Published November 20, 2014
In keeping with a popular holiday tradition, here's what the 32 NFL teams can hope to find in their Christmas stockings this year:
ARIZONA CARDINALS: A LEGITIMATE QUARTERBACK
Kevin Kolb was brought in prior to the 2011 season with hope of becoming a franchise quarterback. He led the team to a 4-0 start this year before sustaining an injury. He's missed more games than he's played during his stint with the Cardinals, and if he stays around in 2013, he would be owed a $2 million roster bonus in March and a $9 million salary.
It seems unlikely that Kolb will be back at that price. This is a rough offseason to be searching for a quarterback because the draft class is considered to be weak. The San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith and the Seattle Seahawks' Matt Flynn could be available, but would those teams help out a division rival?
ATLANTA FALCONS: RESPECT
Despite having the NFC's best record all season, Atlanta is not picked by many to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. Why not? It probably has something to do with the Falcons' 0-3 record in the postseason under head coach Mike Smith.
Although the Falcons would like to reach into their Christmas stockings and find that respect, they're going to have to earn it on the field. They have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, so there can be no excuses this season.
BALTIMORE RAVENS: AN OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR
The Ravens offense looked dynamic at times in the first half of the season, but it had been going through a second-half slump prior to Sunday's win over the Giants. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired two weeks ago, replaced by former Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell.
The Ravens need a new offensive approach next season. They no longer have a dominating defense, so a conservative attack isn't going to cut it. Baltimore needs to get the ball in Ray Rice's hands more frequently, and it needs to re- sign quarterback Joe Flacco. This could be an attractive landing spot for Norv Turner, who is expected to be fired in San Diego. He's been a flop as a head coach, but he's also one of the top offensive minds in the game.
BUFFALO BILLS: AN UPGRADE AT QUARTERBACK
Ryan Fitzpatrick is OK. You don't win in the NFL over the long haul with an OK quarterback. Head coach Chan Gailey has gotten the most he can out of Fitzpatrick's mediocre talent.
Buffalo has a dynamic runner in C.J. Spiller, a solid receiving threat in Stevie Johnson and an improving defense. It could use a true No. 1 receiver, but the major need is for a franchise quarterback. Perhaps the Bills can draft one and let Gailey develop him.
CAROLINA PANTHERS: A DOMINATING DEFENSIVE TACKLE
Carolina has a chance to quietly finish among the top 10 teams in total defense, so a decent foundation is in place. The Panthers have exceptional linebackers, but they could use a standout in the middle of the defensive line who could consistently get penetration and cause more negative plays.
CHICAGO BEARS: OFFENSIVE LINE HELP
The Bears defense is strong, Matt Forte is a good lead back, and Brandon Marshall is one of the best wide receivers in the league. Jay Cutler is a gunslinger who is prone to mistakes, but he's a quarterback who can win in the NFL.
If Chicago had an offensive line that was as talented as its skill position players, it would be one of the top teams in the league. The Bears have to address the line in the draft and through free agency.
CINCINNATI BENGALS: A DYNAMIC RUNNING BACK
BenJarvis Green-Ellis is a workmanlike runner who gives his team solid production and doesn't fumble the ball. He deserves to have a place in the Bengals offense, but Cincinnati really needs a home run hitter at the running back position to at least complement him and open things up for quarterback Andy Dalton.
Spending a first- or second-round pick on the position ought to do the trick.
CLEVELAND BROWNS: A BIG-TIME POSSESSION RECEIVER
Josh Gordon looks like he's going to be excellent as the Browns' big-play threat, but Cleveland could really use someone who can consistently move the chains. This wouldn't be a bad landing spot for Kansas City Chiefs free agent- to-be Dwayne Bowe.
Of course, this assumes the team's new front office and coaching staff will want to stick with rookie Brandon Weeden at quarterback. It seems he's shown enough to warrant that.
DALLAS COWBOYS: CONSISTENCY
Like the little girl with the curl, when Dallas is good, it is very good indeed. The Cowboys just need to make fewer miscues and find consistency.
Their roster just needs a few tweaks to become championship-caliber, but it's difficult to imagine Dallas ever playing consistently enough to win four consecutive postseason games.
DENVER BRONCOS: A YOUNG CORNERBACK
Champ Bailey has had a remarkable career, and he's still a top-level cornerback. Since he's going to be 35 at the start of next season, however, the smart move would be to draft a young cornerback to groom to be Bailey's eventual successor.
It would be kind of a luxury pick, because the Broncos don't have any glaring needs, other than maybe a veteran backup quarterback as Peyton Manning insurance.
