Biggest offseason question for every NFL team
John Kosko identifies the biggest offseason question for every franchise.
Biggest offseason question for every NFL team
[Editor’s note: This article was originally published on Jan. 2, 2017, and updated on Jan. 23, 2017, following the completion of all four NFL Conference Championship games.]
With the offseason now here for all but two NFL teams, it’s time to start thinking about the future. Whether this means personnel changes, draft targets, or free-agency strategy, each team must carefully sketch out a plan for the next eight months.
Here we identify the biggest offseason question for every team.
Won the Super Bowl
What will they do with backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo?
A big topic of discussion all season long, the Super Bowl champions have a decision to make on their highly coveted backup quarterback. The reported asking price for Garoppolo is similar to what the Minnesota Vikings gave the Philadelphia Eagles for Sam Bradford — first- and fourth-round picks. The reasoning for such a steep asking price for a player with 228 careers snaps, but only 113 of them truly meaningful, is that his play in the 6 quarters of 2016 were very impressive, as he completed 71.2 percent of his passes for 8.41 yards per attempt, 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions and a PFF QB Rating of 100.9 that ranked sixth in the NFL (PFF QB Rating is an updated version of the traditional passer rating that factors adjusted completion percentage and yards in the air). Most impressively about Garoppolo’s play was that Bill Belichick trusted his inexperienced QB to run similar game plans as Tom Brady.
There are two common trains of thought on this decision:
- If Garoppolo is that good, why is Belichick looking to trade him with Tom Brady about to play a season at the age of 40?
- Tom Brady will play another three years, so getting the most assets out of the backup now is of the utmost importance.
Brady just had arguably the best season in NFL history, as he finished the season with the highest grade given to a QB in the PFF era at 98.8. Father Time is undefeated when claiming athletes and Brady will be no different. If Garoppolo is that good, but Belichick truly thinks Brady can play at an elite level for another three seasons, trading the former second-round pick is a good move. That’s a big risk though, as the 40-year-old mark is a rarity when it comes to quarterback play. There are only two examples of QBs starting the majority of his team’s games past 40: Brett Favre and Warren Moon. Favre turned 40 in October of 2009 during arguably the best season of his career, but once 2010 rolled around, he was a completely different player and his great play took a major decline. Moon was actually voted to a Pro Bowl in a season when he turned 41 in November but like Favre, his play dropped off dramatically the next year. Brady might be the one player to defy Father Time longer than anyone before him, but history is not on his side. Belichick knows better than anyone what he has in Garoppolo and if he’s good enough to take the reins from Brady when that time comes, he should keep him. But all the reports out of New England are that they will look to trade Garoppolo this offseason and it will only be a matter of who wants him most.
Eliminated in the Super Bowl
Who will be the new offensive coordinator?
With Kyle Shannahan expected to officially accept the head coach position in San Francisco, the Atlanta Falcons will be needing to replace the architect of arguably one of the greatest offenses in NFL history. Scoring almost 34 points a game, Matt Ryan executed the offense to an MVP season and had five different receivers grading above 77 – no other team had more than three. Shannahan has had tremendous success as an offensive coordinator everywhere he’s been and losing him will be a blow to the NFC Champions.
While an offensive coordinator can come from anywhere, a seamless transition would be to promote QB coach Matt Lafleur as Matt Ryan is familiar with his position coach. At the same time, Shannahan will most likely try to take Lafleur with him to San Francisco so other options include scouring the college ranks and looking for former NFL head coaches and offensive coordinators. A popular name that has floated around rumor circles is Chip Kelly. While he might not be the best fit and his head coaching track record isn’t great, he might do better with a successful head coach keeping him in check.
Eliminated in Conference Championship round
What will the Packers’ defense look like in 2017?
The Packers almost ran the table, but faltered against an offensive juggernaut in the NFC Championship game that torched their porous secondary. The cornerback group was hurt by the loss of Sam Shields after the first game of the season, and after losing Casey Hayward to the Chargers in free agency, Green Bay had two different starting cornerbacks for the 2016 season. A unit that was one of the best in 2015 ended up being one of the worst in 2016. Shields’ return should improve the group, but addressing the position via a draft that is loaded with cornerback talent should be prioritized.
The front-seven is an interesting case, as edge defenders Nick Perry, Julius Peppers, and Datone Jones all are set to hit free agency; Clay Matthews’ contract situation is also interesting. GM Ted Thompson is very stingy when it comes to paying his players, but with Perry coming off a breakout season, and Peppers—while still playing well—getting close to retirement, Thompson would be wise to pay a pretty penny for Perry’s services. He’s the team’s only young player that can consistently create pressure on the quarterback. Clay Matthews is the big name, but his production as an edge rusher has diminished the past two seasons. Matthews will be 31 in 2017, and is set to make $15.2 million; with a dead cap hit of just $4.1 million, though, the Packers should look to restructure his contract or cut ties. Restructuring or cutting Matthews would allow Thompson to extend Perry to a long-term deal and potentially make a splash free-agency signing. While not Thompson’s m.o., he’s not immune to making free-agent signings (think Charles Woodson and Julius Peppers). Expect the Packers’ defense to look a bit different in 2017.
