The 2013 NFL Scouting Combine is here and the “unofficial” start of free agency is here as well. As the entire NFL community descends on Indianapolis, each team is working to make their organization better.
Some teams will make huge splashes in the free-agent market. Others will build their teams through trades and the draft. Each NFL team has a plan in place as they head into the 2013 offseason. Only one team’s plan will ultimately pay off with a Super Bowl win in New York next February.
Here is the best move each NFL team can make to put themselves in line to compete for the Lombardi trophy. Some teams are better situated than others but every one of these decisions will make the corresponding club better in 2013.
Re-sign OG Andy Levitre and S Jairus Byrd.
A case can be made that each player is the most valuable at their position in terms of players available for free agency. New general manager Russ Brandon needs to show other players on the team that the Bills will reward their own.
Both players were drafted by the Bills and for the organization to set the right precedent, Brandon needs to reward both with large contracts. The Bills of late have tried to build through free agency. Locking up Levitre and Byrd long-term sends a message in the locker room that if a player performs, he will get paid.
Sign a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver.
Unrestricted free-agent wide receiver Brian Hartline had a great season for the Dolphins in 2012 and is worth re-signing for the right price. But Hartline is not a front-line No. 1 receiver. The Dolphins have not had a player who challenged defenses since Chris Chambers.
With the availability of free agents Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Greg Jennings, general manager Jeff Ireland has an outstanding chance to bring a big-time playmaker to South Florida. By adding a veteran wide receiver, the Dolphins can give second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill a deep threat and get some excitement back into the Dolphins offense.
Sign free agent S Ed Reed.
The Patriots have not won a Super Bowl since 2005. Safety Rodney Harrison was an All-Pro that season. Granted Harrison went on to play many more years in New England, but since he retired, the Patriots have not had a difference-maker at that position.
Reed, a sure-fire Hall of Fame player, adds instant leadership and credibility to Patriots the minute he walks into the locker room. Head coach Bill Belichick has always admired Reed’s skill set and will allow Reed to be a leader on the defense much like quarterback Tom Brady is on offense.
Make CB Darrelle Revis happy.
Revis is one of the best defensive players in the NFL and even coming off a knee injury, is still the best defender on the Jets. Revis comes off as greedy in terms of his contract, but he gained the leverage by being a great player and having a current contract that is about to expire.
The Jets cannot afford to let Revis walk. When Revis is on the field, the Jets are a top-10 defense. Without him, they are average.
The Jets had to release two defensive leaders in Calvin Pace and Bart Scott. The leadership on the defensive side will take another hit if Revis is not content. New general manager John Idzik needs to find a way to get Revis on board and get him back to playing at an All-Pro level.
Lock up QB Joe Flacco to a long-term deal.
The label of “elite” gets tossed around way too often in terms of quarterback play in the NFL. No matter what label is attached to Flacco, the one no one can take away from him is “Super Bowl Champion.”
Flacco has won the most playoff games for any player in NFL history in his first five years. The guy is simply a winner. Instead of taking the hit against the salary cap by placing the franchise tag on Flacco, the Ravens need to lock the quarterback up to a five- or six-year deal.
The Ravens know what they have in Flacco. They need the salary cap space to sign other players so they have a chance to repeat as Super Bowl winners.
Add depth at running back.
The Bengals only have two running backs under contract heading into the 2013 season. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Dan Herron are the two for the Bengals right now. The NFL draft is stacked with some quality running backs like Ed Lacy from Alabama, Stepfan Taylor of Stanford and Joseph Randle from LSU.
The free-agent market for running backs includes the Dolphins’ Reggie Bush, the Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw and the Cowboys’ Felix Jones. The Bengals need to add at least two more players at the running back position. One in free agency and one through the draft would be the best decision the Bengals can make.
Find a starting quarterback.
Second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden does not seem to be a favorite of the new Browns front office and really struggled in 2012.
This is not to say Weeden cannot be a solid starter in the NFL, but for a player who was already old as a rookie, look for the Browns to open the position up for competition in 2013.
