And so the long NFL off-season begins.
But while the opening kick of the 2013 NFL season may still be almost seven months away, there are going to be plenty of intriguing headlines to keep us entertained in the coming weeks.
With the NFL Combine, NFL Draft, Free Agency, mini-camps and training camps on the calendar, all 32 NFL teams are going to be extremely busy during the off-season and it should be noted that this is an important period for every single team in the league.
Having said that, here are 10 clubs who face vital off-seasons in 2013…
The Texans reached the Divisional Round of the AFC playoffs this past season and were on course for home-field advantage in the post-season before a late swoon. They remain a talented team but face a tricky off-season if they are to avoid having their Super Bowl window of opportunity firmly shut.
The Texans go into free agency with the potential of losing up to 20 of their own players and 11 key defenders, including outside linebacker Connor Barwin, free safety Glover Quin, inside linebacker Bradie James and nose tackle Shaun Cody.
Houston also face the prospect of losing free agent fullback/tight end James Casey and still lack a decent number two receiver opposite Andre Johnson. There are lots of questions to be answered in Houston this off-season.
The Dolphins surprised a few people by finishing the 2012 campaign with a 7-9 record but now they will be expected to kick on and improve in Joe Philbin’s second year in charge.
Miami saw enough out of rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill to offer hope for a bright future, but they sorely need to surround him with talent. The Dolphins lack depth at wide receiver, a playmaker at tight end and they have a decision to make on the long-term future of oft-banged-up left tackle Jake Long, who is seeking a new and, no doubt, expensive contract.
The Dolphins will be in a position to address some of their needs – they have $44 million in salary cap space (third-highest in the NFL) and will be well aware that free agency could present them with wide receivers such as Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace or Dwayne Bowe, or a stretch-the field tight end in the form of Dustin Keller or Jared Cook. Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland also own five of the first 100 picks in April’s NFL Draft. They will need to use them wisely!
New York Jets
The Jets have a new general manager in John Idzik and saw 10 coaches from last year fired but the same old questions surround head coach Rex Ryan and this well-publicised franchise… who is going to provide the stellar play from the quarterback position and where are the explosive playmakers on offense?
The Jets may be stuck with Mark Sanchez for 2013 due to the nature of his hefty contract but they could lose free agent tight end Dustin Keller and running back Shonn Greene.
While the Jets need offensive impetus, of more importance will be the future of Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis. He is seeking an expensive, long-term deal and the Jets may be willing to listen to trade offers for arguably the best defender in the game.
New Orleans Saints
How quickly can Sean Payton re-assert his authority on a Saints team that was hampered by the Bountygate scandal in 2012 and won just seven games while he was banned from the NFL?
Payton will be expected to earn every cent of his expensive contract extension and should be able to get Drew Brees playing at a high level again in 2013. Brees was his usual prolific self in terms of yards and touchdowns in 2012 but he did turn the ball over too many times with 19 interceptions. He should be a much happier quarterback with Payton back on the sidelines.
But the problems in New Orleans largely revolve around a defense that shipped an NFL record 7,042 yards in 2012 and looked incapable of tackling a crossword. For new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who looks set to introduce the 3-4 defense to New Orleans, surely the only way is up?
The reigning Super Bowl champions are going to have quite a bit of roster tinkering to do in order to be in a position to repeat – or even come close - in 2013. This off-season is going to test talented general manager Ozzie Newsome to the absolute limit.
The retirement of locker room leader Ray Lewis aside, the Ravens have serious issues in terms of keeping their roster intact with 22 key performers entering free agency. Baltimore are $5 million over the 2013 salary cap and have to find a way to tie down Super Bowl MVP quarterback Joe Flacco to a long-term deal.
Other free agents who may be tempted to test their market value include linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, cornerback Cary Williams and safety Ed Reed. The Ravens may also want to re-structure the contract of star wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who is due to earn $6 million in 2013.
The Jags are starting from scratch under a new general manager in David Caldwell and a new head coach in Gus Bradley and they plan to build their roster through the NFL Draft and not through the acquisition of high-priced free agents.
Clearly, the London-bound Jags need to upgrade on the offensive side of the ball, although they could also use a pass-rusher on defense. They also need to make sure that star rusher Maurice Jones-Drew is healthy and happy.
Bradley made his coaching bones on defense but now he needs to answer that seemingly-perennial question in Jacksonville – do we have a potential star quarterback on our roster in Blaine Gabbert or do we need to go and find one?
The hiring of new head coach Chip Kelly has the hard-to-please fans in Philadelphia excited about the future of their club, even though no one knows at this stage how much of his fast-paced Oregon attack will be implemented into the NFL next season.
As Kelly adapts to life in the NFL and seemingly surrounds himself with dozens of assistant coaches, he must quickly decide on the future of quarterback Michael Vick. That, in turn, will lead to questions about Nick Foles and whether he can run the kind of offense Kelly is likely to introduce.
Turnover after frustrating turnover consigned the Eagles to a disappointing 4-12 campaign in 2012. They remain a very talented team and one that is about to become even more exciting to watch – but there are so many unanswered questions surrounding the quarterback position as we enter this crucial off-season.
The Redskins are clearly a team on the rise and head into the off-season as the 2012 NFC East champions. But they also head into the spring and summer with an entire fan base holding its collective breath.
Washington were rejuvenated under the stewardship of rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. He lit up the NFL with accurate passing and breath-taking running ability. But he ended the year in gruesome fashion, badly injuring his knee during a playoff loss to Seattle.
After undergoing an operation to repair torn knee ligaments, RGIII faces a race against time to be fit for the Redskins’ Week 1 opener in September. That makes the coming months – and the health of their quarterback – vital for the future of this franchise.
Over many years in the NFL, Bruce Arians has developed a reputation as one of the finest ‘quarterback whisperers’ in the game. But now he has taken over as head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, there is a genuine fear that his whispering will fall upon deaf ears.
Arians must use the coming months to find out if he has the answer at quarterback on his roster in the form of Kevin Kolb, John Skelton or Ryan Lindley. If not, he has to address the situation in the NFL Draft or maybe make a play via trade for somebody like Alex Smith or Matt Flynn (there are not many free agent options outside of Flacco this year).
In addition to the quarterback position, Arians must upgrade a moribund offensive line. If he hits the jackpot at quarterback and along the O-line in the coming off-season, Arians could repeat as NFL Coach of the Year in 2013. For now, those are big ‘ifs’ and the Cardinals remain a team with sizeable issues to address.
The Bengals failed to really grow as a team in 2012. Sure, they were good and reached the playoffs for the second year in a row, but did they really improve drastically on 2011? Did they take that all-important step forward? I would argue that they did not.
Cincinnati could use a few more offensive weapons – as evidenced by their low-scoring playoff exits to Houston in each of the past two seasons – and will be a reported $50 million under the salary cap heading into the 2013 free agency signing period.
The Bengals have never been a team to break the bank in terms of player contracts, but surely investment is needed to add some spark to an already-talented team? Just look at what a decent financial investment did for the Tampa Bay offense this season through the acquisition of free agent wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Could the Bengals go a similar route and pay handsomely for offensive playmakers in the form of wide receiver Mike Wallace and running back Reggie Bush? They wouldn’t get too many arguments from quarterback Andy Dalton if that were the case.