of its $120 million in annual salaries, which amounts to $107.1 million.
Coming into 2013, the Bengals have almost $56 million in available cap space, meaning the team will have approximately $33 million burning a hole in its pocket.
The Bengals defense is becoming a juggernaut that will continue to develop. Step one is drafting a great coverage linebacker such as Missouri's Zaviar Gooden or Rutgers' Khaseem Greene in the early middle rounds of the draft. Incumbent linebacker Rey Maualuga has proven himself incapable of turning his hips and running with athletic tight ends.
Step two is the most important. The Bengals need to make a splash for once. The organization needs to give QB Andy Dalton real weapons outside of A.J. Green. Mohamed Sanu will be a key part of the offense in the gadget/possession role that he began to fill when healthy during 2012. But no true "No. 2" receiver is on the Cincinnati roster.
Marvin Jones is a terrific athlete with good upside and Andrew Hawkins has shown flashes, but both have obvious, gaping holes in their games. Free agents Greg Jennings, Dwayne Bowe and Mike Wallace all come to mind as players who could put a high-octane offense over the top.
Step three is to bring in another RB to complement BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who was relatively effective in his first year as a Bengal, but as expected, is not a dynamic playmaker.
Imagine a backfield of Green-Ellis and free agent Reggie Bush and a receiving corps of Green, Bowe and Sanu out of the slot in a Randall Cobb-lite role.
That is an AFC North championship waiting to happen.
Step one in the Super Bowl blueprint for the Browns is figuring out what they're going to fit the 4-3 personnel they have on defense into the 3-4 scheme that new defensive coordinator Ray Horton will be bringing in from Arizona.
According to Mary Kay Cabot of the Plain Dealer, Horton said: "It'll be a 3-4 defense, the same defense we ran (in Arizona). It won't be a hybrid unless you're playing golf.''
Yet in the same report, Cabot detailed new head coach Rob Chudzinski's view on the switch.
Chudzinski re-iterated Thursday night at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards that the Browns will run both the 3-4 and 4-3, more of a hybrid of the two fronts. The reason it's an issue is become some key players, such as defensive end Jabaal Sheard and tackle Ahtyba Rubin, are more suited to the 4-3. Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson has also excelled in the 4-3.
Regardless of any hybrids or mulligans, step two in the plan is bringing in an edge rusher to complement Jabaal Sheard. While Cleveland was tied for 11th in the NFL for 2012 with 38 total sacks, only seven came from Sheard.
Teams don't want sacks spread this evenly across their roster. It relieves an offense from the responsibility of accounting for a specific pass-rusher, leaving the defense on the "defensive" in picking its spots and taking its shots as it tries to get guys after the quarterback.
Horton plays anything but a "defensive" style of defense. He dials up an attacking, blitzing brand of football that calls for the numbers game being won inside.
With the sixth pick in the draft, the Browns must take Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones. He will bring a true, pure 3-4 edge presence and address this pass-rush need. I would suggest that anyone worried about Jones' spinal stenosis diagnosis read my piece for the Austin Chronicle in which I interviewed the director of the NFL's spine committee about the condition.
Step three is adding to the talent at inside linebacker. D'Qwell Jackson is as solid as they come, but if the defense is switching to a 3-4, it simply needs more linebackers who can play both inside and out.
Horton was responsible for turning Daryl Washington into the league's best blitzing inside linebacker while in Arizona. Having such players will allow Horton to attack offenses the way he prefers.
That talent is not on Cleveland's current roster.
Step four is bringing in more threats for second-year QB Brandon Weeden. The team committed to Weeden, using a foolish first-round pick on him in 2012, and it is only prudent to stick by him. Supplemental rookie pick Josh Gordon was arguably the best first-year receiver in 2012, but outside of him, the team has no outside receiving threats.
The AFC North is turning into a division of long-ball throwers and go-route runners who take big shots. Guys like Mohamed Massaquoi and Greg Little have had enough time but have failed to prove themselves, and Travis Benjamin isn't going to win anyone any championships.
The Browns have plenty of cap space and need to bring in a solid threat to operate opposite Gordon to give Weeden the fair shake Colt McCoy never got.
Step one for the Cowboys is to fire both of their guards for getting Tony Romo wrecked.
The most dangerous form of QB pressure comes through the interior, and Tony Romo will be the first to tell you this. Even players like Romo with signature "escapability" and a gift for manipulating the pocket and extending plays will struggle when faced with pressure right up in their face.
