The 2013 NFL season had begun, and the Ravens had to start dealing with the fact that none of those three players were Ravens anymore.
The NFL offseason is like a sport in and of itself. Which teams will retain key free agents with one foot out the door? Which teams will let stalwart veterans walk? Which teams will make the splashiest signings? Which team will do the best job of finding in 2013 what they lacked in 2012?
Every team has at least one pressing need, one spot on the roster that desperately needs an upgrade or one player who absolutely must be signed.
For every team in the NFL, what is their top offseason priority?
Fix the Offensive Line
The Arizona Cardinals don't seem to be inclined to keep highly paid quarterback Kevin Kolb around, don't have another plausible starter on the roster and just hired a head coach whose NFL success has been built around Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck.
Given their No. 7 overall draft slot and the lack of elite quarterback talent in this draft class, though, the Cardinals may not be able to find a long-term solution at quarterback.
Worse yet, even if they happened upon the next Luck, there would be nobody to block for him.
The Cardinals offensive line was graded last season as both the worst pass-blocking and run-blocking line in the NFL by Pro Football Focus (subscription required). New head coach Bruce Arians won't be able to assemble any kind of offense while being completely overrun up front.
Bolster the Pass Rush
The Falcons had one of the most balanced, explosive offenses in the NFL in 2012, and if tight end Tony Gonzalez returns, nothing about that should change.
On defense, the secondary excelled for most of the season, snagging a fifth-best 20 interceptions. However, most of the pass rush came from defensive end John Abraham, whose rich contract is a big factor in the Falcons' cap crunch.
In the playoffs, the defense started both games hot. But in both games, the secondary got picked apart in the second half as Abraham and the pass rush faltered. The Falcons need more—and more consistent—heat on the quarterback if they're going to finally take their talented squad to the promised land.
Keep Joe Flacco
There's no question here: With Flacco locked up long-term, the Ravens will have enough offensive firepower to remain perennial contenders.
Without him, their roster looks very creaky.
Defensively, spiritual leader Ray Lewis is retiring, and Lewis' top lieutenant, Ed Reed, is both a free agent and a retirement risk himself. The Ravens defense found another gear in the playoffs, but their 13th-ranked scoring defense was far from terrifying in the regular season.
Having a difference-making quarterback papers over many flaws (see the last few seasons of the Indianapolis Colts); if the Ravens can't keep Flacco in-house, they'll have a massive restoration project on their hands.
Find a Quarterback
The Buffalo Bills have a pair of top-notch free-agents-to-be in guard Andy Levitre and safety Jairus Byrd. Given the low franchise-tag figure for safeties, Byrd would be a great candidate for the tag if he and the Bills can't work out a deal.
As Jerry Sullivan of the Buffalo News recently tweeted, Levitre intends to test the market.
Offensive guards are as important as any member of the team, but it's hard for a guard to make an obvious impact on the bottom line—paying Levitre huge dollars doesn't make sense for a team in transition.
No, the Bills' number one offseason priority must be finding a quarterback.
With new offensive-minded head coach Doug Marrone learning the ropes as New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton's offensive coordinator, Marrone needs to find his own Drew Brees. With an explosive running game based around C.J. Spiller and a reliable target in Stevie Johnson, the Bills could make big strides on offense very quickly.
Help Cam Newton
The fate of the Carolina Panthers is bound to its franchise quarterback, Cam Newton. After struggling through much of 2012, Newton regained his blazing rookie form, with his 14 touchdowns (and only two interceptions) leading the Panthers to a 5-1 record.
Then the Panthers lost offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to the Browns.
Continuity is crucial to a young quarterback's development, and Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was smart to promote quarterbacks coach Mike Shula rather than bring someone else in.
That said, Newton has had to lean heavily on a well-past-his-prime Steve Smith to move the ball in crucial situations. Per PFF, Smith only caught 57.5 percent of his 127 targets in 2012.
If Newton's going to pick up 2013 where he left 2012 off, he's going to need a scarier downfield threat than Brandon LaFell, and a security blanket with better hands than Smith.
