More team needs: AFC
Falling out of playoff contention is never a good thing, though 12 NFL teams have done just that going into the final week of the regular season. But 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 NFC teams that have been knocked out of playoff contention are facing this offseason.
DETROIT LIONS (2-13)
President Matt Millen is under as much fire as ever with the franchise mired in yet another disappointing campaign. And with glaring needs across the board, a roster that has several high-priced performers that do not fit the new staff’s system and a franchise running back that could miss some time next year, the Lions' fortunes could lead them right back to the pole position spot in the 2008 draft.
Based on the initial doctors' reports on Kevin Jones’ recovery period, the Lions could be active in free agency to find a suitable short-term replacement. If offensive coordinator Mike Martz does not leave for a head coaching gig, it is very possible that the Lions would pursue inactive St. Louis back Marshall Faulk about that position.
Ultimately though, the Lions still need a new face and identity, so it should come as no surprise if they were to select Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn and allow veteran Jon Kitna to mentor him the way he did Carson Palmer in Cincinnati.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS (4-11)
Head coach Jon Gruden seems to have avoided the hot seat for one more season thanks in part to the fact that his starting quarterback Chris Simms, re-signed to a two-year deal this week, was lost for most of the season and second-year running back Cadillac Williams performed more like a used Pinto.
It's time for the front office and coaching staff to waive goodbye to some of their aging veterans on defense, starting with former All-Pro defensive end Simeon Rice. They have bulked up at linebacker over the past few years, but could still use a top-flight pass rusher on the outside as well as a cover corner to match the savvy skills of Ronde Barber.
They will have to spend more than expected to retain free agent defensive end DeWayne White. If he were to leave they would need to draft a pair of defensive ends, unless they make a wild free agent move for someone like the Colts' Dwight Freeney.
The staff will likely enter next season with an edict to either reach the playoffs or else, which was one of the primary reasons behind the re-signing of Simms. The two draft prospects that would make the most immediate impact on their current roster would be Michigan defensive tackle Alan Branch or Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Branch would quickly fill the void left when they traded Booger McFarland to the Colts, while Johnson has the frame, physical attributes and perfect attitude to become a good rookie receiver, taking the pressure off of Simms and keeping defensive units from keying on Williams.
ARIZONA CARDINALS (5-10)
Rookie quarterback Matt Leinart gave them every reason to believe that he can make them a legitimate playoff contender if he gets some help from what was a shaky offensive line. They will most certainly lose free agent offensive tackle Leonard Davis, which will create a major void that likely would be addressed in the draft.
The defense played well at times, but the inconsistent ground game and turnovers often left the unit in poor positions, or on the field way too much. The loss of defensive end Bertrand Berry showed how small their talent base was on that side of the ball. They need to get more athletic at linebacker, find another interior run stuffer and potentially add a veteran to the secondary who can get their young prospects to play up to their potential.
Rebuilding an offensive line around Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas would not be a poor choice, although the most important spot on the Cards' line is right tackle since because Leinart is a left-armed quarterback. Another option could be for them to bulk up the middle of their defense with Michigan defensive tackle Alan Branch, or find a sideline-to-sideline playmaker in the mold of Penn State linebacker Dan Connor (if he were to declare for the draft).
WASHINGTON REDSKINS (5-10)
The Redskins are without some of their draft day fire power as they dealt a 2007 third-round pick and 2008 fourth-round choice to get running back T.J. Duckett into the fold.
The impressive play of Ladell Betts in the absence of Clinton Portis gives them a huge chip to use on the open market, as either player could potentially bring back a starter and draft choice, or just a high-round selection. The Texans would probably greatly prefer an established star back over the potential of a rookie that could struggle early to adapt to the NFL game.
Expect to see the Redskins go full steam after Bills free agent cornerback Nate Clements, but they must find a pass rusher and could overpay Baltimore's Adalius Thomas if the 49ers don’t beat them to it.
A good fit for the ‘Skins in the draft would be Florida defensive back Reggie Nelson or LSU safety LaRon Landry, who would serve them well in the fact that they can play more of the center-field role, allowing Sean Taylor to revert to playing with reckless abandon.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS (6-9)
In what seems like an annual ritual, the Vikings appear poised to revamp the defense again and linebacker Napoleon Harris and cornerback Fred Smoot could be two of the players headed elsewhere. Cedric Griffin is expected to take over for Smoot and rookie Chad Greenway is expected to make a full recovery in time to take over for Harris next season.
The new regime (general manager Rick Spielman and coach Brad Childress) could look for a pass rusher to take the place of under-achieving defensive end Kenechi Udeze. They've also soured on wide receiver Troy Williamson, a top-10 pick in 2005. He has found himself deep in the doghouse after several crucial drops earlier this season.
With Tarvaris Jackson set to take over at quarterback, another item on the agenda could be to find him a tight end that could help open things up in the middle of the field.
The Vikings will be picking towards the back end of the top 10 depending on how the games turn out this weekend. That could put them in position for a premier receiver like Calvin Johnson or Ohio State’s Ted Ginn Jr., or Arizona State tight end Zach Miller if he declares.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS (6-9)
Head coach Mike Nolan is searching for a true nose tackle for his 3-4 scheme, as well as a primary target on the outside to match with his strong ground attack and playmaking tight end. The 49ers are not athletic enough at linebacker, but would show great strides if Manny Lawson becomes a 10-sack performer next season or if Nolan chases after his former protégé Adalius Thomas in free agency.
Georgia Tech's Johnson likely won't be around when the 49ers draft, so they could focus on either Ginn, Jr., who would also provide them with an instant playmaker on special teams or USC’s Dwayne Jarrett if he declares early and runs well at his workouts.
They still have a bit of a glaring need in the secondary, but it seems as if they would prefer to fill those voids with a veteran or two via free agency. They added a solid offensive tackle last offseason, but injuries have once again plagued them in this area. Although they have a few options available, the 49ers would be best served to find a Nick Mangold-type interior blocker and leader to build around.