NFL Nation: NFC Leading Questions 2011

Leading Questions: NFC North

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

CHICAGO BEARS

Yes, quarterback Jay Cutler didn't exactly finish the 2010 postseason on a strong note. It's been well-documented that the Bears need to upgrade their personnel along the offensive line. But here's another question to consider: How much longer can the Bears rely on their aging defensive stars?

The Bears' best defensive players will all be at least 30 years old when training camp begins. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher turns 33 in May. Defensive end Julius Peppers turned 31 last month. Linebacker Lance Briggs will be 31 in November, and cornerback Charles Tillman turns 30 next week.

There were no indications last season that any of those players are slowing down, but time stops for no one. More importantly, the Bears don't have promising young players at any of their positions. (The one exception might be nickelback D.J. Moore, who might one day be ready to replace Tillman as a No. 1 cornerback.)

It's true that not many teams have an elite pass-rusher or No. 1 cornerback waiting in the wings, but this offseason wouldn't be a terrible time to start addressing at least one or two of these future problem spots. The Bears won the NFC North last season primarily on the strength of a resurgent defense, and you would think the Urlacher-Briggs-Peppers-Tillman core represents their best chance for a repeat performance in 2011. But the Bears will need to start addressing those positions if they hope to have a productive transition to the next generation of their defense.

DETROIT LIONS

Are the Lions cooked if Matthew Stafford can't stay healthy?

Consider this question a variation of the central theme of the Lions' offseason: Getting Stafford back into the saddle as their starting quarterback. There is every indication that he will recover from shoulder surgery in time for the 2011 season, whether or not it begins on schedule in September. What's impossible to know at this point is whether Stafford can make it through a full season after missing 19 of his first 32 NFL games because of injury.

But is this an either/or proposition? To take the next step toward being a playoff contender, do the Lions need Stafford? Or, can they continue to fortify their team to the point where they can cover for whatever drop-off there is between Stafford and backups Shaun Hill or Drew Stanton?

While it would be a setback for the franchise if Stafford can't stay on the field, it doesn't have to be a lethal blow. Remember, the Lions scored an average of 22.6 points per game last season with Stafford playing only one full game. Hill and Stanton proved more than adequate as backups. If the Lions can plug a few more defensive holes this offseason, their success might not be anchored to the health of their franchise quarterback. Just a thought.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

Where will quarterback Aaron Rodgers find new motivation?

Before the 2010 postseason, Rodgers' career had been defined by closed doors. He drew motivation from the slights -- both real and perceived -- he absorbed from college recruiters, NFL draftniks, fans loyal to predecessor Brett Favre and media members who questioned his playoff acumen.

But after compiling a 109.8 passer rating in the Packers' playoff push, Rodgers is rightfully recognized among the top quarterbacks in the game. He was the Super Bowl XLV MVP and one of four quarterbacks in history to throw for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns, without throwing an interception, in a championship game.

"I guess I ran out of motivation, huh?" Rodgers said Feb. 7. "You know what, I'm always looking for challenges. I think the challenge now goes to repeating, scrutinizing this season, finding ways to get better. Obviously, being a perfectionist and having a quarterback coach who is as well, there's going to be plenty of time to work on things and plenty of things to work on."

As we discussed in Tuesday's SportsNation chat, there is at least one carrot remaining if Rodgers is looking for something new to chase: Becoming one of the best quarterbacks of all time.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

It's well-known that the Vikings need to find a long-term answer at quarterback. But a parallel question of near-equal significance hasn't received enough attention on this blog. What kind of offense will that new quarterback be expected to run?

The Vikings spent the past five seasons in a run-based version of the West Coast scheme. They drafted and made free-agent acquisitions based on skill sets that excel in similar offenses. New coach Leslie Frazier hired Bill Musgrave to replace offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, however, and has charged him with developing a scheme that best fits the Vikings' roster.

"It will definitely be the Minnesota Vikings system," Musgrave told reporters last month.

Given their current personnel, it would make sense to incorporate elements of the West Coast scheme. And in reality, it's counterproductive to organize any offense based purely on arbitrary tenets. But every good offense has a personality and style, and those designations remain open-ended for the Vikings.

Will Musgrave build around tailback Adrian Peterson, minimizing a talented group of pass-catchers that includes Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and Visanthe Shiancoe? Will he incorporate some of the aerial creativity of Mike Mularkey, whom he worked under with the Atlanta Falcons? What will he use as his base set? Two receivers? Three receivers? Two tight ends? On all counts, stay tuned.

