Top 3 Offseason Needs

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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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Jacksonville Jaguars

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 Jacksonville Jaguars, who failed to live up to their preseason sleeper status and finished with a 3-13 record.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Malik Jackson, DL: $15,500,000
  2. Kelvin Beachum, T: $8,500,000
  3. Jared Odrick, DL: $8,500,000
  4. Julius Thomas, TE: $8,300,000
  5. Allen Hurns, WR: $7,000,000
  6. Blake Bortles, QB: $6,571,983
  7. Jermey Parnell, T: $6,500,000
  8. Dante Fowler Jr., DE: $6,406,429
  9. Tashaun Gipson, S: $6,300,000
  10. Davon House, CB: $6,000,000

Other:

Top Three Needs:

1) Bolster the offensive line: Blake Bortles isn’t going anywhere. That seems readily apparent based on comments from Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell, who believes his club can win a Super Bowl with Bortles under center, and new executive vice president Tom Coughlin, who headed off complaints about the fourth-year pro by saying “Blake Bortles is our quarterback.” Jacksonville could certainly draft another signal-caller or add a low-tier veteran such as Brian Hoyer or Josh McCown this offseason, but it’s fair to assume that Bortles — who reportedly dealt with shoulder and wrist injuries throughout the year — will return as the Jaguars’ starter.

With the club unlikely to change quarterbacks, Jacksonville will have to look to other avenues to improve an offense that ranked just 27th in DVOA. Having already fired head coach Gus Bradley and offensive coordinator Greg Olson, the Jaguars have formally installed Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett in those respective roles with the hope the two offensive minds will be able to overhaul their offensive unit. With Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marqise Lee, T.J. Yeldon, Chris Ivory, and Julius Thomas in tow, Jacksonville’s skill positions don’t need to be immediately addressed. That leaves the offensive line as an obvious area of focus for the Jaguars in the coming weeks.Kelvin Beachum (Vertical)

While the Jags have all offseason to repair their front five, they do face one immediate decision that will affect their plans for the offensive line as a whole. Jacksonville has until February 15 to exercise or decline a $5MM option bonus on left tackle Kelvin Beachum. If the Jaguars pick up the option, Beachum would be guaranteed an additional $13MM in base salary, making it extremely difficult for the club to release him at any point during the next two seasons. The 27-year-old Beachum wasn’t very effective in 2016 as he continued to recover from an ACL injury suffered the year prior, grading as the league’s No. 63 tackle among 78 qualifiers per Pro Football Focus, but he was an elite blindside protector for the Steelers before going down with that knee issue.

The ideal course of action for the Jaguars would entail the club declining the option, and subsequently working out a new, more team-friendly deal that includes less guaranteed money. The problem, however, is that the left tackle market is already barren, meaning a) Beachum could garner significant interest from around the NFL and potentially price himself out of Jacksonville’s range, and b) if a new pact can’t be agreed to, the Jaguars would have limited options to replace Beachum.

Andrew Whitworth and Riley Reiff are the only two reliable left tackles available on the free agent market, and even Reiff has flaws given that he was shifted to right tackle for the 2016 campaign. Otherwise, the Jaguars would be looking at subpar options such as Matt Kalil, Mike Remmers, or Will Beatty, none of whom would represent an upgrade over Beachum. In the draft, the top offensive tackle prospects — Alabama’s Cam Robinson, Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk, and Utah’s Garett Bolles — are considered mid-to-late first-round picks, and would be reaches at fourth overall.

After assessing the alternatives, the Jaguars may simply exercise their option on Beachum and lock in their starting left tackle for the next couple of seasons, and instead turn their attention to addressing the interior of the offensive line. Center is well-handled by Brandon Linder, but Jacksonville could use at least one, and potentially two, new starting guards, depending on how the club views A.J. Cann, who played every offensive snap in 2016 and graded as PFF’s No. 48 guard among 72 qualifiers.Kevin Zeitler (vertical)

Unlike tackle, the free agent guard market is flush with talent, and the Jaguars could spend some of their ample cap space on a top-flight lineman such as Kevin Zeitler or T.J. Lang, each of whom are right guards and would likely force Cann to shift to the left side. Zeitler and Lang could each command north of $10MM per year, but cheaper options such as Larry Warford, J.C. Tretter, and Ronald Leary should also be available. Former second overall pick Luke Joeckel could return, but it’s difficult to imagine the Jaguars handing him a starting job.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Indianapolis Colts

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 Indianapolis Colts, who have now followed up three straight playoff seasons with back-to-back 8-8 slates. The Colts fired GM Ryan Grigson and hired Chris Ballard, and Jim Irsay will retain Chuck Pagano. But Indianapolis must address some on-the-field needs as well.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top Cap Hits for 2017:

Other:

  • Projected cap space (via OverTheCap): $55,371,812
  • Fourteenth or 15th pick in draft (will be determined by coin flip between Colts and Eagles)

Three Needs:

1.) Locate linebackers: Both parts of the Colts’ linebacking corps need help, now even more so after Thursday’s D’Qwell Jackson release leaves the team without much at any of the spots on the second level. But the pass-rushing stable is hurting the most. Robert Mathisretirement signals the end of a special era for Indianapolis pass-rushers, with both he and Dwight Freeney ranking as two of the best players in franchise history. Almost every relevant pass-rusher on last year’s roster either plans to retire or will be a free agent. The Colts finished as a middle-of-the-pack team with 33 sacks last season (19th), but more than half of those came from players no longer attached to the roster. Erik Walden registered a team-high 11 despite recording 12 in his three prior Colts campaigns, and entering his age-32 season, his best football could well be behind him.

The franchise hired Chris Ballard, who’s respected for his draft acumen, having helped the Bears and Chiefs land many gems. He’ll be tasked with making this crucial repair. The potential exodus here is somewhat staggering given what the Colts have on their roster.

The Colts do not have an outside pass-rusher on their roster who recorded a sack in 2016. Entering free agency, Indianapolis employs Akeem Ayers and a host of UDFAs. The Ryan Grigson-era Colts were not shy about throwing money around in March, and the John Dorsey-led Chiefs haven’t been either. Although, the Chiefs’ buys have benefited the team more. The Colts need outside help here. Walden could be retained, but that’s a risky proposition after he nearly doubled his single-season sack best in a contract year. As for the UFA market, there are options. It’s unclear, however, if the impact players will make it to the market.

Chandler Jones and Melvin Ingram headline this class of 3-4 pass-rushers, while Jason Pierre-Paul and Nick Perry profile as other high-end performers. The Cardinals are reportedly willing to apply the franchise tag (projected at $14.754MM for linebackers) to keep Jones after his third double-digit-sack season. PFR’s No. 2 overall free agent, Jones joins Calais Campbell and Tony Jefferson as Arizona UFAs, so the Cardinals have some tough decisions to make. The former Patriot will likely be the Cards’ top priority.

Not much has surfaced on Ingram’s status in Los Angeles, but he’s the Chargers’ top outside rusher and is now free of his five-year rookie contract. The Bolts are also moving to a 4-3 set under Gus Bradley, potentially leaving Ingram without a natural position. That’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but Ingram could be a more realistic target for the Colts as a result of that philosophical change. Jason Fitzgerald of OverTheCap notes Ingram could ask for Ryan Kerrigan money (five years, $57.5MM) but could also be franchised and placed at defensive end in Bradley’s 4-3.

Pierre-Paul wants to match or top Olivier Vernon‘s contract. He’s a tougher sell due to the injury history, position change, and the demands he’s making. Perry has played exclusively in the Packers’ 3-4 and would be an obvious fit. He’s a similar contract-year story to Walden, recording 11 sacks last year after a nondescript statistical history previously, but he differs in being set for just his age-27 season in 2017. Perry did not receive abundant interest as a UFA last year but will after his 2016 emergence. The Packers like to retain their own but have talents like Jared Cook and T.J. Lang residing as impending UFAs as well, complicating their equation.

Venturing off the top tier, the Colts could target DeMarcus Ware or Julius Peppers on a short-term deal, but having employed three 30-somethings outside in ’16, Indy could be in the market for a reboot. That said, the Colts are a perennial contender in the AFC South because of Andrew Luck, so veterans can’t be considered off the table. Another 30-something who would be interesting is Lorenzo Alexander, a strange belated breakout who surpassed his previous career sack total last season, accruing 12.5 for the Bills. Expressing a desire to test the waters in what could be his only chance for a reasonable NFL payday, Alexander will be 34 in May. He qualifies as a short-term answer as a result. As for younger talent, Jabaal Sheard, Alex Okafor (eight sacks in 2014, but two biceps tears in his career) and suspension risk Armonty Bryant stand as cheaper choices than the edge players who run the risk of being tagged. Regardless, the Colts will need to address this position via veterans or rookies.

Since choosing Freeney in 2002, the Colts have not had much luck identifying pass-rushers in the first round. Jerry Hughes (2010) did not blossom in Indianapolis, and Bjoern Werner (2013) has already retired. ESPN.com’s Mel Kiper Jr. (Insider link) has the Colts selecting UCLA outside linebacker Takkarist McKinley, who recorded 18 tackles for loss and 10 sacks last season. The Colts are not going to be able to select Myles Garrett without a major trade, and the likes of Solomon Thomas (Stanford) and Derek Barnett (Tennessee) are viewed as top-12 picks, per Chad Reuter of NFL.com. Todd McShay of ESPN.com has Michigan’s Taco Charleton (10 sacks in ’16) in that realm as well, viewing the ex-Wolverines edge man as an option for a 4-3 or 3-4 team. The Colts are likely to have edge-rushing options picking 14th or 15th, but it may come down to choosing whichever one of these talents remains on the board by the time they pick.

Their need at inside linebacker isn’t as glaring, if only because this position does not require the same kind of investment to upgrade. But Jackson’s release, following an inconsistent tenure and some off-the-field trouble, leaves the team without much experience. Cutting the 33-year-old veteran saves more than $5.5MM, helping the team potentially pursue younger free agents. But beyond Jackson and aside from safety/hybrid ‘backer Clayton Geathers, Indianapolis houses a fourth-round pick and UDFA — each possessing one year of NFL seasoning.

In their initial full-season stays in Indiana, Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison excelled in disparate fashion, according to Pro Football Focus. While neither linebacker graded particularly well, Edwin Jackson showed promise in coverage while Morrison fared better as a run defender. These two now representing the Colts’ top inside incumbents, each will be given another chance to make an impact.

Without much money tied up in the linebacker position (as of now), the Colts could target a free agent as they did D’Qwell Jackson. The likes of Lawrence Timmons, Zach Brown, Kevin Minter and Perry Riley stand to be available as UFAs. Dont’a Hightower is no lock to be franchised given the Patriots’ ways of operation, but he will cost eight figures per year. That’s not the best way to allocate funds at linebacker if no pass-rushing threats are on the roster. So, this could be an auxiliary need that could see more attention in April than March. The Colts’ first-round window doesn’t lend itself to inside-linebacking help, at least not the way this draft class breaks down so far, but by the time Round 2 rolls around, Indianapolis could be in the market for help here. That is, if the Colts don’t see a running back they covet.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Cincinnati Bengals

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 Cincinnati Bengals, who missed the postseason for the first time in six years after finishing with a 6-9-1 record.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Andy Dalton, QB: $15,700,000
  2. A.J. Green, WR: $13,500,000
  3. Geno Atkins, DT: $10,600,000
  4. Adam Jones, CB: $8,166,666
  5. Carlos Dunlap, DE: $7,250,000
  6. George Iloka, S: $5,400,000
  7. Michael Johnson, DE: $5,125,000
  8. Clint Boling, G: $4,925,000
  9. Tyler Eifert, TE: $4,782,000
  10. Vontaze Burfict, LB: $4,725,000

Other:

Three Needs:

1) Add an edge defender: The Bengals are now two years removed from a 2014 campaign in which they finished dead last in the NFL with only 20 sacks, and thanks to the return and gradual recovery of All Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, who suffered a torn ACL halfway through the 2013 season, the club’s pass rushing attack is now league average, as the unit ranked 15th in adjusted sack percentage and 19th in sacks. Much of that production (52% of Cincinnati’s 30 sacks in 2016), however, comes from Atkins and defensive end Carlos Dunlap, and given the lack of other high-quality edge rushers on the roster, and the fact that Dunlap and Atkins will both be nearing 30 years old when the 2017 season gets underway, the Bengals need to invest in another pass rushing force.Geno Atkins (Vertical)

To be sure, the interior of Cincinnati’s defensive line could use some work as well, but the presence of Atkins makes up for a lot. Veteran nose tackle Domata Peko is a pending free agent and is unlikely to be re-signed, but the club does have other options up the middle. 2016 fourth-round pick Andrew Billings should be ready to contribute after missing his entire rookie season with injury, Brandon Thompson‘s one-year contract will toll after he spent all of last year on the physically unable to perform list, and Pat Sims and Marcus Hardison are still under team control for 2017.

The edge, however, is relatively barren outside of Dunlap. Michael Johnson has never been a prototypical defensive end, as his prowess in the run game far outweighs his ability to take down opposing quarterbacks, and the 29-year-old is coming off arguably the worst season of his career. The Bengals are loathe to release veterans in the midst of multi-year deals, but cutting Johnson has to be in consideration this offseason. At the very least, he’ll need to see far fewer snaps than the 831 he played in 2016. Failed second-round pick Margus Hunt and multi-stint Bengal Wallace Gilberry are both heading for the open market, and it would be a surprise to see either return to Cincinnati. As such, Will Clarke — a former third-rounder who played on roughly a third of the Bengals’ defensive snaps last year — could be the only other defensive end available to play opposite Dunlap.Jabaal Sheard (Vertical)

The free agent market for pass rushers isn’t exactly overflowing with options, and the Bengals won’t even think about adding a high-priced player such as Chandler Jones or Jason Pierre-Paul. The most expensive free agent Cincinnati might contemplate is the Patriots’ Jabaal Sheard, who spent four seasons in the AFC North with the Browns before defecting to New England. Sheard, 27, is capable against the pass but is excellent in the run game, a trait the Bengals value immensely. Datone Jones (Packers) could also be on the table, and could benefit from playing in a 4-3 scheme, while Courtney Upshaw (Falcons) and Andre Branch (Dolphins) may also make sense.

More likely, though, Cincinnati will instead target a veteran on a low-cost one-year contract, attempting to fill the edge void on the cheap (the club has used a similar strategy over the past two seasons at linebacker by signing Karlos Dansby and A.J. Hawk). Dwight Freeney is the most obvious candidate for such a deal, as the Bengals worked out the 36-year-old last May before he signed with the Falcons. It’s possible Freeney will retire at season’s end, especially if Atlanta wins the Super Bowl, but he was still effective in 2016 while playing on nearly 40% of the Falcons’ defensive snaps.

A reunion with former Bengal Frostee Rucker could also be in the cards, especially given that Rucker offers the versatility to move inside on passing downs. Rucker, who spent 2007-11 in the Queen City, shouldn’t be expensive as he enters his age-34 season. Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be surprising if Cincinnati called Chris Long about a contract, while fellow veterans Jason Jones, Mario Addison, and Charles Johnson could all be available with various price tags. If released, Mario Williams, Jared Odrick, and Connor Barwin could also be on the Bengals’ radar.Derek Barnett (Vertical)

If the Bengals do opt for a one-year stop gap at end, the club will almost certainly devote additional resources to the position in the form of draft picks. Sitting within the top-10 for the first time in years, Cincinnati should have the opportunity to select a near-elite prospect who can contribute immediately. While Myles Garrett will be off the board, the Bengals should have a shot at one of Jonathan Allen (Arkansas), Derek Barnett (Tennessee), Tim Williams (Alabama), or Solomon Thomas (Stanford), the latter of whom was mocked to Cincinnati by both Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN.com and Josh Norris of Rotoworld. Michigan’s Taco Charlton, Missouri’s Charles Harris, and Auburn’s Carl Lawson, meanwhile, could be available in the early part of Day 2.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Kansas City Chiefs

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 Kansas City Chiefs, who continued their steady run under Andy Reid and John Dorsey by winning the AFC West for the first time in six years and qualifying for the divisional round of the playoffs for the second straight season.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top Cap Hits for 2017:

Other:

  • Projected cap space (via OverTheCap): $4,678,573
  • Twenty-seventh pick in draft
  • Must exercise or decline 2018 fifth-year option on Dee Ford

Three Needs: 

 1.) Finalize secondary plans: Eric Berry‘s situation will once again be at the forefront of Kansas City’s offseason, but the Chiefs also could use some assistance at their right cornerback spot opposite Marcus Peters. The AFC West champions bent constantly but didn’t break often, as best evidenced by the unique divisional-round loss to the Steelers, but they have a decision to make regarding their defensive leader.

Among active safeties, only Earl Thomas matches Berry’s three first-team All-Pro honors, and Eric Weddle is the only one to have two such distinctions on his resume. So, Berry has a legitimate case to be the league’s highest-paid safety. He has not been underpaid by any stretch of the imagination, being one of the league’s three players to make it from the 2010 first round — the last featuring the old CBA setup friendlier towards first-rounders — to the end of the 2015 season on his rookie deal. And after the Chiefs couldn’t come to an agreement with Berry last July, he earned $10.806MM on the franchise tag. Long-term security eludes Berry, but he remains in position to cash in.

The Chiefs can shed more than $17MM in cap space by releasing Jamaal Charles and Nick Foles, creating some room for a Berry re-up. Retaining both Berry and Dontari Poe could be a stretch, but the Chiefs under John Dorsey and Andy Reid are known for backloading deals. That’s allowed them to sign Jeremy Maclin and Mitchell Schwartz despite not being cap-rich the past two offseasons. As for Berry, he will be set for his age-28 season in 2017, so a long-term deal should be reasonable.

The former No. 5 overall pick won comeback player of the year honors in 2015 but was even better in 2016, intercepting four passes and scoring two seminal defensive touchdowns — without which the Chiefs may have lost two more games this season — and is a darkhorse Defensive Player of the Year candidate. He also returned to a full-season workload after being gradually worked back into his old role in 2015 following his triumphant cancer comeback. Thanks to his on-field success and his successful battle with cancer, Berry has become the team’s most popular player. The sides weren’t close on a deal last summer but may be more in sync this year after Berry’s full-season performance. Reid lists Berry high on the Chiefs’ priority list, but the safety landscape has changed since the sides last negotiated.

Tyrann Mathieu became the highest-paid safety on a five-year, $62.5MM deal late last summer. Berry’s camp could state his case by citing his All-Pro honors and relative durability, along with the fact that the cap is expected to approach $170MM this year. The Chiefs would likely argue the Cardinals use Mathieu more as a cornerback than a safety, plus they will point out that Mathieu is four years younger than Berry. Regardless, Berry won’t be settling for a deal worth less than Harrison Smith‘s five-year, $51.25MM pact.

Kansas City has locked up many core defenders in the recent past — re-signing Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali — and ancillary parts like Ron Parker, Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard, illustrating Dorsey’s build-from-within model. A Berry deal — or a season in which the cornerstone safety plays on another franchise tag, which would be projected at $12.967MM — would limit the Chiefs’ ability to fortify the rest of their secondary. But it would be interesting to see Dorsey re-sign so many roster linchpins — re-upping Johnson and Hali from the Carl Peterson era, retaining Houston from the Scott Pioli period, and then locking up current-regime-acquired Travis Kelce — but fail to come to terms with the most popular player the Chiefs have employed this decade.

Kansas City has only rookie-deal players signed at corner, and recent third-round investments — Phillip Gaines (2014), Steven Nelson (2015), and KeiVarae Russell (2016) — have not produced a surefire starter. Nelson’s been the best of the bunch, operating as their slot corner, with Gaines playing his way out of the lineup during his third season. Russell, meanwhile, became a rare Day 2 pick to be cut as a rookie. Practice squad promotion Terrance Mitchell served as K.C.’s right cornerback down the stretch, despite the fact that the team drafting three corners last year. The Chiefs could target some second-tier UFA cogs or continue to try their hand with rookies.

They had this same need last year but didn’t pursue Prince Amukamara aggressively. Now that he stands to be back on the market, the 27-year-old looks like a second-tier candidate in a fairly well-stocked cornerback market. He’ll be seeking a multiyear deal after showcasing some durability that his Giants years lacked, but the former first-rounder doesn’t figure to be out of Kansas City’s price range. The cornerback market also features Trumaine Johnson, A.J. BouyeDre Kirkpatrick, Stephon Gilmore, Logan Ryan, and Darius Butler. Not all of those players are going to sign $10MM-per-year pacts. If a veteran like Poe comes off the Chiefs’ books, finding an additional boundary corner would be a place to reinvest that money on a team without many glaring needs.

If the Chiefs want to take the route the Bengals have in recent years, fortifying the position through the first round, that would obviously be a cheaper option. LSU’s Tre’Davious White, Florida’s Quincy Wilson, Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley, or Peters’ college teammate Sidney Jones could be options by the time the Chiefs’ pick with No. 27 overall selection. NFL.com’s Chad Reuter believes standout Gators stopper Teez Tabor could fall to the Chiefs at 27, and Pro Football Focus’ Steve Palazzolo sees 5-foot-10 Michigan corner Jourdan Lewis going to the Chiefs in his mock draft. This position looks to be deep for the teams with late-first-round choices, and that could be the route the Chiefs take, both for financial considerations and because some key members of their core either older than 30 or approaching it. The Chiefs need a promising contributor at this spot to keep teams from avoiding Peters.

2.) Figure out a post-Derrick Johnson future: The inside linebacker has enjoyed a long and productive career for the Chiefs, having signed a contract with three Kansas City regimes and serving as an 11-year starter. But Johnson will turn 35 next season and sustained a severe Achilles injury for the second time in three years. Kansas City’s run defense did not perform well in 2016, ranking 26th against the rush, and that became an even more glaring problem after Johnson’s mid-December injury. Le’Veon Bell consistently marched the Steelers into field goal range in the teams’ divisional-round meeting, and the running back’s methodical sojourns into the red zone led to to the Chiefs’ elimination.

Johnson has stood as the rock of the Chiefs’ run defense for years, most recently evidenced by its rapid improvement in 2015 upon his return. But it’s time to fortify this position, because the Chiefs don’t have much else there.

In addition to the four-time Pro Bowler, the Chiefs boast bottom-end investments at inside linebacker. Ramik Wilson, a 2015 fourth-rounder, and Justin March-Lillard, a 2015 UDFA, represent the team’s top prospects. Josh Mauga suffered a season-ending injury over the summer, and when Johnson couldn’t play in the final four games, the Chiefs were down to their spare parts in crucial spots. A two-year starter, Mauga is a UFA. Johnson will almost certainly be on the roster in 2017 since he signed a three-year, $21MM deal to stay in western Missouri last March. The dead money/cap savings ratio does not add up for an early cut, and Johnson could still make an impact as he did coming off the 2014 Achilles injury. He’s not considering retirement.

But this remains an area in desperate need of a young talent, because Johnson’s latest injury may render him unable to return to his previous level. The options aren’t plentiful in free agency, but the Chiefs should probably be looking to the draft for help here. They need a long-term successor. If the Chiefs believe this is a bigger issue than CB2, there are are a few ILBs who could be had at the back end of the first round.

Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham dominated as a sideline-to-sideline player, finishing with 125 tackles (16.5 for loss) in 13 games last season. Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillan (102 stops last year) and Northwestern’s Anthony Walker (29 TFLs since 2015) fit the profile as well. Of course, quality 3-4 inside linebackers can be acquired later in the draft, as the likes of AFC West rivals Brandon Marshall and Denzel Perryman prove. With inside ‘backers not the most coveted of commodities come April, the Chiefs could see one of those aforementioned three prospects potentially fall to them in the second round, where they hold the No. 59 overall choice.

3.) Assess Alex Smith‘s viability: In a town known for employing polarizing quarterbacks, Smith has served as a lightning rod during most of his tenure. The latest narrow Chiefs postseason defeat continued to cast doubt on Smith’s ability to lead this team deep into the playoffs. However, Kansas City remains committed to him on what’s become one of the lower-end deals for a franchise quarterback. The former No. 1 overall pick has two years left on his contract and will only turn 33 in May, but the Chiefs are 1-3 in the playoffs behind Smith. Smith’s outing against the Steelers may have been the worst of his playoff performances in Kansas City, which has a veteran nucleus whose window depends on the middling passer.

While a report identified the Broncos as Tony Romo‘s top target, they would only be interested in him if he were to be released. The Texans, too, have emerged as a speculative landing spot, but the Broncos just invested a first-round pick in Paxton Lynch, and the Texans would incur a $25MM dead money blow by moving on from Brock Osweiler. The Chiefs have a steadier option than both teams from a short-term perspective, with Smith having quarterbacked the team during its mid-2010s resurgence. But they may be a stealth Romo candidate due to their status in the NFL pecking order.

The Chiefs’ 43 wins since 2013 trail only the Patriots, Seahawks and Broncos. But as Adam Teicher of ESPN.com notes, the team may have gone as far as it could with Smith under center. This echoes a sentiment Chiefs sources expressed during the Chiefs’ march to the AFC West crown. In 15 starts in 2016, the risk-averse passer threw just 15 touchdown passes. It would cost the franchise less to separate from Smith this year, at $7.2MM in dead money. The Chiefs would not be able to afford a Romo trade on his current deal (league-high $24.7MM cap number in 2017), but on a renegotiated contract, this landing spot makes sense for the 37-year-old passer.

If healthy, Romo is an upgrade over Smith. The other passers who figure to be available via trade or as UFAs probably are not. However, the Chiefs have an incredibly long track record of failing to develop a passer. From the four 49ers-honed quarterbacks over the past 20-plus years, to Trent Green and Matt Cassel, the Hunt family and their GMs have a long track-record of pursuing veterans. Of course, if management determines the best way to keep this core’s championship window open is to further strengthen the roster around Smith, then a prospect passer could be considered.

The Chiefs have drafted Day 3 quarterbacks in two of the past three years, Aaron Murray and Kevin Hogan, but neither is currently on the team. UDFA Tyler Bray is currently the Chiefs’ third-stringer. They haven’t selected a quarterback in the first round since the Todd Blackledge misfire in 1983 and haven’t spent a second-round selection on this position in 25 years. This quarterback class might see three polarizing passersDeshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky, and DeShone Kizer — go off the board before the Chiefs pick in Round 1. But they could consider Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, either via first-round pick or second-round trade-up, or Miami’s Brad Kaaya in Round 2. Neither would likely be ready for a bit, keeping the Chiefs a Smith-run operation for at least 2017 and possibly 2018.

The franchise sits at a crossroads after its fourth consecutive home playoff loss. How it operates in the coming months here, either supplying Smith with more help or bringing in his replacement/successor, will be critical to changing this enduring trajectory.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Top 3 Offseason Needs: Los Angeles Chargers

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 Los Angeles Chargers, who posted a 5-11 record in 2016 and have since hired a new head coach and relocated north up the I-5.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits for 2017:

  1. Philip Rivers, QB: $20,000,000
  2. Brandon Flowers, CB: $11,000,000
  3. Corey Liuget, DL: $9,500,000
  4. D.J. Fluker, G: $8,821,000
  5. Keenan Allen, WR: $8,650,000
  6. King Dunlap, T: $8,125,000
  7. Orlando Franklin, G: $7,600,000
  8. Travis Benjamin, WR: $6,500,000
  9. Joey Bosa, DE: $5,880,380
  10. Joe Barksdale, T: $5,546,875

Other:

Three Needs:

1) Fix the offensive line: Los Angeles’ front five has been a problem for some time, but given the contract structures of the club’s offensive linemen, the Chargers were essentially locked into most of their starting group, including tackles King Dunlap and Joe Barksdale and guards Orlando Franklin and D.J. Fluker. Now that another season has passed, the effects of cutting ties with several of those players (specifically, the dead money charges that would accelerate onto Los Angeles’ salary cap) have become minimized, meaning the Chargers could rework the line this offseason.Orlando Franklin (Vertical)

Barksdale, 29, probably isn’t going anywhere, as he just signed an extension with the Bolts in the spring of 2016. As such, it would cost the Chargers more to release Barksdale than it would to retain him. Franklin, too, will likely be kept for at least one more campaign, as Los Angeles would incur nearly $5MM in dead money by cutting ties. Though he struggled last season, Franklin was a significant free agent signing just two years ago, and the Chargers will likely give him one more year to turn things around.

Changes could take place at other spots along the line, however, including left tackle, where Dunlap is currently atop the depth chart. Dunlap, who agreed to a $1.2MM paycut last offseason, has missed 13 games over the past two years, and hasn’t been especially effective when on the field. Los Angeles would clear out $6.5MM in cap space by designating Dunlap a post-June 1 cut, and that looks like the best course of action at present.

Of course, releasing Dunlap would leave a hole on Philip Rivers‘ blindside, but the Chargers could use some of their newfound cap room to pursue a free agent left tackle. The market for offensive tackles isn’t exactly abundant, and the only two starting options that are readily available are the Bengals’ Andrew Whitworth and the Lions’ Riley Reiff. Other players could soon become free agents, as Russell Okung and Kelvin Beachum are tied to options that are likely to be declined, while Ryan Clady could simply be released even after reworking his contract with the Jets.Ryan Ramczyk (Vertical)

More likely, the Bolts would need to target their next left tackle through the draft, and while this year’s class of tackles isn’t strong, Los Angeles should have a few choices when the seventh pick comes up. In his initial mock draft, Mel Kiper Jr. of ESPN.com sent Alabama OT Cam Robinson to the Chargers, and while Robinson has generally been viewed as this year’s No. 1 blindside protector, there’s been a recent wave of support for Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk, whom Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com ranks as his 14th overall player. In a typical draft, neither Robinson nor Ramczyk might be worth a top-10 selection, but it would behoove Los Angeles to draft for need this year.

Guard could also be addressed in the coming months, and although Franklin will be probably be retained, the same can’t be said about D.J. Fluker, who has spent the past two seasons on the interior after playing right tackle during his first two NFL campaigns. Because he is a former first-round pick, Fluker is scheduled to earn $8.821MM under the terms of his fifth-year option, a total that would give him the league’s fifth-highest cap hit among guards. That figure isn’t fully guaranteed until the start of the new league year in March, meaning the Chargers can release Fluker without any fiscal consequences.Matt Slauson (Vertical)

Los Angeles should do just that, both due to Fluker’s uninspiring play and the fact that the Chargers have a ready-made solution on the interior. Veteran Matt Slauson is entering the second season of a two-year, $3MM deal (quietly one of the better bargains in the NFL), and although he spent the 2016 campaign at center, he could shift back to his native guard position for 2017. Such a transition would allow 2016 third-round pick Max Tuerk — who used his rookie season as something of a redshirt year (zero snaps) — to take over at center.

Depth has become an issue for the Chargers’ offensive line in recent years, so the club should take a hard look at the veteran market — as well as invest a pick or two — on assets that could step up in the event of injuries up front. If the Panthers’ Mike Remmers can’t find a starting job in free agency, he’d make for a fine swing tackle in southern California. Same goes for Stefen Wisniewski, Tim Lelito, and Brian Schwenke along the interior, all of whom could be paid a slight premium in exchange for accepting backup roles with Los Angeles.

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Top 3 Offseason Needs: Los Angeles Rams

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. This year’s series continues with the Rams, whose second act in Los Angeles began horrifically this season. The Rams sputtered to a 4-12 showing, which led to the in-season firing of the embattled Jeff Fisher and the postseason hiring of the youngest head coach in the modern era, 31-year-old Sean McVay.

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Previously a successful offensive coordinator with the Redskins, McVay is inheriting a 22-year-old quarterback, Jared Goff, who underwhelmed as a rookie after the Rams traded up to select him first overall in the draft. The Rams don’t have either a first- or third-round pick this year because of that trade, which is a painful reality for a franchise that would have otherwise chosen fifth overall. Goff could begin to realize his vast potential under McVay, of course, and that would make the deal much easier to accept.

As the Rams wait to see how the two wunderkinds will fare in Year 1 of their partnership, their Les Snead-led front office will work to improve a roster that scored the fewest points and allowed the third-highest total in the NFL in 2016.

Depth Chart (via Roster Resource)

Pending Free Agents:

Top 10 Cap Hits For 2017:

  1. Tavon Austin, WR: $14,977,116
  2. Mark Barron, LB: $11,000,000
  3. Michael Brockers, DT: $11,000,000
  4. Robert Quinn, DE: $10,750,334
  5. Alec Ogletree, LB: $8,369,000
  6. Greg Robinson, OT: $6,772,213
  7. Jared Goff, QB: $6,349,471
  8. Rodger Saffold, G: $6,222,233
  9. William Hayes, DE: $5,500,000
  10. Lance Kendricks, TE: $4,250,000

Current Projected Cap Room (via Over the Cap): $40,203,030

Other:

Three Needs:

1.) Repair the offensive line: If you’re building around youth at quarterback and running back, two places the Rams have invested heavily over the past couple years, common sense says you should possess a strong group of blockers. That wasn’t the case in 2016 for the Rams, whose offensive line graded as Football Outsiders’ fourth-worst group and Pro Football Focus’ sixth-worst unit. Only lowly Cleveland allowed more sacks than Los Angeles (49), whose rushers posted the league’s 10th-lowest yards-per-carry mark (3.9). Dual-threat wide receiver Tavon Austin drove up the latter figure, averaging 5.7 yards on 28 rushes. The Rams’ actual backs, including 2015 rookie sensation Todd Gurley, were far less impressive. Gurley shockingly stumbled to a 3.2 YPC – down 50 percent from his 4.8 the prior season – on 278 attempts and failed to eclipse the 85-yard mark in any of his 16 games. He certainly isn’t blameless for his dreadful second season, but it’s clear he and Goff need more support up front.

While the Rams are fine at left guard (Rodger Saffold) and right tackle (Rob Havenstein), they’d be wise to seek upgrades along the remainder of the line. That includes left tackle, where Greg Robinson has busted since going second overall in the 2014 draft. It’s doubtful the Rams will move on this offseason from Robinson, as he’s still young (24) and will be on their books at his full cap hit ($6.77MM-plus) even if they release him. They’ll surely decline his fifth-year option for 2018, however, and ought to look for a starting-caliber replacement for at least next season. Unfortunately, neither free agency nor the draft will brim with blindside options this offseason.

The open market’s top solution could be the Bengals’ Andrew Whitworth, who’s stellar but also aging (35). Otherwise, tackles scheduled to reach free agency include less capable protectors like Riley Reiff (Lions), Matt Kalil (Vikings) and Luke Joeckel (Jaguars). As is the case with Robinson, both Kalil and Joeckel have been letdowns since their respective teams used top five picks on them in recent years, though it might be worth pointing out that Kalil is a California native who formerly thrived in the Rams’ temporary stadium, the LA Coliseum, as a member of the USC Trojans. Past success aside, he’s certainly not a premier blocker these days.

In the event the Rams wait until the draft, where they’re scheduled to pick 37th, they could end up in contention for any of Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk, Utah’s Garrett Bolles or Alabama’s Cam Robinson. All three tackles currently reside in the top 50 prospect rankings of draft gurus Daniel Jeremiah (NFL.com) and Matt Miller (Bleacher Report).

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Moving to the interior, where the Rams should add a second high-end guard to complement Saffold and make life easier for Gurley, T.J. Lang (Packers), Kevin Zeitler (Bengals) and Ronald Leary (Cowboys) stand out as the foremost soon-to-be free agents. While all figure to rake in sizable contracts in the coming months, any would significantly improve the Rams’ line.

It would behoove the Rams to land one of those three, as the early second round doesn’t seem as if it’ll overflow with possibilities. Jeremiah and Miller only have one guard apiece in their top 50 – Western Kentucky’s Forrest Lamp is the former’s 16th-ranked player, while the latter’s list includes Indiana’s Dan Feeney at No. 37 (which matches LA’s pick).

Lastly, it’s possible the Rams will search for a superior center to Tim Barnes, who, to his credit, is coming off back-to-back 16-start seasons. For Gurley’s sake, it would make sense to target a better run blocker like A.Q. Shipley (Cardinals) or J.C. Tretter (Packers) on the open market. Jason Kelce could also become available if the Eagles release him, which looks like a legitimate possibility.

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