Eli ManningRon Antonelli/Getty ImagesEli Manning could use some more weapons on the outside and help on the O-line.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl following the 2008 season, they did it with a rookie draft class that combined to play 125 regular-season snaps, fewest in the league and well off the 1,535 average for the other 31 teams. The 2012 San Francisco 49ers reached the Super Bowl with a rookie draft class that played 100 snaps, a league low that season. It was a similar story last season when Seattle and Denver ranked among the bottom three in drafted rookie snaps.

It isn't always this way, of course, but as the 2014 draft approaches, those examples remind us that selecting players fresh out of college is often more about the future than the present. Not everyone can afford to take the longer view, however. Some teams need high-impact rookie classes in a big way.

The New York Giants, St. Louis Rams, 49ers, Miami Dolphins, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers fit into that category through a confluence of factors. Here we consider how well-positioned each of them are to get what they need from this draft. The outlook is brighter for some than for others.


New York Giants

Why they're on the list: There’s pressure on the Giants’ leadership to break the team’s recent run of mediocrity. A flurry of lower-impact moves in free agency felt good and could lead to improvement, but it isn't going to solve the situation overnight. It’s reasonable to think the Giants will have better luck with injuries, but they lack star power either way unless Eli Manning reverses his recent downward turn. The team would love to maintain a long-range strategy, but like it or not, the roster has declined to the point that the Giants need immediate impact from this draft.

Chances for success: Low.

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Dalton, Bradford, NewtonUSA TODAY SportsAndy Dalton, Sam Bradford and Cam Newton need good seasons in 2014.
Bill Walsh said he needed two years to know Joe Montana would be the San Francisco 49ers' franchise quarterback. Walsh's coaching understudy, Mike Holmgren, generally thought the third year was when a starting quarterback should hit stride.

Waiting around for a prospect to develop into a franchise quarterback creates risks for decision-makers. Big bets made on Kevin Kolb, Christian Ponder, Blaine Gabbert, Mark Sanchez and others come to mind. Another wave of young starters -- Nick Foles, Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Ryan Tannehill, Andy Dalton, Matthew Stafford, Sam Bradford and Geno Smith among them -- carry the hopes of their franchises into the 2014 season.

Teams need answers sooner than later. What if how a quarterback plays right away tells an organization what it needs to know? Evidence collected over the past eight seasons supports that thinking almost without exception, providing a clear lens for viewing the game's most important position.

"The QBs who do well ultimately, do well as rookies or in their first season of starting -- they show you," ESPN analyst and six-time NFL executive of the year Bill Polian said. "If they are not above a certain threshold after their first 16 games, the odds are pretty good that they will not be a franchise quarterback. The odds are even stronger that they will wash out completely."

We have found strong trends among the 41 quarterbacks making their first 16 starts over the past eight seasons. The QBs with the worst performance metrics over those initial 16 starts flamed out. The fast starters reached the playoffs in every case, playing in three of the past five Super Bowls. Their futures appear bright. The QBs in the middle look as though they'll remain there in the majority of cases.

Every situation is different, of course, and many factors dictate whether a quarterback ultimately succeeds, but there have not yet been many exceptions to this general rule.

What do the numbers tell us about the league's newer starters (including RG III, Foles and Geno Smith), and the QBs who enter the 2014 season at a crossroads (including Bradford, Newton, Stafford and Dalton)? Let's take a look.

The seven fastest starters are on their way

A four-year body of work allows for definitive evaluation in most cases, and Total QBR agrees.

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Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck are all elite NFL QBs. Are they worth a No. 1 pick?Getty ImagesDrew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Andrew Luck are all elite NFL QBs. Are they worth a No. 1 pick?
Most of the NFL coaches and general managers I've spoken with think the Houston Texans will not select a quarterback first overall in the 2014 draft. Some of them have sounded familiar alarm bells about over-drafting quarterbacks, and for good reason.

NFL teams have selected a dozen QBs first overall in the past 16 drafts. Peyton Manning is the only one with Hall of Fame credentials, eight of the other 11 could qualify as disappointments and a couple of others are just getting started. So, by all means, sound those alarm bells, but remember also that the non-QBs selected first overall during the same 16 drafts were less than sure bets. Jake Long, Mario Williams and Courtney Brown enjoyed varying degrees of success, but none signed a second contract with his original team. The fourth non-QB on the list, Eric Fisher, is still getting his career started.