It takes away the ability to step up in the pocket and slide laterally the way we have seen QBs like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and even Ben Roethlisberger do through the years. You can use this gift as a passer if your tackles are bad, but if your guards are bad in pass protection, you're toast. There is nowhere to go.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cowboys LG Nate Livings allowed six QB sacks in 2012. That was the most among all guards. RG/C Mackenzy Bernadeau was tied for second with five sacks allowed.
That is absolutely unacceptable.
Both players are under contract for one more season, but that does not mean the Cowboys should continue to roll out a group that represents such a huge liability. The only way Bernadeau should see the field is as a reserve utility player since he can "play" both guard and center.
To address this need, the Cowboys must select either Barrett Jones of Alabama (another player who can play guard or center), Larry Warford of Kentucky or Jonathan Cooper of UNC. Alabama's Chance Warmack will likely be off the board when the Cowboys pick at No. 18, but he would be the optimal solution.
Step two is the defensive line, and the good news is that this draft is loaded with defensive-line talent. With the departure of Rob Ryan, the Cowboys will be switching to a 4-3 defense, and DE Anthony Spencer is set to hit free agency.
Step 2A is shaking things up. Let Spencer leave. He will cost too much money, as the Cowboys are $18 million over the salary cap coming into 2013.
Step three is trading DeMarcus Ware who is getting old and becoming alarmingly injury-prone. He also doesn't fit in a 4-3. Lots of teams will be interested in kicking the tires on a player with such immense name recognition and history despite the fact that the defense has underperformed for the past two seasons.
Step one is to take a deep breath and relax.
Broncos CB Champ Bailey was burned all day by wide receiver Torrey Smith in the Broncos' divisional playoff loss to the Ravens, but he remains one of the league's best cornerbacks.
No step in this plan involves moving him to safety in some sort of ridiculous overreaction.
Peyton Manning in 2012 was who Peyton Manning will be moving forward. He's a great quarterback, worth every bit of what he is being paid, whose arm is nowhere near what it used to be. According to USA Today, neck surgery caused damage to the nerves that send impulses through his shoulder and down his arm.
Every now and then, he'll make bad throws. But he's still Peyton Manning.
The Broncos need to get younger and more talented at running back (not via Ronnie Hillman, either), and any team can always use young depth to cultivate along both lines. But the organization can't panic after Manning's horrible roll right and subsequent interception put the nail in this season's coffin.
The Broncos draft extremely well and need to keep their wits about them rather than make any more spectacular offseason moves.
The AFC West should be theirs for the taking for the foreseeable future. Stay the course.
Lions GM Martin Mayhew has gotten the team in a bit of a salary cap mess as it enters the 2013 season. It is $1.1 million over the cap without much to show for it.
Step one in the Lions' Super Bowl blueprint is to cut bait and cut bait some more.
They have an incredible 34 players scheduled to hit free agency in 2013, according to spotrac.com, and the best plan is to let most of them walk. Out with the old, in with the new. The Lions are a coaching staff that, if nothing else, can develop younger players into their scheme.
In Detroit, attitude and toughness go a long way in "fitting in" to schemes. A team's culture mirrors that of its coach.
Having coached the South squad in the 2013 Senior Bowl, the Lions staff already has had the benefit of one week of on-field evaluation of a number of 2013 prospects.
The offensive line in Detroit has been historically horrible this century. So step two is continuing to address it. The Lions should not do so in the same way that Arizona "addressed" its mess in giving a horrible tackle like Gosder Cherilus a ton of money in a Levi Brown-esque extension.
Take out the trash.
Get younger, scour available free agents for talent that can be had on the cheap and stick with Mayhem's plan, according to DetroitLions.com, to acquire additional "weapons" for QB Matt Stafford.
Nate Burleson is old and very likely done. You can't win NFC North championships with balls bouncing off Brandon Pettigrew's hands, Titus Young purposefully running the wrong routes, or depending on outside threats like Kris Durham.
Ryan Broyles hasn't been healthy for an entire season in more than two calendar years. As Mayhew told DetroitLions.com: "The way I look at it, when you have a quarterback like Matthew Stafford, you want to keep giving him weapons and that’s what we’re going to try and keep doing.''
Stafford is going to get an extension eventually anyway. The final step in freeing up some cash and solidifying a centerpiece for the long term is to go ahead and extend him now.
This is a win-win situation for Stafford and the organization.
He gets long-term security while freeing up money for the team to invest in weapons to help him produce at his highest level. The team, in turn, gets to defer the largest portion of his contract until later years.
The Packers already have a sturdy foundation upon which to build a 2014 Super Bowl run, but a few things must be done.
Step one is to draft well, as the Packers generally always do. GM Ted Thompson is known for finding great value through the middle rounds of drafts. Green Bay, like Pittsburgh, is an organization that prefers to build through the draft as opposed to making big free-agent signings.
