Expect NFL news to pick up soon in the form of veteran releases and eventually franchise tags. The window for teams to tag free agents begins on Wednesday, February 15 and ends on March 1. The pre-free agency “legal tampering period” begins on March 7, and the market opens on March 9.
Here is a link to this year’s NFL Free Agents, sorted by position.
And this is my breakdown of each NFL team’s three biggest offseason needs.
Offensive Line: While Carson Palmer’s return is good news for the Cardinals’ 2017 outlook, it won’t help much if GM Steve Keim doesn’t improve his 37-year-old quarterback’s protection. As Arizona allowed the NFL’s seventh most sacks (41) and third most quarterback hits (127), Palmer’s battered body was the main reason he contemplated retirement at all. None of the Cardinals’ right guard alternatives got the job done after now-retired Evan Mathis went down for the year in early October, and C A.Q. Shipley is a free agent.
Defensive Line: OLBs Chandler Jones and Alex Okafor are free agents. As are DEs Calais Campbell and Frostee Rucker. Letting Jones walk is extremely unlikely, but retaining him is a move the Cardinals have yet to make. It doesn’t help that 2016 first-round pick Robert Nkemdiche disappointed as a rookie. The greatest strength of last year’s roster, Arizona can’t afford to let its defensive front devolve into a weakness.
Defensive Back: Arizona’s roster has a lot of needs. Wide receiver has become a question mark due to John Brown’s shaky health, Michael Floyd’s exit, and Larry Fitzgerald’s age. Inside linebacker is also a concern based on Kevin Minter’s free agency. As this is almost certainly Palmer’s last year, the Cardinals must also seriously consider making a long-term investment at quarterback. The secondary needs multiple additions. The boundary cornerback position opposite Patrick Peterson is a multi-year weakness, and safeties Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger’s contracts are up.
Defensive Line: While SLB/LE Vic Beasley and DT Grady Jarrett are building blocks up front, the Falcons otherwise lack difference makers in the trenches. Rotational DT Jonathan Babineaux, DE Dwight Freeney, and DE/DT Courtney Upshaw are free agents. LE Ra’Shede Hageman and RE Adrian Clayborn are entering contract years. The Falcons need an edge rusher to complement Beasley, who wore down late in the season. They could also use an interior space eater to upgrade a run defense that finished 29th in DVOA.
Guard: 34-year-old RG Chris Chester was Atlanta’s lone weakness on the line and seems unlikely to be re-signed in free agency. Valuing athleticism in their zone-blocking scheme, the Falcons need to find a new starting right guard.
Tight End: An aspect of Atlanta’s 2016 offense that made it so difficult to defend was outgoing OC Kyle Shanahan’s diverse personnel packages and ability to attack defenses in multiple looks. Even after Jacob Tamme’s year-ending shoulder injury, the Falcons often used two- and even three-tight end sets. 2016 third-round pick Austin Hooper is an obvious keeper, but Tamme and Levine Toilolo’s contracts are up. New OC Steve Sarkisian vows to keep Shanahan’s concepts in place. If so, re-signing versatile free agent FB Patrick DiMarco should also make Atlanta’s to-do list.
Wide Receiver: Wideout is an annual need in Baltimore, where Steve Smith Sr. called it quits and Mike Wallace carries an $8 million cap charge entering his age-31 season. Slot receiver Kamar Aiken’s contract is up. 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman flashed promise in his first healthy NFL season, but lacked consistency. The Ravens can’t yet count on him as a foundation piece. Joe Flacco was discouraged by the offense’s inability to challenge defenses deep.
Linebacker: “Linebacker” covers two bases because the Ravens need an inside ‘backer to replace early-retiree Zachary Orr and help at outside linebacker, where Terrell Suggs is pushing age 35 and 33-year-old Elvis Dumervil is expected to be released. While 24-year-olds Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon provide youth off the edge, neither was an imposing 2016 pass-rush presence.
Cornerback: Baltimore’s needs have piled up since GM Ozzie Newsome committed elite quarterback money to Flacco four offseasons ago. The Ravens also need help at right tackle and defensive line, where RT Rick Wagner and NT Brandon Williams will be coveted free agents. Cornerback should still take precedence. While the Ravens are set at RCB (Jimmy Smith) and may have found a long-term answer at slot corner (Tavon Young), weekly turnstile LCB Shareece Wright must be replaced.
Quarterback: Handpicked by outgoing coach Rex Ryan, Tyrod Taylor may be done in Buffalo due in large part to $27.5 million in salary and bonuses Taylor is owed after he signed what amounted to a one-year commitment last August. New Bills OC Rick Dennison hails from the Kubiak-Shanahan coaching tree in which athleticism and an ability to make throws on the run are required for a bootleg-heavy offense. New QBs coach David Culley is also a West Coast mind with ties to Andy Reid.
