NFL Nation: 2014 next big thing

The next big thing: Redskins

January, 23, 2014
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The first priority for the Redskins is finalizing Jay Gruden's coaching staff and putting together their playbook. After that, here is what they need to do in the next few months:
  1. Figure out who they want to keep. They have a number of free agents, especially on defense. They need to find a way to keep linebacker Brian Orakpo, a pivotal player because he can rush the passer and has become a solid run defender. He'll always flirt with double-digit sack totals and twice has gotten there. The team can always use the franchise tag to keep him around, but he is a priority. They also will want to re-sign inside linebacker Perry Riley. Then there's cornerback DeAngelo Hall, coming off a good season, and backup D-lineman Chris Baker, who contributed late. He showed enough to warrant interest elsewhere.
  2. Who fits up front? With a new offensive system, the Redskins must decide how much they want to reshape the line. The O-line is a smaller group, built for Mike Shanahan's outside zone and stretch zone system. Gruden will still use zone blocking, but he also featured bigger guards at Cincinnati. Kory Lichtensteiger will need to bulk up to stay at guard; perhaps he could move to center. It's tough to make a lot of changes -- at least in the first year of a new regime -- but the Redskins likely will make some.
  3. Spend. The salary-cap penalty is gone. And that means the Redskins will be able to spend -- money has never helped them win a title, but it will enable them to rebuild their defense. They'll have approximately $30 million in salary-cap space; of course, they'll need to spend a decent amount to fill out their defense since six players who started at least seven games are free agents. But the Redskins can be active. Considering they have no first-round pick, that's important. They need to fix their secondary, even if they re-sign Hall. They need to replace retired linebacker London Fletcher and re-sign Orakpo and Riley. They also could use another receiver, especially if Leonard Hankerson's recovery from ACL surgery takes a long time. The good news for Washington is that this draft is deep, especially with bigger cornerbacks.

The next big thing: Vikings

January, 23, 2014
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What appears to be a pivotal offseason for the Minnesota Vikings has already begun with a major change. Mike Zimmer has replaced Leslie Frazier as the head coach, and by all accounts, Zimmer appears to be assembling a heavyweight coaching staff that includes former head coach Norv Turner as his offensive coordinator. But now, the Vikings need to address the other major problem on their roster: quarterback.

The Vikings used three different signal-callers in 2013, at one point changing starters before three consecutive games. They'll have the No. 8 pick in the draft and more than $20 million in cap space with which to attack their need at quarterback, and if the Vikings don't take one in the first round, they'll have three picks in the next two rounds.

Quarterback is far from their only need, though. The Vikings will have to shore up a secondary that was the main culprit in the team's allowing a league-worst 37 touchdown passes last season. They also need to make some decisions about a linebacking corps that is short on playmakers, and if Zimmer decides to run a 4-3 defense, the Vikings will have to determine whether they have enough money to bring back defensive end Jared Allen, who turns 32 in April after carrying a $17 million salary-cap figure in 2013.

An offseason that began with Zimmer's hiring figures to have more big developments coming.

The next big thing: Saints

January, 23, 2014
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It’s not hard to identify the biggest issue for the New Orleans Saints this offseason. Their top priority will be to re-sign unrestricted free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham, either through a long-term deal or the franchise tag. Either one will be groundbreaking since Graham represents the new breed of hybrid tight end/wide receiver in the NFL.

But Graham’s deal isn’t the only one that will keep the Saints busy over the next two months. They’re about $12.5 million over the projected salary cap of $126.6 million – without counting Graham. So they’ll have to release players, work out pay cuts, and restructure deals to make room for the free agents they want to sign. Other full-time players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents are safety Malcolm Jenkins and offensive linemen Zach Strief and Brian De La Puente.

Saints general manager Mickey Loomis insisted the Saints will be prepared since this isn’t their “first rodeo" when it comes to the salary-cap squeeze. And he insisted the Saints will still be aggressive in trying to improve the team. But he admitted their options will be limited.

The next big thing: 49ers

January, 23, 2014
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The 49ers are just settling into their offseason.

