1. QB. It's difficult to talk up about the quarterback situation in Arizona. They have an unreasonable salary tied up to their best quarterback, who is due a $2 million roster bonus on March 15, creating an effective restructure or cut deadline. Further, they hold the number 7 selection in April's draft without a quarterback that many would consider a bona fide top 10 player with other quarterback-needy teams selecting above them in any case. In free agency, there isn't even much in the form of a veteran short-term solution. The Arizona brass will weigh all options, but in the end, they may have to postpone their big investment in finding a franchise quarterback until next season, while making low-end prayers this year.
2. OT. The state of the Cardinals' offensive line isn't bright going into the offseason, but they will return a number of their players to a snake bitten unit a year ago. Allowing a league-high 58 sacks and a slew of injuries behind them, it's the single most important area of improvement Arizona will need to make if they're to have more success next season. Passing over an up-and-coming head coach candidate in Ray Horton for an offensive-minded head coach and an offensive coordinator with a background on the line, the emphasis is obvious. In an ideal scenario, Luke Joeckel would be available in the first round cleaning up the left tackle situation and allowing Levi Brown to make a move back to right tackle or guard, shoring up two needs at once.
3. OG. After seeing their quarterbacks destroyed with vicious hit after hit, shoring up the interior offensive line will be important to the success of their passing game. Though the run game has been less than impressive as well, finding strong pass blockers will be emphasized over their counterpart. At left guard Daryn Colledge is adequate while Adam Snyder's right guard position is more likely open to competition, but an impact player can improve any of the three interior line positions.
4. OLB. Though the Cardinals would like to spend the majority of their resources fixing the offensive side of the ball, they have holes at linebacker that will need to be addressed as well. Though Paris Lenon's inside linebacker job is an area that could use a better run defender, the outside linebacker position across Sam Acho is more pressing. O'Brien Schofield has been a player that has impressed the organization, but after suffering a second significant injury, the defense could user another starter allowing him to contribute off the bench in pass rushing situations as he returns to full health.
5. TE. Tight end hasn't been a position of focus for the team for many years, but with the direction of the league, it's a position of weakness offensively for the Cardinals. It's a position where a pass-catching weapon could help take a lot of pressure off the offensive line by forcing a defense to declare coverage earlier on a given play. With Larry Fitzgerald at receiver a second big weapon could greatly improve red zone offense where the Cardinals turned opportunities into touchdowns on only 40% of drives (2nd worst only to Kansas City).
1. DT. Though the injury to Chris Clemons late in the year hurts and will be one that lingers into 2013, the Seahawks ineffective interior pass rush is an even bigger gap in the defense. Bruce Irvin will be able to provide some of the outside rush they lose in Clemons, but his loss will be felt more in run defense as they found out in the postseason against Atlanta. At defensive tackle, both Branch, a free agent, and Mebane are better run defenders. Re-signing Jason Jones could help the effort on 3rd downs where he could be moved to tackle, but this will be an important area of focus heading into the draft.
2. OL. Collectively, the offensive line played as well as any Seahawks line has in several years bringing promise to the offense. It's a unit that has an established strength on the left side with a developing right. The guard-tackle combination of McQuistan and Giacomini threatens no one and provides a weakness for defenses to attack. It's unlikely that the Seahawks actively pursue improvements in free agency, but it's a position that may get a slightly favorable upward nudge when the scouting department creates their big board.
3. WR. Led by an intelligent, mature rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, the Seahawks receivers were utilized as well as could be expected. Rice, Tate, and Baldwin make for a nice trio, but with no impact receiver among the three, it forced Wilson to find the open receiver. With that experience under his belt, an impact player or a legitimate deep threat will help maximize the offense's potential. With enough depth and balance on the roster, Seattle enters the offseason with luxury needs such as this.
4. Nickel D. With four Pro Bowl-caliber starters in the secondary, a minor need at corner illustrates the overall strength of the roster. While some teams have a starting corner that can cover the slot in nickel situations, both Sherman and Browner are better suited for the boundaries. The Seahawks have some young talent that may take the next step to fill this need, but adding competition to the mix is the surest bet of shoring up this hole. Alternatively, the pass defense was pedestrian in defending against tight endĐadding a nickel linebacker could be another approach to improving the pass defense.
5. DE. Losing Chris Clemons showed the vulnerability of the Seahawks in run defense. Bruce Irvin's one-dimensionality was a big part of why many teams held him in lower regards on draft day than did the Seahawks. If Clemons is unable to go at the beginning of the year, there will be an area defensively opponents can exploit. On the optimistic side for the Seahawks, finding a run-stopping defensive end isn't nearly as difficult or capital-intensive as is finding a pass rusher. If they do find a preferred base end to Irvin, they just have to be certain they have enough pass rushing ability on the field at all times.
