Answering the biggest offseason question for every team in the AFC
After years of bad drafts, Bills need to nail 2011 class, starting with No. 3 pick
Franchise tags key for Ravens (Haloti Ngata) and Steelers (LaMarr Woodley)
Colts need to lock up Peyton Manning and get younger on the offensive line
In and around updates on the labor front, the business of preparing for the NFL's 2011 season has already begun. Free agency and the league's trading period are on hold, subject to the CBA talks and a potential lockout by the owners. But the league never completely rests. With the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis just two weeks away, here's a team-by-team look at key questions facing the AFC's 16 teams this offseason. We previewed the topics of NFC clubs on Thursday.
New England Patriots
Are Logan Mankins and the Patriots headed for a nasty divorce?
Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Mankins, New England's All-Pro guard, is starting a second consecutive offseason in a grumpy mood because he might not be entering unrestricted free agency as he originally thought. Last year, in the NFL's uncapped season, the threshold for unrestricted free agency was lifted from four to six seasons, leaving Mankins in the restricted free agent class. That didn't sit well with him. He held out until the eighth game of the year, and wound up playing for only a slice of his reduced $1.54 million restricted tender.
Come this year, the Patriots are expected to franchise Mankins any day now, an outcome he said he would not welcome in the least. The league says teams have the right to franchise players even if there's no new CBA, but the union disagrees and says the tag will be meaningless if owners lock out players. A guy as unhappy as Mankins might just try to challenge the franchise tag in court, and could have a decent shot at earning his free agency that way. Stay tuned. My sense is this can't possibly end well.
New York Jets
Are the Jets in for another offseason of high-profile moves like last year?
Obviously not if there's no free agency and trading period to speak of. But let's assume both avenues of personnel acquisition will be open to them. In terms of keeping their own house in order, the Jets clearly are making the retention of inside linebacker David Harris a top priority. He'll be franchised if that tag winds up being available. New York also wants to re-sign receivers Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith, but getting something done with Holmes and Smith likely ranks ahead of Edwards returning.
If there is no Edwards, couldn't you just see New York taking a one-year flier on either Randy Moss or Terrell Owens? And here's one more juicy supposition: How about the Jets being the landing spot for Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth? New York can't count on Kris Jenkins any more, and if anyone can get Haynesworth to buck up and play nose tackle in the 3-4 defense, it's Rex Ryan. Half the league claims to want to play for Sexy Rexy, and Big Albert might be among that number.
With head coach Tony Sparano and general manager Jeff Ireland both in win-now mode, can the Dolphins afford to draft a first-round quarterback?
The ink may not be dry on the two-year extensions they both received in January, but Sparano and Ireland clearly understand they lack a surplus of job security as 2011 dawns. So does that sense of urgency rule out taking a first-round quarterback and upgrading Miami at the game's most pivotal position? It shouldn't.
Dolphins starter Chad Henne obviously regressed last season, and even if the addition of new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll manages to breathe life into his development, Miami should be looking for a quarterback who can help close the gap on New England and the Jets in the AFC East. If they get the right guy, and he shows some rookie promise, it might even serve to buy time for the embattled Dolphins management tandem.
Blaine Gabbert and Cam Newton figure to be gone at Miami's No. 15 slot, but the Dolphins best do their homework and make sure Ryan Mallett, Jake Locker, or Colin Kaepernick aren't the missing piece.
What has to change for the Bills to break their streak of non-playoff finishes, which is now at 11 years?
The Bills have to stop messing around and finally hit a home run with their 2011 draft class, like the turnaround Kansas City Chiefs did a year ago. There have been far too many swings and misses by Buffalo in recent years, and that's how you get to the basement of the NFL and stay there season after season.
Bills fans will flinch at the following list of draft busts, underachievers, and players who never completely lived up to the big billing: Aaron Maybin, John McCargo, Trent Edwards, Marshawn Lynch, James Hardy, Donte Whitner, Leodis McKelvin and Chris Ellis. Even last year's first-rounder, running back C.J. Spiller, didn't add the impact expected of him.
