With less than a month before the start of free agency on March 12, teams are busy getting their houses in order. From balancing the budget via salary cap cuts to prioritizing potential unrestricted free agents that could leave the organization, as well as assessing players’ possible retirements.
We’ve already seen teams like the New York Giants release veterans such as running back Ahmad Bradshaw, linebacker Michael Boley and defensive end Chris Canty.
The Detroit Lions let go of defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch while the Buffalo Bills cut loose safety George Wilson and linebacker Nick Barnett.
And veterans such as linebacker Ray Lewis and wide receiver Donald Driver have walked away from the game following magnificent careers.
So we’re taking a look at what could or will indeed happen this offseason as teams prepare for the 2013 seasons. While the focus will be on free agency, we’ll sprinkle in a little NFL draft talk and team philosophies as well, which all coincide with the makings or makeovers of the 32 teams.
Quarterback has been a four-letter word to the Arizona Cardinals the last three seasons.
But the franchise is hoping that both a five- and six-letter word changes the fortunes of a franchise that’s won just 18 games since 2010.
The 2012 NFL Coach of the Year with the Indianapolis Colts did wonders with Andrew Luck last season and prior to that, did a great job aiding two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Over the past three seasons (2010-12), a total of seven Cardinals quarterbacks have thrown 42 touchdown passes while committing 79 turnovers (63 interceptions and 16 lost fumbles). And those Arizona signal-callers have also been sacked a combined 162 times in those 48 games.
John Skelton (1-5), Kevin Kolb (3-2), rookie Ryan Lindley (1-3) and one-time New England Patriots backup Brian Hoyer (0-1) combined to start the team’s 16 games in 2012.
Hoyer is unsigned, but here’s a hunch saying Arians and Co. bring him back to compete for the job, one that’s wide open to say the very least.
The NFL can be a rough room.
Ten-year veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin has been a name often mentioned as a possible salary-cap casualty as the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens look to 2013.
During the regular season, Boldin led the club with 65 receptions, good for 921 yards and four scores. But both wideout Torrey Smith (eight) and tight end Dennis Pitta (seven) reached the end zone more often.
In four postseason games, Boldin led the team in catches (22) and receiving yards (380) and his four touchdowns, all receptions, led the Ravens as well.
Boldin scored at least one touchdown in three of the four playoff games, including Baltimore’s first touchdown in the 34-31 win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
The rapport between him and quarterback Joe Flacco was evident throughout the playoffs, and this passing combo got the offense untracked in the postseason when the pair started playing long ball during the second half in the win over the Indianapolis Colts.
You can’t replace that kind of veteran savvy, and the Ravens won’t have to.
Now we return to our regularly scheduled Baltimore Ravens offseason, already in progress.
The defending Super Bowl champions have plenty of decisions to make. Quarterback Joe Flacco, free safety Ed Reed, cornerback Cary Williams and inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe are all slated to become unrestricted free agents.
And so is outside linebacker Paul Kruger, who led the team in sacks during the regular season (9.0) and postseason (4.5).
But veteran Terrell Suggs returns, as does 2012 second-round pick Courtney Upshaw, who wound up a starter as a rookie. There may not be room for Kruger, who had two of Baltimore’s three sacks of quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the Super Bowl XLVII win over the San Francisco 49ers.
Speaking of New Orleans, we’ll make a bit of a prediction here. Kruger begins the 2013 season in the place where his 2012 season ended, signing a four-year deal with the New Orleans Saints and joining new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
Safe to say that a unit that gave up the most yards in a season in NFL history can use all the help it can get.
There’s a reason the Green Bay Packers have been one of the most successful teams during the free-agency era, which dates back to 1993.
They have a plan and they stick with it.
Last year in the draft, the emphasis was on the defensive side of the ball, and while some of those youngsters like cornerback Casey Hayward (53 tackles and team-high six interceptions) paid immediate big dividends, players such as outside linebacker Nick Perry, whose season was limited to six games due to injury, will be heard from even more in 2013.
A look at the Packers’ roster shows that they have taken care of business, as usual. The release of veteran Charles Woodson and the retirement of wide receiver Donald Driver make for a younger roster and more importantly, one that has very few unrestricted free agents to re-sign.
One of those few happens to be wideout Greg Jennings, the former Super Bowl XLV hero who was limited to a career-low eight games in 2012.
In seven seasons in Green Bay, Jennings has hauled in 425 receptions, 53 for scores. But his absence for half of 2012 didn’t prevent quarterback Aaron Rodgers (39 touchdown passes) from having another incredible year.
