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.