The clear priorities are finding eventual replacements for linebacker A.J. Hawk, center Jeff Saturday and CB/S Charles Woodson.
Step two is determining how the offense will be run in free agent Greg Jennings' absence. Jennings' sister has recently indicated that he will take his talents to South Beach, along with passing some choice words Aaron Rodgers' way via Twitter.
The good news is that this has a simple solution, as fellow wide receiver James Jones recently told the Associated Press.
Everybody in this locker room is trying to win Super Bowls, but everybody in this locker room is trying to take care of their family as well. Football is our job and football is how we do it, and we understand that we've got four or five No. 1 receivers that are going to want money at some time. So we know it's going to be hard for this organization to pay everybody what they want, which (stinks)...because I wish we could stay together for the rest of our career and go on a run and win some Super Bowls.
Step three is shipping off tight end Jermichael Finley, who is overpaid. His lack of production given his obvious athletic talents has been the main knock on him since his days at Texas.
He isn't known as a "locker room guy," either. It's time for Green Bay to cut bait. It needs to re-sign Tom Crabtree, who is set to hit free agency, to whatever modest contract he will command on the open market and see if Atlanta is interested in buying Finley, an uber-athletic lemon, to replace Tony Gonzalez.
The Texans come into the 2013 offseason in disarray. They fell apart down the stretch and have a few gaping holes that need to be addressed.
Step one is wide receiver.
Andre Johnson had a bounce-back season yardage-wise and was clearly the Texans' most potent downfield weapon. Outside of tight end Owen Daniels, in fact, he was the team's only true weapon in the passing attack.
Johnson put together a 1,598-yard season while the quartet of Kevin Walter, Lestar Jean, DeVier Posey and Keshawn Martin put up a very pathetic 841 combined receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Johnson is not getting any younger, and the Texans not only need an eventual replacement for him long term, they need a complement short term. Given this dynamic, they can only expect so much out of QB Matt Schaub (even as a "game manager").
Step two is figuring out what is wrong with their special-team return units. One of the players who wasn't effective as a returner in Houston was Broncos wide receiver Trindon Holliday, who had plenty of huge plays this season in Denver after they wisely claimed him off waivers following his release from the Texans.
The other, Jacoby Jones, was a pariah in Houston because of dropped balls, but his miracle catch against Denver in the playoffs is one of the reasons the Ravens are in the Super Bowl. As a result, Jones, a near-unanimous selection to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner, was not able to make his trip to Hawaii.
Where was all this production when these players were Texans?
Step three hurts, but the Texans have to let OLB Connor Barwin walk. Move Whitney Mercilus and Brooks Reed into the starting spots and free up room to address Houston's second-biggest need, which is interior defensive line/nose tackle.
Of everything that QB Andrew Luck brought to Indianapolis upon his arrival in 2012, one of his greatest accomplishments was making a terrible offensive line look serviceable.
Step one is addressing this issue.
Except for tackle Anthony Costanzo, no other player on the Colts offensive line is worth keeping.
2013 is a strong year for interior offensive linemen in the draft, and Colts GM Ryan Grigson, a former offensive lineman, surely knows it. The Colts will need to stock up on depth across the offensive line if they want to build upon a productive 11-5 turnaround season in 2012.
Step two is finding cornerbacks who can cover. Let Jerraud Powers walk and send Cassius Vaughn packing.
The third step may hurt Colts fans, but it's time to cut the cord on Dwight Freeney. He is at the end of his six-year, $72 million contract and cost the club $19 million against the cap in 2012. The Colts can't pay that much for him any longer.
Paul Kruger would be an interesting replacement, given his connection to Colts head coach Chuck Pagano stemming from their time together in Baltimore.
Kruger will command a hefty salary as well. As a player who will be coveted by 3-4 and 4-3 teams, given that he can play both schemes, Kruger will have double the number of potential suitors.
You don't pay, I don't play!
A Super Bowl blueprint for the Jaguars for next season?
The greatest architect who ever lived would have trouble drawing up this sort of instruction manual. If they tried, step one would be running back.
Maurice Jones-Drew is clearly the franchise in Jacksonville, and the powers that be seem perfectly happy to let the offense ride on his shoulders while he shortens his career taking an absolute pounding while his team loses games.
The Jags will not restructure Jones-Drew's contract in 2013 following his "lost season" in 2012 and will surely slap a franchise tag on him in 2014 before sending his then-30-year-old, bruised and battered body into free agency for 2015.
We have seen that in Jones-Drew's absence, the running game is left in the hands of special-teamers and general scrubs. The Jags need to find a capable backup with a skill set similar to Jones-Drew's in the likely case that another injury crops up in 2013.
