NFL Nation: Leading Questions

Leading Questions: AFC South

February, 22, 2012
2/22/12
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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 2012 season:

HOUSTON TEXANS

Can they keep Mario Williams?

He’s an incredible pass-rushing talent most every team would love to have. Yet the Texans might be in a position where they have no choice but to watch him move on as an unrestricted free agent.

They should have had planned better and not have allowed themselves to be in a position where the franchise tag is an impossibility. They cannot tag the defensive end-turned-outside linebacker for $22 million, so they either have to sign him or allow him to test the market. He talks affectionately about the Texans and what the franchise did for him, and that leads some to be optimistic about the team’s chances to hold on to him.

But once he’s out there and being courted, things can change in a big way with big dollars on the table.

Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed are great talents, but they’d be better, and the entire defense would be better, if Williams were part of it.

It would be difficult for the Texans to watch Williams lift someone else's defense and put up big sack numbers. He’s also been hurt a lot, however, and if that continues, maybe there won’t be so much regret if he moves on.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

How does the Peyton Manning saga sort out?

It’s widely presumed the team is parting ways with the four-time MVP quarterback.

It would have been impossible to imagine a year ago. But several unlikely developments have all come together at the same time -- the uncertainty surrounding Manning’s arm; the team’s ability to draft Andrew Luck; the dismissal of Bill Polian and Chris Polian in the front office as well as coach Jim Caldwell and most of his staff; the hiring of new general manager Ryan Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano; other core players (Reggie Wayne, Jeff Saturday, Robert Mathis) reaching the end of their contracts.

The soap opera has been long and drawn out. It needs to be resolved so the focus on the Colts can be about those new leaders, Grigson and Pagano, the messages they want to send, the guys they want on the roster, and the systems they intend to run.

Owner Jim Irsay has been sloppy as he’s tried to gain upper ground in a public relations battle with Manning, who has not comported himself perfectly, either, as he’s tried to manipulate the story. But for the health of the organization and for the benefit of Manning going forward, this thing needs closure.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Who can they add to help Blaine Gabbert?

No team should do more to assess the free-agent market for wide receivers than the Jaguars, who had a terrible, insufficient group last season.

Mike Thomas can be a good slot guy, but if the Jaguars really want to maximize Gabbert’s chances of success in his second season, he needs his primary targets to be much better. Jacksonville has plenty of cap room, and a new staff can sell someone like Vincent Jackson on the chance to be an unquestioned No. 1 and be paid like it.

Beyond the people he will be throwing to and the ones who will be protecting him, Gabbert’s new coaches will be a big piece to his progress. Can coach Mike Mularkey, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and quarterbacks coach Greg Olson get Gabbert more confident in the pocket and better able to focus on his reads than on the people around him?

The team has talked of having a better veteran backup behind Gabbert to help him. The Jags need that guy to be a safety net, too. It’s possible the 2012 Jaguars can compete for a playoff spot, provided they get sufficient play from their quarterback.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Can they become more of a playmaking defense?

The Titans got great contributions from several rookie defenders -- middle linebacker Colin McCarthy and defensive tackles Jurrell Casey and Karl Klug will be a big part of things going forward. So will strongside linebacker Akeem Ayers, who wasn’t as productive in his rookie season as the Titans hoped.

Will the team be able to find more playmakers to fill out their defense? Odds are cornerback Cortland Finnegan will depart as a free agent, and although the team hopes to re-sign Jordan Babineaux as one starting safety, it should be looking for an alternative to another of its free agents, Michael Griffin.

The Titans would be well served to find someone with more upside as a playmaker in Griffin’s spot. And although they still expect big things from Derrick Morgan, it’s again time to find a consistent pass-rushing defensive end.

They need to rush better from everywhere, which is why they hired Keith Millard as a multi-position pass-rush coach.

Getting bigger up front didn’t necessarily pay off the way they planned. Stopping the run first was a theme, and they finished 24th in run defense.

Leading Questions: AFC East

February, 20, 2012
2/20/12
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 2012 season:

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Who is the quarterback?

It won't be Matt Moore. That much is clear entering the offseason. Miami has not been shy to say the team will explore all options to find a franchise quarterback for 2012.

