Los Angeles Chargers
Offensive Line: The Chargers have invested big money and high picks into their offensive line under GM Tom Telesco, but the unit continues to fail to meet expectations. Absorbing the NFL’s seventh most quarterback hits (98), Philip Rivers had happy feet by the end of last year. LT King Dunlap should be on notice. Pushing age 32, Dunlap has missed 13 games over the past two seasons and stood out as a pass-blocking liability for most of 2016.
Linebacker: San Diego’s biggest linebacker need is on the edge, where Melvin Ingram’s contract is up and contract-year OLB Jerry Attaochu failed to take a third-year leap before breaking his right foot in November. This team needs a big-time pass rusher.
Defensive Back: A 3-4 defense under outgoing DC John Pagano, the Chargers are expected to install a 4-3 “under” scheme with new DC Gus Bradley, who hails from the Pete Carroll coaching tree. Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett form arguably the NFL’s top cornerback tandem, but slot corner and strong safety must be addressed. Like fellow Carroll disciple Dan Quinn did with Keanu Neal, Bradley will likely target his version of Kam Chancellor in free agency or the draft.
Los Angeles Rams
Offensive Line: The Rams’ offensive line couldn’t block anyone last year, and only LG Rodger Saffold returns as a quality starter. RT Rob Havenstein took a surprising sophomore step back. Cement-footed LT Greg Robinson has been a colossal bust. With 22-year-old stringbean Jared Goff at quarterback, it is imperative that Los Angeles finds multiple new starters up front.
Wide Receiver: The Rams need receiver help. Again. Kenny Britt and Brian Quick’s contracts are up, while Tavon Austin remains an inefficient gadget player wholly undeserving of the six-year, $56 million commitment the Jeff Fisher regime made him last fall. On the line and out wide, the Rams’ offseason needs to be spent figuring out ways to improve the players around Goff.
Defensive Back: One year after choosing LCB Trumaine Johnson over star corner Janoris Jenkins, the Rams are in danger of losing Johnson in free agency, as well. SS T.J. McDonald’s contract is also up, and sturdy slot corner Lamarcus Joyner’s will be after this year. Even if the Rams figure out ways to re-sign both Johnson and McDonald, it won’t necessarily be enough following RCB E.J. Gaines’ dismal year.
Tight End: Athletic catch-first tight ends played prominent roles in coach Adam Gase’s Broncos and Bears offenses. Incumbent Dolphins TE Dion Sims’ contract is up, and fellow free agent Jordan Cameron’s career is threatened by concussions. The Dolphins draft 22nd overall, where Alabama’s O.J. Howard and Miami’s David Njoku would be ideal fits.
Guard: Gase embraced a run-first approach in his first year with Miami, building his offense around Jay Ajayi and an offensive line that returns strong at every position save right guard. Expected to leave Cincinnati, free agent RG Kevin Zeitler should rank high the Dolphins’ offseason wish list.
Defensive Line: While all three levels of Miami’s defense could use talent infusions, defensive line stands out as the top need. RE Mario Williams was a predictable free-agent whiff and almost certainly won't be kept. LE Cameron Wake is 35. The Fins ranked 22nd in run-defense DVOA and 23rd in sacks (33). Linebacker also must be addressed with MLB Kiko Alonso up for restricted free agency and SLB Koa Misi expected to be released. Disappointing WLB Jelani Jenkins is an unrestricted free agent.
Offensive Line: The Vikings are one of the NFL’s least-needy teams, but their main need is major and involves multiple weak points. C Joe Berger was the team’s best lineman in 2016, yet Berger is entering a contract year at age 35. Minnesota’s line play was so bad that OC Pat Shurmur had to change his scheme in-season to compensate for it. At minimum, the Vikings need new starters at left tackle and right guard. Shaky RT Jeremiah Sirles should face competition.
Running Back: This assumes Adrian Peterson will depart, which seems inevitable considering his increasing ineffectiveness, injuries, age (32 in March), and $18 million cap number. Jerick McKinnon is talented but inconsistent, and it’s past time the Vikings washed their hands of plodding short-yardage specialist Matt Asiata, who is a free agent.
Linebacker: Cornerback also deserves a mention with LCB Terence Newman and slot CB Captain Munnerlyn scheduled for free agency. Newman heir apparent Trae Waynes did take a step forward as a sophomore, and 2016 second-round pick Mackensie Alexander is an in-house option should Munnerlyn leave. Still, linebacker stands out with free agent WLB Chad Greenway tentatively expected to retire. It doesn’t help that SLB Anthony Barr took a step back after promising 2014 and 2015 campaigns.