Wide Receiver: Sammy Watkins is Buffalo’s lone true asset out wide, and he has undergone two foot surgeries and a hip operation since entering the league in 2014. Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, Brandon Tate, and Justin Hunter are all free agents.
Defensive Back: Right tackle and linebacker also deserve mentions as potential Bills needs. RT candidates Seantrel Henderson (suspension) and Cyrus Kouandjio (hip surgery) can’t be counted on as 2017 starters, while Buffalo finished 30th in run-defense DVOA. The Bills have two needs in the secondary with RCB Stephon Gilmore headed to free agency and SS Aaron Williams’ (neck) NFL future up in the air. Whereas Rex's defenses played man coverage, new coach Sean McDermott’s Panthers teams primarily ran Cover 3. Those Carolina defenses also possessed top-shelf speed and range on the second level, traits none of the Bills' current linebackers possess.
Offensive Line: Pass-protection breakdowns were the root cause of Carolina’s massive 2016 step back on offense. The Panthers can’t count on LT Michael Oher’s health following a severe and ultimately year-ending concussion, while liability RT Mike Remmers’ contract is up. C Ryan Kalil’s season was wrecked by recurring shoulder injuries, and he turns 32 soon. LG Andrew Norwell is a restricted free agent. Two-time Pro Bowl RG Trai Turner is entering a contract year.
Defensive Line: DEs Mario Addison, Charles Johnson, and Wes Horton, and DTs Kawann Short and Kyle Love accounted for 50% of the Panthers’ 47 sacks. They are all free agents. DT Star Lotulelei and DE Kony Ealy are entering contract years. GM Dave Gettleman loves his “hog mollies” up front, so re-signing, extending, and adding defensive linemen is certain to be a top priority.
Running Back: Slot cornerback is also worth mentioning as a Panthers need after Zack Sanchez failed to nail down the job. In the draft, running backs could be on Carolina’s early-round radar with injury-riddled Jonathan Stewart going on age 30. Cameron Artis-Payne is not the long-term solution.
Quarterback: The Bears are expected to release Jay Cutler, while Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley are free agents. GM Ryan Pace worked in New Orleans’ front office when reports had the Saints strongly considering drafting Jimmy Garoppolo in 2014.
Defensive Back: The Bears’ rag-tag secondary has overachieved under DC Vic Fangio, not embarrassing itself despite relying on a slew of undrafted players. SS Adrian Amos is Chicago’s only young building block on the back end. The Bears need more talent at both cornerback and safety.
Wide Receiver: Cameron Meredith emerged as a legitimate weapon, especially shining as a slot receiver late in the season. He is the Bears’ lone pass-catching bright spot. Alshon Jeffery’s contract is up, and Kevin White has performed poorly in the rare instances he’s been healthy. Eddie Royal will likely be released. The Bears also need help at tight end, where injury-plagued Zach Miller is pushing age 33.
Defensive Line: While LE Carlos Dunlap and DT Geno Atkins remain building blocks on the right side of 30, RE Michael Johnson has devolved into a complete non-factor, and fading NT Domata Peko’s contract is up. The 2016 Bengals finished 23rd in sacks (33) and 20th in run-defense DVOA. Cincinnati keeps drafting first-round corners. It’s time they got them some pass-rush help.
Offensive Line: The Bengals seemed all set up front long term when they used first- and second-round picks on Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher in the 2015 draft. Ogbuehi now looks like a bust, and Fisher has failed to earn consistent playing time. LT Andrew Whitworth and RG Kevin Zeitler are free agents. C Russell Bodine is entering a contract year.
Wide Receiver: I debated between wideout, running back, and linebacker here. With Giovani Bernard coming off an ACL tear and Jeremy Hill turning in back-to-back disappointing seasons, backfield help is needed, even if it’s simply re-signing underrated free agent Rex Burkhead. Wide receiver still looks more pressing. Andy Dalton is a quarterback who must be elevated by his teammates, and his teammates weren’t good enough after Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu’s departures. A.J. Green has struggled to sustain health and will be 29 soon. Tyler Boyd appears to be limited to the slot.
Quarterback: I can’t remember the last time quarterback wasn’t a Browns need. I’m pretty sure it was before I was born. From Carson Palmer to Jason Campbell and last year’s failed experiment with Robert Griffin III, coach Hue Jackson has long held an affinity for big-armed vertical passers. While Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer figures to be a polarizing prospect, he best fits that description in this year’s class.