Step two is quarterback, because Blaine Gabbert is clearly not the answer.
While Tebow would make sense business- and marketing-wise given regional appeal, we've seen what a disaster his presence can be, and the Jaguars can't do anything to make themselves any more disastrous.
They should not address this issue with the second overall pick in the draft, however. New head coach Gus Bradley will be bringing the Seattle defense he helped orchestrate to Jacksonville, and this defense is well known as a conceptual hybrid.
He'll need a player capable of manning both the 3-technique and the nose-tackle positions in an AFC South division where Jacksonville will annually face running backs Arian Foster and Chris Johnson twice each.
The Jaguars must select Utah DT Star Lotulelei with the second overall pick and address QB in the later rounds where value is sure to be found in someone such as Zac Dysert or Tyler Bray.
With Matt Cassel, Brady Quinn and Ricky Stanzi the only quarterbacks on the roster, Reid clearly has his work cut out for him. According to USA Today, regarding this all-important step one in the Chiefs' Super Bowl blueprint, Reid told the media at his introductory press conference:
I'm going to look at the guys that are here and study the heck out of those guys. I'll have a chance to meet those guys and then evaluate that at that point....They have to learn a new system, I've got to make sure we check out the draft, we've got to check out free (agency), we're going to do the whole thing, put the whole package together and make sure that we come up with that as being a solid position here. It might not happen this year, it might not happen next year. You never know.
We've been blessed with the No. 1 pick in the draft. You want to make sure you do the right thing and pick the right guy for that. It doesn't have to be a QB. It has to be the right thing. You don't want to force anything at that point. People that do that, they get themselves in trouble. We'll get it right here as we go.
Reid can study the heck out of every throw any of his quarterbacks have made, but there's only one logical conclusion to be reached. There's no Len Dawson on his roster.
The Super Bowl blueprint requires signing Kirk Cousins.
Even after selling the farm to draft the franchise's future QB in Robert Griffin III, Shanahan drafted the quarterback in a savvy move after witnessing Cousins' game for the North squad that he opposed at the 2012 Senior Bowl.
Given his smarts and accuracy, Cousins is a perfect quarterback for an Andy Reid offense. While the Redskins may be hesitant to trade away such a capable backup given RG3's injury concern, a trade could be reasonably worked involving Stanzi and some combination of picks that do not involve the No. 1 overall selection.
The other step is slapping a franchise tag on offensive tackle Branden Albert and taking a little bit of time during the season to figure out what needs to happen with the restructuring of his contract.
This leaves Kansas City wide open to hear any offers from teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles or San Diego Chargers who may be open to trading up to acquire Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel with the first overall pick.
Step one for the Miami Dolphins is letting the biggest steal in the 2012 NFL draft take the reins at running back once Reggie Bush leaves town.
Running back Lamar Miller, like many Drew Rosenhaus clients recently, took a free fall in the draft, but showed signs in 2012 that there may be something to his skill set.
Daniel Thomas has not lived up to his billing as a second-round pick. He has fumbling issues, and, according to B/R's AFC East lead writer Erik Frenz, has scored just five touchdowns and averages 3.54 yards per carry, ranking dead last among all backs with at least 250 carries over the past two years.
The Dolphins will have $35.8 million in cap space once they let left tackle Jake Long go, and the team is going to have to make a splash in free agency as every hole can't be filled via the draft alone.
Step two is re-signing Brian Hartline. He will not command as large a contract as many of the hotter wide receiver names on the market. Plus, in developing a second-year QB like Ryan Tannehill, it is always good to keep familiar targets on the receiving corps.
Don't make any silly moves to try to bring Wes Welker back to Florida.
Step three is getting Greg Jennings down south ASAP. Jennings opens things up all over, and the trio of Jennings, Hartline and a super-effective Davone Bess operating out of the slot is a receiving corps that would dominate with good quarterback play in the soon-to-be-Revis-less secondaries of the AFC East.
Step four is addressing the offensive line. Cut Richie Incognito and don't put too many eggs in the Jonathan Martin basket, as Martin clearly needs a lot of work to become a decent NFL tackle. There is better talent to be had in this draft. GM Jeff Ireland should know it.
Address the quarterback situation. It is a nightmare, and Adrian Peterson can't win championships on his own despite the fact that he may or may not be human.
Christian Ponder's leash needs to be shortened to a level bordering on choking. Saying the Vikings' aerial attack is anemic would be the understatement of the offseason.
