NFL Playoffs Postmortem: What’s Next for the Eliminated Teams?

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After the wild-card round, I went through the four teams that had been eliminated from the playoffs and gave a synopsis of the offseason they were each about to face. For all the joy that had come with those teams making the playoffs, all it took was one loss to push each of them back into the harsh reality of the offseason, where they will be forced to make key decisions on veteran stalwarts.

Today, let’s run through the six teams that have since been eliminated from the playoffs and perform the same sort of analysis. What do our newly removed playoff teams need to do to take a leap forward this offseason and make it further in the postseason? Using the contract data from Spotrac, let’s break down the spring to come for some of the league’s best teams.

Baltimore Ravens

Big Question: Whom do you hire as offensive coordinator?

Under the stewardship of general manager Ozzie Newsome and second-in-command Eric DeCosta, the Ravens are generally one of the more stable, forward-thinking franchises in football in terms of how they use the salary cap and construct their roster. They’ve already committed an estimated $138 million to their 2015 cap after cutting Ray Rice, but they have a number of veterans due new deals who will create space under terms of their deserved new extensions, notably Marshal Yanda.

The one problem is that the Ravens will struggle to compete for the free agents on the roster who are scheduled to leave town this offseason. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Justin Forsett and Torrey Smith leave, but the most painful departure would be Pernell McPhee, who is quietly one of the more underrated pass-rushers in all of football and will likely receive a larger-than-expected contract by virtue of hitting the market at 26. As always, the Ravens will pick up compensatory draft picks, retool with young talent, and move forward.

Instead, Baltimore’s biggest concern at the moment has to be hiring an offensive coordinator. It lost its incumbent to a head coaching gig for the second year in a row, having sent Jim Caldwell to the Lions before Gary Kubiak made his return to Denver official yesterday. Kubiak’s stock was extremely low after a disastrous final season in Houston, but he quickly rebuilt a decrepit Baltimore running game in his lone season with the team, getting Pro Bowl–caliber results from Forsett in the process. I suspect that a good number of Ravens fans were disappointed by the hire at the time, and that an even larger number are disappointed by Kubiak’s departure.

The obvious candidate to replace him while maintaining as much of his philosophy as possible would have been Kyle Shanahan, who served as Kubiak’s offensive coordinator in Houston for two seasons before moving on with his father to Washington. Shanahan, however, took the offensive coordinator position in Atlanta earlier this month as part of the pending hire of Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn as the Falcons’ new head coach. Rick Dennison, the Baltimore quarterbacks coach and another ex-Texans offensive coordinator, left with Kubiak to become the new Broncos offensive coordinator.

Instead, the Ravens will likely choose between a guy who used to be a head coach and a guy who looked like he was about to become one. Marc Trestman built an effective offense during his time with the Bears and coaxed one of the all-time great half-seasons out of Josh McCown, but his defense failed and the team collapsed in 2014. Baltimore has a history of targeting talented veteran coaches who were recently fired elsewhere, like Kubiak, Dean Pees, and Juan Castillo, and Trestman runs a variant of the West Coast offense that Kubiak ran during his year in Baltimore.

The more interesting hire might be Adam Gase, who appeared to be the favorite to land the 49ers head coach job in recent weeks, only to lose out to San Francisco defensive line coach Jim Tomsula. Gase built a creative, attacking offense around Peyton Manning in Denver, but there’s an important phrase in there: Peyton Manning. Teams love hiring young, talented coordinators on dominant teams, but it’s fair to say that there are some wondering whether the 36-year-old Gase will be quite as effective at his next stop without Manning at the helm.

Position of Need: Secondary

Baltimore’s defensive backfield fell apart amid a series of injuries this season, as the Ravens put five cornerbacks on injured reserve and eventually had to settle on practice squad acquisition Rashaan Melvin as a starting cornerback during the playoffs, a move that might very well have cost them the game against the Patriots. They simply have to be more healthy in 2015, so defensive back isn’t quite as obvious of a need as it might seem from their postseason rotation.