While the Texans consider their options, I thought it would be interesting to consider which current NFL quarterbacks would be worth a No. 1 overall draft pick based strictly on current playing ability, without regard for age or salary.

Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees would obviously qualify, but where would seasoned personnel evaluators draw lines of demarcation? Would they put Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick in that group? What about Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger?

The sometimes surprising answers I got from ESPN analyst Bill Polian, ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson and an NFL general manager provide pre-draft fodder and, perhaps, some context for the Texans' decision as well. There were seven unanimous selections and a couple of potential omissions.

Polian: Brady, Peyton Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Andrew Luck, Roethlisberger, Wilson, Philip Rivers, Ryan, Eli Manning, Cam Newton (with an asterisk, for reasons outlined below)

Williamson: Brady, Peyton Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Luck, Roethlisberger, Wilson, Rivers, Ryan, Newton, Romo, Stafford, Joe Flacco, Griffin, Ryan Tannehill, Jay Cutler, Kaepernick

NFL GM: Brady, Peyton Manning, Rodgers, Brees, Luck, Roethlisberger, Wilson, Eli Manning

Using this input as well as my own opinion drawing on discussions I've had with evaluators previously around the league, here's how I'd stack up the quarterbacks worthy of trading a No. 1 overall pick for. I've arranged them in tiers: "Clearly worth a No. 1 overall pick," "Close but not quite," "You could make an argument for them" and "On their way, but not there yet."

Clearly worth a No. 1 overall pick

1. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

Of the seven unanimous choices, only Manning and Luck were actual No. 1 overall selections.

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video
St. Louis Rams general manager Les Snead and his Jacksonville Jaguars counterpart, David Caldwell, made small talk in a hotel lobby as the NFL owners meetings got going in Orlando last week. Their teams hold the second and third picks in the 2014 NFL draft, respectively, but without knowing the Houston Texans' plans for the No. 1 overall choice, there was nothing concrete for them to discuss.

Will the Texans select a quarterback such as Blake Bortles or Johnny Manziel? Or, will the sheer talent that Jadeveon Clowney possesses compel them to select the South Carolina defensive end despite concerns about scheme fit? What about Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack? ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. listed Mack atop his latest mock draft after going with Manziel in each of his previous two. Colleague Todd McShay has sent Clowney and Bortles to Houston in his past two mocks after penciling in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater way back in December.

The uncertainty at the top of this draft runs counter to recent years when quarterbacks Matthew Stafford (2009), Sam Bradford (2010), Cam Newton (2011) and Andrew Luck (2012) became near-consensus top choices. There wasn't much consensus atop the 2013 draft, but that stemmed mostly from a perceived lack of elite prospects, which certainly isn't the case this year.

With these dynamics in mind, I used the league meetings in Orlando to poll coaches and executives for their thoughts on how the Texans might be most likely to proceed. Clowney was their overwhelming choice despite some notable dissenting opinions. What are league insiders thinking? Let's run through each of the leading possibilities.

1. Clowney is viewed as the likeliest choice

Ten of the 15 people I polled at the meetings thought the Texans would select Clowney first overall even though Houston badly needs a quarterback.

"You've gotta take Clowney, because he's the most talented guy and none of the quarterbacks are good enough to go that early," an offensive-minded head coach said. "This is the 2011 draft revisited."

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Free-Agency GradesESPN IllustrationWere Darrelle Revis, DeMarcus Ware and Julius Peppers smart free-agency additions?
The first two weeks of the NFL free-agent signing period featured multiple trades, high-profile cuts, a notorious failed physical examination in Oakland and battles over players between heated rivals. Rosters changed quickly as 405 unrestricted free agents hit the market. More than 100 of these UFAs have already changed teams. Nearly as many have re-signed with their 2013 teams. Teams aren't finished, but enough time has passed to make some initial assessments.

So, which teams fared the best? Which fared the worst? Which ones treaded water? Although the signing period remains open, the big money has been spent. It's time to sort through the transactions to hand out grades for all 32 teams.

ESPN Insiders Bill Polian, Louis Riddick, Matt Williamson and Field Yates joined me in sizing up what every team accomplished. Sources around the league also provided input. There were conflicting views and gray areas, plus some bold declarations. In every case, we tried to consider not only what teams accomplished but also the broader context. Moves that made sense for one team would have made little sense for another. Player valuation was also part of the equation, one reason the Atlanta Falcons fared worse than the Kansas City Chiefs.