Step one is bringing in quarterback competition via free agency and the NFL draft. The Vikings have adequate cap space to spend a little bit of money on a veteran such as Chase Daniel and draft a middle-round QB prospect such as Arizona's Zach Scott or, ideally, Florida State's E.J. Manuel in the second round.
Manuel is a mobile passer who can throw on the run with better accuracy than any QB in the draft. He will flourish in an offense like Minnesota's that has gotten used to using a rhythm-based attack to make up for Ponder's deficiencies.
If Ponder can't beat out one or both of those players, hand him a clipboard.
Step two is to re-sign Percy Harvin. He is just too good, and that level of talent does not grow on trees. Harvin is one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL. To let him go would be foolish.
Step three is to let Jerome Simpson walk. The receiving corps will be fine with Jarius Wright, Harvin and whatever rookies and/or free-agent acquisitions general manager Rick Spielman decides to bring in.
Simpson is better known for one random act of athleticism, landing a standing flip for a TD in Cincinnati, than anything truly meaningful on the football field.
Step one is re-signing Wes Welker, even though he recently has been prone to making drops at critical times. He made two in this year's AFC Championship Game, and one that no one will ever forget in last season's Super Bowl.
Tom Brady is getting older, and as hard as it may be for Patriots fans to admit, he's losing a little bit of steam on his throws. The Patriots have brought in the personnel to adapt to this, though, and Bill Belichick and Brady have a relationship that borders on soulmates.
As long as Brady is at the helm and Belichick is designing game plans, the road to the AFC crown will go through Foxboro.
But, as a team that has shifted to a more power-based running attack that uses the intermediate vertical seams as extensions of the run, it is hard to depend on TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. At this point, it is fair to label them both as "injury prone."
Welker was supposed to be "phased out" to start the 2012 season. Bill Belichick was going to use Hernandez in the Welker role and let Julian Edelman operate as a bit of a Welker-lite out of the slot.
We saw how that worked out. After a slow start to the season, Welker went bananas, as Brady needs Welker as bad as Welker needs Brady. Slap the franchise tag on Welker, then work something out as the season goes on.
Step two is to draft a big defensive tackle like Jessie Williams of Alabama or Jonathan Hankins of Ohio State. The Patriots are approaching formidable run-stopping status, but they need a steady cog next to Vince Wilfork on the interior.
Step three is to take the best player available on defense in the second round at pick No. 59. The Patriots are always building a dynasty, and any blue-chip talent that falls there should be plucked regardless of position.
As Brady enters his "golden years" as an NFL QB, the defense may have to hold the opposition to fewer points to win playoff games.
Step one is never forgetting 2012.
The Saints need to come into the 2013 season with a gigantic chip on their shoulder. New Orleans has a talented roster on offense that needs to stay together.
Step two is making sure that happens. Get center Brian De La Puente and offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod re-signed by any means necessary and cut the fat in other areas.
Let Chris Ivory go as a restricted free agent. The Saints have four perfectly good RBs under contract if you count Travaris Cadet.
Roman Harper has been a great Saint, but he's owed more than $5 million, and all the Saints defensive backfield has done lately is get burned. He's their leader. Get him out of there or make him accept about half of that.
Devery Henderson got his shot as the "incumbent," solely taking over the "Z" role that was previously shared with Robert Meachem in 2012 and failed to do anything of note. Tell him to get lost.
Don't re-sign Sedrick Ellis. He cost the team $7.3 million last season as an underachiever. Unacceptable. Let him walk.
Finally, Will Smith has no business being scheduled to count $14.5 million against the cap in 2013. That is comical. He can take a hike, too.
Step three is drafting a ton of young talent on defense that is suited to fit into whatever system the new Saints defensive coordinator will be putting into place. The depth of interior defensive linemen in the 2013 draft offers an embarrassment of riches, many of whom Saints head coach Sean Payton was able to see at this year's Senior Bowl practices the day after his reinstatement.
Step one is to re-sign Victor Cruz.
The Giants are treading in dangerous territory and appear to be teetering on the edge of losing their, well...edge.
We've seen that Hakeem Nicks can't stay healthy and has the most fitting last name of any player in the entire NFL. Without Cruz, and in the event of the inevitable time missed by Nicks, the Giants offense boasts a receiving corps of Domenik Hixon, Ramses Barden and Rueben Randle.
Hixon and Barden are scheduled to hit the free-agent market as well.
While these are all fairly nice players, this is not a championship receiving corps. The Giants need stability through all facets of their aerial attack to keep Eli Manning from putting on his sad Elmo face when things get rough. Whether it's a franchise tag, a restricted free-agent tender or a long-term deal that is set to balloon down the road, re-signing Cruz should be the biggest offseason priority of the Giants organization.
He's too dynamic a playmaker to let him get away.
