As Super Bowl champions, the Steelers will be bracing for the pillaging that many before them have had to endure. And while Pittsburgh doesn't have a massive number of free agents this year, the pending availability of four key offensive linemen could hit them where it hurts. However, the Steelers' line situation will be only one of the major AFC story lines this offseason. With six of the top eight salary-cap friendly teams hailing from the AFC – Denver, Kansas City, Houston, Tennessee, Miami and Buffalo – it should be a wild ride through free agency for the conference.
With that and other issues in mind, here's a look at some of the AFC's intriguing story lines.
Edwards, right, missed two games this past season.
(David Butler II/US Presswire)
Buffalo Bills: Will Trent Edwards grow enough in the offseason to light a fuse under the offense?
It's hard to know who was more to blame last season: Edwards for his inconsistent, injury-ridden second half of the season, or offensive coordinator Turk Schonert, whose scheme lacked a great deal of creativity. Adding a quality No. 2 receiver next to Lee Evans would go a long way, but Edwards is going into a pivotal stage. Year three as a starter is typically when quarterbacks either get over the hump or slide back into inconsistency and mediocrity. So by historical analysis, Edwards is preparing for arguably the biggest developmental year of his career. At least one major concern was averted when Edwards' late-season shoulder soreness was shown to be nothing structural. Now the onus is on Schonert and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt to help elevate Edwards' standing.
Miami Dolphins: Is Ted Ginn Jr. a bust?
After two seasons, he's only eclipsed 100 receiving yards in a game once – the 175 against Buffalo in Week 8 this past season. He's been inconsistent at best as a wideout, and hasn't even come close to being the dangerous returner he was at Ohio State. It's a tad early to slap him with the bust tag, but he certainly hasn't lived up to the No. 9 overall pick of the '07 NFL draft. The thing that has frustrated the Dolphins the most is his lack of dedication when it comes to getting stronger and tougher and taking on challenges at the line of scrimmage. That said, there is a ray of sunshine: Ginn's career start is only slightly behind that of Pittsburgh's Santonio Holmes – another Buckeyes product who even as recent as this season was criticized in pro personnel circles as a guy who wasn't connecting the dots between preparation and performance. Ginn still has time for the light to come on, and this could be the offseason that it happens.
New England Patriots: Will Tom Brady be ready for the start of the regular season?
Considering the utter lack of hints from Brady on this front – save for Toronto radio, he doesn't appear to exist on Earth anymore – it's anyone's guess. The upshot is that there is one unambiguous market indicator: Matt Cassel. Brady's backup has said he will sign his franchise tender, meaning that barring a trade, roughly 24 percent of the team's 2009 cap will be invested in a pair of quarterbacks. That makes the message unequivocal. If the Patriots spend that much to keep Cassel and Brady, it means Brady is well behind schedule and likely won't be ready for training camp. If the Patriots deal Cassel, it's an indication Brady will be ready for the start of the regular season. Forget what the Patriots and Brady say leading up to the draft. Just watch the trade ticker.
New York Jets: Who will replace Brett Favre?
Jets fans are going to have pipe dreams of Matt Cassel, but that simply isn't going to happen. No way Patriots coach Bill Belichick goes out of his way to help the Jets out of this mess. The Patriots aren't trading Cassel within the AFC East, and the Jets have put themselves in a salary-cap situation that would prevent them from inking Cassel to a long-term deal anyway. Don't have delusions of Arizona's Kurt Warner, either. If he's not playing for the Cardinals next season, he's not playing for anyone. Cleveland's Derek Anderson is an option, but I'm not sure the Jets love him any more than they like what Kellen Clemens has to offer. That leaves Kerry Collins, Byron Leftwich and Jeff Garcia. Collins' tools probably fit the Jets' offense the best, but Tennessee is going to take a stab at retaining him, so the Jets won't get him for nothing. Leftwich and Garcia are strong possibilities, although the scheme would have to be tweaked to fit their lack of superior arm strength.
Baltimore Ravens: Will the defense retain all of its free agent pieces?
For a minute, it looked possible, with Terrell Suggs talking about hometown discounts and Bart Scott cooing about the defense staying together. But fellow linebacker Ray Lewis basically rained on that parade by insisting that he's not going to take anything less than full market value. The good news for the Ravens is that they have cap space available (more than $18 million) and could move to $35 million in the black by cutting the overpriced deals of cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle. It's unlikely the Ravens will keep all three players, with the likeliest scenario being a re-signing of Lewis and Scott, and losing Suggs. But don't rule out a wild scenario like a potential trade for Julius Peppers, who has expressed a desire to move to a 3-4 scheme.
