We've just about reached the point where every NFL team gets a clean slate. As the NFL calendar turns to a new league year, every team in the NFL is once again 0-0.
Of course, it isn't exactly a level playing field. The Oakland Raiders have a lot longer road to travel than the San Francisco 49ers, even though the two teams play a short drive from one another.
With that said, a successful offseason can shorten the trip considerably. Just look at the Kansas City Chiefs, who went from the first overall pick to a playoff spot in 2013.
So, as teams from Jacksonville to Seattle go about the business of getting better, here's a look at a move for each NFL team that's just sitting there waiting to be made.
Draft an Offensive Tackle with the 20th Overall Pick
The Arizona Cardinals were one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2013 NFL season, winning 10 games under first-year head coach Bruce Arians. Unfortunately, that 10-6 mark wasn't enough for a playoff spot.
As the Redbirds gear up to take the next step in 2014, one glaring weakness must be addressed.
The Cardinals' O-line was better in 2013 than it was in 2012 in that it would have been impossible for the line to be worse than it was the year before. However, right tackle Eric Winston is a free agent, and left tackle Bradley Sowell was the worst player at his position in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Arians may have told Josh Weinfuss of ESPN that tackle isn't "the most glaring need," but given Carson Palmer's lack of mobility, our eyes say otherwise.
If a player like Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio is on the board when the Cardinals pick at 20, then getting better up front makes a ton of sense.
So to speak.
Sign Free-Agent Defensive End Michael Johnson
If the Kansas City Chiefs are an example of how quickly an NFL team can turn things around, then the Atlanta Falcons are a cautionary tale of how quickly it can all fall apart.
The NFC's top seed in 2012 missed the postseason altogether last year, thanks to a combination of several injuries and a collapse on defense.
Part of the problem on defense was a pass rush that was among the league's worst. Free-agent acquisition Osi Umenyiora was a bust, and only the Chicago Bears had fewer sacks in the NFC last year than Atlanta's 32.
Given the Umenyiora affair (and the Ray Edwards fiasco before it), it might seem odd to suggest the Falcons once again go the free-agent route at defensive end, but it's a much different situation with Michael Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Where Umenyiora was north of 30, Johnson's firmly in his prime at 27. Where Umenyiora has battled injuries for years, Johnson has missed one game in five years.
With nearly $20 million in cap space according to Spotrac (subscription required), the Falcons have the room to make a run at Johnson, who has ties to the area from his time at Georgia Tech. It's a deal that makes sense if the Falcons truly are intent on a quick turnaround.
Re-Sign Dennis Pitta and Daryl Smith
2013 didn't go at all according to plan for the Baltimore Ravens.
Fresh off a win in Super Bowl XLVII, the team watched a number of key contributors depart in free agency. The Ravens wound up missing many of them, as the defending champs lurched and pitched their way to an 8-8 record.
As the Ravens enter free agency this season, it's important they not repeat that mistake.
On offense, one year after dealing Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers, it's important that the team not follow suit and allow tight end Dennis Pitta to depart. Yes, Pitta missed 12 games last year with an injured hip, but when the 28-year-old returned, he went right back to being Joe Flacco's preferred target underneath.
It doesn't appear that the Ravens have any intention of letting Pitta get away:
Gary Kubiak says he has a high opinion of Dennis Pitta, expects him to be a big part of offense this year
— Aaron Wilson (@RavensInsider) January 27, 2014
The team should take a similar tack with linebacker Daryl Smith. The 31-year-old, who was brought in as a veteran presence after Ray Lewis' retirement, was the leader of the Ravens defense in 2013, pacing the team with a career-high 123 tackles.
Adding pieces is important, but keeping the pieces you do have in place can be even more so.
Let Jairus Byrd Walk
It may seem counterintuitive for the Buffalo Bills to allow a three-time Pro Bowler to walk out the door. After all, this is a team that badly needs to add talent, not shed it.
But not in the case of free safety Jairus Byrd.
Yes, the five-year veteran has intercepted 12 passes over the past three seasons, ranking among the top 10 safeties in the NFL each of those years according to Pro Football Focus. However, Byrd also made it clear before being franchise-tagged last year that he's looking to get paid:
— Adam Benigni (@AdamBenigni) July 15, 2013
As such, the tag was not well-received by Byrd's camp, and it's highly unlikely any sort of "discount" will be forthcoming in negotiations with Byrd.
