2017 NFL free agency: Targets, must-keep players for every NFC team
The Falcons, Packers and Cowboys all need the same thing: pass rush help
All the NFL teams have turned the book on 2016, some with glee in doing so and others hopeful they can repeat their play of last season.
It’s that time when rosters begin to churn, players with fat-cat salaries that don’t match production get released, and the agents start the process of already trying to match their free-agent players to a team. Yes, it’s tampering, but it happens.
So as we ready for the NFL Combine next week, and the open of the free-
agency period after that, it’s time to take a look at each of the needs for all 32 teams heading into the key months of March and April.
We already unveiled the AFC needs,. Now here are the needs for the 16 NFC teams:
The Skinny: The Cardinals finished in the top 10 in offense and defense, but failed to make the playoffs. That’s a major flop. Quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver Larry Fitzgerald are both coming back, so they can be poised to bounce back in 2017. This is still a talented team that can make a Super Bowl push.
Biggest free-agent need: Center and guard. A.Q. Shipley battled last year at center, but they need an upgrade. The right guard position was shaky. They have to be improved inside on their line.
Free agent they should keep: They traded to get edge rusher Chandler Jones from the Patriots, but his contract is up. They need to find a way to keep him, and it appears he will get the franchise tag. That could make it tough to keep defensive end Calais Campbell.
The Skinny: This is a young team coming off a tough Super Bowl loss, but they have a lot about which to be excited. The offense will again be explosive, but they need more help for the young defense.
Free agent they should keep: They really don’t have any must-keep free agents, but linebacker Courtney Upshaw is one they should keep. They have to keep an eye on restricted free agent receiver Taylor Gabriel. Some team could make an offer.
The Skinny: It was the year of the Super Bowl hangover. They struggled from the start and could never get it turned around. Both the offense and defense had major regresses in 2016. Cam Newton didn’t look anything like the MVP he was the year before, but there is still talent on their roster.
Biggest free-agent need: The offensive line was bad last season. They played without left tackle Michael Oher for most of the season because of concussion issues and right tackle Mike Remmers, who moved to the left side, is now a free agent. They have to get better up front.
Free agent they should keep: They will almost certainly put the franchise tag on defensive tackle Kawann Short, and they should. His play tailed off to open the 2016 season, but he came on strong late in the season. He is a disruptive inside player when he’s playing well.
The Skinny: The Bears suffered through a ton of injuries in their 3-13 season, which makes this a make-or-break year for coach John Fox. The biggest factor was at quarterback with Jay Cutler missing games and then having labrum surgery. The Bears will likely look to trade him or eventually let him go with a $12.5 million salary. But they can wait since there are no triggers in the deal. It will be tough to trade a quarterback with that salary who is coming off shoulder surgery.
Biggest free-agent need: It’s quarterback, but look at the market. What they have might be better than what is out there. The best option might be to trade for Patriots quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
Free agent they should keep: Receiver Alshon Jeffrey. I say that, but if the money gets crazy I would let him go. The Bears let him play on a franchise tag last season and he didn’t play to that number, missing games with injury and a PED suspension. But if they let him walk, what do they have?
Free agent they should target: Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye had his breakout season in 2016 and will be one of the top targets for a lot of teams. He is long and athletic and the Bears would be wise to try and land him with all the issues they had at corner last season.
The Skinny: After losing Tony Romo in the preseason with a back injury, it looked like the Cowboys would be toast. But rookie Dak Prescott was a surprise star and the Cowboys won the NFC East and earned the top seed in the playoffs. They lost to the Packers in the divisional round, but it was a successful season all the way around.
Biggest free-agent need: Edge rusher. This has been an on-going problem based on suspensions and injuries to key players. They have to get better rushing the passer.
Free agent they should keep: Safety Barry Church. He was their second-leading tackler last season and they love his role in their defense.
Free agent they should target: Unless they get Romo’s contract off the books, they will be limited in what they can do, but adding a bargain pass rusher like Jabaal Sheard from New England might make sense.
The Skinny: There was some talk that Jim Caldwell could be fired if he didn’t win, and then he led the Lions to the playoffs. They did collapse some late, so there’s that concern, and they didn’t play well in the wild-card round loss to the Seahawks. But Caldwell did a nice job in 2016.