Step two is to draft defense. The Giants need to get back to playing dominating defense, and while Osi Umenyiora leaves a pass-rush hole to be filled, needs at cornerback and linebacker should come first.
The Jets' Super Bowl run in 2013 will not occur if they do not trade Darelle Revis.
He's the best in the business, but the genius "capologist" Mike Tannenbaum has left the club's finances in complete disarray, and New York simply can't afford to keep him.
The first and only step the Jets can take to even dip their toes into championship consideration is to trade Revis and a fourth-round pick to San Francisco for QB Alex Smith and San Francisco's 2013 first-rounder.
This gives New York ample opportunity to assemble a talented (if unproven) cast of receivers to complement second-year pro Stephen Hill, who showed signs of future dominance as a No. 1 wide receiver before being lost for the season due to injury.
The Jets' midseason move to a power running game in 2012 really opened things up for Bilal Powell and Shonn Greene to make plays.
New Jets OC Marty Mornhinweg runs a pure West Coast offense, the exact type that Smith flourished in in San Francisco and would take a demoralized Mark Sanchez years to learn, if ever.
Step one is quitting all this Terrelle Pryor talk. You don't win the AFC West with Pryor going up against Peyton Manning, so a firm commitment to Carson Palmer must be made.
For all the good former Raiders HC Hue Jackson did for the team, the Palmer trade left the Raiders with no picks until the third round last year, and they are also missing a second-rounder in 2013. The team has paid for Palmer, he's the better quarterback and he needs to be given a chance in Oakland's new offensive system.
Thankfully, the Raiders have ditched the horrible zone-blocking scheme former offensive coordinator Greg Knapp employed in 2012. Hopefully, new offensive coordinator Greg Olson will be much more careful with McFadden and sprinkle in much heavier doses of Mike Goodson and Taiwan Jones. This will help keep McFadden fresh and healthy for the first time in his career.
Step three is trading down. The Raiders need to hope against hope that Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel falls to the No. 3 spot in which they sit so that Philadelphia, San Diego or even Chicago may show interest in trading up to acquire the services of the best left tackle many have seen in years.
The Raiders are happy with tackle Jared Veldheer, but outside of utility guard/center Stefen Wisniewski, they could use help basically everywhere else along the offensive line.
Step four is addressing the offensive line, along with concerns about the defensive line, linebackers and cornerbacks through the extra picks accumulated by trading down.
The Raiders staff got an up-close look at a fantastic group of bargain-bin talent at the Senior Bowl, and Dennis Allen said on the NFL broadcast that the group he was most impressed with on his North roster was the defensive line.
At least two or three of those players should be available in the second and third rounds.
Step five is re-signing tackle Desmond Bryant, and locking him up alongside Lamarr Houston to provide a base to build around while telling Matt Shaughnessy and Richard Seymour to take a hike.
The Philadelphia Eagles' fastest pathway to the Super Bowl is to let new head coach Chip Kelly teach and then trust their preparation.
Step one is committing to one quarterback and sticking by him. Whether that is Nick Foles, Mike Vick or a player to be determined, one player needs to be anointed as the leader when implementing a new system.
Step two is out of anyone's control, but it must occur. We have seen that the Eagles are one (sometimes two) Jason Peters' ruptured Achilles tendon away from turning into an offensive line that turns quarterbacks into turnover machines. Peters needs to stay healthy.
Step three is drafting Luke Joeckel. This provides insurance for Peters at left tackle and starts a new offense out with a salty offensive line.
Spin Todd Herremans down to guard, where he started his career, and move onto step four, which is...
Develop a running attack early and often in games utilizing both Bryce Brown and LeSean McCoy. The one-two punch that this duo provides is impossible to defend, especially in the high-paced spread attack the Eagles will be using.
It will open things up all over the field. Coming into the 2013 season, the Eagles have two of the top four running backs in the NFC East. Put them to use.
The Steelers don't have a running back who is clearly a franchise-type player. So, step one is giving Rashard Mendenhall his walking papers.
If you want to make the Super Bowl, you can't depend on a guy who the franchise clearly hates despite his first-round pedigree.
Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer are serviceable, and nothing more. Both will be restricted free agents and likely to draw little interest from anyone who would have to send a draft pick along with an offer sheet.
Get both of them back on board. They are not feature backs, but they are solid complementary backs with good size and real NFL experience.
Baron Batch will be an exclusive-rights free agent that the team will likely re-sign, even though he has been an injury nightmare and was demoted for a short spell during the 2012 season to the Steelers practice squad to make room for Plaxico Burress.
Batch is a special teams captain and has great instincts and toughness as a third-down pass-blocking option.