Will Pittsburgh finally draft an impact pass-rusher?
In 2013, the Steelers selected Jarvis Jones. In 2015, it was Bud Dupree. The Steelers drafted both players in the first round to be impactful pass-rushers; so far, however, each has largely disappointed. Jones had a decent season defending the run, but with just eight sacks and eight QB hits in his career, the former Georgia standout has been a bust of a first-round pick. Dupree hasn’t made the type of impact the Steelers were hoping for, and while he does have more career sacks than Jones, the former Kentucky Wildcat is a bigger liability against the run, showing only flashes of good play in his two pro seasons. Adding to those concerns, Jones and Dupree combined for zero QB pressures in the AFC Championship game.
The 2017 draft class is considered to feature the deepest group of edge rushers the NFL has seen in years. That said, the Steelers have a chance to correct their previous mistakes. The elite talents of this class won’t be had at pick No. 30, but very good players will be available. Alabama’s Tim Williams, Auburn’s Carl Lawson, and Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker are all possibilities for a team desperately needing to fill the void opposite 38-year-old James Harrison. In fact, with Harrison set to be a free agent, they need to draft more than one edge rusher and target another in free agency. San Diego’s Melvin Ingram is currently slated to be the top free-agent edge defender, and, along with a wise draft choice, would instantly make the Pittsburgh Steelers a team with a feared pass rush once again.
Eliminated in Divisional Round
Will the Texans move on from Brock Osweiler, or at least target another QB as a possible long-term option?
Boasting a top-five defense, the Houston Texans have produced consecutive playoff appearances with a massive hole at the most important position. Even without superstar J.J. Watt for most of the 2016 season, the Texans fielded a dominant defense that carried them to a second-straight AFC South crown.
The Texans have a quarterback problem—they paid a four-year backup with just seven career starts a large sum of money to be their franchise QB. That move, so far, has backfired. Brock Osweiler graded as PFF’s third-worst QB in 2016, earning an overall grade of 40.5. He struggled under pressure, with a passer rating of 47.3—throwing two touchdowns and eight interceptions—and continued to demonstrate his weakness when throwing deep (something he showed in Denver), ranking among the bottom three QBs in passer rating and adjusted completion percentage, at 46.9 and 25.4 percent, respectively, on deep targets. If the Texans want to take the next step and be a legitimate Super Bowl contender, Osweiler needs to improve dramatically—or the Texans need to find a new quarterback. A perceived weak QB class doesn’t make the decision any easier, and the Texans could look to acquire one via trade or in free agency.
Will the Seahawks finally give Russell Wilson adequate protection?
It’s no secret that the Seattle Seahawks have a bad offensive line. This year, the spotlight was on the unit more than usual because of the increased percentage of passing plays the Seahawks ran compared to previous years (when Marshawn Lycnh was teamed up with Russell Wilson in the backfield). The unit was dreadful, and that might be a compliment. C Justin Britt had a good year switching from LG, earning an overall grade of 83.9, but no other player on the O-line graded above 54.0, with LG Mark Glowinski earning a 53.6 mark. LT George Fant (27.6), RG Germain Ifedi (35.9), and RT Garry Gilliam (38.0) all produced very poor seasons overall.
Unfortunately for Seattle, the 2017 draft class isn’t loaded with offensive line talent. If they scout wisely, they could find some gems, but based on their track record of drafting former basketball players and defensive linemen and converting them to the O-line, that doesn’t seem feasible. They need to acquire two top-tier O-linemen in free agency, and finally spend money on a unit that has their franchise QB running for his life. Bengals G Kevin Zeitler (87.1 overall grade in 2016) has been one of the best and most consistent guards in the NFL the past few seasons, and would provide an immediate upgrade. Ravens OT Ricky Wagner (84.5) has had two really good seasons marred by one off year, but his play far exceeds either offensive tackle on the Seahawks’ current unit. Both players are young and should be high on the Seahawks’ target list.
Will Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles return?
For two seasons in a row, the Chiefs have made impressive runs through the season, and have done so without RB Jamaal Charles. Injuries have derailed Charles’ campaigns, but when the former Texas Longhorn is healthy, he is one of the most electric running backs in the NFL. The issue for Charles is that he is now 30 years old and can’t seem to stay healthy. Most RBs drop off a cliff in production when they hit the 30-year-old threshold, but Charles may be different than most backs, as he’s only seen 1,345 carries in his career; compare that to someone like Adrian Peterson, who has seen 2,533 carries and has also missed seasons due to injury.
