by Scott Kacsmar
Each NFL team's offseason is filled with small moves and marginal personnel decisions. Sometimes, that series of small moves will build a winner. But a big, bold move always helps, by dramatically improving talent at an important position or changing the overall direction of the franchise. In the first series of Four Downs posts for the 2015 offseason, Football Outsiders goes division by division to suggest a bold move that each team could make to get better, either in the short or long term.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Rebuild the secondary
Super Bowl XLIX displayed the importance of cornerback depth in today's NFL. This is why the process of applying a Band-Aid to the gaping wound that is the secondary no longer works, Pittsburgh. The 2014 pass defense ranked 30th in DVOA, the worst ranking for any Pittsburgh defense since at least 1989.
Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor provided the Steelers 12 years of commendable service, but it is time to move on instead of risking another injury-plagued season from players on their last legs. Cornerback Brice McCain and safety Mike Mitchell did not live up to expectations in their first seasons with the Steelers. The extension given Cortez Allen last season was questionable at best, and looks much worse after he was benched for McCain. The secondary basically has one reasonable starter in William Gay, a project in safety Shamarko Thomas, and an economical depth player in restricted free agent Antwon Blake. Otherwise, this defensive backfield needs a fresh cast.
The Steelers and Colts are the only teams not to draft a defensive back in the first or second round since 2007. At least the Colts traded a second-round pick in 2012 to acquire Vontae Davis from Miami. Pittsburgh has ignored the position for years, and its struggles against the pass come as no surprise. This is the perfect time to rebuild with defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau gone, particularly since Mike Tomlin's area of expertise as an assistant coach was defensive backs. For years LeBeau's scheme worked without stressing strong cornerback play, but through the decline of the defense, that is where the Steelers have so often been exposed, including January's loss to Joe Flacco and the Ravens.
The offense has a lot of pieces in place and the defensive front seven, while still flawed, has been given too many resources in the draft. This is the year the Steelers need to start the draft with multiple defensive backs and likely add another key contributor in free agency.
Cincinnati Bengals: Sign Greg Hardy
The Bengals ranked seventh in pass defense DVOA last season, but only 31st in Adjusted Sack Rate. You know the pass rush is lacking when you play Ben Roethlisberger twice and come away with zero sacks.
What the Bengals really need is an edge rusher. Carlos Dunlap chipped in 8.0 sacks this past season, but Wallace Gilberry only had 1.5 sacks, just as many as safety Reggie Nelson. Gilberry was a valuable player as a specialist who played on passing downs, but he was overstretched this year starting all 16 games.
For years the Bengals had a bad reputation of signing players who got into trouble with the law. That has cleaned up in recent years, but there is a controversial player out there with some baggage who can help this team next season.
Greg Hardy's 15 sacks in 2013 helped power the Carolina Panthers to the playoffs. After playing in only one game this season, Hardy saw his defense struggle without him. Of course he missed most of the season due to charges for domestic violence, but those charges have been dismissed. Hardy remains on the commissioner's exempt list, but the Panthers are not expected to pursue him when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 10.
After a terrible year off the field for the league, it's going to take a brave team to sign a player like Hardy. However, this is still a country where you are innocent until proven guilty, and Hardy's charges have been dismissed. He is only 27 years old and can slide right into the Bengals' 4-3 defense. This is the same team that brought in Adam Jones, and he has been relatively quiet in Cincinnati. Marvin Lewis has kept things together in the locker room, and Hardy does not have a long history of being a distraction.
Sometimes the right move does not feel right; this is one of those cases.
Baltimore Ravens: Release Haloti Ngata
It is never easy to release a longtime cornerstone of your franchise's success, but this may be the end for Haloti Ngata in Baltimore. The 31-year-old defensive tackle is scheduled to count $16 million against the salary cap in 2015 with a base salary of $8.5 million. With Brandon Williams having proven he is starter quality and additional strong play from rookie Timmy Jernigan while Ngata was suspended last year, the Ravens have youth and talent in place to immediately replace the veteran. That kind of planning is one reason why Ozzie Newsome is among the best general managers in the league.
Ngata has value in run defense, where Baltimore ranked fifth in DVOA in 2014. However, the passing game still dictates most NFL results. New England beat Ngata's Ravens in the playoffs with 14 rushing yards, the fewest by a winning team in postseason history. With some cornerback issues and players like Torrey Smith and Justin Forsett set to become unrestricted free agents, the Ravens have more pressing needs in maintaining a good team around Joe Flacco.
Chances are the Ravens will reach a restructured deal with Ngata, but if not, then he is not a lock to return in 2015.
Cleveland Browns: Cut Josh Gordon now
One day after Cleveland drafted Johnny Manziel, news broke that Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon had failed yet another drug test. Later that same summer, Gordon was arrested and charged with driving while impaired. A new policy on substance abuse suspensions allowed him to return to play five games this season, but with Manziel at quarterback he caught just four passes on eight targets for 66 yards.
Those should be the last catches Gordon ever hauls in from Manziel in Cleveland. After failing yet another alcohol test, Gordon has been suspended for the entire 2015 season. Manziel has done the smart thing and checked himself into rehab. If the Browns want to make an example of how to be a professional, they should just cut Gordon now. He has blown enough opportunities already, and keeping him on the team sends the wrong message that the organization is willing to tolerate this behavior if you are really talented.
Gordon was suspended by the Browns for their Week 17 finale for missing a team walkthrough. Some feel this was done to delay the time until Gordon hits unrestricted free agency, but I would just cut him right now and move on. For as talented as Gordon is, the Cleveland offense has been equally unproductive with or without him.
- 2012 Browns (Gordon played 16 games): 1.51 points per drive (ranked 25th)
- 2013 Browns (Gordon led NFL in receiving in 14 games): 1.43 points per drive (ranked 28th)
- 2014 Browns (Gordon played in five games): 1.47 points per drive (ranked 28th)
For a team that has desperately tried to build a winner, eliminating distractions is a wise decision.
(This article originally appeared at ESPN.com Insider.)