Protect Jay Cutler
Considering the amount of draft picks and cash the Chicago Bears have sunk into acquiring Jay Cutler and putting weapons around him, they shouldn't have needed encouragement to protect that investment.
Instead, the Bears have spent the past several seasons crossing their fingers and hoping someone on their roster will suddenly be able to pass block. Every season, Cutler's taken a beating and spent many of his dropbacks desperately trying to evade the enemy pass rush.
While the aging of the defense is a concern, Brian Urlacher's undefined role on a defense that was the third-best scoring unit in 2012 isn't as worrisome as a franchise quarterback who's always on his back.
Find a Game-Breaking Running Back
The Cincinnati Bengals have an explosive offense built around A.J. Green. They have a quarterback who can throw it up to Green and an offensive line that can protect that quarterback.
The Bengals, per PFF, had the second-best pass protection in the NFL last season. That came at a cost, though, as they had the sixth-worst run-blocking line.
The answer isn't to ditch the players who can keep quarterback Andy Dalton clean for some meaty road-graders—the point of the offense is to throw it to A.J. Green. What the Bengals need is a game-changer out of the backfield; the kind of running back who can get to open space and rip off yards in chunks.
The Bengals need a Reggie Bush type, a runner whose speed forces defenses to respect him. When defenses are adjusting to that running threat, it makes it that much easier to throw it up to A.J. Green.
Get Brandon Weeden a Weapon
When the Cleveland Browns drafted a 28-year-old quarterback in the first round, they started a loudly ticking countdown: They have just a few short seasons to harness his talents before they start to fade.
Fellow rookie Trent Richardson quickly found his workhorse-back legs last season behind an excellent offensive line. All that's left for the Browns' new offensive coaching staff is to get Weeden the kind of downfield threat that allowed quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and Andy Dalton to hit the ground running...er, throwing.
Figure Out the Defense Thing
The Dallas Cowboys defense, as it existed under former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, ran out of a 3-4 alignment and featured heavy blitzing from the outside linebackers with tight man coverage on the outside.
Now, the Cowboys have hired Monte Kiffin to run the defense, and his Tampa 2 system runs a 4-3 front with very little blitzing and lots of short zone coverage in the back seven.
It's an open question as to how the existing Cowboys front seven will fit into Kiffin's system—or even if Kiffin plans on running his traditional system. The Cowboys also have a ton of cap money tied up in cornerbacks who a) don't fit Kiffin's system at all and b) didn't perform all that well (the Cowboys finished 31st in the NFL in interceptions).
The Cowboys need to figure out how the players they've got fit into the scheme they want, and aggressively fill whatever holes are left.
Swaddle Peyton Manning in Bubble Wrap until August
Not really, just... yeah, really.
Keep the Defense Together
Defensive linemen Justin Bannan and Kevin Vickerson, middle linebacker Keith Brooking and safety Jim Leonhard are all set to hit free agency, so the Denver Broncos will need to re-sign or replace them. Boasting the fourth-best scoring defense in football last season, the Broncos should do their best to keep the band together (or, if possible, improve where they can).
Rebuild the Defense
The Detroit Lions have most of their defense hitting free agency. The Lions' contracts with defensive ends Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson, outside linebackers Justin Durant and DeAndre Levy, cornerback Chris Houston and safety Louis Delmas are all expired.
Along with the cap-mandated release of defense end Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Lions defense is suddenly a blank canvas. The Lions don't have a ton of cap room to work with and are short a fifth-round draft pick thanks to an odd midseason trade for Jaguars receiver Mike Thomas.
Given that the Lions allowed a sixth-worst 27.3 points per game in 2012, management has some serious work to do.
Bolster the Pass Rush
Though the Packers were eviscerated by Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs, it's hard to suggest they need to make major changes.
The Packers offense finished in the top 10 in scoring (fifth) for the sixth straight season, and as long as Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy are quarterback and head coach, they'll be potent.
The loss of receiver Donald Driver to retirement and the possible loss of receiver Greg Jennings to free agency should be causes for concern, but the presence of Jordy Nelson and the emergence of Randall Cobb should help mitigate those losses.