Another issue for Charles is that the Chiefs have arguably been better as a team without him the past two years. Starting 1-4 in 2015, Kansas City ripped off 11 straight wins, including the Wild Card game, before losing to New England in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. After a 12-4 record this year that resulted in an AFC West title, the Chiefs have lost just six games in the last two seasons without Charles. If they cut him, they save $7 million in cap space. It seems like a no-brainer from an outside perspective, but inside the organization, Charles is very well-liked, and has elite talent when healthy. It’s a big conundrum for Kansas City and the team’s fans.
Will the Cowboys begin fixing their front-seven?
It was an incredible season for the Dallas Cowboys, as rookie QB Dak Prescott led a 4-12 2015 team to a 13-2 start before dropping their final two games (one in which they played mostly backups). The Cowboys have fielded one of the league’s best offensive lines over the past two or three seasons—Dallas ranked second in PFF’s end-of-season O-line rankings—and it was put to good use this season, with Ezekiel Elliott finishing the year as the second-highest graded RB (behind only Le’Veon Bell). The secondary, led by safety Barry Church, played at an elite level, finishing as the top-ranked secondary in the NFL. The only thing that held this team back was a front-seven that saw LB Sean Lee play at a Pro-Bowl level, and then not much else. The unit played better together than the individual pieces, but they lacked a true playmaker on the defensive line.
Owner/GM Jerry Jones has taken risks in recent drafts in addressing the front-seven—DE Randy Gregory in 2015 (drug issues) and LB Jaylon Smith (injury). Gregory will be suspended for the entirety of 2017, and it’s uncertain if Smith will ever play to his pre-injury expectations. The biggest need for this team is a dominant edge rusher, and this draft is loaded with talent at the position. Michigan’s Taco Charlton and Missouri’s Charles Harris are two players that could fall to the Cowboys at No. 28. This team is very close to Super Bowl contention, and is arguably one or two players away from making it to the big show.
Eliminated in Wild Card Round
Where do the Lions look to fix the linebacker corps?
It was a rough year overall for the Detroit Lions’ linebacker corps, a unit that saw the return of DeAndre Levy in Week 14. Josh Bynes struggled to make a positive impact, grading as the best Lions LB, at 62.9—a mark that ranked 56th in the NFL. Tahir Whitehead took a big step back in grading, finishing the season as the 87th-best linebacker, despite ranking amongst the league leaders in tackles. Levy did play well in his limited action, but he’s coming off his eighth NFL season, and has only played 265 snaps the past two because of injury.
While it’s certainly possible for Levy to return next season and play at his 2013–2014 level, where he graded as one of the best LBs in the league, the Lions need to upgrade the group quickly, and should do so in the draft and via free agency. Picking at No. 21, it’s unlikely that projected top-LB Rueben Foster (Alabama) will be available, but Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham and Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan could fall to Detroit. On the free-agent market, there should be some good options with New England’s Dont’a Hightower, Cleveland’s Jamie Collins, and Buffalo’s Zach Brown. These players could get signed anytime between now and the start of free agency, but what is certain is that the Lions made a lot of strides in 2016 to make the playoffs, and now need to shore up arguably their weakest unit on the team.
Which of Miami’s underperforming units needs the most attention—OL or LB?
Miami drafted former Ole Miss LT Laremy Tunsil in 2016, but played him mostly at guard this season. He was inconsistent in his transition to the new position, but with LT Branden Albert coming off the worst season of his career, the Dolphins could look to cut Albert for about $7 million in cap savings. The Dolphins would then need to address both guard spots, as RG Jermon Bushrod graded as one of the worst guards in the NFL in 2016. With this draft class not having any obvious top-choice candidates, targeting top-level free agents such as Cincinnati’s Kevin Zeitler or Green Bay’s T.J. Lang would make sense.
At linebacker, the Dolphins have a similar problem that Detroit has in that they have one of the weaker corps in the NFL, with no obvious leader. Miami traded for Kiko Alonso last offseason, but his 72.9 season grade ranked 49th in the NFL. The Dolphins rotated players in with Alonso with no success, as Jelani Jenkins graded as one of the worst LBs in the NFL in coverage. Donald Butler struggled in run defense, and Neville Hewitt also struggled to cover. Currently, the Dolphins have about $39 million in cap space, but if they make moves to free up room, such as cutting Albert and DE Mario Williams, being aggressive in free agency at both OL and LB is feasible.
Will the Giants finally fix their linebacker corps?
For what seems like 20 seasons, the linebackers employed by the Giants have been really bad. Devon Kennard played well in 2016 with a season grade of 79.1, but being the SAM backer, he saw just 46.5 percent of the defense’s snaps. Jonathan Casillas improved in run defense this season, but continues to struggle in pass coverage, while Keenan Robinson and Kelvin Sheppard were two of the worst overall linebackers in the NFL in 2016.
