1. SS. Give Marvin Lewis and Mike Zimmer credit for developing talent and building the defense they have in Cincinnati. They've done a great job molding high-risk, high-reward players to create one of the better defenses in football. This offseason, they'll be faced with several key free agent decisions which will determine which positions they'll need to acquire outside talent for. Given low personnel turnover on defense, strong safety is an area they'll look to improve upon in the new league year, seeking a player that can drop down over the tight end or into the box for run support.
2. LB/DE. With unrestricted free agents Rey Maualuga and Manny Lawson at linebacker, the Bengals could use this opportunity to improve at this level. Rey will most likely return if they want him, but he's a player that struggles to shed blocks at times and plays too stiff in coverage. They love Vontaze Burfict at weakside linebacker, but could move him inside if need be. However, if defensive end Michael Johnson chases money outside of Cincinnati, the Bengals would be left very thin at defensive end. With their average talent in the secondary, losing that much of a pass rush could cripple the defense. Even with Johnson, depth is a need at end.
3. WR. Though Mohamed Sanu averaged only 3 catches for 30 yards over a 5 game span, the Bengals offense looked much better with the Rutgers rookie on the field. He'll be a key player as the offense develops, but along with Marvin Jones and Andrew Hawkins, the trio are better suited in the lineup by formation and situation. Finding a legitimate starter opposite Green would allow the Bengals offense to become less predictable and help Andy Dalton develop as a passer.
4. RB. The Bengals have expressed serious interest in improving the run game to a point where they may actively pursue one of the more explosive options in the draft. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a solid grinder between the tackles, but is incapable breaking off the big run. If they can find a fearful ground threat, Andy Dalton's limitations in stretching the field and fitting balls into tight spots could be made less relevant as space will open up downfield. Offensively, this offseason will be about recognizing what they have in Dalton and determining how they can build an offense geared to win in the playoffs around his strengths and weaknesses.
5. OL. Establishing the middle of the offensive line will be extra important to the offense's success for two reasons. If they are serious about improving the run game, this is an area that has to become better at imposing its will on the defense. Secondly, because of Andy Dalton's limitations in arm strength, they need to afford him a cleaner pocket allowing him to step into throws. At center, the health of Kyle Cook created a bigger mess than anticipated, but even at left guard, the combination of Clint Boling and Travelle Wharton should be improved. Retaining Andre Smith at right tackle will be crucial to the success of their run game, but could open up another hole if they fail to do so.
1. OT. After making changes in the playoffs, the Ravens offensive line was at its best with a lineup of (left to right): McKinnie, Osemele, Birk, Yanda, Oher. Bryant McKinnie is set to become an unrestricted free agent and in Baltimore's best case scenario for next year, he's a 34 year old starting left tackleŅan implication that need not be spelled out. With a permanent long-term solution there in his place, the Ravens can keep Michael Oher on the right side where he has flourished next to Pro Bowler Marshal Yanda. Even in the best case, a lineup with McKinnie isn't sustainable for 16 games and is probably unfeasible beyond 2013, given his age and weight, so at the very least, a developmental prospect is likely.
2. ILB. With the retirement of the generation's finest defensive player, the Ravens will be left thin at inside linebacker. Moving to more 43 base looks is a possibility, especially if they are unable to re-sign unrestricted free agent Dannell Ellerbe, which appears to be less a possibility without 52, but adding an impact linebacker will be among the Ravens' biggest priorities this offseason.
3. OLB. On the whole, the Ravens were nothing better than an average to slightly above average defense over the course of the season. One of the big reasons for it was a pass rush that struggled to get after the quarterback with the same consistency of years past. Paul Kruger is a must re-sign, but his ability to get after the passer could be one other teams overpay for in free agency. Courtney Upshaw was drafted early in the second round, but is more of a run defender than pass rusher.
4. C. The Ravens could have pulled a move for center in any of the past couple years with Matt Birk's gradually diminishing skills at center. With grit and experience, he's given the offense just enough year after year to avoid being a liability. Drafting Gino Gradkowski in the 4th round a year ago, the Ravens have set themselves up to develop a player they feel has the ability to become the starter. Though a departure from Birk isn't guaranteed, they could go younger if they feel he doesn't have another year left in him with another free agent to compete with Gradkowski.
5. WR. After watching his performance in the postseason making one contested catch after another, it's obvious the offense needs a player of his caliber to complement their up-and-comer on the opposite side. Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss are reasonable depth receivers for the style of offense Baltimore runs, but if either are forced into the starting lineup, it would be a significant drop-off. With a $6 million salary Boldin was a potential cap casualty after the regular season, but it now seems more likely they'll look to extend his contract, spreading some of the up-front money to later years. If Boldin is kept around, they could potentially punt their search for a receiver another year, which brings safety into this slot with Ed Reed's annual retirement contemplation.
