With the 2018 season 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 opens on February 19 and closes on March 5. The pre-free agency “legal tampering period” begins on March 11, and the free agent market officially opens on March 13.
Here is a link to this year’s NFL Free Agent Tracker, sorted by position.
And this is my breakdown of each NFL team’s three biggest offseason needs.
New Orleans Saints
Notable Free Agents: RB Mark Ingram, QB Teddy Bridgewater, DE Alex Okafor, NT Tyeler Davison, CB P.J. Williams, OT Jermon Bushrod, G/C Josh LeRibeus, TE Ben Watson (retired), ILB Manti Te’o, K Wil Lutz (RFA), CB Ken Crawley (RFA)
Defensive Line: The Saints finished top five in sacks (49) and top ten in both tackles for loss (96) and QB hits. One of New Orleans’ strongest position groups is in danger of taking a big step back, however, with DT Sheldon Rankins (Achilles’) in doubt for Week 1, key role players Okafor and Davison’s contracts expiring, and DT David Onyemata entering his contract year at risk of a marijuana-related suspension. Disruptive 25-year-old DT Darius Philon would be an impressive free agent signing in his ascent phase with 8.5 sacks and strong run-defense performance over the past two years with the Chargers.
Tight End: Among the biggest reasons for the Saints’ second-half offensive downturn was a pass-catching talent shortage behind top wideout Michael Thomas. Blocking TE Josh Hill, lightly-used ex-WR Dan Arnold, and practice-squad type Garrett Griffin would round out the Saints’ tight end corps if the season began today. This year’s draft class looks to be long on explosive tight end prospects.
Running Back: The Saints appear likely to lose Bridgewater to the highest bidder, creating a backup quarterback need. Wide receiver depth is at least a mild concern, although Tre’Quan Smith has ample room for growth, and Ted Ginn has good football left. Ingram’s free agency and New Orleans’ lack of quality alternatives behind Alvin Kamara make it likely they’ll address running back, ideally on day two or early on day three of the draft.
Breaking down 2019 RB free agents
Los Angeles Rams
Notable Free Agents: DL Ndamukong Suh, FS Lamarcus Joyner, LG Rodger Saffold, OLB Dante Fowler, RB C.J. Anderson, OLB Matt Longacre, DL Ethan Westbrooks, ILB Ramik Wilson, CB Sam Shields, DT Dominique Easley, ILB Cory Littleton (RFA), CB Troy Hill (RFA), RB Malcolm Brown (RFA)
Offensive Line: Up-front dominance is the heartbeat of Sean McVay’s offense and especially vital for Jared Goff, whose kept-clean versus under-pressure splits are among the starkest in football. LG Saffold’s contract is up, RG Austin Blythe is a liability, 37-year-old LT Andrew Whitworth has openly weighed retirement, and C John Sullivan turns 34 after declining into the front five’s weakest link.
Edge Rusher: Especially if Suh leaves in free agency, the Rams’ pass rush will have to find ways to compensate. Their outside-edge defense offers the most room for growth after getting modest 2018 results from Samson Ebukam and free agents Longacre and Fowler. Rams DC Wade Phillips previously coached free agent OLBs Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett in Denver.
Safety: Joyner’s free agency makes safety a need, leaving behind lightly-used reserve Blake Countess as the next man up across from SS John Johnson. Backup quarterback and nose tackle also warrant GM Les Snead’s attention.
Secondary: The returns of CB Jalen Mills (foot) and FS Rodney McLeod (MCL) improve this unit’s outlook after last year’s rash of injuries, but Mills has been a league-average corner when healthy, and McLeod took a pay cut to stay. 2017 second-round pick Sidney Jones has been injury riddled since college and struggled to perform on the field. 2018 fourth-rounder Avonte Maddox exceeded rookie expectations but will always be limited to some extent by his build (5’9/184) and short arms (29 ½”).
Linebacker: Philly’s shortage of second-level depth on defense was exposed during MLB Hicks’ four-week absence with a calf injury, and Hicks’ contract has expired. The Eagles need to shore up their linebacker corps with multiple moves, especially if they opt out of bidding wars to retain Hicks.
