NFL Nation: Eight in the Box 050313

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what is the most pressing issue on each AFC South team’s agenda?

Houston Texans: Get DeAndre Hopkins up to speed. The Texans like their first-round draft pick’s experience and think he will be a contributor right from the beginning. So they need to get the receiver on an accelerated program as quickly as possible. The crash course will include time with Andre Johnson and Matt Schaub. Rookie minicamp is May 10-12. Then there are OTAs May 20-21, May 23, May 28-30, June 3-6 and the team’s mandatory minicamp June 11-13. Those will be crucial days for Hopkins to get up to speed. The more he can get out of the spring and summer work, the better off he will be for training camp and the preseason. The more he can get out of all of that, the better the chances he’ll be making plays for the Texans' offense on Sept. 9 in San Diego.

Indianapolis Colts: It’s not as if there are quality veteran cornerbacks out on the market waiting on teams to step forward. But the Colts should continue to consider outside options. They signed Greg Toler as a free agent, re-signed Darius Butler and kept youngsters Cassius Vaughn and Josh Gordy. Safety John Boyett, drafted in the sixth round, can be a help in sub packages as a cover man. But the Colts are going to need a contribution from a fourth corner at some point, and neither Vaughn nor Gordy did much to gain confidence last year. Maybe they make leaps in their second year in the system. But Indianapolis should be looking to add to the group to improve competition and options.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Teach and teach some more. The team’s offseason work will be heavy on getting players up to speed on the new systems of coach Gus Bradley and coordinator Bob Babich on defense and Jedd Fisch on offense. The defense will be something like Seattle’s with the corners asked to be really physical at the line and a hybrid outside linebacker/end keying the rush with speed as a Leo. The offense will put Blaine Gabbert on the move more and look a bit like what Houston does. It’s different. So holdovers, new veterans, draft choices and undrafted rookies all have a lot to learn and get comfortable with.

Tennessee Titans: Begin to jell. It’s not a process that can be accelerated, but the Titans could have as many as seven new starters. They have 12 free-agent additions and eight draftees added to the mix. They need the newcomers to meld with the guys in place, forge offensive and defensive identities and establish who will lead and who should be followed. Only so much of that can happen before camp. But in a rookie orientation camp, the remaining OTAs and minicamp, a lot of important seeds can be planted that might be able to take root before training camp starts in late July to get ready for a crucial season.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what's the most pressing issue on each AFC North team's agenda?

BALTIMORE RAVENS: Determine if they have someone to replace Anquan Boldin at wide receiver. Torrey Smith is going to assume Boldin's role as the No. 1 receiver. The problem is finding out who is going to step into the No. 2 role. Baltimore didn't sign a wide receiver in free agency and didn't draft one until the seventh round. The Ravens do have options, although none of them are proven. Jacoby Jones could move into the starting lineup, but that reduces his role as a returner. The Ravens can turn to Tandon Doss, a 2011 fourth-round pick, and hope he improves from last season (seven catches on 18 targets). Another possibility is splitting out Dennis Pitta and using him more as a wideout than a tight end.

CINCINNATI BENGALS: Sort out who's going to start at strong safety. This was a question mark last year at this time, and the Bengals never came up with an answer. It really didn't hurt the Bengals too much because their defense ranked No. 6 overall and seventh against the pass. Cincinnati waited until the third round to address this spot this year, taking Georgia's Shawn Williams with the 84th overall pick. The Bengals passed on Florida International's John Cyprien in the first round and South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger in the second. If Williams isn't ready to start immediately, the Bengals will look to two players who failed to establish themselves a year ago in Taylor Mays and Jeromy Miles. And it seems like you can never rule out the return of Chris Crocker.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: Figure out if Leon McFadden or Buster Skrine will start at cornerback. The Browns put themselves in a predicament by not signing a veteran starter in free agency to replace Sheldon Brown, who wasn't re-signed. In the first round of the draft, Cleveland also decided to draft LSU pass-rusher Barkevious Mingo over Alabama's Dee Milliner, the top cornerback in the draft. Without a second-round pick, the Browns had to wait until the third round, where they selected San Diego State's McFadden. He's experienced (45 starts in college) and has good awareness. The knock on McFadden is his small frame and lack of height (5-foot-9). Skrine is also the same height, but he has much more speed. His biggest problem last season was committing nine penalties, which ranked third among cornerbacks. The Browns had better hope their improved pass rush gets to quarterbacks this year.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Make sure tight end Heath Miller is going to be ready for the regular season. Miller tore his anterior cruciate ligament on Dec. 23, and the Steelers have been vague about his timetable to return. Some suggest the Steelers know Miller won't miss significant time because they didn't use any of their nine picks on a tight end. Pittsburgh needs Miller to be ready considering the rest of the depth chart. Matt Spaeth, David Paulson and David Johnson have combined for 74 career catches and nine touchdowns. Just last season alone, Miller caught 71 passes for eight touchdowns. There would be a major transition for the Steelers' passing game if Ben Roethlisberger doesn't have Miller in addition to wide receiver Mike Wallace, who signed with the Dolphins in free agency. Miller and Wallace accounted for 41 percent of Pittsburgh's receiving yards last season.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what is the most pressing issue on each NFC North team’s agenda?

