Personnel moves, trades, coaching, schemes, franchise tags … From the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens all the way down to the Kansas City Chiefs, every NFL team faces a series of offseason decisions on multiple levels that will help determine its fate in 2013. Here is the first in a two-part series looking at which are the most pressing choices that must be made with the free-agent signing period set to begin in mid-March. Part One: The AFC — Alex Marvez
Indianapolis: Reaping the fruits of great personnel/cap management
After a roster purge that included future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, the Colts carried about $37 million in “dead money” against their 2012 salary cap and still made the playoffs with an 11-5 record. Indianapolis now has roughly $43 million available to spend under the 2013 cap. Priorities for general manager Ryan Grigson include upgrading the offensive line, secondary and finding a pass rusher who is more adept at playing in a 3-4 scheme than Dwight Freeney, who is expected to leave in free agency.
Tennessee: Forging an identity on offense
The Titans surrendered the most points in the NFL last season with a 29.4 per-game average, but a sputtering offense didn’t help matters. Dowell Loggains, who replaced Chris Palmer as offensive coordinator in late November, plans to structure the unit around third-year quarterback Jake Locker and potentially incorporate some read-option elements to take advantage of his athleticism. As the system is being tweaked, the Titans have some personnel decisions to make. The three biggest: 1) Identifying who will play right guard; 2) Whether to re-sign or place the franchise tag on tight end Jared Cook, who was underutilized by Palmer; 3) How much longer to stand behind talented-but-troubled wide receiver Kenny Britt, whose poor off-field decisions may ultimately derail his football career.
Jacksonville: Acquiring a big-time pass rusher
Three clubs (Denver, St. Louis and Cincinnati) had more sacks last season than the 49 that the Jaguars posted in 2011 and 2012 combined. Only one Jacksonville defender in the past 10 seasons – Bobby McCray in 2006 – has reached double-digits in sacks. Fortunately for the Jaguars, they should have an ample array of pass-rushers to choose from with the No. 2 overall pick in April’s draft. Florida State’s Bjoern Werner and Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore are among those who will draw a long look.
Houston: Flipping a coin on Connor Barwin
When the Texans failed to reach a long-term contract extension with Barwin before the start of the 2012 campaign, it was considered likely that he would be destined for the franchise tag this offseason. But that was before Barwin’s sack total plummeted from 11.5 in 2011 to just three in 2012. Barwin is only 26 years old and should be able to get back on track. Houston’s 3-4 defense also places the strongest positional emphasis on linebackers. The Texans, though, must decide whether the financial risk that would come with keeping Barwin in the fold through either a long-term deal or use of the franchise tag is worth it.
San Diego: Reconstructing the offensive line
After the unit had decayed over the past couple of seasons, a woeful o-line was something that the Chargers finally couldn’t overcome in 2012. San Diego finished 31st in average yards per game and 20th in scoring. Those were the lowest marks since the Chargers finished with the NFL’s worst record at 4-12 in 2003. The first spot that needs addressing is left tackle. The decision to re-sign Jared Gaither last offseason blew up in ex-general manager A.J. Smith’s face. Gaither’s penchant for injuries and not playing while hurt continued with 11 games missed.
Denver: Bolstering the secondary
The inability to stop Baltimore’s deep passing game helped doom Denver in a double-overtime playoff loss to the Ravens. The Denver Post reported that 34-year-old cornerback Champ Bailey will be back in 2013, but the way Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith ran past him should be major reason for concern. Drafting a cornerback in the first two rounds should be a priority. Also, should the Broncos still trust safety Rahim Moore? He surrendered the 70-yard touchdown pass to Ravens wideout Jacoby Jones that sent what should have been a Denver victory into overtime. Moore must prove he can leave the psychological weight of that mistake behind.
Oakland: Deciding the future of quarterback Carson Palmer
Palmer will almost certainly have to accept a pay cut and restructured contract to stick on a Raiders squad still trying to clean up the roster mess left behind by the late Al Davis. Don’t blame Davis, though, for Palmer having not proven worth his scheduled 2013 base salary of $13 million after 1½ disappointing seasons in Oakland. Even if he does stay, general manager Reggie McKenzie said there will be an open competition between Palmer and third-year quarterback Terrelle Pryor for the starting gig.
