Oakland Raiders: 2013 Free Agents and Candidates for Release

Top Free Agents

OLB Phillip Wheeler

Wheeler had a remarkable season considering where he was last season. After spending a few years as a nondescript two down run stuffer in Indianapolis, Wheeler signed with the Raiders for less than a million dollars last off-season and was a bright spot on an otherwise miserable defense. The former Colt played every down and was ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. He’s definitely earned himself some money, but it’s important to remember where he was last year and not give him too big of a pay increase percentage wise based on just one season.

DT Desmond Bryant

Here’s another bright spot from the Raiders’ defense. It sounds weird, but they could be even worse defensively next year if they can’t bring back guys like Wheeler and Bryant in free agency. Taking over for an injured Richard Seymour midway through the season, Bryant finished the year as ProFootballFocus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle. He excelled as a pass rusher and stopped the run alright as well. Like Wheeler, it’s important not to overpay him based on one year, but the Harvard product is not yet 28 (in December) and could be one of the real bargains of free agency this off-season at the right price.

P Shane Lechler

By his standards, Lechler struggled this year. He averaged 47.2 yards per punt, but only 39.5 net as only 24 of 81 were pinned inside the 20. He was ProFootballFocus’ 14th ranked punter this season. Still, if you look at his whole body of work, he’s one of the better punters in the NFL and, though punters don’t command a big salary, he should be paid among the best punters in the NFL.

DT Richard Seymour

Before he got hurt and Bryant took over, Seymour wasn’t playing too poorly himself. Despite very limited playing time thanks to an injury that ended his season week 9, Seymour ranked 12th among defensive tackles on ProFootballFocus. If healthy, he appears to still have something left in the tank and he has the versatility to play in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. The biggest issue is that he’ll be 33 in October and he’s coming off a major injury.

TE Brandon Myers

Another bright spot for the Raiders this season, Myers wasn’t thought of as much more than a blocker coming into the season and he ended up catching 79 passes for 806 yards and 4 touchdowns. Ironically, however, he was ProFootballFocus’ worst rated run blocking tight end this season. He’s not an explosive athlete and he only has one year of production, so he won’t command a large salary. Like Wheeler and Bryant, it’s important to remember to pay him not based off of just one season.

S Matt Giordano

Giordano was also a bright spot for the Raiders this season. Why are all of their bright spots free agents? The Raiders were able to move big money safety Michael Huff where he was needed most because Giordano had always been impressive as a 3rd safety behind Huff and Tyvon Branch. When given an opportunity to start, he didn’t disappoint, as he was a functional starting safety. However, the Raiders probably want to keep Huff at safety long term, so Giordano might have to go elsewhere in search of a starting job.

OT Khalif Barnes

Barnes was one of several Raiders who struggled with the switch to a zone blocking scheme this season. In the Raiders’ power blocking scheme in 2011, he graded out as an above average starter, but he struggled this year when he was on the field and also missed a significant amount of time with injuries. You can do worse than him as your starting right tackle in the right scheme and with the Raiders moving back to a power blocking scheme, they could opt to retain him as a starter, but they may also try to upgrade the position.

CB Joselio Hanson

Another bright spot for the Raiders who is a free agent, Hanson was a final cut of the Eagles in September, but the cap tight Raiders brought him in and made him their nickel back and he graded out above average. He’s limited mainly to the slot, but he’s one of the better slot specialist cornerbacks in the NFL and there’s always a need for a guy like that.

G Cooper Carlisle

Carlisle was actually alright as a starter for the Raiders this season as he was one of the few who actually improved in the new zone blocking scheme. However, at age 36 in August and with the Raiders going back to a power blocking scheme he struggled in back in 2011, he might be done with the Raiders and maybe done in the NFL entirely. At the very least, he shouldn’t get anything more than a cheap one year deal.

The Rest

QB Matt Leinart
RB Mike Goodson
FB Owen Schmitt
WR Derek Hagan
DE Matt Shaughnessy
DE Andre Carter
MLB Omar Gaither
CB Ronald Bartell
CB Shawntae Spencer
S Michael Mitchell

Candidates for release

DT Tommy Kelly

He was better down the stretch, but he still ended up as ProFootballFocus’ 74th ranked defensive tackle out of 85. Heading into his age 33 season in 2013, he’s not worth the 6.5 million he’s due and the cap strapped Raiders probably won’t bring him back. He should catch on somewhere else though on a short term contract.

WR Darius Heyward-Bey

Darius Heyward-Bey had a strong year in 2011, catching 64 passes for 975 yards, but those account for almost half of his production in his four year career. In the other 3 seasons, he’s caught a combined 76 passes for 1096 yards. It’s also a bad sign that he had that breakout year and then regressed this year, catching just 41 passes for 606 yards and doing so on 80 targets. Owed 7.721 million in 2013, he’s not expected to be back. The Raiders have financial issues and despite all their needs, they actually have solid receiving depth. Rod Streater can step into the starting lineup for him and Jacoby Ford and Juron Criner can provide solid depth. Someone else will snatch Heyward-Bey up, however.