Which leads to step two: drafting Alabama RB Eddie Lacy. The Steelers need an identity in the running game, and the Dwyer/Redman combo is not a championship duo. The Steelers are a team that builds through the draft, and Lacy is a talent who can't be passed at pick No. 17. Things didn't work out with Mendenhall, so take a mulligan on Lacy.
Step three is saying good riddance to Mike Wallace and getting rid of that distraction once and for all.
Chargers offensive tackle Jared Gaither is a walking injury report, and has been for his entire career.
Marcus McNeill retired prior to the 2012 season due to the lingering effects of spinal stenosis, the same condition that are causing many to downgrade 2013 NFL draft prospect Jarvis Jones.
The San Diego Chargers have missed their window. The talent has left, and they are in complete rebuilding mode under new head coach Mike McCoy and general manager Tom Telesco.
Former GM A.J. Smith, the "Lord of no Rings," has officially left the building. The team has to hit the reset button, but the future is sunny in beautiful San Diego.
What would make the future much sunnier for QB Phillip Rivers is any semblance of an offensive line.
Step 1 is unequivocally securing an offensive tackle. Hopefully for Chargers fans, Eric Fisher of Central Michigan lasts until pick No. 11. That is the best outcome. But after a dominating Senior Bowl performance, that seems less and less likely.
In that case, the Chargers will need to draft Oklahoma left tackle Lane Johnson. He is a little bit raw, but he has an athletic body for an offensive tackle and great functional balance and athleticism through his feet.
The second step is making sure Danario Alexander doesn't go anywhere. After bringing in Robert Meachem, a free agent who did nothing, the Chargers were delighted when Alexander burst onto the scene like many had been waiting for him to do in St. Louis.
If history is any indicator, he will likely hurt his knee eventually. But while he is healthy, Alexander is a difference-maker and worth signing to a new deal.
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead made a number of "high-risk" bets in the 2012 draft, and in Jeff Fisher's first season, it's safe to say that most of them were successful.
Rams rookie CB Janoris Jenkins was a player I had been singing the praises of since the 2012 Senior Bowl. Any time a prospect tells you how he contained A.J. Green and Julio Jones (as a college senior) in the same conversation, it raises your eyebrows.
Still, it's a risk to draft guys with criminal records and/or publicly noted, perceived transgressions of character.
Jeff Fisher wanted a filthy defensive backfield.
That is what it takes to win the NFC West. So he drafted a pair cornerbacks in his first year who shared one characteristic outside of smack-talking mirror skills that make Titus Young punch people, according to NFL.com.
Add in Cortland Finnegan, whose exact personality Fisher surely knew from their shared time in Tennessee, and you get an idea of the identity he was seeking.
Step one is to build on that. There are two picks in the first round that must go toward offense, but a key through the middle rounds will be building defensively, hopefully landing mean-spirited safeties like South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger. He would fit right in.
Step two is the first-round picks. Last season, two risky players were taken at WR: Brian Quick, a small-school prospect from Appalachian State who couldn't run routes, and Chris Givens, a well-known dogger of physical crossing routes at Wake Forest. Both were risky in their own way.
Givens turned out to be one of the league's top three rookie wide receivers, while Quick is still clearly in development mode.
Sam Bradford's time is now, and it is high time the St. Louis Rams performed like a team that has a franchise quarterback and surrounding cast. The organization needs to provide Bradford with more weapons.
The team should take a fairly refined wide receiver like UC's Keenan Allen or Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert.
Step three is drafting Oregon offensive lineman Kyle Long. If Long is available in the second round, the Rams have to take him. He has a strong personality, typical of the Long family, and his brother, Rams defensive end Chris Long, would provide a welcome familial chaperoning of sorts into the professional ranks.
Long simply looks and acts like a member of this uber-athletic Hall of Fame family, and scouts drool over him. He is generally projected as a guard because his arms are a bit shorter than desired for an NFL tackle, but he can play tackle, as he showed in the Senior Bowl.
This kind of versatile piece along the line needs to get on board, especially if there's a family connection in a general area of need.
Give Bradford the keys and go.
Keep doing what you've been doing.
Boy, do the Harbaughs play a great brand of football or what? No one can give Jim Harbaugh a blueprint. As of now, he owns the print shop and mans the controls on the printing press.
Who's got it better than us?
The Seahawks need to keep doing what they have been doing as well.
Head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider owned the 2012 NFL draft, and step one is continuing that in 2013.
It would be impossible to give them pointers in this realm, except to point out that in the NFC West, there is no substitute for depth along the defensive line. We saw that without Chris Clemons in the divisional playoff round at Atlanta. A situational rusher like Bruce Irvin, who fit perfectly into the overall picture of a healthy team, was a liability without Clemons in place.