Biggest free-agent need: They had major issues rushing the passer last year, finishing with just 26 sacks. They have to find an edge player to go with Ziggy Ansah, who missed time with injuries last season.
Free agent they should keep: Right tackle Riley Reiff. He moved from the left side to the right side last season and had a solid year doing so after the team drafted Taylor Decker to play left tackle. They would be wise to bring him back.
Free agent they should target: Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Go get an elite rusher to pair with Ansah. They would make a heck of a duo.
Green Bay Packers
The Skinny: The Packers started slowly last season, but got it going after Aaron Rodgers made his guarantee they would run the table. They got to the NFC Championship Game, but lost to the Atlanta Falcons. Even so, Rodgers and the offense got back to being a dominant unit. The defense needs to improve, especially on the back end.
Biggest free-agent need: I think their biggest need is help rushing the passer, especially with Julius Peppers and Nick Perry both free agents. Even if those two came back, they need more. Yes, they need corners too.
Free agent they should keep: Perry. He had 11 sacks last season and held up nicely against the run. But can they afford him now after giving him a one-year, show-me deal last season?
Free agent they should target: Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan. The pass-rush market isn’t great, which is why Perry should be back. So get a corner who can start but might not break the bank.
The Skinny: There is a new coach in Sean McVay, the youngest coach in the NFL at 30 years old. He inherits a team that appears to be a ways away from competing. He is considered an offensive wizard for his work with the Redskins and Kirk Cousins, but he faces a tough task getting Jared Goff, who struggled as a rookie, to play to that level. It would help Goff if there were better players around him.
Biggest free-agent need: They have to upgrade the offensive line. It was a disaster last season, which is why Todd Gurley didn’t have a good season. Pick a spot, any spot, and they could use an upgrade. Right tackle Rob Havenstein is the best of the group, so maybe he’s the only one who stays.
Free agent they should keep: Cornerback Trumaine Johnson. You don’t let good corners get out the door.
Free agent they should target: Lions guard Larry Warford. He would bring a physical style to the run game. Gurley would love him.
The Skinny: The Vikings are coming off a season destroyed by injuries. They lost their quarterback in the preseason, then had their star runner out for most of the season and lost both starting tackles. The defense tried to carry the team, but couldn’t. Even coach Mike Zimmer missed time because of eye surgery. The Vikings just couldn’t hold up to all the problems and missed the postseason after a 4-0 start. They still don’t know if quarterback Teddy Bridgewater will be back, but Sam Bradford did a nice job in his place. Adrian Peterson’s status is up in the air with his big contract.
Biggest free-agent need: They have to get better on the offensive line. Bradford ran for his life early and then had to change the offense to get the ball out quicker. That’s never a good thing. They have to improve their tackle play in the worst way.
Free agent they should keep: There is no must-keep player, but why get even worse on the offensive line by letting Matt Kalil leave? If the price is right -- and that will be key – bring him back and let him be the left tackle.
Free agent they should target: Packers C-G JC Tretter. He has shown he can play guard, center and even tackle. There’s value there and he’s only 26.
The Skinny: The good news for Saints fans is the Drew Brees-Sean Payton combination will be back for another run. They are both still outstanding at what they do. Brees had another impressive season and is still playing at a high level. The defense is still an issue, finishing 27th in yards last season. That has to be better.
Biggest free-agent need: They have a nice edge rusher in Cam Jordan. But he needs help on the other side. They got very little from that spot in terms of pass rush last season. They need to address that with a free-agent addition and in the draft.
Free agent they should keep: Defensive tackle Nick Fairley had a good season in his one-year deal with the team. He gambled, played well, and now might cost more to keep. With second-year player Sheldon Rankins ready to take over, I still think bringing back Fairley makes sense for the Saints.
Free agent they should target: Patriots defensive end Jabaal Sheard. He fell out of favor some last season, but he has 11 sacks over the past two seasons. He could be had for a decent price and new scenery could be good for him.