San Francisco has advanced to the NFC Championship Game in all three seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. They have lost twice, and advanced to the Super Bowl last season. Moving forward, the objective will be winning a Super Bowl.

Because this team has a big window, the next big thing for the 49ers is securing their long-term health. That means extending the contracts of Harbaugh and quarterback Colin Kaepernick this year. Harbaugh has two years left on his deal and Kaepernick has one year, although he can be franchised after that.

Both Harbaugh and Kaepernick are going to be among the highest-paid men in their respective roles in the NFL. While the talks aren't likely to be simple, both deals will likely get done, and it’s a focal point of the offseason.

The next big thing: Rams

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
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ST. LOUIS --The NFL scouting combine is less than a month away, with free agency set to start soon after, and the St. Louis Rams have much to figure out before the new league year begins.

General manager Les Snead insists his team doesn't have one particular need, other than more experience for his team. That can't come until next season begins, but the Rams have plenty of business matters to tend to before they reach that point.

First and foremost, the Rams have some difficult decisions to make in terms of their salary cap. As it stands, the Rams figure to be right up against next year's salary cap (how close remains to be seen until the new figure is released) and they'll need money to sign a rookie class, any of their own free agents, and any other help via free agency. Likewise, a possible big-money extension for defensive end Robert Quinn looms in the background.

To create some salary-cap flexibility, the Rams will likely hone in on center Scott Wells (2014 cap figure of $6.5 million), guard Harvey Dahl ($4 million) and cornerback Cortland Finnegan ($10 million). Once those decisions are made, the Rams can turn their attention to important in-house free-agent offensive lineman Rodger Saffold.

The next big thing: Bears

January, 23, 2014
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The Chicago Bears took care of some of the heavy lifting by signing quarterback Jay Cutler to an extension, in addition to bringing back guard Matt Slauson, cornerback Tim Jennings and kicker Robbie Gould.

The Bears now need to turn their attention to three areas: their own free agents, unrestricted free agency and the NFL draft, with drastic improvement of the club’s struggling defense as the No. 1 underlying factor. In all, the Bears have 25 free agents they’ve got to decide whether to bring back, a group that includes key players such as center Roberto Garza, cornerback Charles Tillman, defensive tackles Henry Melton, Nate Collins and Jeremiah Ratliff, along with backup quarterback Josh McCown, linebacker D.J. Williams and defensive end Corey Wootton.

Limited salary cap space will be the main hindrance to bringing back some of their own, as well as any plans to improve by making acquisitions on the open market. Bears general manager Phil Emery admitted the club’s cap space will be tight, but added the team should still be able to improve the roster.

The club has ways to free up space, such as converting Cutler’s $22.5 million base salary for 2014 into a signing bonus it can prorate over the life of his deal or asking other veterans such as Julius Peppers, who counts $18,183,333 against the cap in 2014, to restructure.

The next big thing: Eagles

January, 23, 2014
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PHILADELPHIA -- With the draft so far off this year – May! – the next major item on the Eagles’ to-do list is deciding on a strategy for free agency, which begins March 11.

General manager Howie Roseman has repeatedly said the team will continue to avoid huge free-agent deals in favor of making a number of smaller, less risky investments on the open market. That approach brought Connor Barwin, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Donnie Jones last offseason. It also brought Patrick Chung, James Casey and Kenny Phillips, moves that didn’t hamstring the franchise when performance didn’t equal compensation.

Before getting to March 11, though, the first order of business is deciding how to handle the current Eagles with expiring contracts. That group includes Michael Vick, who wants to explore opportunities to start, wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, and safeties Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Colt Anderson.

The Eagles could have extended any of those contracts before now, so they’re clearly willing to risk losing any or all of those players once the market opens. The best guess here is the team will wait and see if the market convinces Cooper, Maclin and Allen that their best option is to remain in Philadelphia on reasonable contracts. If not, then adios.

There are a handful of veteran players whose contracts could dictate some action. Will the Eagles hang on to players like Williams, Casey, Trent Cole, Brent Celek and Jason Avant?

Once those decisions are made, the Eagles can move on to the next Next Big Thing, signing free agents and preparing for the May (May!) draft.

