NFC questions (cont.)
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 Dick 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.
NFL Truth & Rumors