The Washington Redskins will play 13 of the NFL's 31 teams during the 2014 season. I have thoughts on these games. Sort of. We won't know until April what the schedule looks like, unfortuately, but we do know that Washington will be playing against the AFC South (that's good!), and the NFC West (that's bad!) next season. Here are some thoughts on those opponents.
Chip Kelly's squad will enter next season as the favorite in the NFC East, but this division is completely up for grabs. Kelly patched together a 10 win season with a comically weak roster, finding strong quarterback play through Nick Foles. Foles-Griffin has a chance to emerge as a fun quarterback rivalry in the future, long after the Manning's and Romo's are out of the division. On the other hand, Foles is also the most tradeable piece of the Eagles roster, and it wouldn't be horribly shocking if the progressive-minded Eagles tried to capitalize on Foles' great season by trying to get a first rounder and then some in exchange for the former third rounder.
That would hurt the Eagles chances in 2014, but the roster has warts. The best defensive player on the team, Trent Cole, has been terrorizing quarterbacks since 2005, which is when DeMarcus Ware came into the league. He'll be 32 next year. Offensively, the Eagles are great, but they were really healthy, and are lacking a ton of upside. They can be better in 2014 than in 2013, but it would take a whole lot of stuff beyond their going right. And Philadelphia only had a chance in the division this season because Washington imploded in comedic fashion right from the first snap.
The Cowboys enter the offseason more than 30 million over the cap, which sounds bad, and may be worse, because Anthony Spencer (who missed the 2013 season while under the franchise tag) isn't under contract, and doesn't count towards that number. Miles Austin is going to be the most obvious salary cap casulty. He fought injury and didn't contribute this season. But after that, Dallas is going to have to start going through their most productive pieces to find enough cap space to sign their rookie class this season.
Dez Bryant can restructure his deal, Romo can restructure his deal, they can reduce Ware's cap number, and then they have a decision to make on Jason Witten, who should remain productive. None of these actions actually fix the Cowboys cap issues though, they just push them off another year, and prevent them from improving the roster in the short term. More than any other team in the NFL, Dallas needs to blow up their whole team structure, but because these are the Cowboys, they just extended the QB and MLB, are bringing the head coach back, and won't part with any player that has a modicrum of marketability (except Austin). Exactly the kind of stability no one wants or needs. This is a 4-12 disaster in 8-8 clothing.
New York Giants
The Giants are heading in a new offensive direction in 2014, hiring Packers QB coach Ben McAdoo to be offensive coordinator. I fully expect him to bring James Jones with him to replace Hakeem Nicks in three WR sets, and try to get the most out of third year WR Rueben Randle. But the Giants offense is the single biggest question mark in the division this upcoming season. Why was it so bad last season? In 2012, both the Eagles and Chargers offenses struggled all season with most of their talent healthy and in the lineup, and went into the offseason with major questions. Both teams fielded top 5 offenses in 2013. The Giants will look to make a similar rebound next season, and need to get the offensive line settled in order to be back in the playoffs in 2014.
The Cardinals had their best regular season in the last 25 years in 2013, and didn't get to go to the postseason. It took QB Carson Palmer 7 starts to get comfortable in Bruce Arians offense, but when he learned how to be successful and not take unnecessary hits, the whole team came around. Palmer is a declining player who is going to struggle at times as his enters his mid-thirties, but he is going to see the full contract value of the extension he signed with Cincinnati before the 2005 playoffs. It took three different stops to make it, but Palmer managed to avoid being released, and will accrue more than $125 million in earnings in his career. The 2014 Cardinals figure to be Palmer's best team since the 2006 Bengals. It's probably going to be his final shot at a Super Bowl title.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners are going to have to tweak their defense for the 2014 season, although you would expect all the principal members to return, with the exception of Carlos Rogers (who would make a lot of sense in a return to Washington). But the San Francisco free agent the Redskins really need to be in on is WR Anquan Boldin, who is coming off a career year at age 33. Boldin cannot separate from defenses even a little bit, but he was one of the best receivers in football this year, and as a big, physical target who is never not open, he's the kind of player that Robert Griffin has not gotten to play with at any level, and would most directly fix the issues that plagued Griffin this season. It's going to cost about $8 million a year over the next three years or so to get it done, but Boldin's old-mans game makes him a safe investment deep into his thirties.
The Vikings are not going to be a trendy surprise team, especially as Adrian Peterson enters his twilight years, but one thing that new OC Norv Turner inherits is a really nice set of offensive talent. The Vikings have the pieces on the line, in the backfield, and are getting there on the outside (which Turner will help). The quarterback situation is in flux, but there's no huge contract to deal with, and the list of guys who can look good handing off to Peterson is probably 50 names deep. In other words, the issues with the Vikings are pretty much on the defensive side of the ball, and new head coach Mike Zimmer is kind of good at his job. The Vikings are an obvious candidate to improve by 5 or more wins in 2014.