MLB Rolando McClain

Like Darrius Heyward-Bey, McClain is a former top-10 pick of the Raiders who is expected to be gone this off-season. He’s been okay on the field, but he’s had off the field issues, including legal issues and issues with the coaching staff and the only reason he wasn’t cut mid-season was because of the cap hit the Raiders would have endured, according to GM Reggie McKenzie. Owed 4.005 million in 2013, he won’t be back. Like I said, he can play, but a lot of teams won’t give him a look because of the other stuff. Someone should sign him, however. He’s not even 24 until July.

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Jacksonville Jaguars: 2013 Free Agents and Candidates for Release

Top Free Agents

OLB Daryl Smith

ProFootballFocus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011, injuries limited Smith to just 117 snaps this season. Already one of the NFL’s most underrated players, he could be an excellent buy low candidate this season for a team in need of a new starter at outside linebacker, but he turns 31 in April, so that’s something to be aware of.

FB Greg Jones

Fullbacks don’t get a lot of attention, but Jones has been one of the best at his position for several years. This year, he ranked 11th among fullbacks on ProFootballFocus. The biggest issue is that he’s 32 in April, but fullbacks rarely get long term contracts anyway, so signing him to a short term deal this off-season would be smart, both for the Jaguars and for any other fullback needy team.

CB Derek Cox

Derek Cox has flashed. For instance, in 5 and ½ starts in an injury plagued 2011 season, he allowed just 9 completions for 105 yards on 28 attempts and deflected 3 passes. However, the 2009 3rd round pick has also been incredibly inconsistent and injury prone. He has starter’s talent, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’ll get a starting job and starters money this off-season.

DT Terrance Knighton

A rotational tackle, Knighton is a better pass rusher than run stopper, which is weird considering his size (317). He’s had durability, weight, and off the field issues in the past, but he seems to have put most of that behind him and he’s a solid rotational tackle.

C Brad Meester

Meester has been solid forward, but he turns 36 in March and he was terrible in 2012, ranking 35th out of 36 eligible centers on ProFootballFocus. He might retire. If he doesn’t, the Jaguars may bring him back as their center for a 14th season out of loyalty, but it’s hard to see anyone else giving him a starting job this off-season.

G Eben Britton

A 2nd round pick in 2009, Britton was a solid right tackle for a couple of years, but after an injury plagued 2011 season, he moved to left guard in 2012 and he was miserable at best. Even though he didn’t play enough snaps to qualify, he was still ProFootballFocus’ 5th worst rated guard. He split time at left guard with Mike Brewster, who was the 2nd worst rated guard. He’ll only get interest on the open market as a reclamation project.

The Rest

RB Rashad Jennings
RB Jalen Parmele
TE Maurice Stovall
G Steve Vallos
CB William Middleton
CB Rashean Mathis
S Chris Harris

Candidates for Release

MLB Paul Posluszny

Both of these two players are long shots to actually be cut. But the Jaguars have a ton of cap space and no obvious candidates for release and neither of these two players are worth their 2013 salary, so I’ll list them here. Posluszny is normally a solid middle linebacker, but this year he was ProFootballFocus’ 47th ranked middle linebacker out of 53. He’s owed 6.45 million in 2013 and the Jaguars will obviously be hoping for a bounce back year, but if he plays like this again, he won’t be worth close to that amount.

S Dawan Landry

Landry wasn’t quite as bad at his respective position as Posluszny, but he still ranked 71st out of 88 eligible safeties. 31 this year, he’s probably not getting any better any time soon and while he might not be cut owed 5.35 million this season, it could be a different story in 2014, when he’ll be owed that same amount once again.

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Kansas City Chiefs: 2013 Free Agents and Candidates for Release

Top Free Agents

WR Dwayne Bowe

Despite having some of the worst quarterback play in the NFL over that stretch, Bowe has averaged 75 catches for 1041 yards and 7 touchdowns per 16 games in his 6-year NFL career and he’s played in 88 of a possible 96 games in his career. It’ll be really interesting to see what kind of production he gets if he goes to a team with a better quarterback. It theoretically should go up, but receivers oftentimes have issues adjusting to a new team and a new offensive system and he probably won’t see the 8.5 targets per game he averaged throughout his career in Kansas City. He also turns 29 in September so age is an issue when you start talking about 4-5 year deals. Still, he’s the top receiver on the open market this off-season.

OT Branden Albert

Not a well-known player, but Albert is a great left tackle when healthy and after years of questions about whether or not the Chiefs should move him to right tackle to back to his collegiate position of guard, Albert finally showed himself to be worth the 15th overall pick (in 2008) these past two seasons. When healthy, he’s probably a top-10 left tackle in the NFL. The problem: he suffered through back spasms throughout most of last season, which tends to be a lingering injury. That could cost him some money on the open market. The Chiefs may even be content going forward with 2012 3rd round pick Donald Stephenson, rather than risking money on Albert.

