A season of transition in Arizona awaits. Quarterback Carson Palmer is retired. Coach Bruce Arians is gone, replaced by a defensive-minded coach in Steve Wilks who sounds determined to run the football. Wilks will face challenges throughout the roster, from the offensive line to making a new defensive system work with a group that didn't exactly need a fresh start. All this change makes it even more important to convince Fitzgerald, a future Hall of Famer, to play one more season. After another 109 catches in 2017, his 14th NFL season, the 34-year-old Fitzgerald might still be the premier slot receiver in football. If the Cardinals are going to experience a rapid rebirth that few see coming, they won't do it without Fitz.
Atlanta Falcons: Let Steve Sarkisian install his own offense.
The Falcons have an emerging, young defense that hit its stride late in the season. They have a strong running game and one of the top quarterback-wide receiver combinations in football. They are in position to make another run at an NFC crown -- if they can improve their offensive cohesion. Falcons coach Dan Quinn hired Sarkisian as offensive coordinator and then essentially made the former college coach run the offense of his predecessor in the coordinator job, Kyle Shanahan. The compromise led to a steep learning curve for Sarkisian and a copy of a copy of a copy of the exciting Falcons attack from 2016. It can be debated whether Sarkisian should have been brought back at all in 2018, but that ship has sailed. After a year of evaluating and adjusting to Shanahan's scheme, Sarkisian needs to make this offense his own this offseason. With improvement from the offensive line, this group still has the pieces to excel.
This will be Carolina's first offseason since firing former general manager Dave Gettleman, who built the oversized, bruising Panthers squad that made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. Interim general manager Marty Hurney is the favorite to get the permanent job for an organization undergoing reconstruction. The team is for sale, and the franchise quarterback will be adjusting to a new offense under Norv Turner.
This isn't just a change in approach for Newton after six years alongside Mike Shula. It should be a change in the types of players the Panthers seek out, with the team's unproductive wide receiver crew sorely in need of speed. Newton also should benefit from a full offseason of practice after spending last year recovering from shoulder surgery.
Chicago Bears: Seek out Nagy/Helfrich types of players.
No one knows what an offense led by former Chiefs coordinator Matt Nagy and former Oregon coach Mark Helfrich will look like, but I'm excited to find out. It's safe to say that Nagy and Helfrich will be forward-thinking and pass-happy offensively in ways that would make previous coach John Fox shudder. Nagy was hired because he had a vision for how to make second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky successful, and that starts with finding the right pieces around him.
Rams general manager Les Snead did a great job working with first-time coach Sean McVay to find his types of players last offseason, which accelerated the growth of Los Angeles QB Jared Goff. Chicago now will look for its versions of Cooper Kupp (drafted by the Rams in 2017) and Robert Woods (signed by the Rams in 2017), safe in the knowledge that the foundation for a strong running game is already in place.
Releasing Bryant wouldn't single-handedly improve the Cowboys and put them back on the path to the Super Bowl. But it would show that these aren't the same old Cowboys, overvaluing their own players and hanging on to stars at least a year too long. No organization has struggled with success more than the Cowboys under Jerry Jones, and it is partly because of this emotional thinking. Bryant is Jerry's guy, and the loyalty has paid off handsomely for both sides until recently. Retaining Bryant at a $16.5 million cap number after three straight seasons under 1,000 yards is the type of old-school decision you'd only see from a franchise that is old-school enough to have ownership making personnel decisions. At some point, the process has to change, or the results never will.
Detroit Lions: Go for quantity over quality in free agency.
The Lions need a lot. It's not just that their defense was unremarkable last season, but that their unremarkable defense is completely changing schemes, with the impending addition of Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as Detroit's head coach. With the offensive side of the ball in better shape, Lions general manager Bob Quinn should borrow a page from Bill Belichick's playbook when he was starting out in New England. Sign as many low-cost veterans as possible on short-term deals who could fit with Patricia's defensive mindset and see who sticks. This "more is more" approach to free agency is a wiser use of Detroit's cap space than giving Ziggy Ansah $20 million per year to return.
Green Bay Packers: Beef up the pass rush at outside linebacker.
Keeping Aaron Rodgers' collarbone intact is the key ingredient to getting the Packers back to the Super Bowl, but you already knew that. The team's decision to replace defensive coordinator Dom Capers with Mike Pettine was a great start for an organization in need of new thinking. Freshening up the team's outside linebacker spot, where a lot of money is being spent on Clay Matthews and Nick Perry for relatively little pass rush, could help make the rest of the defense look better. The team's overall play without Rodgers should help new general manager Brian Gutekunst see this roster with clear eyes, knowing there is a lot of work to be done.