Last offseason, the Giants invested heavily in their defensive line and secondary, but ignored the middle of the unit. This offseason, they would be wise to address that area—whether that be through the draft or free agency—due to the lack of playmakers manning the middle of the field. As stated with the Dolphins and Lions, there will be plenty of options, and drafting a playmaking linebacker would be the best choice for New York, considering that the Giants will need to extend Odell Beckham Jr. soon, and have a decision to make with regards to free-agent-to-be Jason Pierre-Paul.
How do the Raiders fix the middle of the defense?
The Raiders have addressed most of their needs the past two seasons really well, and that earned them a spot in the playoffs. While they were dismantled by injury—mainly to QB Derek Carr—Carr’s absence showed that the team still isn’t quite at a Super Bowl-caliber level, especially on defense. The Raiders have superstar edge defender Khalil Mack, solid auxiliary pieces in OLB Bruce Irvin, LB Perry Riley, and DT Mario Edwards Jr., as well as a promising secondary, but they lack punch in the middle of their defense. Edwards is a 3-tech that can develop into an every-down player, but NT Dan Williams and DE Denico Autry took big steps back in 2016, while LB Malcolm Smith has never turned his Super Bowl MVP status into anything more.
GM Reggie McKenzie tried addressing the weak middle by drafting DT Jihad Ward and ILB Cory James, but neither played at a replacement level. Ward struggled in run defense and when rushing the passer, as he was often out-leveraged, while James was inconsistent in making the leap from the Mountain West to the NFL. Luckily for Oakland, the 2017 draft class is considered very deep on the D-line, and the Raiders should be able to find impact players in the first three rounds. After a string of teams needing LBs, Oakland might opt to draft one later; a good target in the middle rounds is Florida’s Jarrad Davis, a tough linebacker that grades well against the run.
20 non-playoff teams
Who will be the starting QB in 2017?
This seems to be the question every year, but for good reason—26 different starting quarterbacks since 1999 will do that. 2016 saw a turnstile at the QB position, but seemed much worse than usual in Cleveland, as six different quarterbacks (if you count Terrelle Pryor) took meaningful snaps for the team. Robert Griffin III was placed on IR after the first game, only to return for the final four games. Josh McCown was forced to miss several weeks due to a broken clavicle. And rookie Cody Kessler missed games due to multiple concussions.
While this sounds like a terrible situation on the offensive line, the quarterbacks were heavily to blame for much of their sacks and hits, as four of the six Browns’ QBs ranked in the top six in longest time to throw, with McCown being the fastest at an average of 2.78 seconds per throw (13th longest in the NFL). Griffin (47.8) only got five starts, and while he showed improvement, was it enough to warrant another season for a career revival? McCown (45.5) looks like a veteran hanging on to loose thread, but Kessler (74.2) showed some promise for a viable QB in the NFL.
Kessler lacks NFL-caliber arm strength, but that can improve with growth and an NFL offseason. Kessler’s accuracy was extremely impressive, ranking fourth in adjusted completion percentage, at 78.2, first in adjusted completion percentage under pressure, at 79.4, and sixth in passer rating under pressure, at 82.4. Performing well under pressure is vital for success in the NFL. The Browns’ staff needs to figure out if Kessler can be the long-term answer, or whether they should go after New England’s Jimmy Garoppolo via trade—or take a shot in the draft.
What direction does CEO Jed York go with GM and head coach?
This team has a lot of holes to fill and questions to answer, with arguably the biggest one being at the quarterback position. However, the team has had four different head coaches in four years; finding stability there is the most important key to success for this franchise. The 49ers have been at the bottom of PFF’s Power Rankings for quite some time, even with the Browns sitting with an egg in the win column. The offense was absolutely dreadful in 2016, even worse than in 2015, which is impressive to pull off, considering the lack of creativity and talent on that side of the ball. Chip Kelly is supposed to be an offensive mind, and that unit easily never gelled.
The two hottest coaching commodities will be New England’s Josh McDaniels and Atlanta’s Kyle Shanahan. McDaniels is seemingly waiting for the right opportunity, while Shanahan has seen his star rise the past three years as offensive coordinator for the Browns and Falcons. GM candidates include the Chiefs’ Chris Ballard, Patriots’ Nick Caserio, and Ravens’ Eric DeCosta. Whatever direction York goes in, the new GM and head coach will have their hands full, but have some solid players to build around in DE DeForest Buckner, HB Carlos Hyde (if he can stay healthy), CB Tramaine Brock, and SS Eric Reid. The team has some talent, but the players were improperly utilized in Kelly’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense, and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s complex 3-4 scheme.
UPDATE: According to numerous reputable reports, the 49ers are going to hire Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan. The only question now is who he’ll pick as his GM, as the reports also say he gets a big say in that. This is a great hire and showed good patience by the York family to wait for their No. 1 choice. He’s elevated the play of his offenses the past three seasons, including taking the Browns to the only relevance they’ve had in the past decade.
Do the Bears move on from Jay Cutler?