A GRADES

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Grade: A

Key signings: C Evan Dietrich-Smith, CB Alterraun Verner, DE Michael Johnson, CB Mike Jenkins, TE Brandon Myers, T Anthony Collins, DT Clinton McDonald, QB Josh McCown
Key subtractions: T Donald Penn, G Davin Joseph, CB Darrelle Revis, Jeremy Zuttah (traded to Ravens)

Releasing Revis opened the Buccaneers to criticism because he was arguably their most talented player on defense, at least when healthy. And, when the team named 34-year-old McCown its starting quarterback, it was fair to wonder whether the move undermined Mike Glennon in the long run. That was my initial thought, anyway. Polian couldn’t have been a bigger fan of Tampa Bay's moves, however.

"This may be the best job ever done in free agency, maybe since Green Bay signed Reggie White," Polian said. "They got rid of a lot of guys who either didn't fit, cost too much or were bad guys, and they added good guys and who fit perfectly at good prices. Dietrich-Smith is a really good player. Verner is a perfect Cover 2 corner. Michael Johnson is a little overpaid, but he will be very productive in that system. McCown will be the quarterback and a great mentor for [Glennon]."

A former personnel director familiar with the Buccaneers' thinking applauded Tampa Bay for aggressively targeting players to fit the new coaching staff. He pointed to the traditional color-coded scouting grades -- blue, red, purple, orange, etc. -- and said the Buccaneers emerged from the early stages of free agency with possibly only one "orange" (translation: below-average, backup level) starter on defense, putting head coach Lovie Smith in great position on that side of the ball.

"Their secondary is really good for what Lovie is going to do," he said. "The Mike linebacker and Will linebacker are perfect. They have three defensive ends and three inside guys. There is no 'orange' in that mix except at Sam linebacker, which is one position in that defense where it's OK."

The downside? "Lovie just wants old quarterbacks who don't make plays and don't hurt anyone, and that is what he got," Williamson said of McCown. "If I were a team needing a QB, I would be calling about Glennon. On defense, Verner is a better fit than Revis, but you are not better at that position."

Riddick put Tampa Bay and Arizona at the top of his list when ranking which teams had the best signing period thus far. "Tampa Bay, even though it's a lot of transactions and a lot of players to implement into a new scheme for everybody, they all fit the profile you associate with Lovie Smith and [defensive coordinator] Leslie Frazier in particular," Riddick said. "Verner is one of the great values in terms of what they paid for him, where he slots in with other veteran UFA deals and how they are going to use him. That is one of the best signings in all of free agency. McCown, whether he is the starter or not, you know it is solid and will work out. Michael Johnson is the only one that scares me. He can be hell on wheels, unblockable, a massive man, or he can play like he's 6 feet tall and 240 pounds."

B GRADES

Arizona Cardinals
Grade: B+

Key signings:

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13 teams that should draft a QB 

March, 19, 2014
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Bill O'BrienScott Halleran/Getty ImagesBill O'Brien and the Texans should draft a QB -- but maybe not at No. 1 overall.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect the Raiders' trade for quarterback Matt Schaub.

So many teams selecting near the top of the 2014 NFL draft need starting quarterbacks. Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Oakland own four of the first five selections, and none appears to have its long-term starter on its roster. The same goes for Minnesota and possibly Tampa Bay, both also drafting in the top 10. But unfortunately for QB-needy teams, the widely panned pro-day workout for Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater was about as convincing as the 2014 college QB class overall. Too many question marks exist for teams to comfortably pick one among the top few selections -- particularly in a draft brimming with premium talent at other positions.

Overdrafting a QB is bad enough, but it's worse when it's carried out at the expense of adding front-line talent. The 2011 draft comes to mind. Jacksonville selected quarterback Blaine Gabbert 10th, one spot before Houston landed J.J. Watt. Minnesota selected quarterback Christian Ponder 12th, two spots before St. Louis chose Robert Quinn.

That was also the year two QB-needy teams, Arizona and San Francisco, came out looking smart for taking a cornerback (Patrick Peterson) and outside linebacker (Aldon Smith), respectively, among the top seven picks. Watt, Quinn, Peterson and Smith are building-block players. Gabbert, Ponder and the other overdrafted quarterback from 2011, Jake Locker, are not.