The Browns need to add a solid player at the position, either in a trade to get a player like the Philadelphia Eagles' Nick Foles or Seattle Seahawks' Matt Flynn, or by drafting a rookie who is a better fit for new head coach Rob Chudzinski’s offensive system. The NFL is a passing league and until the Browns figure out the quarterback position, they will be at the bottom of the AFC North.
Draft youth in the secondary.
The Steelers are old at safety with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Cornerback Ike Taylor came into the NFL in 2003. Cornerback Keenan Lewis is a free agent and the Steelers do not look to have the money to re-sign him. Cortez Allen has proven to be a solid cornerback in the NFL but the Steelers lack depth behind him.
The Steelers need to draft at least three secondary players in the 2013 NFL draft. Both the safety and cornerback positions have good depth. The Steelers will need to hit on all three secondary selections in the draft.
A prospect like safety Jonathan Cyprien from Florida International would be a perfect for Dick LeBeau’s defense. Cornerbacks such as Xavier Rhodes of FSU and Logan Ryan of Rutgers would give the Steelers the size on the outside they covet.
Sign a Pro Bowl punter.
The Texans are loaded at just about every position and are set to challenge for the Super Bowl in the coming season. One area the Texans can improve on in 2013 is field position and the quality of free-agent punters is outstanding.
Dustin Colquitt of the Kansas City Chiefs, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Kevin Huber, Pat McAfee of the Indianapolis Colts and Shane Lechler of the Oakland Raiders are all scheduled to be available in free agency. The Texans need to add one of these players to improve the play of their special teams.
Find a replacement for OLB Dwight Freeney.
The Colts have approximately $44 million at their disposal to spend in free agency. That is more than enough to keep Freeney. But Indianapolis looks to be moving on from the All-Pro player and will need to find a player who can match his leadership and production.
Two unrestricted free agents stand out. Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger played for head coach Chuck Pagano in Baltimore. San Diego Chargers outside linebacker Antwan Barnes played for Pagano in Baltimore. Barnes had his best year as a professional under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
The Colts need to draft for depth at the position as well but look for general manager Ryan Grigson to add at least one but possibly two veteran outside linebackers.
Sign CB Aqib Talib.
Talib is the best free-agent cornerback available and will instantly upgrade the Jaguars defense. Talib has off-the-field concerns but head coach Gus Bradley turned trash-talking Richard Sherman and CFL player Brandon Browner into two of the best in the league.
Talib has the skill set to play against the best in the AFC South and matches up well versus the like of Houston’s Andre Johnson and the Colts’ Reggie Wayne. Talib will bring an edge to a defense that needs playmakers and can help return the Jaguars defense to the top of the NFL.
Draft a QB at No. 10.
Quarterback Jake Locker will be given the 2013 season to prove that he can be an effective starting quarterback in the NFL. But the Titans need to have a contingency plan in place in case that does not happen. Up to this point, nothing shows that Locker will take the next step.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck should be kept on as the backup or third quarterback to help groom the rookie. Hasselbeck is a pro’s pro and will make for a great mentor. The Titans may have a chance to grab Geno Smith of West Virginia, Matt Barkley of USC or Ryan Nassib of Syracuse with the 10th overall selection.
The Titans need better play and a brighter future at the quarterback position and there are players in the 2013 NFL draft that can turn the Titans franchise around.
Lock up LT Ryan Clady to a long-term deal.
The Broncos have drafted very well under John Elway and director of player personnel Matt Russell. The Broncos need to draft some young cornerbacks but the best thing Elway can do for head coach John Fox and quarterback Peyton Manning is make Clady happy.
Clady is a Pro Bowl player who may be the best left tackle in the NFL. Profootballfocus.com ranks him fourth overall, but NFL personnel would debate that Clady is the best. Manning needs to be protected, especially with his history of neck injuries, and Clady is the man to do the job. The Broncos need to make Clady the highest paid player at his position and lock him up for at least six seasons.
Release QB Matt Cassel.