DETROIT LIONS: A REVAMPED SECONDARY
The Lions have a strong-armed young quarterback in Matthew Stafford, the best receiver in the NFL in Calvin Johnson and a young and talented defensive line. Now they need to upgrade the secondary.
Perhaps they can build around cornerback Chris Houston and oft-injured safety Louis Delmas, but it would be advisable to overhaul the rest of the defensive backfield.
GREEN BAY PACKERS: A SERIOUS THREAT AT RUNNING BACK
The team signed Cedric Benson just before the start of the season and immediately made him its No. 1 back. When he suffered a season-ending injury, it turned the position over to Alex Green, James Starks and Ryan Grant, who have been underwhelming.
As long as the Packers have Aaron Rodgers under center, they're likely to be a pass-first team. Still, they would be well served to add a running back who could bring them a semblance of offensive balance. Maybe if the Rams let Steven Jackson go, this will be his landing spot.
HOUSTON TEXANS: IMPROVEMENT IN PASS DEFENSE
There's no question the Texans could be a big threat in the AFC playoffs, but their pass defense has stumbled a bit during the second half of the season. Houston is no longer ranked among the top half of the league in passing yards allowed per game.
That's potentially a problem because the Texans will likely need to get past either Manning or New England's Tom Brady in order to get to the Super Bowl.
INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: HELP IN THE FRONT SEVEN
The Colts are in the playoffs, which is a remarkable feat after having finished 2-14 in 2011. In order to get to the next level and become a serious threat to win in the postseason, the Colts will need to improve their defense against the run.
After Indianapolis focused on offense in the 2012 draft, it is likely the Colts will address their defensive front seven in next year's draft.
JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: A PERFECT DRAFT
What can you get for a team that needs practically everything? Seven productive rounds in the April draft. The Jaguars need to hit with all their picks and begin building a solid foundation. The return to health of running back Maurice Jones-Drew will be a good way to ensure a more competitive season.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: A FRANCHISE QUARTERBACK
The disappointing Chiefs will probably have a new general manager and coach in place to start the offseason, and those guys will undoubtedly make it a priority to find a quarterback. After losing his starting job midway through this season, Matt Cassel is almost certain to be gone. It's doubtful a new regime will choose to go with Brady Quinn under center, either.
With a high draft choice coming their way, it will be interesting to see if the Chiefs use that avenue to find their next quarterback.
MIAMI DOLPHINS: TWO SOLID WIDE RECEIVERS
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has had his moments during his rookie campaign. When Brian Hartline and Davone Bess are the headliners at wide receiver, though, it's not likely the team is going to have a prolific passing game.
Bess is solid as a slot guy, but Miami would ideally add No. 1- and No. 2-type receivers during the offseason.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: A TRUCE BETWEEN LESLIE FRAZIER AND PERCY HARVIN
Harvin requested a trade last offseason, but he backed off that stance and was one of the league's top receivers until injuring his ankle in Week 9. He was eventually placed on injured reserve, and reports surfaced last week that Harvin and head coach Frazier had a heated exchange in the Vikings' training room that might have led to his being placed on injured reserve.
Without Harvin, the Vikings have become a one-man offense. That one man, Adrian Peterson, is spectacular, but Minnesota needs the big-play threat of Harvin to give the offense some balance. Failure of Harvin and Frazier to get along would again spark trade speculation.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: THE RETURN TO HEALTH OF ROB GRONKOWSKI
The Patriots' chief red zone target broke his forearm last month, but he has been practicing on a limited basis for the past two weeks and is tentatively expected to return to the lineup this weekend.
New England has rarely had both its elite tight ends healthy at the same time this season, but it looks like Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez could both be ready to go in the playoffs. That represents a nightmare for opposing defenses trying to match up against them.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: A CONTRACT AGREEMENT WITH SEAN PAYTON
The Saints took a big tumble in the NFC South standings, and it's no coincidence that the drop-off has occurred while Payton has been serving a year-long league suspension. If his value to the organization wasn't fully known prior to this year, it is now. Expect him to be back, possibly as the league's highest-paid coach.
NEW YORK GIANTS: FAITH IN DAVID WILSON
Andre Brown is out for the season and Ahmad Bradshaw has been unable to stay healthy enough to be a workhorse. If the defending Super Bowl champions are to get back to the playoffs, they're probably going to have to get a big effort out of rookie running back Wilson.
Wilson was in head coach Tom Coughlin's doghouse for a long time after losing a fumble in a season-opening loss to Dallas, but injuries have forced him into a significant late-season role. His big-play ability adds a dimension to the offense. Coughlin and the coaching staff just need to develop faith in him.