Is it Peyton Manning? Is it Matt Flynn? What about Robert Griffin III? Everything is up for discussion, according to Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and general manager Jeff Ireland. Expect Miami to be in the hunt for every big name at quarterback who becomes available.

Look for Miami to see what happens with Manning first. The Dolphins want to make a splash with a proven quarterback who can put fans back in Sun Life Stadium. Manning obviously fits the bill. The only question is his surgically repaired neck, which reportedly has been operated on four times.

The next option would be Flynn, who played under rookie Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin in Green Bay. Flynn is a bit of an unknown commodity, but he has played very well in limited opportunities.

Griffin would be a third and unlikely option. The Dolphins hold the No. 8 or No. 9 pick and would have to trade up to get the Baylor quarterback. With so many teams interested in Griffin, the Dolphins don't have a strong chance.

But a lot of parts are in place in Miami. The Dolphins are a franchise quarterback away from being a playoff contender. The Dolphins will be a team to watch in 2012 if they fill that void.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

How will they improve the defense?

You know Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn't happy with his 31st-ranked defense. He built a reputation being a defensive guru, and Belichick will do all he can to get that side of the ball fixed.

The good news for New England is the team has plenty of cap room and flexibility. Twenty free agents have cleared up more than $20 million in cap space. Belichick will have the option of trying to re-sign the players he wants to keep -- Wes Welker and Matthew Slater, for example -- while using the rest of the salary cap to upgrade the roster with outside free agents.

In terms of the draft, the Patriots have two first-round picks and two second-round picks. Belichick is always looking to trade down for more picks. But this could be the year he cashes in and gets the most out of his picks. New England can use help at cornerback, safety and another pass-rusher on the edge.

BUFFALO BILLS

Will they really be players in free agency?

Bills general manager Buddy Nix surprised a lot of football observers this offseason when he said the team will spend to the cap and chase the best free agents. Buffalo is infamous for keeping a low payroll, but Nix said the Bills will spend this year.

Buffalo lived up to that early billing by recently going after CB Stanford Routt, who has reached an agreement with Kansas City. Even though Routt didn't choose Buffalo, it was a good sign the Bills are willing to go after top-end talent.

The biggest issue for the Bills is: Can they convince big-name free agents to come to Buffalo? It's not often talked about, but the Bills traditionally struggle to land good free agents when competing against winning teams in more desirable cities. If the money and years are equal, Buffalo often comes up short.

This is a good year to spend money in free agency. There are a lot of very good players available, and Buffalo may have to overpay to get some on the roster.

NEW YORK JETS

Can they fix the offense?

New York's 25th-ranked offense sprung leaks everywhere last season. Sometimes it was the offensive line. Sometimes it was the quarterback and receivers. Poor play calling also was a factor.

This offseason the Jets' biggest priority is getting their offense back on track. The Jets already made steps in that direction by replacing offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer with former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano, who is responsible for improving chemistry and getting everyone on the same page.

Veterans such as starting receiver Plaxico Burress and future Hall of Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson are not expected to return. New York won't have much cap space, so the team must get creative while making upgrades.

This is also a huge offseason for quarterback Mark Sanchez, who has made only marginal strides in his three seasons. The Jets publicly back the third-year quarterback. The team knows if Sanchez plays well and remains confident, everything else on offense falls into place.

Leading Questions: AFC North

February, 23, 2011
2/23/11
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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: NFC South

February, 15, 2011
2/15/11
12:00
PM ET
With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC South team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

ATLANTA FALCONS

How do the Falcons take the next step?

Atlanta went an NFC-best 13-3 in the regular season, but got eliminated at home in the playoffs by Green Bay. That was painful proof that the Falcons haven’t quite arrived despite three consecutive winning seasons since coach Mike Smith took over. The Falcons played like a well-oiled machine through most of the regular season and it would be easy to say the machine just got clogged in the playoffs. But that’s not what really happened. The Falcons were successful during the regular season because they played smart football and didn’t do anything to beat themselves. But the reality here is the machine might need a few more parts for the Falcons truly to go out and beat other teams.

