- What positions will your team be targeting via free agency and the NFL draft this off-season?
Now that the confetti has rained down on Super Bowl LI and the Patriots are owners of their fifth title, the NFL has fully entered off-season mode. And with the NFL combine, free agency and the NFL draft rapidly approaching, teams are laser-focused on where they need to restock and rebuild their roster.
Teams can hand out franchise or transition tags starting Feb. 15 until March 1 at 4 p.m., and then free agency opens on March 9 at 4 p.m. ET. And for gaps not fulfilled through free agency, teams will turn to the NFL draft on April 27–29 to flesh out their rosters.
What positions will each team be targeting in either free agency or the draft? Andy Benoit runs down the biggest team needs at the start of the 2017 off-season.
Until this team finds its quarterback, management will keep making shortsighted head-coaching hires every two or three years. Tyrod Taylor is not the solution. He's mobile—and that's it. He doesn't have the anticipatory instincts or accuracy to compensate for mediocre throwing velocity. Taylor's also not comfortable in the pocket, which leads to his breaking down before the pressure even arrives and renders him unable to see open receivers. If the Bills wind up riding Taylor one more year—unlikely, given they'd save $13 million in cap space by cutting him—then he'll need weapons. Every receiver except Sammy Watkins is now a free agent.
Coach Adam Gase, one of the league's best offensive architects, has a favorite formation: an unbalanced 3-by-1, with all wide receivers on the 3 side and a tight end on the 1 side. This not only forces the defense to reveal man or zone coverage but also sets up the three-receiver route combinations and quick strikes that define Gase's designs. Just one problem: The Dolphins don't have a dangerous pass-catching tight end. In 2016 they aligned in their 3-by-1 set 170 times and threw to the tight end just 10. That won't do. Jordan Cameron and Dion Sims are both free agents, so a new tight end is needed regardless. Gase has to find someone with the flexibility to split out wide, the way Julius Thomas did so effectively for him in Denver.
Defensive ends Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long, middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower and DT Alan Branch are all free agents. The Patriots enter the off-season with more cap space than all but three teams, but their history says there's still little chance all four of these players will be retained. What Bill Belichick prioritizes above all else in run defense is someone to set the edge and force a ballcarrier to stay inside; that's where Sheard and Long are valuable. The 26-year-old Hightower, in particular, will be pricey, commanding top five stack 'backer money. Finding a thumping gap shooter like him, or a behemoth gap plugger like Branch, will be critical in maintaining a run defense that tied for third in 2016.
Unless 2016 second-round pick Christian Hackenberg is the guy (unlikely at this point), there's a spot to fill at quarterback, and whoever the Jets find will need protection. Ryan Clady (cap hit of $10.5 million in 2017) and Breno Giacomini (cap hit $5.1 million) are expensive for tackles in their 30s coming off injury-riddled seasons. Either could be replaced—and not internally, since so-so backup Ben Ijalana is now a free agent. What type of tackle New York finds depends on the system installed by first-time offensive coordinator John Morton (former Saints receivers coach). If it's run-heavy and built on deep drop-backs, the tackle will be pricier. If it's a quick-striking spread scheme, a middle-tier tackle will do.
Steve Smith just signed a multi-year deal with NFL Network as an analyst, so GM Ozzie Newsome needs to find a playmaking receiver. Mike Wallace improved his route running in Baltimore but is still confined mostly to Go patterns and shallow crosses. At best, he's a No. 2. Breshad Perriman, a 2015 first-rounder, might—might—be capable of headlining a group, but after a rookie season lost to a right-knee injury, he rose to only fourth on the depth chart. The Ravens' choices won't be limited. Joe Flacco is in his element as a deep thrower, but he can play with any style of wideout.
Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther can be creative with some of his third-down pass-rushing packages. (For example: Whenever tackle Geno Atkins lines head-up on the center, be alert for a zone blitz.) More often, Guenther prefers to sit back in straight two-high zones and trust his men to execute, but that only works if the quarterback is forced to release the ball quickly. The Bengals, with their hit or miss four-man rush, don't generate enough pressure. The problem in 2016 was a lack of production on the edges. Left end Carlos Dunlap is talented but wildly inconsistent. Long and limber right end Michael Johnson looks the part but doesn't actually do anything. Watching film, you often forget he's even out there.