Cornerback: The Browns identified 2016 trade acquisition Jamar Taylor as a keeper, signing him to a three-year, $15 million extension toward the end of his breakout year. Otherwise, Cleveland’s cornerback depth chart is unsettled. LCB Joe Haden is declining, injury riddled, and severely overpaid. Washed-up slot corner/safety Tramon Williams was rightfully released after the season. Second-year UDFA Briean Boddy-Calhoun would likely be the Browns’ third cornerback if the season began today.
Edge Pass Rusher: Center, right tackle, safety, and even running back can be argued as Browns needs, an unsurprisingly lengthy list for a 1-15 team. While DE Carl Nassib, OLB Emmanuel Ogbah, and OLB Jamie Collins offer potentially bright futures, none projects as a franchise pass rusher. Texas A&M DE/OLB Myles Garrett is the early favorite for Cleveland’s pick at No. 1 overall.
Defensive Line: The Cowboys have recently whiffed on DEs Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory, while DE Demarcus Lawrence and DT Cedric Thornton were 2016 disappointments. DC Rod Marinelli likes to employ defensive linemen in waves, keeping their legs fresh on rotational snaps and using them at various positions. Among the Cowboys’ linemen scheduled to return, only LE Tyrone Crawford and DT David Irving are coming off impressive years.
Defensive Back: While defensive line was a bigger 2016 weakness, this need is easiest to identify because so many critical Cowboys defensive backs are up for free agency. RCB Brandon Carr, LCB Morris Claiborne, SS Barry Church, and third safety J.J. Wilcox all have expiring deals. 30-year-old slot corner Orlando Scandrick has struggled with various injuries in recent years. The Cowboys did appear to hit on 2016 sixth-round pick Anthony Brown, who projects as a 2017 starter.
Wide Receiver: Linebacker also deserves a mention and is a position the Cowboys will likely address. Terrance Williams and Brice Butler’s free agency makes wideout more pressing. Dez Bryant has battled leg and back injuries in recent seasons. Cole Beasley is a slot receiver only. With Jason Witten going on age 35, tight end is another avenue for Dallas to upgrade Dak Prescott’s pass-catcher corps.
Offensive Line: In both run and pass blocking, the Broncos’ line play was bad enough that you could argue 4-of-5 starters need to be replaced. The lone returning asset is C Matt Paradis, who is undergoing two hip surgeries. LT Russell Okung and RT Donald Stephenson are both in danger of being released. Broncos OC Mike McCoy is an adaptable coach willing to design his offense to fit his personnel, but Denver’s current offensive line group is among the worst in the league.
Defensive Line: The Broncos’ run defense fell off a cliff after losing DT Malik Jackson and ILB Danny Trevathan, plummeting from No. 4 to No. 21 in DVOA as enemy offenses gashed Denver up the gut. RE Jared Crick would be better suited as a limited-snap rotational lineman, and disappointing NT Sylvester Williams’ contract is up. The Broncos have been linked to free agent DE Calais Campbell.
Tight End: McCoy’s past offenses in San Diego (Antonio Gates, Hunter Henry) and Denver (Julius Thomas) made aggressive use of catch-first tight ends, creating mismatches and often incorporating two-tight end sets. In-season trade acquisition AJ Derby did flash promise in limited opportunities before suffering a year-ending concussion. Whether it’s a tight end to threaten the middle of the field or a slot receiver to complement Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos need another weapon in the passing game.
Defensive Line: The Lions finished 23rd in run-defense DVOA and 31st in sacks (26), improving defensively as the year wore on but ultimately lacking disruption up front and asking far too much of their back seven, both in pass coverage and run support. DTs Tyrunn Walker, Stefan Charles, and Khiry Thornton (restricted) and DEs Devin Taylor and Armonty Bryant are all free agents. RE Ziggy Ansah and 33-year-old NT Haloti Ngata are entering contract years. The Lions need multiple D-Line additions.
Wide Receiver: The vague term “pass catcher” would work here. The Lions are a sneaky team to use an early-round pick at tight end, not because Eric Ebron has been a bust but because the offense badly needs more weapons. Although he lacked the 2016 personnel to execute, OC Jim Bob Cooter is a big proponent of two-tight end sets. Out wide, $40 million investment Marvin Jones reinforced that he is a complementary part and not a featured piece, and slot man Anquan Boldin is a free agent. While Jones and Golden Tate return as solid contributors, this year’s Lions will need someone to stretch the field.
Offensive Line: The Lions are long on needs, which shows up more in their free agent list and last year’s -12 point differential than Detroit’s winning record and Wild Card berth. GM Bob Quinn needs to target depth throughout the defensive back seven and arguably a power complement to shifty backs Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick, assuming Quinn doesn’t envision Zach Zenner or Daryl Washington as the solution. O-Line is still a far bigger need, particularly with RG Larry Warford and RT Riley Reiff’s contracts up. C Travis Swanson is entering a contract year, and LG Laken Tomlinson looks like a bust.