Johnson only had 53 catches in '08.
(Brett Davis/US Presswire)
Cincinnnati Bengals: Is this the offseason where Chad Johnson finally gets traded?
Those two first-round picks offered by Washington last offseason look a lot better right now. While quarterback issues had something to do with Johnson's statistical plummet, he's also on the wrong side of 30. And unlike other wideouts who flourished late in their careers, he's not a physical freak of nature. In short, you can bet Cincinnati won't get anything close to what was on the table last offseason, and that will translate into Johnson being a Bengal for at least another year. I'd even go a step further and say that Johnson will remain a Bengal as long as Marvin Lewis is head coach (which will likely only be one more season). Unless he returns to elite form this season, he'll likely be out with the potential regime change in 2010.
Cleveland Browns: Is there a long-term answer at quarterback on the roster?
Cleveland will spend 2009 pondering that question again with Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. Despite Anderson being slated to make $7 million next season, the Browns are still in good shape with the cap (about $17 million under) and can afford to take the wait-and-see approach. All indications are that the new staff will let Anderson and Quinn duke it out in the offseason camps and preseason, hoping one of them takes a hold of the starting job. But new coach Eric Mangini hasn't demonstrated a lot of patience with struggling quarterbacks, so if both have a mediocre '09, don't be shocked if Cleveland goes in an entirely new direction next year. That would likely mean Anderson getting dealt or cut next offseason, and Quinn potentially moving to a backup role behind a newcomer. Bottom line, this is a make or break season in Cleveland for both players.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Will free agency gut the offensive line?
The potential is there with tackles Marvel Smith, Max Starks, Trai Essex and guard Chris Kemoeatu set to hit the market. All but Essex are starters. Smith's situation with his back should create enough pause for outside teams that the Steelers get something done with him. Starks might be a little more worrisome should he hit free air. Despite his bouts of inconsistency, his age (27) and experience level will make him a coveted player. He's the epitome of the "it only takes one team to love you" player. Kemoeatu (26 years old) also will get some of that bounce. If all four hit the market, it's highly unlikely the Steelers can keep all of them. It's more likely Pittsburgh reaches long-term deals with Smith and Kemoeatu, then watches Starks go to the highest bidder, and works out a palatable deal that will slide Essex into the starting spot at right tackle.
Houston Texans: Will the Texans add another defensive playmaker this offseason?
Unless he comes with the No. 15 overall pick in the draft, don't count on it. Despite being one of the league's top five teams in salary cap space (around $33 million under after the release of running back Ahman Green and linebacker Morlon Greenwood), the Texans aren't expected to use those bullets on a Julius Peppers or a Terrell Suggs. Instead, the team is studying the blueprint of the Super Bowl champion Steelers, who have drafted well and rewarded their players, and then plucked supplementary players from the middle rounds. Some decent money could be spent on an outside linebacker – perhaps Baltimore's Bart Scott, if he doesn't get too pricey – but expect a healthy batch of mid-level signings. As for that first-round pick, the Texans should definitely have a shot at a linebacker in a draft that will be rich at that position.
Caldwell, right, has the luxury of having Manning lead the offense.
(Mike Conroy/AP Photo)
Indianapolis Colts: How will Jim Caldwell sustain Tony Dungy's success?
The answer to this depends on how you feel about the shakeups in the assistant coaching staff. More often than not, when a coach retires amidst success and his replacement is found within the staff, many of the other assistants will remain in place. Caldwell has only partially stuck to that formula of continuity, with defensive coordinator Ron Meeks and special teams coach Russ Purnell having left the staff. Purnell wasn't a surprise, but Meeks' departure was interesting. With an overwhelming amount of money invested in the offense, Meeks' units were typically pretty good as long as they remained healthy. Injuries to the defensive line and Bob Sanders hurt the Colts now and then over the last few years, but that also speaks to the lack of financial investment in defensive depth. Now, Meeks is replaced by Larry Coyer, an intriguing veteran coach who had a very respectable run as the Broncos defensive coordinator from 2003-06. But Coyer also had a wealth of highly paid defensive stars on those teams. With Peyton Manning eating up an absurd $21.2 million of the Colts' salary cap, there won't be any major defensive additions this offseason. Undoubtedly, Caldwell has put his stamp on the coaching staff around him. And with a cast of players that will remain largely the same, it's those changes that should prove whether he can keep pace with the Dungy standard.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Will Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves make major strides this offseason?
