NFL Nation: AFC Leading Questions 2011

Leading Questions: AFC North

February, 23, 2011
2/23/11
7:50
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With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each AFC North team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Should the Cincinnati Bengals give into Carson Palmer’s trade demands?

After eight underachieving seasons in Cincinnati, Palmer wants out and everyone from his agent to teammates to his realtor believe Palmer is absolutely serious. So how should the Bengals handle this situation?

Cincinnati is consistently one of the NFL's more downtrodden franchises and has been through this before. In the past, players such as Takeo Spikes, Corey Dillon and Chad Ochocinco have expressed the desire to get out of Cincinnati and couldn't leave on their terms.

But Palmer's situation is different for two reasons. First, he's the franchise quarterback, the most important player on the team. Second, he's threatened to retire if he's not traded, which is something Spikes, Dillon and Ochocinco never did. These two factors up the ante tremendously in terms of putting pressure on the Bengals.

If Palmer, 31, holds firm on his demands, that leaves Dan LeFevour and Jordan Palmer as the other quarterbacks on Cincinnati's roster. The Bengals cannot start the 2011 season with either of those players under center. As more time goes by with uncertainty, it becomes more likely the Bengals must do something to get quarterback help in the draft or free agency.

In my opinion, the Bengals should trade Palmer while they can still get decent value for him. Cincinnati will be rebuilding for the next two years anyway -- with or without Palmer -- and there are plenty of teams in need of a good quarterback.

But the Bengals are standing their ground, hoping Palmer will have a change of heart. That's a dangerous assumption with free agency potentially starting next month and the NFL draft coming in April.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Are concerns about Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco legit?

As we continue the subject of quarterbacks, we move over to Baltimore. Flacco is getting drilled this offseason by media and fans for not leading the Ravens past the divisional round. Baltimore entered last season as a Super Bowl favorite and by those standards the team -- and particularly the offense -- underachieved.

Now people are starting to doubt Flacco. He has struggled in the playoffs, recording just one passer rating above 90.0 in seven career postseason games. It's no secret an organization is tied into the success and development of its quarterback. But are the expectations of Flacco, in his third season, too high too soon? The answer is, yes.

Flacco has become a victim of his own early success. He advanced to the AFC title game as a rookie and has had expectations of getting to the Super Bowl thrust upon him since.

Last season, Flacco set career-highs in passing yards (3,622), touchdowns (25) and passer rating (93.6) for the Ravens (12-4). But it's the second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers that stands out in most people's mind.

Flacco likely must get past rival quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of Pittsburgh for the Ravens to take that next step. But there is no shame in losing to the eventual AFC champions in the postseason.

Young quarterbacks such as Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez and Josh Freeman are viewed in a much more favorable light in their cities. Flacco has had as much career success and put up equal or better numbers than all of them. He deserves a break.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

What will the Steelers do at cornerback?

As their Super Bowl XLV loss to the Green Bay Packers proved, the Steelers must add quality depth in the secondary. The Packers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints provide the blueprint of how to beat Pittsburgh's vaunted defense: spread the Steelers out with multiple receivers.

The Steelers simply don't have enough good cornerbacks to defend three- and four-receiver sets. This also takes Pittsburgh's strongest players-- its linebackers -- off the field in favor of players such as William Gay and Anthony Madison.

Now that linebacker LaMarr Woodley received the franchise tag, veteran cornerback and pending free agent Ike Taylor is Pittsburgh's No. 1 priority. Taylor is Pittsburgh's best corner, but he's also 31 and the Steelers must gauge how much money and how many years to give to him.

The draft will also be important. Previous draft picks at corner such as Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett and Crezdon Butler have not panned out for the Steelers, who typically address this position in the middle rounds. It's time Pittsburgh invests a high draft pick at this position to increase the probability of finding a future starter.

Do not be surprised if Pittsburgh retains Taylor in free agency and spends its first- or second-round pick on a cornerback in April to fix this issue.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Are the Cleveland Browns fine without an offensive coordinator?

Pat Shurmur of the Browns has a lot on his plate this year. Not only is he a first-time head coach, but Shurmur is also taking over the role as offensive coordinator in his first season with Cleveland.

