One year ago, we wondered whether Kurt Warner could actually overtake Matt Leinart in Arizona's offseason quarterback sweepstakes. We wondered how on Earth the Falcons were going to fix themselves, and where the Redskins came up with Jim Zorn's name (ping pong ball at Daniel Snyder's church rectory?).
In time, those pressing questions were answered for three teams that became major NFC stories in 2008. With the Super Bowl once again in the books and the league's annual scouting combine on the horizon, here are some of the NFC's pertinent offseason questions of 2009.
Dallas Cowboys: Will Terrell Owens be a Cowboy during the '09 season?
Considering the amount of time everyone in the franchise will have to get a grip, he'll likely be back. Here is why: The team will have until June to make its decision, because Owens isn't due his $3.1 million roster bonus until that point. That's plenty of time for owner Jerry Jones and coach Wade Phillips to mend fences, and come to realize that the offense is still at its best with Owens on the roster. Perhaps if wideout Roy Williams had factored in more down the stretch last season, the thought process would be different. But Dallas will look at the books and realize that with only $10 million in salary cap space, cutting Owens would actually cost them $680,000, which is a double negative – removing a talented (albeit corrosive) player, and costing the franchise additional cap room that could provide it a little extra depth.
New York Giants: Will Plaxico Burress remain a Giant?
I still don't believe it's likely. First, he won't have his legal issues settled until April at the very earliest. And if he avoids jail time – a huge "if" at this stage – there is the fact that he's embroiled in a legal battle to recoup over $2 million in lost salary and bonus money from last season's self-inflicted shooting. It's worth noting that Burress' yards per reception average has dropped every season during his four years in New York, and that he turns 32 in August. He's still a quality player, but the balance is starting to slide backward. With the litany of foolish lawsuits, the shooting, and the fact that he's generally a flake in the locker room, it's going to take a groundswell from other Giants veterans for Burress to be in New York next season.
Philadelphia Eagles: What is going to happen to the foundation of this veteran team?
Decisions have to be made with some of the aging veterans this offseason – particularly quarterback Donovan McNabb, safety Brian Dawkins and offensive tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas. Moving McNabb would free up more than $9 million in cap space, but it's not like the Eagles need it. They are already about $25 million under the cap, and could keep all their free agents and still have a healthy bankroll to operate in free agency. After the offseason run, McNabb is almost certain to stay, and both Runyan and Thomas should be kept rather affordably with a less than stellar market for them in free agency. Dawkins is the wild card. He'll draw some interest from a few teams because he's got a little left in the tank, and his leadership and knowledge could help a team that is bringing along a young secondary. In all likelihood, Dawkins goes, and the rest of the core stays together for yet another season.
Washington Redskins: Who is going to step up and become the strong No. 2 WR next to Santana Moss?
Unless the Redskins perform some salary cap miracles, the player won't be coming from free agency or via trade. The Redskins are already $3 million over the cap, thanks to previous bonehead moves in the offseason. And their draft has already been stripped of second-, fourth- and seventh-round picks from previous trades. That means one of the disappointing young players from last season's draft – Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas – will have to step up and live up to their billing as second-rounders. Thomas seems the likeliest candidate, considering his few flashes of brilliance last season, but the offseason program won't be more important to any two players than it will be for these guys.
Chicago Bears: Does Lovie Smith taking over the defensive play-calling solve a major problem?
We won't truly know until next season strings itself out, but at the very least, Smith's stripping of the play-calling duties from defensive coordinator Bob Babich looks like an admission of sorts. Maybe Babich did know the Cover 2 system better than Ron Rivera, but the defense has done nothing but slowly deflate since Rivera was dismissed following the 2006 season. Even with Smith calling the plays, the Bears badly need a pass-rushing upgrade. Unfortunately, they are in the same boat as about a dozen other teams in that respect, and the best pass rushers (Baltimore's Terrell Suggs and Carolina's Julius Peppers) want to play in 3-4 alignments. Look for Chicago to add pass rushing depth in the form of a mid-level free agent.
Detroit Lions: Which way do they go with the No. 1 pick?