Chicago Bears: The top priority at Halas Hall, from now until the start of the season, is getting the offense organized in Marc Trestman's new scheme. This task has appeared annually for the Bears in recent years, but the failure to accomplish it played a big role in the firing of former coach Lovie Smith. There is also an additional level of urgency as quarterback Jay Cutler enters the final year of his contract. The Bears might not want to make a decision on Cutler's future until seeing him adjust successfully to this scheme, but will he do it in time for the Bears to make a decision?

Detroit Lions: The next order of business in Detroit is to set up a plan for settling on the new right side of their offensive line. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus departed via free agency, right guard Stephen Peterman was released and right guard candidate Riley Reiff is likely to play left tackle. Rookie Larry Warford will compete with Bill Nagy and perhaps Rodney Austin at right guard, while right tackle will be a competition between Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard, among others.

Green Bay Packers: Suddenly, the Packers have an offseason-long project on their hands: making a reconstructed offensive line work. After the draft, Packers coach Mike McCarthy moved Bryan Bulaga from right tackle to left tackle and flipped guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang. McCarthy now has his two best offensive linemen on the left side, with Lang pairing with a yet-to-be-named right tackle. There is no substitute for time when establishing continuity for an offensive line, so the Packers' next and continued order of business is getting Bulaga and Sitton comfortable on the left side. They'll also need to decide whether Marshall Newhouse, Don Barclay, Derek Sherrod or even rookie David Bakhtiari are best suited to be the right tackle.

Minnesota Vikings: Identifying the 2013 middle linebacker is the Vikings' most unanswered question. After allowing 2012 bridge starter Jasper Brinkley to depart via free agency, the Vikings set their sights on the draft to find a longer-term replacement for E.J. Henderson. There was widespread and justified speculation that the Vikings would draft Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, but the unpredictable first round brought them three players they ranked higher on their board. Without second- or third-round picks, the Vikings weren't able to draft a starting-quality prospect. Veteran outside linebacker Erin Henderson told reporters this week that he was preparing to take on the role, apparently at the suggestion of coaches, but this is the time of year for experimenting with position changes that could be reversed before training camp. To this point, the Vikings haven't shown serious interest in free agent Brian Urlacher.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what is each NFC South team's next order of business?

Atlanta Falcons: Their most important issue is off the field. Quarterback Matt Ryan is headed for the last year of his contract, and there’s no way the team wants him to get close to becoming a free agent. Ryan is the franchise in Atlanta and general manager Thomas Dimitroff knows he’ll have to pay accordingly. Recent deals for Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers have set the parameters for a Ryan deal. Dimitroff and Ryan aren’t the type to let this become a distraction, so I’d expect a deal to be reached sometime between now and the start of training camp.

Carolina Panthers: Amazingly, the Panthers didn’t address their secondary in the draft. They did address it in free agency, but only by adding some journeymen. The front seven of this defense has the potential to be as good as any in the league, but the secondary has some major holes. At cornerback, the Panthers have a bunch of players that are capable of being No. 2 or No. 3 guys. But they don’t have anything close to a true No. 1 cornerback. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find a true No. 1 cornerback at this time of year and the Panthers have limited salary-cap room. But it wouldn’t hurt to bring in another corner or two to increase the competition and hope that prompts someone to elevate his game enough to become a No. 1 cornerback.