Like 99% of the teams that have ever drafted No. 1, quarterback is a need. Also like 99% of the teams who've drafted No. 1, other needs exist. In the Browns' case, there's an especially dire one along the defensive line. They have no natural pass rushers. That, not unstable quarterbacking, was the biggest reason Cleveland, which was well-schemed and played hard throughout 2016, won just a single game. In the NFL, speed and burst off the edge are critical, but flexibility to bend around the corner is also a must. The Browns drafted Emmanuel Ogbah in Round 2 and Carl Nassib in Round 3 last year, but neither is a true edge-bender. It's imperative that Cleveland, with two first-round picks in April, invest heavily in a bona fide playmaker up front.
At 38, outside linebacker James Harrison played 91% of the meaningful snaps after Week 12 and performed at a high level, largely because the Steelers had wisely limited his workload over the first dozen weeks. If Harrison re-signs as expected, they'll have to do that again. The question is, Who rotates in ahead of him? Outside linebacker is a crucial position in Pittsburgh's scheme. Jarvis Jones, a 2013 first-rounder, has yet to develop any moves and isn't worth bringing back. Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo both got chances to shine and didn't. Bud Dupree is a rising young player who thrives on second-effort moves. The Steelers need another Dupree to spell (and one day fully supplant) Harrison.
It's a position that's unsexy but significant—especially for a team that must cover for its quarterback with a remedial passing game and a heavy emphasis on running the ball. Left guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, whom the Texans infamously selected at the top of the second round ahead of quarterback Derek Carr in 2014, hasn't worked out. The 6' 4", 320-pound Su'a-Filo can get into his pull-blocks well (he stays tight to the other blockers as he moves behind them), but landing those blocks is a different story. He is neither nimble nor powerful, and he almost certainly won't be re-signed when his rookie deal expires after 2017 because he's also erratic in pass protection. And so is right guard Jeff Allen.
Fans in Indianapolis will scream from the mountaintops that their team should find new offensive linemen to better protect Andrew Luck. But the Colts have. Last year they took center Ryan Kelly in the first round, guard-tackle Le'Raven Clark in the third and Joe Haeg in the fifth. Now that trio, which started a combined 33 games in 2016, needs time to develop—just as any lineman that Indy picked this year would. The focus must instead go to a defense that has ranked 19th or worse in six of the last seven seasons and lacks pass rushers and ball hawks. Erik Walden led the team with 11 sacks, but his skill set is that of a No. 2 edge rusher. Finding a primary edge rusher, or a versatile safety, would be a great first step.
This young, talented offense grossly underachieved in 2016, starting with quarterback Blake Bortles and trickling down from there. Rather than remake the whole lineup, management should try to help its players become more consistent, and shoring up the interior offensive line fosters that. Luke Joeckel, the No. 2 pick in 2013, is coming off a severe left knee injury that cost him the final 12 games, but before that he had not played well enough to justify his starting job at left tackle or guard—His spot must be refilled. At right guard, A.J. Cann leveled off after making steady improvements as a third-round rookie in '15, and his skill set suggests he's already hit his ceiling. He can remain a starter, but competition here wouldn't hurt.
It's never good in late November when you're releasing starters (Perrish Cox) and rotating new guys into the first-string lineup. That's precisely what went on at cornerback for Tennessee in 2016. Despite that, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a long-time zone coverage advocate, continued to play man-to-man. Either LeBeau believes today's NFL demands more man coverage or he didn't trust his corners to meet the matchup responsibilities that come with his patented five-man zone blitzes. Either way, the Titans have immense needs at cornerback. If unaddressed, the situation will get worse before it gets better: Jason McCourty, the only reliable starter, is due for free agency in 2018.
