The two teams that had a donnybrook in the NFC title game hail from the NFC West, a division where three teams won at least 10 games in 2013, with the Arizona Cardinals cruelly missing out on the playoffs.
It’s also a division that’s home to the champs, and their offseason priority is a guy who’s intent on testing the market. Gulp?
Estimated cap room: $16 million
Draft slot: 32nd
End game: Most years entering the offseason, the defending champ feels like the 11-year-old rich kid who’s having a birthday party. What do you get for the spoiled child who already possesses every material good this Earth has to offer? A yellow megaman, of course.
A year ago the Ravens had finished their salary cap destruction and were about to begin a rebuilding from the remaining ruins. But for the 2014 champions the road ahead now as winter mercifully turns to spring is one of re-tooling and reloading, not rebuilding. That already started when the initial stages of Seattle’s offseason blueprint were set in motion with the releasing of Sidney Rice and Red Bryant, each reaching their inevitable demise. Combined those two moves freed up $18.2 million against the cap in 2014.
So, how will those precious dollars be spent? On Michael Bennett, or on a Michael Bennett-like individual. Bennett’s services were obtained by the shrewd and Jedi influenced Hawks general manager John Schneider last offseason when he was signed to a filthy cheap one-year deal worth $4.8 million. The market for defensive ends had cooled considerably, and for reasons only they could comprehend the Buccaneers let Bennett walk. Looking back now, Schneider is more than happy with that minimal fee for 8.5 sacks, and 1.5 during the playoffs during a championship season. Wear that belt with pride, kid.
Bennett wasn’t franchised because the price attached to a defensive end tag is pretty excruciating. At $12.6 million it would have consumed most of the Seahawks’ cap space, and although re-signing Bennett to a more affordable long-term deal is still a primary goal, Schneider has surely asked himself a simple question. It’s one he’ll continue to ask (hopefully not out loud because only crazy people talk to themselves): is he worth it?
The answer, however painful it may be, is no. Not given the Seahawks’ current depth along the defensive line. Sure, that depth has taken a bit of a gut shot with Bryant gone and now possibly Bennett too, but Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril, and Bruce Irvin (who combined for 14.5 sacks) can compensate for their loss easily.
Bennett’s ultimate Seahawks fate will determine Schneider’s offseason direction. If he prices himself out of the great northwest, then attention can turn to a low-to moderate cost veteran who will still be effective as a situational pass rusher: Jared Allen. With their depth, Allen is an ideal target.
Golden Tate is the other notable and possible departure. With what he can do after the catch and his open-field speed on crossing routes, he was highly effective in a read-option offense, and Riley Cooper’s five-year deal worth $25 million sets the floor for Tate’s future contract. That’s affordable, but with Doug Baldwin also in need of a contract as an RFA and Bennett a much higher priority, it would be easy to justify walking away from an inflating figure. Tate is essentially the poor man’s Percy Harvin, and Seattle already has the real Percy Harvin.
By default early in the draft Schneider will address the hole left undercovered by free agency, and chase either a wideout (Kelvin Benjamin? Brandin Cooks), or an interior pass rusher to replace Bryant (Louis Nix? RaShede Hageman?).
San Francisco 49ers
Estimated cap room: $10 million
Draft slot: 30th
End game: I know. I know it’s difficult to discuss a 49ers matter that isn’t Jim Harbaugh, but let’s make an honest attempt.
Limited cap room could result in a secondary re-shaping of sorts if Donte Whitner and Tarell Brown find more rotund mountains of cash on the open market, and they most certainly will. If we ignore his illegal hits and attempts to rearrange the bodies of opponents, in
Hitner Whitner we have a hard-hitting safety who’s had at least 70 tackles in each of the past two seasons, and he’s entering his age 29 year. That means teams in need of a safety will likely be purchasing at least three prime years.