P Dustin Colquitt

One of five Chief Pro-Bowlers, Dustin Colquitt averaged 46.8 yards per punt, 40.8 net yards per punt, pinned 46 of 83 inside the 20 with just 7 touchbacks and was ProFootballFocus’ 6th rated punter this season. Punters don’t get a lot of money on the open market, but Colquitt is one of the best in the league so the Chiefs let him go, he’ll have suitors. The Chiefs could opt to franchise tag him if they don’t want to tag either of the two aforementioned players.

DT Glenn Dorsey

One of two top-5 mega-busts for the Chiefs (we’ll get to the 2nd later), Dorsey is a decent run stopper, but offers absolutely nothing as a pass rusher. He also missed most of 2012 with calf and knee problems. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of market greets him this off-season, as it looks like his time in Kansas City is done. He’d probably be best off returning to his collegiate 4-3 system, but he might not get a guaranteed starting job in either.

RB Peyton Hillis

Remember when this guy was on the cover of Madden? Good times. Injuries have limited him to 246 carries and 3.6 YPC in the two years since. He might get a job as a 3rd down back and/or short yardage specialist, but he might want to consider going back to fullback, the position he broke into the league as, in order to secure a job in 2013.

S Abram Elam

He wasn’t a starter going into the year, but he ended up playing a significant amount of snaps for the Chiefs and he was solid. He was also solid in previous stops in Dallas and Cleveland. He does turn 31 this year, but if you need safety depth, you could do a lot worse than this guy.

The rest

QB Brady Quinn
TE Jake O’Connell
TE Martin Rucker
G Russ Hochstein
C Thomas Gafford
DT Shaun Smith
OLB Edgar Jones
MLB Brandon Siler
MLB Bryan Kehl
CB Travis Daniels

Candidates for release

DE Tyson Jackson

This is about as obvious as they come. Jackson was the 3rd overall pick in the not so long ago era when top-5 picks commanded ridiculous salaries. Because of that, he’ll be owed 14.72 million in the final year of his contract in 2013 and he’s not worth a third of that. The mega-bust is solid against the run, but has generated 24 total sacks, hits, and hurries in his 4 year career and with everyone who was responsible for drafting him gone in Kansas City, he’s as good as gone unless he takes a massive pay cut. He should generate some interest on the open market, but it’s probably in his best interest to go back to the 4-3 system he played in at LSU.

WR Steve Breaston

This one is also pretty obvious. Breaston was brought in from Arizona by Todd Haley, but he never really lived up to the 5 year, 22.55 million dollar contract he got two off-seasons ago. With Haley gone this year, Breaston barely played, especially down the stretch as he was a healthy scratch during weeks 12-16 and played just 10 snaps week 17. Owed 3.8 million in 2013, he won’t be back. It’ll be interesting to see if he generates any interest on the open market, with a history of injury problems and heading into his age 30 season.

QB Matt Cassel

This one is about as obvious as the first two. Matt Cassel was benched this season for Brady Quinn and has next to no chance of being the Chiefs’ starter in 2013. Andy Reid will want his own guy and he certainly won’t want this turnover machine, who was benched for the incompetent Brady Quinn. He’s only a backup in the NFL and isn’t worth the 7.5 million he’s owed next season. He’ll have to hunt for a backup job on the open market this off-season.

Should the Jets trade Darrelle Revis?

The reasons for not trading Darrelle Revis are obvious. When healthy, this guy is not only the Jets’ best player, but probably the best defensive back in the entire NFL and maybe even the best overall defensive player in the NFL. Including this year, when he played just 1 ½ games thanks to injury, Revis has allowed 153 completions on 371 attempts (41.2%) for 1946 yards (5.2 YPA), 8 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, while deflecting 62 passes, and committing 13 penalties over the past 5 seasons. That’s a QB rating allowed of 45.3.

No one else even comes close to that and he does it despite shadowing the opponent’s #1 wide receiver on every snap, something that most #1 cornerbacks don’t do anymore. He’s also just 28 in July and should have at least 3 more years playing at this level left in him. He’s coming off a torn ACL and the Jets would clearly be selling him low by trading him now, which is not normally an advisable move.

I say “normally” because there are reasons why moving him now would be smart. Without him last year, the Jets ranked 22nd in opponent’s scoring, but that’s more on the offense than the defense. According to DVOA, they were the 30th ranked offense in the NFL and 9th ranked defense and they were just 8th in the NFL in opponent’s yardage. That 9th ranked defensive DVOA is not on the same level as it was in the past 3 years, as they ranked 1st, 5th, and 2nd in defensive DVOA in 2009, 2010, and 2011 respectively, but it’s hardly bad.

