NFC Gone Fishin’: Offseason Questions for Each Eliminated Playoff Team

With the Super Bowl set, that means 10 of our original 12 playoff teams are off on a beach somewhere. Before all the Seahawks-Broncos madness begins, we wanted to do a quick rundown of what the rest of this year’s contenders might have to do this offseason to make sure they’re the ones playing in early February next year. Today, it’s the NFC.

San Francisco 49ers

The Niners’ most significant worry is one they didn’t have until Sunday. NaVorro Bowman has been among the handful of the league’s best linebackers for a couple of years now, but by the end of this season, he was outplaying teammate Patrick Willis and everyone else in the league. Bowman was the best player on the 49ers by the end of their campaign, and now it’s unclear just how long it will take for him to be back to full strength.

Both Bowman and Willis have been signed long-term, but the back end of San Francisco’s defense is likely to see some turnover. Carlos Rogers is 32, the most unreliable member of the secondary, and scheduled to make more than $8 million next year. San Francisco would save more than $5 million on the cap if he gets cut, which is likely. Donte Whitner and Tarell Brown are also free agents. The Niners don’t have many other immediate contracts to worry about, but there are some looming. Aldon Smith and Colin Kaepernick will need extensions sooner rather than later, and that’s something to keep in mind when deciding if Whitner and Brown are worth it.

Joining Brown and Whitner in free agency is Anquan Boldin, who followed up his surprising year with another great stretch in the playoffs. Even with his impressive year, Boldin is 33, and he may have a tough time getting a multiyear deal from the 49ers or anyone else. With how many other obligations San Francisco has (and its pretty tight cap situation), the only real way to imagine Boldin back with the Niners is on a relatively cheap one-year contract. If he does leave, wide receiver instantly becomes one of Jim Harbaugh’s most significant needs. There’s a chance Quinton Patton — or Mario Manningham — can step into that role, but this is when the ghost of A.J. Jenkins starts to hover over the Niners.

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The 2012 draft — in which San Francisco took Jenkins in the first round and LaMichael James in the second — is really the only blemish on general manager Trent Baalke’s record since taking over in 2010. It doesn’t seem too early to call James a misstep, too, one that may come into play as early as this year. Frank Gore is set to make $6.45 million next year — at age 31 — and was clearly slowing down by the end of the season. But if Marcus Lattimore isn’t healthy by the start of the season, San Francisco really doesn’t have an alternative, and even if Lattimore were ready, relying heavily on a running back with a sordid injury history would be a massive risk. What Eric Reid did in his rookie season is promising, but for the first time in a couple of seasons, the Niners are in a position this spring where they’ll need immediate, cheap help in a few spots.

Carolina Panthers

This exercise is particularly sobering for anyone who fell in love with Carolina this year. Making their first postseason in five years behind a team with plenty of young talent would seemingly make what happened in 2013 just the start for the Panthers, but no playoff team has more issues to deal with in the next few months.

It all starts with keeping that suddenly terrifying defense intact. Greg Hardy, who made $1.3 million this year, is a free agent in line for a massive payday. The man they call the Kraken really was a monster for the Panthers this year. His 15 sacks were the third-most in the league, but what makes Hardy possibly the best free agent in this class (Jimmy Graham barely counts; the Saints aren’t letting him leave) is how many things he does well. At close to 300 pounds, he holds up against the run and can easily bump inside on clear pass-rush downs. He’s also 25, and a team with money wouldn’t be misguided in making him the highest-paid defensive end in the league.

Last week, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman was honest about the difficulty in bringing Hardy back. Carolina’s cap situation is tight for at least the next two seasons thanks to a series of shortsighted moves made by the previous regime, and with 21 free agents and a Cam Newton extension on the horizon, there’s a lot to think about. A traditionally structured big contract for Hardy would be tough to pull off, but yesterday, Bill Barnwell laid out an interesting plan for how the Panthers might keep Hardy anyway. You should go read the whole thing, but the gist is that a big signing bonus and low base salary in the first two years might make it all work. Losing Hardy would be potentially crippling for a Panthers defense so reliant on its ability to rush the passer with only four players.

Moving on without Hardy would put even more pressure on a secondary that’s still the weakest part of the Carolina defense. Captain Munnerlyn was the best player among them last year, and he’s also set to become a free agent. The 25-year-old had his best season after signing a one-year deal, and he should command a reasonable price on the open market. Suddenly, that young defensive core that won Carolina a first-round bye looks a little less impressive.

The offense isn’t immune, either. Left tackle Jordan Gross is a free agent, and although his trip to the Pro Bowl was more than earned, giving a 33-year-old a long-term deal probably isn’t an option. Gross has said he doesn’t have much interest in playing elsewhere, so a series of one-year arrangements similar to ones given to other late-career players might be an option. The same goes for Steve Smith. Even as a fraction of the player he was, Smith was still the Panthers’ best receiver, which speaks to the top priority Carolina should have entering the draft. It may have to search for pass rush or secondary help if it loses out on Hardy or Munnerlyn, but Newton needs more weapons no matter who the Panthers re-sign.