The Seahawks have plenty of cap room to do what they feel is prudent regarding defensive linemen Jason Jones and Alan Branch, who will both be hitting free agency.
Step two is either drafting or acquiring a dynamic receiving threat via free agency. Zach Miller came on at the end of the 2012 season and appears poised for a breakout 2013, which will open things up for the receiving corps.
The issue is that Sidney Rice is one bad concussion away from getting onto the Jahvid Best retirement plan and Golden Tate is a notorious body-catcher.
Dwayne Bowe would be disgusting catching balls at CenturyLink against the physical corners of the NFC West.
Bucs head coach Greg Schiano is a coach's coach and an old-school guy who is going to do great things in the NFL.
Bucs fans should be completely on board with step one in Tampa's 2014 Super Bowl blueprint, and that is providing some competition for QB Josh Freeman.
As Schiano told the official Bucs website,
What I can say is, a 4,000-yard passer, a touchdown record – there’s a lot of things you say, 'Wow.’ Are there things that frustrate you? Yeah. There’s things that frustrate him, too. And I’m not ducking the question, because quite frankly, I really like Josh Freeman. But I want to make sure I don’t get ahead of my skis at all here and really evaluate every single thing to what’s best for this organization. Do I think Josh Freeman is going to win Super Bowls in this league? I do. So, I hope that happens here. But again, at the end of the day, I have to evaluate everything before I can say that’s what we’re doing.
The one thing I do believe in is competition at every spot, including the quarterback, so I want to have as many good players on our football team as we can at every single position. It’s a little different in the NFL.
The organization obviously wants to help Freeman. It paid Vincent Jackson a symbolic $55.5 million contract because Freeman wears jersey No. 5, and Jackson has been an excellent addition. Still, football is all about competition, and Schiano is all about football.
There should be plenty of opportunities to either draft or acquire another QB via free agency, and as we saw in Seattle this season, a true "open" competition can lead to great things.
Step 2 is keeping the offensive line healthy. Doug Martin is poised for a monster season behind a developing line and should be in consideration for top-five rushing season should Nicks, Donald Penn and Davin Joseph all make it through an entire season.
Titans RB Chris Johnson is a malcontent, according to 247sports, and needs complete coddling to feel any obligation to run the ball after being paid the way he did before getting his big contract.
When he feels like running, he does. When he doesn't, he doesn't.
At the end of the day, this led to Johnson being the NFL's ninth-leading rusher in 2012 and the most noticeable face of the Titans franchise despite his inconsistency and diva attitude.
The Titans have shown no signs that they are interested in trading Johnson and only have until five days after the Super Bowl to decide if they will do so. Johnson is staying put, so step one is making him happy. It's like a toddler tyrant holding a team hostage with world-class speed that makes Gus Johnson scream inappropriate things, according to Yahoo Sports.
Step 2 is bringing in Tim Tebow. Yes, Tebow. Nashville, as a community, would love him, and CJ2K has always been best (and much less ''pouty'') with a mobile quarterback sharing the backfield with him. As long as the Titans are rolling out Jake Locker, they might as well have a QB like Tebow waiting in the wings who has similar throwing ability and running acumen, but has shown he can actually win at the NFL level and lead an AFC team.
Tennessee would likely be better off with Tebow than Locker at quarterback, anyway, but Tebow's integration could start in an H-back role similar to that of Ahmard Hall or Bo Scaife in recent years.
If Locker bombs to start, Titans fans can hope for a little Tebow magic to create another Music City Miracle and salvage the playoffs like he did in 2011 for Denver against teams like the Texans.
The Redskins offense must be tinkered with to make Robert Griffin III far less susceptible to getting wrecked and tearing his joints and muscles—and the bits of human sculpture that connect them—all to shreds.
The threat of Griffin alone is enough to keep defenses honest and allow the steal of the 2012 draft, Senior Bowl late-add Alfred Morris, to take what the defense gives him off zone-read action.
Step two is to send TE Fred Davis packing and put the TE position in the hands of Logan Paulsen. He's a decent blocker and an underrated pass-catcher who Robert Griffin clearly has a connection with.
FS Tanard Jackson was absolutely awful as a Buccaneer, which makes one wonder why Raheem Morris would ever accept him in his defensive backfield in Washington after getting canned in Tampa due largely to the sorry play of his secondary—which started with Jackson. In 2011, Jackson was the league's worst tackler.
In 2012, he violated the league's substance abuse policy, according to the Washington Times.
Step three is getting him off the roster ASAP.