It’s not that they didn’t miss Revis. It’s impossible to not miss a player of his talent. However, Antonio Cromartie stepped into that Revis role well, mostly shadowing opponent’s #1 receivers and allowing a 69.7 QB rating against and 46.0% completion. Defense wasn’t the issue for them last year. It was the offense. Because of the offense’s ineptitude and the “salary cap hell” they are in (more on that later), they probably won’t be competitive next year regardless of whether or not they trade Revis, which is important to note because not trading Revis would essentially be the same as renting him for a year.

Unless they sign him to an extension this off-season, Revis will be a free agent next off-season. They can’t franchise him, per his contract. And it’s highly unlikely they will be able to re-sign him this off-season, which goes back to that “salary cap hell”. That’s not my term. That’s how it was described by a league source, as they Jets are expected to enter the off-season around 19.4 million over the cap. That’s why they had so much trouble finding someone to fill their GM job.

They’ll have to cut several big salary players just to get under the cap and they have 10 starters from 2012 who are already not under contract. They’ll probably cut Bart Scott, Calvin Pace, and maybe David Harris, which would leave them with 9 starters under contract heading into the off-season (and one of those is Mark Sanchez). They probably won’t be able to re-sign key contributors LaRon Landry, Mike DeVito, Shonn Greene, and Dustin Keller already. How are they going to be able to give Revis the kind of extension he’s looking for, roughly 16 million per year? And if their cap situation is this bad now, it’s really going to put them at a disadvantage trying to re-sign Revis next off-season. This type of thing doesn’t fix itself in one year and Revis may want to play for a contender anyway.

Whatever happens, it’s tough to see Revis in a Jets jersey in 2014. It would be smart for the Jets to trade him while they can still get something for him, considering they are in no position to contend for a playoff spot in 2013 either way. Despite the torn ACL that cost him most of last season, he’ll still command a huge price on the trade market.

It’s not often that a player of Revis’ caliber is available through trade. It takes a special set of circumstances, but I think these circumstances qualify. This is the defensive equivalent of Peyton Manning being available last off-season or the modern equivalent of Reggie White being available in 1993. The Jets should be able to land at least a first rounder for him and if they can get a 1st rounder, preferably one in the top-15 picks, as well as a later pick, I say pull the trigger. That would give them a pair of top-15 picks to build around for the future, hopefully in a more cap responsible manner.

At least 10 teams have been rumored destinations for Revis and it wouldn’t surprise me if even more than 10 teams seriously consider it and call up new Jets GM John Idzik to feel the waters. Among those teams, I think that three are the most likely destinations. The Buccaneers make the most sense to me. They need cornerback help more than maybe anyone else in the NFL. Aqib Talib is gone and Eric Wright could follow him, after a 4 game suspension give the Buccaneers the right to void without penalty the rest of what was a ridiculous contract to begin with. He’s not worth the 30.75 million over 4 years left on his contract.

In their absence down the stretch, they tried several young cornerbacks, but ended up ranking 29th against the pass. They will probably bring in at least 1 cornerback, maybe two, in the first 3 rounds of the draft and cornerbacks are the favorites to go to them at 13th overall. However, even coming off a torn ACL, Revis is far more of a sure thing than any draft prospect could ever be and the Buccaneers have among the most salary cap in the NFL and would be able to sign him long term pretty easily.

The Bengals are another team with a lot of cap space, most in the NFL in fact. They have a few big free agents to re-sign, like Andre Smith and Michael Johnson, but even after that, they’ll definitely be able to sign Revis long term. They also have a pair of 2nd round picks so losing their first rounder and a later pick wouldn’t be that big of a deal for them. Adding Revis to a talented defense that already has Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Leon Hall, and Reggie Nelson would be enough to push them into top-5 status, at the very least, after being a top-10 defense in each of the past two years, and would make them Super Bowl contenders, however average the offense may be. Revis would play next alongside Leon Hall, with 2012 1st round pick Dre Kirkpatrick either moving to the slot or to safety.

The Colts are the third team. They also have plenty of cap space and after doing such a great job in 2012 despite having replacement level talents at almost every position, adding an elite player like Revis is exactly what they need. They are the third team, however, because they don’t have a 2nd round pick, after trading it for Vontae Davis. They may be hesitant to trade away their 1st rounder and a later pick for Revis for that reason, although they do like making splash moves and it would definitely make them a better football team both short term and long term. Other teams mentioned include New England, San Francisco, Seattle, Buffalo, Denver, and Atlanta, but for different reasons, none of those are as feasible as the three aforementioned teams.

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Defensive Scheme Changes: Falcons, Saints, Browns, Eagles, Cowboys

4-3 to 3-4

Atlanta Falcons

This one isn’t confirmed, but Falcons’ defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is a 3-4 guy. He did a great job in his first season with the Falcons, coaching them to a top-5 scoring defense, despite having to run a 4-3, because he wisely realized they didn’t have the personnel for an immediate switch to a 3-4. Still, you have to figure he’s going to want to go to a 3-4 eventually and going into his 2nd year with the team, there are rumors, though nothing confirmed, that he may be taking them to a 3-4 base this season. They already ran a lot of 3-3 looks last year, as they frequently used sub packages.