Green Bay Packers

The main improvement the Packers can make this offseason is the same one that seems to come up year after year: They have to get healthy. On offense, Green Bay has all the talent it needs on the current roster to be one of the top four units in the league. Not only is a full season from Aaron Rodgers likely next year, but the Packers get back Bryan Bulaga, who will likely move to the right side after David Bakhtiari’s very good rookie season in relief of him. With Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, and an offensive line mostly intact (Green Bay has to figure out if Evan Dietrich-Smith is worth keeping or replacing in-house), the Packers will be just fine on offense.

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If there is a concern, it’s at tight end, where Jermichael Finley is a free agent. After the scary incident that ended Finley’s season last year, his future is uncertain with the Packers or anyone else, and there’s a good chance Green Bay has to look elsewhere to bolster that spot. Finley is just one of the team’s several free agents who will probably take precedence for Ted Thompson this offseason.

Because the team spends next to no money in free agency, Green Bay’s cap situation is unsurprisingly strong even after giving massive extensions to Rodgers and Clay Matthews. The area that needs the most attention is the interior of the Packers’ defense, which was a real problem by the end of last season. B.J. Raji is a free agent, and although the Packers could probably afford to re-sign him, he reportedly turned down Green Bay’s most recent extension offer.

The concern is reportedly that Raji doesn’t feel like Dom Capers’s system fits his skill set (going to the bench on passing downs has caused his sack totals to plummet), which brings up the offseason topic Packers fans have been most eager to yell about for the past two years. Capers has been their scapegoat since Colin Kaepernick ran all over them a year ago, and the failings of his defense — no matter how injured — is the topic of conversation again this year.

There’s a chance that what Capers really needs is a group that can stay even relatively healthy for a full season. Casey Hayward, who was brilliant as the slot cornerback as a rookie, missed almost the entire 2013 season with a hamstring injury. Matthews also missed his normal share of time. Whether it’s how they’re treated or it’s a problem in Green Bay’s scouting, this is becoming a problem that’s hard to ignore. It’s hard to discern the potential of the Packers’ defense with everyone healthy, but they should have a chance to bring back a majority of it again next season. Sam Shields is set to join Raji in free agency, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him back.

New Orleans Saints

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Jimmy Graham probably isn’t even worth mentioning. One way or another, he’ll be on the Saints next year. New Orleans could use the franchise tag on him in perpetuity, and even with the escalators built in each year, he’d be worth it.

Overall, New Orleans is in a pretty rough situation cap-wise. Right now, the Saints are set to be upward of $9.3 million over the cap even before considering an extension for Graham and what they plan to do with other free agents like Brian de la Puente and Malcolm Jenkins. The Saints will save more than $11 million in letting Will Smith go this offseason, which seems inevitable. Roman Harper might suffer the same fate, as New Orleans would save an additional $2 million without him. Still, the massive contracts given to Drew Brees, Jahri Evans, and others have the Saints strapped.

Along with de la Puente, right tackle Zach Strief is also a free agent, and offensive line may be an area the Saints look to upgrade early in the draft. Most of their other needs are on defense, where a cornerback to pair with Keenan Lewis or a pass-rusher to go with Junior Galette are also options in the first few rounds.

Philadelphia Eagles

The beginning and the end couldn’t have gone more differently for the Eagles’ offense, but somewhere in the middle, it became clear that this Chip Kelly experiment was probably going to work. Philly finished third in offensive DVOA, and it’ll have more or less the same group back to try it again. Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin are free agents, and the only real question the Eagles have to answer on offense is what they’ll do across from DeSean Jackson.

It’s not quite that easy on defense. Call it the Curse of Brian Dawkins, because since he left town, safety play has plagued the Eagles. Part of it is their own fault. Relying on Patrick Chung was probably a mistake, and by the end of the year, he went to the bench even as injuries mounted in the secondary. His counterpart, Nate Allen, is a free agent. Whether it’s in free agency or the draft, safety is the Eagles’ no. 1 need, and it’s not particularly close. Their cornerbacks aren’t stellar either, but Brandon Boykin is a promising player in the slot, and Cary Williams was good enough that the Eagles are probably willing to see through the investment they made on him last year.

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The difficult decision may be at inside linebacker, where DeMeco Ryans is set to make $6.9 million, none of which is guaranteed. First-year coordinator Bill Davis commented as recently as Christmas that Ryans was the “quarterback” of his defense, but leadership only goes so far when a player is getting paid as a top-10 guy at his position. Mychal Kendricks remains a question mark next to Ryans, but he’s still cheap enough that the Eagles might be inclined to wait it out.

Even with the questions at linebacker, Philly’s run defense was middle of the road thanks to the talent it has up front. Cedric Thornton, Fletcher Cox, and Vinny Curry are a talented, young trio of interior defensive linemen that should be even better next year. Curry is still a pass-rush specialist, and the Eagles could probably use another run stuffer to go along with Cox and Thornton on early downs. Isaac Sopoaga was a flop in free agency a year ago, but a big nose tackle could be an option either later in the draft or in free agency.

Filed Under: NFL, DeMeco Ryans, Aaron Rodgers, nfc, Greg Hardy, Jimmy Graham, Robert Mays, Philadelphia Eagles, Carolina Panthers, San Francisco 49Ers, Green Bay Packers, NFL Offseason, NFL TEam needs, Anquan Boldin

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Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ realrobertmays