Jay Cutler will be 34 years old in 2017 and have a cap hit of $16 million if on the roster. His 2013 play was impressive, earning an 87.5 overall grade, but since then, it’s steadily declined, culminating with an awful 41.9 grade this season. While Cutler played just 274 snaps in 2016, his backups’ performances were significantly better with not that many more snaps (Brian Hoyer earned an 80.6 grade on 311 snaps; Matt Barkley earned a 73.1 on 409 snaps).
Cutler is this generation’s Jeff George—immense talent, but could never put it together. Cutler could still have three, maybe four years left in his tank if on the right team, but that team shouldn’t be Chicago. The fans need a new face of the franchise. Barkley is an intriguing option, and his play warrants a legitimate shot at starting in 2017. As bad as he was as a rookie in 2013, he’s shown growth since then and good ability throwing intermediate and deep. While I wouldn’t bank this offseason on Barkley as the long-term option, moving on from Cutler and looking hard at the draft and in free agency should be priorities for the Bears this offseason.
Can Blake Bortles be the franchise?
Will the real Blake Bortles stand up? After a rookie season to forget, Bortles made what appeared to be a massive leap in ability in 2015, living up to that No. 3 pick status with a season grade of 80.1. Much like Oakland, the Jaguars were a hot playoff pick this past offseason because of the impressive play of the offense in 2015 and the signing of some splash free agents. Unfortunately, Bortles reverted back to his awful rookie season play, with poor mechanics and decision-making ability.
The Jaguars have a solid defense in place, led by rookie CB Jalen Ramsey, DT Malik Jackson, and the surprising improvement from SS John Cyprien. If Bortles can play at an average level, the defense can get this team to the playoffs. Bortles struggled throwing to all areas of the field, except when targeting the intermediate level of 10-19 yards. He has never been good under pressure, grading as one of the worst QBs in the NFL in that area for three straight seasons.
Year four in a young quarterback’s career is often a key one. With a new head coach coming to town, the Jaguars will need to figure out if Bortles is the man to carry this team into the foreseeable future.
Who will be the HC/OC to groom Jared Goff?
With Jeff Fisher out as head coach, the Los Angeles Rams have a golden opportunity to bring in an offensive-minded head coach to groom and develop No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff. While Goff’s rookie season has been less than ideal—he earned a 39.7 overall grade—that doesn’t mean he’s a bust. Consider that Derek Carr is just two seasons removed from his rookie campaign of 47.7; Goff can easily turn things around, and quickly.
As I’ve stated before with the 49ers, two hot commodities are McDaniels and Shanahan. McDaniels as the Rams head coach might not happen, because his stay as offensive coordinator didn’t end well, but Shanahan makes a lot of sense, as he’s transformed the Falcons’ offense into one of the most potent in the NFL. While the front office needs to find playmakers for Goff, the most important piece to the young QB’s career is his head coach, followed closely by his offensive coordinator and position coach.
UPDATE: The Rams have hired the youngest head coach in the history of the NFL in former Redskins OC Sean McVay. Impressed with his work in grooming Washington QB Kirk Cousins, the Rams hope he can do the same with former Cal standout Jared Goff. The roster still has several holes on offense, and that now becomes the biggest question for the Los Angeles Rams.
Where do the Jets go with the QB position?
Sure, the Jets have drafted QBs in back-to-back drafts, with Bryce Petty in the fourth round in 2015, and Christian Hackenberg in the second round in 2016, but have they really improved the position? If you trust PFF’s grades, your eyes, or the stat sheet, they have not. Yes, Hackenberg hasn’t seen the NFL field in the regular season, but his play in college and the 2016 preseason showed the same thing: a player that looks like he could be an NFL QB before he take the snap, but a disaster after.
Going after Patriots backup Jimmy Garoppolo is far-fetched, as Bill Belichick would likely never trade him to a division rival (unless he knew he wasn’t a franchise QB). That leaves the draft for targeting a quarterback, but with no sure-fire, top-flight prospect, the question of how the Jets head into 2017 at the most important position of all sports looms large. It’s obvious that the Ryan Fitzpatrick era will be finished. The free-agent market doesn’t look very promising. My thought is to go after Buccaneers backup Mike Glennon for reasonably cheap money while also drafting a quarterback. GM Mike Maccagnan has the right idea of continually drafting quarterbacks until one sticks—Jets’ fans just hope he can finally get it right.
How can the Chargers rebuild their offensive line?
A case can be made for the Chargers’ offensive line being the worst in the NFL. When a team has four of the five members of the unit grading below 54.4, and the other piece grading at just a slightly-above-average level, you know there is a problem. C Matt Slauson grades as the best piece of this unit, but ranks 20th at his position. The Chargers’ offensive line needs an influx of talent, and fast.
QB Philip Rivers likely has just a few years left of good play, and if the O-line isn’t fixed, his talent will be wasted. With an emerging star in HB Melvin Gordon, an average O-line would likely place the former Wisconsin Badger among the league’s rushing leaders each year. Unfortunately for the Chargers, this draft is stacked with defensive and running back talent, while the O-line depth is rather weak. The Chargers’ front office will need to get creative this offseason to bring in talent for a unit that lacks anyone above-average.
