Extra Points: Offseason update, the NFC edition
06/26/2014 2:28 PM
06/26/2014 2:35 PM
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - If there is a lull on the NFL calendar, you're in the eye of what is a perpetual Category 5 storm.
The NFL never really goes away but the five-week period between minicamps and training camp is generally dominated by off-the-field issues like Wednesday's revised settlement agreement in the league's ongoing concussion litigation with a host of former players, or the NFLPA's move to uphold the suspension of Elvis Dumervil's former agent, Martin Magid, for his part in the now infamous Denver fax fiasco.
The on-the-field stuff will start becoming much clearer in late July when the NFL's 32 teams hit the practice field in earnest.
With that in mind, this is a good time to look back at the offseason activities of each club and figure out the hurdles that stand in front of them as Week 1 of the NFL season grows ever closer.
First, we take a look at the NFC:
Dallas Cowboys: Jerry Jones is finally making some prudent personnel decisions in north Texas. The old Jones would have jumped at the chance to take the high-profile Johnny Manziel with the 16th overall pick in the draft. A more-tempered Jones took one of the safest picks in the process, Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin. Two years ago the Cowboys had one of the worst offensive lines in football and now they have three potential stars on that unit, Martin, left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick. The short- term outlook in the Lone Star State remains bleak, however. Quarterback Tony Romo is now 34 and coming off back surgery, while there is little talent on the defensive side of the ball, a fact exacerbated by the loss of perhaps the only difference maker on the unit, middle linebacker Sean Lee, who went down with a torn ACL during OTAs.
New York Giants: The offensive line was truly offensive for the Giants in 2013 and the root of all evil in north Jersey as Eli Manning produced more turnovers than your local bakery and Big Blue's running game put up the franchise's worst numbers since 1945. Underrated free agent guard Geoff Schwartz should help, but center Weston Richburg was a major reach in the second round of the draft. So, Manning and whomever plays running back, whether it be free agent pickup Rashad Jennings, holdovers Peyton Hillis, Michael Cox and David Wilson or rookie Andre Williams will be toiling behind one of pro football's worst blocking units again.
Philadelphia Eagles: Chip Kelly gave up on one of the game's best home-run hitters who was coming off a career year in DeSean Jackson because "Jaccpot" didn't "buy in." Hindsight will ultimately prove that to be incredible hubris on Kelly's part or provide further proof that the second-year head coach is indeed one of the great offensive minds of this generation. Jeremy Maclin, who is returning from a torn ACL, and the lengthy Riley Cooper will start at receiver for the Birds with rookie second-round pick Jordan Matthews hoping to mix in frequently. None possesses the pure, gamebreaking speed of Jackson, though, so the spacing Kelly craves figures to be a bit more difficult to create this time around.
Washington Redskins: It's all about which Robert Griffin III shows up inside the Beltway in 2014. If it's the healthy, rookie version of RG3 the Redskins should compete in a poor division even with serious question marks on the offensive line and throughout the defense. If it's the injury-hampered sophomore Griffin, Jay Gruden's first season as a head coach in D.C, will be a lot like Mike Shanahan's last.
Chicago Bears: General manager Phil Emery spent his offseason trying to upgrade a defense which collapsed in 2013, focusing largely on the front four. The Bears waived goodbye to veterans Julius Peppers, Henry Melton and Corey Wootton and used free agency to bolster the defensive end position, bringing in veteran pass-rushing star Jared Allen, along with Lamarr Houston and Willie Young. Emery then carpet-bombed defensive tackle in the draft with a pair of early selections, second-rounder Ego Ferguson and third-rounder Will Sutton. All of that strikes me as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, though, and the back seven still has plenty of holes, particularly at safety. Much like last season Chicago will go only as far as its high-powered offense can take it.
Detroit Lions: The Lions took an NBA approach to upgrading their own high- octane offense. Detroit wanted to take some of the LeBron James-like load off of star receiver Calvin Johnson after Megatron suffered through an injury- plagued 2013 season. Former Seattle receiver Golden Tate will be Johnson's new running mate on the outside while athletic rookie tight end Eric Ebron has new head coach Jim Caldwell envisioning a Jimmy Graham-like impact in the middle of the field.
