Ten NFL storylines to follow this Offseason

From a slew of head-coaching changes to an unpredictable draft (even more so than usual), there’s no shortage of storylines to keep an eye on this NFL offseason. Here are 10 to follow over the next few months.

1. RGIII’s health.
Robert Griffin III vows to be ready by Week 1 of the regular season but in addition to damaging both his LCL and ACL, the dynamic quarterback also suffered a medial meniscus tear in the Redskins’ playoff loss to the Seahawks. While Adrian Peterson proved that ACL tears aren’t always a two-year injury, “All Day” was also a medical marvel. We’re talking about a guy who suffered a sports hernia injury in Week 10 and questioned whether or not he would be able to continue by Week 16, only to rush for 596 yards over the Vikings’ final four games (including playoffs). Not everyone is Adrian Peterson.

According to reports, RGIII was seen walking without a limp at “Media Week” down in New Orleans. But no matter how quickly he’s progressing with his rehab, the Redskins need to first be concerned with his the long-term health. If they rush him back and he suffers even further damage to his knee(s), his career could be in jeopardy. Mike Shanahan and Co. have a couple of months to evaluate the situation but at some point they’re going to be faced with the decision of whether or not to place RGIII on the regular season PUP list. While that would cost them their starting quarterback for the first six weeks of the season, riding Kirk Cousins over that stretch is a lot better than installing him as the franchise signal caller because RGIII’s knees are shot. For the Redskins, there’s more at stake here than just six weeks.

2. Newsome’s unenviable task of re-constructing the Ravens.
Whether anyone thinks Joe Flacco should be paid like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees is rather moot. The going rate these days for franchise quarterbacks is $20 million per season, and Flacco proved in the postseason that he’s Baltimore’s franchise player. He may never put up the same jaw-dropping numbers that Brees has, but Flacco is worth his weight in gold to a team like the Ravens, who consistently draft well and will continue to compete under John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome. When you find a quarterback in this league (particularly a quarterback coming off one of the finest postseason performances in NFL history), you hang onto him. And in order to hang onto Flacco, the Ravens will pay the $20-plus million-a-year asking price.

No, the real storyline in Baltimore is whether or not Newsome can build another Super Bowl contender after he gets done paying Flacco. Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Bryant McKinnie all helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl this year and all four of them are unrestricted free agents this offseason. Receiver Anquan Boldin is also set to make $6 million, so he could be forced to either restructure his deal or become a cap casualty. (He said he’ll retire if Baltimore releases him.) Newsome build two entirely different Super Bowl winners over the past 12 years. But this offseason might offer him his biggest challenge to date. As one of the finest general managers in the NFL, Newsome is certainly up for the challenge but the pressure will also be on Harbaugh and his staff to win with younger players as Baltimore re-stocks through the draft.

3. No consensus No. 1 pick.
Ask 10 NFL analysts who they have rated No. 1 in this year’s draft and you might be supplied with 10 different answers. Some believe Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel is the safest pick in the draft but if the Chiefs re-sign Branden Albert than they have no use for Joeckel at No. 1. Besides, some think Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher is the best offensive tackle in the draft, not Joeckel.

Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore and even Florida State’s Bjorn Werner’s names are atop some analyst’s rankings. Why so much uncertainty? Point to the fact that there’s no consensus top quarterback in his year’s draft class. Twelve of the last 15 first-overall selections have been quarterbacks, with only Jake Long (2008), Mario Williams (2006) and Courtney Brown (2000) being the exceptions. With no potential franchise signal caller to be had, the ultimate crapshoot is even more unpredictable than ever this year.

4. Veteran quarterbacks in limbo.
Flacco is the best free agent quarterback this offseason but the Ravens won’t allow him to escape Baltimore without at least slapping him with the franchise tag. That means backups will litter the open market, unless you still consider guys like Jason Campbell, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Moore capable starters. (And why would you?)

The more intriguing names are Alex Smith, Michael Vick and Matt Flynn, who are all currently under contract but could become available either via trade or release at some point this offseason. While the 49ers will certainly honor Smith’s desire to start elsewhere, at the end of the day they don’t owe him anything (non-monetarily, that is). If they don’t acquire what they feel to be decent compensation for the 28-year-old veteran, they could use him as insurance behind Colin Kaepernick for another season. That may not be fair for Smith, but the Niners will ultimately do what’s best for the franchise.

As for Vick, Chip Kelly will take his time evaluating the quarterback situation in Philly but at some point the Eagles will be forced to release him in order to avoid paying the $12.5 million that he’s still owed. Unless Kelly convinces himself that Vick can be the featured player in his offense, there’s no sense paying an injury-prone 33-year-old quarterback who’s never been an accurate passer. Chances are Vick will wind up in a city like Jacksonville or Buffalo in hopes that he can work his way into the starting lineup. (Unless of course Bruce Arians wants to make him the starter in Arizona.) The better option for quarterback-needy teams might be Flynn, who could be had for a mid-round pick after serving as Russell Wilson’s backup in Seattle. Then again, his services won’t come cheap either.

5. Free agency.
Free agency is always an intriguing storyline but maybe more so this year with who’ll be available. The Giants recently released Ahmad Bradshaw, who joins Steven Jackson and Reggie Bush as some of the bigger names available at the running back position. There’s even more star power at receiver, where Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, Greg Jennings, Wes Welker and Danny Amendola might be switching teams. Jake Long, Ryan Clady, Branden Albert, Will Beatty, Sebastian Vollmer, Andre Smith and Sam Baker round out the offensive tackle group.