A million things will happen before the NFL draft gets here, but you can already feel this team moving away from quarterback. Georgia's Matthew Stafford is taking his licks in scouting communities, with one general manager likening Stafford's growth curve in the NFL to a more protracted version of what the Raiders' JaMarcus Russell has gone through. With Kansas State's Josh Freeman likely available to Detroit later in the draft, and Scott Linehan running Detroit's offense, it's shaping up for a Daunte Culpepper return and a young quarterback drafted at No. 20 or No. 33 for future grooming. And that leaves Detroit with whomever the team deems as the safest and most signable No. 1 pick. Say hello to Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith.
Green Bay Packers: Will they transition seamlessly to a 3-4 defense?
Teams don't smoothly transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and the Packers won't either. But here is the upside: Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac are fantastic coaching additions with a wealth of experience. Both men will help the offseason program progress very quickly, and should be able to identify who can and can't work in the 3-4. That said, the front seven has a long way to go. There doesn't appear to be a natural fit at nose tackle on the roster, and the Packers will start over with former first-round pick Justin Harrell, who now projects as a backup at a new position (defensive end). One of the big questions will be the adjustment of former defensive end Aaron Kampman, who moves to outside linebacker. Pass rushing shouldn't be a problem, but his instincts and angles as a run stopper and in pass coverage will be tested. If he's a liability in pass coverage, he doesn't fit the scheme.
Minnesota Vikings: What is the future at quarterback?
One thing is for sure – the player isn't on Minnesota's roster right now. A Vikings source said last week that the age and contract status of some of the team's cornerstone pieces (defensive tackles Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, guard Steve Hutchinson, cornerback Antoine Winfield, etc.), along with Adrian Peterson entering his prime, has created a sense of urgency internally. In a few words, the team doesn't have time to wait on Tarvaris Jackson anymore, and needs an upgrade over Gus Frerotte. Some will bandy about Brett Favre if he can't commit to the Jets and forces a release, but several sources in the personnel community have pointed to the Vikings as the most sensible destination for New England's Matt Cassel. When Cassel signs his franchise tag tender from the Patriots, New England will have more than $29 million invested at the quarterback spot for '09. That's highly unlikely to stay on the books. The Patriots will be looking to deal, and the Vikings will be dangling draft ammunition for an instant starter.
Atlanta Falcons: Will Atlanta add another game-changing defensive player to pair with John Abraham?
The Falcons should have plenty of salary-cap room – between $15 million-$20 million depending on whether they re-sign some of their own free agents in the next few weeks. That should allow them to take a poke at a major defensive player in free agency, and there has been talk in the personnel community for more than a month that Atlanta would make a run at Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth if he hits free agency. Certainly, sliding Haynesworth into the equation next to Abraham would be a massive upgrade. But that's not likely. The Falcons have key players they need to extend soon (Roddy White being a big one), and blowing a ton of money on a defensive tackle isn't the style of general manager Thomas Dimitroff, anyway. Arizona's Karlos Dansby or Baltimore's Bart Scott would also be two quality additions at linebacker. The most realistic bet would be the Falcons strengthening the roster with mid-level free agents who can be quality starters or add good depth.
Carolina Panthers: What will happen with Julius Peppers and Jordan Gross?
Bank on Gross signing a long-term deal with the Panthers and Peppers getting slapped with the franchise tag. And make no mistake about it – part of the reason for Peppers being so vocal about wanting out of Carolina is because he's staring at another franchise tag down the line. If he thought Carolina was going to come to the table with $35 million-$40 million guaranteed, he'd be thrilled about staying put. But the reality is that Carolina simply can't afford that. With between $9 million and $10 million in cap space right now, they can't even afford to sign Gross and tag Peppers without cutting a few players. The reality is Carolina is already pressed for cash, and will have to cut or drastically reduce quarterback Jake Delhomme's $11 million cap number for next season. Add it all up, and it translates into Gross staying long term and Peppers being tagged and dealt to the highest bidder.
New Orleans Saints: Will the Saints finally get the defense right?
