The 2015-2016 NFL season officially went in the books last Sunday, and the Scouting Combine is only a few weeks away. Free agency opens on March 9. With front offices and coaching staffs settled, impending free agents identified, and salary cap situations beginning to clarify, here is a look at the four most glaring positional needs for every club entering the 2016 offseason.
Teams are listed loosely in order of roster quality.
"RFA" = Restricted Free Agent
Notable Free Agents: LT Russell Okung, OLB Bruce Irvin, NT Brandon Mebane, CB Jeremy Lane, WR Jermaine Kearse, RB Christine Michael (RFA), OG J.R. Sweezy, DT Ahtyba Rubin, C Patrick Lewis (RFA), P Jon Ryan, QB Tarvaris Jackson, RB Fred Jackson, DT Demarcus Dobbs, T/G Alvin Bailey (RFA), RB Bryce Brown
Offensive Line: Due to Russell Wilson's movement ability and position coach Tom Cable's penchant for maximizing talent, the Seahawks have skated by with sub-par line play for the past several seasons. An aggressive mindset will be required for GM John Schneider to patch up the unit this spring. LT Russell Okung and RG J.R. Sweezy's contracts are up, while LG Justin Britt and RT Garry Gilliam are coming off miserable years. The Seahawks played in-season musical chairs at center after trading away Max Unger. Wilson's sack total (45) was the highest of his career. Look for Schneider to attack this weakness in both free agency and the draft.
Cornerback: Shutdown LCB Richard Sherman is still playing at an elite level going on age 28, but the rest of Seattle's cornerback corps has holes. RCB Deshawn Shead flashed promise in spurts, but was largely a liability. A late-season difference maker, slot corner Jeremy Lane's contract is up. Released by Seattle in December, Cary Williams was a colossal-if-predictable free agent bust. At very least, the Seahawks need a cornerback capable of making a serious run at a starting job. Re-signing Lane would be a nice first step toward solidifying this position group.
Wide Receiver: Tyler Lockett was highway robbery in the 2015 third round, but Doug Baldwin is entering his contract year and Jermaine Kearse is a candidate to get overpaid in free agency. 2014 second-rounder Paul Richardson is likely a bust. It's conceivable Baldwin could make offseason noise about his contract, which pays him just $4 million after a breakout 14-touchdown campaign. Jimmy Graham's blown-out knee enhances pass catcher as a need.
Defensive Line: Starting DTs Brandon Mebane and Ahtyba Rubin are scheduled for free agency, while RE Cliff Avril and LE Michael Bennett will both enter next season on the wrong side of 30. The Seahawks do have Avril and Bennett signed long term, to go with promising youngsters DT Jordan Hill, 25, and DE Frank Clark, 22. This isn't necessarily a weakness on Seattle's roster, but it's a position at which the team can afford to upgrade and likely will try.
New England Patriots
Notable Free Agents: DT Akiem Hicks, NT Sealver Siliga (RFA), CB Tarell Brown, RB LeGarrette Blount, OG Ryan Wendell, SS Nate Ebner, SS Tavon Wilson, MLB Dane Fletcher, RB Steven Jackson
Offensive Line: New England's most glaring 2015 deficiency was its interior offensive line, where rotating guards Josh Kline, Tre' Jackson, and Shaq Mason were frequently beaten in pass protection and C Bryan Stork endured a sub-par, injury-shortened year. As Stork (25), Jackson (23), and Mason (22) are all young and growing, it's possible the Patriots will bank on improvement from within. After firing position coach Dave DeGuglielmo immediately after the season, however, Bill Belichick very clearly knows this was his team's primary weakness.
Running Back: Dion Lewis will return from his torn ACL, but LeGarrette Blount is up for free agency after suffering a year-ending hip injury, and James White is best employed as a lightly used role player. This may finally be the offseason where Belichick targets a true three-down back capable of both churning yards in the run game and contributing in the pass game. If free agent Matt Forte is willing to sign for a reasonable price, he'd fit beautifully in Foxboro.
Tight End: The Patriots are expected to release Scott Chandler after a disappointing campaign. Belichick and OC Josh McDaniels value the capability of running two-tight end sets because they add versatility and diversity to personnel packages, and can result in mismatches in both the run and pass games. An intriguing in-house prospect is 2015 sixth-rounder AJ Derby, an ex-college quarterback who plays with a mean streak but spent his rookie year on I.R.
