Linebacker: It wouldn’t be overkill for the Raiders to address the second level of their defense with multiple additions. Starting ILBs Malcolm Smith and Perry Riley are both free agents, and sixth-round pick Cory James didn’t prove the solution after replacing Ben Heeney early in the year. Talented on the edges, the Raiders’ defense could take a big step forward by adding a dynamic three-down presence in the middle of the field.
Running Back: DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard both flashed playmaking ability as rookies, but they best project as role-playing change-of-pace backs. Lead runner Latavius Murray is headed for free agency. The Raiders were reported to have interest in DeMarco Murray two offseasons ago and Matt Forte last year. They also reportedly wanted Ezekiel Elliott in the draft, but he went long before their No. 14 overall pick.
Wide Receiver: I also considered cornerback and offensive tackle for Oakland’s No. 3 need. I settled on wide receiver after slot man Seth Roberts’ drop-filled year. Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree are both under team control through 2019, but the Raiders would be in trouble if one of them went down. Fourth receiver Andre Holmes’ contract is up, and Crabtree turns 30 later this year.
Wide Receiver: Completely devoid of perimeter playmakers, the 2016 Eagles finished 29th in 20-plus-yard pass plays (39) despite ranking sixth in the league in pass attempts (609). Slot man Jordan Matthews and tight end Zach Ertz are reliable possession targets, but Philly needs someone to stretch the field. They’ve been linked to free agents DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery.
Cornerback: The Eagles don’t have a single starting-caliber cornerback under contract for 2017. Incumbent RCB Nolan Carroll is a free agent, and LCB Leodis McKelvin was cut after the season. Slot corner Ron Brooks got torched before tearing his quad in October. The coaching staff seems high on 2016 seventh-round pick Jalen Mills, although he finished dead last among 120 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus’ cornerback grades.
Defensive Line: The Eagles’ No. 3 need is debatable with running back, offensive line, and outside linebacker as positions Philly could also address. I went with defensive line instead because it was one of the Eagles’ few team strengths and they need to keep it that way. NT Bennie Logan’s contract is up, while RE Connor Barwin may be released. The entire defense is painfully short on depth.
Linebacker: While free agent OLB James Harrison is expected back in Pittsburgh, he turns 39 in May and would ideally be used as a rotational pass rusher. 2013 first-round bust Jarvis Jones has played his last down as a Steeler, and 31-year-old ILB Lawrence Timmons’ contract is up. The Steelers need to find a long-term bookend for Bud Dupree. Two-down thumper Vince Williams is the top in-house candidate to succeed Timmons.
Wide Receiver: Short playmakers beyond Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers’ offense became limited by the end of the season. They were forced to lean on plodding Cobi Hamilton as a starter in two-receiver sets. The Steelers are approaching anything they get from suspended WR Martavis Bryant as a bonus, while Sammie Coates remains a project entering year three.
Cornerback: Running back is a current need on paper, but it should be shored up when the Steelers franchise tag Bell. Tight end is also a cloudy position due to Ladarius Green’s unstable health. Pittsburgh beat writers have identified cornerback as a bigger point of emphasis, even after GM Kevin Colbert drafted Artie Burns in last year’s first round. That’s because 32-year-old slot corner William Gay’s job security is questionable, and LCB Ross Cockrell is a restricted free agent.
San Francisco 49ers
Quarterback: While new coach Kyle Shanahan has promised to keep an open mind on Colin Kaepernick, it probably won’t matter with Kaepernick expected to opt out of his contract after March 2. Shanahan has made it clear he prefers “pure throwers” to dual-threat quarterbacks, so this was always an unlikely match. Kaepernick is currently the 49ers’ only signal caller signed for 2017.
Wide Receiver: Owed $8 million in salary and bonuses, Torrey Smith is a prime release candidate after two abysmal years in San Francisco. Jeremy Kerley, Quinton Patton, and Rod Streater are all free agents. The 49ers have the worst wide receiver depth chart in the league.
Linebacker: Interior offensive line, nose tackle, and cornerback are also deficient positions on the NFC’s weakest team. I went with linebacker as San Francisco’s No. 3 need because it kills two birds with one stone. The 49ers have minimal outside pass rush, while ILBs Navorro Bowman (Achilles’) and Ray-Ray Armstrong (pectoral) are both coming off season-ending injuries. With and without Bowman on the field, last year’s Niners defense got infamously trampled by the run.
