NFL Nation: 2012 NFC One big question

Saints: One big question

May, 3, 2012
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Is there any hope after the bounty scandal?

Going an entire season without coach Sean Payton is far from ideal. But, aside from that, the Saints -- by planning, luck or a combination of the two -- didn’t come out of this horrid offseason with nearly as many offseason problems as they could have.

Really, all they're losing as far as personnel is defensive end Will Smith for the first four games of the season. Yeah, I know linebacker Jonathan Vilma has been suspended for the entire season. With all due respect to Vilma, he was a great player a few years ago, but he’s on the downside of his career and the Saints upgraded when they signed free-agent Curtis Lofton. Just for insurance, they also signed linebackers David Hawthorne and Chris Chamberlain. Throw the new guys in with Scott Shanle, Martez Wilson, Jonathan Casillas and Will Herring, and the Saints are stronger at linebacker than they were last season.

If new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can figure out a way to generate a pass rush without Smith (and improve it when he returns), the Saints will be just fine on defense. We already know they’re just fine on offense, assuming quarterback Drew Brees’ contract situation gets worked out. There might be a few more weeks or months of drama on that end, but I don’t see any way the Saints go into the season without Brees' having a long-term deal.

Get Brees back in there, and the Saints could combine marketing campaigns with the NBA’s Hornets, who were just purchased by Saints owner Tom Benson. The Saints truly are a hornet’s nest right now. They (and their fans) are steaming mad at the NFL, the media and pretty much everyone outside of their world. You can see an “us-against-the-world mentality’’ building. As motivational ploys go, that’s not a bad one. Oh, here's a little more motivation. The Super Bowl is in New Orleans. The Saints and their fans could show up the NFL if they make it to the Super Bowl.

Cardinals: One big question

May, 3, 2012
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Can the Arizona Cardinals' defense maintain the growth it showed late last season, outpacing whatever gains the San Francisco 49ers make on offense?

Joshua Steuter asked that question and a few others via Facebook as part of our ongoing discussion. We could have asked additional questions about Kevin Kolb, John Skelton and the quarterback situation, but we've been having that discussion for nine months already.

The answer to Joshua's question could hinge on a few variables:
  • Dan Williams' recovery: Williams, the Cardinals' first-round draft pick in 2010, is returning from a nasty arm injury suffered against the 49ers late last season. Arizona should remain strong at both defensive end spots. Darnell Dockett and franchise player Calais Campbell are established players. Williams was showing signs of becoming one before the injury. Conditioning can be a concern for him. As a first-round talent, he holds the key to determining whether the Cardinals field one of the best 3-4 fronts in the game.
  • Stewart Bradley's transition: Arizona's coaches had big plans for Bradley heading into last season. They envisioned pairing him with Daryl Washington to get pressure with inside blitzes. Do those dreams live? Bradley struggled with the transition from a 4-3 defense to the 3-4. Paris Lenon beat him out and played well enough to keep the job. Were the Cardinals really that wrong on Bradley? Did the lockout-affected offseason merely delay the transition? The Cardinals will find out for sure this season. They've got a full offseason to make this work. Bradley did take a pay cut.
  • Acho/Schofield progression. The Cardinals were the only NFL team to go through the 2012 draft without selecting a player for their front seven. They had needs on offense, but they also showed faith in some of their emerging defensive players, including outside linebackers Sam Acho and O'Brien Schofield. Acho had seven sacks last season. Schofield had 4.5 sacks. Getting one of those players into double digits would signal the continued development Arizona needs to keep its defense on the upswing.
  • Next step for Peterson: Cornerback Patrick Peterson should take a significant step forward, improving the Cardinals' ability to match up with a reconfigured 49ers receiving corps featuring Randy Moss and Mario Manningham. Peterson scored four touchdowns on punt returns last season. I like his chances to score on defense this season as well. He'll relish a chance to match up with Moss.

