Super Bowl LIV's nearly upon us, but 30 teams already have begun the effort to reach Tampa a year from now for Super Bowl LV. Here's one thing each NFC franchise can do to supplant the San Francisco 49ers as conference champions.
ARIZONA CARDINALS: Double down on offensive upgrades.
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim took plenty of swings in 2019 in an effort to upgrade the team's offense. The results? Decidedly mixed, beyond the excellent pairing of coach Kliff Kingsbury and No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray. After seeing the offense improve from No. 32 to No. 13 in Football Outsiders' efficiency metric, mostly thanks to Kliff and Kyler's impact on a strong running game, there could be a natural inclination to address the team's sagging defense. While Keim can't ignore the defense entirely, the offensive nucleus still needs a ton of work. There is virtually no position that couldn't be improved, especially with running back Kenyan Drake headed for free agency. It's a great sign that the Cardinals were an average offense with a rookie quarterback and below-average talent. Just think of what they can do if Keim surrounds Murray with more blue-chip players.
ATLANTA FALCONS: Solve Dan Quinn's early-season defensive doldrums.
Quinn's teams close strong. Whether during the Falcons' Super Bowl season, their underrated NFC title defense or the last two years of putting lipstick on piggish campaigns, Quinn's defenses have dramatically and reliably improved down the stretch. After many blamed Atlanta's disappointing 2018 season on injuries, the team's 2019 malaise revealed something more rotten at the core of this group. Despite continuity and talent, the Falcons' defense never adds up to the sum of its parts. With key homegrown draft picks like Vic Beasley and linebacker De'Vondre Campbell headed for free agency, Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff need to try something different in personnel and approach because what they've been doing simply hasn't worked.
It's easy to get excited when you hear new Panthers coach Matt Rhule -- and his splashy coordinator hire, Joe Brady -- speak about offense. It's even harder to contain the hype when you review their previous work, then imagine what Cam could look like playing for them. Rhule isn't going anywhere and he'll have plenty of time to find Carolina's "quarterback of the future" if Newton doesn't fit or can't stay healthy in 2020. In the meantime, the Panthers already have one of the most talented quarterbacks in football on their roster, one whose unique skill set should fit beautifully with the diverse offense Rhule and Brady want to run. It wasn't too long ago that Newton, 30, was the future -- and it's too early to turn the page on him now.
General manager Ryan Pace committed to Trubisky as the team's unquestioned starter on New Year's Eve. Perhaps some distance from an emotional season and the fresh possibilities of this crop of free-agent and rookie quarterbacks could move Pace off the commitment. Coaches and general managers waste more seasons and lose more jobs by doubling down on bad decisions than by making bad decisions in the first place. This Bears roster has a sneaky amount of talent on both sides of the ball, although Chicago's outstanding defense has already started to decline. The Bears could win right now with the right trade or reboot at the quarterback position. Closing their eyes to those possibilities is the sports equivalent of the cover-up being greater than the crime.
DALLAS COWBOYS: Rebuild the defensive line.
Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper's contract situations may get the headlines, but Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has bigger problems concerning his defense. Cornerback Byron Jones could prove too expensive to keep, with tags likely saved for Prescott and Cooper, while Dallas' defensive line could require a total overhaul outside of DeMarcus Lawrence. Robert Quinn, Maliek Collins, Christian Covington, Michael Bennett and Kerry Hyder are all free agents. Mainstay Tyrone Crawford is a strong candidate to be released. This was already a group that got pushed around in the running game too often last year, and now Dallas must all but start over from scratch.
DETROIT LIONS: Trade the No. 3 overall pick for a bounty.
There's an argument to be made that the Lions would do well to consider trading Matthew Stafford to the highest bidder and using those extra pieces to support their new franchise quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa. But this exercise is all about reaching next season'sSuper Bowl, and that only seems possible with a healthy Stafford surrounded by more talent. The Lions have plenty of cap space, so they could swap the No. 3 overall pick for a raft of selections and some veteran contracts to bolster a blah roster. How general manager Bob Quinn handles this pick is shaping up to be the defining decision of his tenure.
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst will be working on re-signing right tackle Bryan Bulaga and exploring how to upgrade the inside linebacker spot from Blake Martinez. Those are important tasks, but sometimes the lowest-hanging fruit of an offseason topic is the ripest. Rodgers needs at least one more big-time offensive weapon to throw to. The narrative surrounding Green Bay's offensive talent this season was overblown, considering the team's fantastic offensive line, No. 1 receiver and awesome backfield. Plenty of quarterbacks have less. But the addition of a reliable second wideout or a playmaking tight end could elevate the Packers' offense from good to godlike, which was the whole point of replacing Mike McCarthy in the first place. As talented as the team's defense is, it's not going to carry the team.
LOS ANGELES RAMS: Hope that Brandon Staley is the next Sean McVay.
I have more faith than most that McVay will come up with some counter moves to resuscitate the Rams' offense, even with plenty of offensive line questions hanging over the team. The bigger X-factor for L.A.'s 2020 season is new defensive coordinator Brandon Staley. If you haven't heard of him, you are not alone. Staley was coaching in Division III only three years ago, before learning under Vic Fangio. At 37, Staley is actually three years older than his new boss. But they have a lot of similarities, considering their meteoric career climbs and the awed tones they engender at every stop, including during the interview process. Staley's first NFL coordinator gig doesn't figure to be easy because the Rams' defense could be in transition, with key starters Cory Littleton, Michael Brockers and Dante Fowler Jr. all headed to free agency and safety Eric Weddle's future uncertain. In Staley, McVay hopes to have found a jolt of energy and schematic advantage like he himself brought the team's offense back in 2017.