NEW YORK JETS: AN OFFENSIVE MAKEOVER
It's highly unlikely he Jets will find a trade partner interested inv quarterback Mark Sanchez, who is owed a guaranteed $8.25 million next season. It's also going to be difficult to cut Sanchez because of the $17.1 million salary cap hit they'd incur.
The best the Jets could hope for, perhaps, is to upgrade their talent at the running back, wide receiver and tight end positions, as well as right tackle and left guard. That way, the organization will be better able to accurately evaluate Sanchez before deciding how to proceed at quarterback in 2014.
OAKLAND RAIDERS: DEFENSIVE LINE HELP
The Raiders have struggled in front against the run, allowing about 4.5 yards per carry. They also haven't been able to generate a significant pass rush, combining for just 23 sacks.
Richard Seymour has missed half of the season with a hamstring injury, but his leadership at defensive tackle will be missed next season. He's slated to become an unrestricted free agent. Oakland will need to find a young, athletic replacement to revamp their defensive line.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: A QUALITY REPLACEMENT FOR ANDY REID
Assuming that Reid, the longest-tenured head coach in the NFL, is fired at season's end, Philadelphia will be looking to fill the position for the first time since 1999.
Reid didn't win a Super Bowl in his 14 years with the Eagles, but he guided them to six division titles, five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl, and had only had three losing seasons. That kind of coaching success is going to be hard to replace.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS: AN INFUSION OF YOUTH
The Steelers are getting long in the tooth on defense, and that's probably led to the team's injury woes. Older players tend to break down more frequently.
Few teams (if any) have a better drafting track record than Pittsburgh, so it ought to be able to retool its defense through the draft.
ST. LOUIS RAMS: WEAPONS FOR QUARTERBACK SAM BRADFORD
Danny Amendola is a nice slot receiver, but the Rams need to either have some of their other incumbent receivers step up next season (like Brandon Gibson, who has shown flashes, for instance) or find replacements for them.
Also, the team has already decided to Jackson, their longtime running back, to void the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. The Rams need to focus on upgrading at the skill positions.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: LEADERSHIP
It seems to be a foregone conclusion that general manager A.J. Smith and Turner, their head coach, will be fired after the season. There is still decent talent on the Chargers' roster, but it will be interesting to see who replaces Smith and Turner and what their approach will be.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: A 1ST-ROUND PICK (OR AT LEAST A HIGH 2ND) FOR ALEX SMITH
With the 49ers apparently turning the team over to second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the foreseeable future, Smith figures to be put on the trading block. NFL personnel people would never say that Smith is worth a first-round pick in return, but the 49ers should shoot for the stars.
First of all, the demand for starting-caliber quarterbacks will far exceed the supply this offseason, with a weak free-agent market and draft pool. Second, if the Niners' price isn't meant, they could just hold onto him as a great backup. After all, Kaepernick's contract is hardly prohibitive, so the team wouldn't really have excessive money tied up in the position if Smith were to stay.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: MORE SUCCESS ON THE ROAD
If Seattle could play as well on the road as it does at home, it would be one of the top teams in the NFL. On the road, though, the Seahawks are kind of ordinary. That's a problem because they are probably going to be on the road for the postseason.
Still, Seattle is a dark horse title contender, based on how well rookie quarterback Russell Wilson has progressed. The Seahawks have a quality defense and one of the league's most productive running backs in Marshawn Lynch.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: QUALITY HELP IN THE SECONDARY
Rookie safety Mark Barron was a solid draft pick last season. Now the Bucs have to concentrate on filling the other three starting positions to overhaul a secondary largely responsible for having the league's 32nd-ranked pass defense.
Ronde Barber's conversion to safety has gone reasonably well, but he's nearing the end of his playing days. The team's cornerback situation was thin even before Aqib Talib was shipped to New England at the trade deadline.
TENNESSEE TITANS: A DEFENSIVE END
The Titans give up far too many points. They could use some help in the secondary, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Tennessee targeting a defensive end in the first round of the draft.
The Titans need to improve their run defense and generate a better pass rush. They don't have players on the defensive line who command double-teams.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS: ANOTHER RECEIVING THREAT
Quarterback Robert Griffin III has been fantastic in his rookie season. Imagine how much better he'd be if the Redskins added a standout wide receiver to pair with Pierre Garcon.
Santana Moss is a productive veteran, but he's nearing the end. Leonard Hankerson and Josh Morgan have their moments, but Washington can use a more productive starter at the position.
Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.