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Offseason Burning Questions (1 Viewer)

Couch Potato

From Feb 11 & 12. Worth a read. Both articles below.




Offseason burning questions: AFC

No sooner had the last flake of confetti fallen in Miami that next year's Super Bowl odds were posted. Not surprisingly, the Colts are the favorite to do what they couldn't achieve this season. Everybody of consequence returns for the Colts next season. Linebacker Gary Brackett is scheduled to be a unrestricted free agent and Antoine Bethea is a restricted free agent, but both are expected to return to Indianapolis. With that in mind, here's a look at the biggest questions that need answered this offseason among the AFC teams.


BUFFALO BILLS -- Can new coach Chan Gailey transform Trent Edwards or Ryan Fitzpatrick into a winning quarterback?

Gailey did it with Kordell Stewart in Pittsburgh, but he faces an equally challenging situation in Buffalo. Edwards has had injury and deep-ball issues, while Fitzpatrick has struggled with his accuracy. Both were on the minus side in touchdown-to-interception totals last year, and in eight seasons combined they've had only one year in which either finished with more TDs than INTs: Edwards (11-10) in 2008. The job becomes even tougher if the Bills don't re-sign Terrell Owens and fail to find a complement for Lee Evans.

*And another thing: If Gailey doesn't address the offensive line, it won't matter who takes the snaps. Buffalo never adequately replaced left tackle Jason Peters, who was traded to the Eagles before the season, and the Bills wound up allowing the fourth-most sacks in the league.

MIAMI DOLPHINS -- Can new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan work his magic again?

He did an exemplary job with a largely anonymous front seven in his only season in Denver, but he inherits an aging Miami defense that allowed a league-high 140 points in the fourth quarter -- and 390 points overall, third-most in the conference. Big plays were a problem. The Dolphins surrendered 15 touchdowns of at least 20 yards, more than double the seven they permitted in 2008. Among the other issues confronting them: nose tackle Jason Ferguson, who'll be 36 next season, missed the final seven games with a quadriceps injury; starting linebacker Joey Porter, who led the team with nine sacks, says he won't return in 2010; and No. 2 sacker Jason Taylor is an unrestricted free agent who is looking for a pay increase.

*And another thing: Miami needs a true No. 1 receiver, because Ted Ginn Jr. is not that guy. There have been reports the Dolphins are interested in Arizona veteran Anquan Boldin, a Florida native who would provide playmaking and toughness to the receiving corps. Bottom line: a league-low two TDs of 20 yards or longer on a team that has the No. 4 rushing attack is inexcusable.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS -- Will the Patriots' defensive struggles vanish with Bill Belichick calling the plays?

The unit was uncharacteristically porous in losses to quality teams, surrendering 38 to the Saints and 35 to the Colts, who trailed by 17 in the second quarter. The impact players who contributed to three Super Bowl wins are largely gone, and the one who remains, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, is an unrestricted free agent who wants big money or his walking papers. Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo has the potential to be an elite player, but the cupboard is sparse from there. Linebacker Adalius Thomas hasn't lived up to expectations and will probably be released. Carolina free-agent end/linebacker Julius Peppers would cure some ills, but the Patriots' problems on defense run deeper than one player.

*And another thing: New England has to find a running back. It's not a coincidence that they are Super Bowl-less since shifting the offensive emphasis to the passing game. Laurence Maroney clearly is not what they envisioned after drafting him in the first round in 2006, and Fred Taylor turned 34 last month.

NEW YORK JETS -- Can coach Rex Ryan find another cover cornerback to take his defense even higher?

That question might seem strange considering the Jets allowed league-lows in points, passing yards and total yards and have, arguably, the top cover corner in the game, Darrelle Revis. But the reality is Ryan needs a complement for Revis because he's unlikely to find an elite edge rusher who can win one-on-one battles when the team doesn't blitz. If that player were available, the secondary would be less of a concern because it wouldn't have to cover as long. But elite edge rushers are almost as hard to find as franchise quarterbacks, and any players who fit that category in the draft will be long gone by the time the Jets select near the bottom of the first round.

*And another thing: With Thomas Jones a candidate for termination because he's due $5.8 million in salary and bonus, and with Leon Washington returning from a serious leg injury, the Jets would do well to get backup insurance for Shonn Greene, the rookie runner who came on strong down the stretch.


DENVER BRONCOS -- Is it time to trade wide receiver Brandon Marshall?