If he's looking for a deal in excess of the five years and $41.5 million Dashon Goldson got in Tampa, then the Bills need to let him look for it elsewhere. There are better ways for a team with as many holes as the Bills have to allocate resources.
Bring Back Greg Hardy
There wasn't a more surprising team in the NFL in 2013 than the Carolina Panthers. Left for dead at 1-3, they rattled off 11 wins in 12 games, capturing the NFC South.
The Panthers were propelled to the playoffs by their defense, which ranked second in the NFL and led the league with 60 sacks.
In turn, the engine that drove that pass rush was four-year veteran Greg Hardy, who set a franchise record with 15 sacks. It marked the second straight season Hardy has eclipsed double digits in sacks.
As Dan Hanzus of NFL.com reports, Hardy is now waiting for the Panthers to "give me a phone call and offer me a crapload of money."
Yup, that about covers it.
Yes, if the Panthers extend Hardy, they'll have a lot of money tied up on the defensive line. But you just can't let a 25-year-old pass-rusher of Hardy's caliber walk out the door.
Add in that Hardy told Hanzus he's not averse to playing in 2014 under the franchise tag, and one way or another, he needs to be back in Charlotte this season.
Overhaul the Pass Rush
We've gone from one end of the pass-rush spectrum to the other.
Whereas the Carolina Panthers led the NFL in sacks in 2013, the Chicago Bears ranked dead last in the NFC, averaging less than two sacks a game.
Frankly, the defensive line needs overhauled.
Unfortunately, the Bears may have to do that on the cheap. According to Spotrac, they have just under $7 million in cap space. However, the team can free up some room by severing ties with veteran end Julius Peppers, who is owed a whopping $14 million in 2014.
As Brad Biggs of The Chicago Tribune reports, the situation is more complicated than that. The team is moving fellow end Shea McClellin to linebacker, and both end Corey Wootton and tackle Henry Melton are set to hit free agency.
The draft may present Chicago's best chance to add some pop to the pass rush, with ESPN's Mel Kiper and Todd McShay both forecasting the Bears will select Florida State defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan in the first round in May.
How the Bears go about it may not yet be known, but one thing appears clear: The Chicago defensive front will look much different in June than it does today.
Transition to a More Run-Heavy Offense
The times they are a-changin' in the Queen City.
After their third straight trip to the playoffs ended with yet another disappointment, the Cincinnati Bengals were forced to make some coaching changes when both defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden left to take head coaching jobs.
In both cases, the Bengals went with in-house replacements, handing the reins on offense to running backs coach (and former Oakland head man) Hue Jackson.
Jackson wasted no time in making his intentions known regarding the game plan in 2014, according to Paul Daugherty of Cincinnati.com.
"The running game defeats teams,” he said. “Offensive teams become really good when they’re physical.”
Add it all together, and it portends more work for running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard.
For his part, Bernard doesn't mind one bit, according to the NFL Network (via ESPN):
For me and Benny, I think we've done a good job thus far. I think we can continue to keep doing a good job. We just got to go into it with an open mind, and [Jackson's] going to create the craziest playbook ever, but it's going to be fun. I'm excited for it.
Make a Mistake with the 26th Overall Pick
As the Cleveland Browns begin their annual rebuild on the shores of Lake Erie, the team would appear in position for a quick turnaround. After all, the Browns have no fewer than five picks in the first three rounds in May.
With that said, though, it would be a lot easier to have some optimism regarding that turnaround if the Browns had a better track record of using such picks wisely.
Two years ago, they had a pair of first-round picks. They used those picks on running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden.
We know how that turned out.
Back in 2007, the Browns, after selecting tackle Joe Thomas third overall, traded up to make a second pick in the first round. That second pick was quarterback Brady Quinn.
Granted, the present regime in Cleveland is different from the one that selected Richardson and Weeden. It's brand new, in fact, because on Tuesday, as Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated reports, Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam shockingly fired team president Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi.
Of course, the 2012 regime was also different from the 2007 group, and that didn't stop the team from botching things.