Leading Questions: NFC East

February, 17, 2011
2/17/11
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With the offseason in full swing, let's take a look at one major question facing each NFC East team as it begins preparations for the 2011 season:

DALLAS COWBOYS

Can Rob Ryan fix this defense?

I understand that folks are already predicting a bounce-back season under new coach Jason Garrett, but that would have to be fueled by the defense. The defense caused a lot more turnovers once Wade Phillips was fired at midseason, but teams still put up plenty of points.

The Cowboys gave up an embarrassing 27.2 points per game, which ranked 31st in the league. The passing defense was ranked 26th. And help might not be on the way when you consider the fact that a lockout could wipe out free agency this offseason. (Do we really think free agency could take place during a one-week period in, say, late August?) The Cowboys need to make changes at safety and cornerback. But at this point, their best hope is landing a starter in the draft.

The thought is that Ryan's fiery presence will spark some of the veteran players. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff's coming off a down season -- by his standards. Perhaps Ryan will turn him loose as a defensive end this season if the Cowboys can find a suitable replacement in the middle. And it will be interesting to see what Ryan does with second-year inside linebacker Sean Lee. Will this be the season when Lee supplants veteran Keith Brooking on the field?

NEW YORK GIANTS

What can GM Jerry Reese do about the back end of this defense?

It would be a mistake to make massive changes to this talented unit, but a major flaw was revealed down the stretch. With a chance to lock up the division, the Giants' defense out and out collapsed against the Eagles and Packers. It was a stunning turn of events for a team that had fed off its defense throughout the season. Reese has vowed to address the situation that allowed Michael Vick and Aaron Rodgers to put up monster numbers in consecutive weeks.

Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell was a head-coaching candidate after the 2010 season, but he'll be back with the Giants for at least one more season. I didn't like the fact that he was bemoaning the loss of the versatile Mathias Kiwanuka late in the season. Did anyone hear the Green Bay Packers complaining about losing all those starters to injured reserve?

As defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul continues to develop, it can only help this secondary. It took him a while to find the quarterback, but once he did, Pierre-Paul began causing havoc. I think this defense will be a lot more instinctive in its second year with Fewell. I like the three-safety look with Antrel Rolle, Kenny Phillips and Deon Grant, but Reese won't be complacent when it comes to acquiring talent. He needs more speed on the back end. Terrell Thomas has emerged as a solid cornerback, but he needs more help. Watch what the Giants do in this draft. Something tells me Reese will continue to focus on defense.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

How will Juan Castillo perform as defensive coordinator?

You have to hand it to coach Andy Reid. The man knows how to keep us on our toes during a coaching search. Who knew that he was disguising his future defensive coordinator as an offensive line coach all these years? I've discussed the O-line with Castillo over the years, and I believe him to be one of the most underrated offensive assistants in the league. How does that translate to defense? I have no clue.

I do think he'll bring a tremendous amount of energy to the job. Sean McDermott was undermined by injuries in his two years in that role. The Eagles didn't take enough quality cornerbacks into the 2010 season, and they paid dearly. You can't afford to send Asante Samuel and the Funky Bunch out there in 2011. Dimitri Patterson and Joselio Hanson are serviceable players, but they were eventually exposed. Howie Roseman and Reid have to address this position. And then Castillo has to figure out a way to put the teeth back in this pass-rush. At least the man knows what a quarterback sack looks like.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

What will Mike Shanahan do about this quarterback situation?

Seems like we're asking this same question every year. It looked like the Redskins had the answer heading into 2010, but the Donovan McNabb experiment was an epic failure for all involved. Shanahan certainly bears a lot of the blame. Now we'll see what he can do with a young quarterback. Cam Newton's suddenly vaulted into the top five in some of the mock drafts, so the Redskins might be looking at Missouri's Blaine Gabbert.

Gabbert has less of a boom-or-bust factor, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper. He might be ready for prime time sooner than Newton. Shanahan and son Kyle will have to get Rex Grossman ready as the starter until a young quarterback is ready to take over. And that can't sound good to Redskins fans who are starving for a playoff appearance.

Dan Snyder told me two weeks ago that he hopes McNabb will return as his starting quarterback. That's nonsense when you consider what happened last season. But no matter who lines up behind center, Shanahan has to surround him with more talent. The Redskins might be able to re-sign Santana Moss, but he's no longer a true No. 1 receiver. The Redskins desperately need an impact player at that position. At running back, it looks like Ryan Torain will get a shot as the starter. The only way Clinton Portis is coming back is if he restructures his contract. He may have a season or two left, but you can't count on him to make it through 16 games anymore.

It's all about the quarterback, though. As usual.

Leading Questions: NFC South

February, 15, 2011
2/15/11
12:00
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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
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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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