1. OLB. A pass rusher opposite rising star Jabaal Sheard will be key in the Browns' attempt to fix the defense. The mold of the player will remain an uncertainty until defensive coordinator Ray Horton settles in and his new roster has been evaluated, but any personnel acquisitions will likely lead to a transition to a 3-4 front as he predominantly built Arizona. A coaching change of this magnitude typically suggests role and responsibility changes in the front 7 leading to a multi-year overhaul of the front with the additions of free agents and draft picks that better fit the mold of the ultimate goal. But if one thing's certain, it's that Rob Chudzinski will be flexible and do the best to put his players in a position to succeed in the short term.
2. CB. With Joe Haden and safety TJ Ward developing into premier players at their respective positions, the Browns still field a middling pass defense. Even if they re-sign 34 year old Sheldon Brown on the tail-end of his career, he is now better suited to only playing in subpackages. Undersized Buster Skrine has potential, but is a little too undisciplined to be penciled in as a probable starter on a good pass defense in his second year.
3. OG. After using a high draft pick to bring Trent Richardson to Cleveland, the Browns must continue working for their investment, developing an offensive line that can pave holes for their stud back. Both Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao struggled in the starting lineup and are positions of upgrade. John Greco, who started 10 games for Cleveland is being counted on to regain the left guard position leaving a bigger gap at right guard. With plenty of needs, the Browns need to be more diligent than setting hard targets going into the draft, instead collecting best talent available and turning to free agency to fill this hole in the short term.
4. FS. The free safety position currently held by Usama Young is another area of upgrade. The Browns may not feel the pressured enough to make a concentrated effort to improve the position yet, but adding a playmaker beside All-Pro caliber strong safety TJ Ward could help transform the secondary into one of the better units in the league. Across the board, the Browns were average defensively and building an impact unit up front or in the back will be necessary in taking the defense as a whole to the next level.
5. TE. Ben Watson has provided mediocre production from the tight end position over the past three years, but improvements in the Browns offense could be made with a better starter here. Though the receiving corps isn't particularly strong, starters Josh Gordon and Greg Little have a promising future and depth in the short term is easily acquirable through free agency. At tight end, last year's 4th round draft pick Jordan Cameron could become the starter moving forward, but that's far from a certainty. At worst, competition for Cameron could help spur improvement, while an offense expected to focus on running the football and a quarterback without the elite arm talent, could flourish under a two tight end attack.
1. OT. The Steelers offensive line will continue to hear and feel the anger and negativity from the outside world for their struggles until they can stay healthy and keep Big Ben from running from his life. That said, the Steelers have made serious investments to improve the unit over the past two years and have been done in by injuries. It's probably true that the offense will go as the line does next year, but the return of David DeCastro at guard and the expected improvement of Mike Adams at tackle should help. Still, they feel one tackle short still. An addition to the competition of Mike Adams, Marcus Gilbert, and potentially free agent Max Starks if he's re-signed, should be enough to give the Steelers a strong five and the depth behind it should they suffer the injury bug yet again.
2. RB. Opting for strength and toughness to team speed, Pittsburgh is now lacking in explosiveness and team speed to instill the full scare of the celebrated franchise. Rashard Mendenhall's injury hurt and situation suggests that he'll take his rebound hopes elsewhere. If the Steelers want to stay true to their brand and impose their will on the ground, they'll need someone who can unseat the combination of Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer, moving them back to more comfortable positions off the bench. As the offensive line returns to strength, they'll want someone with enough speed and wiggle to utilize holes for more than a gain of six.
3. Front 7. Finishing among the top 5 defenses in the league yet again, it's impressive how the new generation of the Steel Curtain continues to defy time and challenge offenses. But at some point in the near future, if age continues to evade this organization, the salary cap will catch up to them and force the defense to slash veterans and get younger. One of those veterans could be outside linebacker James Harrison, which would throw Jason Worilds into his place and hurt depth at a position where the Steelers have been banged up over the past few years. Also depending upon how they approach the contract situations of Casey Hampton (36) and Larry Foote (33), the nose tackle and inside linebacker positions could be a pair of starting opportunities that open up.
4. WR. Given the cap situation of the Steelers, it's highly unlikely that Mike Wallace returns to the Steel City. His speed and impact on a defense will be rewarded handsomely on the open market, promoting restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders to a starting role. Wallace will leave a void in the offense's ability to stretch the field with Brown and Sanders better equipped for short and intermediate routes. Having found luck in the draft in recent history, they'll probably stick to the middle rounds to pounce on a downfield target they like.
5. S Depth. Despite finishing among the league leaders in statistical pass defense nearly every year, the secondary has found a way to allow big plays with games on the line. It's a unit that succeeds more within the area around the line of scrimmage (pressure on the quarterback and physicality with the receivers) than at the top of the route. Ike Taylor has developed into one of the league's finer corners at the age of 32 while Keenan Lewis opposite him had a solid season. At free safety, however, injury has been an issue with little depth behind Polamalu and Ryan Clark to speak of.
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