Green Bay Packers
Cornerback: On a weekly basis, starting wide receivers against the Packers was one of fantasy football’s most profitable 2016 strategies. Onetime No. 1 CB Sam Shields was released after the season, while 2015 draft picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins both took concerning steps backs. Slot CB Micah Hyde – who never should have been starting in the slot – is now a free agent. For the second time in three years, GM Ted Thompson may need to invest multiple early-round picks into defensive backs.
Linebacker: The Packers have quantity at linebacker, but lack quality with Nick Perry and Julius Peppers set to test the market after combining for 46% of the team’s 40 sacks. Nearing the wrong side of 30, Clay Matthews is no longer the difference maker he once was. Jake Ryan largely nailed down one of Green Bay’s inside linebacker spots, but the other position should be up for grabs. Linebacker is another area where multiple moves need to be made.
Running Back: Tight end is a need, although the Packers are expected to prioritize re-signing Jared Cook. Green Bay also must address offensive guard with RG T.J. Lang’s contract up. And the Packers are thin on the defensive line after their run defense sagged for the final three months of the season. Thompson has a lot of work to do. Adding running back help is an absolute must with only practice-squad types John Crockett and Don Jackson currently rostered behind ex-WR Ty Montgomery.
Offensive Line: Owner Bob McNair indicated after the season the Texans will stick with the status quo at quarterback, holding a Brock Osweiler-Tom Savage camp battle rather than pursuing a veteran trade option like Tony Romo. “The challenge is what can we do with what we got,” McNair said. That means trying to stay competitive by running the ball and playing good defense, an approach reliant on better line play than the Texans fielded in 2016. OGs Xavier Su’a-Filo and Jeff Allen were major liabilities. RT Derek Newton tore both of his patellar tendons and is unlikely to be ready for Week 1.
Defensive Line: While J.J. Watt will return with Christian Covington and D.J. Reader to form a solid threesome up front, the Texans have a depth shortage on the line and must find someone to replace retiring NT Vince Wilfork’s snaps. With John Simon’s contract expiring, I also would not be surprised if the Texans pursued a third edge rusher to help spell Whitney Mercilus and injury-plagued Jadeveon Clowney.
Defensive Back: While the Texans could conceivably compensate for free agent RCB A.J. Bouye’s loss with the healthy return of Kevin Johnson, LCB Johnathan Joseph is turning 33 and SS Quintin Demps is headed for free agency. Joseph and FS Andre Hal are entering contract years.
Linebacker: Colts rookie GM Chris Ballard inherited a roster flush with needs, foremost among them a linebacker corps Ballard addressed with his first-ever move, releasing over-the-hill ILB D’Qwell Jackson. OLBs Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, and Erik Walden are all free agents. It’s not a stretch to say Indianapolis needs four new starting linebackers, two off the edge and two in the middle. This team has been desperate for a franchise pass rusher for years.
Cornerback: Slot corner Darius Butler’s contract is up, and LCB Patrick Robinson flopped in his first year with Indianapolis. RCB Vontae Davis has continued to play at a high level when healthy, but he is entering a contract year. Due to their inability to rush the passer in coach Chuck Pagano’s man-coverage scheme, the Colts are not built to compensate for sub-par cornerback play.
Offensive Line: Running back, tight end with Jack Doyle’s contract expiring, and defensive line also need talent infusions. The right side of the offensive line remains a more glaring weakness after last year’s Colts played musical chairs at right guard and right tackle. Andrew Luck holds onto the ball longer than most quarterbacks, adding stress to his protection. The left side does look settled with Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, Jack Mewhort back healthy at left guard, and Ryan Kelly entrenched at center.
Offensive Line: While Blake Bortles’ indecisiveness deserves partial blame for Jacksonville’s leaky pass protection, LT Kelvin Beachum and an ineffective cast of left guards bear much of the responsibility. The Jaguars must decide on Beachum’s four-year, $35.5 million team option by early this week. Free agent LG Luke Joeckel tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus in Week 4 and almost certainly won’t be back.
Edge Pass Rusher: The Jaguars’ back seven came together as a top-ten unit despite a middling or worse pass rush. Jacksonville finished 17th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate and 23rd in sacks (33) as LE Dante Fowler struggled in his return from a lost rookie season and RE Jared Odrick endured an injury-ruined campaign. 2016 third-round pick Yannick Ngakoue does look like a keeper. Still, the Jags won’t reach their defensive ceiling without causing more disruption up front.
Defensive Back: Running back and tight end could also be argued as Jaguars needs, the latter in particular if overpaid Julius Thomas is released. Still, uncertainty in the secondary stands out due to LCB Prince Amukamara and SS Johnathan Cyprien’s free agency.
