With the 2017 season officially in the books, expect NFL news to pick up soon in the form of veteran releases and eventually franchise tags. The two-week window for teams to tag free agents begins on Tuesday, February 20. The pre-free agency “legal tampering period” begins on March 12, and the free-agent market opens on March 14.
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.
Quarterback: Carson Palmer retired after his 15th season. Backups Drew Stanton, Blaine Gabbert, and Matt Barkley are all free agents, leaving Arizona without a single quarterback under contract for 2018. The Cards will revamp their quarterback room under new OC Mike McCoy, who promises to mold his scheme to fit player strengths and has done so in past stops with Tim Tebow’s Broncos and Philip Rivers’ Chargers.
Offensive Line: Arizona yielded the NFL’s third-most quarterback hits in 2016 (127), then allowed the second most in 2017 (123). 2015 first-round LT D.J. Humphries has been an injury-riddled disappointment, and RT Jared Veldheer struggled in his conversion to right tackle. LG Mike Iupati is a release candidate after missing 15 games due to elbow surgery. C A.Q. Shipley and RG Evan Boehm were both 2017 liabilities. Carolina’s Andrew Norwell is the top free agent guard on the market, and the Cardinals may have an “in” with Norwell after hiring ex-Panthers assistant Steve Wilks as head coach.
Defensive Back: The Cardinals are entering a near-full rebuild and could use additional help at receiver, tight end, and inside linebacker. Defensive line and off-ball linebacker could further become needs if Wilks changes schemes from James Bettcher’s 3-4 to his traditional 4-3. Secondary remains most pressing; cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson has been problematic for years, while CB Tramon Williams, SS Tyvon Branch, and CB Justin Bethel all have expiring deals. A secondary coach by trade, Wilks does come from a zone-coverage background that deemphasizes top-shelf defensive back traits. Still, the Cardinals would be foolish to scrap man coverage with Peterson as the cornerstone of their defense.
Defensive Line: D-Line linchpin Grady Jarrett is entering the final year of his deal, while RE Adrian Clayborn and NT Dontari Poe are both headed to free agency. Depth pieces Courtney Upshaw and Ahtyba Rubin’s contracts are also up. With Vic Beasley converting from linebacker to end, the Falcons’ biggest defensive line need is on the interior next to and behind Jarrett.
Wide Receiver: The Falcons’ starting wideouts remain a strength after Julio Jones finished second in the league in receiving yards (1,444) and Mohamed Sanu set a career high in catches (67). Today’s NFL is a three-receiver league, however, and Atlanta lacks depth with Taylor Gabriel headed to free agency. Ideally, the Falcons would find a deep-threat complement to Julio. Sanu plays 65% of his snaps in the slot. Current No. 3 Justin Hardy has shown a pedestrian skill set through three seasons.
Offensive Guard: Depth at cornerback and linebacker warrant honorable mentions for Atlanta’s No. 3 need. Still, the roster is in good enough shape that we may see the Falcons use a second- or third-day pick on a developmental quarterback, especially with Matt Ryan entering his contract year. The interior O-Line should still be prioritized after first-year starter Wes Schweitzer struggled at right guard and Ben Garland got blown up in pass protection following LG Andy Levitre’s late-season triceps tear. Atlanta can save $7 million in cap room by cutting Levitre. C Alex Mack is entering his age-33 season.
Wide Receiver: 2017 top receiver Mike Wallace’s contract is up going on age 32, Jeremy Maclin is once again a release candidate after a miserable debut in Baltimore, and 2015 first-round pick Breshad Perriman is a probable draft bust. Wideout is a longstanding Ravens weakness, and this is the neediest Ozzie Newsome’s club has been at the position in years.
Offensive Line: The Ravens get back RG Marshal Yanda (ankle) and LG Alex Lewis (shoulder) from year-ruining injuries, but Yanda is going on age 34, has a $10.1 million cap number, and may be breaking down due to the cumulative effect of injuries. C Ryan Jensen will be a hot commodity in free agency, while RT Austin Howard was a free-agent bust to the extent beat writers think he could get cut. Lewis and LT Ronnie Stanley are Baltimore’s only two certified building blocks up front. The Ravens clearly want to play more power offense and will likely focus on plus run blockers in the draft.
Tight End: Quarterback should also be mentioned; 33-year-old Joe Flacco’s yards per attempt have dipped steadily for four years (7.2 > 6.8 > 6.4 > 5.7), and Baltimore’s only other signal caller under contract for 2018 is practice squad-type Josh Woodrum. In all likelihood, however, the Ravens are stuck with Flacco for at least two more seasons and will focus on surrounding him with as much talent as possible. With 37-year-old Ben Watson’s contract up, the Ravens are left with molasses-slow Nick Boyle and injury-plagued 2015 second-round disappointment Maxx Williams atop their tight end depth chart.