Coach Josh McDaniels and Marshall have been together for only one season, but there's already plenty of bad blood between them. The chatter out of the locker room late last season was that McDaniels was trying to divide the players into his guys and former coach Mike Shanahan's guys. Marshall is the latter.

The Pro Bowl wide receiver continues to seek a large contract -- and a little respect -- neither of which he got from McDaniels last season. To wit: When McDaniels benched Marshall for the season finale he insinuated during a news conference that Marshall was exaggerating the extent of a hamstring injury, saying, "There's a number of players that are going to play on Sunday with things that are much more difficult to deal with than what he has."

*And another thing: Denver must address the interior of the offensive line. The Broncos used a zone-blocking scheme under Shanahan, but McDaniels wants to get away from that and will need bigger, beefier linemen to run his scheme.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS -- How can they make good on their $63 million investment in QB Matt Cassel?

The most obvious ways are by upgrading the offensive line and adding a true No. 1 receiver. New GM Scott Pioli was in a tough spot in his first season because there was so much work to do on a team that won a total of six games the previous two seasons. But if you're going to give a quarterback $35.5 million in virtual guarantees, you've got to give him the pieces to be successful. The Chiefs led the league in dropped passes, and their best young receiver, 2007 first-round pick Dwayne Bowe, was No. 1 among wideouts with 11 drops, according to STATS LLC.

*And another thing: The Chiefs ranked 31st among 32 teams in sacks last season and need to find an outside linebacker who can pressure passers. They used the third pick in last year's draft on Tyson Jackson, but ends in a 3-4 scheme are primarily anchors and space-eaters. Kansas City needs a game-changer.

OAKLAND RAIDERS -- Will it be JaMarcus Russell, Bruce Gradkowski or someone else at QB?

Russell was supposed to come into his own in his third season as the fulltime starter. Instead, the former No. 1 overall pick found himself on the bench because of poor production and a suspect work ethic. Insiders say owner Al Davis, who has invested some $31.5 million in guarantees to Russell, wasn't happy about the benching, but the players privately applauded coach Tom Cable's decision. Gradkowski is a restricted free agent, but Oakland is expected to re-sign him so he can compete for the starting job. One plus for whoever wins the job: he will have a bright new offensive coordinator in Hue Jackson, the former quarterbacks coach with Baltimore.

*And another thing: The Raiders acquired defensive lineman Richard Seymour before last season in a trade with New England. Now he's scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Oakland must re-sign him, otherwise it will have given up its 2011 first-round pick to rent Seymour for one season. This one bears watching because Seymour's family remained back east last season, and the three-time Super Bowl champion is not accustomed to the losing or dysfunction he experienced last year in Oakland.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS -- Who will replace running back LaDainian Tomlinson?

Tomlinson has been the face of the franchise pretty much since he was drafted in 2001, but he's expected to be released because the offense now runs through QB Philip Rivers, and Tomlinson has had three consecutive seasons of declining production. Backup Darren Sproles is not physically built to be the fulltime back for 16 games, and journeyman reserve Michael Bennett isn't the answer. GM A.J. Smith doesn't believe in spending big in free agency, so look for help to come from the draft.

*And another thing: Arguably no team will benefit more from an uncapped season than the Chargers, who have a handful of key starters who'll be kept off the open market because they won't have the required six seasons for unrestricted free agency. The list includes Shawne Merriman, Darren Sproles, Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill and Malcom Floyd.


BALTIMORE RAVENS -- Is there a need to revamp the offense?

The Ravens have relied on their running game since the turn of the century, but the passing attack must improve for the team to have a better chance of reaching the Super Bowl. Joe Flacco is the first franchise-type QB Baltimore has had under GM Ozzie Newsome, but his stable of receivers isn't deep or talented. Too often Flacco looks for talented veteran Derrick Mason at the expense of younger receivers. Mason was the only wideout to finish with more than 34 catches, and his seven touchdowns matched all the other wideouts combined. Could a trade for Denver's Marshall be a possibility?

*And another thing: The player to watch is safety Ed Reed. He's one of the game's alltime great ballhawks, but said after the playoffs his return was 50-50. Tom Zbikowski filled in capably, but is he the longterm answer should Reed retire?

CINCINNATI BENGALS -- Anyone know a good tight end and wideout?