Kansas City Chiefs
Defensive Back: Strong safety is currently a need with free agent SS Eric Berry looking to break the bank. While a Berry extension seems likely, the cornerback position opposite LCB Marcus Peters needs to be addressed. RCB Terrance Mitchell did give Kansas City some stability down the stretch, but he is a former seventh-round pick on his fourth NFL team. The Chiefs play man coverage on the back end, and enemy offenses aggressively attack their No. 2 corner because Peters only plays on one side.
Defensive Line: The healthy returns of DEs Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard will strengthen the Chiefs’ line, but Dontari Poe’s free agency makes nose tackle a glaring need. GM John Dorsey may have to decide between Berry and Poe. Berry is expected to be the bigger priority.
Linebacker: Last year’s Chiefs got gashed in run defense, finishing 26th in DVOA and especially collapsing when ILB Derrick Johnson tore his Achilles’ in Week 14. Pushing age 35, Johnson can’t be counted on as a 2017 contributor. Kansas City may also give serious consideration to addressing outside linebacker. Knee problems threaten Justin Houston’s long-term outlook, and 33-year-old Tamba Hali is clearly wearing down. Hali played only seven defensive snaps in the Chiefs’ playoff loss to Pittsburgh.
Los Angeles Chargers
Offensive Line: The Chargers have invested big money and high picks into their offensive line under GM Tom Telesco, but the unit continues to fail to meet expectations. Absorbing the NFL’s seventh most quarterback hits (98), Philip Rivers had happy feet by the end of last year. LT King Dunlap should be on notice. Pushing age 32, Dunlap has missed 13 games over the past two seasons and stood out as a pass-blocking liability for most of 2016.
Linebacker: San Diego’s biggest linebacker need is on the edge, where Melvin Ingram’s contract is up and contract-year OLB Jerry Attaochu failed to take a third-year leap before breaking his right foot in November. This team needs a big-time pass rusher.
Defensive Back: A 3-4 defense under outgoing DC John Pagano, the Chargers are expected to install a 4-3 “under” scheme with new DC Gus Bradley, who hails from the Pete Carroll coaching tree. Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett form arguably the NFL’s top cornerback tandem, but slot corner and strong safety must be addressed. Like fellow Carroll disciple Dan Quinn did with Keanu Neal, Bradley will likely target his version of Kam Chancellor in free agency or the draft.
Los Angeles Rams
Offensive Line: The Rams’ offensive line couldn’t block anyone last year, and only LG Rodger Saffold returns as a quality starter. RT Rob Havenstein took a surprising sophomore step back. Cement-footed LT Greg Robinson has been a colossal bust. With 22-year-old stringbean Jared Goff at quarterback, it is imperative that Los Angeles finds multiple new starters up front.
Wide Receiver: The Rams need receiver help. Again. Kenny Britt and Brian Quick’s contracts are up, while Tavon Austin remains an inefficient gadget player wholly undeserving of the six-year, $56 million commitment the Jeff Fisher regime made him last fall. On the line and out wide, the Rams’ offseason needs to be spent figuring out ways to improve the players around Goff.
Defensive Back: One year after choosing LCB Trumaine Johnson over star corner Janoris Jenkins, the Rams are in danger of losing Johnson in free agency, as well. SS T.J. McDonald’s contract is also up, and sturdy slot corner Lamarcus Joyner’s will be after this year. Even if the Rams figure out ways to re-sign both Johnson and McDonald, it won’t necessarily be enough following RCB E.J. Gaines’ dismal year.
Tight End: Athletic catch-first tight ends played prominent roles in coach Adam Gase’s Broncos and Bears offenses. Incumbent Dolphins TE Dion Sims’ contract is up, and fellow free agent Jordan Cameron’s career is threatened by concussions. The Dolphins draft 22nd overall, where Alabama’s O.J. Howard and Miami’s David Njoku would be ideal fits.
Guard: Gase embraced a run-first approach in his first year with Miami, building his offense around Jay Ajayi and an offensive line that returns strong at every position save right guard. Expected to leave Cincinnati, free agent RG Kevin Zeitler should rank high the Dolphins’ offseason wish list.
Defensive Line: While all three levels of Miami’s defense could use talent infusions, defensive line stands out as the top need. RE Mario Williams was a predictable free-agent whiff and almost certainly won't be kept. LE Cameron Wake is 35. The Fins ranked 22nd in run-defense DVOA and 23rd in sacks (33). Linebacker also must be addressed with MLB Kiko Alonso up for restricted free agency and SLB Koa Misi expected to be released. Disappointing WLB Jelani Jenkins is an unrestricted free agent.