Quarterback: The Bills were never interested in seeing Tyrod Taylor succeed, ridding the roster of pass catchers who suited Taylor’s limited skill set and replacing them with players who couldn’t get open. Per Next Gen Stats, no wideout corps in the NFL created less separation than Buffalo’s. Taylor was later confusingly benched for fifth-round rookie Nathan Peterman after a game in which coach Sean McDermott’s defense got humiliated for 298 rushing yards and six rushing TDs by the Saints. Either way, Taylor is almost certainly leaving town, and Peterman has shown no signs of becoming the Bills’ answer.
Defensive Front Seven: I cheated here to include two position groups, both massively deficient. Up front, Marcell Dareus is long gone and 35-year-old stalwart DT Kyle Williams is a free agent. 2016 first-round DE Shaq Lawson has shown minimal promise as a pass rusher; the 2017 Bills finished 30th in sacks (27). MLB Preston Brown, SLB Ramon Humber, and WLB Matt Milano were the Bills’ main three 2017 linebackers, and the first two are free agents. This front seven is headed for an overhaul.
Wide Receiver: Despite a rare playoff berth, the Bills are one of the neediest teams in the league. Arguably 2017’s biggest overachiever, Buffalo won 6-of-9 games by one score and finished 4-6 after a surprise 5-2 start. The Bills could also use a young back to groom behind 30-year-old workhorse LeSean McCoy, competition for C Ryan Groy, RG Vlad Ducasse, and RT Jordan Mills, and potentially two new cornerback starters with RCB E.J. Gaines and slot CB Leonard Johnson unsigned. Adding wideout talent must remain a priority despite Buffalo’s 2017 acquisitions of separation-lacking Kelvin Benjamin and historically inefficient rookie Zay Jones. Jordan Matthews and Deonte Thompson are free agents.
Wide Receiver: 2017 second-round pick Curtis Samuel flashed enough in limited opportunities to have an inside track on Carolina’s 2018 third receiver job, but he can’t be counted on as a surefire starter. Devin Funchess is entering his contract year, and the Panthers have next to nothing at wideout beyond that. Greg Olsen’s advancing age (33 in March) further solidifies pass catcher as a primary need. Under vertical-oriented new OC Norv Turner, the Panthers should emphasize adding a downfield threat.
Offensive Line: The Panthers’ line struggled in both 2016 and 2017 in part due to injuries but largely to sheer ineffectiveness. Ex-GM Dave Gettleman whiffed badly on his five-year, $55.5 million investment on LT Matt Kalil. Stud LG Andrew Norwell’s contract is up, and he will command top dollar atop an otherwise barren interior O-Line market. C Ryan Kalil announced 2018 will be his final season.
Defensive Line: Cornerback also warrants a mention after CBs James Bradberry and Daryl Worley’s underwhelming sophomore campaigns, and slot CB Captain Munnerlyn’s apparent late-season falling out with the coaching staff. Up front, the Panthers need to replace free agent DT Star Lotulelei, while DE Julius Peppers’ contract has expired after the 38-year-old led the team in sacks (11). Typically, Ron Rivera’s team has emphasized defensive line over secondary when deciding how to value assets.
Wide Receiver: Cameron Meredith’s (ACL) return will theoretically help, but the Bears can no longer operate as if Kevin White is a functional part of the roster. 2017 top receiver Kendall Wright’s contract is up. New coach Matt Nagy and OC Mark Helfrich are spread-offense advocates and will need to make use of more than two receivers. This position could be overhauled.
Cornerback: RCB Prince Amukamara, LCB Kyle Fuller, and slot CB Bryce Callahan formed one of 2017’s most underrated cornerback trios, but the first two are unrestricted free agents and the third is restricted. Coming off a breakout season at age 26, Fuller will be a high-priced commodity. Three-year, $16 million investment Marcus Cooper was among Pace’s cavalcade of 2017 free agent misses.
Linebacker: Depth on both lines was also considered here, in addition to a veteran backup for Mitchell Trubisky with Mike Glennon likely to be cut. The Bears’ linebacker corps is tougher to sort out with OLB Pernell McPhee, ILB Jerrell Freeman, and ILB Danny Trevathan on bloated contracts and suspect depth on the edge. Keeping its pass-rush corps intact should be a priority for Chicago.
Offensive Line: Aside from LG Clint Boling, it’s pick a spot, any spot for Bengals offensive line areas in need of upgrading. Letting go of LT Andrew Whitworth and RG Kevin Zeitler in 2017 free agency was an all-too-predictable disaster, as Cincinnati’s colossal downturn in offensive line play effectively torpedoed both the run and pass offenses.
Quarterback: Andy Dalton has continued to show he is only as good as the personnel around him, and Dalton too often recently has dragged them down. In salary cap terms, the Bengals could easily cut Dalton in any of the next three years. The Bengals have given no indications they view A.J. McCarron as the future, even agreeing to an ultimately failed trade to send McCarron to the division-rival Browns last Halloween.
Defensive Front Seven: One more need comes to mind: Tight end with Tyler Eifert’s contract up. There are multiple front-seven areas worth upgrading on the interior defensive line and both linebacker positions alongside WLB Vontaze Burfict, who he himself has missed 28 games over the past four years due to injuries and suspensions.