The problem is that it’s tough to pencil in just about anybody in the defensive backfield for a full 16-game season. Lardarius Webb tore his ACL twice in six pro seasons. Jimmy Smith, who was one of the best cornerbacks in football when he was healthy last year, has just one full season to his name in four years. At safety, free-agent acquisition Will Hill has been suspended three times already as a pro and can’t be relied upon as a long-term solution, while 2013 first-rounder Matt Elam has stayed healthy and earned several benchings. There’s talent back there, but it’s attached to question marks.

It’s also hard to see the Ravens clearing out so much cap space that they can afford to go after one of the better defensive backs on the market. Instead, Baltimore will have to try to buy low on players at the bottom of the market and hope to stumble upon a useful player who had been buried on a bad team, like they did when they found linebacker Daryl Smith and safety Darian Stewart. At safety, that could be somebody like Atlanta’s Dwight Lowery or Stevie Brown of the Giants. At corner, Baltimore could target buy-low options like Mike Jenkins, Shareece Wright, or Patrick Robinson, hoping to get more out of them under defensive coordinator Pees in Baltimore.

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Carolina Panthers

Big Question: What to do with this … money?

For the first time in several years, the Panthers can see the light at the end of the tunnel. After having to spend the last two offseasons scrimping and saving while letting players go, general manager Dave Gettleman was surely delighted to announce that he had no intention of “shopping at the dollar store” again in 2015.

Gettleman has managed to make the playoffs in each of his first two seasons with the Panthers despite having almost no cap space; now, he can start investing in the talent he really wants to acquire. Carolina heads into 2015 with $129.5 million committed to its cap. Estimates around the league suggest that the cap will come in somewhere around $140 million, with most sources I’ve spoken to using that figure as part of their tentative planning for the season to come.

There’s a reason why the Panthers have that space: They haven’t done anything about Greg Hardy. Carolina would have had about $18 million in cap space last offseason if it hadn’t franchised Hardy for $13.1 million, a move that ended up turning into a disaster for reasons out of Carolina’s control. Hardy’s domestic assault conviction eventually led the team to put him on the commissioner’s exempt list, which didn’t occur until after the season had begun. Had the Panthers known what was going to happen with Hardy, of course, they could have used that cap space elsewhere.1

A long-term, or even short-term, deal for Hardy would eat up most of that cap space, but it seems likely that the Panthers will let their star pass-rusher leave. That makes the $11.1 million figure look less exciting, because it leaves the Panthers with yet another hole to fill. Pass-rushers hardly come cheap on the free market, so it seems likely that Carolina would use the draft to target one (or rely more heavily on 2014 second-rounder Kony Ealy) while using free agency to target upgrades elsewhere.

The good news is that the Panthers can clear out further cap space, although the moves they made in years past to create much-needed room forced them to restructure deals and push money into the future. Carolina would surely love to get rid of running back DeAngelo Williams, but the cap hit to cut him ($6.6 million) would be more than the hit to keep him ($6.3 million). Carolina could designate Williams as a post–June 1 release, but that would still save only $2 million while pushing more money for Williams onto the 2016 cap.

More likely is that the Panthers target some of the veterans on the periphery of the roster for release. They will definitely cut safety Thomas DeCoud (savings of $1.9 million) after he lost his job in December. Fullback Mike Tolbert ($2.4 million) could also be let go. The biggest savings they could make with a release is the $5.1 million they would generate by cutting tight end Greg Olsen, but he is likely too valuable to the offense as a receiver to justify the cost-cutting.

The other thing Carolina can do is come to terms on an extension with quarterback Cam Newton, which will surely happen at some point over the next few months. Newton’s cap hit more than doubles in 2015, as the $7 million figure from the final year of his rookie contract rises to $14.7 million for his fifth-year option. The Panthers can decrease Newton’s cap hit in 2015 by offering him a multiyear deal with a large upfront signing bonus, which is par for the course for a quarterback of Newton’s caliber.