The Texans' main issue this year wasn't a lack of talent, although the talent level wasn't helping a lot either. There were a lot of injuries and they'll return a lot of key pieces to the field in 2014 under new head coach Bill O'Brien, who should feature a potentially explosive offense after he de-Kubiaks the whole unit (which could take years, frankly). It's certainly an interesting franchise to have the first overall pick. Teams with the first pick almost always are adding the best piece of their team, but for the second year in a row, the first pick will be added to a veteran-flavored roster. The correct pick, of course, is Teddy Bridgewater. Every other pick is not correct. Houston is not going to go worst to first under O'Brien in year one, but there are no sacred cows in the AFC South, and there are no dues the Texans have to pay to reach the top. They just need to add talent.
The Colts have gone to the playoffs in back to back seasons and now in 11 of the last 12 years. But this will be the most critical offseason in Indy over that timeframe because it is going to be the offseason that defines Andrew Luck as the Colts' quarterback. The Colts have built the roster too weakly, spent too frivilously on players with established track records like Erik Walden and Trent Richardson, and are far too reliant on Luck's late game heroics. With Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen, and TY Hilton returning, there is absolutely no reason the Colts shouldn't be able to put enough talent around luck to make him a pro-bowler and a playoff-winning quarterback as soon as next season (he did acheive both of those on technicalities this season). Another mediocre statistical season from Luck just makes him look a lot more like the next Sam Bradford than the next Peyton Manning.
The Titans are expected to move on from the reasonably priced Jake Locker in the offseason, but first, they already moved on from former Redskins coaches Jerry Gray and Gregg Williams on the defensive side of the ball, replacing them with Ray Horton, the former defensive coordinator of the Browns. They're also expected to move on from RB Chris Johnson in the offseason, who was last productive in 2010. They have already moved on from head coach Mike Munchak, and have replaced him with Ken Whisenhunt. Whisenhunt really struggled to pick a quarterback in Arizona that could execute even the simplest play. This team could be in trouble, but one similarity that Whisenhunt will enjoy from his time in Arizona that the Titans do have is a young, explosive receiving duo in Justin Hunter and Kendall Wright, 23 and 24 years old respectively. The problem, of course, will be at quarterback where a team that hasn't gotten it right since drafting Steve McNair in 1995 as the Houston Oilers adds a coach that hasn't gotten it right since making Kurt Warner the starter in 2007 when Matt Leinart got injured.
There is at least a decent chance the Jaguars will not draft a quarterback with the third overall pick in this upcoming draft, opting instead to address the position in the second or the third round, and then making that rookie second day draft pick the starting QB. Andy Dalton, Russell Wilson, Geno Smith, and Colin Kaepernick were three of the most recent day two draft selections at QB to follow this path, and none have produced a single losing season. Nick Foles lost only one game for the Eagles this year. Mike Glennon may have been the best of the 2013 rookie quarterbacks for the Buccaneers. It used to be a losing strategy to go best player available in the first round with a quarterback need, but the breed of passers falling out of the first round is far better than it used to be. It's now a winning strategy to grab an elite talent at the top of the draft, and a passer that your coaching staff really likes in the second or third, because with moderate investment from the team, those picks are turning out as well as ever.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs may not have a better option than to stick with Mike Glennon at quarterback under Lovie Smith, but the Bucs may also benefit from doing the opposite of the Jags, and moving up in the draft to second overall to land either Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater. Glennon is both a competent player, and an obvious spot to improve. Beyond him, the Bucs have all sorts of pro-bowl type players added under the prior regime that you haven't heard about yet (Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy) and a few you have (Darrelle Revis). The last time Tampa took a QB in the top ten? 1994. Trent Dilfer. Who now evaluates guys like Bridgewater and Manziel on television.
St. Louis Rams
Can the Rams afford to draft another defensive player (Jadaveon Clowney) if they keep the second overall pick? If they can reduce Sam Bradford's cap number, sure. With more mutiple fronts being played, the lines of designation between defensive tackle, defensive end, and outside linebacker are getting more and more obscure, but one thing that modern defensive coaches seem to agree on is that it is optimal when facing pass-first offenses to play with two traditional interior linebackers, and then as many guys on the line as the offensive personnel package will allow for. Basically, there's no reason that Clowney wouldn't be a good fit for the Rams or that they would have to change their defense significantly if they drafted another end. More now than ever, getting the best 11 guys on the field is just more important than how you align them.
The Seahawks look like they'll be even stronger in 2014 than in 2013, and they're headed to the Super Bowl. A reminder for those unfamiliar: the Seahawks were in the same place when Pete Carroll and John Schneider took over in 2010 than the Redskins were when Mike Shanahan took over. The Redskins are 3-13 and dont have a first round pick in 2014. The Seahawks will pick 31st or 32nd in the draft, and yes, that will be before the Redskins select. Even though the NFL likes to promote it's parity, Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver, the top teams in the league, are big proponents of building their roster so the rich can get richer. So that more stars can join those teams in the offseason.
This is not something that is beyond the Redskins abilities, as athletes would flock to D.C. to play for a winner. But they have to first defeat the culture of there being a "right way" to build a team. Mike Shanahan's single biggest limitation was a devotion to an outdated relic of teambuilding where the central piece was himself, as the head coach. If the Redskins are going to compete with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, two teams that are winning a ton of games with underdeveloped dual-threat quarterbacks, they need to build the kind of program that athletes want to be a part of. Instead of picking fights with your athletes in the media, try things like promoting your team and your organzation as a fun place to work. And try to make it one as well.
It works a lot better.