NFL Nation: 2012 AFC 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
PM ET
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 West

February, 17, 2012
2/17/12
12:00
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With the offseason in full swing, let’s take a look at one major question facing each AFC West team as they begin preparations for the 2012 season:

DENVER BRONCOS

How will the Broncos build around Tim Tebow?

As a team, the Broncos -- surprise AFC West winners in 2011 -- don’t have a lot of questions, problems or issues. They are in great salary-cap shape and don’t have an overly daunting personnel situation.

The upstart Broncos just have to get better.

Of course, that starts with their biggest question mark -- quarterback Tim Tebow. The Broncos have committed to him being the starter going into training camp and want him to succeed. The likely scenario is that the final decision on Tebow will be made after this season. So the Broncos will need to build their roster around Tebow.

While the Broncos will be remembered for Tebow-led comebacks on their way to an 8-8 record and a trip to the divisional round in the playoffs, they made strides in 2011 because they ran the ball well and played improved defense. That formula has to continue.

The Broncos still need to get better on defense. They need to re-sign defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley and probably add another player on the defensive line. They could also use help at linebacker and in the secondary. If Denver can get two more impact players on defense, it could be a top unit.

The Broncos need to find a running back to pair with Willis McGahee, who ran for 1,199 yards in his first season in Denver. But McGahee is 30 and was dinged up a lot. Denver will likely add a running back in the early rounds of the draft unless it address that need in free agency. The Tebow-run offense was as its best when Denver ran the ball well, so help in that area is paramount.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Will the Chiefs keep their top free agents?

The Kansas City Chiefs in a terrific salary-cap situation, with more than $62 million in cap room -- meaning that they can do virtually whatever they wish. The Chiefs, entering their fourth year under Scott Pioli, have not spent wildly during his tenure as general manager though they have been in solid cap shape. He has maintained that he will not spend just to spend, and thus far, he has opted for mostly role players in free agency.

Still, Pioli has been extremely aggressive in signing the Chiefs’ best players before they get to free agency. Yet two young standouts -- receiver Dwayne Bowe and cornerback Brandon Carr -- are weeks from hitting the market. The fact that the team hasn't gotten a deal done with either may be an indication that both players want to see what is on the open market even though the Chiefs can match virtually any offer.

The truth is that Kansas City has too much cap room to just let the players walk unless it thinks it can get upgrades at those players' positions. Kansas City visited this week with cornerback Stanford Routt -- cut by Oakland last week -- and perhaps it is deciding between him and Carr. I wouldn’t be surprised if either Bowe or Carr is franchised.

Either way, Pioli is going to have to get aggressive and perhaps land a big fish or two from the outside. This is a young, intriguing roster that could make a big playoff push in a hurry with the right additions.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

How will the Raiders improve?

It is an exciting time in Oakland as the franchise makes a dramatic move in leadership. Oakland owner Al Davis died at the age of 82 in October. Since then, it has been a whirlwind of change for the Raiders, including the most prominent new faces -- general manager Reggie McKenzie and head coach Dennis Allen. Both are promising, young professionals and are primed to put their stamp on this franchise, which hasn’t been to the playoffs in nine years but has finished 8-8 in each of the past two seasons.

However, particularly as it pursues some new pieces on defense, Oakland will have to get creative in making major improvement. As of earlier this week, the Raiders were $11 million over the salary cap and have only fifth-and sixth-round draft picks. Oakland will get under the cap and it will likely get a couple mid-round compensatory picks, but will face a challenge finding impact players this offseason.

The Raiders’ best bet is create enough cap room to find a starter or two on defense in free agency, keep running back Michael Bush and safety Tyvon Branch (one will likely be franchised) and hope their young talent on both sides of the ball emerges.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Will the Chargers be aggressive in free agency?

This is a crucial offseason in San Diego -- and one that will definitely be the most closely scrutinized in the franchise's recent history. Chargers owner Dean Spanos put pressure on himself with his surprising decision to keep both general manager A.J Smith and coach Norv Turner after a second consecutive playoff-less season. Spanos kept both men because he thinks they are best able to lead the Chargers to a Super Bowl. However, if San Diego doesn’t make the playoffs in 2012, Spanos -- who is trying to secure the team a new stadium -- will have to jettison the pair and make the wholesale changes next January that he was expected to make this year.

Spanos doesn’t want to put himself in that position, so he must instruct Smith to do what Smith hasn’t done in free agency -- spend big. The Chargers have a good roster, but it can get better, especially on defense. The Chargers' defense needs some impact players and they must try to get at least one in free agency.

Smith has done a solid in keeping his own free-agent talent. San Diego has several quality free agents this year, starting with receiver Vincent Jackson. The Chargers could franchise Jackson a second consecutive year, but would likely rather give him a long-term deal. There will be competition for Jackson on the open market, but Jackson would like to stay. Allowing Jackson to walk in this crucial time in San Diego would create more questions and pressure for the Chargers' brass.

Leading Questions: AFC North

February, 14, 2012
2/14/12
12:00
PM ET
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 2012 season:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

For the Bengals, this is not just a leading question but a yearly one: Will Cincinnati spend money in free agency?