Will the Panthers solidify the offensive tackle position?
Just a year removed from a 15-1 season and a Super Bowl loss, the Carolina Panthers have big questions, but perhaps the biggest is whether or not they will finally address the most important positions on the O-line, instead of using a band-aid approach? If Super Bowl 50 was any indication, Mike Remmers struggled badly with Von Miller (though, who doesn’t?), but it wasn’t a one-off situation. Remmers struggled to pass protect much of the season, as shown by his 50th ranked 93.4 pass-blocking efficiency in 2016. Opposite Remmers, Daryl Williams didn’t fare much better, at 93.7.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, this draft class is considered weak by many analysts at the tackle position, and while we at Pro Football Focus still have much scouting and evaluation to do, initial grading doesn’t look promising. Wisconsin’s LT Ryan Ramczyk is currently PFF’s top O-line prospect, followed by Notre Dame’s Mike McGlinchey. Whatever approach the Panthers take to address this glaring need, I would expect the team to roll into 2017 with at least one new offensive tackle.
Do the Bengals re-sign Andrew Whitworth, or go young at OT?
An unrestricted free agent this offseason, LT Andrew Whitworth turns 35 this year, but is still performing at an elite level, grading out as the league’s second-best OT. The Bengals drafted OTs Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the first and second rounds in 2015, hoping to turn the players into long-term stalwarts on the offensive line. So far, that plan doesn’t look good, as Ogbuehi has been a sieve, allowing nine sacks, three hits, and 31 hurries while grading as the 65th of 74 tackles this season. Fisher has only played slightly better, earning a 44.7 grade, a mark that would tie for 61st if he had played enough snaps to qualify for a ranking.
Clearly the Bengals’ young OTs haven’t lived up to their draft selections yet, so signing Whitworth is of the upmost importance. While a team can survive with one weak tackle position, the quarterback has no chance if both are struggling (take the Minnesota Vikings, for example). The Bengals were incredibly unlucky this season, going 1-6-1 in games decided within one score, and I’d expect them to have a bounce-back year in 2017. If they want to get back into playoff contention, solidifying the LT position for at least another season needs to happen.
Will Tyrod Taylor be the franchise QB?
The Bills extended Tyrod Taylor to a five-year, $90 million deal in August, predicated on an impressive first season with Buffalo in which he graded as the 10th-best QB in the NFL, earning an 88.3 mark. Taylor took a slight step back in 2016, earning an 84.7 grade, struggling with his deep-ball efficiency compared to 2015. In his first season as the Bills’ starter, Taylor attempted a deep pass on 18.3 percent of his throws, the highest rate in the NFL by more than 2 percent. He recorded a passer rating of 109.5 (third), an adjusted completion of 44.9 (ninth), and threw 12 TDs to just three INTs. In 2016, he attempted a deep pass just 13.3 percent of the time for an 85.8 passer rating, 32.8 adjusted completion percentage, and just six TDs to four INTs.
The Bills’ front office will need to decide if his play the past two years warrants exercising his contract option—which would guarantee him $15.5 million—or release him for a dead cap hit of just $2.8 million. Taylor has clearly flashed and showed improvement when throwing under pressure. With the uncertainty behind Taylor with E.J. Manuel and Cardale Jones, the Bills should exercise the option with the hopes that he takes a step forward.
What position on defense do the Saints address first?
Drew Brees is running out of time. He turns 38 in just two weeks, and the New Orleans defense is nowhere close to being considered “playoff-caliber.” Brees just finished throwing for over 5,000 yards for the fifth time in his career; there have been five quarterbacks in NFL history to throw over 5,000 yards in one season, and he has more 5,000-yard seasons than the other four combined. While Brees does have a Super Bowl ring to his name already, his immense talent is being wasted by what has been one of the worst defenses the past few seasons. Clearly the Saints don’t have an issue on offense.
On defense, the Saints have a superstar in DE Cameron Jordan (92.0 grade, No. 3 ranked edge defender) and a couple of other decent pieces that the team can build around. CB Delvin Breaux has shown good play, but took a step back this year, which could be due to his return from injury. The coverage unit grades as the worst in the NFL, with safeties Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro only grading barely above-average in coverage. In order to get Brees one final push at another Super Bowl, they need to make a splash signing. Although I am not a fan of such moves, when your future Hall-of-Famer QB has a shrinking window, taking risks to get back into the playoffs is necessary. Texans CB A.J. Bouye is slated to be an unrestricted free agent, and finished the season as the sixth-highest-graded cornerback in the NFL. Dallas’ Morris Claiborne is a solid option, as well, as he finished as the 12th-ranked CB in 2016.
Will GM Howie Roseman find Carson Wentz some weapons?