That Packers defense that Kaepernick shredded allowed an 11th-best 21.0 points per game in the regular season. Coverage was outstanding for most of the season (second-best in the NFL, per PFF), but the pass rush was poor.
Rookie pass-rusher Nick Perry had only two sacks and eight hurries, so even if he takes a step forward, the Packers will need more reinforcements alongside Clay Matthews.
They'll need to address the defensive line, as well. 2012 second-round pick Jerel Worthy was supposed to provide push up front, but he blew his ACL late in 2012 and will likely start 2013 on the PUP list, per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
1st-and-10, Do it Again
The Houston Texans were one of the most complete teams in the NFL in 2012. Their offense finished eighth in the NFL by scoring an average 26.0 points per game, and their defense finished ninth, allowing an average of 20.7 points per game.
Defensive starters Shaun Cody and Connor Barwin are up for new contracts, but both should be re-signed or replaced without trouble.
The question is do Gary Kubiak and Matt Schaub have the mutual mojo to win in the playoffs? Schaub struggled mightily in both of the Texans' playoff games—Houston may need to finish building a team that's so complete it can win in spite of the quarterback.
Batten Down the Hatches
The reality of the Indianapolis Colts' 11-5 run is this: It was magical. Somehow, their defense allowed a 21st-ranked 24.2 points per game, and their 18th-ranked offense scored only 22.3 points per game. But they won 11 games.
Put another way, the Colts got outscored by 30 points on the season and won six more games than they lost. Using Pro Football Reference's Pythagorean Wins formula, they "should" have gone 7-9.
Put another way, the Colts had Luck on their side in more ways than one.
Even if the Colts get significantly better on both sides of the ball, they will likely still have a worse record in 2013. If there's one area the Colts should focus on, it should be protecting Luck; they had the second-worst team pass protection grade given by PFF.
When Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz was hired back in '09, he was asked what his most pressing draft needs were. "We have a number of needs," he said, per ESPN.com. "Our No. 1 need is talent."
Last October, former Jaguars general manager Gene Smith told the Associated Press's Mark Long that his team lacked talent. Smith has since been fired for not doing his job (acquiring talent), so this offseason new Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley finds himself in the same position Schwartz was in.
New Jags general manager Dave Caldwell told the Florida Times-Union the team needs "to build around" Blaine Gabbert. Whether Caldwell is sold on Gabbert, long term, is almost irrelevant—there's no clear-cut upgrade available, and the team has plenty of holes elsewhere.
The Jaguars just need to add talent this offseason, and worry about quarterback later.
Get Andy Reid Pieces to Work With
The Kansas City Chiefs hired Andy Reid, one of the best offensive architects of this coaching generation.
They gave him the reigns to the worst offense in the NFL.
In 2012, the Chiefs only scored 13.2 points per game, despite having a 1,500-yard rusher in Jamaal Charles, a dynamic No. 1 receiver in Dwayne Bowe and a talented young tight end named Tony Moeaki.
Unfortunately, Bowe is a free agent-to-be; so is left tackle Branden Albert. Center Ryan Lilja unexpectedly retired, leaving Reid and the Chiefs with almost nothing to build around.
The Chiefs have the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. Though Reid likely won't find a new Donovan McNabb there, he'll at least be able to get one piece of the puzzle. The rest of the offseason should be about getting him more.
Get Ryan Tannehill Help
The Miami Dolphins hearkened back to their old "No-Name Defense," with the seventh-best scoring defense in the NFL earning only a single Pro Bowl nod (DE Cameron Wake).
Meanwhile, rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill surprised many with decent play in his debut season. With only Brian Hartline and Davone Bess to throw to, though, there was a hard cap on his effectiveness. And, according to CBS Sports' Jason LaCanfora, the Dolphins are "highly unlikely" to bring back tailback Reggie Bush.
Tannehill can't do it alone; he needs at least one difference-making target and a competent running game.
