- 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.