The next big thing: Panthers

January, 23, 2014
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What's next for the Carolina Panthers in free agency and the NFL draft:

Free agency: Carolina has 21 players eligible to become unrestricted free agents, led by defensive end Greg Hardy (second in the league in sacks with 15) and left tackle Jordan Gross. Three-fourths of the starting secondary also is on this list, as well as the team's No. 2, 3 and 4 wide receivers in Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon.

The team remains somewhat strapped under the salary cap to go after a high-priced defensive back or receiver. The franchise tag may be the best solution for Hardy, who likely would break the bank with a long-term deal if allowed to test the market.

Draft: With the No. 28 pick, the Panthers are likely to go with a wide receiver or tackle. Wide receiver is the No. 1 need to give quarterback Cam Newton a weapon to work with opposite 13-year veteran Steve Smith. But general manager Dave Gettleman's theory of building from the inside out in last season's draft worked well. Defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short, taken with the team's first two picks, were key to Carolina ranking No. 2 in the league in run defense.

The next big thing: Falcons

January, 23, 2014
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The Atlanta Falcons have plenty to accomplish over the next few months as they try to rebound from this past season's 4-12 implosion.

The first step in the retooling process was adding toughness with new line coaches Mike Tice and Bryan Cox. Then came the addition of new assistant general manager Scott Pioli to help bring expertise and a new perspective to talent evaluation.

Next, the Falcons have to see how they can improve the team via free agency come March 11. Cox said he already started breaking down the potential free-agent defensive linemen, so it will be interesting to see if the Falcons can find a pass-rusher at a bargain price. On the offensive line, the Falcons seem likely to target a free-agent guard while addressing tackle in the draft.

Safety, linebacker and tight end also are areas the Falcons need to improve either through free agency or the draft. And it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Falcons add another quarterback to the mix as added insurance, although Dominique Davis has plenty of tools behind starter Matt Ryan.

It's too early to say which players the Falcons might target, although there is plenty of speculation ongoing. Pioli, currently an analyst for NBC Sports Network and SiriusXM Radio, won't even technically start his new position until Feb. 3. Certainly general manager Thomas Dimitroff -- who still has the final say -- will value Pioli's input throughout the process.

The next big thing: Packers

January, 23, 2014
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- With 17 unrestricted free agents and two restricted free agents, the Green Bay Packers have plenty of decisions to make about their own players before they can set their free-agent and draft boards.

Shortly after the season ended, we wrote about the long list of players with expiring contracts on both offense and defense.

Among the defensive free-agents-to-be are six starters, including all three starting defensive linemen -- B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly -- plus cornerback Sam Shields, outside linebacker Mike Neal and safety M.D. Jennings (who is a restricted free agent).

For a defense that is in need of more playmakers, it will be interesting to see if general manager Ted Thompson views those starters as players he must re-sign, or will he replace them with more impactful players?

On the offensive side, four starters -- including one with a major injury issue -- are scheduled for free agency. Tight end Jermichael Finley underwent spinal fusion surgery following a season-ending neck injury, which further clouds his future. Three other offensive starters were in the final year of their contracts: receiver James Jones, fullback John Kuhn and center Evan Dietrich-Smith.

The Packers no doubt will make an effort to re-sign one or more of their free agents before the market opens in March, but given this lengthy list, there’s a good chance several of them won’t return.

"We lose players just like everybody else," Thompson said recently. "But if we can, we like to keep our own and continue adding guys through the draft and through free agency."

The next big thing: Giants

January, 23, 2014
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The New York Giants have a lot to do this offseason, and once free agency and the NFL draft roll around there will be time to work on the offensive line, find new receivers for Eli Manning, add a running back, etc. But this is about the very next thing on the Giants' offseason agenda, which is...

Figure out the defensive line.

