Early jump on '07

John Murphy

More team needs: NFC

Falling out of playoff contention will never be a good thing, though 12 NFL teams have done just that going into the final week. The blow of knowing that Week 17 is nothing more than a reminder of a disappointing campaign is cushioned slightly by the prospect of finishing with a top-10 pick in April's NFL draft.

To that end, here is an early look at what the six AFC teams that have been knocked out of playoff contention are facing this offseason. A look at NFC team needs will run on Friday.

The Raiders' struggles have come on the offensive side of the ball. They enter this weekend as the leagues lowest-scoring team (11 points per game). Poor quarterback performance, injuries, an underachieving offensive line and a lack of firepower at running back, wide receiver and tight end have led to these disastrous results.

Besides having former offensive lineman Art Shell as head coach, the Raiders have molding the teams line Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater and long-time former player Irv Eatman. However, their impressive credentials haven't led to positive results and the coaching staff's future is uncertain as rumors of Shell's demise at season's end have swirled.

Expect to see tackle/guard Barry Sims released before his bonus comes up, which could be the same case for running back LaMont Jordan and wide receiver Ronald Curry. However, the Raiders would like to have Curry back since it is likely that they will part ways with receivers Jerry Porter and/or Randy Moss.

In addition to changes at quarterback, offensive line and receiver, the Raiders also could be looking for a pass-catching tight end and better speed in the backfield. Backup running back Justin Fargas is a solid change-of-pace guy, but in a division that features LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson, a new full-time starter is needed.

The front office has invested a high draft choice in Andrew Walter, so considering a quarterback in the top five picks would suggest they're giving up on him as the long-term answer. Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn is going to look very tempting. He would surely bring some excitement to a fan base that probably has little reason to believe next year will be much better.

Quinn has the perfect combination of leadership, toughness and experience to jump into a starting role early in his career, but may lack that gunslinger mentality and pure arm strength to fit into the teams vertical passing scheme. However, they would be wise to steer clear of investing in another first-round offensive lineman like Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas after the rocky starts by both center Jake Grove and tackle Robert Gallery.

The best moves would be to rid themselves of the malcontents, energize a few position coaches and bring a new face to the Silver & Black that can have the type of impact that Vince Young has had on the Titans over the past few months.

General manager Phil Savage has given head coach Romeo Crennel a vote of confidence. Now he needs to give his roster a talent boost if the Browns have any plans to get out of the AFC North cellar in 2007. Savage locked onto pass rushing specialist Kamerion Wimbley during last year's Senior Bowl practices and he has rewarded them with a 10-sack rookie campaign.

The teams front lines are still the weakness of the roster, although a ground-and-pound running back and shutdown corner would also help increase their shot at success next season.

Cleveland is hopeful that the recent trend of injuries and insubordination will subside in the offseason, but with wide receiver Braylon Edwards spouting off, tight end Kellen Winslow unable to practice most of the year with his bad knee and not one quarterback on the roster looking like the next coming of Mike Pagel, let alone Bernie Kosar, it puts the front office in the crosshairs.

Several older veterans will become cap casualties, but the most pressing areas of concern are up front as they need a healthy return of All-Pro center LeCharles Bentley, as well as a talent influx at both offensive tackle and interior defensive line.

The Browns will be contenders in free agency for guys like Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith (assuming he's a salary cap casualty) and Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, so if one of those spots is immediately addressed, they'll turn to the draft to fill other holes.

Should a guy like Wisconsin's Thomas fall to them, it would be a wise addition, but they first have to agree to commit to the use of Charlie Frye at quarterback, since they could very well have at least one top-rated signal-caller available.

The Texans' up-and-down season, which has featured a pair of wins against the Jacksonville Jaguars and one against the Indianapolis Colts, leaves the franchise with many of the same questions as last offseason. The biggest issues: Is David Carr the long-term answer at quarterback, and is there a franchise running back on the roster?

The Texans will get back former 1,000-yard rusher Domanick Davis from a season-ending knee injury, and they are hopeful that rookie offensive tackle Charles Spencer will be back to 100 percent after suffering a major leg injury early in the year. However, Carr's lackluster playmaking ability is what seems to have first-year coach Gary Kubiak most frustrated. Carr has a career-best 68.6 completion percentage, but his critical thinking and ability to get them into the red zone – perhaps best evidenced by a 1:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio – have not improved enough to warrant another 16 games.