Decide on the Future of the Passing Attack
The Vikings rode the coattails of MVP tailback Adrian Peterson to a 10-6 record and the playoffs. Now the question is, how do they balance their league-best rushing attack with a more competent passing game?
Could the answer be trading their best receiver, Percy Harvin?
As reported by Pro Football Talk, Harvin is planning on skipping offseason workouts and training camp without a new deal. ESPN 1500 indicates the Vikings brass will put out feelers at the scouting combine to see what they can get for their wideout.
Whether the Vikings move Harvin for enough ammo to bag his replacement, or end up agreeing to terms, they need to give quarterback Christian Ponder every chance to succeed...or give his replacement every chance to succeed.
Head coach Leslie Frazier and the Vikings have achieved more success faster than almost anyone imagined. The next step is to challenge the Packers, 49ers and Falcons for NFC supremacy. Christian Ponder needs to prove he's the quarterback to get them there, or the Vikings need to replace him.
Get Tom Brady a New Toy
Longtime New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker has long been a favorite of both Patriots fans and quarterback Tom Brady.
Welker, though, followed up his critical Super Bowl XLVI drop by leading the NFL in regular-season drops this past season, per Pro Football Focus. Now, after the Patriots again fell short of their title hopes, Welker's contract is up and both sides have a decision to make.
According to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss, the Patriots might be amenable to a two-year deal for Welker. But Welker or no, Brady needs a new, young, sure-handed deep threat. Brady has to have the toys to not only compete with Joe Flacco and Peyton Manning, but beat them in 2013.
Get Rob Ryan Whatever He Needs
The New Orleans Saints allowed 28.4 points per game in 2012—the second-worst scoring defense in the NFL.
Even so, Drew Brees and company managed to score ever-so-slightly more. At 28.8 points per game, they were the third-best scoring offense in the league. Though the attack wasn't as balanced as in 2011, the return of suspended head coach Sean Payton should patch up some of the growing holes on that side of the roster.
On the other side, new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has a mountain to climb. The Saints did almost nothing well defensively last season, and if they switch schemes to his favored 3-4, they will have a lot of personnel reshuffling to do.
If the Saints are wise, they'll do whatever they can to get Ryan whatever he needs; the slightest defensive improvements could mean huge changes in the Saints' bottom line.
Fix the Secondary
The Giants have some contract issues to work out with their wide receivers; according to the New York Daily News their star wideout, Victor Cruz, may consider a holdout if the Giants don't pony up a richer contract.
Second banana Domenik Hixon will be an unrestricted free agent, and the Giants may let him walk in favor of young Reuben Randle.
However, none of these issues compare to the problem in the back seven. The Giants were third in the NFL with 21 interceptions, but ranked 28th in passing yards allowed. PFF graded them out as the third-worst pass coverage team.
Despite the beatable coverage, the Giants allowed only 21.5 points per game, 12th-best in the NFL. A little shoring up in the back could make the Giants one of the better defenses in the NFL.
Put Mark Sanchez Out of His Misery
The reality of the salary cap and how hard the New York Jets bought in to the wrong quarterback likely can't be fixed in one offseason. Head coach Rex Ryan recently suggested Sanchez needs to "erase his hard drive," but Sanchez needs more than a reformatted platter—he needs to be sent back to the factory for refurbishing and sold to a new owner.
That was an awkward metaphor to extend, but the point stands: The Jets need to bring in at least a veteran and probably also a rookie to make sure Sanchez is not the opening-day starter.
Ryan and the team desperately need a fresh start, and the guy whose jersey is tattooed on Ryan's body and drove Fireman Ed to stop being Fireman Ed can't be the one to lead the team in a new direction.
Find Carson Palmer's Replacement
The Oakland Raiders didn't do anything well last year.
They were the seventh-worst scoring offense and the fifth-worst scoring defense. They have a few talented players, but can't seem to put it together in a way that makes sense. Worst of all, though, they lack an identity.
Quarterback Carson Palmer is still a talented thrower. He completed 61.1 percent of his passes, threw for over 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns, and threw only 14 interceptions.