The fourth overall pick is almost mistake-proof, as whether the Browns take a top quarterback or Jadeveon Clowney, it shouldn't be panned by many draftniks.
That leaves the 26th pick as the team's best chance to make its fans cry...again.
Cripple 2015's Salary Cap Space for the Sake of 2014
On some level, Dallas Cowboys team owner and general manager Jerry Jones deserves a measure of respect. In an era where many teams leave tens of millions of cap space unused, Jones isn't afraid to spend money in an effort to get the Cowboys back in the playoffs.
The problem is the utter lack of rhyme or reason in spending that money and the havoc it's wreaked on Dallas' salary cap.
According to Spotrac, no team in the NFL is in worse salary-cap shape than the Cowboys, who sit well over $20 million over the projected salary cap for 2014.
As Tim Cowlishaw of The Dallas Morning News reports, the Cowboys are expected to restructure quarterback Tony Romo's contract, converting salary to bonuses in an effort to generate cap space.
It's an annual event in Dallas. Yes, redoing those deals frees up short-term cap space, but in effect, Jones is only delaying the problem for another year.
It's not like things are going to suddenly improve, either. According to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the recent Thursday night TV deal with CBS will bump the cap by a few million per team, but Florio also reported last year that the "spike" in cap dollars many cap-strapped teams were hoping for in 2015 may not come to pass.
If that's the case, the Cowboys will be right back in this spot a year from now.
Sign Free-Agent Defensive End Jared Allen
Now that the Denver Broncos have finally scrubbed away the tire tracks after being run over by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, the attention in the Mile High City turns to getting back to the big game.
One of the needs the team has to address is the pass rush, especially with 2013 sack leader Shaun Phillips set to hit free agency.
Enter free-agent defensive end Jared Allen.
At 31, Allen is closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but even in a "down" 2013, the five-time Pro Bowler still managed over 50 tackles and 11.5 sacks. It marked the seventh straight season (and eight of the past nine) in which Allen has amassed double-digit sacks.
The Broncos were rumored to have interest in Allen at the trading deadline last year, according to Gil Brandt of NFL.com, but a deal never came to pass.
Now, it's time for them to revisit adding Allen.
Last year's market for defensive ends was pillow-soft. If this year's is anything close, the Broncos will be able to offer Allen something most teams can't: a very real chance to play in his first Super Bowl.
Ink Defensive Tackle Ndamukong Suh to a Contract Extension
The Detroit Lions just can't catch a break. They are still haunted by past failures, saddled with bloated, old CBA rookie deals borne of bad seasons and high draft picks.
The team was able to sign quarterback Matthew Stafford to an extension a year ago, and now the attention turns to defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
It has to. As Michael Rothstein of ESPN reports, Suh's cap number in 2014 is a staggering $22 million, nearly 20 percent of the team's total salary.
The Lions badly need to reduce that number, but signing Suh to an extension creates issues of its own.
As I wrote earlier this week at Bleacher Report, even with a significant reduction in Suh's cap number, the Lions will still have over 30 percent of their cap space taken up by three players—Suh, Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
That makes the Lions one of the NFL's most top-heavy rosters, and it doesn't make it easy for general manager Martin Mayhew to add pieces around the trio.
Still, the Lions are desperate to lower that cap number. This deal will get done.
Frugality in Free Agency
There are three certainties in life: death, taxes and Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson not spending money in free agency.
Despite nearly $28 million in cap space in 2014, according to Spotrac, don't expect that to change this year.
Outside signing Charles Woodson in his first year in Green Bay, Thompson has time and again eschewed opening the checkbook to make a big splash. In fact, he has even watched players like wide receiver Greg Jennings chase the big bucks right out of Titletown.
Still, Thompson made it clear when speaking with SiriusXM Radio last month, via Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin, that he's not about to alter his strategy, even after an up-and-down 2013 campaign:
We just think it’s a good model to use under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement and that sort of thing. We just feel like it’s … your best policy is to try the best you can – and it doesn’t always work out because sometimes you have to do different things – but you draft good people, you develop them, you get a good coaching staff who coaches them up, [and try to make sure] they like it there.
