The 2013-2014 NFL season officially goes in the books Sunday, and the Scouting Combine is less than a month away. Free agency opens on March 11. With coaching staffs largely 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 2014 offseason.
Teams are ranked in order of roster quality.
1. Seattle Seahawks
OL: Right tackle Breno Giacomini has been an average to below-average starter the past two-plus seasons, and his contract is up. Seattle employed a left guard rotation throughout 2013 as disappointing former first-round pick James Carpenter failed to nail down the job. Only LT Russell Okung and C Max Unger should enter the offseason as locked-in starters on the Seahawks' line.
WR: The Seahawks will release injured Sidney Rice, while Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin's contracts are both expiring. Baldwin is easy to retain on a second-round restricted tender, but Tate may opt to test the open market. Injury-riddled Percy Harvin has missed all but three of his teams' previous 25 games. Jermaine Kearse is best suited as a sub-package jump-ball specialist.
DE: Versatile stud Michael Bennett is headed for free agency, and 32-year-old Chris Clemons won't return on his $7.5 million scheduled base salary. As DC Dan Quinn's defense relies on up-front rotations to keep its pass rushers fresh, Seattle needs young legs to pair with promising Benson Mayowa behind RE Cliff Avril and LE Red Bryant. Bruce Irvin is now a full-time linebacker.
K: The Seahawks could solve this "team need" quickly by extending free agent Steven Hauschka, but GM John Schneider does business differently than the rest of the league. He's got a ton of critical offensive and defensive players to re-sign over the next two offseasons, and could let Hauschka see what the market offers before committing to the 28-year-old kicker. Hauschka has a 91.9% field goal rate over the past two seasons, so keeping him probably won't be cheap.
2. San Francisco 49ers
CB: 32-year-old slot corner Carlos Rogers ($6.6 million) will be a salary casualty and RCB Tarell Brown is a free agent. The 49ers aren't expected to tender restricted free agent Perrish Cox. That leaves Tramaine Brock and Chris Culliver as the only potential starters on the offseason roster, and Culliver is coming off an ACL tear. Cornerback is easily GM Trent Baalke's No. 1 priority.
WR: Anquan Boldin and Mario Manningham's contracts are up, leaving Michael Crabtree and rising sophomore Quinton Patton as San Francisco's only worthwhile wideouts. Crabtree enters a contract year and Patton caught three passes as a rookie. Colin Kaepernick's weapons shortage led to some rough patches in 2013. Re-signing 33-year-old Boldin would only be a short-term fix.
S: Eric Reid flashed star potential as a rookie, but the 49ers may lose reliable bookend Donte Whitner to free agency. The Niners' top internal replacement would be Craig Dahl, who's best suited for special teams and third-safety work. Re-signing Whitner would be most sensible, but perhaps not affordable. Going on age 29, this is likely Whitner's last chance at a huge pay day.
LB: Navorro Bowman shredded his ACL and MCL in the NFC Championship, and it may be time to begin planning for the post-Patrick Willis era. (Willis is owed a non-guaranteed $7.065 million salary in 2015.) In all likelihood, the 49ers will paper over Bowman's early-2014 absence with a camp battle between a cheap free agent and in-house candidate Michael Wilhoite. They could still invest a middle-round draft pick at inside linebacker, a key position in DC Vic Fangio's defense.
3. Denver Broncos
CB: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie publicly discussed retirement during Super Bowl week and is entering free agency. Franchise stalwart Champ Bailey's future is also up in the air going on age 36 with a $9 million base salary. Stud slot corner Chris Harris, a restricted free agent, tore his left ACL on January 12. It's possible the Broncos will need two new starting cornerbacks for 2014.
LB: Impending free agent Wesley Woodyard flamed out at middle linebacker this past season, losing his starting job to Paris Lenon down the stretch. Lenon, 36, is also a free agent. The Broncos could explore moving WLB Danny Trevathan inside during the offseason. SLB Von Miller's return will obviously help, but there's bound to be a hole at one of the other linebackers.