Even if Newton signs a six-year, $150 million deal with a $35 million signing bonus (and plenty of base salary guaranteed), the Panthers could structure the base salary for 2015 in a way that will give them some additional cap relief. And unlike the endless restructurings of the deals from the past that gave them such fits, a Newton extension actually keeps a player the Panthers will want around on the roster for years to come.

Position of Need: Offensive line

Having found contributors like Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston in the secondary by the end of the 2014 season, the Panthers now need to target offensive linemen to keep Newton healthy during the length of that contract. Carolina’s tackles had a dismal year, with impending free agent Byron Bell struggling mightily at left tackle and a rotation of players striking out on the right side. It’s their first place to target this offseason.

Assuming that the team doesn’t re-sign Bell, it’ll want to find some reliable help for Newton in free agency. The only problem is that the free-agent market doesn’t appear to have much on offer. After a bevy of left tackles and left tackle prospects went through free agency last year, there just aren’t many left who aren’t locked up to long-term deals. The only starting left tackles who will hit free agency this offseason are Bell, King Dunlap of the Chargers, and Tennessee’s Michael Roos, who has slipped badly over the past two seasons. Dunlap would be the best of an unappealing group.

Alternately, the Panthers could try to stretch one of the available right tackles to left tackle, with two clear choices. Doug Free was effective for exactly one season as Dallas’s left tackle before struggling and losing the job to incoming rookie Tyron Smith. He impressed as a right tackle, and the Panthers could try to take advantage of another team’s cap woes by giving him a chance to play the more prestigious left side. They could also target Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga, who was once considered the team’s left tackle of the future, only to have injuries and the emergence of David Bakhtiari pin him on the right side.

Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay PackersRon Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS/Getty Images

Dallas Cowboys

Big Question: Dez or DeMarco?

It’s not a fun question to ask yourself if you’re a Cowboys fan. It’s really not a fun question if you’re the biggest Cowboys fan, because that fan — Jerry Jones — is going to have to make a very difficult decision. After their most successful season in seven years, the 12-4 Cowboys are left with two players competing for one chunk of cap space. Do they re-sign All-Pro running back DeMarco Murray, who flirted with 2,000 yards this season while setting the Cowboys single-season rushing record? Or do they lock up Dez Bryant, who does Dez Bryant things all the time?

Of course, the Cowboys would love to have them both, but cap issues make it difficult for Dallas to retain its two skill-position superstars. Years of cap mismanagement have forced the Cowboys to let key contributors like DeMarcus Ware go while perennially restructuring deals to push money into the future. There are only 11 players in the league signed through 2020, but the Cowboys have two of them in Tyron Smith and Dan Bailey, contracts designed to stretch signing bonuses over as long of a time frame as possible. Dallas is currently committed to $129.6 million in 2015 before addressing Bryant or Murray, and while it’ll roll over $3.8 million in cap space, there’s just not a lot of room to work with.

There are ways the Cowboys could clear out space, but they would create issues elsewhere on the roster. Dallas has until the beginning of the 2015 league year in March to decide whether it wants to exercise a three-year, $24 million extension for defensive tackle Henry Melton that would have $9 million guaranteed in 2015. Dallas could either decline the extension (leaving it with just $750,750 in dead money on its cap for Melton and saving $8.3 million on the $129.6 million figure) or restructure it to make the 2015 hit easier to swallow. The Cowboys could also designate disappointing cornerback Brandon Carr as a post–June 1 release, a move that would save $8 million on their 2015 cap while pushing $7.4 million in dead money onto their 2016 cap.

Those moves would help, but they also open up holes at cornerback and defensive tackle, which weren’t exactly positions of strength for the Cowboys before those possible cuts. Dallas is likely better off sticking with some level of financial security and picking one of the two skill-position guys to retain over the long haul.

Of the two, the choice is pretty clear in Bryant. Murray was phenomenal during his breakout season, but he plays a more fungible position and just completed his first healthy campaign in four years as a pro. Given that the Cowboys just ran him into the ground for 436 carries between the regular season and the playoffs, it would be naive of them to expect Murray’s healthy stretch to continue. Dallas has invested heavily in its offensive line, and the moves have paid off; the Cowboys have one of the best lines in football, and they should be able to clear out lanes for Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar, Adrian Peterson, or whichever other running back starts for the Cowboys in 2015.

