In today’s parity-filled NFL, every team is one solid offseason away from being a playoff contender.
With every front office doing its homework for 2010, check out our daily look at each team’s offseason to-do lists by division.
OFFSEASON STRATEGY When it comes to getting bigger and stronger, new Bills coach Chan Gailey figures two heads are better than one. Gailey has hired Eric Ciano and John Gamble, former colleagues at Georgia Tech and the Miami Dolphins, respectively, to be his co-head strength and condition coaches.
After watching the Bills lead the NFL in players placed on injured reserve in both 2007 with 17 and 2009 with 20, nobody is arguing the wisdom of two men sharing the key job. "We decided to bring in two head strength and conditioning coaches to let them specialize in the specific areas each coach works in and we feel like we’ve hired two unbelievable people to run that department for us," Gailey said. "The combination of these two guys is going to pay real dividends for our team."
Ciano was director of player development at Georgia Tech and worked three seasons for Gailey, the Ramblin’ Wreck’s former head coach. Gamble has spent the past 16 seasons with Miami, the past dozen as a well-respected coach in the area of strength building. Gamble knows a thing or two. He was a renowned power lifter, ranking No. 1 in the world at one time, and is a member of the U.S. Weightlifting Hall of Fame. He worked with Gailey in Miami in 2001 and ’02 when Gailey was the Dolphins’ offensive coordinator. Ciano and Gamble replace John Allaire, who spent eight years with the Bills.
Buffalo’s new front office and coaching staff inherited a clean free-agent situation. WR Terrell Owens, who has played out a one-year, $6.5 million deal, is the only star-power player on Buffalo’s plate and his age (36) may make a decision to offer him a short-term contract a non-issue. However, Owens is a one-man marketing machine who may actually consider another stint in the NFL’s Siberia. The status of third-year pro James Hardy, coming off ACL surgery, will impact what the Bills do with Owens. Meanwhile, if Aaron Schobel is serious about retiring and can’t be talked out of it, Buffalo will be in the market for a proven pass rusher. UFA Ryan Denney (23.5 career sacks) is a candidate for depth, not a starting role.
TEAM NEEDS 1. Outside linebacker: The Bills not only finished 30th against the run, they also received just one sack from an outside linebacker in 2009 (from backup Chris Draft). In addition, starters Kawika Mitchell (knee) and Keith Ellison (quad) are coming off season-ending injuries.
2. Left tackle: Bills quarterbacks were sacked 46 times, fourth most in the league, as the team cobbled together nine different line combinations. Four different players played left tackle. Still think trading Pro Bowler Jason Peters to Philly was a good idea?
3. Quarterback: The Bills haven’t had a 300-yard passer in 54 games. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trent Edwards and Brian Brohm are now Chan Gailey’s problem. Or maybe not.
OFFSEASON STRATEGY The Dolphins’ once-vaunted run defense was porous by year’s end with creaky nose tackle Jason Ferguson and underachieving middle linebacker Channing Crowder on the sidelines as well as outside linebackers Joey Porter and Jason Taylor slowed down by injuries and age. The Dolphins will try to get at least a mid-round draft pick for Porter before his $1 million roster bonus is due March 4. Porter not only burned bridges, he blew them up when revealing behind-the-scenes differences between him and Dolphins coach Tony Sparano. Expect Miami to focus on bolstering its defensive line, especially at nose and inside linebackers in free agency and the upcoming draft. They seem high on CFL import Cameron Wake and Charlie Anderson to take Porter/Taylor’s spots but still seek a run-stopping weakside ‘backer.
Offensively, it’s no secret that the Dolphins and young quarterback Chad Henne were handcuffed by the absence of a big-time receiver. It’s time to end the Ted Ginn Jr. experiment wait and fish for an elite receiver such as a Brandon Marshall, Anquan Boldin or a first-round draft pick such as Oklahoma State’s Dez Bryant and Arrelious Benn of Illinois. Ginn’s inability to get open deep allowed opposing safeties to take away the midrange pass while sealing the perimeters on outside runs.
Decisions must be made in the running game. Do the Dolphins stick with oft-injured Ronnie Brown and extend him and rely on 32-year-old Ricky Williams, who topped 1,000 yards for the first time in six years but did wear down at the end of the season? They can wait for Brown, who is still under contract if the year goes uncapped as expected. No matter how much Parcells loves Ferguson, at 35 and coming off another year-ending injury (quadriceps), it would be unrealistic to re-sign the impending free agent. And his backup, Paul Soliai, gives no indication of being a suitable replacement so expect nose tackle to be a priority in the draft. DE Randy Starks had a breakout season but isn’t heavy enough to occupy two linemen a la Ferguson.
With OLB Porter talking himself off the team during his recent radio diatribe and Taylor more of a locker room leader than impact pass rusher, look for the Dolphins to get younger across their defensive line. As for free-agent cornerback Nathan Jones, he’s a Parcells-Sparano ‘hold-the-fort’ type who they had in Dallas and is coming off an outstanding year at the nickel and on special teams. He won’t command huge numbers so expect him to be re-signed.