OG: Louis Vasquez is entrenched as Denver's right guard, but LG Zane Beadles is a free agent and has no obvious in-house successor. It's possible the Broncos will consider kicking LT Chris Clark inside to guard with Ryan Clady (Lisfranc) returning, but otherwise this is a starting-lineup hole. Denver is set at the other tackle position (Orlando Franklin) and center (Manuel Ramirez).
WR: The Broncos likely won't be able to afford free agent Eric Decker, as Demaryius Thomas and Julius Thomas are both entering contract years as more valuable pieces in Denver's passing attack. Wes Welker turns 33 in May and suffered two concussions in 2013. Look for VP of Player Personnel John Elway to invest a mid-round pick on a wideout. Elway tried with Tavarres King in the fifth round last year, but King was waived and ended the season on the Panthers' inactives list.
4. New England Patriots
TE: Think what you want about Bill Belichick; it's inarguable that he revolutionized the way NFL teams play offense in the Aaron Hernandez-Rob Gronkowski "era" by playing two dual-threat tight ends at the same time and forcing defenses into sub-package alignments they didn't want to play. The Patriots could run or pass at a highly efficient clip out of the "12 personnel" formation. They obviously didn't pose that threat in '13. With Hernandez's career likely over and Gronk rehabbing MCL and ACL tears, look for New England to invest at least one premium draft pick in a tight end.
DT: After ranking 30th in run defense, the Patriots' defensive tackle depth chart is littered with question marks. 32-year-old NT Vince Wilfork tore his Achilles' on September 29 and has an unwieldy $11.5 million cap number. 33-year-old Tommy Kelly tore his ACL in Week 5. The Pats got pushed around up front for most of last year. If New England takes a needs-based approach into May's draft, I would consider interior defensive line the favorite to be their first-round target.
CB: Aqib Talib's free agency makes this a need position, but New England would be good to go were he re-signed. Alfonzo Dennard has emerged as a solid No. 2 corner, and Kyle Arrington excels in the slot. Both are under contract for 2014. Third-round pick Logan Ryan also quietly had an excellent rookie season, earning seven starts and leading the Patriots in interceptions (5).
WR: The Pats could shore up this need by re-signing free agent Julian Edelman, getting Danny Amendola healthy, and developing in-house talents Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. So an addition isn't necessarily required. If Belichick does prioritize upgrading at wide receiver, free agent Eric Decker would make a lot of sense. OC Josh McDaniels drafted Decker in Denver.
5. New Orleans Saints
OL: Terron Armstead showed enough late-season promise to enter 2014 entrenched on Drew Brees' blind side, but C Brian De La Puente and RT Zach Strief are free agents, and RG Jahri Evans is reaching the especially expensive years of his deal. Drew Brees' "window" is closing at age 35. The Saints could make one or two more Super Bowl runs by upgrading his protection.
CB: Keenan Lewis emerged as a borderline-shutdown corner in his first season with the Saints, but 32-year-old bookend Jabari Greer is a likely cap casualty after tearing his left ACL in November, and 2010 first-round pick Patrick Robinson is a bust. Corey White was badly stretched as a starter late last season. Cornerback could easily be GM Mickey Loomis' first-round target.
LB: Junior Galette is a steal on his $1.4 million salary, but the Saints are fairly thin behind him. Returning from last June's ACL tear, Victor Butler can only be viewed as a wild card. Parys Haralson is a free agent. Another impact edge rusher could give DC Rob Ryan's unit a big spark.
S: Kenny Vaccaro was a first-round hit, but Malcolm Jenkins is likely to depart in free agency, and Roman Harper isn't worth his $3.15 million owed in salary and bonuses. Safety is a critical position in Ryan's defense, as he frequently played three at the same time this season en route to a No. 2 finish against the pass. Even oft-used No. 4 safety Rafael Bush is a restricted free agent.
6. Green Bay Packers
DL: RE B.J. Raji and NT Ryan Pickett both have expiring contracts, while 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones is returning from a disappointing rookie season. As this offseason's defensive line group is the deepest of 2014 free agency, it's probably time Green Bay became an active participant. The Packers under DC Dom Capers have been too soft up front for far too long.
S: Free safety M.D. Jennings is a replacement-level player at best, while SS Morgan Burnett was among the game's worst safeties this season after signing a new five-year, $26.1 million contract last July. Green Bay is strong at cornerback, but badly needs help back deep. Burnett ranked 63rd among 86 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus' 2013 safety ratings. Jennings finished 67th.