Offensive Line: The Vikings are one of the NFL’s least-needy teams, but their main need is major and involves multiple weak points. C Joe Berger was the team’s best lineman in 2016, yet Berger is entering a contract year at age 35. Minnesota’s line play was so bad that OC Pat Shurmur had to change his scheme in-season to compensate for it. At minimum, the Vikings need new starters at left tackle and right guard. Shaky RT Jeremiah Sirles should face competition.
Running Back: This assumes Adrian Peterson will depart, which seems inevitable considering his increasing ineffectiveness, injuries, age (32 in March), and $18 million cap number. Jerick McKinnon is talented but inconsistent, and it’s past time the Vikings washed their hands of plodding short-yardage specialist Matt Asiata, who is a free agent.
Linebacker: Cornerback also deserves a mention with LCB Terence Newman and slot CB Captain Munnerlyn scheduled for free agency. Newman heir apparent Trae Waynes did take a step forward as a sophomore, and 2016 second-round pick Mackensie Alexander is an in-house option should Munnerlyn leave. Still, linebacker stands out with free agent WLB Chad Greenway tentatively expected to retire. It doesn’t help that SLB Anthony Barr took a step back after promising 2014 and 2015 campaigns.
New England Patriots
Defensive Line: While the Super Bowl champs stamped out running games and played stingy coverage on the back end, their defensive weakness was an inability to apply consistent pressure on quarterbacks. The Patriots finished 18th in sacks (34) and a lowlier 26th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate. Breakout DE Trey Flowers is a long-term keeper, but DEs Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long and NT Alan Branch are all free agents. 33-year-old DE Rob Ninkovich is on his last legs.
Linebacker: Trading OLB Jamie Collins during the season and failing to reach a long-term deal with MLB Dont’a Hightower make linebacker a big need for New England, where trade acquisition SLB Kyle Van Noy, second-year sixth-round MLB Elandon Roberts, and part-time WLB Shea McClellin currently top the depth chart.
Defensive Back: Tight end warrants a mention with Rob Gronkowski coming off back surgery and Martellus Bennett’s contract up. New England has two more critical free agents in the secondary with slot corner Logan Ryan likely headed for a big pay day and oft-used third safety Duron Harmon set to join him on the open market. LCB Malcolm Butler is a restricted free agent.
New Orleans Saints
Defensive Line: The Saints have two only players worth hanging their hats on in the defensive front: DT Sheldon Rankins and RE Cameron Jordan. New Orleans has allowed a league-high 930 points over the past two seasons, good for 29.1 per game. This roster desperately needs pass rushers and run stuffers.
Cornerback: The Saints fielded a rag-tag cornerback corps in 2016, playing a host of undrafted rookies and street free agents and frequently resorting to in-game and weekly benchings due to their ineffectiveness. Only LCB Delvin Breaux has flashed starting-caliber ability among the returnees, and he fractured his fibula last September before suffering a year-ending shoulder injury in Week 15. A full-on overhaul of this position shouldn’t be out of the question.
Linebacker: As you might expect, every level of the defense gets touched on here. On offense, the Saints are likely to make a move at running back with role players Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet’s contracts expiring. An interior offensive lineman will likely be added at some point. The more-glaring need is linebacker, where 2016 addition James Laurinaitis was a predictable flop and 2015 first-round pick Stephone Anthony has been a bust.
New York Giants
Defensive Line: Up-front disruption is the most critical component of a Steve Spagnuolo defense. Maintaining it will be key, especially for a team whose offense is no longer capable of winning shootouts. LE Jason Pierre-Paul and DT Johnathan Hankins’ contracts are up, creating two major gaps in the front four. Even if one or both re-signs, the Giants need more defensive line depth.
Offensive Line: After LT Ereck Flowers’ horrific sophomore year, GM Jerry Reese acknowledged the Giants will consider moving Flowers to right tackle, where his run blocking would be put to better use and Flowers’ pass-protection woes might be slightly less detrimental. RG John Jerry’s contract is up, and RT Bobby Hart doesn’t look like the answer as a starting tackle. Sturdy C Weston Richburg is entering a contract year.
Running Back: I wanted to list quarterback here after 36-year-old Eli Manning’s dismal year. The Giants also need upgrades at tight end, wide receiver, and linebacker. Ultimately, I think Reese’s best approach would be to make the Giants a run-game/defense-oriented team that leans much less on its passing game and more on a ball-control approach. Dead-legged Rashad Jennings got cut on Monday, while Paul Perkins best projects as a complementary back. The Giants need a foundation runner. They finished dead last in yards per carry (3.55), even as defenses sold out to stop Odell Beckham and dared the G-Men to run against light fronts.