The Bengals made great strides on defense and with their running game, but the passing game suffered last season because it lacked weapons. QB Carson Palmer lost his top two tight ends to injury in training camp and never had a consistent complement to wideout Chad Ochocinco. In fact, the Bengals ranked 26th in the league with only 36 completions of at least 20 yards. The Bengals have to find a capable and consistent deep threat, otherwise their chances of repeating as division champions are remote.

*And another thing: As well as the defense played in its second year under coordinator Mike Zimmer, the Bengals have to find help at safety. Strong safety Roy Williams and free safety Chris Crocker turn 30 this year, and neither is a ballhawk. If they can find a playmaker on the back end to go with talented corners Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph, turnovers and defensive touchdowns could come in bunches.

CLEVELAND BROWNS -- It's February, do you know who your quarterback is?

The Browns played musical QBs with Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson last season, and now there's a report they have inquired about the availability of Eagles signal-caller Donovan McNabb. It has been said that if you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one. Coach Eric Mangini needs to find one and stick with him. Anderson reportedly will be released before his $2 million roster bonus comes due next month, but the talk of McNabb, if true, says little for the club's confidence in Quinn. The Browns closed the season with their first four-game winning streak since rejoining the league in 1999, and they must improve a passing game that had a league-low 25 completions of 20 yards or more to maintain that momentum.

*And another thing: The Browns have 11 draft picks and a new GM, Tom Heckert, who comes from an Eagles organization that favors drafting for quality instead of need. It's unclear whether that will be the case in Cleveland, but if Heckert does decide to go for need he should look at wide receiver, defensive back, running back and linebacker.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS -- Is it time to start retooling the defense?

The Steelers defense, which ranked No. 1 in nearly every statistical category in 2008, blew five fourth-quarter leads last season. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh went from Super Bowl champion to out of the playoffs. The Steelers undoubtedly missed All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who was sidelined 11 games with a knee injury. But the late-game collapses might also be attributed to age; seven of the regular starters were 30 or older last season. Another factor was the secondary. The cornerbacks did not intercept a pass until the season finale. That's unacceptable considering opponents attempted 548 passes against the Steelers, tying for ninth-most in the league. Ike Taylor is solid, but William Gay was a liability. Look for 2009 third-round pick Keenan Lewis to challenge for a starting job.

*And another thing: Can the Steelers get back to their smash-mouth identity? Owner Dan Rooney suggested after last season that Pittsburgh had strayed too far from its roots -- also known as the running game. That won't happen this year. There are building blocks for a power-running game in guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackle Willie Colon, but the other starters are replaceable. One problem: Pittsburgh has a lot of money invested in the line and isn't likely to spend more at that position.


HOUSTON TEXANS -- What will it take to reach the playoffs for the first time?

Other than make key field goals when the opportunities present themselves, the Texans must upgrade their ground game. They ranked 30th in rushing yards and 31st in yards per carry. The passing game is lethal with Matt Schaub throwing to wideout Andre Johnson and tight end Owen Daniels. If the offense can complement that with a ground game strong enough to control the clock and keep the ball out of the hands of opposing quarterbacks, the playoffs should definitely be within reach because six of Houston's seven losses were by eight points or less. Run the ball more effectively and that's one or two fewer possessions each game for the opposing offense. All of this changes, however, if the team chooses not to franchise Dunta Robinson. At that point cornerback would become the most pressing issue.

*And another thing: Houston needs help in the secondary, but no one should overlook the kicking game. Kris Brown is the Texan's longest-tenured player and their alltime leading scorer, but he also missed makeable field goals down the stretch. Can the staff and front office be confident in Brown if he's in the same situation next year?

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS -- Will the Colts re-sign middle linebacker Gary Brackett?

The short answer is yes. Brackett is a respected leader who made the climb from undrafted rookie to team captain. Don't be shocked if Brackett gets some help at the linebacker position. Tennessee free agent Keith Bulluck would be a perfect fit in the Colts' system, and the Titans have made no attempts to re-sign him at this point.

*And another thing: Indy rarely is a big spender in free agency, preferring to build through the draft and reward its own. QB Peyton Manning almost certainly will receive a new deal before the end of the season (his contract expires after 2010), and safety Antoine Bethea, another quiet leader on the defense, could be in line for a multiyear deal. He'll be a restricted free agent this offseason, per an uncapped year.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS -- Are the Jaguars ready to grow up?