Defensively, Brian Urlacher, Ed Reed, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Henry Melton, Richard Seymour, Anthony Spencer, Jarius Byrd, William Moore and Dashon Goldson’s contracts are all up, and sleepers Brent Grimes and Chris Houston could be had as well. Overall, this is a much deeper pool of free agents than last year, and there are more players will become available as teams try to free up cap space. (For example, Michael Turner of the Falcons and Chris Gamble of the Panthers are likely to be released at some point this offseason.)

6. Harvin’s situation in Minnesota.
Speaking of a player that could become available this offseason, Mike Max of CBS Minnesota reports that the Vikings will attempt to trade Percy Harvin this offseason. Citing sources, Max reports that Harvin unleashed an embarrassing tirade on Leslie Frazier during the season and the situation left a bad taste in both coaches and players’ mouths. Acquiring a first-round pick for Harvin might prove to be difficult but one would think the Vikings could net a second-rounder for the troubled yet talented receiver. Then again, with Wallace, Bowe, Jennings, Welker and Amendola available in free agency, the market might not be to Minnesota’s liking. Plus, if they do trade Harvin, the Vikings’ cupboard will be completely bare of receivers. Whether they deal Harvin or not, Minnesota needs to give Adrian Peterson and, more specifically, Christian Ponder more help.

7. The revival of the Saints.
The 2012 NFL season will forever be viewed as a lost year for the Saints, who finished 7-9 and struggled without suspended head coach Sean Payton. But Payton has been reinstated and you know that’s music to Drew Brees’ ears, who thrives under his head coach’s brilliant playcalling. Rob Ryan has a huge challenge on his hands in fixing a defense that set the NFL record last year for most yards allowed in a season with 440.1 yards per game. But if he can make the team’s transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 a smooth one, the Saints will be a postseason contender yet again. Ryan already has a few solid pieces to build around in Cam Jordon, Martez Wilson and Junior Galette, and don’t be surprised if he lures free agent linebacker Anthony Spencer away from Dallas. Mickey Loomis still needs to find Ryan a nose tackle and build depth at all three positions, but at least the Saints hired a veteran 3-4 coach to install the new scheme. With Payton and Ryan both out to prove something to the rest of the NFL, nobody should sleep on New Orleans in 2013.

8. Tony Gonzalez’s future.
Before the start of the playoffs, Tony Gonzalez reiterated that he was 95-percent sure that he would retire at the end of the season. When the Falcons beat the Seahawks in the Divisional Round and thus gave Gonzalez the first postseason victory of his career, he said he was 97-percent sure that he would retire. But GM Thomas Dimitroff has started to lobby for Gonzalez to return in 2013 and Roddy White is apparently planning a “Brett Favre strategy,” in which a group of Falcons players will travel to California in hopes of luring the tight end back to Atlanta. Considering he caught 93 passes for 930 yards with 8 touchdowns last year (which was the most productive season by any tight end at his age), you can understand why the Falcons want him back.

His decision on whether or not to retire is multi-layered. If he does come back, the Falcons need to figure out how to fit him under the cap. It’s likely that they’ll cut Michael Turner, which will free up some space but they may need to restructure the deals of Dunta Robinson, Tyson Clabo and/or John Abraham as well. If Gonzalez doesn’t return, then the Falcons obviously need to make finding a pass-catching tight end a priority this offseason. Tyler Eifert and/or Zach Ertz could be potential candidates in the first round, but what if the Packers were to make Jermichael Finley available via trade? His ability to stretch a defense vertically would be attractive to a team like Atlanta, which employs Dirk Koetter as its offensive coordinator. Either way, Dimitroff is well aware of how important the tight end position is to Matt Ryan and that offense.

10. What will the Rams do at defensive coordinator?
There are a myriad of questions surrounding the Rams this offseason, including whether or not they’ll bring back Danny Amendola and/or Steven Jackson, as well as how they’ll use their two first round picks in April.

But the biggest question that Jeff Fisher and Les Snead face right now is who they’ll hire as their next defensive coordinator. With the Rob Ryan marriage falling apart before the two sides could settle on a prenup, the Rams have reportedly reached out to Dick Jauron and Mike Singletary. Jauron is the more experienced coach of the two, but he also leaves a little something to be desired considering in 17 years as either a head coach or a coordinator, his defenses have only finished in the top 10 twice (2001 with the Bears and 2011 with the Browns). The Rams could do a lot worse than to hire a well-respected coach that comes from the same coaching tree as Mike Holmgren and Tom Coughlin, but will Jauron enhance anything about Fisher’s defense?

Meanwhile, we know that Singletary is a molder of young men and commands respect as soon as he walks into a room. Players like Ray Lewis have sung his praises and he’s often gotten the most out of the athletes that he’s tutored. He and Fisher also have a relationship that dates back to their playing days in Chicago, and who better to teach the fundamentals to defensive players than Singletary?

That said, he’s never been a defensive coordinator before and he was a disaster as a head coach. That doesn’t mean he won’t be a good DC but since he’s never done it before, how can anyone be sure that he can call plays and build game plans on a weekly basis? Between him and Jauron he’s definitely the more intriguing name but he’s arguably the bigger risk, too. No matter which direction the Rams go, it’ll still be Fisher’s imprint on the defense. But hopefully he’ll find someone that will add something to a defense that is ready to be a top 10 unit very soon.

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