With untested 2015 seventh-rounder Trevor Siemian under center, the Broncos knew they would need a run-based offense last season. There were two reasons their ground game (and playoff chances) dried up down the stretch. One: RB C.J. Anderson and underrated FB Andy Janovich suffered injuries. And two: The front five was inconsistent. Adept at times in zone blocking, at least inside, it ultimately couldn't move the line of scrimmage from snap to snap. Anderson and Janovich will both be healthy by '17, which means resources can go to the O-line. Every player except center Matt Paradis and maybe guard Max Garcia could stand to be replaced.
At 34, middle linebacker Derrick Johnson is coming off his second torn Achilles in three years (one on each side). Ramik Wilson got better filling in for Johnson down the stretch, but even if he can assume more of Johnson's duties (which include taking the running back in man coverage), this position must be addressed. Despite a large, athletic defensive line, the Chiefs have ranked 22nd or worse against the run in five of the last six years. And with no depth at inside 'backer, they often have to play dime (six DBs) with a third safety in the box against three-receiver sets. As the Steelers made clear in their divisional-round win at K.C., this lighter personnel package only exacerbates the Chiefs' run-stopping woes.
It's strange: If everyone is healthy, this is a playoff team. Philip Rivers and a bevy of athletic receivers lead a well-designed aerial attack. RB Melvin Gordon improved drastically in year two and now fits well behind what is the NFL's biggest O-line. On defense, Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa make a nimble, explosive pass-rushing tandem (if Ingram is re-signed). All the corners can play man coverage—Jason Verrett and Casey Hayward can do it against No. 1 receivers, in fact—the safeties hit hard and the inside linebackers, behind a stingy D-line, are capable. But for several years the Chargers have been ravaged by injuries. They must find more depth.
Though the issue abated as the 2016 season wore on, the Raiders struggled when offenses isolated their linebackers in coverage. Much of the time a simple lack of zone awareness was to blame. The fluid but inconsistent Malcolm Smith, Oakland's best coverage 'backer, was too often exposed. Even more so were youngsters Cory James and Ben Heeney (who is also coming off a right ankle injury that put him on IR in early October). Longtime Redskin Perry Riley helped after arriving midseason, but he's a plug-in guy. Considering the undisciplined play against the run, and given that the Raiders' D-line is already strong—if not stacked—a three-down clean-up linebacker would do wonders.
Greg Hardy turned out to be a locker room cancer in 2015 (to say nothing of his off-field résumé), and the Cowboys chose not to bring the defensive end back in ’16. The drug problems that led the gifted Randy Gregory to fall to the second round in the ’15 draft persisted, and the D-end was suspended for 14 games in ’16. (Now he’s banned for all of ’17.) Demarcus Lawrence, a second-round pick in ’14 at end, has suffered back problems. Clearly it's time for Dallas’s front office to stop with the high-risk bargain hunting and just pay the premium for a quality defensive lineman. Coordinator Rod Marinelli’s classic 4–3 scheme depends on production from the guys up front.
The Giants may have the NFL’s simplest offensive scheme: They rely on their wide receivers making plays. And because they get the ball out quickly, they’re not overly dependent on pass protection—they don’t need to pony up for high-priced linemen. But consider how this impacts the run-blocking: In a scheme that requires only mid-tier linemen, that deploys no fullback and often just one tight end, a ballcarrier must create his own yards. That means New York must invest some capital in a quality back or two—otherwise the O winds up ranking 30th in yards per carry, as this one did with Rashad Jennings in 2016.
Down five late in a Week 14 game against the Redskins, the Eagles faced repeated must-throw scenarios—and yet they played with two wideouts and two tight ends. Almost any other team would have lined up three WRs and one TE—especially if their tight end options were Zach Ertz and career backup Trey Burton. But most other teams aren’t limited by a receiving corps featuring slowpokes like Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor, or by an athletically gifted but unrefined route-runner like Dorial Green-Beckham. Philadelphia has to remedy this situation, and of these three receivers, Agholor is the one most needing to be replaced. Neither of the other two should sleep soundly though.