When your team’s best offensive weapon is a slightly below-average tight end, you have a skill position problem. The Eagles have their franchise QB protected by one of the better offensive lines in the NFL—when RT Lane Johnson isn’t suspended—and now it’s time to give the talented signal caller some weapons to distribute the ball to. While the jury is still out on Carson Wentz, he flashed major potential early in the season, but graded as the worst QB since Week 7. Wentz’s production took a major hit, and not all of that is his fault, as he was working with one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL.
WR Nelson Agholor has clearly never lived up to his first-round status, and has finished back-to-back seasons as the lowest-graded wide receiver in the league. Dorial Green-Beckham is a physically-gifted, but raw player that has yet to put it together as an NFL receiver. Jordan Matthews is the team’s best receiver, but ranks 55th out of 118 WRs in PFF’s grades. Roseman needs to take a Raiders-type approach to this offseason and sign a WR in free agency and draft one high, such as Clemson’s Mike Williams or Western Michigan’s Corey Davis.
Who will start opposite Patrick Peterson at cornerback?
The Cardinals are a blitz-heavy team, but don’t have a quality cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson. They drafted Brandon Williams, and that hasn’t worked out, and head coach Bruce Arians referred to Justin Bethel at CB as a “failure in progress.” With a draft class loaded with cornerback talent, the Cardinals obtaining a viable CB2 should be a huge priority.
A healthy Tyrann Mathieu would do wonders for the Cardinals’ defense, but the glaring need opposite Patrick Peterson looms large for a defense that likes to put their cornerbacks on islands. Draft targets include Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley, Florida’s Jalen Tabor, and Iowa’s Desmond King—all three ranking in the top 10 of PFF’s most recent big board.
How do the Vikings fix their disaster of an offensive line?
Injuries derailed the promising Minnesota Vikings season, but don’t overlook the fact that the offensive line was the biggest culprit in stalling the playoff run. Even before injuries ravaged this team, the O-line was terrible, as the offensive tackle starters coming into the season were really bad when they played—LT Matt Kalil earned a 36.9 grade, and RT Andre Smith, a 39.3. The interior O-line was a bit better, with C Joe Berger holding the unit together with an 85.0 grade; LG Alex Boone played well enough, at 76.5, but RG Brandon Fusco was poor, at 52.0.
With Berger getting up there in years—he will be 34 years old in 2017—the Vikings need an influx of youth and talent. Drafting T.J Clemmings and Willie Beavers in back-to-back years and signing Andre Smith last offseason is concerning for evaluating the talent on the O-line. GM Rick Spielman needs to continue to draft O-linemen, but needs to reevaluate his scouting process for the position. Free-agent targets could include Cincinnati’s Andrew Whitworth, Detroit’s Riley Reiff, and Baltimore’s Ricky Wagner—all would be significant upgrades to the OT position.
Will Indy build a better O-line to protect Andrew Luck?
Indianapolis is a team with serious holes and questions on the defensive side, but the biggest task this offseason should be figuring out how to protect the Colts’ biggest investment: QB Andrew Luck. Luck just finished the best season of his career, earning an elite grade of 92.1 that placed him fourth overall among QBs. While he handled the pressure pretty well this year, he was the third-most pressured QB this season, at 44.4 percent of his dropbacks. It’s rare for a quarterback to perform better when under pressure, and Luck is no exception, as his passer rating drops from 112.0 from a clean pocket to 72.0 when under duress.
The three QBs grading better than Luck this year benefited from offensive lines that protected them much better—Tom Brady was pressured on 30.7 percent of his dropbacks, Matt Ryan at 32.7 percent, and Aaron Rodgers at 30.0 percent. As good as Luck was this year, put him behind an offensive line that surrenders pressure on just a third of his dropbacks, instead of almost every other one, and see just how good he can become.
The Colts addressed O-line needs last offseason, but injuries made for a lot of shuffling. They seem to be set at LT with Anthony Castonzo and at C with Ryan Kelly, who graded well as a rookie, at 80.7. Joe Haeg was moved all over the line, so his development was difficult to assess, but he finished the season strong playing at guard. LG Jack Mewhort was having another great season until he was injured, but never looked like himself after he returned. Mewhort needs to get back to his pre-injury form, which would make solidifying the right side of the line an easier task. Targeting a high-profile guard, such as Cincinnati’s Kevin Zeitler, via free agency would go a long ways towards making this unit strong.
Will the Ravens look to address their one defensive weakness—the pass-rush?
The Baltimore Ravens had a very good defense this year, but they had one glaring weakness—a lack of a consistent pass-rush, ranking 30th in our grades as a unit. Outside of OLB Terrell Suggs, the Ravens lacked another above-average pass-rusher. Elvis Dumervil returned in Week 12 and had a strong finish to the season, but both he and Suggs are well past their primes. Fortunately for the Ravens, this draft class is loaded with talented edge rushers, and they can load up with them if they choose to do so.