If Thompson does burn through some of that cap space, it will be to retain the services of players such as defensive end B.J. Raji and center Evan Dietrich-Smith.
Draft Texas A&M Quarterback Johnny Manziel
After dreams of a Super Bowl turned into a 2-14 nightmare in 2013, the Houston Texans possess the first overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
The Texans also have a glaring need at football's most important position, which has caused just a tad of speculation linking the team to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Just a little. One or two stories.
It's not hard to see why. Manziel has spent the past two seasons electrifying fans in College Station, and he'd no doubt do the same for the Houston fanbase in general.
It doesn't hurt that Manziel can also play a little ball, especially after fellow "short" quarterback Russell Wilson led the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl win this past season.
In fact, former interim head coach Wade Phillips told 610 Sports Radio in Houston, via ESPN that part of his interview for the Houston job involved an endorsement of the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner.
"When I did the interview with the McNairs, I told them they ought to take Johnny Football," Phillips said.
The fans have even chipped in, unveiling "Keep Johnny Football in Texas" billboards.
Unless Manziel falls apart at the combine or at his personal workout on March 22, it's those outside concerns that will vault Manziel to the top of a closely ranked trio of quarterbacks.
Central Florida's Blake Bortles and Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater may both be top-five picks, but it's Johnny Football who will wind up going first overall.
Sign Free-Agent Linebacker Karlos Dansby
The Indianapolis Colts won the AFC South in 2013. With over $33 million in cap space and one of the NFL's most aggressive general managers in Ryan Grigson, they figure to once again be one of the league's bigger players in free agency, especially with no first-round pick in May's draft.
As the Colts look to retain players such as running back Donald Brown and safety Antoine Bethea and add players around them, there's a hole in the middle of the defense that stands out.
Arizona Cardinals inside linebacker Karlos Dansby was a revelation in his first year back in the desert in 2013, pacing the entire NFL with a career-high 114 solos. Dansby also added 6.5 sacks, and Pro Football Focus ranked the 10th-year pro fifth among inside linebackers last year.
The 32-year-old may be nearer the end of the line than the start, but Dansby still marks the sort of veteran signing that makes sense for a Colts team that fashions itself a Super Bowl contender.
There's certainly room for him in Indy as well. The Colts tried any number of players next to Jerrell Freeman last year, to mostly awful results.
Pairing Freeman with Dansby, though, would give the team one of the more imposing inside linebacker pairs in the NFL.
Draft a Quarterback
On many levels, the best thing that can happen to the Jacksonville Jaguars in May's NFL draft is for South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to be off the board by the third overall pick. Otherwise, the Jags will have a very difficult decision on their hands.
Make no mistake, Clowney has the potential to be an absolute monster in Gus Bradley's 4-3 "under" front. The Leo pass-rushing role favors speed and athleticism, two things Clowney has shooting out his ears.
Bradley called Clowney a "dominating player," according to Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union, and you can bet that Bradley and the Jags would be tempted to add Clowney to their defense.
Still, the questions about his motor aside, there's still an 800-pound gorilla in the room.
That gorilla, of course, is the Jaguars' god-awful situation under center.
After completing less than half his passes and posting a passer rating of less than 40 in 2013, it's a safe bet that the Blaine Gabbert experiment in Jacksonville is over.
In Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles, there are three quarterbacks at the top of the draft with legitimate potential to be franchise starters. At least one (and quite possibly two) of those players will be there at 1.03.
Hard as it may be for a defensive coach to pass on Clowney, Bradley knows full well that his team needs a quarterback.
Besides, fat lot of good Clowney will be to Bradley in two years if Bradley's been fired in the meantime.
Address the Secondary Early and Often in the Draft
Over the first half of the 2013 season, the Kansas City Chiefs were as good on defense as any team in the NFL.
In the second half? Not so much.
As injuries hit the pass rush, a mediocre Kansas City secondary was exposed. Free-agent acquisitions Dunta Robinson and Sean Smith didn't play up to expectations, and the result was the NFL's 25th-ranked pass defense.
The Chiefs have already parted ways with Robinson, but with less than $3 million in cap space, per Spotrac, another big splurge on the open market isn't in the cards.
Rob Rang of CBS Sports thinks it's safety where the Chiefs could look to upgrade, predicting the team will select Alabama free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round.