Wide Receiver: The Eagles’ needs extend to running back and arguably defensive line, where their success has been tied to a deep rotation of disruptors. Graham and Ngata’s expiring deals are especially relevant here, although youngsters Derek Barnett, Josh Sweat, and Treyvon Hester could take on bigger roles. Losing Wallace to a broken leg/ankle last Week 2 dealt Philadelphia an underrated blow, stripping the Eagles of their lone true vertical presence. Alshon Jeffery still dominates in the contested game, and Nelson Agholor is a quality slot player, but Philadelphia needs a true long-ball threat. Free agent John Brown would check that box after finally staying healthy last year with the Ravens.
Los Angeles Chargers
Notable Free Agents: DT Darius Philon, MLB Denzel Perryman, CB Jason Verrett, SS Adrian Phillips, WR Tyrell Williams, NT Brandon Mebane, DT Damion Square, OLB Kyle Emanuel, TE Antonio Gates, P Donnie Jones, CB Trevor Williams (RFA)
Offensive Line: The Chargers’ line play faded as last season progressed, getting poor results from LG Dan Feeney, C Mike Pouncey, RG Michael Schofield, and particularly RT Sam Tevi. Tevi earned PFF’s No. 80 pass-blocking grade among 80 qualified tackles, and Feeney graded dead last in pass protection among 81 guards. 2017 second-round pick Forrest Lamp has played just 17 snaps through two seasons. Free agent RT Ja’Wuan James knows Pouncey from Miami and would be a major pass-blocking upgrade over Tevi.
Quarterback: Philip Rivers is entering his contract year at age 38, and Cardale Jones is the Chargers’ only other quarterback under control for 2019. It’s probably time GM Tom Telesco invested a day-two or early third-day draft pick on the NFL’s most important position.
Wide Receiver: The Chargers’ list of needs is short, one reason Telesco may finally feel comfortable taking a shot on a quarterback prospect. Tyrell Williams’ free agency creates a gap in Los Angeles’ three-receiver set, although Travis Benjamin returns healthy and Mike Williams’ role will surely increase. Depth infusions at linebacker and on the defensive line would be similarly welcomed.
Kansas City Chiefs
Notable Free Agents: OLB Dee Ford, C Mitch Morse, CB Steven Nelson, DE Allen Bailey, TE Demetrius Harris, OG Jeff Allen, FB Anthony Sherman, RB Spencer Ware, CB Orlando Scandrick, WR Chris Conley, S Jordan Lucas (RFA)
Secondary: Forecast as one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses before the season, Kansas City’s backend met expectations, yielding a league-high 65 completions of 20-plus yards and the NFL’s ninth-most touchdown passes (30). SS Eric Berry can no longer be counted on due to recurring Achilles’ injuries, appearing in three regular season games over the past two years. Top CB Nelson is a free agent. The Giants are rumored to be considering releasing CB Janoris Jenkins, who spent 2016 and 2017 with new Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo in New York.
Defensive Front Seven: The Chiefs are transitioning from a base 3-4 front to 4-3 under Spags, whose system is built on generating front-four pressure by sacrificing size for athleticism to shoot gaps. DT Chris Jones is an obvious fit, but LE Justin Houston’s role will be tweaked, and top pass-rusher Ford’s contract is up. Young DLs Breeland Speaks and Tanoh Kpassagnon were drafted for outgoing DC Bob Sutton’s scheme. Spagnuolo’s best defenses have emphasized speed and smarts over size at off-ball linebacker.
Center: Third wide receiver and running back depth are additional Chiefs needs, but not as prominent as center, where free agent Morse missed 14 games the past two seasons with foot injuries and multiple concussions. Kansas City does have a potential in-house solution in Austin Reiter, who filled in capably as a four-game spot starter and earned a late-season extension.
Notable Free Agents: RB Le’Veon Bell, LG Ramon Foster, TE Jesse James, CB Coty Sensabaugh, ILB L.J. Fort, OLB Anthony Chickillo, DT Tyson Alualu, WR Eli Rogers, WR/ST Darrius Heyward-Bey, P Jordan Berry, TE Xavier Grimble (RFA), C/G B.J. Finney (RFA)
Secondary: Top CB Joe Haden is entering his contract year on the wrong side of 30, and RCB Artie Burns was benched repeatedly last season for disciplinary and performance issues. Free agent Sensabaugh wound up playing far more snaps than the Steelers planned. Pittsburgh needs an outside corner capable of eventually replacing Haden as its top man-coverage force. FS Sean Davis is going into his walk year, and SS Morgan Burnett was a free agent dud. This year’s Steelers are in the rare position of having a somewhat healthy cap situation after Le’Veon Bell effectively donated his nearly $15 million franchise tender back to the team.