Offensive Line: Last year’s Seahawks coughed up the NFL’s sixth most sacks (42) and fourth most quarterback hits (111), all too frequently torpedoing Seattle’s offense by allowing almost instant penetration. The Seahawks have never had a good line during the Russell Wilson era, but it reached a new low in 2016. C Justin Britt was Seattle’s top lineman, and he can be a free agent after 2017.
Cornerback: RCB Deshawn Shead had a breakout 2016, but tore his ACL in the playoffs and is a restricted free agent. Shead’s availability for Week 1 is in serious question. While LCB Richard Sherman is still going strong, slot corner Jeremy Lane had a disappointing year.
Linebacker: O-Line and cornerback are the Seahawks’ only two obvious needs. While MLB Bobby Wagner and WLB K.J. Wright are locked in as high-end starters, GM John Schneider will likely add linebacker depth with a cheap free agent or middle- to late-round pick.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Defensive Back: The Bucs’ biggest secondary need is safety, where SS Bradley McDougald’s contract is up and fellow free agent FS Chris Conte lost his job to Keith Tandy, who is now entering a contract year. While RCB Vernon Hargreaves finished his rookie year strong, Tampa Bay also needs a slot corner upgrade and a young prospect to groom behind aging LCB Brent Grimes.
Wide Receiver: Tampa Bay’s 2016 passing game was extremely limited, with Mike Evans and Cameron Brate serving as Jameis Winston’s only consistent options. 34-year-old free agent Vincent Jackson ran out of gas long before his year-ending ACL injury. I expect the Bucs to use the No. 19 overall pick at safety or wideout.
Running Back: The Bucs’ third need is up for wide-ranging debate, with slot cornerback, strong-side linebacker, center, and defensive line depth also in consideration. I went with running back because the team is expected to part ways with Doug Martin, who battled injuries and ineffectiveness before drawing a four-game PED suspension that will sideline Martin until Week 4. Jacquizz Rodgers is a free agent, and Charles Sims is a change-of-pace back.
Cornerback: Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie appropriately won 2016 NFL Executive of the Year, but I thought Titans GM Jon Robinson deserved consideration. Tennessee’s roster is headed firmly in the right direction. The most glaring hole is cornerback, where overpaid RCB Jason McCourty is a candidate for release and LCB Perrish Cox got cut during the season. The Titans finished 26th in pass-defense DVOA.
Wide Receiver: Robinson hit big on 2016 free agent pickup Rishard Matthews, whom the Titans landed on an affordable three-year, $15 million deal. Tennessee got little production from its alternative receivers, however, and Matthews doesn’t quite profile as a No. 1 option. Enigmatic slot man Kendall Wright’s contract is up, while 2016 fifth-round pick Tajae Sharpe was stretched as a starter. Tight end Delanie Walker remains the passing-game focal point, but he turns 33 before the season.
Linebacker: The Titans are in good enough shape that I actually struggled to identify a clear No. 3 need. They could use depth at inside linebacker, where starters Wesley Woodyard and Avery Williamson are both entering contract years and Tennessee lacks in-house candidates to succeed them.
Defensive Line: Last year’s Redskins got bullied in the trenches, finishing 25th in run-defense DVOA and coughing up the NFL’s sixth most yards per carry (4.53). In free agent RE Chris Baker, the Skins are now in danger of losing their best defensive lineman. They need multiple starters up front.
Defensive Back: The Redskins’ secondary needs begin at safety, where 33-year-old FS DeAngelo Hall tore his ACL in Week 3 after tearing his Achilles’ twice in 2014. Sophomore Su’a Cravens might be an option at strong safety, although Cravens mostly played sub-package linebacker as a rookie. Slot corners Kendall Fuller and Dashaun Phillips took turns getting burned to a crisp throughout 2016.
Wide Receiver: Quarterback is technically a Redskins need with Kirk Cousins not under contract at present, but he will likely be tagged if no long-term deal is reached. With DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon scheduled for free agency, wideout could quickly go from a strength to a weakness. 2016 first-round pick Josh Doctson can’t be counted on after missing his entire rookie year with Achilles’ setbacks. Slot man Jamison Crowder is Washington’s lone receiver with any meaningful NFL production.