While pointing out the pitfalls of overdrafting is easy, resisting the temptation in the face of abiding need is not. There are no guarantees, regardless. While the Texans (Watt), Rams (Quinn) and Cardinals (Peterson) got it right in 2011, every one of those teams fired its coach within a few years anyway. Poor quarterback play was largely to blame.

What's a smart team to do? A few calls around the league produced one viable option that could allow QB-needy teams to make the circumstances work to their advantage. We spell it out below while taking a closer look at which teams -- 13 overall -- need to draft QBs this year, when they should look to take one, and whom they should target. (Spoiler: There are a few teams on the list who have solid starters already in place.)

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The Denver Broncos own the NFL’s best regular-season record in the two seasons since quarterback Peyton Manning improbably hit the market and signed with them. However, they are only 2-2 in the playoffs over that span, compared to a combined 12-3 for the more defensively oriented Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens. And after enduring a Super Bowl humiliation last month, there was no way the Broncos could sit by idly and hope for a different result next time. They were going to address their defense in some fashion, but could anyone have expected this?

One day into free agency, the Broncos slammed the accelerator to the floor in a clear push to win a championship before the nearly 38-year-old Manning's career is finished. While the money Denver allocated for cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward sent a clear message on its own, the Broncos’ immediate interest in the recently released DeMarcus Ware left little doubt. The question is whether the Broncos can have it both ways. Will their win-now mentality cause them to pay a steep price later?

Every NFL general manager would tell you successful franchises ideally build through the draft and supplement with value buys in free agency.

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Darrelle RevisAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDarrelle Revis could be headed out of Tampa Bay after just one full season.
Two decades ago, the San Francisco 49ers had reached three NFC Championship Games in a four-year window without winning a Super Bowl. Instead of staying the course, they moved aggressively to sign Deion Sanders, then the game’s best cover cornerback. Sanders picked off six passes on his way to becoming the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1994, and the 49ers won it all.

Similar scenarios came to mind this week when news broke that Darrelle Revis could be available after one season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Revis, although approaching his 29th birthday this summer, re-established himself as an elite corner in 2013 after recovering from a torn ACL. Why wouldn’t the 49ers, with zero championships to show for their appearance in the three most recent NFC title games, acquire or sign Revis for a Super Bowl run in 2014? They wouldn’t be the only logical suitors, either. Revis could make sense for teams on both ends of the championship spectrum, despite the valid points ESPN analyst Herm Edwards made in questioning the value of cover corners in general.

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videoMichael Bennett checked in at No. 7 when ESPN.com NFL scout Matt Williamson joined me in ranking all players from the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos heading into Super Bowl XLVIII. The ranking was arguably on the high side, but there was also no denying what Bennett brought to the Seahawks’ defensive line in his first full season with the team. The way Bennett and the Seahawks’ defensive rotation played during a 43-8 victory over the Broncos provided some validation.

Re-signing Bennett was important for the Seahawks as they attempt to sustain their championship success. The four-year contract agreement they reached with him Monday gave Seattle its first key victory of the 2014 offseason.

The new deal for Bennett, which pays him $10 million the first year and $6 million in the second, contains $16 million in guarantees and should fit nicely into the contractual void created when the Seahawks parted with starting defensive end Red Bryant last week. Seattle got good value from Bryant over the years, but he was a two-down player set to turn 30 years old in April, and injuries had limited him significantly in 2012. Bryant’s salary was scheduled to reach $8.5 million this coming season even as he was becoming less valuable within a deepening rotation.

With Bryant gone and the 28-year-old Bennett back in the fold, the Seahawks are in position to pursue a plan that will include rewarding other key players. First, however, Seattle figures to pare back in other areas while diving into the market.

Here’s a look at what should come next for the defending Super Bowl champion

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Aqib TalibMark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsCornerback Aqib Talib would instantly bolster the Washington Redskins' secondary.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect Matt Cassel re-signing with the Minnesota Vikings.

NFL free agency would be so much more dramatic this offseason if NaVorro Bowman, Kam Chancellor, Geno Atkins, Sean Lee, Clay Matthews and Percy Harvin were hitting the market as previously scheduled. Each of them signed a contract extension well before hitting the market, a theme I referenced in January when scratching together a list of 25 must-sign free agents.