They had better be, because owner Wayne Weaver has only so much patience. He did an extensive overhaul at the end of the season and announced he believes in coach Jack Del Rio, who last season played 16 first-year players -- including offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton -- and 33 new players overall. Once wideout Torry Holt and offensive tackle Tra Thomas are released, as expected, the team will have only 11 players on the roster with more than five years experience.

*And another thing: In a division that features Pro Bowl passers Manning and Schaub, the Jaguars are going to have a tough time breaking their two-year playoff drought if they don't upgrade their pass rush. Jacksonville ranked last in the league with 14 sacks in 2009. It was sackless in half its games. Most of the problem is on the edge, where ends Quentin Groves and Derrick Harvey combined for only two sacks in 23 starts.

TENNESSEE TITANS -- Is the franchise ready to trust Vince Young again?

Without question. The Titans started 0-6 last season with Kerry Collins at QB, but Young came on and led them to eight wins in their final 10 games. He showed greater maturity as a player and person, and won back the trust of teammates. He is never going to be a great stats guy, but his career shows that he always puts up big numbers in the one area that counts: wins. He is 26-13 as an NFL starter.

*And another thing: Last offseason the Titans allowed defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to leave as a free agent and never completely replaced him. Now linebacker Keith Bulluck, a respected team leader, is up for free agency. Bulluck is recovering from knee surgery -- the first major injury of his 10-year career -- and the team has yet to approach him about an extension. Might it be their second major free-agent loss in as many years?

Offseason burning questions: NFC

There are times when the pace of activity in the NFL's long offseason actually seems busier than in the six months in which the games are being played. That's why I always laugh when people ask me what I cover once the Super Bowl is over. My answer? More football. Just no games.

With the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis just two weeks away, an unusual free agency period looming on the not-too-distant horizon, and our first three-day NFL Draft to look forward to (ahem) in April, it's time to preview the issues that are about to percolate in the offseason. Here's a team-by-team look at some questions facing the NFC's 16 clubs.


DALLAS COWBOYS -- Is it time to for Dallas to part ways with offensive left tackle Flozell Adams, the longest-tenured Cowboy?

With all questions about the future of either head coach Wade Phillips and quarterback Tony Romo cleared up for now, the Cowboys should be facing a remarkably status quo offseason. But there is that not-insignificant matter of how the Dallas offensive line was overwhelmed by Minnesota in the playoffs. Adams will be 35 in May, with 12 NFL seasons already in the books. The Cowboys were very high on the seven starts they got from third-year reserve tackle Doug Free in place of injured right tackle Marc Colombo, and may feel that Adams' game has slipped and he's no longer worth the big money he's in line for in 2010.

*And another thing: After going through Nick Folk and Shaun Suisham last season, who's going to kick in Dallas? Maybe a bid for Raiders free agent Sebastian Janikowski is in order.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES -- How will the Eagles three-headed quarterback situation shake out?

Andy Reid has said Donovan McNabb will return for the final year of his contract, and No. 5 says that's his understanding as well. The Eagles love Kevin Kolb and won't trade him unless somebody blows their doors off (Cleveland?). And Philly even says it has the luxury of bringing back Michael "Wildcat'' Vick at $5 million. But don't count on it.

The Eagles reportedly are already listening to teams interested in McNabb (Denver, Cleveland and Buffalo), and there's a chance Brad Childress and the Vikings might even give up a first-round pick (No. 30) for him if Brett Favre retires (again). More likely, the Eagles would have to settle for second- and fourth-round picks. I also expect Philly to shop Vick for a mid-round pick, and St. Louis still makes the most logical destination.

*And another thing: Given his health issues, his $7.5 million salary, and the emergence of LeSean McCoy, Brian Westbrook's chances of being in green and white again next season aren't good. Is retirement, a big pay cut or an outright release in the offing for Westbrook?

NEW YORK GIANTS -- Is unhappy defensive end Osi Umenyiora going anywhere?

In a word, no. Make no mistake, the Giants were underwhelmed by Umenyiora's performance in 2009. New York thought he showed a notable lack of toughness at times. But he wasn't the only big disappointment on its defense, and in particular on the defensive line. And let's not forget, he was coming off 2008's season-ending knee surgery, and some players aren't themselves again until the second season after their injury. Umenyiora has threatened to retire if the Giants don't restore him to the starting lineup, but get serious. The bottom line is you don't discard 28-year-old, two-time Pro Bowl pass rushers based on one poor year. Especially when they're only scheduled to make $3 million next season. The Giants hope new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell will bring Umenyiora's game back to life.