The reason this is the next thing for the Giants to do is that they can make decisions at any time on their own free agents, whereas they need to wait until March 8 to sign others. So with defensive tackle Linval Joseph and defensive end Justin Tuck both hitting free agency, the Giants at this point in the offseason need to decide what they want to do about those two players. They need to figure out what it will take to sign them long-term, how that jibes with what they're willing to pay and what the backup plan is if they decide to move on from them. Tuck's likely to accept a bit of a hometown discount. Joseph's likely looking to cash in big. And with the Giants deep at defensive tackle, Tuck may turn out to be the priority. Stay tuned.

The next big thing: Buccaneers

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
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TAMPA, Fla. -- The biggest decision the Buccaneers have to make this offseason is at quarterback.

They have to decide if they believe Mike Glennon is a capable starter or not. If the answer is no, the Bucs will need to go out and get a quarterback. There isn’t likely to be anyone overly impressive in free agency, so that means the Bucs may have to use the No. 7 overall draft pick on a quarterback.

Once the Bucs make a decision at quarterback, there are plenty of other areas that need work. Start with the pass rush and the offensive line. Both of those areas could be targeted in free agency and the draft. The Bucs need a pass-rushing defensive end to complement defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. They also may decide to overhaul an offensive line that underachieved last season.

Depth at tight end and wide receiver also are areas that need to be addressed this offseason.

The next big thing: Cowboys

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
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IRVING, Texas -- Since the Dallas Cowboys' season ended with their NFC East championship game loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, they have had plenty of time to figure out what to do next.

So far they have stood pat with the coaching staff, but they can't do that when it comes to players.

The biggest in-house personnel decision the Cowboys will make this offseason will be DeMarcus Ware’s future. He is set to count $16.003 million against the salary cap. That’s too much for just about any player, let alone a defensive end coming off a six-sack season in which he played 55 percent of the snaps. The Cowboys have to determine how they lower that cap figure with either a restructure, pay cut or re-work with incentives.

The Cowboys can’t be big players in free agency, which means Jason Hatcher will likely play elsewhere in 2014. But that doesn’t mean they can’t find cheap upgrades to help on either side of the ball.

When it comes to the draft, the Cowboys have to find defensive players ready to contribute immediately. They need help at every level of the defense, but especially along the line where George Selvie and Nick Hayden could be the only returning starters depending on the futures of Ware and Hatcher.

The next big thing: Cardinals

January, 23, 2014
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What the Arizona Cardinals do in May’s NFL draft will largely be dictated by what they do in free agency.

Their primary focus is on securing a left tackle in free agency, and that could be addressed by luring free agents Branden Albert or Eugene Monroe to Arizona. The Cardinals will also try to find a big safety who can defend tight ends. Defensive backs will also be a priority because four will be free agents this year. But if free agency doesn’t yield who the Cardinals want, don’t expect them just to sign players for the sake of filling out a roster.

As general manager Steve Keim has shown, he can work wonders in the draft. Arizona will try to get a tackle in the first round if they haven’t signed one by then and from there, it'll depend on who’s left on the board but a safety -- it’s a common refrain, but if they haven’t signed one -- and a quarterback will be among their top priorities from there.

The Cardinals will also use the draft and free agency to restock their tight end basin, and if Rashard Mendenhall doesn’t return, another running back could be in the works. Don’t rule out the addition of a third wide receiver to replace Andre Roberts if he walks during free agency, who’s young and fast. That’s most likely a draft project.

The next big thing: Lions

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
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Now that the Detroit Lions have hired their coach and are in the latter stages of assembling a staff, both head coach Jim Caldwell and the front office can look toward free agency, which begins in March.

The Lions likely won't be massive players here this season, unlike last year when they brought in Reggie Bush and Glover Quin, but they should make some moves. The biggest players to pay attention to, in some respect, are two of their own free-agent veterans. The club needs to make decisions whether to try and bring back center Dominic Raiola and tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

Raiola seems like an easy choice. He wants to return. He'll likely take less money to return and if Detroit does bring him back, it keeps its entire offensive line from last season intact. Plus, by bringing Raiola in and potentially drafting a replacement for him in May, he can spend a season or two mentoring the younger player.

Pettigrew is the more interesting question, and it might come down to how much Caldwell values what Pettigrew can bring as a tight end versus what other options exist in free agency or the draft.

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