His apparent lack of passion and tendency to play poorly whenever it counts, though, seems to lead the way for the listless, directionless Raiders. Whether Palmer's own stoicism is setting the tone for everyone else, or vice versa, his replacement needs to be identified and groomed.
The Raiders simply won't win until they have a clear identity, and the fastest way to get one is to put a strong leader under center.
Get Some Talented Beef Up Front
Most of the football world has been buzzing about new Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, and what he'll have to do to adapt his offense to the NFL.
Weeks of speculation about whether quarterback Mike Vick would be a perfect fit, a cap casualty or somewhere in between were answered—he's somewhere in between. Vick and the Eagles agreed to a restructured one-year deal that gives Vick the chance to earn big money without the long-term commitment from the team.
What makes Kelly's offense go, though, is not a blazing-fast quarterback. It's run-blocking.
Kelly's zone-read offense simplifies everything for the offensive line, and instructs them to fire off the ball and mash whoever's in front of them. The work of reading the defense and attacking it is done by the quarterback. And whether he keeps the ball or lets the running back take it, the O-line needs to blow the defense off the line.
Run-blocking wasn't a sore spot for Philly in 2012; they finished sixth in PFF's team grades. The Eagles, though, have switched around up front blocking philosophies twice in the last two seasons. Kelly's offense will mean a third new blocking approach in three years.
The Eagles line also suffered heavy injuries last season and struggled mightily in pass protection. So most of the unit that run-blocked so well will be heavily turned over, replaced either by players ahead on the depth chart, or upgrades brought in.
Get Back to Blitzburghing It
While most who follow football know the Steelers have a decision to make regarding their theoretical No. 1 receiver Mike Wallace, the decision's likely long been made.
Steelers management was reportedly "turned off" by Wallace's huge contract demands and subsequent holdout last season. Wallace's lack of huge production sealed his fate.
The untold story (at least, nationally) is that James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley and company had an uncharacteristically poor year rushing the passer. With the Pittsburgh Steelers defense failing to play like The Pittsburgh Steelers Defense, they allowed a 22nd-ranked 21.0 points per game.
With stalwart nose tackle Casey Hampton likely to be let go, it may be time for the Steelers to again reload their weapon of a linebacker unit.
Add a Spark to the Offense
The San Diego Chargers achieved an incredible kind of balance in 2012: their offense and defense both scored and allowed, respectively, 350 points on the season.
Given the investment the Chargers have put into Philip Rivers and the offense over the years, that's not a great return, and a big reason why head coach Norv Turner and GM A.J. Smith were sacked in the offseason.
New head coach Mike McCoy needs a spark, a catalyst, an offensive weapon that will force defenses to adjust and take some pressure off Rivers. Whether that's a dynamic receiver, an explosive running back or Antonio Gates' successor at tight end, it almost doesn't matter. The Chargers just need a player that scares defenses.
Reload the Pass Rush
When a team wins their division, gets a bye in the playoffs, wins their conference and comes just a few points short of a Lombardi Trophy, it's tough to criticize them. When they do it with as much offensive and defensive balance as the 49ers did, it's almost impossible.
The Niners at times suffered for the lack of a game-breaking tailback; rookie LaMichael James finally got some reps in the playoffs, however, and showed he could well be that guy next season.
On defense, the only real weakness the 49ers had was an over-reliance on the Justin Smith-Aldon Smith combination for their pass rush. Justin Smith had his poorest season rushing the passer in years (3.0 sacks in 14 games), and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga provided no heat whatsoever.
Per Pro Football Focus, end Ray McDonald hurried the quarterback 44 times (just three fewer times than Aldon Smith), but only sacked or hit the quarterback five times (compared to Aldon Smith's 20). If the 49ers want to have an elite defense, they must look at drafting Justin Smith's successor—or the blistering edge rusher that Aldon Smith isn't.
Stay the Course on Defense
The Seattle Seahawks were a shockingly complete and balanced team in 2012. They had the top scoring defense in football, allowing just 15.3 points per game. They also had the ninth-best scoring offense in football, racking up 25.8 points per game.