Quarterback: Errant and indecisive, DeShone Kizer put few promising moments on 2017 tape, and Cleveland’s quarterback room regrettably lacked a veteran presence after coach Hue Jackson tried to convince Josh McCown to retire and become a coach. Beginning with the No. 1 overall pick, a makeover of the Browns’ quarterback depth chart seems imminent under new GM John Dorsey.
Wide Receiver: The Browns are brimming with pass-catcher potential in Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman, and David Njoku, but production is lacking. Albeit due mostly to horrendous injury luck, Coleman has only 718 yards through two seasons. Gordon seems on the right track, but Cleveland can’t rely on him. Njoku is coming off an inconsistent, underutilized rookie year. Perhaps they only need one more player, but the Browns have to secure a pass-catcher upgrade, ideally at wide receiver.
Defensive Back: Running back with Isaiah Crowell’s contract up, left tackle if Joe Thomas retires, and outside pass rusher opposite Myles Garrett also qualify as arguable or potential needs. DC Gregg Williams complained about his personnel late in the season, saying he didn’t have good enough corners to play man coverage after using box-safety Jabrill Peppers as the deepest free safety in the league. In mock drafts, the Browns have been heavily linked to versatile Alabama S/CB Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Defense: All three levels of Dallas’ defense need upgrading. Top pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence and MLB Anthony Hitchens’ contracts are up, and the Cowboys will likely pursue veteran competition for a youthful secondary. 2017 first-round DE Taco Charlton was a predictable first-year disappointment.
Wide Receiver: As soon as Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension kicked in, Dallas’ passing-game limitations were exposed, and they were exacerbated without elite offensive line play. Cowboys pass catchers’ inability to get open still bears the brunt of the blame. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten are far cries from the players they once were, and Cole Beasley hasn’t been right since tearing his hamstring in November of 2016. Just-A-Guy Terrance Williams pops up for a productive game once every two years.
Offensive Guard: In addition to a far-tougher schedule, the Cowboys’ biggest challenge was overcoming an offensive line that lost two starters in LG Ronald Leary (Broncos) and RT Doug Free (retirement). The evaporation of Dallas’ O-Line depth was exposed when LT Tyron Smith missed time. Even after La’el Collins flopped in 2017, Collins will likely be given another year at right tackle. The Cowboys’ biggest hole is left guard, where Jonathan Cooper is headed to free agency.
Quarterback: 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch is a near-certain bust, and Trevor Siemian’s confidence comes and goes. 2017 seventh-round dart throw Chad Kelly may sneakily be the most talented passer on Denver’s roster. If GM John Elway can’t lure free agent Kirk Cousins to the Mile High City, quarterback will be squarely in play at the No. 5 overall pick.
Offensive Line: Elway took steps to fix Denver’s 2017 line by drafting LG Garett Bolles and signing LG Ronald Leary and RT Menelik Watson. The Broncos can stay optimistic Bolles will improve after a rough first season, but Watson was a free-agent bust and LG Max Garcia needs replacing. C Matt Paradis is a restricted free agent.
Tight End: Inside linebacker, running back, and interior pass rusher are also needs, and cornerback will become one if LCB Aqib Talib gets traded or released. Tight end is a position Denver has most struggled to fill with Jeff Heuerman and Austin Traylor presently sitting atop the depth chart. 2017 fifth-round pick Jake Butt (knee) is an unknown after spending his rookie year on injured reserve. In Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, the Broncos have plus perimeter weapons, but nothing in the middle of the field.
Defensive Line: The Lions’ pass rush was nonexistent in each of the last two years, and now RE Ziggy Ansah and DT Haloti Ngata are free agents. Detroit was desperate enough for late-season pass rush that GM Bob Quinn signed Dwight Freeney off the street. DE Anthony Zettel is a promising edge prospect and LE Kerry Hyder’s (Achilles’) return should help, but multiple pass rushers and run stuffers are needed on the Lions’ front.
Cornerback: The Lions have No. 1 CB Darius Slay signed through 2020, but rotating No. 2s Nevin Lawson and D.J. Hayden are free agents. With Quandre Diggs moving to safety, slot corner will be open to competition involving 2017 second-round pick Teez Tabor, although Tabor earned only 190 rookie-year snaps. In New England, new Lions coach Matt Patricia mainly employed man coverage on the back end.
Interior Offensive Line: Running back and outside linebacker are additional needs, and both will likely be addressed by GM Bob Quinn. Up front on offense, Joe Dahl would be Detroit’s left guard if the season began today, and Graham Glasgow would start at center. Whether it be at left guard or center – Glasgow can play both – the Lions need another interior starter, pushing Dahl into a swing role. LT Taylor Decker, RT Rick Wagner, and RG T.J. Lang otherwise form a solid nucleus when healthy. Unfortunately, Decker, Wagner, and Lang combined to miss 14 games.