New England Patriots
Defensive Line: While the Super Bowl champs stamped out running games and played stingy coverage on the back end, their defensive weakness was an inability to apply consistent pressure on quarterbacks. The Patriots finished 18th in sacks (34) and a lowlier 26th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate. Breakout DE Trey Flowers is a long-term keeper, but DEs Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long and NT Alan Branch are all free agents. 33-year-old DE Rob Ninkovich is on his last legs.
Linebacker: Trading OLB Jamie Collins during the season and failing to reach a long-term deal with MLB Dont’a Hightower make linebacker a big need for New England, where trade acquisition SLB Kyle Van Noy, second-year sixth-round MLB Elandon Roberts, and part-time WLB Shea McClellin currently top the depth chart.
Defensive Back: Tight end warrants a mention with Rob Gronkowski coming off back surgery and Martellus Bennett’s contract up. New England has two more critical free agents in the secondary with slot corner Logan Ryan likely headed for a big pay day and oft-used third safety Duron Harmon set to join him on the open market. LCB Malcolm Butler is a restricted free agent.
New Orleans Saints
Defensive Line: The Saints have two only players worth hanging their hats on in the defensive front: DT Sheldon Rankins and RE Cameron Jordan. New Orleans has allowed a league-high 930 points over the past two seasons, good for 29.1 per game. This roster desperately needs pass rushers and run stuffers.
Cornerback: The Saints fielded a rag-tag cornerback corps in 2016, playing a host of undrafted rookies and street free agents and frequently resorting to in-game and weekly benchings due to their ineffectiveness. Only LCB Delvin Breaux has flashed starting-caliber ability among the returnees, and he fractured his fibula last September before suffering a year-ending shoulder injury in Week 15. A full-on overhaul of this position shouldn’t be out of the question.
Linebacker: As you might expect, every level of the defense gets touched on here. On offense, the Saints are likely to make a move at running back with role players Tim Hightower and Travaris Cadet’s contracts expiring. An interior offensive lineman will likely be added at some point. The more-glaring need is linebacker, where 2016 addition James Laurinaitis was a predictable flop and 2015 first-round pick Stephone Anthony has been a bust.
New York Giants
Defensive Line: Up-front disruption is the most critical component of a Steve Spagnuolo defense. Maintaining it will be key, especially for a team whose offense is no longer capable of winning shootouts. LE Jason Pierre-Paul and DT Johnathan Hankins’ contracts are up, creating two major gaps in the front four. Even if one or both re-signs, the Giants need more defensive line depth.
Offensive Line: After LT Ereck Flowers’ horrific sophomore year, GM Jerry Reese acknowledged the Giants will consider moving Flowers to right tackle, where his run blocking would be put to better use and Flowers’ pass-protection woes might be slightly less detrimental. RG John Jerry’s contract is up, and RT Bobby Hart doesn’t look like the answer as a starting tackle. Sturdy C Weston Richburg is entering a contract year.
Running Back: I wanted to list quarterback here after 36-year-old Eli Manning’s dismal year. The Giants also need upgrades at tight end, wide receiver, and linebacker. Ultimately, I think Reese’s best approach would be to make the Giants a run-game/defense-oriented team that leans much less on its passing game and more on a ball-control approach. Dead-legged Rashad Jennings got cut on Monday, while Paul Perkins best projects as a complementary back. The Giants need a foundation runner. They finished dead last in yards per carry (3.55), even as defenses sold out to stop Odell Beckham and dared the G-Men to run against light fronts.
New York Jets
Quarterback: The Jets’ only quarterbacks under contract for 2017 are Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. New OC John Morton comes from New Orleans, where Sean Payton emphasized a timing-and-rhythm passing attack that spread out defenses and sought to create matchup advantages. The Jets have the No. 6 overall pick in the draft. Reports from CBS Sports and the New York Daily News have linked Gang Green to North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky.
Offensive Line: The Jets have short- and long-term question marks at both tackle spots and center, where LT Ryan Clady (shoulder), RT Breno Giacomini (back), and C Nick Mangold (ankle) all ended the season on injured reserve. Clady and Giacomini are possible cap casualties, while Mangold is 33 years old.
Defensive Back: The Jets have a lot of needs, also including tight end, edge pass rusher, and arguably running back. Defensive back is foremost among them after LCB Darrelle Revis declined sharply in 2016 and FS Marcus Gilchrist tore his patellar tendon. Slot corner Buster Skrine suffered multiple concussions, and RCB Marcus Williams is a restricted free agent. Torched relentlessly by vertical receivers, the Jets need a speed infusion on the back end.