There was no way to control the injuries on the offensive line that devastated the Jaguars over the length of the season, but the performance of a largely healthy defense in 2008 was very problematic – particularly from a pass rushing standpoint. A big part of that were the lackluster debuts of Harvey and Groves, Jacksonville's first- and second-round picks in the 2008 draft. The pair provided six sacks but was expected to produce much, much more. They key this year will be Harvey having a full offseason of work (a protracted contract holdout stunted his progress last season), and Groves getting stronger at the point of attack so he's not so vulnerable in running situations. But the addition of Mel Tucker as defensive coordinator might be an even bigger key. With his experience in the 3-4 alignment, you can bet the Jaguars will see some different wrinkles with their defensive ends. That means Harvey and Groves will likely be pushed further outside at the line of scrimmage, utilizing their speed and stretching the space opposing offensive tackles have to cover.
Tennessee Titans: Will Albert Haynesworth and Kerry Collins return?
Haynesworth is priority No. 1, and it doesn't look great at this point. Typically a team's first offer is a good gauge on how quickly a deal could get done, and a league source said last week the two sides were on "opposite sides of the ballpark." The source indicated there was still plenty of time to get something done and that significant progress could be made at the league's annual scouting combine later this month. But one thing seems clear: With the amount of cap space floating around in free agency, it's highly unlikely Haynesworth ends up in Tennessee if he hits the open market. As for Collins, there doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency to get something done, and talks could potentially drag into the opening salvo of free agency.
Denver Broncos: Will the defense be repaired in one offseason?
A full repair is a lot to ask, but the Broncos have a shot to improve fast with a switch to a permanent 3-4 alignment. That change is all but certain, considering the new head coach (Josh McDaniels), new defensive coordinator (Mike Nolan) and new defensive line coach (Wayne Nunnely) all have extensive experience in 3-4 systems. The upshot of the move is that Denver already has some dead-weight personnel that could be reinvigorated with the change, namely defensive ends Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder. First- and second-round picks, respectively, in 2007, both those players had been written off as virtual busts at the end of last season. However, their skill sets tend to make them better fits in a 3-4 setting. Crowder's size and strength make him a more natural 3-4 defensive end, allowing him to rely more on holding the point of attack than having to constantly use his average speed to play upfield. Meanwhile, Moss will be moved to an outside linebacker spot, where he can use his speed, length and athleticism in space. The transition will take time, but almost any results would be better than what the 4-3 look produced last season.
Johnson has expressed a desire to be traded.
(Jamie Squire/AP Photo)
Kansas City Chiefs: Can Todd Haley and Larry Johnson coexist?
The Chiefs running back has a history of extreme sensitivity, and new coach Todd Haley has a well-publicized history of pushing players to their limit. In some situations, Haley's critical nature led to fracture (see: Terrell Owens). In others (Keyshawn Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald) it made players better. But a source close to Haley said he believes the coach will get Larry Johnson to thrive, largely because Haley believes in Johnson's ability. But two factors are expected to be critical in the relationship: the potential addition of Maurice Carthon as running backs coach (Haley wants him, but the Cardinals may not let Carthon go) and Haley's ability to avoid criticizing Johnson publicly.
Oakland Raiders: Will JaMarcus Russell continue his late-season progress into the offseason?
It's not looking like it. A source close to Russell said the quarterback hoped to do intensive training this offseason to carve down his body fat percentage and improve his agility and mobility. That was expected to begin in earnest after the regular season, but Russell instead headed home to relax in Mobile, Ala. Now he's returned to California and is still suffering pain from bone chips in his ankle. If he has surgery – and the source said it's looking like a certainty – he could be out 4-6 weeks, pushing back his conditioning schedule to April. While that doesn't sound like a significant amount of time, it is. It will essentially mean that Russell will have been down for a minimum of three months by the time he starts working. Then you can shave off a month before training camp, when he'll likely escape for one last respite before the season begins. That means three of the seven offseason months will have been spent on intense physical prep (assuming he actually uses the time wisely). Not exactly an offseason of transformation.
San Diego Chargers: Will LaDainian Tomlinson be a Charger next season?
Unless he takes a pretty significant pay cut, it's unlikely. This already feels like a situation that is going to break down quickly. With no long-term options in the coop, the Chargers really don't want to let their other running back, Darren Sproles, get a chance to test free agency. But it appears fairly unlikely that he'll get a deal worked out before free agency. That means San Diego will have to slap him with the franchise tag, at a cost of $6.62 million. With the team sitting about $15 million south of the salary cap, that's a tough number to swallow if the Chargers can't significantly cut down Tomlinson's cap number. With extension talks expected with quarterback Philip Rivers, linebacker Shawne Merriman and wideout Vincent Jackson, cutting Tomlinson loose and picking up an extra $6.725 million in cap space looks like a very palatable option.