The Cardinals' defense held San Francisco to 23 and 19 points last season despite occasionally horrible play from Arizona's offense. The 49ers converted 11 of 48 times on third down against Arizona, including 3 of 17 times during the Cardinals' Dec. 11 victory over San Francisco.

I'm expecting Arizona's defense to keep pace in this matchup.

Eagles: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Can we trust the Philadelphia Eagles this time?

The Eagles were, as you'll recall, the stars of the 2011 offseason. The lockout ended, and they started spending and signing. Coming off a 2010 division title season during which quarterback Michael Vick had emerged as one of the best players in the league, the Eagles believed they were going to be awesome. Instead, they were one of the league's biggest 2011 flops. Radical changes on the coaching staff and with the defensive personnel failed to come together as quickly and effectively as the Eagles believed they would. They started out 1-4 and never recovered. This offseason, they've been more measured, expressing the belief that the 2011 roster was better than it played and deserves a mulligan. They added a great middle linebacker in DeMeco Ryans to address their biggest need, extended the contracts of some of their core players, and are coming off a draft that many have hailed as the best in the league. Once again, they believe they are going to be awesome.

But is it real this time? Will Nnamdi Asomugha play to his all-pro pedigree in his second Philadelphia season? Will former offensive line coach Juan Castillo's second year as defensive coordinator be free from the growing pains of his first? Will the Eagles be tougher against the run? And perhaps most importantly, will Vick be more responsible with the ball? Because as much as the defensive lapses coast the Eagles in the early part of the 2011 season, the turnovers on offense might have been even costlier. The Eagles might not need the brilliant, electrified 2010 version of Vick, but they do need a version that's more careful and responsible -- with the ball and with his own body -- than the one that played for them in 2011.

Any and all of these things could happen. With all of their problems, the 2011 Eagles still finished 8-8, only one game out of first place in the NFC East. So it's not as though there's some huge mountain to climb to get into the playoffs. But owner Jeffrey Lurie was clearly upset about the way the high hopes of 2011 fizzled, and if the 2012 Eagles disappoint, this could be the first time in Andy Reid's tenure as head coach that his job is legitimately in jeopardy. There's a lot riding on this Eagles season for a lot of people. They didn't do much to correct last year's problems, having sold ownership and fans on the idea that they would correct themselves because of the talent on the roster. That's a big bet to make, and for the sake of Reid and the rest of the folks in charge in Philadelphia, it had better pay off.

Giants: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Did the New York Giants get better?

History will make it easy to forget that the 2011 Giants were a 9-7 team that needed to win its final game of the season just to make the playoffs. Sure, they won the Super Bowl, and if you do that it doesn't matter how close you came to not getting the chance. But if the goal is to do it again (as I'm certain it is in the minds of those who play for and run the Giants), then it's fair to assume they'll need more than nine regular-season wins this time. So the question is not whether they've done enough to make themselves better than they were in January and February but whether they've done enough to make themselves better than they were from September to December.

The Giants are incredibly strong at certain key positions, such as quarterback, wide receiver and defensive end. They are wise to prioritize those positions, because in today's NFL, being ultra-strong in those areas can help you cover weaknesses in others. But that's not to say they can allow weaknesses elsewhere on the roster to fester, and that's part of the reason they took a running back in the first round and a wide receiver in the second. Will David Wilson be an upgrade over the 2011 version of Brandon Jacobs? Probably someday but not necessarily right away. Will Rueben Randle be an upgrade over the 2011 version of Mario Manningham? Maybe someday but not necessarily right away. Will the offensive line be better with Will Beatty back at left tackle and David Diehl replacing Kareem McKenzie at right tackle? Depends, in part, on whether Kevin Boothe can play as well as he did at left guard in December and January, and whether David Baas and Chris Snee can play better than they did at center and right guard.