The Redskins never got settled at safety last season, and now they have expiring contracts to deal with. Duke Ihenacho and Donte Whitner—both quality run supporters but vulnerable pass defenders—may not be re-signed. DeAngelo Hall’s deal is up after the 2017 season; considering that he’s 33 and coming off a right-ACL injury, Washington may take the $4.25 million in cap savings (against $813,000 in dead money) to dump him. Converted corner Will Blackmon is worth keeping, but he’s also in the final year of his deal. If intriguing ’16 second-round pick Su’a Cravens is earmarked to play more linebacker—he did so mostly in sub packages as a rookie—the Redskins could need two new starting safeties.
Chicago often endured Alshon Jeffery’s missing time, due to either injuries or a PED suspension, so the front office may not be inclined to pay him the kind of money other teams offer in free agency. Given that uncertainty, plus the slow development of 2015 first-rounder Kevin White, there’s likely a need at receiver—a serious need if the Bears are bothered by the deluge of dropped passes by Cameron Meredith and Josh Bellamy. When those two caught the ball, they showed the route-running acumen to be sturdy possession targets. That, however, is a description more fit for someone in a supporting role.
Schematically, the Lions’ D was about as simple as it gets in 2016—their coverages were mostly undisguised zones, their fronts often static. It’s fine to play this way, as long as you have destructive linemen. But the Lions have only one of those, D-end Ziggy Ansah, and his destructiveness led to just two sacks last season. Ansah’s fellow ends, Devin Taylor and Armonty Bryant, are free agents; each is replaceable. On passing downs, Kerry Hyder is better suited for defensive tackle. Detroit doesn’t have to look for an expensive edge player, however. They run a lot of stunts, with ends looping inside. Finding someone to pair with ’16 second-round pick A’Shawn Robinson—and maybe supplant the declining Haloti Ngata—would be helpful.
The most amazing thing about last month's NFC title game: that the Packers even got that far, given their problems at corner. They survived Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant in the first two playoff rounds; Julio Jones eventually proved too much. With recently released Sam Shields out for all but one game in 2016 (concussion), and with Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall often banged up, the undrafted LaDarius Gunter—plus considerable safety help—traveled with No. 1 receivers. Which speaks volumes. No disrespect to Gunter, but no player with such limited quickness has ever drawn consecutive matchups like Beckham, Bryant and Jones. Green Bay must ensure that such one-sided mismatches don’t happen again.
Multiple injuries at one position almost always bring big trouble—especially at a reactionary position like tackle. Much like how corners react to receivers, tackles react to edge rushers. And the tackles in Minnesota simply couldn't keep up in 2016. After Matt Kalil (right hip), Andre Smith (right elbow) and Jake Long (left Achilles) each went down before Thanksgiving, T.J. Clemmings (whose future is as a backup right tackle, at best) was forced to protect Sam Bradford's blind side. The Vikings had to overhaul their scheme just to hide him. With Kalil and Smith entering free agency (both may walk; Kalil was inconsistent and Smith is injury-prone), Minnesota must remake the position that killed this team.
Not only did the Falcons reach the Super Bowl with a powerhouse offense that's in its prime, and with a rising defense that is one of the league's youngest, but they also now enter the off-season with just one free agent they must re-sign: FB Patrick DiMarco. Luckily fullback is one of the league's cheapest positions. And so this off-season will be about improving a defense that's already an improvement on recent years. The way to do that is to add a pass rusher opposite NFL sack leader Vic Beasley—who, by the way, still has room to grow. Atlanta employs plenty of stunts and twists out of a four-man rush, so whichever pass rusher they find must be flexible.
The Panthers' front four must be dynamic for their zone coverages to work. In 2016, Carolina was 3–1 in games in which the D had at least four sacks, and 3–9 in games it didn't. In 2017 sacks will likely come from guys who aren't currently on the roster. Defensive tackles Kawann Short and Kyle Love (combined: 7.5 sacks) are free agents. At defensive end, the free-agent list includes Charles Johnson, Wes Horton and Mario Addison (16 total), and next year Kony Ealy (five) could walk. Of these players, only Short is a must re-sign—and that may be tough without franchise-tagging him. GM Dave Gettleman has lamented the defensive-tackle-market-setting contract signed by the Eagles' Fletcher Cox last year: six years, with $63.3 million guaranteed.