Two months later, six of the first 10 players on that list have effectively come off the market. Franchise tags will restrict Jimmy Graham, Greg Hardy and Brian Orakpo. A transition tag will complicate matters for Alex Mack. Two others in the top 10, Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta, recently signed new deals.

Fortunately for NFL teams, free agency can be less about marquee dollars spent and more about finding the right fits to maximize investments. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of five free-agent fits, starting with one that could hinge upon what happens when the Houston Texans are on the clock with the first pick in the 2014 draft.


CB Aqib Talib to the Washington Redskins

Talib isn’t for everyone. In 2012, he served a four-game NFL suspension for violating the policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He has been arrested more than once for his involvement in off-field incidents. Injuries have been a problem more recently.

The Redskins could be more comfortable with Talib than other teams would be simply because they have multiple strong connections to him. General manager Bruce Allen and secondary coach Raheem Morris were in similar roles with Tampa Bay in 2008 when the Buccaneers made Talib the 20th player chosen in his draft class.

The Redskins have needs throughout their defense.

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Jadeveon ClowneyAP Photo/Johnny VyThere's an argument to be made for the Texans taking Jadeveon Clowney first overall.
The short walk from Lucas Oil Stadium to the players' hotel at the NFL scouting combine earlier this week provided a good opportunity to ask an NFL general manager what he thought of the quarterbacks available in the 2014 draft.

"It's a hard group to figure out," the GM said. "You've got teams at the top who probably feel they need to take a shot on a quarterback, but this group has a lot of 'miss' factors."

There's no consensus that Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or Blake Bortles will develop into franchise quarterbacks. Greater ambivalence applies for the other highly rated QBs, Derek Carr and Jimmy Garoppolo among them. When I asked personnel evaluators at the combine for their read on Manziel in particular, opinions were all over the map. One said the Texas A&M phenom scared him. Another said his team would be scared to face Manziel.

Some said this current crop of quarterbacks reminded them of the 2011 class. Six of the first 12 teams in the order needed quarterbacks that year. Tennessee, Jacksonville and Minnesota reached for shakier prospects between the eighth and 12th choices. All three teams got burned, unless Jake Locker rights his career in Tennessee. Arizona and San Francisco also needed quarterbacks that year. Instead of reaching for one, the Cardinals took Patrick Peterson fifth and the 49ers took Aldon Smith seventh. Neither player filled the QB void, but both became Pro Bowl-caliber contributors in short order.

A look at some of the other non-QBs taken early in that draft drives home warnings about drafting the position over the player. Von Miller, A.J. Green, Tyron Smith, J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn became dominant players.

This year, at least six of the first eight teams on the clock are looking for a long-term starting quarterback. Each must decide whether any of the highest-rated QBs is worth an early selection in a draft widely considered to be one of the strongest in memory -- at other positions, anyway. The Houston Texans get first crack, and that is where we'll begin our run through three leading draft dilemmas facing teams coming out of the combine.

1. Should the Texans take a QB with the first pick?

Consider this hypothetical: Would you rather have a near-certain shot at $500 or a 50 percent chance at $3,000?

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Is 49ers' championship window closing? 

February, 24, 2014
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Colin Kaepernick, John HarbaughChristian Petersen/Getty ImagesColin Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh have been one of the NFL's most successful QB-coach tandems.
A high-ranking NFL personnel evaluator I ran across at the NFL scouting combine Thursday morning said he was hearing sensational stories about the San Francisco 49ers. He would not elaborate because the stories were unsubstantiated, but we can assume at least one of them found its way into the news over the weekend.

There is sensational, and then there is trade-the-head-coach sensational. Harbaugh to the Cleveland Browns by trade? The 49ers initially denied ever discussing such a transaction. The Browns issued a non-denial before their owner, Jimmy Haslam, confirmed that such discussions took place. The particulars matter less at this point than the gathering idea that Harbaugh might not be part of San Francisco's longer-term future. It's no secret that Harbaugh and the team's executives have been unable to make progress toward a contract extension amid rumblings of friction.

Here are the questions: Could the 49ers remain a contender without Harbaugh? And is their championship window closing regardless?