Big money is something the Packers rarely give out, which is one of the many reasons they remain successful. Unfortunately, a player like Jennings who still has plenty of seasons remaining will command a sizable contract.
And it wouldn’t be a shock to see him stay pretty close to home, as in the other teams in the NFC North.
So there’s talk out there about one-time first overall pick and quarterback JaMarcus Russell making an NFL comeback.
In three seasons with the Oakland Raiders, the former LSU product compiled a 7-18 record as a starter, completing a paltry 52.1 percent of his passes for 4,083 yards, 18 scores and 23 interceptions. He also fumbled 25 times in as many games, losing 15 of those fumbles.
More than twice as many turnovers (38) as touchdown passes (18) won’t endear you to a lot of teams (unless you’re playing against them). Neither will the fact that Russell’s last NFL appearance came in 2009.
So who would take a chance on the former Silver and Black signal-caller? The funny thing is that when it used to come to reclamation projects, the first team always mentioned was the Raiders. But those were different times and a different regime.
What about the Kansas City Chiefs? New head coach Andy Reid has done wonders with quarterbacks. And think about a team that could actually add two first overall picks to their roster in a three-month span.
Not to mention the irony of Russell on a roster (possibly) with fellow former 2007 first-rounder Brady Quinn.
The Buffalo Bills have done an outstanding job of selecting players in the first round of the NFL
They just haven’t done a great job of having all of those players excel for them.
A look around the league shows that former first-rounders such as running back Marshawn Lynch and safety Donte Whitner were busy making the Pro Bowl last season with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, respectively.
And veteran cornerbacks Antoine Winfield and Nate Clements reached the playoffs last season with the Minnesota Vikings and Cincinnati Bengals, respectively.
Now cornerback and kick returner Leodis McKelvin, a first-round pick in 2008, is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in 2012.
With the Bills adding corners Aaron Williams and Stephon Gilmore via the draft in recent years, McKelvin is more known for his return duties and with good reason, as he took back two punts for scores last season.
But look for the speedster to trade in the snow and wings of Buffalo for another kind of bird as he signs with the Arizona Cardinals to add some needed depth to a secondary that could have a new look under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
And besides, the Cards may be in need of some return help.
This is already getting old for Titus Young.
The Detroit Lions made the former Boise State product a second-round pick in 2011. In two seasons in the Motor City, Young totaled 81 receptions for 990 yards and 10 touchdowns in 26 games with the team.
But his issues with the organization and at least one teammate led to his release by the Lions. The St. Louis Rams recently took a flyer on Young but wound up releasing him less than two weeks after signing him.
So where could the wideout wind up in 2013?
We’ll take a shot here and say that the Carolina Panthers are the club. The team is apparently set at the position with starters Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, but Louis Murphy could leave via free agency.
As the Panthers continue to grow and make progress, Young could also learn a lot of something from Smith, who’s had his own issues in the past and has emerged as arguably the best offensive player in the Panthers’ brief history.
There’s a lot to be said for second chances. Here’s hoping Young can turn things around and get back to what he does best.
The good news is that former seventh-round pick LaRod Stephens-Howling led the Arizona Cardinals in rushing yardage in 2012.
The bad news is that Stephens-Howling only totaled 356 yards on the ground all season. And the majority of that (127) came in a Week 11 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
Now Stephens-Howling is about to become an unrestricted free agent
The Detroit Lions certainly know how to get the ball to wideout Calvin Johnson. But the running game continues to be an issue due to health and other factors.
We’re not looking for Stephens-Howling to supplant promising Mikel Leshoure as the starting running back. But he could add some depth not only to that position but help on special teams as well, both as a return artist (Stefan Logan could be an unrestricted free agent) and as a big asset on kick coverage.
The Cincinnati Bengals defense has been a big reason the franchise has made back-to-back playoff appearances each of the last two seasons.
It’s a unit filled with good young players drafted or signed by the team, as well as an assortment of veterans who happen to be former first-round draft choices from other clubs.
Now head coach Marvin Lewis and Co. have decisions to make as five of their 11 starters and a total of 12 defensive players are slated to become unrestricted free agents on March 12.
Defensive end Michael Johnson and his 11.5 sacks last season would appear to be the biggest priority of the group. But what to do about four-year veteran linebacker Rey Maualuga, who comes off a season with a career-high 122 tackles?
The answer almost seems obvious with last season’s play of undrafted rookie Vontaze Burfict, who led Cincinnati with 127 total stops. Conventional wisdom says the Bengals use the franchise tag on Johnson (or possibly right tackle Andre Smith).