If there were to go to a 3 man line full time in 2013, it would resemble the one from their 3-3 front. Jonathan Babineaux would be a 3-4 defensive end and Peria Jerry, Corey Peters, or Vance Walker could play the other 3-4 end spot, though Peters was terrible last year and Walker is a free agent. Either way, they do need a true nose tackle, something this roster lacks. There’s a reason they ranked 29th against the run in 2013. If he’s even re-signed, Walker is their biggest tackle on the roster at about 305, which isn’t going to cut it.

Going to the linebacking corps, defensive ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann would move to the 3-4 outside linebacker spot. Whether or not they will fit the new position remains to be seen, but either way, they need help at the position. Abraham turns 35 in May, while Biermann is a marginal and inconsistent starter, and their depth is suspect at best. Outside linebackers Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas would move inside to middle linebacker, though Nicholas should just be a base package run stuffer and someone else should come in for him in sub packages. Akeem Dent is a candidate, but it also may be someone not currently on their roster.

New Orleans Saints

After ranking among the worst in the NFL in every single defensive category, including 31st in opponent’s scoring, the Saints have rightfully fired defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. They apparently want to do anything they can to change things up as they are reportedly interested in hiring a defensive coordinator with a 3-4 background to run that scheme in New Orleans. As would have been the case if they had stayed in a 4-3, they still need more talent upfront.

Cameron Jordan might benefit the most from the scheme change, as the collegiate 3-4 end had been struggling as a 4-3 end in the NFL. Opposite him, however, they have nothing and someone like Sheldon Richardson will be an option at 15th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. At nose tackle, expect Brodrick Bunkley and Akiem Hicks to hold down the fort. Both could also play end as well, I suppose, but that will still be a need.

Like 3-4 defensive end, rush linebacker is now a huge need. Will Smith will almost definitely be cut. Not only is he overpaid and not very good anymore, but he’s a terrible fit for a 3-4. That leaves the Saints with nickel rushers Martez Wilson and Junior Galette at the position. They’ll bring someone else in. Someone like Dion Jordan or Ezekiel Ansah will also be an option at 15th overall. Expect them to take a 3-4 defensive end and outside linebacker, in either order, with their first 2 picks of the 2013 NFL Draft. Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne, meanwhile, are obvious fits at middle linebacker and should be able to have bounce back years in the new scheme. Jonathan Vilma probably would have been cut either way, but this pretty much seals the deal.

Cleveland Browns

The Browns made the opposite transition a few years ago, switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 after the 2010 season, with Pat Shurmur coming in. That should help ease the transition. However, they do have a bunch of new front 7 players. Jabaal Sheard is their best pass rusher and I don’t think he’ll have much of an issue moving from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker. They’ll need a complement for him, opposite him, but they would have needed another pass rusher regardless. Expect them to target rush linebackers at #6 overall.

The reason they need another pass rush is because Juqua Parker is a 35 year old free agent this off-season. He split snaps opposite Sheard last year with Frostee Rucker and frankly they weren’t very good either. Rucker, however, may be a better fit as a 3-4 end. Between him, Billy Winn, John Hughes, Phil Taylor, and Ahytba Rubin, they should be set on the defensive line. That’s five guys who can play significant snaps, including two, Rubin and Taylor, who have the size to play on the nose.

At inside linebacker, D’Qwell Jackson will remain, as he did the last time they used a 3-4. Either Craig Robertson, Kaluka Maiava, or James-Michael Johnson will play next to him. Chris Gocong is another candidate, provided he isn’t cut, owed 4.45 million in 2013, coming off an Achilles tear that ended his 2012 season. Rush linebacker is really their only need area up front, even for depth purposes. They look pretty set at all other positions, but rush linebacker is probably the most important one.

Philadelphia Eagles

Like the Saints, the Eagles have not formally hired a defensive coordinator, but new Head Coach Chip Kelly is a believer in the 3-4 scheme and they are expected to hire a 3-4 defensive coordinator, likely San Francisco defensive backs coach Ed Donatell. They will need to wait until after the Super Bowl to do so, but that’s probably the reason why they have yet to hire anyone.

The scheme change might be best for Fletcher Cox and Cullen Jenkins, who will both move both from defensive tackle to defensive end. Both are natural fits for the position and Jenkins has some experience playing there from his days in Green Bay. Mike Patterson, Cedric Thornton, and Derek Landri will provide solid depth, though the latter is a free agent this off-season. Antonio Dixon has to be thrilled about the position change as well. He’s a talented player in the right scheme, but he was lost in Philadelphia’s wide nine last year, which is why he was cut and not brought back until Jim Washburn was fired and the Eagles scrapped the wide nine. He looks like a natural fit at 3-4 nose tackle, but they’ll have to bring in competition.