The Bengals have made several right moves to win back the city's football fans. They're coming off a successful draft and have two first-round picks this year. They didn't raise ticket prices and lowered several of them. Now, Cincinnati has to be aggressive in filling holes on last year's playoff team, which is the most convincing way to show everyone that the organization is committed to winning.

The incentive and opportunity are there for the Bengals to be proactive in free agency. Cincinnati carried more than $15 million of unused cap money from last year and has $60 million to spend. Only three teams (the Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers) have more cap space. With 20 players headed to free agency, the Bengals can keep the ones they want and upgrade at running back, wide receiver and guard.

If the Bengals do decide to spend, they could come away with several notable free agents such as Raiders running back Michael Bush (if he isn't given the franchise tag), Saints wide receiver Robert Meachem and Ravens guard Ben Grubbs. Cincinnati also has the cap room to re-sign kicker Mike Nugent (or put the tag on him), safety Reggie Nelson and defensive end Frostee Rucker. All signs point to the Bengals building on last season's surprising success.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Who will be the starting quarterback in 2012?

This is a leading question that's been asked before nearly every season since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999. This represents a big offseason for team president Mike Holmgren to back up his reputation for being an astute evaluator of quarterbacks. The names that would bring the most hope to the struggling franchise are first-round prospect Robert Griffin III and intriguing free agent Matt Flynn. It would be deflating if the Browns' top choice at quarterback ended up being Colt McCoy once again.

The Browns can get RG3 if they want him, but it likely will come at a hefty price. The only way to ensure getting the consensus No. 2 quarterback in the draft is trading up from No. 4 to the St. Louis Rams' spot at No. 2. RG3 is a tantalizing talent because he's smart, fast, strong-armed and highly competitive. Another option is signing Flynn in free agency, although there will be other teams interested in him (namely the Miami Dolphins). Flynn wouldn't have much transition with the Browns, who run a similar system as the Packers. The concern is whether Flynn is this year's version of Kevin Kolb or Scott Mitchell.

Cleveland could wait to address the quarterback position with its second first-round pick (22nd overall) or in the second round, where Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill might be available. The fallback option is McCoy, who failed to win the starting job in his first full season as a starter. He will be given a chance to compete for the starting spot, but he seems pegged for the backup position. Until the Browns find a franchise quarterback, they will always be looking up at the Steelers and Ravens from the bottom of the division.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

What will the linebacker group look like next season?

Linebackers have long been the foundation of the Baltimore defense, from Ray Lewis to Peter Boulware to Adalius Thomas to Bart Scott to Terrell Suggs. Age and free agency will force some important decisions about the future of this group. Only Suggs is assured of being with the Ravens beyond the next couple of years.

Two starters -- outside linebacker Jarret Johnson and inside linebacker Jameel McClain -- are unrestricted free agents. The Ravens had hoped Sergio Kindle, their top pick in the 2010 draft, would have been ready to take over Johnson's starting spot by now. But a fractured skull during his rookie season (he fell down two flights of stairs) has made him a nonfactor. Baltimore has to decide whether Paul Kruger can hold up against the run so the team doesn't have to re-sign Johnson, who turns 31 before the start of the season. McClain might be another Scott, a former undrafted rookie who established himself as a starter and goes on to land big money elsewhere. It could be a risk to replace McClain with Dannell Ellerbe, a career underachiever.

While Lewis plans on coming back for his 17th NFL season, the Ravens have to start thinking about the eventual replacement for the soon-to-be 37-year-old linebacker. Baltimore has been heavily linked in the first round to Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict, whose intensity reminds many of Lewis, but he comes with character issues. Finding the heir apparent to Lewis is key for what should be a new-look linebackers group.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

How much of an impact will new offensive coordinator Todd Haley make?

The initial impact has been drama, and it goes beyond who actually hired Haley to replace Bruce Arians. Haley said the Steelers are going to start with "a clean slate," and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger expressed his concerns about starting over. This is before Haley and Roethlisberger even met. Ultimately, Haley will be judged in two areas: putting up points and protecting Roethlisberger.

The biggest criticism of Arians' offense was the lack of scoring. The Steelers' rankings in terms of points scored the past three seasons were 12th (2009), 12th (2010) and 21st (2011). Where Haley has to elevate the Steelers is inside the red zone. In his two seasons as the Cardinals' offensive coordinator, Arizona's red zone offense ranked third in 2007 and ninth in 2008. Too often, Arians forgot about running the ball and throwing to tight end Heath Miller when Pittsburgh got inside the 20-yard line.

The Steelers' ability to score points is reliant on the health of Roethlisberger. It was evident last season that Pittsburgh's offense slowed down when injuries slowed down Roethlisberger. Haley won't fix the Steelers' offensive line in one season, but he can tweak the timing of the passing game. His offense in Arizona relied heavily on three-step drops and getting rid of the ball quickly. This will reduce the amount of hits on Roethlisberger, who showed he can work in a quick-hitting passing game when he played New England last season. The Steelers can't make a Super Bowl run if Roethlisberger is limping again.

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