However they choose to address it, getting better in the backfield is imperative if the Chiefs are going to keep pace in the same division as Peyton Manning.
Draft an Offensive Tackle in the First Round
It's an offense all mock drafters are guilty of at one time or another.
We see that a team needs a wide receiver. There's a wide receiver available in that slot. Hammer, meet nail. Problem solved.
That isn't how it always happens in the NFL, of course. With that said, it also isn't every year that a team rolls into a draft with a hole so gaping as the Miami Dolphins' void at offensive tackle.
It's ugly, folks. The Dolphins allowed a staggering 58 sacks in 2013, most in the NFL. Given the fallout from the Jonathan Martin saga, it's highly unlikely he'll ever play for the Dolphins again. Which, since he was a turnstile, really isn't much of a loss.
Bryant McKinnie is 34. Tyson Clabo allowed as many sacks as any player in the AFC last year.
Get where we're going here?
Whether it's Michigan's Taylor Lewan, Cyrus Kouandjio of Alabama or Tennessee's Antonio Richardson, the odds are heavily in the favor of the Dolphins going tackle with the 19th pick.
That sound you hear is Cardinals fans swearing.
Draft Fresno State Quarterback Derek Carr
It's 2011 all over again.
The Minnesota Vikings entered that draft in need of a quarterback and determined to get one. When three signal-callers were selected before their 12th overall pick, the team, undeterred, drafted Florida State's Christian Ponder.
Three years later, the Vikings head back to the draft in need of a quarterback.
Unfortunately, they are far from alone in that regard. By the time they pick eighth overall, there's a very good likelihood that Manziel, Bridgewater and Bortles will be gone, leaving them two choices: go kick rocks at quarterback for another year or draft Fresno State's Derek Carr.
The 6'2" senior was easily the top quarterback in attendance at January's Senior Bowl, and after topping 5,000 yards for the Bulldogs last year, there are plenty of folks who feel he can guide an NFL offense.
Of course, there are also those who point to Carr's WAC competition and lack of time in a pro-style offense and fear that he's Ponder 2.0.
Carr recently told 97.5 FM in Oakland he's unsure if he'll throw at the NFL scouting combine, but the truth is he doesn't need to. There are too many teams and not enough quarterbacks, and the only thing that could stop the Vikings from pulling the trigger at No. 8 is if another team beats them to the punch.
Re-Sign Wide Receiver Julian Edelman
This will be a very interesting spring in Beantown, if only because we'll get to see if Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots can admit when they're wrong.
The 2013 decision to "swap out" Wes Welker with Danny Amendola in 2013 was, by any objective measure, an unqualified disaster. Amendola struggled to stay healthy all season, while Welker put up another big year in Denver.
In fact, were it not for a career-high 105 catches from Julian Edelman, the Patriots' passing game would have been a dumpster fire as opposed to just a train wreck.
Now, the Patriots are right back in the spot they were with Welker last year as Edelman readies for free agency.
Patriots insider Tom E. Curran of Comcast Sports Net Northeast expects the market for Edelman, whose numbers last year dwarf anything in his career to date, to land somewhere in the $6 million range annually.
If Curran's even reasonably close, this is a no-brainer for the Pats, especially with tight end Rob Gronkowski returning from yet another injury.
Bring Back Jimmy Graham—No Matter What
This is one of the most obvious moves on this entire list.
Unfortunately for the New Orleans Saints, it may also be one of the hardest to pull off.
After three straight big seasons and a league-leading 16 touchdown catches in 2013, the time has come for New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.
Further complicating matters is the Saints' precarious salary cap situation. As Larry Holder of The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports, the Saints are presently parked about $12 million over the projected salary cap for 2014.
Even the franchise tag might be problematic. The Saints have maintained all along they will tag Graham as a tight end if long-term negotiations break down at a cost of $6.8 million.
Graham and his camp, though, maintain he lined up more at wide receiver last year and should be tagged as such (at $11.6 million).
As head coach Sean Payton told Fox Sports 1 via Holder, "The most challenging part of your job as a coach, and I share that with Mickey or anyone that has been with an organization as long as we have been, going on year nine, is some of the tough decisions that have to be made with regards to your cap with the ability that you possibly can sign Jimmy Graham."