The biggest risk is changing schemes for them is that their edge rushers might not fit. Brandon Graham was one of the most efficient pass rushers in the NFL last year and dominated once given a chance to start down the stretch last year. Trent Cole, meanwhile, is coming off a down year, but in the 6 years prior, he was one of the most consistently excellent defensive ends in the NFL. It might not be a good idea to mess with success. One thing the Eagles do have, however, is plenty of depth at rush linebacker. Vinny Curry was a 2nd round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and Phillip Hunt and Darryl Tapp have played well in limited action, though the latter is a free agent this off-season.

Their expected middle linebackers are DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks. Ryans stays in his 2012 spot in the middle, while Kendricks moves from the outside. Those two probably had different reactions to finding out they’d be changing schemes. Ryans was nowhere near his normal self in Houston in a 3-4 in 2011, which is why he got traded to the Eagles. Kendricks, meanwhile, struggled as a rookie, but perhaps a change to a 3-4 will get him turned around. He played in a 3-4 in college, playing both inside and outside. The Eagles don’t have any major needs in the front 7, with the exception of competition for Dixon, but they didn’t really have any to begin with.
3-4 to 4-3

Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys are making the opposite move this off-season, going from years of a 3-4 back to a 4-3. While I don’t understand hiring Monte Kiffin if he’s not going to run his signature Tampa 2 coverage scheme, I like the move to a 4-3 for the Cowboys. All 3 of their talented non-rush linebackers, Sean Lee, Bruce Carter, and Dan Connor, will be able to be on the field at the same time, while Lee and Carter will be able to play in space more often. Jay Ratliff is a better fit in a 4-3 than a 3-4 on the nose, though after his recent arrest, it’s questionable if he’ll be brought back next season. Jason Hatcher is tentatively expected to play defensive tackle next to him, but he is a bit of a tweener in a 4-3.

DeMarcus Ware will move to 4-3 defensive end, which is not as risky as moving an edge rusher from a 3-4 to a 4-3 because most edge rushers played in a 4-3 in college, as Ware did. I have no doubt he’ll be able to get to the quarterback regardless of the scheme. Their biggest issue is at defensive end opposite Ware. Anthony Spencer is not expected to be retained as a free agent because the Cowboys don’t have a lot of cap space. Fellow free agent Victor Butler is an option, as he’s been solid in limited action throughout his career. They also have Tyrone Crawford, a 2012 3rd round pick who might be a better fit in a 4-3 than a 3-4. Hatcher is also an option, but that would leave them with just Marcus Spears, Sean Lissemore, and Jay Ratliff inside, assuming the latter is even retained. They could add an end through the draft at some point.

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Atlanta Falcons 2013 Needs

The Falcons were tied for the best record in the NFL at 13-3 this season, but they were given very little respect throughout, and for good reason. They finished the season ranked just 10th in DVOA, had one of the easiest schedules in football, and were frequently pulling out close victories, going 7-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That may seem impressive, but that is unsustainable on a week to week basis and it’s less impressive when you consider most of those wins were against teams like Oakland, Arizona, Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Carolina.

The Falcons were just 2.5 point home favorites for the Seahawks in the divisional round and were the largest home underdog in Conference Championship history against the 49ers. At the end of the day, their doubters were right. After coming back to win against Seattle late, after blowing a 20-0 lead, the Falcons blew a 17-0 point lead against the 49ers and lost by 4, unable to pull out another close win once the level of competition improved.

Their doubters were wrong in one aspect, however. Many people felt that Matt Ryan couldn’t win a playoff game because he was 0-3 in his career in the playoffs coming into the season, which I found to be an absurd argument. Matt Ryan has been among the best regular season quarterbacks since entering the league in 2008, but because of three bad postseason games we were supposed to believe that he suddenly becomes a worse quarterback in the post-season. Two of those games were against future Super Bowl Champions and one was on the road as a rookie against a team that won the NFC and went to the Super Bowl. He was only favored in one and that was against the Packers in 2010, who weren’t going to be beaten.

Matt Ryan proved those people wrong by winning his first post-season game and advancing to his first Conference Championship this year and even though he lost to the 49ers, he still played well. In the post-season, he completed 54 of 77 (70.1%) for 646 yards (8.4 YPA), 6 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions against the NFL’s top-2 scoring defenses, scoring a combined 54 points in the process.

This came after his best regular season ever, as he completed 68.6% of his passes for an average of 7.7 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, while leading the Falcons to their second #1 seed in 3 seasons and a career high 26.2 points per game. He was helped by new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and the emergence of arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL.