C: Green Bay should be loaded at tackle and guard with Bryan Bulaga (ACL) returning and Derek Sherrod finally healthy, but C Evan Dietrich-Smith's contract is up after an outstanding season. GM Ted Thompson typically extends players he intends to keep long term before their contracts expire. Aaron Rodgers is publicly stumping for Dietrich-Smith's return, but it may not happen.
QB: For too many years Thompson has failed to take his No. 2 quarterback position seriously. Graham Harrell, B.J. Coleman, Vince Young, and Seneca Wallace have all recently flopped in the role, while 2013 stopgap Matt Flynn is a free agent. With Rodgers now on the wrong side of 30, Green Bay would be smart to take a mid-round quarterback stab. Scott Tolzien is currently Rodgers' backup.
7. Cincinnati Bengals
CB: Top corner Leon Hall is recovering from his second Achilles' tendon tear in three seasons and costs $6.9 million in salary and bonuses. LCB Terence Newman turns 36 before next season and was unavailable for Cincinnati's final four games due to a knee injury. 30-year-old nickel back Pacman Jones is an average cover man. Dre Kirkpatrick has been a first-round disappointment.
QB: Andy Dalton's final 2013 stats look impressive on paper, but his talent limitations consistently show up against the NFL's more competitive defenses, and he's now laid an egg in three straight playoffs. New OC Hue Jackson will attempt to mask Dalton's flaws more than outgoing playcaller Jay Gruden did with a run-first offense, and more defined reads and throws. Dalton is entering his contract year and isn't a franchise quarterback. An early- to middle-round QB pick is possible.
DL: Whether it's an end or tackle, the Bengals need a defensive lineman to bolster their up-front rotation with RE Michael Johnson likely leaving in free agency and DT Geno Atkins coming off a Week 9 right ACL tear. Cincy may also consider cutting DL Robert Geathers ($2.8 million) and/or NT Domata Peko ($3.965 million) in cap maneuvers. I tend to believe the Bengals will prioritize upgrading the interior line, with 2013 second-rounder Margus Hunt's role growing on the outside.
OT: LT Andrew Whitworth and RT Andre Smith are both signed through 2015, but free agent swing tackle Anthony Collins was a key 2013 contributor (seven starts) and figures to leave for a starting job. No. 4 tackle Dennis Roland's contract is also up. The Bengals need a depth injection.
8. Carolina Panthers
DB: Carolina masked its secondary flaws with a dominant front seven throughout 2013, but GM Dave Gettleman can't view that as a bankable long-term approach. He needs better players in the back end, and it doesn't help that CBs Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn, as well as FS Mike Mitchell and SS Quintin Mikell are all free agents. With limited salary cap room, look for Gettleman to invest multiple draft picks on defensive backs. Munnerlyn would be a strong re-sign.
OL: Left tackle Jordan Gross and left guard Travelle Wharton's contracts are both expiring, while RG Nate Chandler was a liability down the stretch. RT Byron Bell is a restricted free agent, leaving C Ryan Kalil as Carolina's only stable starting offensive lineman. Getting back Amini Silatolu (ACL surgery) will help, but the Panthers enter the offseason with at least three line jobs up in the air.
WR: The Panthers have a lot of needs for a team that finished 12-4, earning a first-round bye. If OC Mike Shula is going to expand the offense in his second year as coordinator, he'll need an alpha receiver. Cam Newton's accuracy is his biggest deficiency as a passer, so a wideout with a large catching radius could go a long way toward Cam taking a statistical leap. Someone like Anquan Boldin could paper over the hole for a year, but Carolina needs more speed outside. Steve Smith is slowing down going on age 35. Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn are free agents.
DE: This only becomes a need if free agent Greg Hardy departs, although I anticipate Gettleman slapping him with the franchise tag. The Panthers also have solid depth behind entrenched LE Charles Johnson, with Frank Alexander, Mario Addison, and Wes Horton all making 2013 contributions. Still, Gettleman comes from the Giants, and is a believer that you can never have too many pass rushers.