Kansas City: Constructing a plan at quarterback
Not only did they finish with the NFL’s worst record at 2-14 last season, the Chiefs have the No. 1 overall pick in a draft class without a college quarterback worthy of being picked so early. The two top passers on Kansas City’s 2012 roster, Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn, were dreadful and aren’t expected back. The list of other veterans who could be available as replacements isn’t all that attractive either. On the positive side, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is renowned for running an offensive system that has made quarterbacks look better playing under him in Philadelphia than when they went elsewhere. Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb and A.J. Feeley are three examples. USA Today reported that Reid has an interest in acquiring Nick Foles from the Eagles via trade, but the second-year quarterback may not be on the trading block.
Baltimore: Re-signing quarterback Joe Flacco
After a brilliant postseason performance capped by Super Bowl XLVII Most Valuable Player honors, Flacco and agent Joe Linta couldn’t be in a better negotiating position with his contract expiring. The worst-case scenario for Baltimore is being forced to use the exclusive franchise tag to secure Flacco’s services for 2013 at a brutal salary-cap hit of roughly $20.5 million. If a long-term deal can be done that is more cap-friendly, the Ravens will have better flexibility to keep some of their own pending free agents from leaving elsewhere.
Cincinnati: Re-signing defensive end Michael Johnson
Johnson is taking three classes at Georgia Tech this offseason toward his undergraduate degree. Johnson, though, doesn’t need to complete his business administration major for an understanding of how much he will be valued if allowed to hit the market following an 11.5-sack season in 2012. Johnson should be the top priority among a slew of Bengals defenders also set to hit free agency.
Cleveland: Constructing a plan at quarterback
The decade-long instability at this position continues with Cleveland’s latest administration overhaul. When serving as an NFL Network analyst, new vice president of player personnel Mike Lombardi was critical of current Browns starter Brandon Weeden as a draft prospect. Weeden also didn’t shine enough as a rookie under former head coach Pat Shurmur to guarantee his starting spot in 2013. The Browns must decide whether to re-open competition between Weeden and backup Colt McCoy for the job or toss another passer into the mix via the draft, free agency or trade.
Pittsburgh: Finding a running back
The Steelers rushed for 1,537 yards last year, marking the franchise’s lowest total since 2003. The reason stemmed largely from a lack of talent at running back as well as another injury-plagued season across the offensive line. The Steelers should consider using a high draft choice on a rusher for the first time since 2008. That’s when Pittsburgh used a first-round pick on Rashard Mendenhall, who will be leaving in free agency after falling out of favor with Steelers brass.
New York Jets: Determining Darrelle Revis’ future
Following the interview process for a new general manager, word leaked last month that Jets owner Woody Johnson was interested in trading Revis. This stemmed from concerns that the star cornerback will leave New York after the 2013 season when his contract expires. Re-signing him right now isn’t feasible because of New York’s salary-cap restraints. The Jets also can’t use their franchise tag on Revis because of a clause agreed upon by ex-general manager Mike Tannenbaum. If the Jets do deal their best player to plan for the future, it makes the odds of head coach Rex Ryan retaining his job in 2014 become even longer.
Miami: Giving quarterback Ryan Tannehill a better supporting cast
General manager Jeff Ireland made another huge gaffe last offseason when not finding a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver to replace Brandon Marshall following his trade to Chicago. Tannehill was forced to spend his rookie season throwing to one of the NFL’s least-feared corps of wideouts, especially when it came to deep threats. Four of Miami’s top offensive players from 2012 – left tackle Jake Long, wide receiver Brian Hartline, tight end Anthony Fasano and running back Reggie Bush – are now set to become unrestricted free agents. The good news: Miami is set to enter the free-agent signing period with $55 million available in salary-cap space to re-sign players and upgrade the roster.
It’s no secret the Bills are seeking a rookie quarterback to groom as the future replacement for Ryan Fitzpatrick. But whoever is under center would benefit from better defensive support. Not all of Buffalo’s deficiencies in 2012 can be blamed on fired coordinator Dave Wannstedt. The linebacker play was dreadful and the highest-paid player (Nick Barnett) was released earlier this week as new coordinator Mike Pettine tries to mold an “attacking” hybrid defense. An outside linebacker with pass-rush skills like Baltimore’s Paul Kruger would be attractive in free agency.
New England: Solidifying the secondary
The instability of this unit remains one of New England’s few flaws. The Patriots must decide whether to try and re-sign cornerback Aqib Talib, a pending free agent who was acquired in a midseason trade with Tampa Bay. Promising young cornerback Alfonzo Dennard is currently on trial for felony charges that he assaulted a police officer while at the University of Nebraska. Dennard potentially faces prison time if convicted. Cornerback Kyle Arrington (12 starts in 2012) and safety Patrick Chung (eight) are also headed toward free agency.