It’s worth noting that Smith, Maualuga and Johnson were the team’s top three picks in 2009. Not a bad haul, to say the least.
But back to the defense, where it will be interesting to see where veterans such as cornerbacks Nate Clements, Terence Newman and Pacman Jones, linebacker Manny Lawson and defensive linemen Pat Sims and Robert Geathers, to name a few, end up.
Not a bad career in the game of football when your resume includes Heisman Trophy winner, NFL Defensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl champion.
Now let’s see where those credentials land defensive back Charles Woodson a job.
A broken collarbone shelved the former Green Bay Packers defense for the final nine regular-season games in 2012. He returned to play in the team’s two playoff games.
Woodson put up pretty phenomenal numbers in “Titletown,” totaled 38 interceptions (nine returned for scores) in seven seasons with the Packers. In his first eight seasons, the then-Oakland Raiders cornerback picked off just 17 passes, two returned for touchdowns.
The broken collarbone was the second suffered by Woodson in less than two years. He went down just before halftime of the Super Bowl XLV win over the Pittsburgh Steelers with the same kind of injury.
As to where he will land in 2013 is anyone’s guess, and don’t be surprised if it takes longer than shorter.
No. We’re not here to talk about what’s his name.
With apologies to quarterback Tim Tebow, the New York Jets have plenty of other issues that led to the team’s 6-10 finish in 2012.
And they have plenty of players that need to be re-signed as well. Start with the safety combination of Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry, whom the club picked up in free agency last season. Will one, both or neither stay?
However, the onus here is on the offensive line, where former Pro Bowlers D’Brickshaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold are set at left tackle and center, respectively, and under contract. The same can’t be said for the rest of the unit.
Guards Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore are slated to become unrestricted free agents, while the team released tackle Jason Smith, the one-time second overall pick (2009) who was acquired from the St. Louis Rams last August. Meanwhile, starting right tackle Austin Howard is a restricted free agent.
The intriguing topic may be Moore, a 10-year veteran and former Pro Bowler who has started every game each of the last eight seasons.
Slauson may be the younger of the two, but Moore’s steadiness over the years can’t be ignored. Look for Slauson the more likely to move on, with three-year veteran Vladimir Ducasse the probable heir apparent at left guard.
While there were certainly question marks surrounding the Atlanta Falcons defense last season, it was hard to do more than strong safety William Moore did in 2012.
On his way to the Pro Bowl, Moore finished fifth on team with 75 tackles, totaled four interceptions, knocked down eight passes and forced a pair of fumbles. With Atlanta’s defense ranking 21st against the run, Moore and the rest of a physical secondary were busier than usual.
Look for the Falcons to break the piggy bank a bit and make Moore one of the highest-paid strong safeties in the league…for now.
Of course, that contract may come with a price, as veteran cornerback Brent Grimes is also slated to become an unrestricted free agent.
A year ago in the offseason, the Falcons made Grimes their franchise player. But he was injured in the first game of the season against the Kansas City Chiefs and was lost for the remainder of the year.
A tough call, but look for Moore to get his payday and Grimes to possibly depart.
Speaking of franchise players, that was the case for Detroit Lions defensive end Cliff Avril in 2012.
Now he’s looking to break the bank after breaking down the pass pocket in recent seasons.
The talented defender totaled 9.5 of the Lions’ 34 sacks last season. In 2011, Avril totaled 11.5 sacks and in his five seasons in the Motor City, the standout pass rusher has amassed 39.5 sacks and forced 16 fumbles.
After reaching the playoffs in 2011, the Lions come off an incredibly disappointing 4-12 campaign. And in a statistic that somewhat defies explanation, Avril has had more sacks in each of his five seasons than the Lions have had victories.
With both Avril and defensive tackle Corey Williams eligible for free agency and veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch already jettisoned, they could be breaking up that old gang of theirs in Detroit.
Look for the Oakland Raiders to secure the services of Avril, who’ll go from the silver and blue to the silver and black.
With a new head coach come new ideas, players and philosophies. And now that Chip Kelly has traded in the green and yellow for the midnight green, sliver, black and white, it’s start-over time for the Philadelphia Eagles for the first time since 1999.
Call it birds of a different color.
So what changes do the former Oregon Ducks sideline leader have in store in 2013? The Eagles return a team that has only one starter (cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) that isn’t under contract. Kelly also inherits a club that has turned over the ball 75 times the last two seasons.
There has been the connect-the-dots speculation that Kelly would deal second-year quarterback Nick Foles. And the likely team would be the Kansas City Chiefs, now run by former Eagles’ head coach Andy Reid.