It may well be difficult, but it's awfully hard to imagine a scenario in which the Saints won't somehow make room for Graham, preferably with a long-term deal.
It's the sort of deal the team has gotten done in recent years. It will do so again.
Out with the Old, In with the New
It wasn't that long ago that the New York Giants were Super Bowl Champions, but last year's 7-9 team bore little resemblance to the squad that won Super Bowl XLVI in 2012. That's in large part because a number of Giants veterans looked nothing like the productive players they were a few short years ago.
Now, some of those players are set to hit free agency, and as much as it may pain fans to see familiar faces depart, it's time in many cases.
Yes, defensive end Justin Tuck had 9.5 sacks over the last six weeks of 2013. He also, though, had 1.5 sacks in the 11 weeks preceding that explosion. The 30-year-old had only nine sacks in 2011-12 combined.
Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks racked up nearly 1,200 yards and scored seven touchdowns for that Super Bowl team. The two seasons since have been an injury-plagued mess, with Nicks failing to hit 1,000 yards either year.
With other holes to fill and in-house replacements in place in Damontre Moore and Rueben Randle, the Giants can't afford to overpay these aging vets.
They won't, which means new homes for Tuck and Nicks in 2014.
Go Deep at Wide Receiver
To say that the New York Jets have a need at the wide receiver position is something of an understatement.
As Rich Cimini of ESPN points out, 94 pass-catchers in the NFL last year had more receptions than Jeremy Kerley, who led the Jets with 43 catches.
That ain't good, folks.
Cimini expects the Jets to be very aggressive at the wide receiver position in the offseason. In fact, he predicts a two-pronged approach, with the Jets adding a free agent such as Golden Tate of the Seattle Seahawks or Jeremy Maclin of the Philadelphia Eagles and then pairing him with an early draft pick like Mike Evans of Texas A&M.
The exact strategy may not be known, but one thing is certain: It would be much easier to evaluate quarterback Geno Smith if he had someone to throw the ball to.
Frustrate Fans with Frugality in Free Agency
According to Spotrac, the Oakland Raiders have the most cap space of any team in the National Football League. As in a staggering $63 million in cap space.
Add to that a roster littered with holes, and one would think the Raiders are set to be one of this year's biggest movers and shakers in free agency.
McKenzie told Jerry McDonald of the Bay Area News Group he's fully aware there's a lot of work to be done:
Biggest need? We have biggest needs, with an `s.’ We’re going to attack it. I don’t care if it’s the waiver wire, an unrestricted guy, the trade, the draft, we’re going to upgrade this team in any way.
However, the Raiders got themselves into this mess by overpaying free agents, and McKenzie is both aware of that fact and very much a disciple of the Ted Thompson school of free-agent philosophy:
We’re going to do things that make sense. Just because I have $5 in my pocket, that doesn’t mean I have to spend it all of it on junk. I don’t want to do that. We’re going to look at every player out there and decide whether he can help us.
The Raiders also have 18 free agents of their own, including running back Darren McFadden, offensive tackle Jared Veldheer and defensive end LaMarr Houston.
Houston and Veldheer will likely be retained, and this isn't to say McKenzie won't make any significant additions in free agency.
With that said, fans hoping for a quick turnaround and expecting a spending spree a la the Miami Dolphins a year ago are setting themselves up to be disappointed.
Draft a Safety with the 22nd Overall Pick
Every year for the past decade or so, a team in the NFL has gone from last place to division champion. In 2013, that honor belonged to the Philadelphia Eagles, who went from 4-12 in 2012 to NFC East champs the next season.
With nearly $21 million in cap space heading into 2014, according to Spotrac, the Eagles are also in a favorable position entering the offseason, especially given that the team doesn't have a lot of prominent free agents of its own to re-sign.
However, one area that will need to be addressed is the back of the Philly secondary. The Eagles ranked dead last in the NFL in pass defense in 2013, and their highest-ranking safety at Pro Football Focus (Nate Allen) barely placed inside the top 50 at his position.
With Allen set to hit free agency, safety is one of the Eagles' biggest needs this year. Fortunately, it's also one they're in an excellent position to address in the 2014 NFL draft.
Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor, the top two safeties in the 2014 class, are both projected as late first-round picks.
In other words, right around where the Eagles pick.
Numerous mock drafts have the Eagles going that route in May, with Pete Prisco of CBS Sports writing of the Eagles taking Pryor, "They had big problems on the back end last season. Pryor would start right away."
Part Ways with Linebacker LaMarr Woodley and Cornerback Ike Taylor
The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't used to not making the playoffs. But in 2013, the 8-8 Steelers missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season. It was the first time Pittsburgh missed the postseason in back-to-back years in the late '90s.
Now, with an aging roster and sitting over $10 million over the projected salary cap for 2014, per Spotrac, the Steelers face an offseason of tough decisions.
One decision, however, really isn't that hard.
Only quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a higher cap number for the upcoming season than linebacker LaMarr Woodley and cornerback Ike Taylor. The pair's combined cap hit this year is a gaudy $25.5 million.
Woodley has missed eight games the past two years with injuries. Taylor is 33 and saw his play drop off precipitously in 2013.
The Steelers can re-sign free agent Jason Worilds, dump Woodley and get younger and better while saving money in the process.
It's always hard to part with cornerbacks, but it's also hard to justify paying Taylor well over $10 million one year after he ranked 97th at his position, according to Pro Football Focus.
With youngster Cortez Allen waiting in the wings, it's time for the Steelers to embrace the youth movement the franchise has been dragging its feet on the past few years.
Draft a Cornerback in the First Round in May
The AFC West was just full of surprises in 2013. Not only did the Denver Broncos capture the No. 1 seed in the AFC and the Kansas City Chiefs stage a nine-game turnaround, but a late-season surge made the San Diego Chargers the division's third playoff team.
If the Chargers are going to build on that success in 2014, though, the team needs to do something about the secondary. San Diego ranked 29th in the NFL in pass defense last year and 26th in pass coverage, per Pro Football Focus.
A large part of those struggles can be laid at the feet of free-agent bust Derek Cox, whom Tom Krasovic of U-T San Diego called "[one of] the worst free-agent signings in Chargers history."
Luckily for the Chargers, the 2014 draft isn't lacking for talent at the position. Two of the three mock drafts currently up at CBS Sports predict San Diego will take a cornerback with the the 25th overall pick.
Rob Rang feels it will be Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert, writing "Gilbert is a spectacular athlete with terrific hand-eye coordination and return skills, making him a threat on defense and as a kick returner."
Re-Sign Wide Receiver Anquan Boldin
The San Francisco 49ers came within a few inches of heading back to the Super Bowl in 2013. Michael Crabtree nearly made a catch that would have defined the 49ers' season.
However, it was another wide receiver who may well have been the team's offensive MVP.
With Crabtree sidelined by a torn Achilles for most of the year, Anquan Boldin all but carried the 49ers passing attack in his first year with the team. Acquired in a preseason trade with the Baltimore Ravens, Boldin led the team with 85 catches for 1,179 yards. The 85 receptions were his most since 2008, and the yardage was Boldin's highest since 2006.
Now, the 33-year-old is about to hit the open market, and while Boldin hinted on Twitter that 2013 was only his "first season" in San Fran, it's possible his mind could be swayed by a bigger offer from another contender.
At the end of the day, though, it's very hard to imagine a scenario in which the 49ers won't make a concerted effort to re-up Boldin, and given his happiness in his current surroundings, that should be enough.
Draft Missouri Defensive End Michael Sam
If you hadn't heard of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam before the last few days, you certainly have now.
The 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year's announcement he is gay has sent shockwaves across the NFL landscape. Pundits far and wide have speculated at great length about what Sam's announcement means for his professional career.
As USA Today's Jarrett Bell wrote, "in Sam's case, the team that he lands with — he's projected as a mid-round pick — is of extreme importance. There are frankly some teams better equipped to handle the attention (or distraction, as some would call it) that will be attached to a trailblazer."
Enter the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
Simply put, there isn't a team in the NFL better equipped to handle the circus that will follow Sam into the NFL than the Seahawks. The spotlight was already going to be on them. Head coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider are as secure as any such tandem in the NFL. There isn't a more closely knit locker room in the league.