The Giants don't panic, and they shouldn't. They have ample proof that their faith in themselves to replenish the roster and regenerate a contending team on the fly is fully justified. But they have a lot of questions to answer in the offseason and in training camp. They don't know whether Terrell Thomas can come back fully healthy and be the emerging star cornerback he was before last summer's knee injury. They don't know whether Corey Webster can repeat his career year. They don't know who the starting middle linebacker is, or how the alignment will work around newcomer Keith Rivers. They don't know whether Osi Umenyiora is going to hold out. They have questions at tight end, and elsewhere on the offense. The Giants don't know, right now, whether they're better than the team that won the division at 9-7 and then got on a roll and won it all. They've done the best they could this offseason to try to make themselves so, but they don't know yet whether they have.

Falcons: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Did the Falcons do enough to get tough enough up front?

The Falcons went hard after offensive linemen in the draft. They took Wisconsin guard/center Peter Konz in the second round and Southern Mississippi tackle Lamar Holmes in the third. They also added guard Vince Manuwai in free agency.

The plan seems to be to throw Konz and Manuwai out there with guard Justin Blalock, center Todd McClure, guard Garrett Reynolds and guard/center Joe Hawley. The Falcons will let them all compete in training camp and and then decide which combination gives them the best interior. Konz probably will emerge as a starter, and either he or Hawley could replace McClure, who is aging fast. That should improve the interior of the offensive line, but what about the outside? Left tackle Sam Baker struggled last season, and the fact that Holmes was sitting there in the third round is a pretty good indicator that he’s not ready to step in and be a stud left tackle.

If the Falcons really are serious about throwing downfield more, they have to give quarterback Matt Ryan more time. The Falcons still may have to add a left tackle (Marcus McNeill) to compete with Baker if they really want to solidify their offensive line.

Speaking of solidifying lines, the Falcons haven’t done much on the defensive side, and that also was a problem area last year. They brought back veteran defensive end John Abraham, but they don’t have any other especially strong pass-rushers. I wouldn’t count on an immediate impact from fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi. Guys like Ray Edwards, Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury have to step up, or the Falcons have to go try to find a pass-rusher in what remains of free agency.

Cowboys: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Have the Dallas Cowboys really fixed their defense?

I'll give them cornerback. With the free-agent signing of Brandon Carr and the surprising trade up in the first round of the draft to pick Morris Claiborne, the Cowboys have worked hard to make sure that this year's starting cornerbacks will be much more difficult for Giants fullbacks to jump over. Assuming Claiborne is the instant-impact guy he was drafted to be, he, Carr, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick make one of Dallas' weakest 2011 units a 2012 strength.

But questions remain at other places on a defense whose total system failure was the sole reason the Cowboys lost four of their last five games and the division title. Is Brodney Pool an upgrade over Abram Elam at safety? Can they get reliable production from that other inside linebacker spot from the combination of Dan Connor and Bruce Carter? Will Anthony Spencer be a more effective pass-rusher? Do they have a plan for limiting the wear and tear on nose tackle Jay Ratliff, to help him maintain a high level of performance throughout the second half of the season?

The Cowboys' active and productive offseason has done nothing to directly address the pass rush. There is a theory that the improvements at cornerback will help the pass rush, since better coverage of receivers could give the men up front more time to get to the passer. And that may well be true. But any and all improvements the Cowboys have made on defense remain theoretical until we see that defense on the field. Last year, the party line in Dallas was that the defensive personnel were good and had underachieved and would improve in the first year under new coordinator Rob Ryan. That turned out not to be the case, and now some of the personnel have been changed. But it remains up to Ryan to put it together as a cohesive unit more capable of stopping opponents than the 2011 version was. Right now, we're taking the Cowboys' word that the new faces are dramatic enough upgrades to pull that off. But aside from the money spent on Carr and the high draft position of Claiborne, there's little outside evidence to support it. More could have been done to improve at safety, outside linebacker and defensive line, and it was not. Although Ryan may be able to make it all work, it's hard to feel too certain about it on May 3.