The core is solid with guys like quarterback Matt Ryan, receiver Roddy White, running back Michael Turner and linebacker Curtis Lofton. But White was the only real playmaker on offense last season, and defensive end John Abraham, who is nearing the end of his career, was the only one on defense. Whether it’s a speed back or a wide receiver who can provide a deep threat, the Falcons need to find a difference-maker on offense. They need the same thing on defense, and a pass-rusher to complement, and eventually replace, Abraham could be the top priority in the draft.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

What does Carolina do at quarterback?

A new era is starting with the arrival of coach Ron Rivera, and everyone in the organization knows it can’t be like the final few seasons of John Fox’s tenure. The Panthers simply stopped having a legitimate NFL offense. Fox’s conservative approach to offense certainly played a role, but the real problem is that the Panthers simply haven’t had a dependable quarterback since Jake Delhomme fell apart in a playoff loss to Arizona at the end of the 2008 season. That’s handcuffed the entire franchise and was the major reason the Panthers went 2-14 last year.

In typical Fox fashion, he handed the starting job to career backup Matt Moore. When that didn’t work, Fox reluctantly turned to Jimmy Clausen and didn’t help the rookie’s confidence by yanking him out of the lineup several times. Although some in the organization believe, with a fresh start, Clausen can develop into a decent starter, the Panthers can’t rely totally on that. This franchise has to do something major to get a viable alternative at quarterback. With the No. 1 pick in the draft, the Panthers could take a leap on Blaine Gabbert or Cam Newton, but neither comes with any guarantees. With talk that Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer, Vince Young and Kevin Kolb could be available, the Panthers might have to break from tradition and sign or trade for a veteran. With receiver Steve Smith, running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and a talented offensive line, the Panthers can’t afford to continue to let the offense rot away due to ineffective play at quarterback.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Can the Saints get back to the Super Bowl?

The nucleus of the 2009 team that went on to win the Super Bowl remains largely in place, so there’s no reason the Saints shouldn’t at least be in contention for a deep playoff run. They never really suffered the collapse that’s been common for many recent Super Bowl winners as they went 11-5 in 2010. But they weren’t the same dominant and explosive team. Injuries played a role in that and a few holes were exposed.

But a little better luck on the injury front and a few tweaks could put the Saints right back where they were. After the season, quarterback Drew Brees admitted he played part of the year with a sprained knee. That might explain why he wasn’t as precise as the Super Bowl season, and a healthy Brees automatically would make the Saints better. But the biggest issue on offense is the running game. With Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush banged-up for most of the season, the Saints weren’t able to run the ball consistently. Chris Ivory stepped in and did a nice job at times, but the Saints know they have to upgrade in this area. Thomas probably will be allowed to leave as a free agent. The Saints probably will use an early draft pick on a running back or sign someone of significance in free agency. On defense, the Saints have to get back to being opportunistic and taking advantage of turnovers like they did in the Super Bowl season. Upgrading the pass rush is the best way to make sure that happens.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Where will the Bucs find an outside pass rush?

Not on their current roster. Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder are just “guys’’ and that showed all too often as Tampa Bay’s pass rush was anemic. The Bucs broke from tradition and won with offense -- mainly quarterback Josh Freeman -- for the first time in franchise history last season. There is talent elsewhere on defense, but the Bucs need to improve the pass rush to elevate the overall play of the defense and make this a complete team.

Look for something similar to last offseason when the Bucs realized they had problems at defensive tackle. They went out and used their first two draft picks on Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Both ended up having their seasons shortened by injuries, but both showed some promise. They’ll be back healthy and will be joined by Roy Miller in the middle. That trio should create a decent inside pass rush, but the Bucs know they need more talent on the outside. It might not be the same scenario as last year with the Bucs using their top two picks on defensive ends. They may draft one early and look for another potential starter in free agency.

Leading Questions: NFC West

February, 14, 2011
2/14/11
1:00
PM ET
With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each NFC West team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

What happens to the offensive line?

We've been asking, answering and asking some more questions about the Cardinals' quarterback situation for months. Let's tap a few brain cells to discuss the guys up front.

Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui are without contracts for 2011. Left guard Alan Faneca might retire. Right tackle Brandon Keith is coming off hamstring and knee injuries that shortened his first season as a starter. The Cardinals do not have fresh talent in reserve. They have drafted only one offensive lineman in the first four rounds since Ken Whisenhunt became head coach in 2007. Twenty-seven teams have drafted more. As much as the team trusts assistant head coach Russ Grimm to get the most from its offensive line, Arizona could use fresh young talent for him to groom.