It finally looks that way, with the additions of Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator and Bill Johnson as the defensive line coach. Both are among the best minds at their craft, and they should work wonders for a talented but pitifully performing defense. Fixing the pass rush would cure a lot of ills, and luckily for the Saints, they don't have to go fishing for quality defensive ends. Instead, it will be left up to Williams and Johnson to finally maximize the tools of Charles Grant and Will Smith, who have been maddeningly inconsistent.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Can new coach Raheem Morris get the Buccaneers over the hump?
The team grew stale under Jon Gruden. Morris, 32, and his staff will restore some calm and camaraderie in the locker room. Whether that's good remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see how Morris deals with the players from his perch as head coach. As a young assistant, he was extremely tight with many of his players, to the point of going out onto the social scene with many of them away from the facility. Now as a head coach, he'll have to draw a line in that part of his relationships, lest he risk being seen as a peer rather than a coach. To Morris' credit, he's put some impressive coaches in place around himself, from offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski to defensive coordinator Jim Bates and offensive line coach Pete Mangurian. The coaching abilities of Morris and roster acumen of Mark Dominik aside, this staff has its work cut out for it.
Arizona Cardinals: Will Anquan Boldin be a Cardinal next season?
Boldin will be in Arizona. Consider the factors: Quarterback Kurt Warner wants him back, and the Cardinals have in excess of $40 million in cap room that will allow them to pay Boldin a figure closer to what wideout Larry Fitzgerald is making. Of course, that enormous amount of cap room is going to be eaten up by re-signing Warner, Karlos Dansby and Antonio Smith (and possibly extending Steve Breaston). But this whole situation feels like Chad Johnson all over again. We'll talk all offseason about Boldin getting dealt, and he'll stay. The difference: Expect Boldin to get his money. The only thing that could change it is if something goes wrong and Warner doesn't return. But even that situation would only mean the Cardinals would have even more money to pay Boldin – and keeping him would be a benefit to Matt Leinart's development as well.
St. Louis Rams: Where does new coach Steve Spagnuolo start with the direction of this franchise?
Everyone is going to focus on the No. 2 pick in the draft and the multitude of directions the Rams could go with it, but Spagnuolo needs to get his veterans in order first and foremost. Wideout Torry Holt and offensive tackle Orlando Pace will both be 33 when the season begins, and although they still have something to offer, the real question is how long they can offer it. Neither player seems financially viable beyond this season, and cutting them could push the Rams to about $25 million under the cap. That would give Spagnuolo the money to go after another major cog on defense – be it trading for Julius Peppers or signing a player like Albert Haynesworth or Terrell Suggs. Adding one of those pieces to a front that already includes Chris Long, Clifton Ryan and Adam Carriker would possess Spagnuolo a lot of young potential with which to work.
San Francisco 49ers: Is Shaun Hill on shaky ground this offseason?
The situation with Alex Smith is worth watching. If he is cut and re-signed to an incentive-laden deal, then the coaching staff and front office clearly think he has a shot at beating out Hill for the starting job. But the latest chatter about Smith being part of the future equation is exactly coach Mike Singletary's style. He knows this is a pivotal offseason for Hill's development, and what better way to keep his nose to the grindstone than to keep the franchise's former No. 1 pick around to push him? About the only thing all of this does is confirm that San Francisco is out of the picture as a potential trade destination for Matt Cassel unless this is an intricate smokescreen (doubtful).
Seattle Seahawks: Will they get another impact pass rusher this offseason?
It's doubtful. It's not likely Seattle will invest another high pick on a defensive end after taking Lawrence Jackson in the first round last year. And there isn't a wealth of cap space to work with (less than $10 million) thanks to a few bloated deals that don't look so great now (hello, Deion Branch). With that in mind, Seattle will likely be out of the running for almost all of the big stakes free agents. That means new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is going to have to light a fire under some existing players (Julian Peterson) while implementing a larger pass rushing role for others (Leroy Hill). Getting Patrick Kerney healthy again will be a big help, too. The majority of the improvement on this team will come from the new coaching staff and making sure the No. 4 overall pick is spent on a contributing player.
- Lovie Smith