Cassel had great success in New England when he was asked to replace Tom Brady. Brady was out for the season with a knee injury and Cassel seized the opportunity, signing a huge contract with the Chiefs thanks to then-general manager Scott Pioli. Pioli was part of the front office that drafted Cassel to the Patriots.
The Cassel experiment in Kansas City did not work out. Sometimes that happens in the NFL. Cassel is owed $7.5 million in 2013. New head coach Andy Reid will say all the right things about Cassel’s future in Kansas City, but the Chiefs need to move in a new direction.
The Chiefs could select a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NFL draft but a better choice may be using the No. 33 choice on a signal-caller.
Release QB Carson Palmer.
The Raiders overpaid to get Palmer in the first place and are now saddled with a contract of a player who is a shell of himself. The Raiders gave up a first- and second-round pick for a player who led them to a 4-12 record last season.
Palmer is due to make $13 million in 2013. The major issue for the Raiders is that Terrelle Pryor is the only other quarterback on the roster right now.
Look for the Raiders to add a veteran quarterback such as Matt Moore of the Miami Dolphins or Chase Daniel of the New Orleans Saints. They should also draft a young quarterback to be groomed for the future should Pryor not be the answer.
Draft a franchise left tackle with pick No. 11.
College free agent Michael Harris actually started games for the Chargers at left tackle in 2012. He is a better backup than starter. Last year’s starter, Jared Gaither, is a Baltimore Ravens castoff.
The 2013 NFL draft is loaded with quality offensive tackles. Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, Central Michigan's Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson of Oklahoma are just three legitimate day-one starters in this draft. Throw in Alabama’s D.J. Fluker and Tennessee’s Dallas Thomas and there is a possibility of five offensive tackles going in the first round.
The Chargers need to draft one of these players in the first round and set their franchise up for years to come. New general manager Tom Telesco knows the value of having an offensive tackle who can keep the quarterback upright. The No. 11 selection needs to be a home run for Telesco and a left tackle is his best bet.
Re-sign QB Tony Romo to an extension.
Fans and pundits alike get down on Romo for his lack of ability to lead Dallas to the Super Bowl. But Romo is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and gives the Cowboys their best chance to win. According to Profootballfocus.com, Romo was the 11th-best quarterback in the NFL in 2012.
Romo completed 65 percent of his passes in 2012 behind a revolving offensive line. The Cowboys, without DeMarco Murray, did not have much of a rushing attack. By locking Romo up to a long-term deal, the Cowboys can secure the position for years and still not have to break the bank for a player who wants to retire a Cowboy. This could be a win-win for both sides.
Groom an heir apparent to QB Eli Manning.
Getting a contract for wide receiver Victor Cruz will come later this year but since he is still under contract for the year, that move can wait. General manager Jerry Reese is one of the best in the business, but one area he has failed to address is the backup quarterback position. It is very easy to take the reliable Eli Manning for granted but he just turned 32 years old.
That is old by NFL standards for the position, especially with the influx of young talent at quarterback in recent years. Manning still has more good years of football ahead of him, but the Giants need to start to look to the future. The Giants could draft E.J. Manuel from FSU or Zac Dysert from Miami (OH) and let him be groomed by Manning. As Reese has shown by drafting defensive ends year after year, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Get CB Nnamdi Asomugha to agree to a pay cut.
$15 million is way too much to pay a cornerback who ranks as one of the worst in the NFL. Profootballfocus.com ranked 100 cornerbacks higher than Asomugha in 2012.
The Eagles have a new head coach in Chip Kelly and a new defensive coordinator in Billy Davis. Asomugha was once one of the best in the NFL but his skills have diminished of late. The new coaching staff wants length in their defenders and this is something Asomugha possesses.
In a new scheme, the former Oakland Raider may find a fountain of youth and regain his confidence. If nothing else, Asomugha is a solid leader who can help the younger players learn the ways of the NFL and help them learn the new defense.
Do not rush QB Robert Griffin III back too fast.
