The 2014 NFL regular season won't kick off for another seven months, but a lot will go down between now and then, with a lot at stake.
Players, coaches, coordinators and front-office types who are currently safe in their respective roles have already begun the process of trying to stay alive for at least one more year in the cutthroat world of NFL football.
Here are 15 men who could be playing, coaching and generally working for their jobs and reputations between now and next January.
It's not a lock that pass-rusher extraordinaire DeMarcus Ware will be on the Dallas Cowboys roster by the time the 2014 season gets underway. The Cowboys are strapped for cap space and the 31-year-old Ware is slated to make over $12 million in 2014.
He's also unwilling to take a pay cut, according to ESPN's Calvin Watkins, but he would be willing to restructure his deal.
Regardless of whether or not that happens, Ware will be fighting for his football future in 2014. He turns 32 in July and is coming off his worst season as a pro. Injuries have been a big factor (he's already scheduled to undergo elbow surgery in the near future, per ESPN's Todd Archer), and his sack total has plummeted from 19.5 in 2011 to 11.5 in 2012 to only six in 2013.
If Ware can't stay healthy this summer and deliver some more sacks in the fall, his career could be in jeopardy before 2015 arrives.
DeMarcus Ware isn't the only Dallas Cowboys employee fighting for his future in 2014. Head coach Jason Garrett has managed to remain in his position despite three consecutive 8-8, non-playoff seasons since he took over on a full-time basis in 2011. I can't imagine owner/general manager Jerry Jones will tolerate a fourth mediocre campaign.
Garrett's roster is far too talented to keep settling for eight wins. He's got the fifth-highest-rated quarterback in NFL history, a running back who averaged more yards per carry than anyone else with at least 150 attempts in 2013, a star No. 1 receiver and a stud young left tackle on offense. And on defense, he's got Ware, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Jason Hatcher.
Put simply, this is supposed to be a playoff team.
Now, Garrett has had a chance to make some of his own tweaks by adding old friend and colleague Scott Linehan to the offensive staff. With that in mind, if he still can't put things together in the early part of the 2014 season, don't expect him to hold onto his job by the time the holiday season arrives.
Despite the fact that the New York Jets missed the playoffs and failed to earn a winning record for the third consecutive year, head coach Rex Ryan was handed a contract extension at the conclusion of the season. But as Brian Costello of the New York Post reports, it's a fairly soft deal that only guarantees Ryan's salary through the 2015 season.
In other words, it wouldn't cost the franchise dearly if it were to bite the bullet and pay Ryan to go away after another disappointing 2014 campaign. He's no longer a lame duck, but he is absolutely coaching for his job.
Ryan has a strong defensive mind and a hell of a defensive unit in place, but his supporters have been able to pin the team's struggles on problems at the quarterback position.
Eventually, though, the head coach has to take the fall. Mark Sanchez had four years and Geno Smith looks as though he might get a second in 2014. Ryan will need to get more out of his quarterback in order to keep his job heading into 2015.
By no means is Von Miller's career in jeopardy. He's yet to turn 25 and is one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. However, the Denver Broncos fared just fine in 2013 despite the fact he missed nearly half of the regular season and all of the playoffs due to a suspension and, later, a torn ACL.
Now, the two-time Pro Bowler is entering the final year of his rookie contract. And if he messes up off the field again, he could risk being marginalized on the open market next year. Nobody wants that kind of baggage, especially if he's facing further suspensions. Another failed drug test would be devastating.
And since Miller suffered that knee injury so late in 2013, it could take him much of the 2014 season to regain the power and speed that made him so effective when he had 30 sacks in 2011 and 2012. If that's the case, his future with the Broncos could become very cloudy.
What do Andy Dalton, Peyton Manning and Dan Marino have in common? They're the only three quarterbacks in NFL history who have thrown 80 or more touchdown passes before their fourth season in the league.
Yet the 26-year-old Cincinnati Bengals quarterback is already on the hot seat entering 2014, mainly because he hasn't been consistent enough and he hasn't delivered in January.
Dalton has helped get the Bengals to the playoffs in each of his three seasons, but the defense has certainly played a large role in all three cases. In the postseason, though, you need your franchise quarterback to raise his game. Dalton has a career 0-3 record and 56.2 passer rating in the playoffs, which isn't cool.