They’ll probably lose Tony Gonzalez to retirement this off-season, but the future is bright in Atlanta. Matt Ryan is probably around the top-6 to 8 quarterbacks in the NFL and you can definitely win a Super Bowl with him. Heading into a contract year, the Falcons are expected to open up the checkbooks and pay him this off-season. Expect him to get around 100 million over 6 years.

Running Back

It’s very impressive that the Falcons were able to be as good offensively as they were this season without much of a running game. The 3.7 YPC they averaged ranked 29th in the NFL. Michael Turner looks pretty done. The soon to be 31-year-old is not even close to being worth the 5.5 million he’s owed next season. He averaged 3.6 YPC this season and also averaged about one carry longer than 17 yards per month over the final few months of the season.

He’s never been a pass catcher and he fits Dirk Koetter’s offense like a square peg in a round hole. He’s a mediocre plodder who gets a bunch of 2 and 3 yard carries and he’s not even good in short yardage situations either anymore. He doesn’t have any NFL level skills and he won’t be any better next season. He won’t be back and he might not get another job anywhere. The Falcons like Jacquizz Rodgers, but multiple reports have said they don’t view him as a feature back. They need a power back to split carries with him. There will be plenty of running back options on day 2 of the NFL Draft.

Tight End

Tony Gonzalez said during the season that he was 95% sure he’d retire and then in the post-season, he changed that number to 97%. After their loss to the 49ers, he said he was “probably” going to retire. I won’t rule out him returning for one more run at the Lombardi. He’s certainly still playing at a high level, but either way, they need a successor, as he turns 37 in February. If the Falcons are interested in keeping their receiving corps at a very high level, which I assume they are, Tyler Eifert and Zach Ertz will be options with the 30th overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft.

Defensive End

The Falcons made the right move by cutting dead weight and sunk cost Ray Edwards, rather than stubbornly sticking with him. However, they do need someone to be what they were expecting him to be, so expect them to make finding that a priority of their off-season. John Abraham, 35 in May, isn’t getting any younger and none of their recent late round selections have really panned out. It’s time for a blue chip prospect. They use a lot of 3-3 and 2-4 sub packages and they may even switch to a 3-4 base, which is Mike Nolan’s specialty, so whatever pass rusher they bring in needs to be comfortable rushing with his hand in the dirt and standing up.

Guard

Peter Konz really struggled as a rookie at right guard, but he’s still a long term starter at center. Todd McClure is a 36 year old free agent this off-season and may be done with the team, if not in the NFL entirely, as he’s reportedly considering retirement. They do, however, need a new right guard. Garrett Reynolds has seen action there over the past 2 years, but he’s a replacement level talent and a free agent this off-season anyway.

Middle Linebacker

The idea was to have Akeem Dent split snaps with Lofa Tatupu and allow Stephen Nicholas to remain a two-down linebacker, but Tatupu got hurt, so that didn’t work. Dent played as the two-down linebacker and didn’t really play that well. Nicholas, meanwhile, was horrible in coverage and obviously shouldn’t be anything more than a 3rd linebacker who plays in base situations. They need another every down linebacker to replace Dent in the middle and play next to Sean Weatherspoon, who is talented, but had a down year. There’s a reason they ranked 29th against the run. If they switch to a 3-4 however, they’ll just need someone to split snaps with Nicholas inside.

Defensive Tackle

Defensive tackle is also part of the reason why they struggled against the run. Corey Peters was awful this year, ranking 84th out of 85 eligible defensive tackles on ProFootballFocus, while Vance Walker is a free agent. Mike Nolan likes having good depth at defensive tackle for all of his various fronts, with 4 guys playing at least 518 snaps for them at the position this year. They need to add another in the mix, preferably a big, run stuffing nose tackle type if they’re going to move to more of a 3-4 base.

Safety

William Moore is a talented safety, but he’s a free agent. If he’s not re-signed, he’ll need to be replaced. Thomas DeCoud, meanwhile, misses way too many tackles. His 21 missed tackles were 2nd worst in the NFL. Bringing him back as a starter wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world because he has some ball skills, but interceptions can be inconsistent on a year to year basis (he had 8 in his 4 year career before he had 6 this year). He did only have 2 pass deflections.

Cornerback

Robert McClain stepped up big time as the nickel cornerback in Brent Grimes’ absence, but Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson are both on the wrong side of 30, heading into their age 32 and 31 seasons respectively and the former really showed some signs of decline this season. Cornerbacks take a while to develop so they could bring in a young cornerback in the mid rounds to develop for the future, as lots of teams do. Samuel hits free agency in 2015, while Robinson will be owed a ridiculous 11.5 million that season.

Offensive Tackle

Sam Baker had a very good year in his contract year, but he has a history of inconsistency and injury problems, so the Falcons have to avoid overpaying him. If he’s not brought back, they could need to replace him. Will Svitek is alright, but he did struggle in his absence in 2011, while 2012 3rd round pick Lamar Holmes remains an unknown after playing just 7 snaps as an extra blocker as a rookie.