Is this a good idea?

After a brief search, the Browns decided to leave the position vacant. Shurmur is a former offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams and didn't want to give up those responsibilities after becoming a head coach.

A head coach's first responsibility is to manage all 53 players. But Shurmur clearly will give more special attention to his players on offense. That's a major reason the Browns hired experienced defensive coaches such as Dick Jauron and Ray Rhodes to manage the other side of the football.

President Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert have both done a good job so far in Cleveland. But I have reservations about creating this type of setup with a rookie head coach on a rebuilding team.

Leading Questions: AFC South

February, 22, 2011
2/22/11
10:49
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each AFC South team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

HOUSTON TEXANS

How do they fix the secondary?

New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is charged with repairing and revitalizing a defense that was 30th overall and dead last against the pass. His 3-4 front will alter a lot of things and the Texans will need to add some personnel to fill it out. Better work up front will ease some of the pressure on the defensive backs, but they will need more than that.

We don’t know when -- or even if -- there will be free agency. But the Texans need to make a big splash with a veteran outsider. Nnamdi Asomugha or Champ Bailey could knock every one down a peg at corner, shut down a side of the field or a primary receiver and help transform things. A veteran free safety like Eric Weddle could provide a big boost as well.

If the Texans think the pass defense can be fixed by coaching and will improve dramatically with a scheme and maturing kids, they’re overestimating what they’ve got, again.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Are they going to take action to address the offensive line?

We’ve heard for years about how the Colts would get better at converting that tough third-and-1 in the run game. We saw Bill Polian drop Ryan Lilja after pointing to the offensive line as a reason for the loss in Super Bowl XLIV. We heard Polian admit Rodger Saffold could have been a solution for the Colts at left tackle.

Now, as Peyton Manning heads into the final stretch of his prime, the Colts need to move from talk to action with regard to the offensive line. After last year’s comments, Polian added middling free agents Andy Alleman and Adam Terry and drafted Jacques McClendon in the fourth round. Only McClendon stuck and he did nothing.

Getting Manning more time for things to develop downfield and creating more of a push for ball carriers means investing at least one premium draft pick and landing at least one quality veteran via free agency or trade when those windows open. The Colts don’t have to find Hall of Fame linemen. But there is a lot of room between some of the guys they’ve been relying on and that level of talent.

They’re overdue to follow through with a real revamping.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

How do they fix the secondary?

With four games a season against Manning and Matt Schaub, the Jaguars are woefully unprepared to face them with what they’ve got at safety. Last season, Jacksonville spent its first four draft picks on defensive linemen. This season, they’d be wise to put a similar emphasis on the secondary, and safety in particular.

Ideally they’d have drafted an up-and-comer to go with a veteran brought in from the outside -- someone like Weddle, Dawan Landry, Quintin Mikell or Donte Whitner. They've already had Bob Sanders in for a look. While depth at cornerback is also an issue, I suspect Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox and William Middleton will all look a lot better if they are playing with safeties who are superior to Don Carey and Courtney Greene.

They’ve got a big question at quarterback, too. It’s time to draft and develop a signal-caller with more upside who can be more consistent than David Garrard. But they contended last season with Garrard. It's possible they can make a playoff push with him under center -- provided they address the secondary.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Who’s the quarterback?

There couldn’t be a worse time to be uncertain at the position, and the Titans’ depth chart at the spot currently has blanks at starter and backup. Blame it on Bud Adams and his love affair with Vince Young.

New coach Mike Munchak and his offensive coordinator Chris Palmer don’t really know what they will be able to do offensively, because they do not know who they will be asking to do it. General Manager Mike Reinfeldt has said the team will find a veteran and use a draft pick. But if the draft comes before free agency and trades, it will be more difficult to be patient and to take more of a project guy out of college. It’s not a good year to need a quarterback in the draft, and the scouting department will have to show it can find someone in the group who will develop into a franchise guy.

Once they do, they could look to make a big move for Kevin Kolb, Carson Palmer, Kyle Orton, Matt Flynn or any number of veteran options they believe could operate an offense that will remain run-centric keyed around Chris Johnson.