The franchise tag for safeties ($8.1 million) would have vacuumed up whatever life is left of Trent Baalke’s salary cap after re-signing Anquan Boldin was prioritized. The likely direction then is to focus on Brown and retaining him for something in the vicinity of $5 million annually tops, or at least that will be the default parachute once Whitner ends his long goodbye.
Then late in the first round a safety to pair with Eric Reid will be in Baalke’s crosshairs. Or if they can somehow grab hold of Whitner and never let go, a cornerback ascends the priority depth chart.
Estimated cap room: $17.9 million
Draft slot: 20th
End game: Thursday morning the Colts gave D’Qwell Jackson a four-year contract worth $22 million. It’s a fine fit for them, as after a season when he logged 141 tackles Jackson still has prime years left, and the Colts are preparing to let Pat Angerer walk. But they may have sort of screwed over the Cardinals.
Jim Irsay gives so very few cares about that, of course, but the Jackson deal sets the market for aging yet still effective middle linebackers, which is why it now becomes difficult for the Cardinals to retain Karlos Dansby. A year ago Dansby was released as the Miami Dolphins prepared for their upcoming money dump that ended in tears, and he was later signed in Arizona on a cheap, one-year veteran deal. But despite his age (32, and he’ll turn 33 midway through next season), Dansby really hasn’t declined, or at least not yet. He’s now posted back-to-back seasons with at least 120 tackles, and his six sacks this past season is his best total since 2008.
And thus we arrive at both the problem for Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, and eventually his offseason priority. He has a fair amount of cap space to play with, but he also has three defensive starters about to hit the open market in Dansby, Matt Shaughnessy, and Yeremiah Bell. And between the expiring contracts of Antoine Cason, Javier Arenas, and Bryann McCann, the cornerback depth chart beyond Patrick Peterson could be gutted too.
This is why you draft well, kids. Last spring the Cardinals spent a second-round pick on Kevin Minter, who played sparingly during his rookie year. Now if Dansby’s price gets out of reach he’ll ascend, and the great cycle of NFL life will continue. That foresight will allow Keim to spend his free agency cash and/or an early pick on a far more pressing need: making sure his quarterback isn’t regularly steamrolled.
Say what you will about Carson Palmer’s lack of mobility, and you’re right with every word. But on many Sunday afternoons last fall he barely had time to set his feet. The Cards gave up 41 sacks and 98 QB hits.
At the 20th draft slot Greg Robinson, Jake Matthews, and Taylor Lewan, the top tier left tackles, will be far out of Keim’s reach. Zach Martin is an option, but it’s more likely the offensive line will wait until the second round and beyond, and instead on May 8 Keim will be in search of an edge rusher to slide in when John Abraham is eventually ridden off to the great football field in the sky.
St. Louis Rams
Estimated cap room: $10.5 million
Draft slot: 13th
End game: Re-signing right tackle and/or guard Roger Saffold remains a priority, and so it should be. But once that’s accomplished, a more glaring goal looms: the secondary.
Cortland Finnegan faced the inevitable salary cap axe, yet still the money available to St. Louis isn’t nearly enough to both sign Saffold and chase one of the premier cornerbacks to bolster a unit that allowed 8.1 yards per pass attempt. For that solution the Rams may need to look at the discounted second wave of free agency and to the likes of Walter Thurmond III, Brandon Browner, or Derek Cox.
It’s during the draft when they can get creative and greedy, with two picks in the top 15 (second and 13th) thanks to the generosity of the Washington Redskins. Whether it’s Robinson or Matthews early, they’ll be in a prime position to select a significant upgrade at tackle, or that can wait until the middle of the round when Lewan will be available. Alternatively, if Jeff Fisher really is a true believer in Sam Bradford he can invest in a hulking, large-bodied presence to gobble up balls in traffic, and be everything Tavon Austin isn’t. This year that receiver goes by the name of Mike Evans, and he could easily be around at 13th overall. But if a receiver is their strongest desire then Sammy Watkins could be far too difficult to pass on at No. 2.