That trend has to end, and it starts with nailing Buffalo's No. 3 pick in this year's first round -- the franchise's highest selection since taking Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith first overall in 1985. Whether it's a franchise quarterback like Missouri's Blaine Gabbert or not, Buffalo has to find a rookie of the year candidate in the first round, then keep a hot hand going all the way through the seventh round. It's time. Way past time.
In the case of LaMarr Woodley, will the Steelers follow their pattern of letting star linebackers go in free agency?
More than almost any other team in the league, the Steelers are hoping the NFL is in the right about being able to apply those franchise tags in this season of labor uncertainty. Because Pittsburgh will definitely use its tag on Woodley, their sack-happy outside linebacker, if that's the only way to keep him off the open market.
This isn't Joey Porter, Chad Brown, Hardy Nickerson or Larry Foote we're talking about. Woodley is only 26 and he's an ultra-productive player whose 12 sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions in 2010 would make him an extremely rich man if he were to become a free agent and open up the bidding. But during Super Bowl week, Woodley made it sound like he knows the grass isn't greener elsewhere, even saying he wouldn't mind having the franchise label applied (horrors!) and earning the median salary of the top five linebackers in the league (about $10 million in 2011). The security of a long-term deal, he reasoned, would come soon enough.
That's the kind of player the Steelers aren't about to let get away.
Which Ravens player is in line for a fat raise, no matter what results from the ongoing CBA negotiations?
OK, here's one team that needs the franchise tag as much as the Steelers (LaMarr Woodley). Because the Ravens could say the very same thing, and then some, about defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who is recognized within the organization as the engine that makes the Baltimore defense go. Ngata is going to hit the jackpot one way or another, either via the franchise tag or by virtue of the long-term deal the Ravens would bestow upon him to keep him from free agency.
Last year, the franchise number for defensive tackles was $7 million, but that shot way up thanks to folks like Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton, Ryan Pickett and Albert Haynesworth getting paid. If there are franchise tags this season, a defensive tackle's will be a one-year deal worth an estimated $12.5 million. Not bad considering Ngata made $1.7 million in 2010, earning the second Pro Bowl berth of his five-year NFL career.
After six years in a 3-4 defense, do the Browns have the personnel on hand to make the switch to a 4-3 scheme under new coordinator Dick Jauron?
At the moment, no. Especially after Cleveland began its defensive transformation this week by purging its roster of veterans like defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, defensive end Kenyon Coleman, and linebackers David Bowens and Eric Barton. While none of those moves were really a surprise, it leaves the Browns a little short of bodies in spots, especially along the defensive line, where more linemen are now required.
Promising nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin will slide to defensive tackle and man one inside spot, and Browns 2010 sack leader Marcus Bernard might be moving from outside linebacker to defensive end. But after that, there's a lot of projection involved in piecing together a front seven, including the hope that D'Qwell Jackson can handle the key middle linebacker role after losing almost all of the past two seasons to pectoral injuries.
The draft figures to be crucial in Cleveland's ability to acquire 4-3 personnel, with defensive ends and outside linebackers the greatest need positions. That's one reason the Browns, as much as they might like him, could be hard-pressed to take Georgia receiver A.J. Green with their No. 6 pick. Defense is too much of a priority.
Should the Bengals take Carson Palmer's trade-me-or-I-retire threats seriously and draft a quarterback in the top two rounds?
Palmer doesn't strike me as a guy who's playing unnecessary head games with the Bengals, and I think there's a decent chance he means it when he says he's done playing for Cincinnati.
Bengals owner Mike Brown says he has no intention of dealing Palmer, but Brown had better at least have a backup plan in place, and by that we don't mean Jordan Palmer. (Come to think of it, Carson Palmer can pretty much end the Bengals quarterbacking career of both Palmer brothers in one fell swoop). Palmer has put his house up for sale in Cincinnati, and that should at least get the Bengals management studying the tape of all the draft eligible college quarterbacks.
Sure, Cincinnati has plenty of other needs to address, but given that it's sitting at No. 4 in the first round, it may be the logical year to land a franchise quarterback and then trade Palmer for the best deal to be had. Missouri's Blaine Gabbert and Auburn's Cam Newton would likely be the two QBs the Bengals would consider, and if nothing else, landing Newton would give Cincy some star power and perhaps help turn the page on the franchise's Palmer era.
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