Leading Questions: AFC West

February, 21, 2011
2/21/11
8:18
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each AFC West team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

DENVER BRONCOS

Will the Broncos get enough defensive help?

Many Denver fans want to know if Tim Tebow or Kyle Orton will be the starting quarterback. That, of course, will be a huge question, but it likely won’t be answered until minicamps unless the Broncos decide to trade Orton by the draft to grab an extra pick. But the early offseason question in Denver will be what the Broncos will do to cure a defense that was last in 2010 in total defense and points allowed.

New Denver coach John Fox is a defensive specialist, so expect him to get as much defensive help as possible. I could see Denver acquiring five to seven new starters on defense. While Denver will likely be active in free agency in its attempt to build defense, the key will be what the Broncos will do with the No. 2 overall draft pick. Expect Denver to look at players such as Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson with the pick. Any one of those players would surely be a strong starting option for this defense. Denver, which has two second-round picks, could also look to trade the pick to compile more draft picks. But the No. 2 pick hasn’t been traded in 11 years, so it won’t be easy.

Another interesting piece of Denver’s offseason defensive puzzle will be whether it re-signs cornerback Champ Bailey, 33, who is still playing at a high level. He will be pricey. If Bailey leaves, Denver will have another hole, but it will have more financial means to address defensive areas. (Update: Bailey re-signed with Denver on Tuesday.)

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Will the Chiefs be able to continue the development of quarterback Matt Cassel?

The Chiefs have a good thing going. They went 10-6 in 2010 and won their first division title in seven years. The team’s running game is top notch (it was ranked No. 1 in the NFL) and its 3-4 defense is a strong unit, but the key is Cassel. The Chiefs must do what it takes to ensure Cassel -- who slipped in the final two games of the year after making great strides in 2010 -- doesn’t take a step back now that offensive coordinator Charlie Weis has departed. Head coach Todd Haley, new quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn and assistant Nick Sirianni will work closely with Cassel.

One of the Chiefs’ biggest offseason needs is a No. 2 receiver to help Cassel. The Chiefs are in good shape with Pro Bowl receiver Dwayne Bowe and tight end Tony Moeaki, who built a terrific chemistry with Cassel as a rookie in 2010. If the Chiefs can find a legitimate No. 2 receiver to catch 50 to 60 passes, this offense will be in great shape, considering how strong the run game is. The Chiefs, who have the No. 21 pick in the first round, could find a receiver through free agency or through the draft. However they find him, getting a starting-quality receiver is a priority this offseason in Kansas City.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Will the Raiders sign their key free agents?

The Raiders have several free agents. They probably can't re-sign all of them, but there are some priorities.

The biggest priority is Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha now that defensive lineman Richard Seymour has a two-year, $30 million deal to make him the NFL's richest defensive player. Asomugha’s contract voided unexpectedly after the season. He will be a highly valued player on the open market. Oakland signed Asomugha to a deal that paid about $15 million per season two years ago. He would have been paid $17 million in 2011 if his deal didn’t void. Asomugha, who can’t be franchised, likely won’t be paid $17 million by any team, but some team will gladly pay him a truckload. Oakland owner Al Davis has said he wants to keep Asomugha, but he did indicate the team might be better off spending that $17 million on two or three quality players. Seymour's deal -- especially if there is a salary cap in the new collective bargaining agreement -- could affect Oakland's ability to keep Asomugha.

Other key free agents include guard Robert Gallery, running back Michael Bush, cornerback Stanford Routt, safety Michael Huff and potentially Zach Miller. This is a good, young team, but Oakland will have some tough decisions to make, starting with Asomugha.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

What will the Chargers do to ensure their Super Bowl window doesn’t close?

The Chargers are entering a crossroads this offseason. They saw their four-year reign of AFC West titles end in 2010.

This is still a quality team. Teams don’t lead the NFL in offense and defense without talent. But the truth is, San Diego slipped from 13-3 to a 9-7 playoff-less mark in 2010. This team has been considered a Super Bowl contender for the past several years and it has not made a legitimate push.