St. Louis Rams:
1. WR. Since drafting Bradford 1st overall, the team has done few favors to put him in a position to succeed. While neglecting the need for several years, they've rebuilt other areas of the team while Bradford seems to have made minimal progression at quarterback. Re-signing Amendola will be the first priority heading into the offseason while drafting one of the top prospects with one of their two first round picks seems like a guarantee. With the defense finally coming together, the offense has to finally become a priority to bring excitement back to the franchise and make the team competitive again.
2. OL. Forced to use a number of combinations on the offensive line due to injury or inadequate play, the unit was never able to develop cohesion enough to give encouragement heading into this season. At left guard Rob Turner played better than expected, but if they have the opportunity to land a player of Chance Warmack's caliber in the middle of the first round, they'll draft, plug, and play him expecting an immediate upgrade on the interior. Similarly, right tackle Barry Richardson was the line's only member to start all 16 games at the same position and the Rams could do worse at the position. However, if they're in the position to upgrade there, they'll take it to build the offensive line into a strength for the team.
3. S. With all of the guaranteed money out of the way, the Rams may approach safety Quintin Mikell about restructuring his $6 million salary that counts $9 million against the cap. If they aren't able to reach a reasonable deal, they may have to cut him loose forcing changes in a secondary that finished 2nd best in big passing plays allowed (36). In the best case scenario where St. Louis keeps Mikell, free agent Craig Dahl's spot in the starting lineup will look to be upgraded regardless.
4. RB. With a voidable year at the end of Steven Jackson's contract, the Rams are expected to compete for his services on the open market. At 29, they'll want him back, but with a maximum buy price. Jackson has throw the retirement word out in the public several times, so at this point the odds suggest the Rams will have a new backfield going into next year. Daryl Richardson showed some burst out of the backfield, but is only 5'10, 196 pounds, making him too small to carry the load. Adding a running back to split carries with the 7th round pick sounds like a sure bet if it appears Jackson won't be back.
5. OLB. With more premium positions needing attention, it's unlikely the Rams make significant investments to upgrade the strongside linebacker position. It's more likely St. Louis looks at the free agent market to replace the combination of Rocky McIntosh and Mario Haggan, both of whom are free agents themselves.
San Francisco 49ers:
1. OLB Depth. A big strength of the Niners defenses stems from their conditioning and ability to use a very limited rotation at every position, asking players to play a high volume of snaps. Because they've had the good fortune of staying relatively injury-free and can get off the field pretty quickly and it hasn't been a problem, but improving depth has to be on their mind. Behind Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks at outside linebacker are Clark Haggans, Parys Haralson, and Cam JohnsonĐa free agent-to-be, a player who finished the year on IR, and a 7th round rookie. With Aldon Smith's quiet play down the stretch, the Niners pass rush struggled and the pass defense no longer seemed so fearsome.
2. WR/TE. With such a stacked starting lineup, it's hard to determine team needs for the Niners as much of their offseason will focus on improving depth and grooming starters for down the road. As current starters begin to hit free agency, San Fran will have to choose who to keep and who to let goĐa thriving team's dilemma. If they're looking for immediate impact, receiver seems like an area that can be upgraded, though with Manningham and last year's first round pick AJ Jenkins in the background, it's less an immediate need. The #2 tight end behind Vernon Davis is a position that could take Jim Harbaugh's multi-scheme and multi-personnel offense to the next level.
3. OL Depth. At 34 years of age, Jonathan Goodwin is the odd man out looking at the future of the offensive line and will need replacement the soonest. The Niners do have Daniel Kilgore waiting in the wings at center, while a 4th round pick from a year ago in Joe Looney figures to be a back-up at guard. The unit's biggest hole may be at swing tackle where if either Joe Staley or Anthony Davis were to go down for a significant period, the edges could become a liability. Seeing Staley play the postseason with injury, it's a scare that will force the 49ers to seriously evaluate outside options at tackle.
4. DL Depth. Forced to play a couple games without Justin Smith to finish the regular season, the 49ers pass rush fizzled out. With nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga and Smith's back-up, Ricky Jean-Francois set to become free agents, the defensive line will have the attention of the front office. If they can find another player they feel can be a difference maker on the defensive line, they won't hesitate to draft him early and expand their rotation, or groom him for when Justin Smith begins to show effects of his age (34 next season).
5. S Depth. A free agent a year ago, Dashon Goldson seemed very displeased with the franchise tag. 120% of his $6.2 million contract will bring his tag number up to $7.5 million, a number he believes he should be making annually over the course of a long-term deal. Goldson, who has been one of the secondary's best players, will again be looking for that long-term contract. If the Niners use the franchise tag on him againĐas expected if a deal can't get doneĐit could lead to holdouts and a position that could require a little insurance.
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