Carr is owed nearly $12 million over the next two years, but there is speculation that owner Bob McNair will endorse either a trade or outright release between now and March 1. The team could turn to a veteran like Jake Plummer or Jeff Garcia in the offseason since both fit Kubiak's scheme.

Second on Houston's offseason list is figuring out the backfield situation, although Ron Dayne's late-season comeback is going to make it hard for a Mike Shanahan-taught staff to invest a top-five pick in a running back like Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson.

One thing hurting the Texans is a lack of a true identity. They need a veteran presence on the offensive line, as well as a safety that can make plays rather than just avoid making big mistakes. If they were to deal down in the draft, LSU safety LaRon Landry would fill that hole perfectly.

One of the biggest off-field questions will revolve around the health of last year's top overall choice, defensive lineman Mario Williams, whom several teammates have indicated might need surgery to repair an injured toe that has hampered him since he arrived with the team.

The Dolphins expected their hot streak from the end of 2005 to continue this season, but were stricken with Daunte Culpepper's poor play and then season-ending injury. Joey Harrington replaced him and played well in spots, but still struggled with turnovers as the Dolphins failed to recover from a slow start and will finish with a top-10 draft choice.

Coach Nick Saban seems to be on the fence about returning, although he continues to deny an interest in Alabama. Miami's defense was revitalized by end Jason Taylor and linebacker Zach Thomas, but their age is becoming an issue and several of the young defenders they have drafted have yet to pan out as full-time starters.

The offensive line has played better at times, but they have rotated interior linemen at a dizzying pace. They could be in the market for a player like Wisconsin's Thomas, who would firm up their left side for the next 10 years, but also seem to have the question of what comes next at quarterback.

The Dolphins passed on a chance to make a move in this year's draft for a young signal-caller. However, it's possible they could unload Culpepper without suffering too much of a cap hit.

The potential to add Brady Quinn or possibly Drew Stanton in the first round is something that the front office will need to decide upon early. Having seen what a fresh-faced quarterback can do for a franchise, Miami's fan base seems to have lost interest in Culpepper.

All parties involved have to be excited with the rapid improvement shown by quarterback J.P. Losman, who finally has found the confidence he had at Tulane and rallied his team into a second-half push that resulted in brief wild-card contention.

The Bills have plenty of offensive weapons, but come up short along the offensive line, although they came up lame the last time they spent a high draft choice on a front-line blocker (Mike Williams). The new regime (general manager Marv Levy and head coach Dick Jauron) believes that you build a strong line, firm up the middle of your defense and then allow your playmakers to, well, make plays.

They are very comfortable with transformed tight end Jason Peters manning the left side of the line, but could slide him back to right tackle – a position he played well two years ago. A veteran interior lineman is likely on the offseason free-agent list, so the draft would be geared towards either finding a replacement for cornerback Nate Clements, who is expected to leave for greener pastures, or adding another pass rusher who can increase pressure to offset losing their best cover man.

A handful of underclass defenders are seeking their NFL grade and could position themselves to be among the most desirable cornerbacks in the draft, led by Pittsburgh's Darrelle Revis, Arizona's Antoine Cason and even Florida's Reggie Nelson, who some evaluators feel could play cornerback in a Cover 2.

If the Bills were to move down in the draft, they could position themselves to take one of the most versatile defenders in the draft: Utah's Eric Weddle, who also brings the character and intangibles that Levy likes in a prospect.

Nothing has gone according to plan in the Steelers' title defense, and longtime coach Bill Cowher could opt out of the final year of his contract. The Steelers would likely hire from within at that point, but have a few areas of concern in order to rebound into AFC title contention.

They have enough core talent on both sides of the ball, starting with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Willie Parker. The offensive line might be tinkered with, but it is not a pressing need, although they are sure to locate a bigger, between-the-tackles runner for short-yardage situations either in free agency or the draft.

Expect the Steelers to concentrate their draft efforts on the defensive side of the ball, as they could release starting defensive end Aaron Smith for cap reasons. They have yet to groom a future replacement for outside linebacker Joey Porter and have not gotten consistent play out of their cornerbacks.

Of the six AFC teams mentioned, the Steelers are in the best shape, so dealing down in the draft to accumulate a pair of young defenders might fit best in the big picture. Clemson defensive end/outside linebacker Gaines Adams, Utah defensive back Eric Weddle and Nebraska defensive end/outside linebacker Jay Moore are three players who possess the skill set and intangibles the Steelers look for.