Answering the biggest offseason question for every team in the NFC
Don't expect Redskins to move fast on Donovan McNabb, Albert Haynesworth
Bears will keep close eye on No. 1 wide receivers on free agent market
Sam Bradford and the Rams could take step back if labor uncertainty lingers
With the league hamstrung and facing a looming deadline in its CBA negotiations, everything about this unique NFL offseason has to be written in pencil. Free agency may not happen, and trades can't be executed until there's a new agreement between the players and owners in place.
But with the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis just two weeks away, teams are starting to prepare for whatever may unfold in the coming months. Amid all the uncertainty, it's time to start previewing the particular issues NFL clubs will get around to dealing with at some point this year. Here's a team-by-team look at key questions facing the NFC's 16 teams. We'll tackle the same exercise for the AFC's clubs on Friday:
Can the Eagles afford to keep both Michael Vick and Kevin Kolb for another season?
Financially? Yes. Strategically, probably not. The Eagles will franchise Vick if franchise tags are in play, waiting until a new CBA is in place to try to work out a long-term deal with No. 7. That's a $20 million one-year commitment, but it's the price Philly may have to pay to secure its starting quarterback for 2011. As for Kolb, he's on the books for just less than $1.4 million this year, so the Eagles could keep him if they don't like any of the trade offers they get. But they should get some solid bids, because there are so many QB-needy teams. Arizona, Minnesota, San Francisco and Tennessee make the most sense to come after Kolb, and someone might just be willing to part with a first-round pick.
New York Giants
Are the Giants of a mind to continue their two-headed backfield of Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs?
The odds would seem stacked against it. Though the tandem combined for more than 2,000 yards rushing in 2010, neither running back had smooth sailing all season. Bradshaw struggled with fumbles in the second half of the year, and Jacobs had that well-publicized helmet-throwing meltdown in a Sunday night game at Indy.
Bradshaw is eligible for free agency and is the obvious priority for New York. He rushed for 1,235 yards and is the kind of tough, inside runner the Giants always look for. If they can fix his fumbling, á la Tiki Barber, he'd be worth the big new deal he's in line to receive. As for Jacobs, he's too streaky to count on, and even his resurgence in 2010 (823 yards rushing, 5.6-yard average) makes him no lock to return. He's due $4.65 million this year, and that's a sizable salary for a No. 2 back.
What approach will Mike Shanahan take in dealing with Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth?
While no one believes this year's Redskins will feature either one of the players who were the headline acquisitions of the past two offseasons in Washington, Shanahan doesn't have to just cut his losses as soon as possible and release them. Why should he? They both have some value despite their dismal 2010 showings, and the longer Shanahan fights the urge to rid his roster of them, the more the demand for their services will grow.
With so many teams looking for starting quarterback options, there will be a market for McNabb, even if it takes until well after the late-April draft to develop. And in the case of Haynesworth, there will be takers willing to gamble on his talent. With ex-Titans defensive line coach Jim Washburn now working in Philly, the Eagles and Redskins could very well orchestrate a blockbuster trade for the second offseason in a row. McNabb and Haynesworth might have been benched and/or suspended, but they don't have to be given away.
With new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan hired, where must improvement come from next season on defense?
The Cowboys secondary clearly regressed in 2010, with cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman struggling in coverage, and both Alan Ball and Gerald Sensabaugh beaten too often at safety. While owner/GM Jerry Jones recently expressed confidence that Jenkins and Newman can bounce back, don't be surprised if Dallas targets a first-round cornerback at No. 9. But the two top-rated cornerbacks -- LSU's Patrick Peterson and Nebraska's Prince Amukamara -- could be gone by then, and that might just tempt Dallas into cutting ties with Newman and going after expensive Raiders free-agent corner Nnamdi Asomugha. Ryan, however, is expected to install his trademark package of exotic blitzes in Dallas, and a better pass rush could be just the thing to improve the Cowboys' results in pass coverage.
Green Bay Packers
Who's the odd man out in the Packers' logjam at inside linebacker, Nick Barnett or A.J. Hawk?
We know Desmond Bishop isn't going anywhere since he just signed a four-year contract extension late in the season. That leaves Green Bay facing a choice between Barnett, the eighth-year veteran who will be 30 in May, and Hawk, who just completed the most productive of his five NFL seasons since being the team's first-round pick in 2006.
Barnett and his troublesome Twitter account would be the fairly easy choice to go, all things being equal. He played in just four games this season before suffering a year-ending wrist injury, and his 2008 season was also cut short by seven games, due to a knee injury. But the tricky part is this: Hawk is in line for a $10 million base salary next season, and there's no way the Packers are paying that kind of cash at ILB. Barnett affords Green Bay some clear-cut leverage in its contract restructuring talks with Hawk, who will have to play ball if he wants to, you know, play ball for the defending champs.
Where will the Bears' search for a No. 1 receiver lead?
Chicago overachieved this past season with a receiving depth chart filled with No. 2 and No. 3 receivers (see Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and Earl Bennett) and desperately needs to find the kind of big, reliable target that quarterback Jay Cutler had in Denver with Brandon Marshall. The Bears' No. 29 draft slot doesn't look like the place to get that need filled, and dream on if you think Chicago has the juice to orchestrate a blockbuster-like trade for Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald.
Free agency is probably the route the Bears will take, but landing a Sidney Rice, Vincent Jackson, Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards will be pricey. It would take Chicago doing its homework and likely some patience early in the season, but don't forget about Plaxico Burress as an option. The ex-Giant leaves prison in June and might be a decent investment if it's clear his two-year sentence didn't erode his skills.
Are the Vikings looking for a starting quarterback in the draft, or via trading for a veteran?
It sounds like both options will be investigated, although the Vikings are clearly hoping they can use their No. 12 pick in the first round to acquire their own version of a Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Josh Freeman, Mark Sanchez or Sam Bradford. If Minnesota has enough conviction about the guy they get in that spot, there wouldn't be any need to trade for more than a temporary veteran starter (boy, wouldn't Sage Rosenfels fit the bill nicely?) But Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton figure to be gone by No. 12, and Jake Locker and Ryan Mallett don't appear to be ready to be day one starters as rookies. That could prompt Minnesota to kick the tires on a deal for Kevin Kolb (would it be willing to pay the No. 12 pick for him?), or go after Donovan McNabb as a short-term starter while drafting and developing a quarterback of the future.
Without a top-10 pick for only the second time since 2001, will the Lions know what to do with themselves early on draft day?
Detroit doesn't choose until 13th in the first round, and that only adds to an offseason that shapes up as the quietest in recent Lions history. No coaching changes or mass personnel defections are in store. There will be no major shake-ups at any one position, because Detroit has a pretty good young nucleus in place almost everywhere as year three of the Jim Schwartz coaching era unfolds.
Even what passes as the team's most pressing issues aren't all that dramatic. Outside linebacker is a need, because veteran Julian Peterson and his $8 million salary in 2011 won't be retained. At kicker, Jason Hanson might actually face a pretty good camp battle in his 20th NFL season, with his 2010 injury replacement, Dave Rayner, providing a more youthful option. But the Lions are at the steady-as-she-goes phase of their rebuilding program, and this offseason is just about upgrading the team's 22 starters and buttressing its depth. It's positively boring by Detroit standards.
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