Sure, it took Peyton Manning six years and Matt Ryan five before they won playoff games, but Dalton hasn't improved enough during the regular season to make people believe that January success will inevitably come. His interception totals have risen each year, and he's yet to put together a season with a passer rating above 90.0.
If he can't alter that trajectory while winning a playoff game or two in 2014, don't be surprised if the Bengals look for a new quarterback heading into 2015.
For the past three years, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker has been riding an NFL roller coaster. He rode the bench for the majority of his rookie season, struggled as a starter for much of his sophomore year, finally began to get into a groove in his third year and then a foot injury ended his season in November.
Now, an entirely new coaching staff is in place—one that obviously has no particular attachment to Locker.
“I haven’t studied him as much as I need to,” new head coach Ken Whisenhunt said of Locker recently, according to Peter King of Sports Illustrated. “I have seen good, and I have seen bad. No question he has ability, and I have heard good things about him. The question is, can he harness the ability, and can he be consistent?”
If Locker can impress Whisenhunt on tape in the next few months, he and his staff might be confident enough to give him one last shot in 2014. After all, the kid was a first-round pick only three years ago, and he's due only $2.1 million next season.
But he'd be playing for his future as a starter, especially when you consider that, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport and Mike Silver, his option for the 2015 season is worth $13 million.
Sam Bradford was easily having his best season as a pro before the St. Louis Rams quarterback tore his ACL in a Week 7 loss to the Carolina Panthers. Now, though, things have become complicated, because Bradford still hasn't proven himself to be a reliable franchise quarterback and St. Louis holds the No. 2 overall pick in 2014 draft.
As Chris Burke of Sports Illustrated points out, the former No. 1 overall pick is slated to make more than $14 million in 2014, but he can save the franchise $10.4 million if it cuts him. That's viable if the franchise is not convinced he's the long-term answer and it's really excited about any of the draft's top-rated quarterbacks.
In other words, Bradford might already be on a hot seat. But if he does survive to start Week 1, 2014 will inevitably be a make-or-break year for the 26-year-old.
Even though they didn't come to St. Louis together, Sam Bradford and Rams head coach Jeff Fisher could see their fate connected very closely in 2014. Two years ago, Fisher was a rock star-level coaching hire for the Rams, and while he's done enough to keep his job heading into 2014, back-to-back seven-win seasons place him on a definite hot seat.
Fisher hasn't had a winning season as a head coach since he was with the Tennessee Titans in 2008, and although the Rams have struggled for many years, talent (or a lack thereof) can't really be an excuse much longer. St. Louis has a very strong defensive front, a talented former No. 1 overall pick at quarterback, a solid offensive line and the ridiculously dangerous Tavon Austin working as a receiver and return threat.
I know, it's not easy to succeed in the mighty NFC West these days, but if Fisher can't take that core and two more top-13 picks in this year's draft and at least put together a winning 2014 season, he might not get a chance to keep building this team in 2015.
Yeah, I guess it's a big year for the St. Louis Rams. But even if Sam Bradford improves and Jeff Fisher is able to earn another year, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer could have something extra to prove.
Even when Bradford was performing at a high level in September, Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio reported that offensive players were "starting to grumble privately about" Schottenheimer, who also took an enormous amount of criticism during his time running the New York Jets offense between 2006 and 2011.
Ultimately, the Rams averaged a mediocre 21.8 points per game and finished with the league's 30th-ranked offense. Blame that on Bradford's injury all you want, but they were struggling as a unit before that happened, and Kellen Clemens actually did a formidable job in relief.
When you have guys like Tavon Austin and Jake Long, you have to be better than that. Unless this offense takes a major step forward in 2014, Schottenheimer should be out.
I know the Chicago Bears defense no longer possesses the talent it once had, and injuries certainly interfered with its progress in 2013, but the fact that Mel Tucker's defense gave up the second-highest point total and the third-highest yardage total in the league in Tucker's first season has to put him on notice heading into 2014.
The 5.35 yards per carry that defense surrendered in 2013 was the highest since the 1970 merger. The unit truly was historically bad.