New York Jets
Quarterback: The Jets’ only quarterbacks under contract for 2017 are Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. New OC John Morton comes from New Orleans, where Sean Payton emphasized a timing-and-rhythm passing attack that spread out defenses and sought to create matchup advantages. The Jets have the No. 6 overall pick in the draft. Reports from CBS Sports and the New York Daily News have linked Gang Green to North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky.
Offensive Line: The Jets have short- and long-term question marks at both tackle spots and center, where LT Ryan Clady (shoulder), RT Breno Giacomini (back), and C Nick Mangold (ankle) all ended the season on injured reserve. Clady and Giacomini are possible cap casualties, while Mangold is 33 years old.
Defensive Back: The Jets have a lot of needs, also including tight end, edge pass rusher, and arguably running back. Defensive back is foremost among them after LCB Darrelle Revis declined sharply in 2016 and FS Marcus Gilchrist tore his patellar tendon. Slot corner Buster Skrine suffered multiple concussions, and RCB Marcus Williams is a restricted free agent. Torched relentlessly by vertical receivers, the Jets need a speed infusion on the back end.
Linebacker: It wouldn’t be overkill for the Raiders to address the second level of their defense with multiple additions. Starting ILBs Malcolm Smith and Perry Riley are both free agents, and sixth-round pick Cory James didn’t prove the solution after replacing Ben Heeney early in the year. Talented on the edges, the Raiders’ defense could take a big step forward by adding a dynamic three-down presence in the middle of the field.
Running Back: DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard both flashed playmaking ability as rookies, but they best project as role-playing change-of-pace backs. Lead runner Latavius Murray is headed for free agency. The Raiders were reported to have interest in DeMarco Murray two offseasons ago and Matt Forte last year. They also reportedly wanted Ezekiel Elliott in the draft, but he went long before their No. 14 overall pick.
Wide Receiver: I also considered cornerback and offensive tackle for Oakland’s No. 3 need. I settled on wide receiver after slot man Seth Roberts’ drop-filled year. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are both under team control through 2019, but the Raiders would be in trouble if one of them went down. Fourth receiver Andre Holmes’ contract is up, and Crabtree turns 30 later this year.
Wide Receiver: Completely devoid of perimeter playmakers, the 2016 Eagles finished 29th in 20-plus-yard pass plays (39) despite ranking sixth in the league in pass attempts (609). Slot man Jordan Matthews and tight end Zach Ertz are reliable possession targets, but Philly needs someone to stretch the field. They’ve been linked to free agents DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery.
Cornerback: The Eagles don’t have a single starting-caliber cornerback under contract for 2017. Incumbent RCB Nolan Carroll is a free agent, and LCB Leodis McKelvin was cut after the season. Slot corner Ron Brooks got torched before tearing his quad in October. The coaching staff seems high on 2016 seventh-round pick Jalen Mills, although he finished dead last among 120 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus’ cornerback grades.
Defensive Line: The Eagles’ No. 3 need is debatable with running back, offensive line, and outside linebacker as positions Philly could also address. I went with defensive line instead because it was one of the Eagles’ few team strengths and they need to keep it that way. NT Bennie Logan’s contract is up, while RE Connor Barwin may be released. The entire defense is painfully short on depth.
Linebacker: While free agent OLB James Harrison is expected back in Pittsburgh, he turns 39 in May and would ideally be used as a rotational pass rusher. 2013 first-round bust Jarvis Jones has played his last down as a Steeler, and 31-year-old ILB Lawrence Timmons’ contract is up. The Steelers need to find a long-term bookend for Bud Dupree. Two-down thumper Vince Williams is the top in-house candidate to succeed Timmons.
Wide Receiver: Short playmakers beyond Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers’ offense became limited by the end of the season. They were forced to lean on plodding Cobi Hamilton as a starter in two-receiver sets. The Steelers are approaching anything they get from suspended WR Martavis Bryant as a bonus, while Sammie Coates remains a project entering year three.
Cornerback: Running back is a current need on paper, but it should be shored up when the Steelers franchise tag Bell. Tight end is also a cloudy position due to Ladarius Green’s unstable health. Pittsburgh beat writers have identified cornerback as a bigger point of emphasis, even after GM Kevin Colbert drafted Artie Burns in last year’s first round. That’s because 32-year-old slot corner William Gay’s job security is questionable, and LCB Ross Cockrell is a restricted free agent.
San Francisco 49ers
Quarterback: While new coach Kyle Shanahan has promised to keep an open mind on Colin Kaepernick, it probably won’t matter with Kaepernick expected to opt out of his contract after March 2. Shanahan has made it clear he prefers “pure throwers” to dual-threat quarterbacks, so this was always an unlikely match. Kaepernick is currently the 49ers’ only signal caller signed for 2017.
