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.