While working in a world of football uncertainty and with paychecks possibly losing a zero or two if there’s no new agreement with the players union, there remains plenty of pressure on some NFL decision makers, the men charged with picking the talent that are supposed to turn their franchises into playoff contenders.
Ted Thompson basically transformed the Packers through the draft and with some special street free agents like Tramon Williams, and Green Bay rewarded its general manager with a new contract last week. Stuff like that happens when you win a Super Bowl.
Right now there are 31 losers in the NFL, but there are several clubs in worse shape than others because of either a quarterback deficiency or other personnel woes. If you’re in the front office of the Bills, Dolphins, Titans, Chargers, Broncos and Vikings, the heat lamp is on high because ownership wants positive results and wants them immediately.
Yes, the San Diego Chargers have a great quarterback and the Denver Broncos believe they might have one in Tim Tebow. Meanwhile Bills coach Chan Gailey continues to say that Harvard-educated Ryan Fitzpatrick has enough ability to lead Buffalo to the playoffs. Wishful thinking or not, the Bills need a lot more than an improved Fitzpatrick to knock the Jets and Patriots off the AFC East throne.
Let’s start in Buffalo, where executive Russ Brandon makes most decisions while veteran Buddy Nix is charged with finding players. Nix is starting his third season as the GM and this franchise can’t afford another defensive bust in the first round like failed pass rusher Aaron Maybin (No. 11 overall pick in 2009, zero career sacks). The Bills ranked 28th on defense last season and allowed almost 170 yards rushing a game.
It makes perfect sense, if Gailey is right about Fitzpatrick, to draft defense first and then maybe a quarterback and some offensive linemen. Nix has already gambled on veteran linebacker Shawne Merriman making a real comeback and it makes sense for Nix to look hard at Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley in this year’s draft, but can they really catch the division’s top two teams with Fitzpatrick?
Nix is squarely behind the eight ball this season, but he’s not sweating retirement because he’s already 72. But this is quickly becoming a forgotten franchise, having missed the playoffs for 11 straight seasons.
Down in Miami, Bill Parcells has bailed on hand-picked GM Jeff Ireland, who is definitely under the gun with owner Stephen Ross. This is year four in the Ireland-Tony Sparano marriage and with Ross demanding a more creative offense, Ireland better turn into a magician pretty quickly. He also has to make a decision on whether or not to retain running back Ronnie Brown or simply draft a new one like Alabama’s Mark Ingram with the No. 15 pick in the first round. Brian Daboll, whose Cleveland’s offense was actually statistically worse than Miami’s last season, has been charged with fixing Chad Henne, now 13-14 as a starter, while devising schemes to get expensive Brandon Marshall more touches.
Ireland can fix his team’s interior offensive line ills if there is a free-agency period, but when is that going to happen? Ireland does have capable lieutenants like Brian Gaine, the assistant director of player personnel, to help save his job. It’s never good, though, working for an impatient owner. It will be imperative that Ireland sign a quarterback to compete with Henne — and you have to wonder if Vince Young is on his radar.
The worst job right now may be in Minnesota, where GM Rick Spielman and vice president Rob Brzezinski must rebuild a roster and find a quarterback while also dealing with rival Green Bay’s championship season. The Brett Favre experiment ultimately failed, although it almost worked in 2009.
Now with about 20 players with contracts expiring and no guidance from the league because of the uncertain collective bargaining agreement, some difficult decisions will have to be made. Two of the team’s best young players, linebacker Chad Greenway and receiver Sidney Rice, could potentially be free and both must be signed or Minnesota’s future is really weak.
Spielman saw all the top college quarterbacks this past season and his career will be tied to whoever he drafts. Yes, Joe Webb played well down the stretch, upsetting the Eagles in Week 16. But he remains a project for new offensive coordinator Billy Musgrave. Spielman does have a rough history with quarterbacks, once trading a second-round choice for A.J. Feeley when running the Dolphins, and losing a third-round pick for Randy Moss sure hurts the rebuilding process. Spielman and Brzezinski are both very capable, but every decision will be under a microscope considering the Packers and Bears have leaped ahead of them.
Besides quarterback, the secondary is a mess with cornerbacks Cedric Griffin and promising rookie Chris Cook coming off knee operations. Griffin has now torn both ACLs. After quarterback, this will be the Vikings’ focus because they also need a ball-hawking safety.
There is a real transformation going on in Tennessee, where Jeff Fisher is gone after 16 seasons as head coach and GM Mike Reinfeldt is also hunting for a QB to replace Vince Young and Kerry Collins. New head coach Mike Munchak is a no-nonsense guy and proved that by firing his friend and offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, who is battling cancer.
The Titans figure to run, run and run some more with Munchak calling Chris Johnson’s number. Reinfeldt must find a stop-gap replacement at QB while taking a serious look at Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert, currently the top-rated passer in 2011 who figures to be gone by the No. 8 pick. Does Reinfeldt mortgage the future or go with a real project at the position?
Life was pretty cozy in Tennessee with owner Bud Adams living in Houston, but Reinfeldt heads into his fifth season with the Titans knowing that Bud won’t wait long for results. Reinfeldt must make decisions on pass rushers David Ball and Jason Babin, whose contracts are up, while also helping a first-year head coach. There’s a lot on his plate, especially if Munchak is serious about playing a 3-4 defense. There could be wholesale changes on both sides of the ball while the defense could get a boost if last year’s No. 1 pick Derrick Morgan makes a full recovery from a torn ACL.
No one knows how the John Elway experiment in Denver is going to work with young GM Brian Xanders, who was mostly a contract guy with fired coach Josh McDaniels making all the personnel moves. The good thing is that new head coach John Fox knows defensive personnel and will be able to assist Xanders, whose scouting department definitely needs a strong overhaul. Elway wants to find out first before making wholesale changes.
The first order of business will be what to do with cornerback Champ Bailey, a 10-time Pro Bowl player. Bailey turns 33 next season. Do the Broncos allow him to leave or sign him to the franchise (gulp) number of $15 million for one more year?
The Broncos own the second pick in the draft, which could be traded to a team desperate for a quarterback (Denver could use the extra picks) or simply used to improve the defense. This will be a big decision for Xanders, who wants to prove to Elway that he’s more than a cap guy. The Broncos could use another running back, but defense will be the priority in the draft. The organization also has to bite the bullet on giving Kyle Orton big money while Tebow learns how to get better at the position. What’s really bad, though, is that both quarterbacks will have to wait for Eddie Royal to recover from hip surgery, while it’s anyone’s guess if Demaryius Thomas will even be ready for camp after injuring his Achilles.
San Diego Chargers
Finally, A.J. Smith has his hands full in San Diego with 28 potential free agents, the most of any team. Owner Dean Spanos has tired of Smith’s confrontational attitude towards unsigned players after last year’s summer of discontent with Vincent Jackson and Marcus McNeill, who eventually got a long-term deal. However, both players lost significant playing time and the entire storyline was a distraction for a franchise with Super Bowl aspirations.
The Chargers missed the playoffs despite having one of the game’s best offenses and you can bet that Spanos was wondering why Antonio Cromartie and LaDainian Tomlinson were having such fine seasons with the Jets if they were unsuitable for San Diego. And if the Chargers put the franchise tag on Jackson, guaranteeing him $10 million, it will be another black eye for Smith.
A lot of personnel decisions have to be made with such key players as Malcolm Floyd, Jeromey Clary, Kevin Burnett, Stephen Cooper and Eric Weddle unsigned for 2011. There’s a chance that two or three of those guys won’t be back.