With the Ravens picking at No. 16 in the 2017 draft, they’ll have a good opportunity to land a top-tier edge rusher, such at Alabama’s Tim Williams, Auburn’s Carl Lawson, or Missouri’s Charles Harris. Each have graded extremely well the past few years, with Williams generating pressure at a ridiculously high rate of every 3.7 pass-rushes. As good as Baltimore’s defense was this year, they lacked the finishing punch in the form of a top-tier edge rusher to force the quarterback into bad throws.
What position does GM Scot McCloughan address on defense?
The Redskins are a year removed from a playoff appearance, and were a win away this season, with Kirk Cousins answering questions of whether he could become a franchise quarterback. The defense let the team down, with the interior defensive line and defensive backs being the weak spots. Outside of DI Chris Baker (82.4)—slated to be an unrestricted free agent, and a player the team needs to resign—the D-line’s interior doesn’t have a disruptive player, with Ziggy Hood, Ricky Jean-Francois, and Cullen Jenkins getting pushed around too much against some of the best offensive lines that reside in the NFC East.
CB Josh Norman was signed to a big-money deal in the offseason after being released from the Carolina Panthers, and played well enough, but was the only cornerback with even an above-average coverage grade. As luck would have it for the Redskins, their two biggest needs are arguably the deepest positions in this draft class.
Depending on how the draft shakes out and who all declares, some intriguing D-line prospects that could fall to the Redskins at No. 17 are Michigan State’s Malik McDowell and Stanford’s Solomon Thomas. Both graded very well the past two seasons in college, and would fit Washington’s 3-4 scheme. Potential CB prospects include Iowa’s Desmond King and Washington’s Sidney Jones, as both possess impressive size and measurables, with excellent film to back up their high-profile status.
Do the Titans target CBs to fix the one major weakness on the team?
QB Marcus Mariota has an offensive scheme and the offensive line in place to give him a solid foundation for success in the NFL. In order to get the former No. 2 overall pick to the next level, though, he needs the help of a top-tier defense. Tennessee’s defense already has some really solid pieces in place, with DE Jurrell Casey consistently grading as one the best interior defenders in the NFL, and a solid pass-rushing duo of Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. The issue for the team is at cornerback.
Jason McCourty and Antwon Blake are below-average coverage defenders, as is LeShaun Sims. While 2016 pick Kalan Reed is on the roster, with such a deep draft class at the position, there is no reason the Titans shouldn’t make cornerback a position to target come draft time.
The Buccaneers have a serious D-line depth issue; will they look to bolster the unit?
DT Gerald McCoy had himself a solid season, grading as the 10th-best interior defender, at 84.8, and Robert Ayers proved to be a good offseason signing, at 80.5, but he’s going to be 32 years old in 2017. Noah Spence flashed potential as rookie pass-rusher, but needs to develop as a run defender if he wants to become a three-down player. Outside those players, the Buccaneers lack impact playmakers, and even average depth, with with Clinton McDonald (40.7), Akeem Spence (39.0), William Gholston (45.1) and DaVonte Lambert (36.7) all grading at extremely poor levels.
This issue should be addressed in both the draft and free agency, given that the drop-off in play from McCoy to anyone else on the roster is so drastic. Free-agent targets include the Patriots’ Alan Branch, Jaguars’ Abry Jones, and Dolphins’ Andre Branch—all players that have graded well, but shouldn’t break the bank. Give the talented linebackers some good rotational players up front, and one impact player from the draft, and Tampa Bay should contend for the playoffs again in 2017—and get over the hump.
Who will John Elway tab as the next head coach?
Probably the most shocking news of a coaching vacancy came in the form of Gary Kubiak retiring just a year removed from winning a Super Bowl. An attractive opening for any candidate, Denver still has one of the best defenses in the NFL, anchored by OLB Von Miller, CBs Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, and DI Derek Wolfe. The offense struggled despite having a solid receiving duo in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders because of an inexperienced QB operating behind a poor offensive line. The Broncos drafted QB Paxton Lynch in the first round in 2016, but if his brief appearances as a rookie showed anything, he needs time to develop in an NFL system.
Of the hottest coaching commodities, Kyle Shanahan looks like an ideal fit. He’ll have one of the best centers in the league in Matt Paradis to run his zone scheme, and will have two talented RBs in Devontae Booker and C.J. Anderson. Whomever is hired on as head coach should heavily consider convincing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to stay in Denver. Phillips has the unit playing at an extremely high level each and every week. Other candidates to look for are Jacksonville’s Doug Marrone and Tampa Bawy’s Mike Smith. Elway seems to prefer head coaches with previous experience, and both fit that description.
UPDATE: The Broncos have hired Vance Joseph as their head coach, with Mike McCoy returning to be the offensive coordinator after a four-year stint as head coach of the San Diego Chargers. With an offense that struggled after Peyton Manning’s retirement, McCoy will be tasked with turning that unit around, starting with an offensive line that ranked 24th in the NFL.