The 2012-2013 NFL season is officially in the books, and the Scouting Combine is less than a month away. Free agency opens on March 12. With coaching staffs settled, impending free agents identified, and salary cap situations beginning to clarify, here is a look at the four most glaring positional needs for every club entering the 2013 offseason.
Teams are ranked in order of roster quality.
1. San Francisco 49ers
K: You're in pretty good shape when your most glaring offseason need is a kicker. David Akers is likely to be released after turning in a league-worst season with a $3 million non-guaranteed salary. The draft's top placekicker is expected to be Dustin Hopkins out of Florida State.
WR: The Niners will expect bigger things from 2012 first-rounder A.J. Jenkins, but only he and Michael Crabtree return as probable 2013 receiver contributors. Randy Moss is a free agent, and Mario Manningham figures to be a cap casualty owed $3.95 million coming off two torn knee ligaments. To maximize Colin Kaepernick's cannon arm, the 49ers need another field stretcher.
LB: This isn't quite a pressing need -- Parys Haralson's return should add depth behind starters Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks -- but even great teams know they can never have too many pass rushers. San Francisco's 2012 pass rush was exposed as a bit one-dimensional down the stretch when Smith wasn't harassing quarterbacks. This year's draft is rich at the position.
DT: Starting nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga's contract is up and he's going on age 32. Top reserve Ricky Jean-Francois is undersized and best suited for a utility role. This is a position on which San Francisco may very well spend its top draft pick. Alabama's Jesse Williams, Georgia's John Jenkins, and Missouri Southern's Brandon Williams could be late first-round options for the 49ers.
2. Denver Broncos
DT: Mitch Unrein, Malik Jackson, and Sealver Siliga are Denver's only defensive tackles signed for 2013. Justin Bannan, Kevin Vickerson, and Ty Warren are all free agents. The Broncos defended the run surprisingly well in 2012 despite fielding a rag-tag group on the interior, but they could really use a difference-making, building-block type. Expect this to be a focus in the draft.
LB: While Wesley Woodyard and Von Miller are obviously entrenched on the outside, middle linebacker is a question mark for Denver's 2013 defense. Injured Joe Mays could be a salary cap casualty after losing his starting job to Keith Brooking, the latter of whom is a free agent. The top in-house candidate to take over would be Nate Irving, who's been a special teamer to this point.
OG: Left tackle Ryan Clady will likely return on the franchise tag, and right tackle Orlando Franklin is signed through 2014. Center J.D. Walton returns from an ankle fracture. Left guard Zane Beadles is a stud, but right guard Chris Kuper is owed a $4.5 million base salary after two major ankle surgeries in as many years. The Broncos need to start contemplating Kuper's heir apparent.
WR: This isn't a position of pressing need, but it could be soon with Brandon Stokley headed for free agency and Eric Decker entering a contract year. No. 4 wideout Andre Caldwell is more of a special teamer. The Broncos will probably address wide receiver in the late rounds of April's draft.
3. Green Bay Packers
RB: DuJuan Harris, James Starks, and Alex Green are role-player backs. All have been given opportunities to run with Green Bay's feature back job, but only Harris has somewhat consistently produced and he is viewed internally as a scatback. It's time for GM Ted Thompson to take this position seriously. Thompson is a longtime admirer of Steven Jackson, who may hit free agency.
OT: Bryan Bulaga's return should fortify right tackle for Green Bay, but maddeningly inconsistent left tackle Marshall Newhouse needs to be on the hotseat. While 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod is due back from a broken leg, he projected to right tackle or guard before the injury. The Packers are on the verge of committing a boatload of money to quarterback Aaron Rodgers. In order to make good on that investment, they'll need improved blind-side protection.
S: Charles Woodson is owed $10 million in 2013 and will likely be a cap casualty. Free safety Morgan Burnett enters the final year of his rookie deal. While M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian both flashed promise in 2012, it's unclear if Thompson views either as a candidate to start.
QB: The Packers luckily made it through 2012 without an injury to Rodgers, despite the pass-protection woes. Had Rodgers been hurt, incumbent backup Graham Harrell may have torpedoed Green Bay's season. Thompson needs to prioritize a competent No. 2 signal caller this spring.
4. New England Patriots
WR: The Pats risk losing Wes Welker and Julian Edelman to free agency, leaving Brandon Lloyd and special teamer Matt Slater as New England's only remaining receivers to have caught an NFL pass. Welker's subtraction can be minimized if Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez stay healthy, but another explosive outside receiver would add a new dimension to Josh McDaniels' attack. I have a gut feeling McDaniels and Bill Belichick are going to love Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson.
CB: The Patriots gambled by sending the Buccaneers a fourth-round pick for Aqib Talib before the trade deadline without a contract extension in place. So he could conceivably be one-and-done in Foxboro. While New England did well to unearth seventh-round gem Alfonzo Dennard, Talib and slot guy Kyle Arrington's free agency leave the depth chart dangerously thin at cornerback.
OT: Talib and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer are the Pats' two prime franchise tag candidates. Retaining Vollmer would turn tackle back from a potential weakness into a strength. The franchise number for offensive linemen is $9.66 million. The cornerback franchise number is $10.67 million.
S: Devin McCourty is shaping up as New England's long-term answer at free safety, flourishing there after an early-season conversion from cornerback. Strong safety is more up in the air after impending free agent Pat Chung fell out of favor in 2012. Steve Gregory would ideally be a third safety and special teamer. Last year's second-rounder Tavon Wilson was an obvious draft reach.