Buccaneers: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Can Josh Freeman bounce back?

The Tampa Bay quarterback had a dismal 2011 season. He threw 22 interceptions after throwing only six in a promise-filled 2010 season.

So which season is more indicative of what Freeman is capable of doing? The new Tampa Bay coaching staff seems to think the 2010 version was the real Freeman. Ever since Greg Schiano took over as head coach, he and every assistant have been raving about Freeman’s ability. I tend to agree with them, because I think Freeman has all the physical skills and intangibles.

Freeman certainly wasn’t without flaw or fault last season. But I think his problems were the result of the dysfunction all around him. Former coach Raheem Morris and his staff were unraveling, and the weak supporting cast around Freeman got exposed in a big way.

That’s why just about every move Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik have made this offseason seems aimed at making Freeman’s life easier. They got him a true No. 1 receiver in Vincent Jackson. They beefed up his protection by getting Carl Nicks, who might be the best guard in the league. Then, they drafted an all-purpose running back in Doug Martin.

The parts all seem to be in place. Now, it’s up to Freeman to make the most of them.

Bears: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Are the Chicago Bears really set at offensive line?

After two consecutive seasons of patchwork along their offensive line, the Bears have declined to address their personnel in a meaningful way this offseason. They have signed one veteran free agent, little-known guard Chilo Rachal, and did not select a lineman among their six picks in last week's NFL draft.

That suggests the Bears truly do plan to begin training camp with some combination of the players they used last season, a group that will be bolstered by the return of 2011 first-round pick Gabe Carimi. Coach Lovie Smith consistently expressed confidence in the group and after the draft said: Believe me, we want to do everything we can to open up holes for our running backs and of course to protect Jay Cutler and we feel like we'll be able to do that."

No team allowed more sacks per dropback than the Bears over the past two seasons. (One for every 10.5 dropbacks.) The Bears believe their scheme under Mike Martz over that span was more to blame than the skill level of their talent. The success of the Bears' 2012 season might well ride on whether the Bears accurately attributed those problems.

Redskins: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Is Robert Griffin III's supporting cast good enough?

The Washington Redskins have made a big bet on the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Baylor, trading three first-round draft picks and a second-round pick for the right to draft him No. 2 overall last week. He has all of the makings of a star worthy of such a price, but if the Redskins want to make any real noise in the division race in 2012, he's going to need help. Washington spent big early in free agency on wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan, two dynamic young players they believe can grow and develop along with Griffin in Mike Shanahan's offense. But they didn't do much to make immediate improvements to the offensive line. And with Tim Hightower still unsigned, the running game looks a bit short. Griffin's short-term success could ride on the ability of a lot of returning Redskins players to take the next step in their own development.

There are good-looking pieces in place, to be sure. Left tackle Trent Williams, the No. 4 pick in the 2010 draft, returns from his drug suspension to reclaim his spot as the anchor of the line. The Redskins hope that he and tight end Fred Davis, who was the team's best receiver last year but lost those same final four games to a drug suspension as well, have learned their lesson and will be strengths of the offense (rather than ongoing concerns) from now on. Veteran receiver Santana Moss remains on the roster and should be a help to Garcon and Morgan as they work their way into the system. Even Rex Grossman, last year's 20-interception starting quarterback, should be an asset to Griffin, because Grossman understands the offense very well and will be an effective tutor for the rookie as long as Griffin tunes out the parts about throwing the ball to the wrong team.

The Redskins believed they had one of the league's better defenses in 2011, and up front they do appear to be very strong, especially if promising second-year lineman Jarvis Jenkins is recovered from the injury that cost him his rookie season and ageless linebacker London Fletcher continues to perform at his extremely high level. There are questions in the secondary -- both at cornerback and at safety -- that the Redskins hope quantity and competition sort out in training camp, but overall the defense should be solid. The questions are on offense, where a rookie quarterback for whom expectations are high will need his supporting cast to be reliable if the Redskins are to take a step forward and have an outside chance at a playoff spot. In all likelihood, this is another year in the rebuilding process, and what the Redskins and their fans want to see is a clear step in the right direction. For that to happen, the pieces around Griffin will have to do everything they can to make him look as good as possible.