Former Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher essentially pointed a finger at Tucker and the staff when giving his take on the Chicago D to Dan Pompei of Sports on Earth in December:
The thing is, when Lovie (Smith) was there, we didn’t make mistakes. We didn’t run through wrong gaps. We did our walk-throughs every day and we knew where we needed to fit, we knew what we needed to do every single play. I’m not sure what’s going on right now, but there are some big-ass gaps.
This year, with Henry Melton, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs back, Tucker won't have any excuse for another poor season.
The Washington Redskins have been handcuffed by their defense in each of the last two seasons. Things got particularly bad when a relatively healthy unit managed to surrendered 29.9 points per game in 2013.
But it was head coach Mike Shanahan and his offensive coordinator son, Kyle, who got axed at the end of the year. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett managed to keep his job, despite the fact his unit was ranked in the bottom five overall in three of the last four seasons. That D has never finished above 13th when it comes to points or yards allowed since he was hired in 2010.
Haslett's relationship with new head coach Jay Gruden might have helped his cause, and heavy salary cap sanctions that prevented the 'Skins from spending money on quality defensive players in 2012 and 2013 were certainly a factor. But if this D can't perform better early in 2014, Haslett will be out of excuses.
If that happens, the team should be ready to fire Haslett and promote defensive backs coach Raheem Morris in order to save its 2014 season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't an organization that makes rash decisions, and general manager Kevin Colbert's leash was surely quite long after he helped build two Super Bowl champions in a four-year span earlier this century. However, that was more than half a decade ago, and Colbert has since had a hand in placing the Steelers in salary cap hell.
As shells of their former selves, the depleted Steelers have gone 8-8 in back-to-back seasons. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens have pulled away within the AFC North. Don't expect that to change in 2014, with Pittsburgh once again entering the offseason several million dollars over the salary cap.
I know Colbert can't spend money he doesn't have, but it's not as though he's been killing it in the draft in order to refresh the roster. Pittsburgh hasn't drafted a Pro Bowler since 2010.
Another bad draft and another non-winning season should be enough for the Steelers to at least consider moving on.
Head coach Jim Schwartz took the majority of the heat for the Detroit Lions' inability to get to the playoffs for the second straight year, and deservedly so. General manager Martin Mayhew gave Schwartz and his staff plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, but it couldn't deliver.
But when assessing Mayhew, let's keep in mind that his team's best player, Calvin Johnson, was drafted by Matt Millen. Yes, Mayhew took Matthew Stafford in 2009, but the shine has come off of Stafford recently anyway. The former No. 1 overall pick has seen his interception total rise in back-to-back seasons and has posted a sub-85.0 passer rating each of the last two years.
The defensive front is quite stacked thanks to some nice investments from Mayhew, but a D that gave up 247 passing yards per game in 2013 still possesses a few holes.
If Mayhew can't give new head coach Jim Caldwell some more weapons on both sides of the ball in 2014, and if the Lions once again fail to win more games than they lose, the GM should come under fire.
This one's simple. I know the Oakland Raiders made it clear that it would take some time for them to build something with general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen, but in this day and age, a coach can't afford to win five or fewer games in three consecutive seasons and live to tell about it.
Despite at least a moderate level of talent on both sides of the ball, Allen's Raiders have gone 4-12 in both of his seasons as head coach. If that happens again, McKenzie and/or owner Mark Davis may have to step in and reconsider Allen's role.
It was surprising to see him hold onto his his job after his Raiders were outscored by 79 points in six consecutive losses to finish the 2013 season. If they pick up where they left off to start 2014, Allen could be toast before Halloween.
Sucks being on the hot seat before you've even coached a game, doesn't it? Nobody ever said the NFL was a fair business. That's the reality for Mike Pettine, now that two of the key figures involved in bringing him to Cleveland have left the Browns.
CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi are suddenly gone. And according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, Ray Farmer, who is taking over as GM, didn't participate in Pettine's interview. In fact, the report states that Pettine wasn't Farmer's choice.
Owner Jimmy Haslem has been all over the map, displaying anything but patience. If Farmer and Pettine are at odds and the team continues to struggle on the field, don't be surprised if Pettine lasts a year or less in Cleveland.