Wide Receiver: Brandon LaFell ($2.8 million) and Danny Amendola ($6.5 million) are candidates for release. Julian Edelman turns 30 in May. Enigmatic underachiever Aaron Dobson has 16 catches over the past two seasons. A pair of cheap, flier-type veteran signings might make sense. Young wideouts often struggle to grasp the Patriots' complex route concepts.
Notable Free Agents: CB Josh Norman, CB Charles Tillman, SS Roman Harper, FB Mike Tolbert, OG Amini Silatolu, DT Kyle Love, DE Frank Alexander, P Brad Nortman, CB Cortland Finnegan, OG Chris Scott, WR Stephen Hill (RFA)
Cornerback: While Josh Norman seems like a virtual lock for either the franchise tag or a long-term deal, Carolina's cornerback cupboard is bare beyond him and slot corner Bene Benwikere, who is coming off a broken left leg. RCB Charles Tillman and fill-in slot CB Cortland Finnegan are free agents. With DC Sean McDermott running a Cover 3 defense, expect GM Dave Gettleman to zero in on big, long-armed cornerbacks capable of making plays on the ball.
Safety: The Panthers have successfully hid SS Roman Harper's coverage limitations, but it's time for new blood as Harper enters free agency at age 33. One in-house candidate for a bigger role is rising third-year S Tre Boston, who didn't embarrass himself as a late-season rookie starter in 2014. Boston, however, is not quite the true "box safety" Cover 3 defenses tend to employ. The Panthers may target a tone setter to complement FS Kurt Coleman.
Defensive End: Building the Panthers in the likeness of his old Giants teams, Gettleman has stocked the roster with talented defensive linemen that play in a deep rotation, keeping its members fresh. Wave tackle Kyle Love's contract is up, while RE Jared Allen ($8.5 million) and LE Charles Johnson ($10.75 million) are owed gargantuan base salaries. Johnson, DTs Kawann Short and Dwan Edwards, and DE Mario Addison are all entering contract years.
Offensive Line: Carolina masked its shortcomings up front by playing run-heavy offense and dialing up max protections on passing downs. LT Michael Oher and RT Mike Remmers remained liabilities; Oher graded out dead last in Pro Football Focus' run-blocking grades among 76 qualified offensive tackles, while Remmers was most memorably dominated by Broncos OLB Von Miller in Super Bowl 50. The contracts of Oher, Remmers, C Ryan Kalil, and LG Andrew Norwell all expire after 2016.
Green Bay Packers
Notable Free Agents: CB Casey Hayward, OLB Nick Perry, NT B.J. Raji, DE Letroy Guion, OLB Mike Neal, RB James Starks, WR James Jones, K Mason Crosby, FB John Kuhn, TE Andrew Quarless, QB Scott Tolzien, T/G Don Barclay, SS Sean Richardson
Inside Linebacker: The Packers plan to move Clay Matthews back outside, creating a void at inside linebacker that 2015 fourth-round pick Jake Ryan didn't seem ready to solve. Green Bay's next-best option is Sam Barrington, who played poorly in 2014 before suffering a year-ending foot injury in the 2015 season opener. Nate Palmer was totally ineffective in his place. This is a position at which GM Ted Thompson needs to make multiple additions.
Defensive Line: Multiple reinforcements are also needed on the defensive line, where NT B.J. Raji and DE Letroy Guion are free agents, and to this point 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones has only worked his way into a rotational role. 27-year-old (in May) LE Mike Daniels is the Packers' lone surefire building block in the trenches.
Tight End: Green Bay has lacked a seam-stretching tight end since Jermichael Finley's career-ending neck injury. Richard Rodgers is a plodder with zero run-after-catch ability, and underachiever Andrew Quarless is headed to free agency. The Packers figure to hope for improvement from within at wide receiver, where Jordy Nelson (ACL) returns, Randall Cobb is still only 25, and Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis, Ty Montgomery, and Davante Adams provide youthful hope. Thompson needs to find Aaron Rodgers a legitimate weapon at tight end.
Running Back: The Packers' only two running backs signed for 2016 are Eddie Lacy and John Crockett. James Starks and FB John Kuhn's contracts are up. After coach Mike McCarthy called out Lacy publicly for his conditioning after the season, expect Green Bay to bring in competition for its workhorse runner. Lacy is believed to have ballooned near 260 pounds.