49ers: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Will the San Francisco 49ers approach their turnover differential from last season?

Ken Baker asked the question via Facebook. He's a Seattle Seahawks fan, so the question was probably rhetorical, but there's a broader context worth our attention.

The 49ers were plus-28 in turnover differential last season, a big reason they posted a 13-3 record. Winning the turnover battle most of the time is a reasonable expectation for the 49ers based on how they play defense. It was an even more reasonable expectation last season based on how the 49ers played offense in concert with that defense.

The 2011 49ers risked sacks instead of risking interceptions, trusting their defense and special teams. It usually worked. And the offense did produce in critical moments against New Orleans during the divisional playoff round. But there were signs of trouble all season, especially on third down. The 49ers will have a harder time taking the next step in the playoffs -- reaching the Super Bowl -- without taking the next step on offense.

There should be higher expectations in 2012.

The 49ers have spent the offseason acquiring offensive weapons. They welcomed Randy Moss out of retirement. They signed Brandon Jacobs and Mario Manningham. They used a first-round pick for receiver A.J. Jenkins and a second-rounder for running back LaMichael James. By all appearances, the 49ers want more from their offense.

Spinning off the original question from Ken, I'm curious to see whether the 49ers demand more from quarterback Alex Smith, and whether Smith can deliver more without suffering too many additional turnovers.

The 49ers built flexibility into their new contract with Smith. They have expectations for Colin Kaepernick. How much higher will coach Jim Harbaugh raise the bar on offense?

Lions: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Did the Detroit Lions do enough to address their secondary?

When the offseason began, it was reasonable to lock in two starters among the Lions' defensive backfield: safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston. That left the other two starters open and possibly subject to upgrade after a well-documented collapse of their pass defense.

Four months later, nothing has really changed about that arrangement. Cornerback Eric Wright signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and if there is a safety on the roster who will challenge 2010-11 starter Amari Spievey, he isn't easily identifiable.

It appears the Lions are set to open training camp with oft-injured nickel back Aaron Berry, free agent Jacob Lacey and perhaps Alphonso Smith competing for Wright's former position. Although they drafted three cornerbacks last week, the best-case scenario is probably for third-rounder Dwight Bentley to win the nickel spot.

You can't fill every hole in an offseason, and the Lions' secondary will continue to be protected by one of the best defensive fronts in the game. But there some important questions remaining to be answered.

Panthers: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Can the defense be as good as the offense?

Quarterback Cam Newton and coordinator Rob Chudzinski arrived last year and instantly gave the Panthers the most exciting offense in franchise history. It could have been a special season. It wasn’t, though, and that’s because the defense was dismal.

That had to be hard to take for coach Ron Rivera, a former defensive coordinator. The offense remains pretty much intact, and it has added fullback/running back Mike Tolbert, so there should be plenty of points again next season. But the Panthers have to stop other teams from scoring so much if they really are going to contend in the NFC South.

They took a big step by drafting middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who should start right away. But this offseason wasn’t as much about rebuilding the defense as it was getting key components healthy. Defensive tackle Ron Edwards, whom the Panthers signed last year to fix their run defense once and for all, is expected back at full strength after missing all of last season with an injury.

Linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason also are coming back from injuries that kept them out most of last season. Beason should step right back in as the leader of this defense. Davis is a question mark because he’s coming back from his third torn ACL. Anything Davis can give this defense will be a plus.

But adding Kuechly and getting Beason and Edwards back means the Panthers should be able to put a respectable defense on the field on a consistent basis.

Packers: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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How will the Green Bay Packers replace safety Nick Collins?

