Inside Slant: Ten offseason storylines

February, 3, 2014
2/03/14
1:00
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Johnny Manziel, Colin Kaepernick and Cam NewtonGetty ImagesQBs like Johnny Manziel, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton will play a big role in offseason storylines.
Close the book. The NFL's 2013 season is over, the Seattle Seahawks are Super Bowl champions and the rest of the league is already scouring their methods in hopes of emulating their success.

(Good luck. The Seahawks win with dominant personnel, collected over a period of four years, rather than an easily copied scheme. Their average age is 26.4 years, fourth-youngest in the NFL this season, and the league's collective bargaining agreement gives them one more year paying quarterback Russell Wilson minimum NFL wages.)

What else is on tap for the next six months? Let's run through 10 themes we can expect to course through the NFL offseason.

1. Quarterback lock-ins: Timing and/or salary-cap issues mean it is time for four and perhaps five teams to commit to their starters.

The Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton and the San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick have passed the three-year moratorium required under the CBA. Without new deals they would be underpaid next season at $3.4 million and $1.1 million, respectively.

The New York Giants likely will want to bring down Eli Manning's projected cap figure of $20.4 million, and the Pittsburgh Steelers appear ready to extend Ben Roethlisberger beyond his 2015 expiration. The Cincinnati Bengals' Andy Dalton, meanwhile, has one year remaining on his rookie deal. Coach Marvin Lewis and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson support his return, pointing to at least a modest extension and raise from his $1.9 million scheduled salary.

2. Quarterback identification: It's reasonable to list at least seven teams whose starting quarterback is in doubt for 2014.

The Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Cleveland Browns and Minnesota Vikings are all strong candidates to draft a starting-caliber quarterback. The Tennessee Titans' commitment to Jake Locker, who has missed 14 games in the past two seasons because of injuries, is unclear under new coach Ken Whisenhunt. The Oakland Raiders, meanwhile, seem poised to look beyond Terrelle Pryor and Matt McGloin for additional help.

3. Manziel Derby: Need a starting quarterback? The following is a partial list of veteran players who might become available: Michael Vick, Matt Schaub, Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder and Josh McCown. Good luck to all involved. The message: Draft, develop and be patient with both the quarterback and the coaches hired to guide them.

For those unsatisfied with that list, get ready for the offseason of Johnny Manziel. Despite the presence of South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, 2014 draft discussion will start with the former Texas A&M quarterback. He is the buzz player of this draft.

The recent success of smaller NFL quarterbacks with strong scrambling skills has elevated Manziel's value, and a weaker-than-expected class of quarterbacks makes him as attractive as any other signal-caller. The Texans have the No. 1 overall pick and need a quarterback. If they don't draft Manziel, whom will they take? Clowney? And then who will get Manziel? You're going to hear those questions a few million times between now and …

4. May draft: That's right. The draft will be held May 8-10, two weeks later than normal. The league cited scheduling conflicts at Radio City Music Hall for the change, but it was announced after several reports suggesting the league was considering a more radical change of its offseason schedule.

According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, the league has considered an offseason in which the scouting combine would be moved from February to March, the start of free agency from March to April and then the draft from April to May. That would spread out the league's offseason "big ticket" items for publicity purposes, but for now consider the draft pushback a convenient trial run. Just what the world needs: Two more weeks of draft prognostication!

5. Miami Dolphins resolution and fallout: With the 2013 season now fully complete, the NFL's independent investigation of bullying and abuse charges within the Dolphins' locker room is expected to be released -- perhaps as early as next week. The futures of Dolphins offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, among others, are in the balance.

You can expect some kind of formal reaction from the NFL, if for no other reason than to protect itself legally from future complaints. Speaking last week, commissioner Roger Goodell said he wants players to get back to a position of respect. "It's respect for each other, respect for the game, respect for your organization, respect for your opponents and game officials. ... I do expect changes as we go forward. Maybe not as much in policy as it is in making sure we provide that professional kind of workplace."

6. Officiating analysis: An especially rocky year for officiating will lead to a deep offseason discussion about its future. Possibilities include hiring more full-time referees, streamlining the rulebook and adjusting instant replay.

At the very least, it appears the NFL is ready to include members of the league office on live replay reviews. Goodell said last week that the final decisions on calls might still rest with on-field referees. But, he added, "there's a possibility that some version of that will occur where our office can at least be involved with the decision." The NFL's competition committee is expected to review the possibilities and make a recommendation prior to the annual owners meeting in March.

7. Expanded playoffs: It probably won't happen for next season, but Goodell's public optimism on expanding the playoff field to 14 teams means it is only a matter of time before the NFL implements this change. "There's a lot of benefits to doing that," Goodell said last week. "We think we can make the league more competitive. We think we can make the matchups more competitive towards the end of the season. There will be more excitement, more memorable moments for our fans. That's something that attracts us. We think we can do it properly from a competitive standpoint."

At the very least, logistical planning will accelerate in the coming months, likely culminating in a proposal from the competition committee to be voted on this spring and enacted perhaps for 2015.

[+] EnlargeReggie McKenzie
AP Photo/Ben LiebenbergGM Reggie McKenzie should have over $60 million in salary-cap space, so the Raiders could make a splash in free agency.
8. Salary capanomics: We might not know the precise figure for the 2014 salary cap until early March, but it should be within a range of $123 million to $128 million. Regardless, discussion on free-agent spending should probably begin with -- yes -- the Oakland Raiders.

After two years spent in cap purgatory, the Raiders will enter the offseason with only about half of their 2014 cap accounted for -- and that's before any adjustments or credit from the previous year. They will have between $60 million and $65 million to spend, if they choose.

Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie is a disciple of conservative Green Bay Packers counterpart Ted Thompson, so an irresponsible spending spree seems unlikely unless demanded by owner Mark Davis. But with McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen entering the third year of their tenures, the urgency to win in 2014 is significant.

9. Steelers overhaul? Although they rebounded from a poor start in 2013 to win six of their final eight games, the Steelers have missed the playoffs for two consecutive years. Their defense is getting old and expensive.

Linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, along with defensive backs Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor, are scheduled to count a combined $47 million against the 2014 salary cap. You wonder if it's time for the Steelers to start adding and subtracting on a larger scale.

10. Whither Gronk? New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski had surgery last month to repair his torn ACL and MCL. Preliminary timelines suggest he could be ready for the start of the 2014 season, but Gronkowski's multiple issues -- arm and back included -- make him a walking med school exam.

The difference between the Patriots' offense with and without Gronkowski was stark, and the Patriots must decide whether to plan for his full and immediate return or if they must fortify their skill positions in the passing game from elsewhere.

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