*And another thing: Coming off a season-ending neck injury, middle linebacker Antonio Pierce may have played his last game in Giants blue. Who takes over that key spot -- Jonathan Goff or Bryan Kehl?

WASHINGTON REDSKINS -- Which direction will Mike Shanahan go at quarterback?

It's way too early to know, but I happen to think the Redskins new head coach will spend the team's No. 4 pick in the first round on Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford, even with Washington's crumbling offensive line needing to be rebuilt. But choosing to groom Bradford for the future may not preclude the return of Campbell, a restricted free agent, in the short term. Remember, the last time Shanahan took a first-round quarterback -- Jay Cutler in Denver in 2006 -- he kept veteran Jake Plummer around for one more year during the transition from old to new. Shanahan seems to think Campbell did OK with what he had to work with last season, and re-signing him to a short-term deal gives the Redskins options and buys time for Bradford. The big question will be: Is Campbell OK with that plan?

*And another thing: Can Shanahan get perennial loose cannon Clinton Portis to shut up, work harder and produce as the team's lead running back? Shanahan was willing to get rid of Portis in Denver when No. 26 had much more value than he does today, so he wouldn't hesitate this time around.


MINNESOTA VIKINGS -- Will Brett Favre return next season, or do the Vikings have to go quarterback shopping?

You can't seriously expect me to divine Favre's intentions on Feb. 11. Talk to me Aug. 11 and I'll have a better idea if No. 4 intends to make it an even 20 seasons in the NFL. But as long as we understand those guessing-game ground rules, I'm willing to remind everyone that I'm on record saying I expect Favre to be back in purple in 2010. He played too well for too long last year to let that horrible interception at New Orleans be his last NFL pass. What I don't know is when Minnesota really needs to hear his intentions, because you'd have to figure the Vikings would be interested trading for Donovan McNabb if Favre retires, and that deal likely won't wait until early August. I'd tell you to stay tuned, but I already know you will.

*And another thing: Veteran running back Chester Taylor is an unrestricted free agent, and he's still very productive and valuable as Adrian Peterson's backup -- even at 30. Given Peterson's fumbling problem, re-signing Taylor should be higher on Minnesota's to-do list than it otherwise might be.

GREEN BAY PACKERS -- Do the Packers re-sign nose tackle Ryan Pickett or turn the job over to 2009 first-round pick, B.J. Raji?

Pickett thrived at the nose in the first year of Green Bay's 3-4 formation, and proved adept at handling the point of attack in the Packers' top-ranked run defense. He'll be 31 in October, and already has nine NFL seasons to his credit, but the best space-eating defensive tackles generally last well into their mid-to-late 30s (think Ted Washington, Sam Adams and Grady Jackson). Green Bay wants Pickett back and seems prepared to try and re-sign him even before he reaches unrestricted free agency next month. But the Packers drafted Raji with the nose tackle job in mind, and at some point logic says he'll be the starter. In reality, Green Bay's D-line played a four-man rotation last season and still needs both players in the foreseeable future. That's why the Pack is a good bet to get a deal with Pickett done.

*And another thing: Problems at offensive tackle almost doomed Green Bay in the season's first half, so look for the Packers to think tackle in the first round of the draft. But in the meantime, they might want to bring back veterans Chad Clifton and/or Mark Tauscher, who are both unrestricted.

CHICAGO BEARS -- Can new offensive coordinator Mike Martz and Jay Cutler form a winning team?

Head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo have one more season to fix what's broken in Chicago and contend once again in the NFC North, and nothing will aid that effort more than getting quarterback Jay Cutler's game straightened out. The team's circuitous search for an OC was embarrassing, but it finally led to Martz, who certainly has a track record of success with quarterbacks. But Cutler's a different bird, of course, and come to think of it, so is Martz. How they work together once the bullets start flying is anyone's guess. Smith talked about getting back to a Bears-type running game next year, and he hired run-loving offensive line coach Mike Tice. But Martz has been known to forget about the run game at times, and throw, throw, throw. To say the least, this marriage bears watching.

*And another thing: Will Chicago's newly elevated defensive coordinator, Rod Marinelli, be up to the challenge of restoring some swagger to a unit that has slipped a long way from its 2006 Super Bowl form?