Bryant, on the other hand, is much harder to replace. Top wide receivers are far more valuable than running backs of a similar caliber, as the deals afforded them in recent years have shown. The Cowboys will need to shell out more to keep Bryant, but they can franchise him for one year in the $12.5 million range and use that as leverage to negotiate a new deal. It will be painful for the Cowboys to let their star running back move on, but history tells us that investing in running backs is the wrong way to go.

Position of Need: Linebacker

Elsewhere, the Cowboys have a flood of linebackers leaving town. They appeared to have one of the weakest units in football after Sean Lee tore his ACL in May, but Dallas got a miraculous season from Raiders and Ravens castoff Rolando McClain in the middle of the field. Lee will be back in 2015, but both McClain and starting outside linebackers Justin Durant and Bruce Carter are unrestricted free agents this offseason, which will force the Cowboys to make some changes.

Of the three, McClain would be the one to target. If he can hold on to the form he showed in Dallas this season after years of disappointment and off-field strife, he could team up with Lee to become one of the league’s best one-two tandems at linebacker. Lee would likely move to the weak side under such an arrangement. Alternately, if they can’t re-sign McClain, they could keep Lee at middle linebacker and fourth-rounder Anthony Hitchens on the weak side while targeting a strongside linebacker like Detroit’s Ashlee Palmer in free agency.

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Denver Broncos

Big Question: What happens with Peyton Manning?

Shockingly original, I know, but there’s nothing even close to being as important as figuring out whether Denver’s Hall of Fame quarterback will wear orange for another season. It informs every decision the Broncos will otherwise make, from how they invest in free agency to the sort of players they’ll go after in the draft. And they can’t be entirely sure of when they’ll get to find out.

The arrival of new head coach Kubiak raises some interesting questions about Manning’s future. Kubiak’s system doesn’t seem like a great fit for Manning. While Kubiak has had success with limited quarterbacks such as Matt Schaub and Joe Flacco, his scheme revolves around play-action and getting his quarterback out of the pocket for throws downfield. He could change his scheme to account for Manning and will surely make some shifts as part of the move, but Kubiak is regarded as a relatively rigid offensive mind who doesn’t share the creativity of his predecessor, the aforementioned Gase.

That wouldn’t mesh very well with Manning, who held the ball for a league-low 2.2 seconds per pass last year and threw 95.5 percent of his passes from inside the pocket, the third-highest rate in football. Flacco was right around league average in both categories. Manning’s scheme under Gase was built around components of his Indianapolis offense mixed in with screens and a few packaged plays. Kubiak and Manning could work as a unit given their respective talents, but they’ll have to meet each other halfway.

If Manning does come back, the Broncos will likely just reshuffle and go after it again with the same core in 2015. They’ll have a new coaching staff after the departure of John Fox, losing Jack Del Rio, and letting Gase leave for a new job elsewhere, but the personnel should mostly be similar. Their biggest hole will be at receiver, where Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Jacob Tamme, and Wes Welker are all free agents, but the Broncos would likely franchise Demaryius Thomas as a prelude to a long-term deal. Tamme and Welker are likely to move on, while Julius Thomas remains a question mark. Terrance Knighton and Rahim Moore are also free agents, and Knighton may prefer to follow Del Rio to his new digs in Oakland.

Given that the Broncos should have $24 million or so in cap space to work with even if Manning returns, they should be able to re-sign Demaryius Thomas and Moore while remaining active in free agency. If Manning decides to retire or the Broncos cut him before the end of the 2014 league year, they would save $17.5 million on their cap and have more than $40 million to work with. That would allow them to reshape the post-Manning roster in the method of their choosing. Could they go after somebody like Ndamukong Suh and build a devastating defense behind Kubiak’s perennially effective rushing attack, perhaps with C.J. Anderson splitting time alongside Justin Forsett?