In March 2015, when the Saints traded tight end Jimmy Graham and a fourth-round pick to the Seahawks for center Max Unger and the 31st pick, GM Mickey Loomis said the end goal was to improve a defense that had been mired in mediocrity. But in the two seasons since then, the Saints have ranked 31st and 32nd in points allowed. Based on what he did as the coach in Oakland, it would seem that coordinator Dennis Allen would like to play a defense rich in variation and disguise. But with limitations at all three levels, he's had to go with schemes that simply minimize damage. With the exceptions of DT Sheldon Rankins, DE Cameron Jordan, CB Delvin Breaux and SS Kenny Vaccaro, Allen's unit can upgrade at any spot.
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith likes to play a variety of zone coverages, often with a disguise, and you don't necessarily need great safeties to operate like this, although the better you are at this position, the better your disguises. Both of the Bucs' starting safeties, Chris Conte and Brad McDougald, are free agents. Conte, a poor tackler who lacks range in coverage, lost his job to the much headier Keith Tandy in the final weeks of 2016 and should not be re-signed. McDougald is a quality downhill run-filler, but he can be a little hit-or-miss in coverage. Whether he's retained will largely depend on how Tampa Bay's front office feels about the NFL's 2017 draft and free-agent class.
No defense has more talent under expired contracts than the Cardinals: Calais Campbell, Frostee Rucker, Chandler Jones, Kevin Minter, D.J. Swearinger and Tony Jefferson are all free agents, and some of them will have to be replaced externally. But things are even more dire along the interior offensive line. Left guard Mike Iupati (who had a poor season) is the only usable returning piece. Center A.Q. Shipley's deal is up; guards Evan Mathis and Earl Watford also enter free agency (and they're both replaceable). Arizona runs a lot of empty formations, with no one in the backfield to help protect QB Carson Palmer. It's imperative that the core of this line be strong.
Pick a spot, any spot. Left tackle Greg Robinson's feet aren't up to snuff for an NFL starter. Left guard Rodger Saffold is an average blocker, but he's injury-prone. Center Tim Barnes lacks athleticism; so does right guard Cody Wichmann. Right tackle Rob Havenstein.... Well, O.K., maybe he's worth keeping—but only because he has shown improvement in his two years in the NFL and because he plays a position at which the league lacks capable athletes. If new coach Sean McVay is to run the cutting-edge system he previously employed with the Redskins, if second-year QB Jared Goff is to have a prayer, if running back Todd Gurley is to see any daylight, the Rams must make changes up front.
An unusual front-office arrangement and unpredictable behavior by the owner—those aren't the only reasons quality coaching candidates initially rejected this job. (The 49ers were lucky to get one of the best young coordinators, former Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan, as their new head coach.) There's also the matter of San Francisco not having a quarterback capable of elevating this team. Colin Kaepernick lacks the pocket acumen, field vision and throwing touch to lead an NFL offense. There's a tendency to think that Shanahan's system, with its emphasis on moving pockets and play-action, can save the 29-year-old. But no. Even on the move, his limitations are problematic. Plus, even in Shanahan's scheme, the QB plays on the move on fewer than half the snaps.
Popular opinion holds that the Seahawks need help along the offensive line, and that's not untrue. But understand: Seattle has addressed this position already. This team is just waiting on some young guys to mature. It's entirely possible—likely, in fact—that this group will remain unchanged. Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider have enough job stability (and wisdom) to wait out the O-line's development. The more pressing need is at corner—the depth here is iffy, and the right-side spot, opposite Richard Sherman, is very much in question after rising fifth-year pro DeShawn Shead tore his left ACL in the playoff loss to the Falcons. Expect the Seahawks to look for a strong, lanky defender to play outside.