MINNESOTA VIKINGS: Rebuild the secondary.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman have done a remarkable, maniacal job maintaining continuity on their defense at great expense. But after that unit looked ordinary in the playoffs again, it's finally time to break up the band, especially in the back end. Longtime cornerback Xavier Rhodes appears nearly certain to be released. Their best defensive back in 2019, safety Anthony Harris, is just one free agent in a class that includes cornerback Trae Waynes, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Andrew Sendejo. Starting nose tackle Linval Joseph is a candidate to be released and key rotation defensive end Stephen Weatherly is a free agent. That's a lot, and Zimmer has to be anxious about a defensive backfield where Harrison Smith is the only key player guaranteed to return. Heck, Zimmer sounds anxious about his secondary even when things are going well.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS: Bring the band back together one more time.
First, let's dispense with the obvious: Of course the Saints need to do their best to continue their recent roll of draft hits and will be looking to improve the depth chart at receiver, linebacker and defensive tackle. But the larger key on a team with a number of Pro Bowlers in their prime -- especially on the offensive line -- is to work out a sensible contract with Drew Brees while trying to retain as many key free agents as possible. The Saints have eight players headed for the open market who played more than 50 percent of their snaps last year, including three in the secondary. That will make life tricky for general manager Mickey Loomis, who has made it clear he wants Brees back. The Saints have enough young talent to worry about the post-Brees future when they get there. For now, it's all about retaining a roster that has been good enough to win a Super Bowl the last two seasons despite the painful playoff exits.
NEW YORK GIANTS: Joe Judge's coaching staff needs to shock the world.
New Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett hasn't called plays since 2012 and is taking over an offense with a second-year quarterback and plenty of skill-position talent. Offensive line coach Marc Colombo has his work cut out for him after four years under Garrett in Dallas with a far better group. New Giants defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is taking over one of the least-talented and least-productive groups in football. He called plays for the first time in 2019 under Brian Flores and then Flores allowed Graham to make a lateral move out of town, which makes it worth wondering if Graham was going to even keep his job in Miami. Judge, meanwhile, has never been a head coach at any level. Most new coaching staffs get a honeymoon period, but this one is under pressure to show that general manager Dave Gettleman's vision for the team isn't broken entering his third season in charge.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES: Let Howie be Howie.
The Eagles believe in big linemen and big data, so they won't simply pray to the injury gods who smote their squad like no other over the last two seasons. Instead, general manager Howie Roseman figures to get aggressive and creative after two seasons in soft handcuffs of his own making. Roseman has pulled salary cap tricks and traded draft picks the last two years to maintain an extremely talented core, only to see much of his work end up on injured reserve. This offseason, he finally has plenty of cap room, picks and flexibility to start re-shaping the roster in a different image than the 2017 group that won the Super Bowl. Look for Philly to be as active as any team in football while moving on from long-standing Eagles like Nelson Agholor, Ronald Darby, Rodney McLeod and Jason Peters, the last of which will be a difficult call. Unlike Agholor.
SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Either replace the offensive coordinator or replace his philosophy.
Smarter members of Seahawks Twitter than myself -- it's a requirement of Seahawks Twitter membership to be the smartest person in the room -- have already argued about this concept for weeks. The notion has leaked into the media, if cautiously. Ben Baldwin of The Athletic asked if Pete Carroll was the right coach for this version of the Seahawks, citing his conservative offensive tendencies. Steven Ruiz of For the Win was more blunt, saying the Seahawksneed to move on before wasting Russell Wilson's prime. Carroll, however, should be part of the solution. He's an excellent head coach and defensive mind who just needs someone to kick his offensive philosophy into the modern era. It's hard to imagine a traditionalist like offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer breaking out of his run-heavy tendencies, so Carroll should look into making a shocking late switch with his offensive play caller before free agency begins. Seattle's best talent by far is in the passing game, yet Carroll and Schottenheimer are coaching as if they have the 2013 Seahawks roster.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS: Build on the Bowlesaissance.
Lost in Jameis Winston's wild pursuit of the 30-30 club late in the season was the turnaround by the Bucs' defense under Todd Bowles. After a slow start, Tampa finished fifth in Football Outsiders' defensive efficiency with playmakers on every level, from Shaq Barrett and Vita Vea up front to Lavonte David and Devin White in the middle to a young secondary that finally looks improved. The Bucs should try to retain Barrett via a long-term deal in an effort to save the franchise tag for Winston, who is less worthy of such a commitment. Winston's ups and downs may never end, but a strong defense can help cover up his mistakes as Tampa seeks to end its 12-season playoff drought.
WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Pray that offensive coordinator Scott Turner is even better than his father.
After a dreadful, injury-marred season that included last-place finishes in third-down offense and third-down defense, the Redskins are due for some better luck. New coach Ron Rivera should add a dose of professionalism to a talent-poor secondary on defense, but any miracle run to the playoffs relies on the right arm of a second-year quarterback (Dwayne Haskins) and the scheme of a first-time offensive coordinator (Turner). Rivera knows Turner well, as the two worked together in Carolina, and it says a lot that the head coach entrusted Haskins' future to the 37-year-old. Turner showed creativity in his late-season run as Panthers play caller last year, and there are some promising pieces in Washington like Terry McLaurin and Kelvin Harmon to build around. Just making this Redskins offense watchable again should be considered a success.