Quarterback Philip Rivers, 29, is in the prime of his career. He is a top-tier quarterback and good enough to lead a team to a Super Bowl. It's time for San Diego to do what it takes to not waste Rivers’ talents.

San Diego doesn’t need much, but this is no longer the time for the team to simply hope it has enough. It needs another pass-rusher on defense, and maybe a couple more starters on defense. It may also need to add another receiver even though Vincent Jackson was given the franchise tag. Receiver Malcom Floyd, who caught 37 passes for 717 yards in 2010, is a free agent.

The Chargers clearly have a good nucleus, but it is obvious that is not enough. San Diego, which has extra picks in the second and third rounds, may need to move up from No. 18 to find a true blue-chip player, and it may need to sway from its usual plan of not spending in free agency in an attempt to keep its Super Bowl window open.

Leading Questions: AFC East

February, 16, 2011
2/16/11
12:00
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With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each AFC East team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

BUFFALO BILLS

Can the defense become a difference-maker?

That abysmal 0-8 start and a record meager enough to lock down the third overall pick in the draft suggest the Bills were an utter mess in 2010. Statistically, they were on both sides of the ball.

Yet there's an unquestionably different vibe about the Bills' offense despite ranking 28th in points, 25th in yards, 18th in rushing offense and 24th in passing offense. Bills fans debate whether Ryan Fitzpatrick is an adequate starter. Running back Fred Jackson and wide receiver Steve Johnson are fan favorites.

There's a general belief head coach Chan Gailey has his young offense trending upward.

Buffalo's defense generates no such sentiment despite similar rankings: 28th in points, 24th in yards, 32nd in run defense and a misleading third in pass defense -- because opponents didn't need to throw. Opposing quarterbacks still recorded the league's fifth-highest passer rating against the Bills.

Buffalo needs an overhaul on defense, and they appear willing to try. Gailey brought in old pal Dave Wannstedt as assistant head coach and linebackers assistant. Wannstedt's influence is uncertain at the moment, but he has better credentials than defensive coordinator George Edwards, who oversaw a switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and, in the end, mashed them together.

The Bills also re-signed outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. He's a reclamation project. But who knows? At least they're trying.

Much more must be done. The Bills have a foundation player in defensive tackle Kyle Williams, but he's surrounded by flotsam. Inside linebacker and leading tackler Paul Posluszny is a free agent. Merriman was worth the gamble because the Bills are desperate for pass-rushers with 2009 first-round pick Aaron Maybin looking like a bust and a half.

The draft won't solve all their problems, and general manager Buddy Nix is averse to patching holes with free agents. Unless the Bills strike big in the draft and Merriman turns out to be worth the risk, expect the defense to cost them more games in 2011.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Will Chad Henne be their long-term quarterback?

The Dolphins revealed a lack of faith in Henne in 2010. They benched him twice.

The first time was an out-and-out demotion. In Week 10 -- with Tom Brady performing like an MVP, Mark Sanchez well on his way to the playoffs again and Fitzpatrick giving Bills fans something to cheer about -- the desperate Dolphins replaced Henne with Chad Pennington. There's no telling how long Henne would have remained on the sideline if Pennington didn't reinjure his throwing shoulder shortly after kickoff.

The next time Tony Sparano pulled Henne was in the season finale, a blowout loss to a Patriots squad that rested some of its best players and had nothing to play for. Henne completed six of his 16 passes, threw an interception and had a 25.8 passer rating. Not the way any quarterback wants to enter the offseason.

Henne was the Dolphins' supposed quarterback of the future. They drafted him in the second round in 2008, the year they took his Michigan teammate Jake Long first overall. Henne hasn't worked out yet. He studied under Pennington for a season and then took over in 2009, when Pennington got hurt two games into the season.

In his two nearly full seasons, Henne, at best, has looked decent. Great games have been rare. He has frustrated Dolfans more often than not. Henne has a career 75.3 passer rating. He has thrown six more interceptions than touchdown passes.

There are no guarantees Henne will remain Miami's starter, although the prediction here is that he will be in 2011. A new infrastructure is in place, and whenever a young quarterback has new idea men around, there's a tendency to extend opportunities -- especially when owner Stephen Ross, a Michigan man himself, has promoted Henne as a future Dolphins legend.

The Dolphins said goodbye to offensive coordinator Dan Henning and hired Brian Daboll, formerly of the Cleveland Browns. Henne's position coach, David Lee, left to be offensive coordinator at Mississippi. Receivers coach Karl Dorrell was switched to quarterbacks.

Will new voices be enough to inspire Henne to another level? I'm skeptical. While it's easy to scapegoat Henning -- and to an extent Lee -- for the offense's struggles, it should be noted Henning and Lee were considered geniuses when Pennington ran the offense and the Wildcat became an NFL trend. I doubt Henning and Lee turned vapid when Henne became quarterback.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Will the defense remain a weakness?

Week by week, the Patriots' defense evolved into a commendable unit. In four of their last five regular-season games, they allowed 20 combined points. Two of those opponents were playoff teams.

They sent four defensive players to the Pro Bowl: nose tackle Vince Wilfork, inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, cornerback Devin McCourty and safety Brandon Meriweather. Three of them were starters.

Not bad.

The numbers tell a different story. The Patriots ranked eighth in points allowed, but 25th in yards allowed, 11th in run defense and 30th in pass defense. The Patriots were dead last in third-down efficiency. They let opponents move the chains 47 percent of the time. They improved over the final few games, but in December they were on track to record the fifth-worst defense on third down since the NFL-AFL merger.

The Patriots gave up 34 points to the Browns, 30 points to the Bills and 24 points each to the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals.

Bill Belichick's defense can improve simply with another year of experience and the return of a couple of key contributors who missed 2010 with injuries.

The Patriots were young on defense. They started four rookies a couple of times. Their top secondary -- cornerbacks McCourty and Kyle Arrington, safeties Meriweather and Patrick Chung -- went into the season with four combined NFL seasons.

Not only will the defense improve by being another year older and wiser, but they'll also be reinforced when defensive end Ty Warren and cornerback Leigh Bodden come back.

Hip surgery wiped out Warren's season. Warren was a fixture at left end and forced the Patriots to juggle their line continually. A shoulder injury sidelined Bodden, and while McCourty emerged as a Pro Bowler, Bodden's presence over undrafted sophomore Arrington would have given the Patriots a much more formidable secondary.

New England's obvious need is a pass-rusher. With two draft choices in each of the first two rounds and the wherewithal to lure a free agent, there are plenty of reasons to expect New England's defense to upgrade in 2011.

NEW YORK JETS

Can the Jets retain their loaded receiving corps?

The Jets are in a bad spot when it comes to free agency in general, but particularly in regard to their wide receivers.

Contracts are up for Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith. They accounted for 17 of the club's 39 touchdowns.

Holmes spent the first four games on suspension, but he and Edwards combined for 105 receptions, 1,591 yards and 12 touchdowns. Smith was less of a threat in the receiving game, but he lined up as an option quarterback. He threw a touchdown pass and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.

Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum declared his intentions to re-sign them all, but he added the plan was in pencil and expressed considerable doubt he would hammer out any deals before March 3, when the collective bargaining agreement is expected to expire.

Until there's a new CBA, nobody knows what free agency will look like. When will the signing period commence? How many seasons of NFL experience will determine restricted or unrestricted free agency? What will salary-cap parameters be?

That's why bringing back all three receivers will be unlikely. Once they hit the open market, the Jets will have to compete with the rest of the league for three players who will be coveted.

The Jets acquired Holmes and Edwards because they had baggage, but they have enhanced their reputations immensely. Holmes served his suspension and was on his best behavior. Edwards defied his rap as a habitual ball-dropper.

The always-respected Smith once again proved to be a versatile weapon at a time when such players are in high demand.

The Jets must keep at least two of them. They can't afford to give Sanchez less to work with. The young quarterback has many admirable traits, but he has shown little capacity to carry the offense himself. Sanchez requires a strong support staff.

The Jets might be able to get away with losing one of these receivers. Tight end Dustin Keller was sensational while Holmes was suspended. Through the first four games, Keller had 19 receptions for 234 yards and five touchdowns. Then Keller got lost in the offense and didn't score another TD.

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