New York Giants
The Skinny: The Giants made the playoffs as a wild-card team and did so with a much-improved defense. They spent big on that side of the ball last spring and it paid off. The offense wasn’t as good as in previous years, which is a concern. Eli Manning isn’t a kid anymore, so there has to be more urgency. They have to run the ball better and protect him better.
Biggest free-agent need: They had offensive line issues last season, especially at tackle, so they need to possibly get an upgrade there. I also think they could use help at linebacker, but that’s never been a real concern under General Manger Jerry Reese.
Free agent they should keep: They actually have two. So many people want to mention defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, but don’t sleep on defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. He’s too good to let walk as well. Keep them both.
Free agent they should target: Lions tackle Riley Reiff. He has proven he can play the left and the right side, although if the Giants signed him he’d probably be a left tackle.
The Skinny: The Eagles thought there might be growing pains by starting rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, and after a fast start there was some of that. But Wentz showed that he has the tools to be this team’s franchise passer. They need to get him more weapons outside, which should be an offseason priority.
Biggest free-agent need: They need playmakers outside. They should be active on the market and they also should land one or two in the draft. They have the quarterback, so now get him some weapons to bond with for years to come.
Free agent they should keep: Defensive tackle Bennie Logan made a nice transition to the 4-3 scheme last year under Jim Schwartz. Bring him back and the defensive line stays intact.
The Skinny: There’s a new general manager (John Lynch) and coach (Kyle Shanahan) running this team. Lynch has his hands full trying to upgrade a roster that doesn’t have a lot of talent. Shanahan, who is an offensive wizard (except for late in the Super Bowl), has to find a quarterback. If they don’t pick up the option on Colin Kaepernick, they don’t have one on the roster. That’s a problem.
Biggest free-agent need: Quarterback. Where do they get one? Can they get one? Do they make a move for Kirk Cousins? Trade for Jimmy Garoppolo? What do they do?
Free agent they should keep: They really don’t have one, but maybe receiver Jeremy Kerley, who had a solid season in 2016 with 64 catches.
Free agent they should target: Bears receiver Alshon Jeffrey. They have to get a big-play receiver for Shanahan’s offense.
The Skinny: The Seahawks once again made the playoffs and won the NFC West, but this wasn’t the same team we’ve seen in recent years. The defense was carved up by Atlanta in the playoff loss. That unit is still the calling card for this team, but for how much longer? Russell Wilson played well last season, but he needs more help up front. The offense has to be better.
Biggest free-agent need: They won’t say it, but it’s the offensive line. There is youth there, and it might be OK down the road, but they need help now. Wilson took a beating last season.
Free agent they should keep: Tight end Luke Willson. He missed five games with a knee injury last season, but he’s a solid No. 2 behind Jimmy Graham, who is entering the final year of his deal in 2017.
Free agent they should target: Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth. They need a nasty pass protector to play left tackle and help keep Wilson upright. I would imagine Whitworth would go to a team that can win if he does leave Cincinnati.
The Skinny: In Dirk Koetter’s first season as coach, the Bucs showed some major growth. They finished 9-7 and just missed out on the playoffs. They also beat the Falcons in Week 1. The defense took major steps forward, but they need more players to really take the major step.
Free agent they should keep: Running back Jacquizz Rodgers. With Doug Martin’s off-field issues, they should keep Rodgers with a team-friendly deal.
Free agent they should target: I don’t think the safety market will be a good one with Eric Berry likely getting tagged by the Chiefs, so maybe they should focus on a player Calais Campbell of the Cardinals to get better up front.
The Skinny: After being a playoff team in 2015, the Redskins missed out last season when they went 8-7-1 and faltered down the stretch. The offense was dynamic at times, but now the team faces a tough decision on Kirk Cousins in terms of a long-term deal. He will be back in 2017 no matter what -- with a franchise tag -- and then they have to decide what do going forward.
Biggest free-agent need: Defensive line. They have to get better at their down spots, and their best down player, Chris Baker, is a free agent. They were 21st against the run last season. In a division with the Cowboys’ vaunted running game, that isn’t good enough.
Free agent they should keep: Baker. Why create more problems up front? They should bring back a player who makes plays.
Free agent they should target: Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe. Kansas City might not be able to keep both Eric Berry and Poe, who would help shore things up inside.
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