As we head into the bulk of the offseason, every NFL team is trying to find ways to improve itself.
For some, the situation is more critical than others, and there are teams for whom this offseason could have far-reaching implications if they make a mistake.
We're not just talking about the bad teams, though.
No, even some very good teams could face make-or-break decisions now that the season is over.
While all NFL teams treat the offseason as a vitally important time, some are in more tenuous positions than others.
Let's take a look at who they are.
While New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan got an extension at the end of the 2013 NFL season, he’s far from safe.
As reported by Rich Cimini of ESPN New York, the contract isn’t fully guaranteed after 2015, which means if the Jets decide they’ve had enough Rex at the end of the 2015 NFL season, they can kick him to the curb with minimal financial impact.
If Ryan is going to secure his place in the organization, he’s going to have to win—and soon.
You can also put that pressure on general manager John Idzik. While Idzik is only entering his second year as Jets GM and did a fair job under severe cap restraints in 2013, the Jets will need him to spend more and bring in more players.
That's especially true on offense, where quarterback Geno Smith, his 2013 second-round pick, is in desperate need of skill players.
Idzik and Ryan need the Jets to take a step forward this year and next, or else they might both be looking for new employment.
After a tumultuous 2013, a lot of people expected head coach Joe Philbin to end up on the unemployment line like his general manager Jeff Ireland.
Philbin survived, but for how long depends on what happens next season.
Ireland signed some big names to expensive contracts, but the result wasn’t all Miami expected (one of several reasons for his current unemployment). On the plus side, the Dolphins have plenty of cap space—more than $32 million to play with, according to Over The Cap, the fifth-most in the NFL.
Come September, there is no excuse for having anything less than a hugely improved team.
The Dolphins have to fix the offensive line and have issues in the backfield and at receiver, along with question marks on defense. Yet they have the cash for significant improvements.
If they can’t manage that, Dolphin fans might storm the gates and start setting things on fire.
Three straight playoff appearances is a good thing.
Three straight playoff losses? Not so much.
The question is, what can the Cincinnati Bengals do this offseason to change that?
Well, first things first—they’ve had to replace both their offensive and defensive coordinators. Jay Gruden departed for a head coaching job with the Washington Redskins and has been replaced by Hue Jackson, former head coach of the Oakland Raiders.
Meanwhile, former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer finally nabbed a head coaching job—in Minnesota with the Vikings—and linebackers coach Paul Guenther will replace him.
Not only does the team have to deal with coaching changes, it stands to potentially lose one of the best defensive ends in the game, Michael Johnson. Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote this week that when the Bengals and Johnson couldn’t come to terms last season, they essentially gave his money to Carlos Dunlap.
Simply put, Dehner thinks the Bengals will not be able to match any offer Johnson gets, and barring placing the franchise tag on him again, he will leave.
While one can argue that losing a single player won’t kill this defense, losing one player and the defensive coordinator who did so much with sometimes marginal talent could prove an issue.
How the coordinators settle in and the solution Guenther comes up with to replace Johnson will be huge in determining how this offseason goes.
That, in turn, could be crucial to the long-term employment health of everyone involved.
Especially if the Bengals lose a fourth straight Wild Card Game.
After the one-and-done tenure of Rob Chudzinski, the Cleveland Browns are going to be very closely watched this offseason, as well as during the upcoming season.
Maybe it’s unfair, but when you fire a coach one year into his tenure after he had multiple quarterbacks injured, lost his top running back to a trade and had precious few offensive weapons beyond one receiver to make up for it—well, you’re going to be watched.
That puts new head coach Mike Pettine, offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil in a tough spot.
While they should get the same leeway that any first-year coaching staff gets, the way things fell out for this team before may mean they need to turn things around quicker than reasonably expected.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were sort of in the playoff hunt for part of the season, but ultimately it’s best they missed out, because otherwise they might have been tempted to blame their mediocre season on injuries alone.
Instead, they have to face the fact that they have a multitude of needs—offensive line, outside linebacker and defensive line, among other things.