Green Bay Packers
Pass Rusher: Even when it was clear last offseason their sagging pass rush needed to be addressed, the Packers largely ignored it in the 2017 draft and let go of Julius Peppers, who went on to lead the Panthers in sacks. Green Bay promptly slipped to 19th in the NFL in sacks (37) and 22nd in QB hits (83), further exposing a pass defense that continued to deal with myriad cornerback injuries. Whether it be off the edge or on the interior, new DC Mike Pettine’s side of the ball needs a pass-rush injection.
Tight End: The Packers tried shoring up tight end by signing Martellus Bennett to a three-year deal last offseason, but Bennett finagled his way out of Green Bay after Aaron Rodgers went down. With Richard Rodgers scheduled for free agency, left behind are Lance Kendricks, Emanuel Byrd, and Robert Tonyan as the Packers’ only tight ends under contract for 2018.
Offensive Line: Both lines could use work; Defensive line depth is badly needed in Green Bay. On the O-Line, RT Bryan Bulaga has been thrown around as a potential cap casualty coming off a torn ACL, and mercenary RG Jahri Evans’ contract is expiring after a bounce-back year. 2016 second-round T/G Jason Spriggs has struggled whenever he has played and can’t be counted on for a 2018 role.
Offensive Line: The lone surefire returning starter on the Texans’ offensive line is C Nick Martin, and Martin has missed 18 games over the past two seasons due to ankle injuries. RG Jeff Allen has been a free agent bust, and RT Derek Newton’s career remains in doubt after tearing both of his patellar tendons. Left tackle, left guard, right guard, and right tackle are all wide open.
Defensive Back: The Texans made the regrettable 2017 mistake of declining to meet CB A.J. Bouye’s contract demands, instead keeping 34-year-old LCB Johnathan Joseph, whose deal is now up. 2016 first-round pick Kevin Johnson took a big step back after a promising rookie year. Whereas Bouye teamed with Jalen Ramsey to give Jacksonville the AFC’s top pass defense, Houston finished 25th in Football Outsiders’ pass-defense DVOA. The Texans must address cornerback and strong safety.
Tight End: As Lamar Miller is a release candidate and D’Onta Foreman is coming off of a torn Achilles’, running back also merits mentioning as a Texans need. As does backup quarterback with Tom Savage headed to free agency and Deshaun Watson coming off his second ACL tear in four years. Tight end is also likely to be addressed; Houston has a glut of bodies at the position but no clear solution. C.J. Fiedorowicz’s career is in doubt due to repeated concussions, and neither Ryan Griffin nor Stephen Anderson has proven a starting-caliber tight end.
Cornerback: With Vontae Davis long gone and Rashaan Melvin’s contract up, Kenny Moore, Quincy Wilson, and Nate Hairston would form the Colts’ nickel-package cornerback trio if the season began today. 2017 second-round pick Wilson couldn’t get on the field until the final month of his rookie year, and neither Moore nor Hairston was a plus contributor. Indianapolis allowed league highs in 20-plus-yard completions (64) and yards per attempt (8.0).
Pass Rusher: Although Indianapolis’ pass rush improved mildly with the 2017 additions of OLBs John Simon and Jabaal Sheard, Chuck Pagano’s defense still finished 31st in sacks (26) and 26th in QB hits (75). Both on the interior line and off the edge, the Colts need multiple pass-rush reinforcements.
Offensive Line: Even after GM Chris Ballard knocked his first offseason out of the park, Ballard begins his second year with a needs-filled roster. Wide receiver opposite T.Y. Hilton, a running back complement to Marlon Mack, and inside linebacker also require upgrading. Still most critical is the Colts’ offensive line, a longtime deficiency that must be corrected with Andrew Luck presumed back. Injury-plagued LG Jack Mewhort’s contract is up, and C Ryan Kelly is coming off a disappointing, concussion-ended second year. Right guard and right tackle are perennially up for grabs.
Quarterback: The Jaguars’ defense and running game dragged Blake Bortles to the AFC title round, and the coaching staff’s season-long kid-gloves treatment of Bortles was telling. Bortles’ $19.05 million fifth-year option is guaranteed for injury, so his postseason right wrist surgery could complicate matters should the Jaguars hope to cut him. Regardless of Bortles’ status with the club, it would be a surprise if Jacksonville did not pursue veteran quarterbacks and/or use an early pick at the position.
Offensive Guard: The Jaguars have built a solid four-man core of LT Cam Robinson, C Brandon Linder, RG A.J. Cann, and RT Jermey Parnell. Their one glaring deficiency is left guard, where Patrick Omameh’s contract is up. Hell bent on defining themselves as a smash-mouth, run-first team, the Jags must continue to prioritize their front five.
Middle Linebacker: The Jaguars are low on needs, but they will likely look to upgrade on free agent MLB Paul Posluszny, whose role was reduced more and more as last year progressed. Telvin Smith and Myles Jack were the Jags’ two linebackers on the field for most of the season. One in-house candidate to replace Posluszny’s limited snaps is Blair Brown, a 2017 fifth-round pick.
Kansas City Chiefs
Defensive Front Seven: This need encompasses multiple positions, but multiple positions in Kansas City’s defensive front seven must be addressed. DC Bob Sutton’s run defense has gotten trampled for years, and NT Bennie Logan’s contract is up. 35-year-old ILB Derrick Johnson wasn’t the same player coming off his second Achilles’ tear in 2017. Johnson’s contract is now expected to void. Maintaining a fearsome pass rush should still be Kansas City’s top priority. OLB Tamba Hali is an obvious release candidate at age 34, and 2014 first-round OLB Dee Ford has underperformed.
Offensive Guard: Getting C Mitch Morse and RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif back healthy will go a long way toward stabilizing Kansas City’s interior line, but left guard was the 2017 team’s biggest offensive weak spot, playing a major role in the Chiefs’ running-game ups and downs. Kansas City would likely prefer LG Bryan Witzmann to return in a swing guard-tackle reserve role rather than as a starter.
Wide Receiver: The Chiefs’ cornerback need was lessened by last week’s acquisition of slot CB Kendall Fuller, although right corner will have to be addressed with Darrelle Revis presently penciled in as a starter. Kansas City will likely also add a veteran to its quarterback room behind Patrick Mahomes. In order to maximize Mahomes’ all-levels passing skill set, however, another wideout capable of winning downfield opposite Tyreek Hill should be prioritized. Chris Conley might be that guy, but he tore his Achilles’ last October. Demarcus Robinson failed to add a new dimension to the passing game after Conley’s injury, and underrated slot man Albert Wilson is a free agent.
Los Angeles Chargers
Linebacker: Hamstring and ankle injuries have cost WLB Denzel Perryman 13 games over the past two seasons. In Gus Bradley’s scheme, starting jobs at middle and strong-side linebacker are up for grabs. Despite one of the NFL’s most-talented fronts keyed by Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, and Corey Liuget, the Chargers finished a lowly 27th in Football Outsiders’ run-defense DVOA due in large part to substandard linebacker play.
Defensive Line: Bosa, Ingram, and Liuget are all signed long term and give the Bolts a defensive bedrock complemented by CBs Casey Hayward, Jason Verrett, Trevor Williams, and Desmond King, arguably the NFL’s deepest cornerback room. NT Brandon Mebane is falling off at age 33, however, and Los Angeles is short on depth behind its three D-Line studs. The Bolts could use another run stuffer and at least one more pass rusher, either on the interior or off the edge.
Quarterback: Philip Rivers has two years left on his deal and is still playing at a high level, but his ability to stretch the field has waned. The time is right to begin grooming a quarterback for the future on a talented roster. With that said, the Chargers may hold off on drafting an early-round signal caller for one more year. In that understandable case, hunting for free safety help and competition for C Spencer Pulley would address more immediate needs. Oh, and about that kicker dilemma.
Los Angeles Rams
Secondary: Stud LCB Trumaine Johnson and slot CB Nickell Robey-Coleman are unrestricted free agents coming off strong years. Free agent FS Lamarcus Joyner is set to become one of the highest-paid safeties in the league. RCB Kayvon Webster tore his Achilles’ in December and probably won’t be ready for the season. If the Broncos cut LCB Aqib Talib as some around the league expect, the Rams would be a sensible landing spot, reuniting Talib with ex-Denver DC Wade Phillips.
Defensive Front Seven: The Rams have two individual stars in the front seven (DT Aaron Donald, EDGE Robert Quinn) and several plus contributors (DE Michael Brockers, underrated OLB Matt Longacre, NT/DE Ethan Westbrooks, ILBs Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree). With OLB Connor Barwin’s contract up, this unit still needs another outside pass rusher to complement Quinn and general defensive line depth.
Interior Offensive Line: I almost went wide receiver as the Rams’ No. 3 need; they’ll have to find a field stretcher for Sean McVay’s “DeSean Jackson Role” if free agent Sammy Watkins gets away. Beat writers expect Los Angeles to retain Watkins with the franchise tag. Up front, 33-year-old stopgap C John Sullivan’s contract expires and RG Jamon Brown will likely face competition.
Offensive Line: Laremy Tunsil surprisingly struggled in his transition from guard to left tackle. Injuries cost RT Ja’Wuan James 17 games over the past three seasons. James is now entering a contract year. Both guard positions are perennial liabilities in Miami, and nothing changed there in 2017.
Pass Catcher: One hallmark of coach Adam Gase’s offense is a mismatch-creating pass-catching tight end, a role Julius Thomas so unsuccessfully filled last season that he is considered a lock to be released. The Dolphins’ need for a chain-moving presence is enhanced by Jarvis Landry’s potential free-agent exit, although the team seems high on Jakeem Grant as a slot receiver prospect. Jimmy Graham, Trey Burton, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Tyler Eifert are the top tight ends on the free-agent market.