5. Seattle Seahawks
DE: Coach Pete Carroll has pinpointed defensive end as Seattle's biggest offseason need, which especially makes sense after Chris Clemons' ACL and meniscus tears. 2012 first-rounder Bruce Irvin is an explosive nickel rusher, not a viable starter. Red Bryant will return as the Seahawks' run-stopping left end, but he isn't a pocket pusher and Seattle covets another one of those.
WR: While Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, and Doug Baldwin make up a formidable three-receiver set, the latter two are entering contract seasons and depth is a concern. If the Seahawks are going to open up the passing game in Russell Wilson's second season, they'll need a true vertical weapon.
OT: Russell Okung has panned out as a top-ten left tackle, but the right side could use an influx of competition after Breno Giacomini's poor year. While Giacomini holds his own as a run blocker, he struggles mightily with speed off the edge. The Seahawks have settled on 2011 first-rounder James Carpenter as a long-term guard. Line coach Tom Cable's zone-blocking scheme should allow Seattle to address right tackle affordably in free agency or in the middle rounds of the draft.
LB: The Seahawks need to move on from weak-side 'backer Leroy Hill following his latest off-field incident. Hill is a free agent and likely facing a multi-game suspension. Seattle is strong at middle linebacker (Bobby Wagner) and on the strong side (K.J. Wright), but thin on the weak side.
6. New York Giants
OL: Left and right tackles Will Beatty and Sean Locklear are free agents. 32-year-old David Diehl's effectiveness has evaporated and he's a surefire cap casualty on a $4.475 million base salary. Center David Baas is entering his age-32 season, right guard Chris Snee is coming off hip surgery, and left guard Kevin Boothe's contract is up. GM Jerry Reese has compiled intriguing young front-five depth in the draft, but there will likely be major changes on an aging Giants line.
CB: Sagging pass rush contributed to the 2012 secondary deficiencies, but cornerback was still a huge weakness. Oft-burned supposed top corner Corey Webster is a release candidate on a $7 million salary. Rookie slot man Jayron Hosley was up and down in his first season. Likely to cut Webster, the G-Men need to find at least one starting cornerback via free agency or the draft.
LB: Strong-side maven Mathias Kiwanuka is the Giants' only surefire linebacker starter for 2013. Weak-side incumbent Michael Boley is expected to be cut, and pedestrian middle man Chase Blackburn has run his course. In-house options include Mark Herzlich and Jacquian Williams.
TE: Reese is high on 2012 fourth-round pick Adrien Robinson, but he was drafted as a height-weight-speed project and played three snaps as a rookie. The Giants can feel good at tight end if they keep free agent Martellus Bennett and use 2013 as another development year for Robinson.
7. Houston Texans
WR: Much like the Panthers with Steve Smith, the Texans should feel lucky Andre Johnson is still going strong. They've done literally nothing to help him in terms of complementary wideouts. Kevin Walter is an offseason release candidate, and 2012 third-rounder DeVier Posey tore his Achilles' in the playoffs. Lestar Jean has starred in preseason, then vanished in real games.
OT: Duane Brown remains among the league's elite left tackles, but the Texans put too much faith in their scheme in 2012 after releasing stalwart right tackle Eric Winston. Derek Newton was an abject failure in the role, getting knocked around in the run game and racking up penalties. If Houston doesn't find a wide receiver it deems worthy of the 27th overall pick, a tackle should do.
S: Stud free safety Danieal Manning is signed through 2014, but underrated strong safety Glover Quin's contract has run out. The Texans do not have a viable in-house alternative. Quin is a top-notch run-support safety and often matches up with opposing tight ends. He'd be tough to replace.
NT: Incumbent starter Shaun Cody is entering free agency, and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has never felt comfortable playing undersized Earl Mitchell full time despite annual glowing offseason reports. If the Cowboys release Jay Ratliff, he'd make sense in a reunion with Phillips. In addition to safety and nose, the Texans' defensive is needy at inside linebacker next to Brian Cushing.
8. Atlanta Falcons
OT: Atlanta is solid at right tackle with steady veteran Tyson Clabo, but left tackle Sam Baker and top reserve Will Svitek are both free agents. The Falcons have become a pass-first team under second-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, so protecting quarterback Matt Ryan is critical. Atlanta is also expected to break the bank on a contract extension for Ryan this offseason.
DE: John Abraham probably has one year left as an impact pass rusher and Kroy Biermann was an important movable chess piece in defensive coordinator Mike Nolan's first season. Abraham is going on 35, however, and he’s still Atlanta's only legitimate down-to-down sack threat. If the Falcons can come up with enough salary cap space, Cliff Avril would look awfully good in Red and Black.
RB: Owed an impractical $6.9 million base salary, declining 31-year-old feature back Michael Turner is likely to be an offseason cap casualty. Diminutive scatback Jacquizz Rodgers averages under 4.0 yards per carry and isn't the answer for Atlanta's run game woes. The Falcons have the 30th overall pick and should seriously consider Alabama's Eddy Lacy if he's still on the board.
TE: GM Thomas Dimitroff and Roddy White are lobbying Tony Gonzalez to opt against retirement, but the future Hall of Famer's mind seemed made up late in the year. Chase Coffman, Michael Palmer, and Tommy Gallarda round out the depth chart. The Falcons field arguably the NFL's premier wideout duo in White and Julio Jones, but replacing Gonzo's production underneath would be an almost impossible task.