As for class-act quarterback Chad Pennington, who’s coming off yet another shoulder operation, he will be gobbled up by a team in need of a veteran backup such as Arizona and not Miami, which seems satisfied with Tyler Thigpen. None of the Dolphins’ free agents are worthy of a franchise or transition tag. Neither restricted-free-agent tight end Anthony Fasano nor linebacker Quentin Moses can justify anything more than the lowest tender as the Dolphins look to upgrade both positions. Receiver Davone Bess and kicker Dan Carpenter, exclusive rights free agents, are under the Dolphins’ thumb and will be re-signed, while tight end Joey Haynos could be shown the door.
TEAM NEEDS 1. Nose tackle: With Jason Ferguson injured, 35 and a free agent, the Dolphins need to address one of the most critical positions of a 3-4 defense, especially after they slipped from 10th to 18th while allowing 456 yards in the final three games.
2. Wide receiver: Instead of evolving into a big-play receiver worthy of his first-round status Ted Ginn Jr. regressed as the Dolphins’ wideouts combined to catch just six touchdown passes, including three by rookie Brian Hartline.
3. Free safety: Gibril Wilson was a huge free-agent bust and was mostly responsible for Miami allowing 23 touchdown passes and 40 pass completions that were 25 yards or more. Whether second-year free safety Chris Clemons is the answer is too soon to say.
New England Patriots
OFFSEASON STRATEGY Despite parting ways with defensive coordinator Dean Pees and going without an offensive coordinator last fall, New England is not going to fill out the coaching staff with any real veteran additions. Corwin Brown leaves an underperforming Notre Dame defense to help out in the Patriots’ secondary, but beyond that, stealing a quote that Bill Belichick himself has used in the past, "the status is quo" with the coaching staff, for better or worse.
In terms of player needs, the Patriots have a decent number of holes to fill considering the team was the No. 3 seed in the AFC. The lack of a pass rush carries over as the major need of the last two years. Vince Wilfork is likely to be franchised, whether he likes it or not. And the Patriots are fortunate in that their two other high-end free agents — Logan Mankins and Stephen Gostkowski — will be restricted thanks to the rules of the uncapped year.
Beyond retaining those three players, New England will need to add talent at linebacker, wide receiver and defensive line. Improving in other areas is also not out of the question as the Patriots enter the 2010 offseason with as many question marks on the roster as at any other time in the Belichick era.
TEAM NEEDS 1. Defensive end/outside linebacker: Whether it’s in the four-man fronts that the team ran a bit more often in 2009 or in New England’s traditional 3-4 sets, the Patriots must find a legitimate pass rusher. An inability to get to the quarterback, save for Tully Banta-Cain’s overachieving and misleading 10 sacks, has been the major flaw in the New England defense for the last two seasons.
2. Wide receiver: Randy Moss isn’t getting any younger or more productive. Wes Welker is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery and is likely to open 2010 on the unable-to-perform list. And New England never found a No. 3 option behind those productive vets last fall. The Patriots must find at least two legitimate receiving options to work with Moss and developing youngster Julian Edelman.
3. Inside linebacker: Jerod Mayo battled a knee injury for a somewhat disappointing sophomore season. Former undrafted second-year player Gary Guyton was miscast on the inside in 3-4 fronts. And beyond those two young players, New England has little talent or depth at inside linebacker. That’s a problem, even playing behind one of the best nose tackles in the game in Wilfork.
New York Jets
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL New Orleans’ ability to do what the Jets couldn’t, that is, beat Indianapolis while the Colts were going all out, shined a light on some things the Jets must improve upon. They need to have a more diversified passing attack next season if they want to go farther than they did this year. While running the ball well and playing great defense can make any playoff game winnable, it doesn’t always work against the best of the best.
The Jets also need to shore up their secondary, which was exposed by Peyton Manning in the AFC championship game. Yes, Darrelle Revis is on pace to become an all-time great, but he needs more help. The team pruned its coaching staff somewhat by not renewing the contracts of five low-level assistants, but it still needs to find a new defensive-line coach.
The uncapped year will make this a difficult and challenging offseason for the Jets. Because they were one of the last four teams standing in the playoffs, they only will be able to sign an unrestricted free agent if one of their UFAs signs with another team. Worse yet, the first-year salary of any UFA they sign can’t be more than the first-year salary of the UFA that left. So this won’t be an easy winter, considering the Jets used big-money free agency to help build this team, getting offensive-line starters Alan Faneca and Damien Woody and starting linebackers Calvin Pace and Bart Scott via that method. Three other starters, fullback Tony Richardson, strong safety Jim Leonhard and defensive end Marques Douglas, also came to the Jets as unrestricted free agents.
TEAM NEEDS 1. Outside linebacker: The Jets desperately need a pass rusher for whom opponents must specifically game plan, because QBs such as Peyton Manning can carve up blitzing teams.
2. Cornerback: Lito Sheppard wasn’t the answer as the Jets continue to try to find a corner they can pair with All-World CB Darrelle Revis.
3. Backup quarterback: The Jets need to find a veteran who can mentor Mark Sanchez and also step in if Sanchez gets nicked-up or is having a horrific game. The organization has lost confidence in Kellen Clemens.