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 their fate in 2013. Here is the second 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 1 was the AFC. Part 2 is the NFC:
St. Louis: Saying hello or goodbye to running back Steven Jackson
The leading rusher in franchise history remains in limbo. Jackson can void the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent or force the Rams to decide whether to keep him in 2013 with a $7 million base salary and two second-year running backs (Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead) waiting to carry the rushing load. Retirement is another possibility. If the 29-year-old Jackson decides to play, there should be a healthy market for a workhorse who has posted eight consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Arizona: Finding a quarterback
New head coach Bruce Arians inherits the same problem as predecessor Ken Whisenhunt. Kevin Kolb has proven a major bust in two years with the Cardinals and two youngsters on the roster (John Skelton and Ryan Lindley) show scant earmarks of being the answer. Ex-New England backup Brian Hoyer joined the Cardinals late last season, but there’s no body of work to indicate he is a solution either. Although speculation already has begun that journeyman Drew Stanton may follow Arians from Indianapolis to Arizona via free agency, the Cardinals need more from the position to catch the 49ers and Seahawks in the NFC West.
Seattle: Trading quarterback Matt Flynn
The Seahawks signed Flynn to a three-year, $19.5 million contract last offseason assuming he would become their starting quarterback. Russell Wilson’s rookie emergence changed those plans. Flynn is now trade bait with a modest enough base salary ($5.3 million) to generate interest from teams needing help under center.
San Francisco: Trading quarterback Alex Smith
There will be no quarterback competition in 49ers training camp. Colin Kaepernick is the undisputed starter, leaving his predecessor with too high a salary ($8.5 million) to remain a backup. Rather than release Smith outright, the 49ers are hoping to swing a trade that will net draft pick compensation. San Francisco must make a move by March 14 or they will owe Smith a $1 million roster bonus.
Washington: Monitoring quarterback Robert Griffin III’s rehabilitation
The knee injury Griffin suffered in Washington’s first-round playoff loss to Seattle looked gruesome, but ESPN reported earlier this week that team officials are optimistic he will be ready to start the season. If he is, the Redskins must spend time this offseason tweaking their offense to prevent Griffin from taking more of the big hits that could ultimately shorten his promising NFL career. If his recovery slows, Washington must adjust its scheme to better suit the skills of less-agile replacement Kurt Cousins. Either way, Redskins offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will be busy.
Dallas: Negotiating a long-term contract extension with quarterback Tony Romo
The Cowboys are trying to reach a new deal that lessens the $16.8 million salary cap number Romo is set to carry into the 2013 offseason. Should those efforts fail, the Cowboys have no shot at keeping outside linebacker Anthony Spencer and will lack flexibility to add free agents to the roster.
Philadelphia: Re-tooling the offensive line
The Eagles could be looking for a lighter, more mobile unit under the faster-paced attack that new head coach Chip Kelly is expected to install. Right guard Evan Mathis was the only member of last year’s injury-wrecked line to start all 16 games. The Eagles already cut tackle Demetress Bell, who disappointed as a free-agent signing in 2012, and have two other backups (King Dunlap and Jake Scott) set to become unrestricted free agents. Philadelphia’s front office also must determine whether left tackle Jason Peters can make it back from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. Peters is set to earn $10.4 million in 2013.
New York Giants: Re-signing Victor Cruz or Hakeem Nicks
The Giants must start making progress toward new deals with Nicks or Cruz or risk losing both as unrestricted free agents in 2014. Attempts to re-sign Cruz during the 2012 season failed. Cruz is now a restricted free agent who has proven a bargain during his first three NFL seasons playing for league-minimum salaries. Nicks got paid as a 2009 first-round pick. He is more of a No. 1 receiver than Cruz but also more prone to injury.
Chicago: Parting ways reverently with middle linebacker Brian Urlacher
The tepid response that Bears brass has given to Urlacher’s return in 2013 seemingly indicates his days in Chicago are ending after 12 seasons. If this proves the case, the Bears would be wise to handle such a split with the class that Urlacher deserves. Doing so otherwise would get new head coach Marc Trestman off on the wrong foot in Chicago, especially with the locker-room respect that Urlacher commands.