The Cardinals went through the 2010 season with the NFL's oldest offensive linemen, counting backups. That wouldn't matter so much if left tackle Levi Brown were meeting the Pro Bowl expectations that came with his status as a top-five overall selection in the 2007 draft. Brown was underwhelming at right tackle to begin his career and a liability at left tackle last season. His salary balloons in 2012, so this could be his last season in Arizona.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Can the defense take the next step?

The Rams allowed 328 points last season, tied for the third-lowest total since the team moved from Los Angeles for the 1995 season. They allowed seven rushing touchdowns, their lowest total since 1999 and down from 50 combined over the previous two seasons. But with starting defensive linemen James Hall and Fred Robbins turning 34 this offseason, and with questions at linebacker, the Rams' defense will not automatically go from competitive toward dominant.

Hall will be looking to become the 14th player since 1982 (when the NFL began tracking sacks as an official stat) to collect 10 sacks in a season at age 34 or older. The others: Trace Armstrong, Chris Doleman, William Fuller, Kevin Greene, Rickey Jackson, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Tony McGee, Steve McMichael, John Randle, Warren Sapp, Bruce Smith, Michael Strahan and Reggie White.

Robbins is coming off one of his finest seasons. He joined Keith Traylor, Jeff Zgonina and Ray Agnew among defensive tackles to set career highs for sacks at age 32 or older in the free-agency era (since 1993).

Getting similar production and continued good health from two older players is no given. The Rams also need to find help at outside linebacker after losing 32-year-old Na'il Diggs to a torn pectoral muscle 12 games into the 2010 season. The Rams are set at middle linebacker with James Laurinaitis, but they could stand to upgrade around him.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

How well can Jim Harbaugh coach up a quarterback?

When the 49ers' new coach needed a quarterback at Stanford, he recruited one. Andrew Luck set records and led the Cardinal to national prominence. Recruiting isn't a significant part of the equation in the NFL, so Harbaugh will have to settle for the best quarterback he can draft or otherwise acquire. He might even have to give Alex Smith a shot.

The 49ers will need Harbaugh to do what his recent predecessors could not: get good production from limited or flawed talent at the most important position.

Rich Gannon was well-established as an NFL quarterback when Harbaugh arrived as his position coach in Oakland for the 2002 season. The pairing reflected well on all parties. Gannon set career highs for completed passes, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards and passer rating. Gannon was already a good quarterback and the Raiders were already a good team, so it's tough to measure Harbaugh's impact.

Gannon is long since retired. Harbaugh is back in the NFL for the first time since the two were together on the Raiders in 2003. The 49ers don't have a legitimate starting quarterback under contract. Harbaugh has been meeting with Smith and keeping open his options. The stakes are high in the short term because the 49ers have enough talent elsewhere on their roster to compete for a playoff spot.

Outside expectations for Smith are so low that Harbaugh could appear heroic if he could get even a 9-7 record out of the 49ers with Smith in the lineup.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

How much more roster turnover lies ahead?

The Seahawks were fearless in overhauling their roster during their first year under general manager John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll.

The team added Marshawn Lynch, Leon Washington, Chris Clemons, Stacy Andrews, Tyler Polumbus, Kentwan Balmer, Kevin Vickerson, Robert Henderson and LenDale White, though Seattle parted with Vickerson, Henderson, White and 2009 regulars Deion Branch, Julius Jones, Owen Schmitt, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Josh Wilson, Lawrence Jackson, Rob Sims, Darryl Tapp, Deon Grant and Seneca Wallace. The Seahawks watched a couple other starters, Nate Burleson and Cory Redding, leave in free agency.

If those were the moves the Seahawks felt comfortable making right away, I figured there would be quite a few to come after the team's new leadership watched players for a full season. And there still could be, but similar wheeling and dealing could be impractical or even impossible if the current labor standoff continues deep into the offseason.

Teams cannot make trades without a new labor agreement. They cannot know for sure whether or not a salary cap will come into play as part of any new deal. It's just tough to act as decisively as Seattle acted last offseason without knowing the rules. That's a disadvantage for Seattle and other teams with much work to do this offseason.

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