Also, the 4-3 "under" front the Seahawks use as their base defense is a great fit for Sam, whose "tweener" size isn't as big an issue as a Leo pass-rusher.
Make no mistake, if Sam drops in May's draft, Schneider and Carroll won't look at him and see a gay man. They'll see a third-round talent at a fifth-round value.
Trade Down in the First Round of May's NFL Draft
It's deja vu all over again for the St. Louis Rams.
In 2012, the Rams had the second overall pick in the NFL draft. They also had a quarterback in Sam Bradford, so they dealt the pick (and the rights to Robert Griffin) to the Washington Redskins.
Now, the Rams find themselves in the same boat, holding Washington's second overall pick and Bradford while a gaggle of QB-needy teams nip at their heels.
The team could stand pat and pair Clowney with defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn. Or, it could follow the advice former Rams standout Torry Holt offered to Bleacher Report's Adam Lefkoe and draft Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews.
Still, as Peter King of Sports Illustrated reported all the way back in December, the Rams have made it no secret they're entertaining offers for the pick.
Whether it's from the new regime in Cleveland (holders of two first-rounders in 2014) or another team in need of a quarterback, some team is either going to fall in love with a player or panic. Either way, the Rams will reap their second trade windfall in four years.
Unfortunately, they'll also still have Sam Bradford as their starting quarterback.
Hey, no plan's perfect.
Sign Free-Agent Cornerback Charles Tillman
After two disastrous seasons under first-time NFL coach Greg Schiano, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went the retread route in their latest search, hiring former Chicago head man Lovie Smith.
As Smith takes in the reins in Florida, it makes sense for him and general manager Jason Licht to look at one of Smith's former players in free agency.
Cornerback Charles Tillman suffered through a miserable 2013, missing half the season with an assortment of injuries. However, the 32-year-old made the Pro Bowl in each of the two seasons before that, and in 2012, he was the NFL's third-ranked cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus.
Tillman made it clear to Patrick Finley of The Chicago Sun-Times that's he's more than amenable to playing for his old coach:
Obviously, it makes the deal probably a little sweeter just because it’s a former head coach. You do know the system, you know the scheme.
I think it helps it from a standpoint that it’s a former coach, a guy that you liked, a guy that you’d been with for 10 years. It’s cool. But it’s free agency. I’m open to whoever.
Tillman's experience in Smith's defense and willingness in run support would be an excellent complement to Darrelle Revis in the Tampa secondary, and given his age Tampa, likely wouldn't have to break the bank to get him.
Hand, meet glove.
Take a Chainsaw to the Defense
It happens every year in the NFL. New head coaches are hired, bringing with them new coordinators. Those new coordinators bring with them a change in scheme.
This year, the most drastic switch is occurring in Nashville. Gone is is the plain-Jane 4-3 of Jerry Gray, replaced by the attacking 3-4 of Ray Horton.
The change creates a number of questions. How will tackle Jurrell Casey, coming off a career year, handle the switch to 3-4 end? Can defensive end Derrick Morgan and strong-side linebacker Akeem Ayers, both of whom have disappointed as pros, make a successful transition to edge-rushing linebackers? Who will man the inside linebacker and nose tackle slots?
The biggest move the Titans are making this year is actually a series of smaller moves, and it will take some time to see how it all shakes out.
Spend, Spend, Spend in the Secondary
Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder is the anti-Ted Thompson. Whereas Thompson rarely spends in free agency, Snyder's strategy has three steps:
- Open large bag of money
- Begin handing out money
- Repeat until money is gone
Salary cap penalties applied toward the Redskins the past two seasons by the NFL have tied Snyder's hands of late.
Those cuffs are off now, though, as the Redskins have nearly $25 million in cap space in 2013, according to Spotrac. And the lack of a first-round pick places even more impetus on the Redskins to add an impact player in free agency.
Throw in the absolutely abysmal state of Washington's secondary (where top cornerback DeAngelo Hall is himself a free agent), and the Redskins are a safe bet to be major players on the defensive side of the ball when free agency opens.
Aqib Talib and Jairus Byrd, please pick up the red courtesy phone.