Quarterback: I could have gone a number of ways here. Cornerback help, a running back to pair with Kenyan Drake, and defensive line reinforcements should be included on EVP Mike Tannenbaum’s to-do list. Quarterback is the most important position in pro sports, however, and Miami’s quarterback future is murky. Both Jay Cutler and Matt Moore are free agents, and neither is a short- or long-term solution. How will Ryan Tannehill’s knee bounce back after he missed all of 2017? Unless they have the utmost confidence in Tannehill, a quarterback should be in play at the Dolphins’ No. 11 overall pick.
Quarterback: As Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, and Sam Bradford are all up for free agency, the Vikings’ quarterback depth chart is currently rounded out by 2017 UDFA Kyle Sloter. Re-signing any of those signal callers remains in play, but this would be a homerun landing spot for Kirk Cousins.
Interior Offensive Line: The Vikings’ O-Line went from offense wrecker in 2016 to competent in 2017, and that improvement was enough for some to deem this a plus unit. The Vikings still have multiple question marks on the interior, particularly with LG Nick Easton and C Pat Elflein coming off ankle surgeries. RG Joe Berger was Minnesota’s best interior blocker last season, but he is a 36-year-old free agent.
Slot Corner: More bodies are also needed on Minnesota’s interior defensive line, where critical rotational DTs Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen are free agents. The Vikings essentially used a slot corner rotation inside of Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes in 2017, mostly playing Terence Newman on early downs and Mackensie Alexander in passing situations. Newman is a free agent entering his age-40 season (literally), and Alexander hasn’t shown quite enough to be gift wrapped the full-time position.
New England Patriots
Defensive Front Seven: The 2017 Patriots fielded what amounted to a rag-tag defensive front. Linebacker will be improved by WLB Dont’a Hightower’s (pectoral) return, although Hightower has now missed 22 games in the past four years. Run defense was a problem for the entire regular season. New England has lacked a dominant pass rusher since trading away Chandler Jones.
Cornerback: The Patriots’ struggles at slot corner and LCB Malcolm Butler’s free agency push cornerback toward the top of their needs. Butler's mysterious Super Bowl benching almost certainly foreshadows his exit. Neither Jonathan Jones nor Eric Rowe ever pinned down nickel duties.
Offensive Tackle: The Patriots will likely use a draft pick on a quarterback, which arguably qualifies as a fourth need. Running back is another needy spot; Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and Brandon Bolden are all free agents. Due to LT Nate Solder’s free agency and New England’s 2017 revolving door at right tackle, offensive line adjustments are forthcoming, particularly if the Pats let inconsistent Solder walk. Marcus Cannon should return from his ankle injury to solidify right tackle.
New Orleans Saints
Defensive Front Seven: The Saints’ 2017 run defense was rarely exposed because they played with so many leads, but New Orleans finished 23rd in Football Outsiders’ run-defense DVOA, versus ranking fifth against the pass. Free agent DE Alex Okafor sparked the Saints’ early-season pass rush before tearing his Achilles’ in late November. All three Saints starting linebackers are replacement-level contributors. Up front, New Orleans needs another edge rusher and another disruptor inside.
Slot Corner: Free agent Kenny Vaccaro operated as the Saints’ slot corner for most of 2017. P.J. Williams predictably struggled in Vaccaro’s late-season absence, getting torched by the Panthers in the Wild Card Round. Marcus Lattimore and Ken Crawley are gems on the outside, but they need slot help.
Pass Catcher: Despite Drew Brees’ free agency, I left quarterback off this list because Brees has made clear he won’t play anywhere but New Orleans. A pass-catcher upgrade is pressing with Ted Ginn going on age 33 and restricted free agent Willie Snead apparently falling out of favor. Coby Fleener has flopped in New Orleans and may be released.
New York Giants
Quarterback: Albeit without Odell Beckham, Eli Manning set a 13-year low in yards per attempt (6.1) last season and got benched for Geno Smith. Formerly one of the NFL’s most underrated deep throwers, Eli has lost several miles per hour off his fastball. The Giants haven’t drafted inside the top five since Manning entered the league in 2004. They need to draft his replacement at the No. 2 overall pick.
Offensive Line: Both new GM Dave Gettleman and coach Pat Shurmur stated adamantly in January that they believe Eli has good football left. To deliver on that promise, Gettleman will have to surround Manning with better line play. The Giants could afford an overhaul of all five offensive line starters. Top free agent guard Andrew Norwell was an undrafted free agent discovery of Gettleman’s with the Panthers, and might be a good place to start.
Linebacker: Running back with Orleans Darkwa and Shane Vereen’s contracts up, cornerback, and wide receiver if/when Brandon Marshall is released also qualify as needs for a Giants roster ex-GM Jerry Reese left in patchwork condition. For a team that gets burned annually by tight ends, however, a change in culture at linebacker figures to be prioritized by Gettleman, who oversaw the NFL’s most athletic linebacker units in Carolina. Reese emphasized thumpers over range.
New York Jets
Quarterback: Josh McCown is a free agent going on age 39, leaving Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg, and Joel Stave to round out Gang Green’s quarterback depth chart. Petty has shown nothing to suggest he has more than a backup’s future, and the Jets have been too embarrassed of Hackenberg’s lack of developmental progress to put him on the field. The Jets are expected to be the Broncos’ most competitive suitors for Kirk Cousins.
