I always feel like getting to the conference championships should be the specific aim for teams. That, rather than the Super Bowl? Well, once we get to the last four, you’d expect everyone to be good enough that ‘Any Given Sunday’ really comes into play. So what of the teams that didn’t make that last four? I look at what the playoff teams that fell short – starting with the NFC teams – can do to put themselves in prime position to make that last four next year.
New York Giants
The Giants never really looked like a complete team on their run to the playoffs. Dog-whistle-racism-driven-boat-scandal or not, there were enough flaws that they were always going to be one canny opposing coach away from being completely eviscerated. So there’s plenty of work for Jerry Reese and Ben Agadoo McAdoo to do this offseason.
First up, how about getting some kind of run game to support Eli and those receivers? Look. I know Rashad Jennings is about as good a run-blocking back as you’re going to get. Trouble is, he’s not actually a threat to run the ball right now. Paul Perkins might be more that, but his anaemic blocking won’t let him see many third downs. Shane Vereen’s a player I like but is really struggling with injuries, so the Giants could use a third-down back who’s at least something of a threat to run the ball. Where from? Take your pick – that’s the sort of position a cheap free agency pickup or fourth/fifth-round draft choice can easily fulfil.
You can pick up all the middling running backs you like, but if you can’t block at the line, it’ll come to naught. The Giants needs an offensive tackle and should cross their fingers that a Ryan Ramczyk or Cam Robinson slide in the draft. They need at least a mid-level guard too, which is where free agency will come in. I’m no fan of his record, but picking up Luke Joeckel on a relatively cheap one-year ‘prove-it’ deal might not be the worst move.
A lot with the Giants will depend on how you feel about Eli Manning. After a great 2015, he’s had a poor 2016. Again, we don’t know if it’s age-based decline or just a down year. Either way, at the very least a new backup QB is needed, with Ryan Nassib hitting free agency. Thus, an opportunity to develop someone! How about Davis Webb, from Cal? He’ll need time, coming from a spread offense, but you’d think New York have plenty.
On defense, it’s mostly about just not slipping back after a fantastic year. Jason Pierre-Paul will need to be retained – behind him players like Romeo Okwara and Owa Odighizuwa are fine, but you fancy they’re better as rotational players than full-timers. Elsewhere, the G-Men could use another linebacker with coverage skills, but you’ll notice about 80% of teams could use one or two of them, it seems.
One piece I’m working on right now is identifying each team’s top players from the 2016. For Detroit, it’s been a bit of a struggle, which is strange considering they made the playoffs. But outside of Matt Stafford’s 4th quarter heroics, there was a dearth of top-level performance. Even the team’s leading receiver, Golden Tate, got himself benched for poor play at one point. So there’s much work to be done.
There’s not a huge amount to improve easily on offense. The run game struggled when the top two running backs, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, went down with injury. You can hope they’ll be back next season, or look to expand, but it’s a marginal move. Snapping up some more competition for guard or center positions should be a priority. A veteran center like John Sullivan or a versatile center/guard like Stefan Wisniewski would be a value choice. If Detroit can locate a surefire #1 wide receiver in the draft, it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad choice, but they have bigger needs on the other side of the ball.
I don’t know what happened to Ezekiel Ansah this season, but he dropped from 14.5 sacks in 2015 to just 2 in 2016. A bounce back wouldn’t be unexpected, but how about giving him some more help rushing the passer? Kerry Hyder had a decent second-half to the season, but more will be more here, so why not go for the draft. I need to watch more of these two, but Stanford’s Solomon Thomas and Michigan’s Taco Charlton look like good first-round options.
Taco Charlton, #33, will be a draft target for many (Getty Images)
Elsewhere, the secondary is a mess, especially at cornerback, where Darius Slay is by far and away their only good player. Detroit need to target this in free agency and the draft then, and there’s tons of talent in both. Big-money players likely to become available include Trumaine Johnson, Logan Ryan and Stephon Gillmore. Second-day draft options will include Cameron Sutton and Chidobe Awuzie, though there are so many with first-day projections, Detroit could easily snaffle a bargain if someone like Cordrea Tankersley or Tre’Davious White slides for some reason. I can’t see the harm in Detroit drafting a safety either. Having not watched much in the way of safeties yet, why not draft Fish Smithson? He’s called ‘Fish’ (ok, nicknamed), for heaven’s sake.
