The 2014 agenda for NFL divisional round losers


Now that their seasons are over, it's time for the four divisional round losers to review game film, analyze their rosters and come up with a plan for free agency and the 2014 NFL Draft.

Let's take a look at the state of each team entering the offseason.

Carolina Panthers

General manager Dave Gettleman merits Executive of the Year consideration for building a division winner on a shoe-string budget, adding late-wave free agents such as Mike Mitchell, Quintin Mikell, Drayton Florence, Ted Ginn and Travelle Wharton. He's going to have to pull off the same magic in 2014, thanks to a pair of untouchable running backs being paid like workhorses.

The big contract questions involve left tackle Jordan Gross and defensive end Greg Hardy. Gross can probably be coaxed into putting off retirement for another year after bouncing back to Pro Bowl level in 2013. Hardy will likely be hit with the franchise tag if the two sides can't find common ground on a long-term deal.

Steve Smith was second only to Calvin Johnson in pass plays of 20+ yards over the course of 2011 and 2012. He plummeted to 136th in 2013. The Panthers desperately need a playmaker to complement and eventually succeed Smith. Might Charlotte native Hakeem Nicks be a fit? The secondary needs upgrades as well. That group was exposed whenever the front seven was unable to provide a consistent pass rush.

Nucleus rankings: Offense 16th, Defense 4th

New Orleans Saints

FedEx Air & Ground Players of Year
Drew Brees became the first quarterback in NFL history with three consecutive 5,000-yard seasons. Was it the best performance for a quarterback in 2013?

First things first: The franchise tag will have to be applied to Jimmy Graham while the sides discuss a long-term deal. Graham averaged 119 yards per game prior to a torn plantar fascia injury in October that somehow disappeared from any analysis of his play down the stretch.

It's time to pull the cord on Mark Ingram. He's always been a poor fit for the pass-heavy offense, and the coaching staff placed more trust in the hard-running Khiry Robinson at Seattle. With Darren Sproles and Marques Colston losing a step in 2013, this offense needs direction.

Two key defenders from the Super Bowl XLIV champion teams might be jettisoned, as the Saints can save $13 million in much-needed cap space by cutting Will Smith and Roman Harper. Rob Ryan had an excellent New Orleans debut, but he's going to need young legs at cornerback and depth up front. Cameron Jordan is a candidate for a contract extension after making the leap to All-Pro form.

Nucleus rankings: Offense 3rd, Defense 15th

Indianapolis Colts

Andrew Luck needs help. He did too much of the heavy lifting for a mediocre defense, subpar offensive line and banged-up skill position arsenal. The Colts entered 2013 free agency with as much salary-cap space as any team in the league. While general manager Ryan Grigson added depth and filled several vacancies in the starting lineup, he failed to add impact players. With more than $30 million available again this year, Grigson must do better this time around.

The interior of the offensive line was a major problem for the second consecutive year. It's time for an overhaul. The Colts will also welcome back reinforcements in Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Allen and Vick Ballard, while Ahmad Bradshaw reaches free agency. Wayne will be entering his age-35 season, so they will need development from Da'Rick Rogers, LaVon Brazill or both. On top of that, the coaching staff will need to teach Trent Richardson how to walk off an elevator before the doors close.

As Luck did on offense, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Robert Mathis carried the defense. He turns 33 next month, which leaves pass rusher as a priority this offseason. The defensive line and secondary must also be tweaked after allowing 44 and 43 points in back-to-back playoff games.

Nucleus rankings: Offense 9th, Defense 22nd

San Diego Chargers

FedEx Air & Ground Players of Year
Philip Rivers posted a passer rating of 105.5, ranked fourth in the NFL with 32 touchdown passes and had his fifth 4,000-yard season. Was it the best performance for a quarterback in 2013?

Philip Rivers didn't dent the scoreboard until the fourth quarter of Sunday's loss, but this offense wasn't the problem for 18 weeks. The Chargers had the fewest three-and-outs in the NFL this year.

As long as they expand the role of second tight end Ladarius Green and make a few adjustments up front, the Chargers can spend the majority of the offseason addressing the other side of the ball. Don't be surprised, though, if the contracts of Rivers and Ryan Mathews are extended. They've earned the commitment.

John Pagano was the only defensive coordinator to hold Peyton Manning under 400 yards -- and he did it three times. That speaks more to Pagano's scheming than the Bolts' talent. This defense lacks playmakers, specifically pass rushers and cornerbacks. A full season with Dwight Freeney and Melvin Ingram will help, but this is still the area that will require the most help via the draft.

Nucleus rankings: Offense 14th, Defense 26th

The latest "Around The League Podcast" broke down all four Divisional Round games and looked ahead to a monster Conference Championship weekend.