Team Needs: NFCThursday, February 09, 2012
Green Bay Packers
2011 record: 15-1
Biggest need: Pass rush
The Packers had the NFL's best regular season record, but late-year losses to the Chiefs and Giants exposed deficiencies. Clay Matthews is Green Bay's only legitimate pass rusher, and on offense the running game's performance could be described as pedestrian at best. An explosive playmaker in the backfield would diversify the Packers' offense and restore it as the most dangerous in the league. G.M. Ted Thompson's team also must find a weak-side edge rusher.
2011 record: 3-13
Biggest need: Left tackle
Dating back to Florida State, Christian Ponder has been injured in some form in each of the past three seasons. While solutions at wideout, cornerback, safety, and linebacker are necessary for Minnesota to compete in the NFC North, the Vikings' No. 1 priority must be to upgrade Ponder's protection. Incumbent left tackle Charlie Johnson can transition smoothly to guard. The Vikes will give USC's Matt Kalil and Iowa's Riley Reiff long looks before they pick No. 3 overall in the draft.
2011 record: 10-6
Biggest need: Offensive line makeover
The Falcons finished the season with journeyman Will Svitek "protecting" Matt Ryan's blind side. Ryan felt the effects in the Wild Card Round, absorbing seven hits and failing to lead a touchdown drive. Svitek is a fine backup, but he shouldn't be a starter and the front office knows it. Center Todd McClure is a 35-year-old free agent, and the Falcons had arguably the worst right guard play in the league in 2011. Defensively, G.M. Tom Dimitroff must unearth at least one big-time pass rusher while finding ways to retain free agent linebacker Curtis Lofton and corner Brent Grimes.
2011 record: 6-10
Biggest need: Defense
The Panthers fielded a top-seven offense in 2011, but had a bottom-five defense with no prayer of stopping the run. Left end, defensive tackle, and at least one linebacker spot must be addressed. In the secondary, right corner Captain Munnerlyn would be a nickel or dime back on a good team. Carolina could afford competition at the No. 2 receiver spot, but the defense will take precedence.
New Orleans Saints
2011 record: 13-3
Biggest need: Pass rush
The Saints called more blitzes than any team in the league; they just rarely got home. In two playoff games, New Orleans was shredded by Alex Smith and Matthew Stafford for 679 yards and six combined passing TDs. 2011 first-round pick Cameron Jordan isn't much of a pass rusher, and Will Smith is declining going on age 31. Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin didn't work out on the interior. The Saints' defensive line needs a makeover. They're set most everywhere else.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2011 record: 4-12
Biggest need: Discipline
Tampa's defense had plenty of talent under old coach Raheem Morris, but the linebackers and DBs were historically poor tacklers. After the season, rumors swirled that at least two of the club's top offensive players partied too much off the field and exhibited poor work ethic throughout the year. The Bucs could also use a diversified rushing attack. Starter LeGarrette Blount's inability to play on passing downs all too often rendered the Bucs' offense one-dimensional in 2011. Blount would be a Brandon Jacobs-like change-of-pace runner in an ideal world. Not a true feature back.
2011 record: 8-8
Biggest need: Pass protectors
Regardless of whether the Cardinals start Kevin Kolb, John Skelton, or Peyton Manning under center in 2012, the team's pass protection must improve. While former first-round bust Levi Brown is a surefire cap casualty at left tackle, Arizona could use upgrades at both right guard and right tackle. There is solid talent at all three levels of defense and in the backfield with Ryan Williams returning from injury, but the Cards' wheels will keep spinning until they get a better offensive line.
San Francisco 49ers
2011 record: 13-3
Biggest need: Vertical receiver
Michael Crabtree rounded into form after a disappointing sophomore NFL season, but he's not a matchup-busting wideout. Ideally more of a No. 2, Crabtree and the San Francisco offense could benefit from the addition of a bookend with speed to stretch defenses vertically. The 49ers have been linked to Vincent Jackson in pre-free agency rumors. Baylor's Kendall Wright would be a perfect fit in the draft, but the Niners would have to trade up from their scheduled slot at No. 30.
2011 record: 7-9
Biggest need: Quarterback
While the monetary commitments were relatively insignificant, G.M. John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll have whiffed on back-to-back offseason quarterback acquisitions. They've built around the position with a bit more success. Carroll is perhaps the league's best motivator, but the Seahawks won't take the next step without a legit franchise signal caller. On defense, Seattle may have to replace free agent left end Red Bryant, and linebackers David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill.
St. Louis Rams
2011 record: 2-14
Biggest need: Help for Sam Bradford
The new-look Rams will concede former No. 2 overall pick Jason Smith was a bust when they waive him after the Combine. Incumbent left tackle Rodger Saffold will likely switch to guard or right tackle, leaving a gaping hole on quarterback Sam Bradford's blind side. Look for St. Louis to address its receiver needs in free agency, where this year's class is deep. The Rams' weak spots aren't limited to O-Line and wideout, of course. They'll be on the prowl for safeties, defensive linemen, linebackers, a viable No. 2 running back, and a backup quarterback. This is a bad team.