That sort of cap space is exciting to think about given how close Denver was last season, but seeing as the alternative at quarterback is Brock Osweiler or a trade for somebody like Jay Cutler, I’m guessing that Broncos fans would rather Manning come back and try for one last ring with much of the current roster in 2015.

Position of Need: Receiver

Even if the Broncos re-sign Demaryius Thomas, they’ll still be down two tight ends and another wideout from Manning’s arsenal. The good news is that they’ve already begun to prepare for that inevitability. They’ll likely roll out a combination of Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, Andre Caldwell, and 2014 second-rounder Cody Latimer at wideout next season, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them buy low on a veteran like Michael Crabtree or Cecil Shorts who might want to rebuild his value by spending a year in the Denver system.

Tight end might be trickier, but there are options available. Even if they let Julius Thomas go, they could still target a tight end in the draft or go after the top tight end on the market, Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron. Cameron has averaged 54 receiving yards per game over the past two seasons despite playing with the likes of Brandon Weeden and Brian Hoyer as his primary quarterbacks, so you can imagine what he might do with Manning at the helm. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see longtime Kubiak pupil Owen Daniels follow his head coach to a third location, with Daniels settling in as the second tight end for Manning.

Divisional Playoffs - Dallas Cowboys v Green Bay PackersMike McGinnis/Getty Images

Green Bay Packers

Big Question: Do you re-sign Randall Cobb?

The Packers are one of the most boring teams to write about in terms of their offseason plans, if only because they’re so damn good at what they do. Packers general manager Ted Thompson has a well-established successful model: build through the draft, lock up young talent before it hits free agency, and avoid the vast majority of free agents. Thompson found a valuable piece on the market last year when he added Julius Peppers, but his trips there are infrequent at best.

As such, we would expect the Packers to stay in similar straits this offseason. They’ll have somewhere in the range of $25 million in cap space to start the league year after rolling over about $7 million in space, and they won’t spend every last dime. They could clear out more room by releasing deposed middle linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, who would create a combined $7.3 million under the cap, but the Packers are hardly desperate. They can make decisions for football reasons, not financial reasons.

They do, however, have a number of longtime Packers who are up for free agency. Some of them will leave. It’s likely that the touchdown pass Tramon Williams allowed on the final play of the NFC Championship Game will go down as his last contribution as a Packers cornerback; Williams turns 32 in March and is unlikely to justify a long-term deal. The aforementioned Bulaga is a free agent, and while it will be tempting to keep together a Packers offensive line that has coalesced this season, some team might be aggressive and offer Bulaga left tackle money to move to the blind side. Green Bay will also be down its two top options at nose tackle, as both the injured B.J. Raji and the quietly effective Letroy Guion will be unrestricted free agents for the second consecutive year.

The most interesting free agent, though, is Cobb. It’s surprising to see a player as effective as Cobb hit the final year of his rookie deal without receiving an extension from the Packers, but it’s more than that: The Packers have barely discussed terms of an extension with their young star. It’s true that they could let Cobb hit free agency before signing him to an extension, as they did with Sam Shields last season, but why run the risk of letting Cobb test the market to receive an unmatchable offer from a desperate team like Cleveland or Oakland? Are the Packers really only willing to pay one wide receiver big bucks, as they’re currently doing with Jordy Nelson?

What makes Cobb so interesting, even beyond his production in Green Bay, is his youth. He won’t turn 25 until August, making him one of the youngest — if not the youngest — unrestricted free agents in NFL history. Cobb is nearly a year younger than T.Y. Hilton and four months younger than Alshon Jeffery, both of whom are a year away from free agency. He plays in a pass-happy era, but Cobb just finished one of the best age-24 seasons in league history, catching 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The Packers did draft Davante Adams in the second round and could theoretically give him more reps if Cobb left, but they would likely prefer to stay in 11 personnel as their base offense. Adams also doesn’t share the same skill set as Cobb, who might be the league’s best slot receiver at the moment. Thompson would find a replacement for Cobb in the draft, because he’s Ted Thompson and he always does. But when you have a young talent like Cobb on the roster and plenty of cap space to keep him around, why let him leave?