New Orleans Saints: Once the team begins its on-field portion of the offseason workouts, things are going to get very competitive. As the Saints switch to a 3-4 scheme, there are a lot of starting jobs open on the defense. There are particularly big questions at outside linebacker and in the secondary. Other than cornerback Keenan Lewis, the salary cap prohibited the Saints from making any big signings in free agency. Instead, they brought in some lower-level free agents and added some parts in the draft. The competition for starting jobs will start in the offseason program and intensify in training camp.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs will tell you they’re all right at tight end. They think Luke Stocker can do more than he has in the past and that Tom Crabtree can be more of a pass catcher than he was in his Green Bay days. They might be right. But I still think the Bucs need to add a pass-catching tight end with some experience. They’ve done just about everything else to make sure quarterback Josh Freeman is surrounded with all the talent he needs to succeed. But tight end is the one spot where the Bucs haven’t upgraded.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what's the most pressing issue on each AFC East team's agenda?

Buffalo Bills: The Bills did a good job in the draft by adding explosive players on offense. Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and receivers Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Da'Rick Rogers all have the potential to contribute to Buffalo’s offense in the long and short term. Now it's time for the Bills to finalize their linebacker corps, which is very important in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s 3-4 scheme. Buffalo already made several key moves by signing outside linebacker Manny Lawson in free agency and trading for pass-rusher Jerry Hughes. The Bills also drafted second-round inside linebacker Kiko Alonso. Buffalo, which was 31st against the run in 2012, must improve its physicality in the front seven. The Bills could use one more veteran addition at linebacker. They have been in talks with free agent Karlos Dansby, who would be a solid addition. But price is usually the issue.

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins filled most of their holes by being aggressive in free agency and the draft. However, Miami's biggest need remains at left tackle. The Dolphins lost four-time Pro Bowler Jake Long to the St. Louis Rams. Miami has one in-house choice: to move starting right tackle and 2012 second-round pick Jonathan Martin to the left side. It would be risky because Martin had uneven results when he replaced Long late last season after Long went on injured reserve. The options in free agency are limited. Miami has had talks with veteran free-agent left tackles Eric Winston, Tyson Clabo and Winston Justice. Winston is probably the best fit for the Dolphins of the remaining offensive tackles.

New England Patriots: The Patriots have hit the reset button at wide receiver. The reigning AFC East champions let go of both starting receivers – Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd – and veteran backup Deion Branch. New England has an entirely new cast of receivers who must get up to speed with future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. Players like Danny Amendola, Donald Jones, Michael Jenkins and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are all competing for roles on the team. With offseason injury concerns to tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, it's important that New England's receivers prove they can make significant contributions. The receivers who get acclimated to the offense the fastest are most likely to earn starting roles.

New York Jets: It's time for the Jets to get their quarterbacks entrenched with the offense. Not only is new Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg implementing a West Coast scheme this offseason, but the team must prep for a daunting five-way quarterback competition. It's up to Mornhinweg and his offensive coaching staff to accomplish as much as possible during this teaching period in the spring. That way, all five quarterbacks can hit the ground running and compete in the summer. Mark Sanchez, David Garrard, Greg McElroy and Matt Simms are all present for offseason workouts. Rookie second-round pick Geno Smith will join the rest soon.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what is the most pressing issue on each NFC East team’s agenda?

Dallas Cowboys: Figure out right tackle.

The Cowboys bolstered their offensive line with the first-round pick of Wisconsin center/guard Travis Frederick, but the line needs more help, and right tackle is the spot that most needs addressing. Doug Free has been a disappointment since signing his big free-agent deal before the 2011 season, and while the Cowboys have said they liked the way Free and Jermey Parnell worked in rotation late last season, they'd be better off finding someone reliable and leaving him in there every play. Tyson Clabo and Eric Winston remain available on the free-agent market, and the Cowboys seem to prefer Clabo. They have enough cap room to sign one of them, but it seems they'd first like to figure out what to do with Free. Will he take a pay cut and stay as a backup? They could just cut him and save $7 million, but the savings wouldn't kick in until June 1 and the Cowboys don't like to admit mistakes or part with their guys. Expect something to change with Free, if only his salary, and the Cowboys to bring in a replacement at some point this offseason.

New York Giants: Resolve the Victor Cruz situation.

Cruz is a restricted free agent with whom the Giants have so far been unable to reach agreement on a long-term contract extension. No team signed him to an offer sheet, which means the next step for Cruz is to decide whether to report to camp when he's required to or hold out. He could sign his tender, play this season for $2.879 million and hit the open market next year, but that leaves him at risk for an injury that could drastically reduce his value. He could accept the Giants' current offer, which reports say is in excess of $7 million per year. Or he could hold out and force the Giants to see what life is like without him. Complicating the matter is that the Giants also have to worry about the contract status of their other star wide receiver, Hakeem Nicks, whose deal runs out at the end of the 2013 season.

Philadelphia Eagles: Pick a quarterback.

New head coach Chip Kelly has amassed a number of interesting options. He has veteran Michael Vick, who was the starter last season until he got injured. He has second-year man Nick Foles, who took over last year when Vick got hurt. He has career backup Dennis Dixon, whose final year at the University of Oregon was Kelly's first as the Ducks' offensive coordinator. And he has former USC star Matt Barkley, for whom the Eagles traded up in the fourth round of last week's NFL draft. Kelly's plan is to throw them all into the offseason and training-camp mix and see who wins the job, and it couldn't be called a huge surprise if any of them did. The most interesting case, however, is that of Vick, who's the current favorite to be the starter but likely would be released if he were to lose the job to one of his younger counterparts.

Washington Redskins: Make sure to get Robert Griffin III healthy.

The Redskins' dynamic young quarterback, who was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery he had in January as a result of the injury he suffered in the Redskins' playoff loss. It's Griffin's second major reconstruction on the same knee. And while all reports have indicated that his recovery is progressing well, he and the Redskins must apply the lessons learned when they left him in that playoff game too long and take his recovery as slowly and responsibly as possible. In Kirk Cousins, they have a capable backup they like who can manage the offense through the offseason and even into September if need be. Griffin's long-term health is the most important thing to the Redskins' franchise right now, and managing his recovery through these summer months is organizational priority No. 1.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what is the most pressing issue on each AFC West team’s agenda?

Denver Broncos: The Broncos had a good free-agency period and they had a good draft. They made a good team better. There is no doubt this team thinks it is ready to make a serious run in 2013. So now it’s time to find some chemistry. Quarterback Peyton Manning, entering his second season with the team, recently talked about the importance of getting on the same page with his receivers. Manning said it often takes four years to totally be in sync with the players on the other end of his passes. Manning not only has to continue to strengthen his connection with incumbent receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker but also with a new weapon, Wes Welker, one of the free-agent prizes in the NFL this offseason. The group worked together on its own last month and is in the midst of the Broncos’ offseason program. Manning had great success with Thomas and Decker last season, and I’m sure he will work well with Welker, too. The passing game will be the key to whether Denver can be a Super Bowl team, so building a special chemistry is the team’s most pressing issue as Denver inches toward the 2013 season.

Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs have to get the Branden Albert situation settled. They talked to the Miami Dolphins about a deal for several weeks prior to the draft. It was never completed. Neither has closed the door on a trade, but the odds are good that Albert will stay in Kansas City -- although it's not totally out of the question that some other team gets into the picture. I think the Chiefs need to get Albert prepared to play in Kansas City. He wants a long-term deal, and if he doesn’t get one, he might pout. He has stayed away from voluntary workouts but said he will be with the team when mandatory sessions start. The team would still like to give Albert an extension after taking Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher with the No. 1 overall pick. Albert must realize that if he has a good season in Kansas City, it will increase his value in free agency next year if a long-term deal is not signed. This situation could be awkward, but both the Chiefs and Albert need each other for at least a year -- and they must all do it with a smile.

Oakland Raiders: It’s time for the Raiders to figure out their defense, where they might have as many as nine new starters -- a mind-blowing reality. It seems only defensive lineman Lamarr Houston and safety Tyvon Branch are safe. Second-year linebacker Miles Burris will have a role, but he will have to fight for a starting slot. Oakland must use upcoming organized team activities to build chemistry and explore which players are suited to which roles. Oakland could stay in a 4-3 base but also should utilize multiple looks and will likely see some 3-4 hybrid looks. Head coach Dennis Allen and his staff have to see these players on the field to figure out the right sets for the right players. Oakland is essentially starting with a blank canvas on defense -- exciting, unusual and scary all at once.

San Diego Chargers: The Chargers have a potentially strong group of young receivers. The once-weak area can become a strength not only for the immediate future, but for the long term. It’s time the Chargers figure out an attack utilizing Vincent Brown, Danario Alexander and rookie Keenan Allen, who could quickly become the centerpiece. Allen, a California product, was expected to be a top-30 pick, but a manageable knee issue dropped him all the way to the third round, where San Diego took him 76th overall. Former Indianapolis Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst Bill Polian said Allen could have a Reggie Wayne-like impact. Brown had a strong rookie season in 2011 and a great training camp before a broken ankle in the preseason ended his 2012 campaign. He is now completely healthy. Alexander starred after the Chargers signed him off the street during last season. These three players can be major toys for quarterback Philip Rivers. Figuring out how to get the most out of this trio must be a primary goal for new coach Mike McCoy, who proved in Carolina and Denver that he can have successful passing games.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

With the draft in the rearview mirror, what’s the most pressing issue on each NFC West team's agenda?

Arizona Cardinals: Figuring out what's up with Daryl Washington should rank high on the Cardinals' list. Washington can be one of the most dynamic linebackers in the league. He had nine sacks last season and should be a player for the Cardinals to build around. Recent events have called into question his longer-term standing with the team. First came news that to open the season, Washington would serve a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Now, one month later, authorities are investigating a domestic abuse allegation levied against him. There has been no arrest. The Cardinals already have blown up quite a bit of their roster while making the transition to a new coaching staff. They'll have to decide after the 2013 season whether to exercise a $10 million option bonus for Washington.

St. Louis Rams: Tweaking the offensive scheme to fit the Rams' new personnel came to mind as one potential priority for the Rams, but the most pressing one? Developing the young unproven talent on the roster has to head the list. The Rams had the youngest roster in the NFL last season. It could be even younger this season. That's invigorating to a certain extent, but also a bit concerning. The situations at running back, receiver and safety come to mind. Top running backs Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead, Terrance Ganaway and fifth-round pick Zac Stacy have a combined 108 NFL carries. The wide receivers on the roster own a combined 15 starts, 12 of them by Chris Givens. At safety, rookie third-round choice T.J. McDonald and 2012 backup Darian Stewart are the leading candidates to start after the Rams released Quintin Mikell and let Craig Dahl leave in free agency. McDonald did not enjoy a stellar final season at USC. Is he ready for a Rams schedule featuring Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones, Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, Vernon Davis, Justin Blackmon, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, Percy Harvin, Vincent Jackson and other players capable of putting pressure on even veteran safeties?

San Francisco 49ers: Developing 2012 first-round draft choice A.J. Jenkins has to rank high on the list of remaining priorities for the two-time defending NFC West champions. Jenkins made zero receptions during his rookie season. He wasn't a factor, and the 49ers didn't really need him. They ran their passing game through Michael Crabtree and still had other weapons such as Vernon Davis, Delanie Walker, Randy Moss and, when healthy, Mario Manningham. Crabtree and newcomer Anquan Boldin will join Davis in giving the 49ers three legitimate weapons for 2013. While the 49ers' passing game is not hinging on Jenkins' immediate development, the team needs to find out whether Jenkins will factor for the longer term. Crabtree's contract runs through the 2014 season. Re-signing him to a long-term deal is no given for the 49ers, particularly with quarterback Colin Kaepernick also in line for a new deal at roughly the same time. Boldin is signed through the upcoming season only. Developing Jenkins would expand the 49ers' options.

Seattle Seahawks: Getting another starter signed to a contract extension before the 2013 season could make sense. They recently struck a long-term deal with strong safety Kam Chancellor. Potential monster deals for Earl Thomas and/or Richard Sherman await in the not-too-distant future, as both are signed through 2014. In the meantime, Seattle might be wise to work out a more modest extension for cornerback Brandon Browner, a player ideally suited for their defensive scheme. Browner is signed through the 2013 season. While this will be only his third season with the Seahawks since leaving the CFL, Browner did get credit for an accrued season when he spent 2005 on injured reserve with the Denver Broncos. That makes 2013 Browner's fourth NFL season, enough to qualify as an unrestricted free agent under the collective bargaining agreement.

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