DETROIT LIONS -- Can the Lions continue building on last year's strong draft class and take a much bigger step than 2009's two-win improvement?

Though the Lions' record didn't show it, there's hope in Detroit, thanks to a 2009 draft that yielded four starters in the opening three rounds: quarterback Matthew Stafford, tight end Brandon Pettigrew, safety Louis Delmas and linebacker DeAndre Levy. And now to that bounty head coach Jim Schwartz can add either Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy or Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh -- one of which will be the choice when Detroit's No. 2 pick comes up April 22. At that point, each level of the Lions defense will have added a stud player in the span of two drafts. This much Detroit has learned and won't be repeated: Signing a bunch of older free agents to late-career deals does not improve a bad team. Additions like Larry Foote, Julian Peterson and Phillip Buchanon fell flat last year.

*And another thing: Running back Kevin Smith had an injury-marred sophomore season, and who knows if he's still capable of fronting the Detroit running game? But the Lions offense can't put it all on Stafford's shoulders, so finding another potential lead rusher in free agency or the draft is fairly vital.


NEW ORLEANS SAINTS -- Are the Saints facing a showdown with Reggie Bush over his scheduled $8 million salary in 2010?

Once upon a time during the season that just ended, it looked nigh impossible that the Saints would be willing to pay their situational running back the money he has coming this year in the fifth season of his six-year rookie contract. But now, in the post-Super Bowl love-fest, who can say definitively? The Saints certainly know Bush loves playing in New Orleans and is motivated to stay put, so they could approach him with a restructured deal that is in essence a pay cut. As long as they're tactful about it and Bush doesn't feel insulted, the two sides could work something out and continue the marriage. But I don't think a trade or release are really options at this point. Saints head coach Sean Payton made Bush his first draft pick in New Orleans, and still believes in him. Bush will get his best deal from the Saints, because nobody loves him as much as they do.

*And another thing: All-Pro safety Darren Sharper is the team's priority unrestricted free agent, but New Orleans will do what it takes to retain him. Other than coordinator Gregg Williams, nobody did more to change the face of the Saints defense than Sharper.

ATLANTA FALCONS -- What's the biggest lock in the first round of this year's NFL Draft?

I suppose defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy going 1-2 in some order looks rock solid to most folks about now, but I'd put my money on the Falcons taking a cornerback in the first round as having an even higher probability. Atlanta's injury-plagued secondary was its glaring weakness last season, and that the Falcons managed to go 9-7 with the cornerbacks they had speaks to how much offensive talent is currently on hand in Atlanta. I gave the No. 19 Falcons fast-rising Boise State cornerback Kyle Wilson in my first mock draft last month, but Alabama's Kareem Jackson is another possibility that has surfaced as we get fully into draft season. In an NFC South currently ruled by the receiver-laden Super Bowl champion Saints, the Falcons are desperate for a big-time cover corner.

*And another thing: After using three kickers last season, can the Falcons find someone to bring stability to that key position? Matt Bryant and Steven Hauschka are still around, but three CFL kickers reportedly tried out just last week.

CAROLINA PANTHERS -- Does Julius Peppers have any chance of being a Panther again in 2010?

Slim and none -- with slim decreasing all the time -- sounds about right. Carolina wound up paying their star defensive end a total of $18.2 million for the 2009 season, and nobody thinks Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is willing to go that route again, re-slapping the franchise tag on him at a cool $20.1 million this time around. Carolina could franchise him and then shop him in trade, but a new contract would obviously be a major component of any deal. The always quiet Peppers is getting the silent treatment from the Panthers these days, and he now says he doesn't want a long-term deal in Carolina. One way or another, his eight-year run in Charlotte looks over. The Panthers have until Feb. 25 to franchise him, and teams like New England (a 3-4 defense), Philadelphia and New Orleans (both 4-3s) seem the most likely potential suitors.

*And another thing: Will veteran quarterback Jake Delhomme stick around as Matt Moore's backup next season, or will the Panthers cut ties with the player they unwisely rewarded with a fat, long-term contract extension in 2009?

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS -- Can the Bucs use their all-important 10 draft picks this year as the foundation of their rebuilding program?