Position of Need: Defensive tackle

The Packers never really need anything, but if Raji and Guion both leave, they’ll have to find a nose tackle. They would likely love it if Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton or Oklahoma tackle Jordan Phillips fell to the bottom of the first round, but that seems unlikely. There are options in free agency. Suh as a Packers lineman would be an absolute nightmare scenario for Lions fans, but some of his athleticism would be wasted playing the nose. Terrance Knighton might be out of Thompson’s price range. If the Packers do play the free-agent game, somebody like Arizona’s Dan Williams would be more likely.

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Indianapolis Colts

Big Question: How do you take the next step?

Indy has made small, steady improvements over the past three years. After drafting Andrew Luck, the Colts have produced three consecutive 11-5 seasons and have gone one step further in the playoffs during each of those campaigns. They lost in the wild-card round to Baltimore in 2012, beat the Chiefs before losing to the Patriots in the divisional round in 2013, and then made it past the Bengals and Broncos before losing again to the Patriots in the conference championship this season.

The good news is that Luck isn’t going anywhere. The Colts still have one more year left with his cap hold at a bargain-basement $7 million before the raises come. Luck will get a fifth-year option in the $15 million range for 2016 if he hasn’t already negotiated the biggest contract extension in league history by then. If the Colts want to make a big splash in free agency, 2015 would be the right time to do it.

Including rollover from 2014, the Colts are projected to have somewhere in the range of $40 million in cap space to work with this offseason. That doesn’t even include the likely releases of Ricky Jean-Francois (which would save $4.9 million), Donald Thomas ($3.3 million), and Shaun Phillips ($2.7 million), which would create nearly $11 million more in space. While the likes of Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, and Matt Hasselbeck are unlikely to be re-signed, there’s not a lot of talent going out the door, either.

The Colts need to add stars. This huge swath of cap space before the Luck extension gives them the opportunity to do so without crushing their cap in years to come. We talked on Monday’s podcast about Ryan Grigson and his propensity to give average players above-average deals in free agency, but the Colts can’t do that again. They have to shop at the top of the market and bring in impact players, and it has to happen now.

That starts at the absolute top. If anyone should consider giving Ndamukong Suh a $25 million base salary in 2015 to reduce his signing bonus and make his future cap hits more palatable, it’s the Colts. They play a 3-4 and Suh has spent his career as a 4-3 tackle, but he could be a J.J. Wattesque force as a 3-4 end. They need run-stopping defenders and pass-rushers, and Suh is one of the few players who can do both.

But it should be more than Suh. They should think about Devin McCourty, who would give them the coverage safety they lacked this year without Antoine Bethea. Brian Orakpo and Jason Pierre-Paul should be in play for the pass rush. Terrance Knighton would be the nose tackle Indy has lacked for years. Mike Iupati would combine with Jack Mewhort to give the offensive line a massive upgrade. And if Cobb, Dez Bryant, or Demaryius Thomas somehow hit the market, could you imagine what Luck could do if he had Hilton on one side and a top-10 weapon on the other?

This isn’t Madden. Indy can’t sign all of those guys. But the Colts are faced with a rare opportunity: They have gobs of cap space and a star quarterback who is contractually obligated to play for far below his market value. Seattle is one win away from turning that combination into two Super Bowl wins. If the Colts play their cards right and use their 2015 cap space as a bucket for big deals, they could very well emulate the Seahawks next season.

Position of Need: Front seven

I would be surprised if the Colts didn’t add one of the aforementioned top-tier weapons to their front seven, if only because they’re so obviously lacking up front right now. A subtler choice might be Pernell McPhee, who knows the Chuck Pagano scheme from his time in Baltimore. Grigson has exhibited a propensity for going with younger, under-the-radar free agents with perceived upside, which would make McPhee — who had 25 quarterback hits despite playing just under 48 percent of Baltimore’s defensive snaps — a likely choice for the Colts.

Filed Under: 2015 NFL Playoffs, NFL, Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell