Top 3 Offseason Needs

Top 3 Offseason Needs: New England Patriots

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors has been detailing each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We conclude the series today with the Super Bowl champs.

[RELATED: Click Here For The Complete Top 3 Offseason Needs Series]

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

Other:

Three needs:

1) Help on the Defensive Line: With linebacker Dont’a Hightower and cornerback Malcolm Butler set to hit free agency, most pundits will say that those two positions should be the Patriots’ main priority as they head into the draft and free agency.

However, the team should be absolutely fine at both spots, even in the unlikely event that both of these top free agents depart. Now, there’s nothing to suggest that the potential linebacker or cornerback replacements would immediately replace the production of Hightower and/or Butler. Rather, history tells us that the Patriots will adequately fill those roles with rookies or veterans.

Dont'a Hightower (Vertical)Hightower didn’t have his most productive season when it comes to plain statistics. In 13 games, the former first-rounder finished with 65 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. Of course, the 26-year-old proved his worth in the Super Bowl, where he collected a sack and a key forced fumble. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) was particularly fond of his performance this past season, as the website ranked him as the 12th best linebacker in 2016 (as well as the second best at his position in pass rushing).

The organization made it clear that they were committed to Hightower following the trades of impending free agents Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones. Despite the team’s abundance of cap room, it was unlikely that the organization would be able (or willing) to sign the trio to lengthy, lucrative contracts. By moving on from the other talented defenders, the front office made it clear that Hightower was going to be the anchor of their defense for years to come.

That sentiment still seems to be the case, although a recent report indicated that the team wasn’t going to slap Hightower with their franchise tag. The linebacker presumably won’t command the franchise tag’s $14.7MM annual salary in free agency (although it may be close), so this news seems to be more of a financial decision, and there haven’t been any reports suggesting that the Patriots are prepared to move on without Hightower. Rather, I’d expect the team to approach his situation similarly to how they handled Devin McCourty’s free agency. They’ll offer the linebacker a contract and allow him to shop around for better offers from inferior teams. Assuming Hightower gets a better offer, he’ll presumably allow the Patriots to match. Therefore, the ball still seems to be in the organization’s court.

If Hightower does leave the Patriots, the team’s remaining linebackers shouldn’t be relied on to fill his starting role. Following the trade of Collins, coach Bill Belichick relied on a rotation of Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin, Barkevious Mingo, Kyle Van Noy, and Rob Ninkovich (when he wasn’t playing defensive end) to play opposite Hightower. While the Patriots were able to rely on the hot hand through the rest of the season and the playoffs, it’d be tough to rely on two of those guys as starters next season.

Fortunately, in the event that Hightower does leave town, the Patriots shouldn’t be overly worried. While the team has generally struck out on all of their recent late-round linebackers (Xzavier Dickson, anyone?), the team has had plenty of success drafting the position in the first two rounds. Hightower, Collins, Jerod Mayo, and Brandon Spikes are among the team’s successful linebackers taken in the first two rounds of the draft. Furthermore, there’s plenty of depth at the position in free agency, and a number of aging veterans could adequately fit the role that the Patriots coaching staff is seeking. After all, the team doesn’t need a game-changer at linebacker. Instead, they just need someone who is capable in pass protection and stopping the run. Of course, all of this is moot if Hightower re-signs with the team.

Butler’s situation is a bit different than Hightower’s. There’s no denying that the cornerback is one of the most indispensable members of the Patriots defense, and his Jan 24, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sportsrole is arguably more essential to the Patriots’ success than Hightower’s. The former undrafted free agent put his name on the map during the 2015 Super Bowl, and he was solid during his first season as a starter. In 2016, the 26-year-old established himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the game. Butler finished the campaign with 63 tackles, two fumbles recoveries, and four interceptions, and PFF ranked him as the seventh-best cornerback in the NFL.

Logan Ryan may have had his best season in a Patriots uniform (ranking 16th among cornerbacks by PFF), but there’s no way the former third-rounder can be relied on as a number-one cornerback (not to mention that he’s a free agent himself). Additionally, former Eagles cornerback Eric Rowe flashed plenty of potential during his nine games this season, and the squad clearly thinks highly of rookie Cyrus Jones. Still, there’s no reason to think that any of these players could step in and seamlessly replace Butler.

Fortunately for the Patriots, Butler is a restricted free agent, so the team will have the opportunity to match any contract he receives. Belichick has shown that he’s willing to spend big on the position (Darrelle Revis and Aqib Talib come to mind), so it’d be a shock if the team let Butler walk without a clear replacement in place. His return is all but inevitable, and that means cornerback shouldn’t be a position of need.

That brings me back to my original point. While a hypothetical Butler or Hightower departure would certainly open a giant hole on the depth chart, no part of the Patriots defense needs as much work as the defensive line. The team’s pass rush was plenty impressive during the Super Bowl, but the unit struggled for stretches during the season. Despite finishing the season as one of the top defenses in the NFL, the Patriots still ranked 16th in sacks (34) and failed to develop a consistent pass-rush.

Furthermore, while Hightower and Butler more-or-less seem to be shoo-ins to return to New England, many of the team’s impending defensive line free agents do not. Chris Long (vertical)Chris Long already made it clear that he won’t be returning next season, and Alan Branch may be looking for a payday following the best season of his career (49 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble). Jabaal Sheard is also set to be a free agent, and I’m not convinced that he’ll return after getting benched during the regular season.

Fortunately, the team does have some young stars on the defensive line in Trey Flowers and Malcom Brown. Flowers was a revelation this past season as he essentially replaced Chandler Jones in the lineup. After sitting out his entire rookie campaign, the former fourth-rounder responded with 45 tackles and seven sacks in 2016. Meanwhile, Brown looked a lot more confident during his second season in the league, compiling 50 tackles and three sacks while ranking as PFF’s 31st-best interior defender. The Patriots can at least take solace in the fact that they have two spots on their defensive line covered.

However, considering the impending free agency of Long, Sheard, and Branch, the Patriots could be lacking depth at multiple positions, and these players all played an integral role in the team having one of the best run defenses in the NFL. The draft seems to have plenty of talented edge defenders, so the team could theoretically use several of their picks to fill that depth. The team could also look to free agency to fill those holes, especially if they’re seeking the play-making type of player they lost when they traded Jones.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: New York Jets

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the New York Jets, who finished 2016 with a 5-11 record, last in the AFC East.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Muhammad Wilkerson, DL: $18,000,000
  2. Eric Decker, WR: $8,750,000
  3. Buster Skrine, CB: $8,500,000
  4. Sheldon Richardson, DL: $8,069,000
  5. Brian Winters, G: $8,000,000
  6. Brandon Marshall, WR: $7,500,000
  7. Marcus Gilchrist, S: $7,375,000
  8. James Carpenter, G: $6,805,000
  9. David Harris, LB: $6,500,000
  10. Leonard Williams, DL: $5,081,146

Other:

Three Needs:

1. Find a franchise quarterback — or at least a stopgap: Consider where the Jets stood at quarterback position at the end of the 2016 preseason. Ryan Fitzpatrick had led New York to a 10-6 record and a near-playoff berth the year prior, and while the tape clearly indicated Fitzpatrick hadn’t transformed into an elite signal-caller, he had tossed 31 touchdowns and posted the best season of his career in 2016. Former fourth-round pick Bryce Petty was coming off an exhibition campaign that had seen him throw for nearly 500 yards, three touchdowns, and complete this gem to Robby Anderson, and while rookie second-rounder Christian Hackenberg admittedly struggled during the preseason, a rose-colored lens might have offered some hope on the 51st overall selection.

Fast forward to 2017, and any optimism regarding Gang Green’s quarterbacks has vanished. Despite finishing 27th in passes attempted, Fitzpatrick threw the league’s third-most interceptions, and while his contract has since expired, he’ll still count for $5MM in dead money on New York’s 2017 salary cap. Petty started four games but posted an even higher interception rate than Fiztpatrick, while Hackenberg never managed to get on the field, even in the midst of a lost season. Jets management now regards Petty and Hackenberg as nothing more than potential backups, and the club is essentially back to square one under center."<strong

As usual, the free agent quarterback market is extremely lackluster, and contains only one player — the Buccaneers’ Mike Glennon — who could reasonably be considered a long-term option. Glennon, 27, has only thrown 11 passes over the past two seasons, but as the only available signal-caller who has both youth and a history of success on his side, he could be in for a nice payday. The Jets are reportedly interested in Glennon, but it’s doubtful they’ll pay the $13-15MM annual salary Glennon is apparently targeting.

Other passers will hit the open market next week, but none offer any sort of upside and are better viewed as potential bridge options. Brian Hoyer, Nick Foles, Josh McCown, Geno Smith (just kidding!), Case Keenum, Matt Schaub, and the like aren’t going to take the Jets to the postseason in 2017, but they could hold down the fort while the club develops a rookie. Jay Cutler is also a possibility for New York after he’s released by the Bears, while general manager Mike Maccagnan & Co. could hypothetically explore trades. The Patriots aren’t going to ship Jimmy Garoppolo to a division rival, though (and may not trade him to anyone), while the Bengals might also hold onto A.J. McCarron.

If Gang Green doesn’t find what it’s looking for in free agency or via trade, it will likely turn its attention to the draft. Owners of the sixth overall pick, the Jets will have the opportunity to select a quarterback if they so choose. They’ve already been linked to UNC’s Mitch Trubisky, who is being considered by multiple quarterback-needy teams at the top of the draft and may not even be on the board at No. 6. If Trubisky is still available, however, opposing clubs believe New York will run to turn in its card.Mitch Trubisky (Vertical)

They got their eyes set on the North Carolina quarterback,” one rival scout said in December. “The Jets are all over this kid. All over him. They’ll probably deny it if you ask, but they love that kid. That’s their guy. They’re not going to get him though, because I think that kid is going to get over-drafted.”

Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is also reportedly on the Jets’ radar, while other players such as Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer or Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes could be in the cards at the top of the second round (or later in the first if New York trades back). Even if New York signs Glennon (and especially if they only bring in a stopgap option), the Jets should look into spending a mid-round pick on a quarterback. Yes, the club has already witnessed two early-to-mid-round choices waste away on the bench, but a rebuilding club can never take enough bites at the QB apple. Brad Kaaya (Miami), Nathan Peterman (Pitt), Davis Webb (Cal), and Chad Kelly (Ole Miss) could come off the board on Day 2 or later.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Dallas Cowboys

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Dallas Cowboys, who rode two rookie offensive stars to a 13-3 record and the NFC East title.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Tony Romo, QB: $24,700,000
  2. Dez Bryant, WR: $17,000,000
  3. Sean Lee, LB: $12,450,000
  4. Jason Witten, TE: $12,262,000
  5. Tyrone Crawford, DL: $10,350,000
  6. Tyron Smith, T: $8,820,000
  7. Doug Free, T: $7,500,000
  8. Ezekiel Elliott, RB: $5,671,895
  9. Orlando Scandrick, CB: $5,281,021
  10. Travis Frederick, C: $4,531,000

Other:

Three Needs:

1. Part ways with Tony Romo: The Cowboys cleared a good deal of cap space last week by restructuring the contracts of offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick, but they still have the worst cap situation in the league. That doesn’t account for one move that Dallas will almost assuredly make this offseason, however, as the club can create a bit more financial wiggle room by cutting ties with veteran quarterback Tony Romo, either through trade or release.

Romo’s future figures to be the dominant Cowboys storyline this offseason, and while the team could attempt to trade him in the coming weeks, a deal seems unlikely, particularly for financial reasons. Thanks to multiple contract restructures, nearly $20MM in prorated Romo bonus money is on the Dallas books over the next three seasons. If the Cowboys were to ship Romo to another club, the entirety of that total — $19.6MM, to be exact — would accelerate onto Dallas’ cap, an untenable outcome given the state of team’s salary cap.Tony Romo (Vertical)

Additionally, it’s unclear how much interest Romo would generate on the trade market, and/or what type of draft pick compensation the Cowboys could expect to reap. At least one rival club, the Broncos, seem to have no wish to entertain a trade for Romo, and would only be willing to sign him as a free agent. The theoretical price tag on Romo has varied wildly, as some executives have speculated the Cowboys could acquire a second-round pick for Romo, while other evaluators think a mid- to late-round conditional draft choice is more likely.

One factor working in Dallas’ favor is that a number of teams have already been linked to Romo, which could hypothetically raise the draft cost enough that a trade would make sense from the Cowboys’ perspective. The Chiefs, Bills, Broncos, Redskins, and Texans have all been mentioned as possible suitors for Romo, and if enough members of that list has serious interest, Dallas could start a bidding war and secure a relatively high draft choice. Romo is reportedly open to “massaging” his contract — likely by accepting some sort of paycut or restructure — which could make him even more attractive to interested parties.

From a fiscal standpoint, though, a release of Romo represents a far more palatable situation than a trade. Specifically, the Cowboys would need to designate Romo as a post-June 1 cut, which would allow Romo to hit the market now and only keep the accelerated $19.6MM dead money charge on Dallas’ salary cap until early June, at which point the dead money would be reduced to just $10.7MM. Gaining nearly $9MM in cap space in the summer isn’t going to help the Cowboys ink any marquee free agents, but it would help the club sign its draft class, bring in street free agents, and plan for unexpected financial charges that occur throughout a season.Jerry Jones (Vertical)

Romo, for what’s it worth, expects to be cut rather than traded, and it’s possible that his close relationship with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will allow the 13-year pro to secure his release and then choose his next club himself. Speculatively, such an outcome could come with a handshake agreement between Jones and Romo that the latter won’t sign with a rival like Washington.

If and when the Cowboys cut ties with Romo, they’ll need a new backup quarterback to play behind Dak Prescott. Dallas reportedly has mutual interest with former Browns signal-caller Josh McCown, while the Cowboys could also conceivably re-sign either Mark Sanchez or Kellen Moore, both of whom are unrestricted free agents. Other available quarterbacks who may intrigue the Cowboys include Case Keenum, Nick Foles, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Christian Ponder.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Pittsburgh Steelers

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won the AFC North with an 11-5 record before falling to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Ben Roethlisberger, QB: $18,200,000
  2. Antonio Brown, WR: $13,618,334
  3. Maurkice Pouncey, C: $11,051,000
  4. David DeCastro, G: $11,050,000
  5. Cameron Heyward, DL: $10,400,000
  6. Mike Mitchell, S: $8,135,416
  7. Marcus Gilbert, T: $7,308,500
  8. Ladarius Green, TE: $6,187,500
  9. Ramon Foster, G: $3,591,666
  10. Ryan Shazier, LB: $3,025,020

Other:

Three Needs:

1. Bring in a new linebacker: The Steelers have a history of developing linebackers, but the two of club’s past three first-round selections at the position haven’t exactly panned out (thus far, at least). Jarvis Jones has been the most obvious failure, as the former 17th overall pick has managed only six sacks over four seasons in Pittsburgh. “Failure” might be too strong a word, as Jones is a capable run defender who probably ranks as an average NFL linebacker. But he’s not the type of edge presence the Steelers were hoping to land with a first-round pick.

Bud Dupree, meanwhile, was chosen two years after Jones, and offered a much different collegiate profile, boasting more natural athleticism but less statistical production. He’s been a bit more productive than Jones during his two years with the Steelers (8.5 sacks from 2015-16), but Dupree has earned far worse marks from Pro Football Focus, grading poorly against both the run and pass. Still only 24 years old, however, Dupree showed marked improvement from Year 1 to Year 2, and should see his snap percentage increase in 2017.James Harrison (vertical)

Jones is a pending free agent and not expected back, but the same can’t be said for fellow free agents James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons, each of whom Pittsburgh is working to re-sign. Harrison is the more likely to return, and it could be a matter of time until the veteran pass rusher formally inks a new deal with the Steelers. General manager Kevin Colbert wants to bring Timmons back into the fold, as well, but admitted the 30-year-old could find better offers on the open market.

If Timmons departs, Pittsburgh could need to find a new inside linebacker to play next to Pro Bowler Ryan Shazier. The club would have at least one internal candidate to fill that role, as Vince Williams put up a decent showing in 2016 on roughly a quarter of the Steelers’ defensive snaps. While Pittsburgh likely won’t invest financial resources to bring in a free agent inside ‘backer (unless it’s someone who can contribute on special teams like Jon Bostic or Audie Cole), a mid-round draft pick on the position isn’t out of the question. LSU’s Kendell Beckwith, Wake Forest’s Marquel Lee, or Michigan’s Ben Gedeon could interest the Steelers on Day 2 or 3.Haason Reddick (Vertical)

While adding an inside linebacker could be an area of focus, bringing in a new edge rusher should be a much higher priority for Pittsburgh this offseason. Indeed, targeting an outside linebacker at pick No. 30 will be a consideration for the Steelers, and perhaps even considered a likely proposition. Nearly every industry mock draft has sent a pass rusher to Pittsburgh, and both Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN.com and Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com agree Temple’s Haason Reddick, who put up 9.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss last year, would be a logical fit. Takkarist McKinley (UCLA), Carl Lawson (Auburn), Charles Harris (Missouri), and Tim Williams (Alabama) are among the other prospects that could intrigue Pittsburgh at the end of Round 1.

Free agent pass rushers may also interest the Steelers, although the club is highly unlikely to spend extravagantly to lure a top-notch edge defender such as Melvin Ingram or even Jabaal Sheard — it’s simply not the club’s style. However, Pittsburgh should go bargain-hunting and find another veteran to play alongside Harrison, especially if it doesn’t find what it’s looking for in the draft. Erik Walden and Alex Okafor could make sense on short-term contracts, while longtime NFL pass rusher DeMarcus Ware would also look good in a Steelers uniform.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Baltimore Ravens

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Baltimore Ravens, who have now missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in the John Harbaugh era. Despite calls for their dismissal, Harbaugh and his top assistants will be back in 2017 in what will likely be a do-or-die year for them. There is enough of a foundation for the club to make a playoff push in 2017, but they will need to have a strong offseason in order to return to the postseason.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits For 2017:

  1. Joe Flacco, QB: $24,550,000
  2. Jimmy Smith, CB: $12,600,00
  3. Marshal Yanda, G: $9,125,220
  4. Elvis Dumervil, LB: $8,375,000
  5. Mike Wallace: $8,000,000
  6. Dennis Pitta: $7,700,000
  7. Lardarius Webb, S: $7,500,000
  8. Terrell Suggs, LB: $6,950,0000
  9. Eric Weddle, S: $5,750,000
  10. Shareece Wright, CB: $5,333,333

Current Projected Cap Room (via Over the Cap): $15,387,844

Other:

  • Must exercise or decline 2018 fifth-year option for LB C.J. Mosley

Three Needs:

1) Wide Receiver Help: GM Ozzie Newsome’s greatest weakness has been his ability to draft difference-making wide receivers. Breshad Perriman, whom the team selected in the first round of the 2015 draft, missed his entire rookie campaign due to injury, and though he was able to stay healthy throughout the entire 2016 season and showed some flashes of his potential, the jury is decidedly out on the UCF product. As it stands now, ex-Raven Torrey Smith is the best receiver the club has ever drafted, and though he had a productive career in Baltimore, he does not belong in the same conversation as AFC North elites like Antonio Brown and A.J. Green.

Dec 4, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Washington Redskins wide receiver Pierre Garcon (88) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Redskins 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As such, the team has been forced to rely on acquiring veteran possession receivers on the downside of their careers. Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Derrick Mason all enjoyed some success with the Ravens, and now that Smith has retired and Kamar Aiken appears to be on his way out, Baltimore will likely need to turn to free agency yet again. The market for veteran wideouts is fairly underwhelming, as the Ravens will likely not be in play for the biggest fish in the free agent pool, Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery will probably get a Green-esque contract, and the Ravens simply cannot afford to spend that much (nor is it their practice to make such a splash in free agency).

Pierre Garcon seems like a perfect fit, as he is a quality possession receiver who would nicely complement Perriman and Mike Wallace (the latter of whom has been discussed as a potential cap casualty, though given his production in 2016 and Baltimore’s dearth of receiver talent, it would be shocking if the Ravens were to part ways with Wallace). However, the Redskins would reportedly like to have Garcon back, and even if he does not return to Washington, the Ravens will face stiff competition for his services.

That leaves less appealing options like Kenny Britt and Brandon LaFell, as Terrelle Pryor will likely stay in Cleveland or will be too pricey for the Ravens’ liking, and Kenny Stills’ skill-set is too similar to that of Wallace and Perriman. Of course, the Ravens could always pounce on an intriguing cap casualty like Brandon Marshall — if he is released — or Victor Cruz, though such players come with plenty of question marks.

Unfortunately for the Ravens, who hold the No. 16 overall selection in the 2017 draft, this year’s rookie class of wide receivers is lacking in top-end talent. Clemson’s Mike Williams, the consensus No. 1 wide receiver in the class, has a nice combination of size and speed but could be off the board by the time the Ravens are on the clock. Western Michigan’s Corey Davis or USC’s JuJu Smith-Schuster should still be available, with Davis looking like the better all-around prospect (Smith-Schuster projects as a possession receiver at the next level).

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: New Orleans Saints

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the New Orleans Saints, who finished third in the NFC South after posting their third consecutive 7-9 record.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Drew Brees, QB: $19,000,000
  2. Cameron Jordan, DE: $12,047,000
  3. Terron Armstead, LT: $11,500,000
  4. Jairus Byrd, S: $11,200,000
  5. Coby Fleener, TE: $7,500,000
  6. Max Unger, C: $7,400,000
  7. Kenny Vaccaro, S: $5,676,000
  8. Mark Ingram, RB: $5,345,000
  9. Zach Strief, T: $5,100,000
  10. Thomas Morstead, P: $4,700,000

Other:

Three Needs:

1. Find an edge rusher to play opposite Cameron Jordan: The Saints ranked 29th in DVOA against the pass in 2016, and much of that poor showing can be attributed to the club’s lack of pass rush. Defensive end Cameron Jordan led the team with 7.5 sacks, defensive tackle — and pending free agent — Nick Fairley was second with 6.5, and no other New Orleans defender posted more than four quarterback takedowns. Overall, the Saints finished 27th in team sacks and 28th in adjusted sack percentage.

Edge rushers Darryl Tapp and Paul Kruger are both headed for the free agent market, and while one or both could be retained, neither should be viewed as a priority one item. Instead, the Saints are likely going to look towards free agency and the draft in order to bring in new talent, especially given that New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said adding pass rush help is a “must.” Typically up against the salary cap, the Saints have nearly $30MM with which to work this offseason, and could clear more room by cutting ties with veterans such as Jairus Byrd and Thomas Morstead.Melvin Ingram (Vertical)

Given that the Cardinals’ Chandler Jones and the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul seem increasingly likely to be franchised by their respective clubs, the top edge defender on the market could be Melvin Ingram, who’s managed 18.5 sacks over the past two seasons with the Chargers. Ingram, 27, is also a candidate for the tag, but it’s unclear if a rebuilding Los Angeles team is willing to tie up ~$15MM in cap space on a single player. If he does reach the open market, Ingram should be the number one target for the Saints, who should have some familiarity with him given that former Chargers linebackers coach Mike Nolan now holds the same role in New Orleans.

Outside of the top few options, the free agent defensive end class is relatively barren, and the Saints could be forced to go bargain hunting. Datone Jones is still only 26 years old and has never seemed to fit in the Packers’ 3-4 look, but he could look to restart his career as an end in New Orleans’ 4-3 scheme. Ryan Davis posted 10 sacks for the Jaguars in 2014-15, and though his performance stalled last year, a move back to end could help. Veterans such as Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney could be targets on one-year deals, while Elvis Dumervil could also intrigue the Saints if he’s released by Baltimore.Sheldon Richardson

If the Saints don’t find what they’re looking for in free agency, the trade market might offer at least one interesting solution in the form of Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. Although New Orleans wasn’t among the list of teams that reportedly inquired on Richardson last year, the 26-year-old could be a nice fit as a defensive end under coordinator Dennis Allen. A player-for-player trade might even make sense — former first-round pick Stephone Anthony has apparently fallen out of favor with the Saints, and it’s possible New York would have interest in resurrecting his young career.

When April rolls around, New Orleans will have yet another opportunity to add edge players when the draft begins. The Saints hold the 11th overall selection, and figure to target a pass rusher with that pick. ESPN draftniks Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both see New Orleans drafting a defensive end, as Kiper recently mocked Michigan’s Taco Charlton to the Saints while McShay thinks Stanford’s Solomon Thomas will head east. Myles Garrett (Texas A&M) and Jonathan Allen (Alabama) won’t be available when the Saints’ turn comes up, but Derek Barnett (Tennessee), Charles Harris (Oklahoma), and Carl Lawson (Auburn) could be in consideration.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Tampa Bay Bucs

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who added three wins to their 2015 record to finish 9-7 under first-year head coach Dirk Koetter.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Gerald McCoy, DT: $13,750,000
  2. Brent Grimes, CB: $8,000,000
  3. Doug Martin, RB: $7,000,000
  4. Jameis Winston, QB: $6,913,985
  5. Alterraun Verner, CB: $6,500,000
  6. Robert Ayers, DE: $6,250,000
  7. Lavonte David, LB: $6,000,000
  8. J.R. Sweezy, G: $5,000,000
  9. Mike Evans, WR: $4,655,478
  10. Evan Smith, OL: $4,500,000

Other:

Three Needs:

1. Grab a No. 2 wide receiver: The Buccaneers’ offense had its successes in 2016, as quarterback Jameis Winston took a leap in his sophomore campaign, wide receiver Mike Evans ranked among the NFL’s top-six receivers in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, and the offense as a whole finished 18th in DVOA. Tampa Bay’s running game struggled — we’ll address ways to fix that facet of the club a bit later — but the more pressing need for the Bucs is at receiver, where the team lacks depth beyond Evans.

Tight end Cameron Brate ranked second among Tampa receivers in catches, yards, and scores, and adds a solid dimension to the Buccaneers offense, while Adam Humphries managed 55 receptions for 622 yards and two touchdowns. Humphries, 24, garnered the second-most targets in Tampa Bay’s offense, and while he’s a reliable security blanket for Winston, Humphries is best served in the slot. Veteran Cecil Shorts, meanwhile, suffered a potentially career-ending injury last December and won’t be back, meaning the rest of the Buccaneers wide receiver depth chart is comprised of Josh Huff, Freddie Martino, Donteea Dye, and Bernard Reedy.

In addition to Shorts, other internal free agents exist at the wideout position. Veteran Vincent Jackson, now 34 years old, is coming off a partial ACL tear and could theoretically opt for retirement given that he’s only played in 15 games over the past two seasons. Jackson, though, is a respected presence in the Tampa Bay locker room, and a cheap re-signing isn’t out of the question, as Roy Cummings of FanRag Sports recently detailed. Russell Shepard, too, is heading for the open market, but is viewed as a “priority” free agent after another campaign as an excellent special-teamer.DeSean Jackson (Vertical)

Even if Jackson and Shepard return, though, the Buccaneers will still have a need for a standout No. 2 receiver who can help Evans threaten opposing defenses. In free agency, Redskins pass-catcher DeSean Jackson stands out as one option who could interest Tampa Bay. Jackson, 30, is expected to garner a double-digit yearly salary, but could add another feature to Tampa’s offense. While averaging 17.9 yards per reception, Jackson led the league in yards per catch for the second time in three seasons, evidence of his deep-ball acumen. Jackson’s teammate Pierre Garcon could also be on the Buccaneers’ radar, though he’s more of a possession receiver, and the Bucs weren’t among the recent list of teams expected to express interest in Garcon.

Elsewhere on the free agent market, Michael Floyd looks like an obvious fit for Tampa Bay, especially given that Bucs general manager Jason Licht was a member of the Cardinals’ front office when Arizona made Floyd a top-15 overall pick in 2012. Even with Floyd’s off-field concerns, the Buccaneers would face competition for Floyd’s services, including from the Patriots, who hope to re-sign the pending free agent. Tampa could eye Vikings’ wideout Cordarrelle Patterson as it looks to improve its special teams unit — the Bucs lost 8.7 points of field position on kick returns and 2.1 points of field position on punt returns in 2016 — while Terrance Williams, Kamar Aiken, and Robert Woods might also interest the club.

The Buccaneers could also pursue a few pass-catchers who aren’t actually on the open market just yet: if the Jets release either of Brandon Marshall or Eric Decker, Tampa might jump at the chance to add a dependable veteran to play opposite Evans in “12” personnel. Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap recently placed both Marshall and Decker on his list of potential wide receiver cuts, and while Marshall says he hasn’t heard anything from New York about his future with the team, he could certainly hit free agency in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, the 49ers may be willing to trade Torrey Smith, who could offer a Jackson-like deep threat to the Bucs’ offense.Corey Davis (vertical)

The draft represents yet another avenue by which Tampa Bay can acquire wide receiver talent, and while the club likely won’t be able to land Clemson’s Mike Williams barring a trade up in the first round, Western Michigan’s Corey Davis is a legitimate target at pick No. 19, and was recently mocked to the Buccaneers by Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN.com. Davis will miss the scouting combine after undergoing ankle surgery, while fellow Round 1 option John Ross (Washington) is expected to go under the knife after the combine, but both receivers should be ready for training camp. Cooper Kupp (Eastern Washington), Zay Jones (East Carolina), and JuJu Smith-Schuster (USC) could figure into Tampa’s Day 2 plans.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Detroit Lions

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Detroit Lions, who managed to make the playoffs for the second time in three years and third time this decade. But the team backed into the NFC bracket, closing the regular season with three losses, and did not fare well in a wild-card loss to the Seahawks. This leaves many offseason questions ahead.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

Other:

  • Projected cap space (via OverTheCap): $32,797,575
  • Twenty-first pick in draft
  • Must exercise or decline 2018 fifth-year option for TE Eric Ebron

Three Needs:

1.) Stock the second level: Since signing the four-year, $33.74MM extension prior to the 2015 season, DeAndre Levy has contributed staggeringly little to the Lions’ cause. Playing in just six games and making only 21 tackles the past two seasons, Levy can no longer be counted on to be available. But he’s still Detroit’s best linebacker and has three years and almost $19MM remaining on his deal. The Lions will likely see if Levy can retain the form that led the team to extend him, but Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press notes a Levy pay cut request could be forthcoming after the soon-to-be 30-year-old weak-side man’s observed his value depreciate. Levy, however, won’t need further surgery on his right knee, which plagued him in 2016 after a hip injury harpooned his 2015 slate. Just $1.75MM of Levy’s 2017 salary ($5.75MM) is guaranteed against injury for 2017, becoming fully guaranteed on the third day of the league year. But thoughts of cutting the previous outside standout would basically mean starting over at linebacker, because the Lions are reeling here.

Levy’s extension thus far burning the Lions gives them no surefire answers on their defensive second level. Despite his 122 tackles far and away leading the team, Tahir Whitehead encountered mixed reviews. Pro Football Focus did not think the statistics gelled with Whitehead’s play level, ranking the 26-year-old as the league’s second-worst full-time linebacker last season. Whitehead is signed through 2017 after inking a two-year, $8MM extension last March. The Lions’ second-leading tackler among linebackers, Josh Bynes, is a pending UFA. A fifth-round pick from 2016, Antwione Williams, and a former waiver claim (Thurston Armbrister) represent the only other ‘backers under contract.

A group that appeared solid a couple of seasons ago, with Levy and the since-released Stephen Tulloch manning positions, could use reinforcements. Football Outsiders ranked the Lions last in defensive DVOA in 2016, and although Detroit’s defense ranked 18th in terms of rushing yards allowed, this is a primary need area.

It’s not a great year to need a non-rush linebacker, particularly if a team is seeking outside help in a 4-3. Assuming Levy returns to commandeer the weak-side spot (big if, obviously), the Lions may need two new starters. As far as 4-3 OLBs go, it’s an incredibly thin contingent.

Malcolm Smith now profiles as player with significant starting experience compared to his initial free agency foray in 2015, when he was coming off a stay as a Seahawks contributor. Smith, though, did not impress much in Oakland despite being the Raiders’ most-used pure linebacker the past two seasons. Beyond that, Bynes, Keenan Robinson and Barkevious Mingo loom as undesirable options. Bob Quinn‘s former team traded for Mingo last year, but the former No. 6 overall pick made little impact. The 27-year-old Bynes could conceivably be back on a cheap deal. He signed a two-year pact with Detroit in 2015 but saw an injury lead to his release. The Kyle Van Noy trade re-routed Bynes to the Motor City, where he started eight games last season and earned a middling PFF grade — but tops among Lions linebackers. The Lions still may be better off targeting a rookie in the early rounds to fill this need.

If the team would be open to converting a 3-4 inside man to the outside, more options are available. Zach Brown and Kevin Minter are each coming off quality seasons and will be looking to cash in, Brown (149 tackles with the Bills in 2016) especially after settling for a one-year deal as a UFA last year. A middle linebacker in the Raiders’ base 4-3 set but a player used on passing downs as well, Perry Riley stands to be available after re-emerging last season. Settling for one of the other talents here — unless it’s Lawrence Timmons, whom the Steelers are considering keeping — doesn’t make much sense. It could be time for an early-round investment.

The Lions have mostly avoided linebackers in Round 1, with Ernie Sims (2006) representing the last such selection. They went for Van Noy in Round 2 three years ago, but he’s the only second-rounder the franchise has used on this position in the past nine years. A 2009 third-round choice, Levy joins many modern non-rush linebackers in showing that filling this spot with later-round draft picks can work. However, his own standing with the team presently could induce an early selection to help tilt the odds in the Lions’ favor.

Most mainstream mock drafts do not have the Lions going for a linebacker with their No. 1 pick, but Detroit has talent at every other level of its defense that will return. Be it Ziggy Ansah, Darius Slay, or Glover Quin. This defense needs help at multiple spots, but if Levy can’t return to regular duty, no such cornerstone cog exists at linebacker. And even if the ninth-year player does return to form, counting on it to last may be asking too much.

A chasm exists between Reuben Foster and the rest of the traditional linebackers in this rookie class. Jarrad Davis could be the No. 2 pure ‘backer on the board by the time No. 21 comes around, and the ex-Florida talent’s ankle troubles — which will force him to miss Combine workouts — could scare off teams in the teens from making that pick. Of course, the Lions themselves dealing with a chronically injured linebacker may make drafting Davis a difficult proposition. He of 125 tackles (16.5 for loss) in 13 games, Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham is viewed as a late-first-round talent as well. It’s doubtful Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan will be there when the Lions’ second-round window opens. Foster’s lesser-regarded teammate, Ryan Anderson, could be, however.

This is not a bad need to have when it comes to bringing in young talent, as recent Day 2 picks Deion Jones and Jordan Hicks showed in becoming instant contributors the past two years.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: San Francisco 49ers

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the San Francisco 49ers, who managed only two wins in 2016 and have since hired a new general manager (John Lynch) and a new head coach (Kyle Shanahan).

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Colin Kaepernick, QB: $19,365,753
  2. Joe Staley, T: $11,056,250
  3. NaVorro Bowman, LB: $9,591,500
  4. Torrey Smith, WR: $9,475,000
  5. Antoine Bethea, S: $7,000,000
  6. Ahmad Brooks, LB: $6,148,750
  7. Eric Reid, S: $5,676,000
  8. Tramaine Brock, CB: $4,300,000
  9. Vance McDonald, TE: $4,165,625
  10. DeForest Buckner, DL: $4,134,316

Other:

Three Needs:

1. Solve the quarterback position: The 49ers may have the most needs of any club in the NFL, but the most important void is still at the top of the roster, where San Francisco needs to find a franchise quarterback. Colin Kaepernick is still on the team’s books for now, but he’s considering an opt-out provision that would allow him to reach free agency this spring. Even if he doesn’t opt out, the 49ers could still cut Kaepernick — a move that would save nearly $17MM in cap space — and seek to negotiate a less expensive contract.Kirk Cousins

While Kaepernick’s fate is still up in the air, new head coach Kyle Shanahan likely wants to put his stamp on the 49ers roster in the form of a new signal-caller, and his No. 1 target figures to be Washington’s Kirk Cousins. Cousins is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, but the Redskins aren’t going to let him get away without compensation. If Washington deploys the franchise tag on Cousins, San Francisco would be forced to sacrifice two first-round picks (including the second overall selection in 2017) to sign the sixth-year quarterback.

The Redskins prefer to reach a long-term agreement with Cousins, but recent reports have indicated little progress between the two sides. The franchise tender looms as the most likely option, then, and though Shanahan has exhibited an affinity for Cousins ever since he served as Washington’s offensive coordinator, the 49ers aren’t going to give up two first-rounders given all the holes on their roster. A more conventional trade is possible, as the Redskins could franchise Cousins and then consummate a deal for a something fewer than two first-round picks, but San Francisco is probably going to have to look elsewhere to find its next quarterback.

Elsewhere on the trade market, the Patriots’ Jimmy Garoppolo is thought to be next-up on the 49ers’ wishlist, although the price tag could be steep. San Francisco is extremely unlikely to package the No. 2 pick for Garoppolo, so any deal would likely include the club’s early second-rounder. Shanahan was interested in Garoppolo during the 2014 draft, but the 49ers won’t be the only club pushing to acquire the New England backup, as both the Browns and Bears will likely be in the running, as well.Matt Schaub (Vertical)

Other veterans that could end up on San Francisco’s radar include the Bengals’ A.J. McCarron (who is open to being traded), the Bills’ Tyrod Taylor (who is likely to be released), or the Falcons’ Matt Schaub, who spent last season as a backup in Atlanta under Shanahan’s tutelage. Schaub, 35, also worked with Shanahan during the pair’s run with the Texans, and is said to be seeking a starting job this offseason. That opportunity could come in San Francisco, where Schaub would likely act as something of a bridge quarterback while the Niners develop a long-term passer.

If the 49ers bring in a late-career veteran like Schaub, Brian Hoyer, or Jay Cutler (to whom the club has already been linked), general manager John Lynch & Co. figure to select a young QB early in the draft. The 2017 class doesn’t feature an outstanding crop of quarterbacks, but San Francisco will have its choice of several signal-callers at the top of Round 1 or even Round 2. Mock drafts have been all over the place, as Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN.com projects the 49ers to draft UNC’s Mitch Trubisky while fellow ESPN scribe Todd McShay sees San Francisco going after Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame) could also be in consideration, while Patrick Mahomes (Texas Tech) might even be a surprise top pick.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Atlanta Falcons

In advance of March 9, the start of free agency in the NFL, Pro Football Rumors will detail each team’s three most glaring roster issues. We’ll continue this year’s series with the Atlanta Falcons, who capped off an 11-5 season with a Super Bowl appearance that ended in devastating fashion.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Matt Ryan, QB: $23,750,000
  2. Julio Jones, WR: $13,900,000
  3. Robert Alford, CB: $9,600,000
  4. Alex Mack, C: $9,050,000
  5. Desmond Trufant, CB: $8,026,000
  6. Mohamed Sanu, WR: $7,400,000
  7. Ryan Schraeder, T: $7,100,000
  8. Andy Levitre, G: $6,625,000
  9. Tyson Jackson, DL: $5,850,000
  10. Adrian Clayborn, DE: $5,406,250

Other:

Three Needs:

1. Fortify right guard: For the most part, the Falcons’ offensive line was a strength in 2016. While the unit ranked just 23rd in adjusted sack rate, Atlanta’s front five placed tenth in adjusted line yards and was named the sixth-best offensive line in the league in Pro Football Focus’ year-end rankings. The club has certainly invested in its line, using a first-round pick on left tackle Jake Matthews, spending heavily in free agency to land center Alex Mack, and rewarding a formerly anonymous undrafted free agent — right tackle Ryan Schraeder — with a multi-year extension.

Indeed, every one of Atlanta’s offensive lineman graded out as a starting-caliber player, according to PFF, with the exception of veteran right guard Chris Chester, who ranked as the No. 56 guard among 72 qualifiers. Chester is scheduled to hit the open market next month after his one-year deal expires, so the Falcons won’t have to worry about the prospect of incurring dead money if forced to release him. Instead, the team has the option of simply letting him walk, and given that Chester is entering his age-34 season, the Falcons should do just that.Kevin Zeitler (Vertical)

Atlanta doesn’t have a ton of cap space (ninth-least in the NFL), but it also doesn’t have a ton of needs. As such, it’s fair to wonder if general manager Thomas Dimitroff & Co. will target a top-notch guard right out of the free agent gate, adding a new player that could transform the Falcons’ offensive line into a truly elite unit. And while the free agent tackle and center markets are relatively barren, the list of available guards should intrigue Atlanta.

Kevin Zeitler, 26, looks to be the top guard headed for free agency, and appears increasingly unlikely to return to the Bengals. If he does reach the open market, Zeitler figures to be in for a massive payday. Even though right guards typically earn less than their left side counterparts, Zeitler should be able to blow past the $10MM averages landed by Kyle Long and David DeCastro, especially since each of those players inked extensions, not free agent pacts. Zeitler, who ranked as PFF’s No. 7 guard, would immediately convert Atlanta’s offensive line into one of the best units in the league.

Though he may represent the best option, Zeitler is far from the only interior lineman the Falcons could go after. The Packers’ T.J. Lang placed just one spot behind Zeitler in PFF’s rankings, and given that he’s more than two years older than the Bengals free agent, could come at a much cheaper cost. Green Bay prefers to retain its own free agents, but it hasn’t placed much emphasis on the interior of the offensive line lately, as evidenced by their surprising 2016 release of Josh Sitton. Fellow Packer J.C. Tretter, the Lions’ Larry Warford, and the Cowboys’ Ronald Leary could also catch the eye of Atlanta this offseason.Forrest Lamp (Vertical)

If the Falcons want to conserve their limited cap space for other position upgrades, they could instead target guard help in the draft. This year’s crop of prospects is thought to be short on offensive lineman, so Atlanta may want to use their first-round pick (No. 31 overall) on a guard lest in miss out on interior help later in the draft. Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp looks like the best guard available in 2017, and Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com favorably compares Lamp to the Cowboys’ Zack Martin, who — like Lamp — played tackle in college before moving inside in the pros. Dan Feeney (Indiana), Dorian Johnson (Pittsburgh), and Nico Siragusa (San Diego State) are among the other guards the Falcons could consider on Day 1 or 2.

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