With the exception of starting quarterback, where the Bucs are Josh Freeman's team for the foreseeable future, Tampa Bay has needs everywhere you look on the roster. Defensive end, defensive tackle, safety, cornerback, receiver, running back, guard, offensive tackle, you name it. There's no way the Bucs are going to be major players in what figures to be a quieter than usual free agency period, so that makes this year's draft absolutely critical if Tampa Bay is to return to relevance. Much like Detroit did in last year's draft, the Bucs need to come away with four or five starters from the 2010 lottery, hopefully seeding each line of their defense with at least one potential standout.

*And another thing: Getting a sense of stability established after last year's upheaval -- new head coach, new GM, new coordinators, fired coordinators, three different starting QBs -- would register as progress in and of itself in 2010.


ARIZONA CARDINALS -- Will the Cardinals finally end the team's Anquan Boldin era?

Most likely, yes. Boldin says he's not requesting a trade this offseason, but ironically, this time he doesn't have to. With young receivers Steve Breaston and Early Doucet both contributing alongside Larry Fitzgerald last season, the Cardinals can see that life without Boldin is far from scary. In fact, in games Boldin has missed the past two years, Arizona is 6-2, averaging more than 30 points per game. With him, they're 17-13, with 24.5 ppg. As long as the Cardinals don't over-price Boldin, he should draw interest from receiver-needy teams like Miami and Baltimore, and maybe even Denver if it moves Brandon Marshall.

*And another thing: Will the Cardinals bring in some legitimate competition for newly elevated starter, Matt Leinart? Maybe they draft a quarterback in the mid-to-late rounds, but otherwise I think it's Leinart's time and Leinart's team.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS -- Did Alex Smith and Mike Singletary do enough in 2009 to establish themselves as the 49ers' tandem for the long term?

San Francisco's quarterback and head coach did just enough in their first full season together to warrant another chance to continue their growth in 2010. But that's about as far as the commitment level should go these days in 49ers-land. Smith had a pretty decent season after taking over for Shaun Hill six games into the year. He wasn't lights out, but you could see the beginning of some solid chemistry between Smith and tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Michael Crabtree. That deserves time to strengthen. As for Singletary, his leadership skills outweigh his coaching skills at this point, but he too took a step in the right direction with last year's 8-8. With no Kurt Warner in Arizona any more, the 49ers have no excuse for not contending in the NFC West. That means the pressure amps up for both Singletary and Smith next season.

*And another thing: Picking 13th and 16th in the first round, can the 49ers land themselves a quality cover corner to aid the pass defense (Florida's Joe Haden?) and a solid right offensive tackle (Idaho's Mike Iupati?) to upgrade the line and bookend with Joe Staley on the left side?

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS -- Is Seattle wise to believe Matt Hasselbeck is still the answer at quarterback?

Hasselbeck will be 35 in late September, he's coming off his worst season in years, and his recent health issues have been well-chronicled. But new head coach Pete Carroll and new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates seem 100 percent sold on him still being the guy in Seattle, and Bates went so far as saying Hasselbeck could be "special'' in the team's West Coast offense. In a year in which Brett Favre and Kurt Warner played superbly at 40 and 38, respectively, it does seem premature to consider Hasselbeck washed up. Talking with **** Vermeil last month, he scoffed at those who think Seattle needs a new quarterback, insisting Hasselbeck just needs a better supporting cast. I agree, but will Seattle give it to him?

*And another thing: New offensive line coach Alex Gibbs' never needed a first-round running back in Denver to make the ground game work. So will Seattle pass on using one of its two first-rounders (No. 6 and 14) on a big-name back like Clemson's C.J. Spiller?

ST. LOUIS RAMS -- Will the Rams wind up making the play for Eagles quarterback Michael Vick that everyone expects them to?

No team in the NFL is more desperate for new options at quarterback than St. Louis, and that includes the very needy Bills, Browns and Raiders. The Rams still make the most sense for Vick because he'd walk in the door as the likely starter, getting the opportunity he craves, and he'd add a dose of much-needed excitement to a moribund franchise that has won three games over the past two years. Also, head coach Steve Spagnuolo and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur were on Andy Reid's staff in Philly for years, meaning the Rams would likely get the best possible trade terms (a fourth-round pick?) from the Eagles, not to mention straight talk on where Vick's game is at these days.

*And another thing: Sitting in the draft's No. 1 slot, the Rams get to decide whether Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh or Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy is the most disruptive, pro-ready defensive tackle available. Watching that big-money decision play out should add a touch of drama to the draft season.
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