Pass Rusher: If you can’t rush the passer and cover, you’re probably not going to have a good defense. And the Jets didn’t, finishing 28th in sacks (28) and getting roasted deep; New York allowed the NFL’s second-most 20-plus-yard completions (61). Free agent MLB Demario Davis led the team in sacks (5.0). On the interior and off the edge, the Jets need multiple pass-rush additions.
Cornerback: Inside linebacker, tight end, center, and wide receiver are also need areas on a barren Jets roster. Cornerback offers more positional value for defensive-minded coach Todd Bowles, whose man-coverage background has yet to be fully implemented with the Jets due to deficient cornerback personnel. The Jets have almost nothing to hang their hat on at corner.
Defense: Literally every position group on the Raiders’ defense needs upgrading. Oakland doesn’t get enough pass rush from anywhere but OLB Khalil Mack, and the Raiders’ run defense has been middling at best for years. Navorro Bowman improved Oakland’s inside linebacker play late last season, but his contract is up. With slot CB T.J. Carrie also headed for free agency, all five nickel-package jobs in the secondary should be up for competitive grabs.
Wide Receiver: The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported in December that the Raiders plan to move on from Michael Crabtree for a combination of production and locker-room concerns. Otherwise, Oakland lacks starting-caliber wide receivers aside from Amari Cooper. Wideout would remain a need even if Crabtree stays.
Linebacker: MLB Jordan Hicks’ return will theoretically help, but Hicks is coming off a torn Achilles’ and has struggled to stay healthy since college. WLB Nigel Bradham is a free agent, and the Eagles have been trying to trade SLB Mychal Kendricks for years.
Running Back: LeGarrette Blount and 35-year-old Darren Sproles (ACL) are free agents. The Eagles have Jay Ajayi for one more year. Ajayi likely isn’t an extension candidate due to his past knee woes. Coach Doug Pederson has preferred committees over feature backs in Philadelphia.
Offensive Tackle: LT Jason Peters says he plans to play in 2018, but he tore his ACL and MCL last October and just turned 36. Lane Johnson is the Eagles’ left tackle of the future, and Peters fill-in Halapoulivaati Vaitai is better suited for a swing-reserve role.
Running Back: The Steelers can obviously shore up this need by retaining Le’Veon Bell, who claimed he’d consider retiring if franchise tagged again. The Steelers later leaked word Bell showed up late to games and Pittsburgh’s pre-Divisional Round walkthrough before losing to the Jaguars. 2017 third-round pick James Conner mixed promising moments with too many mistakes as a rookie, then underwent MCL surgery in December. Even if Bell returns, this has become a thin position in Pittsburgh.
Linebacker: The Steelers’ defense collapsed after losing ILB Ryan Shazier to a scary spinal injury in Week 13. Shazier’s career is in doubt. On the edge, 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree has been a disappointment and should face competition for his starting job. Dupree shouldn’t have been playing over James Harrison.
Safety: Steelers FS Mike Mitchell is uncertain to return at his $5 million salary, and SS Sean Davis finished dead last (89th of 89) in Pro Football Focus’ safety grades. Pittsburgh had far too many defensive breakdowns that resulted in big plays in the second half of last year. Many were on the safeties.
San Francisco 49ers
Interior Offensive Line: C Daniel Kilgore and RG Brandon Fusco’s contracts are up after both had rough 2017 seasons, and LG Laken Tomlinson should face competition to keep his job. OTs Joe Staley and Trent Brown could use better injury luck, but both are quality starters when on the field. This is coach Kyle Shanahan’s opportunity to remake San Francisco’s interior line with athletic zone blockers.
Cornerback: Shanahan and GM John Lynch had a successful first offseason, but the roster Trent Baalke left them was so barren the 49ers remain long on needs. San Francisco could use a plus-sized “X” receiver to upgrade their downfield and red-zone passing games, running back help if free agent Carlos Hyde walks, and more linebacker talent next to MLB Reuben Foster, who is already in the NFL’s substance-abuse program and got busted for marijuana possession in January. At corner, the Niners have even less to hang their hats on, although 2017 third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon held his own in a starting role down the stretch. At very least, the 49ers need to find a starter opposite him.
Edge Pass Rusher: Even though Jimmy Garoppolo is presently unsigned, I left quarterback off the 49ers’ needs list because Garoppolo isn’t going anywhere, and in a worst-case scenario will be franchise tagged. Beginning at corner and extending to outside pass rusher, the 49ers’ pass defense needs a major talent injection after the team finished 27th in sacks (30) and 28th in pass-defense DVOA. With Arik Armstead, DeForest Buckner, and Solomon Thomas entrenched as defensive line building blocks, the 49ers could quickly morph their front into one of the NFL’s nastiest by landing a true edge rusher.