It's hard to imagine general manager Les Snead having a more productive offseason than he did a season ago, where he struck it rich with free-agent pickups and a loaded draft. After experiencing quick success with coach Sean McVay, the Rams have to deal with the "good problem" of figuring out which productive players to retain. In an offseason where wideout Sammy Watkins and cornerback Trumaine Johnson are also free agents, Joyner is the key player to get signed. The safety has the toughness and versatility in coverage that nearly every team is looking for from that position. Keeping Joyner (and signing Aaron Donald) could require saying goodbye to longtime Rams defensive end Robert Quinn.
The loss of coordinator Pat Shurmur (who left to coach the Giants) will force the Vikings to start over on offense after a season of amazing returns. It would be ideal to get quarterbacks Case Keenumand Bridgewater, who are set to hit free agency, to stick around, but that might be impossible if Keenum attracts more than $15 million per season on the open market. Bridgewater's contract will be a complicated one to complete, but the two sides have such familiarity and affection for each other that it should get done. There's no way to know if Bridgewater can be the franchise's long-term answer, but Minnesota must find out.
It's incredible how close the Saints were to making a run at the Super Bowl despite some of the worst injury luck in the league. That included the loss of defensive end Alex Okafor, a setback that hurt the Saints a little too much because they had no roster depth. Drafting another defensive end and looking for another cut-rate impact player in free agency like Okafor would help fill out a thin front seven. The Saints required Jordan, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, to do everything for this defensive line, and he could use some help. (Oh, and they had better re-sign that Brees guy too.)
New York Giants: Draft Saquon Barkley No. 2 overall.
This isn't necessarily the right move for the future of the Giants franchise. I'd be in favor of drafting a quarterback, because the Giants don't expect to be selecting so high in the draft often. I'd also be in favor of cutting or releasing Eli Manning rather than trying to squeeze another year or two of mediocre play out of an aging veteran, but new coach Pat Shurmur has made it clear Eli's going to start in 2018. This exercise is about the one decision that could lead to an appearance in Super Bowl LIII, and there's no question that drafting the best running back prospect in a decade will provide more immediate benefits than taking a quarterback to back up Manning.
San Francisco 49ers: Find some cornerbacks.
Jimmy Garoppolo covered up a lot of ills for the 49ers late in the season, helping to make wide receivers Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor pieces to build around in the future. While there's still plenty of work to do on offense, Jimmy G won't get back to the Super Bowl (as a starter) unless the 49ers upgrade their secondary. It was a credit to San Francisco's coaching staff that the team even survived what might have been the most talent-poor cornerback group in football, with 2017 third-round draft pick Ahkello Witherspoon the only returning player who should continue to get snaps.
Seattle Seahawks: Don't blow up the entire defense.
Changes have already started in Seattle, where coach Pete Carroll will be working with two new coordinators next season. There will also be significant changes to the team's defensive personnel, with NFL Network's Michael Silver reporting that Cliff Avril, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Earl Thomascould all possibly be gone. This feels like an overreaction to a 9-7 season destroyed by injuries. Avril and Chancellor make sense as departures because of their respective neck injuries, but Bennett, Sherman and, especially, Thomas should all still have more to give. If Sherman could attract a big draft pick in a trade, it probably would have happened last year. He will provide more value staying put. There's no need to take a step back defensively right in the middle of Russell Wilson's prime.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Spend and draft on the defensive line.
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith's defense relies on getting pressure with the front four linemen. The Bucs don't get any pressure from the front four linemen, except for Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy. Lack of pass-rush pressure is an annual issue in Tampa and not an easy one to solve. Practically every team on this list could use help on the offensive line, in the pass-rush department and in the secondary. The Bucs are no exception, but if they can plug some holes, they have the firepower on offense to turn into a contender one year after everyone expected.
This is really not that hard. Quarterbacks cost a lot, especially when a team like the Redskins allows one to approach free agency with more leverage than any quarterback in NFL history. Using the franchise tag on Cousins again is bad for business because of the price tag (close to $35 million) and the potential enmity another short-term deal would create. Cousins showed in 2017 he can improve the players around him, and he fits in Jay Gruden's scheme. If the Redskins can't build the right roster around Cousins through the draft and free agency, that's on them.