Green Bay Packers: You know the Packers will be able to move the ball as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center but the defense has been an issue for a few years now. Veteran defensive coordinator Dom Capers has looked like a coach behind the innovation curve in recent seasons but he'll get one more chance to prove the talent has been the issue in Titletown, not the scheme. Peppers was brought in to complement Clay Matthews on the edge and rookie safety Ha Ha Clenton-Dix should be a significant upgrade on the back end.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings will finally sport a 21st-century defense now that Mike Zimmer has taken over the head-coaching duties from Tampa-2 devotee Leslie Frazier. The real issue in Minneapolis, however, remains the game's most important position. The franchise was set back years by 2011 draft bust Christian Ponder. For now, veteran Matt Cassel is the placeholder for rookie first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, an intriguing prospect who struggled in the pre-draft process but has drawn rave reviews from Minny offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons, who are shifting to an attacking 3-4 defensive scheme under Mike Nolan, suffered a devastating offseason loss when their best linebacker, Sean Weatherspoon, went down with a ruptured Achilles tendon. His potential replacements, 2013 undrafted college free agent Joplo Bartu and nondescript veteran Tim Dobbins, are significant downgrades.
Carolina Panthers: If there is one team which seems destined to take a step back on paper, it's Carolina, which finished 12-4 in 2013. Cam Newton underwent left ankle surgery in March and wasn't ready for offseason work. Steve Smith, perhaps the best player in franchise history, is now in Baltimore, steady left tackle Jordan Gross called it a career and pass-rushing star Greg Hardy must deal with some significant legal issues. The depth chart at receiver for the Panthers is headlined by C-level free agent pickups Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant, along with rookie Kelvin Benjamin while converted right tackle Byron Bell is penciled in to replace Gross.
New Orleans Saints: Despite having little salary-cap room at the beginning of free agency the Saints were able to bring in a difference maker for the back end of their defense in former Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd. He, along with fellow safety Kenny Vaccaro and cornerback Keenan Lewis, gives New Orleans a host of upper-echelon players in the secondary, meaning defensive coordinator Rob Ryan gets exotic with the pass rush. The Saints do need to replace the production of departed scatback Darren Sproles but head coach Sean Payton is as inventive as it gets and rookie receiver Brandin Cooks should step in as NOLA's new "Where's Waldo" player.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: New Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith probably has a ceiling as far as success goes. Smith's stint in Chicago revealed he's not getting you to the Super Bowl but he is going to make you very competitive and do it rather quickly. That's why the Bucs are a sexy pick by many to be a playoff contender in 2014 especially if veteran free agent quarterback Josh McCown can take advantage of a similar set-up to what he had in Chicago with two very tall receivers (Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans).
Arizona Cardinals: The Cards were the best NFL team which didn't reach the postseason in 2013. The strength of the club was its defense, particularly the front seven, but that group took a major hit in the offseason when star inside linebacker Daryl Washington was lost to a year-long drug suspension. His absence was magnified by the fact his running mate, veteran Karlos Dansby jetted to Cleveland in free agency. Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will be looking at a host of players to replace his two stalwarts with 2013 second-round pick Kevin Minter and former Pittsburgh stalwart Larry Foote having the inside track.
St. Louis Rams: This is the make-or-break year for quarterback Sam Bradford, who will be returning from a torn ACL suffered in Week 7 of last season. The fact that Bradford and the Rams play in a division where three teams won 10- or-more games a year ago isn't going to help matters but Jeff Fisher's club figures to have one of the NFL's best fronts on defense and an offense with some pieces if the QB can hold his own water.
San Francisco 49ers: Three years, three NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl appearance. The lone thing missing from Jim Harbaugh's resume as an NFL head coach is the Lombardi Trophy and that window may be closing on the Niners, because the organization finally had to earmark big money toward the quarterback position and Colin Kaepernick. That means difficult roster decisions are coming sooner rather than later and San Francisco's vaunted depth will eventually take a hit. For now NaVorro Bowman's gruesome leg injury in last season's NFC title game and Aldon's Smith's ongoing legal issues could be the 49ers biggest impediments in 2014.
Seattle Seahawks: Super Bowl hangovers are real and Pete Carroll and Co. will be searching for the aspirin on more than one occasion this year. The first headache has been Marshawn Lynch, who is wrangling for a new contract in an era where fewer and fewer running backs are getting big money.
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