Now that the Patriots’ victory parade is in the books, it is time to turn our attention to the NFL offseason. So many storylines are going to unfold before the Hall of Fame Game, so let’s take a look at the the stories that will define both the offseason and the 2015 regular season.
1. Who will the Bucs take with the number one overall pick?
The debate between Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and his counterpart from Florida State, Jameis Winston, will rage on for at least the week before the draft, barring any major injury to one of the signal callers.
After last season’s debacle with Josh McCown and Mike Glennon under center, head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht need to take a quarterback who has the potential to be the face of the franchise for years to come. Both candidates have their pros and cons.
Winston is the prototypical pro style quarterback in the mold of Steve McNair or Ben Roethlisberger: a big, strong-armed quarterback who can thrive in the pocket and outside of it. He’s also a winner who can elevate his teammates around.
However, his off-the-field transgressions are his biggest concern. His maturity will be under some of the highest scrutiny that an NFL prospect has seen, and he has to impress the Bucs’ brass in the interview process at the Combine in order to have a shot to be taken first overall.
Mariota does not have those character issues, but he will have to transition into offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s system from Oregon’s spread attack. It will be a tough change for the Heisman Trophy winner, but with the guidance of Koetter and new quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian, he can do it.
While Winston is more of a big-bodied signal caller, Mariota is built in the mold of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick: he’s lithe and speedy, so he’s a home run threat running the football if he can get past the defense. Furthermore, his high football IQ, ability to make most of the throws that Koetter’s offense calls for and his winning pedigree would also make him a great choice.
2. Who are the top offensive free agents?
A pair of Dallas Cowboys, running back DeMarco Murray and wide receiver Dez Bryant, lead this class of playmakers. Murray broke out in a big way this season en route to winning the Offensive Player of the Year award, while Bryant continued to evolve into one of the NFL’s best receivers, catching 88 passes for 1,320 yards and 16 touchdowns. He is a threat anywhere on the field.
Other top free agent receivers include the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas and the Packers’ Randall Cobb, while the Saints’ Mark Ingram and the 49ers’ Frank Gore are the next best options at tailback behind Murray.
Thomas’s fellow pass catcher, tight end Julius Thomas, is also a free agent, while top offensive lineman include 49ers guard Mike Iupati and Cowboys offensive tackle Doug Free.
The weakest group of the offensive free agents are the quarterbacks, as former Browns starter Brian Hoyer and ex-Eagles signal caller Mark Sanchez are the top choices.
3. Who are the top defensive free agents?
The conversation for the best defensive free agent, and best free agent period, should begin and end with Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
The number two overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft has become the best defensive tackle in the league, and plays with the one of the meanest streaks the league has ever seen.
Other defensive lineman to keep an eye on include the following: Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, Suh’s teammate with the Lions, Nick Fairley, and Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton.
The linebackers are led by Chiefs’ outside linebacker Justin Houston, who nearly broke Michael Strahan’s single season sack record and Cowboys’ inside linebacker Rolando McClain, who finally has lived up to his first round pick status with a superb season in Dallas.
The defensive backs, who have become one of, if not the most important position groups on defense, is also a little low on high end talent. Antonio Cromartie of the Cardinals and Byron Maxwell of the Seahawks are the top two choices at cornerback, but the Patriots’ Darrelle Revis could become a free agent if the team declines his $20 million option. At safety, another Patriot, free safety Devin McCourty, leads a weak crop of defenders.
Jordan Llanes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org