The Seahawks ran the ball extremely well; with workhorse back Marshawn Lynch having a career year and rookie phenom Russell Wilson scrambling like crazy, the Seahawks rolled up 2,579 rushing yards.
Wilson also passed shockingly well, connecting with Sidney Rice, Golden Tate and friends for 3,118 yards, 26 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Wilson had a perfectly round 100.0 NFL passer efficiency rating, a shockingly high number for a rookie.
So what can the Seahawks improve?
They graded out extremely well across PFF's board, save for a knack for taking offensive penalties and a slight struggle to stop the run. New defensive coordinator (and recent top Seahawks assistant) Dan Quinn will be expected to simply maintain the level of play that his predecessor, new Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley, set.
One focus area for Quinn should be to shore up the run-stopping of the defensive line, and in particular find a way to make second-year pass-rusher Bruce Irvin a more consistent, every-down threat.
Keep Building Around Sam Bradford
With the return of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, fourth-year quarterback Sam Bradford will not be learning a new system this offseason—the first time he's ever had that luxury.
As Schottenheimer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, just that continuity alone should help the Rams see some of their recent barren drafts bear fruit:
It helps develop your young players. We certainly have a number of those, which is good. I put guys like Lance Kendricks, Rodger Saffold, Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Sam Bradford — I put those guys in there still as young players because they really, really are.
As young and full of potential as those players are, they'll need to add some real-deal talent to improve their 25th-ranked scoring offense into a difference-making unit. Adding a talented receiver with size, or bolstering the offensive line, would go a long way.
Find Some More Pixie Dust
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired head coach Greg Schiano away from Rutgers, the move was a bold one. Few make the transition from college head coach to professional skipper without extensive NFL experience, and Schiano didn't have much.
After 10 games, though, Schiano's Tampa Bay Buccaneers were 6-4, riding a four-game win streak. It looked like Schiano had successfully melded young holdovers like quarterback Josh Freeman and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy with big-money free agents like receiver Vincent Jackson.
Then, the magic wore off and it all fell apart. The Buccaneers followed up their four-game win streak with a five-game losing skid, turning in a final record of 7-9 that felt more like 7-19. Stories, like this one from Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver, started to emerge about Schiano's rough edges and poor reputation.
Schiano and his staff need to get better play out of Freeman, and shore up a defense that played well in spurts last season. Or, lacking that, find some more of whatever pixie dust got the Bucs pirate ship airborne in 2012.
Fix the Coverage
The Titans had the worst-scoring defense in the league last year, and it's not hard to see why.
When the Titans let cornerback Cortland Finnegan walk, the move seemed to make sense. Finnegan hadn't been nearly as excellent or consistent in coverage, and the rebuilding Titans weren't looking to blow a big-money contract on a veteran with so many question marks.
Under new Rams (and former Titans) head coach Jeff Fisher, though, Finnegan had one of the best seasons of his career—and the Titans back seven couldn't cover anybody. Per PFF, their defensive backfield was the fourth-worst in the NFL, sabotaging a front line that did a decent job of pressuring the quarterback.
The development of quarterback Jake Locker has to be a top priority, too. But until the Titans stop the bleeding in the back of the defense, it won't matter how good Locker is.
Robert Griffin III
Coming off a stunning run to the playoffs, the Washington Redskins have a lot of issues to address: upgrading or replacing two starters on the offensive line due to be free agents (Tyler Polumbus, Kory Lichtensteiger), shoring up one of the NFL's worst pass defenses and restocking the secondary with talented youth.
RGIII, however, is the definition of a franchise quarterback. It's his play that got the Redskins where they are, and it's his play that will determine their fortunes in 2013.
The Redskins have to address Griffin's rehab with the kind of wisdom, patience and long-term vision they showed none of while running him into the ground against the Seahawks. Then, they have to protect him by reinvesting in the offensive line.
Finally, it would help Griffin a lot if he weren't throwing to the most expensive collection of slot receivers in the NFL.