There was a noticeable drop-off in the play of the Packers' secondary last season after Collins suffered a neck injury that ultimately led to his release last month. Veteran Charlie Peprah replaced him, but his struggles were one of numerous reasons the Packers set an NFL record in passing yards allowed in 2011.

The Packers didn't sign a replacement via veteran free agency but did draft Maine safety Jerron McMillian in the fourth round of last week's draft. Are they prepared to put a rookie alongside third-year player Morgan Burnett? Or will Peprah get another chance?

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers told reporters last week that he thinks Peprah is better for the experience of replacing Collins in the lineup last season and Burnett in 2010. That suggests he'll get the first opportunity, at least, to win Collins' old job. But it's worth keeping an eye on McMillian, and it's fair to say this position will be the most wide-open spot on the Packers' depth chart when training camp opens.

Vikings: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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Have the Minnesota Vikings put quarterback Christian Ponder in position to succeed in 2012?

Ponder finished his rookie season with a series of injuries and poor decisions, playing behind a patchwork offensive line and with a limited set of weapons in the passing game. The Vikings' short-term future is tied to Ponder's development, so here is what they did for him this offseason:

They drafted Matt Kalil to take over at left tackle, a move that allows Charlie Johnson to move to left guard and accomplishes a significant re-make of the offensive line. They signed pass-catching tight end John Carlson to pair with another smooth pass-catcher, Kyle Rudolph, and signed athletic receiver Jerome Simpson, who will be eligible to play in Week 4. Finally, they drafted a pair of Arkansas receivers in Jarius Wright and Greg Childs.

The idea of having multiple tight end targets makes sense for a young quarterback, and Ponder should have more confidence this season in his backside protection. Percy Harvin and Simpson could pair up as a decent playmaking duo at receiver, but depth remains a question mark. Ponder will be in a better position than he was last season, but the talent around him could still be improved.

Rams: One big question

May, 3, 2012
5/03/12
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What are the St. Louis Rams going to do at outside linebacker?

The team faces other questions coming off a 2-14 season, of course, but that position went largely unaddressed in the draft. St. Louis emerged from the draft with five linebackers on its roster, leaving roughly six or seven spots to fill for training camp.

The Rams used a seventh-round choice for Aaron Brown, a weakside linebacker from Hawaii, but linebackers selected that late would generally project only as special-teams contributors if they earned roster spots at all.

Veteran Jo-Lonn Dunbar, signed from New Orleans in free agency, projects as one starter. Josh Hull, a seventh-round choice in 2010, projects as the other starter until the Rams can further address the position.

James Laurinaitis is a solid starter in the middle. He should fare better in 2012 playing behind recently acquired tackles Kendall Langford (Miami Dolphins) and Michael Brockers (first-round draft choice). He cannot make every play from sideline to sideline, however. He needs help. The Rams desperately need speed on the outside.

After struggling through last season with aging stopgap options ranging from Ben Leber to Brady Poppinga, the Rams have gotten younger at the position. But they have not yet gotten appreciably better. Some of the players they cast aside in previous seasons -- Paris Lenon, Pisa Tinoisamoa and Will Witherspoon come to mind -- would have been better than the players St. Louis wound up relying upon.

At one point in the draft, the Rams traded down from the 45th spot, coming away with running back Isaiah Pead, plus the 150th choice. Philadelphia and Seattle took inside linebackers with the 46th and 47th overall picks. The Rams could have drafted Nebraska's Lavonte David, who went to Tampa Bay at No. 58. But they obviously thought Pead would bring greater value at another position of need.

Teams running 4-3 defenses selected only four projected outside linebackers from the third through fifth rounds, with Jacksonville selecting Nevada's Brandon Marshall at No. 142, eight spots before the Rams chose South Carolina guard Rokevious Watkins.

The bottom line was that St. Louis entered this draft with more needs than the Rams could address with the available picks. Outside linebacker moves nearer the top of their priority list as the roster rebuild enters its next phase.

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