Notable Free Agents: FS Rashad Johnson, FS Tony Jefferson (RFA), RT Bobby Massie, CB Jerraud Powers, C Lyle Sendlein, RB Chris Johnson, OLB Dwight Freeney, OG Ted Larsen, WR Jaron Brown (RFA), TE Jermaine Gresham, ILB Sean Weatherspoon, SS D.J. Swearinger (RFA), OLB LaMarr Woodley, DE Red Bryant, FS Chris Clemons, QB Drew Stanton
Offensive Line: The Cardinals have hit big on LT Jared Veldheer and LG Mike Iupati in free agency, but whiffed on RG Jonathan Cooper in the draft, and need upgrades on C Lyle Sendlein and RG Ted Larsen, who are both free agents. 2015 first-round pick D.J. Humphries figures to replace free agent RT Bobby Massie. Right guard and center are the trouble spots.
Outside Linebacker: Although Arizona played stout 2015 defense, DC James Bettcher's unit ranked 21st in sacks (36) despite blitzing at a league-high rate. OLBs LaMarr Woodley and Dwight Freeney are aging with expiring contracts, while 2014 third-round pick Kareem Martin hasn't panned out. Alex Okafor and Markus Golden are promising pieces, but the Cardinals lack a big-time sack threat off the edge. Okafor and Golden combined for just six sacks in 2015.
Cornerback: Slot corner Tyrann Mathieu has suffered a torn ACL twice in the past three seasons, while RCB Jerraud Powers' contract is up and Justin Bethel failed to make good on his increased late-season snaps. Beyond Patrick Peterson, there's not much the Cardinals can count on at cornerback for 2016. Safety may also become a need with Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger up for restricted free agency. FS Rashad Johnson is an unrestricted free agent.
Quarterback: The Cardinals have tried to find a potential quarterback of the future behind 36-year-old Carson Palmer, blowing a 2014 fourth-round pick on Logan Thomas before trading for Matt Barkley last fall. Thomas was cut after the Barkley trade, however, and Barkley failed to unseat Drew Stanton for the primary backup job. Stanton is now a free agent. GM Steve Keim may not invest a high pick at quarterback, but he's likely to draft one this spring.
Notable Free Agents: SS Reggie Nelson, WR Marvin Jones, CB Pacman Jones, CB Leon Hall, RT Andre Smith, FS George Iloka, WR Mohamed Sanu, MLB Vincent Rey, DT Pat Sims, DE Wallace Gilberry, DT Brandon Thompson, OLB Emmanuel Lamur, OT Eric Winston
Defensive Back: Safety is the most pressing need on Cincinnati's roster because both incumbent starters -- FS George Iloka and SS Reggie Nelson -- have expiring contracts. 2013 third-round pick Shawn Williams did acquit himself well in a reserve role and could be poised for more run. At very least, the Bengals' other safety position needs to be addressed. At cornerback, 2012 and 2014 first-round picks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard have been early-career disappointments, while stalwart CBs Pacman Jones and Leon Hall are free agents. LCB Kirkpatrick was arguably the weakest link in the Bengals' 2015 secondary. Coming off shoulder surgery, Dennard is an unknown with one start through two seasons.
Wide Receiver: Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu's contracts are up, leaving the likes of Mario Alford, James Wright, and Jake Kumerow behind A.J. Green. Retaining Jones would solve this need, but he'd be smart to test the market as one of free agency's top-three wideouts. Even if Tyler Eifert takes another step forward, the Bengals need to find another starting wideout.
Defensive Line: Three-technique DT Geno Atkins regained dominant form following a down 2014, but NT Domata Peko turned in a rough year in run defense and will turn 32 next season. Peko is also entering the last year of his deal. Oft-used reserve DTs Brandon Thompson and Pat Sims are both free agents. At defensive end, the Bengals' pass rush was lacking beyond LE Carlos Dunlap. Recent early-round draft picks Margus Hunt and Will Clarke haven't panned out. No. 3 DE Wallace Gilberry's contract is up.
Linebacker: Rey Maualuga has matured into a functional middle linebacker, and WLB Vontaze Burfict is one of the highest-impact defenders in the league. SLB A.J. Hawk is barely an NFL-caliber player anymore, however, while Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur are headed to free agency. 2015 third-round pick Paul Dawson is an in-house candidate for more snaps. A fifth Bengals need is center, where Russell Bodine made no noticeable sophomore strides after a rough rookie year and needs to face 2016 competition.