When healthy enough to take the field, Harvin is one of the NFL’s top play-making receivers on a team that has no others. Behind the scenes, Harvin’s behavior is disruptive enough to warrant a potential trade. Harvin also is entering the final year of his rookie contract and, as reported by ProFootballTalk.com, plans to hold out sans a new deal. The Vikings must choose whether to risk Harvin doing so, offer the big bucks that he’s seeking or negotiate a trade with a club willing to take on the baggage he brings because of his talent.
Detroit: Deciding the fate of the defensive free agents
The Lions have 11 of them and an unfavorable salary cap situation. The biggest loss may be defensive end Cliff Avril, who played under the franchise tag in 2012 after failing to reach agreement with Detroit on a long-term contract. Avril wasn’t a major difference-maker last season, but at age 26 with 29 sacks over the past three seasons, he won’t be lacking suitors if allowed to hit the market. The Lions already released end Kyle Vanden Bosch earlier this month and may lose top reserve Lawrence Jackson in free agency as well.
Green Bay: Extending the contracts of veteran players
Even with the $10 million saved by Friday’s release of safety Charles Woodson, don’t expect the Packers to splurge in free agency. General manager Ted Thompson will continue his philosophy of building the roster almost exclusively through the draft and re-signing key veterans. The main targets for contracts this offseason should be three of Green Bay’s best players – outside linebacker Clay Matthews, defensive end B.J. Raji and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The rookie contracts of Matthews and Raji are set to expire after the 2013 season. Rodgers has two years remaining on his deal but has far outplayed the six-year, $65 million extension he signed in 2008.
Tampa Bay: Cornerbacks
The Buccaneers fielded the NFL’s worst pass defense last season (297.4 yards a game) and allowed the most completions of 20-plus yards at 69. While a pass rush that produced only 27 sacks is partially to blame, Tampa Bay’s cornerback situation was a mess that only got worse following the midseason trade of Aqib Talib to New England. Eric Wright, a big-money signing in 2012, was a bust who is expected to get released after just one season. With ample salary-cap space available, expect the Bucs to dip back into the free agency for upgrades.
New Orleans: Assessing personnel in Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 defense
Saints head coach Sean Payton has decided to shift from a 4-3 scheme with Ryan’s hiring. This will require New Orleans to identify a defensive lineman to play nose tackle (Akiem Hicks is the top in-house candidate) and which outside linebackers are best suited to rush the quarterback (ditto for Martez Wilson and Junior Gallette). Saints defenders who don’t seem like good fits for this system are end Will Smith, tackle Sedrick Ellis and linebacker Jon Vilma. OLB Anthony Spencer would be a cornerstone free-agent addition if he followed Ryan from Dallas but the Saints would have to create significant salary cap space to make a run at him.
Carolina: Cleaning up a salary-cap nightmare
New general manager Dave Gettleman inherits a mess from the previous regime. The Panthers stand at a projected $15 million over the $121 million cap. The Charlotte Observer reported that the imminent release of Chris Gamble would clear $7.9 million, but that also leaves the Panthers without a top cover cornerback. Other prominent players in danger of being cut – including some after June 1 to spread the cap hit over two seasons – or asked to restructure their contracts include running back DeAngelo Williams, left tackle Jordan Gross and linebackers Jon Beason and James Anderson. The cap issues leave Gettleman unlikely able to make many roster additions in free agency.
Atlanta: Convincing tight end Tony Gonzalez to play one more season
Gonzalez told the media throughout last season that it was “95 percent” likely the 2012 campaign would be his last. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff told NBC’s Pro Football Talk on Thursday that he believes the odds are closer to “50-50.” The Falcons would like to know sooner than later so they can make plans either way. There is no other tight end on the roster capable of providing what Gonzalez does to Atlanta’s offense so a replacement would be needed. Should he decide to play for a 17th NFL season, Gonzalez needs a new contract because he is set to become an unrestricted free agent. Having to allocate those dollars could affect Atlanta’s free-agent plans.