Wide Receiver: Owed $8 million in salary and bonuses, Torrey Smith is a prime release candidate after two abysmal years in San Francisco. Jeremy Kerley, Quinton Patton, and Rod Streater are all free agents. The 49ers have the worst wide receiver depth chart in the league.
Linebacker: Interior offensive line, nose tackle, and cornerback are also deficient positions on the NFC’s weakest team. I went with linebacker as San Francisco’s No. 3 need because it kills two birds with one stone. The 49ers have minimal outside pass rush, while ILBs Navorro Bowman (Achilles’) and Ray-Ray Armstrong (pectoral) are both coming off season-ending injuries. With and without Bowman on the field, last year’s Niners defense got infamously trampled by the run.
Offensive Line: Last year’s Seahawks coughed up the NFL’s sixth most sacks (42) and fourth most quarterback hits (111), all too frequently torpedoing Seattle’s offense by allowing almost instant penetration. The Seahawks have never had a good line during the Russell Wilson era, but it reached a new low in 2016. C Justin Britt was Seattle’s top lineman, and he can be a free agent after 2017.
Cornerback: RCB Deshawn Shead had a breakout 2016, but tore his ACL in the playoffs and is a restricted free agent. Shead’s availability for Week 1 is in serious question. While LCB Richard Sherman is still going strong, slot corner Jeremy Lane had a disappointing year.
Linebacker: O-Line and cornerback are the Seahawks’ only two obvious needs. While MLB Bobby Wagner and WLB K.J. Wright are locked in as high-end starters, GM John Schneider will likely add linebacker depth with a cheap free agent or middle- to late-round pick.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Defensive Back: The Bucs’ biggest secondary need is safety, where SS Bradley McDougald’s contract is up and fellow free agent FS Chris Conte lost his job to Keith Tandy, who is now entering a contract year. While RCB Vernon Hargreaves finished his rookie year strong, Tampa Bay also needs a slot corner upgrade and a young prospect to groom behind aging LCB Brent Grimes.
Wide Receiver: Tampa Bay’s 2016 passing game was extremely limited, with Mike Evans and Cameron Brate serving as Jameis Winston’s only consistent options. 34-year-old free agent Vincent Jackson ran out of gas long before his year-ending ACL injury. I expect the Bucs to use the No. 19 overall pick at safety or wideout.
Running Back: The Bucs’ third need is up for wide-ranging debate, with slot cornerback, strong-side linebacker, center, and defensive line depth also in consideration. I went with running back because the team is expected to part ways with Doug Martin, who battled injuries and ineffectiveness before drawing a four-game PED suspension that will sideline Martin until Week 4. Jacquizz Rodgers is a free agent, and Charles Sims is a change-of-pace back.
Cornerback: Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie appropriately won 2016 NFL Executive of the Year, but I thought Titans GM Jon Robinson deserved consideration. Tennessee’s roster is headed firmly in the right direction. The most glaring hole is cornerback, where overpaid RCB Jason McCourty is a candidate for release and LCB Perrish Cox got cut during the season. The Titans finished 26th in pass-defense DVOA.
Wide Receiver: Robinson hit big on 2016 free agent pickup Rishard Matthews, whom the Titans landed on an affordable three-year, $15 million deal. Tennessee got little production from its alternative receivers, however, and Matthews doesn’t quite profile as a No. 1 option. Enigmatic slot man Kendall Wright’s contract is up, while 2016 fifth-round pick Tajae Sharpe was stretched as a starter. Tight end Delanie Walker remains the passing-game focal point, but he turns 33 before the season.
Linebacker: The Titans are in good enough shape that I actually struggled to identify a clear No. 3 need. They could use depth at inside linebacker, where starters Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson are both entering contract years and Tennessee lacks in-house candidates to succeed them.
Defensive Line: Last year’s Redskins got bullied in the trenches, finishing 25th in run-defense DVOA and coughing up the NFL’s sixth most yards per carry (4.53). In free agent RE Chris Baker, the Skins are now in danger of losing their best defensive lineman. They need multiple starters up front.
Defensive Back: The Redskins’ secondary needs begin at safety, where 33-year-old FS DeAngelo Hall tore his ACL in Week 3 after tearing his Achilles’ twice in 2014. Sophomore Su’a Cravens might be an option at strong safety, although Cravens mostly played sub-package linebacker as a rookie. Slot corners Kendall Fuller and Dashaun Phillips took turns getting burned to a crisp throughout 2016.
Wide Receiver: Quarterback is technically a Redskins need with Kirk Cousins not under contract at present, but he will likely be tagged if no long-term deal is reached. With DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon scheduled for free agency, wideout could quickly go from a strength to a weakness. 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson can’t be counted on after missing his entire rookie year with Achilles’ setbacks. Slot man Jamison Crowder is Washington’s lone receiver with any meaningful NFL production.