Notable Free Agents: LT Kelvin Beachum, OG Ramon Foster, CB Brandon Boykin, NT Steve McLendon, CB William Gay, SS Will Allen, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, ILB Sean Spence, CB Antwon Blake, FS Robert Golden, DE Cam Thomas, QB Bruce Gradkowski, RB Jordan Todman, QB Michael Vick
Cornerback: Pittsburgh fielded one of the league's weakest 2015 cornerback corps, rotating William Gay, Antwon Blake, and Ross Cockrell before getting Brandon Boykin involved down the stretch. Gay, Blake, and Boykin are all free agents. 2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson (shoulder) missed his entire rookie year and stands 5-foot-9, 176. In order to match up with A.J. Green and Josh Gordon in the AFC North, the Steelers need a legit No. 1 corner.
Offensive Line: The Steelers will get C Maurkice Pouncey back from his broken fibula, but LT Kelvin Beachum and LG Ramon Foster are both free agents, while RG David DeCastro is entering his contract year. After Beachum tore his ACL in October, replacement Ali Villanueva struggled mightily in his absence, allowing the seventh most sacks among offensive tackles despite playing the 56th most snaps at the position. Pittsburgh must address at least two offensive line spots (LT, LG).
Safety: FS Mike Mitchell has settled in as a passable starter, but SS Will Allen's contract is up and 2013 fourth-rounder Shamarko Thomas doesn't look remotely ready to replace him. Nor does Robert Golden, a free agent who beat out Thomas for the Steelers' third safety job in 2015. As DC Keith Butler mixes and matches Cover 2 and Cover 3, Pittsburgh will hunt for a versatile bookend to Mitchell who's capable of covering tight ends and running the alley.
Quarterback: Michael Vick and Bruce Gradkowski are headed to free agency, leaving only Landry Jones behind injury-riddled Ben Roethlisberger. Jones floundered in his 2015 spot opportunities, committing five turnovers as a two-game starter and completing just 58.2% of his throws. The Steelers figure to target free agent veterans to compete for the backup job.
Notable Free Agents: OLB Von Miller, DE Malik Jackson, ILB Danny Trevathan, RB C.J. Anderson (RFA), QB Brock Osweiler, ILB Brandon Marshall (RFA), OG Evan Mathis, RB Ronnie Hillman, DE Antonio Smith, SS David Bruton, FS Shiloh Keo, FS Omar Bolden, TE Vernon Davis, LT Ryan Harris, WR Jordan Norwood, OT Tyler Polumbus
Quarterback: Peyton Manning is expected to retire going on age 40. Even if Peyton wants to keep playing, it probably won't happen in Denver due to his $19 million salary. Brock Osweiler had some promising 2015 moments, but too often lacked decisiveness in the pocket, ultimately got benched, and currently is not signed for 2016. Denver's only other quarterback prospect is 24-year-old Trevor Siemian, a 2015 seventh-round pick out of Northwestern.
Offensive Line: The Broncos' fielded one of the league's weakest offensive lines in 2015, consistently losing one-on-one battles due to a shortage of athleticism. LT Ryan Clady's return should provide a boost, but Clady has missed 30 games over the past three seasons due to ACL and Lisfranc injuries. 2015 second-round OT Ty Sambrailo is coming off year-ending surgery to repair a torn shoulder labrum, and played poorly before going down. Fill-in LT Ryan Harris and LG Evan Mathis are free agents, while RG Louis Vasquez is entering his contract year. RT Michael Schofield isn't a starting-caliber player. Multiple additions are needed in this position group.
Running Back: The foundation of coach Gary Kubiak's offense is the run game, where committee partners C.J. Anderson (restricted) and Ronnie Hillman (unrestricted) both have expiring contracts. Montee Ball is long gone, and Juwan Thompson is a pedestrian talent or worse. Anderson figures to return on a second-round tender. Both as a runner and in pass protection, Hillman was a liability in the second half of 2015 and probably won't be back.
Inside Linebacker: Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall have formed one of the NFL's premier inside linebacker duos, but Trevathan is an unrestricted free agent and Marshall is restricted. Whereas Marshall will be easy to retain with a second-round tender, Trevathan may prefer to test the market in hopes of striking it rich. In-house candidates for bigger roles include promising 2014 seventh-round pick Corey Nelson and special teams standout Todd Davis.