Offensive Guard: The Seahawks acquired LT Duane Brown with another year left on his deal and will get back George Fant (ACL) to compete with struggling RT Germain Ifedi. Steady C Justin Britt is signed through 2020. Top guard candidates Ethan Pocic and Rees Odhiambo were both major 2017 liabilities. The Seahawks need to prioritize adding a veteran to stabilize their interior line.
Defensive Line: Seahawks DE Cliff Avril’s (neck) career is in doubt, DL Michael Bennett believes he’ll be released, and stud DT Sheldon Richardson is a free agent. 2017 top draft pick Malik McDowell missed his entire rookie year following an ATV accident, then was arrested in December outside of a bar. The Seahawks may have found a gem in DE Dion Jordan, but Jordan is not signed for 2018. Long a team strength, Seattle can’t afford to let its defensive line wither away, which at this point is a real possibility.
Pass Catcher: Jimmy Graham, Paul Richardson, and Luke Willson’s contracts are up, leaving Nick Vannett atop the tight end depth chart and Amara Darboh and Tanner McEvoy as third receiver candidates behind Doug Baldwin and Tyler Lockett. Lockett hasn’t been the same since breaking his leg toward the end of the 2016 season, and shouldn’t be counted on as a starter. Seattle’s needs extend to defensive back depending on LCB Richard Sherman (Achilles’) and SS Kam Chancellor’s (neck) futures. The Seahawks have theoretical running back depth in Chris Carson, C.J. Prosise, Mike Davis, Thomas Rawls, and J.D. McKissic, but no clear backfield solution.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Defensive Back: The Bucs must find multiple starters in the secondary with FS Keith Tandy and LCB Brent Grimes’ contracts up and 2016 first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves underperforming through two seasons. The coaching staff spoke openly after the season about the possibility Hargreaves would be better suited at slot corner long term. Tampa Bay finished 31st in pass-defense DVOA and will likely undergo an offseason overhaul in the secondary.
Running Back: Doug Martin will be released and Charles Sims is a free agent, leaving Peyton Barber and Jacquizz Rodgers as the Bucs’ only two backs signed for the 2018 season. Tampa Bay was heavily linked to Dalvin Cook before last year’s draft. Expect at least two running back additions.
Offensive Guard: With LG Kevin Pamphile and his backup Evan Smith headed to free agency, the Bucs’ left guard job is wide open. RG J.R. Sweezy has also been discussed as a release candidate. Sweezy missed all of 2016 due to back surgery, then struggled mightily in his 2017 return. A fourth Bucs need is defensive line, where 2017 free agent pickup DT Chris Baker disappointed and another speed rusher would come in handy off the edge.
Offensive Line: What was a 2016 strength could become a weakness quickly if the Titans don’t keep supplementing their line. RT Jack Conklin tore his ACL in the playoffs and is probably a long shot to be ready for Week 1. RG Josh Kline is a free agent, and LT Taylor Lewan and LG Quinton Spain are entering contract years.
Running Back: The Titans will likely release DeMarco Murray, saving $6.5 million under the cap. Derrick Henry probably won’t be handed the full-time feature back job free of competition. Henry has been a limited passing-game participant in both college and the pros, so the Titans may target a free agent like Jerick McKinnon as a change-of-pace and receiving complement.
Cornerback: Help in the defensive front seven also warrants mentioning here; edge rusher is a major need, and underrated DE DaQuan Jones and ILB Avery Williamson are free agents. 2016 second-round OLB Kevin Dodd has been a disappointment. On the back end, the Titans could complete their secondary with a boundary corner to book end promising LCB Adoree Jackson and keep Logan Ryan in the slot.
Defensive Front Seven: The Redskins play with a rag-tag group up front, where they finished 29th in Football Outsiders’ run-defense DVOA and may lose ILB Zach Brown to free agency. Fellow free agent Junior Galette supplied a spark off the bench, leaving Washington’s outside pass rush thin if Galette moves on. Preston Smith maintains upside at age 25, but he has been a replacement-level edge presence to this point. To keep it simple, the Skins need more run stoppers and more pass rushers.
Defensive Back: Expected to let Bashaud Breeland walk in free agency, even after trading away emerging star slot corner Kendall Fuller, the Redskins are left with only LCB Josh Norman and to-date spot starter Quinton Dunbar as bankable cornerback assets. 2017 third-round pick Fabian Moreau had promise coming out of UCLA, but couldn’t get on the field as a rookie. As the Skins are believed to have given up on Su’a Cravens, Montae Nicholson and Deshazor Everett are the remaining in-house candidates to compete opposite FS D.J. Swearinger. The Redskins’ pass defense should have been much better than it was the past two seasons.
Pass Catcher: What once was one of the NFL’s deepest and most diverse pass-catcher corps enters the 2018 offseason with major question marks. Terrelle Pryor didn’t work out on a one-year deal, and Jordan Reed further showed he can’t be relied on to stay healthy. Vernon Davis is 34, and Josh Doctson’s development has been slow. Top WR Jamison Crowder is entering his contract year. In terms of alternative needs, running back and center are additional positions Washington may look to upgrade.