I didn’t expect to be writing about Dallas having not made at least the last 4 of the playoffs. Against Green Bay their defense was out-gameplanned in the first half, and their comeback in the second half was destined to fall short against an ever-inspired Aaron Rodgers.
You’d hope that Dallas take the measured approach to free agency and the draft they often have in the last couple of years. Now there also won’t be the usual “will they draft a QB to replace Romo” nonsense, we can be a bit more measured about how we talk about them too. Oddly enough, Dallas can actually upgrade the offensive line. Doug Free at right tackle in particular became more of a weak spot as the season went on. The obvious solution to me would be to re-sign Ronald Leary and kick La’el Collins out to tackle, unless they think they can take someone like Austin Pasztor or Riley Reiff and bring them up to Dallas standard. Otherwise, targeting someone in the third-to-fifth-round range would be a reasonable outlay for someone starting at swing tackle.
I’d also like to see Dallas draft a receiving threat – either a tight end to prepare for Jason Witten’s retirement (whenever that may be) or a wide receiver to take some pressure off Dez Bryant and Cole Beasley. So: someone like Dede Westbrook or JuJu Smith-Schuster would be a neat second-round receiving option. Early round tight ends right now include David Njoku, OJ Howard and Evan Engram.
Defense needs to be the focus though. David Irving started to suggest a pass rush existed last season, but Dallas needs much more. At tackle, Malik McDowell could be drafted in the first round. At end, Carl Lawson and Charles Harris might be first-round choices. There are plenty of free agent pass rushers too, including Charles Johnson and Mario Addison from Carolina. Melvin Ingram from San Diego could be a big money signing.
In the secondary, Dallas must re-sign and re-sign. Barry Church had a breakout year and must be kept. Morris Claiborne, who had spent most of the years since his drafting looking terrible, was a near-star last year. JJ Wilcox is pretty good at safety too. If Dallas lose these players, who can they sign? Players like Dre Kirkpatrick and TJ McDonald staff the middle of the market in those two positions.
Barry Church, who the Cowboys need to re-sign (Getty Images)
This section could just be a series of lists of the top available free agent and top-rated draft prospects at tackle and guard. Seriously, it’s that clear-cut for Seattle. Now that they don’t have a generational, defensive-lineman bulldozing running back (sorry, Thomas Rawls, but you ain’t Marshawn), if Seattle want to have a reliable running game all year round they are going to need an offensive line. A fully-fit Russell Wilson will be more of a running threat, and that’ll help, but Seattle need more.
Also, the best way to maintain a fully-fit Russell Wilson is to not rely on an offensive line of Justin Britt, three blocking sleds, and a muddy piece of tarpaulin called “George Fant” to protect him. Yes, Britt is pretty good at center. But the rest? Eeesh.
Look. I don’t really know what the Seahawks will do, and I strongly doubt what they do will be what I’d do. The current regime has repeatedly shown a complete disregard for the offensive line and frankly there seem to be insufficient organisational checks in place to stop that carrying on. I have no faith that the Seahawks will draft or sign the right players, even if they bother to draft or sign them. And even less faith that they’ll coach up those that they do. All I can do is list a bunch of first- and second-round linemen, and do the same for the top-of-the-market free agents. So.
Tackles: in the draft, I’d look to Cam Robinson, Ryan Ramczyk, Dion Dawkins and Garrett Bolles. In free agency, your best bets are Ricky Wagner, Riley Reiff and Austin Pasztor. Which is pretty depressing.
Guards: in the draft, the top-rated few are Quenton Nelson, Ethan Pocic, Dan Feeney and Taylor Moton. The guard free agency market is much better than the tackle one, with TJ Lang, Larry Warford, Kevin Zeitler and Ronald Leary all available.
I’m so sick of thinking about the Seattle O-Line.