But instead of a flight, look for Kelly to give Foles a bus ticket to New Jersey as the New York Jets acquire the former third-round pick to compete with Mark Sanchez for the starting job.
You’ve seen the numbers before, but they are certainly worth repeating.
The Indianapolis Colts went from two wins and the No. 1 pick in the draft to 11 victories and a playoff appearance in one season. Congratulations to all involved in the transformation, orchestrated by general manager Ryan Grigson.
While quarterback Andrew Luck and his fellow rookies were accounting for 22 of the team’s 40 touchdowns last season, the other side of the football left a lot to be desired.
So what about the Indianapolis defense and its performance in 2012? The Colts finished 26th in the league in yards allowed, as only three teams in the NFL gave up more rushing yards per game.
The pass rush produced just 32 sacks and Chuck Pagano’s team came up with only 15 takeaways in 16 contests.
The team has already announced that star pass rusher Dwight Freeney won’t be returning. Defensive tackles Antonio Johnson and Fili Moala and cornerback Jerraud Powers are also slated to become unrestricted free agents.
What will the Colts do? Longtime fans of the team will remember the early days of the Bill Polian regime, when they tried to fix their ills via free agency and eventually, went the way of the draft.
Look for Grigson and Co. to set their sights on April instead of March.
It’s safe to say defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has brought a little consistency to the Houston Texans defense.
Well, certainly to the pass rush.
For the second time in as many seasons, Phillips’ unit has produced 44 sacks, a franchise record.
In 2012, nearly half (20.5) of that sack total came from NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
The previous season, it was outside linebacker Connor Barwin that produced just over one-fourth (11.5) of the club’s sack total.
Now considering that Barwin totaled just 3.0 sacks in 16 starts a year ago and ’12 first-round draft choice Whitney Mercilus totaled 6.0 sacks, the writing may be on the wall.
There could be plenty of landing spots for Barwin, who has obviously shown an ability to get to the passer. He should be coveted by many teams. But it may be a surprise to see if one of them is indeed the Texans.
Last April, the Pittsburgh Steelers showed they meant business when it came to addressing their much-maligned offensive line.
Highly-regarded guard David DeCastro (Stanford) fell to the team in the first round, and talented tackle Mike Adams (Ohio State) was available in the second round. Both were expected to be season-long starters.
But remember what they say about expectations.
DeCastro suffered a serious knee injury that shelved him for the majority of the season, although he returned to see some action down the stretch. Adams was in and out of the lineup, and his play was up and down on the field.
We bring this up because veteran left tackle Max Starks and right guard Ramon Foster are slated to become unrestricted free agents, as is swingman Doug Legursky.
Off an 8-8 season, the next edition of the Steelers may feature a lot of changes. That includes a veteran free-agent addition or two to a unit that seems to be a yearly issue.
Dating back to 2007 and his debut with the New England Patriots, no player in the National Football League has caught more passes (672) than Wes Welker.
Be it a change in philosophy or even one season when quarterback Tom Brady missed nearly the entire season, the former undrafted free agent continues to produce.
Welker was franchised by the Patriots last season and he wound up playing for his one-year tender. It remains to be seen if the Pats plan on franchising him again.
Don’t count on it.
But it would be surprising if the team didn’t bring him back and sign him to a multi-year contract. He’s been the constant in the New England attack the last six seasons, and the positives outweigh any negatives someone may come up with.
All good things must come to an end eventually.
But what about the end when it comes to great things or specifically, great players?
Veteran defender Brian Urlacher is an eight-time Pro Bowler and the latest in a long legacy of star middle linebackers for a Chicago Bears franchise that boasts the likes of Hall of Famers Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary.
Should we be getting ready to sum up his entire career nice and neatly before he heads off to the sunset?
Not so fast.
Admittedly, injuries have shortened Urlacher’s season two of the last four years. And with 13 rugged campaigns under his belt, when is enough really enough?
The Bears have some veteran players on their defense, but they all still perform on an above-average level. Urlacher, outside linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman have been together in the Windy City for 10 seasons.
And when it’s all said and done, you’ll be able to make it 11.
With continual disappointment comes change. And once again, the Dallas Cowboys disappointed.
There was an opportunity to win the NFC East on the final Sunday night of the season. Instead, Jerry Jones’ team watched the playoffs from home for a third consecutive year.
The defensive unit was devastated by injuries in 2012, most notably at inside linebacker.
Meanwhile, outside linebacker Anthony Spencer had his best year. He led the team in both tackles (95) and sacks (11.0) and wound up being named to his first Pro Bowl.