Overall, Mike Tomlin has a great record as coach of the Steelers with 71 wins and 41 losses, but the team has finished 8-8 the past two years. With an aging defense and some offensive issues, their window appears to be closing fast—if it hasn’t slammed shut already.
That means this offseason is an important one for a team that hopes to keep competing in a tight division and tough conference.
Why would the Denver Broncos be on this list when they were just in the Super Bowl?
Well, when we talk about championship windows, no one’s is both as wide open but closing as quickly as the Broncos'.
While Peyton Manning is coming off his best season ever, we know that he only has a few more years left in him, so the time for the Broncos to overcome their shortcomings is now.
They have offensive line problems—even accounting for injury—and multiple issues on defense. On top of that, they have 16 players entering unrestricted free agency, per Over The Cap.
While not all of them have been “mission critical” players, guys like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Robert Ayers and Eric Decker have to be under consideration to be kept, while a restricted free agent like Chris Harris is probably someone they’ll want to work on a long-term deal with.
With all this in flux, the Broncos have a lot to do this offseason to prop up that championship window and hold it open a little longer.
The Atlanta Falcons may not be as bad as they looked in 2013, but we’re not sure how good they really are either.
However, in November Smith got a “vote of confidence” from owner Arthur Blank, who, as NFL.com writer Chris Wesseling relays, said Smith has earned the right to fix the team.
That said, the pressure is on Smith—and to some extent, Blank—to provide a winner. Last season the Falcons were expected to contend for the Super Bowl, not the first overall draft pick. While some of their struggles can be laid at the feet of a tough-to-swallow season-ending injury to Julio Jones, there were other issues both on offense and defense.
While Jones will be back this coming season, Tony Gonzalez is retiring, and Roddy White looked like he aged a million years last season. On top of it, the offensive line has issues, Steven Jackson was nowhere near as effective as they hoped he would be and Matt Ryan continues to fall just short of the level of play they expect of him—especially in the playoffs.
The Falcons appeared to have a team built for playoff success, but it turned out to be a house of cards (and not the entertaining type starring Kevin Spacey).
You’d think after three straight double-digit-win seasons Smith wouldn’t have to worry, but it’s a “what have you done for me lately?” league.
Not only do the Falcons need to rebound this coming season, but they also need to go further in the playoffs than one and done.
To do that, they have a lot of work ahead this offseason.
Sure, new Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien will get some time to repair this team. However, it may not be him under the microscope this offseason.
How will owner Bob McNair and general manager Rick Smith approach the NFL draft, and what impact will it have on a rebound year for the Texans?
The truth is that expectations will be pretty high for Houston, given how much talent it has on both offense and defense.
It would appear at this point that the single biggest issue is under center. Given the dearth of free-agent quarterbacks, it seems obvious that the Texans will draft a quarterback with the first overall pick.
Well, maybe not.
Via Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar, McNair told the Texans' official website that South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is “one of these players that’s really a once-in-every-10-years kind of physical specimen that comes along.” With Romeo Crennel the new defensive coordinator, it’s not insane to think the team could lean defense.
After all, with Clowney, J.J. Watt and a healthy Brian Cushing along the defensive front, the Texans would be formidable defensively.
If the Texans go quarterback, they will be equally scrutinized.
Will they go with assumed No. 1 quarterback Teddy Bridgewater? Or perhaps the Texas-born Johnny Manziel? Or does Bill O’Brien see something special in Blake Bortles?
Whichever way they go, the Texans will be watched very closely. They’re a talented team, so while a quick turnaround may not be surprising, another bad season will not go over well.
Next to the Pittsburgh Steelers, no team seemed to age more quickly than the New York Giants in 2013.
With a dismal season, everyone from quarterback Eli Manning to head coach Tom Coughlin was on the hot seat and probably remains there right now.
This is not a team ready for a quick turnaround. The offensive line is a disaster area, the defensive front is old and the backfield is a mess as well.
At the end of the season, there was talk that it was time for Coughlin to go from writers such as MMQB.com’s Don Banks.
While Coughlin has returned for the 2014 season, it could be argued that his seat is no less hot. If the Giants cannot fix enough of what is wrong and take control of a weak NFC East, Coughlin will have potentially seen his last season as Giants head coach.