Offensive Line: 33-year-old LG Ramon Foster is Pittsburgh’s lone incumbent offensive-line starter without a contract for 2019, although RT Marcus Gilbert’s bandied-about release would create an additional question mark. In Finney and Gilbert fill-in Matt Feiler, the Steelers do have two potentially viable in-house options, but neither should be guaranteed a 2019 starting job.
Defensive Front Seven: This is a nebulous need position, but the Steelers could afford youth infusions and competition at each spot up front. Their inside linebacker play has fallen off a cliff since losing Ryan Shazier, and 2015 first-round OLB Bud Dupree is shaping up as a flop. Even as Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave, and Cameron Heyward form an outstanding trio, Pittsburgh’s defensive-line depth is nonexistent. If the Steelers indeed move on from Antonio Brown, they will also likely make at least one significant investment behind JuJu Smith-Schuster after James Washington’s forgettable rookie year.
Notable Free Agents: CB Pierre Desir, DL Margus Hunt, SS Clayton Geathers, WR Dontrelle Inman, NT Al Woods, S Mike Mitchell, WR Ryan Grant, S Matthias Farley (RFA), WR Chester Rogers (RFA), G/C Evan Boehm (RFA)
Secondary: Desir, Geathers, and Mitchell’s free agency make the secondary Indianapolis’ most-obvious need, albeit one GM Chris Ballard could quickly lessen with re-signings. Whether those players return or not, the Colts will seek zone-scheme fits under DC Matt Eberflus at both corner and safety. Ballard worked in K.C. when the Chiefs drafted free agent CB Steven Nelson, who is coming off his career-best year in Kansas City’s zone-based defense.
Wide Receiver: Where pre-season acquisition Grant failed, in-season signee Inman picked up the slack, eventually emerging as the Colts’ No. 2 wideout behind T.Y. Hilton. Indianapolis could stand to upgrade on restricted free agent Rogers with a more dynamic slot specialist; Golden Tate, Jamison Crowder, Randall Cobb, and Adam Humphries are this year’s top free agent slot options. One in-house candidate for a bigger role is 2018 sixth-round pick Deon Cain, who lit up the practice field before tearing his ACL last August.
Defensive Line: Hunt played 70% of the Colts’ 2018 defensive snaps, causing disruption at both tackle and end. Even if Ballard re-signs him, Hunt isn’t a long-term solution going on age 32. Woods was a quality run-stopping role player. The Colts’ pass rush remains a work in progress after finishing 21st in sacks (38) and 28th in quarterback hits (78). Inconsistent-but-ascending free agent OLB Preston Smith could be a Ballard-style signing at the right price.
New England Patriots
Notable Free Agents: DE Trey Flowers, LT Trent Brown, CB Jason McCourty, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, DT Malcom Brown, WR Chris Hogan, WR Phillip Dorsett, DE John Simon, OT LaAdrian Waddle, K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, DT Danny Shelton, CB Eric Rowe, WR Josh Gordon (RFA), CB Jonathan Jones (RFA)
Defensive Line: Flowers, Malcom Brown, Simon, and Shelton’s expiring contracts threaten to turn a strength into a weakness after the Patriots’ defensive front dominated versus both the pass and run down the stretch. Flowers has developed into a legitimate star and could become one of the NFL’s richest defensive players should he reach the open market. If the Pats go late-career bargain hunting, free agents Cameron Wake and Clay Matthews might be willing to take less money to chase a ring.
Pass Catcher: With Rob Gronkowski weighing retirement, New England’s most-noteworthy “pass catchers” under contract for 2019 are special teamer Matthew Slater, practice-squad types Cody Hollister and Braxton Berrios, and oft-injured backup tight end Jacob Hollister behind Julian Edelman. Even if Gronk returns, the Patriots must make multiple pass-catching additions. Free agent WRs Dontrelle Inman and Rishard Matthews have Pats-style makeups and should be available at cheap costs. Free agent TE Maxx Williams disappointed in Baltimore but may offer untapped potential at age 24.
Left Tackle: The Patriots are likely hopeful 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn will be healthy enough to replace free agent LT Trent Brown, but Wynn’s Achilles’ tear makes that far from a given. Other Pats needs include kicker and punter with Gostkowski and Allen’s contracts up. New England could also use an infusion of speed at linebacker. Free agent Deone Bucannon regressed to finish his career in Arizona but would check that box and has experience at multiple positions on defense.