Both figures are pretty impressive, considering outside backers rarely lead their team in stops, while teammate DeMarcus Ware is arguably the premier pass rusher in the NFL.
Now Spencer, who played under the franchise tag in 2012, can become an unrestricted free agent unless Jones decides to play tag with him once again.
Off one tremendous season, it would be interesting to see if any teams would break the bank to add the former first-round pick. And that may be easier said than done with the salary cap in 2013.
We won’t use the dreaded hometown discount here, but look for Jones to “double check” his figures and get a deal done with the former Purdue Boilermaker.
In two seasons under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the San Francisco 49ers seem to be headed in the correct direction. The team came up just short in Super Bowl XLVII a year after coming up just short in the NFC title game.
Two-time Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson has been a big part of that success. Along with nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, they are the only two starters on a talented 49ers’ defense slated to become unrestricted free agents next month.
But what about that Niners’ defensive unit, one that gave up 19 offensive touchdowns in its last six outings (including the postseason) after allowing just 16 offensive touchdowns in its first 13 games last season?
It’s also worth noting that Harbaugh’s squad gave up 29.7 points per game in those half-dozen contests compared to 14.2 points per game prior to that.
What does this mean to Goldson, who was given the franchise tag in 2012?
After amassing 69 tackles, 11 passes defensed and totaling five of the team’s 25 takeaways in the regular season, look for the club to lock him up long-term before March 12.
Thanks to a season-ending seven-game winning streak, the Washington Redskins finished 10-6 in 2012 and won the NFC East for the first time since 1999.
And in some ways, it was no thanks to their defensive unit, in particular when it came to stopping teams through the air.
Only two clubs in the league gave up more passing yards per game than Mike Shanahan’s squad. And only the Philadelphia Eagles (33) gave up more touchdown passes (31) than the ‘Skins this past season.
While Shanahan and Bruce Allen have stressed the draft in recent years, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team add a veteran presence in a secondary that is loaded with experienced starters.
Free safety Madieu Williams can leave via free agency, so look for ball-hawking Charles Woodson to fill the bill in Washington.
What’s the Redskins’ connection to Woodson? Allen was with the Raiders when Oakland made him the fourth overall pick in 1998.
For the third time in as many seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs will open with a new head coach.
In steps Andy Reid following 14 mostly successful seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles dating back to 1999. Over that span, the Chiefs went through five head coaches.
Unlike his first season in Philadelphia, Reid inherits a somewhat talented team that many feel underachieved last season. In somewhat similar fashion, many felt the same way about the Eagles, whose four victories doubled the total of the Chiefs (2-14).
Quarterback play was one of many issues for Kansas City, which actually tied Philadelphia and the New York Jets for the most turnovers (37) in the NFL last season. And that position figures to be addressed one way or another during free agency, trade or the draft.
The name Nick Foles is certainly out there, considering Reid drafted him last year and new Eagles head coach Chip Kelly has already signed Dennis Dixon to compete with Michael Vick…and Foles.
Yep, we already alluded to the idea of the Chiefs adding JaMarcus Russell. And look for Reid to retain Matt Cassel while adding a quarterback in the second round in April.
It’s perhaps only a matter of time.
Until March 12 rolls around, Rashean Mathis is still with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie remains with the Philadelphia Eagles and Cary Williams is still property of the Baltimore Ravens.
But we’ll go out on three limbs here. Williams opts to join the Eagles, Rodgers-Cromartie takes a lucrative deal with the Jaguars and the veteran Mathis heads to Baltimore to pair with Ed Reed.
Talk about turning the corner(s)?
The Pittsburgh Steelers were the only team in the league last season to give up fewer total yards than the Denver Broncos.
Only two clubs gave up fewer rushing yards and passing yards than coordinator Jack Del Rio’s unit in 2012. No team in the NFL totaled more sacks. And no team in the AFC gave up fewer points than John Fox’s club.
So what went wrong against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs, when the Broncos gave up 38 points in the double-overtime playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions?
Lost in the long-distance passing display by Joe Flacco was the 155 yards rushing rolled up by the Ravens in that contest.
Defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Justin Bannan, as well as Ty Warren, are slated to become unrestricted free agents in March. So we’ll throw out a few names that could fill those voids if they so develop.
Glenn Dorsey, who has played end in the 3-4 with the Kansas City Chiefs, could be a better fit in Del Rio’s 4-3. And Terrance Knighton, who Del Rio is familiar with from their days in Jacksonville, could be a possibility in securing the middle of the Denver defense.
We know this. John Elway won’t stand pat this offseason.