Griffin III is the face and the future of the Washington Redskins. After suffering a gruesome knee injury in the playoffs, Griffin III had surgery to fix the ligaments in his knee. Already doctors are saying he is ahead of schedule. People are already comparing Griffin III to the miraculous recovery from knee surgery of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
Everyone needs to slow that comparison down. No two knees are alike and no two rehabilitations are alike.
The Redskins have a quality backup in Kirk Cousins at quarterback. He has the ability to start and get wins for the Redskins early in the season if Griffin III is not available. Extra caution needs to be taken with Griffin III, especially with the way he plays the game. The Redskins cannot afford to mortgage the future for two or three games in 2013.
Re-sign LB Nick Roach.
The Bears look to be parting ways with stalwart Brian Urlacher. Both he and Roach are unrestricted free agents. While Urlacher is on the downside of his career, Roach is an up-and-coming player.
The Bears cannot afford to lose them both. Roach may actually be a better fit at middle linebacker than he is at strong-side linebacker. His familiarity with the defensive players, especially Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, gives him leverage in the locker room where he would be taking over for a legend.
The Bears defensive players would hate to see Urlacher leave, but by keeping Roach, general manager Phil Emery can keep some consistency on that side of the football.
Trade out of the No. 5 spot in the NFL draft.
There is no team in the NFL who needs draft selections more than the Lions. Detroit has 25 free agents and lack depth at a majority of positions. With so much money tied up in quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the Lions need to build their team through the draft.
There is not one player the Lions can select at No. 5 that can turn them into an instant winner in 2013. This team is at least a season away from getting back to the playoffs. But general manager Martin Mayhew is a smart football man and knows Detroit has key pieces in place to be competitive for years to come in the future.
If the Lions can trade the pick and get at least four selections either this year or next, Mayhew will be setting the Lions up for success.
Make QB Aaron Rodgers a Packer for life.
General manager Ted Thompson seems to always draft well and he is never a major player in the free-agent market. Thompson’s best draft selection was Rodgers in the 2005 NFL draft. Rodgers replaced a legend in Brett Favre and helped the Packers win a Super Bowl.
Rodgers has two years left on the deal he signed before the 2008 season. But Rodgers has outplayed that contract and deserves to be paid in the neighborhood of Drew Brees. The Packers can rework the deal to free up room under the salary cap as well as keep fan-favorite Rodgers in the yellow and green for the rest of his career.
Trade WR Percy Harvin.
The Vikings have their hands full with the moody Harvin. When he is at his best, he is one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. But when he is at his worst, he brings down a whole team. Harvin’s issues closely resemble that of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
Harvin has never had a 1,000-yard receiving season and missed seven games in 2012. The Vikings have a young and impressionable offensive team and with the value Harvin could bring in terms of draft picks, general manager Rick Spielman needs to make this move.
If not, the Vikings will be handcuffed by Harvin’s salary demands and possible holdouts in the future.
Talk TE Tony Gonzalez into playing another season.
Gonzalez never seems to age. He had his best season as a Falcon in 2012. The future Hall of Famer won his first playoff game and was a force for Atlanta in the quest for the Super Bowl.
All season Gonzalez implied 2012 would be his final NFL season, but as he was only one win away from a Super Bowl appearance, rumors began to emerge that Gonzalez was having second thoughts. General manager Thomas Dimitroff needs to put his recruiting hat on and do whatever he can to get the tight end to return.
Gonzalez is great for the team, for the city of Atlanta and for the NFL. He has not lost a step in his play and gives quarterback Matt Ryan the safety valve he needs when in trouble. The Falcons are a better team with Gonzalez on the field.
Sign CB Keenan Lewis or Brent Grimes.
The Panthers do not have an elite player in their secondary. Neither cornerback Josh Norman nor Chris Gamble are top-flight. The safeties are average at best as well. Charles Godfrey and Haruki Nakamura change offensive game plans.
Before Grimes injured his knee in 2012, he was the Atlanta Falcons' best defender and one of the better young cornerbacks in the NFL.
Lewis was the best cornerback on the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2012. Lewis had the most passes defensed in the NFL in 2012 according to Profootballfocus.com.