Punt Returner

The Falcons ranked 25th in the NFL, averaging 7.9 yards per punt return.

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New England Patriots 2013 Needs

The Patriots gave it a good run, but they had 40 years of history against them. No team since the 1972 Dolphins has ever won the Super Bowl after losing it the year before. It’s just too physically and emotionally draining to go that far, play that many games, come up short, and then have to try it again. No Super Bowl runner up has even made it back to the Super Bowl since the 1993 Buffalo Bills. There’s a reason I had the Patriots going out in the Conference Championship pre-season. And it’s not just Super Bowl runner ups that have issues. No defending Super Bowl Champion has won a playoff game since the 2004 Patriots. Look at what happened to the Giants. It’s the same reason.

It’s easy to poke holes in Tom Brady’s legacy after what happened against Baltimore and it was bad. I hadn’t seen him legitimately get outplayed by another quarterback in years. That was their biggest defeat since the middle of the 2010 season, their first by even more than 8 points in that time period, and whenever they have lost, it’s almost always been more the defense’s fault than the offense’s. In this game, the two quarterbacks could have switched defenses and the final score wouldn’t have been any different. The Patriots’ defense held out as long as it could, but the offense couldn’t keep them off the field. Tom Brady legitimately looked lost out there, for the first time since maybe the Baltimore loss in the playoffs in January of 2010.

However, Tom Brady still has an NFL record 17 post-season victories and his 17-7 post-season record is superior to Joe Montana’s 16-7. Joe Montana has won 4 Super Bowls and never lost one, but Tom Brady has made 5 in fewer seasons and if you don’t lose in the Super Bowl, it’s because you lost before then. They haven’t won a Super Bowl in 8 years, but no franchise has been as consistent as this one over the past decade. The Patriots will be around again in 2013 and probably for the next few years and another Super Bowl victory would tie Brady for the victory and break the record for Super Bowl appearances, in addition to the post-season wins record he already possesses. In the meantime, they have some obvious holes to fill.

Wide Receiver

Tom Brady didn’t have very good receivers when he won his 3 Super Bowls, but he also had a much better defense. Like any quarterback, Brady is better when surrounded by better receiving talent. Their lack of depth in this area was exposed by injuries, however, as Julian Edelman, Aaron Hernandez, and Rob Gronkowski all missed significant time with injury. Gronk was the biggest loss.

Welker and Brandon Lloyd were their top guys at wide receiver this year, and both stayed healthy this year, but those two will both turn 32 this off-season and Welker is a free agent. Things will only get worse here if Wes Welker is not re-signed and Edelman is also a free agent. Deion Branch saw far too much of the field this season already. At the very least, they need to add a young receiver early in the draft for the future, but they could also use a veteran replacement for Welker if he leaves. They’ve been tied to Percy Harvin, who the Vikings could opt to move if they can’t get him signed long term.

Defensive Tackle

The Patriots have some good pass rushers on the outside, but they don’t get much of anything in terms of pass rush from the inside of their defensive line. Vince Wilfork’s strength is the run and he’s never gotten to the quarterback much, while Kyle Love shouldn’t be anything more than a situational run stopper. Wilfork also turns 32 next season. They need a young pass rushing defensive tackle in the mix and they may also bring back veteran Richard Seymour.

Cornerback

Once again, the Patriots had to go patchwork in the secondary and they ranked 28th against the pass overall as a result. Aqib Talib is now a free agent. I almost don’t want to see them take another defensive back through the draft because they’ve had so many that didn’t pan out. Patrick Chung, Ras-I Dowling, Terrance Wheatley, and Brandon Meriweather were all picked in the first two rounds and didn’t pan out and now they have Tavon Wilson, a 2nd round pick from last year, to wait on. But they have to do something. Alfonzo Dennard looks like a keeper, but as long as McCourty is kept at safety, Dennard is their only good cornerback under contract. They could have interest in Nnamdi Asomugha if the Eagles let him go or they may opt to bring back Talib.

Safety

Same story as cornerback here, they need help and they haven’t had any success early in the draft. Patrick Chung is a free agent, but he barely played down the stretch anyway. Devin McCourty is a keeper at either cornerback or safety, but it looks like it’ll be safety for now. Steve Gregory is alright and Tavon Wilson has some promise, but they still need help here. They’ve been tied to Ed Reed, who is a free agent this off-season.

Offensive Tackle

Sebastian Vollmer is a free agent and will need to be re-signed. If he’s not, I guess Marcus Cannon would get the first crack at the starting job, but they’d need some competition.

Guard

Dan Connolly is the weak link on what was one of the best offensive lines in football this past year. Donald Thomas played really well in limited action in place of the injured Connolly and the injured Mankins this season and he should be the starter in Connolly’s spot, right guard, long term, but he is a free agent.

Punt Returner

Wes Welker and Julian Edelman returned punts for them this season and they did a very good job, but both are free agents.

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