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videoINDIANAPOLIS -- Before Jim Harbaugh coached the San Francisco 49ers to three consecutive NFC Championship Games, he recruited a range of quarterbacks to Stanford University. Harbaugh couldn’t have done much better than Andrew Luck, but three years after leaving the college game for the NFL, he vividly remembers recruiting a QB who eluded him. How could Harbaugh forget Johnny Manziel?

"'We gotta have this guy,'" was how Harbaugh, speaking Thursday at the NFL scouting combine, described his thinking on Manziel at the time. “I just loved watching him play football. He's a guy you can’t take your eye off of.”

NFL coaches and personnel people have locked their eyes on the Texas A&M quarterback at the scouting combine this week, and Manziel took center stage Friday in speaking with the media and submitting to NFL measurements. Manziel checked in at 5-foot-11 ¾ and 207 pounds, with bigger hands than Teddy Bridgewater or Blake Bortles (9 ¾ inches was the official size). As many as six of the first eight teams in the order could realistically target a quarterback, fueling expectations among NFL evaluators that Manziel will not last beyond the first five or 10 picks.

Those same evaluators do not agree over whether any team selecting Manziel that early will be better for the investment.

"He scares me," one general manager said.

"He scares me more playing against him," another said.

After discussing with several NFL evaluators here in Indianapolis, I've acquired a lot of feedback on Manziel. Which team or teams will provide the best fit for him?

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Teams primed for a good offseason 

February, 18, 2014
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Josh Gordon AP Photo/Tony DejakThe Browns have cap space, draft flexibility and emerging stars such as WR Josh Gordon.
The Cleveland Browns have recently been a disgrace by their own sagging standards. Their owner, Jimmy Haslam, has pretty much admitted it. He called himself a "work in progress" while struggling with the "learning curve" associated with becoming an NFL team owner.

Time will tell if Haslam finally has the right people in place, but we can all agree the process was painful and sometimes even pitiful.

Now, for the good news. The Browns are set up for a successful offseason from this point forward. That doesn't mean they're going to have one, but in putting together my list of five teams in prime position to help themselves over the coming months, Cleveland kept rising toward the top. The Browns are keeping quality company in that regard. I've got San Francisco and New England on my short list, along with St. Louis and Atlanta.

Which one ranks No. 1 and why aren't the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks among those listed? A closer look provides some answers

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Five most challenging NFL offseasons 

February, 17, 2014
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Jerry JonesDerick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsJerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys face a tough salary-cap situation this offseason.
It was June 1995 when news broke that Raiders owner Al Davis would move the team back to Oakland from Los Angeles. I'd grown up in Northern California, so the happy news stirred in my mind images of the team's rich history: Ghost to the Post, Sea of Hands, Marcus Allen knifing through the middle of the Washington defense in Super Bowl XVIII. Naively fearing a mad rush to the box office, I hastily called an old neighbor and went in on season tickets: Section 320, Row 8.

The team returned, but not the glory days. By the time the Raiders reached the Super Bowl again eight years later, I was covering the league and hadn't watched a game socially in five seasons. My fan card had expired forever, but it was for the best. The Raiders have posted an NFL-worst 53-123 record (.301) in regular-season games since that 2002 Super Bowl season. JaMarcus Russell and Darrius Heyward-Bey headlined disastrous drafts. DeAngelo Hall, Javon Walker, Kamerion Wimbley, Gibril Wilson, Richard Seymour and other veteran acquisitions produced more salary-cap headaches than on-the-field successes.

While those disappointments now appear to be in the past, as the Raiders lead the NFL in projected salary-cap space heading toward the 2014 season, challenges remain. The Raiders might have finally gotten their heads above water in relation to the cap, but from a personnel standpoint, they've surfaced at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They have the money to make free-agent signings, but with limited options available (free agents who would want to sign in Oakland, at least), their best course of action is to rebuild over the long term. Unfortunately, their coach and general manager could need short-term results to keep their jobs. That’s a tough predicament to manage, perhaps even an impossible one.

Which other teams are facing the most difficult offseasons for 2014? Here are my picks for the five most challenging.

1. Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys are a mess from a salary-cap standpoint, and it will affect their team-building again this offseason. For years, the organization has relieved short-term cap pains by pushing charges into the future, all in the name of a win-now philosophy. That probably will be Dallas' approach again this offseason as the team tries to clear more than $20 million just to comply with the 2014 cap as required by March 11.

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