The Panthers need to sign one of these players and add a safety in the NFL draft. Head coach Ron Rivera is known as a defensive coach but he needs playmakers on the back end to help the disruptive pass rush of the Panthers work.
Trade RB Mark Ingram.
Ingram was a luxury pick of the Saints in the 2011 NFL draft. They did not need him yet stuck by their draft board and took the best player available. Sometimes moves like that pay off, as was the case for the Green Bay Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
In Ingram’s case, the former Alabama player has been oft-injured in the NFL and has not found a spot in the running back rotation. The Saints have quality depth at that position. Pierre Thomas, Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory have all produced well in the NFL.
This is not to say Ingram does not have value. If anything, he may be the best running back on the Saints roster. But on a team that is more pass-based than run-based, Ingram’s talents are wasted. If the Saints could get a first-round selection for Ingram, the move is a no-brainer.
Re-sign DE Michael Bennett.
Bennett was the best pass-rusher for the Buccaneers in 2012. His play, along with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, made Tampa Bay’s defensive front four one of the best in football.
Where Bennett was even more impressive in 2012 was his play versus the run. He consistently set the edge for the Buccaneers' young linebacking corps to play block-free and make tackles. Profootballfocus.com ranks Bennett as the seventh-best defensive end in the NFL.
The Buccaneers need to lock him up for the foreseeable future and keep that emerging defense together for years to come.
Select the best available QB at No. 7 in the 2013 NFL draft.
The Cardinals are a very solid defensive team. Where most of their holes lie is on the offensive side of the football.
The biggest hole is at quarterback. Neither Kevin Kolb nor John Skelton has seized the job with the opportunities afforded to them.
Under new head coach Bruce Arians, a new era needs to start in the desert. There should be a very good quarterback on the draft board when the Cardinals pick in the No. 7 slot. The Cardinals need to make that pick and insert that player as the starter from day one.
Arians worked wonders with rookies Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck. There is no reason to believe he cannot do the same with the likes of Geno Smith, Matt Barkley, Ryan Nassib or Tyler Wilson in 2013.
Sign either WR Wes Welker or Dwayne Bowe.
The Rams found a deep threat gem in last year’s NFL draft in wide receiver Chris Givens. The jury is still out on wide receiver Brian Quick. Danny Amendola is a free agent but is often injured. The Rams needs to let Amendola test the free-agent waters and make a power move for Bowe or Welker.
Welker is a perfect fit to take over Amendola’s role in the offense. Welker has the most catches in the NFL over the past six seasons.
If the Rams decided to go with Bowe, they would get a physically gifted player who would add a completely different element to the offense. Quarterback Sam Bradford has not had a dynamic playmaker at the receiver position since he was drafted. Both Welker and Bowe instantly upgrade the Rams offense and make them a threat in the competitive NFC West.
Re-do head coach Jim Harbaugh’s contract.
In two seasons as the head coach of the 49ers, Harbaugh has led his team to the NFC Championship Game and the Super Bowl. Harbaugh is 27-9-1 in his two seasons in charge. The 49ers were 46-82 since their last playoff appearance.
Harbaugh took a team that rolled through four coaching changes in eight seasons and made them instant winners. Harbaugh still has three years left on a five-year contract that pays him $25 million. But by today’s NFL standards where coaches get hired and fired after one season, Harbaugh is worth every dime and more.
Trade QB Matt Flynn.
With the success of quarterback Russell Wilson, the free-agent signing of Flynn in the 2012 offseason is now a moot point. Flynn has salaries of $5.25 million for 2013 and $6.25 million for 2014. While those salaries are high for a backup, Seattle could trade Flynn to a team in need of a quarterback and get those numbers off the books.
Seattle could pick up at least two quality draft picks and free up cap space. Most pundits will say the Arizona Cardinals and the Kansas City Chiefs would be likely trade partners.
But look at the New York Jets. New Jets general manager John Idzik was instrumental in signing Flynn from Green Bay and the Jets' quarterback situation is in flux.